Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Melisandre With The Good Hair by Kate Tyte

This story provides an exciting new perspective on the fairytale “Melisande” by setting it in a near-future world and exploring the consequences of hair that won’t stop growing and grows faster each time it’s cut.  That novum is conveyed quickly through details of the setting, so by the end of the first paragraph I’m excited and engaged.  The way that the hair is managed and handled and all the ways that it’s used in the society are fascinating, and I think those are the greatest strengths of the story.

The story also has some vivid, chilling description of the way Melisandre is kept so that her hair remains controlled.

The story builds anticipation as the first-person narrator, Leonore, or Leo for short, heads to Melisandre’s Tower, where the woman with the magical hair lives, to start her job.  Starting a story with a character traveling and thinking about her life is usually a weak way to start.  Here, the character is traveling but not thinking about her life.  She’s simply describing the setting, and it’s a very interesting one, revealing the different attitudes people have about Melisandre.  This provides us with different possibilities to consider as we realize Leo has a secret agenda in taking this job that gives her access to Melisandre.  I get very involved in trying to figure out what Leo’s relationship with Melisandre is and what Leo’s goal is.  The mystery aspect of the plot works well until these two questions are answered.

One area of the story that could be strengthened is the plot after the mysteries have been revealed.  As Leo converses with Melisandre, we realize they are sisters and that the plan is for Melisandre to be scalped, so she can finally be free of her hair.  The idea of scalping her, which they may or may not be able to do without guards stopping them, and which Melisandre may or may not survive, and which may or may not stop the supernatural hair growth, carries a lot of suspense.  Once the story allows me to figure these things out, I’m eager to see the attempt be made, so I can see whether they’ll be able to pull it off and what the results will be.  The story allows readers to solve these mysteries about 4200 words into the story, so there are about 2900 words after that.  Unfortunately, during those final 2900 words, instead of the plot building to a climax, it simply provides exposition about how Melisandre came to have this magical hair (she doesn’t know) and what happened as she and the world struggled to deal with it before developing the current system.  Since Melisandre doesn’t know how she came to have magical hair, except that she wished for it a lot, I think that could be dealt with in a sentence, since spending more time on it doesn’t add to the story.  Since everyone in the scene would already know what happened as the world struggled to deal with Melisandre’s hair, this is “as you know, Bob” dialogue, in which one character tells another something they both know.  This is generally weak, since people don’t tend to talk to each other this way.  This additional dialogue/exposition, which takes up most of the remaining words, doesn’t add significantly to the story.  No new mysteries or sources of suspense arise, and the existing suspense declines.  At the end of the story, Leo contrives to slip a piece of glass to Melisandre, with which she can attempt to scalp herself, and the story ends.  So the events I’ve been waiting for through the last 2900 words never happen; the suspense I felt is not resolved in a satisfying way, and there is no climax or catharsis.

If we knew that all Melisandre needed was a piece of glass and she would scalp herself, survive, and be free of the curse, then ending as this story does would be fine, because we could fill in the rest ourselves.  But these things are not at all certain, which is what creates the suspense and keeps me reading to find out what will happen.  That makes those last 2900 words disappointing.

It’s also hard to believe that a person could scalp herself, so Leo’s plan seems unwise and cowardly.  I think Leo would have a much better chance of scalping Melisandre than Melisandre would of scalping herself.  Since Melisandre is watched constantly, the guards will be an issue in either situation.  The only downside of Leo doing the scalping is that the other two nurses would be nearby.  But they don’t seem the type to put up a fight.  I think Leo could have a plan to tangle them up in the hair or the IV line, or jam the door with the nurses outside, and then attempt the scalping.  I’d be very excited to see this, whatever the outcome.

The other element that could be strengthened is the relationship arc between the sisters, which relates to the characterization and the causal chain.  Right now, both sisters remain the same through the story, and the relationship remains the same, with Leo basically coming and saying, “Here’s a plan for you to scalp yourself,” and Melisandre accepting that.  That’s not terribly dynamic.  Some change in the characters or their relationship would make the story stronger.

What does that have to do with the causal chain?  We don’t know why Melisandre’s hair became magical, which is one weakness in the causal chain.  We also don’t know why Leo is doing this for her sister or why she leaves the task of scalping to Melisandre.  It seems like there was a rift between the sisters and the father made Leo promise to try to save Melisandre.  If he had to make her promise, that suggests she wouldn’t have helped Melisandre otherwise.  That reinforces my feeling that there was a rift and that’s why Leo stayed away for so long.  I don’t believe she was training for years to learn how to help her sister.  So if there was a rift, does Leo still resent her sister?  Is that why she’s going to make Melisandre scalp herself?  I don’t think that’s what the story is trying to convey, though that would be one way to strengthen Leo’s motivation in leaving the glass with Melisandre.  It could be a sort of “screw you” solution:  You want to be free of your beautiful hair?  Scalp yourself.

Another solution could not only explain why Leo has come but why Melisandre’s hair became magical.  What if Leo resented Melisandre with all her vanity and put this curse on her?  And now, finally, with the father’s deathbed plea and her promise, she feels she has to do something to try to put things right.  If she’s still resentful, she could plan to do the screw-you solution, giving Melisandre the piece of glass and considering her promise to her father fulfilled.  If she’s horrified by the curse she placed as a child and wants to help, then she could plan to do the scalping herself.  Or, probably the strongest option, if she walks into the room resentful and planning the screw-you, but seeing Melisandre and interacting with her makes her realize what a horrible thing she did to her sister, she could have a change of heart and decide to do the scalping herself, though it will almost certainly lead to her incarceration or death. That would allow a change in character and a change in the relationship.

For myself, I’d love to see that last option, with the sisters working out some of their problems in the subtext of the dialogue.  At first, the anger they feel toward each other could come out, but then they could move beyond it, Melisandre apologizing–in the subtext–for her selfishness and vanity, Leo apologizing for her resentment and jealousy.  A relationship arc like that, leading them both to take this dangerous action, could be very moving.  In that case, I don’t know that I’d need to see the outcome.  The story would be more about these two sisters coming together.

One other option that would accomplish some of the same things would be for Melisandre to have the plan to scalp.  Leo might come in to gloat over Melisandre’s predicament, and Melisandre could try to convince her–in the subtext–to help her execute the plan.  Leo might have a change of heart and help Melisandre, or not.

The story has many strengths.  The world and the situation are striking, and the mystery of Leo’s identity and mission is engaging.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

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