Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

The Dark Of Night by Tyler Burns

Atmosphere is an important component of horror, giving a story an emotional tone that colors everything that happens.  This story, through its setting, situation, and descriptions, succeeds in conveying an atmosphere of barrenness, isolation, darkness, and doom.  The atmosphere contributes to the emotion and suspense of the story, since it makes me feel as if the characters don’t have a chance, and I want to keep reading to find out what happens to them.  The story also employs a classic motif in which those who eat the flesh of someone or something are destined to die.   That provides a causal chain to the plot, a chain of cause and effect, so it doesn’t seem as if the characters are being attacked randomly or because the author wants it to happen.

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

Blaze, the first-person narrator, explains to Sawyer that he encountered the beast, shot off its tail, and then served it for dinner.  But this information comes fairly late in the story, too late to have much effect, though it has been tormenting Blaze throughout.  Coming late in the story, it seems more like an excuse for the beast’s attack rather than a cause for the attack.  And we feel fairly distant from Blaze because he’s very concerned with what he did, and we don’t know what that was for a long time.  It would be better earlier in the piece.

Before I go into that more, I’d like to discuss another element.  Blaze has strong, unspoken affection for Sawyer, and Sawyer feels the same.  In the middle part of the story, Sawyer shares his feelings with Blaze and they consummate their relationship.  There’s not much tension in this portion of the story.  Sawyer says, feels, and does exactly what Blaze has been hoping for.  It could add tension to the story if Sawyer was reluctant.  Perhaps Sawyer had been acting more friendly toward Blaze as Blaze has taken on the cooking duties and worked to create some delicious, hearty meals (as it has been said, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach).  Since they ran out of meat a few days before, Sawyer might have been withdrawing and talking about moving to the city alone.  So when Blaze shoots the tail off the beast, he decides to serve it for dinner in the hope of winning Sawyer over.  This would add some suspense to their relationship and put more at stake when Blaze confesses what he’s done.

In this case, perhaps the story begins with burying Wyatt’s body, and then Blaze and Sawyer return to the cabin, and Blaze serves the leftovers from the previous night’s dinner (of the beast’s tail), and Sawyer says how good it is, and there probably won’t be such good food in the city, and Blaze, knowing this is his last chance and forcing himself to speak, says he could go with Sawyer and cook for him and take care of his needs.  So this might be portrayed a little more as Blaze seducing Sawyer.  This would make Blaze a more active protagonist, struggling to achieve his goal, rather than having Sawyer’s love handed to him with no effort.  This would also give Blaze a stronger motivation for cooking and serving the tail, this key action that leads to their deaths.

Another element that could be strengthened is the first-person voice.  Voice is an important and often overlooked element of story, and it’s extremely prominent in first person.  First person subjective feels like the narrator talking to us, telling us his story.  Because of that, the voice needs to sound like this particular character’s authentic speech.  This can help reveal the character and the world.  In this story, the voice feels inconsistent, shifting fairly often.  At times, Blaze sounds like a cowboy in the old West.  At other times, he sounds like a British man from several centuries ago.  At other times, the voice sounds somewhat Lovecraftian.  Voice can be a slippery thing.  Finding good examples of the voice you’re trying for can help.  For example, if you’re going for an old West feeling, you could find a collection of letters written by people living in the old West, type some of those into your computer five times to get the word choices and phrasings into your mind.  Then you can try to take some of the sentences and change the content to connect to your story while retaining the sentence structures.  Then eventually you can try to write a paragraph from your story in this voice.  You might also find the book Voice by James Scott Bell useful.

There are also some unclear, awkward, or overwritten sentences that take me out of the story.  A study of strong prose could help.  A good way to do this is to find a story by someone else that you think is written really well, written in a way that you would like to write.  Pick a good paragraph and type it into your computer five times.  Then try to type it in without looking at the original.  Compare the two and see what you changed or left out.  Then try again.  Do the same thing with stories by other writers, so you’re feeding yourself really strong prose in a variety of styles.  I would also recommend the book Description by Monica Wood.

Thanks for sharing your campfire story.  I hope these comments are helpful.

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

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