Darkness Unto Light. The Cinema of Ingmar Bergman

If you live in the Boston area, mark your calendar this fall for the Ingmar Bergman centennial tribute. Carson Lund has written up the program notes for Harvard, and I can’t imagine anyone better suited to the task. He and I ranked Bergman’s films in a blogathon six years ago. (See his list here and mine here.) The centennial will be covering all the essentials.

Darkness Unto Light. The Cinema of Ingmar Bergman (September 7 – October 14, 2018)

“Of all the iconic images that Ingmar Bergman forged in his long career, the one that sits in the public imagination most potently as a totem of his imposing, death-obsessed oeuvre is that of Bengt Ekerot’s pasty grim reaper staring down Max von Sydow’s dumbfounded knight on a stygian coastline sometime after the sputtering of the Crusades in The Seventh Seal, his arm outstretched to reveal the great black expanse of his shawl and his stark expression all but ensuring an unfortunate verdict. As a composition, it is formidable, and as an encapsulation of the confrontational directness with which Bergman’s films tackle mortality and other unpleasant human inevitabilities, it’s hard to beat. But another image from later in the same film, equally as unforgettable, manages to better distill the complex weave of contradictory feelings that his films evoke—the idea that in death and illness and madness there is also always humanity and light and memory. That, of course, would be the money shot in the film’s coda, a distant sunset view of silhouetted figures passing from one life to the next atop a hill, not trudging to their demise but dancing, hands interlocked.

“Such evocations of communal solidarity are rare in Bergman’s ruthlessly combative world, and so it’s fitting that this particular shot occurs in a liminal state beyond the narrative proper. With that said, Bergman’s characters, however wracked with doubt and despair they may be, could almost never be accused of apathy or complete surrender, and the crucibles they endure in pursuit of connection or just basic contentedness echo those of the filmmaker himself, whose six decades of cinematic production demonstrate a man fiercely contending with his demons through his art, occasionally pulling ahead and locating beauty if only to be dragged down yet again…”

Read the whole thing here.

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 8)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

The story assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-2. I was a bit unhappy with season 3, not least for the silly comedy. In my imagination of the summer of 1985, Joyce Byers died fighting the Mind Flayer; there were no Russians under a mall; Eleven defeated the Mind Flayer once and for all; Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven; William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also, Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer until he was killed by the creature. Jim Hopper did engineer a break-up between Eleven and Mike, but not in the silly way portrayed in season 3.

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Eight:


Sunday, November 7, 1993

“Holy shit, Lucas. Did she remind you of Lunch Lady Phyllis, or what?” Dustin had stopped through the doorway, and was looking at the caterer as she left the house.

“Keep moving! I’m about to drop this thing.”

“Did she or did she not look like Lunch Lady Phyllis!”

“My fingers are breaking, you asshole!”


Jane watched as they heaved the huge table into the living room and set it down where she told them.

“It’s been years since I thought of that cow,” said Dustin, catching his breath. “Remember how she hoarded all that pudding?”

“Thanks guys,” said Jane. They had carried the monstrosity up from her father’s cellar.

“Is that everything?” asked Lucas, indicating the platters and boxes of food the caterers had wheeled in.

“Yes,” said Jane. All of the Thai cuisine known in Asia seemed to be spread out before them. Appetizers of sweet and sour soup, spring rolls, kanom jeeb, and winter shrimp. Entrees of curry and rice, kra pao chicken, ginger pork, beef basil, and (for Dustin) a tamarind duck. And then her and Mike’s all-time favorite: shrimp scampi, with huge jumbo pieces bathed in spices, dipped in curry, and garnished with onions, scallion and egg.

“I think we’re ready,” said Will, emerging from the kitchen with a punch bowl of something orange-red that bubbled.

“Yeah, I think I’ll have some of that right now,” said Dustin, reaching for a cup.

“If you guys set the food out, I’ll get the photos,” said Jane.

They were gathered at Hopper’s house in Newberg to celebrate Mike. It was just the four of them, as she wanted it, and Hopper had agreed to disappear for the day. The house was theirs. She was glad Will had made it. He was leaving for Botswana in less than two weeks and had plenty to do in preparing for the Peace Corps. They had all agreed to wait a few months to honor Mike in this way, so that his suicide wouldn’t be a fresh wound. And they agreed on this day because it was their tenth anniversary. On the night before November 7, 1983, Will had disappeared from Hawkins; the following day the other boys had stumbled across Jane (Eleven, as Mike had christened her) in the pouring rain. What they had shared since then was the stuff of novels and nightmares. It demanded the closure of something better than a funeral.

Jane had been adamant that there would be no funeral in any case. Mike’s second life had been depressing enough. She would not pollute his memory with more despondency. His mother was the only objector, and a disingenuous one: Jane knew that Karen Wheeler would never again leave her house to attend anyone’s funeral. She had done so for Mike’s first death in ’87, and created a spectacle so outrageous that Hawkins residents were still shunning her. Her indignation was a posture filtered through alcoholic rage. She cursed Jane over the phone, blamed her for Mike’s suicide, and called her terrible names. Jane listened to the tirade unfazed. Mike had called her (and treated her) far worse. When it came to nasty invective, Karen Wheeler had nothing on her son returned from the dead.

It was Nancy she felt bad for. Jane wanted to include her somehow, and so in September Nancy had flown from Virginia to Oregon, leaving her three-year old daughter under the management of her husband. Nancy loved seeing her and Hopper, and she had listened as Jane spilled all the agonies and trials of the past three years. She was glad that Jane was living with her father again. After Mike’s suicide she had moved back to Newberg almost immediately. The apartment at Ione Plaza had weighed on her like molten agony. She would walk into the living room and see Mike in his chair; hear his guitar harmonies; feel him on top of her at night trying to make insistent love. Two days of that was enough; she had fled the apartment and left the moving to her father. She still couldn’t go near Ione Plaza when she visited Portland. Nancy had wept as Jane talked for hours about her brother. It had been a supportive visit for both of them.

She was determined that today would not be a misery-fest. The guys wouldn’t be a problem. It was her own inadequacies she feared.

They filled heaping portions of Thai delicacies onto plates that were far too small for their appetites. Then they sat in Hopper’s living rooms chairs, and for a few minutes at least fed their faces in silence.

“So how does this work?” asked Dustin, breaking the ice. “Are we, like, each supposed to say something? I’m not really good with speeches.”

“Lucas is,” said Will.

“Oh no,” said Lucas. “I’m not doing anything like that again.” He had given a eulogy at Mike’s funeral in ’87, that brought the house down. A great speech, but for a somber and formal occasion.

“You don’t have to say anything,” said Jane. “Or you can say anything. Whatever you want.”

She wanted the remembrance ceremony to be free-associative. Will had given her that word months ago, when she was trying to describe her intentions. No canned speeches or melodrama. The idea was to honor Mike through each others company and spontaneous conversation.

But she insisted on pictures. On the buffet table were five photos of Mike positioned between the food trays. The first was an AV Club shot of the four boys in seventh grade. Their smiles hurled enthusiasm, and they looked ready to clobber the world with new ideas. She was in the second photo, in a blue dress and red sash, next to the boys in their coats and ties: the Snow Ball of ’84. Lucas’s old girlfriend Max was in that shot too. The third showed the six of them again, from the riotous summer of ’85. Jonathan had taken that picture. The fourth was just her and Mike, on Christmas of ’86. The last one she had taken in the fall of ’92: it was Mike sitting in his apartment chair playing guitar, his eyes barren craters. He looked pained, thoughtful, and precious. It was her favorite picture of him.

“Well,” said Dustin, “I think it merits notice that Mike was a dungeon-master god. No one could run a campaign like he did.”

“He always did anything for me,” said Will. “He made me a priority, no matter how it inconvenienced him.”

“It’s funny how friendships are,” said Lucas. “The best times he and I had were yelling and insulting each other. You can really reach people that way. When I see my ear in the mirror, sometimes I laugh actually.”

Jane cleared her throat. “He made me feel safe. I never knew what that felt like until I lived in his basement. And then years later, right before he died the first time. I stayed in his house again, and we were sleeping together, and his mother had it out for me… He protected me from her…” And you stabbed him in the back for it, by breaking up with him, right under his roof. Already she was losing it, and reached for a kleenex. Then she heard someone gasp.

It was Dustin: “Jesus, El, are you pregnant?”

Their heads swiveled. She had planned to tell them but wondered if they’d first notice. Reaching for the tissues had exposed the small mound in her stomach.

She blushed. “Yes.”

They were flabbergasted. “But… you said a long time ago that’s impossible for you.”

“It’s what the doctors told me.” The year after Hopper adopted her, she had had a physical and other medical tests, and was told that she could never have children. She had been born with special powers, apparently at the cost of other things.

“So the doctors were wrong?” asked Will.

“They weren’t wrong.”

“Is it his?” asked Lucas, his jaws still on the floor. “Is it Mike’s?”

“He’s the only one I’ve ever been with.”

Will was stupefied. “But how?”

“And hadn’t you guys been shagging for a long time anyway?” Dustin caught himself. “I mean… sorry, El… but I mean you were both living out here for almost three years. Why did… this… take so long?”

Jane had resolved to tell them the truth. She didn’t want to. They were here to celebrate the best about Mike Wheeler, not his worst. But they deserved to know. When Mike had lost his job and the band, he had begun his headlong hurtle into self-destruction. Days became hell in their apartment, the nights even worse. It came to a head on the Fourth of July. They had fought the entire holiday and ended as they often did on these occasions, in bed making wrathful love. It was the only way they could obtain any solace from the hurt. But this time Mike crossed a line: he had struck her. When he climaxed he punched her face, and she instinctively reacted by summoning her powers to restrain him. For the first time in her life, Jane Hopper had a bloody nose for two reasons at once. She had had words with Mike, then, that brought him low. She understood that his life was hell, but he could not hit her, ever again. She would not accept it. She was pissed off in the extreme, and if he couldn’t discipline his rage, then he would lose her.

Mike had cried and piled on apologies. He hated himself for punching her. He swore overtures and vowed to move out if there was a next time. She believed him entirely. He was appalled by how far he had fallen. But that self-recognition had only fueled his downward spiral, and at the end of the month he slashed his wrists; days later he jumped.

The week after that is when Jane had started feeling sick. She was nauseous, her breasts felt weird, and her period was late… but that couldn’t mean what it seemed. The doctors had been emphatic: her ovaries were as useless as the proverbial tits on a boar. She checked into a clinic and was told she was pregnant. She was stunned. She told her father who couldn’t make sense of it. Doctors knew their business when they pronounced girls barren. Then she wondered about something. The clinic nurse said she conceived during early July. She did the math, and remembered the night of the Fourth.

There wasn’t a doubt in Jane’s mind that her pregnancy owed to the flare of her powers when Mike hit her. She had no idea why, or how she could affect her biology that way. She didn’t know if she was permanently fertile, or if another trigger during intercourse would be required for a future child. Right now she didn’t care. For now she was carrying Mike Wheeler’s child, and that miracle was all that mattered.

The boys were still speechless by the end. They were happy for her, but visibly upset at how Mike had devolved and by what he had done.

Will cleared his throat. “Do you know if it’s a boy or girl?”

“I want to be surprised. But if it’s a boy, I’m naming him Mike. If it’s a girl, Terry.”

“Well, shit.” Lucas wiped his eyes. “Mike lives on.”

“Fuckin’-A”, breathed Dustin.

“I want you guys out here when Mike or Terry is born. I mean, except you, Will — I know you can’t leave your Peace Corps post — but Lucas and Dustin, please try.”

Lucas and Dustin looked at each other, surprised, and nodded, not knowing what to say. This was unmapped territory for them.

“Both of you will be in the room with me, while it’s happening.”

Dustin choked on his duck. “You want us inside the hospital room, the holy of holies, while you’re pumping out baby Mike?”

“Or Terry,” said Will.

Lucas said it would be an honor, and he would be sure that he — and Dustin — made it out here.

And with that bit of news the tension vanished. Their party became an unrestrained gabfest. They yelled over each other to be heard — even Jane. They hardly brought up Mike; they didn’t have to. They felt him in their fellowship and love for each other. It was just how Jane wanted him to be remembered.

Later in the afternoon, Lucas was resting on the couch. “Hey, Dustin,” he said. “Look.” He was pointing at Hopper’s fish tank, where a tadpole-like fish wiggled and dashed. “It’s Dart!”

Dustin laughed. “Hell, yeah!”

They all laughed.

Unsure about her future, but feeling good about it for once, Jane glowed in the company of her best friends.


Read about Eleven’s future in the sequel novella, Stranger Things: The New Generation.

(Previous Chapter: That Which is Broken)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 7)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

The story assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-2. I was a bit unhappy with season 3, not least for the silly comedy. In my imagination of the summer of 1985, Joyce Byers died fighting the Mind Flayer; there were no Russians under a mall; Eleven defeated the Mind Flayer once and for all; Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven; William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also, Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer until he was killed by the creature. Jim Hopper did engineer a break-up between Eleven and Mike, but not in the silly way portrayed in season 3.

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Seven:

                             That Which is Broken

It was a given that Mike would move out to Oregon with her. No one else could take care of him, least of all his parents. Karen Wheeler had become a drunk since her calamitous affair with Billy Hargrove, and Ted Wheeler’s apathy had swelled to the point that he hardly registered surprise at the return of his long dead son who was crippled, disfigured, and blind. Nancy would have done all she could for her brother, but she had no time to even sleep. She was in Virginia working as a project manager for Kaiser Permanente, part of a team that was breaking new ground on facial feminization surgery. Perhaps predictably, she had married a colleague; their first baby was on the way. As for “baby” Holly — now a strident ten-year old — she fumed and expostulated under the ineffectual wings of Karen and Ted, unable to understand why her brother had vanished when she was small, only to return maimed and unable to appreciate the entirety of her being. Mike Wheeler needed to be far away from his family, and Oregon was as good a place as any.

Jane would have fought for him in any case. She still loved him and wanted to care for him. Her father put them up in the Ione Plaza apartments in downtown Portland. At first she had wanted to continue living with her father in Newberg, but Mike wouldn’t hear of it. It was because of Jim Hopper that Mike was what he was. He resented it enough that Hopper paid their rent. Under the same roof with him was out of the question. No matter; she fell in love with Portland and realized how much she had needed to live apart from a parent. She was almost twenty.

The aftermath in Hawkins followed the usual pattern: everything was mopped under the rug. Sheriff Nye was instructed to leave Mike Wheeler alone. The official story was that Tony Morrow and Jake Taplitz were killed by a skinhead from Fort Wayne. The same for Scott Clarke: he had been a closet gay (the story went), and another victim of the Fort Wayne Neo-Nazi. Clarke’s sister flew all the way from New Hampshire and stormed righteously into Sheriff Nye’s office. Her brother wasn’t gay, she declared, and the sheriff had best “clear his name” or she would sue the Hawkins Police Department for slander. Sheriff Nye was out of his league.

For Mike Wheeler, the simple truth sufficed: he had been kidnapped and held prisoner by a psychopath; he had escaped, and was now living on the west coast; his perverted tormentor had been confronted and killed, and was no longer a threat to anyone. Details beyond this were vague, and those who pursued them learned to lose interest. The feds never learned of his resurrection; they simply assumed he had been taken into the Shadow Realm alive. Messrs. Byers, Sinclair, and Henderson admitted they had been wrong about their friend’s death. Mike spoke and acted normally now, and the feds never suspected he killed anyone. Whatever creature had caused Scott Clarke’s head to burst like a melon, must also have strangled Messrs. Morrow and Taplitz. In the end, there was no need to make a lab rat of Mike Wheeler.


“Do you want me to stay?” asked Jane. It was a fine Saturday in May, and she had plans for a hike up Mount Hood with her father. Mike clearly resented this, but wouldn’t cop to it.

“No,” he turned from her. “Go ahead.”

She turned Mike’s head back to him and told him to be still. She was sitting on his lap and dry-shaving the patches of hair he’d missed in the shower. He was a pro by now, but he sometimes missed spots. “I don’t need to go,” she said. Truth told, she wasn’t much of a mountain climber. The annual hikes were more a way of humoring her father. They had done Mount Jefferson last year. Mount Hood was probably much the same.

She finished with the razor and kissed his cheek. Since the Illithid’s destruction, Mike’s facial hair had started growing again. It was never clear why the creature’s mark would have affected him this way. His arms were no longer rods of steel; his muscular frame had receded to the wiry thinness of his first life. It was hard to think of him as resurrected. The term suggested a superhuman vitality that was forever beyond his reach. He was broken; shattered. She traced her fingers around the rims of his hideous eye sockets. Repulsive to most people, but he was still beautiful to her. Still her Rochester, and truly now. But this blindness would never heal.

“Go on, El. I want to be alone.”

“Friends don’t lie.” But lovers do. She could tell that he wanted her close by, so much that it ate him like poison.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t function on his own. Just the opposite: he’d come a long way over the past eight months. He had refused to enroll in a program for the blind, and had no medical insurance for the problem of his gimp. But with Jane’s daily commitment to him, he made fast progress on both fronts. She was his pair of eyes, guiding him; she was his physical therapist, carrying him, propping him upright, and massaging his muscles back to life. He learned to navigate the maze of their home; he walked and exercised until his leg was on fire. By Christmas he could get around the apartment pretty well, and he had even cooked a few meals with minimal supervision. By the end of March he didn’t need babysitting at all. Those months of training had given him cause to live.

They had given Jane close to a nervous breakdown. As she instructed him daily, he yelled at her through his failures; decried his miserable existence. She crawled into their bed at nights feeling battered, and allowed him to make furious love to her when he had the urge. He needed her; he resented her. He loved her, but couldn’t allow himself the luxury. He’d been there before, and she’d thrown him off a cliff. She would never forgive herself for that: she still loved him, and couldn’t conceive feeling that way about anyone else. Their relationship became a form of ritualized atonement — he making up for lost time, she paying the price for all he’d suffered. Good days were rare and beyond precious. Christmas wasn’t one of them. They had spent it with her father, and he and Mike had argued so violently that she thought it would come to blows. She had taken Mike home, and he had refused to come within a ten-mile radius of Jim Hopper ever since.

But on the last day of March, Jane pronounced him rehabilitated and got some of her life back. She took him shopping downtown to celebrate. They went to Powell’s Bookstore and had lunch on the Willamette River. Mike made good conversation, cracked jokes that made her laugh, and even flirted outrageously with their waitress (who happened to be a knock-out, though Mike had no way of knowing). The honeymoon didn’t last. After that day he became increasingly withdrawn, lacking the purpose his therapy had provided. He was homebound with nothing to do. He listened to music all day; lashed out and became short-tempered. Nightmares — which had filled his sleep since his return to the living — got worse.

Jane did what she could to comfort him, but he needed more from her than comfort. He needed to share his pain, and yet couldn’t. He had been alone too long; for three and a half monstrous years. And he couldn’t open those doors without his traumas swamping him. He wanted her close by, but instinctively pushed her away.

“I’m not lying, El,” he said. “Climb your mountain.”

If she stayed it would only make him angry. So she went.

The following week Mike asked her to take him out shopping. He wanted to buy a guitar.


The crash came from the living room — a loud smack of broken glass.

“Mike!” Jane rushed in, fearing the worst.

It was bad. Mike was on his back, trapped inside the coffee table he had just fallen through. He had been standing on a chair to open a vent, lost his balance, and gone right through the glass cover. Huge shards pressed into him, and sudden movements were out of the question.

“Don’t move,” said Jane. “I’ll get you out.”

“Leave me alone!” he yelled. “I can get myself up!”

“No, you can’t! The glass is going to slice you!”

He swore and tried sitting up — and then let out a blistering string of F-bombs when Jane was proven right. Glass gashed into his side, and he lay back down.

Jane leaned over and held his shoulders, telling him not to move. He swore at her, saying she was worthless. She used her powers delicately, pushing against the glass shards until Mike was safe to move. She used her telekinetic waves to lift him.

“Stop that!” he yelled.

“Don’t fight me, Mike — No, don’t. Stop. Listen to me! Stop.” He fought her furiously; she stifled his efforts easily. “Mike, stop it!”

He was livid. “GET OFF ME!” he roared.

She had him out safely now. She set him down on the floor, pulled up his shirt where the glass had pierced his side, and grabbed a fistful of kleenex from a nearby shelf. He roared again, thrashed futilely, swore, and threatened things so awful her heart broke. He went on like that for a long time, and she just held him. He still hates me. He always will. When he finally exhausted his invective he began to weep. Deeply and terribly. Only someone who had been abused and degraded by the Illithid could cry like that. The tears soaked her shirt. She was scared for him, and for their relationship. He was reliving hell in those tears. Still losing against the creature long after she had annihilated it.


Spring became summer, and with that came the phone call she dreaded. She talked for a long time, and promised she’d try her best.

“Mike?” He was sitting in his chair, playing guitar to Peter Murphy’s “Seven Veils”. She turned off the stereo.

He kept playing.

“That was Lucas on the phone. He and Dustin want to come visit.”


He won’t budge. “They can rent a hotel room.”

“Forget it, El. Put my music back on.”

“They’re your best friends.”

“They’re not coming.”

“Mike –”

“No, I said! Drop it already!”

She wished he could see her fury. Her voice didn’t convey anger very well. Her facial expressions made up for it. “You put your music back on.” She went back into the bedroom to call Lucas.

“Are you serious?” Lucas yelled.

“I’m sorry.”

“El, that makes no sense! What’s wrong with him?”

Besides being blind, a gimp, and having his soul raped for three and half years? And that he feels like trash for putting you in the hospital and ruining your ear? “I don’t think he can deal with seeing you guys.”

“That’s crazy.”

“No it isn’t. He’s broken, Lucas. You guys are moving up in life. Seeing you shows him how diminished he is.”

“You’re moving up in life too.”

“Not like you guys. And you were his best friends. I’m the freak who brought him down.”

“Jesus. Can you please put him on?”

Someone swore in the background, demanding the receiver. It was Dustin: “Put that son of a bitch on the phone, El! We’re not hanging up until we talk to him.”

“He won’t come, Dustin.”

“Goddammit, make him come!”

But of course he didn’t.


By September Mike was playing his own gigs at Band-Aids, the new strip club on Raise Avenue. Tuesday and Thursday nights, until midnight. He had hooked up with a band who had lost their lead guitarist to another band in Canada. The drummer usually picked him up and brought him home, but tonight Jane was his chauffeur. It was Thanksgiving Thursday, and the club was wild when she arrived. Mike and his band played a bonus hour and knocked off at 1:00 AM. As they left together, the DJ was playing a compulsive song called “Ultraviolet”, from U2’s new release. It was nothing at all like their ’80s music. Mike thought it was brilliant.

“You know Bono said he was trying to burn down the Joshua Tree with this album?”

“What’s the Joshua Tree?” she asked.

“Jesus, El, we have the CD. We plaaay the CD all the time.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek.

She giggled. She liked him in his silly moods. They were a rare reminder of old times.

She guided him to the car as he used his cane. It was a dual purpose cane, serving as his leg as much as his eyes, and he hardly needed much steering.

“You’re getting around well,” she said.

“Like Stevie Wonder.” He got in the passenger seat. “You should have been here tonight. It was a packed house and they loved us.”

Jane had no use for strip clubs. But she was happy that he got out of bed every day looking forward to something.

As she drove them back to the apartment, Mike sang her a gothic rock song, feeling his oats. She parked in the underground garage and they got out. They rode the elevator to the fourth floor.

When they reached their door, she stopped him. “Hold on.”


“There’s a surprise inside.”

He was instantly on guard. “What do you mean? Come on, El, it’s late.”

“You come on.” They entered the apartment and went into the living room, where someone stood waiting. “Well, well,” said the figure.

Mike went rigid. “Will?” he croaked.

Jane could scarcely believe this was once the boy she had located in the Upside Down. Will Byers looked everything like a Grinnell scholar. He wore glasses, dress clothes, and a preppy sweater, and radiated the self-assurance he had craved but could never cultivate living under the same roof with either Joyce Byers or Ruth Garrett. Jane wished with all her heart that Mike could see him.

Will embraced him, and they held each other for a long time.

“Dude,” said Mike at last, “are you wearing glasses?”

“Yeah,” said Will. “So are you.”

Mike laughed. “Yeah. Well. Yeah. You know. Part of the performance. Did El tell you?”

“Mmm, you’re a rock star now.”

“Not hardly.” Mike couldn’t help sounding bitter, and Jane winced. It’s the way he always sounded now. Of course, the real reason he wore sunglasses was obvious.

Mike changed the subject. “What are you doing out here? It’s Thanksgiving.”

“I wanted to see my friend, and I wasn’t going to ask his permission. I didn’t want to be banned in advance.”

Mike flushed. “Oh, you mean Lucas and Dustin. I just… well, that was a bad time for them to come out.”

“They took it differently. They thought you were banning them for life.”

Mike lashed out. “I’m sorry their fucking feelings were hurt. If they put you up to this, get back on your plane.”

Jane had warned Will that Mike turned nasty at the slightest provocation. “Mike, no one put me up to anything. I talk to them. We were home again last summer, and we missed you. A lot. Your parents miss you too, if you can believe that.”

“Are you shitting me? My parents are nothing. I’m surprised mom is still alive. She drinks a fifth of whatever her poison is every day. I’m never going back to Hawkins, do you understand?”

“Fine. But don’t shut us out. Don’t shut me out. You were my first friend and still my best. I mean, after Jonathan.”

“You’re welcome here. Always.”

“But they’re not?”

“Leave it, Will.”

He stared at Mike. “For now.”


“I’m glad you came,” said Jane. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and Will had a flight back to Iowa the next day.

Will smiled. “I wish I could stay longer.”

“Me too.” She wished that more than he could know. “I haven’t seen him this happy since… before.” By “before”, she knew that Will understood her to mean the time prior to Mike’s enslavement in the Upside Down. Though if she were honest, his misery backdated a few days further, to the awful night she broke up with him. Almost five years now. “I think you’re the only person he genuinely likes anymore.”

“I’ll never forgive myself for letting that thing get him,” said Will. “You guys did everything to save me those first two years. We let Mike down.”

That “we” carried the sting of multiple accusations. “Yes. We did.”

“If he gets in a bad way again, you’ll call me?”

“Of course –”

Mike came down the stairs singing a Pearl Jam song. The lyrics involved tattoos and someone’s world turning black. Mike didn’t have the former but he understood the latter. He sat down with them. His sunglasses gave him an intense look. “So what have you been cooking in your test tubes, Will?”

“Oh,” said Will, “I forgot to tell you. I’m not a chemistry major anymore.”


“Religious studies.”



Mike was poleaxed. “That makes no sense. What happened to you?”

Will laughed. “Jonathan said the same thing. Nothing happened. I took this general education course on religion and thought it was way more interesting than chemistry.”

“So you haven’t, like, converted to anything?”

“No, no. This may surprise you, but most religion majors at Grinnell are agnostics or atheists. That’s still what I am.”

“I don’t know, dude, this sounds weird. Religion, of all things.”

“Will’s right,” said Jane. “My friend Nicki finished an Old Testament course at Lewis & Clark College, and she said it wasn’t like anything she expected. More like a history and anthropology class. She also said the professor was the best she’s ever had for any subject, and almost made her want to change her major.”

“Sounds slippery,” said Mike. “Don’t tell me Lucas and Dustin are getting into this religion shit too.”

Jane and Will exchanged a look. Since living in Portland, Mike had never brought up Lucas and Dustin on his own. And after the argument three nights ago, she and Will didn’t mention them.

“No,” said Will cautiously. “They’re still as before. Lucas actually published a biochemistry article under a professor’s guidance. An undergrad junior, can you believe it? And Dustin is creating some D&D computer game with three other MIT guys. Isn’t that awesome?”

Mike didn’t answer.

“It’s great,” said Jane, wanting to change the subject.

“Yeah,” Mike managed to say. “That’s great. Really. Yeah.”


They had a good year after that. Mike still screamed in his sleep, but his band had renewed him with purpose. He wrote songs and tested them on Jane. She had no ear for gothic industrial but took a sincere interest, which Mike misread as condescension. He cursed her for patronizing him; she took it on the chin with grace. He enjoyed playing for her anyway.

And for the first time since his return from the shadow, Jane dared to feel optimistic. At mealtimes they talked and even laughed, carrying discussions beyond the usual banalities. In February his band got a raise and played more hours. In early August (the second anniversary of his escape from the Upside Down), they took a vacation to the Oregon coast. Jane would look back on the summer of 1992 as the last time she knew true happiness with Mike Wheeler.

October was a regressive turn. Terror and angst overwhelmed him again. His nightmares became even more virulent, and in the third week of January he had an anxiety meltdown. They were eating lunch, when halfway through his sandwich he began shaking and sobbing for no discernible reason. She tried calming him in vain. He often relived his shadow torments, but this was worse than the usual panic. She gave him a sedative that his doctor had prescribed for emergencies, and then walked him to bed where he collapsed.

As he slept she went into his small studio room. It was a shambles. On the table next to his music box was a cassette; a new mix. She picked it up and read the label: My Life in Music, 1/22/87-1/20/93. Her heart began pounding. It looked like a musical diary, the same kind of mix he had made exactly six years ago. His love letter to her. The songs had mapped his feelings between the time they first met in ’83 to their loss of virginity to each other on Christmas of ’86. Mike had made the tape the day after Martin Luther King Day, and then two days later destroyed it in front of her, when she broke his heart. Why would you do that to me? he had screamed, tearing apart the tape stream as hot tears flew. He had poured every atom of his love for her into that mix, and she had shat on that love. She still had her copy of the tape; after he died she had sometimes played it to remember him. But she had sealed it in a storage box when she brought him back to Oregon. He never asked her what she had done with her copy.

It looked like this new mix picked up where the first one had left off, from the point of their breakup on January 22, 1987. She almost walked out of the room then, terrified of what the songs would reveal. Instead she opened the case and removed a piece of paper folded between the plastic and the cassette. On the paper Mike had scrawled song titles, band names, and brief commentaries. The handwriting was remarkably legible for someone blind, and it was upsetting to read; the commentaries indicted her:

Side A

1. After the Fire, Roger Daltrey — Break-up song. Bitch El tore out my heart.
2. The Battle of Evermore, Led Zeppelin — Final Hawkins showdown. Master killed me.
3. Worlock, Skinny Puppy — Master raised me. Shredded me. Put nightmares in my blood.
4. The Chain, Fleetwood Mac — Damn your love and your lies, El. You broke the chain. Left me running in the shadows, on all fours.
5. Pictures of You, The Cure — In the shadows I forgot what everyone looked like. Family; friends; El.
6. Tower of Strength, The Mission U.K. — Rescue song. I escaped. El saved me.

Side B

7. Never Let Me Down Again, Depeche Mode — This, El. Never again.
8. Black, Pearl Jam — Back in the world. Blind. Everything black. Always afraid.
9. She Sells Sanctuary, The Cult — The world drags me down. El’s my refuge.
10. One, U2 — Love song. We carry each other, hurt each other, and do it again.
11. Losing It, Rush — Fading. For the blind who once could see, the bell tolls.
12. Asleep, The Smiths — Just want to sleep. Forever.

Mike had arranged the songs in a chronological sequence to evoke their breakup (track 1), the battle against the Illithid two days later (track 2), his years in the Upside Down (tracks 3-5), his escape and her slaying the Illithid (track 6), and his return to the world and a life of misery (tracks 7-10). The last two tracks validated her suspicions that he was suicidal. He was playing the Rush and Smiths songs every day now. They sounded like somber lullabies, though the lyrics were evidently darker than she’d thought.

She put the tape in his box, sat down and played the whole thing. She was already crying into the first track, and she didn’t stop until long after she left the room. His previous musical diary (for 11/7/83-1/20/87) had its dark moments but an optimistic trajectory. This sequel was as bleak as the grave. The Who’s lead singer tore her to pieces. Led Zeppelin played strings so haunting she relived that horrible arctic night on the hill, where Mike died before her eyes; she had chased his killer through the forest, blasted on all sides by lightning and sonic concussions. Skinny Puppy sounded hideous. How could Mike want to relive that terror? Fleetwood Mac convicted her of capital offenses, damning her love and lies impartially. The Cure song was beautiful but despairing. As for the Mission, Mike often played “Tower of Strength”; to him she was the hero of that song. The Depeche Mode song was about a drug trip, but Mike had made it all about her. Pearl Jam was another favorite of his, and truly heartbreaking. “She Sells Sanctuary” was their day sex song; Mike blasted it at high volume when he hammered her on the living room floor. “One” had been their love song since the release of Achtung Baby a year ago, and she loved it; sometimes they slow-danced to it when Mike was especially pained. To her it described two people in love so much they were practically one. But Mike had explained its dark side. According to one of the U2 band members (Mike called him “Edge”, but that sounded like one of his made up names, like “Eleven”), “One” was a nasty conversation between two lovers who had been through so much conflict and grief that it promised the end of their relationship. After that tear-jerker she completely lost it through “Losing It”, and then couldn’t make it halfway through “Asleep”. She saw Mike killing himself and had to stop the tape. Don’t you dare, Mike. She wept on the floor of his studio. Don’t you leave me alone.

She chose not to confront him about the cassette, knowing it would enrage him. But she watched him closely in the following weeks. His fits of terror increased along with their fights. He picked the fights as usual, and wouldn’t let up until she was crying. He took her violently in bed, on the living room floor, even outside on the balcony. Mike had always been a sex machine, but he had eaten something at end of the summer of ’92 that put his hormones on a permanent acid trip. Since then he had taken her two or three times a day, sometimes even four, except on days she just couldn’t accommodate him and needed recovery from soreness. It was the one constant that remained unchanged. The aftermath of their sex seemed to be only way of achieving tenderness with each other.

Despite her promise, she didn’t call Will. It would crush him to see Mike like this.


Months later, in the late spring of 1993, three of the Hawkins kids were reborn into the real world. Lucas Sinclair graduated from Tufts University in the top five percent of his class. He was going on to Yale to get a graduate degree in wildlife conservation. Dustin Henderson graduated first in his class from MIT. He too was pursuing graduate studies: engineering management at Colorado State. He had created two successful video games with three classmates, and the sales allowed him the luxury of a free summer. William Byers graduated from Grinnell College in the top ten percent of his class. He was joining the Peace Corps in the late fall, to teach high school in Botswana.

Mike Wheeler graduated from strip clubs to unemployment. He was fired by Band-Aids for using too many sick days, and disowned by his band for being a certified asshole. Through June and July he fought routinely with Jane between escalating anxiety attacks. At the end of July on his birthday, he slashed his wrists. He survived on a fluke. Jane worked part-time at the video store three blocks down from Ione Plaza, and she decided to come home that day for her snack break. She found Mike lying in a red swamp on the floor, went hysterical and called 911.

She stayed overnight with him at the hospital, watching him sleep. He woke periodically but didn’t respond to her presence.

In the morning he finally spoke. “El.”

She took his hand. “Yes.”

“I need your help. To finish this.”

Oh, Mike. “Don’t ever ask me to do that.” Don’t you understand I love you?

“I still dream of him, El.”

The Illithid. She had held him so many times over the past two and a half years, when he woke screaming. Once she had recommended psychiatric help. He had told her never to float that idea again.

“He’s in my head all the time.” Terrorizing for the joy of it. “I mean he’s gone, but he’s there. I taste the ground he fed me every day.”

“Mike –”

“I can’t do it anymore, El. There’s pain everywhere. I’m in the dark. I don’t blame you — I know I did for a long time. You can’t be chained to me forever. Fleetwood Mac, right? Break it again. Let me go. All we do is fight. You deserve better.” He clasped her hand that was holding his. “So do I.”

She squeezed him and cried. She couldn’t answer any of this.


Less than a week later, Jane came home to an empty apartment. She had left Mike for only minutes to get a few groceries around the corner. He was gone. She flew into every room calling his name, and then lost her mind. She called her father and screamed at him to find Mike wherever he had gone. Hopper floored the gas from Newberg up to Portland, and then combed the streets downtown for hours. They put out an APB. Mike had vanished.

Two days later, his body was dragged out of the Willamette River. He had jumped from the Ross Island Bridge. A local taxi company confirmed that a customer fitting Mike’s description had paid for a ride to the bridge. He had tipped the driver two hundred dollars.


Next Chapter: Remembrance

(Previous Chapter: The Illithid)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 6)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

The story assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-2. I was a bit unhappy with season 3, not least for the silly comedy. In my imagination of the summer of 1985, Joyce Byers died fighting the Mind Flayer; there were no Russians under a mall; Eleven defeated the Mind Flayer once and for all; Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven; William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also, Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer until he was killed by the creature. Jim Hopper did engineer a break-up between Eleven and Mike, but not in the silly way portrayed in season 3.

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Six:

                                   The Illithid

If there had been any doubts in their minds about Mike’s self-knowledge, Jane knew they were gone now. His reaction to her was undeniable. Hers was compulsory. She caught Mike Wheeler and cried his name like an intercession.

He moaned and clung to her as if fearing an immediate treachery. Apologies bubbled in her throat, and she breathed them into his ear, knowing they weren’t enough. Nothing sufficed here. Mike was alive, but she had destroyed him in too many ways. He tried saying something but could only stutter, and tried again. His mouth twisted. He broke off from her in frustration and screamed at the ceiling.

“Mike!” she yelled. My God, what did that thing do to you?

Mr. Clarke appeared in the doorway, alarmed. “Okay in here?”

“I think so,” said Will, shaken.

“We’re okay, Mr. Clarke,” said Dustin.

Jane was definitely not okay. She was going to tear the Illithid apart, no mistake this time.

She turned to them. “Can we be alone for a while?”

“Yeah, totally,” said Dustin.

“Of course,” said Will.

They knew she could handle Mike if he turned on her.


“Do you hate me?” she asked. They were sitting on the edge of the bed.

Mike glared at her, twitching.

She took his hand — and he yanked his hand away and barked something harsh.

“What? What is it?” she asked.

He bellowed again. He was demanding something.

“What do you need?” I promise that thing will never take you again.

His response was to grab the front of her shirt and yank her up close to him. Clenching his fists, he tore the fabric like a veil. He stared at her breasts, held them, and then regarded her. She gaped at him, dumbfounded. He wanted this from her now? Of course he did. He had been reduced to a primitive output. It was the only way he could express himself, certainly to her. And she owed him this a thousand times over.

He gripped her harder and forced her on the bed, starting to work on her pants. Will was right. He’s inhumanly strong. But he was still no match for her. There was hardly a person on earth who could take on Jane Hopper. She could have effortlessly stopped this if she wanted to. She didn’t. Years of guilt and abstinence meshed with simple love for Mike — and desire exploded in her veins. She kept a submissive posture as Mike dropped his full weight on her, tearing off the rest of her clothes like a fevered rapist. She tried helping him out of his own, but he rejected assistance with a snarl. He literally ripped Lucas’s shirt off himself, ruining it. Jane felt a surge of anger when she saw the scars on Mike’s chest. She wanted to kill whatever had done that to him; she had no doubts as to the creature’s identity. Mike shed his pants and stood over her naked, as if daring her to object. Then he was on her again.

There was no foreplay; he hadn’t the capacity for such graces. He was immediately up and inside her — shoving back and forth, slobbering over her, grunting like a hog. She inhaled sharply and felt the heat grow in her sex. She determined to match his thrusts with as much fervor. It wouldn’t be hard. Mike was huger than he had been at fifteen, and his thrusts drew something extra from her in these uncharted waters of bestial passion. She clung to him and heaved upwards, exhaling affirmatives. He growled into her neck; dug his fingers into her back; and pushed in and out — as if worried that she might vanish into air any moment. No. I’m not leaving you again. Ever.

