Editor’s Choice Award December 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.

Small Gods and Monsters by Chris Clarke

Stories structured with repeated patterns can build anticipation and suspense and set up a climax that feels both surprising and inevitable. Seeing how the pattern evolves can be delightful and pull us through a story. I enjoyed the pattern in this story. In each section, a small god (or demon) visits the first-person narrator. They have a brief conversation, and in the first three sections, the small god brings up something that the narrator needs to do or feel to enter the afterlife. The story makes me curious about the various small gods and what they require for a person to get into the afterlife. I’m also interested in whether the narrator will be able to do what’s required to have a positive experience in the afterlife. So those elements help to create curiosity and interest and engage me in the story. The story also has some vivid imagery, and I enjoy how that evolves as well, such as the water going from creek to pool to hot tub to ice.

I do think the way the pattern evolves could be strengthened. The first small god is the god of reflection, and when the narrator asks if there is a place for him in the afterlife, the god advises reflection. The second small god is the god of remorse, who says that “Remorse is required.” The feeling I have thus far is that the narrator hasn’t reflected upon his murder of his father and has no remorse. The third small god is the god of forgiveness, who says that forgiveness “is the key to the afterlife.” I’m thinking that the narrator has to forgive his father, because the pattern thus far is for the god to tell the narrator something he must do. Yet this time, the forgiveness seems to be something the dead father needs to give to the narrator. Since this is out of the hands of the narrator, it’s not terribly satisfying, and it makes the visits of the first two gods irrelevant. It seems like they could be cut from the story and it wouldn’t matter. If the father isn’t forgiving the narrator because the narrator hasn’t reflected and felt remorse, that’s not clear. The final visit of the small demon doesn’t, for me, provide that feeling of a surprising and inevitable climax. The demon welcomes the narrator to a hell-like afterlife. The narrator protests that the demon promised redemption. That seems to come out of nowhere, since that word redemption did not previously appear in the story, nor did the demon. If the narrator is saying that the small gods implied redemption was possible through those three qualities, that’s not clear. The narrator seemed not to care enough about the afterlife to reflect or feel remorse or seek forgiveness, so it seems odd for him to protest that redemption was promised. And when the demon says he promised nothing, that has no impact, since the demon has not appeared before and so of course has promised nothing. I get the sense that the story changes its focus halfway through from the narrator to the father, and that the last two visitors are designed to show that the father is as harsh as the narrator remembers and won’t forgive his son.

So for me, the four sections aren’t tied together in a strong way that contributes power to the climax.

I think the story could be stronger if it focused throughout on one character–either the narrator or the father. I would love to feel closer to the narrator; I don’t feel I understand him yet. In the first section, he’s fishing, something his father taught him. Similarly, in the second section he’s swimming, something his father taught him. If he really hated his “smug, self-righteous” father, it seems like he’d have negative memories about being taught these things and would avoid them as an adult. If something in this thinking is wrong, that needs to be brought out. In the third section he has just finished gambling, something his father taught him not to do. So the narrator seems like he’s becoming more rebellious and angry at his father the further we move in time from the father’s murder. That doesn’t really make sense to me. It also doesn’t quite make sense to me that the narrator repeatedly asks the small gods about the afterlife, suggesting he’s concerned about where he’s going to end up when he dies, yet he doesn’t seem to act on their advice. While drinking and taking drugs might suggest that he’s feeling remorse, gambling doesn’t. If he feels remorse over killing his father and so purposely gambles all of the inheritance away, that’s not clear. And if he feels so bad about what he did that he’s on this self-destructive course, it hardly matters whether his father forgives him or not; if he’s punishing himself already, then any punishment the father might add on doesn’t seem to matter.

If he’s not gambling to be self-destructive but instead to spite his father by doing things his father disapproved of, then the first half of the story doesn’t seem to fit.

Perhaps he’s drinking, doing drugs, and gambling simply because he’s dissolute and enjoying the money, though it seems to take him a while to do that, when I would think he’d be a big spender immediately after getting the money.

But I don’t know why he’s doing these things, and they don’t seem connected to the visits from the small gods.

A stronger, more consistent progression, with a narrator whose personality, goals, and emotions come through more clearly, could provide more of a punch and more emotion at the climax.

For example, perhaps he’s dissolute and gambling in Vegas and has a health crisis with the first god’s visit, so he’s concerned about the afterlife. He asks the god if redemption is possible. The god says reflection is necessary. After the visit, the narrator moves to a house outside of Vegas and gets counseling to help him reflect on his life. The second god visits him there and tells him he needs to feel remorse. Perhaps he visits his father’s brother, who tells him what a good person his father was when younger, and he feels remorse. Then the third god visits him and tells him he needs to do penance. Perhaps he gives all the money he inherited to the poor and becomes homeless and dies. Then the demon welcomes him to the hell-like afterlife, and the narrator protests that redemption was promised, and the demon says he promised nothing. And then the father appears, ready to spend eternity tormenting the narrator.

This is nothing great, but I think the narrator’s goals and emotions are clearer, and the impact of each visitor is clearer, and one thing causes the next, building up to the end.

One more thing I wanted to briefly mention is the third paragraph, which for me, had an awkward rhythm with all the adjectives. Most of the story is written very nicely, but this paragraph tripped me up. In the first four sentences, almost every noun has an adjective attached to it. It’s usually better to choose what the sentence will focus on and attach adjectives and other modifiers to that noun. Attaching modifiers to all the nouns makes it difficult to find the focus of the sentence.

I hope this is helpful. I enjoyed the spare, compact nature of the story, the strong imagery, and the intriguing pattern.

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

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