Stranger Things

Stranger Things season 1 poster by Kyle Lambert

Although the most obvious (and avowed) influences on Stranger Things are the early works of Steven & Stephen (Spielberg and King), I think the real core of the show’s success comes from a less obvious direction, and one not rooted in the show’s celebrated evocation of the 1980s. Because, for me, the impact of Stranger Things comes not from nostalgia but from its depiction of childhood, both as a time of extreme vulnerability to the darker forces of the world (as experienced to the greatest degree by the characters of Will and Eleven), and of imaginative engagement in the world’s wonder & strangeness (the D&D boys, whose Dungeons-and-Dragoning has perfectly prepared them to deal with a world of monsters, parallel dimensions, and mind-powered super-kids). Innocence, in our post-Game of Thrones era of TV where cynical, self-interested characters are the norm, and are often the shows’ heroes, is a very rare quality, perhaps because it’s so difficult to do convincingly (without lapsing into sentiment or mere victimhood, for instance). But when it is done convincingly — and when it’s brought face-to-face with real darkness — it has genuine power. The most obvious recent example I can think of, and the thing that feels, to me, closest in many ways to Stranger Things’ success (including its reliance on a very talented young cast), is the Harry Potter films.

This is perfectly brought out by another Netflix series, the German-made Dark (from 2017), which at times seems like it was created as a result of someone describing Stranger Things (perhaps down a crackly phone line) to Werner Herzog in one of his more sombre moods. It contains many of the same elements of Stranger Things: missing children, a small-town setting, a sinister government scientific establishment where science-fictional experiments seem to be going on, a link to the 1980s (Dark opens in the present, but some episodes are set in the 80s, and there’s a strong generational link to that decade), supernatural travel between two realms, flickering electric lights, abandoned railway tracks through woodland, and your by-now-standard emotionally damaged police detectives. But whatever the similarities, the differences in tone are polar. Dark, for instance, has plenty of montage sequences in which we see various characters isolated in states of lonely misery, with the occasional couple hugging in a desperate need for solace, all backed by the more dour kind of pop song. (Stranger Things does do this, when a body is removed from the quarry lake and Peter Gabriel’s version of “Heroes” plays in the background. But Dark seems to do it at least once an episode, and not as a moment of dramatic climax, more as a feeling that this, in the world of Dark, is what daily life feels like.)

Dark (which, at the moment, I still haven’t finished watching, so it may change) is all about how people are fundamentally isolated from one another, and how everyone picks up dark secrets and emotional wounds as they enter adult life, which further isolate them and undermine their attempts at relationships. Stranger Things (which I’ve now watched twice through in the time it’s taken me to get halfway through Dark) is about the complete opposite: how facing darkness can bring people together, and how the way to overcome the darkness is, ultimately, to break through the barriers of isolation and make human connections (most obviously, for instance, in Eleven’s learning to trust other people after her horrendous upbringing at the Hawkins National Laboratory, but also in the way memories of kindness are used to break through the Shadow Monster’s control of Will in season 2). Stranger Things’ catchphrase is, after all, “Friends don’t lie.” I’m not sure if Dark has a catchphrase. It’s a show that’s more about silence; perhaps its image of dead birds falling from the sky would serve.

Having said that, I do think Stranger Things’ darkness is properly convincing. On first watching it, my initial impression was that someone had made a list of all their favourite scenes from 70s and 80s horror and kids’ adventure movies, particularly of the Spielbergian variety, and arranged them into a workable story. But then I realised the show’s creators were using those scenes’ existing associations to give them an interesting twist, usually taking them in a more disturbing direction. Even when the reference seems just a subtle joke — as when Mike, Lucas and Dustin dress Eleven in a blonde wig, echoing the way, in ET, Eliot’s sister dresses ET in a blonde wig — it can’t help adding an emotional resonance. ET in a wig is funny because it’s a ridiculous image; Eleven in a wig underlines the fact that she’s been treated throughout her young life as somewhat less than a human being (her shaved head and number tattoo have obvious associations with Nazi concentration camps), which has left her as much an alien in our world as ET was. There’s a palpable sense that, in looking through Mike’s sister’s bedroom, or being dressed in a play-box blonde wig, she’s been given a tiny glimpse of the upbringing she was denied.

