I cut my literary teeth on Stephen King. I was that weird kid lugging a 5-pound copy of The Stand around in my backpack to read on the bus, and I still can’t truly trust clowns after viewing It (unbeknownst to my parents) at the tender age of six. I say this for the sake of full disclosure, because anything that pays as much homage to Stephen King as Stranger Things is automatically going to rank high on my geek-love radar.
And it’s definitely a story that could fit right in alongside the best of King’s catalogue. Set in the early 1980s in a small, working-class town, the horror is of a psychological bent, focused more on suspense than gore. Also like King, though, it’s got one hell of a monster, and (to paraphrase the horror master) it doesn’t hesitate to jump out and go ooga-booga. It’s like the unholy love child of the Cloverfield monster and that creepy eye-hands guy from Pan’s Labyrinth, with a cross-dimensional travel pattern that lets it be pretty much everywhere at once and almost impossible to track and kill—in short, a nearly perfect beast to inspire pure terror.
There’s a lot to love about Stranger Things but from a genre writer’s perspective, the thing I found most uniquely masterful was the way they integrated the Dungeons & Dragons tropes without them feeling gimmicky. I’ve only ever seen the “game becomes reality” idea executed well in comedies, never in a dramatic or true horror setting (which often then becomes a comedy, if for all the wrong reasons). The way Stranger Things integrates it so seamlessly is the same way Stephen King handles some of his most bizarre and terrifying creations: by showing it first through the eyes of children.
Here’s some context, for those who haven’t seen the show. The monster’s presence in our world is made possible through the accidental opening of a portal to another dimension—a place identical to our world in general form but dark and mostly lifeless. This is referred to in the show in many ways, but the kids first wrap their heads around this realm as the Vale of Shadows—a region described in their D&D source texts as a shadow world that’s dark “even in the brightest day, and some of the shadows walk, carrying their burden of hatred and hunger with them.” It’s the first explanation of any kind the viewer is given for the shadow world. Though we eventually do get the more scientific description, the Vale of Shadows is both more apt and far more interesting than the stock explanation of multiple dimensions.
If adult characters—even avid D&D players—whipped out a description from a Dungeonmaster’s Guide, I can’t picture that succeeding on the screen. Not with the same deadly seriousness the kids in Stranger Things use. An adult character who did read from D&D would have to present the information tongue-in-cheek, or with a sense of extreme skepticism, even in the context of supernatural weirdness.
When the adults regard the monster’s realm, it’s treated as science fiction: a strange portal opened up by a force that, though not understood, could potentially be explained following the in-world rules and science. When the children interact with it, though, the realm is fantasy. It doesn’t need an explanation. Their quest has brought them to a dangerous place, and their task is only figuring out how to survive. Ultimately, this gives the kids’ version of the world a more visceral emotional flavor, uncluttered by the need to define it.
A child character is naturally going to have a more fluid conception of existence than your standard adult. They’re difficult to write well (at least for me) but they can be a useful tool, allowing you to play more with the boundaries between reality and fiction. Stephen King’s child characters use this advantage to full effect. Stranger Things admirably follows his example, as it does in so many other wonderful ways.