Editor’s Choice Review August 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.

Ghost Walk–Revision by Paul Taylor

Three things draw me into this story immediately. First, the title and the opening paragraph’s development of the concept of the “Ghost Walk” get me interested in how this tourist-type activity could become frightening. While I’ve read plenty of stories about amusement parks or weird museums becoming scary, I don’t think I’ve read one about a historical ghost walk becoming scary, so this seemed new and intriguing to me. Second, the writing feels assured and focused, diving right into the Ghost Walk, referring to the Ghost Walk as “it,” because the author knows we have read the title and will know what “it” is. This shows me the author will not over-explain and will allow me to figure things out on my own, which will make the story engaging. Opening with the statement, “It seemed like harmless fun” suggests to me that this writer is setting up an ending in which the walk will cause significant harm. As a reader of horror, I’m excited by this, and again this signals to me that I’m in the hands of a good writer. Third, over the first two paragraphs, the voice of the first-person narrator suggests a character who has some animosity toward his girlfriend/wife, who enjoys asserting his dominance over her. This suggests depth to the characters and the relationship, making me believe this story will not just be about scary ghosts but also about scary people, and that the flaws of the narrator will have an impact on the outcome of the story.

Of these three initial impressions, the first two turn out to be accurate and pay off through the rest of the story. The story does show me that this Ghost Walk is frightening, describing it in a vivid and fresh way that makes me feel afraid and provides the thrills I’m looking for in a horror story. The writing generally remains strong throughout. But the third impression I formed at the beginning turns out not to be accurate, and I think this is one way the story can be strengthened.

The voice sends me many signals that the narrator has a somewhat hostile attitude toward his unnamed girlfriend/wife, whom I’ll call Jane for ease of reference. In the second sentence, he thinks, “At worst, it might result in a nightmare or two for her.” His treatment of this as no big deal suggests either he doesn’t care or he wouldn’t mind if she had some nightmares, which seems quite cruel. In the second paragraph, he admits that taking her on the Ghost Walk is about asserting dominance over her. He explains she is easily frightened and doesn’t enjoy that, but then admits he jumps out to frighten her and finds her screams hilarious.

Unfortunately, all this character building leads nowhere. The narrator’s animosity doesn’t show up during the Ghost Walk and has no impact on the action. Instead, the narrator seems to become a bit condescending toward Jane, thinking she needs his shoulder to lean on and she needs him to take charge and “get her moving.” The condescending attitude again seems to have no impact on the action.

Both the animosity and the condescension seem inserted into the story simply to justify the behavior of the characters. Because he likes frightening her, he takes her on the Ghost Walk. Because she’s weak, he has to take charge, so the main part of the story can focus on his thoughts and actions, and she can be treated generally as an appendage who thinks and does the same things he does.

I think the story is missing a great opportunity. Strong, consistent characters could not only involve us more in the story but also create compelling complications by showing the interaction of character and supernatural. Right now, the characters seem largely the puppets of the author. They go on the Ghost Walk because the author says so, and they go the second time because the author says so. I don’t really believe they would choose to do these things. One way to take advantage of this opportunity would be to bring out the narrator’s hostility toward Jane more strongly, so I know that he’s taking her on the Ghost Walk because he’s angry at her about something and wants payback. He wants to scare her. Then as they go through this stressful experience, it could bring out the characteristics in Jane that the narrator doesn’t like, and bring out the narrator’s hostility more. For example, he could take some action to scare her near the climax, bringing on some disaster. That would allow the narrator’s character to have an impact on the outcome.

I do question, though, why Jane would be with him or why she would go along with this Ghost Walk, knowing that he likes to frighten her and knowing that she doesn’t like to be frightened. Jane’s character needs to be developed in a way that makes this believable. More than that, I’d love to see her developed with some depth, so there can be more interesting interaction and conflict between Jane and the narrator, and so we can have a contrast in how Jane reacts to the horror and how the narrator reacts to the horror. Right now, they become almost a collective entity when they go back for their second walk, which weakens the story significantly.

Another possibility would be to change their characters. Perhaps they both like frightening each other and are constantly trying to get the best of each other. Maybe they’re siblings rather than husband and wife. In any case, it would be really nice to see more interaction between character and supernatural, so the characters are reacting in interesting, distinctive ways to the horror, and that affects the horror and changes the outcome.

The other area where I think the story can be significantly strengthened is the ending. I really enjoy the shining blackness, but the characters easily escape it, and the entire experience seems to have little effect on them. We’re told they “carry scars” and are “changed,” but we don’t see that. Ultimately, the story seems like a minor episode in their lives–they see something scary and run away–that hasn’t had much impact. This was very disappointing to me.

Again, I think the story provides a great opportunity for a stronger ending. I love the idea that they stop at a coffee shop and it feels like “a different world, almost like we were watching a movie.” This is only told now, not shown, so it doesn’t have the impact it might. Instead, this could be shown through vivid sensory details. Exactly what seems strange, and what is the nature of this strangeness? Perhaps the narrator senses the glowing blackness underlying everything, which provides this false, movie-like brightness to everything. Maybe Jane sees it; maybe she doesn’t. Maybe the narrator sees the glowing blackness in Jane’s eyes. Maybe Jane jumps out at the narrator when he comes out of the bathroom, scaring him, and we realize the characters have now exchanged roles. In any case, I’d really like to see that the characters are profoundly changed by this experience, and I’d like to see that they haven’t escaped the horror. That would allow the story to create a lingering, haunting resonance.

I hope my comments are helpful. The story feels fresh and well written, and it kept me involved throughout.

—Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

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