Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Valerie Valdes

You begin your story similarly to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Second person is often a highly contended narrative mode, dismissed as gimmicky. You use it to great effect here, allowing the reader to inhabit the dead-end reality of the “you” character. Why did you decide to use it to tell this story?

It felt right to tell a story about a service-industry worker in the second person because such people are frequently ignored or dehumanized in their daily lives. When I worked in a movie theater, customers would walk up to the concession stand and start barking orders at me like I was a kiosk instead of a human being. So I wanted the reader to, as you say, inhabit the character more fully than first or third person would allow. There’s an immediacy and intensity that comes from second person when it’s done well, if you can clear the hurdle of the reader rejecting the POV like a bad organ transplant.

I found your story more saddening than frightening because the terror is rooted in existential dread rather than the supernatural, gore, or violence. The “you” character is doomed to work this Sisyphean movie theater job until death. Tell us where this idea came from.

This began as a story for an anthology where the only mandate was to write horror that included a particular element; the rest was up to me. I didn’t feel like writing something gory or violent at the time, so those ideas went into the notebook for later. When I’m brainstorming, I like to dredge my own life for anything that can be useful and, like I said, I worked in a movie theater for years. I have a lot of fond memories, but it was hard work for long hours and little pay, and the odds of advancement were minimal.

There’s this perception that minimum wage jobs are temporary, that they’re for young people in college who are going to earn their degrees and get “real” jobs and move up in the world, allowing the next teenager in line to take their slot. That’s garbage. Life is Sisyphean. Most of us are pushing a rock up a hill; the only differences are the size of the rock, the slope of the hill, and the view from the top before the damn thing rolls back down. Thinking about that certainly horrifies the crap out of me.

What on earth was going on in theater 12? The ambient sucking and breathing noises, the constant close-up shots of the girl drinking wine or soda in the movie, the lack of AC—I don’t think I’d last more than five minutes in there.

Theater 12 is the embodiment of the soul-sucking nature of the job. It always felt like on the day when I was least equipped to deal with things going wrong, I’d be stuck working until oh-dark-thirty, the ice machine would break, we’d run out of popcorn oil, some film would get stuck and have to be cut apart and taped back together while a bunch of customers screamed at the projection booth, and the AC would be out as the icing on the crap cupcake. Cleaning a hot theater in the summer in Miami sweats the life out of you.

I’m happy to let readers interpret the situation how they like—I’ve probably said too much already—but I’ll add that the inspiration came from the Arctic Monkeys song “Arabella.” There’s this great moment at the end: “Wraps her lips ’round the Mexican coke / Makes you wish that you were the bottle / Takes a sip of your soul and it sounds like . . .” And then these wailing guitars come in, and I get chills every time. I won’t say the song correlates strongly to my story otherwise, but I wanted to recreate those chills.

You bookend the story with the image of the shark-teeth smile, suggesting that the “you” character and floor manager Yamilet are part of an ongoing cycle of Sartrean hell. Was there any way they could escape, or was there something bigger and insidious keeping them trapped forever?

I’d like to think there’s a shot at escaping, but again, life is Sisyphean. It takes an enormous effort and not a little bit of luck to break this kind of cycle on an individual basis. That’s the world we live in. Until we acknowledge collectively that the labor system is flawed and work to improve it for everyone, it’ll be rocks and hills all the way down. People like the protagonist will be stuck in the same job, or make lateral moves for microscopic benefits, in order to maintain the scraps of security such positions offer them. People like the manager will cling to limited authority because it’s the closest they’ll ever come to having any real power over their own lives or others. At the same time, reality isn’t so simple and people aren’t so easily reducible—this is horror, after all, not a documentary. Someone can work retail or wait tables until they die and still be happy and fulfilled, because they enjoy their work or they have other things outside work that bring them pleasure. But lack of choice and opportunity can lead to the kind of stagnation I’m exploring, and I do think that’s a problem society isn’t adequately addressing.

Do you have other forthcoming works we can look forward to?

Plenty of works in varying stages of completion, but none have found a home yet. Still pushing my own boulder and hoping for a nice view at the summit before I have to chase it back down and start over again.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.