Warning: This blog contains spoilers for the series “Stranger Things,” plus a lot of fanning/fawning over New Wave/Synth Pop ROYALTY Kate Bush. Proceed with caution and/or get ready to dance your heart out.
It’s been a little over a year since the fourth season of Stranger Things debuted in two installments on Netflix in the early summer of 2022, and tbh I am still processing my feelings. I’ve been an avid watcher of Stranger Things ever since the first episode when Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers pulled her son Will (played by Noah Schnapp) close in his makeshift fort in the woods and endearingly screeched “What about my wiiiiiitch?” The series is famous for its 1980s pop culture nostalgia and homage to the films, television and music of that decade, but more generally I find that the show has just the right amount of heart, horror, humor and hair-raising adventure to keep me binging each season all in one go whenever it’s released. Plus, as someone who has basically wanted to be part of a Scooby gang and/or a Goonie all their life, I really admire how the show both explores and advocates for cross-generational friendships and community building, even in the face of (perhaps especially in the face of) truly gruesome ghouls from alternate dimensions.
But I’ll be honest, season four was rough. While it was absolutely marvelous and magical and moving and DESERVED that Kate Bush’s 1985 hit “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” went viral as a result of the fourth season, catapulting the hallowed songstress to number one a whooping 37 years after releasing the emotional powerhouse of a song, I was extremely disappointed and heartbroken that the character for whom the song meant so much was dealt such a violent end (or sort-of end; things are as-of-yet unresolved on that front 🤐). Also, my hot take is that the villain of this season (who somehow also turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the horrors of every season???) is just not that interesting or whatever. In some maybe blasphemous ways, I feel like the first and second seasons of the show were complete enough on their own (season two is still my favorite; I LOVE Kali and her ragtag band of pseudo criminals), but maybe season five will provide a spectacular finale I don’t yet know I’m missing. Either way, while we wait for season five to start production this summer, I’ve got a robust list of juvenile, teen, and adult read- or watch- or listen-alikes to keep the surreality and ridiculousness of the Upside Down alive and well.
“Dear Mothman” by Robin Gow
Imagine for a second if the Demogorgon wasn’t a creature who wanted to gobble up any warm-blooded animal (especially human animals) it crossed paths with and instead was a source of protection and even friendship/mentorship for Will as he navigated the toxic wasteland of the Upside Down in season one, more along the lines of Dustin and Dart’s relationship in season two. That’s the kind of weird yet affirming relationship and understanding young Noah is searching for, as well as the apocryphal cryptid Mothman, in Robin Gow’s novel-in-verse and novel-in-letters “Dear Mothman.” While Noah is isolated and without community he can trust, reeling from the death of his best friend—hence his searching for Mothman in the Appalachian woods—as a character he seems like he would fit in so well with the other members of the Hellfire Club.
Though I do have some complaints about the later seasons of “Stranger Things,” one character we don’t get much of until seasons three and four, and who brings so much-needed sass and swagger, as well as some serious D&D skills, is Lucas’s younger sister, Erica “You can’t spell America without Erica” Sinclair. Besides cutting through some of her brother’s and his friends’ tortured nerd dude energy with practical and accomplished resolve, plus a well-crafted insult, eye-roll, or “ugh,” Erica brings another 1980s cultural touchstone into the fold with a quick shot of her bedroom in season four, featuring the poster for the 1982 film “The Secret of NIMH.” I can’t help but think that this film, which is based on the children’s novel “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” is a perfect reference for the powerful girls who fight both the human and nonhuman forces of evil, as Mrs. Frisby does to save her children and her home. While the supernatural horrors of the Upside Down serve as major antagonists for the series, Mrs. Frisby and the magical, intellectual rats who help her remind us that humans are just as capable of cruelty and monstrous harm: NIMH stands for the National Institute of Mental Health where the rats were experimented on before making their escape, which has considerable parallels with Hawkins Lab and Eleven’s journey.
“Lakelore” by Anna-Marie McLemore
In season four of “Stranger Things,” it’s confirmed that the Upside Down can be accessed through many portals, one of which is gruesomely opened by the season/series’ villain under Lover’s Lake, thereby partially absolving Eleven for her accidental opening of a portal or two in Hawkins Lab in the first season. It’s important to note that Eleven was basically forced to open up the portals she did as defense mechanisms and stress responses to her torture by the entirely gross Dr. Brenner or “Papa” as she is trained to call him. In “Lakelore” there is a similar dynamic between the novel’s two protagonists, Bastián and Lore, and the eponymous lake. Bastián and Lore, two nonbinary teens, are the only ones who have mystical access to the other threatening world beneath the lake, in part because they are themselves the accidental creators of such terrors, having used the lake’s magic as a vessel to purge and process their traumas and anxieties. Ultimately, this is a novel about self-acceptance and the treacherous task of overcoming the deep, deep well of shame: just like it wasn’t Eleven’s fault that the Upside Down was thrust onto our world, Bastián and Lore must come together to support and affirm themselves and each other to stop the lake’s menacing seep.
“A Snake Falls to Earth” by Darcie Little Badger
Despite my skeptical feels about the fourth season, I will admit it’s pretty cool that we get to experience more of the eerie environment that makes up the Upside Down, with some members of the series’ plucky crew of teenagers and preteens actually taking the battle against evil to that mirrored and malevolent world. In particular, I’m thinking of the visually thrilling scene where one-third of the Stranger Things Scooby gang is riding their bikes across Hawkins while another is riding theirs at the same time across the Upside Down version of Hawkins. If you’re like me and really fascinated by the idea of portals, mirrors, veils and alternate yet concurrent realities and/or dimensions, you really need to check out Darcie Little Badger’s award-winning “A Snake Falls to Earth,” which immersively details the connections and crossovers between our world on Earth and what is called the Reflecting World, populated by monsters and spirits. Across these worlds, Little Badger introduces us to Nina, a Lipan Apache preteen, and Oli, a cottonmouth snake spirit, who are brought together by disastrous climate calamity to save their loved ones.
“Stranger Things Happen” & “Get In Trouble” by Kelly Link
You read it here first: Kelly Link, a wildly talented speculative, science fiction and fantasy writer, riffed on the commonplace phrase “Strangers things have happened” way back in 2001 when she published her first collection of genre-bending, grotesque and wonderfully weird stories, “Stranger Things Happen.” So she should probably receive some kind of shout-out and/or royalties from the Duffer brothers. Okay, maybe she won’t get that, but you should definitely read one or all of her stories. My absolute favorite story by Link, and honestly one of my favorite stories of all time, which is also the scariest story I’ve ever read, appears in the Pulitzer Prize Finalist “Get In Trouble”: the story is called “I Can See Right Through You” (which, sidebar, amazing title) and concerns the exploits of the “Demon Lover,” an actor who plays a famous vampire and/or might actually become or be the demon he plays on the silver screen in real life. . . All I will confirm is that upon finishing this story, I truly gasped out loud and a literal shiver ran down my spine. If demon lovers and vampires aren’t your thing, though, Link also has stories featuring former superheroes, space travelers, robot boyfriends and rich kids with PR nightmares.
Now, if you somehow haven’t already, go listen to “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”! Or, better yet, watch and be enraptured by the life-saving power of Kate Bush’s synthy magic here: