America in Progress

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America in Progress

Saturday, October 28, 2017

October 28-29, 2017: Jeff Renye on Stranger Things: The New Weird Made Old?



[I’ve written about my colleague and friend Jeff Renye a few times in this space, but haven’t had the chance to share a Guest Post of his until now. The timing couldn’t be better, as Jeff is one of our premiere scholars of Weird Tales and the supernatural in literature and culture, contexts that as he demonstrates here add many more layers to our understandings of Stranger Things!]

This short piece sketches some common points between the legacy of a narrative mode known as the weird tale, whose modern origins can be found in the literary and visual arts of the late-nineteenth century, and that mode’s inflection in the television drama Stranger Things.  No influence in the arts that crosses parts of three centuries will find direct replication or have precise resonance in its latest iteration.  What the prepared eye and ear do find are odd echoes of the weird legacy that Stranger Things is able to strike with a deft mix of form and content.  These elements provide evidence of the show’s debt to an earlier period of anxiety and crisis and speculation from which the weird tale emerges. 

The first major reference to the weird tale is from 1927 in a long essay authored by American pulp horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature.  This work is Lovecraft’s sustained reflection on what he identifies as and asserts is a specific type of story that exists within the larger field of horror—a tale type that he otherwise comments upon in a fragmented and scattered manner in letters to fellow writers and admirers like Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth.  Lovecraft’s fiction is often faulted for its wordiness, a fact accounted for in part by a paid-by-the-word arrangement with the pulp magazines that published him, such as Weird Tales; however, his essay has an economy of thought and concision that has proved its enduring value for how we can consider a show like Stranger Things.  Lovecraft’s first sentence wastes no time to state a kernel of truth that has been a constant in modern horror fiction, for here is the essence of what underlies the weird tale: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”  That final phrase, “the unknown,” is the key term that Lovecraft then applies to a Trans-Atlantic group of authors from Britain and America.  He then makes an important amplification of this idea of the unknown, and the attendant human fear of it, with emphasis on the cosmic terror that some authors and their stories invoke.  It is these stories that earn the approved label of weird tale.  Lovecraft is careful to make a distinction about why these tales are in some way apart from the bulk of horror, much of which derives from the penny dreadful popular fiction of the previous century:

            “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted    form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and   unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a           hint…of a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which   are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed          space.”

Some clarification is needed here.  That “unplumbed space” of the weird tale often has meant something other than place in a strict sense of standard physical measurement, let alone a space that can be found out there, above and beyond the earth’s atmosphere.  Lovecraft himself wrote an entire mythos of tales that include references to realities and creatures from beyond the stars, where no aeronaut will ever reach.  A prime example of this creative vision is “The Call of Cthulhu” (drafted by Lovecraft in the summer of 1926 and first published in Weird Tales magazine in 1928, the year after the completion of Supernatural Horror in Literature). 

Other-dimensionality as a serious topic for study appears in the late-Victorian period parallel to the fiction included by Lovecraft as the first entries to deserve notice as the modern weird tale.  Charles Howard Hinton’s 1884 pamphlet What Is the Fourth Dimension? is among the first non-fiction works to discuss the question posed by his title.  Within a few years, Hinton will coin the term tesseract as an image meant to visualize a dimension beyond the three that humans most-readily perceive and experience (Hinton’s book The Fourth Dimension appears in 1904, and its earlier 1880s form exerts significant influence in a much later work of fiction, the neo-Victorian novel From Hell, where time and space undergo displacement in some weird ways while at the same time characters contend with grim realities and the investigation a mystery). 

For context, the pamphlet from Hinton is published within a few years of Arthur Machen’s draft of the supernatural horror tale The Great God Pan (published 1894, but part one, “The Experiment,” completed by 1889).  Machen is named by Lovecraft in Supernatural Horror’s final section as a “modern master,” a writer who is one of the “living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch” and “few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen…in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.”  Set aside the praise for a moment because for our purposes here the skill of Machen is best considered for its depiction of borderlands, geographical and symbolic, psychological and immaterial.  This visionary plane on which Machen’s late-Victorian fiction plays out will then carry into the efforts of Lovecraft, which will then develop (with accumulations of other influences along the way, like the working-class realism of Stephen King) into the popular horror of the 1980s, and then arrive at the inventive pastiche of the Duffer brothers in Stranger Things.

The Midwestern America of small town Hawkins in Stranger Things is an instance of the pleasant place made dangerous in a manner familiar to the weird tale.  Yet, such a depiction has ancient origins, like the rugged beauty of Arcadia in ancient Greek tales where the dualistic goat-god Pan resides in light and shadow.  This beneficent protector, but also sinister threat, appears in a manner that humanity cannot predict.  As to which manifestation Pan will show depends upon a prerogative of preternatural decision making, not in accordance with the “fixed laws of Nature” or with whatever interest is held by the mortal audience who make seek contact with this force.  Consider for a moment in Stranger Things how Matthew Modine’s character insists for Eleven in the sensory tank experiment to make contact with the creature of the Upside Down, in spite of her terror and disregard to consequences.  Pan signifies the significant power of the edge places, where settled humanity and wild life and the unknown meet, and where, when met, upheaval and violent death can and do occur.  And, as in Stranger Things, Machen’s The Great God Pan opens with a section titled “The Experiment” where a scientist subjects a young girl to contact with an otherworldly being. The disastrous results allow the entrance of a being that wreaks havoc in the common reality of the story before a kind of dissolution of the body as seen at the end of Stranger Things. 

