A World Built on Top of Ours: Finding Queerness in Midnight Special

I recently had the chance to watch Midnight Special, which applies an indie film filter to the “child with mysterious powers” spec-fic staple. That’s more dismissive of the movie than I mean to be, but effective shorthand, since I’m less interested in the overt text of the piece than I am with what I find around its edges and in the spaces between it.

So we’re all up to speed, the short version of the plot goes like this: Roy (Michael Shannon) is attempting to get his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) out of the reach of the cult which raised them both — and which has currently built a religion around Alton’s otherworldly abilities. To do this, he enlists the aid of his childhood friend — and Texas state trooper — Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and eventually Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), moving cross country at night (and blacking out windows during the day) to avoid overloading Alton’s light-sensitive powers.

Before we go much further: I’m not convinced this is a film trying to interrogate its source materials so much as present them with a different aesthetic. However, because that aesthetic involves saying half of what you need to say, of meaningful stares and thoughtful silences, it nevertheless feeds directly into my Subtext Engine.

The obvious queer angle I could take would be turning Alton’s super powers into a metaphor for queerness, but Alton seems a clear stand in for a different Other. And an important one, though I’m reticent to delve too deeply, as there are folks far better equipped to comment on how well or poorly the film does it. Nevertheless, Alton’s abilities had a much more obvious resonance for me: he suffers intense sensory issues, issues which his caregivers argue repeatedly about how to manage, and (possibly most importantly), Alton doesn’t “get better” until he’s allowed to be involved himself, until someone listens to him about what he needs. It sounds almost beat for beat like the struggle people on the autism spectrum face daily.

Rather than in Alton and his powers, then, I found queerness in the more mundane elements at play. Namely, in Roy and Lucas. In point of fact, for much of the opening of the film, I kept trying to parse whether or not Roy and Lucas were a couple. It wasn’t until the mid-film appearance of Sarah, when Lucas finally drops exposition about how he joined this little caper, that I was certain they weren’t. And even then, well, intended or not, the film is riddled with elements that still play queer to me.

Lucas, we learn in the aforementioned infodump, was a close childhood friend of Roy’s. They were “real close for a long time. Until his parents moved him out to The Ranch.” The Ranch being the film’s name for the cult compound Roy et al are currently fleeing. Word choice is important, here: it isn’t that Roy’s family moved out there and he had to go with them, they moved Roy out there. It plays like nothing so much as a conversion therapy narrative.

Lucas makes it clear the two have had little or no contact since the move, but years later, when the life of his child is on the line, Roy goes first to Lucas. He doesn’t call, doesn’t test the waters to see how much or little he might be able to trust Lucas. He just shows up on his doorstep. And here’s the thing: Lucas isn’t the only person Roy can go to. The pair make multiple stops on their journey, getting help from at least one other former cult member besides Sarah. Roy had options. What he chose, though, was Lucas. There’s an intimate trust there which is profound given the stakes, and whatever past these two had with each other was enough to tell Roy he could count on Lucas to be worth that trust.

Then, too, there’s those meaningful, silent looks that this kind of film is known for: where a character looks at an object or a tableau and we’re meant to read what they’re thinking from the way they consider it. Lucas has more than one of those, several of them at the sight of Roy and Sarah and Alton altogether. He even expresses his regret at one point, telling Sarah that the three of them “would have made a nice family” if there had “been a way out of this.” It isn’t much of a stretch to attach a second meaning to what roadblock “this” represents.

And when it comes to the way out, when the film reaches its climax and the group has to separate to get Alton where he’s going, Lucas — who has always been the muscle, the one with the gun, the defense training, the physical endurance to shrug off shotgun impacts — stays with Roy, not Alton, for a final, rousing chase. Not to drive the car, mind you. Roy’s doing that. Not to shoot at the military; Alton’s made clear that the military has orders only to fire if fired upon. Nevertheless, he’s at Roy’s side.

He’s there to see Alton’s “world built on top of ours” with Roy, and when it’s all said and done and he’s under interrogation by the government, who are none to happy with his responses, he has only one story to tell “because it’s the truth.”

This is obviously a lot of me building a secondary story out of spaces and looks and inference. Sure, great, you might think, we can add it to a Buzzfeed list of wacky fan theories next to the secret origin of Jesse from Toy Story. But certainly there are numerous films where no one has to lay out arguments for a queer presence. Surely we’ve moved past the point where we have to decode film to find its underlying queerness, where writers sneak in subtext by lying to the male lead about intent and writing around it.

Except sometimes maybe we still do. Because there are still young people who grow up in small or large towns, whose communities don’t like talking about this kind of thing. Young people who, if they get too close, if they insist on telling a story because it’s the truth no matter how uncomfortable it makes the establishment, wind up shipped off for re-programming. People who have to live their lives at night, who have to worry about what they say and who they say it to because doing the wrong thing in the harsh light of day still risks destroying everything. Maybe people from states that continue to actively debate their rights.

Maybe for those people, we still need to build a world on top of the one that everyone else sees. A world with people like them. Because, as Alton says, “They watch us. They’ve been watching us for a very long time.”

Experimental Structures and Invisible Illnesses

I’ve been remiss, in that I’ve not spammed you all about my most recent publication. “Fragile Insides” just came out as part of the second volume of the Orthogonal anthologies, Orthogonal: Code.

This is another story in my sci-fi, genetic plague, asteroid colony Detritus setting. It’s probably the closest to a linchpin story as I’ve done. Heady’s been the common factor for all the Detritus stories thus far, so it was inevitable that her story would pull from all the others (seriously, one of the alternate titles I was playing with was “Connective Tissue”).

Even given that, I still believe this story stands on its own. If you’ve read the other stories, there are also a lot of easter eggs and pointers to how all the other stories line up and interconnect, but the pieces here all feed Heady’s specific character arc for this particular narrative.

Given the conceit of this world, wherein all residents of The Rim suffer ill effects from the inscrutable Skew epidemic, disability has been an ongoing element. “Detritus” introduced the world through the eyes of a woman who discovers her own late in life, after having convinced herself of a natural immunity. “At Her Fingertips” explored more obvious physical deformity. And “Broken” moves inward, looking at neurodiversity in a setting where every notable difference is labelled a weakness. A Deficiency, in fact, the terminology of the world, and an intentionally loaded one.

“Fragile Insides” is my attempt to tackle something I hadn’t yet in these stories. Several of my friends suffer from so-called “invisible” physical ailments, the sort which routinely meet resistance by the larger world through thoughtless rejoinders of “but you look fine.” Heady is inspired by those friends, her combination of seeming almost super-heroic in size while constantly battling pain, or the threat of same, let me try to explore those themes in what I hope is a compelling and empathetic way using a speculative context.

Oh, and about the format on this one: blame Laura. Initial drafts of this story were very much structured like the other Detritus narratives, because in my head, that’s how you tell a Detritus story.

Heady’s story, possibly because it’s such a linchpin, possibly because I’m a bucket of fail, possibly due to the machinations of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just didn’t want to play nice, though. Presented like its compatriots, the story was staid and pat and didn’t seem to get us anywhere. I joked with Laura that I was tempted to turn the whole thing into a cross-referenced digital journal, because Heady would be the kind of person to keep (and constantly update references in) something like that.

Then she went and told me to do it, dammit.

So, yes, the cross-references all work. But, as with reading the other Detritus stories, you don’t have to follow them around. You can start at the beginning and move to the end in a linear fashion, and the story still builds in a way I’m more than happy to have you experience.

If at some point you also want to go jumping between sections as they’re cross-referenced, though, you can do that, as well. It won’t be the same experience, but it’s just as much one I built. I have the notepad full of scrawled entries and link codes and more-than-mild headache to prove it.

Mishmash as Worldbuilding

I promised some wonk about “Taste of Birdsong,” didn’t I? We should do that, then, yes?

This story, unlike a lot of my other recent sales, is set in its own world, so there was a lot more whole cloth worldbuilding to do than when I write a Tall or a Detritus story. But that’s what scribbly note files are for, right?

Let’s stop and see if I can’t kill the pretension in that a bit. I don’t pretend to be burdened with so many amazing ideas that I must — simply must, my dear — write them all down as soon as divine provenance sends them to me, lest the world be robbed of my brilliance.

Yeah, no. What I have is a brain that runs scattershot. I have some ideas that are silly and some which seem kind of cool and a lot which are completely random and probably not particularly insightful or intriguing in the least. I tend to tap them into the Drive app on my phone not to record brilliance, but to get them out of my head. When I’m in a place to noodle around with things, I periodically pull the little bits of stuff out and poke at them to see if anything happens.

Which, as this story will attest, sometimes results in something. The world and story here came from a bunch of different little ideas that were floating around unattached.

I had at one point written down something about migrating trees. Not Ents, not sentient anythings. I’d just been wondering what might happen to a hunter / gatherer paradigm when the things from which we gathered were also the things we hunted.

Similarly, I had another scribble about transitional senses. That one came from a weird thought progression that started somewhere with me noodling alternate senses that could be used for telecommunication, of all things.

Neither of those were a story, of course. It wasn’t until I decided I wanted to see if I could write something that mucked about with perception and notions of strength and beauty that I had something to hang things on.

Given that Sovani’s journey is one where he’s trying to assemble a life for himself, the meta hodgepodge that went into the world he lives in is at least thematically appropriate.

Secrets and Meddling and Science Gone Right

I promised something more substantial about Hide Behind, didn’t I? I should get to that. I’ll avoid major spoilers, but if you want to read the story completely cold, I’d suggest clicking the link above first and doing so. You can always come back.

Everyone good going forward? Excellent.

Given this is in part a story about secrets, how about I start with one? It may not be an especially well-hidden one, but here goes: before around August of last year, it had been a decade plus since I’d written much of any new fiction. There were occasional dalliances, mind, but nothing sustained.

Due to my previous fits without much start, going into this latest attempt I decided to try to give myself a slight leg up. Laura had been having success writing several stories which shared a world in her Teachout stories. Success both in that she was pubbing the stories and that I was digging on them.

Worldbuilding is exciting, but it can also be exhausting. Personally, I can get a bit lost in the background research and brainstorming and burn myself out before I get to the actual story. I thought doing something similar to Laura might leave me with energy to write more. I took a look at those few stories I had which I liked, and fiddled about thinking about which ones might have enough worldbuilding lying about that I could further explore.

I found two, one of which was Tall. I’d peppered Elsie’s story with a lot of background material, most of which I hadn’t dug in deep with. So I made a short list of the biggest bits of background and set about noodling them for story.

One of those bits are the Seeders (colloquially known as “tinpots”), a heretofore unseen movement peopled by folks planting fruit trees where they have no earthly right to grow, and who apparently only ask in return that folks who partake of the fruit throw the seeds to the wind to continue the process.

I knew I wanted a scientist to be butting up against the secrets of a Seeder tree. Figuring out how and in what ways science works in a world with literal magic is just too much fun to pass up, after all.

It started with one scientist, frontier doctor Yuna, but Ruthie, a botanist, showed up pretty quickly after, and I might have smiled a bit. Intrepid lady scientists versus mysterious magic! What’s not to love about that?

The pair of them diligently worked to unlock the secrets of Seeder magic, all the while facing off against some very strong resistance by locals who thought science had no place meddling with something like the pseudo-religious work of the tinpots.

And then people started dying, because if there’s one mortal enemy of a doctor, it has to be unexplained deaths, yes? Worse, what if the explanation was that aforementioned meddling?

I promised no spoilers, so that’s all the further I’ll go, but yeah: “Hide Behind” is a story about science and meddling and faith and friendship and what we know and what we think we know.

With magic trees and the autopsy of a giant.

Jumping at Shadows

Friend from college and writer of scary stuff Amanda Hard is celebrating National Short Story Month by reviewing / recommending a short story a day. I’m not nearly so ambitious, but her recent entry on a Ray Bradbury story, particularly her mention of the masterful way Bradbury builds tension and dread, instantly brought to mind my own favorite example of Bradbury’s atmosphere / dread-building abilities: “The Whole Town’s Sleeping.”

The story is, honestly, kind of plotless: young woman and friends find dead body, hear about a serial killer, go to the movies, then young woman walks home alone. In terms of “what actually happens,” that’s really what it boils down to. There aren’t aliens or ghosts or monsters or even an on-screen appearance of this rumored serial killer.

And it scared the living hell out of me.

Part of this is Bradbury playing with my expectations. He put the gun on the table, as it were, when he showed me a body and mentioned a killer. I was waiting for it to go off.

But beyond that, or perhaps intertwined with it, Bradbury slowly indoctrinates me with the creeping paranoia building in his POV character (Lavinia). I’m sure Lavinia is safe at first. After all, this is just the beginning. I laugh off the false threats as she encounters them, because, well, I knew those were coming, surely?

Then, of course, I’ve bought in. Because my responses echo Lavinia’s, I’ve become sympathetic even without realizing it. And so as her paranoia builds, so does mine.

As the story builds, I’m not just waiting for something to happen. I’m actively dreading it. Honestly, the last third or so of this story is me as a reader doing the equivalent of the “turn around he’s right behind you!” flailing that you do watching a thriller movie.

Except I can’t see anyone behind Lavinia any better than she can. Everything is built with atmosphere and dread and expectation, and every damn step that young woman takes on the way home is worse than the last for all that nothing goes wrong and nothing goes wrong and…

I literally flinched and sucked in a frightened breath at the end of the story. I had to put the book down (I read this one in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales). And turn on all the lights in the apartment. And put a comedy on the television.

Possess the Original

Spoilers for The Originals are likely to follow. Warning done.

In general, I’ve tended to find The Vampire Diaries spin-off show The Originals more interesting than its parent. I think the pull of the latter comes in part with the way the writers seem to play with moral ambiguity in more interesting ways. A fair amount of that is the fact the titular original vampires are often and repeatedly painted as Not Good People. And unlike in TVD, they generally aren’t seeking redemption. The Mikaelson clan are callow and selfish and back-stabby. That last quite literally, though they’re often as happy to stab you in the front if it’s more convenient.

The original vampires are, then, protagonists rather than heroes. The nature of series television, of course, means that casting them in that central position required some level of softening from the soulless lot they first appeared as in TVD. Largely, this takes place in the extended familial interactions: sibling rivalry and the burdens of unplanned parenthood and long lost relatives with which they have … unpleasant pasts.

A significant frustration is that, though set in New Orleans, the show’s first season wasn’t what I’d call especially diverse. The Mikaelsons are all white. Most of the added supporting cast, as well. The first arc’s adversary (Charles Michael Davis’s Marcel) was one of the few POC in the cast. I can’t say he reformed, because I’m not sure anyone does that on The Originals, but he has moved his way onto the protagonist side of the equation, insofar as anyone can really be certain of an allegiance in a show built around betrayal by those you most trust.

Another adversary was a body jumping witch, who was — both in her first life and in the body she inhabited in the 21st century — a woman of color. There’s an argument to be made that it’s also problematic the percentage of POC characters who fall on the antagonist side of the equation. I go back and forth about it, because the show makes it pretty clear that most of the people who want to hurt the Mikaelsons have entirely valid reasons for doing so. The originals are horrible people who’ve earned a fair share of the ire directed toward tehm. Which is likely to happen when you’re centuries-old bloodsucking murderers.

And given how often the Mikaelsons are plotting against each other, it’s often difficult to decide who the hell’s in the right. Usually no one. I mean, the number of times the siblings have imprisoned, tortured, or tried to murder one another, and then justified it with speeches about loyalty and betrayal that don’t really makes sense but obviously feel right to them … yeah.

Still, even if they’re all Not Good People, season one had a woeful dearth of color given the setting.

The second season has made a little progress to fixing that, though the storyline behind that is as murky in how it makes me feel as the title characters themselves. You see, while there are more black actors working on the show, they’re almost all playing white characters.

Bear with me. I’ll explain

This season, Esther Mikaelson, the mother of the original vampires, returns from the dead, and brings back deceased Mikaelson siblings Kol and Finn with her. The returned Esther’s originally played by white Natalie Dreyfuss, Finn by black actor Yusuf Gatewood. After a few episodes, Esther’s spirit slips into that of a different witch, and she’s thereafter played by black actress Sonja Sohn.

Esther, it seems, has a plan to remove the taint of vampirism from her children. She wants them to stop being the murderous animals they have been, to move all of their souls into new, human bodies and thus grant them a chance to live honest, human lives. She even takes steps to try to give them recognizable vessels, preparing human ally Cami (Leah Pipes) to receive the soul of daughter Rebekah.

It’s at this point that the narrative finally pauses long enough to point out what’s been obvious for some time: Esther’s magic hasn’t fashioned new bodily shells for herself and her children; they’re possessing bodies which belong to living souls. Though she doesn’t wind up in Cami, Rebakah does — through the twisting nature of plots and traps and double-crosses the show so enjoys — wind up in a new body. That of black actress Maisie Richardson-Sellers.

Surely by now you’re sensing the pattern.

I find the potential of this pattern incredibly intriguing. I mean, for all that Esther keeps saying she’s trying to save her family, for all that she denounces the evil of her children’s monstrous existence, she’s effectively trying to rescue them from being predators by making them into parasites. She’s giving them a second chance by taking away several others’ first one.

And nearly all the folks whose lives are being stolen by these white Europeans are black.

It’s just downright fraught with prickly, twisty dynamics. Especially when you consider that Marcel explicitly comes from a background as a slave. He lived his early life possessed by a person, though not in the mystical sense. Even after he was ostensibly freed by Klaus (Joseph Morgan), he wound up a recurring pawn, fought over by the vampire family, each of whom has variously wanted him for him or herself, as a sibling or child or lover or whatever, but almost never as an equal. Marcel has been bandied about as “belonging” to one or more Mikaelson for a significant portion of his life and later undeath.

