Editor’s Choice Review September 2017, Short Story

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.

The King Of Hands by Henry Szabranski

There is a lot to admire in “The King of Hands”: a truly menacing-feeling underground horde of hands, an atmosphere reminiscent of Junji Ito, and a less-loaded twist on the trajectory of the standard Lovecraftian tale. However, there’s also a lot of room to explore the story’s potential, and several ways “The King of Hands” isn’t quite living up to its promise. This month, I’d like to talk about walking the line between evoking a genre and sticking too close to its established tropes, and a core technique for crafting fresh original takes on story elements that have been used frequently before.

“The King of Hands” has definite atmosphere. It creates immediate tension from the first sentence with plain, unadorned prose: stark enough to build a feeling of darkness, a heartbeat pace, and the hyper-narrow focus of mortal fear. Its move to the wider, more impressionistic and colourful flashback of the second scene just emphasizes the realism of that danger through contrast.

However, not diving directly into flashback is a fairly common piece of writing advice, and “The King of Hands” demonstrates, in its early scenes, why: The first scene is gripping, evocative, and has a definite conflict and hook, but the more time we spend in flashback, in action that isn’t progressing or solving the issue that’s caught readers’ attention, the more the flashbacks come to feel like a delay. Before we reach the inventiveness of the Temple of the Hands and interesting—and unexplored—question of why Marew is carving hands too, we reach the core issue with “The King of Hands”: it’s not yet moving beyond its own set of tropes.

There’s a strong feeling in the worldbuilding of “The King of Hands” of corners being cut. There are a lot of very familiar narrative shorthands at play in its 5,500 words: drunk father with belt who blames a child for his mother’s death, kids daring each other to play where they aren’t supposed to, the frightened narrator who is actually murderous, sibling rivalry, secret societies underground, the question of whether the protagonist is insane or brushing the unknown, and the inciting incident of Thom’s fall being untelegraphed sexual jealousy—and on their wedding day, no less, and with his brother, no less.

These are all somewhat well-used horror tropes, some calling back to seventies and eighties pulps and some directly back to Lovecraft or Poe. The sheer accumulation of familiar ideas makes them all feel more like signposts—the beginnings of ideas which haven’t yet been finished. The sheer amount of sources for them make the piece feel as if it can’t quite decide which story it wants to be. Thom, Tania, and Marew’s childhood escapades have a faint feel of modern suburbia to them, but their town is giving off cues of a second-world fantasy location (summerwine, the general technology level of a standard Renaissance fantasy world), and Marew’s tourist business takes us even farther out, into small-town territory. I’m unsure where we are, in time, space, society, or cosmology.

The unfortunate cumulative effect is visible in “The King of Hands”: when enough corners are cut in crafting our worlds, we start to run out of paper.

The interesting question is: When many stories use the same tropes, why do they feel tropey in “The King of Hands”?

One answer, I’d suggest, is the not-yet-coalesced state of the story’s narrative—and it may be possible to address by moving from the abstract to the specific.

We’ve talked before about the concept of using the right detail, rather than several details that outline vaguely—or try to suggest—a character’s experience. Choosing one evocative, illustrative detail is frequently more effective because it’s personal—this is this character’s experience—and that personalness makes the detail, and thus the story, feel concrete, real, and true. Detail work is a portable skill: it applies just as strongly to working with tropes and archetypes.

The major complaint readers and critiquers have about tropes is not that they aren’t original thinking: as writers, we work in a field that’s built on thousands of years of storytelling, trying to tap into cultural ideas about how the world works, so very little of what we do is going to be purely original. But the underlying issue is whether something feels original—which is to say unique, which is to say specific. Does this story feel fresh? Does it feel like someone’s concrete, actual experience instead of a shorthand for experiences kinds of people have?

That’s where the question of one evocative detail comes in. I’d suggest going through a new draft of “The King of Hands” with that filter in mind: Instead of the fairly standard idea of “drunk father with belt”, what was Thom’s experience with his father like? What did Thom’s father call him, when he brought that belt down, and what was the look on his face? What colour was the belt buckle? What did his right eye do when he was angry? What’s the father’s drink of choice, and how did it smell on his breath? How did Thom feel before, during, and after? With a little thought—and a few narrative decisions—the shorthand photocopy of a drunk parent dealing out a beating becomes something rich, vivid, real and original because it’s been given specificity.

There are interesting questions in this piece, and a potentially interesting take on what happens when one transports the Lovecraftian mode into a very different setting. However, they’re in need of unearthing, and as the story moves from the general to the specific, they’ll likely attain some focus—and make it clear which direction “The King of Hands” should take in the draft that follows.

As it stands, “The King of Hands” is a horror story—but what is this horror story? I’m looking forward to the answer.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

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