February 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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 Charles Coleman Finlay, Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Liz Bourke. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Last Road, Ch. 1, by Helen Rena

A major subgenre of horror involves a protagonist with a psychological disorder and keeps the reader wondering whether the horror is real or only in the protagonist’s mind. This is one of my favorite types of horror, so I was very excited to read this. The opening chapter has many strengths. The situation, with Mara trying to convince her psychiatrist that she’s all better, is intellectually engaging and builds tension through the chapter. The chapter gracefully flips back and forth between present and past without ever confusing me. In those past segments, the interaction between young Mara and Haley is very believable, and I’m quite intrigued by the “king of little things.” The descriptions in the chapter are strong and evocative, such as “I frowned, feeling fear rising up my spine like a spark rushing up a fuse” and “his handwriting loopy and small, his letters like tiny rings that were strung together into chains.”

That said, I think there are several areas that could be improved. I have a hard time relating to and understanding the protagonist, and I feel a number of things are set up but then fail to provide strong payoffs. I’ll talk about the protagonist first. I feel Mara is being manipulated some by the author rather than doing what she would actually do. First chapters are very hard, and the author is often anxious to include certain information, which then requires characters do and say certain things. I feel that this chapter is more focused on getting out certain information about Mara and her past, and less focused on exploring how Mara would interact with this psychiatrist. Mara spends much of the chapter working to convince the psychiatrist that she’s healthy so she won’t be prescribed more anti-psychotic medication. But she seems to be living outside of any institution, so I think she could avoid taking any pill that is prescribed. Many people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other disorders refuse to take their medication or fake taking it. So I don’t understand (or really believe) that this is so important to Mara.

Through most of the chapter, Mara is thinking back to what happened with Haley. While I find the flashbacks very involving, I don’t believe Mara would remember all of this now. It feels forced by the author to get this exposition into the chapter. If she is sent into a flashback this easily, I think she would be remembering this incident multiple times each day. And if that’s the case, then we should see it through the rest of the novel, which would be quite repetitive. Also, her memories don’t seem like those of a mentally unstable person. They seem clear and believable. So the chapter undermines the idea that she has a psychological disorder. I think you could build more suspense by withholding this memory until later in this novel, until Mara reaches some major crisis that forces her to think back on this event she works very hard to avoid. And when she does remember, the memory could be more chaotic and less clear, so we can see how traumatic it was. This chapter could describe Mara struggling to hold back the memory, so we get only her false account to the psychiatrist and the name “the king of little things.” That would make me want to keep reading to find out what happened. The chapter could also intensify the conflict between Mara and the psychiatrist, having the psychiatrist try harder to get Mara to explain what she thinks happened, and Mara trying not to think about it. For example, the psychiatrist might bring out a ring, honey, and bread, which could alarm Mara. He could also show a picture of their old house and Haley.

Mara completely shifts her attitude toward anti-psychotics near the end of the chapter. I’m afraid I really got lost in those last seven paragraphs. When she thinks, “So who cared if I had to take these pills? Not me,” she seems to be confusing herself and Haley. Yet nothing else in the chapter suggests she confuses the two of them. So this new psychological symptom seems to come out of nowhere (meaning it seems like the author made her think this). Similarly, the thought about the boyfriend at the end seems to arise with no setup and to be forced.

I think part of the problem is that Mara seems pretty sane through most of the chapter. She has a goal she’s pursuing, and her flashbacks are clear and coherent. I don’t really believe she’s got mental problems, except for trauma over what happened, and then she suddenly has several very irrational thoughts near the end. So the chapter’s attempt to introduce a lot of exposition (background information) undermines the premise that Mara is mentally unstable.

These issues with the protagonist tie to the other area I mentioned, which is setups that don’t provide strong payoffs. The chapter places a lot of stress on Mara’s name tag, so much that I think she must have written her sister’s name on the tag. But all she’s done is include her middle initial. This is a let-down and fails to provide the payoff we anticipated. Her middle initial may become more important later, but the effect in this chapter is disappointing. The desire to avoid anti-psychotics is also set up as a major struggle, yet Mara drops it at the end, the chapter failing to provide a strong payoff. The chapter tries to end with a payoff to the whole story of the king of little things with the idea that Mara’s boyfriend will help her to save her sister, but that doesn’t seem strongly set up. All I know about the boyfriend is that she hasn’t told him about the king. So she just seems delusional here rather than planning something exciting. If we knew a few more things about the boyfriend, such as that he wears rings on every finger and that he does whatever Mara asks without questioning it, then we could be worried about him at the end of the chapter with the idea Mara might be planning to use her boyfriend as bait for the king.

I hope my comments are helpful. I admire your description, and I really enjoy the dynamic between Haley and Mara, and the story of what happened to Haley with the king.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

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