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 story generates a strong atmosphere around the old research tower, with the ancient elevator, flickering lights, and strange, chaotic lab. The story has some very visual images, especially in the first half, so I almost experience this like a movie in my head. The atmosphere makes me feel that strange, threatening things can happen in this place, which makes the ending believable.
The setting at the end, the staircase, reminds me some of the sub-basement in “The Rats in the Walls” by H. P. Lovecraft, with the implication that things get worse the deeper he goes.
I think the story has a strong idea and setting, but doesn’t yet have a plot or protagonist that maximizes the impact of the idea and setting. Gordon is a hapless, distracted protagonist. He does things without much thought, and that ends up dooming him. While behaving thoughtlessly (or being in a hurry) can certainly lead to one’s doom, that doesn’t make a very strong plot in this case. Gordon never seems to have a chance of success, because of who he is. If he gave his immediate situation more thought and was a bit more on the ball, he might have a chance. But that’s not who he is, so he doesn’t. He’s basically a powerless victim in the story, which doesn’t make him a strong protagonist. A protagonist needs to have some power/ability to affect events–he can have a lot of power or only a little, but he needs some. I don’t see that Gordon has any.
That leaves me, at the end, feeling somewhat disturbed by the staircase, but it’s a distant, abstract feeling, because I’m not strongly connected to Gordon. If Gordon were a horrible person and I had followed his horrible actions closely and formed a bond with him, then I could be happy at the end that he’s getting his comeuppance. If Gordon were a good person and I had followed his struggles to do good closely and formed a bond with him, I could be upset and horrified that he’s trapped in such a situation at the end. But because I’m watching Gordon from a distance, thinking how foolish he is not to listen to Philips and not to take more care in counting the floors, I don’t feel much of anything for him at the end. Since this is a horror story, feeling nothing is not a good outcome.
He also, as far as he is aware, doesn’t have much at stake in the story until he realizes the nature of the staircase near the end. That means he’s not really struggling strongly to achieve a goal and isn’t strongly engaged in what’s happening until near the end. That means I don’t feel much engagement, suspense, or emotion.
I think a story with a protagonist who is too much in a hurry to notice what’s important might be more emotional and involving if the protagonist was very focused on achieving some goal (getting to an important meeting on time, for example) and was struggling against obstacles to achieve that goal so that we became very involved and rooting for him to make it to the meeting. Then we would be caught up in the hurry also. If the protagonist then drives through a yellow light and hits a pedestrian and kills that person, we would be devastated, because we were caught up in the same state of mind as the protagonist. Those conditions aren’t being met in this story. Gordon’s goal to get back to his office to work on a long-delayed project isn’t a very involving or urgent one; it’s not one we share; and his fate is more the product of the staircase than of his hurry. We don’t know whether he would have been fine if he’d taken his time and counted the floors as directed, though I suspect not. So I don’t think this plot fits well with the theme that being in a hurry can carry horrific consequences.
Looking at the other character, Philips seems pretty much the stereotypical eccentric scientist. He doesn’t seem to do much in the story except provide us with a scientific reason for the staircase–that it’s an inter-dimensional portal of some kind.
One other character, the dean, is mentioned.
I think you could do much more with the characters to generate more emotion and involvement from readers and a more powerful plot. For example, let’s say Philips and Gordon are both working on interdimensional connections, but doing so separately. The dean is also a specialist in this area, but since his promotion, he’s stopped active research. He still explores theory, though, and he’s developed a new theory of interdimensional connections. Everyone in the research division knows he’s been working on this. The story could open with Gordon in the dean’s office, fearing that he’s going to be fired because his research just led to a failed experiment, confirming that his last few years of work have been a total waste of time. He has tenure, so he doesn’t think he can get fired, but he could be demoted or moved out of the institute into a regular teaching job, a huge humiliation. The dean has done this with researchers who haven’t produced–those researchers are transferred out and never heard from again. Gordon’s goal is to not get transferred out of the institute. The dean comments on the failure and asks Gordon to deliver a draft of the dean’s new theory to Philips immediately. The dean says he was ready to share his breakthrough theory with Gordon if Gordon’s experiment had succeeded. But since it didn’t, he’s sharing his theory with Philips. And if Gordon doesn’t show some progress soon, he might not have much of a future at the institute.
