Editor’s Choice Award May 2020, 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.


Still There by Tracey V. Brown

While reading the opening of this novel, I alternate between feeling intrigued and feeling locked out. The moment when my excitement kicks in is with “No one’s saying we’re actually going to ‘solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate.'” At that point, I feel I finally have a solid sense of what’s going on. They’re going to try to solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate, or at least pretend to try. My feeling of excited understanding continues and builds with “Just like that horror film online campaign,” which makes me happy because I get the reference to The Blair Witch Project and now feel even more solid in my understanding and pleased because I really liked The Blair Witch Project and anticipate I will like this, too. It’s like this story was in a mystery prize bag that was handed to me, and I couldn’t get it open for a while to see what sort of prize was inside. When I finally get it open, I’m glad that I took the effort.

The next couple of paragraphs get me pretty much fully up to speed, and then the story can move ahead by revealing the path. So that second half of the second scene gets me involved and makes me want to keep reading. Prior to that, I could have stopped at any time. For me, the first scene has too much mystery and not enough to engage me. Andy is making a coffin. While I don’t know anything about making coffins, it seems odd that he’s making a tiny, final shave off a piece before bringing the pieces together. How does he know they will fit, and how can he know one tiny shave is necessary? So while I’m not sure, I feel something is strange about his process, which is mystery #1. Ruth enters with “colourful paper stuff.” I don’t know what this is or how to picture it, so this is mystery #2. The word stuff at first makes me think of confetti. Later, she “shook out three or four rolls of paper in bright colours.” I guess this is the same as the “stuff,” but it doesn’t sound the same. If they are rolls, it would be helpful to use that word rather than “stuff” the first time the paper is mentioned.

I’m now puzzled by how she can shake out a roll. I end up picturing her with rolls of colored toilet paper, and she’s holding onto the end and dropping the roll, so it unrolls across the floor. And she does this multiple times with multiple rolls. I’m sure this isn’t what you mean, but as I try to figure out what you do mean, the only other images I can come up with are rolls of paper towels or rolls of crepe paper. I have no idea why she’s shaking them out. She then says she’ll make a banner out of the paper. But a banner is generally made of a single, large sheet of sheet of material. I try to make the toilet paper into a banner in my head, but it doesn’t work. I try to change the image in my head so that there’s just one large roll, but it still doesn’t make sense to me that she would shake it out and let it roll over the dirty barn floor. Why? And why did she bring the paper here and why is she telling Andy about it? She’s not asking him to help with the banner.

Then there’s the question of who the banner is for. It seems to be for someone they both fear, since they’ll speak about that person only obliquely. My guess is that the identity of this person is the mystery you want to raise in our minds. The problem is that I’m so preoccupied trying to figure out the paper, the person has little impact. I notice that there’s a person that they seem to fear, but it just blends in with all the other mystery. I don’t think you want me to pay as much or more attention to the paper than I do to the person. If that’s true, you need to limit the mystery to the things you want to be mysterious and make everything around those things super clear. Then there’s mystery #3, about how Ruth is going to kill her grandfather by aligning his bed with the floorboards. I wonder for a while if this is some obscure mythological method of killing vampires, like arithmomania. But I couldn’t find anything about it on the Internet.

So Ruth wants to kill her grandfather and may use this strange method either because she has strange powers to kill in this way or because her grandfather is strange and requires a strange method to kill him. Either way, I’m pretty confused and am feeling overwhelmed with mysteries. The houseleek is mystery #4. Ruth’s offer to protect his house from lightning using houseleek frightens Andy, for some reason. After working at it for a while, I see two mysteries within this one. First, “using” the houseleek seems to involve some danger. I don’t know what that danger is. Second, going into the woods to get the houseleek involves another danger. Mystery #5 is what Andy knows that Ruth doesn’t know. He thinks she will “Live and learn.” But I don’t know what she’ll learn. It seems to be some sort of burden, because Andy thinks maybe it’s “cruel to keep on.” I’m really not sure if this burden is the same thing that Andy knows but Ruth doesn’t know, because Ruth does seem to know about this thing. So I’m not even sure if this is one mystery or two separate ones.

Mystery #6 is what this saying means: “Family blood is different from family took.” Mystery #7 is what this means: “he might have been tempted to say the words that went with the action.” I’m not sure what the action is; his hand is touching the coffin lid, but that seems more his position (already completed) rather than his action. And I don’t know what words go with touching a coffin lid, why he’s tempted to say them, and why he thinks he shouldn’t. There are additional smaller mysteries. The mention of a plane that “murmured past.” Why Ruth carried these papers into the barn and shook them out. Why she’s offering Andy the houseleek repeatedly. She doesn’t seem to even like him. And he doesn’t seem very friendly to her.

The scene overwhelms me with unknowns. There are too many mysteries, too much unclear, too much withheld, and too much not vividly shown. That means none of the mysteries carries much impact. I’m just kind of lost in a swirl of confusion, occasionally glimpsing something that could be interesting if it wasn’t swept away by other things. I think the scene would be much stronger if you focused it around a single mystery–for example, who lives in the woods. That seems to be the one that has the biggest impact on Andy, and he’s the POV character, so it seems the most important. If you make everything around the mystery vivid and clear, it will create the perfect setting to highlight your fascinating mystery, like a velvet cloth on which rests a glittering diamond.

I don’t know everything that happens in the novel, but if you must introduce other mysteries, they could come in other scenes. Generally, though, readers need focus. Seven mysteries are too many to focus on. One mystery, beautifully presented and developed, can draw us in. The second scene is focused on the mystery of where the trail is, and that works pretty well. The one area of the second scene that I want to discuss is the use of “As you know, Bob” (AYKB) dialogue. This type of dialogue occurs when one character tells another things they both know. This is usually a problem because people generally don’t speak this way. If the two of us both know that bananas are a fruit, it’s unlikely that I’ll say to you, “Bananas are a fruit.” All the dialogue that reveals what the characters are doing, all the dialogue that gets me excited, is “As you know, Bob” dialogue. While I’m very glad to receive this information, the method of providing the information undermines the characters. It also seems odd because the novel up to this point has bent over backwards to withhold information, to have the characters speak obtusely, and to leave readers struggling to figure things out. This explanatory AYKB dialogue then seems forced by the author, who has decided to let the reader know what the story is about.

My suggestion is to try to even out your level of mystery/explanation, so we don’t have some scenes that overwhelm us with mystery and others that force the characters to explain themselves. In the case of AYKB dialogue, often a good way is to fix it is to have the characters, rather than stating facts they all know, express opinions about the facts. The story does this a few times, as with the line I quoted earlier: “No one’s saying we’re actually going to ‘solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate.'” This would be an AYKB if she’d said, “We’re not actually going to solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate.” I would think they all know this. But instead she’s giving an opinion about the fact. The AYKB dialogue comes out after that, when Nadine says, “That’s the plan,” which they all know, and when Lennie says, “My Edgar Redfers existed, and he really did disappear in the summer of 1909 while he was researching superstitions.” Lennie might instead say, “Once we show people that Edgar Redfers really existed, and he really disappeared in the summer of 1909 while researching superstitions, they’re going to be completely sucked in.”

The situation you reveal definitely draws me in and makes me want to find out how Lennie and company will fare in their investigation. I hope my comments are helpful.

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

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