Chain Reaction: Friendship v. Horror: Read-alikes for Stranger Things + IT

I am a total fan of Stranger Things. I know very few people who aren’t. To each their own, but I am looking forward to October 27 and the second season of Stranger Things. It’s impossible to talk about this series without talking about Stephen King, and maybe that’s one reason I love it so much. It exists at the intersection of three things I love: the ‘80s, science fiction, and Stephen King. (The books, y’all; I have never met the man.) Not only does Stranger Things nail the ’80s nostalgia, the kids are growing up in a world influenced by Stephen King, and that pretty much echoes our culture, whether that’s in Hawkins, Indiana, or outside of it.

Elements of Stranger Things sometimes feel “derivative,” to be sure, and it has its problems, from Steve’s distracting hairdo to Barb’s unfelt disappearance, but the acting — from the kids’ joking, scrappy camaraderie to Winona Ryder’s distraught determinedness — is stellar, and therefore redeeming. It’s also very quotable: “Mornings are for coffee and contemplation” and “MIKE!! I FOUND THE CHOCOLATE PUDDING!!” are heard fairly often in my house (the second usually out of the blue, just for fun). I like to remind people who think the Duffer Brothers’ creation is too derivative that this kind of influence was bound to happen in a culture with a prolific bestselling author, whose works have been made into movies and TV series. Starting with Carrie in 1974 and its movie treatment in 1976 (who can forget Sissy Spacek? Not me!), we’ve been steeped in forty-plus years of Stephen King.

The group dynamic of Stranger Things usually makes people think of IT — certainly group dynamics is one of IT’s strengths, because Stephen King is really awesome about calling up that nostalgia and friendship and holding that through the book. Childhood nostalgia permeates quite a number of King’s stories, from IT to Just After Sunset. So it’s not surprising that a lot of Stranger Things read-alike lists mention IT and a couple of other King works. But let’s talk about one Stephen King book that’s pretty underrated, but definitely related: Firestarter. Check out that new Stranger Things poster and you’ll see what I mean.

Even someone who hasn’t read Firestarter (or seen a young Drew Barrymore in the ’80s movie) could probably recite the premise: a government agency chases after a young girl with pyrokinesis. Although there are a lot of differences between King’s Charlie McGee and the girl Stranger Things viewers know as Eleven, Firestarter is the first book I thought of when Eleven’s storyline was introduced. Charlie McGee’s abilities are the result of her parents’ involvement in a thinly-fictionalized version of the U.S. government’s studies into psychic research. (For more on that, see Annie Jacobsen’s recent book Phenomena.) Andy and Vicky emerged with only slight psychic abilities, but Charlie’s ability proves early on to be both dangerous and off the charts. (Sound like anyone we know?) Their aim became to protect her from the same agency that experimented on them. As with Carrie, humans are the monsters of this book: when agents of The Shop kill Vicky, Andy goes on the run with Charlie. But Charlie is eventually captured and held prisoner by The Shop. How she escapes and comes into her powers is the entire story of Firestarter.

Eleven doesn’t have pyrokinesis, but she does have major psychic abilities. We don’t know much about her background, either, other than that she disappeared from her home and has been living in a laboratory, where a shockingly grown-up Matthew Modine has been experimenting on her. And the entire story of Stranger Things is the story of how she escapes, makes friends, and comes into her powers — only with the added twist of her ability to make contact with things living in The Upside Down. (Frankly these two also remind me of Olivia Dunham’s storyline in Fringe.)

Both Charlie and Eleven made me think of a book called The Girl With the Silver Eyes, by Willo Davis Roberts. Many of Roberts’s books have been reissued by her publisher, which is great because Roberts, who passed away in 2004, was famous in the 1970s and 1980s for writing young adult mysteries, some with a supernatural twist. The Girl with the Silver Eyes is one of those. It’s the story of Katie Welker, an unusual little girl born with silver eyes and the ability to make things move without touching them. Katie’s making a fresh start with her mother after her grandmother, who was Katie’s primary caregiver, died in an accident. Katie and her mom test the parameters of their new relationship. Her mom has to find someone to take care of Katie while she works, but loner Katie, who just wants to be alone to read, uses her powers to harmlessly scare off potential babysitters. The story takes off when Katie has a chance meeting with a boy on the street who also has silver eyes and psychic abilities. Suddenly Katie is no longer alone. She tracks him down, and together they locate and befriend other kids with silver eyes, and band together to save Katie from her mysterious new neighbor, “Mr. C.,” who seems very interested in Katie’s history and what happened to her grandmother. I reread The Girl With the Silver Eyes once a year for many years; it was my go-to read. I read it as an adult and it totally holds up, which is always nice, but for anyone who has kids, a lot of things have changed, and a conversation about “Stranger Danger” may ensue with young readers.

Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s Paper Girls also delivers on that ’80s nostalgia — and then some — from the point of view of a wisecracking, hard-set group of tween newspaper delivery girls — Erin, Mac, KJ and Tiffany — back when no one gave a second thought to letting kids out at 4 am to earn money delivering papers while riding bikes. (My niece read the first volume and everything else went over her head except for the fact that kids her age were expected to leave the house before dawn in a time before cell phones.) Twelve-year-old Erin is starting her paper route in the wee hours of November 1, when Halloween partiers are still out and about in costume. She meets Mac, KJ, and Tiffany, and they decide to ride their routes together for safety. At first, it looks like the girls’ biggest worry is leftover kids in costume, but they soon realize something very damn weird is going on. The Paper Girls are soon pitched against a strange threat: time travelers who send them forward in time to…2016.

Paper Girls won the Eisner Award for Best New Comic, and if you want to read about a group of tough-as-nails girls who smoke and cuss and are used to taking on the world, then this is the graphic novel for you. (Shades of Foxfire for Joyce Carol Oates fans.) Paper Girls starts out pretty slow; it isn’t until Volume #2 (issues #6-#10) that the story gains speed. But again, watching Mac, KJ, Erin and Tiffany deal with what’s going on is a big part of the fun. I’m a fan of Vaughan’s Saga series, and I stuck with his Y: The Last Man series for a long time as well (maybe I should find out how that-all ended). He convincingly writes believable dialogue for pre-teen girls, although sometimes a flair for the dramatic shines through. Chiang, whose art I enjoyed in Wonder Woman, doesn’t have a lot to do until the end of the first volume, but readily evokes the girls’ emotions. 

Probably the creepiest thing I’ve read in a long time is Jonathan Janz’s Children of the Dark, which was my Halloween read last October. I read it at the kitchen table, all the way through, leaving only for bathroom breaks, snacks, drinks, and a thicker seat cushion for my rapidly numbing butt. It was totally worth being fuzzy at work the next day. Shadeland, Indiana teenager Will Burgess has more to deal with than his average classmates: his father left the family before Will was born; his mother is in and out of rehab; he’s effectively raising his little sister, Peach; and to top it off, his high school crush, Mia, is dating Brad, a guy who torments Will daily. Horror is in the forecast as Will, Mia, and Will’s friends Barley and Chris find themselves caught between an impending storm promising massive flooding, and a convergence of monsters: the infamous serial killer Carl Padgett, freshly escaped from prison and headed back to his hometown for cannibalistic mayhem, and a previously dormant race of ancient, evil beings bent on wholesale murder. Janz takes all these storylines, peppers them with coming-of-age and friendship themes, packs in family drama and even high school romance, and delivers a bow-tied package full of adrenaline, gore, and pure terror — and an ending that leads to Janz’s other works (his Savage Species series).

Its only fault is the inclusion of the incompetent police trope, which I almost always find maddening in any horror work — the failure of the police to protect the protagonist, either because they are egotistical benchwarmers and/or they abjectly refuse to believe in whatever’s happening. And then when they do get involved, they are either already in on the horror mystery, or, faced with the incomprehensible, completely forget all their training, lose their shit, and end up dead, all without furthering the actual horror of the story. Le sigh. That said, Janz’s book is awesome. 

Honorable Mention: If you’re looking for lighter fare, and perhaps in movie form, look no further than 1987’s The Monster Squad, Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and of course, the all-time ’80s cult classic, The Goonies.

Do you have anything to add? Keep the chain going in the comments below — give us all something to tide us over until October 27!

 

6 Comments

  • Ron Edison September 26, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    SUMMER OF NIGHT by Dan Simmons has a lot of the Strangers/King elements.

    Reply
    • careymballard September 26, 2017 at 9:24 pm

      Excellent! Simmons is one of my spec-fic blindspots, so I’m adding that to my list.

      Reply
  • Nicole Taft September 26, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    OMG the incompetent police trope – I HATE that with a passion. R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series, while enjoyable (and predictable most of the time) was RIFE with incompetent police. No one ever believed anyone despite the fact that Fear Street is fucked up and everyone knows it and the body count in Shadyside is higher than the town in Murder She Wrote. The parents were just as bad. It drove me nuts to the point that I once looked at my parents and said something like, “If I ever tell you something and it sounds like something I’d never in a million years say, you’d better believe me or I’ll disown you as my parents.”

    Reply
  • Ron Edison September 26, 2017 at 11:36 pm

    How could I forget BOY’S LIFE by Robert McCammon. One of my top 10 desert island books.

    Reply
  • Kelly McCarty September 27, 2017 at 1:14 am

    I haven’t seen Stranger Things but Ready Player One by Ernest Cline made me feel nostalgic for the eighties. I tried to read It before the movie came out but I just couldn’t get into it. I do remember that I like Firestarter when I read it a long time ago.

    Reply
  • Shara White September 27, 2017 at 8:48 pm

    I keep seeing Paper Girls pop up on lists… I’m going to have to check it out!

    Reply

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