Editor’s Choice Review December 2016, 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, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Oranges by Cecile Cristofari

This unique mix of ghost story and recursive plot was very enjoyable to read.  A number of stories and movies have been written with recursive plots, where events loop back over and over a particular period of time. Some of the best known ones are Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow.  Taking that type of structure and combining it with the concept of ghosts seems particularly appropriate, since we often think of ghosts as spirits trapped in some time or place or traumatic experience.

The story also provides a satisfying ending to this repeated looping, when the main character, Claire, reverses the action she took at the beginning.  This feels like an appropriate way to break the cycle and move ahead.  Ending a story with a situation that is the reverse of the opening is a classic and strong method of creating a satisfying close.  The movie Back to the Future is another example of this technique.

There are some areas where the story could be improved.  They relate mainly to clarity and engagement.  I’ll talk about clarity first.  I wish the first day was developed in more detail, so that later references to repeated parts of that day would be clearer.  Another weakness in clarity arises when the story seems to send conflicting signals–some that they’re trapped in these repeating actions and some that Claire is hallucinating.  For example, when Claire thinks, “Nothing’s creepier than an old house, I thought, so loud I felt I’d heard someone say it.  But no one around me reacted.”  This makes me think she’s imagining things, and I remain uncertain about this for several scenes.  As I approach the end, I feel certain that the story is showing me they’re condemned to repeat their words and actions, and this control is getting stronger and stronger.  So the false suggestion that she’s hallucinating seems unnecessary and inconsistent with other events.  There are also some moments when characters or places are dropped in suddenly in a way that creates confusion.  For example, Claire explains that she “brought friends over for a few days.”  This makes me believe her sister isn’t present and these are Claire’s friends.  But it turns out that these friends are her sister, her sister’s boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s brother.  None of these sounds like Claire’s friends, or at least that seems a misleading way of describing them. I’m very confused when the sister’s boyfriend and his brother are specifically mentioned, because I thought the only people present were Claire’s friends.  I’m also confused when Claire is standing in the corridor in one paragraph and then Nicolas drops his book on the table in the next paragraph, and Claire seems to be in another place.  I can understand the story may want to convey some disorientation to reflect what Claire is going through, but we need some basic facts to be clear (such as who is present), so the disorientation is distinct when it occurs.

The other general area I want to talk about is engagement.  I really enjoy trying to figure out what’s happening as I read.  So I am intellectually engaged, but I think the story could be even more intellectually engaging and more emotionally engaging as well.  The story provides several possibilities–they have died and are ghosts; they have died and are holograms; or they are living yet like ghosts.  I enjoy thinking about these possibilities as I read and trying to figure out which one is the case.  I also enjoy considering the cause behind all of this.  Yet Claire doesn’t seem to consider these possibilities much.  I would feel closer to her and more engaged with the story if she, at least during the first few recursions, wondered about the significance of the oranges, wondered about the world on the other side of the mirror, speculated about whether the cause is the house, the mirror, something they’d done, a previous tenant compelling them to repeat actions, or something else.  This would also create more of a sense of tragedy as Claire’s ability to question these things fades, and we lose almost all hope before the end.   Right now, Claire tells us that her thoughts/concerns are fading (the “lump at the back of [her] thought”), but this isn’t shown to us.  The story could also be more intellectually engaging by offering us a few more hints/clues.  I like the fact that the story leaves the truth mysterious and unknown at the end, and I’m fine with that.  But I’d love to have a little more meat to work with as I’m reading, clues that could draw me in further with my speculations.  For example, do the characters have interactions with the outside world (such as the mailman arriving)?  Either way, this might get us thinking.  Does the weather change?  A few details about things like this could be very intriguing.

I hope this is helpful.  The story is quite fresh and engaging.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey


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