Border places and liminal spaces have long held special associations for humanity.  They have been host to a variety of prescribed actions from sacred rites to secular ceremonies.  Such locales feature prominently in many popular twentieth-century media from which the Duffer brothers borrow.  The folklore of the crossroads is found in an alternate way in Stranger Things with Eleven’s mediumistic ability to psychically reach into other planes of existence, the so-called Upside Down. 

In this sketch of a tale-telling device, it is time to move now from Lovecraft and Machen, from the Victorians and the ancients, to more recent influences on the weird content of the show.  Stranger Things borrows liberally from the storyscape of the late-1970s and 1980s (images that cite Alien to E.T. abound).  The show is one of the finer examples of a narrative told in the time of a source like TV Tropes, the website that catalogues and cross references the stock elements out of which many contemporary (and older) television shows and movies are made.  The show’s allusiveness to 1980s pop culture generally, and the decade’s horror genre specifically, lends itself to the era of trope lists—or, to consider another popular story development in TV land, the anthology show (American Horror Story plays with many familiar horror tropes as the title implies, but then so does True Detective in its first season with the citation to the Yellow King, the invention of American writer Robert W. Chambers from his collection The King in Yellow from 1895).

Much about the sensory information out of which the Duffer brothers make Stranger Things has a counterpart in older stories.  The neon-marquee font of their show’s title sequence appears with a score whose design is more subtle and minimal than shows from which this one builds.  (Also, see the first edition cover of Steven King’s 1980 novel Firestarter, which resembles the Stranger Things aesthetic). The sound design manages to blend the familiar electronica of the eighties with the odd menace that is struck by the credit scene in the 1990s series the X-Files.  However, another show deserves attention in this discussion.  Set to the notes of a high-pitched synthesizer, the opener of mid-1980s American horror television anthology Tales from the Darkside (1983 – 1988, and produced by zombie tale maestro George Romero) is a forerunner in tone and theme of Stranger Things, even if there are few specifics shared by either show in storyline, acting, set design, or quality of cinematography.  As a product of the pre-digital age of film effects and editing, the campy title sequence of Darkside takes the viewer through a series of pastoral Americana scenes (wind-blown reeds on a sunny, blue sky day, a covered bridge, a weathered barn, a babbling brook in a clearing, etc.) that then flip into a color-drained obverse reality.  As the images pass, a gruff voice with an alarmist-tinge explains: “Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality, but there is unseen by most an underworld—a place that is just as real but not as brightly lit, a darkside.”  While the effect is more rudimentary than what can be found in the sophisticated sound design of a show like Hannibal, Darkside deals in the realms of the weird that would not be unfamiliar to the basic definition provided by Lovecraft.  Now, Stranger Things has found its own place on the chronology of the weird tale, where alternate realities are explored—recklessly by the scientists of the Hawkins Lab, terrifyingly by Eleven, and hopefully by Joyce and Hopper—that exist beside our own and that are probably better left unopened and untouched to begin with.

The weird tale is cross-cultural and adaptable to multiple media.  Its emergence from the twilight of late-nineteenth Victorian culture is when the British empire’s London capital was a place of pathological class and gender divisions, of sensationalized crimes and new forms of the literary supernatural.  From that specific there and when, Arthur Machen emerged as a foremost voice who mused upon the borderlands and the so-called thin places.  Here, in the modern weird tale, the tentative nature of consensus reality of our common humanity makes contact with other dimensions.  In one of the last works of fiction that Machen wrote, a short story with the enigmatic title “N” (from 1935), the late-Victorian crisis of faith and anxiety over the old ways lost and a new world arrived resonate in the words of three friends who meet regularly at a pub to reminisce about the past.  Each would have reached adulthood in the 1880s – 1890s, and, like the weird tale of which they are a part, the tradition that they keep alive through their storytelling carries on post-Great War.  The final lines of “N” convey well the atmospheric effect of the weird tale:
 
“I believe that there is a perichoresis, an interpenetration.  It is possible, indeed, that we three
are now sitting among desolate rocks, by bitter streams.
“. . . And with what companions?”

There is a terrifying wonder of the unknown that Stranger Things creates: Yes, there is the monster from the Upside Down whose existence is fearful, and there is there is a countervailing force of Eleven with her marvelous power.

Stranger Things synthesizes characteristics of the cosmic fear implied by Lovecraft’s early scholarship, plays with features found in the late-Victorian fiction of writers such as Arthur Machen, and cites the 1980s horror that will find a frame of conspiratorial paranoia from Chris Carter’s X-Files in the 1990s.  Stranger Things is a new entry in the field of the weird tale made from many familiar parts, combining them with a technique that places the show as a fine example of the survival of an old fascination with fear of the unknown and the entertainment to be experience from its depiction. 

