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.
I know this piece wasn’t intended as a complete story but more as a sketch or exercise. But I was drawn into it and wanted to keep reading, and I think it could become a really engaging and involving story. So I wanted to offer this feedback in case it’s helpful.
An intriguing character in an unusual situation can very effectively draw readers into a story. You don’t need to be flashy or extreme. You just need an intriguing character, such as a college student so irritated by having to clean the toilet and change the toilet paper while his roommates do nothing that he decides to move off campus, in an unusual situation, such as commuting to college from an out-of-town trailer park, where he rents a trailer that was previously home to a cat who was killed.
That, along with the fairly smooth writing, drew me into “The Grey Tabby.” As the story goes on, though, I don’t think these elements are developed as strongly as they might be. The intriguing character, who seems particular and easily irritated, becomes laid back and not very emotionally involved in anything that happens. So the characteristics that initially drew me in seem to fade away, and the character moments I anticipated–the narrator becoming dissatisfied with his new place and irritated by the irresponsible people around him, and this building to a climax–never happen. Writers can certainly reveal a character to be different than what readers anticipated, but the character needs to be at least as intriguing as he initially seemed to keep readers satisfied. Instead, the narrator becomes less intriguing, mainly serving as a camera through which readers experience the story. Looking back on the story, the narrator kind of seems to be doing what the author needs him to do for the story. He seems to get irritated at dorm life only because the author needs him to move to the trailer park, not because that’s a part of his personality. Someone who moves out of town because his roommates won’t take their turns cleaning the toilet is not someone who will pick up the poop of the neighbor’s dog without taking steps to stop it or move. Instead, after one brief complaint, he gives up.
If the narrator’s initial traits lead to increasing conflict through the story, the character will feel more consistent, readers will remain intrigued, and suspense will increase. This connects to another area that I feel can be strengthened, which is that the narrator needs to be struggling to achieve a goal. He easily finds a new place to live, the trailer park, and after that, he forms the goal of getting the dog’s owner to keep the dog out of his yard, but he quickly abandons that and seems to have no strong goal after that. So he’s not struggling to achieve anything. He goes to school, works, interacts with the cat, and the story starts to feel kind of repetitive. He’s mainly a bystander. He’s not present for the climax, when the cat kills the dog.
Similarly, the unusual situation isn’t developed as strongly as it might be. We see that the cat scares the dog, so when the dog is killed by running in front of the car, we know that the cat scared him. But this doesn’t involve building conflict or suspense. It’s simply an explanation provided for an event. The story is structured as a revelation story, with the last line revealing the cat was the ghost of the one previously killed. But most readers of horror or supernatural fiction would figure this out very early in the story. Once we learn that a cat that previously lived in the narrator’s trailer was killed by the neighbor’s dog, and we see a mysterious cat show up at the narrator’s door, we know that cat is the ghost of the dead one. I formed that theory as soon as the cat appeared with its “shining yellow eyes.” About a page later, when the cat frightens the dog, I’m sure my theory is correct. So structuring the story with the big reveal at the end that the cat is a ghost doesn’t work well, because most readers will already know that. Instead, the story needs to get that revelation out of the way quickly and allow this unusual situation to develop and twist in unusual ways. For example, perhaps the cat wants the narrator to leave the trailer that once belonged to his owner, so the cat starts pooping (spectral poops, I suppose, which could be nasty) in the toilet, creating a worse mess than the narrator had to deal with in the dorm. Then the narrator could struggle to get rid of the cat (so he’d be struggling to achieve a goal). Or the narrator could fall in love with the dog’s owner, so he’s got an internal conflict between his desire to help the cat get even with the dog and his desire to keep his love happy (which means keeping her dog alive). Both of these seem like they would take the story in a somewhat humorous direction. For a more frightening option, the cat might have been killed not by the dog but by an abusive boyfriend of the cat’s owner. The ghost cat shows up, looking for the boyfriend to exact revenge, but finds only the narrator. The narrator has a different girl over every night–perhaps this is why he moved out of the dorm. He’s not a nice guy and doesn’t treat them well. One morning, he has a fight with the girl, pushes her, and the cat attacks him, scratching him up badly. At this point the narrator thinks the cat is the ghost of the one the landlady said was killed by the neighbor’s dog, but the dog doesn’t seem very fierce. Frightened, the narrator tries to secure his trailer. He has another girl over, so he doesn’t have to be alone, and when she suggests he’s afraid, he yells at her. The cat mysteriously gets in and attacks him again. The narrator throws the cat outside, thinking it might go after the dog, but it doesn’t. Desperate to find some way to stop the cat, the narrator searches for and finds the cat’s grave and digs it up, finding a bloody man’s boot buried with the cat. He seeks out the cat’s owner and finds she is living with an abusive guy–the owner of the boot. He tries bringing the cat to that house, but the cat vanishes. He invites the guy to the trailer under false pretenses and locks him in, so the cat will get its revenge and leave him alone. But one of the narrator’s girlfriends shows up and hears horrible sounds inside. She insists they have to help the person inside. He fights with her and knocks her down to stop her. When the sounds subside, he opens the door to see what has happened. The owner of the boot is dead. Then the cat attacks the narrator and kills him too.
The structure of ending by revealing that the story had a ghost in it was used quite a bit about a 100-150 years ago. Modern readers are looking for something that provides a twist or takes the ghost story in a new direction (the movies The Sixth Sense and The Others twisted this structure by making the protagonist the ghost and unaware of that fact). I think reading some recent ghost stories could help provide a sense of what readers would be familiar with. Reading a few volumes of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror edited by Paula Guran, and The Best of the Best Horror of the Year edited by Ellen Datlow (which compiles the best stories in her previous ten best-of-the-year anthologies) should help provide a sense of the horror field.
For me, “The Grey Tabby” doesn’t fit within the horror genre, because it doesn’t evoke horror or any of those dark related emotions. Suspense is another quality important to horror, and I don’t feel much suspense either. This could be called a ghost story or supernatural story. If the story is intended to create fear, suspense, terror, or other associated emotions, I think the narrator needs to be more emotionally involved in events, more disturbed, challenged, and frightened by events. This should come out in the character’s actions, thoughts, and descriptions.
I think the story has some strong ingredients and some nice writing, but those ingredients could be developed more strongly, in a more emotional and unpredictable direction. I hope this is helpful.
—- Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust