Once again I'm late to the party. My partner and I sat down last night to watch the Netflix original Stranger Things. The Spielberg and Carpenter-inspired show has exploded out of nowhere in the last couple of weeks and has been almost universally acclaimed for its combination of nostalgic '80s Hollywood and thrilling horror straight out of a Stephen King novel from the same era. The trailer, which you can see below promises many unusual twists and turns, while at the same time dealing with classic movie archetypes we all know and love – The Geeks, The Weirdo, The Troubled Sheriff – they’re all there.
The show is of extra interest to me, as it looks to delve deep into a form of horror that is regularly overlooked and un-tapped in contemporary film and TV. Stranger Things is up front, unabashedly weird fiction. But what exactly does that mean? For many of you reading this, you may have never heard the term before. You might just view Stranger Things and think it’s science fiction or horror. The truth is, it is both of those things, but it is also more than that. It’s something incredibly exciting, because it suggests perhaps a revival in interest towards weird fiction, and as an often-times writer of the genre, that can only be good news for me.
What Is Weird Fiction?
Weird fiction began its life as a literary term to help explain and categorize horror works by authors such as HP Lovecraft and Robert M. Chambers. It has evolved into a fully-fledged genre in modern times having influenced everything from Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy of novels to HBO’s True Detective Season 1.
Author of 15 different novels in the genre, Stephen Graham Jones explains that weird fiction is: “…Pulling back a curtain at the way back of the stage… looking into that darkness. That, as it usually turns out, chittering darkness. That populated darkness. That hungry place.” (Jones, 2016)
A weird fiction story is in a way very much how it sounds. Lovecraft defined it as being a story that is supernatural, but one that cannot be categorized as a ghost story or a Gothic tale. Lovecraft wrote that a piece of weird fiction “has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains.” A weird story would have “…a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread… malign and particular suspension or defeat of…fixed laws of Nature.” (Lovecraft, 1927)
To sum up, a definition of weird fiction is that strange, peculiar kind of horror that cannot be easily classified into a genre. It is not a ghost story, it’s not about werewolves or vampires or aliens (although these creatures may make an appearance in it). A weird fiction story is about an atmosphere of the unexplainable, and thinks to portray itself in different and unusual ways.
Stranger Things As Weird Fiction
Coming back to Stranger Things, this definition is incredibly helpful in understanding the style of show it is and why it has created such a critical stir online. But let’s take it a step further. As with all forms of fiction, weird fiction does have to it a kind of structure.
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer suggest that: “Usually, the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the unusual that they become obsessed with the weird. Whether IT exists or not, they have fallen into dialogue with It; they may pull back from the abyss, they may decide to unsee what they saw, but still they saw it.” (VanderMeer & VanderMeer, 2012)
In Stranger Things most of our main characters find themselves in this description. The series begins with the disappearance/abduction of the young Will Byers one evening after a campaign of Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. This inciting incident propels all our central characters into the unfamiliar place suggested. The Byers family suddenly have to deal with a missing son, Will’s friends are in an extra peculiar situation of not only having a missing friend whom they are trying to find, but as the story progresses, they find themselves friends with a young girl named El who seems to have telekinetic powers, and the Sheriff of the town Jim Hopper finds himself being pulled further and further into a government conspiracy.
Adding to all these weird environments is the monstrous creature stalking the woods and township, responsible for Will’s disappearance.
“In its purest forms, The Weird has eschewed fixed tropes of the supernatural like zombies, vampires, and werewolves, and the instant archetypal associations these tropes bring with them. The most unique examples of The Weird instead largely chose paths less trodden and went to places less visited, bringing back reports that still seem fresh and innovative today.” (VanderMeer & VanderMeer, 2012)
It is important to note that although Stranger Things is what I would consider weird fiction, it is also very much a tribute to the weird fiction of the ‘80s. As such, there are several archetypes and clichés that we as a modern audience have seen before. Namely, the gang of nerdy child heroes call to mind an amalgamation of the children in Stephen King’s It and The Goonies. However, when we consider the way Stranger Things eschews from traditional horror archetypes as explained in the above quote, the weird is justified in it.
The most notable reinterpretation of traditional horror monsters in the show is the creature which stalks the township. This reinterpretation begins in the very first episode with the introduction of a Dungeon and Dragons monster called the Demogorgon. In the opening scene, Will and his friends face off against this creature across a table top of notes and metal figurines. Upon rolling the die to try defeat the creature, Will admits to the shows’ central protagonist, Mike that: “It was a seven… The Demogorgon got me.” This foreshadows Wills’ upcoming disappearance, but more so than that, it sets the audience’s understanding for the creature that they will be running up against a lot in the next several episodes.
With the arrival of El, a chilling scene further cements this concept when it becomes apparent that she knows where Will is. When the boys ask her of his location, she seats herself in front of the playing board for their Dungeons and Dragons game, turns the board upside down so only black card is showing and places Wills’ character figurine on top of it and announcing that he is hiding. When the boys ask if he is hiding from the bad men that are hunting El, she shakes her head. Her answer is to place the figurine of the horrifying Demogorgon on the board next to Will.
This departure from a traditional monster such as an alien or a werewolf is a fascinating dive into the weird, taking a creature from the boys’ game and using it as the face of the faceless monster is inspired. A creature from the Dungeons and Dragons literature, the Demogorgon is a powerful enemy, a demon prince described as being one of the most terrifying monsters in the game. We feel a fear of the uncanny in this monsters’ appearance because not only does it seem to cross between dimensions in the show, but also, it seems to have crossed dimensions from the pages of our real-world role-playing game. The ambiguity of this threat becomes a real-world one through its connection to a real-life document. I have spoken about ambiguity in horror before here, so I will not belabour the point further.
A Series That Gets Storytelling Right
All in all, Stranger Things is a series that knows what it is doing. With the shambles that is American Horror Story, which we all endure for some unknown reason year after year, and virus-horror shows like The Strain, the world of TV horror has been somewhat lacking as of late. But Stranger Things soldiers on from its get-go all the way through, and as the viewer we get the sense that the show-runners have a fully-fledged story they are wanting to tell. In a world where so many shows feel like the clumsy first draft of a novel, Stranger Things carries itself like a published manuscript. It is weird, but it is also more than that, and that edge, that superiority and that love for the horror and scifi that came before it is what will make it a series worth revisiting long after the final episode has aired.
Lovecraft, H. P. (1927). Supernatural horror in literature. Retrieved from http://www.yankeeclassic.com/miskatonic/library/stacks/literature/lovecraft/essays/supernat/supern01.htm
VanderMeer, J., & VanderMeer, A. (2012, May 6). The weird: An introduction. Retrieved from http://weirdfictionreview.com/2012/05/the-weird-an-introduction/