Stranger Things – “Suspicious Minds”

Written by: Gwenda Bond
Published by: Penguin Random House – Century

Synopsis: It’s the summer of 1969, and the shock of conflict reverberates through the youth of America, both at home and abroad. As a student at a quiet college campus in the heartland of Indiana, Terry Ives couldn’t be farther from the front lines of Vietnam or the incendiary protests in Washington.

But the world is changing, and Terry isn’t content to watch from the sidelines. When word gets around about an important government experiment in the small town of Hawkins, she signs on as a test subject for the project, code-named MKULTRA. Unmarked vans, a remote lab deep in the woods, mind-altering substances administered by tight-lipped researchers… and a mystery the young and restless Terry is determined to uncover.

But behind the walls of Hawkins National Laboratory―and the piercing gaze of its director, Dr. Martin Brenner―lurks a conspiracy greater than Terry could have ever imagined. To face it, she’ll need the help of her fellow test subjects, including one so mysterious the world doesn’t know she exists―a young girl with unexplainable superhuman powers and a number instead of a name: 008.

Amid the rising tensions of the new decade, Terry Ives and Martin Brenner have begun a different kind of war―one where the human mind is the battlefield.

Billed as the first official novel of the Stranger Things universe, “Suspicious Minds” acts as a prequel to the series proper and delves into Eleven’s origins – specifically her conception and birth – as well as the early days of the MKUltra program. The novel elaborates on the brief bits of backstory glimpsed in Season One (the photograph Hopper discovers in the public library) and the fragmented flashbacks (“Breathe. Rainbow. Sunflower”) that repeat ad infinitem within the remains of Terry Ives’ mind during Season Two. The story itself is set during 1969, during the height of the Vietnam war, which creates an evocative sense of time and place – much in the same way that Stranger Things hits that sweet spot of 1980s nostalgia.

Despite occurring over a decade and a half before the events of the series, author Gwenda Bond manages to tap into the DNA of what makes Stranger Things so popular. Her cast of heroes are slightly older than the Hawkins’ gang, but nonetheless geeky, with frequent references to Lord of the Rings preceding the Dungeons & Dragons lingo that spreads throughout the TV series. The novel splits its focus across multiple characters, giving a voice to each of the lab volunteers pictured in the newspaper clipping discovered by Hopper. We even see that picture being taken in the novel, demonstrating a neat piece of cross-continuity between the novel and the TV series. While the supporting cast are intriguing additions to the Stranger Things lore, the novel is clearly focused on the battle of wills between Dr. Martin Brenner and Terry Ives – a battle we’ve already seen the aftermath of.

Prequels, by their very nature, can be somewhat predictable as they head towards a predestined ending that the reader/viewer has already experienced. Some, like Star Wars and Better Call Saul, manage to subvert expectations by introducing whole new plot threads and characters whose fates are “up in the air” and rely on foreboding to tease those fixed events yet to occur. Gwenda Bond does both techniques in her novel through the character of Alice – a fellow test subject who is able to see into the future. Through Alice we are able to see glimpses of the world we recognise from the TV series, and it gives a dark future for the rest of the heroes to fight against. As we read about Terry and her friends’ attempts to outsmart Dr. Brenner and rescue Kali and Alice from his clutches, there is a sense of futility that comes off the page and hits the reader in the gut.

Much like with his appearances in the show, Dr. Martin Brenner is a powerful and commanding figure and most of my enjoyable of this book came from the way that Bond explored him as a character. Scheming, ruthless and obsessed with science, Brenner is a compelling figure and one that is sorely missing from the series itself. With subtle hints in Season Two that he isn’t as dead as we think, I sincerely hope that he resurfaces in the upcoming Season Three and gets more karmic payback for the way he treated both Terry Ives and her daughter, Jane / Eleven. Bond’s novel doesn’t delve too deeply into the character’s motivations, but captures his inhumane cruelty and willingness to use emotions as tools to further his agenda. As the cover blurb states, Brenner is the face of evil that predates both the Demogorgon and the Mind Flayer.

Suspicious Minds” succeeds both as a prequel to the Stranger Things series and in increasing the emotional impact of Terry Ives’ tragic storyline, further emphasising the loss that this poor woman felt at the hands of the MKUltra experiments. While most of the information in this book can be extrapolated from the snippets of backstory seen in the show itself, it adds greater dramatic weight to see the details. The doomed relationship between Terry and her boyfriend Andrew is perhaps one of the more heartbreaking aspects of the novel, and again, while it is obvious and inevitable – it is no less devastating when the pair are separated. Knowing all the way through the novel exactly how Terry turns out in the end ensures that each page is tinged with sadness and each victory is heavy with foreboding.

As a prequel, “Suspicious Minds” doesn’t have a huge revelatory impact on the events of the series – what transpires within its pages is the story that you expect to read going in, and fans eager for insider information may come away slightly disappointed; but as a novel, it is an emotionally rich addition to the Stranger Things mythos which takes the DNA of the show and transposes it to an earlier generation to create a different type of nostalgia. Gwenda Bond does a fantastic job maintaining a sense of tension throughout the book, juggling multiple character viewpoints with ease. In some ways, it is a shame that the book is anchored to the established continuity of Stranger Things as it would have been interesting to see where Bond went with the story if she had the freedom to end it her own way.

Score – ★★★ ½

Stranger Things – “Suspicious Minds” is available as an eBook from Amazon Kindle, or collected in hardback format on Amazon and all good bookstores. An audiobook version is available for free with a 3-month Audible trial.

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