Title: Stranger Things
Release Dates: 2016
Number of Episodes: 8
The hit of the summer is an homage to horror and thrillers of the 1980s, mixing the film aesthetic of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter with Stephen King’s “kids and monsters in Maine” formula transferred to Indiana. There are also elements of later works like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko (itself a 1980s pastiche), and Broadchurch among others. Despite the effort to emulate the eighties ethos, Stranger Things is not a remake or a ripoff but a highly original work of its own. I don’t think a show this sophisticated would be made in the 1980s and the movies of that time would not have the time to develop the characters and the relationships so well. Movies in the 1980s would also rely on wowing the audience with special effects, but Stranger Things creates suspense by keeping most of the supernatural elements offscreen and in the imagination.
What’s great about Stranger Things is that it has three concurrent plots with different themes. A 12-year-old, Will Byers, goes missing and his best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas go looking for him to be joined by the mysterious Eleven who has telekinetic powers, learning about friendship and forgiveness. A teenage story features Will’s brother Jonathon forming an unlikely alliance with Mike’s sister Nancy to hunt down the monster with Nancy’s boyfriend Steve acting as antagonist and sometimes ally. Finally, the adult story focuses on Will’s mother Joyce and police chief Hopper realizing that Will’s disappearance is not a typical runaway or abduction case and involves malicious behavior at the government’s Hawkins Lab.
The whole series is 8 episodes of brilliance – great acting, plotting, pacing, and dialogue – with a few scares thrown in. It’s worthy of the accolades it’s receiving and I recommend watching it if you haven’t checked it out yet.
Author: Shirley Jackson
Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010)
This mystery/thriller focuses on the survivors of the well-to-do Blackwood family six years after most of the family met their end when a poisoner put arsenic in the sugar for their dessert of berries. The novel is narrated by the teenager Mary Katherine or “Merricat” who had been sent to her room without dinner the night of the poisoning. Her Uncle Julian survived the poisoning but is severely disabled. The other survivor is Merricat’s elder sister Constance who did not take sugar on her berries and was tried and acquitted for the crime but is still seen as the villain in the local community. Only Merricat ventures outside of the family home to do the shopping and there meets with open derision toward her family from the villagers. This uneasy life is further disrupted when a cousin named Charles moves into the home in what only Merricat is initially able to recognize as an attempt to gain the Blackwood family fortune. Merricat is an unreliable narrator and she is convinced that she must protect her home using sympathetic magic while her only “friend” is a cat. I won’t go into the details of the revelations and incidents that follow but it is a moody and creepy novel balanced with sympathetic portrayals of unusual characters.
Recommended books: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Title: Closed at Dark
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2014
Previously read by same author:
This novella by my college friend Rob Blackwell introduces a new series about Soren Chase, a paranormal investigator. This story combines parental fears of “stranger danger,” urban legends, and supernatural monsters to create an intriguing mystery thriller as Chase tries to figure out who – or what – is trying to abduct his long-time friend’s child. The characterization is a bit thin, but I expect it will develop as did the characters in Blackwell’s Sanheim Chronicles. We’ll find out soon when Soren Chase’s first full novel The Forest of Forever is released.
Author: Andrew Mayne
Title: The Monster in the Mist
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
I got this eBook as a special deal for Kindle on Amazon, not knowing much about it other than it was a mystery set in Boston in 1890 with a steampunk vibe. April Malone is a young woman whose mysterious job is to tend an office where no one works and take lessons on various esoteric topics. All of this is preparation for the arrival of the also mysterious man who just goes by the name Smith who emerges from behind a steel door one day and sets the pair on investigating several disappearances of people in Boston. Smith is reminiscent of The Doctor from Doctor Who (who also sometimes goes by the name Smith) and the relationship of April Malone and Smith owes a debt to Holmes & Watson, but it’s not entirely derivative. I was won over by the first part of this book, but less enamored with the latter half. This is because Smith goes off on his own adventure and while ultimately aided by April, I think the book lacks something when not seen from her perspective as well as the interesting chemistry between the two characters. This book is the first in a series of Chronological Man Adventures, and I hope that in future installments that two leads stay together.
Recommended books: The Technologists by Matthew Pearl, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch.
Author: Rob Blackwell
Title: A Soul To Steal
Publication Info: CreateSpace (2011)
A couple of disclosures before I begin this review. First, I know the author as we went to college together and more importantly were both DJ’s at the college radio station, WCWM. Second, I’ve always been drawn to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” – partly because I grew up 45 minutes from the town in New York (then known as North Tarrytown) and visited frequently – and the Headless Horseman is a prominent feature of Blackwell’s novel. The story is part crime novel, part thriller, part supernatural and an original amalgam of all the above. Set in a small town in Virginia, two reporters for a local paper Quinn and Kate have to deal with the return of serial killer who tormented the town a dozen years earlier. This would be bad enough but each character has personal demons to face as well, some of which appear in very tangible forms. There are a few flaws to the book as events transpire and relationships form far too rapidly to be believable. I also wonder why when Quinn runs a journalist’s writings through software that can help identify the author why he doesn’t do the same with the letters of the serial killer Lord Halloween (other than that the mystery would have been solved a hundred pages earlier). These flaws can be overlooked though because this book really is a page turner and has moments of being very unsettling and very humorous. The ending promises a sequel that I forward to reading.
Recommended books: The Dark Half by Stephen King, The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen, and Capitol Hell by Joseph M. Pendal.