Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, 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.

To Accept The Things We Cannot Change by Bobby Harrell

The idea of accepting “the things we cannot change,” when applied to people bitten by zombies, is pretty haunting and disturbing.  That really kept me thinking after I finished the story.  The story uses familiar elements, but juxtaposes elements not often seen together, giving this story a fresh feel.  This is a good technique to use to create originality.  Last night I watched the movie You Kill Me, which juxtaposes hitman/crime elements with alcoholism/recovery elements, creating an original story.  This story, by combining alcoholism/recovery elements with zombie apocalypse elements, also creates an original story.

The general shape of the story seems solid.  The opening makes us think we’re in a standard zombie tale, so the turns the story takes–Larissa discovering she’s taken shelter with alcoholics in the midst of an AA meeting, and then discovering they’ve all been bitten by zombies–are pretty surprising.  Ending with the key idea, as also stated in the title, helps to give that idea impact.  So the premise, theme, and structure all work pretty well for me.

Other elements didn’t seem as strong.  The characters don’t seem to behave in a consistent or believable way.  For example, Clayton and Neil seem to be arguing to let all human beings in, yet they aren’t letting in zombies.  Why not?  Aren’t they human beings?  Don’t they deserve safety and comfort, in Clayton’s and Neil’s opinions?  A page after arguing to let everyone in, Clayton is calling the zombies “sick bastards” and arguing against interacting with them.   So his ideas on this seem contradictory to me.  If he is intended to be contradicting himself, then we need a character to call him on this, so it doesn’t seem like a mistake.  Larissa, for example, could easily raise this point.  If he isn’t supposed to be contradicting himself and zombies aren’t considered human, then that point needs to come out.  It’s not clear now, so I end up pretty lost about what the AA members stand for and what the precise nature of the conflict is.

While the AA members claim to want to provide shelter for the suffering, they don’t even keep watch for people outside who may be suffering and need shelter (or do anything more active to find survivors and help them to the shelter).  They ignore pounding on the door until Tate calls out for help.  This makes their statements about helping others convincing.

Larissa’s actions and decisions are also hard to understand and believe.  I’m pretty much with her up until she remembers the incident on the bus.  I get pretty lost there.  It sounds to me as if the bus came upon a group of zombies who started to break into the front door, and those on the bus tried to get out the back door.  Then I think Larissa helped an old woman get out the back door.  Yet the story, and Larissa, treat this as if she did something bad and, more than that, that she acted like a zombie.  I don’t know what she did that was bad, and I don’t know in what way pushing a woman toward a door is acting like a zombie.  Then Larissa was seemingly bitten by a zombie, though I don’t know how or when that occurred.  After that, I think she went home, looked in the mirror, and thought she looked like a zombie.  I don’t understand what that means, specifically, and I don’t know how she could be a zombie then and not a zombie after that.  So this key section, which leads to Larissa’s epiphany and change, is unclear, and because of that, has little emotional impact.

I also don’t believe the revelation that she’s been bitten.  We’re in her point of view and she knows she’s been bitten, so we should know too.  We shouldn’t only learn about it when she visually reveals it to others.  It’s always problematic to withhold key information from the reader that the point of view character knows.  The reader feels cheated by the author.  I think we could see Larissa being bitten at the start, and see her hiding the bite when she sees the shelter.  That would add tension to the story.

The confusion over what happened to Larissa on the bus is part of a larger issue, which is that the rules by which zombies exist in this story are unclear.  Accepting “the things we cannot change” and having “the courage to change what we can” has no clear meaning when we don’t know what those things are.  For the premise and theme to have power, we need to know what they mean, their implications, so when we read that final line, it will strike us like a thunderclap.  That means knowing how a person turns into a zombie, roughly how long it takes, and whether there is any way the process can be stopped.  For example, if shooting yourself or someone else in the head can stop the transformation, then the “courage to change what we can” seems like it would involve all of them shooting themselves or each other.   Is that what Larissa is accepting at the end?  Or is she accepting something else?

A few other quick points.  This story involves a major realization and change by Larissa, which means that her character is an important part of the story.  To believe her change (convincing the reader of significant character change in a short story is one of the most difficult things to accomplish), we need to have a strong understanding of her character at the start, to see her growth or internal conflict developing, and to see the causes of the change.  But this story is focused mainly on action and dialogue, and the action and dialogue provided doesn’t carry much subtext, which could provide insights into the character.  So Larissa seems mainly like a stand-in for the reader, someone with the typical desires a typical person would have in this situation–safety, survival.  The last half page suddenly provides additional information that makes Larissa seem very different from what we’ve thought, and when we look/think back over the story, we don’t see much evidence to support this different view of her (at least I don’t).   So this feels like the author forcing the character and the story in a new direction, rather than the character and story developing as it naturally would.  I think either the action and dialogue need to carry more subtext, giving us a richer sense of the character, or the story needs her point of view (her thoughts and perceptions) to be more fully developed.

Finally, I think some of the details in the story could be better chosen.  Some details contribute to the confusion.  For example, this description–“The chairs around the scratched white folding tables were a mix of steal folding chairs and plastic diner stools on wheels”–makes me picture about 7 tables and 28 chairs, most of them filled.  It takes me a long time to realize that only 3 people are living in this building.

In other cases, the details seem excessive and distract from what’s important.  For example, this description–“he was deeply tanned, had perfectly brushed back white hair, a grey droopy mustache and wore a green plaid shirt tucked into blue jeans”–seems to include a number of details that aren’t significant (the droopy mustache, the fact that his shirt is green plaid and his pants are blue jeans) and doesn’t point me clearly toward what’s important, which in this case, I think, is that Clayton seems untouched by the chaos outside.  The fact that he’s deeply tanned sends me off on a tangent–does he have a tanning bed?  Has he been to Florida recently?  The white hair suggests he’s elderly, which never comes into the story.  I think you might say, “He was the first person she’d seen in clean clothes in a week,” and that would convey something significant.  If you want to give us a more specific image, you could say something like, “His plaid shirt and jeans struck her as strange.  Then she realized they were the first clean clothes she’d seen in a week.”

The story has a really interesting, unique combination of elements and the potential for a big impact at the end.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

 

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