Sophomore season of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things launched last weekend. And what a season it was. Eleven and co. returned in blistering form for another slice of hair-raising supernatural shenanigans that got us giddier than a Pollywog stuffed on sweet sweet chewy nougat.
If like us you blitzed the entire nine-episode 80s-tinged sci-fi/horror nostalgia trip in a single day, then you will undoubtedly be hankering for more geeky goodness of the same ilk in your life, like right now.
Since season 3 is still a long long way’s away, here are some recommended reads that will (hopefully) satiate your Stranger Things cravings just a wee while longer.
Quick side note. There are plenty of other sites offering their own Stranger Things reading lists (I found the Barnes & Noble list particularly helpful), so I am skipping some of the more popular options (Paper Girls, Ready Player One, Summer of Night etc) in favour of less obvious choices.
1 – Revival by Stephen King
Series creators the Duffer Brothers have made no bones about Stephen King being a huge influence on their show. From the title card font to the central premise of a group of small town kids facing unimaginable supernatural horrors, King’s chilling shadow looms large over Hawkins, Indiana.
Many fans have already pointed out thematic similarities to stone-cold King classics such as Carrie, Firestarter, and IT. But if you’ve already ripped through those excellent novels, you may want to consider one of the horror-meister’s more recent works – Revival.
Spanning five decades, Revival follows the life of Jamie Morton who crosses paths again and again with the affable, if somewhat unorthodox, Minister Charles Jacobs. Fuelled by personal trauma Jacobs’ initial dilettante interest in what he calls ‘secret electricity’ becomes a full-blown maniacal obsession that gives him the ability to miraculously cure people’s afflictions and addictions.
Events get particularly Stranger Things-y when, years down the line, several of the Minister’s success story subjects begin to experience bizarre side-effects that include succumbing to trance-like states not dissimilar to how Will Byers experiences his Upside Down visions in ST2. What’s more, these patients’ debilitating daymares all hint towards, and connect them to, a much larger cosmic threat, a mystery Jacobs becomes hellbent on uncovering.
As the novel hurtles towards its terrifying climax, things get stranger and stranger. And if you thought the Stranger Things’ Mind Flayer was downright freaky, then wait until you see what Uncle Steve has in store for you at the end of Revival. It’s spine-chillingly bonkers, and I’ll say no more than that.
2 – Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Most of the horrors unleashed on the small town of Hawkins stem from the Upside Down, that alternate dimension existing in parallel to the human world with its floating ash-spores and man eating Demagorgons running loose.
Stranger Things 2 continues to develop the workings of the Upside Down and its endemic monsters, but at the time of its epic finale, explanations for its existence remain vague. Fingers crossed future seasons will delve deeper into this uncanny dimension and explore more of its mysteries.
In the meantime, if you are crazy enough to want to spend more time in an Upside Down-like environment, why not check out Jeff Vandermeer’s weird fiction novel Annihilation, which together with its sequels Authority and Acceptance forms the first instalment in the Southern Reach Trilogy.
A team of four scientists – an anthropologist, surveyor, biologist, and psychologist – form the 12th expedition into Area X, an abandoned section of the United States, which (similar to the Upside Down) is devoid of human life and is overgrown with potentially malevolent flora and fauna. The natural environment of Area X is hostile towards humans in unfathomable ways. Members of previous expeditions have disappeared, committed suicide, and contracted fatal diseases. Much like Stranger Things’ Hawkins National Laboratory, the Southern Reach research agency appear to be the cause that has unleashed Area X’s terrors on the world. Unable to explain the area’s seemingly supernatural happenings, they continue to send in new formations of scientific teams to explore further.
Almost as soon as the 12th expedition enters the border into the cut-off zone, surprise, surprise, things once again begin to go terribly wrong. Team members go missing, plants begin to write cryptic messages across walls, unknown beasts are heard moaning in the not too far off distance. The more the team tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, the more indecipherable it becomes.
There are quite a few parallels to draw between the Upside Down and Area X. Both environments possess an eerie smothering horror to them that inspire feverish levels of paranoia and dread in anyone who sets foot on their unhallowed grounds. There is also the unknowable factor at play, where events in these uncanny dimensions remain ambiguous and no concrete explanations are offered up to demystify the persisting threat. For my money, this only makes these two settings all the more terrifying.
So if you are happy to go along for the ride in the knowledge that lots of Area X’s goings on will remain unexplained, then there’s lots of skin-crawling fun to be had in Annihilation.
3 – Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
You know how Stranger Things began as a love letter to SFF films/TV/novels of the late 70s/80s and mutated into its own peculiar phenomenon that remains simultaneously nostalgic and novel?
Well, Lovecraft Country deftly pulls off that same mesmerizing trick. Only it uses sci-fi/fantasy/horror of the early 20th century as its inspirational fodder to masterfully dish up an exciting smorgasbord of a supernatural story for genre fans of all kinds to feast upon.
Inside Lovecraft Country‘s covers are affectionate nods to pulp magazines and comics from the 20s and 30s, as well as references to all the great SFF progenitors such as H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, and of course, as the title indicates, Cthulhu creator himself, Mr H.P. Lovecraft. Author Matt Ruff invokes the spirit and atmosphere of classic Universal Monsters films and early Twilight Zone episodes, made all the more grotesque thanks to a prickling injection of the much realer visceral horrors of racism in Jim Crow America in the 1950s.
The novel itself is told over several inter-connected stories that follow members of an extended African American family. Each chapter riffs on familiar sci-fi/horror tropes, so there’s a “haunted house” chapter, a “gateway to another world” chapter, a “body transformation” chapter, that in truth could all sort of stand on their own two feet as excellent short stories, but there is enough connective tissue between them to make for a compelling coherent whole. By the end, this novel rather relevantly resembles Frankenstein’s monster; a patchwork of pieces stitched together that with the wonders of sci-fi magic is wholly alive and downright terrifying.
J.J. Abrams is reportedly producing the TV adaptation for HBO. So do yourself a favour and pick Lovecraft Country up before it becomes the next big sci-fi/horror thing.