Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, 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.

Queen Of The Wilis (Updated) by Kelsey Hutton

This tight, atmospheric story quickly draws me in.  By the second paragraph, I’m intrigued by the tone and situation and want to continue.  By the fifth paragraph, I sense the foreshadowing in the mention of Giselle and the “jilted wraiths who take their revenge,” and I’m eager to keep reading to see if this is a revenge story (and if wraiths are involved).  By the eighth paragraph, I have a pretty solid sense of this opera house that offers up its dancers as lovers/prostitutes to rich patrons who keep the opera house in business, so I can understand the significance of the single sentence in the ninth paragraph, “Until tonight.” Placed where it is, this sentence has a major impact, making me excited to see what Myrtha is going to attempt.  The ending of the story reveals Myrtha’s plan and has some nice description (such as “The paper forest comes to life”).  The final paragraph works well.

So I think a lot is working well with this 1,602-word story.  It’s hard to write short, but this piece does a good job of remaining focused, which is key to fiction of this length.  The story begins with Myrtha already pursuing her goal, and it ends when she achieves her goal, so it has a compact, one-act structure.  The story is mainly about revealing what that goal is and the haunting way in which she’ll achieve it.  This is the way many short pieces work; rather than showing us an evolving situation in which the protagonist’s goals and methods change, they simply reveal the existing situation to us.  Since the existing situation is unexpected and striking, revealing it creates a satisfying story.

I did feel a fair amount of confusion on my first read, and I think clearing that up will strengthen the story.   My biggest confusion was about Myrtha.  Because she is, seemingly, speaking to the wealthy gentleman in the first paragraph, and none of the ballet girls speak, I conclude Myrtha is a supervisor/madam, someone who keeps the ballet girls on schedule, runs them through their activities, and hooks up dancers with rich patrons.  In para. 2, Myrtha speaks of the “ballet girls” as if they are people other than herself.  When she says, in the next sentence, “it is time for us to stretch,” I think she’s speaking as the supervisor of the stretching, not as one of the girls who is stretching.  But then the final sentence of para. 2 reads, “We lean over the barre.”  On my first reading, this feels like a point of view shift.  This feeling grows a few paragraphs later with “I move to the back of the room for my pirouettes” and continues through all the pirouettes.  I think this means that the first-person POV has moved into the head of the dancer playing Giselle.

My suggestion would be to make Myrtha the supervisor/madam, since that would better mirror her role as queen at the end.  If she’s just one of the girls, then I don’t know what makes her special or queen. Also, if there is no supervisor/madam, it seems like the girls can avoid being ogled by the patrons (by not going into this room) and can avoid having sex with them.  For myself, I would be more interested in a character who has previously facilitated this process (probably a former “ballet girl”) finally deciding to end it.

The other main source of confusion was the lack of any cue to separate dialogue from other narrative elements.  The first paragraph of the story appears to be Myrtha’s dialogue, but it has no quotation marks around it.  At various other points in the story I believe Myrtha is speaking, though it’s often unclear until I finish the sentence (sometimes I decide she was speaking, sometimes not), and sometimes it remains unclear after that.  For example, “Look at her blush at all the abonnes’ attention, see how she hides her burning cheek . . .” seems to be dialogue, but it is preceded by two sentences of description, so it takes a couple readings to figure out this is dialogue.  To add to the confusion, some of her dialogue seems paraphrased rather than given word for word.  Initially, I think that “But it is also time for wealthy patrons such as yourself to survey this season’s wares” is dialogue, but then I think Myrtha would not call the girls “wares” to the patrons, so I decide this is paraphrased dialogue.  This is too much decoding to do and still remain involved in the story.

My suggestion is that you put dialogue into a separate paragraph, as Cormac McCarthy and some other writers do.  Of writing without quotation marks, McCarthy says, “You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks, and write in such a way as to guide people as to who’s speaking.”  A few times, you provide dialogue tags, which tell me that someone is, indeed speaking aloud.  Those could be used more to clarify the situation.

I had a few other areas of confusion.  I don’t understand who “her” is in this sentence:  “Your candied words dribble to a stop as you catch me watching you watching her.”  He seems to be watching Myrtha (“me”), not any “her.”  Also, I didn’t know he was speaking.

I don’t understand why Myrtha would risk revealing her intentions with her creepy spinning and grinning.  Isn’t she concerned that she could be stopped?  If there is no danger, then there is no suspense.  How did she suddenly become so powerful?

I don’t know why the one man is singled out for revenge when all the others seem to be ignored (I guess they die, but Myrtha doesn’t seem to care that they die).

When the “velvet chairs disappear” and everything seems to be collapsing, I think the man has already fallen far out of sight, so it’s confusing when “the floor drops out below [him]” when I think it’s already gone, and then he hits the stage.

In addition to addressing the confusion, I would suggest providing a bit more suspense.  Perhaps there is a moment when Myrtha fears her revenge will not occur as she has planned.  This might occur right before “We are reborn,” and give us a sense that this transformation requires some effort on Myrtha’s part and may or may not work.  Right now, it seems to happen with no particular effort and for no particular reason.  I’m not asking for a whole magic system; that wouldn’t be convincing.  But Myrtha might remember in a rapid montage of images all that has been done to her and the ballet girls, and all she has done to them (if she’s served as madam), and that creates the energy that drives the revenge.

I hope my comments are helpful.  The story creates a strong atmosphere and leaves the reader with a strong image.

–Jeannie Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey


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