May 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, Horror

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

“The Hangman’s Farewell” by Rhen Wilson

The story provides a nice twist on the plot of a hitman hired to kill a cheating wife.  In this case, the cheating wife is cheating with a demon, and the hitman finds himself out of his depth.  The story is also told in an unusual way, as an email written by the hitman to the client, ostensibly describing what happened, but actually serving as a ruse to keep the client at home until the demon can arrive to wreak vengeance.  These twists make the story a fun read.

I think there are several ways the story could be improved, though.  The voice is inconsistent and often quite jarring.  In first person, the voice of the narrator is extremely prominent and serves as a key method of revealing the narrator’s character.  Any author writing in first person needs to make sure the voice is distinctive, appropriate, and strong.  When the voice is inconsistent or feels inappropriate, that weakens the story.  At times, the voice sounds like that of a present-day, educated man:  “If you are reading this, then you saw my note and followed its instructions.”  At times, the voice sounds like a present-day, less educated man:  “he was screwing her brains out and she liked it. . . .  I know he’s schtupping your wife, but you have to admit he’s got class.” At times, the voice sounds like a very well-educated man from the past, possibly circa 1900:  “They knew, somehow, no word I uttered contained fictions. . . .  I explained in plain terms that I would leave a sign for you at a designated coffee shop.”  Because the voice is constantly shifting, I find it hard to believe in the character or settle into the story.  The voice makes me think he’s a demon himself or a vampire who has lived for hundreds of years and developed a very uneven voice.  I really don’t know who he is.  But he doesn’t seem like a believable hitman to me and isn’t someone I can have strong feelings about, positive or negative.

I think the character and emotion in the story might also be strengthened.  I feel curiosity as I read but very little suspense.  I think part of the reason is that the narrator conveys events in a distant, detached way.  I don’t feel strong emotions from him, such as fear, anger, or despair.  One of the moments where I would expect to feel the most emotion is his first glimpse of the demon in the shower:  “But when I opened the shower door, it was I who screamed in surprise.  I dropped the linen, stunned, and fell backward, hitting my head on the porcelain countertop opposite the shower.”  This is the viewpoint of someone very distant from the situation.  If we were experiencing this in the moment, we would get an image of what he sees when he opens the door and before he screams, since his scream is a reaction to what he screams.  Then we would feel his legs quiver and collapse, causing him to fall, and he’d be unaware of the material from which the countertop was made–he’d be too busy feeling the horrible pain of hitting something with his head.  As he writes this email, the hitman is distant in time from the events, looking back on them.  But for the reader to be involved, we need to forget about that, at least at key moments like this, and go through the action with the character.  So the voice, the choice of details, and the order of the details keeps me from feeling urgency, fear, and suspense.  I think another part of the problem is that the action shows the hitman to have poor skills, and once he sees the demon, he has no opportunity to fight back.  This prevents us from feeling much suspense.  The fact that the hitman seemingly arrives to kill the wife without a gun makes me think he’s not good at his job.  He also does a poor job of establishing surveillance on the target.  He listens through the wall, which is something I’d do, rather than hacking into her cell phone or using a hi-tech listening device or even watching the door to see if her lover leaves.  He seems foolish for thinking the lover has left the room when he hasn’t.  If he used good hitman procedures but the demon was able to overcome them, that would allow me to believe in the hitman more.  His plan to kill the lover in the shower seems unworkable and impractical to me.  If he had a stronger plan and was able to partially execute it before he was subdued, that would help.  Then if he worked out a last-ditch plan while being questioned by the demon, I could feel suspense over whether that would work or not.

A few things create confusion in the story.  I don’t know the hitman’s state at the end of the story, which is disappointing.  I was looking forward to finding out he was suffering some horrible fate, such as having his limbs chopped off and being kept alive in a suitcase while the demon travels to Paris.  If we are supposed to know his status at the end, then I missed it.  I’m also not sure why the hitman believes he email would bring the client home.  I understand that the client saw the sign in the window of the coffee shop and took that as a signal that his wife had been killed, but why does that mean it’s safe to go home?  Wouldn’t he think the lover (demon or not) might come after him?  And can’t he read the email on his phone?  I’m also confused by the use of the term hangman.  Reading the title and the first two paragraphs of the story, I thought it was set in the 1880s when hangmen were used.  This seems a consequence of the voice from the past.  The word hitman seems more appropriate.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed the fresh elements you brought to this story.

–Jeanne Cavelos
Editor, author, director of Odyssey

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