Editor’s Choice Award November 2020, Short Story

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.

A Demon’s Christmas Carol by Nora Fleischer

“A Demon’s Christmas Carol” stood out for me this month because it perfectly hits the balance between wholesome warmth, tongue-in-cheek humor, and a subtle but firm position on a very serious and substantial question—what you do with power, and why—in a deceptively simple story using familiar tropes. So this month, I’d like to talk about how to write the sweet stories without falling into saccharine and the power of knocking something that’s seemingly simple out of the park.

As genre writers, we’re often advised to work away from frequently used or familiar tropes—and deals with devils are definitely on that list—but there can be an advantage to tackling a more straightforward story built on familiar ideas: it leaves writers very little space to hide, and therefore lots of space to show your actual skills. It’s the same principle as picking a diner based on the best BLT: lots of people know what a standard should taste like, so doing one excellently says a lot about the thought, skills, and craft you’re bringing to bear. And there is a lot of craft in “A Demon’s Christmas Carol” from the very first lines.

The first line does an immense amount of work, just by starting with “The next time Mastema found himself back on Earth”. Readers know immediately there was a last time—setting up the main motivations, conflict, and payoff—and opening the story with an immediate in media res feeling. This story world—and this character’s history—starts as a wide one, as one with a past and feelings about that past, and therefore, it feels instantly substantial.

The rest of the paragraph is doing equally as much lifting in as little space. “He could break it if he had to” immediately establishes both the tone of the story—this isn’t going to be cruel or horrific, because Will/Mastema thinks in taken-for-granted personal restraint and is quickly going to be modulating his voice to not scare children—and begins sketching his personality alongside it. It’s a small but crucial step to his first reaction to Martha being sudden, tiny hope. And more importantly, it works into—and is worked into—the real, substantial assertion that holds “A Demon’s Christmas Carol” together.

When light stories work, they’re inevitably grounded in much heavier questions: what it means to live an ethical life in The Good Place, for example. And with an abusive foster mother contrasted with a demon who embraces restraint, proportionate force, and results over retribution almost reflexively; a teenager who summoned demons because no “good” system can help her and lives in a mindset of escalating punishments; the revisioning of demons as the righteous anger of God; and John Cooper, who happily traded a desire for subjugation and service for actual love—”A Demon’s Christmas Carol” arranges its entire world around the responsible use of power. By demonstrating that, it feels light and safe and warm: this is a world where this value is upheld, and things work.

Again, craft’s coming in to uphold that feeling. A major strength of “A Demon’s Christmas Carol” is that it bolsters this idea all through the fabric of the story in small observations  (“Such strength, so poorly directed” and “three drops of blood from each of you, no more” as well as “no less”, and Derek letting Will carry his things) that tie together to make a coherent whole. Its central belief about power isn’t clustered together in an explanation, it’s spread out like threads, and that makes it more coherent, more digestible, and less didactic in a more organic read.

A second is letting its emotionally affecting moments—Will’s first memory of being human again, light and teapots and having a name; John’s angel smell being like mints—gently stand without putting a whole orchestra of swelling strings behind them. As writers, we do this with page space: the longer a moment is on the page, the more emphasis we’re putting behind it and the more arrows we’re drawing to pull readers’ attention there. But this piece doesn’t overdo its small, breathtaking beauties by trying to convince readers of how they should feel around those images, by stretching them out. It just lets them be there, and that simplicity—and confidence—makes them feel organic to readers, but also sincere as motivations for its small cast of characters. Will’s love for John is so tender in the details that it doesn’t need more.

But the final one is that ultimately, everyone in “A Demon’s Christmas Carol” is deeply sincere. Will’s heartfelt love for John and beautiful human things, and the way he machines the contract so everybody gets what they want is suffused with good faith and love. Mr. Dante isn’t a creep, he’s a mandated reporter. Good faith is the great motivator for every character, and the world that creates is fundamentally wonderful to live in, if just for the length of a story where a demon, an angel, and two foster children are all grappling for something better—and they get it. That’s an incredibly emotionally satisfying resolution for the current year, and one that’s really fitting for a Christmas story: one that’s about basic generosities and a world built on affection. It is an excellent BLT, one that makes the art of BLTs look easy—and like that good BLT, it’s all in the quality and time that’s gone into the ingredients.

I have absolutely no suggestions for improvement.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

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