Stranger Things – “Darkness on the Edge of Town”

Written by: Adam Christopher
Published by: Penguin Random House – Century

Synopsis: Christmas, Hawkins, 1984. All Chief Jim Hopper wants is to enjoy a quiet first Christmas with Eleven, but his adopted daughter has other plans. Over Hopper’s protests, she pulls a cardboard box marked “New York” out of the basement—and the tough questions begin. Why did Hopper leave Hawkins all those years ago? What does “Vietnam” mean? And why has he never talked about New York? Although he’d rather face a horde of demogorgons than talk about his own past, Hopper knows that he can’t deny the truth any longer. And so begins the story of the incident in New York—the last big case before everything changed…

Darkness on the Edge of Town” is the second official Stranger Things novel to be released, and much like the first, “Suspicious Minds”, it focuses on expanding the backstories of core characters before the events of Season One took place. Whilst “Suspicious Minds” tied deeper to the core mythology of the show by focusing on Eleven’s mom, Terry Ives, and her experiences with Dr. Brenner in the MK Ultra programme, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” instead distances itself from Hawkins and moves the action to New York, showcasing Jim Hopper’s life as a NYPD detective with his wife and child, before the tragic events that led him to become Hawkins’ Sheriff. It is a somewhat different take on the popular character, but one that maintains his true essence and explains some of his actions and willingness to get involved in the mysteries during Season One.

Set in New York during the late-seventies gives “Darkness on the Edge of Town” a distinctive and recognisable atmosphere, and writer Adam Christopher taps into the zeitgeist of that time with a tale that blends gang violence, summer heat-waves, serial killers and hard-boiled detectives. It is an eclectic mix of “New York Noir” that evokes memories of movies as varied as The Warriors, Zodiac and The French Connection. I’ve never been to New York, but Christopher’s descriptions are wonderfully evocative, conjuring up visions of the brownstone apartments and the menace in the air at night in the Bronx. In the same way that Stranger Things itself is a love letter to 80’s horror and adventure movies, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” taps into 70’s cop-movies and revels in its big city setting.

While the novel is a prequel to Hopper’s early days as a detective, Adam Christopher smartly frames the story with sequences set after Season Two of the TV series, demonstrating Eleven’s appetite for education as she quizzes Hopper on his past life. This allows us to find out more about the relationship between the newly-formed father and daughter pairing, and also gives the novel a Princess Bride feel. Christopher breaks up the chapters of the flashback with sequences where Eleven will ask questions – often mirroring the same questions that the reader has. Christopher uses this to clarify plot points through the dialogue between Jim and Eleven, offer Jim’s reflective thoughts on the events he has just relayed or to foreshadow upcoming events. It is an effective literary technique, and works as wonderfully here as it did in the cinematic version of The Princess Bride.

Adam Christopher’s interpretation of Hopper is spot-on, particularly in the cabin sequences, and you can visualise David Harbour acting out the body language and speaking the dialogue. There are some instances in the flashbacks where he feels less recognisable, but that may be due to the unfamiliar settings and stressful circumstances that he finds himself in. The main plot has plenty of twists and turns, and I enjoyed how it flirted with the idea of the paranormal at times, but not enough to overshadow Hopper’s eventual discoveries in Season One. It was just enough to make the character receptive to the realities of the Upside Down and the MK Ultra project when they come to light, and to give the novel a supernatural vibe. I also enjoyed the mish-mash of genres in the novel, and how Christopher subverts expectations with where the story is going.

While the novel departs significantly from the tone of voice seen in the TV show, it still has some of that same Stranger Things DNA that made the series so popular. Star Wars replaces Dungeons & Dragons here as the pop culture phenomenon referenced by the characters, much like The Lord of the Rings was central to “Suspicious Minds”. There are vague hints of the Upside Down during the story, although Hopper doesn’t necessarily make the same connections as the readers will. The framing device ensures that the series doesn’t drift too far from its Stranger Things roots, and it actually provides die-hard fans with their first glimpses at a post-Season Two Hawkins. That said, fans who are eager for the next chapter in the franchise won’t find any clues to Season Three in this book, and it is more rewarding for fans who want to know more about Hopper beyond those glimpses at his past seen in Season One.

Rich in atmosphere and with a compelling mystery at its heart, “Darkness at the Edge of Town” is a fantastic addition that enriches the Stranger Things mythology. Beautifully written and evocative of the era in which it is set, the novel applies the Stranger Things template to a different time and place and succeeds to create an enthralling story about gangs, murders and city-wide blackouts. I really enjoyed the unpredictable nature of the plot, and how Adam Christopher put a bunch of different cultural references and genres into a melting pot to create a unique story that resonates with its audience. Armed with this extra knowledge of Hopper’s past, the character is even more likeable and heroic than ever before, and the tragedy surrounding his wife and daughter is all the more heartbreaking. Definitely worth picking up if you are a fan of the character!

Score – ★★★★

Stranger Things – “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is available as an eBook from Amazon Kindle, or collected in hardback format on Amazon and all good bookstores. An audiobook version is available for free with a 3-month Audible trial.

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