Not Really That Much Stranger

My better half and I binged our way through new Netflix series Stranger Things last weekend, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. On its face, the show — a sci-fi suspense period piece set in suburban Indiana in the 80’s — is kind of custom-made to hit a metric trailerful of my geek-nostalgia buttons.

Spoiler warning here, since I can’t talk about some of my strongest responses without them. You’ve been warned.

So, on that surface level I referenced above, the show delivers. The Duffer Brothers and their cast and crew do an amazing job of re-creating 80’s sci suspense. Hairstyles and clothes are spot-on 80’s Hollywood without being over-the-top The Wedding Singer riffs, but that’s kind of the least of it. The recreation here is much more immersive, including a synth-y soundtrack reminiscent of a Carpenter film and title credits that call back to basically every 80’s movie based on a Stephen King book ever.

Unfortunately, it’s such a good recreation of an 80’s sci suspense flick that I had a hard time seeing what this brought to the table that all its predecessors hadn’t done already. Movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing remind us that there was a time when what Stranger Things is doing was innovative.

That time isn’t now, though. While my own eternal weakness to jump scares holds true, most of the twists of plot and nearly all of the character arcs feel staid and well-worn. Of course Finn Wolfhard’s Mike and Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven will develop a crush on each other. Of course maternal instinct will drive Winona Rider’s Joyce to face horrors for the sake of her son.

There are a rare few moments that stand out as bucking the trend. When Charlie Heaton’s loner teen Jonathan and Natalia Dyer’s popular Nancy decide to face down a monster, it’s Nancy, with no experience, who turns out to be a natural with a gun. For once, too, the third point of a teen love triangle (Joe Keery’s Steve) manages not to be a total garbage fire of a human being.1 And on the visual front, there’s a really fun inversion of the E.T. flying bicycle moment that I literally applauded.

Sadly most of these happen both very late in the season and are isolated in general. Much more likely, and in several cases frustratingly, the show doesn’t seem to have any real interest in more than pushing the verisimilitude of its 80’s Hollywood-ness. One of the reasons this reads as such an amazing recreation of an 80’s flick, for example, is how very White, Male, and Straight it winds up being.

The women in this show are intriguing, but by and large they aren’t capable of doing anything until the men in their lives empower them.2 Joyce knows her son is alive, and even creates a way to communicate with him across dimensions, but she can’t do anything about it until David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper decides she isn’t crazy. Similarly, it takes Jonathan to empower Nancy to go out monster hunting. There’s an almost palpable theme here wherein nothing is real until a Dude believes it is.

Hell, Eleven — who has actual kickass super-powers — almost never uses them save at the behest (or imminent danger to) the trio of boys she falls in with early in the series.

There’s an even smaller ethnic minority presence than there is a female one, largely represented by Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas, who at least seems to do as admirable a job as his young peers. There’s probably an argument to be made about why he of all the characters has to be the constant voice of dissent, but Lucas at least has a measure of agency, though mileage on that may vary.

Perhaps I’m simply more forgiving because Lucas (1) exists and (2) isn’t called out by slurs. Which is the exact opposite of the show’s treatment of LGBT and the 80’s. I went on a bit about this on a Twitter thread already, but the long and short of it is: while the show tosses “you’re a queer” around as the ultimate insult (indeed, in two separate cases people come to blows over the insinuation they might be “a queer”), there’s no evidence that anyone is actually queer. The creators get the benefit of claiming they’re accurately recreating attitudes of the time without bothering to actually deal with the people most affected by those attitudes.

Daniel Reynolds over at The Advocate is much more willing to buy into a “coded queer” reading of the show than I am. I just think we’re well past the point where I should have to rely on coding. We aren’t working against an actual 80’s standards committee trying to get this work made.

In general, it all points to a lot of energy being spent on recreation and not much at all on reflection or examination. A lot of these elements would get little more than an eye roll from me in a film produced in the 1980’s. Whatever its setting, though, Stranger Things was produced by people who have a lot more distance with which to recognize that era’s cultural baggage and a lot fewer barriers to inclusivity.

This all comes back to what I think is a central weakness of the show. Stranger Things peppers its background with movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing. And the influence of these movies (and more) are similarly plastered all over the film-making. I can’t tell you how many times I got a nostalgic thrill recognizing a riff on a sequence from E.T. or Alien or Firestarter or Carrie or several other movies I’m sure I’m missing.

Unfortunately, while the creators show a seemingly exhaustive love of the innovative films which form the series’ inspirational sources, they aren’t bringing much of anything new to the table themselves. That may ultimately be all that most of its fans want, mind you. Surely there’s a piece of me that responds to a lot of it. But, like “The Upside Down” that plays a pivotal role in the show, I can’t help but also see the dangers of the wider, other world the show leaves unacknowledged.

1. This Variety interview suggests Steve’s better qualities may have less to do with purposeful subversion and more to do with directors enjoying an actor, but the end result is nonetheless refreshing.

2. Hat tip to Adam Michael Sass over on the The Geeks OUT blog for hitting this particular nail on the head: “No woman can save the day until a man believes her.”

On Storytelling and Alien Perspectives

The latest episode of The Sockdolager podcast is live. Editors Paul Starr and Alison Wilgus share their insights on what they liked, loved, and noodled over for all of the stories in the Fall issue. As you may recall (and if you don’t, obviously I am un-subtly reminding you), this was the issue in which Hide Behind saw the light of published day.

Alison and Paul say a lot of the kind of complimentary stuff that makes the self-deprecating voices in my head squirm and wriggle, which is always nice. I won’t rehash all of it, because you should just go listen, but I will say I was especially happy that they made note of Yuna’s asexuality.

I did a lot of fiddling and angsting to find a way to make Yuna’s sexuality explicit without something so clunky as “As an asexual, Yuna…” in the narration or, worse, giving someone horrible “You see, Yuna, since you’re asexual…” dialogue. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

In editing, we never actually discussed any of the characters’ sexuality, though, so I’ll admit part of me wondered, but: it reads. Huzzah!

The other interesting bit I wanted to highlight is a discussion Paul and Alison have about whether or not this story takes place on Earth. Which never occurred to me, though I suppose it should have: while I was shopping this story around, a fantasy-only market I subbed it to rejected it explicitly because they thought it was too sci-fi for them.

Here’s the thing: in my head, “Hide Behind” takes place on an alt-history Earth filled with folklore come to life. However, I also have the benefit of having read the other stories I’ve set in this world. Only, one of those was published in an anthology that I’m not sure has got a lot of attention, one is forthcoming and thus isn’t in very many hands, either, and the others are either out on sub or aren’t even finished yet.

Stripped of other-story context, it makes sense. Most of the other stories lean a lot more heavily into the folklore and magic aspects. Yuna and Ruthie’s story, though, is probably the lowest on magic of any of the Tall stories. Which is intentional. I very much wanted to explore the nature of medicine and science in a world populated by so much fantastic, magical stuff. How do you navigate that, I wondered?

As a result, the mystical nature of the world gets a whole lot more grounding. When you actually start dissecting a giant and performing botanical grafts of trees with healing fruit, things become less magical and more alien.

Which, honestly, is its own kind of cool. “Hide Behind” is a story about characters who are alienated in a lot of ways, after all. Given one of my intentions with the Tall stories is to create works that can stand on their own (I’ve not sold more than one of them to the same market), but which can also provide a different experience for folks who have read more than one, this actually feels like proof of concept.

Also: I blame Firefly. ;)

Requisite Awards Eligibility Post

To be honest, this post is as much me attempting to flip off my Impostor Syndrome as anything else, so *obscene gesture inside my brain*.

Alrighty then, let’s get to it:

Given that I’ve only ramped up writing and submitting in the last year and change, there’s really not a lot of distinction I need to make here from my full bibliography. Right now the latter is organized in reverse chronological order, since it makes sense to me to highlight my most recent sales first, but it’s not like anyone needs to do heavy scrolling to find the 2015 pubs.

Also, if it matters, this is my first year of eligibility for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I understand that largely falls on the shoulders of novelists, but hey, don’t self-reject, right?

All my pubs this year are in the Short Story (<7,500 words) category. If there's a link, it's because the story is free to read online, so have at if you didn't before:

  • “Broken” (on Escape Pod #509) November 2015
  • “Hide Behind” (in The Sockdolager #3) September 2015
  • “At Her Fingertips” (in Betwixt #7) April 2015
  • “Tall” (in Twice Upon A Time (Bearded Scribe Press)) January 2015
  • “Detritus” (in Sci Phi Journal #3) January 2015
  • Can You Fanart Yourself?

    I’m not always inclined to take a crack at my own characters, largely because I hate disappointing myself by coming up with a visual which doesn’t remotely match the character in my head.

    That said, I’m pretty happy with how Acaja (From “At Her Fingertips,” up in the current issue of Betwixt magazine) turned out, so I figured I’d share:

    I will admit that the coin she’s flipping wound up there because what I couldn’t manage to draw to my own satisfaction was the sidestep unit which is so essential to Acaja’s plans. I’m still generally under-impressed with how I render tech.

    Instead, she’s got anachronistic physical currency. We’ll say she found it in the scrapyard.

    Choose Format
    Amazon|Kindle
    Amazon|Paperback

    Blurb:

    Fairytales don’t always happen once upon a time. Fables don’t always have a happy ending. Sometimes the stories we love are too dark for nightmares. What if waking Sleeping Beauty was the worse thing the Prince could have done? What if Rapunzel wasn’t in that tower for her own protection—but for everyone else’s?

    Assembled by The Bearded Scribe Press, Twice Upon A Time combines classics and modern lore in peculiar and spectacular ways. From Rapunzel to Rumpelstiltskin, this unique collection showcases childhood favorites unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

    Both traditionally-published and independent authors will take you on a whirlwind ride through fairytale and folklore, myth and majick. Cherished stories are revisited and remastered into newly-treasured tales of hope and heartache, of adversity and adventure.

    This collection features 43 short stories ranging in length from 2K-12K words from the following cast of talented writers:

    Bo Balder, AJ Bauers, Carina Bissett, Rose Blackthorn, S.M. Blooding, Rick Chiantaretto, Richard Chizmar, Liz DeJesus, Court Ellyn, S.Q. Eries, Steven Anthony George, Dale W. Glaser, Jax Goss, K.R. Green, Kelly Hale, Tonia Marie Harris, Brian T. Hodges, Tarran Jones, Jason Kimble, Shari L. Klase, Alethea Kontis, Hannah Lesniak, Wayne Ligon, RS McCoy, Joshua Allen Mercier, Robert D. Moores, Diana Murdock, Nick Nafpliotis, Elizabeth J. Norton, Bobbie Palmer, William Petersen, Rebekah Phillips, Asa Powers, Joe Powers, Brian Rathbone, Julianne Snow, Tracy Arthur Soldan, C.L. Stegall, Brian W. Taylor, Kenechi Udogu, Onser von Fullon, Deborah Walker, Angela Wallace, and Cynthia Ward.

    Edited by Joshua Allen Mercier. Cover art by Luke Spooner.


     

    Excerpt from Fire & Ash by Joshua Allen Mercier, a dark fantasy retelling of Little Red Riding Hood:

    THE cold, autumn gusts ripped across Salem’s port, stirring the angry waters, stirring the angry spectators gathered before the gallows—gallows which had not, until this day, been used since the Trials several years back. Men, women, children—all bore hateful eyes and twisted faces. All bore a deep-seeded fear of the woman before them; they watched and seethed, anger building like fire fed by the winds, waiting for answers, for closure, for justice—for the devil’s death.

    Constance Archer stared at the sea of faces; she despised all of them, save two—two faces that weren’t supposed to be there. Her daughters, Rhiannon and Rowan, hid in the small grove of trees, but she could still see their watery, green eyes piercing through the shadows, their stares stabbing their fear and pain and confusion into her. They weren’t supposed to see her like this. With the gag still tightly secured about her mouth, however, her muffled pleas for them to leave went unheard.

    Where was their grandmother?

    Constance’s fiery locks were drenched with tears. Her heart ached. For them, for herself, for her husband, Jacob. She shouldn’t have let the rage overtake her; she knew that now, now that it was too late.

    “For the crimes of witchcraft, how do you plea?”

    Even though the thick rope around her neck made it difficult to escape it—to forget—the reverend’s voice jolted her back to reality.

    “Not guilty,” Constance replied through the gag, unsure if her plea was understood.

    “Executioner, please remove the gag from the accused.”

    The reverend’s statement was cold. They had known each other since they were children, but he was but a stranger now as he stood before her. He was once so compassionate, so caring—what had changed?

    The executioner approached Constance with apprehension; she soon understood why. Despite the black hood covering his face, his scent—sweet, woody, musky, like freshly-sawn wood mixed with perfume and sweat—immediately revealed his identity: William Black. He removed the gag with haste and stepped across the gallows with a speed she hadn’t witnessed him have in years.

    How fitting that the town adulterer would be the one to hang her. She wondered who the woman had been, the one whose scent lingered on his clothing and skin. Surely it wasn’t his wife, Catherine.

    It couldn’t be.

    She had killed her, in a way, the memory of the act flooding back to her nearly causing her to faint. Seems Catherine and her husband didn’t understand the meaning of marriage; then again, neither did Jacob (apparently). Catching him with Catherine was the most heart-breaking of all.

    Wyatt Thatcher cleared his throat. “Mrs. Archer—your plea, now that we can hear you.”

    Constance stared at her old friend, pain and tears welling in her eyes. “Not guilty.”

    “If not for witchcraft, how do account for the brutal way you murdered Catherine Black? Surely, you were possessed,” countered Reverend Thatcher.

    “I didn’t murder Catherine Black. As I told you all before, she was attacked by a beast.” She wasn’t lying, but she wasn’t telling the whole truth. The truth wouldn’t save her, and she couldn’t have her daughters hearing it. They weren’t supposed to be here, but calling attention to them now would only make matters worse.

    “You’re the beast!” a woman’s voice sounded from the throng.

    “Witch!” said another, followed by her husband’s jibe, “You’re Satan’s whore!”

    Reverend Thatcher held his hand to the crowd; without a word, they fell silent. It wasn’t their first execution; it probably wouldn’t be their last. His attention turned to the defendant, but his eyes remained downcast, staring at the rough wood of the gallows as if it were the most interesting sight he had ever beheld.

    Constance knew why Wyatt Thatcher wouldn’t look at her, knew he couldn’t show a hint of weakness or compassion for her lest he be hanged, too, for sympathizing with the Devil. Satan was in Salem Village that day—no doubt about that. But it wasn’t Constance or Reverend Thatcher. The Devil stood in the crowd, reflected in the eyes of every spectator. His hunger bellowed in their calls, their taunts, their glares, and it wouldn’t be satisfied until her limp, lifeless body waved in the autumn winds like a banner for their tainted justice, a flag of their blood-stained victory over evil.

    Wyatt’s hardness broke, even if for just a second, Constance the only witness to the silent tear soaking its fleshy path across his regretful face. “And please explain to us why you were covered in her blood.”

    “I’ve told you all this before, Wyatt…” Using the reverend’s first name stirred a wave of gasps from the crowd, forcing her to pause. “I carried Catherine into my house to try to stop her bleeding, to prevent her death.”

    That was a lie; it was what she wanted everyone to believe, but it had been all for naught. It had only sealed her fate.

    “And what of your husband’s disappearance?” An icy gust of wind blew through Constance’s locks of red hair; with it, Thatcher’s own coldness returned. “Did you use witchcraft to dispose of his body?”

    “My husband was attacked, too, his body dragged into the orchard by the beast.”

    That was a lie, too. She couldn’t tell them the truth—that she had, in a fit of rage after seeing Jacob and Catherine naked in the orchard, cursed her husband’s appetite for flesh. The curse had gone horribly wrong…

     

     

    Praise:

    “Brilliant change-up on the new flood of “Fairy Tale Twists”. If you’re looking for something that can suck you in right away, this book is definitely it. The collection of short stories makes sure you never get bored with the story or writing style.”   ~Jett Murdock / Amazon review

     

    About the Publisher:

    The Bearded Scribe Press, LLC is an independent publisher of quality Speculative Fiction. They aim to become a platform for emerging writers to get discovered by the mainstream and inversely, through becoming a staple in the literary community, becoming the source for readers to discover emerging talent in the Speculative Fiction realm.

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    Watch the [Extended] Book Trailer:

    This Isn’t About Uma Thurman

    I’m not going to post a link, because first: it’s all over the place, and second: none of it deserves the three people I’d send it in traffic. “It” is another deluge of articles speculating on an actress’s purported plastic surgery. This time it’s Uma Thurman. The headlines range from relatively neutral (“Did She Have Plastic Surgery”) to vaguely supportive (“…Sports New Look”) to flat out mean (“What Happened to Her Face?”).

    And, as it was with any number of actresses who’ve been the subject of this kind of thing before, despite liberally using images of Thurman, this story isn’t about her at all. It’s about the writers and the readers and the people tweeting and posting to Facebook.

    There’s a lot of “why would she, she was beautiful before?” going around, I notice. Which infuriates me on a number of different levels. First of all, it’s rather willfully ignorant. Why would an actress in her forties, whom other people know in part for her “beauty” feel pressure to do things to maintain that? I’m pretty sure every single person posting those before and after jpegs has answered that question by asking it: you feel the way Uma Thurman looks, the extent to which she fits in your definition of beautiful, is significant. To her career. To her value to you as an actress and entertainer. To her, I guess, integrity as a human being.

    That people are invested in how an actress looks, in how “beautiful” she is rather than how talented or eloquent or hard-working or devoted to her craft — you know, the parts that go into the act part of actress — and that this investment drives clicks and sells magazines, is exactly why an actress might feel pressure to undergo procedures to extend her ability to fit in that stupid box you’ve put her in. Every person who’s asking that asinine question is part of the problem.

    The assumption, too, that Thurman has to spend time answering to people about her motivations as regards what she does with her own body doesn’t help. Thurman’s a grown up, folks. She’s sane and educated and independent. She can get a haircut or a new lipstick or a nose job or whatever the hell else she feels like doing. Do we really think the people asking will suddenly go whoops, my bad if she gives us a good answer? Why are we assuming a successful woman like Thurman wouldn’t have one? What the hell is a “good” answer, anyway? Whatever it might be, Thurman is obligated to disclose a grand total of zero reasons to us. Why should she?

    It doesn’t help that this isn’t actually even about whether Thurman did or didn’t have surgery. It’s about the fact that she looks different in one picture than she does in another. That she isn’t maintaining whatever look it is We associate with her. A look, more importantly, of which this collective, judgmental We approves.

    We have no reason to believe Thurman did or did not have “work done,” whether that’s an eye lift or a chemical peel or just a fucking fad diet and a personal trainer, prior to this. Until We noticed, no one gave two shits what the actress was or was not going through to look the way she looked. We approved of the results. We deigned to judge her beautiful, and so long as she maintained this, We didn’t ask.

    Then something happened that We noticed, and she didn’t fit in the box We built for her. We no longer approved. Only then did Thurman’s life choices suddenly, supposedly, matter. Though even then, that’s just a Macguffin. It’s ultimately inconsequential if the change was due to surgery or a lack of eye makeup or just from the fact that people’s faces change as they age. Our picture got ruined because We saw change that struck us wrong.

    People aren’t pictures, even if we take millions of pictures of them. They grow, they change. There is no scenario by which they don’t or won’t. So how about this: if the eternal immutability of Uma Thurman’s — or anyone else’s — face is so central to your life that you feel shame and fear and anger and doubt at the prospect of losing it, I suggest you take a picture. Any picture that makes you feel warm and safe with this person you don’t know and probably never met. Then you and that picture should go into a safe, dark room and lock yourselves away from time and external stimuli. I wish you a happy, healthy forever.

    Just make sure you don’t look in a mirror with the light on. You might notice something different in your face, and we wouldn’t want you subject to any more of that kind of trauma.

    Just Love Me (but Not On the Lips)

    I’m still ambivalent about a The Last 5 Years1 film, largely because its concept has always seemed so tied to live theatre. Mind you, I don’t mind adaptation. It happens all the time. Filmmakers adjust stories to better fit the new medium and I totally think they should.

    That said, the central conceit of The Last 5 Years–that Cathy is moving backwards through the relationship as Jamie moves forward–feels both essential to the material and all wrong for film. In all honestly, while there are a lot of songs I love in the show, I think the reason you sit through those songs all at once is the time juggling. It’s a device that engages your mind in a different way than a linear narrative, and by around the midway point, starts encouraging you to try fitting songs back together internally. The intellectual exercise of figuring out who is when keeps your brain working to put together what is, on its face, a fairly standard relationship narrative.

    And, in a theatrical setting, no one really balks at just having two people performing a series of musical monologues. We’re used to folks getting up on a stage and doing just that. It’s the buy in. We don’t need anything cinematic. And, again, that intimacy seems kind of crucial to what this particular story is trying to accomplish. As, effectively, an elaborate he said / she said story, forcing the audience to lock in on whomever is currently doing the saying is important. It’s not a tug of war if you aren’t being yanked from deep within one person’s perspective to deep within another’s. Film tends to want to be far more immersive with its environments, and rightly so.

    So, yeah. Given that the two things that I think make The Last 5 Years, you know, The Last 5 Years are both elements which I think don’t work especially well in cinema, I’ve been apprehensively curious about how things are going to work in this new film.

    The first clip from the film feels a bit like my concerns are at least reasonably valid2:

    So, in an effort to help things move, to give the world of the film that immersive environmental element I was talking about above, we have our lead characters in a car. We get wind, we get scenery, we get all that wild, fun energy of being out on the road with the person who gets you going, which of course leads to pulling off said road in order to get going with said person.

    But because Cathy has to keep singing the whole time, the scene plays really awkwardly for me. There’s no real musical break to let Anna Kendrick fully connect with Jeremy Jordan. She manages to sneak in one, very quick kiss, but the rest of the scene, which is attempting to build to some spontaneous roadside nookie, keeps fighting with the need for Kendrick to keep singing. I count three or four different spots where it’s clear that the actors’ instincts (which I think are spot on) are to be kissing, but: Must. Keep. Singing.

    So instead we have Jordan going to town while Kendrick sings about how into it all she is without being able to actually be into it. It’s kind of a perfect example of the tension between the needs of the filmmakers and the needs of the show they’re adapting.

    Maybe this is just a particularly off example of the rest of the film released because “look, we made it full of sexy stuff!” or something. Still, it’s not doing much to reduce my ambivalence.

    1. I thought for half a second about going back and forth between 5 and Five in the titles to distinguish film from stage show, but it just became confusing, not least of all because, while MTI lists the title with Five-the-word, the poster just about everyone associates with the show uses 5-the-number, and I’m done with the headache, so this is what you get.

    2. The original clip is actually from Entertainment Weekly, but after much screaming and gnashing of teeth, I cannot get that into WordPress. Thus the YouTube.