June 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.

Final Course by Gary Buller

When Aristotle advised starting in the middle of things, I’m not sure this is exactly what he had in mind, but “Final Course” begins in the middle of a horrific meal with participants forced to eat course after course of bugs, snakes, and other disgusting items.

The story throws us right into this situation and allows us to gradually figure out what’s going on:  four men captured and forced to eat or die for the entertainment of an audience on the dark web.  This is an interesting, high-stakes, and fun situation, Survivor gone bad.  Stakes are raised as Sam’s companions fall one by one and we realize there can be only one winner.  Obstacles grow worse as the courses become more difficult to eat.  My favorite part occurs when the master of ceremonies comes out and addresses the audience.

I think there are several ways the story could be improved, though.  Before Sam looks at his friends and fellow captives, all I know is that Sam is chained up and being served bugs.  I don’t know who Sam is, and I don’t know what’s at stake, so aside from mild curiosity, I’m not really involved in the story. As far as I know, he could be a murderer who deserves to eat bugs.  Or he could have chosen to participate.  I don’t know.  When he looks at his friends in the third scene, and all are chained, and one has been shot, then I understand that Sam’s life and his friends’ lives are at stake.  While I still don’t know them well, I can care more.  So I would suggest moving this from the third scene into the second scene.  For me, two instances in the first two scenes of bug eating by a character I don’t know for reasons I don’t know made me lose interest.  Once I saw his friends and understood more, I became more interested.

As the existence of his friends is withheld for the first two scenes, other information that Sam, the viewpoint character, knows is withheld.  This makes me feel manipulated and kind of cheated as a reader, since I’m in Sam’s head, but I don’t know what he knows.  I’m also thrown out of the story each time a new item appears.  For example, about 3/4ths of the way through the story we’re told there’s an LED clock on the table where Sam is sitting.  After that, we learn there’s the blinking red light from a video camera.  For me, the revelation of the situation (that he must eat each course within the time limit to stay alive, and people are watching via the dark web and betting on the results) is interesting, but isn’t enough to sustain the entire story.  I think the story would be stronger if we completely understood the situation by the 50% mark–by you revealing all of these things more quickly–and then the rest of the story could show Sam desperately trying to survive the situation.

I may be missing something, but I don’t understand how Sam wins the competition.  Sam’s friend, Daz, warns Sam not to talk, saying they could both be shot, but that doesn’t make sense to me.  Why would they be shot for talking?  Talking would make the event more entertaining, I would think.  No one has prohibited speaking, as far as I know.  In the next paragraph, “there was a single metallic click.”  I don’t know what this is.  It doesn’t sound like a gunshot.  If it is a gunshot, I would think Sam would look at Daz to see whether he is dead or not.  Or he would at least hear Daz’s head hitting the table, or his body falling, or something.  So I don’t interpret this as Daz being shot.  If anyone should be shot, it seems like it should be Sam, since he spoke first.  So if Daz is shot, that seems random, manipulated by the author, rather than happening for any strong reason.

I understand that the final course involves Sam eating a body part from Daz, but if Daz is alive, why is his body part cut off rather than Sam’s?  Cutting off Daz’s body part kills Daz, I believe, which makes Sam the winner by default–he doesn’t seem to earn the win.  Did Daz fail to eat the previous course?  We didn’t see that.  Were body parts cut off of both Sam and Daz?  I don’t think so.  So for me, the key part of the plot seems jumped over, and it seems Sam didn’t have to do anything especially good, bad, clever, or foolish to win.  That means the climax and ending lack significance.  I don’t know why he won.

I think we need to see Sam being more active and making a difficult decision, so Sam isn’t just acted upon by others but is making choices–or at least one choice, that shows us something about Sam and how this affects him.  My suggestion about what to do with the second half of the story, after you’ve revealed the situation, is to have Sam try several things to get out of his situation.  He could first try appealing to the master of ceremonies.  Once he knows people are watching, he could appeal to those watching, tell them something about himself to prove he doesn’t deserve to die.  Then he could threaten them, tell them his brother works for the CIA and will hunt them down.  He could try to get the nail holding the spider onto the plate and use it to attack a plate-carrier or to pick the lock on his cuffs.  When that fails, he might consider killing himself with it.  Finally he realizes this won’t go on forever.  It will only go on until there’s one person left, the winner.  So now he realizes he has to beat Daz.  He might start saying things to Daz to throw Daz off.  He might claim he’s having an affair with Daz’s wife, that Daz’s wife has contempt for him, or whatever.  When he says the one thing that would hurt Daz most, Daz might yell back at him, and that would cause him to fail to eat the item by the time limit, and Daz would be shot.  Then Sam would have to eat the final course, and then the ending as you have it could happen.  But what Sam did to win, and the way he feels about what he did, will provide the story with meaning that it currently lacks.

I’d just like to mention a few other things quickly.  The story tells quite a bit, and often showing would be more vivid and effective.  One particular area of telling is with emotions, using emotional labels like “terrifying,” “panic,” surprised,” “disgust,” “terror,” “horrible.”  Usually it’s more effective to show emotions through actions, dialogue, thoughts, and other methods.  The story also has quite a few run-on sentence, which cause me to stumble each time I read one.

I think you’ve set up a very interesting situation here in which we can see Sam driven to extremes.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos
Editor, author, director of Odyssey

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