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.
[A]fter the Brexit vote, Tingle published “Pounded by the Pound: Turned Gay by the Socioeconomic Implications of Britain Leaving the European Union.” Another recent Tingle story is about a character he calls Domald Tromp. In Tingle’s fictional universe, Tromp is the presumptive Republican nominee—although, unlike Donald J. Trump, Tromp has faked his birth certificate and is really a native of Scotland. More specifically, he is the Loch Ness monster in disguise. (“There is something incredible about being taken by such a strong, patriotic beast, even if he is really from Scotland,” the narrator, a twenty-two-year-old journalist, thinks at one point.)
“The Voyeur’s Motel” is a brilliant and disturbing “New Yorker” article from 84-year-old journalist Gay Talese:
I know a married man and father of two who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur. With the assistance of his wife, he cut rectangular holes measuring six by fourteen inches in the ceilings of more than a dozen rooms. Then he covered the openings with louvred aluminum screens that looked like ventilation grilles but were actually observation vents that allowed him, while he knelt in the attic, to see his guests in the rooms below. He watched them for decades, while keeping an exhaustive written record of what he saw and heard. Never once, during all those years, was he caught.
The voyeur, Gerald Foos, says in his 30 years as a peeping Tom, he witnessed a murder that he unwittingly instigated. He never reported it to police.
30 years of voyeurism made Foos a cynic.
… basically you can’t trust people. Most of them lie and cheat and are deceptive. What they reveal about themselves in private they try to hide in public. What they try to show you in public is not what they really are.”
Foos considers himself a scientist.
“I hope I’m not described as just some pervert or Peeping Tom,” he said. “I think of myself as a pioneering sex researcher.”
Talese also did a little peeping while visiting Foos to verify the story, although he does not describe himself as being aroused by it. Like Foos, Talese no doubt considers himself a dispassionate observer working for a greater cause. The difference between the two is that Foos worked in secret, while Talese has as worldwide audience, respect, and acclaim.
Several years ago, I was about to fly from LAX to Hawaii’s Big Island. The flight attendant came over and asked me, “Mr. Shandling, would you care for water, juice, or champagne?” I laughed. In high school, kids used to call me Garry Shandling, presumably because our names have some similarities and because I was always trying to be funny. I was about to tell the flight attendant, “Just call me Gary,” which is what I say whenever anyone is about to mangle my last name. And then I looked at the empty seat next to me and it dawned on me. My seatmate for the next six hours was going to be the man whose hair style I had tried to copy through most of high school, with much hair mousse and little success. The man I wanted to be if I ever grew up, because he made people laugh while he told them the truth, which, back in the late eighties and early nineties, was still a novelty.
Shandling plopped into the window seat. He was, like most male celebrities I’ve met, perfectly muscular and trim. He had three books with him, whose titles I now forget, and I think he intended to read all of them during the long flight. I mentioned the similarities in our names, and for the next six hours we couldn’t stop talking. I can’t even remember about what. I drank nervously, trying to time my jokes along with his. My jokes were straining and full of strategies; his were effortless—not jokes at all but bulletins from a complicated man travelling through a particularly funny band of the space-time continuum. We were staying at different resorts, and he invited my then-fiancée and me to dinner at his place.
If a Texaco salesman at a filling station has asked you, “Is your oil at the proper level today, sir?” or if you’ve ordered a malted milk at a soda fountain and the clerk has stood there, an egg in each hand, and asked, “One or two eggs today?,” then you’ve been under the subtle influence of Mr. Elmer Wheeler, head of the Tested Selling Institute, 521 Fifth Avenue. Mr. Wheeler has adopted the profession of seducing people in the mass with words. He advises merchants how to win sales and influence customers.
Mr. Wheeler composed that suave speech about the proper level of oil to replace the crude old question “Check your oil today?” There are nine words in it, to save you the trouble of counting back, and Texaco paid Mr. Wheeler $5,000 for it. This is $555.55 a word. He worked out the malted-milk-and-egg technique, for Abraham & Straus, so that they might sell more eggs at their fountain. He not only devised the phrase “One or two eggs today?” but also planned the gesture of the clerk holding an egg in each hand.
The scene of the soda clerk, the eggs, and the timid customer (who usually takes at least one egg in his malted milk when all he wanted was a malted milk) is now reënacted thousands of times daily all over the city. It is the perfect example of one of the principles of Tested Selling, which are masterfully explained in an essay written by Mr. Wheeler some years ago and recently expanded into a book with a red-and-yellow jacket. The book has a number of Wheelerpoints in it, and the egg episode dramatizes Wheelerpoint No. 4, which is “Don’t Ask If—Ask Which! “The essence of Wheelerpoint No. 4 is that the customer should always be given a choice between something and something, not a choice between something and nothing. This point is vital, but the great motif in Tested Selling is Wheelerpoint No. 1, “Don’t Sell the Steak—Sell the Sizzle!” On this majestic theme, Mr. Wheeler writes:
“The sizzle has sold more steaks than the cow ever has, although the cow is, of course, mighty important.”
Wheeler did the equivalent of today’s A/B testing in real life; he tried different phrases and sentences on people to see which sold more product, and iterated the changes until they were just right.
People put egg in their malted milk? Is that still a thing?
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.