THIS PIECE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN A FEW MONTHS AFTER VIEWING THE 1ST SEASON OF STRANGER THINGS
Friday evening, three decades past. The internet is still science-fiction. Only 4 Channels exist on British TV, and if I want to play video games it’s the ZX Spectrum with all 3 of its glorious colours on the screen at a time. Fortunately, I’m a reader, and for me Friday night is the most special night of all.
At that time I was the luckiest person on earth. The local library was about as local as could be, being at the end of my street. School finished at three-thirty. The walk home, avoiding rival schools and rival pupils, was a solid half hour most nights, but on Friday I’d make it in twenty. By four o’clock I’d be in the library with my library card clutched in my hand.
As a younger reader my drugs of choice were Asterisk and Tintin, but in my teenage years the horror section beguiled me. Lurid covers with dripping blood, scary clown faces, and dark shadowy figures with glowing red eyes seduced me. King and Barker, Herbert and Hutson, Laymon, Straub, and Koontz called to me from the shelves. I remember picking up The Dark Half with its tombstone cover — George Stark – not a very nice guy — in hardback. A slight book by King’s standards, considering the weight of IT or The Stand, but when you put it together with 6 others I’d loaned from the slightly annoyed librarian, I had my work cut out for me carrying them home. I remember the feel of the plastic covering on that book, torn around the top of the spine, and the yellowing pages on the inside, already well thumbed, some folded down at the corner as an impromptu bookmark. I can still remember the smell of Mr Sheen on the freshly polished shelves in the library, the pine scent of Shake-n-Vac carpet cleaner in the air like someone had opened up the door on a forest. I remember the heat that came off the old, exposed radiators, too hot to touch with fingers, but just hot enough to rest a Parka-covered bum against on a dark winter evening.
All that rose-tinted remembrance brings me to Netflix’s Stranger Things. All the elements from the fiction I grew up with in the 80s are present in the series. A band of outcast kids, a small town with a secret, a John Carpenter inspired synth soundtrack, BMX. Even the title utilities the same iconic font from Stephen King books of that time. By all rights I should love this series, but I’m left with a feeling of sadness nearer to melancholy than the bittersweet feelings associated with nostalgia.
Fiction builds on what has come before. We are, as the saying goes, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. Stephen King’s small towns and dark secrets owe a lot to Ray Bradbury’s small towns and dark secrets. Bradbury in turn owes his version of Mars to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars, and so on and so on. There is one important distinction in that King’s working-class, rough-edged Castle Rock, Maine could never be mistaken for the bucolic, sentimental pastures of Bradbury’s Greentown, Illinois. Bradbury’s Mars, with its sweeping, lonely vistas is not the same as the warlike, savage surface of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars. Stranger Things doesn’t share this distinction. Its town, its characters, its plot, music, title and even title font, are all lifted from other fictions with only surface alterations. The children are the same children who make up the Loser’s Club from IT. The Sheriff could have drunkenly swaggered out from any number of dingy Castle Rock bars. The same secret government facility existed, in one way or another, in most of Dean Koontz’ popular fiction from that decade. It is, allowing a moment of nostalgia for myself, a copy of a copy of a copy of a VHS tape, all the colour and definition washed out with each subsequent recording.
The more I think about it, the sadder it makes me, for Stranger Things is crafted with such care. The acting of the children, and Winona Ryder in particular, is superb. The story and characters are engaging, despite the fact that I’ve seen them a hundred times before. The FX for the most part is great, except when it comes to the monster of the piece, which is a greyish CGI washout. It’s obvious the minds behind the show, the Duffer Brothers, are talented. They love their source material, but maybe they love it a little too much. Maybe they’re a little too in awe of those who came before them. Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, it’s as if they decided to play dress-up in their clothes instead.
The library still holds a magical place in my memory, but it’s gone now, replaced by a child’s daycare facility. Whenever I pass the building, I feel that bittersweet sadness of nostalgia welling up in me. But I know I can’t return to those Fridays in my youth as I roamed the shelves between the horrors. I know now, what was can never be again.
It’s how I feel about Stranger Things. What was can never be again, and for me it isn’t.