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.
In a story centered around characters in a very disturbing cult, the author risks alienating readers who may find it difficult to relate to such characters. This story instead draws readers in by starting with a situation we can easily relate to, three children exploring the countryside and discovering signs of a stranger. The desire of Isaac, the protagonist, to steal the stranger’s Walkman is also something most of us can understand. The disturbing cult they are part of is only hinted at in the opening scene, creating curiosity. Future scenes provide additional hints and glimpses of the activities of the cult, drawing us further into the story, building momentum, suspense, and a disturbing atmosphere. That works well.
Another strength of the story is that the cult feels both believable and unique. I’ve read many horror stories about cults, and few of the cults portrayed in those stories have felt believable.
For me, the protagonist and the plot are not as strong as these other elements. After stealing the Walkman and giving it to a girl to impress her, Isaac is a fairly passive, reactive protagonist. He lets his friend, Alex, take the blame for stealing the Walkman and be killed. He listens to the spirits of his dead, childhood friends as they provide hints about what is to come. (Isaac believes they are gods, but they don’t seem like gods to me.) When his dead friends kill his boss, he runs, but this is reactive–an action taken in reaction to what others have done–rather than active–an action taken because the character forms a goal and is struggling to achieve it. It’s not clear that Isaac has any goal. I don’t think he believes he can escape or even postpone his fate. While he takes guns, I don’t think he believes he can stop them with bullets. This makes his running pretty empty; nothing seems at stake. If he wanted to do something else before meeting his fate, so he was racing to do that, he would be more active with a stronger goal and something at stake.
This relates to a larger point, which is why we should care about Isaac. Why should we care whether there’s a way for him to escape his fate, and why we should care what he chooses? I don’t know what Isaac has done with his life in between living in the cult as a child and meeting his fate as an adult. He seems to have just been marking time. If that’s so, maybe he realizes he’s wasted the time he had when his dead friends show up, belatedly realizes what he should have done, and now wants to do that thing before his time is over.
For example, perhaps there’s one person from the cult who has survived. Perhaps it’s the girl he liked, Sandra. Isaac could have been seeking out the others over the years and discovering when and how they died. This would make Isaac more active, not just the recipient of information from other characters. Perhaps he’s discovered Sandra is in a psychiatric hospital or prison, but he’s been afraid to seek her out, both for her sake and his own, thinking perhaps one or both of them might be overlooked by the curse of the cult. Perhaps, in gathering all this information, he’s formed a theory about when they will be killed. This could bring a ticking clock into the story and add suspense. Right now, the suspense builds until around the scene that ends “I don’t breathe till I’m back on the highway.” Then it declines, because we know Isaac can be killed at any time, and that time is just up to the author, not up to anything Isaac does. (Of course the author controls every aspect of the story, but the reader needs the illusion that events are unfolding according to a change of cause and effect, and that the protagonist has the ability to influence the course of events.) If Isaac thinks he knows when Sandra will be killed, and when he will be killed, then Isaac will have to race against that clock if he wants to accomplish anything before it’s too late. As the time he has calculated for Sandra’s death approaches, he may feel the need to call her. And she could reveal that strange things are happening. Sure now that she’s about to die, Isaac decides he doesn’t want to hide anymore; he wants to try to save Sandra. He might think that if he can delay her death so it doesn’t happen at the proper time, she might be spared. If he dies in the process, that would be okay. Or he might think he could sacrifice himself in place of her. Or maybe he thinks she knows something that could save both of them. Either way, Isaac has a goal, something is at stake, time is short, and suspense is high. Maybe he can affect events or maybe he can’t, but at least he believes he might.
This struggle can also help set up a difficult decision for Isaac. The story establishes that Isaac has a choice to make: die or have the same existence as his dead friends. Right now, Isaac decides to be with his friends because they are, after all, his friends. But there’s nothing much at stake in this decision and the choice doesn’t seem difficult for Isaac. That means it doesn’t carry much emotion or impact.
Instead, for example, Isaac might have decided long ago that he wants to die. He doesn’t want any twilight life like his friends have. He struggles to save Sandra, and we can see how much she means to him, how precious these few minutes they have together are to him. But he fails, and she becomes another dead friend. Now he faces a difficult decision. Accept life after death and be with Sandra, or choose death and lose her again. I think whatever he decides, it will have more impact.
To further clarify the stakes and the decision, I think we need a clearer sense of what this life after death is. As I mentioned, his dead friends don’t seem like gods to me. They seem very limited in their power, serving some more powerful being. And it’s not clear what they do or how they live when they aren’t killing someone from the cult. I’m not asking for a thorough description of their lives; I’m asking for a few key details that will make the stakes higher and Isaac’s choice more difficult.
One final point I want to mention is that quoting even one line of lyrics from a song requires permission from the rights holder (unlike quoting one line from a story a novel), which can cost hundreds of dollars. My suggestion would be to make up a song rather than quoting from an existing one.
I thought you did a nice job of gradually revealing information and making me relate to characters that are part of this disturbing cult. I hope this is helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey