Editor’s Choice Award December 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.

Black Charybdis by Barry Donnelly

The novum in this story, an old-school LP record that, when playing, erases any documents and their associated reality, is fascinating and creepy.  As soon as I realized what was happening, I was drawn into the story.  Martin, the protagonist, is easy to relate to.  We’ve all had failures we’d like to erase, so his actions feel believable, and the unintended consequences are all too believable.  The most exciting part of the story, for me, came when Martin heard the music when he wasn’t playing the record.  The idea that someone else was playing it escalated the stakes.  Then the revelation that the pianist had manifested in his house (or he’d been sucked into the record) escalated things much more.  That created a lovely build to the climax.

While I’m engaged from scene 2 on, I think the story could have significantly more impact if some elements were strengthened.

Throughout, I feel significant distance from Martin’s thoughts and emotions.  The story is ostensibly told from Martin’s third person limited omniscient point of view, but I often feel like I’m being told about Martin from an omniscient narrator.  For example, “A deep part of his brain stem began flooding his veins with an ancient alarm system causing his skin to prickle while his stomach sank.”  Martin can’t know this.  This is not his perception; this information is coming from an omniscient narrator.

Another cause of POV distance from Martin is filtering.  Filtering establishes the means of perception of some detail, using phrases like he saw, he watched, he heard, he smelled, he felt, he could see, he could taste, he remembered, he knew, he thought, etc.  Filtering puts the stress on how the detail is being perceived rather than on the detail itself, so it distances us from what’s happening, reducing the impact.  It also makes us picture the POV character seeing (or hearing or smelling or whatever) the detail, rather than putting us into the head of the POV character and experiencing the detail along with him.  Thus it causes distance from the POV character.  The main place where filtering is necessary is at the beginning of a story or the beginning of a new point of view, to establish the means of perception.  Once we know the POV, the filtering is unnecessary.  We know that if something is visually described, it’s because Martin sees it.  There’s lots of filtering throughout this story.  For example, “He knew there was something invisible eyeing him.”  This only gives me Martin’s conclusion.  It doesn’t allow me to experience what he’s experiencing and draw my own conclusion–it doesn’t allow me to feel a weird sensation and realize it’s something eyeing him.  That’s the very thing I’m reading this story for–the horror of that sort of revelation.

In other places, Martin’s reaction to events is missing, again making me feel distant from him.  For example, “Martin watched as the pure white notebook in his hands crumpled and vanished into dust as though it had been burned by invisible fire. He finally stopped the record when a book at the top of the pile turned bone white.  He was flipping through the pages of what used to be Keith Jarrett: The Man and His Music when Vera walked through his door. Startled, Martin slapped the blank book down onto the pile just as it burst into dust.”  In this passage, Martin is watching all his musical compositions vanish (as he discovers the power of the LP), and his only reaction is to stop the record when another book starts to crumble.  We then seem to jump ahead in time to Martin flipping through another book and Vera arriving.  We’re told Martin is startled, but it seems like he’s only startled by Vera’s appearance.  I don’t feel his emotions or thoughts in response to his compositions disappearing or to the power of the LP.  This is one of a number of key moments in the story that need to be dilated.  That means the pace needs to be slowed by describing the moment in intense detail.  Choosing details that Martin would notice in this moment, details that reflect his emotions and thoughts, will help to make us feel close to him and to experience the moment in a heightened state.

Another cause of POV distance is giving details out of chronological order.  I quoted one example in the previous paragraph, when Martin “stopped the record when a book at the top of the pile turned bone white.”  Clearly, the book at the top of the pile turns white first, and this prompts Martin to stop the record.  But the sentence gives the information in the reverse order.  That requires us to stop at the end of the sentence and reorder the events, taking us out of the moment and away from Martin.  Here’s another example:  “Charybdis had grown so enormous and filled the room so quickly, her gradual drain back into the record felt far too long for Martin’s comfort.”  This sentence comes as the power of the entity in the LP is draining away.  We needed to know that the power had grown greater and expanded more quickly back when that happened earlier in the scene.  Learning it here requires we go back to the beginning of the scene and reimagine what happened.

Anyway, if you can bring your POV closer to Martin and allow us to more intensely experience what he’s going through, the story will have more impact.  A couple resources that touch on some of these issues are the essay “The Inner Voice” by Nancy Kress, which you can find in several Writers Digest books, including Writing Voice; and the book Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson.

Another area that could be strengthened is plot.  Each scene should show a change in a value of significance to Martin.  It’s not clear what has changed for Martin at the end of the first scene or the second scene.  I think the first scene could easily be reorganized to end with Martin deciding that he needs to fix his latest failure.  That would create momentum and expectation in us and propel us into the next scene.  Instead, the ending leaves us with Martin rejecting a possible action, leaving us with no expectations.  The second scene, rather than ending with Vera’s reaction, which doesn’t matter, could end with Martin perhaps deciding his erased musical compositions weren’t very good anyway, and it could be good to start over.  This would establish how he deals with perceived failures and create anticipation that he’s going to do the same with his latest failure.  Or he could resolve to write new and better music with confidence that he’s getting better all the time, contrasting with how he feels ten years later, after more failures.

As I discussed above, the climax has several strengths going for it.  I had guessed that the piano had two players when Martin heard what “couldn’t just be ten fingers.”  The fact that the other player turned out to be Martin was an exciting revelation.  But once he starts to play, I feel distant, as discussed above, and don’t understand what Martin is going through.  We are told that “The performance grew from the dialectical give and take into a full synthesis of two roaring passions, a song that only four hands could play.”  This is the omniscient POV at a time when I most want to be close to Martin.  I have no idea what Martin’s passion is.  Is this a passion for playing the piano?  I didn’t know he played.  Is this a passion borne of his loss of Vera?  Of his life?  Or finding the better life and the musical skill he always sought and lacked?  I want to be in his body, to feel his fingers on the keys, to be swept up in the rhythms and chords.  What is going on here?  Why is this the end of Martin’s character arc?  How has everything led to this?  I don’t know.  I really want to feel it, and I think this thread of the story needs to be more developed throughout and come to its culmination here.

I’ll briefly touch on a few other elements.  Missing commas, run-on sentences, tense shifts (and the failure to use the past perfect for events that happened earlier), some awkward sentences, and some lack of flow trip me up as I read.  (I have an article on flow here:  http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html.)

I really enjoyed the story.  I hope this is helpful.

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

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