Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

A Gift Of The Spirit by Michelle Dupler

It can be difficult to pin down exactly how a character is developed in readers’ minds, which details, which actions, and which thoughts stand out, and how they combine to build a sense of character for readers. In “A Gift for the Spirit,” the protagonist, Marit, is defined primarily in two strong sections:

“Marit liked the feeling of driving, of being in control and leading the way on the winding dusty roads.”

“Marit was an attractive young woman. She knew that, knew it was part of the draw. She had movie star platinum hair and red bow lips and made sure she was always immaculately dressed for them in pure white. Truth was, she enjoyed how they revered her, revered her gift. She had become more than some pretty girl that men wanted to use. Now, she was these folks’ angelic touch of Heaven, and their spare dollars and coins kept her and Mama Jo and Papa Luke well fed.”

While more information about Marit is provided, particularly in exposition about her past, it’s these passages that most strongly define Marit in the present of the story, the type of person she is and what is important to her.  Each of these passages accomplishes multiple things, making them both efficient and effective.  In the first one, we get description of setting, an evocation of the sensory experience of driving that attaches us to Marit, and the emotional effect of driving on Marit.  The second passage provides a vivid image of Marit’s appearance, Marit’s assessment of how others see her, Marit’s feeling about that assessment, several aspects of her motivation for becoming what she is.  The interaction of the different elements within these passages gives a sense of reality and depth to them, so Marit’s character comes through strongly.  They also provide density to the prose, so each sentence and each paragraph is accomplishing multiple purposes.  That’s an important technique for all fiction, and especially for flash fiction, which this story is.

An area of the story that could be strengthened is the plot, which is about Marit’s deal with a dark spirit that has consequences she didn’t expect.  The story provides exposition about the formation of the deal and the price Marit has agreed to pay:  giving the spirit a good memory for every time she receives his power.

As Marit holds her latest session showing her power to the people, she realizes she’s giving her last positive memory to the spirit.  At the end of the story, the spirit blasts fire over the people, killing everyone but Marit.

While Marit’s personality comes across pretty strongly, she’s a fairly passive protagonist.  She knows she’s running out of positive memories, but she just continues using them up, down to the last one.  She doesn’t seem to have any plan for what to do after she has no more memories to continue her deal with the spirit.  She doesn’t seem to have saved money to sustain her after she can’t make money with her gift.  Perhaps Marit feels she has no options and feels trapped in her course of action, or perhaps she’s addicted to the reverence others give her and can’t resist this last fix, or perhaps she feels there’s nothing for her in life without the power.  But none of those are established or even implied.  While motivation can sometimes be left ambiguous, readers generally need several compelling possibilities to be implied that they can contemplate.  For me, instead of this, her motivation seems neglected.

If we had a sense that she feels there’s nothing for her in life without the power, so she just wants to experience it as many times as possible and then doesn’t care what happens to her, that could make her seem more active, since she’s making a decision to go ahead despite knowing she’s losing her last memory.  This could also give the ending more significance, since we would see that her selfish decision leads to harm for the people.

The plot also lacks a strong causal chain.  Instead of this final experience going as usual, black flames burst out and consume everyone.  Why?  When there isn’t a strong reason for something happening, it feels as if the author made it happen.  That undermines readers’ belief in the story and the emotional impact of events.  If Marit’s lack of positive memories makes her very angry and dark, and she gets jealous and even angrier when she senses the positive memories in the audience, maybe she would use the spirit’s power to burn everyone up.  That would provide a strong causal chain.

Without a stronger understanding of why Marit gives up her last positive memory and a stronger cause for the black flames that burn everyone, it’s hard to find meaning or emotional impact in the end of the story.  But adding those elements could make the story more powerful and resonant.

The story has many strengths and kept me engaged throughout.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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


Leave a Reply