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.
One of my favorite types of horror story is the kind that leaves you uncertain whether the horror exists in the real world or only in the character’s mind. “The Devil’s Hand Meddles in the Design of Sin” definitely accomplishes that. From the beginning of the story to the end, I don’t know whether the first-person narrator is seeing the devil or only imagining the devil. This raises a question in readers’ minds about what is real and generates curiosity that makes readers want to keep on reading.
This story resonated for me with a very famous story of this type, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. I wondered if Poe’s story might have been an inspiration for this piece.
The story also has some nice description, such as the “crystalized geometries” and “there was an early mist above the short cut grass that faded the green tips of the plantation into murky greyness. It was quiet and serene and to me it seemed the whole world was like that at the moment.” That second sentence is very evocative and makes me recall similar moments in my life.
In this passage, the rhythm and repetitive sentence structure come together strongly to create a suggestion of dissociation: “My hair was covered in blood and I could see it dangling in front of my face. I went to the sink to wash it off and as I did I started weeping like a child. I felt abhorrently sick and deranged. I knelt my forearms on the sink and ran my head under the water. My hands were a mix of blood and water and I ran them over my face and my hair. It was wet and murky on my skin. I let out a short laugh. I felt deranged.” I found this passage and the end of the story the strongest part.
I also enjoyed some of the character moments. This one–“I thought if I came out in my lounge wear, that nothing dangerous would happen because I was not dressed for more”–made me laugh and felt very human.
Here are some thoughts about how the story might be strengthened.
Some stylistic weaknesses prevent me from becoming as immersed in the story as I’d like to be and disrupt the flow.
The tense shifts throughout the story between past and present. For example, the story begins in past tense (“I rode my bicycle”), yet by the end of the first paragraph it has changed to present tense (“A bus stops next to me”). Each tense shift makes me stumble as I’m reading and prevents me from falling into the fictional dream of the story.
Some sentences are unfocused. A sentence should be one, focused idea. With description, the description needs a focus. What is the character looking at or perceiving? Why? What stands out for that character? For example, “The street lights and their reflections in the buildings of the city tinted the dark sky above so that the many stars were hidden from my vision.” Is the sentence about the lights and their reflections? Or about the dark sky above? Or about the stars being hidden? I don’t know where the character is looking. He seems to be looking everywhere at once. If the character is searching for the stars and the city lights are hiding the stars, I think there’s a more focused way to convey that. But since the narrator seems to be riding a bike down a busy road, I don’t think he’d be able to search for stars.
There are some awkward phrases and sentences in the story. For example, “I must attend to her these days as the cancer has picked up a heavy hand against her.” I haven’t heard “heavy hand” used in this way. As far as I know, one might “rule with a heavy hand,” but I don’t know what it means to “pick up a heavy hand.” So this threw me out of the story. If you’re not 100% sure of the meaning of a word and of how it is used in sentences, it’s a good idea to check, to not only look up the definition but also to look for examples of sentences using the word or phrase.
The story tells more than it shows. For example, “It was not the face it was the night of the murder. Nor was it the gloomy, hopeless, and depressed face of the accused during the trial. It was a face unlike a regular face. A face comprised of pure malice and mischief.” I’m not getting any concrete details to visualize here. The first three sentences are an example of what I call “negative information,” when the author describes what isn’t present or what didn’t happen instead of describing what is present or what did happen. The last sentence is positive information, describing what is there, but it’s all telling (abstractions, judgements) rather than showing (concrete sensory details). So I still don’t know what this face looks like. The main thing I want to know as a reader is whether this is the same man the narrator saw before. And I don’t get the answer to that question.
Some of the telling involves emotion. While that can sometimes work (such as when an emotion is different than we might expect from the situation), using multiple emotional labels tends to create confusion and no clear emotional impression. For example, “Mad with the painful anxiety I flew into a rage” leaves me not really feeling anything. I would need to feel the anxiety building more and leading into the rage, rather than just being told it happened.
Some of the showing is imprecise, not creating images I can form in my mind or believe. For example, “Pub goers sit in the bar, outside it, and on the sidewalk on small tables and wooden chairs.” If the pub goers are sitting in the bar and on chairs on the sidewalk, then the phrase “outside it” seems unnecessary. The sidewalk is clearly outside. So when three locations are listed–in the bar, outside, and on the sidewalk–I don’t know what to visualize. I don’t know where “outside” is besides “on the sidewalk.” Also, the sentence is saying that people are sitting on the sidewalk on tables and chairs. I don’t believe they’re sitting on tables. So my mental process as I’m reading this sentence involves stopping, being puzzled, and ultimately reimagining the sentence in my mind so it makes sense to me and I can then form the image. If I could skip the interim steps and just read the sentence and see the image, that would be more involving.
Regarding the plot, I think the extended timeline weakens the causal chain (a chain of cause and effect running through the story) and the character believability. I don’t feel the impact (the effect) on the character when the Volvo’s driver is not convicted. We’re told he declines, but I don’t see that in concrete ways. For example, does he never ride his bike again? Does he change jobs so he doesn’t have to travel on that street again? Is he fired because he can’t concentrate? The red Volvo keeps appearing outside, but then it stops. Why? I don’t know any cause for the Volvo to leave him alone. Time passes, and then the Volvo returns. Why? And the narrator, who seems to have recovered from his decline and made a life for himself, approaches the car in a friendly manner. Why? And then loses control of himself and kills the driver. Why? These abrupt changes make it hard for me to believe in the narrator and the situation. If the narrator is struggling against the man in the Volvo, and the struggle escalates, and the narrator moves away to escape the Volvo, but the Volvo is back a week later, we would understand that the Volvo has been searching for him during that time and has now found him again. And we would understand the narrator’s violent reaction because he’s still upset; he hopes he might have escaped, and just when he thinks he’s safe, the man in the Volvo returns. Stories extended over a long period of time make it more difficult to establish a strong causal chain.
I think the time period was extended so the narrator could have an ill wife at the end. But the narrator might have been older at the start and already married with an ill wife. The wife could serve as someone for him to talk to her about what he saw, and someone he could urge to the window when the Volvo appears, to make the story more external. It’s usually good to give the main character someone to interact with to externalize both the internal and external conflicts.
I enjoy the narrator being inhabited by the devil (or believing he’s being inhabited) at the end, but I’m unclear what has killed his wife. I’d love to have some sense of momentum at the end with an indication of what’s going to happen from here. Does the narrator get the keys from the dead driver and head out to the Volvo? Does he get his own keys and head to his own car? Does he take his wife and lay her head in front of the tire of the Volvo before getting in?
I enjoyed reading this and was engaged throughout in trying to figure out if the narrator was imagining the devil or the devil was really stalking him. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust