Editor’s Choice Award January 2021, 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.

Specter by L.K. Pinaire

This story has many appealing ingredients:  the old mansion, the new residents, the tension of a newly forming family, the signs of ghosts, a mystery from the past.  I enjoy the way the story uses multiple senses to suggest the presence of the supernatural.  The strongest part of the story, for me, was when Darrelle was poking the yard fork into the ground around the cherry tree.  That generated good suspense and dread.

While I’m interested from the start to the end, I think the story could be strengthened in several ways.

As I mentioned, I feel suspense and dread as Darrelle searches for the baby’s grave, but for much of the rest of the story, I don’t feel a lot of emotion.  Ghost stories generally generate emotion by making us fearful or anxious about what the ghost might do and by involving us in the internal struggle of the protagonist facing the ghost.  After the first couple of interactions with the ghost, I’m not too afraid of what the ghost might do, since it doesn’t directly threaten anyone.  More important, for me, is that Darrelle doesn’t seem to have any significant internal struggle.  He approaches the problem pretty rationally and reasonably.  The story tries to suggest an internal struggle, telling us that he was “compelled” to learn more, and that part of him “wanted to believe” and “the rest of [him] didn’t,” but he behaves more or less like a detective searching for clues, and the ghost provides the clues, so he’s able to solve the mystery without too much physical or mental threat to himself.  I don’t feel he’s in danger of losing his sanity or his self, or in danger of turning against Donna or Terri, or in danger of being possessed by some evil presence, or in danger of hurting himself.  With a stronger sense of internal struggle or threat, along with a stronger sense of external struggle or threat, I think the story would be much more emotional and involving.  I’m not really sure what’s at stake right now.  Terri has a few scares but is okay; Darrelle’s relationship with Donna never seems in danger of breaking down; even their finances don’t seem in serious trouble.  That makes the story feel more like the adventure of an amateur sleuth than a horror story dealing with infanticide and sex slaves.  If this is intended to be a ghost story with the flavor of a mystery, that’s fine, but then the mystery needs to be more difficult to solve and require more struggle and cleverness on Darrelle’s part, and less help from the ghost.  In either case, I think Hastings needs to attack Darrelle and/or his family; he’s set up like the gun but his potential for the story is never realized.

Another area that I feel could be strengthened is the flow of the prose.  Flow involves establishing something in one sentence (or one phrase) that leads us to want to know the information in the next sentence (or phrase).  That pulls readers ahead.  For example, the second sentence of the story, “From outside, you’d never know how much work the century-old, riverside home needed,” makes me want to get a description of the outside of the house.  That’s what the sentence sets us up to receive next.  Instead, we jump to the narrator’s personal experience:  “I pulled up my jacket against a chilling breeze and unlocked the thick, weather-beaten door. I pushed it open.”  The shift to the narrator feeling chilly is jarring, and the rest of the sentence doesn’t provide more information about the chill and the breeze, which is, at that point, what I want to know next.  It shifts to the door.  It doesn’t make sense to me that someone would try to gain warmth at the moment he’s going inside; it seems too late at that point.  Such a detail might fit better when they are crossing the lawn.  Then it seems odd that the unlocking and pushing of the door are in two different sentences.  Those seem like two parts of one action and more appropriately put into a single sentence.  Once he pushes the door open, we get the next sentence, “It didn’t feel like June.”  This belongs back with the chilling breeze, not after he’s pushed the door open.  This might seem very picky, but arranging details so they provide exactly what the reader is curious to know at the moment the reader is curious to know it can be extremely powerful.  When people say they couldn’t put a story down, that’s often why they couldn’t.  (I have a blog post about flow here:  http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html.)

One other area I want to mention is description.  While the story provides some vivid details of the smell of the cherry blossoms and the fragments of wood, I have trouble visualizing the house itself, both the outside and the inside.  Their bedroom has “a bed and provisional furniture,” and Terri’s bedroom has “a bed, a dresser, and a nightstand.”  These are pretty vague descriptions that don’t add to my understanding of the house or the characters.  Is this furniture left from a previous owner?  Is it Darrelle’s old furniture before he moved in with Donna?  Is Terri’s furniture new?  If they spent too much on the house, or they’re short on funds, did they buy Terri’s furniture at a garage sale?  Are they sleeping on an air mattress?  I think the story could be much more specific in the details it provides, and those details could do much more to reveal the house, its history, and the characters.  After a day of work, Darrelle says his “back hurt.”  There are many ways in which ones back can hurt; I don’t feel what he’s feeling here.  Terri is repeatedly described as playing with her phone.  What, exactly, is she doing?  Playing Angry Birds?  Posting photos of the house on Instagram?  Texting with old friends she had to leave behind?  Leaving this vague not only keeps us very distant from Terri–she never comes to life for me–but it also belies Darrelle’s claims of concern over Terri’s welfare.  If he really cared about her, he’d take an interest in what she’s doing on her phone.  Since we’re in Darrelle’s point of view, the details in the story are the details that he notices, so they have the potential to reflect and reveal his character.  I’d love to see more specific details, and I’d love for all three of them to be more fully realized, so I can care and worry about them more.

I hope this is helpful.  I was interested throughout the story and glad to see the mystery solved at the end.

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

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