There is, too, the choice to have Yusuf Gatewood continue to play Finn when, in a recent episode, the minds / souls of the Mikaelsons are all gathered in a magical holding area outside of their bodies. That Kol is played in that sequence by Daniel Sharman (the current “host body” for Kol and not the character’s original actor) suggests this is probably only a logistical expedient, but I couldn’t help myself wondering if it might suggest that long-term possession impacts the sense of self, and then wondering in what ways.

The frustration of it all is, however, that other than that brief period wherein white Cami is at risk, no one seems to be commenting on what all this possession means to the possessed. Indeed, in the most recent episode, the only person anyone’s morning as one of the possessing Mikaelsons dies is that of the possessing soul, and not the young man whose life was co-opted by him. Even more noteworthy: though there’s been much hand-wringing about how to get Rebekah back into her original body, the same scenes of a dying brother lead to Rebekah’s promise to stay in her (black) witch body until she can manage the magic to bring Kol back.

As I said in the beginning, this isn’t an especially new turn of events for these characters. They’ve perpetually only cared about their own well being, and marginally the well-being of those mortals with whom they happen to be fond at the moment. That the Mikaelsons don’t think twice about what their choices mean to the humans they force themselves on is a pretty consistent narrative of the show.

But it’s not just them. No one is commenting. Not Davina (Danielle Campbell), who still wants Klaus dead for his callus treatment of her loved ones. Not Marcel, whose previously-mentioned background might suggest he notice this kind of thing. Not even Cami, who is not only known for pointing out just how completely messed up all these supernatural characters’ moral compasses are, but who was actually in danger of being possessed. If anyone might sympathize with the suppressed person in these bodies, it should be her.

I suppose I can take this as indication that the Mikaelsons’ philosophy is seeping into all those with whom they associate. It wouldn’t be the first time. Stay around these people long enough, and you seem to develop a taste for blood whether you’re a vampire or not. I have a hard time believing that’s not the intention, though. And it’s just frustrating to see what feels like such an intriguing subplot languish un-commented on.

A Tale of “Tall”

I did threaten to go on at greater length about my story in the Twice Upon A Time: Fairytale, Folklore, & Myth. Reimagined & Remastered anthology. I do like to carry through on threats:

As is probably obvious from its title, “Tall” sprang from my interest in American tall tales. In the beginning, that’s all I knew I wanted to work with. I thought there was something intriguing about these wildly fantastic stories told in a very colloquial voice. It gave the miraculous an everyday quality, which in turn had me wondering just what it might be like if the hyperbolic reality of tall tales really was everyday.

Since I had no further notions than that, at first I just started collecting. I wanted to see what kinds of patterns emerged. It didn’t take long to start noticing them. There were, for example, a lot of larger than life stories about people who were literally larger than life. Not only Paul Bunyan, but Joe Magarac, Old Stormalong, even John Henry in some versions of that story, were giants: men larger, stronger, and tougher than their fellows.

Speaking of John Henry, though, what I didn’t notice a lot of were women or people of color. And when I did find them, they didn’t tend to fare nearly as well as their Caucasian counterparts. John Henry, after all, dies on the heels of his own success. The only Native American character showing up in these sorts of stories, Sam Hide, was literally only noteworthy to the storytellers for being a drunk and a liar.

I knew at that point I wanted to foreground both women and POC in the story itself. That they were largely invisible in these tales — and poorly treated by them when they did show up — was exactly why I thought I should be telling this story from their point of view.

One of the abuses I found most outrageous was the tale of Pecos Bill’s true love, Slue Foot Sue. A miraculously-talented wrangler in her own right, Sue winds up bouncing non-stop from her overgrown hoop skirts after having the audacity to think she (who managed to wrangle a giant catfish, let’s remember) might ride Bill’s horse. There are vaguely sanitized versions where Sue lives but gives up on all this cowboy stuff after Bill finally rescues her, but the version that lodged in my mind and wouldn’t let go involves Bill having to kill his love for her own good.

We’ll let that one sink in a minute. Seriously, Pecos Bill, to end the suffering of that foolish woman he decided to marry, put her down like a lame horse.

I absolutely had to take that story on directly.

Elsie seemed like the perfect point of view character to face the inherent problems with the source material. She’s a Native American girl who was culturally “overwritten” by these over the top, Caucasian narratives. In a world where giants trample along, and men pretty literally bend the world to their will, hers is the story of the ways in which someone might try to survive such a world and, maybe, re-write that overblown primary narrative. There’s power to be found in those places where the men aren’t looking. Between the trenches dug by sad giants and the deserts born of men’s pride and hubris, were other options, other people, who had powerful stories to tell.