Like many, I’m impatiently waiting for Stranger Things season 3 to drop in July. In the meantime, I was pretty excited to see the release of an official Stranger Things novel: a prequel to the TV series, titled Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds, written by Gwenda Bond.
In the novel, Terry Ives takes her roommate’s place in a mysterious government-run psychology experiment. She wants to be part of something important, and she wants the money they’re offering as compensation. She quickly befriends the other participants. When Terry discovers a strange, young child at the Hawkins National Laboratory, where they are transported for their own experiment, she must work with the others to unearth Dr. Brenner’s secrets and free the child. But the deeper they get, the more they discover that Brenner’s reach extends far beyond the lab.
” ‘You have rights. You’re Americans.’
Gloria smiled wryly. ‘When it’s our government involved, I think you’ll find our rights are often to be determined.’ “
It’s probable that the only readers this book will appeal to are going to be the ones who watch the Stranger Things TV series. It would be entirely possible to read this novel before watching any of the episodes, or at any point in the midst of them (these events take place before the first season, but they overlap with a bit of backstory revealed in the second season) but I would guess that only the most avid of Stranger Things fans who’ve devoured every detail so far borne into the world will be reaching for this volume.
Both the biggest boon and the biggest drawback to the fact that Suspicious Minds‘s readership will be largely comprised of readers who’ve already seen season 2 is that those readers will know the trajectory of this novel before even cracking open the cover, but they’re probably also the exact audience who won’t mind a bit of overlap in the face of new information. This book is in no way necessary to understanding the TV series, though it does offer deeper insight into a time period that’s barely grazed (so far) in the film.
Among the most intriguing elements this novel offers are an exploration of Terry’s character and personal history, as well as a more thorough examination of Brenner’s behavior and early days at the Hawkins National Laboratory. There are several brand-new characters that I don’t believe have been mentioned thus far in the film, though I haven’t yet done a careful rewatch to see whether there are any small connections I missed. The details and characters that readers will recognize (and there are plenty of those) do seem to match up very well- I didn’t find a single flaw or conflict between the information provided in the film and in the novel.
But Bond certainly plays it safe. Though there is mention of subjects 001 – 011, the only children present in any significant way in the novel are the two we are already aware of from the TV series. Brenner is just as cruel and influential, but he doesn’t reveal any more answers about his motives or past than he has in the film. Terry is brought to life in a way she didn’t have a chance at in the film, but all of her actions reveal a sort of inevitability toward the outcome we already know is coming- by which I mean that her personality and the choices that would lead her to Brenner are already in motion at the opening of the novel; we don’t see anything formative but rather the dusting off of the backstory we already know about. In sum, I don’t believe that those who read this novel will have any sort of advantage in understanding or predicting future seasons of the TV series over fans who skip the book and other extras and simply watch the episodes.
Which isn’t to say that Suspicious Minds isn’t entertaining. It throws the reader into the culture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s the same way that the film does for the mid-80’s. There is mystery and experimental science- almost magic; the characters are compelling, their relationships strong and their enemies dangerous. If I found myself unsurprised by the unfolding plot here, I didn’t succumb to boredom.
“She’d never expected her comic books to be training for life, but then she’d never expected to have a friend who wanted to share visions via a homemade electroshock machine. It turned out the comic books had one thing right. Having powers put you in danger. Even being near people that had powers put you in danger. And being discovered by people who wanted to control those powers put you in even more. Of that she was certain.”
I did find the writing a bit bland, perhaps because the main characters here are college students and older adults portrayed in anticipation of younger readers; Bond keeps things as simple and PG as possible for accessibility across a wide range of audience members. Though it might not spark the same excitement as the film, Bond has crafted a novel in all ways acceptable in connection to the pop culture sensation that is Stranger Things.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a fun and quick read, if not quite as engrossing as the TV series. The novel in no way requires a sequel, as the next events are depicted briefly as a flashback in season 2, but there is room for continuation, as well as plenty of other characters that could be explored in the same way. I’d hoped for a little more to be revealed in Suspicious Minds since it is canon, but I was content enough with my reading experience that I would read another Official Stranger Things Novel. In the meantime… bring on season 3!
The Literary Elephant