TWA #15 – Cult Classic – JUDGEMENT!

15-judgeCharisma, control, and cults. They all come together in this week’s stories.

Arena denizen Albert Berg ripped into this prompt from your perspective, offering a rare second person story. Will your faith be enough to net him the victory?

Making his first appearance in the arena is Nicholas Alti. You might think twice about wine with dinner after this one.

Let’s get to the judges’ decision.

Rich Alix is our first judge. He is a patron of The Human Echoes Podcast, and an all-around awesome guy. He is the voice of the common man in this contest, and here is his judgment:

This was an imaginative prompt for the arena this week, what happens when a cult leader is actually telling the truth. Well, let’s see:


“The Elixir” by Nicholas Alti – I liked the idea behind this story. Everlasting youth is always a powerful temptation.


The “family” was well written, they came across as ultra-religious, reclusive, textbook cultists. I liked the build-up with Joey’s coming of age party. Little details like the “battle-tested kitchen knife” gave us hints of what lay beneath this family.


Joey’s complete innocence and naivety was done well, maybe a little over the top, but that didn’t seem out of place with the extreme isolation that he has experienced. His interaction with the police is my favorite part of the story. Even if the officers seemed a little one-dimensional.


The police raid seemed very much like I would imagine, although I would have expected 100 year old people who have figured out the key to immortality would have a better contingency plan than murder/suicide.


There were a couple parts of the story that seemed off, seemed like little more than conveniences for plot advancement; the one in thirty speech after dinner was an info dump plain and simple. The story after the raid was odd as well. Patrolmen doing that much investigation or having access to that much information so soon after the incident didn’t seem very realistic.


All in all, this was an entertaining story that embraced the prompt enthusiastically and completely. There were just a few minor things holding it back.


“Faith Detector” by Albert Berg – Second person present tense. Congratulations, Mr Berg.


I didn’t go back and verify this, but this has got to be one of the shorter entries to the arena. Shorter doesn’t mean lesser though, especially not this time.


I really liked the way this story starts off. Fantastic first line, “You are waiting to die under a broken sky…” Powerful. And the internal struggle with “heretical thinking” is fantastic.


The story does a good job of developing a rich world with minimal exposition. The lottery, the prophet’s backstory, the broken sky? We don’t know much about these things and we don’t need to.


The built in countdown of the line as we inch closer to the machine coupled with the descriptions of what happens to the heretics in the faith detector build so much delicious tension it really draws the reader in and makes them invested in the story.


I love how the sense of complete and utter helplessness is conveyed with very few details. Our protagonist has no way to escape his fate and we don’t question this at all.  “The impossible thing that hangs there like a cancer among the clouds” would not tolerate escape from anyone.


I wasn’t sure at first if this story really fit the prompt, it wasn’t what I was expecting. After re-reading I came to the realization that this is kind of like the Church of Scientology and if that doesn’t fit the “cult” idea then nothing does.


This week was a tough one. The story I thought I was going to vote for after the first read is not the one I ultimately chose. While they are both strong stories, one just seemed more inspired, more complete and held up just a little better to rereading. My vote goes to: “Faith Detector” by Albert Berg


Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our second judge this week. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).


How does the Arena do it? Another pair of great stories, this week from the land of the cults. I’m starting to feel like Kageyama Tamio, a judge on the original Iron Chef. I get invited to sit at a delightful banquet of gourmet short fiction and the only payment I need to render is an opinion. Best seat in the Arena.


I’m going to make a few comments on both stories before moving on to my general remarks.


“The Elixir” — As Stevensville is in Berrien County, birthplace of Seventh Day Adventism, I expected great things from Mr. Alti’s story. It did not disappoint. The concept is excellent and hits a number of excellent cultish notes: the small community closed off from the outside world, the hints of polygamy and/or incest, the dark, secret rituals at the core of it all. The best sections have strong echoes of M. Night Shamalan’s The Village, which I like. And I love the temporal twist at the end.


My major issue with the story is that there seems to be almost too much. Some of the information from the cops’ point of view, especially at the end, approaches the level of infodump. I think the story might be stronger if it started with the cops’ discovery of Joey in the playground and we view Joey’s world through a much tighter focus. The end gets away from Joey’s POV, and that I think weakens the story. I absolutely love the story world, but I think focusing on Joey even more would give it more impact as a short story. (Or it needs to be extended into a novel.)


“Faith Detector” — Second person point of view is hard. Fun to try as a writing experiment, but really difficult to pull off without sounding like a Choose Your Own Adventure book rip-off. I’ve never gotten it to feel natural any time I’ve tried it. So my suspicions are raised any time I see a second-person story. But it works here. It works really well, feeling like the horror equivalent of an over-the-shoulder shooter.


I love that we’re immersed in the world. We’re left to figure it out as best as we can from an insider’s perspective. I even like that not everything is explained. The mysteries that remain about certain particulars add to the effect of the story. The only small quibble I have with the story is I’m not sure how well it meets the twist requirement of the prompt. I think it does in the end, but not as clearly as the other story.


Two very different stories, but in the end, only one cuisine can reign surpre–, err, in the end I can only vote for one. I have to go for the story that had the greater emotional impact on me, and for me this week, the story was: “Faith Detector” by Albert Berg


There you have it folks, a unanimous decision from our judges. Congratulations Albert Berg! You are the winner of TWA 15!

Let’s see how the voting turned out:

[poll id=”11″]

The voting this week was razor thin, and the readers gave it to Nicholas Alti. This isn’t the first time the readers have disagreed with the judges, and it surely wont be the last. Thanks for participating Nicholas, you gave a hell of a fight.

Next week, the competition gets a little claustrophobic at home. It’s all about Agoraphobia. Be sure to subscribe and check it out.


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  1. A big thank you for this opportunity for the folks at The Writers Arena. I haven’t had such fun with creativity in a while, and I’ll recommend this website to everyone I can. Also, thank you to the judges for the time and consideration as well as the helpful criticism. And to the readers, where would any of us writers be without you:? Thank you guys for the vote, you gave me such a high degree of inspiration and advice. This is a huge step for me in my budding writing career.

    I’ve already scribbled down all of the advice that I could muster from this experience, and I hope to return again in the future and put up another good fight.

  2. I have a facebook profile and tend to post some of my writing related things there. Thank you for your interest.

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