I had to scrap a draft of a piece for the first Appalling Stories anthology because I couldn’t develop an ending that would both satisfy the reader and not descend into cliche. It involved a middle schooler who was being bullied by Syrian immigrants, and when the school refused to intervene because of the bullies’ protected social status, the boy’s father goes to the main bully’s house in a bad neighborhood to address the situation himself. My original conclusion had him knock on an unresponsive door, dejectedly go back to his car, and get mugged and stabbed by an aggressive panhandler. It was ugly and brutal and ended the story, but not well. Anything like the father meeting the parents and developing a rapport, or meeting the parents and finding that they’re bad people, or meeting the parents and bullying them himself, or going home and angrily bullying his family would have been too hackneyed. The story just got away from me, which is why I like to use an outline for the vast majority of my fiction.
With the deadline looming I scrambled to come up with something, and seeing my kid watch television shows produced long after my childhood gave me an idea. The notion of SETI searching for extraterrestrial radio communication fascinated me, and I’d always wanted to write a story about what would happen if we actually received television signals from an alien planet. Combine this with every parent’s fear of his kid becoming alienated from him because of a rapidly-changing culture, and you’ve got something most of us can relate to. That’s how Cultural Overtones was conceived. In a way it’s about Elvis and rap music and teenage rebellion, and in another way it’s about something a lot more disturbing.
Being a parent is a full-time job that requires mindfulness as well as love and affection, and you have to make smart decisions about what to let slide and what to address. What happens when you go on autopilot?
You’ll see. Below the fold is an excerpt from Cultural Overtones.