The first season of Stranger Things has been released on Netflix, and most viewers have devoured all eight episodes in less time than it takes to travel to the Upside Down. While a second season has been announced, those anxious for more supernatural tales set amid a believable and detailed setting need look no further than one of the primary inspirations for the show – the master of horror himself, Stephen King.
In a very general way, both the work of King and Stranger Things have much in common. First and foremost, although the plot may delve deep into the territory of the fantastic, both ground themselves by presenting the story through the perspective of believable and developed characters. While these characters will end up going toe-to-toe with bizarre supernatural foes before the story is through, we also learn about their backstories – what formed their personalities before the supernatural intruded on their lives – as well as plenty about how they relate to one another. This investment in believable characters both ensures the audience cares about the characters when they are placed in peril, but it also serves to underscore the horror that’s just around the corner: a monster facing a two-dimensional hero might be scary, but a monster facing a rounded character in which you are emotionally invested is terrifying.
A believable setting is another narrative tool that is used to great effect both in the series and in many of King’s novels. Stranger Things takes place in a smaller town during the early 1980’s, a setting that brings to mind many of King’s novels, particularly those set in his fictional suburb of Castle Rock. With Castle Rock, King worked to develop a believable setting over the course of more than half a dozen novels, allowing the characters in the two to become more fleshed out as they appeared across multiple books — especially Sheriffs Bannerman and Pangborn, archetypal police officers who may seem particularly familiar to fans of Stranger Things.
King relies on several other techniques in order to bring the verisimilitude home to the reader, including the use of music. In 11/22/63, the protagonist, Jake, finds himself humming “Honkey Tonk Women,” revealing that he’s from the future. Likewise, Stranger Things places a strong reliance on music in order to create its mis-en-scene, including The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” to great effect. King’s prose is often filled with allusions to current pop culture trends, which serve both to add realism for the current reader and to add allow him to tip his hat to other stories he respects – in Cujo, young Tad has a Darth Vader action figure, and this is echoed by Mike’s Millennium Falcon toy in Stranger Things.
Another hallmark of King’s writing is to include the influence of well-renowned US corporations and their products within the work. Not only does this technique serve to better describe the character’s actual experience of living in this time and place, it provides an experience likely to be shared between the reader and the character, which both allows the reader to better relate to the character and bolsters the horror that occurs among such mundane and familiar products. In The Drawing of the Three, the protagonist enjoys a couple of Diet Cokes in an airport – his first taste of soda – and although the description is not entirely appealing, the reader is hard-pressed not to find it familiar. Likewise, in Stranger Things, when 011 steals the Eggo frozen waffles, there are few viewers who can’t imagine exactly what she tastes when she eats them. While both examples serves as cultural touchstones, firmly establishing the time and place these two characters are, including these corporate products also allows the audience to share the experience with the characters on a different, more primal level.
However, general similarities aside, there are plenty of King novels that are particularly similar to Stranger Things, for a variety of reasons. If you’re looking for a book to kill the time between now and the return of Sherriff Hopper, look no further than this non-exhaustive list of 19 novels by the man himself, Uncle Stevie!
- Firestarter – After experimentation by a shady government organization gives a girl pyrokenetic powers, she and her father must flee the agents of The Shop, who will stop at nothing to capture her and use her powers for their own nefarious ends.
- From a Buick 8 – A Sherriff’s Department discovers a mysterious, garish Buick 8 behind a gas station. But as they come to discover, this is no normal Buick 8, but is actually a portal that will transport you to a parallel universe filled with man-eating monsters.
- The Body – Four boys discover a corpse; bond over the realities of life in a small town. This novella, collected in Different Seasons, served as the inspiration for the movie “Stand By Me,” another strong influence for Stranger Things.
- Cujo – A mother and child are trapped inside a locked car while being menaced by a rabid dog; the local Sherriff is their only hope for survival. In addition to similar character archetypes to Stranger Things, this novel also includes a weird fixation with breakfast foods and a Star Wars reference.
- It – A group of kids must face off against an ancient, supernatural evil that is terrorizing their town. Split into two narrative parts – with one subplot following the group as children and the other following the group as adults – the portions following the children are more similar to the first season of Stranger Things, but the later timeline might provide a blueprint for what’s to come.
- Lisey’s Story – After the death of her novelist husband, Lisey must travelling to the parallel world he would visit for inspiration in order to finish his business. However, the other world is occupied by a dangerous entity known as the Longboy. While the supernatural element looms large within the narrative, the core of the story is inarguably about Lisey and her relationship with her husband.
- Insomnia – When Ralph stops sleeping, he starts hallucinating – soon he’s seeing auras floating above people’s heads and disgusting insects crawling in and around people’s mouths. But is he just seeing things, or has he begun seeing into other worlds?
- Carrie – King’s debut novel features a quiet teenage girl, but when pushed too far, she demonstrates powerful telekinetic abilities. In addition, the town’s reaction to her unprecedented power is reflected in the other characters’ responses to 011 on Stranger Things.
- Dreamcatcher – Another book set in Derry, King again sets a group of childhood friends against an unimaginable supernatural menace. Although these villains come from above the ground, not below it, the statute of Pennywise is there to remind the Constant Reader that evil is never vanquished – it just stalls for a while.
11 – 19. The Dark Tower Series – King’s crowning achievement, the Dark Tower series serves to unite almost all of his work into a single, unified narrative, existing on several different levels of the Tower. There are plenty of parallels to Stranger Things through the series, including a young protagonist and a shady organization that wants to use psychically-powered children to accomplish their own nefarious ends. Currently at 8 books and counting, the Tower is easily King’s longest narrative, but even though that balk and the ending can’t deny that the epic journey is worth it – and might just provide enough pages to keep you occupied until the second season of Stranger Things hit.
BONUS: The Talisman – co-written with Peter Straub, this novel follows the journey of Jack, a boy who must travel to a parallel world called “The Territories” in order to save his mother’s life. If you’re a fan of this story in particular, King & Straub wrote a sequel, Black House.
Whether you’re brand-new to King or looking to brush up after he was name-checked late in the season of Stranger Things, almost all of King’s work is available at your local library or used bookstore. Grab some Eggos and a can of Nozz-A-La and pull up a chair: Uncle Steve is patiently waiting for your arrival – just don’t get lost on the way there. That last step’s a doozy.