The Writer’s Arena chugged its way into 2016 with a pair of stories about trains. These mechanical leviathans rumble through our lives, making modern society possible. The very ground quakes as they pass by, a demonstration of human ingenuity and raw power. It’s no wonder that trains have become a mainstay in stories. From the old west to the modern subway and bullet trains, they have been in our media since their inception.
Let’s take a look at our two stories.
Joseph Devon gets frosty in “Christmas Haul.”
Frederick Doot takes goes underground in “Last Stop.”
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our first judge this week. On top of being the current TWA Champion, 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 http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).
And so the glorious insanity begins again!
What a great choice for the first prompt of 2016. Trains always bear with them a sense of adventure. The tracks leading to the distant horizon. The mystery and intrigue of the Orient Express. The thrilling years of America’s western expansion. There’s the Hollywood trope of the train entering a tunnel. And let’s not forget the time-traveling train of Back to the Future III. To quote Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, train whistles are one of the three most exciting sounds in the world.
Yet the train is not an unambiguous symbol. From the legendary John Henry to the all-too real Chinese laborers who perished constructing the intercontinental railway through land stolen from Native Americans, the adventure trains take us to always come with a price. Trains imply drama with their very existence.
As is my custom, I’m going to comment briefly on the two stories before casting my vote. With trains as a prompt, we’re in for a thrilling ride.
“Last Stop” by Frederick Doot – I need to be up front here. A second-person story is a real tough sell for me. Instead of forcing an intimacy, I find that, for me, most second-person stories make me more aware of technique and less immersed in the story. For instance, I spent most of my time reading Day 1 not considering the narrator’s life, but thinking about how my personal experiences differ from those of the “you” of the story. I don’t ride a subway to work. I don’t experience people as scurrying vermin. I wonder if third person may have worked better for me.
That said, there is a lot I like about this story. It is very clean, with few if any wasted words. The gradual unraveling of the main character’s banal antechamber to the afterlife is handled very well. It’s as if it takes those three days for the supernatural reality of the main character’s death to make it into the character’s awareness. I like the symbolism of the briefcase, and I absolutely love the two men in suits (perhaps played by RicardoMontalban and Roddy McDowell?).
My biggest difficulty with the story, unfortunately, is that I feel like I’ve seen it before. An episode of The Twilight Zone, perhaps, or even a Lights Out radio drama. Technically, the narrative is handled with the greatest of finesse. But I was hoping for something more.
“Christmas Haul” by Joseph Devon – This story surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have done. Perhaps my expectations reading Joseph Devon’s stories are colored by the tales he’s put up against mine. But this one was unexpected to me.
It is a rough story in spots. I wish a few things were clearer, especially where the Point A and Point B are for the train. Perhaps the toy workshops are at the South Pole and the “valley” is an interdimensional gateway to the North Pole? Without knowing the goal of the journey, it took me longer that it perhaps should have to buy in to the story. Is the train powered by the same coal Santa puts in the stockings of naughty children? I wish more of the mythology (if that’s the right word) had been better fleshed out.
For me, the story didn’t have the polish of others of Mr. Devon’s stories. And I’m nearly certain that “ephemeral” is not the word he wants where he uses it.
But in spite of my difficulties, the story is still loads of fun. I realized on my second reading that what we in fact have in front of us is an old-fashioned Western, but with surprising new actors. Toys instead of the company payroll and money for the orphanage. Elves with steampunk guns instead of Wells Fargo agents. Monsters playing the role of the movie Indians, and Santa himself riding in as the cavalry to save the day.
I’m not sure it should work, but for me it did.
So I find myself in a not unusual Arena dilemma. I have to choose between a story I find technically superior and one that, in spite of its flaws, tells what for me was a more engaging tale. This week I have to vote for:
“Christmas Haul” by Joseph Devon.
Welcome back to the Arena, dear readers, and to battle “Trains”. This seems like the perfect prompt to get us back on track for the new year. Let’s see how our competitors handled it:
“Last Stop” by Frederick Doot – Great start. Labelling it “Day 1” gives us a heads up. It’s day 1 since something. There has been a change of some kind significant enough to reset our day count. This is reinforced by the statement that “The world is off”.
Going from that to the description of the seemingly ordinary subway car helps keep us off balance. Aside from a few easily dismissed details: a briefcase, old men in black and white suits, nothing seems out of place. At least on the first read through.
Day 2 comes and goes with more ordinary descriptions and a few more odd details. The men in the black and white suits are back as is the briefcase. Added to those we get the cracked screen, the email about a cancelled meeting, the “disturbing news”, and the more pronounced lack of interactions.
Day 3 comes and seems to be just another Friday..until we are alone on the subway with our friends in contrasting suits and the briefcase. Time to face the music as it were and carry our weight.
I love the mythology of this story. It felt complete and well-rounded in just the little glimpses we get. I found myself wondering about certain aspects and imagining the way it worked. I think the briefcase becomes a purse or a backpack depending on who dies or how they died. Not sure why I feel that way, I just do.
The second person present tense is handled well and really helps to bring the story home. The reference to M. Night Shyamalan was a nice little nod to a possible inspiration for this story.
This was a nice solid story and a good entry to the arena. There were only 2 things I could find fault with. 1. The prompt served as background/setting only. This could all happen anywhere else in the world. 2. This seems like a story I have heard before. Part of that is because the quality of the writing makes it seem very polished, but it also reminds me of a few other stories.
“Christmas Haul” by Joseph Devon – I’ll admit, it took me a while to get into this story. When I did though, I really got into it.
All the prep work before the valley was a great way to build tension and develop the magnitude of the evil they are facing. It must truly be the valley of death if they are spending this much time getting ready for it. It also allows for the character’s of Ruttiger, Edgar, and Figgy to get fleshed out a little and set up a few relationships.
When they actually enter the valley it does not disappoint. The dark things that attack the train are straight out of a nightmare. The ferocity and numbers that they possess make the fear that much more palpable.
My favorite thing about this story is the way that every time they kill one of the bad things, they experience a feeling associated with naughty children. I love the contrast between giant spider-legs monsters and pulling someone’s pigtails or cheating on a spelling test.
The action here is done very well, with the skillful elves almost becoming overwhelmed by the waves of evil until a hero shows up. And who is our hero? Why none other than Swordsman Santa himself!
I loved so much about this story. Expanding the idea that good children get presents and naughty ones do not into a full on struggle for life and death is incredibly creative. The execution could have been clumsy but the time spent on building the world inside the train makes it anything but. The prompt is the center and the focus of the story and I appreciate that.
The only thing that I could take issue with here is that it does take a little while to really get going. That’s the toughest thing, that time spent building enriches the story but simultaneously slows down the narrative. I honestly don’t know if you could resolve the two any better than is done here.
Two authors engineered a tale of trains this week. Both were fascinating and entertaining. As is the custom and the demands of the Arena though, there must be a winner. This week, my vote goes to the story that embraced the prompt more. That story is “Christmas Haul” by Joseph Devon
Both judges are in agreement! This first Arena battle of 2016 goes to Joseph Devon! Congrats Joe!
Let’s see if our fans agree.
It’s a close match, but it looks like our readers gave this match to Frederick Doot! Take heart Mr. Doot, you may have lost the decision but you put up a great fight and the people have your back.
Thank you all for participating in the first round of what promises to be an amazing year. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter and to come back next week for the return of Albert Berg!