The show’s first season aired in the Summer of 2016 amidst a contentious and bitter election season where many social issues long-ignored and ineptly-handled by the mainstream have gained greater exposure, while contested narratives of a vision of what America is and can be are played out in public in private life. This current season’s South Park introduces the member berries as commentary on the longing for the past when things seemed better, safer, more ordered.  Stranger Things immerses itself in nostalgia for a bygone time, but in doing reveals itself to be another instance of old concerns and modes of storytelling re-appearing in the midst of a new crisis.  In such times, the arts serve not only as reflection, but as respite, and, quite possibly, resistance to our own period’s needs.
[Thanks, Jeff! Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?]

31 comments:

  1. I didn’t realize how many elements of weird literature are present in Stranger Things until I read this blog post. Dr. Renye builds on many of the concepts we’ve covered in class, particularly how much terror and weird build off of a distortion of reality. Both Lovecraft and the producers of Stranger Things accomplish this, as they bring the reader in contact with another invisible world similar but utterly different from the one the character’s know, either through writing or visuals. Additionally, every story we’ve read in weird literature introduces a figure or concept that breaks the laws of nature, making it nearly impossible for the characters to respond appropriately to their situation. These authors and producers understnad that human beings begin to act differently when they are faced with an unknown circumstance, and it brings out the best and worst in people.
    Lastly, I thought the parallel drawn between Eleven and Mary was fascinating, given that they were both used as vessels in an attempt for men to meddle in things they didn’t understand. They became victims to other dimensions, and are forced to face the consequences without any control over their conditions.

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    1. "These authors and producers understnad that human beings begin to act differently when they are faced with an unknown circumstance, and it brings out the best and worst in people."

      I most certainly agree with the statement above, as it has been shown in many stories we've read thus far--especially The Monkey's Paw (which is an example of the pervasive theme of greed, and how with the paw they found themselves unaware of the price they were to pay for such power). When confronted with the unknown, characters enter a transformative state with the knowledge they gain through such experiences. I would also argue that characters not only experience a change in their psyche, but that the entirety of their beings are shaken to the core. They experience madness in accordance to likes of Hugh Morgan from The Damned Thing or Leverette (I forget his first name) from Sticks, where they are completely and utterly unsure of their realities. In Leverette's case (as an example), “He had aged. There were streaks of gray in his hair, his springy step had slowed, the athletic leanness of his body had withered to an unhealthy gauntness, [and] there were indelible lines to his face...his eyes were haunted.” Leverett had been changed forever, obsessed with his findings, the experience permeating into his work. Often, the encounters with the unknown in weird literature break the human mind, for we are not meant to or able to understand events contrary to our relative realities, events that contradict our very existences.

      -D

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    2. original post written by Shay

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  2. After reading Jeff Renye's post about Stranger Things compared to Weird Literature, I re-watched Episode 1 of the Series. Jeff mentioned earlier that "Stranger Things has found its own place on the chronology of the weird tale, where alternate realities are explored," showing a common theme of exploring alternate realities in both weird literature and Stranger Things. By re-watching this episode, I was able to notice small details that I might have not seen on the first viewing. For example, when Will Byers leaves during midnight to go home, the audience is flashed a three-second clip of a sign that says, "no trespassing." This laboratory sign could be seen by viewers as a foreshadow to warn the audience and Byers to not trespass. Coincidentally, soon after that clip, Will Byers goes missing. Directors and Authors are able to use the reader’s imagination to evoke terror from small abnormal hints. Sometimes it is better to leave unopened and untouched things alone because human brains are too small to fully understand the scale of the universe. The element of not knowing the unknown is a popular theme used to spark terror in their audience's minds.
    Another example of how Stranger Things and Weird Literature are intertwined is from the use of setting and sound. Unfortunately, in weird literature stories, readers can't actually hear sounds. However, we can visualize what the scene might sound like from the passage. The director chose to make a laboratory outside the town of Hawkins, Indiana, a fictional rural town. When Will Byers disappeared it was midnight and happened outside of town next to a lab which could symbolize distance from humanity or distance from the known (closer to the unknown). The first scene ends with loud and beast-like sounds coming from the dark in Will's house. Before the intro is cut into the credits, the only source of light, which comes from one lightbulb in the house, is slowly shut off. It takes fifteen seconds for the lightbulb to turn off which tremendous tension because many think something horrifying will jump scare them. When first watching this scene I thought a beast like a creature would jump scare me. However, the opposite of this happened. I was forced to reflect on Will's actions. The rising tension to a typical jump scare intrigued me and made me think defectively for the rest of the episode. Similar to Weird Literature stories that we have read, authors build up tension throughout the story and leave the reader at a terrifying cliff hanger which in my opinion is ten times scarier than a jump scare.

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    1. When you say “Another example of how Stranger Things and Weird Literature are intertwined is from the use of setting and sound. Unfortunately, in weird literature stories, readers can't actually hear sounds. However, we can visualize what the scene might sound like from the passage.” I agree with you completely, I think sound plays a very important role when it comes to visualizing a passage with one of our five senses, even if we can’t actually hear it. For example, when we read The Willows. There weren’t any actual sounds that we were able to hear, but the passage describes the scene of the wind blowing and the tide rising so well that we are able to create a sound for what we believed for it to be. Once we have that sound/image in our heads it sticks to us, and we can then use it for other pieces of work as well.

