The 80s influences of “Stranger Things” are obvious — Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, the “Goonies” and other 80s movies that appealed to preadolescents of that decade. But Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker finds an older, darker influence: H.P. Lovecraft
The scientific worldview says that the universe is neutral. It doesn’t care if you live or die. But Lovecraft had a different view: The universe is evil. It hates us. And it’s supremely powerful, inhabited by entities who are to us as we are to insects, and are eager to torment us just for giggles. In Lovecraft’s view, the Earth is a tiny little island of relative safety that could open to that wider, hostile universe with a single pinprick of reality. In Lovecraft’s view, the pinprick came from miscegenation — racial contamination — Lovecraft was a full-throated bigot who hated and feared brown-skinned people and Eastern and Southern Europeans.
But Lovecraft has many heirs and imitators today, and they substitute other forces for racial impurity. In the case of “Stranger Things,” the horror is unleashed by US government scientific bureaucracy, as it often is in King’s novels.
Rothman identifies two target audiences for “Stranger Things:” Adults who were children in the 80s and view the series as a big ol’ nostalgia wallow, and children who look back on that era as a golden age before they were born, sort of like the 50s were viewed when I was a teen-ager in the 70s.
I’m from an older generation; I turned 20 in 1981. I enjoyed the nostalgia of “Stranger Things” because the period portrayed on the show was not all that different from the early 70s, when I was the same age as the show’s child heroes. As kids in the early 70s, we roamed freely around the neighborhoods on our bikes and engaged in nerdy pursuits without parental supervision. We didn’t have Dungeons & Dragons; that hadn’t been invented yet. But we played marathon games of Risk.
This idea of the universe being actively hateful and evil is a new one for me. I’m a rationalist, I don’t believe that the real universe is evil. An indifferent universe can be hostile enough at times.
But the idea of an actively hostile and evil universe certainly opens possibilities for fantastic fiction.
Joe Haldeman said that in science fiction, the universe is neutral and knowable through reason and science; in fantasy, the universe is unknowable; and in horror the universe is hostile. (I think he said that — he said something along those lines but I may be misremembering the specifics.) While science fiction and fantasy are usually paired together as “fantastic fiction,” science fiction’s actual closest sibling is the police procedural, Haldeman notes.
If you were looking to have fun with some friends 50 years ago, you might have gone to a bowling alley. Maybe you would have hung out at a diner or gone to the movies.
These were all activities that involved spending a certain amount of money in the local economy. That created opportunities for adults in your town to start and run small businesses. It also meant that a teenager who wanted to find a summer job could find one waiting tables or taking tickets at the movie theater.
You can spend money on Pokémon Go too. But the economics of the game are very different. When you spend money on items in the Pokémon Go world, it doesn’t go into the pocket of a local Pokémon entrepreneur — it goes into the pockets of the huge California- and Japan-based global companies that created Pokémon Go.
There are, of course, some good things about this. Pokémon Go can be a much more affordable hobby than going to a bowling alley or the movies. In fact, you don’t have to spend any money on it. And the explosion of options made possible by online platforms creates real value — the average teenager has vastly more options for games to play, movies to watch, and so forth than at any time in American history.
On Planet Money: “We talk to a professional poker player who lost on the first day of poker’s most famous tournament–but went on to get a huge payout. Turns out there’s a game behind the game.”
The “game behind the game:” Professional poker players stake each other, so even if a player loses, he can come out ahead if the players that he stakes win.
5. What you did right gets forgotten immediately, but what you screwed up you have to live with.
6. Making a big pile isn’t what you want to do, unless, of course, what you want when you get done is to have made a big pile.
Jon Michaud in The New Yorker provides a brief history of the game Dungeons & Dragons, and his own history with it.
D&D changed the pop cultural landscape, and the way games were created and enjoyed.
Instead of pieces or figurines, there were characters—avatars—who the players inhabited; instead of a board or a terrain table, there was a fictional world that existed in the shared imaginations of those who were playing; and instead of winning and losing, there was, as in life, a sequence of events and adventures that lasted until your character died. These concepts are now commonplace in our online lives and our recreational activities, but four decades ago they were revolutionary, and a key part of D. & D.’s addictive quality. By 1981, more than three million people were playing Dungeons & Dragons. It soon joined “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” in a kind of high-nerd trinity—one that, with “The Matrix,” “Harry Potter,” and “The Hunger Games,” has long since entered the mainstream pantheon.
I am a fan of none of those things: D&D, LoTR, Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games. I liked “Star Wars” fine but it doesn’t occupy any kind of special place in my heart — it’s just a movie I enjoyed. I’m more of a “Star Trek: The Original Series” guy.
