The art of the tie-in novel is a tricky bit of magic to perform well. Mostly they come across as little more than authorized fanfic, especially in the case of episodic television like The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On rare occasion though, the tie-in novel appears while the series is airing and actually does “tie in” to the plot in a relevant and informative way, expanding the show into a true multimedia experience. The obvious example around here is The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, which arrived between seasons 1 and 2 of Twin Peaks and provided both backstory and clues to the all-important question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” More recently, there has been Bad Twin during the run of Lost, which was a major disappointment, and Red Wheelbarrow for Mr. Robot, which filled in some details between seasons 1 and 2, but didn’t really provide anything relevant to the overarching mythology.
Now Stranger Things is dipping its toe into the pool with Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds, the first of three planned tie-in books being published before Season 3 premiers this summer. Suspicious Minds fills in the backstory of Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives. Terry is an idealistic young college student in Indiana when she enrolls in a psychology experiment run by Dr. Martin Brenner (aka “Papa”). She becomes friends with her fellow test subjects, and together they unearth the secrets of Project Indigo and a little girl named “Eight”.
The story ties in so tightly with the hooks established in the series that you have to guess that the author, Gwenda Bond, was given extensive notes from the showrunners. Bond is an already established writer with several books and series under her belt. She specializes in YA fiction with female heroines, being best known for her series featuring a teen Lois Lane . In writing that series, she worked the stories with guidance from DC Comics , and that experience has probably served her here as well. Along with the elements of Terry’s story, we get an early glimpse of several of the familiar mythological elements from the series, like the Upside Down, the Void, demogorgons, and sensory deprivation tanks.
It’s a little hard to build suspense in a story when the reader already knows how it ends. Mostly you’re wondering the whole time just where it will end. Will we see Eleven’s birth? Terry’s breakdown? Eight’s escape? But that’s a thought lingering at the back of your mind, because at the forefront of the story are the characters and their relationships.
The experiment quickly narrows down to four subjects with actual psychic potential: Terry, a black biology major Gloria, a townie mechanic Alice, and the potentially clairvoyant Ken. The four of them slowly become friends over the course of the year, and the project relocates off campus to the Hawkins National Laboratory. As the experiments get darker and start taking more of a toll on them, the four friends plot against Dr. Brenner to find out more about what is really going on at the Lab, and eventually to try to escape his clutches all together.
Where the series Stranger Things invokes nostalgia for the 80s, Suspicious Minds really taps into the turbulence of the late 60s and early 70s. The story is practically historical fiction, with a number of real world events woven seamlessly into the narrative, including the moon landing (July 1969), Woodstock (August 1969), the first national draft lottery for the war in Vietnam (Dec 1969), the breakup of The Beatles (April 1970), and the shootings at Kent State (May 1970). Even Elvis merits a mention (beyond the novel’s title). It’s kind of amazing all of this history happened in a roughly one year period.
As I mentioned earlier, Suspicious Minds is the first official tie-in novel, but it not the last. Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town (May 28) will fill in the backstory of Chief Jim Hopper circa 1977, and a graphic novel Stranger Things: The Other Side (May 7) promises to fill in what happened to Will Byers in the Upside Down during Season 1. All of this is leading up to the season debut on July 4. The hardcover of Suspicious Minds clocks in at 320 pages and the audiobook is just under 9 hours. Well worth the time investment if you’re a fan of the show.
Notes and References:
- “Gwenda Bond on young Lois Lane and why Triple Threat readers will ‘explode’ with happiness” (Entertainment Weekly): https://ew.com/books/2017/05/13/gwenda-bond-lois-lane-triple-threat-interview/