Keep Culture Weird: 10 Eerie & Monstrous Books for Fans of Netflix’s Stranger Things
Because you need more nostalgic monster mysteries in your life
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
With its analog sensibility and Spielbergian visual cues, Netflix’s Stranger Things telegraphs its influences upfront, and part of the show’s success derives from our recognition of the 1980’s textures of Close Encounters or the first bars of Joy Division drifting over a montage of the Indiana-based Byers family mourning the disappearance of 12-year-old Will. Over the last two weeks, fans looking for a little distraction from the Republican and Democratic National Conventions have pointed point out how glasses-goddess Barb’s look is borrowed from Martha Plimpton’s in The Goonies or how teenage science experiment Eleven is frequently seen strapped into the headset from Flight of the Navigator, but the show’s literary lineage is slightly less obvious. But it’s easily done: it’s Stephen King. Even the show’s logo looks like the embossed titles of the self-described “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries” and an honest list of the show’s bookish content would begin with King’s novella The Body (where a rag-tag group of children go in search of the corpse of a missing boy), go on to It (where a rag-tag group of children go in search of a shape-shifting clown), and wrap up with The Tommyknockers (an awful-even-by-King standard novel where a rag-tag group of adults look for a child kidnapped by aliens).
But, but, but…The delight of the show comes less from the light trappings of weird fiction and more from the strong whiff of suburban malaise and children on the cusp of an adulthood that’s just as forbidding as the Lovecraftian monster in the woods. This is the where real literature lives, and below are a list of non-Stephen King titles recommended to readers looking to extend their trespass into the yearning, haunted territory of Stranger Things. These books boast supernatural netherworlds, lost children, and suburban horror, guaranteed no killer clowns in sight.
1. The Lost Estate
Published in 1913 under its French title Le Grand Meaulnes and also translated as The Wanderer, Alan-Fournier’s only book is a classic of childhood straying into a realm of mystery, to which the young protagonists spend their lives trying to return. The bare bones of Stranger Things is here in full: a disappeared youth, a mysterious newcomer, and the onset of the heart’s desire before it can even be known as such. It is also one of the greatest books in the world and a must for anyone trying to come to terms with nostalgia despite its famous warning that “It is better to forget everything.”
2. “The White People”
by Arthur Machen
Another book that owes more than a little to the 80s — the 1880’s, that is — Machen’s wonderful early Twentieth Century short story “The White People” is foundational weird fiction that inspired H.P. Lovecraft, but is a much more naturalistic venture into places unknown. Like Eleven in Stranger Things, the story revolves around a young girl who can enter a parallel realm that is equal parts psychedelic outlandishness and a metaphor for the separate domains of children and adults.
3. A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L’Engle
Of course! No list of childhood confronting the bizarre could neglect L’Engle’s classic novel of a family of misfits who travel into a dark planet in the Fifth Dimension. Again, like Stranger Things, we have science-fiction trappings like the space-folding Tesseract which make more sense of the bizarre world of adolescence than all that Where the Wild Things Grow/John Knowles required-reading pap could ever dream.
4. Paper Girls
by Brian K. Vaughan
The recent Paper Girls graphic novel collects an ongoing series stunningly similar to Stranger Things with one notable departure: the BMX bike-riding foursome that leaves the 1980’s for a pocket universe outside of time and space are all girls. It’s probably too early to call, but Vaughan, who wrote the acclaimed Y: The Last Man and Saga comic, has proved so far adept at capturing the wonder for bygone technologies (the titular girls are newspaper delivery professionals), just as Stranger Things films landline phones and ginormous walkie-talkies like objects out of time.
5. Dare Me
by Megan Abbott
Some critics have pointed out how amoral the teens of Stranger Things behave in the aftermath of Will’s disappearance, perhaps forgetting that teenagers are evil, desperate creatures. Abbott’s Dare Me captures a parentless world of insidious cheerleaders willing to go to enormous extremes for sex, power, and amusement. 16 year-old Addy, her Machiavellian best friend Beth, and their possibly murderous coach are a rejoinder to the sparkly carefree depiction of cool teenagers. Remember Weetzie Bat? This is Meansie Bat.
6. Something Wicked This Way Comes
by Ray Bradbury
Why is this terrifying, atmospheric book given to children? Why is the Disney adaptation PG? Because children used to be made of stronger stuff, clearly, and we weren’t afraid of a twilight carnival that rolls into town, intruding into childhood with a knowledge of mortality that comes at an evil price. Stranger Things has a monster out of nightmares that drags you to an invisible hive; but Something Wicker is still the standard because its darkness is all too visible.
7. A Girl of the Limberlost
by Gene Stratton-Porter
One of the stranger things about Stranger Things is that it’s set in Indiana; non-Hoosiers might be surprised to discover that the Crossroads of America has a totally unique literary tradition that includes the Nineteenth Century classic A Hoosier Schoolmaster, Carol Shieds’ Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries and, especially, Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost, a moody teenage romance set in and around the Limberlost Swamp.
by Jean-Christophe Valtat
A marvel of prose, translated in 2010 by Mitzi Angel, 03 traces a single thought by an adolescent piecing together the world through glimpses, bits of philosophy, and, especially, the lyrics of Joy Division and The Smiths. This slim novel seems to have little in common with Valtat’s ensuing steampunk trilogy The Mysteries of New Venice, but Valtat’s imagination is the rare one that can take us back to the mysteries of youth in a single evocative note, just as Stranger Things dresses its horror story in the familiar strains of New Order and Echo & the Bunnymen that were the companions of many a searching, lost adolescent.
9. Jesus Saves
by Darcey Steinke
Like Stranger Things, Steinke’s novel has the disappearance of a child at its heart, as a town struggles to find faith after the kidnapping of little Sandy Patrick; but unlike Stranger Things, the monsters here are human, as Sandy drifts into a fantasy world that superimposes itself over a suburban hell that is darker than anything in Dante.
10. Dangerous Laughter
by Steven Millhauser
Stranger Things is Millhauser all over; he is the Borges of Americana and almost any of his books could fit the bill, from the brooding Portrait of a Romantic to the suburban fantasia of Enchanted Night. But Dangerous Laughter is a good place to dig in, featuring two of my favorite Millhauser stories, “The Room in the Attic” and “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” both of which give form to what is missing from our memories of childhood, a terror of the world that is more terrible because we cannot name it and the adult world pretends to have forgotten.