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.
Oscar and Lemuel by Elizabeth Porco
One of the greatest challenges of the short story is that it is short. You have a limited number of words to convey everything necessary for the ending to cause a powerful impact on readers. The shorter the story is, the greater the challenge is.
How can writers meet such a challenge? There are many strategies, but no matter which one you use, your words are limited, so you need to make the most of every word. That means every word, every sentence should serve more than one purpose. It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. And maybe hopping on one foot too.
“Oscar and Lemuel” succeeds in doing a lot in 1168 words. We see that Oscar is wealthy, concerned about getting to heaven when he dies, and harsh when he sees behavior he considers improper. He seems to hold himself to certain standards, and that leads him to be intolerant of others who don’t uphold the standards he thinks they should. This leads to the climax in which his fear of dying and not going to heaven comes to pass, and the harsh judgements he’s been making on others are now about to be made on him—at least, that’s how I read the end.
That’s a pretty unified story, in which the elements conveyed are all important to setting up the ending. But could each word and sentence do more to strengthen the impact of the ending?
For me, the opening, with Oscar making a donation to Father Edward, introduces a number of elements that don’t seem to contribute to the story’s impact. The donation is meant to fund an organ for the church, and Father Edward mentions a particular organ company, and Oscar questions whether this is the best company and suggests European companies, and they discuss an organ at a particular cathedral. This section launches many elements that don’t appear again in the story. It is 189 words long, but I don’t think it provides 189 words’ worth of impact at the end.
What seems important in this section is that Oscar is donating to the church and hoping it will guarantee his spot in heaven. For me, the details about the organ and the organ companies don’t seem to contribute anything. I wonder if they could be replaced with other details that might do more. For example, perhaps the donation is intended to fund a new horse and carriage for Father Edward. Oscar might give enough for two very fine horses and a fancy carriage. This would show his desire to guarantee his spot in heaven, the same as the organ donation, but I think it could tie to the ending more strongly. At the end, Oscar is told to get into a carriage pulled by two horses. Repeating the image of a carriage at the beginning and the end could create resonance and increase the impact. (One way to create resonance is to repeat an element, showing it from different angles and perspectives, so we compare the various appearances with each other.) The carriage might be the very one Oscar suggests to Father Edward, or might have features Oscar imagined would be on Father Edward’s carriage. So the vehicle he expected would carry him to heaven is actually carrying him to hell, or something like hell. This would fit with the reversal of other elements at the ending.
While the organ gets too many words, I think the horse doesn’t get enough words. Resonance might also be increased by starting the story with Oscar tying his horse Lemuel at a distance from Father Edward’s rose bushes. At the end, perhaps Lemuel has rose petals falling out of his mouth as he chews them.
I’ll briefly talk about a few other elements I think could be strengthened. Oscar’s character could use a little more depth. I’d love some hints about why Oscar is making this donation now. Is it just one of many donations he’s made over most of his life? Or did he do something (with Merriam?) that he now wants to make amends for? Or does he feel his health failing?
It could also increase the impact of the ending if we know Oscar’s expectations of hell. As is, the story establishes those at the end, when it’s too late. I think he must fear hell, since he’s trying to avoid it. If we know what he fears hell will be, and then we see what it actually is, that will help us to feel Oscar’s reaction more powerfully and our own reactions will be sharper.
I don’t quite understand why Lemuel says that final line. It opens a lot of vague possibilities in my mind, rather than providing a punchy impact. Maybe I’m missing something.
On a very minor point, I would think any stable would have some horse blankets.
I hope my comments are helpful. I enjoyed following Oscar’s story.
–Jeanne Cavelos, Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust