Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Doll Parts by Andrea Horlick

While voice is always an important component of fiction, it becomes more prominent and more important when a story is told in first person point of view.  First person often creates the feeling that the narrator is speaking to us, telling us her story.  The voice of that narrator needs to feel distinctive, consistent, and authentic for the story to have power.  One of the strongest aspects of “Doll Parts” is the narrative voice.  The educated but informal diction, ironic tone, and conversational syntax work well to create the illusion that a person is speaking to us and to give us a sense of the first-person narrator’s personality.

The story also provides us with an interesting mystery that the narrator, an employee in a hospital’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit, and her friend Drew try to solve:  who is staging doll murders, and is that person a danger to others?  The first and third scenes have nice scene endings, creating anticipation that propels me into the next scene.

I think the plot is the weakest element of the story, so I’ll spend most of this critique talking about that, and just mention a few other areas at the end.

The plot, for me, doesn’t provide strong escalation or a sense of intensifying conflict or rising stakes.  The opening situation, with the doll, is unusual and compelling.  But the doll murders that follow feel less unusual and less threatening.  The fact that the other employees don’t really seem to care reduces the stakes.  If they were upset, suspected this was a joke of Drew and the narrator’s, and reported them to HR or the administration, that could endanger their jobs and raise the stakes.  As is, the narrator and Drew only talk about the doll murders among themselves; they aren’t really doing anything that matters.  That makes it seem unmotivated when the doll “killer” starts to threaten them.  Why would he?  If the narrator and Drew were suspected of creating the doll tableaus and in danger of losing their jobs, and this led them to desperately investigate, perhaps breaking into the lockers of their colleagues or planting their own hidden cameras in various locations and capturing activity, then the “killer” would have more motivation to threaten them and perhaps to kill them.

Because I don’t really believe the doll killer would threaten them, and I don’t believe he’d hurt them, I don’t feel any strong emotion when the narrator discovers the dolls in the refrigerator.  Blood must be in plentiful supply in a hospital, so the fact that there’s blood in the refrigerator doesn’t make me think the killer has hurt anyone, and blood, in itself, doesn’t bother me.  So at that point my reactions to the story diverge strongly from the narrator’s.  Instead of feeling panic and fear as she does, I’m just mildly curious about who the doll killer is.  That means the ending of the story doesn’t work for me, because I don’t believe the doll killer would kill Drew (and the joke about blondes is the kind of metafictional horror joke that was done in the movie Scream and feels kind of old and out of place here, in a story that seems to be trying to be more than a joke story).

The plot is also not providing an effective mystery.  The only characters in the story are the narrator, Drew, and Brady, so as I work to solve the mystery, those are the only suspects I have.  When I learn that only the narrator and Drew ever see the doll murders, I form the theory that Drew is the killer, since it can’t be the narrator and Brady is barely mentioned.  It seems odd to me that the narrator never suspects Drew, and this is another way in which I emotionally separate from the narrator.  The narrator’s attempts to solve the mystery never seem serious.  She doesn’t seem to struggle very much, doesn’t seem very resourceful, and easily gives up.

When the mystery doesn’t seem to be progressing and the conflict doesn’t intensify, I start to think something else must be going on.  In the scene where the narrator looks in the minifridge, I form the theory that Drew is a figment of the narrator’s imagination.   They are increasingly referred to as “we” and seem to have only one pager, so I think you’re providing me clues that this is the case (and that Drew is the doll killer).

My suggestion would be to create a stronger rising threat to the narrator, to provide more motivation to the doll killer to be threatening, and to provide several suspects, so we can work along with the narrator to try to discover the guilty party.  Perhaps the narrator starts to create alternate tableaus with the dolls that upset the doll killer.  For example, when the first doll has her head cut off, perhaps the narrator attaches the head of a plush cat in its place.  If Barbie and Ken are slaughtered, perhaps the narrator rearranges them in a sexual situation.  This could show the narrator not taking the situation seriously at first and could reflect her ironic attitude.  This might motivate the doll killer to make his tableaus more personally threatening to the narrator.  For example, leaving one in her locker and another in her desk, and using dolls of the type she perhaps had as a child or action figures that reflect movies she has seen recently.  Bringing Brady more into the story, so he can be a suspect, would be good.  Also, having the narrator begin to suspect Drew would make this stronger.  That would allow more conflict between them.  Right now, Drew isn’t doing much besides offering the narrator someone to talk to and being a victim at the end.  Their disagreement about whether to go to the authorities or not fizzles because the narrator goes along with Drew.  There might also be a family member of a patient who is angry at how the patient was treated.

When making decisions about any plot revisions, it would be helpful to think about the dominant theme of the story.   What is the meaning behind the story?  I don’t think it’s the last sentence of the story.  I don’t think the story has a dominant theme yet, because all the elements aren’t working together to convey one.  Is it that not taking threats seriously can lead to disaster?  Is it that you need to reach out for help when you have the chance?  Is it that you don’t really know those you’re closest to?

The plot can also be strengthened by making sure each scene shows a change in a value of significance to the narrator.  For example, if the narrator cares about keeping her job, and in a scene she goes from having job security to losing job security, that would be a change to a value of significance to her.  Scenes 2, 4, and 6 currently don’t have a change to a value of significance, which means the situation is basically the same at the end of the scene as it was at the beginning, and the scene isn’t yet earning its place in the story.  Scene 4 end with “That Batman had to have been hung by an adult, an employee. And you really can’t pass that off as just excess creativity.”  This is the type of scene known as a “sequel,” in which the character reacts to what happened in the previous scene.  That’s fine, but the reaction should lead to some change.  In this case, the reaction is leading to a realization–that the doll killer is an adult–but it doesn’t create any clear change in a value of significance.  If the narrator came to some decision as a result of this realization, such as that she can narrow down the perpetrator more and discover who he is, then that would be a change in a value of significance.  She would go from not having a plan to uncover the doll killer to having a plan.

I’ll briefly mention two other areas.  I’d love to feel I’m delving more deeply into the characters of the narrator and Drew as the story continues.  Right now, my sense of them remains pretty superficial, and pretty much the same, throughout the story.  Also, some sentences are missing necessary commas, which causes me to misread them, which is distracting.

The narrative voice is a great strength of the story, though, and keeps me engaged and reading until the end.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

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