Editor’s Choice Award February 2019, 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.

Salt by Billy Palmer

I was happy to find your story here. “Salt” shows us a unique, striking world filled with mystery and magic that is beyond understanding. Some strong sensory details, such as the buzzing cicadas, the croaking bullfrogs, and Sheena’s black teeth, help to put us in this world. Salt is an interesting character, and his relationship with the zombie-like Maguire is quite intriguing. The story draws me in to trying to understand what has happened with Salt and Maguire. I get a strong sense of people struggling to function alongside powers far beyond their control.

I think the story could be improved in several ways. The first-person narrator’s goals are seldom clear, which makes the story feel slow at times and feel as if it is being manipulated by the author rather than driven by the narrator. The narrator’s goal in Act 1 is the strongest; I think she wants to save Maguire. But I don’t know what she thinks she needs to do to save Maguire, and I don’t feel her struggling to save Maguire, so the narrator’s actions feel random. She seems to be killing time waiting for something to happen. If we knew from the beginning that Sheena had told the narrator that brewing tea from the herbs and making him drink it every day would save him, then I would share the narrator’s outrage when Maguire dies. As is, I don’t know what she’s expecting or how she thinks she’s going to get it, so I can’t feel suspense or anticipation or surprise. We need to have expectations and to see events following some sort of causal chain to be able to feel suspense, anticipation, or surprise. Sheena seems to promise only transformation, and the narrator doesn’t seem to believe in this possibility, so I don’t know why the narrator is in the forest or why she’s brewing up the herbs.

When the protagonist’s (in this case, the narrator’s) actions seem random rather than directed toward a goal and don’t follow a clear causal chain, then it feels like the author is making things happen. While, of course, the author makes everything happen, the reader needs the illusion that events are unfolding on their own and the characters have agency. The narrator seems to have no reason to wander and find the path of white sand, since she should be brewing the herbs, and saving Maguire is her goal. If she had a reason to leave Maguire–to find water to brew the herbs, for example–she could find the path of white sand and the reader could feel there’s a good reason for her to do so. Many of the narrator’s actions could profit from being reframed so that her goal causes her to do them.

The story also sends us a clear signal that the narrator has interrupted the normal process of life and death in the forest by breaking the salt circle in which she finds Salt. That seems to lead to Salt being an unfinished version of Maguire, unable to fully take his place, and I think this also leads to Maguire not being absorbed back into the forest and instead having a zombie-like existence. This is the most important action in the story, and it seems to occur by chance, not for any strong reason, and the narrator never reacts to it. It would be better if this had a strong cause, and if it also had strong consequences, such as the narrator going to Sheena and asking if she can finish the process or fix the broken circle. The problem of the broken circle also needs to be explicitly raised in the story, otherwise it’s not clear that it is the cause of Salt and Maguire being as they are, and those things seem random, meaning manipulated by the author.

Once Maguire dies, the narrator’s goal to save him becomes moot, which is fine, but no clear goal arises to move us forward into Act 2. The narrator rubs resin on Maguire’s teeth, following Sheena’s instructions, but I still don’t know what she’s expecting. If she’s expecting him to transform or come back to life, why does she leave the body? If she doesn’t think he’ll come back to life, why is she rubbing the herbs on him? The narrator returns to the village run by Sheena, even though she hates Sheena, and she doesn’t seem to be struggling to achieve any goal. If, instead, she was trying to get Sheena to fix the broken circle and finish the process, she would have a strong goal that is part of a chain of cause and effect. Sheena could refuse; the narrator could try to force her; the conflict could escalate and the stakes could rise.

The most exciting part of the story for me involves the narrator being trapped in a salt circle, to be transformed into something else. I don’t fully understand it, because I thought humans had to be fed to the forest, not put on stumps to become statues and then other people. So the magic seems inconsistent there. But the situation is disturbing and suspenseful. Yet the narrator gets out of it too easily. Sheena knows that Salt and Maguire are around; why wouldn’t she anticipate them freeing the narrator? Why wouldn’t she just kill the narrator and feed her to the forest? Or if she’s not threatened at all by the narrator, why wouldn’t Sheena just knock her out and walk away? If Sheena is angry because the narrator upset the salt circle with Salt inside and ruined the cycle, perhaps she’d do something to try to right the situation. Maybe she’d try to kill all three of them, since Salt and Maguire are results of a process gone wrong and the narrator is responsible. So Sheena’s goal and motivations could be thought out more, the causal chain could be clearer, and once the narrator is in danger, it could be more of a struggle for her to get out of it, if she does at all.

Perhaps, if Sheena is partly successful and the narrator partly joins with the forest and the death gods before gaining her freedom, she could use that power against Sheena, and her goal could be to defeat/kill Sheena in Act 3. Right now, she returns to town with the goal to do something to Sheena, but that seems to shift as the story progresses. First she wants information; then she wants to reveal Sheena as a fraud; then she wants to run away. None of the goals lasts long or requires much struggle, so this is not a well-formed act where suspense builds. Also, since the goal for Act 2 was unclear, it’s not clear that we’re now in Act 3. Making her goals clear for each act will add excitement and suspense.

For me, the ending wasn’t satisfying, since the narrator and her companions escaped without much difficulty and Sheena and the death gods continued as before. The ending might have more power if it showed the narrator had been unable to escape the situation and had been irrevocably changed by it. Perhaps she takes Sheena’s place. That would be more disturbing for me.

That brings me to my last point, which is the horror element. While I enjoyed the dark magic, I never felt frightened by it. Some moments could profit from dilation–slowing the pace by describing in intense, vivid detail–so we feel entrapped in those moments. For example, when the narrator is sitting on the stump and being encircled with the salt, that moment could be slowed down more, so we could really feel the narrator beginning to transform and sense her connecting to the forest and the death gods.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere the story created, as well as the world and the magic, and there are some very nice descriptions. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

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