Sam J. Miller’s Latest Novel ‘The Blade Between’ Will Haunt You and It Happens To Have Ghosts Too

Sam J. Miller’s latest novel The Blade Between is essentially a horror story that is set in his hometown of Hudson, New York but like all great fiction it speaks to a larger truth about the headwinds facing small post-industrial town are those of America writ large.

I say essentially only because Miller’s prose approaches a kind lyrical poetry often found in far more literary haunts. In some ways it’s the nature of of the city of Hudson itself that seems to ground the story and makes it the  kind of compelling page turner reminiscent  of Stephen King at the peak of his powers — it’s that good.

But while the Hudson of the novel feels laid low, it is in fact a turn around success story from a conventional wisdom perspective. It literally became a respectable alternative for Manhattanites as Shelter Island or Montauk as opposed to the Hamptons, over the last decade.

Back in December NPR said: There are violent ghosts, flying whales, and dead people with mouthfuls of saltwater hundreds of miles from the ocean in Sam J. Miller’s The Blade Between, but it all makes sense. It all makes sense because the story takes place in Hudson, New York, a place built on the remains of slaughtered whales, where their unused parts were buried underground and the scraps were fed to animals later used to feed people. Hudson is full of angry spirits, but now a different monster is destroying it: gentrification.

Miller pulls readers into a universe where the banality of everyday life in a small town and the extraordinary weirdness of the supernatural collide, but the collision somehow results in a strange balance.

#GAYNRD spokes with Miller about the book and it’s startling prescience about the Insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, the prevalence of crystal meth in the gay community,  making Grindr a literal monster, and why Miller buries his gay lead protagonist Ronan Szepessy.

What’s so special about Hudson?  I can only speak for myself, but what makes Hudson so special to me is that it’s home. It’s that it’s where I was born and raised, it where my family was for many generations. It’s where father was an important part of the community as the sort of town butcher who everybody knew and so that’s what makes it special for me. I think that what makes it special for wealthy weekenders and artistic types of New York City who can’t afford Bushwick anymore is that it is beautiful architecture that’s been very well-maintained where the sort of urban renewal that happened in a lot of cities, including Poughkeepsie around the country in the ‘60s, that’s sort of ruined the aesthetic. 

A lot of that didn’t happen in Hudson or it happened really differently. I think that it’s preserved a lot of its old character. I mean, I think of a city like Bruges in Belgium, where for a number of reasons that have to do with economic depression and global geopolitical shift, it didn’t get demolished. It didn’t get turned into the sort of cookie cutter city that you see in a lot of places. I think it’s sort of a window on the past and I think a lot of people do value it for that. It just those folks who are buying and moving in, they value the buildings, not necessarily the people who live there. 

In fact displacement and homelessness are almost character in the book making me wonder if that stems from Miller’s own past. He spent 15 years as a grassroots organizer of  homeless folks in New York City.

NPR again: [“This is a ] book about broken people. The creepy atmosphere and ghosts make it horror, but the drug abuse, evictions, cheating, and destroyed lives make it noir. Also, Miller’s writing and vivid imagery, especially when describing dreams, make it poetry. The mix of genres, much like the mix of elements, makes no sense, but it works. People are angry and sad. Poverty is rampant. The opioid crisis has destroyed many of Hudson’s residents. Failed drugs tests separate kids from their mothers. Corporate interests destroy places locals considered sacred. When those things come together, the flying whales and apparitions, what Ronan calls the town’s ‘supernatural miasma,’ are no big deal because the darkness and pain underneath them, the carnage of daily life, is astonishingly real and painfully relatable.”

It’s the climax of the novel that will shock and haunt you though, as all the characters ultimately converge in the town center in an eerie sequence not unlike what happened in Washington January 6th. Miller says that makes sense  since much of the book, in large part, came  from a place where a lot of people have watched the country over the past four years and of course well before the past four years. I mean, Trump didn’t start with the 2016 election, right? That we’ve seen this phenomenon where people who are angry or poor or disillusioned or disenfranchised or have a number of grievances with the very real problems of the world have had those grievances inflamed and stoked and misdirected by forces online where you have things like the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal and the ways that the far right specific used social media to mobilize and radicalize people and to take people who have had sort of abstract grievances and turn that into really weaponized activism/violence which ranged from voting rights being suppressed to outright shooting people. So that’s certainly something that’s been on my mind a lot. And that came through in this book a lot and the fact that that phenomena hasn’t gone away, and it’s going to continue and showed itself on January 6th which, of course, happened almost two years after I finish writing the book. I don’t anticipate that that phenomena will go away any time soon unfortunately.”

Miller is quick to point out that none of the characters are based on real people and have some exaggerated qualities. He says, “In real life, gentrification is a really complex process, with lots of people with lots of roles and responsibilities. And it’s very hard to point to anyone in particular as like this is the bad guy, right? It’s a lot of people with a lot of varying degrees of responsibility. So guilt is accountability is widely circulated. But for fictional purposes it’s helpful to have that condensed into one person.

What Miller captures quite specifically is the banality of many of the people’s motives. “Yeah. I mean, I think that for me what I wanted to communicate with this book one of the things is that when you talk about things like gentrification, everyone’s caught up in it. Everyone’s part of it. Everyone that includes people like, for example, like working class white people who might have a slightly greater access to capital and because institutionalized racism it’s easier for them to get a loan from a bank, for example. You look at the history of red lining in America and how many banks wouldn’t make loans in black neighborhoods. So because of racism and patriarchy, everyone is caught up in it and the sort of like oppression of displacement maps really onto societal fault lines. So that in my protagonist’s attempt to do something positive about the displacement that’s happening. It’s impossible for him to do that without sort of making things worse in some ways, and so yeah. I mean, I think that it’s not an issue where there’s the good guys and the bad guys. It’s like there’s lots of varying degrees of activity that people engage in that is often just about as something as simple as putting a roof over their heads in the heads of their families that is if you don’t take a step back and look at how that connects to what’s happening in the area and to what’s going on around you, it’s very easy to accidentally cause harms and to fail to see that you have power to do something to fix the situation.”

Miller says one of the big lessons that he learned in his many years as a community organizer is that it is possible to stop displacement. “It is possible to stop. If you look at New York City history you had Robert Moses who in many cases was very successful in destroying communities of color and putting it major thoroughfare through the South Bronx that destroyed the fabric of the community and resulted in decades of horrific impoverishment and exploitation.”

As an example he points to Moses failure to conquer Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “Robert Moses lost on the Lower East Side when he tried to put it through a way through the Lower East Side because community came together because Chinese immigrants and Puerto Rican immigrants and Jewish immigrants and a whole bunch of different communities of people came together and said, “Our community is valuable, our community does not need to throw away, and we are going to fight back,” and it took a really long time, and it was a really hard fight. But to me, that’s the lesson that I learned from community organizing that I tried to communicate with the blade between is that it’s hard work. It’s difficult. It’s sometimes very boring work. It’s a lot of meetings but it’s necessary work. And it’s possible by if people come together and sort of see their shared interest and realizing that the different factions of what people call the 99% have more in common with each other than with the 1% that’s sort of profiting from them being at each other’s throats. So, yeah, you can fight and you can win that’s the lesson I learned but it’s very hard….”

Moses, who was known as the master builder of mid-20th century New York City, Long Island, Rockland County, and Westchester County. He was one of the most polarizing figures in the history of urban development in America. His decisions favoring highways over public transit helped create the modern suburbs of Long Island and influenced a generation of engineers, architects, and urban planners who spread his philosophies across the nation despite his not having been trained in those professions. Moses would call himself a “coordinator” and was referred to in the media as a “master builder”.

Moses is the subject of a massive biography by Robert Caro called The Power Broker. Moses at one point held 12 titles simultaneously while never having been elected to anything.

In fact there are so many things that ring true for me I bring them up to Miller. Ronan Szepessy in fact strikes me as being very similar to the fashion photographer Ryan McGinley. McGinley’s portraits of his friends and fellow queer skater-cum-nightlife impresario East Village denizens propelled him into the spotlight in the late 90s and early aughty aughts culminating in a solo show at the Whitney Museum of Art in 2003. McGinley, then only 25, remains the youngest photographer to have ever had such a show.

While I am bringing this up Miller remarks that he looks up McGinley and says “Holy shit, I I’m very glad I didn’t know about him before I wrote this book because I probably would’ve felt like it was, too close. I want to change that character a lot. Wow. His stuff is great. And it’s almost exactly what I was imagining for Ronin.

I also ask him about Szepessy’s meth addiction. While the majority of Hudson is being choked by the all too pervasive opioid crisis, Ronan, who is gay, is fighting meth. something all too common in our community. “I think that for me, the bottom line is I personally have had struggles with substance abuse, specifically alcohol but I think that addiction is real and addiction is intense. And I think that addiction is something that we don’t always talk about and don’t always think about. And in many ways it’s sort of like it’s part of culture in so many ways. I think that certainly drug use part of gay culture. But I think that alcohol abuse is part of every culture that there’s a glamorization of it and there’s a way that it’s a sort of for myself, at least, substance abuse as existing on a spectrum with other forms of mental illness and being inextricably connected with them so that substance abuse is in many ways a form of self-medication and that we have trauma and damage in the past that we haven’t come to terms with or that we can’t confront or that is still causing us pain that we haven’t found a productive way to treat that we turn to substances because they take away some of the pain even if they create other kinds of pain. So that’s something that I think is a real dynamic and people’s lives that I’m always interested in exploring in fiction. So I do think that there’s probably an above average number of addicts in my fiction than there is in maybe. We’ll probably not more than there is in the general population.”

