Back in the summer of 2016, Netflix wasn’t Netflix, TV Industry Conquerer™ just yet. Long before Russian Doll, The Crown, or choose-your-own adventure bonanzas, Netflix made a bunch of “eh” originals following their initial Orange Is The New Black/House of Cards splash. But then, the company’s “green light all the things” strategy struck unexpected gold with an ’80s adventure homage set in fictitious, rural Indiana. Suddenly, pulsing vintage synths could be heard everywhere.
A few years can really make all the difference. Entering 2019, maybe only Game of Thrones‘ final season had more hype within the TV landscape than Stranger Things’ two-years-in-the-making third season (and we all know how things went in Westeros). And new-school Netflix has leveraged this anticipation in a very old school way: tie-in novels. A hallmark of beloved franchises from Star Wars to Star Trek, a handful of “Official Stranger Things novel” offerings have arrived this spring and summer to satiate rabid fans ahead of a July 4 S3 premiere. But none immediately sent us to the “pre-order” button faster than author Adam Christopher’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, an old-fashioned crime novel featuring Chief Jim Hopper’s pre-show adventures.
Is this another kids vs. D&D villain story?
Released at the start of June, Darkness on the Edge of Town takes place back in 1977 within a pre-Giuliani gritty, grimy, and gang-y New York (a setting that may be familiar to any fans of HBO’s The Deuce as the most recent of many fictional examples). The country dealt with Vietnam fallout, the city dealt with crime headlined by the Son of Sam killer, and fictional cops like Hopper dealt with internal monologues about war changing people, the nature of good and evil, or how doing one’s job may be the only shot at cleaning up the city.
Hopper came to New York because post-war life in Hawkins simply felt too slow, and his young family (wife Diane, daughter Sara) yearned for more adventure. Alongside his new partner, Cuban-American Detective Rosario Delgado, adventure falls squarely in their laps. A new serial killer appears to be rampaging the city in the shadows of the Son of Sam, stabbing victims in the chest in some ritualistic way and leaving only a white slip of paper with a different shape at each crime scene. The chief needs Delgado and Hopper to solve this one not only fast, but quietly—the city can’t take another looming serial killer.
From there, well, this is Stranger Things-adjacent storytelling, so things don’t quite go as smoothly as either detective may hope. The FBI makes an appearance, as do gangs drawing equal inspiration from the US military and religious cults. This also being a pre-modern technology crime story, someone may even have to go undercover at some point. On the sliding villain scale of a Mind Flayer to Dr. Brenner, the evil here decidedly resides within the human realm. Perhaps as a result, the stakes feel a little more real, a little more dangerous. As Hopper’s thoughts put it at one point, “There had been deaths—and there were more to come.”
Not new, but well executed (like Stranger Things?)
As a fan of fiction that weaves historical fact into its world (see Mad Men‘s JFK episode or Deutschland 86‘s on the Berlin discotheque bombings), Christopher hits a lot of sweet spots in Darkness on the Edge of Town. On the lighter end, readers spend time at Tom’s Diner and hear everyone’s opinion on Star Wars. And on the more plot-relevant end, Vietnam ramifications, Son of Sam fears, and pop culture’s favorite historic urban power outage all gracefully work their way into Hopper’s story.
This ability to blend the known and the new kind of mimics the character work Christopher has to do in Darkness On The Edge of Town. David Harbour has made Hopper into a very distinct, known entity through two seasons of Stranger Things, and Christopher can’t really deviate from that. Hopper needs to be tough and capable, but also wry and annoyed by things like bureaucracy or privilege. Conveniently, those traits work as well for a hands-on NYC cop as they do a small-town police chief. You can hear David Harbour in this dialogue and imagine him lumbering through various action sequences. (Which is good, since Hopper remains the POV character for an overwhelming majority of the book, relenting to Delgado, Diane, and one or two others only on occasion.)
But overall, the book offers very little overlap with the established Stranger Things universe—hints of supernatural elements never become as explicit as a demogorgon, and facts we know from the TV series (for instance, that Diane and Hopper ultimately lose their daughter and their marriage) aren’t planted as seeds here. The only major overlap comes from the book’s framing device: Hopper recounts this big case he tackled as a story for Eleven when they’re snowed in one Christmas. The book handles this by intercutting chapters in Hopper’s mid-’80s Indiana cabin with action back in 1977 NYC.
It’d be easy for this to grow cumbersome over time—just tell us what happens in the damned case, Hopper! But fans of the show will likely be delighted to re-enter the rhythm of these two every so often. Like Hopper himself, these “present-day” interactions immediately take you back to Netflix memories of the two beloved characters sharing stacks of Eggos. El never hesitates to ask a question about what would be common knowledge to others (“A cereal killer?”), and Hopper has a patience and care in what he tells Eleven that he didn’t always display as a cop one decade earlier. For what little Stranger Things mirroring must take place, Christopher nails it. (Perhaps that’s not a surprise: Christopher worked closely with Netflix, and he’s an experienced adapter of beloved pop culture entities, having previously written tie-in novels for things like the Dishonored game franchise and The Shield.)
Tonally, the book hews closer to Dirty Harry or Serpico than it does Kindergarten Cop or Miss Congeniality—this investigation and case are serious, even if Hopper sometimes likes not to be. But Darkness on the Edge of Town never overburdens its readers with detail and keeps its sometimes complicated subjects (organized crime and brutal murder, PTSD and the toll of war, inequality between economic classes and racial groups in 1970s NYC) simplified through the action-oriented lens of Jim Hopper. This isn’t Hopper in The Wire,—it’s more of a really enjoyable Law & Order ride.
Darkness on the Edge of Town may not enhance your understanding of the show to date in the way something like Mr. Robot‘s Red Wheelbarrow was meant to, yet it does hint at one thing for Stranger Things S3. This franchise may have sneaked up and surprised Netflix in S1 and S2, but not anymore—the streaming giant knows this could be its most high-profile original at the moment. New marketing tie-ins with Coke and Nike (and freakin’ amusement park takeovers in California and New York) indicate an even bigger internal push than in years past, and Netflix has been quite comfortable making and taking Stranger Things-ish clones or related riffs on the kids’ adventure genre within the last year. This may be among the first Stranger Things tie-in novels, but it won’t be the last. (In fact, while this book would likely be fine for younger readers, Netflix already has a YA-oriented tie-in centered on Max’s backstory pre-Hawkins and an Eleven prequel focused on her scientific experiment upbringing.)
If this plays out well and the Stranger Things expanded universe (STEU?) becomes A Thing™ to navigate in the coming years, at least Darkness on the Edge of Town provides a roadmap. These characters can work across genre in less supernatural scenarios, so long as creators maintain this world’s delicate balance of action and humor, nostalgia and twists. Here’s hoping Stranger Things 3 keeps up the momentum next week, at least enough to bring us the Steve and Dustin college road trip story (comic!) we deserve next summer.
Listing image by Nathan Mattise