Christopher Caldwell is a queer Black American living in Glasgow, Scotland with his partner, podcaster Alice Caldwell-Kelly. He was the 2007 recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship to Clarion West. His work has appeared in FIYAH, Strange Horizons, and the New Suns 2 anthology, among others.“Miz Boudreaux’s Last Ride” is his fifth appearance in Uncanny, an eerie tale of relationships, bargains with the dead, and a murmuration of starlings.
Uncanny Magazine: This story takes place several years later in the same world as a previous Uncanny story, “Femme and Sundance.” What drew you back to this world?
Christopher Caldwell: My novel-in-progress is set in the same world. Davion and Tommy don’t really play a part in that, but the novel takes place nearer in time to the present day than “Femme and Sundance,” (which takes places in the 1990s) and I wanted to explore what happened after they rode off into the proverbial sunset.
Uncanny Magazine: I love the depiction of the married couple, and the way they’ve settled into the relationship over the years. Jack is also a great character, well developed and interesting. How do you come up with your characters? Do they ever do anything you don’t expect?
Christopher Caldwell: When I was a kid, I was pretty fascinated by puppets. I had a ventriloquist dummy gifted to me by my father that I never really learned how to use well. I had any number of stuffed animals that doubled as hand puppets, and I made my own dragon hand puppet out a sock and some felt. My mother had a marionette horse and rider that I love, even though I would often tangle up its strings. When I played with any of those, I would project onto them hopes and fears, wants and needs, quirks—really trying to develop a personality for each. It didn’t matter if I was playing alone or with other kids, it was always like this. When writing fictional characters I use pretty much the same approach. I don’t make a notebook of lists of things like blood type or favorite color, but I do try to develop a deep understanding of what drives each character to do things and how each of them feels.
I’m not sure it’s possible for them to do something I don’t expect. My hands are on the strings the whole time. But it’s certainly possibly for my understanding of their motivations to change things I have planned for them. Sometimes in revision I realize there’s a decision that is at odds with their motivations in a way I can’t resolve, so I change the situation.
Uncanny Magazine: What research did you do for this story? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
Christopher Caldwell: I wrote part of the story while I was in the Mojave Desert visiting family. From the Metrolink train I took up from Los Angeles I saw a mobile home located on a big sandy patch of land at the foot of a huge orange hill with nothing else very near it besides creosote and Joshua trees—not even a paved road!—and I was curious about that. I did a lot of research about land prices and upkeep in a sparsely populated rural area within an hour’s drive of a huge metropolis. My aunt lives in a small unincorporated area of Los Angeles County named after a lake that doesn’t exist anymore, and I spent a bit of time learning about the history behind that.
I did research on flash floods, and erosions. I read about changing demographics in the area. I read about the practices of ranchers in the 19th century, and California’s versions of sundown towns. I re-read Mike Davis’ City of Quartz; it opens with the socialist community of Llano del Rio, founded in 1914 and destroyed by a variety of factors including water rights and World War I by 1918.
There’s always a lot of research that doesn’t make it into a story. The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is sort of near where I was staying, and I did a lot of research on the California poppy, which is a beautiful, bright golden flower that blooms in multitudes in the desert. An early concept involved a scene set in a field of those flowers blooming, but it felt a little Wizard of Oz, and I cut it on the second pass.
Speaking of the Antelope Valley, one of the things that surprised me is that the antelope that the valley is probably named for, the pronghorn, isn’t really an antelope at all! Although physically similar in appearance, its closest living relative is probably the giraffe.
Uncanny Magazine: Jack greets Tommy and Davion by comparing them to tarot cards—the Knight of Wands and King of Cups, reversed. If she dealt a card for you, which one would it be and why?
Christopher Caldwell: As the author of the story, I think I’m the Magician; through trickery and force of will I evoke the world. If I were present in the story beyond my role as puppeteer, I suppose she might draw a cup card for me. I’m emotional, imaginative, and sometimes overly sensitive. Which particular cup would probably depend on the day.
Uncanny Magazine: The slow buildup from a pair of starlings to the full murmuration worked well to create a sense of eerie foreboding. Birds are a motif that often appear in horror, both in literature and (as the story mentions) in film—what were some of the influences for this story? Why did you choose starlings in particular?
Christopher Caldwell: Birds are very often depicted as psychopomps (entities that accompany the souls of the dead to the afterlife) throughout various belief systems around the world. Miz Boudreaux is already dead, and both Tommy and Davion have had their lives shortened due to a bargain they made in “Femme and Sundance.” It made sense to me to have the birds in their roles as psychopomps, as well as embodying a sort of magical burglar alarm on the spell Miz Boudreaux set up years before.
Influences ranges from the Senegalese film Saloum (2021)—no birds really, but I wanted to emulate the feeling of wrongness it evoked—to the very obvious Hitchcock. Probably unconsciously the Stephen King novel The Dark Half, which has passerine birds acting in an ominous fashion. I read that book when I was very young, and while I don’t remember it perfectly, I certainly remember some shivers it gave me.
Starlings are an invasive species in North America! The hundreds of millions of them mostly descend from a very small flock imported by a man in the 19th century who wanted to release all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare in the Americas. Most of those birds never really got established, but the starlings thrived and spread everywhere. A murmuration of them is also terrifying and beautiful to look at.
Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?
Christopher Caldwell: I’m still working on my novella and my novel. I’m also working on a sort of dieselpunk mecha story set in a segregated unit in an alternate history WWII, and a love story set in a city of ghosts.
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
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