You can be running up that hill and make a deal with God all you want, but it won’t make the fifth and final season of Netflix’s Stranger Things get here any sooner. What you can do, however, is make that wait go faster with these nostalgic reads that are just as gory as Vecna’s rampage, with the same painful yearning as the Will/Mike/Eleven love triangle.
From time-traveling paper girls to haunted pinball machines, these YA, horror, and comics stories will transport you back to the ‘80s and ‘90s for an Upside-Down fix.
At 200-odd pages, this book is probably a shorter read than one of Stranger Things season 4’s feature-length episodes, but that’s all the space you need to absorb this poignant coming-of-age story.
Niagara Falls in the 1980s is the idyllic childhood for future brain surgeon Jake, but it’s his twelfth summer that most stands out: That’s when he joins his eccentric Uncle Calvin’s ghost-hunting club. While Jake and Calvin’s forays might not unearth a Mind Flayer of their own, Craig Davidson’s nostalgic novel reminds us how some fears become defanged but others transform as we grow up.
While Stranger Things season 1 effectively swapped Will for Eleven when he gets trapped in the Upside-Down, Sara Farizan’s take on ‘80s coming-of-age horror explores the fallout if you lost your friend and no one came back—at least, not for five years.
In 1992, Cori and Maz’s best friend Sam reappears out of nowhere… but he’s still 12, whereas the others are 17. While Maz is vindicated that he was right about Sam getting sucked into a supernatural pinball machine, homecoming queen Cori has spent the last five years tamping down everything from Maz’s theory to her own queerness. But what will help mend their strained friendship is the realization that Sam may not have come back entirely himself…
Before dawn on November 1, 1988, Erin Tsieng joins the other paper girls of Stony Stream, Ohio; but instead of delivering papers, they stumble into the intergenerational war between teenage time travelers and the “Old-Timers” who consider it sacrilege to futz too much with the timeline (unless, of course, they have to reset things, because they know what’s best).
Over the course of Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s meta adventure comic, Erin, Mac, KJ, and Tiffany become displaced in time: witnessing past and future struggles over the timestream, as well as confronting their own underwhelming futures…unless, of course, they can change that fateful early-morning paper run.
Even if the Mountain Goats’ song “No Children” were not experiencing a renaissance among Gen Z thanks to TikTok, John Darnielle’s debut novel nonetheless is an ideal companion read.
Related non-chronologically through the 1980s, ‘90s, and a post-apocalyptic America, it follows game designer Sean, a self-imposed recluse who creates a play-by-mail roleplaying game called Trace Italian, which encourages players to navigate—you guessed it—a post-apocalyptic America. But when teenagers Lance and Carrie try to carry those game moves into the real world, Sean becomes responsible for more lives than just his own.
If you want some levity from Vecna and all of the other complicated conspiracies in the world of Stranger Things, let Grady Hendrix’s brand of horror comedy give you some giggles with your thrills. His second novel is more akin to Jennifer’s Body, tracing the inextricable knots of friendship between Abby and Gretchen—established at an E.T.-themed birthday party and cemented with hairbrush Madonna singalongs.
But when Gretchen goes somewhere Abby can’t follow (into the woods after trying LSD), she comes back different enough that it could be typical high school friendships growing apart…or she could be possessed. With chapter titles filling in the mental soundtrack with songs from the era (“Don’t You Forget About Me,” “And She Was”), you’ll be singing along to the power of friendship.
I will never not recommend this technomancy classic that was actually published in 1991, about a Dungeons & Dragons-esque campaign that also goes horribly wrong—in this case, because its players are stuck in a computer. Or at least, their subconsciouses are, since they’ve hooked their brains directly into a pirated version of the Rasmussem Corporation’s popular game in which you can be any character you want, from Robin Hood and Maid Marian to a wizard or elf of your own choosing.
But because high schooler Arvin and his buddies tried to hack their way in, the fantasy universe is turning on them, with glitches corrupting NPCs and the literal edges of the world pixelating into nothing. What I loved best about this adventure, however, was how you take each of the characters at face value (that is, as their avatars) and get to know their fantasy personas before you eventually meet their flesh-and-blood selves.
Follow me on this one: “Running Up That Hill”… Kate Bush; “Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy / I’ve come home, I’m so cold”… Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë… This YA remix by fantasy author Tasha Suri!
In the Yorkshire moors, both Heathcliff and Catherine feel like outsiders because of their Indian heritage but find solace in a shared language and dreams of a forbidden future together—even if giving in to their connection means risking a future of poverty and further alienation.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.