Gordon believes the dean wants to humiliate him, turning him into a delivery boy and having to face Philips in that capacity, as a failure. The dean likes to play games. Gordon takes the paper, which is sealed in an envelope. He wonders if he could get into the envelope to read the theory before delivering it. His goal now is to learn the dean’s new theory.
The next scene could show Gordon going up in the elevator to see Philips and examining the envelope to see if it shows any signs of his tampering. He opened the envelope and read the contents, but there was an unfamiliar symbol among the familiar ones, so he couldn’t understand it. It seems almost like the separation from other dimensions vanishes if a certain condition is met. But he doesn’t know what the certain condition is.
He gives the envelope to Philips, who seems like he might have noticed the tampering. Gordon encourages him to open it and read it, hoping he’ll be able to engage Philips in conversation and learn about the unfamiliar symbol. In the meantime, he’s trying to memorize the setup of Philips’s lab and figure out what kind of experiments he’s doing.
After Philips reads the theory, he seems to regard Gordon with new interest. Gordon asks Philips out to coffee, but Philips says he’s too busy. He asks Gordon if he’d like to participate in Philips’s research. A research subject called in sick, and he doesn’t want to fall behind. Gordon agrees, eager to learn about Philips’s experiments.
Philips shows Gordon moving images–like videos but not videos. And they’re of Gordon doing things Gordon doesn’t remember doing. In one, the dean is promoting Gordon to chief researcher. In another, Gordon is selling computers at Best Buy. As Gordon looks at each image, it radiates a weird light that gives him a strange feeling. Gordon realizes he’s looking at himself in other dimensions. Could he be a loser working at Best Buy in some dimension? He tries to figure out how Philips has gotten these images. One shows him opening the envelope, but the paper inside just says, “THIS IS A TEST.” The images get weirder, with Gordon screaming, and in some he seems to be the tormentor and in some the tormented. This leaves Gordon very unsettled.
Finally Gordon comes out and asks Philips to explain how he’s doing this, to tell him what the symbol means in the dean’s theory. What is the factor that can make the separation between dimensions vanish?
Philips says it’s just your state of mind. When you realize there is no difference between the dimensions, then the separation vanishes.
Gordon thinks this is Philips’s way of refusing to answer his question. Philips is giving him a nonsense answer. Gordon is furious and lets Philips know. Philips asks if Gordon wants to hurt him. Gordon says of course not.
Gordon heads for the elevator, and Philips tells him the call button doesn’t work; he’ll need to take the stairs.
In the staircase, Gordon thinks more about the images he saw. He realizes that they were all him, that there is nothing inherently brilliant about him that would make him succeed in all dimensions. He just got a lucky break with this position at the institute, and he may end up losing his position. Some doors are locked, some open and show him dimensions in which he’s doing different things. In some he’s a failure (in his estimation); in some he’s a success. In some he is being tortured. In some he is torturing. He realizes that looking at the images has made the separation between dimensions vanish. He rebels against the idea that there is no difference between the dimensions. Of course there’s a difference. He tries to convince himself of this–to believe he can be only the person he is now, not any of those others–to restore the separation between dimensions and be back in his own dimension. He searches for the lobby door, to get back to his own dimension. He goes down. He hears the screams and curses and insane gibbering from below. They are coming up the stairs. He realizes he must choose a door. He also realizes that the dean had sent him to Philips to be used in an experiment and discarded. That’s probably what happened to the others who were “transferred” out of the institute. He’s lost his precious position. He finds the door to what looks like his dimension. But now he knows what he faces there. Failure. He’s filled with shame and rage; maybe that’s what he is–a failure–in every dimension, whether he seems successful or not. It’s not fair. Why is Philips able to succeed while he is relegated to nothing? The gibbering gets closer. He goes down a flight, chooses the door where he is the torturer, and enters.
Anyway, that’s one possibility that would give Gordon strong goals he’s struggling to achieve, put more at stake, give him the power to affect what happens, take him through a character arc and epiphany, and require he make a difficult decision at the climax. I think those things will make readers more engaged, increasing the intensity of the suspense and emotions they feel.
The story has some well-chosen details, and I really enjoy the images, such as the infinite staircase. The atmosphere is very strong. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust