Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Book)

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Christmas, Hawkins, 1984. All Chief Jim Hopper wants is to enjoy a quiet first Christmas with Eleven, but his adopted daughter has other plans. Over Hopper’s protests, she pulls a cardboard box marked “New York” out of the basement—and the tough questions begin. Why did Hopper leave Hawkins all those years ago? What does “Vietnam” mean? And why has he never talked about New York?

Although he’d rather face a horde of demogorgons than talk about his own past, Hopper knows that he can’t deny the truth any longer. And so begins the story of the incident in New York—the last big case before everything changed. . . .

Summer, New York City, 1977. Hopper is starting over after returning home from Vietnam. A young daughter, a caring wife, and a new beat as an NYPD detective make it easy to slip back into life as a civilian. But after shadowy federal agents suddenly show up and seize the files about a series of brutal, unsolved murders, Hopper takes matters into his own hands, risking everything to discover the truth.

The newest Stranger Things novel arrives this week and fills in some backstory on one of the show’s greatest characters, Jim Hopper. Is the detective/noir thriller worth picking up ahead of the show’s return, or should you skip it? Come inside to check out my full review!

The Basics

Our first book set in the Stranger Things world gave us a look at the history between the villainous Dr. Brenner and Eleven’s mother, Terry. Darkness on the Edge of Town also works as a prequel, this time giving fans a glimpse at Hopper’s life as a detective in New York.

Snowed in on the day after Christmas, Hopper and El are restless in the cabin. When Eleven reveals a box she’d found stored under the floor, Hopper decides to let his guard down a little and tell his newly adopted daughter about one of his biggest (and strangest) cases. So yes, parts of the story take place AFTER the end of Stranger Things season two, which is pretty damn neat. While you aren’t likely to glean any new details about the show’s upcoming season, it’s a fun look at the state of these characters during a brief period of “peace” before more craziness happens.

It also provides a nice dynamic within the novel as we’re essentially being told the story alongside Eleven. This let’s author Adam Christopher play around a bit with the pacing and details without taking us (too far) out of the experience. Having Hopper in the narrator role has the additional benefit of keeping you rooted in the action on a more personal level.

The primary bulk of the story being told takes place during the Summer of 1977, an incredibly turbulent time in the city of New York. It’s the infamous Summer of Sam, but Detective Hopper discovers there’s more than one serial killer going around. As he begins the investigation with his brand new partner, they soon find themselves wrapped up in something far larger than they expected.

Between federal agents, undercover operatives, and a city already on the edge, Hopper must use all of his skills and experiences from Vietnam to solve the crime and stay alive. Before long, however, he finds himself facing down a Satanic cult leader attempting to bring together the city’s gangs for a dark ritual to take control of the city.

There’s a blend of noir thriller, old-school style detective novel, and a smidge of the paranormal (this is Stranger Things after all). The mixture makes for a compelling story that I won’t go into more detail on so as to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on in the book, and despite ultimately knowing how things turn out (Hopper’s still alive!), there are plenty of twists and turns that keep you guessing.

Setting and Style

Much like the show and the previous Stranger Things novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town manages to blend real life events and settings with the fictional elements almost seamlessly. Here the real-world problems of New York in 1977 provide a backdrop to the events in the story and providing alternate explanations for very real events. The result gives the story a more visceral feel to it, grounding things even when the weird stuff begins to kick in.

Personally speaking, I’ve never been huge on crime novels, nor non-fictional settings, but the blending of the fantastical and real-life elements works exceedingly well in Darkness on the Edge of Town. The writing style helps sell the effect. Like I mentioned, the perspective for the bulk of the novel is presented as Hopper telling the story. While there are some liberties taken with this (even a meta nod to these within the book itself), I love how it’s handled overall.

The style gives the story more of a personal touch, making you feel as though you’re involved in the events rather than watching from the sidelines. Christopher sells the effect through strong prose that doesn’t waste your time. There’s an “economy” in his writing style that manages to paint a solid picture in your head about what’s happening, without beating you over the head in exposition.

Ultimately this makes the book an incredibly quick read. It’s easy to pick up and get into, with the writing pulling you along at snappy pace that’s difficult to put down. Chapters fly by quickly, and despite coming in at a hefty 430 pages, I finished it up in just a few days. It sucks you in quickly, hitting its stride well within the first few chapters and refuses to let you go until you’re done.

Themes and Character

One of the things that impressed me most in the book, is how Christopher managed to nail the characters of Hopper and Eleven. Several chapters in the book are dealing with these two characters who we know pretty well through two seasons. Their tone and inclinations are already well established.

The author manages to take these characters and keep them firmly rooted in what we already know, while still managing to do something new with them. Eleven is still learning to be a normal kid and struggles and the book captures that excellently as she responds/probes into the story she’s being told.

We get two versions of Hopper, the one we know from the show, and the younger detective, who hasn’t been jaded and torn down yet (his daughter is still alive and healthy during the story). We can see his optimism and desire to do good, a far cry from our initial encounter with the Hawkins Police Chief.

Despite these differences, however, Christopher manages to retain all those elements we’ve come to associate with Hopper. Nothing he did throughout the story felt out of character. Instead, his actions throughout actually endeared me to his demeanor/appearance in the show quite a bit more. It’s the goal of all prequels to be able to alter your perception of the original and the characters. Not all succeed, but Darkness on the Edge of Town does so effortlessly.

Aside from the character portrayals, the book presents a handful of themes that have stuck with me weeks after turning that final page. As Hopper recounts his story, things from his time as a soldier in Vietnam continue to pop up (despite his best efforts). Through this we’re confronted with ideas on PTSD, finding a purpose, and managing to deal with trauma in a healthy way.

These are heady themes that feel just as important now in 2019, as when the book takes place. Couple that with Hopper’s detective partner, a woman, and we can see how he deals with the idea of equality with his, now, step-daughter.

There’s a lot of neat points made throughout, and they’re presented in the same smooth writing style as everything else. They aren’t heavy-handed, and it never feels like the book is beating you over the head with them. Regardless, they’ll stick with you long after you’ve set it down, and potentially into the show’s third season.

Editor review

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Fast-Paced Crime Novel in a Swanky Stranger Things Wrapper
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Darkness on the Edge of Town does a stellar job of telling a fun and engaging detective story. With plenty of twists, turns, and sleek writing style it’ll suck you in and keep the pages turning. On top of telling its own unique adventure, it provides solid insight to an iconic character from the show, deepening our connection to Hopper while keeping it in line with what we already know.

From great writing, a fun story, and themes that will keep you thinking, there’s a lot to love about the new Stranger Things novel. Definitely don’t miss out on this while you wait for season three.
JM
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