August 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 Leah Bobet, Amal El-Mohtar, and guest editor Gemma Files. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

“De-Arrangement” by Lee Melling

“De-Arrangement” works primarily as the portrait of a man unravelling mentally in the wake of his beloved mother’s excruciatingly long, slow death from cancer. Brandon uses his taxidermy business as a coping mechanism, immersing himself in the making of “metazoan splices,” composite chimeras cobbled together from many different animal sources: an alligator-bear, an eagle-duck, a flamingo-weasel. Eventually, these creatures seem to come alive, and Brandon is either physically consumed by them or dies in a car accident while escaping from them.

The best horror stories are those in which the main character inhabits a reality which begins in a place the reader recognizes, then deforms and/or skews, revealing an unfamiliar and increasingly threatening perspective. Unfortunately, we’re introduced to Brandon at what seems like the very moment of his psychological downward plunge; things begin feverishly, at a high emotional pitch, and don’t ever seem to decrease in intensity, potentially burning out our ability to care what happens to him next.

Because Brandon is such a deliberately-crafted unreliable narrator—grief-stricken, frequently drunk, possibly insane—it’s almost impossible to figure out whether or not the “splices” turning on him is something that definitely happens, or whether it’s all in his head. The issue is further complicated by Brandon’s constant side-trips into memory, which may need to be organized a bit more linearly, to give a sense of progression.

For example: we start off with a brief look at Brandon’s mother’s degeneration, with a side-order of Brandon thinking about how his drunk, abusive father abandoned them long ago. In the background, we’re introduced to Brandon’s uncle, from whom he learned his taxidermist’s trade, who is shown as already being sick at Brandon’s mother’s funeral, then disappears somewhere in the first three sections of the story. Brandon seems to have taken over the business—did his uncle die? Keeping him alive might actually be a good way to clock Brandon’s disintegration, giving us an outsider’s perspective on his increasing madness as he has to try and convince his uncle that he’s keeping up with his responsibilities. (He never seems to have any customers, either.)

Then there’s the character of Brandon’s older brother Adam, first introduced the story’s second section, perhaps as a role model for Brandon’s fascination with taking animals apart of putting them back together. Brandon is initially horrified by Adam’s sadism, while Adam calls Brandon a “soft boy” for not wanting to hurt living things for his own amusement or to expiate his hatred of their father

“Just think of it as Da’, as if it’s his legs you’re pulling off. Like I do.”

Again, making Adam a character Brandon could interact with directly—in the present—might be helpful, in terms of keeping the story’s action more immediate, rather than stranding the readers inside Brandon’s skull.

But Adam dies “offscreen” instead, his funeral becoming the last place Brandon can remember seeing his father. So while it’s possible to extrapolate that Brandon’s memories of Adam might explain why he chooses to channel his rage about his trauma-filled life into re-arranging dead animals rather than live ones, it’s never really stated, clearly or otherwise. I don’t think you’d lose anything by doing so, since it would establish one more link in the chain of emotional causality.

Similarly, there’s the element of the neighbours’ dog whose constant barking gives Brandon headaches which he seems to be able to soothe by making more and more splices, though this strategy becomes increasingly less effective. (Why “metazoan,” by the way? This term might need some unpacking.) I must admit that I thought this plot thread was going to result in Brandon eventually killing the dog and turning it into a penultimate splice, perhaps the one which ends up menacing and killing him. As it is, it doesn’t really seem to pay off, much like the element of suddenly identifying the alligator-bear’s mastication with that of Brandon’s mother.

There’s something very powerful in the idea of taxidermy “turning on” Brandon, hearkening back to this observation—

He thought how it still seemed strange he didn’t know earlier that taxidermy was his calling. Like his mother, it had been good to him, where nothing else had.

—but you need to start seeding the idea that the pain Brandon’s mother suffers might have destroyed her love for him by the end earlier on, if that’s what you want to get across. It could be quite exquisitely hurtful for him to remember how she became more and more resentful as her vulnerability grew, maybe starting to lash out at him in ways the reminded him of Adam, or even their father…even more so if it, too, was happening in the present.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to see what might happen if you reframed the story, moving the timeline back so that Brandon’s mother’s death was the midpoint rather than the beginning. As it is, what we’re watching very much reads like a fait accompli, a chronicle of a mental break foretold. We need to watch Brandon change and we need to care about the damage he’s doing to himself, especially in the wake of all the damage already done to him.

Final verdict: there’s a lot of interest and impact in what you’ve got here but it has integral pacing issues, so that’s definitely where I’d concentrate during your next draft, long before fixing the smaller problems (grammar, sentence structure, occasionally swapped the word “dog” for the word “god”). Best of luck in your process.

–Gemma Files

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