She could have easily drowned in this — in him, the sweetness, the pain, and the unchecked power that made it seem like she was flying. She envisioned herself high above open plains with stampeding buffalo barely visible, as they raced below to outmatch her. No chance: Mike’s thrusts lent her lightning speed. Nothing existed outside these Elysian fields and the painful world of give-and-take: humping and moaning in sheer oblivion. Then her climax came.

It flooded her like waves of lava, and the ecstasy practically blinded her for a few moments. She never dreamed sex could be this rewarding. It hadn’t been like this at all on the Christmas of ’86, when they had both been fifteen, nervous and far too delicate with each other. On that night Mike had been trembling, shaking like a high-rise on the verge of collapse; he spent himself quickly. The pleasure had been all his, and over in seconds. His climax this time came long after hers, and he fell on her, groaning an undecipherable lament. She shifted onto her side and looked into his eyes. Tears and sullen resentment stirred, and she cursed the abysmal night she’d broken up with him. “I’m sorry, Mike,” she whispered. “So sorry.” It’s not enough, I know.

It seemed enough for him now. They went to sleep in each others arms.



Dustin –?

“ELEVEN!” He was pounding on the door.

She clambered out of the smog of sleep, and pried herself from Mike’s arms. He was waking up too. Why was Dustin yelling?

The door burst open, and she squinted as light poured in from the hallway. Dustin came in. He was alarmed about something. “Holy shit. You guys need to get dressed. We’ve got a problem.”

Mike growled.

“Yeah, keep that attitude, Mike. You’ll need it.”

“Dustin, what’s happening?” asked Jane.

“Will was outside on the porch. He saw the Illithid in a neighbor’s yard.”

Mike reacted by moaning in agony. Either he understood what Dustin was conveying, or he could sense the nearby presence of his tormentor. Jane thought it might be both. She leaped from the bed, pulling Mike with her. “We’re coming!” she said.

Dustin fled the room. She threw on her clothes and told Mike to do the same. He groped her and made mewling noises as she helped him into Lucas’s pants.

There was a sudden noise down the hallway, and a loud crash. Then a terrible scream from the living room.

“Stay here,” she ordered Mike. His eyes were round O’s of terror.

An electrostatic concussion suddenly boomed from the living room, and rocked the entire house. The air of a walk-in refrigerator came pouring through the bedroom door. She heard Will and Dustin shouting Mr. Clarke’s name hysterically. She didn’t like the way that sounded. She stepped into the hallway, preparing herself. She had to do it right this time. She would kill the creature —

From down the hallway and around the corner, stepped the Illithid.

The thing was as hideous as she remembered it. It had a humanoid body with an octopus-like head, and four tentacles moved sickeningly around a lamprey-like mouth. A pair of hateful eyes glared at her; it hissed and oozed coldness. The sight of it made her quiver with revulsion; the knowledge of what it had done to Mike fueled her rage. She felt her power build, and she readied to throw force at it.

From her blind spot she sensed a dash of movement. Mike.


Mike leaped past her and threw himself at the Illithid; a bold and helpless gesture. The creature raised a clawed hand, and Mike’s body slammed against an invisible force field. He folded to the floor.

Jane screamed and unleashed her force, but the creature had quick reflexes. Its other hand shot up and deflected the wave of telekinetic fury that would have sent it smashing into Mr. Clarke’s wall. Its eyes were feral, promising murder. Then it spoke:

“Sa lizz gia.”

The voice was demonic and guttural.



She recalled the creature’s fluency in all languages plus its own. No matter: she had no intention of reciprocating conversation. Blood was flowing down her nose; she ignored that too. Raising both arms, she prepared to blast.

The creature tittered and she froze in horror. A spasm went through Mike’s body on the floor, and he was suddenly standing upright between them, his lips pulled back in an obscene smile. That smile indicated ecstasy and torment in equal measure. He was cross-eyed and drooling spit, and his head snapped left and right; his limbs jerked sideways. He was being played like a marionette.

Then Mike’s mouth opened and spoke English for the first time in years: “Desist, bitch, or your fuck-boy dies for good this time.” Mike. Her rage built.

Behind Mike the Illithid gestured, straining to parry Jane’s forces and manipulate his toy at the same time. It had chosen the battleground wisely. Jane had never fought anything in close quarters like this, and if she didn’t discipline her fury Mike would be collateral. She recalibrated her blast to circumvent him, but it wasn’t easy. Mike was right in front of the damn thing, in a cramped hallway. Then the Illithid cackled, and her world turned.

“Watch this, she-dog!” Mike’s voice was a ruinous parody, but that’s not what made Jane’s blood run cold. He had his hand over his face, and his two front fingers were digging into his eyes. He intended to blind himself.

“Mike!” she screamed.

The sound of Mike Wheeler’s eyeballs popping out was sickening. Rays of blood hit the walls, ceiling, and floor. He dropped to his knees, holding his eyes forth like a penitent begging mercy. He wailed like the damned.

Jane poured herself into an apotheosis of energy. Her telekinesis supplied the power, but it wasn’t the right kind. Her lesson from Kali was useless here. Rage and anger had no place in the confined space with Mike. They would kill him here, possibly even herself. She suspended her wrath, or at least as much as she could. She needed subtlety and finesse; she gave the best answer she had.

She became glacial, a vessel of uncaring steel, by staring into reality. Mike hadn’t been killed, as they all thought. He’d suffered worse than death: enslaved, degraded, and tortured. Now stricken hideously blind. The redress for that wasn’t unbridled passion; it was cold hatred. Almost without transition, her telekinetic waves condensed from a tsunami into a highly concentrated beam. She let it loose straight over Mike’s head and into the Illithid’s, willing murder in every drop of her blood.

But it was fast; too fast. Its reflexes dated to the dawn of creation. It wasn’t huge like the Mind Flayer, but its power was titanic and belied its size. Jane could taste the power as her own clashed with it. Her beam was caught by the creature’s claw and diffused.

She gathered for another assault, her nose a fountain of red, and then Mike screamed horribly. His eyeballs were on the floor, bloody and forgotten, as a new agony tore through him. He was on his side, holding his left leg. There was a grinding noise; he screamed again, and his kneecap shattered. Then he fainted as blood poured from the middle of his leg. Jane began to panic. The Illithid was tearing him apart, piece by piece.

Now or never. Rage broiled in her bowels, but she morphed it into the dispassion she required. The sight of Mike ate at her like venom, but she used that too. She summoned more forces, and let them run through her like a riptide. They gyrated in her atoms until she could barely stand it. Every tendon of her body, and every ligament of her soul, felt strained. She funneled the energy into a new beam that grew so concentrated it looked as tangible as wet ink. At the last moment, she discharged it.

It went straight through the Illithid’s power, obliterating its defensive claw and vaporizing its head. The disintegration was absolute; the creature was headless, and the corpse toppled over. Jane Hopper had finally killed the most dangerous creature from the Upside Down.

And Mike — the old Mike Wheeler — was suddenly screaming in horrendous agony, hunched over on the floor, one leg useless, his hands over his blood-drenched eye sockets. “El! Eleven! Keep him away! Don’t let him take me! DON’T LET HIM TAKE ME AGAIN!!”

She fell next to him and pulled him close, prying his hands away from his face. He howled, shouting pain at her like an accusation. She couldn’t breathe. It’s over, Mike. She tried saying it.

“El?” A shattered voice spoke over her. It sounded like Will. She could barely look up and see him crying. “It killed him,” he said. “It killed Mr. Clarke.” In the other room, Dustin was pouring out grief. The best teacher he ever had. It was too much. Her head felt like a pressure cooker; her nose still ran. Mike went on screaming. Her vision swam.

“Call 911”, she managed to gasp, and blacked out.


Next Chapter: That Which is Broken

(Previous Chapter: The Master’s Toy)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 5)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

The story assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-2. I was a bit unhappy with season 3, not least for the silly comedy. In my imagination of the summer of 1985, Joyce Byers died fighting the Mind Flayer; there were no Russians under a mall; Eleven defeated the Mind Flayer once and for all; Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven; William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also, Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer until he was killed by the creature. Jim Hopper did engineer a break-up between Eleven and Mike, but not in the silly way portrayed in season 3.

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Five:

                                The Master’s Toy

Mike Wheeler heard everything. From the moment the Illithid had confiscated his soul three and a half years ago, his hearing had functioned normally. On some level he even understood what he heard. But meaning had become a non-sequitur. Whatever he heard, his mind consigned to irrelevance. The master had given him new priorities.

His memory was also fine. He saw people he had known for many years, and remembered their names: Lucas, Will, Dustin, his old teacher Mr. Clarke. But the rules of memory had been reversed. A friend was no longer a friend, but an enemy. A tormentor, like the master, was a benevolent god. Strangers were up for grabs. Like those two kids in the woods. They had been innocent and full of love for each other, but their passion had triggered a memory from his other past. It was a memory full of hurt, and his mind decided that required redress. He had killed the boys accordingly.

There was no place for speech in this new core of being. Whenever he tried to speak, his throat didn’t cooperate. Braying sounds came out; he mewled and he keened. He still understood English, but it was scrambled in the output by the master’s mark on him.

His only communication was with the master. It was the only path open to him. The Illithid had established a mental link that functioned irrespective of distance. No matter how far Mike strayed in the Shadow World, the creature was in his head — shaping him by commands, caressing him with his will. Here back in his own world, the link wasn’t so strong.

That link had been established right as Mike was coughed back into life, terrified out of his mind. The Illithid had powers of resurrection, as long as it performed the rite within a day; the thrall had brought him Mike’s corpse in time. Mike hadn’t felt much different when he rose from death. It was after that, when the creature wove its mark into him — deeper than before — that he was truly born anew.

The master had cradled Mike in his arms on that smoky eldritch evening. Look at me, its voice oozed inside his head. I give you purpose. It had stroked Mike’s head. I torment you for the joy of it. And Mike had screamed, looking into the creature’s eyes which seemed like gates to hell. The tentacles around its mouth hissed like snakes, wrapping themselves around Mike’s head. A foul essence percolated and seeped into his skull. Mike had kept screaming — for his mother, his sister Nancy, and his friend Lucas. The Illithid had savored his terror and assured him there was no help coming from those corners. He was marked whole now; no half measures. If he needed help, the master was there for him.

Mike Wheeler had then plunged into a hell of abject servitude. He crawled on all fours when the master called. He ate meals of dirt shoveled from the ground with his own bare hands. He feasted on salamanders, slugs, crawlers, leaves, and roots. He shouldn’t have survived, but the creature’s mark sustained him. Mike Wheeler was nourished on a diet of pain; strengthened by humiliation. His strength was inhuman, as it had been during his final days in Hawkins. Then he had used that strength to betray his hometown. Now he used it to kill for the master’s delight: he throttled beasts; murdered pets; fought in the master’s pit, against young demogorgons trained to lose by a thin margin. And at the end of each day, he sat in the master’s bosom, asking for deeper torments.

Yessss. You need more? The telepathic voice dripped venom.

Yes! Oh yes! Mike needed more, and the creature obliged. It plunged its claws into Mike’s chest, and raked them down his torso, relishing every shredded ligament. Mike howled in agony, begging the Illithid to stop; he wept in joy, pleading for much, much more. He screamed himself to sleep every night, wishing he were dead; he chortled in his sleep, nursed on dreams of victimized privilege.

Sleep was the most important nourishment of all, and he got plenty. Every other day he slept sixteen hours instead of eight. Nightmares are the nectar of the blessed. Mike gibbered in full agreement. I shred you for the joy of it.

His hellish enslavement went on for three and a half years, until he stumbled on the portal to his old world. Not a Gate, precisely, but a passage accessible to him because of his mark. In the woods on a hill. Where a tree stood. A tree that had bridged the worlds until incinerated on the other side. That destruction had ripped open a passage unknown to anyone. Mike had climbed high in the branches and slipped through…

Into Hawkins five days ago, on the hill where he had died. The master’s voice vanished from his mind, but the past replayed worse torments. The creature had killed him here; it would kill him again. It had been ignorant of the tree portal for all these years; otherwise it would have used it long ago to wreak vengeance on the town that injured it. Mike knew that was no longer true. Two days ago the voice was back in his head. The master had tracked his scent to the tree, and slipped through after him…

In this world he wasn’t as reduced. The mark on his soul was frayed; the creature’s hold on him tenuous. The mark had demanded that Will be slain; he was a friend, therefore an enemy. But as Mike tried choking Will, something snapped — and his perception was remolded on the spot: Will was a friend and thus that. Mike could not kill him. Mike loved him, and needed to show that somehow.

Meanings began to shift and realign within his biochemistry. Vestiges of will rose within him, and clashed with the master’s imperatives. He was a vessel of contradiction. He enjoyed good food shared by his old friends, and had only a leftover appetite for the ground he walked on.

He cried inwardly for Lucas and Dustin, and desperately wanted their friendship back. But the output of those desires was still hatred and distrust. To go against his mark, something extreme was required — like the way he tried to kill Will. That lesson told Mike the best way he could have his friends again was to try hurting them.

That lesson had seriously backfired, and Lucas was in the hospital for it.

The problem was that Mike’s assault had been intentionally aimed at reestablishing friendship with Lucas. It ultimately treated Lucas as a friend. His biochemistry had processed those intentions accordingly, and the mark ensured that Lucas be torn apart as a vicious enemy: Mike doubled down and went for the jugular. With the whole force of his being, he had dislocated Lucas’s shoulder and bit a chunk of his ear off. He would have kept rending him into a hundred pieces, if not for the others’ interference. Mike railed on the inside for what he did to his best friend; he roared on the outside in triumphant joy.

Will had been a fluke. Mike could not intentionally try to bring his love to the surface for anyone — in any way at all — because intentions were precisely what the mark interpreted.

He was trapped. And the master was on the way. It would track his scent, reacquire him, and rain destruction down on his friends.


“You smell better.”

Mike was jolted out of his thoughts of torture and decimated friendships. He was sitting on the bed in Mr. Clarke’s guest room, and Will was speaking from a chair by the window. It was evening; a cool summer evening in his native world. But he had been in the room all day, and Will’s appeals had blurred into a timeless now.

“But you’re acting worse. You almost killed him. Your best friend. Why do you like me now, but not him?”

He liked Will’s voice. He wanted Will to sit on the bed with him and hold his hand.

“Throw me a line, Mike. Come on, give me something.”

He remembered first meeting Will, when they were kids in another lifetime. He had asked Will to be his friend, when Mike had none. And you said yes. You said yes.

“You’re not leaving us options. So we took the initiative.”

It was the best thing I ever did — asking you to be my friend.

“I hope you don’t hate us for it.”

I never want to hate you.

“I tried, Mike. I tried to save you.”

You did save me. You said yes. You became my friend.

“It was too much. Those thralls were all around us. And you… you jumped at it.”

You weren’t my best friend. You were the most important one.

“You should have left it for her. What were you thinking? Was it suicide? Because she broke up with you?”

Don’t cry. We’re here again. You and I. But he was crying too. Some of Will’s words had coagulated into meaning, and there was brutal history in them.

“Like I said, we took some initiative here.”

Take my hand. Please.

“They should be here soon.”


“Will?” It was Dustin knocking on the door. He came in without waiting for a reply, and looked at both Will and Mike. “She’s here.”


Will had already risen from the chair when they heard Dustin’s car pull into the driveway. He came over and sat on the bed, and put his hand on Mike’s shoulder. “Okay, Mike. Listen. We brought someone here for you. I hope it was the right thing to do. Please don’t be mad.”


She was standing in the doorway, with the same expression she had on the night of the Snow Ball Dance when she walked into the school gym and spotted him sitting alone. The sight of her then had righted his world again. The sight of her now went through him like an awl, so clear and piercing that his heart vaulted in response. Emotions raged inside him, in defiance of the master’s mark. Eleven had been his. He had loved her, and given her all that he had at the fragile age of fifteen. He needed her back, and fought for his will, straining against the prison of his mark.

And lost. The master’s reversals held firm: a friend was an enemy, an enemy a friend.

The result was ineffably astonishing. In their final days together, Eleven had become his worst enemy. She had cut his heart out and refused to own her decision; rendered him a worthless cipher — a toy to be played with by a demon she could not kill. She was treachery incarnate; she could never be trusted again. His mark unambiguously decided that she was his salvation.


As he stopped all his efforts to welcome her, he was able to do just that.

Tears flooding his cheeks — praying this was really happening — he opened his arms to embrace her.


Next Chapter: The Illithid

(Previous Chapter: Jane Air)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 4)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

The story assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-2. I was a bit unhappy with season 3, not least for the silly comedy. In my imagination of the summer of 1985, Joyce Byers died fighting the Mind Flayer; there were no Russians under a mall; Eleven defeated the Mind Flayer once and for all; Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven; William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also, Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer until he was killed by the creature. Jim Hopper did engineer a break-up between Eleven and Mike, but not in the silly way portrayed in season 3.

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Four:

                                      Jane Air

When Jane Hopper heard the phone ring, she groaned aloud in bed. She was out of sorts from the heat, and didn’t want to move, let alone speak to anyone. She wanted an ice cold shower. Or something to shatter the fog of her afternoon nap.

On the third ring, her father yelled from downstairs: “Can you get that?” As usual. He was closer to the downstairs phone than she was to the one upstairs. Also as usual. She took her time getting up.

By the time she made it down the hall, the caller had given up. Jane felt a small victory. The phone was always for her father, unless her friend Nicki called. And Jim Hopper didn’t like missed calls. She turned a one-eighty and walked back to her room. Going through her doorway produced a moment of guilt. The door had a placard on it, with the name “Jane Air” carved in beautiful calligraphy. Her father had made that for her, and she loved him for it.

Years ago Jim Hopper had read Jane Eyre to her, which at once became her favorite book. To her it was “Jane Air”, since she still hadn’t known how to read. It was a pure name that suggested vitality and passion, and she became fiercely protective of the character in her imagination. Like Jane Air, Jane Hopper had grown up in an abusive environment, never knowing her mother, tormented in the Red Room that was Hawkins Lab. Mike Wheeler had been her Rochester, her crutch, the only one who had ever made her feel truly safe and at peace. And for this she had broken him, twice. She didn’t like thinking about the second time. The first had been bad enough. That was when she had killed the demogorgon and vanished, leaving him a lifeless shell for a whole year. During that time she had hibernated, in an exile that strangely reminded her of Jane Air’s homeless trek up to northern England, where she was found starving and taken in by new family. Hopper’s cabin in the woods had become her Moor House. If her father was worlds apart from St. John Rivers, there were still similarities — emotional repression, and a work ethic that subordinated happiness to duty.

Take now, for instance. He was downstairs swearing up a storm (St. John wouldn’t have liked that part) over the broken air conditioner. This was how he spent his vacation week: repairing the outcomes of his failures. A month earlier he had bought a central air system and insisted on installing it himself. Jim Hopper, Sheriff of Yamhill County, did not believe in plumbers, technicians, or professional servicemen. He relied strictly on his own labor, and for that Jane had learned to put up with the inevitable shortfalls and curses. The latter came thundering from below — a stream of “shits” and “fucking shits” — and her heart sank. Another sweltering night lay ahead.

She followed the trail of profanity downstairs to the utility room. He was banging something with a tool, and there were far too many pieces lying around. The room was a mess. “Can I help?” she asked, not expecting an answer.

He paused working and glanced at her. “Uh, no, kid, I’ll be a while. Why don’t you order a pizza for tonight.”


Hours later, she was watching Pride and Prejudice to take her mind off the heat and greasy pizza that failed to digest. It wasn’t working. Jane Austen wasn’t Jane Air. The phone rang, and she gladly stopped the VHS player. “Hello?”


She sat up. Few people called her that. Her father used to, but had stopped doing so for reasons it hurt to think about. “Lucas?”

“No, it’s Will.”

“Will.” Her heart skipped a beat. “Hi.”

“Hi. How are you?”

She saw Will in her mind’s eye, a distant memory: screaming in rage, hugging Mike’s body. Begging his forgiveness.


Jane breathed again. “Yes. I’m fine. You?”

“Okay,” he said, in a voice that sounded anything but. “El… I have some news you won’t believe. Mike is alive.”

She froze. Will had misspoken. Mike Wheeler was long dead. She had cried over his corpse just as Will had. She had probed his vitals to be sure: he hadn’t been breathing and he’d had no pulse. Mike had confronted the creature they called the Illithid, and paid for his foolishness. It had levitated him in the air, spun him like a toy, and hurled him against the trunk of that damned shadow tree — with enough force to shatter bricks. She hated dwelling on that memory, even less the reason for Mike’s suicidal heroism. Why would you do that to me? he had screamed at her only two days before, tears raining from him like bullets. You ripped my heart out! Those accusations still kept her awake at nights. It wasn’t Will who needed Mike’s forgiveness.

She wiped her eyes. “Mike’s not alive, Will.”

“Yes he is. He’s here with us right now. He’s different — he’s really different, and he’s really messed up — but he’s alive.”


“I’m with Dustin. And we’re at Mr. Clarke’s.” He relayed the events of the past two days, up to the point when he tried calling her four hours ago.

Her heart was pounding by the time he was through. She didn’t believe this at all; she believed it entirely.

“But the last four hours have been hell. After I first tried calling you, he lost his shit and attacked Lucas. He dislocated his shoulder and bit a huge piece of his ear off. We had to rush him to the hospital.”

She couldn’t make sense of this. “Why…?”

“We have no idea. We were sitting here after dinner and a shower that I gave him. He actually seemed to be getting more agreeable. Then he went wild and attacked Lucas. We barely got him off.”

“Where was Mike when you brought Lucas to the hospital?”

“I stayed here with him. I’m the only one he seems to like.”

That was curious. Lucas was Mike’s best friend. On the other hand, Mike had always been extremely protective of Will.

“Who else knows about this?” she asked.

“Just the four of us. Mr. Clarke and Dustin gave a bullshit story at the hospital. And please don’t tell Hopper. We wish he was here right now, but we don’t want him making calls to anyone about this.”

She had zero intention of relaying news to her father that Mike Wheeler was among the living. It was because of Hopper that she had made the worst decision of her life. “What do you want from me?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“We need you back here, El. I know that sounds crazy, but you might be the only one who can reach him — for better or worse. And also, we think the Illithid is back. Or at least I do.”

“You mentioned that, but I don’t see why.” Because the weather got cooler? That didn’t mean anything.

“It killed Mike, and Mike is alive. Shit is happening.”

Memories of the Illithid made her sick. She didn’t want to believe it had found a way back to Hawkins. Its powers of domination made the Mind Flayer look tame. It craved cold like all creatures from the Upside Down, but even worse, it gave off cold like a mega-powered freezer. Its presence in this world dropped the local temperature about ten or fifteen degrees. She remembered that horrible week-end — the night of January 24-25, 1987 — when the temps had plummeted from single-digit minuses to double-digit minuses. The creature had announced itself. And killed many people. Corrupted school admins, and used them to blow up the Hawkins police station.

Of course she had to go back. “Okay. I need you guys to book a flight for me.”

“Mr. Clarke is already on it.”



“Is he really that bad?”

“He’s… You can tell it’s him, but… just prepare yourself, El. It’s pretty bad.” Will was crying now.

“Okay,” she said, her eyes filling up. “I’ll see you.”


Her plane touched down the next day, Wednesday, 5:40 PM, at Indianapolis International. Dustin was there to greet her at the gate.

“Thank God, El,” he said, hugging her.

She was amazed how much he’d changed in three and a half years. “How’s Lucas?”

“Not good. I saw him at the hospital before coming here. He has a nasty infection from his ear-bite. Fever too. Mike almost tore his arm off. His ear is going to look that way forever.”

“Let’s get outside.” She hated airports, and she resented that it was so late in the day. This was the first time she had flown east, and those miles in the air had eaten three extra hours.

“What about your luggage?”

She raised her two carry-ons. “Here.”

He was impressed. “You’ll have to train my mother how to travel light.”

They drove northeast, and Dustin filled her in on all the madness that had happened since Monday night, going over the same ground Will had. He asked if Hopper knew she was here, and she assured him he was in the dark. Her friend Nicki had picked her up in Newberg and driven her to Portland International. Her father believed she was spending the night with Nicki in southeast Portland. He asked how Hopper was doing, and she told him the truth: he was the same fixture, annoying but eternally lovable; he took his job seriously; Yamhill County was in good hands. Dustin couldn’t say the same for Hawkins. Hopper’s replacement was an ass, and the arm of the law would be no assistance. Jane still hardly knew what she was supposed to do. It sounded like Mike was a beast, and if the Illithid showed up, she was hardly a match for it. It had almost killed her during their last confrontation; she defeated it more by accident than anything else.

At the exit to Dundee they got off IN-37, and the road started winding through tilled valleys and wooded hills that she recognized. Hawkins would be about a half hour from here, at the midpoint between Janney and Fairmount. She realized how much she missed Indiana. It was the place of her terrible upbringing, but it was also where she had found herself. In Hawkins she had formed her closest friendships. And shattered the most important one.

If Mike Wheeler tried killing her when he saw her, she wouldn’t blame him at all.

“I love this country,” said Dustin. Her window was down and she savored the fresh air. Will had been right about the weather. It was too cool and dry for this time of year. She had left ninety-degree humidity in Newberg, and what she felt now was so perfect it was hard to believe it might portend disaster. Determined to enjoy what little she could from this trip, she leaned back in her seat and took in the countryside. Lucas’s Mazda digested the miles between them and Hawkins.

She was almost dozing by the time they pulled up in Mr. Clarke’s driveway. Dustin’s watch said 7:35 PM. He put the Mazda in park and told her to brace herself. Gripping her courage, Jane got out of the car.

“This guy was the best teacher I ever had,” said Dustin, stretching after the long drive. “Better than all my MIT professors combined.”

Jane surveyed the area. It was a lot like Mike’s old neighborhood and triggered memories. Mike had hidden her in his basement fort, and shown her more kindness in four days than anyone else had in twelve years. That cellar-fort had been her liberation. For that she had rewarded him with the pain and hurt of a thousand Papas. She felt suddenly unready to see him.

Mr. Clarke was waiting for them at the front door. “Well hello, Eleanor,” he smiled.

She frowned. “Eleanor?”

“You don’t remember?” asked Dustin. “Back when we first met you in seventh grade, and told Mr. Clarke you were from Sweden?”

“Dustin.” She spoke softly as always, but she was close to screaming. “Where’s Mike?”

“Yeah, of course. My lord?”

“Come in, come in,” said Clarke, letting them enter. “He’s in the guest room down the hall. Will is with him.”

“No broken bones?” asked Dustin.

“He’s behaved rather well since last night. Pretty subdued actually.”

“That’s about to change,” warned Dustin. He looked at her. “Ready?”

She nodded.

“I know you can handle yourself,” said Clarke, “but be careful.”

He knew nothing. She wasn’t handling this well at all. All the blackness of those final days with Mike were in her. And there was worse inside him.

As if she were walking on daggers, she followed Dustin down the hallway.


Next Chapter: The Master’s Toy

(Previous Chapter: At the Home of Mr. Clarke)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 3)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

The story assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-2. I was a bit unhappy with season 3, not least for the silly comedy. In my imagination of the summer of 1985, Joyce Byers died fighting the Mind Flayer; there were no Russians under a mall; Eleven defeated the Mind Flayer once and for all; Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven; William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also, Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer until he was killed by the creature. Jim Hopper did engineer a break-up between Eleven and Mike, but not in the silly way portrayed in season 3.

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Three:

                           At the Home of Mr. Clarke

The migration from Shed Byers to Castle Byers went fine, and they collapsed in their sleeping bags. Everyone rose at sunrise except Mike, who slept like the dead. They kept trying to wake him, but he only snarled and hardly opened his eyes. Will wondered if he was exhausted from recent events, or if he needed more sleep routinely now because he had gone through death.

They took turns watching over him that morning. Will went back home early before his aunt rose, and made breakfast for her before she left for work. He returned to the fort and relieved Dustin, who went home to check on Ma Henderson, who had been seeing a podiatrist since June. Lucas ran some errands.

By around noon they were all back, and Dustin had meals from Burger King. “Two whoppers for Mike,” he said, “if Sleeping Beauty ever wakes up.”

“We need a plan,” said Lucas, biting into his bacon double-cheese.

“I was thinking,” said Will. “What about Mr. Clarke?”

“You want to bring Mike to our old science teacher?” asked Lucas.

“I can’t think of anyone else I’d trust with this,” said Will. He cursed Jim Hopper for living in Oregon now. They needed him.

Dustin approved Will’s suggestion. “But we can’t just bring Mike over to his house. He’s a murderer, and we’re all accessories. We have to explain everything to Mr. Clarke first.”

“He won’t be home now,” said Lucas. “I think he works at the library during the summer until mid-afternoons.”

“We’ll go see him at four,” said Dustin.

“And hang around here until then?” asked Lucas.

“I don’t know. Does he ever wake up?” They looked down at Mike, who was snoring, his face locked in a grimace that implied bad dreams.

“At least it’s a nice day,” said Lucas.

In fact, the day was remarkably cool: a near perfect seventy as opposed to the eighties weather of the past few weeks. It was refreshing, but Will feared an intrusion from the Upside Down. He likes it cold. He shuddered, remembering the Mind Flayer inside him. They had finally dealt with that creature once and for all. But the Illithid had gotten away, and it was worse than the Mind Flayer. It had secreted an essence so cold that its presence effected the local weather. In January 1987 the creature had caused the temps in Hawkins to drop from an already -3 degrees to -18. Today was about fifteen degrees cooler than yesterday. On top of Mike showing up, Will didn’t like the coincidence. For now he held his peace.

Mike finally woke up at two o’clock. He was just as foul-tempered as the night before, though he allowed Will to feed him.


Lights were on in the house. Will’s pulse quickened. He suddenly wasn’t sure about telling Mr. Clarke. When he saw only one car in the driveway, he felt marginally better. Mr. Clarke had been on-and-off with his lady friend Jen. She would have been a problem.

Dustin killed the Mazda’s engine. “Are we sure about this?”

“No,” said Will. “But we’re doing it. Let me lead.”

“You’re the one who found him,” said Dustin.

When they knocked on the front door, it opened to the sight of Mr. Clarke in a stained apron, and the sound of rock music — World Party’s Goodbye Jumbo — booming from another room. Clarke was clearly surprised. “Well, well. Are these my prodigies from the past?”

“Hey, Mr. Clarke,” they replied.

“How nice to see you boys. I hope you don’t want to leave college and come back to middle school.”

“Your AV Club was the only good thing about Hawkins Middle,” said Dustin. “You couldn’t pay me to set foot in there again. Nice beard, by the way. But we need to speak to you about something majorly critical.”

Clarke looked them over. “I have spaghetti cooking. You hungry?”

“Always. But –”

Will took control. “I know this is weird of us, stopping by with no warning, but we really do need to talk to you about something important.”

“By all means.” Their former teacher waved them inside. “Go sit in the living room, and turn down the music. I’ll put the food on simmer.”

“Never figured you for World Party,” said Dustin. “Great album.”


It was a song about traveling the world with some kind of message, and opening oneself to hurt. Dustin knew the lyrics. Will had no use for such sentiments at the moment. There was enough pain and hurt in the real world. Right in one’s hometown, as it turned out. He shut off the stereo.

“Check out the CD collection,” said Dustin. “We should take Mr. Clarke to the next Depeche Mode concert.”

“Okay, guys!” Clarke came in with three bottles. “Have a seat, have a Coke.”

They took the drinks and sat. Dustin was direct: “My lord, this is going to be a shock.”

“Okay,” Clarke smiled. “Shock me.”

Will shifted in the couch. “We need to be clear about this.”

Clarke raised an eyebrow.

“This can’t — I mean, can’t — go any further than the walls of this house.”

“This sounds serious.”

“It’s going to blow your mind,” said Dustin.

“We found Mike,” said Will.

“Mike who?”

The boys stared at their former teacher. “Mike,” said Will. “Our Mike.”

Clarke blinked. “Mike Wheeler?”


Clarke looked at them carefully. “You… found his body.”

“We found his fucking body, all right,” said Dustin, “in stronger shape than any of ours.”

“This isn’t a joke,” said Will. “I found Mike outside my house last night. Apparently he’s been in the Upside Down all this time — the Shadow Dimension — and didn’t die like we thought. Like, three and a half years, he’s been there. He’s a mess. We don’t know how he got back to this side. To Hawkins. He’s really strong now. But he can’t talk.”

“He can growl,” said Dustin. “And make weird noises. Maybe it’s some critter language of the Upside Down. Or maybe –”

“Okay, stop,” said Clarke. “This better not be a joke. Where is he now?”

“At my place. I mean, Castle Byers.”

“Castle Byers?”

“My old fort in the woods. My aunt never goes there. Lucas is with him.”

“Can we take you there now?” asked Dustin. “Or after you eat?”

Clarke looked at them hard. “What is it you boys want me to do?”

“We need to understand this. We can’t just tell everyone Mike is alive. All things considered — the way he is — they’d lock him up like a lab rat. Can you look at Mike and tell us what you think?”

“Dustin, if what you’re saying is true, then Mike needs professional help — medical and psychiatric examination.”

“That’s a negative, my lord. For reasons stated.”

“I’m not a trauma specialist.”

“No,” said Dustin, “but you were right about the Shadow Dimension when we trying to find Will.” Mr. Clarke was one of few people who knew the real story about Hawkins Lab, and their own roles in defeating the cycles of threats from the Upside Down. The first of those four cycles had started on November 6, 1983, and the last (by far the worst) had ended on January 25, 1987. Dustin was referring to the first year: after Will’s supposed funeral, Clarke had explained the logic of the Shadow Dimension to the other boys. He had no clue at the time how right he was.

“Mike has been in the Upside Down all this time,” said Will. “Like me, but he was captured by something worse than a demogorgon or even the Mind Flayer. It’s that creature Eleven sealed away but couldn’t kill.” Will didn’t like naming the Illithid. “We knew it was ultra-powerful but didn’t know it could raise the dead.”

“Well,” said Clarke, digesting all of this. “Why don’t you bring Michael over here, and we’ll see if we can figure this out together.”

“Can we do that?” asked Dustin.

“Could he stay the night if necessary?”

Clarke held up a hand. “One thing at a time, Will.”

“Hold on, there’s more,” said Dustin.

“Of course there is,” said Clarke. “There can’t be an end to a story like this.”

Dustin looked at Will. “You explain.”

It stands or falls here. “Mike is the one who strangled those kids,” said Will, letting that sink in. “That makes us accessories, I think. We don’t want you involved if that bothers you.”

Clarke blinked. “If that bothers me? Considering the bigger picture, worrying about being an accessory seems silly. Mike doesn’t seem to be in control of himself, based on what you tell me. And if there’s a portal that’s been opened from the shadow realm, then Hawkins is in trouble again.”

“Yeah,” said Dustin, “but the Upside Down is a closed issue. Hawkins has been normal for almost four years now. The guy we really need is Hopper. He’d believe us. But he’s out in planet Oregon, and his replacement is a joke.” Sheriff Nye was in fact worse than a joke. He believed the important part of his job was pulling over drivers who exceeded the speed limit by five miles an hour. “No one is going to believe that Mike should be absolved because of an alien from the shadow realm. And we’re not kids anymore. We could all go to prison.”

“Mike won’t just be a lab rat,” added Will. “He’ll be a criminal lab rat.”

Clarke nodded. “I see what you’re saying. But I know Mike Wheeler isn’t a killer.”

“He is now,” said Will miserably.

“Why don’t you guys bring him over.”

Dustin was on his feet. “Stay here, Will, I’ll go get them. Hey, Mr. Clarke, Mike is going to love your spaghetti. You should see the way he eats now. Like the goddest damnedest hog.”

“God only knows what he’s been eating in the Upside Down,” said Will.


“So where are you all studying now?” asked Clarke. He and Will were still in the living room, and Will was working on a second Coke.

“I’m at Grinnell.”

Clarke approved. “Grinnell is an excellent school.”

“Yeah, it’s awesome.”

“Chemistry major?”

“Yeah,” Will smiled.

“I always told you.”

“Well, I always knew. Dustin’s at MIT on a scholarship, and Lucas is at Tufts.”

“Still joined at the hip,” said Clarke.

“All three of us were supposed to go to Massachusetts. Williams was my first choice. It’s a three-hour drive to Tufts and MIT, but it still would have been cool.”

“Williams rejected you?”

“My aunt rejected Williams.” He didn’t want to relive her absurdities. “But I’m glad it turned out this way. I never want to leave Grinnell.”

“And let me guess: Lucas is biology, and Dustin either physics or engineering.”

“Biochemistry for Lucas, and yeah, Dustin’s engineering. Electrical.”

“I’m sure Lucas has a full plate. The bio-chem major is a demanding one.”

Will’s walkie-talkie blared to life.

Clarke stood up. “I’ll check on dinner while you get that.”

Will picked up the walkie-talkie. “Yeah?”

“We’re on our way. Over.” It was Lucas.

“How is he? Over.”

“I thought he was going to kill me. Over.”

“Mr. Clarke has dinner ready for us. Over.”

“Dustin told me and it’s a good thing. Will, he ate a pile of dirt. I couldn’t stop him. He would have killed me if I tried. He seriously ate handfuls of dirt that he ripped from the ground around your fort. Over.”

Jesus, Mike. What did that thing do to you? “Okay,” Will said, upset. “Just get him here. We’ll work this out. Over.”

“He could also use a shower. That sponge bath didn’t do much. Over.”

Will begged to differ. Without that sponge bath, they would have all surely passed out at Mike’s feet. But Lucas was right; Mike still needed a proper cleansing. “I’m sure we can do that here. Is he okay riding in the car? Over.”

“I’m in the back seat with him and he looks pissed. The only way we could get him in was to keep saying your name. ‘Will’ seems to calm him down. What did you ever do? Over.”

“Nothing. Like I said before, he just snapped and felt bad for some reason when he attacked me. I didn’t do a thing. Over.”

“We’ll be there in a few. Over and out.”


Mr. Clarke’s spaghetti was the best Will had ever had, but it was a nightmare to watch Mike tear through it. Halfway through the meal, half of his dinner was either on the floor or his lap. Spaghetti sauce plastered his face and his hands. His silverware lay untouched. With his fist he shoved red drenched noodles into his bottomless maw, and scowled at everyone across the table as they watched him.

“You guys need to be thinking of a plan,” Mr. Clarke was saying. “Michael is welcome to stay here — under your supervision, Will — but there’s obviously nothing I can do for him.”

“I think we know perfectly well what our next step is,” said Will. “We need El.”

Dustin’s look said that Will was a moron. “El is the last person we want to put in front of Godzilla Mike.”

Lucas concurred. “She nearly killed him breaking up with him, and then did kill him when she couldn’t save him.”

Lucas wasn’t being fair on that second point, but they all knew what he meant. The first point was more straightforward. Eleven had broken up with Mike because her father got a transfer to the west coast. Hopper had inherited the estate of a deceased cousin in Oregon, and so had applied for a job there. In December, 1986 he was accepted as the Sheriff of Yamhill County and expected to start his duties in April. He had urged his daughter to break up with Mike as soon as possible. To make the parting in April less painful, he said. El had refused to break Mike’s heart over the Christmas holiday. Instead she chose a disastrous occasion: the week in late January that Hawkins was almost destroyed by a shadow invasion.

“I know that,” said Will. “But she might be the only one who can actually reach him. She meant everything to him. Besides, she’s the only one who can fight the Illithid.”

“Whoa, Will. She killed the worm. The Illithid can’t come back.” The twin shadow worms had been the minions and steeds of the Illithid, able to flip across dimensions without requiring a Gate. But their ability to flip had depended on mutual existence. By destroying one of them, El had neutralized the threat of the other, and stranded the Illithid in the Upside Down.

“Yeah, and there can’t be another Gate,” said Dustin. “I mean, no way.” There had been two Gates: one created by Eleven in 1983, which she closed the following year, and a second one opened mysteriously in 1985, which El had closed right after Billy Hargrove killed Joyce Byers.

“Mike is here now”, said Will. “I don’t know how he crossed back over, but if that thing tracks him –”

“I think we’d know it by now,” said Dustin. “Meaning we wouldn’t know anything, because we’d be dead.”

“Did you notice it got colder today?” asked Will.

“What you mean? It’s not cold. It’s been nice.”

“It hasn’t been this cool for weeks. Hawkins turned colder when the Illithid appeared that winter. Today it’s been at least ten degrees cooler than yesterday, maybe fifteen. The same kind of drop as before.”

Lucas was skeptical. “You’re reaching.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Dustin.

“Seriously?” asked Lucas.

“Well, I think Will has a point. I agree that bringing El here could send Mike over the edge. But we might need her. And if we need her, man, we need her. No one else can take on that thing. If it’s back.”

“Should I call her now?” asked Will.

“You have her number?” Lucas was astonished.

“She gave it to me in a letter she wrote soon after moving.” He had read that letter so many times he had its entire contents memorized. “I hope it hasn’t changed.”


Next Chapter: Jane Air

(Previous Chapter: Unhallowed Reunion)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 2)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

The story assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-2. I was a bit unhappy with season 3, not least for the silly comedy. In my imagination of the summer of 1985, Joyce Byers died fighting the Mind Flayer; there were no Russians under a mall; Eleven defeated the Mind Flayer once and for all; Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven; William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also, Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer until he was killed by the creature. Jim Hopper did engineer a break-up between Eleven and Mike, but not in the silly way portrayed in season 3.

                            Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Two:

                           Unhallowed Reunion

He looked like he had crawled from a grave.


And smelled like it.

“Jesus, is that you?”

Mike had aged appropriately, looking every bit of nineteen years he should be by now. He should be dead, is what he should be. And there was no mistaking the tall and gangly frame. On that terrible January night in 1987 he had stood 5′ 10″. He was still the same, possibly a half an inch more. But he resembled a ghoul. His mouth was drooling and his face was filthy, as if he’d been eating dirt and leaves. He stank to high hell. Curiously, he had no facial hair, and Will doubted that he had been shaving. Shockingly, he wore the same clothes he’d been wearing the day he was killed; but they were torn and grimy, too short for him, and barely recognizable.

“It’s me. Will.” Christ, this isn’t happening. “You know me, right?”

Mike didn’t speak. He looked wary and hostile.

Will came up to him, and Mike actually snarled. “Hey. It’s okay.” Will reached out to embrace him. Mike went stiff and his face contorted, either in anger or some unnamed frustration. He made a soft keening noise. “Yeah, it’s me,” said Will, hugging his friend fiercely. “I got you.” Tears stung his eyes, from emotion as much as Mike’s hideous smell. He’s been bathing in a sewer.

He let go of Mike and looked him over. He was dreaming this. “Can you talk to me? I saw you die.” I watched that thing kill you and couldn’t stop it. I’m so sorry. “Where have you been? What happened?” Mike bared his teeth and made a horrible noise. He sounded like a rabid dog. Whether he couldn’t speak or understand what he was being asked, Will couldn’t say. He recalled a Halloween night from so long ago it seemed a distant country; a night that had precipitated the worst trials of his life. His body had slipped between worlds, and the Mind Flayer — so huge it blotted out the sky — had terrorized him through the streets of Hawkins. Mike had found him cowering behind a building, and had somehow managed to pull him back from the Upside Down. I’m going to get you home, Mike had promised. And he had done that, giving up a night of trick-or-treating (his favorite time of year) so that Will wouldn’t be alone. Mike had done anything for him.

Will wanted to return the favor. But he had no intention of bringing Mike to Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler until he had a dim notion as to what was going on. Mike was officially dead. Will had seen him die. He had held his battered corpse, praying it wasn’t so, as Eleven screamed Mike’s name and pounded vainly against his killer with psychic forces. Lucas, Dustin, and Max had been there. The matter was beyond doubt: Mike Wheeler had no business standing here right now. He’d been given a funeral. That sort of thing had happened to Will, but his own “death” had lasted a week. Mike had been gone three and a half years. He existed only in memories. His family and friends had moved on, or as best they could.

Of course, there had been no body for the funeral; but no one doubted Mike’s passing. The Illithid’s thrall had surprised them, pouncing out of nowhere and tearing Mike’s corpse from Will’s grasp. It had dashed away before they could react — to feed on the cadaver, they assumed. Eleven could have stopped the thrall, but she had left in pursuit of the Illithid, her heart set on murder. She had taken the bait, and left the boys vulnerable. But the thrall hadn’t attacked any of them; it had only taken Mike’s corpse. Presumably back to the Upside Down, since no trace of Mike was ever found.

Instead of feeding on it, had the thrall given the corpse to its master for some other purpose? Did the Illithid have powers of resurrection?

A car passed by, down at the end of the driveway, and Will felt suddenly exposed. He didn’t want anyone seeing Mike.

“Come on,” he said, taking Mike’s hand. Mike flinched, but he let Will guide him. They retreated to the backyard where Mike had just come from, and down to the tool shed. It was the only place Will could think of putting him for now. His aunt hardly ever went in there. He prayed she was still sound asleep. Tomorrow he’d call Lucas and Dustin.

He opened the shed door. “I’ll stay with you –”

The breath was knocked out of him as he was slammed into the shack wall by what felt like the Hulk. His lips mashed against the wood and ate splinters. Then he was flipped around and thrown down on his back. He saw stars. Surely his back had broken. Through the cloud of his agony he realized it was Mike attacking him, but that wasn’t right. Mike was his friend and not nearly this strong.

Mike didn’t look like a friend. His eyes blazed with rage. He growled something ragged and then was on top of Will, throttling him as spit flew from his filthy mouth. He was strong; impossibly so. Will grabbed his hands and tried prying them off his neck, but those hands may as well have been steel. They squeezed Will’s neck like a rubber toy. Agony spiked through his head and his body thrashed in pain. He’s killing me. Mike Wheeler is alive, and I’m about to die. He began to fade and he thought of Jonathan. He’d never see his brother again.

Then the crisis broke. His neck was suddenly free. Relief poured through him as the pain receded, leaving him limp and gasping on the ground. He turned over and retched. He could hear someone sobbing, and he wondered who had miraculously come to his rescue. It felt like he was in a movie. He looked over toward the noise but saw only Mike, kneeling a few feet away, hunched over and crying. Evidently he had stopped his own attack.

Will crawled over to him, trying to catch his breath. His throat felt like fire. He called Mike’s name, and his friend looked up at him distraught. Through his tears Mike seemed to register something. His eyes carried an appeal. He touched Will’s cheek and caressed it, looking lost. Then he started wailing.

“Be quiet!” Will hissed, clamping his hand over Mike’s mouth. He braced himself for another attack, but Mike mercifully calmed down. Let’s try again. Will let go of his mouth and pointed at the shed door. “We need to get inside, okay? Hide out for a bit? If anyone sees you, there’s going to be a shitstorm.” Mike grunted. Will needed better than that. “Can we do that? You won’t strangle me again?” He began guiding him toward the door, and Mike was compliant. Will began to feel better about the situation.

Then he felt suddenly sick.

You won’t strangle —

Tony Morrow and Jake Taplitz had been strangled. The town killer wasn’t some bigoted skinhead. It was Mike Wheeler returned from the dead.

Forget tomorrow. He was calling Lucas and Dustin now.


“Like Re-Animator,” said Dustin.

“Re-what?” asked Lucas.

“You got to be fucking kidding me. You didn’t see that movie?”

“Just explain.”

“I saw it,” said Will. He and Jonathan had bought the VHS four years ago, and their aunt had been appalled at what she saw on the TV screen as she walked by. It was the scene of the re-animated corpse carrying its own decapitated head, and using its tongue to rape the girl Megan strapped naked on a table. Will had cursed the fate that sent parental figures strolling by at the most embarrassingly obscene moments. Ruth Garrett respected her nephews’ passion for horror films, but that scene had rubbed her the wrong way; she had shot Jonathan a disapproving look before leaving. Jonathan had turned to Will and shrugged: What can you do? Will had smiled back.

He wasn’t smiling now. He didn’t like Dustin’s analogy of Re-Animator. For one, those corpses came back to life in hideously disfigured zombie states. Mike didn’t look anything like that. He drooled a bit, he was filthy and stank, but he wasn’t bad looking; he didn’t have tumors protruding from his flesh, nor was he bleeding out his orifices. The revenants in Re-Animator had also been primitive unemotional beasts. Mike was still human under his savage exterior.

“You’re forgetting Megan’s father,” said Dustin.

“What?” said Will, exasperated now.

“The girl’s father. The dean of the university. He was killed and then re-animated into a zombie, but at the last minute he turned and fought the other zombies to save his daughter. Sounds like how you describe Mike feeling sorry all of a sudden for kicking your ass.”

“He almost killed me, Dustin. And I still don’t see the comparison. Megan’s father remembered her on some level, sure, but it was a residual instinct, nothing more. Mike is still in there somewhere. He’s just been… I don’t know, smothered, somehow.”

“I think you’re projecting onto Mike what happened to you,” said Lucas.

“No, I’m not saying he’s possessed.” And he was sure of it. This wasn’t The Exorcist. This wasn’t the Mind Flayer. And yet…

“Then what is he?” asked Dustin.

“How should I know? I only found him tonight.”

Lucas got on the floor next to Mike, who had just finished a can of Orange Crush. The soda hadn’t improved his disposition.

Will was nervous. “Be careful, Lucas.”

Lucas and Dustin had arrived an hour ago in Lucas’s car, and left the Mazda parked far down the driveway on the side of the road, so as not to wake Will’s aunt. They came straight to the shed as Will had instructed on the walkie-talkie. Seeing Mike — alive, hostile, and mute — had reduced them to tears on the spot. When they hugged him, he grimaced as if he were being condemned. But when they displayed the food they brought, Mike’s eyes lit up zealously. In short time he had shoved down two leftover hamburgers from Dustin’s fridge, a giant bag of corn chips, and a full pint of blueberries. After this repast came the unpleasant task of removing Mike’s clothes. He had roared in outrage when Lucas attempted this, and only after patient coaxing would he allow Will to do the job. Will had gagged and almost thrown up as the clothes dating to their sophomore year in high school were finally peeled off. Then he had gasped in outrage: there were old scars covering Mike’s torso, as if something had long ago raked its talons down from his chest to his stomach. They all agreed the Illithid was the likely culprit. Will sponged Mike down with water bottles and towels provided by Dustin, and then assisted him into fresh clothes from Lucas’s wardrobe. In the end Mike was a new man. But he showed no sign of good will to either Lucas or Dustin.

Lucas gently took his hand. Mike growled. Lucas glanced up at Will. “Is there anything he understands?”

“I don’t think so. He didn’t seem to process anything I said to him.”

Dustin suggested: “Maybe the Shadow Plane eats away your intelligence if you’re there too long.”

“I’m not sure intelligence is the issue,” said Will.

“I don’t know,” said Dustin. “He looks pretty dense.”

“He’s traumatized, Dustin,” said Will.

“Yeah. But he’s –”

Mike stood and bared his teeth at Dustin, making a noise that was barely human.

Dustin stepped back. “Holy shit. What did I say?”

“You said he was dense,” said Lucas.

“I said he looked dense.”

“He looks pissed now!”

“Well then I take it back.”

Jesus. “If he breaks you in half, Dustin, it’s on you.” At this point, Will almost welcomed the spectacle.

“I thought you were the genius who said he couldn’t understand anything. How is this ‘on me’?”

“We don’t know what he understands.”

“It could be your tone that set him off,” said Lucas. “Or maybe he thinks you’re ass-ugly.”

“Funny,” said Dustin. He turned to Mike: “Is that it, Mike? I’m not handsome enough for you?”

Mike had the expression of someone choking on gravel.

“Christ, he must be constipated. How often does one shit in the Upside Down?”

“Can you be serious for a second!”

“I am serious, Lucas! And I’m the only one coming up with reasonable theories here.”

Mike was getting more agitated — twitching now.

“Okay, relax, bud,” said Dustin. “I’m trying here. Work with me. How are you alive again? Was it the Illithid?”

“The Illithid has resurrection powers,” said Will. He was sure of it. “How else do we explain this?”

“How about the obvious?” asked Lucas. “Maybe Mike never died. He could have gone into a coma or something.”

“Coma, my ass,” said Will. “I was holding him, Lucas. And you saw. The way he hit that tree.”

“Just so you guys know, we’re making a shitload of noise right now,” said Dustin.

“We can’t stay here,” agreed Will. He kept expecting his aunt to come storming in at any moment.

“What about Castle Byers?” asked Lucas. “Your old fort? No one will find us way back there.”

“Is it still standing?” asked Dustin.

Will hadn’t been inside his fort in ages. “It’s there but a bit run down. One side of it’s half gone. It’s a good enough shelter anyway, if it’s not raining.”

“Let’s go then,” said Dustin. “We brought extra sleeping bags, so you don’t have to go inside your house and make noise.”

“And we have more sandwiches too,” said Lucas.

Those at least would keep Mike happy. “I guess we can use the fort for one night. But I don’t want Mike sleeping outside any more than that.”

“I think,” said Lucas, “he’s been sleeping in worse places than ‘outside’ for a long time now.”


Next Chapter: At the Home of Mr. Clarke

(Previous Chapter: Will the Wiser)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 1)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

The story assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-2. I was a bit unhappy with season 3, not least for the silly comedy. In my imagination of the summer of 1985, Joyce Byers died fighting the Mind Flayer; there were no Russians under a mall; Eleven defeated the Mind Flayer once and for all; Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven; William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also, Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer until he was killed by the creature. Jim Hopper did engineer a break-up between Eleven and Mike, but not in the silly way portrayed in season 3.

                              Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter One:

                                  Will the Wiser

Monday, August 6, 1990

William Byers loved his aunt, but by August he was ready to shoot her. He couldn’t wait to get back to school. And the new crisis in Hawkins wasn’t helping matters.

It was a miracle he could even attend a college of his choice. Grinnell had been a victory of sorts. Ruth Garrett had forbidden him any school that wasn’t in a state bordering Indiana, and preferably in Indiana itself. He had set his sights on New England, like Lucas and Dustin, and would have settled for New York, like Jonathan, but those far-flung territories were simply out of bounds. In the seventh grade he had been snatched and imprisoned in another world. The following year he had been possessed and nearly killed. The next summer his mother was killed: shot by a thug when that possessor returned. In high school the horrors had continued, and after the sophomore-year tragedy (he still couldn’t bear to think about Mike Wheeler), his aunt’s helicopter insanity hit a record high. She was worse than Joyce Byers had ever been, and that was saying something. Only a few months later, it was time for junior-year college visits, and Aunt Ruth had issued her edict: no college beyond a six-hour drive from Hawkins.

Will had been enraged by the humiliation and unfairness of it all, and astonished that his aunt could be so backwards. If she had the common sense God gave geese, he pointed out, she should be happy with him putting as many miles as possible between himself and Hawkins. He was going to New England, and that was that. Stunned by his rebellion, Ruth Garrett had shouted him down until he cried. She didn’t want to hear anything approaching the realm of common sense. For all she knew, there were shadow monsters lurking in the distant colonies of New England, preying on students from afar. Williams College — Will’s dream school — was out of the question, as were Middlebury and Bowdoin. Will renewed his objections. Aunt Ruth shot him down again. He stormed out of the house and stayed overnight with Lucas, who smuggled him upstairs without his parents knowing. For that disappearing act, the Hawkins Police Department suffered the unbridled hysteria of Ruth Garrett. Will was grounded for a month.

In the end she had felt bad, and amended her fiat when Will became fixated on Grinnell. He fell in love with the place reading the brochure. Iowa was only two states over from Indiana, and this allowed Aunt Ruth the mental leeway to compromise and feel better about herself. Will was accepted early decision the following year, in December 1988, and in late August 1989 he arrived in Iowa, to start the first chapter in his life out from the under the suffocating wing of Joyce Byers’ sister.

Independence was liberating, but made it hard readjusting when he came home for breaks. He started resenting his summer vacation around the middle of June, before summer even began, and now there was the town crisis, to which his aunt had responded by treating him like he was twelve again. On Saturday two high-school juniors were found strangled in the woods, not far from the cabin where Jim Hopper used to live. They had been having sex, and the esteemed Hawkins Police judged they were killed for that very reason: they were gay. Tony Morrow and Jake Taplitz had been openly gay — a dangerous thing for a Hawkins student to be. Ruth Garrett considered herself an enlightened liberal, but she was practical above all. She had always harbored fears that Will was gay, based on the bullying he had taken for being sensitive and shy. Aunt Ruth had no problems with gay people, as long as her younger nephew wasn’t one of them. She saw his face on Tony and Jake when she read the Hawkins Post.

It made for exasperating dinner conversation. Last night was bad. Tonight was worse. Her diatribes about school bullies segued into inquiries about Grinnell students.

“Aunt Ruth, we don’t know that Tony and Jake were killed by classmates. And Grinnell is a liberal arts college. When people say homophobic things, they’re the ones who tend to get in trouble.”

“You have to dumb down for your aunt. What’s ‘homophobic’?”

“Fear of homosexuality. People who don’t like gays and make fun of them. Or discriminate against them.”

“Oh.” She dumped salad on her plate. “Right.”

“There’s low tolerance for that at Grinnell. It’s gay friendly.” He tore into his pork roast. This was the one good thing about coming home: his aunt’s cooking. It had been the best part of his adoption in the fall of ’85, which he had otherwise resented. His mother had been a good cook, but Aunt Ruth was in another league entirely.

She looked at him. “Really?”

“Yeah. There was a guy who used the term ‘ass-bandit’ in class, and people got pissed, including the professor.” At Hawkins High, students had used all the faggot euphemisms with impunity. Probably still did.

Aunt Ruth shook her head. “I obviously need to relearn the English language. But I’d rather not know what an ‘ass-bandit’ is.”

Will smothered a laugh. For some reason he found it funny when his aunt used rude expressions she didn’t understand.

“Is Chloe back from France yet?”

This was his aunt’s way of being coy. By bringing up Chloe out of context, she was fishing for some assurance that her nephew was interested in the female sex.

“Chloe’s a pain the ass.” More dismissive than he meant to sound, but Chloe was a pain in the ass, and their friendship had declined since they had gone their separate ways to college. In his aunt’s fantasy, Will would someday marry this nubile cutie he had taken to the senior prom. “I think she gets back next week.”

“She’s nice,” Aunt Ruth insisted. “Invite her over before you vacate my nest again.”

He’d rather eat his own spleen than have Chloe over. He focused on his baked potato.

“I’ll cook her the shepherd’s pie recipe she likes, then you guys can catch a movie together.”

He suddenly liked his aunt’s idea. The Exorcist III was hitting theaters in a week or so. That would give Chloe nightmares, and the thought pleased him. He couldn’t wait to see it. The Exorcist II had been the worst sequel ever made, but according to advanced reviews, William Peter Blatty — the man himself — had directed the third film. It was based on his novel Legion, which was the actual written sequel to The Exorcist. Will had read Legion at college last year. It had scared him shitless. The Exorcist III was his number-one priority before returning to Grinnell, and he told his aunt so.

Aunt Ruth looked at him as if he had lost his mind. “Will, what’s wrong with you?”

Why do I say things? “Why do you think something’s wrong?”

“You know why! Look, I know you’re an adult and you watch whatever the hell you want, and to hell with your adoptive aunt. But those Exorcist movies, don’t they hit close to home?”

Of course they did. That was a big part of why he was drawn to them. In the fall of 1984, Will had been given the equivalent of an exorcism by his mother, brother, and Nancy Wheeler. They had almost killed him driving the Mind Flayer out of him. He still had nightmares about it. Watching The Exorcist brought him back to that horrible night in Hopper’s cabin. But it was also strangely therapeutic. He had a hard time explaining how, and his aunt would never understand. He made a stab at it: “Dr. Owens always said that I should face my traumatic experiences, not ignore them. The Exorcist helped me understand what the Mind Flayer did — what possession really does to a person.”

She considered that. “Okay. And you think that understanding your possession has been good for you?”

“Well, yeah, I mean, for a while I thought there was something wrong with me. I wondered — no, listen, Aunt Ruth — I wondered why it chose me. But I realized I was no different from the girl Regan. Demons and shadow monsters like to rip people up for no special reason. Especially innocent people. Or young people. I didn’t get that until watching the movie.”

“Will, I always told you there was nothing wrong with you.”

“I know that, but you’re my aunt. You’d say that anyway.”

She went back to her food. “You know I trust you. I just worry about you obsessing that stuff. Didn’t you see another terrible movie last week, with Lucas and Dustin?”

Flatliners?” he said. “That was an awesome movie, but a lot of people hated it. We loved it. I think it’ll be a classic someday. It’s about these medical students who try to have near-death experiences. They stop each other’s hearts and use their defibrillators to bring them back to life. They want to see the afterlife, which turns out to be pretty nasty when it follows them back.”

“‘Flatliners’,” she said, and he realized that had been another wrong thing to say. “You really know how to pour it on.” The year before his exorcism, Will had flatlined in the Upside Down. His mother and Sheriff Hopper had barely resuscitated him.

It was funny how the horror films this summer were straight out of his own playbook. He hoped that wasn’t an omen.


That night he dug out his Dungeons & Dragons material. He had agreed to run a campaign for the Grinnell gaming club in September, and it had to be beginners level. He grabbed the essentials from his box — the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual — and then surveyed his collection of adventure modules. The Keep on the Borderlands. Negative. Everyone knew that one. The Village of Hommlet. Great setting, but he could never come up with a good plot for it. The Lost City. Loads of memories there. He opened it, and those memories poured out. He, Lucas, and Dustin fighting for their characters’ lives, shouting over each other, as Mike assumed the role of the Zargonite priest, casting a flame strike that killed Lucas’s character. It was classic Mike Wheeler dungeon-mastering, and a grand adventure that lasted two days. They had slept over Dustin’s house for the week-end.

Will realized his eyes were wet. Thoughts of Mike always caught him off guard.

He closed The Lost City and got hold of himself. He needed a virgin module, something he’d never got around to using. He pulled out The Secret of Bone Hill. That one might do. It had a cover art piece portraying a lady-wizard blasting a skeletal creature. Like Eleven —

He heard a noise to his right and looked up. It sounded like something had the window. He got up and went to it, feeling watched all of a sudden. He tried looking out the glass, but the bedroom light made that hard. He killed the light.

Someone was right outside, staring in.

Will stiffened and jumped backward, his heart slamming in his chest. He fell down and knocked over the box of gaming material. Dice rolled everywhere. He swore and looked up frantically at the window. The figure was gone. Thoughts of the town killer filled his imagination.

He got up and forced himself back to the window, leaving the light off. He fully expected Michael Myers to come crashing through and bury a knife in his neck. He surveyed the backyard. Nothing. He looked right, towards the tool shed; left, along the path to the front lawn. Still nothing. He hadn’t imagined this. He was about to turn away — and then snapped his head sideways as he caught movement along the outside wall. The intruder was close against the house and moving slowly around to the front yard.

Will bolted from his room, and down the hallway to the front door, mindless of any danger. For four years in a row he had faced terrors from the Upside Down, and he wasn’t about to be intimidated by a nighttime prowler. Prowlers can kill. And there’s a killer in town. He paused, his heart racing. Knowing he was being very stupid, he threw open the door.

Moonlight flooded the front lawn, and he saw the figure turn the corner. Fear mixed with anger, and he marched out to confront Michael Myers. “Hey!” he called, trying to sound casual and strong. “Do you know you’re trespassing?” The intruder stopped. “You need to leave, sir. This is private –”

Will gasped in unbelief. The moonlight shone on the prowler’s face, and it was the face of someone long dead. Not Michael Myers. Michael —


— Wheeler.


Mike Wheeler had been killed three and a half years ago. Will had held his corpse, screamed at the gods, and sobbed his lungs out as the killer gloated not ten feet away. Yet there was no denying the person standing in front of him right now. It was his friend Mike.


Next Chapter: Unhallowed Reunion.

The History of Jihad: A Review

This is the release week for Robert Spencer’s History of Jihad, for which I wrote an advance review back in May. I’ll repeat that preface here and then follow it with more details. The book represents the crown and summit of Spencer’s work, which he describes as follows:

“I’ve written a guide to the Qur’an and a biography of Muhammad, and with this book, the case is complete — that is, the case that there are elements within Islam that pose a challenge to free societies, and that free people need to pay attention to this fact before it is, quite literally, too late. It is necessary for me to repeat yet again that this does not mean that every individual Muslim, or any given Muslim, embodies that challenge and is posing it individually, but as this book makes clear, the Islamic jihad imperative remains regardless of whether or not any Muslim individual decides to take it up.”

History of Jihad’s value lies not only in its scope — it covers every single jihad theater, from Arabia to Persia, North Africa to Europe, Spain to India, Tel Aviv to New York City — but also its explanatory power. Spencer relies heavily on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience the jihad. Repeating without fail are cycles of brutality and piety, and the clear religious motives of the Muslims. Jihadists have always been candid about their reason for waging war — to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islam — but people in the 21st century have a hard time accepting this, and have grasped at every possible explanation except the obvious one. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty; there are as many middle-class and well-to-do jihadists as poor ones. Unlike most of human warfare, holy war is waged primarily for spiritual reward, and it operates irrespective of rational purpose. It takes the guardrails off civilization and can’t be reasoned with. This makes Spencer’s book a horror drama as much as an historical one.

It’s rare to see myths about Islam debunked so thoroughly, though we got another one recently from Dario Fernandez-Morera in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016). The reality of Islamic Spain is that there was no fruitful cooperation between faiths. The Muslims were less friendly to Jews and Christians than American Southern whites were to blacks before civil rights. In Spencer’s book, the same conclusion is drawn in all times and places:

“There is no period since the beginning of Islam that was characterized by large-scale peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims. There was no time when mainstream and dominant Islamic authorities taught the equality of non-Muslims with Muslims, or the obsolescence of jihad warfare. There was no Era of Good Feeling, no Golden Age of Tolerance, no Paradise of Proto-Multiculturalism. There has always been, with virtually no interruption, jihad.”

That may not be a controversial point to competent historians, but it’s not what most people believe or are willing to say. Pointing out that Islam is toxic wins you no friends in an age that is less concerned with truth and more with peoples’ wishes and feelings. There is also the problem of funding. Universities with departments of Islamic Studies often receive their support from places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Muslim nations, and when you factor in the politically correct climate on campuses, scholars are almost guaranteed to promote the usual myths. Spencer’s book, like Fernandez-Morera’s, is free of those pressures. It’s the best available book now on the Islamic jihad. The only other top-notch treatment I know of is Alfred Morabia’s Le Gihad dans L’Islam Medieval (1993), but an English translation is hard to come by.

For all the attempts to isolate jihad as an inner spiritual struggle, it has always carried the unconditional requirement for sacred warfare against unbelievers. Warriors of jihad are promised the property and women of the vanquished enemy if they live, and virgins in paradise if they die. This is true in all schools of Islamic jurisprudence, as cited by Spencer in the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali sources, which in turn rely on the Qur’an and Hadith. There was never a time when the “greater” (spiritual) jihad was divorced from the “lesser” (military) one. They’re inseparable.

I’ll go through each of the book’s ten chapters and cover the highlights. That makes for a long review, but keep in mind I’m only scratching the surface of the grand opera that is The History of Jihad. Read the whole book and learn from it.

Chapter 1: The Battles of Muhammad (622-632)

There were twenty-seven Muslim battles during the time of Muhammad, but Spencer focuses on the biggies in which the Prophet was directly involved. It should be stressed that the historicity of these battles is irrelevant. They are reported in the Qur’an, the Hadith, and/or the Life of Muhammad, and to whatever degree they have been embellished (or invented, as Spencer himself believes), the fact is that most Muslims believe they happened, and all schools of Islam maintain that Muhammad is the warrior exemplar as he is portrayed in the accounts.

The prophet’s most famous jihad is the Battle of Badr (March, 624). It was the turning-point for the Muslim community, fought against Muhammad’s tribe of the Quraysh. Many Qur’an passages draw crucial lessons from it: piety is what brought the military victory (Qur’an 3:13); the angels would always help the Muslims in battle and strike terror into the hearts of their enemies (Qur’an 8:9, 12–13); the Muslims were Allah’s passive instruments at Badr (even the pebbles Muhammad threw toward the Quraysh were not thrown by him, but by Allah) (Qur’an 8:17); and future victories were guaranteed to pious Muslims even if they faced odds more prohibitive than the ones encountered at Badr (Qur’an 8:65–66). “Thus were first enunciated,” says Spencer, “what would become recurring themes of jihad literature throughout the centuries to today.”

The Muslims were then crushed in the Battle of Uhud (December, 624), but again this was spiritually instructive: it wasn’t Allah’s fault. Allah takes ownership of victories like Badr. Failures like Uhud are the result of the Muslims’ lack of courage and their lust for the things of this world (Qur’an 3:152). Allah reminded the Muslims of his help given to the them in the past when they were outnumbered, and that their piety is essential for winning battles (Qur’an 3:123–127). “The lesson was clear,” says Spencer: “the only path to success was Islam, and the cause of all failure was the abandonment of Islam. Allah promised that the Muslims would soon be victorious again, provided that they depended solely on him and rejected all accord with non-Muslims.“ (Qur’an 3:149–151)

Other jihads are covered in similar detail. The Battle of al-Khandaq (January-February 627) became known as “The Battle of the Trench”, and the Battle of Qurayza (February-March, 627) was Muhammad’s massacre of the Jews for allying with the Quraysh in the previous battle. At this point Muhammad controlled Medina, but he continued to be challenged, not least by the tribe of al-Mustaliq (Arabs related to the Quraysh), and so he led the Muslims out to crush them in the Battle of al-Mustaliq (December 627). He was victorious, and Allah granted him the wives, children and property of the slain men as booty.

Next year came the Battle of Khaybar (May-June 628), in which Muhammad subjugated the Jews near Medina. As Spencer notes, “to this day, Muslims warn Jews of impending massacres by chanting, ‘Khaybar, Khaybar. O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return’.” Muhammad finally returned to his stomping grounds in the Occupation of Mecca (January, 630), where the Quraysh people finally embraced Islam, willingly or not. He proceeded to the Kaaba and smashed the pagan idols of the city, heralding, “the Truth has come and falsehood gone” (Qur’an 17:81). The occupation was followed by two more battles which gave Muhammad complete control of Arabia.

With Arabia dominated, Muhammad planned to take jihad to the world — against the Byzantines and Persians. He wrote to Heraclius in Constantinople, threatening that if the emperor wanted to remain safe, then he should convert to Islam. Heraclius declined and the Byzantines would reap the jihad onslaught. Muhammad sent a similar letter to the Persian emperor Khosrau, who tore it to pieces. When Muhammad learned this, he called upon Allah to do the very same — to tear Khosrau and his followers to pieces. He promised Muslims that they would enjoy the fruits of jihad victories over the Byzantines and Persians: “When Khosrau perishes, there will be no more Khosrau after him, and when Caesar perishes, there will be no more Caesar after him. By Him in Whose hands Muhammad’s life is, you will spend the treasures of both of them in Allah’s cause.” (Sahih al-Bukhari  vol. 4, bk. 61, no. 3618). In 631 he sent the first raids into the Byzantine Empire, at Tabuk, and it was at this point that Allah gave Muhammad revelations scolding the Muslims who declined to go on these raids, reminding believers that those who refused to wage jihad would face terrible punishment (Qur’an 9:38-39).

Spencer then explains the jizya, or the poll tax, which is important in Islam. From this point on, Jews and Christians (the People of the Book) could be spared slaughter if they accepted Islamic rule by paying the special tax and submitting to regulations that would ensure their subordinate position: they must “pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (Qur’an 9:29). The jizya evolved as a matter of practicality, giving the Muslims’ their chief source of income as they waged jihad on the world, but it was also a way to keep the People of the Book “subdued” throughout the centuries, along with other humiliations. Jews and Christians could not hold authority over Muslims; they could have only menial jobs; they could not build new churches/synagogues or repair old ones (which could never be higher than the Islamic mosques in any case); they would have to make way if a Muslim approached on the street, and in some cases even wear an insignia like the Jews in Nazi Germany. While nominally protected, Jews and Christians would in practice often be abused by Muslims with impunity. Jizya was by no means a benign practice, as some myth-making histories insist. It was a mafia racketeer form of “protection”.

Chapter 2: The Great Conquests (632-711)

The era of the four “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” — Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali — is considered the first Islamic Golden Age (632-661), and a model of what an Islamic state ought to be. But as Spencer demonstrates, this age was anything but peaceful, and if these caliphs were “rightly guided”, then that’s a pretty damning indictment.

When Abu Bakr (632-634) became the first caliph he told the Muslims, “Abandon not jihad; when the people hold back from jihad, they are put to disgrace.” (Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Vol. 1; Darussalam, 2000, 276). When members of the Arabian tribes abandoned Islam after Muhammad’s death, Abu Bakr declared, per Muhammad’s instructions, that “whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him” (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 9, bk. 88, no. 6922; cf. vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 3017). He sent his best warrior, Khalid ibn al-Walid, to subdue the apostates and bring them back to the Islamic religion, and to kill those who refused. Then the caliph sent Khalid to conquer Iraq (at the time part of Sassanid Persia), and in May 633 Khalid told the Sassaniad governor to accept Islam, or pay the jizya, or “we will bring against you a people who love death more than you love drinking wine” (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 11, The Challenge to the Empires; State University of New York Press, 1993, 6). As Spencer says, this triple choice — conversion to Islam, subjugation under the rule of Islam, or war — is still the way of Islamic law today. Khalid defeated the Persians in many jihads, and praised Allah for granting him the victories.

Then came Umar (634-644), who made the Arabs into a global jihad force. By his death in 644, the Muslims had demolished the Sassaniad Empire and weakened the Byzantine. The jihad began in Syria in 636, with Muslims reciting the eighth chapter of the Qur’an known as “The Spoils of War”. Then they expelled Christians in Yemen from Arabia, fulfilling Muhammad’s dying words, “If Allah wills, I will expel the Jews and the Christians from the Arabian peninsula.” They attacked the Persians, with Umar justifying it on grounds of making Islam triumph over all other religions (Qur’an 9:33, 48:28, 61:9) (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 11, 173). When the Persians asked why the Muslims had come to attack them, one warrior said, “If you kill us, we shall enter Paradise; if we kill you, you shall enter the Fire, or hand over the poll tax.” (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 12, The Battle of al-Qadisiyyah and the Conquest of Syria and Palestine; State University of New York Press, 1992, 32). They finally took the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, and replaced the emperor’s throne with a pulpit, declaring there was no god but Allah. The Arabs also took Jerusalem in 636, and Umar made a pact with the Jerusalem patriarch, in which the Christians were not allowed to build new churches, carry arms, or ride on horses, and had to pay the jizya in order to receive “protection” (in the mafia sense, of course) to practice their religion. The jihad then continued in Egypt in 639, leaving calamities in its wake. Then Armenia in 642. By 644, the Arabs controlled much of Syria and the Levant, and most of Persia and Egypt. In all cases, as Spencer shows, “the ability to gain and retain political power was directly tied to one’s obedience to Allah and Islam.” It was holy war all the way.

Uthman (644-656) took the jihad to the high seas. One of his commanders Muawiya invaded Cyprus in 649, defeated the Byzantines on the island, and imposed the jizya; then they invaded and subjugated Rhodes as well. Muawiya was then appointed governor of Syria by Uthman, and he wrote to the Byzantine emperor Constantine “the Bearded” in 651, calling on him to renounce Christianity “or else”. Revolts in Africa were crushed, and it was during this time that Uthman compiled the Qur’an as we know it today. He began the process in the early 650s after a Muslim named Hudhaifa bin al-Yaman warned him that Muslims were in danger of becoming like the Jews and Christians (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 6, bk. 65, no. 4784). Uthman was assassinated in 656 by some Muslims who rebelled against his rule, accusing him of the sin of bid’a (innovation), in other words changing some of the Muslim practices.

The last “Rightly Guided” Caliph was Ali (656-661), who came under attack from an internal jihad, launched by Muhammad’s favorite wife Aisha. She hated Ali, because when Muhammad was alive she had been accused of adultery, and Ali had advised Muhammad to have her stoned to death. Aisha now organized an armed revolt against the caliph, enlisting the help of Muawiya, the jihad exemplar under Uthman. She demanded of others who were also enraged by Uthman’s assassination: “Seek revenge for the blood of Uthman, and you will strengthen Islam!” (Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 16, The Community Divided; State University of New York Press, 1997, 39). She was defeated at the Battle of the Camel in Basra (656), leading her jihad from the back of a camel.

Muawiya (661-680) founded the Umayyad dynasty, and as caliph he basically continued where he left off under Uthman’s rule, ordering the construction of a fleet to sail against Constantinople in 670. The Arabs had demolished the Persian Empire, and they were hell-bent on doing the same to the Byzantines. Muhammad had promised that “the first army amongst my followers who will invade Caesar’s city [Constantinople] will be forgiven their sins.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 2924). As Spencer says, this statement was obviously put into Muhammad’s mouth long after the siege of Constantinople, but there is no doubt it reflected a sacred aspiration that those early jihadis shared. And the jihad proceeded elsewhere — in Crete, North Africa, central Asia, and into Afghanistan.

By making the caliphate into a family dynasty (the Umayyads), Muawiya set off a civil war which came to a head when his son Yazid (680-683) became the caliph. The second son of Ali, Husayn, refused to accept Yazid’s authority, and led a revolt against Yazid’s forces. Both sides justified their fighting by declaring the other not Muslims, which remains the tactic to this day for Muslims who wage jihad on their own kin. Husayn was killed, but his followers still refused to accept Yazid’s authority, and the split in the Muslim community became permanent: the Sunnis (under Yazid) and the Shi’ites (who had revolted under Husayn) went their separate ways forever, and would wage jihad on each other with the same zeal they dished out on non-Muslims.

Jihad efforts continued over the next 30 years, primarily in North Africa. Then came two momentous campaigns which took the jihad to Spain and India, in the same fateful year of 711.

Chapter 3: The Jihad Comes to Spain and India (711-900)

Islamic history has been especially distorted in Spain (Al-Andalus), and Spencer’s corrective is a gale of fresh air. The complete corrective, as I mentioned at the start, is found in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. That book was written (shockingly) by a Harvard scholar, Dario Fernandez-Morera, who utterly demolished the idea that al-Andalus was some kind of multicultural paradise where Jews and Christians lived in fruitful harmony with their Muslim overlords. Jews and Christians were pariah, like blacks in the American South before civil rights. Al-Andalus was a violent society for everyone; Muslims killed each other for power and treated Jews and Christians like dirt.

We’re often told there is little difference between the Muslim invasion of Spain in the eighth century and the Visigoth takeover of Spain in the fifth — or for that matter, between any of the Muslim conquests and “typical” military invasions that happened anywhere. But there’s a big difference. The Visigoths hadn’t been driven by their religious faith to conquer Spain; they didn’t force people to convert or submit and pay a tax designed to humiliate them as second-class citizens; they didn’t spread their Arian Christian religion at all. Like the other Germanic tribes in Europe, the Visigoths did everything in their power to preserve Roman civilization, where the Arabs destroyed it (as they had in places like Alexandria) in religious fervor.

Spencer describes that fervor, and the brutal treatment of the conquered people. Christians retained small dominions in the north, and the ongoing battles between them and the jihad invaders would become legendary. In 732 the jihad pressed into France led by the al-Andalus governor, and confronted Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours. Some historians judge this to be the most important battle in world history, because Martel’s victory probably stopped the complete Islamization of Europe. Spencer points out the one European who was disappointed by this outcome: Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer declared:

“Had Charles Martel not been victorious — already, you see, the world had fallen into the hands of the Jews, so gutless a thing was Christianity! — then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism, that cult which glorifies heroism and which opens the seventh heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so.” (Hitler’s Table Talk 1941–1944, translated by Norman Cameron and R. H. Stevens; Enigma Books, 2000, 667)

(For Hitler, Islam was a “religion of men”, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit than the “Jewish filth and priestly twaddle of Christianity”.)

But if things went badly for the jihad in France, they escalated back home in Spain when the Umayyad dynasty at Baghdad fell to the Abbassids in 750. The Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman fled for his life and came to al-Andalus, founded the Emirate of Cordoba, and continued jihad warfare against the Christians in northern Spain.

Spencer also covers India, which is nice since the Hindus tend to get ignored in holy-war histories. The Hindus (and Jains and Buddhists) suffered tremendously under Muslim rule. The jihad commander Muhammad ibn Qasim brought slaughter and forced conversions and the destruction of Hindu temples over a four year period, until he was killed by the Abbasid caliph in 715.

The reason Ibn Qasim was killed is rather hilarious, though there are two different accounts: one in the Chachnama (a history of India written in the 7th-8th centuries), the other from Al-Baladhuri (a 9th century historian). The former has him killed by Caliph al-Walid for daring to send al-Walid sex slaves that he had already raped himself; the latter has him killed by al-Walid’s successor Sulayman for daring to dispute Sulayman’s right of succession. Spencer follows the earlier account, which is probably the more reliable: After decimating regions in the Sindh (today’s eastern Pakistan) and massacring Hindus, Ibn Qasim sent treasure and booty from the temples back to the caliph, along with two choice sex slaves (the daughters of the Sindhi king Dahir). As al-Walid was about to rape one of the girls, she panicked and told him that she had already been raped by Ibn Qasim. Al-Walid was enraged that his own general had dared to send him sloppy seconds, and immediately ordered that Ibn Qasim — despite his massive victories in India for the glory of Allah — be sewn up into a rawhide sack and shipped back to his court. By the time the sack arrived, the general was suffocated, which was probably just as well for him, given the caliph’s fury.

The upshot of this is that the jihad was put on hold in India because its general had the audacity to rape the slaves he sent as a gift to the caliph. But the respite wouldn’t last. The jihad in India later resumed, and would carry on for over 1100 years.

There’s plenty more in this chapter — there were jihads galore throughout the 8th and 9th centuries — not least the second siege of Constantinople, launched in 717 (the first was Muawiya’s in 670). Later under the Abbasids, Caliph Harun al-Rashid waged no less than eight jihads against the Byzantine empire, though as Spencer notes, we never hear of these because this caliph has been hyper-romanticized for patronizing the arts and medicine: “History does not record how many Christians and other non-Muslims this most enlightened of caliphs subjected to lives of slavery and degradation, or to immediate death. No one at his opulent court looked askance at this: It was the will of Allah.”

Chapter 4: Consolidation (900-1095)

The jihad was relatively quiet during the 900s, but as Spencer emphasizes, this wasn’t because there was any Islamic reform or reconsideration of Muhammad’s commands. It was simply because the Muslims were preoccupied with fighting among themselves and lacked the resources for lengthy campaigns abroad. Noteworthy is the Shi’ite Fatmid dynasty that came to power at this time, taking over Algeria and other places in the early 900s until they established the seat of the Shi’ite caliphate at Cairo in 969. The Sunni Abbasids at Baghdad weren’t pleased.

But there was one place in the 10th century where the jihad didn’t stop: Spain. That wonderful “multicultural paradise” (so we’ve been told) saw a revving up of jihad, when the Umayyad rulers (who had come in 750, fleeing the Abbasids) decided to upgrade their emirate into a caliphate of their own. The Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba would last until 1031, and the first caliph, Abd al-Rahman III (929-961), wasted no time launching a jihad against Christians in the north.

Spencer describes Abd al-Rahman III as a “scrupulous doctrinaire Muslim ruler”, and cites a contemporary historian, who indeed paints a ruthless portrait. The caliph punished the slightest innovation in Islamic doctrine, and filled the mosques with his spies in order to “penetrate the most intimate secrets of the people, so that he could know every action, every thought, of good and bad people”. He carried out an inquisition (long before the Christian inquisitions started in the 1180s) to terrify and punish wayward Muslims. He tortured and killed Christian prisoners for dramatic effect, in one case lining up 100 captives in the orchard of the Cordoba castle, where they were decapitated one by one, so that the Muslims in attendance felt empowered by Allah. In another instance, he crucified 300 of his own officers for their failure in a jihad against the Christians. As Spencer reminds us, the Qur’an prescribes crucifixion as a punishment for those who “make war on Allah” (5:33), and Abd al-Rahman III thought his officers had “made war on Allah” by incompetently mismanaging the jihad and giving the Christians an easy victory.

And yet Abd al-Rahman III wasn’t the worst ruler of this period. Almanzor (981-1002) showed him up by waging almost 60 jihads, and was known for commanding that the dust on his clothes be collected after each battle against the Christians so that he could be buried under the glorious dust when he died. Spencer describes his activities at length, and they make for some ghastly reading.

Then he discusses the Jews of al-Andalus, who often had it even worse than Christians. The myth of Jewish privilege in Islamic Spain has become entrenched in academia. It’s true that there were “favored” Jews who were appointed as court physicians and viziers, because Muslim rulers found them easy to control as dhimmis (second-class citizens). This sort of thing happens in many other times and places. Hernando Cortes exploited the Tlaxcalan Indians in his struggle against the Aztecs, and yet no one ever dreams of trying to pass off Cortes’ policy as a Christian Spaniard “tolerance” for the Tlaxcalan way of life or their religious beliefs or even relative good will. Nor should we resort to fantasies about a supposed Islamic tolerance for the Jews of al-Andalus. The caliphs never called their Jewish physicians and viziers “allies” in any case, but rather “servants”, since the Qur’an demonized Jews even worse than Christians. The Muslim masses demonized them too, which is why pogroms and assassinations broke out in al-Andalus — in 1013 (when the Jews were expelled from Cordoba), 1039 (when the Jewish vizier of Zaragoza was assassinated by a Muslim mob), and in 1066 (when the Jews of Granada were killed).

That last slaughter was brought on because of the favors shown to Samuel ibn Naghrila, a Jew who had become an extremely powerful vizier of Granada. He was allowed to command Muslim armies — the direst of blasphemies. Samuel Ibn Naghrila is the classic case held up by liberals to promote the multiculturalist theory of the Andalusian paradise, which is absurd since he was the exception proving the rule. As Spencer says, the Muslims in Granada knew Islamic law perfectly well, and their resentment eventually built to the point that they took to the streets and killed 4000 Jews, crucifying Samuel’s son Joseph Ibn Naghrila.

Spencer then turns to the final chapter of 11th century Spain: the invasion of the Almoravids. When the caliphate fell in 1031, al-Andalus broke up into small taifa kingdoms, and the elite courts of the kings into a decadent lifestyle decried by the Muslim clerics. When King Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon captured Toledo in 1085, the taifas desperately called for help from the Almoravid Muslims in North Africa, which was a rather stupid move. The Almoravids were a fundamentalist Berber dynasty, and they hated the taifas as much as they hated the Christians they were being called on to crush. No matter: they would bring jihad to al-Andalus and dominate the taifas so that pure Islam would reign supreme. And while they succeeded in doing this, and stopping the Christian momentum — taking control of the southern half of Spain in a series of battles between 1086-1094 — the Christians also took back more territory in the north that they hadn’t controlled since prior to the jihad invasion of 711. Spencer is right that this whole situation was unprecedented:

“The forces of jihad had never had this much trouble holding a territory they had conquered for Islam, and seldom, if ever, would again. Even as the Almoravids united the taifas under their rule and continued to wage jihad against the Christians, the Muslims were still on the defensive. The Christians were determined not to let Spain be Islamized, and they kept pushing against the Muslim domains.” (p 129)

The figure of El Cid became a particular thorn in the Almoravid side, and the Spanish reconquest foreshadowed the crusades which were a breath away.

Spencer doesn’t have much to say about the Almoravid hatred for the taifas, and he omits one of my favorite accounts, that of Al-Mu’tamid, the taifa king of Seville. When warned by his courtiers that the Almoravids were the greater of two evils — that they would treat the taifa kings far worse than the reconquering Christians would — Al-Mu’tamid retorted that he would “rather be a camel driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile”. And for his loyalty to Islam he was “rewarded” by being made captive by the Almoravids and tortured. No camel driving career for him.

The chapter also gives heavy attention to India, starting with Mahmud of Ghazni, who transformed the city of Ghazna into the capital of an empire that covered most of today’s Afghanistan, eastern Iran, and Pakistan. He did this by waging relentless jihad against the Indian subcontinent and plundering its wealth over a 30-year period. When the Abbasid Caliphate recognized him in 999 and granted him the title of sultan, he had pledged to wage a jihad against India every year; it ended up being seventeen lengthy and brutal jihads. Contemporary historians paint a grim picture of the way he terrorized non-Muslims, and Spencer cites one who wrote that Mahmud converted thousands of Hindu temples into mosques to demonstrate the superiority of Islam, and paraded captive Indian rulers through the streets of vanquished cities so that “the fear of Islam might fly abroad through the country of the infidels”. According to another, Mahmud and his jihadis were completely merciless, such that blood filled the rivers so no one could drink from them, and this was a sign of Allah’s favor on the Muslims: “Victory was gained by God’s grace, who has established Islam forever as the best of religions.”

When Mahmud died in 1030, he had made huge gains for Islam in the Punjab and Sindh, and also some in Kashmir and Gujarat. His son Masud picked up where he left off, but in 1037 his jihads were interrupted when the Seljuk Turks came to power and attacked Masud’s western domains. Naturally, the setback would only be temporary.

Speaking of those Seljuks, there were two critical events occurring in 1054 and 1055. In the first year, the Latin and Greek churches excommunicated each other, and as Spencer says, their disunity would make things much easier on the jihad warriors in centuries to come. In the second year, the Seljuks took Baghdad and made virtual puppets of the Abbasids, who granted the Seljuk leaders the title of sultan, just as they had granted Mahmud of Ghazni the title back in 999. And when the Seljuks pressed into modern day Turkey, defeating the Byzantines at the disastrous battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Greeks appealed in desperation to the Latins… who made a shocking and unprecedented response.

Chapter 5: Opposing the Jihad: The Crusades (1095-1291)

Spencer’s treatment of the crusades is better than most, and his views align more closely with scholars who write about the crusades than most people (especially politicians) who speak about them. His picture isn’t complete, but it’s certainly not wrong.

We often hear that the crusades were the starting point of the world’s Christian-Muslim conflict (thus Bill Clinton), and that they were as morally reprehensible as the jihad (thus Barack Obama). Neither is true. Muhammad was the starting point of the world’s Christian-Muslim conflict, when he looked beyond Arabia and set his sights on subjecting the world; his “Rightly Guided” Caliphs made good on that vision, bringing jihad to the Christian empire. As for the crusades being equivalent to the jihad, the comparison fails. Jihad has always been mandatory in Islam (in all four Sunni schools, and Shi’ite too); the crusades were voluntary and never essential to Christian faith. Jihad is a core tenet; the crusades were a radical development and transitory, and the pacifism in Christ’s teachings made them hard to justify theologically. Like the jihad, the crusades were holy wars — divinely approved wars that earned spiritual reward — but that says nothing as to the reasons they were waged.

Spencer is no blind apologist for the crusades. He doesn’t soft-peddle crusader atrocities, especially when it comes to the Jewish pogroms. (Which were a perversion of crusading in any case: the church never proclaimed or endorsed crusades against Jews.) He notes that warfare never allows any side to claim a moral high ground, even a side with better intentions. But there were in fact better intentions on the Christian side. As Spencer’s chronicle makes clear, the crusades were defensive counters to to the jihad threat, and resulted in a great achievement: from the time Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095 to the fall of the Crusader states in 1291, there were no jihad forays into Europe; the Reconquest in Spain continued to reduce the size of Islamic al-Andalus, on the strength of the crusading ideal. Spencer’s point has made by secular historians:

“If the Crusades had never been attempted at all, it is quite possible that the warriors of jihad would have overrun all of Europe, and the subsequent history of the world would have taken a drastically different course. Instead, Europe experienced the High Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, and the foundations of modern society were laid.”

There is however an important dimension to the crusades lacking in Spencer’s treatment, and one that would have strengthened his case. Yes, the crusades were defensive wars, and in that sense reactive; but they were also the outcome of frustrated reformist agendas, and in that sense proactive. After all, the Latins could have easily responded to the Byzantine plea with the standard military aid. Why the crusades? Why holy war? Why the radical step — so radical it contradicted everything fundamental about Jesus’ teachings and Christian theology — of making warfare sacred, and not simply to fend off invasion but take back Palestine?

The crusades only make sense in the context of the medieval papal reforms. The 10th century had been the most tumultuous in French history, with nobles warring on each other, sometimes right next door. The church addressed this problem by proclaiming the Peace of God in the late 980s, and then reinforcing it with the Truce of God in the 1020s. The Peace required knights to protect the weak and the poor and the defenseless, while the Truce prohibited them from any fighting period on Thursdays and Fridays, and special feasts and holy seasons. Violations of either the Peace or Truce carried the threat of excommunication. These were very commendable pacifist strategies, but telling a warrior not to fight was like telling a monk not to pray — an epic fail. The Peace and Truce movements saw revivals throughout the eleventh century, especially in the 1080s, always to failure though not for lack of trying. The church fought violence tooth and nail, in view of its savior’s pacifism, but the profession of a medieval knight couldn’t accommodate it.

Urban II’s call for holy war in 1095 thus came as a godsend to Christian knights. It accomplished what the Peace and Truce movements tried in vain. It was the antidote to Augustine’s theory of a just war (which was “justified but evil”) which only exacerbated knightly guilt. By reversing the morality of violence — by making bloodshed sacred under the right conditions — knights could freely be themselves. As warriors they could “kill for Christ” and have their sins remitted, enabling them to bypass suffering in purgatory. “If you must have blood,” said Urban, “bathe in the blood of the infidels. You who have been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight against the Muslims.” Urban exported knightly violence abroad, in a defensive service, and in the words of a medieval preacher, “By this kind of warfare, people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road.” Perverse theology, but perhaps a necessary evil in a period of encroaching jihadis and undisciplined Christian knights.

I often say the crusades wouldn’t have happened if not for these intersecting factors — centuries of Islamic invasions, decades of knightly guilt, and a particularly ambitious pope who saw a way to exploit the former to solve the latter. Remove any of the three legs, and no crusades. They cut entirely against the grain of Christian thought, and it’s a wonder they were born at all. I’m not saying that Spencer would object to what I’m saying here, only that the full picture doesn’t quite emerge in his treatment of the crusades.

But nothing he says is wrong. His assessment of Saladin is bang on: “Saladin is to individual Muslims what al-Andalus is to Muslim polities”, a figure who has become whitewashed for modern consumption. He cites contemporary views of the Assassins, and how the Old Man of the Mountain got his recruits high on hashish to make them experience paradise. And he covers other exciting stuff up to Latin Kingdom’s final days in 1291.

Then he brings us back to Spain, where we find the Almohads ousting the Almoravids in 1147 — just as the Almoravids had done to the taifa kings in the late 11th century. Like the Almoravids, the Almohads were fundamentalist Berbers, but they were even more hard-core. Not only did they wage jihad, they established inquisitions to smoke out apostates, kidnap Jewish children and raise them as Muslims. It’s no accident that the Catholic inquisitions (starting in the 1180s) were launched in the wake of trials and tortures committed by the Islamic Almohads. That doesn’t excuse the church (unlike the crusades, the inquisitions are a complete stain on Catholic reputation), but it does suggest a causal connection: Muslims had the first inquisitions, and the church might not have otherwise gotten the idea for their own. By a century later, however, in 1249, the Reconquest had expelled the Almohads from everywhere except Granada.

Over in India, meanwhile, we see the jihad revived between 1191-1202 under Sultan Muhammad Ghori, who massacred the Rajputs and other Hindus out of fervor against Hindu idolatry. A contemporary describes Ghori’s reign thus: “He purged by his sword the land of the Hind from the filth of infidelity and vice, and freed the whole of that country from the thorn of God-plurality and the impurity of idol worship.” The jihad went on to the end of the 13th century, and Spencer’s documentation makes clear, as always, the driving motivation for the slaughter and destruction being religious zeal.

Chapter 6: The Jihad Advances into Europe (1291-1492)

This chapter focuses on the decline and fall of the Byzantines. They were by now essentially vassals of the Muslims who pressed the jihad and seized more territory — Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Crotatia, etc. — and of course, finally, Constantinople in 1453.

The highlight of the chapter comes in watching the Latins and Greeks, rather incredibly, making themselves so helpful to the encroaching Muslims. In 1339, the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III sent a monk to meet Pope Benedict XII and appeal for an ecumenical council to heal the schism between the churches, and for a new crusade against the invading Ottomans. It was an elegant and moving appeal, but the pope sent back an insulting refusal, evidently unfazed by the prospect of the Byzantines getting their asses kicked and jihadis advancing deeper into Europe. Spencer opines that “not until the days of Pope Francis would the See of Rome have an occupant more useful to the jihad force than Benedict XII.”

Exactly a century later (1439) it was the Greek’s turn for stupidity. A council convened in Florence for another attempt to reunite the Latins and Greeks. The Byzantine delegation was so desperate for help against the Muslim assaults, that it caved in on every single theological issue that had divided the churches since 1054, and agreed to accept the authority of the pope. But one of the Byzantine bishops rebelled, and since he spoke for most of the Byzantines back east, the resolution at Florence essentially went nowhere. It was the Byzantine megadux (commander in chief of the navy), Lukas Notaras, who summed up the popular opinion: “Better the turban of the Sultan than the tiara of the Pope.” He would regret that idiotic statement in more ways than one. Not only did the Muslims sack and conquer Constantinople 14 years later, Lukas Notaras himself was cruelly victimized by the jihadis: as the city was smoking, the Sultan Mehmet demanded Notaras’ 14-year old son for sexual favors; Notaras refused, enraging the sultan so much that he beheaded Notaras’ son, and also his brother in law and father, and had all three heads placed on his banquet table. One could safely assume that Notaras would have given anything at that moment for the “tiara of the Pope”.

In hindsight it seems baffling that the Christians could be this suicidal, but inter-familial fighting often blindsides people to the greater threats from outsiders. We see this today, for example, when western people denounce each other for daring to use the wrong pronoun in referring to a transgendered person, or for expressing mild degrees of homophobia, but then fall completely silent when it comes to the Islamic killing of gays (for fear of sounding “Islamophobic”) and even go so far as to call people racist when they speak out against such hard-core homophobia.

The chapter has a good section on the Janissaries, the sultan’s elite troops formed in 1359, consisting of young men who had been seized as boys from their Christian families, enslaved, and forcibly converted to Islam. As much as twenty percent of the Christian children in areas of the Ottoman Empire filled this crack fighting force. The boys who chose Islam (if they didn’t, they were slain) got rigorous military training, and became invaluable to the jihad effort. All of this, as Spencer notes, was in full accordance with Islamic law.

Spencer also relates the account of Vlad Dracula (as how can a horror-history be complete without him?), the infamous ruler of Wallachia who in 1461 had commendably refused to pay the jizya and rejected Ottoman rule. Not so commendably, he invaded Bulgaria and impaled 23,000 Turks on stakes. The Sultan Mehmet marched to the Wallachian capital — and found 20,000 more of his impaled Turks waiting for him. Enraged, he eventually drove Vlad into exile. It remains a colorful chapter in history of the jihadis getting a dose of their own bloodthirsty medicine.

The chapter proceeds to the relentless jihad assaults in India, as the few remaining Hindu temples were demolished in various regions; ruthless oppression was the norm throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. And it ends appropriately in Spain, in the year 1492, when the last Muslims were expelled from Granada; after 781 years, the most successful large-scale resistance to jihad had succeeded. And Christopher Columbus sailed west, commissioned to search for a new westward sea route to Asia. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 had made the trade routes to the East too dangerous (European merchants were being enslaved and killed by the Muslims), and Columbus’ voyage was an attempt to find a western sea route to India and China.

Chapter 7: The Ottomans and Mughals in Ascendance (1492-1707)

Inter-Christian fighting often aided the jihad cause, and one of the lead offenders was the lead reformer. Martin Luther hated the Catholic church so much that he said the papacy was worse than the Ottoman caliphate, and that “to fight against the Turk is the same thing as resisting God” (On war against the Turk, 1528). Spencer cites Luther at length:

“The Pope, with his followers, commits a greater sin than the Turk and all the Heathen. The Turk forces no one to deny Christ and to adhere to his faith. Though he rages most intensely by murdering Christians in the body, he after all does nothing by this but fill heaven with saints. The Pope does not want to be either enemy or Turk. He fills hell with nothing but ‘Christians’. This is committing real spiritual murder and is every bit as bad as the teaching and blasphemy of Mohammed and the Turks. But whenever men do not allow him to practice this infernal diabolical seduction, he adopts the way of the Turk, and commits bodily murder too. The Turk is an avowed enemy of Christ. But the Pope is not. He is a secret enemy and persecutor, a false friend. For this reason, he is all the worse!” (Works, Weimar ed.)

As Spencer notes, “Luther’s broadside was one of the earliest examples of what was to become a near-universal tendency in the West: the downplaying of jihad atrocities and their use in arguments between Westerners to make one side look worse.” Indeed, modern liberals take a page out of Luther’s playbook when they downplay elements of Islam (jihad, sharia, female genital mutilation, etc.) to make western arrogance and imperialism the so-called “greater evil”.

Rude reality, however, makes at least some people come to their senses, and to his credit, Luther eventually approved the crusades against the Ottomans. The jihadists went on their usual offensives, seizing the island of Rhodes (1522), and then moving against Hungary (1526) with clear designs on Austria (Vienna) which they failed to take. Spencer covers all the jihads throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the crusades which countered them, like the famous Battle of Lepanto in 1571 which saw a rare victory for Christian Europeans. More jihads came against Cyprus, Shi’ite Persia, Hungary again, Crete, and Poland. Finally, in 1683, Mehmet IV set the jihad against Vienna, but thanks to the intervention of the Polish King Jan Sobieski, the jihadis were defeated. After this, the jihad wouldn’t return to the heart of Europe for a long time.

Meanwhile in India, the Mughul Empire brought the Delhi sultanate to its knees in 1526, and would stay for three centuries. The Hindus had it just as bad as before, and Spencer details the horrors throughout the 1500s and 1600s. The most colorful and revealing part of this section is the reign of Akbar the Great (1556-1605), who became apostate. He started by abolishing the jizya (a radical departure from Islam), which the Hindus loved him for, and then in 1580 started banning the mention of Muhammad in public prayers. He still favored the expression Allahu Akbar, but only because “Akbar” was his own name; from that point on, the phrase took on a double meaning: “God is greater”, and “Akbar is Allah” — people were to prostrate themselves to Akbar himself. He then proclaimed his new Divine Religion (Din Ilahi), introducing practiced derived from Hinduism, Jainism, and Christianity. The jihads stopped, and the Hindus could breathe. Other Muslims howled in fury and declared Akbar an apostate who should be killed, but his military might kept him safe. When he died in 1605, his new (and obviously much more benign) religion died with him, and the jihad returned.

What makes the case of Akbar so striking, as Spencer says, is that it took a sultan’s departure from Islam to give the Hindus any respite from jihad attacks and ruthless oppression. That speaks volumes.

Chapter 8: Deterioration (1707-1900)

As the Ottomans in Europe and the Mughuls in India both weakened, jihad declined. But they still did what they could for “the glory of Allah” throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. As late as 1894, the Ottomans led a particularly nasty jihad against the Armenians, massacring the population, killing even the children, and burning the Armenian villages.

Spencer explains the key date of 1856, when events dovetailed to result in the best case scenario for Jews and Christians living in Muslim lands. The weakened Ottoman Empire needed help in its conflict with Russia over Crimea, and the British and French governments agreed to help them, but only if the sultan agreed to abolish the dhimma — the “contract of protection”, or mafia-racketeer practice, for Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule, which had been the way of Islam since the seventh century. In return for the privilege of practicing their religion, Jews and Christians accepted the discriminatory and humiliating regulations: they had to pay the jizya, they could not hold authority over Muslims, they could have only menial jobs, they could not build new churches/synagogues or repair old ones, they had to step off a sidewalk if a Muslim approached, and in some cases even wear distinctive dress. If they did all this and they were lucky, they wouldn’t be harmed or abused.

The Ottomans agreed to abolish the dhimma in 1856, which was a momentous step. Jews and Christians were still not equal citizens (this remains true to this day: there is no Muslim-majority country in which Jews and Christians have equal rights with Muslims.) But after 1856, Christians in Turkey did attain a measure of improved living conditions. This soon led to the abolition of the dhimma in Egypt, and then later in the 20th century to the secular Arab nationalist regimes that followed the collapse of the Ottoman empire after World War I; these were also better in general for Jews and Christians. But Islam was never reformed, and whenever the secular Arab nationalist regimes were later toppled (like in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt), Islamic law became enforced, and the same dhimma provisions came into play again. Christians found themselves suddenly persecuted, required to pay the jizya and live in a state of subordination; and if they resisted or rebelled, then they were infidels at war with Islam and should be legally killed.

That’s what’s deceptive. Getting rid of the dhimma in 1856 didn’t equate to any reform. The Ottomans were forced to get rid of it by western powers, but it remained mandatory in all schools of Islamic law. And it’s much easier to reassert what’s still in force than to reform the odious practice when it is reasserted.

Over in India, the Hindus were attacked sporadically throughout these centuries, until in 1857 (one year after the abolition the dhimma in Ottoman lands), the British captured Delhi and ended the Mughul Empire, and Islamic rule in India, for good. Though even now there were dying gasps of the jihad, as Muslim clerics issued fatwas against the British colonials, which went on until 1883.

But as the Ottomans and Mughuls deteriorated, the jihad broke out in two other theaters. First was the Wahhabi revolt in Arabia in the 1740s, a fundamentalist reform movement like the earlier Almohads in North Africa and Spain. Spencer describes the jihads led against local authorities in Arabia, and the Wahhabi advances made throughout the two centuries, until, like the Ottomans and Mughuls, their fate intersected with the British — but in their case, to their advantage. The British saw the Wahhabis as a means to destroy the Ottomans, and so in 1865 put the Saud family on the imperial payroll. This would spell consequences in the future, and as Spencer says, “once again, the short-sighted calculations of non-Muslim politicians practicing realpolitik ended up aiding the global jihad”.

Second were the Barbary Wars, of which the newly formed United States got an unpleasant taste. American trade ships sailing into the Mediterranean were suddenly assaulted by Muslim pirates, and those taken hostage were tortured and wrote letters home begging the U.S. government and family members to pay the ransoms. Thomas Jefferson (at that time a delegate to Europe, before his presidency) was stunned at the unprovoked attacks, and demanded to know why the Barbary States were doing this. Tripoli’s (Libya’s) response came from Sidi Haji Abdrahaman Adja (the administrator of Tripoli’s ambassador) in 1786, when he met in London with Jefferson and John Adams. Spencer cites Abdrahaman’s response:

“Tripoli was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, and written in their Qur’an, that all nations who should not have answered [Islamic] authority were sinners, that it was the Muslim right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Muslim who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

In other words, they were just doing as Muhammad commanded: Muslims are obligated to wage war on all nations who don’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of their prisoners; and Muslims who die in battle for this cause are guaranteed the rewards of paradise. All those reasons sound exactly like modern ISIS or Al-Qaeda manifestos, and they may as well be. But this was in the days when America didn’t even have a foreign policy yet, never mind a foreign policy that could piss off Islamic nations enough to “bring jihad down on itself”. The frequent claim that jihad is born of political grievances is refuted by examples like this. Jihadists may well have political grievances in some cases (whether real or imagined), but they never need them to follow the Islamic imperative.

So in this era, the British crippled the Ottomans and ended the Mughuls, and exploited the (even more dangerous) Wahhabis to what they thought was their advantage. And the U.S. got its first taste of Islam.

Chapter 9: Resurgence (1900-2001)

“The twentieth century,” says Spencer, “was the age of the defensive jihad.” With no more caliphate after 1924 (when the Ottomans finally gave up the ghost), the jihad was now carried out by individuals and small groups on a scale never seen before. (Though before the Ottomans went away, they carried out the Armenian genocide of 1915, killing over a million Armenians in a way that would inspire Hitler’s extermination of the Poles in 1939.) Many of the states that had been created by the British and French in the late 1800s began to adopt Arab nationalist secular governments, so that by around the middle of the 20th century, most Muslims didn’t live under sharia. And as Spencer says, for true believers this was an affront to Allah that couldn’t be allowed to stand.

Hasan al-Banna was one who made sure it wouldn’t stand. He founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, with the intention of restoring the caliphate. Al-Banna called everyone to Islam, and cited the Qur’an like any proper Muslim: “fight the unbelievers until there is no sedition, and worship is for Allah” (2:193). He summoned Muslims around the globe to make Islam into a great caliphate again, urging the reconquest of Spain, Sicily, and former Ottoman territories in the Balkans. The Brotherhood expanded far beyond Egypt, and by 1944 it had over 1500 chapters in many countries. Everyone was hearing the call to “prepare for jihad and be lovers of death”. Such was the Brotherhood’s message — that “Islam is faith and worship, a Qur’an and a sword” — and in accordance with Islamic law.

The Brotherhood didn’t waste time trying to unmake Israel in 1948. The section on the Jewish state takes up a third of the chapter, and is obviously a topic that arouses passion. The Brotherhood and their Arab allies were certainly passionate. Al-Banna said, “All Arabs shall arise and annihilate the Jews. We shall fill the sea with their corpses.” The mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin al-Husseini cried, “I declare a holy war, my Muslim brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!” These sentiments weren’t the ravings of fringe fanatics, but of Muslims who were following the example of Muhammad and Islamic law. There was obviously no way the Arab leaders could have accepted the United Nations’ partition. They readied for jihad.

The question Spencer doesn’t ask is whether the state of Israel should have been established, given this inevitable result. Spencer has made a career of showing strong support for Israel and so he would presumably answer yes. My view is that the creation of Israel was one of the worst foreign policy blunders of the 20th century. The Jewish people deserve a homeland, but what the Allies should have done was carve out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust), instead of uprooting and inciting Arabs for sake of a religiously inspired “Promised Land” — an idea that has no more place in the 20th century than the Islamic jihad. Many Jews hadn’t lived in Palestine for two millennia, and they certainly didn’t have a rightful claim on the land after all this time. (Over the 50 years prior to 1948, Jews had purchased about 7% of Palestine, mostly from absentee Arab landlords.)

What’s curious is that Spencer implicitly faults Franklin Delano Roosevelt for refusing to support the Zionist project, based on the president’s response to rabbis who were trying to persuade him. Roosevelt said, “Do you want to be responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives? Do you want to start a holy jihad?” Says Spencer: “FDR demonstrated far greater awareness of history and Islam than many of his successors, but about their same level of resolve to confront it.” But how should Roosevelt have confronted the Islamic threat? By settling in hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives right next to the jihad beast? That’s hardly wise. It seems to me that Roosevelt’s awareness of history and Islam steered him well on this point. Truman’s decision was the disastrous one, not FDR’s. (And for the record, I’m no fan of FDR.)

Spencer is largely correct about the reason peace negotiations have always failed between Israel and Palestine. “The answer,” he says, “lies in the Islamic doctrine of jihad. ‘Drive them out from where they drove you out’ is a command that contains no mitigation and accepts none.” But Zionism can be just as unyielding. The idea of a divinely ordained Promised Land doesn’t leave much room for a meeting of the minds — another reason the creation of the Jewish state, I believe, was misguided. When Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) emerged in 1988, as a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, it became clear beyond doubt that the existence of Israel would never be accepted by the Muslims in any form. Spencer accurately describes Hamas’ activities as “a jihad of the pen and the tongue combined with that of the sword, wielded as much in the court of public opinion as in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other areas of Israel”. And he’s right that it’s a travesty so many liberals sympathize with an organization like Hamas.

Before leaving Israel, I should make clear that though I wish it had never been established, I’m not saying the Israeli Jews are the moral equivalent of surrounding Muslims who are upfront about genocidal and jihad intentions. I find far more to criticize in the Jewish state than Spencer does, but I admit that the condemnation heaped on it by leftists is often out of proportion to the crimes. The political charter of Hamas invokes the Qur’an in praying for the day when the earth will cry out for Jewish blood, and the trees and the stones will say, “Oh Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” Palestinian factions have made clear what they would do if the balance of power were reversed. Yet people today are strangely unable to believe the worst about groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, even when those groups declare the worst of themselves. In this sense Spencer is right. A theocracy of intolerance in line with the caliphates of old is not the moral equivalent of the state of Israel.

Spencer covers post World-War II India, which was partitioned into the Hindu majority area (India), and the two Muslim majority areas (Pakistan). Pakistan and India have been in a state of war since the partition, thanks to the Pakistani jihad — with 9,471 outbreaks of violence since 1947.

In the section on Iran, we see the Shah making the mistake of dismissing Khomeini and other ayatollahs and their followers as “a stupid and reactionary bunch whose brains have not moved and who don’t want to see Iran developed.” But as Spencer says, that “stupid and reactionary bunch” didn’t give up, and they eventually won. Since 1979, Iran has been a sharia backwater and it became a major financier of global terrorism. “Stupid reactionaries” who go against nationalist Arab regimes aren’t stupid at all, nor are they trying to revive archaic ways of thinking. They are reviving the official doctrine of Islam. And that doctrine, declared Khomeini, has no use for human rights, which is “a Judeo-Christian invention” and “inadmissible in Islam”. Khomeini said that fighting is an eternal Islamic duty, and those who claim that Islam is a religion of peace are “witless.” Witless, yes — and ignorant of history and the Muslim sources.

Last is the section on Al-Qaeda, where Osama Bin Laden steps on to the stage fighting the Soviets in the ’80s, and bombing American embassies in the ’90s. And it was at the tail end of this period, on the eve of 9/11, that people in the west started losing their minds.

Chapter 10: The West Goes Crazy (2001-present)

The final chapter is actually titled “The West Loses the Will to Live,” but I think Spencer is being too polite. The 21st century has been a crazy age of alternative facts (long before Trump ascended) and manufactured bigotry. It’s the book’s longest chapter, though it covers the least amount of time (17 years); there’s certainly no shortage of insanity to fill the pages.

That insanity is all the more extraordinary when it trails the previous nine chapters, because the reader is struck by the sudden disconnect with reality. 9/11 triggered something unprecedented, as people started blaming the victims of jihad more than the jihadis, and saying that terrorists were “hijacking” Islam rather than doing as Islam had always taught. Spencer cites numerous politicians and religious spokespeople, and I’ll cover just a few:

First is George W. Bush, right after 9/11:

“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that. The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”

Bush continually dissembled about Al-Qaeda’s motivating ideology, and Spencer finds the explanation in the Saudi influence in Washington, including the Bush administration itself. That was surely a factor, but I think there is also the more simple reason. To be fair to Bush (much as I loathe the man), it was reasonable at the time to worry about anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of a monstrous event like 9/11. This was all new to everyone, and even I was applauding Bush for saying what he did. Though what he should have said is that most Muslims are peaceful, rather than misrepresent the religion Islam as peaceful.

But that was then. Worries about anti-Muslim backlash have proven to be unfounded. The backlash almost never occurs. Since 9/11 to this day, there have been over 30,000 jihad attacks worldwide. In all that time there has been only one instance of Muslims killed in retaliation by bigoted “Islamophobes” (the Finsbury Mosque attack in June 2017). 30,000+ jihad attacks vs. a single hate-crime attack is a sad excuse to keep misplacing our priorities. In the wake of jihad attacks, the proper response of Muslim leaders is to work against jihadis and Islamists in their own community rather than constantly playing the victim card; and the proper response of western leaders is to work proactively against the jihad threat, instead of piling on platitudes about peaceful Muslims.

Next is Barack Obama, during his visit to Cairo in 2009:

“I know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.'”

Well, John Adams was as bad as Obama on the subject of jihadists. As we saw in chapter 8, Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been told point blank by the ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman that Tripoli was founded on the Laws of Muhammad and the Qur’an, that all nations who didn’t acknowledge Muslim superiority were sinners, and that it was the right and duty of Muslims to wage war on such sinners (like the Americans) wherever they could be found — exactly as Tripoli had just done, by making unprovoked attacks on peaceful U.S. trade ships. Unlike Jefferson, Adams didn’t take the proper lesson from this. At any rate, Obama continued:

“I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

First of all, it is not the chief executive’s Constitutional duty to defend Islam or any religion. And if it were — if Obama truly wanted to base a partnership with America on the basis of “what Islam is, not what it isn’t” — he’d have to endorse a sharia-based state.

John Brennan, assistant to the president on national security, said the following in 2010:

“There is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children. Indeed, characterizing our adversaries this way would actually be counterproductive. It would play into the false perception that they are religious leaders defending a holy cause when in fact, they are nothing more than murderers, including the murder of thousands upon thousands of Muslims.”

As Spencer says, all the jihad warriors throughout history would have obviously disagreed with Brennan. So for that matter would all the Muslim clerics who have enforced, and continue to enforce, what Islamic law actually teaches.

I’ll end with Pope Francis in 2013. This one’s a whopper:

“Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Qur’an are opposed to every form of violence.”

“This statement,” says Spencer, “is remarkable for the dogmatic confidence with which its false claim was made.” Indeed, the pope’s declaration is as false as the statement that the sun sets in the east. Authentic Islam and the Qur’an enshrine violence. Personally I like Francis, but on this issue he’s clueless. He should stick to making pronouncements on authentic Catholicism.

The chapter covers much more, including details on how the Obama administration purged all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is obviously necessary to understand and counter them. Amidst all the craziness, jihad efforts have only strengthened in the twenty-first century. Muslims have attacked Orlando, San Diego, London, Manchester, Paris, Toulouse, Nice, Amsterdam, Madrid, Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Copenhagen, Malmö, Stockholm, Turku (in Finland), Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Beslan, among other places. They have strengthened, in no small part, because western authorities have been urging people to respect Islam rather than understand it and call for its reform.

That’s our state of affairs. We admire a fantasy Islam and smear as bigots people who point out the real thing — people like Robert Spencer, David Horowitz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Sam Harris. We wage counter-productive wars to bring down Arab dictators, when we should know by now that jihad and sharia groups are waiting in the wings to fill their place. We stay married to Saudi Arabia, despite its clear ties to terrorism and its unabashed exporting of Islamism to every corner of the world. And when cartoonists of Muhammad are attacked or killed, we blame those cartoonists more than their Muslim attackers. Our moral confusion is staggering, and sadly, we deserve Spencer’s indictment:

“As the fourteen-hundred-year Islamic jihad against the free world continues to advance, the best allies the warriors of jihad have are the very people they have in their sights.”



The History of Jihad is a ride you won’t forget and long overdue. I can’t stress enough that it’s not just a history of warfare of a particular group of people (though it is that too), but a particular kind of warfare, holy war, that has remained entrenched in one particular religion, and pursued relentlessly down the centuries. The ride is certainly not an indictment of all or most Muslims. It is a guarantee nonetheless, that without a religious reform, significant numbers of Muslims will continue on the twisted path of jihad.

The reason is simple. Jihad isn’t just terrorism. It’s legitimized terrorism backed by core Islamic teachings. Jihad is to Islam as passover is to Judaism, and as the eucharist is to Christianity, and as meditation is to Buddhism. That may be hard as nails to swallow, but it’s a fact as clear as day.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.