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    2. “Before the intro is cut into the credits, the only source of light, which comes from one lightbulb in the house, is slowly shut off. It takes fifteen seconds for the light bulb to turn off which tremendous tension because many think something horrifying will jump scare them.”

      I believe this scene alone touches upon the main concepts that weird literature and terror itself are deeply rooted in. The idea that the scene can generate enough suspense through a simply depiction of a light bulb indicates that the narrative has successfully set up its story to follow the weird literature structure. Without actually showing anything of objective horror, it forces its audience into the fear of their own imagination and the possibilities of what's to come. This technique derives a lot of it influence through Lovecraft’s writing, and the way he sets up his own narratives. Stories of such as “The Festival” and “Call of Cthulhu” are primary examples of Lovecraft’s signature style that can entice and induce fear in the reader without having to use the conventional scars or unsettling visuals. Stranger Things has taken a page out of his book, and have learned to use the creativity of their viewers to generate a unique type of fear that the show simply could not create otherwise.

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    3. This was written by Pierre

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  3. I find it very interesting how much Stranger things relates to weird lit, and how many things Dr. Renye says that it borrowed from other tales. It seems that most of the stuff that was borrowed was from Lovecraft’s tales, like Call of Cthulhu, and The Great God Pan. The thing that sticks out most to me is when he talks about the relativeness to The Great God Pan. When I watched the first episode I never really thought about how this relates to Pan. reading this now, I can see how it does, with this girl who has come into contact with an otherworldly being, and has otherworldly powers within the human world, and looks human too. What isn’t clear so far, and I think it's like this in Pan and Stranger Things is how they’ve gained access to this type of power and where they got it from. The other thing is that both girls in the story are that both are related to lab/ science experiments. The fact that there is an antagonist that is this fear of not knowing what it is is a classic element of weird lit that seems to work every time it's used. I think it will be very interesting to see how stranger things uses old tactics from weird lit, and will also use its own tactics to portray weird literature.

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  4. In Jeff Rayne’s blog post, “Stranger Things: The New Weird Made Old?”, he touches upon how the popular television show emulates some of the major themes of weird literature. He states that “Stranger Things has found its own place on the chronology of the weird tale, where alternate realities are explored”. Said realities, ours and the upside down, are investigated “...recklessly by the scientists of the Hawkins Lab …. [and] terrifyingly by Eleven.” These alternate realities that exist alongside our own and that should probably remain unopened and untouched, are investigated deeply throughout the show and throughout weird literature.

    In H.P. Lovecraft’s essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he touches upon an “unplumbed space,” somewhere that unreachable by humans but still exists. This “unplumbed space” can be seen as the upside down, except in this case, it has been reached by humans. But the aftermath that ensues after Eleven is forced to make contact with the creature in the upside down enforce the trope that some things are better left untouched. But as in many stories that we have read, the human tendency that is curiosity and the need to explain and understand the unknown overpowers the possibly clear signs that certain things should not be meddled with. Something that is seen in Karl Wagner’s Sticks when Collin Leveret, the main character, is drawn to the disquieting house covered in stick lattices. Although Collin knows deep down that entering the house is a bad idea, his curiosity and the need to understand what the lattices are override the common sense. In Stranger Things, the scientists, most prominently Dr.Brenner, (the man who experiments on Eleven) let their curiosity and need to understand what the creature that Eleven encounters during her time in the sensory deprivation tank is. By doing this, they not only put Eleven in danger, they subsequently end up putting all of Hawkins in danger just to satisfy their own selfish needs.

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    1. Fairly interesting observation. Do you think this curiosity ever actually pays off in these stories? Or in Stranger Things? Can our tampering with the unknown ever serve to warn us of danger rather than drag us deeper in?

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    2. At first, when I read about the “unplumbed space” in Renye’s blog-post, I thought nothing of it. But reading you talk about it again reminded me the other dimension from which the monster in Stranger Things came from. I thought, and said dimension to me, embodies the fear of the unknown. This terrible monster, bent on wrecking havoc, comes from a strange place that we cannot hope to understand, and this is what I think of when I read “unplumbed space.”

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  5. Renzo

    Stranger Things use of nostalgia is outstanding. Stranger Things uses the of 30 year cycle where filmmakers, who are now adults, made movies and tv shows in time period of their childhood. Stranger Things use of 80’s nostalgia is an idealised version of the 80’s, where the kids speak more like modern day kids and drop 80’s references. The part of the show I like is the Reaganesque world, where they don’t make obvious references besides a sign supporting President Reagan's reelection, but how the negative connotation to the big government organization like the Hawkins Lab are more subtle. The seemingly normal and peaceful Indiana settling is the perfect location for a more modern take on Weird literature. The introduction of the unknown and sinister is more powerful is such a setting, rather than a big city, like New York. The show has elements from the horror genre, which when overplayed takes away from the connection to Weird literature because it is no longer the unknown, but the know that is scary.

    Stranger Things most common references are 80’s horror/scary movies and 80’s toys. Stranger Things a;so references 80’s movies like IT and ET, where kids run into something otherworldly, and don’t get much support from many adults. Stranger Things’ upside down is a good description of the unknown, because in the story they don’t try to literally explain what is happening, which would ruin the strange and weirdness of it. Instead the Duffer brothers use the D and D board and flips it upside down to reference the upside down, which means that the viewer can sort of understand what is going on, but does not fully understood the unknown of the world of the upside down. The us of D and D where they define monsters as a “mind flair” or “demogorgon” is also perfect for Weird literature because it allows you to partially understand the monster, but the viewer still must confront the unknown, which is scarier than just showing the monster.

    I disagree with the comments about Eleven and Mary about how they are “fascinating,” they both are not the most interesting characters. Even though they directly interact with the outside, through experiments and deprivation tank for Eleven in Stranger Things, or surgery on Mary’s brain in the Great God Pan. in fact, stronger characters are Will or Mike and how they interact with the strange and the weird. In addition, the Elevens storyline in the second season was universally panned because it seemed they were trying to explain Eleven too much, which removed the power of the unknown and the ability of the viewer to conjure up their own fearful thoughts.

    “‘There’s an H.P. Lovecraft sort of approach,’ said Matt Duffer. ‘This inter-dimensional being that is sort of beyond human comprehension. We purposely don’t want to go too much into what it is or what it wants.’”(Source 2). The show does have many connection to Weird literature, such as the investigation by the kids of a cosmic being and a gate between our world and an other worldly place. However, the show does often stray from Weird literature norms. For example, the show often strays into horror or gore themes. Likewise, there are often action movie-like scenes. While Stranger Things may not be a perfect entry to the Weird literature genre, but it does uses many elements of the genre to make a great tv show.

    Sources:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Radg-Kn0jLs

    https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/duffer-brother-stranger-things-is-entering-lovecraft-country

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    1. Before reading the article, I had never really drawn a connection between the nostalgia in Stranger Things brought on by the aesthetic and the elements of fear and terror. Reading the article and your response furthered my understanding on how the carefully constructed "80s look" contributes the weird literature atmosphere. I had never considered the use of “D and D” in Stranger Things. “D and D” is our protagonists’ way of coping with what they fear and cannot comprehend. They are introduced to a monster which is from a different world than them so they name it, which is a classic human way of encountering something new, and they name it something that they know better than anything that doesn’t really scare them. This coping mechanism makes me realize how important the characters’ ages are. Kids are the only type of person who would be so ready to accept the strange and unnatural as real.

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  6. It is quite striking the chain of influences that Dr. Renye illuminates in the sixth paragraph of this article. He explains the “trickle down” system of the genre of weird lit and how one creator can influence another. He expresses a timeline between Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, to the Duffer brothers stranger things. We may think of this process of influence as simple, seeing that it is entirely possible that the duffer brothers were directly inspired by Machen, though it is more likely that it follows this order of events. Though Renye explores this to reach his point about the influence on stranger things in context to the weird lit genre, it can also work within the genre itself.
    As Renye mentioned in his article, “Machen is named by Lovecraft in Supernatural Horror’s final section as a ‘modern master.’” And Lovecraft was clearly influenced by Machen's work and specifically the great god pan seeing as this is his most popular novella in the genre. It is also interesting to note the connection between Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood, as they were contemporaries. As Frank mentioned in class, while Lovecraft found Blackwoods writing a great example of the weird, the feeling was not reciprocated. Karl Wagner, the author of sticks was greatly influenced by Lovecraft, even going on to write many of his stories in the Cthulhu mythos - Including sticks. While this chain of influence can be reproduced for almost any art form, what makes it interesting to do within the genera of weird lit is the similarities and interconnectedness of the wide variety of stories have to do with one another.

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    1. This was written by Lucian Figliulo

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  7. The parallels that Railton draws between the television series Stranger Things, and the famous weird literature texts we have been discussing is astonishing. I find it incredibly interesting how the themes we discussed in weird literature are rudimentary in constructing the satisfying terror that Stranger Things does so well. One can clearly see that much of the success this show has garnered is thanks to the much older tales of early 19th century writers, and the shoulders that it could perch its narrative on.

    Railton talks about the Great God Pan, and how Machen was one of the “living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch... few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen…in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.” One of the many things that Stranger Things does so well is its strong ties to cosmic horror and the unfathomable powers that the genre entails. It pulls from Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan by begin with an experiment gone wrong, and imbuing a test subject with other worldly information. Mary is very similar to the protagonist Eleven, in the ways that they were both products of an experiment that changed them from regular human beings to the supernatural at certain costs. Mary’s brain was overloading with the divine powers of pan, while Eleven was given her abilities from a similar experiment but at the cost of ostracization and proceeding danger. As someone who hasn’t even seen the show, it is still very easy to discern the influences from the old in the modern day show.

