Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Thulean Tomb 8.8.95 by Ethan Sabatella

I’ve enjoyed found-footage movies, so I was excited to read the piece and see how this would work as a transcript.   The piece conveys complex action pretty clearly, and I get a pretty good sense of the characters Leth, Kaneq, and Holger.  The most exciting part of the story, for me, occurs when the effigy, “resembling a towering shark with multiple mouths,” is introduced.  That gives me a strong feeling of mystery and horror, and creates a Lovecraftian atmosphere.  The mystery and horror grow when we learn of the “Bone-Caster . . . He Whose Blood is Smoke” and when the dark forces start to manifest.   The protesting Inuits and the possessed Kaneq provide additional threats that build suspense.  All of that works well.

I think there are several elements in the story that could be strengthened, though.

Leth is a very passive protagonist.  He does little in the story except film and flee.  That makes me not care as much about him as I might, and it makes me emotionally withdraw from the story, since it seems clear to me that Leth will only survive this story if the author makes that happen; Leth, on his own, will not cause his survival.  While of course the author makes everything in the story happen, readers need the illusion that events are unfolding on their own, without interference from the author.  Readers need to feel that the characters’ actions have consequences.  When Holger climbs up toward the Inuits, it’s clear to me that they aren’t going to let him up.  Yet Leth doesn’t figure that out until it’s too late, and then doesn’t do anything but call to Holger.  Since the process of Holger climbing would be slow, there’s a great opportunity to build suspense and have Leth figure out something to do in the attempt to protect Holger.  Doing some research on this type of expedition and what equipment they would have would provide some possible weapons/tools Leth could use, both here and elsewhere in the story.  Right now, they seem to have no equipment beyond the camera.  For example, perhaps they have a flare gun that Leth could threaten to fire at the Inuits, and ultimately could fire.  The Inuits could be unharmed, but at least Leth would have tried.  (And the Inuits could become angrier, which would increase the threat.)  Or one of the Inuits could fall, hitting Holger and sending him to the bottom.

On a related point, the story would be stronger if Holger didn’t die but was horribly wounded, so Leth and the others couldn’t just forget about him and move ahead with the plot but would want to struggle to get out of the cave as quickly as possible so they could help Holger.  As it is, when they return to the cave, it’s unclear whether their goal is to continue exploration or to escape.  And there doesn’t seem to be much urgency for a while.

The Inuits vanish from the story at this point, which wastes an opportunity to bring them back later.  I was waiting for them to come back at the worst possible moment, which is when they should come back.  One possibility would be to have them kill Leth after he escapes the cave at the end.

Returning to the issue of Leth’s passivity, I think he needs to do more to attempt to combat Kaneq’s possession.  He doesn’t notice her blue eyes the first time, which seems odd.  When it’s clear to me that she’s possessed, Leth is still asking her what’s wrong, which is not convincing.  I think he’d be shaking her and yelling at her to snap out of it and reminding her of what really matters to her.  This could provoke Kaneq to hit him with the scrimshaw; right now, she seems to have no good reason for knocking him out.  He’s not doing anything that matters anyway.  If he was on the verge of getting through to her, if there was a moment where she broke through the possession and told him to run, it would make more sense that the dark powers would reassert their control over her and force her to silence Leth.

Later, after she knocks him out, she orders him to take the camera and he does, and he films as horrible things happen and a member of his team is burned to death.  Instead, he should be acting.  Let him drop the camera, and let the camera capture only glimpses of what happens.  Then Leth could try to save Oskar and the interns.  When the interns fight him, he could guess/realize that the Kaneq is controlling them with the scrimshaw.  He could rip it out of her hand.  In the current version, Leth throws the scrimshaw on the fire, but if it has any effect, that’s unclear to me.  It certainly doesn’t destroy the dark powers.  I don’t know why Kaneq would throw herself on the fire to be with the scrimshaw when the effigy has come to life; I would think she’d want to be with the effigy.  Anyway, a clearer chain of cause and effect with a simpler and more powerful emotional impact could work better.  Perhaps taking the scrimshaw makes Leth possessed and frees Kaneq.  Leth could compel the interns to burn Oskar to death, and Kaneq could try to stop him, and Leth could throw her in the fire.  This would make Leth more active (tragically so) and would make me sympathize more with Kaneq in her death.

It’s disappointing that we don’t see the effigy in action a little more.  We’re told it tramples the interns, but that happens very fast and I don’t really know the interns, so it doesn’t have much impact.  It’s also disappointing that the effigy doesn’t do anything with its cool shark heads.  Perhaps the shark heads could rip the interns apart.  And maybe one could bite off Leth’s arm.  Or if the shark heads are made of smoke, perhaps when they bite you, that part of your body turns to smoke and goes into the effigy.  So pieces of their bodies are going up in smoke, which would be creepy.

Other elements that I think could be strengthened are the format and the narrator.  Formatting this as a screenplay with phrases like “CUT TO” and “INT. BASE CAMP LODGE,” for me, undermines the premise you establish in the first two paragraphs.  I don’t believe the government created a transcript like this.  I think the piece would be more believable if it didn’t contain the screenplay terms and was formatted more like a government transcript.  Getting some actual government transcripts for comparison would be helpful.

I think the piece also needs to address why the government would release this transcript.  This could not only make the piece more believable but could add a second layer to the story.  For example, perhaps the surviving Inuit took the camera after killing Leth and let a local news channel run a few clips of the footage.  Perhaps the government then arrested the Inuit for murder and released the transcript to discredit his claims and the video clips.  In that case, the narrator, the person providing the descriptions of the characters and action, would have an agenda in writing that narration.  He could be trying to explain away any signs of the supernatural and say that the expedition members became hysterical after Holger was killed, or started to hallucinate when exposed to the chemical smoke in the cave.  This would give the government a goal it is trying to achieve, making it essentially yet another force in opposition to Leth and his team.  As is, the narration is pretty objective, making me emotionally distant and minimizing any subtext in the story.  I would be more intellectually involved if I were trying to figure out what really happened, as opposed to what the narrator is telling me happened, and I’d be more emotionally involved if I felt the government was trying to cover up what really killed Leth and his team.

One final point I’d like to mention.  I don’t know why Leth is referred to by his last name, when Kaneq is referred to by her first name.  It would be better to be consistent, since the government is making these choices and probably has a policy about transcripts.

This piece took on a great challenge in telling this story through a found-footage transcript.  It held my interest throughout and painted some vivid and disturbing images.

I hope my comments are helpful.

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


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