Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

The Trouble With Townhouses by Michelle Tang

This story has some delightfully creepy details.  I get quite excited by the idea of a woman living between the walls, which is horrific to imagine, and by the ghost of the woman who once lived between the walls.  The plot has some good escalation as the sounds Agathe hears grow and evolve.  One particularly nice description is “My heart was pounding so loud it was as though she was knocking from the inside of my chest.”  The whispering from the air vents is disturbingly easy to imagine.  The situation escalates further as the hidden bricked-up doorway is discovered and Agathe finally sees the space between the walls and the skeleton “in the bed so close to where I slept that we might have been lovers.”  That’s very nice.

I think the story could be strengthened in several ways.

Agathe’s actions in the story could be better developed.  Right now, Agathe complains about the noise to her neighbors, starts sleeping in the basement, discovers the missing space, learns the previous tenants complained about noises, tries headphones, and then the flooded basement leads to the discovery of the hidden door.

For me, the actions don’t seem to be in the order that they would really occur.  I would think she would try headphones within the first week of hearing the noises, not months later.  And I think she would try that before she’d start sleeping in the basement, which would require getting a cot and/or getting help to move it into the basement.  It also seems like she’d complain to the landlord around the same time that she complains to the neighbors.

While the presence of the ghost grows stronger as the story goes on, the actions of the narrator, Agathe, don’t seem to escalate alongside it.  I wonder if she might hang a tapestry or rug against a wall where a lot of the knocking occurs (perhaps the wall beside her bed), and then might start pounding against the wall to get the person on the other side to be quiet, and then pound with a hammer against the wall, and then crawl alongside her cats to try to find the shifting source, and maybe crawl so much her knees get bloody, and maybe she hears sounds downstairs and rushes down the stairs and falls.  I think there’s quite a bit of room for escalation on Agathe’s part.  I don’t believe she’d stay in the townhouse once she realizes the doorway is open and the sounds have moved into her house.

I never feel Agathe is in danger, either due to the ghost or due to her own actions, so nothing much seems to be at stake.  Usually in a ghost story, there is a physical or mental threat to the protagonist, or both.  At first, I think the story is foreshadowing a breakdown for Agathe, when she loses control and speaks so rudely to the neighbors, and with descriptions like, “as though a little old lady could be dangerous” and “The image of a crazed woman, wiry grey hair wild about her face.”  Yet Agathe seems to be rational and pretty calm through most of the story.  How does the ghost pose a threat to Agathe?  She loses sleep and gets crabby, but that’s about it.  I offered some suggestions in the previous paragraph that could lead to physical dangers.  Some other physical dangers could come from the ghost.  Maybe she pounds so hard on a wall that a large, heavy framed photograph falls and almost hits Agathe (or does hit her).  Maybe Agathe hears whispers out of the plumbing, like from the sink drain, so she plugs it up.  The ghost then makes water pour out of the sink faucet and overflow to the floor and Agathe slips and falls.

What mental threats could the ghost create?  Does Agathe come to think of herself as trapped, and does she start knocking on the walls in hopes of being freed by the person on the other side?  Does Agathe think Claire rejected her (maybe she wanted to live with Claire) and consigned her to this lonely townhouse?  Agathe seems to have no friends and no activities.  Does she perhaps start out with a friend but then get in an argument with that person about the voices and lose her friend?  Does she start to hallucinate from sleep deprivation and attack Bobby?

The events could also have a stronger causal chain.  Generally, one event in a story should cause the next, and so on, so events don’t seem to happen randomly.  When an event seems to occur without a cause, it feels like the author is making the event happen.  The causal chain gives readers the illusion that events are unfolding on their own, without interference by the author.  Right now, the basement flood occurs without any clear cause.  I don’t know why the ghost would be able to do this, and I don’t know why the ghost would do it at that point.  Some research into basement flooding may help.

Several elements are set up but don’t pay off.  The neighbors are one and the cats are another.  Having pets die has become a cliché in horror, so I’m not recommending that.  But perhaps the cats could provide some clue that leads to some action by Agathe.  Or perhaps the cats could turn on Agathe and attack her, possessed by the ghost.  Or maybe the cats meow into the air vent and hear an echo of a meow in return.  Perhaps the human skeleton in the hidden space is accompanied by a cat skeleton.

As far as the neighbors go, if Agathe starts banging at the wall with a hammer, maybe the vibration knocks something over in Bobby’s bedroom and it hits him in the head and Stephen comes over, angry.

The story seems to be missing a climax.  The hidden space is revealed, but there’s no resolution to the conflict between Agathe and the ghost.  I’d love to see the ghost, now free of her little space, doing whatever she wants to do to Agathe, and Agathe trying to escape the house.  Perhaps her only escape–driven by the ghost–is to go into the little space where the ghost lived, and perhaps the ghost traps her in there.  Then Agathe can tap.  And perhaps she’d hear the ghost taking over her life, going to live with Claire.  That would be a disturbing end to the story.

Another element I want to discuss is the voice.  For me, the voice feels like it belongs to someone who lived in some past time, like 1900 or earlier.  It doesn’t sound like a senior citizen in current times.  The first paragraph is an example of this old-fashioned voice.  You could move the setting to an earlier time or update the voice.  To update the voice, my suggestion is that you talk to some seniors around Agathe’s age and record them.  You could also look for videos of seniors online, or look for nonfiction books written by seniors in the last few years.  I’m also wondering if Agathe has a cell phone and would text Claire.

A couple very small things.  I don’t know who Annie is.  And I thought the missing space existed only in the top floor, not in all the floors, including the basement.

I hope this is helpful.  I really enjoy imagining the situation you describe.

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



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