Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Uncanny Six by K.A. Tutin

Stories with numbers in their titles have an amazing power to create anticipation, curiosity, and suspense in readers.  Whether it’s Thirteen Ghosts, The Hateful Eight, The Three Faces of Eve, or “The Three Little Pigs,” we want to keep reading or watching until we’ve explored the full number of items counted in the title.   The same is true of “Uncanny Six.”  The title makes me want to keep reading to learn about all six of “uncanny.”  The first sentence adds to the curiosity and suspense generated by the title, establishing that the uncanny six are children who vanished.  This generates several questions:  What happened to the children?  Why were they taken?  In what ways are they uncanny?  Who is responsible?

Stories that begin by raising a clear and compelling question (or questions) create a strong need in us to keep reading to find the answers.  Mystery stories often draw us in by raising a compelling question.  Horror stories also often have a mystery component and draw us in with a question.  “The Boogeyman” by Stephen King is one example.

“Uncanny Six” drew me in with the title and opening, and then sprinkled hints of answers throughout the story, keeping me reading until the end.  The story offered several surprises along the way:  the narrator is revealed to be the collective first-person point of view of the Uncanny Six, and the answer to the mystery we receive turns out to be one of several, none of which is true.  All of these elements kept me intellectually engaged throughout the story.

Here are some thoughts about how the story might be strengthened.

While I keep reading throughout to find out about the six, I don’t receive as much of the pleasures I’d hoped the story would provide.  I’m expecting a progression in which each of the six provides either more clues about what’s going on or a different type of experience that allows me to see the situation in a new way.  While the details do progress a bit, they are fairly similar for the various children and don’t really seem like clues because they don’t combine to provide the answers to the questions I had at the start.  We find out that when a child vanishes, the other missing children briefly appear, and a nauseating smell and a puddle of water are left behind.  That’s strange and a bit creepy, but it’s not too frightening or disturbing.  The distant point of view means I don’t really know or care about the individual children, so the circumstances of their disappearance have to generate all the emotion and horror in the story.  The details given don’t lead to clear answers about who is responsible, why the children were taken, or what happened to them.  Horror stories sometimes don’t provide clear answers about what has happened, but if they don’t, they usually need to provide a resonant, compelling issue or question that will linger in readers’ minds.  It’s quite challenging to create an ending that resonates with us long after we finish reading it.  I’m not feeling that sort of resonance at the end of this story yet.  We learn of Mister, who is apparently behind the abductions, and the story offers multiple possibilities about who Mister is and why Mister did this, but for me, these possibilities didn’t create a resonant, disturbing question stayed with me after the story was over.  Since I didn’t really care about the children, and the details weren’t especially disturbing for me, I wasn’t very concerned about Mister.

I think there are opportunities in the story to provide more disturbing details, involve readers more, and create stronger resonance.  I would love to get a compelling, horrifying account of how the children were changed, or of how the repeating cycle affected their lives and the lives of their loved ones.  The children, on their return, are quiet and like water and amphibians, which is interesting, but as a reader who has read a fair amount of horror, I’m wanting and expecting more.  Do they look at their parents differently?  Can they remember their parents and their previous life?  Can they still read and speak?  I don’t need to know everything about them in their changed state, but I need some significant details that together paint a very disturbing picture.

I’m not sure I understand what the repeating cycle is.  I think it’s that the children are abducted and returned and abducted and returned over and over.  If so, I think that is by far the most disturbing thing in the story and should be shown more vividly, along with the consequences of that.  For a parent to see her child grow more distant and strange with every reappearance, for a transformation to be more fully realized each time, for more people to be abducted with each cycle, and for the world to change with them could be chilling.

Another area that might be more disturbing and horrifying is the point of view.  We find out near the end that the point of view of the story is the collective first-person perspective of the six children.  Revealing the POV late in a story can provide powerful surprise and a complete reframing of the story in the readers’ minds, which can be exciting and disturbing.  A very exciting reveal using a first-person collective POV is in the novel The Perfect Wife by J. P. Delaney.  In this case, I was excited to find myself in the POV of the children, but when I thought back over the story, it didn’t seem like it had been told by the children.  It spoke of the events in a distant way, not the way the children–even if transformed–would relate the events.  For a revelation like this to be effective, clues need to be planted throughout the text that readers don’t recognize as clues.  They just feel like some odd bits.  But once they get to the revelation, they can think back over the story and realize that those weird aspects of the POV actually make perfect sense now that they know the children are telling the story.  I’m not feeling that yet.  Those odd bits could also make the story seem more disturbing, because the narrative voice is not conveying things in the way a person would normally relate these events.  The POV could relate things in a strange way, and once we got to the revelation that the POV was that of the children, not only would it make sense, it would reveal something more about the transformation of the children and how they had changed.

Finally, I think the style could be strengthened.  Awkward sentences and inappropriate word choices often made me stumble and forced me to re-read sentences to try to understand them.  For example, this sentence tripped me up in several ways:  “Three months later of the same year, another child, a twelve-year-old, Thomas Bigsby, or Tommy as he preferred, was shy and introverted and rarely left his home unless in the company of his parents.”  The initial phrase has unnecessary words and could convey the same information more clearly with “Three months later.”  I think the sentence is meant to convey that three months later Tommy was abducted.  But instead, it says that three months later Tommy was shy and rarely left home.  I think if Tommy was shy, he wasn’t just shy three months after the first abduction.  I think he was shy for an extended period of time.  So it seems like the author lost track of the purpose of the sentence between the beginning and the end.  I realize this is an early draft, but the awkward sentences made it hard to become immersed in the story.

This story definitely pulls me in and keeps me reading to the end.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

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