Editor’s Choice Award June 2022, Fantasy

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.

House of Sugar, House of Flesh by Lyndsey E. Gilbert

Although this submission is labeled “Fantasy,” it resonates for me as one of the purer kinds of horror. Fairy tales can go dark—very dark. This is as dark as they come.

The blending of “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Juniper Tree” works for me through the common theme of the mother as both protector and destroyer of her children. I do have a couple of thoughts about the draft. One applies to theme and content, the other to the prose.

The mother theme is clear, as is the juxtaposition of House of Sugar and House of Flesh. But there’s one more important theme that could be established from the beginning. The idea of “the knowing” becomes a driving motif late in the story. I think it would be even more powerful if it came through from the beginning. The mother is born with the knowing but keeps her daughter from it. This is a key to the development of the plot, and a pointer toward the inevitable conclusion.

The fact that the boy is denied the knowing is important, too. Is it because he’s male? Is the knowing only for females? A little more about that would deepen the impact of the theme.

Some of the emotional arcs could do with a little polish. When the mother-bird leads the children to the House of Sugar, she seems to be doing it to save them from starvation. But when they get there and the witch comes out, suddenly she changes her mind and calls on them to flee. Is this because she’s lost the knowledge of what lives in the house and what it will do to the children? Did she not realize she was leading them into danger? Does she have a plan, or is she so diminished and damaged that she’s not capable of developing one?

When the children disregard her warnings and enter, she seems to lapse into a kind of emotional flatness. Has she given up? Has she drained herself of feelings? What is happening to cause these shifts in her levels of knowledge and emotion?

In a story as short as this, every word carries even more than the usual amount of weight. Every sentence, every construction, every image, has to be just right. There are some powerful images in the draft, but a few that might be stronger. For example:

The prologue is stark and powerful. But does it need that last line, I was such a one? Does it need to define itself? I think the rest is clear enough that the line of explanation doesn’t need to be there.

Sometimes words or descriptions don’t quite hit the mark. Our two waifish children, for example. “Waifish” seems a little abstract. Compare that the description of the narrator as a “bone woman”—there’s that extra edge to it, though defining it by way of “a fragile figure” blunts it a bit. Can a birdlike thing and a bone woman stand on their own? Do they need the third qualifier?

In one of many vivid passages, the narrator describes how I make the journey back to the cottage and peck my husband’s eyes from his head. I sink my very real, sharp pale beak through his brain matter. Perhaps fewer words: “I journey back to the cottage and peck my husband’s eyes from his head. I sink my very real, sharp pale beak through his brain.” Just a small change, but tighter and perhaps more effective.

Watch out for awkward turns of phrase, such as:

Beaten like eggs in a bowl into stiff submission—perhaps turn that inside out, “beaten into stiff submission like eggs in a bowl.” Or this:

Groaning out a wet and squelching song—a groan is a very different sound than wet squelching. What other word might match the rest of the image?

There are a lot of good things going on in this story. With polish I think it will be even more visceral and powerful.

— Judith Tarr


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