Editor’s Choice Award June 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Ginny Mambo by Michael Keyton

There are a lot of things to like in this submission. The idea of the old-style noir detective in a modern setting—I’ve always liked stories about time-traveling characters. The elements of voodoo, starring Baron Samedi. The dark, complicated plot with language to match.

The author notes that “Ginny Mambo” is the first installment in a series of short stories about Clay Cross, and therefore it “demands some backstory/context.” Backstory is good, and useful, and important. The trick is to figure out what constitutes backstory and what belongs in the foreground, and then to balance story-past and story-present in a way that makes sense to the reader and does justice to both.

With the first story in a series, it’s even more important to be clear about the main elements. One of these would be the fact that Clay is a literal anachronism transported from the Forties to the present. There is some mention of this, but it tends to get lost in the intricacies of the prose, between the atmospheric setting and Clay’s own verbal idiosyncrasies. It might help to have an additional reference or two to the era he comes from and the one he finds himself in—in so many words, with the kind of clarity and concision that marks the author’s note. Not a lot, not repeated over and over, but just a bit more to underscore who he is and how he got here.

Once we’re clearer about Clay, we may want to be clearer about Ginny Mambo as well. She’s talked about in every scene, and her minions make regular appearances until we get the grand reveal of the monster herself. What I as a reader am missing is a sense of direct experience. People are telling each other (and by extension me) about this powerful antagonist, and telling each other how dangerous she is, but the real danger happens mostly offstage.

I wanted a good, solid flashback in the first scene or two, maybe the time when Clay was encanted into the bottle, and the time when Ginny transformed from woman into reptile, with—even if just a line or two—a snapshot of the damage she did. If we see Ginny in an early scene, however brief, we have an investment in Clay and company’s mission. We know what they’re facing. Tension builds as her minions break through in scene after scene. Then the final scene hits with heightened force.

Talking about important events in general, rather than letting them happen onstage, is a technique best used sparingly. Somewhat paradoxically, conversations that don’t happen, such as this one,

Sheri was doing my job for me, asking questions. Jake had drunk here. He’d been one of the ‘characters’, those who others paid to laugh at and feel good about themselves. Only Jake had a secret, something worth killing for, and it had something to do with a detachable leg,

might work better if they’re written out as dialogue. It’s all about balance and story-movement and our word of the day, clarity.

Clarity is a crucial tool in the storyteller’s box, and clarity in language is as important as clarity in plotting and structure. Clay has unusual verbal mannerisms that are meant to contribute to his fish-out-of-water vibe, and they’re also aimed at a wry, noir sort of humor. This is cool and ambitious and can be very effective, but it needs careful and meticulous handling.

One particular device that shows up in multiple places is ongoing embroidery of thoughts and images.

I was talking about the book in her hand, not the small screen permanently on mute. Screens are for stumblebums grazing on chicken fry or breeding the new feral horde. Give me a book I can open or close, occasionally burn. In my experience screens regurgitate lies and salacious tattle from broads with more silicon than brain. Jeez. I like a broad with something to hold. I just don’t want to be knocked of my seat when they turn.

Sometimes words and phrases repeat.

Mind you, things could have been worse, like being trapped as a hairdresser or worse. Guess I was grateful. Like I said, things could have been worse.

There’s an incantatory rhythm in this kind of prose, but it tends to clog the gears of the story. While the character jumps from one thought to the next, sometimes cycling back through the same words and phrases, sometimes bouncing off on a tangent, the plot loses focus. It can’t move forward.

Combined with Clay’s unique figurative constructions—

her lips like two dark cherries holding a worm

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then

She smiled and my brains turned to ice cream

the recursive style creates an unusual and suitably dark atmosphere with the occasional flash of gonzo wit. But a little goes a long way. When the same images repeat—the dress that can raise the dead, the brains turning to frozen dairy dessert—the repetition may weaken rather than strengthen the effect. Once is wow. Twice or more is Ya get it? Ya get it? HEY!

It might be helpful to weave in new images, or change the original ones in unexpected ways. Or simply let the image stand by itself and drop down to neutral narration for a bit before shifting back to figurative language.

The potential is there. I see it in this lovely passage:

The boy walked with a demure swagger, his body almost touching Clay’s. Flirtatious, I thought. Dangerous.

That’s the way to do it. Deft, clear, and perfectly to the point.

–Judith Tarr

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