The sort of darker twist I mean can be seen in another ET parallel. In Spielberg’s film, when Eliot’s mother comes home while Eliot is showing the alien his Star Wars toys, Eliot has ET hide in the closet, which becomes a joke when his mother looks in the closet, sees ET, and assumes he’s just another toy. In Stranger Things, when Mike and El are at Mike’s house (he’s showing her his Star Wars toys) and his mother comes home, Mike has El hide in the closet but she’s terrified, as it reminds her of the isolation cell her “Poppa” Dr. Brenner would lock her in if she didn’t do what he wanted. The scene feels that much darker for being an echo of ET’s light comedy.

The best parallel, for me, was another ET swipe, when the kids, reunited after the first season’s quarrels, are escaping from the “bad men” of Hawkins National Laboratory on their bikes. In the equivalent scene in ET, when it looks like the kids are finally cornered, ET uses his powers to lift them into the air so they can fly away, still pedalling. It’s the film’s signature wonder-moment. In Stranger Things, a much more down-to-earth and practical El lifts an oncoming government van and throws it at their pursuers. ET is an alien temporarily stranded on our world; El is a young girl forced to become a weapon by government “bad men”.

The theme of innocence brought up against darkness is at the heart of many of my favourite films, and certainly the ones that affect me the most, including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the more recent book & film of A Monster Calls. (Another favourite, Amelie, contains no supernatural darkness, but is still about an innocent, in this case a young woman facing the much more mundane darkness of loneliness. In fact, Alien is about the only one of my top favourite films I can’t fit into the innocence-versus-darkness theme, but perhaps that’s because it’s even more primal, being about sheer survival.) Anyway, Stranger Things (seasons 1 & 2) certainly grabbed me in the same way, and I hope it manages to keep some of that innocence going in future seasons.

A Voyage to Arcturus as an allegory of life

Canongate 1992 PB, art by Sir Frank Brangwyn

The first half of Maskull’s journey on Tormance could be read as an allegory of human life — though with interruptions. Just think how David Lindsay’s protagonist first experiences this new world: rather than landing on the surface, astronaut-style, in the crystal torpedo in which he set out from Earth, he simply wakes to find himself already on Tormance, but in a helpless state. He’s lying naked on his back, too weak in this larger planet’s gravity to get up. He has new sensory organs that make this alien world seem even more new and different to him, among which is the whipcord-like magn growing out of his chest, like a baby’s umbilical cord. He is, in effect, a baby.

And along comes the most motherly creature on Tormance, Joiwind. Maskull immediately associates her with “love, warmth, kindness, tenderness, and intimacy”. She has an avowed philosophy of lovingkindness for all creatures, and at one point proclaims, “Is not the whole world full of lovely children?” She is, in effect, the most motherly mother Maskull could meet.

She clothes him, then feeds him from her own body, giving him an infusion of her “milky opalescent” blood, enabling him to stand Tormantic gravity. (A move that echoes and completes Krag’s method of enabling Maskull to stand the Tormantic gravity of the tower back at Starkness on Earth. Krag cuts Maskull’s arm and spits in the wound; Joiwind replaces the lost blood, thus providing the feminine completion to the masculine action: wounding, then healing.)

Soon, as they journey, Joiwind and Maskull are joined by Panawe, Joiwind’s husband. It’s as though baby Maskull has picked up a father in addition to a mother in this strange new world. At one point, the couple wait indulgently while Maskull runs off to investigate a nearby lake, like a toddler insisting on jumping into a particularly inviting puddle. That evening, Panawe tells Maskull the story of his own childhood, and the next day Maskull leaves to enter the next stage of his life-journey.

