Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

The Box by Jason Kreth

I’m immediately drawn into “The Box” from the first sentence, which introduces the mysterious box.  That sentence sends me the message that this story will move forward crisply and excite my curiosity.  I get this same message at the beginning of the second scene, when the story reveals that the cows on the farm have begun to die.  That’s a very nice escalation of the situation.  For me, the greatest strengths of the story are this crisp pace, the curiosity it evokes, and the simplicity of the premise, which allows me to start forming theories and expectations from the start.

I think several other areas could be improved.  While the simplicity of the premise contributes to the story’s appeal, that also makes it more likely that I’ll compare this story to others with similar premises.  The object that grants wishes has appeared in many stories.  One of the most famous is the “The Monkey’s Paw.”  Stephen King played off of this story in his novel Pet Sematary.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with using a familiar motif; many great stories do.  The trick is in how you develop it.

“The Box” doesn’t immediately make me think of these works because the object at first seems to cause problems (the dead cows) rather than granting wishes.  So in that section I’m engaged in trying to figure out why and how the box is doing this and how it might be stopped.  If the box caused escalating problems and the attempts to stop it led to more problems, that could be interesting.

But the plot turns away from this.  Once the men explain how the box works and it begins granting wishes, the story falls into a more familiar track.  Still, the price demanded by the box, memories, provides an interesting twist, so I’m interested in seeing how the progressive loss of memories will affect George and how this will lead the plot in a fresh direction.

Unfortunately, the wishes lead right to Regina’s death, similar to the way the wishes in “The Monkey’s Paw” lead to Herbert’s death.  So as I read the story, it is becoming more and more familiar and evoking less curiosity and suspense.  I know that when George gives up his memories of his alcoholism he will return to being an alcoholic.  And I know as soon as Regina dies that George will bring her back.  And I know that doing so will take all his memories.  The final act doesn’t provide me with any significant questions to wonder over or concerns to evoke suspense.

I think there are several ways to develop the plot to avoid this problem.  The story has an interesting triad of characters with George, Regina (his wife), and their friend, the first-person narrator.   Yet they each have their roles, and that really doesn’t change in the story.  George is the protagonist, his actions driving the story.  The narrator observes, and Regina is the victim.  If, for example, George could offer the memories of other people to get the box to grant his wishes, that could be very interesting.  The narrator could be losing memories without realizing it.  Or Regina could.  Another possibility would be to have a romantic relationship building between Regina and the narrator.  One (or both) of them might try to use the box to get rid of George.  They might try planting a camera in George’s office to see how he opens the box.  They might take slips of paper with George’s handwriting and combine them to offer the box a deal that they want.  Another option would be to tell the story from Regina’s point of view.  A story written from the POV of a character killed and then wished back into existence could provide an interesting perspective on the situation.

This connects to another area I think could be strengthened.  The narrator is quite a passive character and his emotions don’t come through strongly for most of the story.  I think the story would be stronger if the narrator was not just a chronicler and had stronger goals of his own.  This could give him a stronger attitude about everything George does.  George’s actions would either help the narrator in his own goals or hinder him, and that would put more at stake for the narrator and generate stronger emotions in him.  It would also create another layer of conflict and suspense in the story, which could make it more emotional, intense, and unpredictable.  When the narrator doesn’t seem to have any goals and doesn’t seem to really care much about what George does (until near the end), that makes me less involved too.  The narrator seems to know that George will revert to alcoholism before George gives up those memories, yet the narrator offers no warning to George and doesn’t try to stop him.  If the narrator is really George’s friend, I think he would care more.  If the narrator wants Regina for himself, then he might encourage George to give up his alcoholic memories, knowing the marriage would be ruined.  Either way, I’d be more involved.

I’ll cover the last two areas quickly.  First, some of the dialogue is weak.  When Regina brings coffee to George and the narrator, they both thank her.  You could show more about their relationships if they said something more personal.  There’s a fair amount of pretty standard dialogue throughout; characters nodding and saying “Yeah” or “Sure”; characters shrugging and saying “I don’t know.”  If the character is going to nod or shrug, he doesn’t need to also say “Yeah” or “I don’t know.”  Here’s an example involving the narrator:

“I shrugged.  ‘I don’t know, George, but that sounds a hell of a lot more believable than a magic, wish-granting box.'”

This could be rewritten,

“I shrugged.  ‘It sounds a hell of a lot more believable than a magic, wish-granting box.'”

Finally, the story has four acts, which means it feels kind of unwieldy and long.  One act or three acts usually work best.  A four-act structure rarely works well.  The first act, in which George is trying to figure out what the box is, lasts about one page.  The second act, in which George is trying to save his cows, lasts about a page and a half.  The third act, in which George is using the box to grant his wishes, lasts about four pages.  The fourth act, in which George is trying to bring Regina back, is about two pages.  The proportions aren’t working well, since we instinctively expect Act 2 to be the longest and Act 3 to be short and final.  If you cut the section in which the cows are dying, which really has no impact on the rest of the story, you could develop this into a stronger three-act structure.

I hope this is helpful.  I was carried right along through the story and really enjoyed the curiosity it evoked.

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

 

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