Editor’s Choice Award March 2021, 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.

The Horn, The Boat Of Heaven by Andrea Horlick

“The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” caught my attention this month with its playful, casual voice and its outsider’s view—one step removed—on a more standard genre story. It’s a fresh, fun way to tackle a staple plotline and make it much more human and lived-in. However, the ending falls into an abrupt punchline, and didn’t leave me feeling satisfied. So this month, I’d like to dive deeper into the idea of setup and payoff, or what the punchline ending does—and what we can do with it.

New angles on staple stories are always fun, and “The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” deepens that concept by making its protagonists people who SFF frequently treats as side characters: set dressing, not that smart, not important. The opening paragraphs—Joe’s quick refutation of being underestimated because of his job and Cyn’s casual rattling off of “pareidolia”—demonstrates fast that they’re whole, they’re paying attention, and they matter.

It’s also apparent quickly that Joe and Cyn do love each other, even though they’re radically different people. They share absolutely no hobbies, Cyn’s disinterested in half the things he does, and there’s a surprising lot of tiptoeing and nudging each other into different reactions—of managing each other like wartime allies—but what keeps me from recoiling from the dynamic they’re living is the little clues in the other direction. The details Cyn notices about Joe speak a lot about long familiarity; the ways they both persistently take care of each other or make room for each other’s reactions and needs make their relationship credible to me as a reader. They’re both paying great attention to each other’s happiness in a way that’s oddly tender and makes me think yes, this woman would take that risk to keep her relationship working.

Those details also say a lot about both Cyn and Joe without saying it: that he restlessly picks up and drops hobby after hobby, that they have year-old leftovers in the fridge, that they drink too much, that they’re both stuck. Cyn’s pragmatism about little things (just eating the toast) keeps her from reading entirely as cynical—just someone with a really powerful bullshit detector. Those pieces of characterization and context are inserted very neatly into a plot that steadily moves forward without getting stuck, which makes the author’s concerns about length and pacing valid, I think, but less of a worry than they could be. Every scene’s progressing reasonably toward the conclusion, and I don’t feel as a reader that there are places “The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” stalls. That complex, unselfconscious characterization is this story’s central strength, and makes what is a fairly simple, directional plot feel immersive and relevant.

Where I run into trouble as a reader with “The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” is in the very last lines, as Cyn takes on the aspect of Inanna anyways—just a little late. The author’s notes ask if the story telegraphs its ending effectively, and while in retrospect the line back through events is pretty clear—I’d say it’s a working to set up that she’s actually transforming—it still reads as the kind of ending that falls into a punchline or a stereotypical Twilight Zone twist. For me, it doesn’t quite satisfy what’s been built up before it: the story deflates from a light but complex look at two people grappling with the supernatural into a gotcha or a joke.

As writers we’re generally advised to avoid punchline endings, but what I’d love to focus on is why: what the last lines are achieving or not achieving; why this ending goes or doesn’t with the story that came before it and how we can possibly reconcile the gaps between them.

A story is, on a certain level, an emotional transaction we have with readers: people come into it hoping to learn something, experience something, or most of all feel something. The action of an ending is very tightly tied to that question of what readers are in a story for, and what we’ve told them is most likely coming in how we’ve posed the question, set it up, and structured the story.

When stripped down to the basics, a punchline/surprise ending can be thought of as the author saying to readers: You thought it was this thing, but it isn’t. It’s fundamentally a destabilizing emotion, where the appeal is in going back to find the clues we missed—and “The Horn, the Boat of Heaven” is good at providing those clues!—but the trouble is, I think, in the fact that genre-wise, structure-wise, this piece hasn’t signaled to readers that it’s supposed to be a puzzle or mystery and that clues are something readers should look for.

Consider: If a story starts with a dead body in a locked room, readers know how to interact with that and what approach to bring to reading it—look for clues and details. But “The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” starts with a mystery that’s downplayed as even being a mystery, focusing instead on the relationship between two complicated and really absorbing characters—so readers, having been told by that spotlight to think about the relationship, will be looking for a conclusion that’s about that relationship, that lives in the characterization.

I think in order to make the story and ending work with each other, the primary task will be figuring out exactly what “The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” actually wants to say for itself. What does it want to leave readers with? What emotion does it want to generate, and how is it setting up that reaction? Is it intended to be a puzzle to solve (in which case, clues that this is a mystery earlier will help readers get on the right track) or a more heartfelt relationship piece (in which case, what’s a more satisfying resolution that works in that space?)

Overall, I think once this piece is considered in terms of cause and effect, what’s being asked and answered, what’s being promised and delivered, it’ll click wonderfully. It’s cleanly written, just fun and just serious enough, and overall very kind—and almost ready to go.

Best of luck!

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

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