Miller underscores all this by saying “It’s a real issue I want to talk about and I want to sort of expose and connect the dots to how trauma and mental illness and substance abuse are connected and how we have to sort of treat, handle them together and treat them together to grow.”

In addition to the real socio-economic problems, “There are violent ghosts, flying whales, and dead people with mouthfuls of saltwater hundreds of miles from the ocean in Sam J. Miller’s The Blade Between, but it all makes sense. It all makes sense because the story takes place in Hudson, New York, a place built on the remains of slaughtered whales, where their unused parts were buried underground and the scraps were fed to animals later used to feed people. Hudson is full of angry spirits, but now a different monster is destroying it: gentrification.”

I then ask Miller something that has bothered me about the story, why does Rowan have to die? It felt all too similar to the fate of many LGBT characters at the mercy of heteronormative writers for far too long and is in fact a literary trope called “burying your gays.”

Bury Your Gays,” writes McNair scholar Haley Hulan, “is a literary trope that has appeared in media across genre since the end of the 19th century. Works using the trope will feature a same-gender couple and with one of the lovers dying and the other realizing they were never actually gay, often running into the arms of a heterosexual partner. This trope was originally used as a way for gay authors to write about gay characters without coming under fire for breaking laws and social mandates against the “endorsement” of homosexuality. However, Bury Your Gays persists today in a time and social context in which it is no longer necessary to give gay characters and stories bad endings in order to be published.”

In fact it’s so dramatic, seemingly unnecessary, and heavy handed in my opinion that it cries out to be questioned.

“That’s a great question,” Miller says. “I think that there’s a couple different levels on which that worked and why I thought that was necessary. I think that part of the story of gentrification and displacement and activism and activism generally I think in America is a lot of times there’s this idea of that a lot of white people have who care about these issues and want to do something about them is that there’s this sort of white savior mentality and this idea that people have a right to be seen in that light. One lesson I’ve learned of writing speculative fiction is that sometimes if you’re subtle, it’s going to miss the people who need to hear at the most. And if you’re heavy handed, if you’re subtle with it, the people who already get it and can already connect the dots, will connect the dots. But if you are heavy handed, then maybe some people who can’t connect the dots might. So I agree. I think that that was Ronan’s journey. I think that there’s a metaphorical level that Ronan had to sort of take himself out of the equation in order for the communities who are being directly impacted by displacement to do something about it. Ronan isn’t at home in either place. He is neither of Hudson nor not of Hudson and that his damage and his sort of journey had to take him to that place.”

He adds, “And although I do think that in a lot of ways, I also don’t think that. This is spoilery but since you asked me the question,  I’ll answer it. I think that in a lot of ways, I don’t think of this as a death. This is just a transformation because Ronin was still a sentient being who’s narrating the book to the end.”

Ronan joins the afore mentioned spirits that both haunt and stand eternal, as a guardian sentinels of Hudson.

“Ultimately,” he concludes,  “Ronan’s death is about transitioning to a world that is less fucked up than this one and imagining being able to find happiness on the other side of a really difficult decision.”

And he’s right, upon answering I am reminded again of NPR’s observations “The Blade Between is more than a dystopian sci-fi thriller with a dash of poetry; it’s an explosive narrative about a small town caught between the decaying ghosts of the past, the shattered dreams and mediocre lives of its residents, and the monster of gentrification that threatens to erase it all under shiny new buildings and fancy coffee shops. That Miller manages to discuss all three while also exploring the interstitial spaces between homosexuality, technology, and class privilege and resentment is a testament to his storytelling skills, and a powerful reason to read this haunting tale.”:

Indeed.

Sam J. Miller is, self described, “writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, much of it gay as heck.”  His debut novel , The Art of Starving, won a Nebula Award, and was one of NPR’s best books of the year. His second, Blackfish City, was a “Must-Read” in Entertainment Weekly and O, The Oprah Magazine. His books and stories have been published in translation around the world, which he notes “is awesome because it gives me an excuse to travel all over the place.”

Miller grew up in Hudson, New York where his father owned and operated a butcher shop.

Buy Between the Blade here.