Editor’s Choice Award January 2018, 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 Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Last Keytarist by Scott Beckman

Horror critic Douglas E. Winter wrote, “There is thus no effective horror without a context of normality. The best horror fiction effectively counterfeits reality. . . . Eschew exotic locales and the lifestyles of the rich and famous.” “The Last Keytarist” is an excellent example of the power generated by setting a horror story in a context of normality. Protagonist Dave works in a pet store in a mall, a setting we’re all very familiar with. This allows us to easily visualize the strange events and feel like we’re there. It also makes the strange events more believable, because they occur in this familiar setting, and it allows us to focus our attention on the strangeness, since we can effortlessly fill in the pet store details.

Fantasy authors Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman advise writers to stay within their “strangeness budget,” cautioning them from making a story too strange to handle. “The Last Keytarist” has quite a bit of strangeness, but I never felt overwhelmed by it. Instead, I was excited by it, because the story is set so solidly in a non-strange location with a non-strange protagonist. Limiting the strangeness to particular elements allows the author to escalate that strangeness in a very exciting way–from talking animals to invading aliens to a cat who’s queen of the universe and a musical instrument that carries the power to stop the aliens–without ever exceeding its strangeness budget.

I really enjoyed the first half of this story. I think the second half could be improved in several ways.

The point of view, which starts out omniscient and then moves into Dave’s head for most of the story, never quite gets close enough to Dave. An unintentionally distant POV is a common problem. Small word choices can often create distance. For example, calling the character “Dave” rather than “he” creates distance. “Dave” is used quite a lot. Dave’s actions are often rushed over, so we don’t really feel we’re in his body going through these actions. For example, “Dave opens all the cages and the animals pour free, snarling and snapping at the alien limbs.” While the story can’t show Dave opening each cage–that would be boring and make this a very long story–it could show us Dave opening the first cage, and perhaps the second, and then recapitulate (summarize) the rest. Since Dave hates animals, it would be interesting to see his reaction to the animals climbing over him to get to the aliens. This would deepen his character and prepare us for his character arc, which has him loving the animals at the end. One of the cages might contain the cat who’s queen of the universe, so we could see an interaction between them. The sentence quoted is also confusing because “snarling and snapping” seems to relate to how the animals treat Dave, and it’s not until we get to the last two words of the sentence that we realize the animals have already run past Dave.

Another example of the distant POV occurs when Dave plays his keytar to drive the aliens away, and the aliens scream: “The screams get into Dave’s head, threatening to burst his brains from his skull, but he winces through the pain and plays on.” This doesn’t feel like it’s conveying what Dave is really going through. It feels like a distant, rushed description. The distance in the POV prevents me from experiencing the story with the immediacy and emotion that would maximize its impact.

This ties to a related issue, which is that Dave doesn’t react to some key moments that seem like they’d stimulate a reaction from him. For example, the frog tells him he’s the greatest living keytarist in all realms of reality. That would be like telling one of us we’re the greatest living writer. I would have a reaction to that. Then Dave touches his keytar and his body sends a spark of electricity through the keytar, which it’s never done before. Yet he doesn’t react. When the hamster tells him to play the song of victory, Dave has no reaction, so I don’t know if he knows the song of victory or not. Is he concerned because he doesn’t know the song? I never know whether he actually plays the song of victory. As far as I know, Dave is just playing a single chord, yet he never worries about whether it will work or not. This lack of reaction at key moments prevents Dave from feeling like a real person and allowing me to connect to him in a strong way.

The final area I’d like to discuss is the plot. The denouement, with the “it was all a dream” followed by “oh no it wasn’t” was disappointing for me. This is a familiar ending for many horror/fantasy stories. Just because it’s familiar doesn’t mean it can’t work, but to work, it needs to be appropriate to the story and done in a way that feels fresh and true. For me, this ending doesn’t seem to fit the story. The story, with its escalation of strangeness in the middle, seems like it has moved beyond reality, and to return to reality seems like moving backwards, not an exciting twist. If I’m supposed to believe that it was all an hallucination, that leaves me very sad and unsatisfied. If I’m supposed to believe that it might have been real, that is inconsistent with the leveled skyscrapers, which seem suddenly intact again. The most important element is the tone. I feel I’ve been playing a very fun game reading this story, and then the fun is killed when Dave wakes up in the hospital. A possible alternative might be to have Dave wake up surrounded by the animals, who explain that they’ve erased the memory of the invasion from humanity and made them think massive earthquakes caused all the destruction, and they’re getting requests from all across the universe for him to play and save their planet, so he can work at the pet store by day and play at night. Something like that would bring the spirit of fun to a nice conclusion.

The story has a lot of strengths. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

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