Editors Choice Award June 2023, 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.

Hold The Anchovies Part 1 by Ethan Sabatella

This submission seems to be aiming for a parody of Lovecraftian horror. The pizza-delivery guy ending up at the wrong address, just in time to save the damsel in distress, has potential. The clash between ancient, eldritch monsters and modern, mundane humanity hits a sweet spot for humor: it’s literally a fish out of water story.

Both humor and horror rely heavily on the power of the prose. Voice and style need to be spot on. The author has to be completely in control of their craft.

The choice of a pizza delivery guy as a protagonist sets up certain expectations in the reader. He’s a minimum-wage worker in a low-end job. The stereotype would be a late adolescent or early twentysomething, not well educated, not a lot of ambition, just trying to scrape through. That can work if done well, and it leaves plenty of scope for stoner humor. Look at, for example, the pizza guy in Stranger Things. He’s brilliant in his way.

Angel could go in that direction, but his narration needs some work. His voice, the way in which he tells the story, has a tendency toward standard prose style. He talks like a book.

This can work if it comes across as intentional, if we get the sense that he’s trying to tell his story as if it were set in the early twentieth century, when prose narrators wrote in long sentences and used lots of multisyllabic words. Think about what kind of person in 2023 would refer to a house as an abode. Maybe he’s a budding horror writer working to make ends meet. Maybe he’s a grad student studying Lovecraft, making a point of imitating the master. Maybe he’s a gamer, or a librarian moonlighting for extra cash, or a high-school student with high-goth ambitions. Something that supports the style of the story, that counters our expectations of the way a pizza-delivery guy would talk. If he’s self-aware, if he knows what he’s doing and makes a point of it, that sharpens the parody.

If the story does want to be told in this style, I have some suggestions that might make the prose more effective.

First, note how many participles there are, how many words end in -ing. These verb forms work best in small doses. When they become a habit, they drag the prose down. The action moves more slowly and the emotional affect flattens. This is especially true when they open a sentence. They become a substitute for crisp, forceful action. They wibble and dribble instead of thrusting us straight into what’s happening.

They can lead the writer into a trap, too, when they start to dangle, as here:

Feeling for the knob, my heart pounded even harder once my fingers curled around the cold, smooth brass.

The way the sentence is written, it’s his heart that’s feeling for the knob. Try turning the sentence around, dividing up the actions, and going for active constructions. Short, sharp, punchy. He feels for the knob. His heart pounds. His fingers curl around the cold metal.

A similar thing happens with the use of “as” and “and” to connect pairs or groups of actions. Here’s an example of both close together:

Another roar split through the house and we piled into the car; I took the driver’s seat, the woman took shotgun as I shifted into drive.

When clauses are strung together with weak or neutral conjunctions, they flatten each other out. The action here is rapid, the tension high, but the roar and the piling are set up with what amounts to an equal sign. Big powerful terrifying sound fizzles to the emotional level of two people jumping into a car. Break up the clauses, make each a sentence, and that keeps the roar at full volume (though I’m not sure what “split through” wants to mean—does the house break in half?) and moves the action forward with the characters making their getaway.

The rest of the sentence is less unbalanced, but there’s Angel and the woman taking their places, then dribbling off into the action of the gearshift. Break that one up, too. The shift into drive becomes the rapid, furious action it needs to be, and off we go on the chase through the city.

Punching up the prose will help quite a bit with the overall emotional temperature of the story. More tension, more suspense; more escalating fear and eldritch horror. More contrast between the monstrous and the mundane, the creature from the darkest depths and the pizza guy who just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time.

Clarifying who Angel is should make him a more memorable character, and maybe more humorous as well. Hallie might come across as more badass, less a damsel in distress than a woman who just happened to get caught in a situation she couldn’t get of. Their dialogue could be snappier, their exchanges sharper; they might strike sparks off each other, in the way of the old screwball comedies. Even if they end up playing it straight, a little more friction, a little more contrast between their personalities and their views of the world, would give the story a bit more oomph, and make the horror just a little more horrible.

One last note: a particular attempt at humor might not work as well as it would have in a different era. Fat jokes have done the way of ethnic jokes. Angel’s boss is a nightmare and so is his restaurant, but I don’t think his BMI needs to be a factor.

Best of luck with the story!

— Judith Tarr

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