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.
“The Unusual Case of Dr. H–” draws me in with its familiar, comforting voice. I’ve read and enjoyed many first-person narratives set in 19th-century England (most of them horror), so the opening paragraphs of this story wrap around me like a warm blanket, promising delightful horror to come. Since this submission is only an excerpt, the promise of horror hasn’t yet been fulfilled at the end, but I’m still hopeful it will be.
The action so far has moved along well, with an interesting cast of characters introduced. Several mysteries keep us curious and engaged: the mystery of exactly what Dr. H– is up to, the mystery of what the brotherhood wants, and the question of whether Cavor, Montgomery, and Lady Brampton really want to help Dr. H–. I think those are the greatest strengths of the piece thus far.
It’s always hard to provide a critique on an excerpt, not knowing where the story is headed. But for me, as I read, a few things stood out as areas that might be improved.
In this section, the biggest mystery is what Dr. H– is up to. Based on the clues provided–the name of his manuscript, the Burkers–and the setting of the story, which carries strong associations, it seems like Dr. H– is reanimating the dead, similar to Dr. Frankenstein. The fact that all indicators are pointing me in this direction makes this mystery less intriguing than it might be. As I read, I’m kind of dreading that the story, after making such a big deal about this mystery, will ultimately reveal that it’s just as I’ve suspected all along. The other possibility I’m dreading is that the story flips all these clues around and reveals Dr. H– is engaged in some perfectly benign activities, which would be a big letdown and probably feel unbelievable. What I’m hoping is that Dr. H– is involved in some very chilling, horrific activities, far more disturbing than anything Dr. Frankenstein or Herbert West ever conceived. If that’s the case, it would be nice to have some small clue in this section to encourage that hope that Dr. H– is more than another Frankenstein, and to get readers trying to figure out exactly how this is different.
If the clues remain similar to the ones we’ve gotten so far, and the answer to the mystery is never given, then I think most readers would assume Dr. H– is doing the same things Dr. Frankenstein did and be disappointed. So I hope we’ll be given either a clear revelation of what Dr. H– is doing or clues that clearly point us in a direction distinct from Frankenstein.
The main area I see for improvement in this section is the characterization of the narrator, Raskin. It sometimes feels as if the author is forcing him to do things or feel things, rather than that Raskin would actually do or feel them. For example, when Chisholm mentions Dr. H–, Raskin tells us, “At the mention of Dr H–, a thrill of recognition went through me.” The problem is that between Chisholm mentioning Dr. H– and this reaction, Chisholm has another line of dialogue, and then Raskin provides a sentence of exposition, explaining Chisholm’s job. The “thrill of recognition” is too delayed to be believable.
Later, Raskin thinks about spending time with Dr. H– years ago: ” Despite the pleasantness of these reminiscences, a lowness of spirit began to settle on me. I did not have many friends – writing is a solitary craft – and it occurred to me that the loss of even one was something to be regretted.” For me, this reaction isn’t believable. It seems too general and abstract to have emotional power–particularly the power to motivate Raskin to seek out Dr. H–. I could believe he could generally miss friends and feel lonely, but then get on with his work. He’d be used to living his solitary life, and something so minor as remembering a friend wouldn’t make him seek someone out after many years. The mention of Dr. H– is the inciting incident, and that doesn’t seem like enough, in itself, to knock Raskin out of his normal activity (which is what the inciting incident does). If Raskin had suffered a major setback with his book in the earlier meeting with Chisholm, that might make him feel depressed and lost. Maybe some more specific details about his relationship with Dr. H– could tie into that. Maybe when they were younger, Dr. H– would read his early manuscripts and, being of a scientific mindset, offer really bad suggestions (with the best of intentions), and those would prompt Raskin to realize how to make his stories much better. This could help to humanize Dr. H–, so we get some hint of what he’s like and start to care about him, and it could motivate Raskin to seek out Dr. H–, now that he’s at a crisis point with his writing. Usually lengthy flashbacks or exposition dumps are not good ideas, but a couple details here and perhaps a few elsewhere could help us feel Raskin’s emotions and motivation, and could help us care about Dr. H– (or at least care about Dr. H– as Raskin thinks of him), since this is the story of his death.
Raskin obtains the manuscript of Dr. H– and agrees to share it with the others, but he has conditions. He wants assurances that Dr. H– will not be harmed. That could work well if we felt Raskin’s affection for Dr. H–. But then a few lines of dialogue after he demands reassurance, he agrees to take orders with no questions asked. He still hasn’t received any reassurance at that point, yet he agrees with a shrug and a “sure,” as if this is no big deal. This seems contradictory to me. Demanding that Dr. H– not be hurt means he won’t follow orders unconditionally, and both he and everyone else in the room ought to know that. Lady Brampton seems foolish for asking him the question. And Cavor not only threatens Raskin but shows himself to be willing to kill, which should raise even more reservations in Raskin’s mind. It seems like the story is trying to avoid conflict, which reduces interest and undermines Raskin’s character. Perhaps Raskin insists he will ask questions if he disagrees with their course of action, and if they don’t like that, then they won’t get to see the manuscript.
I’m wondering what the character arc is for Raskin. The opening of the story doesn’t reveal any change in him, as far as I can tell. While that may be fairly common in stories written in that period, something this story might add to that tradition would be to give Raskin more emotional investment in events, put more at stake for him, and show that the events change him. That would make the story more involving, for me.
I hope this is helpful. I enjoyed reading the excerpt and being drawn into the setting and the mysteries presented by the story.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust