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.
One of the advantages of writing within a genre is that the author and readers share knowledge of a huge pool of works and their common elements. This allows the author to introduce rich subtext into a story. If I put the word “vampire” into my story, readers will think of Dracula, Salem’s Lot, Interview with the Vampire, Twilight, and others. Readers will think of the rules that often govern vampires, the various ways vampires have been destroyed, and why one may or may not want to destroy a vampire. The author, then, can minimize exposition (background information, explanations), because the reader already knows a lot. The author can focus on how her vampires are different, and on showing us this particular vampire story. This can be invaluable in a short story, when every word is precious, and it can add layers of meaning, emotion, and resonance to a story.
“Just Open the Door” takes advantage of this pool of knowledge horror readers share. By the end of the third sentence, I feel I’m in a familiar situation, often near the climax of a horror story/movie/novel, in which the protagonist, Richie, is fleeing the evil and has come to a dead end. Because the situation is familiar, I don’t think I’ve missed anything critical to my understanding of the story. My recognition of this situation also creates immediate suspense and urgency and allows the author to move the story ahead with a minimum of exposition. I’m immersed in the situation and worried about what’s on the other side of the door. The exposition is limited to how Richie’s mother was killed, which becomes key to understanding this situation.
But the story does more than use this familiar situation as a short cut. The author very cleverly uses our recognition of the situation, our assumption that we know what has happened and what’s on the other side of the door, to twist all these expectations on their heads. What at first sounds like a monster on the other side of the door comes to sound like Richie’s mother. Normally, in such a story, the monster would be pretending to be Richie’s mother, and there would be no suspense in the deception because we wouldn’t be fooled. But now, because we’ve come into this situation late, because we don’t really know what happened before, whether Richie is hallucinating that a monster killed his mother due to some mental illness or whether a monster that really did kill his mother stands on the other side of the door, the situation creates a lot of suspense. Maybe there is a monster on the other side of the door. Or maybe it’s Richie’s mother.
This all works very nicely. For me, though, the ending, in which Richie decides to open the door, hoping it’s his mother, doesn’t quite work. Right now, whether Richie decides to open the door or not seems up to the author. I don’t feel a strong reason why Richie resolves his internal conflict by deciding to open the door. He’s been fleeing up until this point. Why would he change? Just hearing his mother’s voice doesn’t seem like a strong enough reason. He has previously heard very scary voices that clearly were not his mother. Why would he believe this voice? He asks his mother what he should do, abdicating his power at the climax, which isn’t satisfying to the reader.
The downside of inserting us into a familiar situation is that the story depends on its twist to succeed. And the ending is part of this twist.
There are several possible ways to make Richie’s decision feel both surprising and inevitable, which are the qualities you want to have in a climax. For example, there might be some piece of evidence that the voice claims proves that Richie is hallucinating. We might recognize that the evidence doesn’t necessarily prove that; it could also prove the monster is real. But Richie might believe the evidence proves he’s hallucinating and open the door for that reason. Another possibility would be to have Richie reason things out, now that he has a moment to think. If it is his mother on the other side of the door, then he should open the door. If it’s a monster on the other side of the door, then he lives in a world in which monsters can appear at any moment and kill loved ones, and he is so unfit to deal with this world that all he could do was run and let the monster kill his mother. In such a world, he can’t survive. So he might as well open the door. That way, both possibilities lead to the same decision, so his decision isn’t random. It’s the only possibility.
As I was writing that, I thought of another possibility. He’s holding a shard of glass in his hand. Maybe his thoughts run like this: If it’s a monster on the other side of the door, he doesn’t want to go out there and be killed by it. If it’s his mother on the other side of the door, then he’s so mentally unstable he could kill her, thinking she’s the monster, and he doesn’t want to do that. So he decides to kill himself.
Anyway, those are several possible ways to make his decision at the end feel both surprising and inevitable, and to feel like he’s really making that decision, not leaving it to his mother or to the author.
Other areas I think could be improved are the style and description. Some unclear or awkward sentences and some unclear details confused and distracted me at times. For example, I’m kind of confused about what sort of structure he’s inside. He’s in a warehouse; I would think he’s either in a room with solid walls and a solid door, or he’s in a crate. But he seems to be in neither, with this rusted sheet metal. I don’t know what sort of shelf might be in this structure. At first I picture a piece of wood maybe 3′ x 1′ x 1″ that rests on some brackets fastened to the wall. But then why is it so heavy? And how is he moving it? It’s unclear how this will stop anyone from entering, and I don’t know why he’d get so many splinters that he would bleed.
The glass on the floor seems to appear suddenly. I think it should be crunching under his feet while he’s looking for something to barricade the door. And the amount of light in the room seems to change depending on what’s being described.
I have a hard time imagining this voice: “it’s tongue slithers through every vowel and its jaw pops on every consonant.”
Emotions are told rather than shown at times, which distances us from Richie. For example, near the end of the story, “The rage and confusion boil inside of me.” These emotional labels (rage and confusion) are telling us Richie’s emotions. If they are shown instead, we’ll feel them more strongly.
The description that “Tears stream down my face like a waterfall” feels exaggerated. I don’t believe the human body has the capability to cry that much, so I’m thrown out of the story here. Similarly, the image that Richie holds his head in his hands and rocks “it back and forth” doesn’t seem like a natural action.
I hope this is helpful. I enjoyed reading the story and trying to figure out what was on the other side of the door.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey