The Saturday Night Ghost Club
“The brain is the seat of memory,” reflects Jake Baker, “and memory is a tricky thing.” While adept at sorting through his neurology patients’ brain matter, Jake grapples with his own recollections of 1980s Niagara Falls. In a town that already feels haunted, nerdy and socially awkward tween Jake finds support for his conspiracy theories in the Saturday Night Ghost Club: exploring local phenomena with his eccentric uncle Calvin and a pair of Native American siblings new to town. But instead of Cthulhu, they uncover secrets much closer to home.
We Ride Upon Sticks
Barry has a clear interest in the Salem Witch Trials, particularly in Tituba, having quoted her infamous testimony both in her poetry collection Asylum and now as the title of her forthcoming novel. Set in Danvers, Massachusetts—the site of the 1692 hysteria—the novel follows the 1989 season of the Danvers Falcons. Led by Salem descendant Abby Putnam, the all-girls team begins to wonder if their winning streak is the result of supernatural influences.
Only to Sleep
Seventy years after Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Osbourne drags iconic pulp detective Philip Marlowe out of retirement in an authorized novel. It’s 1988 in Baja California, and 72-year-old Marlowe is enjoying some well-deserved peace… until two men dressed as undertakers appear to pull him back into the game, trailing a so-called dead man who took on a new identity to commit insurance fraud.
New York City landmark The Dakota is the setting for interwoven stories a century apart. In 1984, recovering addict Bailey Camden tries to rebuild her life post-rehab in this massive residence, whose opulence she will never inherit despite her family’s connection to its architect. In 1884, Theodore Camden is stabbed to death by servant Sarah Smythe—or maybe, as Bailey will find during renovations, there’s more to the building’s dark history.
In North West London in 1982, two girls meet in a tap dancing class: prodigy Tracey and the unnamed narrator, who lacks her friend’s talent but uses her knowledge of rhythm to escape their humble origins. Though their paths cross over the following 25 years, with Tracey succeeding as a chorus girl before her star winks out and the narrator attaching herself to a famous pop star, they never quite manage to get back in sync.
Halfway through the 1980s, all 15-year-old Pony Darlene Fontaine knows of pop culture is listening to Whitesnake on her Walkman in “the territory,” the cult in which she’s spent her entire life. This isolated commune has welcomed only one outsider: Billie Jean Fontaine, Pony’s mother, who dropped in 17 years ago and recently made a run for it. Left behind, Pony wonders if she’ll follow in Billy Jean’s tracks and see what else she’s been missing.
Former-fashion-model-turned-cleaning-lady Alison spends her shifts reminiscing on her heyday in 1980s New York during the height of the AIDS crisis. In particular, her peculiar friendship with Veronica, a middle-aged office temp who partied as hard as Alison and her model friends—and who died of AIDS-related complications in a period when women weren’t thought to be vulnerable. More bluntly honest than sentimental, Gaitskill’s novel is nevertheless compassionate in its depiction of women “past their prime” with plenty of stories left to tell.
Red at the Bone
In 2001, 16-year-old Melody prepares to descend the stairs of her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone for her coming-of-age ceremony, wearing the dress that her mother was supposed to wear at her own living-room cotillion. But in 1985, 15-year-old Iris gets pregnant, to her mother Sabe’s shame, and watches one set of steps disappear. Told by all three generations of women, Woodson’s novel deftly depicts human desire, from Melody’s conception to the sensations described in the title.
The Sabotage Cafe
When her teenage daughter Cheryl runs away from home, former-punk-turned-suburban-mom Julia doesn’t call the cops. Instead, she envisions every step of Cheryl’s adolescent rebellion as Cheryl seeks out her own punk freedom in Minneapolis’s seedy Dinkytown district, as she (intentionally or not) relives Julia’s 1980s coming-of-age. It remains to be seen if Julia, depressed and schizophrenic, is imagining all of this or truly acting as Cheryl’s guardian angel.
Tell the Wolves I'm Home
Carol Rifka Brunt
After her beloved uncle Finn dies from AIDS-related complications in 1987, 14-year-old June grasps for someone else who can understand her. Not her 16-year-old sister, Greta, nor her mother, who’s grieving for her estranged brother. Instead, she finds solace in Finn’s lover, Toby, as they both try to keep his memory alive through stories and in clandestine additions to his eponymous painting of his two nieces.
My Best Friend's Exorcism
Even the strongest of friendships go through a rough patch. Like 1988, the year that Abby’s BFF Gretchen got possessed by the devil. The two have been tight for nearly the entire decade, since the first moment of—as Abby put it—“having a total stranger choose you.” The problem is, after dropping some acid, Gretchen disappeared into the woods… and something chose her. Now Abby has to hope her claim is strong enough to bring Gretchen back.
A Ladder to the Sky
Like the talented Mr. Ripley, Maurice Swift takes lives in order to improve his own—in a figurative sense. When the aspiring author is still waiting tables in 1988 West Berlin, he leverages an encounter with a celebrated novelist as material for his first novel. Hungry for greater fame, Swift traverses the globe, stealing inspiration from vulnerable and then more established people. While it’s not murder, the effects can be just as ruinous for whoever crosses his path.
While most of the books on this list look backward at the decade that did happen, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include one of the most famous fictional takes on the ’80s. Orwell’s bleak, dystopian vision not only was ambitious for 1948, but the concepts it coined—Big Brother, doublespeak—rather than seeming dated, keep becoming ever more relevant in the present.
This is Murakami’s response to Orwell, set in an alternate-reality 1984. Over the course of a year in Tokyo, a young assassin named Aomame comes to realize that she’s living in a parallel universe from the world she remembers, while a writer named Tengo takes on a sketchy ghostwriting project that leads him into the bowels of a mysterious cult. As Aomame and Tengo’s realities begin to unravel, they must find their way to each other.
The Secret History
Drawing on her own experiences at Bennington College in the ’80s, Tartt’s debut novel delves into the psychodramas among a cohort of students at an elite Vermont institution. The audience proxy is blue-collar Richard, drawn into the clique of classics majors who both idolize a beloved teacher and are in thrall to the Dionysus-like Henry. But when an attempted bacchanal ends in a grisly fashion, Richard’s new friends must decide whether to close ranks or turn on each other.
Ready Player One
2045 is bleak, but in the OASIS, not only can users live out fantasy lives, but ’80s nostalgia is alive and well, thanks to creator James Halliday’s affection for the era. The key to the OASIS is up for grabs in an Easter egg hunt, but to win, gunters must obsessively study pop culture and live like they’re in the ’80s: defeating a game of Joust, rattling off Rush trivia, and even acting out the climax of WarGames line by line.
The 1980s. Is there a decade more imitated, recreated, and memorialized—from the power ballads to the AIDS crisis to the late-decade fall of the Berlin Wall? With so many iconic movies and other coming-of-age pop culture artifacts created during the period, it’s no surprise that the same nostalgic fondness has extended to the novel. It’s not all rosy-glasses recollections, either; at least one book on this list is less about the years we want to revisit but rather alternate visions of the ’80s that we’ll do everything in our power to avoid. From mothers watching their daughters retrace their Doc Marten-ed steps to ghost clubs and BFF exorcisms, consider this list your literary equivalent of VH1’s I Love the ’80s.
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