If you’re anything like me (and if you’re reading this, the chances are excellent), you probably spent a goodly portion of the last weekend diving deep into a pool of digitally streaming ’80s SFF nostalgia thanks to Stranger Things, a new Netflix original miniseries from the creative team of the Duffer Brothers (Wayward Pines) that fuses classic Stephen King, vintage Steven Spielberg, and a myriad of other 1980s geek touchstones, from Dungeons & Dragons to Marvel comics. It’s got all the ingredients to set your nostalgia-loving heart aflutter: a group of outsider preteen protagonists, a shadowy government conspiracy, a lived-in community of supporting characters, and a dripping spoonful of cosmic horror. The only downside: there are only eight episodes, and they go by much too quickly.
Thankfully, considering the series is in many ways an amalgam of the best of ’80s SFF/horror, there are plenty of books (old and new) to keep the adventure going once you’ve completed your binge-watch. Here are suggests for 9 of them—from those that served as obvious influences to others that scratch the same itch. (Update for 2017: We’ve also put together another list of book recommendations for Stranger Things 2, because that’s how obsessed we are.)
It, by Stephen King
This one goes without saying. Stranger Things has so much of this early King masterwork in its DNA (right down to the title font), that you could switch the setting from Indiana to Maine and fool someone into thinking they’d stumbled across an adaptation of a long-lost manuscript from the Master of 1980s Horror. The nostalgia-soaked story of a group of preteen friends—a bunch of boys, and one girl—investigating a menacing force terrorizing their small town, It is nothing less than iconic, thanks in no small part to King’s realization that there are few things in life scarier than clowns. Though the second half of the book jumps into the future to follow the characters as adults, the first half is the closest you’re going to get to stringing along your latest pop culture addiction.
Firestarter, by Stephen King
Lest you think that Pennywise the Clown does all the heavy lifting, the Duffer Brothers also give a nod to countless other books from King’s oeuvre, among them The Waste Lands (monsters in the walls!) and Cujo, which gets an onscreen cameo. More than any of these, however, the influence of Firestarter looms large. Like burgeoning telepath Eleven, the young protagonist of King’s 1980 sci-fi thriller is a young girl who gained superhuman abilities through the application of bad science by some nasty government types. Charlie McGee is a telepath, too, but her talents favor pyrotechnics over electricity; after she and her father (also a victim of the experiments) escape from The Shop, they must go on the run to avoid recapture—an experience Eleven would understand all too well.
Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon
The best novel by that other ’80s horror headliner, Boy’s Life is as much an exercise in sun-drench boyhood nostalgia as it is a supernatural thriller about murder and monsters in a tiny Alabama town. In 1964, during a steamy summer feeling the heat of simmering racial tension and the awakening Civil Rights Movement, Cory Mackenson is living the life of a regular 12-year-old boy…until the lonely morning he and his father witness a car careening into a lake, their attempt to rescue the driver from drowning foiled by the fact that he’s already dead, and handcuffed to the steering wheel. That terrible incident marks the start to what turns out to be a quite literally magical summer for Cory—magic both wonderful and terrible, from unquiet ghosts, to bayou sorcery, to the possible appearance of a dinosaur at the local fair. It’s a book that speaks to that part of childhood that is willing to see the strange magic in the everyday—a part of us that rarely survives to adulthood, save in the minds of fantastic storytellers who strive to recapture it and put it down on paper.
The Boys of Summer, by Richard Cox
Here’s one to add to your wishlist: this September, Night Shade Books is publishing what sounds like the perfect Stranger Things readalike. The Boys of Summer is set in 1983, and follows Todd Willis, a 13-year-old boy who awakens from a four-year coma to find himself inhabiting a version of his North Texas town that looks the same, but doesn’t quite feel right. As he struggles to separate reality from fiction in his mind, Todd makes friends with a group of boys who help him discover the secret behind the darkness seeping into his world—a horror they’ll speak about to no one until 25 years later, when evil returns to Wichita Falls.
Watchers, by Dean Koontz
This one might seem like kind of a stretch—a sci-fi-leaning monster thriller about a super-intelligent dog, really?—but Koontz’ most popular book parallels Stranger Things in interesting ways. Like the shadowy laboratory that produced both the innocent, gifted Eleven and something much, much worse, the experiments at the center of Watchers have a light side and a decidedly darker one. Using untested genetic engineering techniques, the scientists at Banodyne Labs create something wonderful: Einstein, a dog with the intelligence of a human and the heart and loyalty of a labrador retriever. But he’s just the test case: their real intent is to fuse together cunning intelligence and all the killing power of nature’s greatest predators in The Outsider, intended to be the perfect weapon of war. Naturally, both subjects soon escape, alternately winning hearts and ripping them bodily from victims in this standout entry in the ’80s horror canon. [Edited to add: Commenters have rightly pointed out that Koontz’s The Door to December is also a very good readalike, with some 1:1 plot similarities, particularly surrounding Eleven’s sad backstory.]
Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
There must be something in the air: at the same time the Duffer Brothers were assembling their series, Brian K. Vaughan and artist Cliff Chiang were partnering on a very similar project: an ’80s-era comic that, in its first volume at least, strives to recreate the feel of a classic Spielbergian adventure, complete with a band of young misfits at the center of the action. Refreshingly (and obviously, given the title), the kids here are all girls—how was there never an iconic all-girls-on-an-adventure ’80s movie?—who encounter weird SFnal terrors (lights in the sky, vanishing townsfolk, threatening guys in masks—while delivering papers in the early morning of November 1, 1988. From guys in futuristic metal armor, to hidden spacecraft, to time-travel shenanigans, things only get stranger from there.
X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga, by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Mike Collins, and Terry Austin
Delving too deep into this one would tread into spoiler territory, but it’s safe to say that the most iconic story in the X-Men canon was definitely on the minds of the creative team behind Netflix’s latest hit—landmark issue #134 is even name-checked in the pilot episode. The story of the fall of Jean Grey and her rebirth as the Phoenix has been retold in cartoons and on the big screen, but any adaptation can’t hope to have the same impact as this seminal 10-issue run.
Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo
When will scientists learn: telekinesis and unstable preteen psyches just don’t mix. Otomo’s legendary manga/anime is at a complete remove from Stranger Things in terms of setting and tropes, but both focus on young characters who have been ill-treated by secret government projects to create a superweapon. It’s almost never a good idea, guys. Just stop it.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
On pure plot terms, Cline’s breakthrough debut is nothing like Stranger Things, but they share one key trait: both are totally in love with the pop culture of the 1980s. Whereas the Duffers are more veiled with their references, Cline shoves them in your face in the best way possible. The plot—a virtual reality treasure hunt through a video game littered with signposts from SFF of the ’70s and ’80s, from Star Wars to Dungeons & Dragons to Atari—is in some ways nothing more than a loose framework providing an excuse to revel in the best the geek culture of the era had to offer. Fittingly, the film adaptation is being directed by one Steven Spielberg. Because of course it is.
What did you think of Stranger Things?