Old Fears, New Frontiers

Airport novel(s) represent a literary genre that is not so much defined by its plot or cast of stock characters, as much as it is by the social function it serves. An airport novel is typically a fairly long but fast-paced novel of intrigue or adventure that is stereotypically found in the reading fare offered by airport newsstands for travellers to read in the rounds of sitting and waiting that constitute air travel.

Considering the marketing of fiction as a trade, airport novels occupy a niche similar to the one that once was occupied by pulp magazine fiction and other reading materials typically sold at newsstands and kiosks to travellers.

I know I’ve talked about it before, but I have a weird nostalgic soft spot for things that seemingly don’t seem that nostalgia-ready, or nostalgia-inclined, to be more specific. Nerd culture is so geared in the past few years to take advantage of that roughly 20-year cycle that captures and re-packages work for a new younger generation (either rebranding it as something new or revitalizing it in its original entirety) that

I finished up watching the Netflix original series Stranger Things last week. My girlfriend and I broke up watching it over a period of three days, this story of middle-school kids in a 1980s suburb getting caught up in the disappearance of their friend Will, and the sci-fi/supernatural elements of the whole incident as it spreads through the whole town.

The Stephen King homages are all over the place, rom fthe story elements, a variety of little King homages in the background of the story and dialogue, to the similarities to King’s Firestarter (I love whenever anyone mentions MK-ULTRA). It’s capturing a lot of elements that had started to build up in the 1970’s and were fully coming into fruition in the 1980’s about the remnants of military experiments, the height of the Cold War (which is floating in the background of this whole thing), and the beginning of suburban malaise creeping into the perfect middle-class facade being built here, in the shadow of military industry and of degrading lives.

It’s obvious tells, and one that I’m good with, because I really enjoyed Stranger Things. It’s fun and doesn’t allow itself to be overcome with in-jokes or references to the 1980’s, but rather, simply uses it as a background for telling a story. Most of the interesting bits about the story are little things that hint at so much more going on, or have had gone on, that the show doesn’t feel compelled to touch on. It can be easy to be distracted with offshoots and flashbacks, instead of allowing multiple elements like that to enhance a singular narrative.

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So much of modern nostalgia is heavily drawing on what is seen as relatable to popular imagery and consumerism nowadays, so nerd stuff is popular now, hence why nerd stuff from 20 to 30 years ago is also popular again. This issue here though, is that whether or not that’s genuinely nostalgia is interesting, because then we get down to the definition of the word itself;

pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again

My girlfriend really likes Dean Koontz novels. For some reason, they’re something from her childhood, something that sticks out as a standard of the library, of the 99-cent shelf at the bookstore. I read Koontz too as a kid, with King, with Grisham, with McBane and who knows how many I’ve forgotten.

I’ve forgotten a lot of them.

However, I’ve never forgotten how they made me feel, and more importantly, why they made me feel the way that they did. They have heavy ties to memories of being a lonely kid obsessed with books, of being an English-speaking kid in another country, and of summers even more isolated from friends and TV, reliant on almost any kind of English-language books I could get my hands on, including cheap “airport paperbacks” from

So much of nostalgia is mischaracterized as some sort of rosy-tinted view of the past, though in fact, a lot of that comes from the commercialization of that concept to be able to present flawed (“problematic,” ugh, I hate that word, but that’s another story) artifacts as aspirational objects and concepts to once again reach for, now fully armed with the resources to “appreciate” them. In fact though, nostalgia should be not finally being able to get that cool NES poster or vocalizing for a so-called simpler time in your childhood, because that’s not actually nostalgia. That’s fantasy.

The Merriam-Webster definition not only states that sadness, as well as pleasure, fall under the auspices of nostalgia, but it also specifies the element of experience, and of wanting to maintain or relive that experience.

That point exactly about the reliving of an experience is, at the heart of it, what worked when it came to STRANGER THINGS.

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 A lot of the nostalgia surrounding this show, I think, has to do not necessarily with the era per se or with the elements of the story that are sci-fi and horror related, although they are very much a part of it as well. What I connect to here, and what makes it work, is the idea of young kids participating in an adventure that’s so much bigger than them, but they want to be a part of it so badly.

Overall, the nostalgic effect of STRANGER THINGS isn’t necessarily the setting or the story itself, but rather then sense of the story that we connect to, as kids who were for the most part left alone to our own devices. In that freedom, however limited it was in hindsight (age, experience, range of travel within our communities, etc) we were heroes of our own stories, and we tried to involve ourselves a seriously as we could in them.

The D&D the main characters all play, opening and closing the show, is more than just a set of thematic bookends here. It’s an experience, and ultimately, that experience of heroism brought to life is the heart of STRANGER THINGS. It’s what truly makes people really love this show, because we feel a level of nostalgia for a time not of walkie-talkies and D&D, but of the experiences of youth that are tied into our own personal journeys of becoming the heroes we wanted to to so desperately be. I know I did, a dorky kid into comics and fantasy novels who so badly wanted to be a part of those worlds at times, because I knew that I had the fortitude and demeanor for black-and-white hyper-simplified conflicts that were waved away when the going got too tough for a 12-year old in glasses and a dorky haircut who got picked on.

What I loved about this show was that I felt like that could have been me, thinking that as a kid I could engage in this grand adventure, an adventure that felt so intensely serious and that only I knew the truth of. While mine never got beyond exploring old empty houses and creating a “hidden cave” in a space in my backyard between some trees, the back of a garage, and the shrubbery (which ended up being fucking infested with spiders), Mike, El, Lucas, and Dustin really did have that adventure. Fuck, in some tiny way, I’m jealous of these fiction characters for that, and that is why this show worked.

~

Being nostalgic for things and overall larger cultural movements and items sort of defeats the purpose of any kind of positive nostalgia, honestly. Be nostalgic for feelings, for personal moments and memories, instead. Be aware of what it is you’re trying to recapture, because if it isn’t in something with an actual connection and backing of context, more often than not it won’t work.

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