Sat. Oct 1st, 2022

In the summer of 2016, Netflix was not yet Netflix, TV Industry Conquerer™. Long ago Russian doll, the crownor pick-your-own adventure bonanzas, Netflix has made some “eh” originals according to their initial Orange is the new black/house of cards splash. But then the company’s “green light for all things” strategy unexpectedly hit gold with an 80s adventure tribute set in fictional rural Indiana. Suddenly pulsating vintage synths were heard everywhere

A few years can really make a difference. Entering 2019, maybe alone Game of Thrones’ last season had more hype within the TV landscape than Weird stuff’ third season two years in the making (and we all know how it went in Westeros). And new-school Netflix has tapped into this anticipation in a very old-fashioned way: tie-in novels. A hallmark of beloved franchises from Star Wars until star trek, a handful of “Official” Weird stuff new” 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 the City, an old-fashioned crime novel featuring the pre-show adventures of Chief Jim Hopper.

Is this another kid vs D&D villain story?

Appeared in early June, Darkness on the Edge of the City is set in 1977 in pre-Giuliani rough, dingy and gang-y New York (a setting that may be familiar to fans of HBO’s The Deuce as the most recent of many fictional examples). The country was dealing with the fallout from Vietnam, the city was dealing with crime headlined by the Son of Sam killer, and fictional agents like Hopper dealt with internal monologues about war-changing humans, the nature of good and evil, or how doing your job may have been 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) craved more adventure. Together with his new partner, the Cuban-American detective Rosario Delgado, the adventure falls completely into their lap. A new serial killer seems to rampage through the city in the shadow of the Son of Sam, stabbing victims in the chest in some ritualistic way, and leaving behind only a white sheet of paper of a different shape at each crime scene. The Chief needs Delgado and Hopper to solve this problem not only quickly, but also quietly – the city can’t handle another menacing serial killer.

From there, well this is Weird stuff-adjacent stories, so things don’t go as smoothly as either detective hopes. The FBI appears, as do gangs who draw inspiration from the US military and religious cults equally. Since this is also a pre-modern crime story about technology, someone may even have to go undercover at some point. On the sliding rogue scale of a Mind Flayer for Dr. Brenner, evil is definitely here in the human realm. Maybe that makes the stakes feel a little more real, a little more dangerous. As Hopper’s mind put it at one point, “There had been deaths—and more would follow.”

Okay, we're following you into the world of the meat space paper, Chef Hopper.
enlarge Okay, we’re following you into the world of the meat space paper, Chef Hopper.

Anna Armatis / Netflix

Not new, but well executed (like Weird stuff?

As a fan of fiction that weaves historical facts into his world (see crazy men JFK episode of Germany 86‘s on the bombings in the Berlin discotheque), Christopher hits a lot of good places Darkness on the Edge of the City. On the lighter side, readers spend time at Tom’s Diner and hear everyone’s thoughts on star wars. And on the more plot-relevant ending, Vietnam’s ramifications, Son of Sam fears, and pop culture’s favorite historic urban blackouts all gracefully work their way into Hopper’s story.

This ability to mix the known and the new kind mimics Christopher’s character work Darkness on the Edge of the City. David Harbor has made Hopper a very distinct, well-known entity through two seasons of: Weird stuff, and Christopher can’t really deviate from that. Hopper has to be tough and capable, but also wry and irritated by things like bureaucracy or privilege. Conveniently, those traits work just as well for a hands-on NYC cop as they do for a small-town police chief. You can hear David Harbor in this dialogue and imagine him meandering through several action scenes. (Which is good, since Hopper remains the POV character for an overwhelming majority of the book, only occasionally giving in to Delgado, Diane, and one or two others.)

But overall, the book offers little overlap with the established Weird stuff universe – hints of supernatural elements never become as explicit as a demogorgon, and facts we know from the TV series (e.g., that Diane and Hopper end up losing their daughter and their marriage) are not planted here as seed. The only major overlap comes from the book’s framing device: Hopper talks about this big case that he tackled like a story for Eleven when they’re snowed in in one Christmas. The book addresses this by combining chapters in Hopper’s mid-80s Indiana cabin with action in 1977 NYC.

It would be easy to get cumbersome over time– just tell us what’s going on in that damn case, Hopper! But fans of the show will probably be happy to re-enter the rhythm of these two every now and then. Like Hopper himself, these “contemporary” interactions immediately bring 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 grain killer?”), and Hopper has patience and care in what he tells Eleven he didn’t always show as a cop a decade earlier. for what little? Weird stuff mirroring must take place, Christopher nails it. (Perhaps no surprise: Christopher worked closely with Netflix, and he’s a veteran adapter of beloved pop culture entities, having previously written cohesive novels for things like the dishonored game franchise and The shield.)

Tonally the book is getting closer Dirty Harry or serpico then it does Kindergarten Cop or Miss Congeniality—this investigation and this case are Real, even though Hopper sometimes doesn’t want to be. But Darkness on the Edge of the City never overloads its readers with details and keeps the sometimes complicated topics (organized crime and brutal murder, PTSD and the toll of war, inequality between economic classes and racial groups in 1970s New York) simplified through the action-oriented lens of Jim Hopper . This is not Hopper in The wire-it’s more of a really enjoyable one Law & authority to drive.

Darkness on the Edge of the City can’t improve your understanding of the show so far in the way something like mr. Robot‘s red wheelbarrow was meant to be, but it refers to one thing for: Stranger Things S3. This franchise may have sneaked in and surprised Netflix in S1 and S2, but no more – the streaming giant know this could be the most talked-about original right now. New marketing deals with Coke and Nike (and goddamn theme park acquisitions in California and New York) indicate even greater internal pressure than in years past, and Netflix was pretty comfortable making and taking. Weird stuff-esque clones or related riffs on the kids’ adventure genre from the past year. This might be one of the first Weird stuff couple novels, but they won’t be the last. (In fact, while this book would probably be fine for younger readers, Netflix already has a YA-oriented tie-in focused on Max’s backstory pre-Hawkins and an Elf prequel focused on her science experiment upbringing.)

If this works out well and the Weird stuff expanded universe (STEU?) becomes A Thing™ to navigate in the years to come, at least Darkness on the Edge of the City gives a step-by-step plan. These characters can work across genres in less supernatural scenarios, as long as the creators maintain the delicate balance of action and humor, nostalgia and twists of this world. Here is the hope Strange Things 3 keeps up the momentum next week, at least enough to bring us the Steve and Dustin road trip story (comic!) we deserve next summer.

List image by Nathan Mattise

By akfire1

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