While author Christopher Pike never quite reached the level of Stephen King or R.L. Stine for me personally, there is no denying his young adult brand of horror novels made an imprint on a generation of genre-loving teens. I remember reading Pike’s signature 1994 novel The Midnight Club for the first time when I was much younger, and the darker themes about death probably went completely over my head. The memory of that book exists under a sheen of fog in my mind, and yet, creators Mike Flanagan and Leah Fong do an incredible job of encapsulating its tone and style. Like the majority of Flanagan’s work, this series injects heart and humor into the mature themes. I left caring about virtually every single character and their journeys, longing for more time with them and their tragic but captivating stories.
It is 1994 Sacramento, and Ilonka (Iman Benson) is gearing up for her big high school graduation speech. After coughing up blood and passing out at a party, Ilonka wakes up in a hospital bed, learning she has been sadly diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Worried about the possibility of chemo and trying to imagine what kind of life she may even have left, Ilonka wants to know worst case scenarios and actual options for herself. Flashing forward nine months, Ilonka is now bald-headed, and blows out imaginary candles from her hospital bed. A hospice center seems locked in for her next destination—a mysterious healing place called Brightcliffe Hospice. Brightcliffe, a previous cult compound, allegedly once housed a girl who was curiously cured of her cancer when she left the facility. This caveat provides a new sense of drive and direction for Ilonka, hopeful that Brightcliffe could present a new lease on life for the dying young girl.
Flanagan’s The Midnight Club immediately carries a strong sense of nostalgia and familiarity. Brightcliffe Hospice is established as a grand manor surrounded by forest grounds and filled with a colorful cast of characters that (mostly) welcome Ilonka with opens arms. There’s Doctor Georgina Stanton (Heather Langencamp, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), the program’s warm but closed off figurehead; Kevin (Igby Rigney, Midnight Mass, Joe Bell), a cute, friendly boy-next-door teen with leukemia; Anya (Ruth Codd), Ilonka’s roommate and a cynical “negative Nancy” amputee; Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota), the video game-obsessed previous “new kid” who still wants to be hazed; Spence (Chris Sumpter), a queer black boy at odds with his mom over his sexual identity and AIDS diagnosis; creative soul Natsuki (Aya Furukawa), who struggles with mental health; a religious nut, Sandra (Annarah Cymone), far sweeter than she appears; and finally Cheri (Adia), daughter of two Hollywood big-wigs. A wandering woman named Shasta (Samantha Sloyan, Midnight Mass, The Haunting of Hill House) that Ilonka meets who bottles water in the woods and believes in the healing powers of Brightcliffe becomes important as the series progresses. I also adored frequent Flanagan collaborator Zach Gilford’s Mark, a gay nurse practitioner at Brightcliffe who just happens to be an amazing listener.
In each episode, one of the teen characters tells a story to the rest of the crew in what they call “The Midnight Club.” They meet in secret in the study, and take turns creating metaphorical ghosts to help take them out of their own progressively difficult situations. Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark very much evoked a similar formula, at least in the way their kids spent shortened episodes waxing philosophical telling campfire stories. They name each story they tell, often applying real-world scenarios mixed in with supernatural, sci-fi, or horror elements. Whereas the Midnight Society submitted their tales for “approval” and rarely had much to their wraparound segments, The Midnight Club have a memorable toast to the “lost loved ones” before each story, and in between tales Flanagan is sure to keep the ball rolling by having Ilonka and friends infiltrate the curiosities of Brightcliffe Hospice. By the halfway point, I practically remembered the mantra by heart, “seen or unseen, here but not here.”
Over the course of ten episodes, our members of the Midnight Club spin tales covering everything from doppelgängers to witchcraft, serial killers to hitchhikers and everything in between. Some are easy to guess how they will conclude, but I am not sure it matters when the characters are so rich in detail anyway. A variety of them contain Easter eggs for Pike’s various works, though the The Midnight Club was the only one I ever read in full. While nearly all are great and unique in their own ways, it’s the Brightcliffe segments that made me fully fall in love with the show. Unexpected emotional moments had me wiping away tears, like a beautiful cello version of Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” or the touching finale in episode ten. Ultimately a wonderful story about the power of friendship and the legacy we leave behind after we pass on, The Midnight Club weaves a haunting narrative in serious need of a second season.
The Midnight Club burns the midnight oil when it premieres exclusively to Netflix on Friday, October 7th.