Editor’s Choice Award August 2018, 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.

Waters of Life by Jim McDougall

Writers often tend to focus on figuring out what happens next.  Each sentence leaves them with that horrible question hanging before them.  But good writing often arises not from thinking about what happens next, but from focusing on making each moment, the now of the story, as intense and powerful as possible.

“Waters of Life” has several powerful and memorable moments.  At Cedar Lake Resort, Brian sees a very old photo of the nearby dock and realizes his wife, Julia, is in the picture.  I’ve read some other stories where things like this happen, so that in itself didn’t strike me as powerful.  The memorable moment, for me, occurs when the image of his wife becomes blurry:  “He couldn’t tell if Julia was actually there, or if he had mistaken her for a shadow, or even a smudge or wrinkle on the paper.”  This created a vivid image in my mind, created uncertainty that intellectually engaged me (as I tried to figure out what was happening) and gave me a chill.  Was that Julia in the photo?  How could she be there?  Why did she fade?

Another powerful moment occurs when Julia, who we know is hours away at work, appears in Brian’s cabin.  This build a strong atmosphere of dread.  And when Julia leads Brian to the end of the dock and Brian follows her off the edge, that’s a creepy, startling, and powerful moment.

The big picture of the story is not as successful as these individual moments.  Much of the power of the big picture of a story arises from two qualities:  unity and focus.  Unity means all the elements of the story (plot, character, setting, point of view, style, genre, symbols, themes, imagery, etc.) work together to creat a particular effect.  Focus means that the effect created is clear and limited.  While this story has some nice writing and some strong moments, it is not yet unified or focused.  A good test to see if your story is unified and focused is to try to summarize it (including the ending) in one sentence.  If you can’t, or if the sentence ends up being very long and having multiple parts to it that don’t strongly relate to each other, then you probably have a problem.  In this case, my summary would be something like “A husband follows an image of his wife into a lake and drowns, and his wife discovers a woman who looked just like her drowned in the lake the day before she was born, and the manager’s mother reveals, I think, that she has used her magic powers to kill Julia and possibly to kill the other woman years ago.”  This sentence, with three independent clauses connected by ands, describes what I’d call a stringy plot.  Each part feels pretty separate from the others rather than strongly interconnected.  So I don’t feel a lot of unity or focus.

Let’s look in more detail at various parts of the story to understand this “stringiness” better.  The setting is given some prominence through the amount of description it receives and the location of the description (at the opening of the story and at the opening of another scene–very prominent locations), suggesting the cabins are deceptive or threatening in some way.  Yet that isn’t true.  The reader is promised a story about a dangerous resort, but that is never delivered.

Quite a bit of emphais is put on Julia’s workaholic nature, suggesting the story will be about the marital troubles this causes, yet that turns out to be irrelevant to the story, beyond providing an excuse for Julia to arrive late.

The first chunk of the story, ending in Brian’s death, suggests the story will be about this ghostly Julia figure.  We later learn that this look-alike woman, Samantha, drowned the day before Julia was born, implying Julia may be the reincarnation of Samantha (which then makes me wonder how Samantha can also be a ghost).  But the ghost never appears again in the story, and Julia never makes any attempt to contact the ghost or fight the ghost to get Brian back, or destroy the ghost, and she never shows any sign of being a reincarnation of Samantha, beyond her birth date and her appearance.  So we seem to be promised a ghost story, and then a reincarnation story, but those promises are also not fulfilled.

Finally, we meet the resort manager’s mother, Cathy, who seems to have supernatural powers that can “alter the very fabric of time and space.”  While we don’t see her using this power, it seems that she has killed Julia in her sleep, and that she may have killed Samantha, though I’m not sure why she killed either of them.  The story then, ultimately, seems to be about a malicious woman who uses her power to kill people.  But it’s unclear whether she had anything to do with the appearance of Samantha’s ghost or the death of Brian–the things I care about most in the story.  And this story about a malicious, powerful woman hasn’t been set up.  We only have a small piece of this story.

So it feels like we have pieces of several different stories here rather than one unified story.  I think any of these stories could be involving and disturbing, but we need to get just one story.

One other point I’d like to mention is that Brian and Julia generally seem to be victims with no chance of success.  A story generally needs a protagonist who has some power, some ability to affect circumstances.  That creates suspense as we wonder whether the protagonist will be able to escape from some difficult situation, solve some problem, or achieve some goal.  The protagonist doesn’t need to have a lot of power, but he needs to have at least some, so he can struggle to succeed and we can have hope that he might.  Neither Brian nor Julia seem to have any power to escape their situations.

I hope this is helpful.  I was quite drawn in by the opening of the story, and I really enjoyed those powerful, memorable moments.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

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