Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Ratbag by Pierce Skinner

Two important ingredients of most successful horror stories (and many other kinds of stories) are anticipation and escalation.  If your story creates anticipation, that means readers are expecting, predicting, hoping or dreading some possible upcoming event.  Anticipation can be created in several ways; in the case of “Ratbag,” details and events suggest future possible events, which creates strong anticipation.  The three characters are introduced with a baseball bat, shovel, and ball peen hammer, among other things.  When “David knocks the hammer against the rock,” it’s chilling, and I know that these items are going to be used for something bad.  I’m anticipating with dread that some animals are going to be hurt.  Indeed, the rats in the bag are killed, but when the boys look into the bag, the rats are inexplicably unhurt.  At this point, my anticipation changes.  I’m now anticipating with excitement that the rats will get their revenge against the boys.  The boys, after trying many times to kill the rats, are ultimately lost, unable to return to their lives.

As the boys try again and again to kill the rats, the anticipation remains pretty much the same, but the methods of the boys grow more and more horrific, creating escalation.  A story can escalate in several ways.  “Ratbag” escalates primarily through intensifying the brutality of the boys.  That increases our horror and our desire to see the boys stopped.

While these two elements work well in “Ratbag” and keep me reading with a strong mix of both excitement (that the boys will be stopped) and horror (that the boys are getting worse and worse), I think there are other aspects of the story that could be strengthened.

It’s clear that the boys have killed rats before, so I don’t know why the rats on this day keep coming back to life.  And I don’t know why the boys are ultimately lost.  A story is generally stronger if it follows a causal chain, a chain of cause-and-effect relationships that link the events that make up the plot.  With a strong causal chain, every event has a cause and every event has an effect (a consequence).  And if a character changes over the course of the story, those changes also have causes and consequences.  In “Ratbag,” I don’t think we need an explicit cause for the rats’ survival (like a witch giving the rats superpowers), since that would involve introducing significant new elements to the story, but I think a cause can be suggested using the elements already in the story, which would give us a better sense of why the situation on this day is different than previous days.  I was quite intrigued by the humane rat traps built by Tugs’s father while high on illegal drugs.  Tugs says he “had to figure out these new traps,” and it wasn’t easy.  The new traps are something that’s different on this day, though on their own they aren’t enough to suggest a reason the rats are continually restored to their uninjured state.  If, in addition to that, something weird/unusual happened with Tugs’s father while he was making these traps, that might suggest the traps caught unusual rats.  For example, maybe Tugs’s father died while working on the traps, or was on some different drugs that may have killed him or caused a psychotic break or led him to rant about something that seems like it could tie into the rats or into punishment for wrongdoers.  Just a couple details could be sufficient.

The ending, in which “The boys are running in the dark but these are not the same woods they entered. They cannot find their way,” also seems lacking in cause.  The fantastic in the story has been limited to the rats until very near the end, when the landscape changes, and the reason for that is not clear.  This not only creates a weakness in the causal chain but also a lack of unity in the story, since new fantastic elements are revealed at the end that don’t seem tied to the rats.  The rats didn’t come from the woods.  I think the story would be more unified if either the connection between the rats and the landscape was made clear very early in the story, or if the rats remain the only fantastic element in the story.

The story seems to show the rats driving the boys to degenerate or devolve into an ever  more violent and vicious state as the story approaches the end, so an ending in which this reaches its full realization would give the story a strong causal chain and make it unified.

One stylistic element that distracted me was the number of sentences structured with a compound predicate and multiple coordinating conjunctions (and, in particular).  I’ll give a couple examples:

–David bounces on his heels and drops the hammer and pops open the soda.

–Tugs sighs and wipes sweat from his upper lip with his forearm and shrugs off the backpack and unzips it and pulls out a dirty glass stem and a ziploc bag of what might be drywall or rock salt but is neither.

–Tugs takes a rock from the ziploc bag and drops it into the end of the glass stem and thumbs it into place.

There are many sentences like this, and they draw attention to themselves (and away from the story) because this isn’t the usual way a compound predicate is written. Usually, there’s just a comma between the list in the predicate, and only one “and,” before the last item of the list.  For example,

–David bounces on his heels, drops the hammer, and pops open the soda.

While using “and” multiple times can make a sentence stand out, and that can be a way to draw attention to something, using it multiple times means the sentences don’t really stand out but instead distract.  My suggestion would be to rephrase most of these.

One other element I want to mention is David’s dialogue.  He seems to be from an upper-class family, yet near the beginning, it’s established that he tries to speak like his friends, who are from lower-class backgrounds.  Shortly after that, though, his dialogue changes to sound upper class.  That inconsistency weakens David’s character. Keeping his dialogue more consistent would make him more believable.

I felt some good anticipation and horror while reading the story, and definitely wanted to keep 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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