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 moments that stand out for me in this story juxtapose normal-sounding sentiments with violent, disturbing sentiments. As I read along with my guard down, coming upon these violent thoughts creates a powerful (and entertaining) shock; for example, “My casual-friendly voice is good, even though I plan to eventually torture him to death.” The sentence takes us from a person concerned about his tone of voice to one planning murder. That works really well. More than providing a shock, such moments reveal character and reflect the unique type of horror this character embodies (which I would describe as mundane horror, meaning horror intertwined with mundane, everyday elements). I really enjoyed this aspect of the story.
An area of the story that I think could be improved is tone. Some parts of the story create a dark, disturbing tone. For example, the description of the detained men castrating a fellow inmate is disturbing. Other parts create an absurd tone. For example, the opening scene feels absurd to me, with Darren thinking that putting a dead squirrel in a mailbox is a horribly evil deed. His actions there seem kind of pathetic to me. The disturbing tone and the absurd tone don’t work well together. Each weakens the other. If the story is meant to be disturbing and horrific, then we need those qualities throughout, and they need to grow stronger as the story progresses. If the story is mean to be absurd, then, similarly, we need absurdity throughout that grows stronger. If the story is mean to offer some sort of mix, then the two qualities need to be mixed in each scene rather than alternating, first one and then the other, so the story feels unified and we understand how to read the story.
As is, I don’t feel I know how to read the story. Parts of the story seem to indicate that the first-person narrator, Darren, is a threat. The two strongest pieces of evidence of this are his removal of the stop sign that leads to someone being killed and his plan to blow up burger restaurants. The only thing that seems to stop him from blowing up the restaurants is being arrested by the police because he happens to be driving a car owned by someone wanted by the police (this is not part of a strong causal chain–but that’s another topic for another day). Would he have gone through with it if he hadn’t been arrested? I think so, but then he doesn’t actually do anything violent in the story. So I’m left uncertain what I’m supposed to think about him and his violent tendencies. The story seems to be promising me (in places, anyway) a story about a very violent man–and I’m reading the story because I like horror–so I’m disappointed when there is no violence and the character doesn’t seem violent.
If Darren is supposed to be an unreliable narrator who thinks of himself as an elite, violent man but is actually a loser who plays little tricks on people, then that needs to be clearer. In this case, the burger restaurant plot doesn’t seem to fit. If he thinks about it, he should discard it because he doesn’t know how to make rockets and end up instead sticking a dead squirrel in a sesame-seed bun and putting in in the restaurant for someone to find. And if he removes a stop sign and someone dies in the resulting car accident, I think he wouldn’t feel good about that. He might repress it or explain it away somehow, rather than celebrating it. I feel pulled back and forth between the two tones and the two views of the character.
One place where I did get a strong sense of Darren as an unreliable narrator was when he thought, “I’ll research this thing about eyes once I get a chance.” But this implied to me that he was much more evil than he knew, lacking normal eyes and a soul. It didn’t suggest that he was less evil than he believed, which I think is what the story is ultimately going for.
One way to convey that, in addition to changing the burger restaurant plan and the reaction to the stop sign death, would be to have another character point it out. The lawyer, Clifford, could mention that he’s trying to negotiate freedom for Darren because Darren isn’t like the others being locked up for life; Darren is harmless. Darren could wonder what Clifford is talking about; of course he’s not harmless. But that could let the reader know that Darren is deluded.
The ending seems to be aimed at frightening us with the possibility that Darren will someday get free. But I’m not frightened, since Darren doesn’t seem like much of a threat. So the end fizzles for me. If the ending is intended to be humorous and make me laugh at Darren’s absurd, grandiose self-image, then the absurdity needs to be carried through more consistently, and Darren needs to be shown to be an unreliable loser. If the end is intended to make me to feel sad over his deluded view of himself, then the story needs to show how these delusions ruin a life that otherwise might have promise.
The other area I’d like to discuss is flow. When a passage flows, each sentence prepares us for the next. It makes us curious about something, and the next sentence discusses that something we’re curious about, so we’re pulled ahead through the text. The order and organization of information is critical in creating flow.
Most of the story flows pretty well. But there are a few places where the flow breaks down. Let’s look at this passage:
“Exhausted from helping her brother Jamie with his depression, she relied on me for support before the study. Still oppressed by the compassion disease, I earnestly sought not only to comfort her, but to connect with her brother. Grumpy and resistant at first, he succumbed month by month to my sincerity and gentle humor.”
The first sentence is about Rose (“she”). It makes me curious about how she is doing now that she hasn’t had the narrator’s support for some time. I’m expecting the second sentence to tell me more about Rose and how she’s coping. So when I read, “Still oppressed by . . .” I think that is describing Rose. It’s not until after the comma that I learn this phrase is about the narrator (“I”). When I get to that point and realize I have misread the sentence, I have to go back to the start of the sentence and re-read, now knowing it is about the narrator. The same thing happens when I start the third sentence. I think you are talking about the narrator and only after the comma discover this sentence is about the brother. So I have to go back and re-read. Part of the problem is the periodic sentence structure, which provides the subject later in the sentence. Part of the problem is that the idea discussed in one sentence doesn’t prepare us for the idea in the next sentence. The first sentence, as I mentioned, makes me want to know how Rose is doing. The second sentence makes me want to know what overtures Darren made to Jamie. So the passage makes me want to know things that it doesn’t then provide, and instead it feels like it’s tossing random bits of information my way, so I have to get re-interested with each sentence in something new.
Giving flow a little more thought as you revise could be very helpful. I have an essay here (http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html) that discusses flow in a little more depth.
I hope my comments are helpful. I enjoy the fresh take on the vampire that you’re developing here.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust