This Stranger Things article contains spoilers.
With Stranger Things 3 hitting screens this July, the third season of Netflix’s ratings juggernaut is ramping up for release with a spate of multimedia tie-ins. Comic books, a new video game, and the show’s first tie-in novel are all set to augment the wider universe beyond the 1980s setting of Hawkins, Indiana. Suspicious Minds, the tie-in novel by Gwenda Bond takes place in 1969, over a decade before the weird happenings in Hawkins, serving as a prequel for several of the show’s characters while also delving into the details of one of the more interesting corners of the Stranger Things universe, namely the dark government experimentation that led to Eleven, Kali, and others developing those strange and awesome powers.
The novel’s setup is sublime. Next to 1980s small town USA, a slice of Americana that movies have taught us all to innately understand, 1969 and the fabled Summer of Love is undoubtedly an equally iconic era, replete with an unmistakable iconography that should evoke the same sense of nostalgia as the show, no matter whether you lived through it or not.
Harnessing the backdrop of student protests against Vietnam, Terry Ives, a young college undergraduate, discovers that the government is conducting secretive LSD testing on students at the nearby Hawkins National Laboratory. Demonstrating the same sense of social purpose and suspicion of authority that history has largely remembered her generation for, Terry enters the program, run by the inscrutable Dr. Brenner, with the fervent belief that what she is doing could change the world for the better. There, along with a group of fellow outsiders, Terry begins to realize not just the extraordinary capacity for power that lies inside herself and others, but also the insidious nature of evil residing within the walls of Hawkins National Laboratory.
While fans of Stranger Things will no doubt enjoy Suspicious Minds for its universe-expanding storytelling and the opportunity to explore one of the more fascinating secrets of the show’s mythology, the novel never quite taps into its full potential, an irony given the plot centers on that exact notion. The setting and premise are fantastic: The Summer of Love and the opportunity to explore the shadowy goings-on within MKUltra, the notorious governmental project exploring the potential uses of LSD for mind-expansion. Also, for a property like Stranger Things, which wears its love for comic books proudly on its sleeve, the chance to tell a secret origin story for Eleven, the show’s most popular and enigmatic figure, should result in a real page-turner.
Instead, the novel tells an interesting enough tale that never really feels like the sum of its parts. Suspicious Minds wisely weaves in several popular tropes from the TV show: a band of young outsiders fighting the establishment, regular cultural references, a world largely devoid of adult presence — save for the nefarious Brenner, of course. It deals with some interesting themes that resonate both with the era and with today, chief among them being the death of innocence and the casual banality of evil, and yet despite all of this cleverness being clearly present and correct, it’s hard to care too much for the heroes of Suspicious Minds.
The book comes in at around 300 pages and perhaps that’s part of the problem. Considering Stranger Things itself was birthed from a love for the works of Stephen King, an author renowned for his world-building and devotion to the painstaking construction of even his most ancillary characters, the inhabitants of Suspicious Minds (beyond Terry Ives) lack the development to make them unique when compared to the bantering party of young heroes in the TV show. The same is also partly true of the world around them: evoking the contentious world of an American college campus circa 1969 is a winning idea, but the story lacks the immersive description to fully bring the setting to life with the same vivid detail as the TV show portrays the 1980s. For this writer at least, that’s much of what makes Stranger Things feel like the show that it is.
It’s easy to see how with a couple more hundred pages, the novel’s potency could have been greater, but it’s worth noting that the story, while somewhat perfunctory is still very absorbing if you’re a fan of the show. In a universe awash with interesting story possibilities, the nefarious history of MKUltra and the Hawkins National Laboratory is chief among them, and it was fun finding out the classified secrets behind the redactions. Fans of the show will no doubt enjoy it, as I certainly did, but those hoping for a hit as potent as the show itself, might feel a little like they’re chasing the dragon.
What do we learn?
So. If you’re still here, it’s because you’re keen to know more. Be careful though. Curiosity can be a deadly habit in the world of Hawkins, Indiana. Let’s take a look down the rabbit hole at some of the Stranger Things secrets that the book reveals. Be warned, spoilers this way lie!
One of the key things that we learn in the novel concerns Brenner’s rise to power. Naturally, the Brenner we meet in the novel is younger, but his supercilious nature and disregard for others are as present in the prequel novel as they are throughout the first season of the show. Perhaps the most surprising thing we learn about Brenner is that the absence of personality cultivated by Matthew Modine in the TV show extends to his ambitions, too. Brenner remains a largely blank canvas throughout the story, his motivations rarely extending beyond simple scientific endeavor.
In spite of what you may have suspected, Brenner doesn’t seem to possess some grandiose, evil plan: he isn’t an iron-clad patriot committed to finding a super-weapon that will eradicate the commies; he doesn’t seem to have world domination on his mind. The true nature of Brenner’s evil is something much more mundane: simple scientific curiosity. While this is certainly effective in questioning the true face of evil (what is truly more malicious after all? A hideous demogorgon or a human scientist with no code of ethics?), it does mean that Brenner remains something of a cipher throughout the story, his impassive nature challenging his status as a monster in the eyes of the other characters.
That’s not to say the doctor doesn’t have his out-and-out evil moments: using his influence to have Terry’s boyfriend sent to his death in Vietnam is a pretty dastardly move. And yes, that boyfriend was Eleven’s father, tragically killed before he even knew of his daughter’s existence.
The novel also carries us through the development of Brenner’s research. We see him arrive for the first time at Hawkins National Laboratory and have to engage in several power battles to cement his superiority. Brenner is accompanied by Eight, also known as Kali, the first of his test subjects to truly show promise in his field of study. Kali is young when Brenner brings her to live at Hawkins and the nature of their relationship seems much more antagonistic than the one-way relationship Brenner was able to exert over Eleven.
When the opportunity arose to mold Eleven, practically from birth onwards, it’s no wonder that Brenner was able to impress greater influence upon the latter of his experimental subjects. Experiencing that moment when Brenner snatches Eleven, almost from the womb, is more powerful in the book, given that you have the full context surrounding it. Terry and her compatriots believe they have escaped Brenner’s influence and saved themselves, which serves to make that moment when Brenner reverses their “victory” all the more haunting.
Eleven’s mother’s powers?
During the course of Brenner’s studies, we see other familiar elements of his research take shape, too. The sensory-deprivation tank approach that became key to evolving Eleven’s powers and developing Brenner’s knowledge of the Upside Down is first pioneered in the novel with Eleven’s mother, Terry. The pregnant Terry also develops the ability to “voidwalk,” slipping into the pitch-black realm between our world and the Upside Down at will. This, of course, mirrors the power that Eleven will develop in season two of the TV show. When her daughter is born, however, Terry loses the power entirely, suggesting that it really resided within her unborn daughter, Jane, known to us as Eleven.
The Upside Down and the Demogorgon
Even more interesting is our first glimpse of the Upside Down, witnessed by one of the test subjects who is exposed to a dangerous combination of LSD experimentation and electroshock therapy. Alice, the test subject in question, also encounters the deadly Demogorgon, some ten to twelve years before Eleven would do so, and the fight to keep Brenner from discovering the existence of this wraithlike netherworld becomes one of the key plot points of the novel. The use of electroshock in the novel actually awakens latent abilities as in the case of Alice. This acts as a grim counterpoint to Terry’s fate in the show, Brenner’s punishment for her doomed attempt to rescue Jane resulting in an overcharged electroshock treatment that renders her catatonic.
Also, our understanding of the range of abilities available to Brenner’s test subjects is slightly widened too: as well as seeing early manifestations of Kali’s power (and the laughable inabilities of the laboratory’s staff to deal with such power), the aforementioned Alice’s experimental use of LSD causes her to develop the ability to see into the future. That’s right! Time travel (of a sort) now exists in the Stranger Things universe and will be interesting to see if that ever finds its way into the show itself. In a nice callback that reminded this writer of a key moment in the Back to the Future trilogy, Terry is given a chance to see her future and she refuses – a decision that she no doubt comes to regret.
By the way, it’s the use of LSD that results in the emergence of Eleven’s powers. Not just standard-grade LSD though, before you go off on the hunt in an attempt to develop superpowers. Brenner has an entire laboratory on the second floor of the building dedicated to cooking up “special batches” containing who knows what.
The Wild Bunch, Woodstock, and Butch Cassidy
Stranger Things wouldn’t be Stranger Things without a flood of cultural references, and while the prequel novel can’t quite match the TV show as a love letter to its respective era, it certainly attempts the feat gamely. References to The Lord of the Rings are commonly used by the characters in the novel, a nice link to Mike and his companions, the next generation of young explorers who themselves are prone to the odd Tolkien reference. If Return to Oz playing at Starcourt Mall (as season three of the show opens) tells us to expect a darker return to something we thought we knew, then Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch showing at the movies as the book progresses foreshadows a final and bloody end that this writer won’t comment on, even in a spoilery piece such as this.
It wouldn’t be the Summer of Love without a visit to Woodstock, and sure enough, several of the characters make a pilgrimage to the legendary music festival. The Beatles merit a reference, as does that other iconic western of 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Happily, the X-Men’s Jean Grey gets her first out-and-out reference in Stranger Things (at least as far as I can remember) beyond the homages and easter eggs and general narrative trajectory of Eleven that have occurred throughout the show thus far.
So there you go. Spoilers aplenty. And yet in all of that, we didn’t get the cameo from the younger version of Mike’s dad that I was aching for. Apart from being the world’s most ineffectual parent, he falls asleep so much that there could be an electroshock-related secret origin story there, too. Start the campaign here. I can see it being the next tie-in novel already.
Suspicious Minds is out now.