I also don’t read comics, beyond The Watchmen and a couple of others. I don’t play games. I don’t watch many sf/f movies.
I’m part of a relatively small group of people who read a lot of print sf books and not much fantasy or partake of those other things Michaud describes. I do love a couple of sf/f TV series — Doctor Who,Haven, and we’re now rewatching Stargate SG-1, for example. — but that’s about it.
My point is that even within geek culture, there are subcultures.
But this is Michaud’s story, and D&D’s, not mine.
Michaud talks about the history of D&D, and the backlash from misguided parents and authorities who thought it was some kind of cult. He references a New York Times article about how D&D influenced a generation of writers, including literary writers. Tech entrepreneur Paul Taylor says D&D prepared him for the world of business.
And Michaud also talks about how D&D saved his life:
In some regards, my childhood was nothing more than a rota of increasingly complex board games, from checkers to Stratego, Space Colony, Risk, and, finally, Diplomacy. Ours was the only house I knew where pads of hex paper (hexagon-patterned graph paper) were always within arm’s reach. Playing with my father usually meant losing; going easy on his kids was not something his competitive nature would permit. At a certain point, I gave up the war games and board games and retreated to the basement to co-habitate with the TV. A typical Saturday schedule for my twelve-year-old self looked like this: 8 to 11 A.M., cartoons; 11 A.M. to noon, Pro Bowler’s Association; noon to 3 P.M., Notre Dame football; 3 to 6 P.M., Movie of the Week; 6 to 8 P.M., Dinner, chores, family obligations, personal hygiene; 9 to 10 P.M., “The Love Boat”; 10 to 11 P.M. “Fantasy Island”; 11 P.M.: bed. It was not a glorious time in my life. I hated reading. My grades were mediocre, and my parents were worried about my prospects. I didn’t know it, but I was simply waiting for the right game to come along—a game in which there were no winners or losers. That day finally arrived in the spring of 1979. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Dungeons & Dragons saved my life.
I was introduced to the game by the three Nugent boys, who lived down the street from us. The brothers cut against the stereotype of role-playing gamers. All three were athletes. The oldest, Chris, was a runner who broke the middle-distance records at his high school. The younger brothers, Greg and Brian, were bodybuilders, baby Lou Ferrignos. For them, D. & D. was fun, but it was just one of many recreations. They could not have known how profound a change they brought to my life. In a matter of weeks, I was obsessed with the game. I spent all of my meagre earnings from a paper route on advanced D. & D. books, modules, dice, and figurines. I proselytized, converting my brothers and even my sister. (That, again, was atypical. It’s an undeniable fact that female D. & D. players are few and far between. As La Farge notes, “In one 1978 survey of fantasy role-playing gamers, only 2.3 percent of respondents were female; in another, only 0.4 percent.” Lamenting this is like lamenting the fact that there are no orange trees at the North Pole.) When my father was assigned to a post in Northern Ireland, the following year, I took my books with me, hoping to spread the gospel overseas. There was no need. In my first week of school in Belfast, I walked past a red-haired kid manipulating a set of polyhedral dice in his open palm. It was Paul Taylor, the future technology entrepreneur.
As many writers testified in the Times article, D. & D. is a textual, storytelling, world-creating experience, a great apprenticeship for a budding author. But, more fundamentally, you cannot play D. & D. without reading—a lot. Ed Park, in an essay on D. & D. (included in the anthology “Bound to Last”), celebrates the magnificent vocabulary of the game, which introduced young players to words such as “melee,” “portcullis,” “kobold,” “thaumaturge,” “paladin,” “charisma,” “halberd,” “wyvern,” “homunculus,” “scimitar,” “buckler,” “basilisk,” and “cockatrice.” Combined, the player’s manual, the Dungeon Master’s guide, and the monster manual (the core books of advanced D. & D.) add up to four hundred and sixty-eight pages of small-print, double-column text. I read them with studious devotion and headlong glee. Almost immediately, television all but disappeared from my life. When I wasn’t playing D. & D., I was reading about it or reading books set in worlds like the game’s. Crucial in this regard was “Deities and Demigods,” my favorite of all the advanced D. & D. books. Along with creatures from Norse, Sumerian, Greek, and Native-American mythologies, “Deities and Demigods” included characters from the novels of H. P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. Moorcock, in particular, became a favorite of mine. I tore through the many volumes of his “Eternal Champion” cycle. From Moorcock, it was a short leap to Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez, and, lo and behold, I was a reader. And then, a writer.