The Literary Inspiration Behind ‘Stranger Things’

The Literary Inspiration Behind ‘Stranger Things’

Can't wait for season two? Here's a brief guide to the upside-down world of '80s horror and pulp fiction that helped inspire the show.
Mark Hemingway
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In a year of box office disappointments, Stranger Things is pretty much the film experience of the summer. That’s quite an achievement, considering it’s a TV show. But it’s the rare popular entertainment that actually lives up to the hype. Aside from earning critical praise, the show has a staggering average rating of 9.1 out of 10 on the Internet Movie Database, with well over 100,000 reviews.

The phrase “instant classic” is typically clichéd and overused, but in this case it couldn’t be more apt. (For who haven’t seen it and are trying to decide whether to forge ahead reading this, it will be very light on spoilers and mainly discuss plot themes.)

A major reason the show is so beloved is how effectively it taps into ’80s nostalgia. This has already been much commented on, because the film homages are so obvious. The Duffer Brothers are hardly the first filmmakers to rip off Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter—aside from the obvious plot similarities to E.T., the basement the boys hang out in has a poster of The Thing on it, for crying out loud. However, no one I can think of has ripped off both filmmakers at the same time and so admirably.

Less commented on, however, is how much the show owes to an ’80s literary sensibility. It’s right there if you’re looking for it, starting with the show’s logo. (See above.) If that font looks familiar, it should. It’s “Benguiat,” the same font that graced the covers two of the most iconic and defining reading experiences of the ’80s: Choose Your Own Adventure novels and Stephen King’s books.

Indeed, the mishmash of youthful wonder and adult horror each of those things represents is a great touchstone for sussing out the tone of the show. In fact, the Duffer Brothers sent the design company that did the show’s title sequence around 15 different book covers, including several Stephen King books. Aside from reading the typeface tea leaves, each episode begins with a title card labeling each episode “Chapter 1” and so on. The hearkening back to ’80s pulp fiction is quite intentional.

The King influence in particular is hard to get around. Maine’s master of the macabre is mentioned by name by one of the characters in the show. And the fourth episode — excuse me, “Chapter 4” — is titled “The Body.” That’s not exactly a subtle allusion to King’s novella of the same name, an obvious Stranger Things influence. “The Body” was the literary source material for the 1986 movie Stand By Me, about the friendship of four young boys confronting violence and the seamy underside of life in a small town. “The Body” appeared in King’s book Different Seasons. (One of the other four novellas in the book, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” prompted yet another classic movie.)

King himself has said, “Watching STRANGER THINGS is looking watching [sic] Steve King’s Greatest Hits. I mean that in a good way.” He’s not wrong. If you like the idea of close friends fighting bullies and the supernatural, in addition to “The Body” see also: It and Dreamcatcher. What about young girls who can barely control their powerful telekinetic abilities? See Carrie and Firestarter. You found the wrenching exploration of small-town secrets compelling? Try Salem’s Lot or The Tommyknockers.

However, aside from name-checking King on the show and passing references to H.P. Lovecraft and the other defining horror writer of the 80s, Clive Barker, in an interview with the Duffer Brothers, it’s hard to pin down exact literary references. However, if you, say, browse the really fun blog Too Much Horror Fiction, you’ll quickly see that King was hardly the only guy in the ’80s writing lurid potboilers with the ominously omniscient Benguiat typeface. What’s interesting is how fresh Stranger Things feels in spite of the fact that it’s little more than an amalgamation of tropes that were inescapable 30 years ago.

In fact, anyone old enough to have been plowing through paperbacks more than 25 years ago should know what I’m talking about. For me, Stranger Things was reminiscent of a few personal favorites from the era perhaps worth seeking out, if you liked the show’s vibe or, better yet, still fondly remember a Playstation-free era when teenage boredom necessitated grabbing whatever book looked most arresting out of the spinning wire rack at your local drugstore. (If ’80s genre fiction is new to you, bear in mind it can be fairly lurid—that was a big part of the appeal before sensational and sexual stuff was just a click away.)

The first book that sprang to mind watching the show was Summer of Night. Dan Simmons is best known for his epic Sci-Fi series the Hyperion Cantos, but he’s also well-regarded as a horror writer. It was published in 1991 so it’s not technically an ’80s book, but Summer of Night is so obviously evocative of Stranger Things it’s hard to ignore. Here’s a snippet from publisher’s description via Amazon:

In the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, five twelve-year-old boys are forging the powerful bonds that a lifetime of change will not break. From sunset bike rides to shaded hiding places in the woods, the boys’ days are marked by all of the secrets and silences of an idyllic middle-childhood. But amid the sundrenched cornfields their loyalty will be pitilessly tested. When a long-silent bell peals in the middle of the night, the townsfolk know it marks the end of their carefree days. From the depths of the Old Central School…

In terms of literary capability, Simmons’ is definitely way above the average pulp writer of the era, and Summer of Night deserves being sought out if you can’t wait for the second season.

The second book that I thought of was T. Chris Martindale’s Nightblood, which is something of a hidden gem. Though published in 1989, I actually read it fairly recently (in fact, I gave it a short recommendation last December) because, well, I found it at a used bookstore and it spoke to my ’80s literary nostalgia even before Stranger Things rekindled it yet again. It ain’t Tolstoy, but Nightblood is helluva a lot of fun.

I’m not sure Horror-Action is a genre unto itself, but this book is a good argument that it should be. The protagonist is Vietnam vet Chris Stiles, who is guided in his quest against the supernatural by the ghost of his dead brother. He drifts from town to town fighting evil with heavy weaponry. Stiles ends up in a small Indiana town—it’s called Isherwood, but it might as well be Hawkins, Indiana—fighting vampires. Also reminiscent of Stranger Things is that the book’s biggest subplot involves an 11-year-old dealing with neighborhood bullies. It’s Rambo meets Salem’s Lot meets The Lost Boys. Martindale, near as I can tell, hasn’t written anything in decades, but more than a few people on the Internet remember this book fondly.

The last book, 1986’s Necroscope, is not quite as obviously referential to Stranger Things largely because author Brian Lumley is British and the setting is mostly in England and Europe. There’s none of the Americana that seems crucial to Stranger Things’ appeal. However, in favor of a Stranger Things comparison, the book is about a teenage psychic who’s recruited to be part of a Cold War program to fight the Russkies. There’s all manner of psychics, vampires, and “ESPionage,” and in places, the book is intolerably trashy. (There’s an utterly gratuitous sex scene that is just… yeesh.)

However, Necroscope is also humorous and wildly inventive. Seriously, the plot is pure lunacy. It involves the protagonist honing his burgeoning psychic powers to use something called the “Mobius continuum” which allows him to travel through time and space. If “the upside down” in Stranger Things seemed like a novel concept, let me assure you forays into interdemensional weirdness were an ’80s horror staple and Necroscope pushes the concept to the absolute limit. Necroscope was the first of a long-running series, and Lumley has sold millions of books.

Of course, these three books are an idiosyncratic reflection of one reader’s own nostalgia. There are undoubtedly many other books from this period that could be mentioned in the same breath as Stranger Things. What’s interesting and encouraging is that the 1980s was perhaps the last gasp of anything-goes pulp fiction occupying a central place in popular culture. If Stranger Things helps us return to a time when books about friendship, good versus evil, and pure imagination had a permanent home on the bestsellers list, that can only be a good thing for readers.

Mark Hemingway is the Book Editor at The Federalist, and a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @heminator

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