Ballantine PB, 1968, artwork by Bob Pepper

After a brief meeting with Surtur — who may not be the real Surtur — on the Lusion Plain, whose main purpose seems to be to issue a promise that Maskull has some sort of destiny ahead of him (just the sort of thing for an adolescent to feel as he heads off into the world), Maskull meets Oceaxe and receives a jolt. Oceaxe is no motherly woman. She’s “haughty, seductive and alluring”, and where Joiwind saw a world full of children, Oceaxe asks, “Isn’t the whole world the handiwork of innumerable pairs of lovers?” It’s obvious we’re in a different sort of world now, and Maskull, still wandering along like a child, has to be prodded into acting less like a child, more like a man. He’s told he dresses like a woman and even that his Tormantic sensory organs are more fit for a woman than a man, and he needs to change them. This, now, is a world where the perceived differences between the sexes matter, because it’s now a world where attraction between the sexes matters. Told how to change his organs, Maskull experiences an overnight adolescence. In the morning, he’s no longer Joiwind’s baby, he’s a would-be man. (Oceaxe still accuses him of being “boyish” at one point, but at least it’s an improvement, for Maskull, after being told he dresses like, and looks like, a woman.)

So now life on Tormance is no longer about Joiwind’s lovingkindness, it’s a battle of wills. It’s about proving oneself, exerting dominance, and winning sexual partners. There’s a thirst for dangerous thrills, and a sense of constant instability in the very ground itself. It’s all very adolescent, as it should be, because this is Maskull’s Tormantic adolescence. After the fatherly Panawe, the next male Maskull meets is the barely-adult but supercilious and cruel Crimtyphon, and he meets him not as an ally but as a rival. They fight like a pair of rutting stags.

French edition from 1975

The next stage in Maskull’s journey of life is characterised by another woman, Tydomin. Although she’s part of the Ifdawn Marest crowd, it’s made clear that, unlike them, she’s “no longer quite young”: compared to the adolescent Oceaxe and Crimtyphon, she’s middle-aged. She wins her battles in a different way, using subtlety and wile rather than outright violence, and though she does win, she’s by no means triumphant. This stage of life, for both Tydomin and Maskull, is marked by a feeling of tiredness, a sense of disillusionment and a need for a change or an end. The headlong momentum of adolescence has given way to adulthood, and the initial reaction to that loss of acceleration is to feel that life is less lively, less life-like, and so less worth living. Tydomin, fed up of life as she’s been living it, has decided she wants, from now on, to be a man; Maskull’s response to all he’s been through so far, typically male and still more adolescent than not, is to decide that life, which hasn’t worked out how he expected it to, and which has trampled on his childishly simple morals, isn’t worth living.

Here it starts to become clear how Lindsay’s allegory of life departs from the more conventional pattern. Instead of smooth transitions from one stage to the next, Maskull’s maturation is punctuated by breakdowns, as his disillusionment with the path set out for him makes him challenge it and find it wanting. Each time, it takes a revivifying confrontation with death to remind him why he’s alive. Having decided he’s willing to die, Maskull lies down to do so, only to find himself transported to his life back on Earth, to the séance where Krag grabs the apparition’s neck — Maskull’s neck — and twists it right round. This shocking vision reminds Maskull of the true reason he’s alive: it’s not to follow the conventional pattern, but to find his own. Revitalised, he sets out on the next stage of his quest — and once more falls back into the pattern of conventional life.

German PB

What follows adolescence? Work. Maskull and Tydomin meet Spadevil, a man who sees duty as the most important thing in life. It sounds like the philosophy of someone who has just entered the world of work and, finding a lifetime of it stretching in front of him, has to come up with some way of taming the still-uneasy turmoil of adolescence so it can fit a useful, socially-approved purpose. Spadevil, along with his two new disciples, takes this philosophy to Sant, which is an image of the world of work in Lindsay’s day, in that it is dour, dull, and male-only. (The firm Lindsay himself worked for, which became Price, Forbes and Company a couple of years after he joined in 1891, got its first female employee some time around 1909. Her job was to operate the firm’s one and only telephone. Her employers were so unsure how to fit this new commodity, a woman, into their working world that they built a special glass booth for her to work in, and, according to And At Lloyd’s: The Story of Price, Forbes and Company Limited, “the staff were forbidden, under threat of dismissal, to communicate with her except over the telephone”.)