    The blog also touches upon the comfortable nostalgia that Stranger Things pulls from its 80’s predecessors. I believe one of the main reasons that Stranger Things is so successful is not through its originality, but through its clever recycling of old and esoteric techniques of terror. Through its pull of 19th century influences and ideas, Stranger Things reconstructs an engaging, truly scary, narrative that its both familiar and refreshing. As it builds off of the works of Lovecraft and other weird literature poets, it gets its sense of terror right in ways that other contemporary works of horror simply do not. Stranger Things doesn’t look at the fear of the modern day produced by cheap jump scares and thrills, but rather learns from Lovecraftian and Machen styles, bringing its audience back to what true fear really is.

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    1. Stranger Things, without a doubt, plays on nostalgia. I would argue this actually ties in quite well with my own analysis of “the pleasant place” - what’s more pleasant than a delightful rush of nostalgia? And then what happens when it turns out that this nostalgia actually concealed something much darker and more sinister beneath its surface?

      t could be argued that it utilizes techniques from weird literature authors, yes. However, it utilizes those techniques in a show set in the 1980s, where multiple events, cultural shifts and movements have changed the world drastically. In a sense, it uses the 80s aesthetic to actually draw the nostalgia-hungry viewers in, and then subverts this nostalgia by using the techniques of even older authors in a relatively modern setting.

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    2. I definitely agree with this response, especially the section about "cosmic horror". I think this phrase really encapsulates the genre of Stranger Things, and many of the stories we've read in class. Additionally, the idea that people were treated "test subjects" rather than actual human beings is an interesting concept. What I've noticed from these readings, and Stranger Things, is that they are essentially cautionary tales. They teach us what can truly happen when humans try to meddle in things they don't understand. Often, someone who isn't even involved pays the consequences.

      Additionally, I agree with the idea that Stranger Things isn't known for it's originality. We've watched a lot of movie interpretations of the readings in the packet, and most of them were very unsuccessful. Stranger Things made cinematic choices that made it terrifying in and of itself, and achieved in building on the elements of terror we've read in class.
      - Shay

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    3. I really enjoy the connection you made between other texts we have read in the class. I also did that in my post. I also like you tie in of cosmic horror and how it relates to stranger things. In addition the social contentions you added to Stranger things and other pieces adds to your argument more strongly.

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  8. I think one of the interesting concepts of weird literature that this article brought up is the "unplumbed space". This space that isn't strictly physical is a somewhat unfathomable concept. It exists in religion, so it’s not the most unfamiliar concept but it's practically impossible to truly conceptualize. The unplumbed space could be seen as a representation of weird literature. It is possible to interpret a few of the stories we have read in class as having echoes of this unplumbed space such as The Call of Cthulhu as the article points out. I also think Sticks could be interpreted as having a space like this, one could see Leverett’s dreams as another world or space. I also think that “seeing the great god Pan” could also be interpreted as a space like this. Obviously this space is very present in Stranger Things in the form of the “upside-down”. You could even say that “upside down” is somewhat representational of weird lit. The fact that it is one of these “liminal spaces” represents the unknown, and the fact that it is something we won’t truly understand represents the cosmic elements of weird horror because it is something humans aren’t meant to understand. A type of place that isn’t strictly physical is already an intriguing concept for readers, but then using that space that confuses and excites us to house a cosmic evil is what gives weird literature it distinctiveness. According to the article, “border places and liminal spaces have long held special associations for humanity from sacred rites to secular ceremonies”. In The Festival we can see how the use of “border places” in sacred rites manifests itself in weird literature if you were to accept that the entire story was a hallucination then you could imagine he was possible brought into an intermediate space by the demons bringing on the hallucination.
    Drawing analyses between Stranger Things and the various stories we’ve read helped me understand the way the hallmarks of weird literature manifest themselves, especially the comparison between Stranger Things and The Great God Pan. Both stories start with an experiment being performed on someone so that they can access that unplumbed space. It made me realize how important that experiment is in The Great God Pan not just because it sets the story into motion. For weird literature to exist a character needs to be attracted to the unknown and somewhat attracted to fear, a character needs to be chasing the unknown and trying to discover some secrets. The experiments performed on Mary and Eleven represent our desperation as humans to discover that knowledge. It’s a way of seeing the effects of the cosmic beings in the stories on human life on Earth, as you can see how far we are driven to attain what we never can. Finally, this article also made me see a connection to The Willows. The island they’re on could be another dimension.

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  9. Ari
    3/12/19
    Stranger Things is a captivating TV show that both reiterates and reflects many aspects of weird literature while providing great cinematography and acting. I had watched the show last year and really enjoyed it, so much so I showed it to my mom and we watched the whole thing over together. While watching Stranger Things I recognized it had not felt like something I had seen before. It felt almost as if I was reading a book and each chapter was represented very clearly through the font used in the show to separate events. Looking back, I see that these oddities had to do with the time period depicted and the story itself being a weird literature tale. It really did feel like an 80s movie. The colors, camera effects and costume designed immersed me into a world where it felt I was watching a hit 80s classic and not a 2016 production. There seems to be a common theme of depicting alternate or opposite realities. In Stranger Things, this alternately reality, named somewhat bluntly as the upside down. As for other weird literature where a monster isn’t clearly established or manifested, Stranger Things has a few clear antagonis. The same can be said for the protagonis, where Eleven, who as we know possess power, threatens our antagonists mission. Because of it being a TV show, and the director not being able to directly add the nuances of people thoughts and feelings, the many layers of Stranger Things can get overwhelming.

