Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

They Didn’t Tell You by N. Howl

This story, told in second person, engages horror fans by comparing the familiar scenarios we encounter in fiction with the actual version encountered by this protagonist. I felt a joy of recognition with every reference to a familiar horror scenario. Contrasting these familiar elements with those the protagonist faces also makes the story feel more real, convincing, and intense.

Since the protagonist is defined mainly by the sensations experienced rather than particular character traits, the second person allows readers to put themselves in the place of the protagonist, adding to the impact of the story. The repetition of the words in the title helps to tie the story together.

My main suggestions involve strengthening these key elements through which the story works. First, the references to familiar horror scenarios. For me, references to playing “Hardy Boy or Nancy Drew,” entering “the house at the end of the lane,” investigating where teenagers died, imagining the killer as a “stylish vampire, ” “brilliant doctor,” or “vagrant covered in the grime and sweat of a year,” work very well. Other references don’t work as well. The idea of teens slashing “their bodies in a mass suicide” doesn’t sound like any horror story or movie I know. And I don’t understand what is meant by “a simple mystery by a simple cult.” If it’s suicide, then it’s not a mystery. The motive may be a mystery, but it’s not clear that’s what the protagonist is looking for. If he’s looking for a motive, why take fingerprints? If he’s looking for a killer, when did he figure out it wasn’t a suicide? The old diaries definitely seem like a familiar horror element, but finger prints are not usually a big element. I would expect things like a Ouija board, a mirror through which strange things appear, or the remnants of an insane asylum in the basement. I guess part of the issue is that some of the story is referring to familiar mystery story elements, and part refers to familiar horror story elements. For me, the horror story elements seemed dominant, so the mystery elements don’t seem to fit. I think the story needs to choose one or the other.

I like the idea that the protagonist has ignored “reality in favor of a pattern,” but what reality is being ignored and what pattern is being imposed on the situation? I think the pattern would be something that “they” had told the protagonist–for example, that the killer is in the house; that’s a very familiar horror scenario, so having the killer actually be in the house reinforces the cliché rather than contrasting with it. This could work if the protagonist expected the killer to be in the house, but the killer had actually left and only when walking by and seeing the protagonist’s light in the house did he decide to return to get some more victims. The protagonist might have let his guard down after searching through the house and not finding the killer, and that’s when he’s vulnerable to the killer.

The protagonist imagines “giving some long important speech about right and wrong,” yet this doesn’t feel like a familiar horror scenario. In my mind, if the protagonist gets a corner of the duct tape off, there are only two possibilities: scream your lungs out for help or find a phone and call 911 (and then the killer either cuts the cord or gets on the extension and says you’re goofing around).

The familiar horror scenario seems to disappear at the climax, when the protagonist tries for freedom. What always happens when the protagonist tries for freedom? I would expect that the protagonist would succeed. That seems missing from the story.

The second key element is what really happens to the protagonist, which contrasts with the familiar horror scenario. For me, finding nothing but random puddles of blood in the search of the house isn’t a strong contrast with what is expected. Finding some mundane items would be more of a contrast, such as posters of rappers wearing bling, colorful backpacks, expensive Nikes, cell phones, toaster ovens, and so on (I guess I’m imagining a frat house). The contrast of gentle versus forceful chloroform doesn’t seem worth talking about. I think the idea that the chloroform takes a long time to work, during which you’re squealing and snorting, is a more interesting contrast, along with the killer finally giving up and using the shovel.

The talk about “forced sleep” takes me out of the story and seems to be jumping back in time. This reduces the intensity of the situation and doesn’t create a strong contrast with what’s expected, so I would suggest cutting this paragraph.

I really like your contrast of the expected killer with the actual one, who seems like he “could have been your friend’s dad or uncle.” I think the story is at its best when you show the mundane nature of evil. The next paragraph undercuts this by talking about the killers eyes burning; that sounds like something I’d read in a horror story. His eyes should just look normal, to continue the description from the previous paragraph.

For me, the plot goes off track when the killer starts talking. The killer sounds crazy, or sounds like he’s being directed by some greater evil, or like he’s been twisted by bullying, all of which are familiar scenarios from horror stories. To continue the contrast with the familiar, the killer should say something else, maybe something like, “I just don’t like people.”

The feeling that the story has gone off track continues as the killer draws on the protagonist’s back with his knife and opens a door revealing some cosmic horror. While this isn’t a standard horror scenario, it feels fictional, not a strong contrast with the fictional. So for me, it doesn’t work as a contrast, providing the same joy the rest of the story provides, and it doesn’t work as horror, because I’m not reading the story that way and am not afraid. So my suggestion would be to make this more mundane. For example, maybe the killer is preparing to torture the protagonist, as expected, but then the door slams and the protagonist realizes help is coming, and the killer says, “Crap,” and kills the protagonist, because he has no time for more.

The final key element is the description, those sensory details that help put us into the body of the protagonist. I think some of those could be strengthened. For example, in para. 2, if the protagonist is trying to get a sense of where he is, I think he’s just woken up. In that case, his head would have been hanging down, and the burlap bag would not have been chafing his nose.

When the protagonist sees the killer, the killer has “a gut like a rock under a baggy T-shirt.” If the T-shirt is baggy, how is he seeing the rock? A rock is ragged; it doesn’t give me an image that looks like a gut.

The description of “the map of liquid fire” is nice, but before that, when “You feel the knife’s tip plunge in,” I can’t feel that. The filtering phrase “You feel” weakens the sentence and distances me from the protagonist. Filtering (establishing the means of perception) is really only necessary at the beginning of a story when the author needs to establish the point of view. Once that is set, filtering is rarely needed. When filtering is eliminated, the sentence can have a stronger verb. For example, “The knife’s tip plunges in.” The second part of the sentence “but it doesn’t penetrate fully,” is unclear. Doesn’t penetrate what? I’m sure it penetrates the skin, and the word plunge suggests it goes in some distance. Obviously it doesn’t go through the entire body, but I don’t think that needs to be said. Instead you could describe the sensation. I really want to feel whatever particular type of pain this causes.

I hope that gives you a sense of some areas where I think this can be strengthened. I was immediately pulled into the story and enjoyed reading it. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos,editor, author, director of Odyssey

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