the awesomeness of Stranger Things – and recommended reading

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dunt dunna dunt dunt … my Winona

I loved the NetFlix original series Stranger Things. It’s only 8 episodes long, but never feels rushed. The Duffer Brothers did a great job, giving us characters we care about and a monster that truly terrified me. It’s set in the early ’80s and begins with four young kids playing a Dungeons & Dragons game. After the game ends one never makes it home. The cast is excellent, the police are not jerks or incompetent, and even the bullies have depth. It’s not perfect but it’s very close. And it doesn’t have a smarmy facade of nostalgia, the early ’80s were good and bad. A little anachronistic in behavior, but that’s expected.

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I recently read a list of “you might like…” books and wasn’t satisfied. It had the usual literary-friendly pre-genre picks like Arthur Machen and some other great books like Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, but … they really aren’t anything like the show. Stranger Things owes a lot to the following sources: Firestarter by Stephen King, also It and  Carrie and its clone The Fury, and Stand by Me. The works of H.P. Lovecraft. PoltergeistAkira, and the video game Silent Hill. There are nods to Aliens and the nerdy kids who all ring perfectly true reference things they love like The Hobbit and the Star Wars movies. And their favorite teacher is a clueless science nerd, who shows his date The Thing on VHS.

Here are some books I’ve read that reminded me of Stranger Things in a good way:

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons. There are scenes in this novel that still haunt me. It’s similar to It, but so much more concise and darker. Four young kids growing up in a town haunted by the evil of its past, which they must confront to save their lives.

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale. Not quite as perfect as his masterpiece The Bottoms, but when a local girl goes missing, her oddball friends go on a Huck Finn-like adventure to find her, while avoiding the evil Skunk who haunts the swamps of the Sabine River. The Bottoms has young Harry witnessing a murder and trying to save a black friend from being lynched for it, and is possibly Lansdale’s best.

In the Woods, by Tana French. The first one by the master crime writer is darker and more haunting. Before Rob Ryan was police, as a young boy he was found tied to a tree in the woods near an ancient altar. The other two boys were never found. Now the land is about to be razed for developments and he goes seeking answers, as he remembers nothing of that night.

The stories of Laird Barron. The Children of Old Leech are even worse than the otherworldly Thing in Stranger Things and they also love to hide in the boles of trees. Start with The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley. Another creepy childhood tale of a family’s yearly visit to an old Christian shrine in the hopes of healing their learning disabled youngest boy. The miracle occurs, but the source is something far more sinister.

My own short novella The Summer of Blind Joe Death is a weird tale set in ’20s Appalachia, where two young boys face the greatest evil there is.

And if you want to read a Megan Abbott novel about a missing child that will haunt you, it’s The End of Everything you want. One of my favorites.

Have you watched the series? What did you think? And what books or series would you recommend, to those who loved it?

 

 

 

Hawaii Horror: Dan Simmons- Fires of Eden

I decided to read a book gathering dust on my shelf in preparation for my Hawaii trip with Firecracker this week. About 8 years ago a friend read this book called Fires of Eden, a horror novel, and gave the paperback to me. He liked the bits about young Mark Twain in it. So I picked up Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, which is what the book bases the Twain parts on. That also sat gathering dust for years.

Anyone who knows me well has seen my towering Steelcase bookshelves stacked three deep with collected books that I’ve yet to read. I love reading, but I love books more. I estimate I’ve read 15% of the books I own, which would be great if I were trapped on a deserted island, or Burgess Meredith after nuclear apocalypse, (*crunch* My glasses! Oh the irony!) but I have a million other distractions keeping me from reading, like horrible 80’s movies, beer fests, Firecracker’s social engagements, and a stack of magazines by the crapper that keeps me from reading fine literature in there.

Fires of Eden was a bit of a letdown after 10 years of waiting, but it’s a serviceable thriller and quite intriguing if you’re at all interested in Hawaiian mythology and history. The story involves billionaire developer Byron Trumbo, a Trump-alike trying to unload a super-luxury resort on the south Kona coast of Hawaii to Japanese investors to recharge his crumbling empire. He’s irascible and oily, and is a lot of fun if you imagine him played by J.K. Simmons in his Jonah Jameson role from the Spider-Man movies.

Douchey developer, cliché villain #92

Thankfully there are other characters, like spunky Eleanor Perry, an Illinois schoolteacher visiting the area because she’s digging through her aunt’s diary from 1860, when Aunt Kidder met Mark Twain (then Samuel Clemens) on an adventure to the islands. And Cordie Stumpf, a role Kathy Bates was born to play- the wife of a garbage magnate who won a trip there and has a lot of tricks up her sleeve next to the arm flab. She’s got the best lines and is full of surprises.

Scarier than anything in the book

From page one, we are introduced to the creepy gods and spirits of the Hawaiians, like the dog , who has human teeth, and Kamapua’a the rapacious hog. My fave was the son of Ukupanipo, the shark god, who had a hump on his back that opens into a shark mouth. The goddess Pele, controller of fire who lives within the volcano with her name, and other spirits like the Marchers of the Night, the spirits of Hawaiian warriors who walk through the jungle, are also mentioned.

The story bounces back and forth from the diary, where Mark Twain and Aunt Kidder explore the island of Hawai’i and encounter these same hungry spirits, and the modern day, where the Mauna Pele resort has disturbed the old gods. Simmons doesn’t go for the old “Indian burial ground” plot device, and Cordie Stumpf even mentions that she saw that in Poltergeist. The gods have their own agendas, and they might take a bite out of you if you get in their way.

The story is leavened with good humor thanks to Cordie and Trumbo. It actually doesn’t have enough modern-day horror to keep a solid grip of suspense, though. The old story with Mark Twain and Aunt Kidder is much more interesting, and the tension there is palpable. In the modern-day parts, you can pick the victims easily and you never really feel that anyone you like is in real danger, except for one part where they encounter the shark god while on a kayak. On the other hand, it’s a quick and amusing read that informs you well about Hawaiian history and mythology.

Unfortunately some of the cool stuff Dan Simmons mentions, such as the rocks on Oahu that are believed to be the corpse of the dog Kū, are unknown to Google. The footprints of Koeau’s soldiers left in the volcanic mud after they were killed by poison gases off Mount Pele, are in the park near where we’ll be staying on the big island. So maybe we’ll go see them. And try not to be devoured by humpbacked sharkmen.