The middle-school heroes of Stranger Things

Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest series, launched its first eight episode season on July 15. I had to drag myself away after the first three episodes to write this review, because it is simply that good. Created by Ross and Matt Duffer, Stranger Things uses pop culture familiarity as its hook, and then moves the story along rapidly while still paying a huge amount of attention to detail and character development. I’ll be watching the rest in one long gulp very soon.

Set in the small rural town of Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things begins its tale on November 6, 1983 with the mysterious disappearance of a young boy. From there things really do only get stranger.

Titled “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”, the first episode plays like a mash-up of all the classic horror and fantasy films of the 1980s—there are elements that remind me of Aliens, The Shining, Silver Bullet, E.T., Firestarter, Halloween, Poltergeist, The Goonies…even the town center is reminiscent of Back to the Future, and the missing boy’s house looks an awful lot like the cabin from Evil Dead. In addition to tidy downtown Hawkins, the action ranges through woods, fields, a deep quarry, and a convenient government-run laboratory. It all looks familiar. We’ve been scared here before. But Stranger Things is not just a derivative of all these touchstones and references. It manages to be something original and disturbing in its own right.

Things are getting strange
Things are getting strange

Winona Ryder is back as Joyce Byers, the missing boy’s mother. She plays the character as worn thin and harried and histrionic, and she smokes with the same intensity she did in Heathers. Her attempts to find her son look a great deal like a descent into insanity.

Matthew Modine is cool and slick as the primary bad guy, Dr. Brenner. He works at Hawkins National Laboratory for the Department of Energy and is aligned with government agents and the CIA, among darker things.

David Harbour is the hard drinking local police chief, Hopper. In only three episodes he has already been given a colorful backstory and fascinating growth, and a deep well of personal tragedy to draw from.

Even with the adult star power, the juvenile characters are the main focus—especially since the missing boy was part of their group. With the exception of a couple of older siblings, the kids are in the 11 and 12 year old age range that Stephen King is so fond of. It ties neatly to the many King-like plot details.

The group of boys are introduced as Dungeons and Dragons players, then as now shorthand for a certain kind of nerd.  Finn Wolfhard is Mike, the leader of the gang and someone who looks quite a bit like the brother in Poltergeist. Gaten Matarazzo is Dustin, very much playing him as Chunk from The Goonies. Caleb McLaughlin rounds out the group as smart-mouthed, skeptical, and practical Lucas. To add to the mix there is the high school crowd, with Charlie Heaton as the missing boy’s older brother, Johnathan, and Natalia Dyer as Mike’s older sister Nancy. And there is also a mysterious, semi-verbal little girl named Eleven (played by Millie Brown), who is connected to both Brenner and the missing boy.

Teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland

A theme of communication is dominant, so far. The initial episodes are heavy with ham radio, walkie talkies, wiretapping, ghostly phone calls, psychic powers, and weird electrical disturbances harnessed as a rough Ouija board. There is a lot going on, much of it messy, but it is just controlled enough to be engrossing. The only complaint I can make is that the periodic flashbacks are too blunt, and move things along with backstory info dumps.

Stranger Things is at once creepy, sentimental, realistic and action-driven. The Duffer brothers have a great eye for family dynamics and a clear affection for the cinematic 1980s. The combination of powerful storytelling, exceptional acting, and well-done nostalgia is totally worth the look back.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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The Weird
The Weird

The Weird is a far-ranging 2012 anthology compiled by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, both of whom have stellar weird credentials—Ann was an editor at the legendary Weird Tales magazine before it fell into limbo, and Jeff is an established novelist of the New Weird known for his Southern Reach trilogy. Together, they have identified many stellar, foundational, and surprising examples of the genre. For this volume, the VanderMeers assembled one hundred and ten stories that fill more than a thousand pages and that demonstrate a spectrum from the most traditional of weird tales to the post-modern new weird.

As Michael Moorcock observes in his “forweird”, “There are no rules for the weird tale, which is at least part of the attraction if the story an author wants to tell can’t readily be told in an established form,” at a stroke releasing the idea of weird fiction from the usual genre constraints. And, he adds, “the best writers write the best weird stories”.

In this ambitious a collection, with stories ranging in time from the early years of the twentieth century to present day, there are of course many familiar authors we are used to considering ‘the best’. The VanderMeers do give us Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Clark Ashton Smith. But there are even more unexpected additions to the ever-widening gyre of weird lit such as Kafka, King, and William Gibson—all of whom are also in here. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the author of Rashōmon, appears with the inflected and disturbing “The Hell Screen”, and the remarkable but often overlooked Daphne du Maurier is well represented by the grotesque “Don’t Look Now”. And there are so many more surprises. Among my favorites are:

“The Willows” (1907) by Algernon Blackwood, which is what I would describe as classically weird. It is a slow, repetitious, corrosively told tale that keeps its true horrors almost entirely hidden. Its length seems at first excessive, but the undefined dread feeds off it.

“The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” (1951) by Margaret St. Clair is a story I first encountered as a child in an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology. It is a short example of capitalism and avarice gone horribly wrong, as inspired by Dunsany.

“It Only Comes Out at Night” (1976) by Dennis Etchison, a story I first encountered in The Year’s Best Horror Stories series, is bleak and creepy and inexplicable as the best of the weird always is. This one always comes to mind on long car trips, and makes it clear why Etchison is a legend in the horror community.

“Angels In Love” (1991) by Kathe Koja is almost poetic in its descent, tracing the last days of an unimaginative party girl who wants something she can’t even conceive of. There is an odd, punky, Southern Gothic quality to the story that makes the sudden brief weirdness of the conclusion its only natural outgrowth.

“The People on the Island” (2005) by T.M. Wright is an unsettling surrealist vignette in which none of the characters understands why their world is changing or how to deal with it. Wright’s familiar themes of loss, loneliness, and alienation are all here in one mournful package.

Tentacles are always weird
Tentacles are always weird

Since The Weird is arranged chronologically, it is easy to see the progressive development of the weird tale. I found in many of the earlier stories the weird quality is not fully realized, existing as a blurry suggestion rather than a fully integral component. Some of the stories included do not have the sense of cosmic nihilism I usually associate with weird fiction, falling more into the purely horror or surreal category for me. A few are trapped by their author’s prejudices, such as the remarkably dated “Unseen-Unfeared” by Francis Stevens, which I think perhaps the weakest addition to the collection.

However, the sheer number and international scope of the selections forces one to reconsider dismissing any of these strories or putting them into an easier category.  Taken as a whole, the stories make a reader look at what qualities would bring them into the weird fiction fold. They force the question, ‘What is Weird?’ —a question that is re-examined in China Mieville’s artful “afterweird”. In it he demonstrates his expression of the weird as well as summarizes the subject both richly and well: “This collection is not (just) an act of cannon. It does not, nor could it, enshrine one set of texts. Without motion—of the crawling and wriggling kind—there is no Weird”.

And it is hard to argue with that.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!