Fitting in with Lindsay’s version of an allegory of life beset by breakdowns, this new enthusiasm for duty just doesn’t last. Maskull’s attachment to these new ideals, as embodied by Tydomin and Spadevil, ends in typically brutal Tormantic fashion, and Maskull, untethered from the usual path of life again, finds himself wandering in the wilderness of the Wombflash Forest, whose name perhaps promises a new birth, or perhaps expresses a craving, at this low point, to return to the certainties of childhood’s earliest stages, before all these murders, deaths and disillusionments. Again, it’s contact with death that moves Maskull on — he sees a vision of his own death, and a glimpse of Muspel-light, reminding him of why he’s on this quest. It’s not to follow the standard allegory-of-life path, it’s to discover his own answers. Revivified once more, he continues.

1975 German cover, art by Karl Stephan

The next figure he meets is Polecrab, a working man and a father of three. Polecrab has heard tales of the true nature of life in Crystalman’s universe, and even credits them with some truth, but has made no effort to find out more. He is, in effect, who the questioning Maskull would have become, had he stuck to the well-worn path of life and not had these moments of breakdown and disillusionment. It’s at this point, really, with this figure of Polecrab before him — the man who lived life as it’s supposed to be lived, satisfied in his way but ultimately still a small man before the universe’s deeper mysteries — that Maskull leaves the conventional path for good. He seeks an alternative, and from this point his journey on Tormance is no longer an allegory of life, but an investigation into a series of alternatives to see which might provide a better answer.

The first that Maskull tries — he visits Swaylone’s Island, where the musician Earthrid plays enchanting but murderous music — is the path Lindsay himself took when he left the world of work and became a writer: the path of art as a possible answer to life’s mysteries. When that fails (and all answers fail on Tormance), Maskull looks to science (Matterplay, with its vision of life as simply the wild and random sporting of the biological life-force), then religion (Leehallfae and Corpang, both of whom are devoted to their different gods, and both of whom are soon disillusioned), then sex (Haunte and Sullenbode’s world of pure-males and pure-females) for an answer. All of these fail. The ultimate answer awaits not for Maskull, but for Nightspore; and not on Tormance, but in Muspel.

Reading Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus as if it were an allegory of life shows that the sort of life it’s allegorising isn’t an unquestioning one. Rather, it’s the pattern of a life beset by inner difficulties that, ultimately, make the conventional path impossible. It’s a life punctuated by breakdowns, by moral outrages, by disillusionments; but it’s also a life urged on by visions, revitalising contacts with a deeper idea that transcends the mundane path. It’s a painful, difficult path, but I suspect it perhaps represents Lindsay’s own in many ways. He had his own revivifying idea, his own vision of Muspel and the Sublime, and it was this, not the values of the interwar literary world, that he knew he had to be true to.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is one of the most archetypal of fantasy poems. The story it tells — of a lone knight, last of “the Band” who set out on a never-explained quest for the “Dark Tower” years ago, who’s now so ground down by failure and disappointment that he cannot accept he’ll ever achieve his quest, but who also, knowing nothing other than the quest, can’t do anything but pursue it, doggedly, seeing nothing but the promise of mockery and failure in everything around him — resonates with so many other narratives that it finds its echo throughout later fantasy literature (and film), while at the same time feeling very much like a predecessor to Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The poem was written in a single day in 1855. Browning later wrote of it:

“I was conscious of no allegorical intention of writing it… Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe. I do not know what I meant beyond that, and I do not know now. But I am very fond of it.” (Quoted in this Guardian article.)

It’s somewhat different to the poetry Browning was writing at the time. He was focusing on dramatic monologues, and although Childe Roland is told in the first person, it doesn’t have the same feeling of being an extract from a play, as so many of Browning’s dramatic monologues do (others, like “My Last Duchess”, imply a interlocutor, for instance). It also lacks the historical and biographical research that usually went into his poems, in part because he was away from his home library at the time. (It was written while he was staying in Paris.)

Nevertheless, a welter of influences and ideas went into it. The title comes from King Lear:

EDGAR: Child Rowland to the dark tower came;
His word was still,—Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man. [Act III, Scene IV, 171-3]

In a 1924 essay, “Browning’s Childe Roland”, Harold Golder outlines the mishmash of folktalery that stands behind the poem’s central figure. There was a ballad called Child Rowland and Burd Ellen, whose Rowland was on a quest for the stronghold of the King of Elfland. (This was a tale Alan Garner also used in Elidor.) Golder also links the poem to the story of Jack the Giant-Killer, whose hero, like Browning’s at the start of the poem, is given directions in his quest (for a giant’s castle) by an old man, and when he arrives at the castle finds a golden trumpet he has to blow to defeat the giant.

