Editor’s Choice Award May 2022, 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.

Our Days Are Numbered These Days by Jim McDougall

There’s something about images of people–videos, movies, photos, and paintings–that can be very disturbing.  “Our Days Are Numbered These Days” builds on the disturbing potential of images to provide some creepy moments.  When Craig realizes that something like an old home movie is somehow playing on the boarded-up window of a deserted house, that’s quite strange and disturbing.  The moment when this “movie” starts playing on his phone is super creepy and really disturbed me (in the best possible way).  For me, that’s the strongest moment in the story.  A man in the “movie” seems to appear in reality, which is another disturbing moment.

The story offers some other powerful moments that don’t involve images of people.  Craig finds the calendar with the current date circled and only blank paper after that date.  That feels very fresh to me and horrific.  And then Craig discovers his phone is stuck on that date.  There’s a lot in this story to enjoy, but I do think it could be strengthened in several ways.

I had a hard time believing the reactions of Craig and Angela, so I wasn’t able to relate to them or care about them very much.  That weakened the horror.  My first difficulty occurs when Craig wants to go over to the abandoned house to investigate the light.  To me, it seems like Craig and Angela should think the light is most likely caused by people using the house to sell drugs or engage in some other illegal activity, or by homeless people using it for shelter.  Either way, I would expect Craig and Angela to anticipate the people in the house would not welcome anyone snooping around and that danger might result. But neither one of them anticipates danger.  If Craig is supposed to already be drawn by the light, that’s not clear now.

Once Craig and Angela get to the boarded-up window and start seeing the movie images, there reactions again are hard for me to believe.  They are concerned with what’s happening in the movie, when the movie was made, and the fact that the burgers look tasty.  I think they ought to be concerned with how they are seeing images when there is clearly no projector around, an idea that would be followed in short order by freaking out and probably running away.  I think the story is trying to suggest that they are mesmerized by the images, but that doesn’t come through.  I don’t feel the images or the light drawing them in.  For me, the story would be stronger if Craig were fighting the influence of the light, so we could feel an internal conflict between the attraction and his knowledge that this is strange/wrong and should be resisted.  When Craig thinks, “This was getting really crazy now,” I’m thinking he should have thought this much earlier in the story.

Another element that could be strengthened is the plot.  I think it works pretty well up until Angela disappears and Craig finds the calendar.  After that, the suspense and fear seems to drain out of the story as Craig easily flees the house, and we learn he’s been detained by the police and this is a letter to the inspector.  It feels as if we’re promised a story about Craig and Angela and this landmark of the house, but what we end up with is Craig’s plea for the police inspector to solve his problem. That’s not a satisfying delivery on the promise.  It feels like I’m reading one story up until he flees the house, and then I’m reading a totally different story.  For me, delivering on the promise means continuing the story of Craig, Angela, and the house until it’s resolved in some way.  Craig might struggle to find Angela in the house.  For example, maybe he sees her in the movie on his phone, and in the movie, she’s in the backyard.  So he goes into the backyard to try to find her, but she’s not there.  And in the movie she goes into the basement, so he goes into the basement, but she’s not there.  But he might find some other disturbing things in the basement or get trapped there.  Maybe the door opens when it’s past midnight.  The day resets (because it’s the last day on the calendar), and the movie/supernatural won’t appear again until dusk on this day.  He wouldn’t know this, but he could search around, and then weird stuff would start happening at dusk. This could happen a couple times with things getting worse each time.  Maybe he has to write something on the calendar to resolve the situation.  That might be “Join the party,” which might get him into the movie with Angela.  Or it might be “Marry Angela,” which might get Angela released, or “Stop the murder.” Maybe Angela would provide clues while in the movie, or maybe she can send texts on his phone.  There’s a lot of potential here; it’s a matter of figuring out what the story is about and how best to fully realize that.

I wonder why Angela is taken into the movie and Craig isn’t.  It seems like perhaps Craig closes his eyes to the light and Angela doesn’t.  But Craig was the one eager to investigate the light, so it seems odd or counterintuitive that he’s the one who resists it.  If Angela is unhappy in her life, and that’s what leads her to open her eyes and be taken into the movie, I think that needs to be established up front, before they see the light at the house.  Whatever the story is about, I think it reflects or relates to a relationship problem between Craig and Angela, and that needs to be set up at the beginning, get worse when Angela is taken, and then get resolved along with the conflict between Craig and the movie/supernatural at the end.  For example, if Angela wants to be part of a committed relationship and Craig doesn’t, then perhaps the desire for a strong bond and belonging is what appeals to her about the movie, which shows a family gathering, and what leads to her being pulled into it.  Craig’s desire to avoid commitment may have caused him to remain outside the movie.  Craig resolving his issue one way or another could lead to him resolving the issue with the movie/supernatural.

One final element I want to mention is description.  I’m confused a number of times about what’s happening because the description is not clear for me.  For example, the house is described as being “silhouetted in the amber glow of the lights up on the freeway.”  But they are on the street where the house is; they are on the same level.  The lights are above.  Something is silhouetted, at least in my mind, when the light is on the far side of the object.  That means the light needs to be behind the house to silhouette it, not above the house.  This may seem picky, but as I read I’m trying to form images, and I couldn’t form this one.  Another example occurs when Craig has first reached the window and sees the light:  “Its brilliance completely obscured the boards over the window.”  Previously, the light has been described as if it is leaking out from cracks between the boards.  So when I get to this sentence, I still think it’s leaking out from within the house.  It’s not clear to me that the light seems to be coming from outside the house.  It took me a while to understand and be able to visualize what was happening, which made it less scary.

I hope my comments are helpful.  I really enjoyed the disturbing elements in this story.  It was nice to read more of your work.

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

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