On September 20, Decemberists front man Colin Meloy released his fifth novel for young readers: The Stars Did Wander Darkling, a supernatural thriller set in the invented coastal town of Seaham, Oregon in 1987. It follows four middle school friends—one beset by bloody visions—who uncover a terrible secret in the wake of a mysterious construction project near the estate of their town's founders.
The book comes in the middle of a busy season for Meloy. He just wrapped the first Decemberists tour in four years, and next April, Portland stop-motion studio LAIKA will release an adaptation of his Wildwood novels, with a voice cast including Carey Mulligan, Angela Bassett, Tom Waits, and Richard E. Grant.
We blazed through The Stars Did Wander Darkling this week, just in time for the leaves to change and temperature to drop. Here are five things we took away from the surprisingly potent chiller.
1. More Horror Stories Should Take Place on the Oregon Coast
More than zero creep-outs have been set or shot on the Oregon coast (The Ring, Green Room, and The Mercy of the Tide come to mind), but still, the region's year-round misty foreboding feels like a largely untapped resource for the ghost story-spinners of the world. The Stars Did Wander Darkling is, on more than one occasion, genuinely terrifying, and Meloy milks his coastal setting for a lot of that terror. The Seaham our young heroes inhabit, we come to realize, is pointedly different from the one tourists see: isolated, a little wild, with not-distant-enough roots in the rough-and-tumble fur trade. Meloy's writing is sensitive to the way ocean air and seaside fog can put a mind on high alert, and he nails the underbelly of Oregon's idyllic beach towns the way more people ought to.
2. Stranger Things Has Become a Cultural Reference Point of Its Own
When Stranger Things hit Netflix in 2016, it was received as a pastiche of ’80s Spielbergian family sci-fi (much like J.J. Abrams' Super 8 was earlier in the decade). Now, in a pop culture landscape where ’80s nostalgia has eaten itself twenty times over, The Stars Did Wander Darkling is being marketed as a throwback to Stranger Things. There are a lot of other influences swimming around Meloy's head here—The Shining, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Stand by Me, even Jaws—but the pull of Stranger Things is, indeed, unmistakeable. The bike-riding teens, the character beset by visions, the (somewhat underutilized) late-’80s setting—it's all there.
3. Colin Meloy Has a Lot of Faith in Middle-Grade Readers
One of the most delightful aspects of The Stars Did Wander Darkling, from an adult perspective, is its bracing lack of condescension toward Meloy's intended 8–12-year-old audience. The prose isn't purple (as one might reasonably fear from a Decemberists scribe), but it's plenty sophisticated, and the narrative is teeming with images that would send chills up Stephen King's spine. By the book's end, Meloy has trusted his young readers with some upsetting stuff, patient pacing, and surprisingly thorny moral content.
4. Colin Meloy Could Be a Poetry Professor in Another Life
Like Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem (didn't expect to read those words in this story, did you?), The Stars Did Wander Darkling kicks off with a piece of Yeats's "The Second Coming." Without getting too spoilery, other classic poems are threaded throughout the novel, often to unnerving effect. As is the case with a Decemberists line like "by her side sits the baron / her barrenness barbs her," every time Meloy—who holds a degree in creative writing—references some chewy verse, you can feel his giddiness slap you upside the head.
5. We Might Be In for a Series
Like Meloy's first middle-grade novel, Wildwood, The Stars Did Wander Darkling ends with plenty of runway for future installments. We wouldn't be mad at all, especially if it means a Goonies-core LAIKA adaptation down the road with the capacity to out-scare Coraline.