Detail from Thomas Moran’s 1859 painting of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. (See Wikimedia for the full picture.)

Even more interesting is a 1925 essay by William C De Vane, Jr., “The Landscape of Browning’s Childe Roland”, which traces many of the details of the nightmarish landscape Roland passes through to a single chapter in a book Browning read many times as a child. In The Art of Painting in All its Branches by Gerard de Lairesse (Browning’s father owned a 1778 translation from the original Dutch), there’s a chapter called “Of Things Deformed and Broken, Falsely called Painter-like”, which guides the reader through an imaginary landscape filled with all the kind of details Lairesse thought bad painters put into paintings in an attempt to give them a touch of eerie grandeur — what would later, by the Romantics, be perhaps termed “the Sublime”. Although Browning didn’t have this book with him when he wrote Childe Roland, it seems he’d been on a mental journey through its landscape enough times that it came naturally, perhaps unconsciously, to him.

Reading the poem, I’m constantly reminded of other fantasy works. Roland’s fear, when crossing the stream, that he might “set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek” makes me think of the ghostly faces in the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings; the arena-like circle of mountains that surround the Dark Tower make me think of the narrator of Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland’s vision of the titular house on a plain surrounded by mountains among which stand a host of ancient gods; and most of all, the section of the poem where Roland pauses to remind himself of his former comrades but can only recall how they met with their deaths, makes me think of a section from the quest segment of Boorman’s Excalibur, where we see various grail-quest knights’ ignominious ends. (This association is so strong, it was only while reading about the poem to write this entry that I realised it wasn’t about the grail quest.)

A knight finds one of his (failed) brother questers in Boorman’s Excalibur

The most powerful part of the poem, for me, has always been the moment Roland sees a half-starved horse in the wasteland he’s travelling through:

Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
With that red gaunt and colloped neck a-strain,
And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
I never saw a brute I hated so;
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

That line, “He must be wicked to deserve such pain”, is chilling, in part because it seems such a desperate clinging to the idea (having been on such a seemingly pointless quest for so long) that everything in life must happen for a reason — therefore, if something is suffering, it must deserve it, even if it’s just a poor horse — but mostly because it seems to me that, in that moment, Roland is really seeing himself. It’s not the horse’s suffering he feels must be deserved, but his own, this endless, futile quest through a landscape which the worn-down, despairing Roland sees as full of active, inimical forces mocking and threatening him at every step. Everything he sees offends him. The old man who points him on his way must, of course, be deceiving him, and laughing behind his back; the river he has to cross must have some nasty trick to it, like being full of dead people; a wheel he sees by the wayside must of course be not a wheel but part of some Piranesian “engine”, a “harrow fit to reel/Men’s bodies out like silk”.

The waste land from Excalibur

And then, suddenly, he realises that despite all this cynicism and defeat he’s there — he’s at the Dark Tower. He sees his dead colleagues “ranged along the hillsides” all around him (which could, I suppose, mean he’s actually died), then blows his slug-horn. (Golder gives an origin for the term “slug-horn”, which I thought I’d read somewhere that Browning had invented. But apparently it was used earlier by the poet Chatterton, and ultimately derives from a Scottish word, “slugorne”, meaning “war cry”, itself derived from the word “slogan”.)

And then the poem ends. Roland’s quest, obviously, is not over, because he’s presumably arrived at the Dark Tower to do something, but what it is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that all that defeat and cynicism was a lie. The old man wasn’t deceiving him; the river wasn’t full of dead people; the wheel was probably just a wheel. (The horse, presumably, really was suffering, though.)

Childe Roland is the “Belly of the Whale” moment, the darkest hour, and Roland is through it. His story isn’t over. Really, it’s just about to begin — a “childe”, after all, is not a knight, but a knight-in-training, so Roland’s story is, perhaps, the story of his initiation into true knighthood, and this may be the point where the true test begins.

Perhaps it’s this feeling that the poem is an intense fragment of a larger story that gives it so much power, and makes it resonate with so many other fantasy stories. But certainly, for me, it’s one of the great fantasy poems. (See my entry on Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater for another.)