Much like the specters of our stories, Monday haunts us all. Today is especially taxing for our US friends, as they line up pleading with the government for their returns. Let’s have a moment of silence for all the accountants who couldn’t be here for our literary death match.
Haunted Houses have been a hotbed for horror for ages. The idea that a home could be infested with malicious spirits has terrified humankind as long as we’ve been building homes. We tasked our authors to bring us such a haunting, and to try to make it theirs.
Tony Southcotte took a snow day with “The Complex.”
Kevin Veldman bought the wrong house with “House Rules.”
It’s time to crown a winner. Let’s see what our judges have to say.
I’m sure we’ve all felt like there was someone else in the room even when we knew we were alone. Seen a flash of movement out of the corner of our eye? Footsteps in an empty hallway? Maybe things are just never exactly where you left them? Could it be…ghosts? Haunted houses have a long and rich history through books and film. This week the Arena asked for two more stories on the topic. What sort of mischief did our authors get up to? Let’s take a look.
“House Rules” by Kevin Veldman – Young single woman buys a older, larger mansion for significantly less than it should be worth…what could go wrong there?
This story does a good job working with the fact that we all know going into it that there is going to be a haunted house. We’re not going to be surprised when the ghosts or spirits start showing up so the author here embraces that fact. Hints about previous owners and potential owners that dropped out or disappeared. The disclosure that it is rumored to be haunted and used to house a coven of witches. We know that all of some of that is true and get to watch as our main character, Zoe, ignores all of the warning signs and plunges right into home ownership.
I like how the haunting slowly builds: bad dreams, seeing things in reflections, unexpected additions to handwritten lists…it all works well to heighten the tension of the story so that when the communications escalate to the next level, Zoe is already primed to break.
I enjoyed Officer Knox as a character. He struck me as a real small town cop (which I have known a few of) and a true god-fearing man. I think the possession was well written, I like how Zoe’s disbelief is even able to ignore that and chalk it up to a bad joke even after everything else that has gone on. It’s a nice little clue to how she will respond later.
Speaking of which, the climax of this story was different than I was expecting. The ongoing battle between Henry and the witches was a nice touch. I also liked how Zoe turned her disbelief into anger and then used that anger to defeat the witches and destroy the house. I’m not sure we needed the little scene with Henry at the end but it worked well enough.
The part of the story I’m not sure worked as well is the pacing. The entire story has an almost conversational tone to it. It really comes across as a story you would tell around a campfire or to your friends at school. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, it makes it feel more real, but in this case it seems like we rushed through the boring parts to get to the good stuff. I could have gone for a bit more build up, more backstory to Zoe, before the big fight scene. The only reason I was on Zoe’s side was that she owned the house. I didn’t know enough about anyone to really care for them.
“The Complex” by Tony Southcotte – SNOW DAY!!!! As a fellow cold weather locale inhabitant, I can attest to the truth of this part of the story. It was a nice touch and an easy entry to the story.
I loved the description of the “spirits” in this story: coal black eyes and skin whiter than the snow paints a vivid and pretty creepy picture in my head. Add in the running on the top of the snow business and I would probably freak out.
I liked the way that her troubled home life keeps Anna from sharing what she saw with anyone beyond her friend Danny. When Danny confirms their existence and warns her not to talk about them, you know it will be Anna’s secret forever.
“We’ll never set you free” is right up there as one of the worst things you can hear an otherworldly being say. It implies that you are already under their control and it removes hope for the future in 5 (or 6) little words.
One of my favorite parts of this story is the passage of time. Many haunted house stories are a one time thing, this one unfolds over the months and years. After each encounter she is shaken less and less. We get to see the relationship between Anna and the spirits change and mature. Anna slowly starts to tolerate the spirits, ultimately refusing to even acknowledge them, and by doing so achieves a sort of control over them. At least until the tall man returns.
The ending of this story is beautifully written. The idea that the apartment complex has a spirit too and that it never quite reached it’s full potential was great. The way that Anna’s mother still held sway over the girl even after she passed into the other world and that she continued to be haunted by the other spirits was heart-breaking. Through a good portion of the story I thought the spirits may be there to help Anna with her mother. They wouldn’t set her free but they would help her live. Sadly, that was not the case at all. There is no good way to interpret the end of this story.
The parts of the story I missed was backstory. I wanted to know more about Anna’s mother more about the spirit children. Not everything, of course, the mystery was nice but I could have used even a child’s ghost story about them or something. The fact that Danny knows about them could have led to a “they say” story or for him to disappear first. I just wanted a few hints at least.
Two very strong stories this week in the Arena and two stories that approached the prompt from a unique angle. They each have their strengths and their weaknesses. I would tell you that I had a hard time deciding this week but if you’ve been around the Arena for any amount of time you know that easy weeks are few and very far between here. In the end, I had to go with the story that stuck with me more. That story is “The Complex” by Tony Southcotte.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our second 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).
We live in a haunted world. Every moment of our past haunts our present. The haunted house is an emblem of such a world, where the past forces itself upon the present in an often violent way. How did our two combatants this week handle this trope? Let’s find out!
You know the drill: A few comments on the two stories before moving on to my vote.
“House Rules” by Kevin Veldman – This story opens with a number of the classic motifs of our trope: the house of ill-repute sold to a new homeowner, the unsettling moments settling in, the strange writing on the wall, or here, on the ceiling. The house turns out to be a matrix of dark power.
Yet Zoe decides that she’s not going to play by the rules of the trope. She’s unsure about the house blessing. She doesn’t trust the spirit that supposedly is in her corner. She becomes an agent of her own destiny by the end, not wanting to be used by anyone.
There’s a lot of trope-busting fun here, though I think the ending feels a bit rushed. I wonder too if there would be a way Zoe’s story could have more import for me as a reader. A fun read, but I’m not sure what the takeaway is…
“The Complex” by Tony Southcotte – From a story that plays with the trope and smashes it, we move to a story of remarkable subtlety. I think the title of this one is perfectly apt: this is a complex tale. The textures of Anna’s world feel so very real to me. There is an iceberg of submerged history here, both in regards to the haunted apartment complex and in regards to the relationship between Anna and her mother.
To me it seems that Anna is more at home at the end of the story than she was at the beginning, and I think it’s that realization that gives this story so much of its power. I wish that perhaps a little bit more of what’s going on was revealed, especially at the end. But the psychology of this tale seems spot-on to me.
What does it say about a child’s life that she’d rather be a ghost than a little girl living with her mother? Chilling.
Both very different takes on the haunted house this week. I enjoyed both stories, though I think that both endings need a little more work. As usual, in the final analysis I’m going to cast my vote for the story that had the greatest emotional impact on me. And this week, that story was
“The Complex” by Tony Southcotte.
There you have it folks! Tony Southcotte is the winner of TWA 71. Let’s see if our audience agrees.
It’s a close one but the third vote goes to Tony as well. Kevin put together an awesome story and I’m sure we’ll see him back in the arena soon. In the meantime, check out the newest episode of his podcast!
Now here’s a battle none of you expected. Next week Danny Brophy will be taking on Albert Berg. We had someone drop out at the last minute and instead of just giving the win to Danny, Al came up with his own story. The stories will be up tomorrow! Don’t miss it.