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.
Collapse Noise by Kate Ellis
“Collapse Noise” caught my attention this month with its precise, chilling prose; the way it pairs a tour through an NPD relationship, beginning to end, with the observer effect, Henry James, and thriller novels; and the way it deftly slides through three subgenres, muddying its trail through each of them—and all to reinforce the story it’s telling. So this month, I’d like to talk about resonance: what we achieve when we make multiple elements of a story sing together.
It’s appropriate for this story, I think, that “Collapse Noise” delicately and deliberately spends time muddying its own standing, in terms of subgenre. It transforms from a very specific subgenre of realist fiction—a tonal anatomy of a relationship, and through it, comment on something wider—to hard SF, to broad hints that this is horror fiction, and ultimately is structured like a thriller: on a third read, the “‘Sounds like you’re trying to catch someone out,’ you said” line is a howl-worthy clue. There is a great deal of work being done in a very short space in this draft, and not just on the genre level; the opening image of Narcissus is surprising, pragmatic, funny, and a little vicious, and establishes the narrative voice and the story’s tone instantly. The clues as to the partner’s nature pop out, thoroughly visible, in the rearview, and they’re blackly hilarious while still offering a chill.
It’s highly efficient work, and it’s resonant work: every piece of the construction is giving a clue, like the Carol Dean comment, on how to read this story, right now.
The prose is also in a great state for what’s marked as an early draft: it’s well-crafted but transparent enough that an intricate story stays quite readable. Lines like “class snobbery ground down to silicate” drop like elaborate icicles into the text, not detracting, just exquisite.
The piece also demonstrates a great eye for telling details, and ones that don’t just sit on the page but group to form motifs. The “gnawed finger nails, split-ends, and a burned out vibrator in a shoebox under the bed” line doesn’t just hit three solid, specific concrete details, but builds each one off the other—here are three kinds of dry, split, broken things, creating a resonance between them—to apply a deeper, more specific, and wryer metaphor to the protagonist’s state of mind. It’s a perfect analogy for the adding-up of details the protagonist does: three small things that themselves are nothing, but together are something big. Again, the text is teaching readers how to read it, how to catch on, while it’s already in flight.
It’s that resonance that ultimately feels like the key to “Collapse Noise”: the way each event on the plot layer is about both relationship and experiment, alive cat and dead cat—more like one light beam seen through two prisms than an actual bifurcation—until the effect is of one unified, urgent, consuming, tantalizing mystery. “Collapse Noise” is one thing, but visibly slides puzzle pieces between each version of the thing it’s being—between the literalism of a science fiction story about physics and the metaphoricness of a literary story about relationships, and then layers in more iterations with Turn of the Screw, thriller novels, the second-date horror movie—until it just reinforces both things it’s about: quantum physics and narcissistic gaslighting. It ultimately, slippery and clockwork, feels like both.
But what clinched this story’s effectiveness for me was that it is not just a deeply cleverly constructed puzzle, it’s one to which the answer is both relevant and urgent. It’s a plausible failure mode for short fiction to construct our puzzles well, and forget that there has to be an emotional weight to the answer, but “Collapse Noise” has asked a hard emotional question, and posits a real answer by its echoing analogies to the observer effect: “Some people think you can’t answer questions about what you can’t see […] just stop worrying and do the math.”
Because of the difficulty of the real-world questions it’s tackling—physics and gaslighting both—the complexity of “Collapse Noise” doesn’t feel put-upon or artificial, but appropriate. This is hard. The form of tackling it, narratively, will be hard too. It’s another resonance between form and content that makes this story work.
I do have some small suggestions for a next draft. I’d clarify the “‘Corral is going to shit,’ I say” line, personally—the supervisor hasn’t been mentioned before, and since “going to shit” is readable as something going down the tubes or so on, the sentence muddied for me considerably.
Likewise, I’d introduce a touch more clarity into the final paragraphs: not a total fixity, but just one more clue. There’s a state of suspense throughout that drives my readerly engagement, but I’m personally feeling the need for a touch more payoff to bring that down.
On the whole, though, this is smart, emotionally relevant, well-constructed, and ultimately passes the best test of a literary story or a thriller: it is rereadable, and delivers more depth and context and satisfaction after the first read. I think that with a little polish, this is set to find itself a good home.
Best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)