the awesomeness of Stranger Things – and recommended reading

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.

strangerthangs copy

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?




In the Woods

I wouldn’t be the first person to say that Ireland has a mystic quality to it. Misty emerald isles jutting from the ocean with steep-cliffed shores, ringed with menhirs, crumbling castles, and barren rocky outcrops; abandoned homes dating to the Famine outside town, and sometimes right smack in the middle; every road seeming to have a goat track leading to a ring fort or some other ancient marker of eld; it’s an easy place to believe in things that go bump in the night.

Tana French‘s first novel, In the Woods, plays on this haunting quality of the country’s history and landscape. It begins with a childhood tragedy; Adam Ryan’s two best friends, Jamie and Peter, disappear one day when all three of them are playing in the woods outside their little town of Knocknaree. Adam is found later, clutching a tree so hard that his fingernails scar the bark. He remembers nothing.

20 years later he is a Detective in Dublin; a child has been killed, in those same woods, which are now part of an archaeological dig. Adam must confront the nightmare of his past, as he and his partners Cassie and Sam investigate the murder, and what links it may have with the past.

The young victim is found on an altar that dates to the Bronze Age, slated for destruction as a roadway cuts through. There are constant allusions to Ireland’s rich and bloody past, and it’s sudden upheaval from a depressed nation to the silicon isle it is becoming today. But the story is rooted in reality, and while French may play with our desires for it to be a boogeyman from Irish legend, we have enough monsters in the houses or cubicles next door to choose from.

I’ve never been a huge fan of police procedurals; they often fail to be character-driven, unlike detective novels. In the Woods is most certainly driven by its rich characters, told in the first person by Adam Ryan. He’s very close with his partner Cassie, who deserves (and gets) a novel of her own; she’s that smart and self-sufficient policewoman, who defies the stereotypes you expect; their relationship is one of the most enjoyable parts of the story, but as they delve into the town’s past to ferret out the killer, the darkness takes its toll.

Adam is a college boy with a nose for books, and French’s prose is appropriately rich. This is no page-a-minute thriller, though the gripping story drew me into its cozy Irish world. I traveled there last year, to my grandfather’s hometown of Bray, and to many nameless castles in the woods along the roads that might have been where Adam, Peter and Jamie played. It felt like being there again, and admittedly that’s part of the appeal for me. Some have found the ending disappointing, but it’s bittersweet. The plot takes twists and turns that you may not expect but will never find ridiculous; this is a masterfully crafted story that pulls no punches, from a narrator who may not always be the best witness.

I’m looking forward to Cassie’s own novel, The Likeness, which comes out in a few days.