Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

The Love Of A Mother by Daniel A. J.

One ability all short story writers need is to tell a story in a small number of words. “The Love of a Mother” achieves a lot in 279 words. We get a sense of the setting, descriptions of six characters, an understanding of the situation, and we see the main character make a major decision. That’s a lot. The piece has some vivid sensory details and raises questions in readers’ mind regarding the characters’ situation and what they are urging the mother to do, and those questions create suspense and engagement.

One area I think could be strengthened is the point of view. The POV is unclear to me now, which leaves me unable to settle into the story and experience it from a specific perspective. The first sentence, with the phrase “His mother,” implies that I’m in “his” point of view, which means the POV of the dead boy. I don’t think that’s what’s intended because the rest of the story is not from the dead boy’s POV. The second sentence shifts to calling the mother “her,” making me feel I’m in her third person limited omniscient POV. In the second paragraph, “Tears squeezed past her eyelids, flowed down her dirty, grunge-caked cheeks” shows me things the mother can’t see, so now I think I’m in a third person omniscient POV, hearing from the omniscient narrator. In the fourth paragraph, “Each breath she took filled her exhausted lungs with the warm, shit-and-piss-soaked air” puts me back in her body with her. After that, I think we stay in the mother’s POV until the last paragraph, when the “Dark blood ran down her chin and neck, vanishing into the cleft between her breasts.” That puts me outside of her, in an omniscient viewpoint looking at her. The story seems to end in that omniscient perspective, describing her “hysterical state of satisfaction and guilt,” which seems the way a rather dispassionate observer would describe it, not the way she would experience it. Staying in one consistent viewpoint throughout would allow us to experience the story more strongly, without being jarred or confused by POV shifts. And the story could be presented in a more unified way, from a striking, involving perspective speaking in a strong voice.

The voice right now feels inconsistent. Some word choices feel sophisticated and a bit old fashioned, like miniscule, bosom, and moribund. Other words feel somewhat crude and more contemporary, like grunge-caked, shit-and-piss-soaked, and deadbeat. This leaves me without a clear sense of the voice or the world in which these characters exist.

The other element I’d like to discuss is characterization. It’s not clear why the man and the woman are urging the mother to eat her child. If they are all starving, which is how I interpret the story, then the others should be eager to grab the dead child and eat it. I think they’d actually discourage the mother from eating the child and offer to bury the boy or take him to reduce her temptation. If they’re in some situation in which the mother, for some reason, needs to eat her son to avoid being killed by some unseen jailers, and the others want her to survive for some reason, I think that needs to be clarified.

I think the characterization could also be strengthened with some research. I believe the characters in the story are suffering from starvation. If so, their condition and situation could be described incorporating some realistic details. Research can strengthen most fiction, no matter the genre, since it can provide fascinating details the author would most likely never think of. I’m no expert on starvation, but I believe that people who are deep into starvation—deep enough that they’d become cannibals—would have swollen bellies, not sunken ones. And I think they would not be strong enough to growl or bellow, and the mother would not be able to hold her son up by the ankle.

I think a more consistent point of view and some stronger characterizations could help maximize the impact of this piece. I hope my comments are helpful. I appreciate all that this story did in such a few words.

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

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