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  10. Peter Mamaev

    In his writing, Jeff Rayne regards Stranger Things’ setting of Hawkins as, quote, “an instance of the pleasant place made dangerous in a manner familiar to the weird tale.” This is a very recurring and essential aspect of weird literature stories, present in arguably every single story read this trimester. Ironically every bit as unassuming and often overlooked as the “pleasant places” themselves, I think this trope is a necessary ingredient in what eventually blossoms into a good weird literature story.

    1/5

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  11. Of course, slasher films are far from the nuanced and often existential terror of weird literature, but it does set a good example and the film popularized the concept of making something “pleasant” and this concept was during the horror renaissance of the 1980s. Child’s Play made animatronic dolls into knife-wielding murderers; Cujo made it possible for your lovable family dog to rip out your innards for no reason whatsoever; even the original Nightmare On Elm Street more than likely made a few impressionable viewers stay up late. Albeit many attribute this cinematic exposure to be the first instance of “normality corruption”, a time when Hollywood realized the horror of making familiar and harmless things dark and scary, it is notable that many of the stories read in this class, which preceded the movie industry by a little under a century, utilized this concept very effectively themselves.

    2/5

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  12. Take, for instance, the monkey’s paw from the titular story is, on its own, a totally harmless object. It won’t hurt you, it won’t hurt anyone. On the surface, The Festival’s Kingsport is just a desolate New England town. The willows are just a plant, and the sticks are, ultimately, sticks. Likewise, the initial situation of just about every character tends to be something the audience is familiar with - canoeing down a river, visiting family on the holidays, exploring a forest. We have all been there, and these are all experiences we do not associate with murderous liches, monstrous cults and ancient prophecies whose very existence causes men to lose their minds. Stranger Things takes a fairly similar route; until its twisted underbelly is revealed, Hawkins is delightfully generic. It’s the trademark American town a good chunk of the show’s audience grew up in. Even most of the characters, with the exclusion of Eleven and the mysterious people hunting her, would fit into a perfectly average American landscape.

    3/5

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  13. Which is why when the concept of parallel dimensions, psychic girls, shady government organizations, and horrific monstrosities that we haven’t even fully seen, is so effective here. The Upside Down ruins our typical American town. It corrupts it. It exposes a seedy underbelly that houses horrors that we, on multiple occasions, cannot even begin to comprehend. A similar corruption undergoes with, for example the Whites; a perfectly normal English family, with a perfectly normal comfortable life, suddenly exposed to the mystic potential power of the monkey’s paw. The reader can easily put themselves in the Whites’ shoes, and therefore can relate to their shock and sorrow throughout the story. The reader can put themselves in the shoes of the Festival’s totally nameless narrator, so it drives all the more of an impact when something as conventionally familiar as family are revealed to be wax-faced monsters. Similarly, the viewer can imagine themselves living in Hawkins, Indiana, interacting with plenty of its residents, so the impact is strengthened when the showrunners introduce interdimensional monsters and shady government agencies hunting psychic girls into the mix. To that extent, the “pleasant place” trope is an essential building block of weird literature, ney, weird media, because it allows the reader to become connected to a scenario otherwise completely disconnected from the normal world.

    4/5

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  14. This trope, or tool for a better word, is naturally less looked-at because after reading the Festival, nobody wants to discuss the gripping dilemmas of visiting their families at Christmastime. The things that will actually draw everyone’s attention are the procession, the twisted rituals, the monsters lurking behind the masks. Yet if Lovecraft opened the Festival on the festival itself, the story would simply be a parade of psychedelic oddities, losing its impact and its terror. Rather, the gradual stripping of normality, layer by layer, from the protagonist and from the world, is what makes the story effective, what makes it a part of weird literature. Likewise, this underlying atmosphere of mystery and conspiracy resting just beneath the all-American surface of Hawkins, and its gradual stripping we will presumably see later, the utilization of this tool is what ties together Stranger Things and weird literature as a media, as a class and as a genre.

    5/5

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    Replies
    1. Alessandro

      I love the way that you connected the "pleasant place" trope to some of your favorite (and my favorite) horror movies. It allowed me to view movies that I grew up watching in a whole new way. It is true that Hawkins, Indiana is the perfect place for story to take place; it is the almost picture-perfect version of the eighties, which adds a nostalgia factor to the experience.

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  15. In his blog-post, "The New Weird Made Old", one thing that Jeff Renye discusses is what it means to be a weird lit tale, and how "Stranger Things" embodies this definition. He does so by first quoting H.P. Lovecraft’s essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature." In the excerpt that Renye discusses in his blog-post, Lovecraft says that the oldest fear known to man is the fear of the unknown, and that this fear is the essence of a weird tale, and this is something that I agree with. As Lovecraft elaborates in "Supernatural Horror," a weird lit tale cannot simply be bloody and gory, or scary descriptions of monsters and ghouls. Inexplicable fear and dread of something that we can't quite pin is essential to the weird lit tale, and I also agree with Renye when he says that "Stranger Things" embodies this definition.

    I think that one of the ways "Stranger Things" does this best is with the toy figure of the demo-gorgon. At the start of the first episode of the series, four of the five protagonists are seen playing a game of "Dungeons and Dragons." An intense scene intended to scare the watcher depicts the arrival of the demo-gorgon, a monster that strikes fear into the players. I interpreted the arrival of the demo-gorgon as an allusion to the monster that was previously seen killing a scientist in a lab. This allusion struck me with fear of the unknown monster.

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  16. After reading this piece, thoughts emerged about the larger representation of the connection between the wierd of the past and modern day content. In general, when discussing influence, Jeff Reyne does a good job of including Lovecraft, and providing a helpful breakdown of his genesis, which is essentially the genesis for understanding what weird literature is. Building off of concepts discussed in class, our understanding is that this kind of literature comes from the fear of what is unknown to human nature, concepts that we cannot fathom, things our brain cannot proccess, even if explained in the most plain of terms. We have learned that Lovecraft is one of many who accurately explains this to the reader, and Reyne shows us that he believes that it is “more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains,”. Lovecraft knew that true terror is what we as humans cannot understand, and he understood that the “fixed law of nature” must be broken in order to achieve this.
    The connection Reyne made between the concept of weird literature and Stranger Things is only a further emphasis of the impact that authors of the weird have on modern culture in terms of horror and terror. With this past understanding, the basis for how modern society uses the weird to it’s benefit, is formed. The thematic parallels begin to become increasingly clear. Just in the first episode, the unknown is open and obvious. There are clips and scenes that the viewer cannot put together because we simply do not have the information to process. We know there is some entity, but we do not know what it looks like, how it got there, and how it interacts with humans. That is our unknown. The same way that Lovecraft sets up the beginning of his storys, the same way many other weird lit authors do -- it is to disorient you. This is what Stranger Things does very well. Not even five seconds ino the episode, there is an extremely loud bang, followed by a man running through a corridor, checking behind him in fear all the way. In truth, there is something to be said about the benefit of sound and picture, how it adds to the experience that cannot be had from reading. However, as we’ve seen in the past, it is easy to sour wierd literature film, and unaccurately portray the theorized groundwork for the stories.
    Stranger Things also does a good job of representing ‘space’, which Reyne also briefly mentions. Lovecraft’s thoughts on the creation of space is that it “ can be found out there, above and beyond the earth’s atmosphere,”. He is referring to something outside of our realm. In the episode we watched, and in further episodes, we learn of a hidden world, dubbed the Upside Down, where things are almost parallel, but extremely different -- they are darker, and sinister, and they have a connection to the entity from the beginning. Considering the fact that Stranger Things takes place in the 80’s in a seemingly ordinary small town, this is extremely representative of wierd literature and what can be lurking below the surface. Even the young girl, Eleven, who Reyne briefly mentions, is able to travel freely in between these planes of existence, has been derived from the orginial concepts that authors like Lovecraft are feeding to us.
    As a genre, it has always taught the reader to question things that exist at face value, and Stranger Things has successfully been able to transition into a visual medium, while still maintaining the essential principles of weird literature.

    - Destiny Benson

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  17. Max:
    Prior to reading this essay, I watched Stranger Things through a very different lens. As we’ve been reading and analyzing works that fall under the weird literature genre, it wasn’t hard to make connections between the overall plot of the series to a number of stories we’ve looked into. However, this essay not only enlightened me on specific links between the show and many works spanning from the Victorian era until now, but broadened my understanding of weird lit as a whole; how it commenced and how it has expanded over the years.

    There are obvious similarities between the storyline of Stranger Things and many weird lit texts such as The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen, The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs and others. Jeff, however, points out specific pieces of the TV series that represent the weird. First off, he mentions the setting, saying “The Midwestern America of small town Hawkins in Stranger Things is an instance of the pleasant place made dangerous in a manner familiar to the weird tale.” I really liked the way he phrased this. It concisely depicts what is essential to understanding the weird: things may seem familiar, but either they aren’t or will soon become unfamiliar. He continues saying, “Yet, such a depiction has ancient origins, like the rugged beauty of Arcadia in ancient Greek tales where the dualistic goat-god Pan resides in light and shadow. This beneficent protector, but also sinister threat, appears in a manner that humanity cannot predict. As to which manifestation Pan will show depends upon a prerogative of preternatural decision making, not in accordance with the “fixed laws of Nature” or with whatever interest is held by the mortal audience who make seek contact with this force.” I thought this explanation was genius. It accurately conveys what so much of the terror in weird literature stems from. This idea of dualism; two things, opposite, joining forces, such as light and shadow, is out of the ordinary. The inability to predict; humans are comfortable with what is the usual, the familiar, and the predictable. When encountering anything, let alone a “sinister threat” that we cannot rationalize and, therefore, cannot combat, we are helpless and vulnerable to whatever stands before us. The idea of preternatural decision making that is not in accordance with the “fixed laws of nature” is terrifying; some unknown entity is making decisions that may affect your life and you don’t have a clue about how to stop it or even identify what it is. This is a very common element in weird lit tales: whatever “interest” we have as the mortal audience, doesn’t matter in these stories as the unknown takes charge.

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