We are bounding toward the New Year and The Writer’s Arena Tournament is edging to a dramatic conclusion. Five authors have been eliminated so far, and another one is going home tonight. Who will stand once our judges have rendered their decision?
The subject matter was fascinating, and for some of you, familiar. Imaginary friends are a common enough occurrence, but in the arena it became something so much more. We were given a healthy helping of smoke and blood, so be sure to read both stories before the judgement.
Tony Southcotte went psychological in “The Shadow’s Void.”
David Webb harkened back to childhood for “The Serpent’s Tooth.”
Our first judge is an amazing A/V editor, archivist, campaign runner, and all around thoughtful badass. His name is Jon Jones and you should definitely follow him on twitter.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I agreed to serve as judge for this most auspicious semi-final round. While I absolutely loved both stories – reading and re-reading them numerous times, I now regret having to select a winner for this week. As far as I am concerned, both writers wrote winning entries, and all of the readers win by-proxy simply by being afforded the opportunity to enjoy them.
But hey….that’s to how this works, is it. So…let’s begin.
“The Shadow’s Void” by Tony Southcotte
Mix two parts “Unbreakable”, one part “American Psycho”, one part “Ghost”, add hot sauce to taste, shake vigorously, chill and enjoy.
At the heart of “The Shadow’s Void” we find a simple, yet timeless tale; main character generally fails at life, but is unexpectedly confronted with an opportunity for heroism and rises to the occasion. Despite this path having been trod countless times in every form of storytelling, Mr. Southcotte has made this story especially gratifying with added elements of psychosis, a dark yet meticulously restrained (yet no less unsettling) violence, and a persistent infusion of the supernatural.
This story was quite ambitious for a piece of short fiction, but for the most part it was very efficient in its narrative. The main character, Barlow is expertly fleshed out as his daily routine is anchored by reminders of a combination of unfortunate circumstances and questionable life choices. He is beset by spirits and distracted by voices, but whether this stems from an accursed supernatural ‘gift’ or the remnants of recreational hallucinogenic exploits of his youth is left to speculation. We learn he has studied the art of the cold read, but also benefits from semi-manifest familiars, or possibly schizophrenic projections, allowing him to peer into darker recesses of the minds of his subjects. In either case, he has become especially equipped to exploit the vulnerabilities of the unwary, yet he struggles with the moral complexities of doing so. I love this about him.
What I struggled with, however, was most of the opening scene. I mostly loved how it was written. The description of the setting was perfect, and the interaction between Barlow and the client felt completely real. But the scene itself felt unnecessary overall, and I was distracted by the argument between Anima and the old sage. The aspects of Barlow’s conscience that come out of that scene are important to the character, but the scene itself felt too cluttered and left me a bit confused.
The story overall was well paced, though clearly restrained. It hinted at numerous rabbit holes that it wisely resisted the urge to explore. Although I really wanted to learn more about the “Patrick Batemanesque” Theo or the backstories of each of Barlow’s familiars, such an indulgence simply is not to be entertained in a short story format. These characters beg to be further fleshed out in a larger story arc as a mini-series with Barlow as the mysterious, morally ambiguous hero and Theo as the equally mysterious and insidious arch nemesis.
The only other complaint I have about “The Shadow’s Void” is that I didn’t feel emotionally invested in the characters. Some extra breathing room beyond a short story would probably help in this area for Theo, Maddie, and even the familiars, but I hoped for more pull for Barlow. While we learn so much about his life, his sense of personal failings and moral dilemmas, these aspects do not adequately find counterpoint in the escalation that comes later in the story. The hesitancy in the driveway is not really his own, and his response feels too decisive without a sense of sacrifice or mental conflict. Granted, he almost loses his life to save another, but in a personal way it is unclear whether he’s grown or changed through the experience.
I still love this story. It incorporated some familiar elements in what felt like a novel way. The character interactions felt natural and real, and the pacing was very good, especially from the point in which Barlow came face to face with his would-be nemesis. If the psychic adventures of Barlow the Magnificent was to be extrapolated into a larger series I would consume it without hesitation.
“The Serpent’s Tooth” by David Webb
“Let me tell you about the time I almost died.” says the voice of Denzel Washington, at the beginning of “Fallen”, and I find myself reminded of that film at several points while reading Mr. Webb’s very deliciously charming entry into the Arena this week.
Charming…..but oh so complex, just like little Charlie.
And just to get this out of the way, I must add that in terms of style, perspective, and content flow, “The Serpents Tooth” has, for me been the most unexpected entry to this Arena thus far.
This story worked for me in several ways, but after a few readings and re-readings my favorite way is simply “as is”. Over the course of the story I found my mind musing on both Charlie and the narrator (Smoke), partially at first to dig up a hidden angle or to second-guess the perspective. Is Smoke just a transitional imaginary friend? Is Smoke an imaginary friend to which Charlie has ascribed complex motivations? Is Smoke a coping mechanism of a young child’s personality disorder, or a projection of a borderline cognitively intrusive neuropathy? Is Smoke the conceptual framework through which an older Charlie is articulating memories of his youth? Is Smoke a demon, or otherwise incorporeal entity seeking form and agency? My gut says probably closest to the latter, as supported largely by the lovingly rendered prose through which the narrator fully realized the world that young Charlie lives in.
Describing Charlie’s unfettered joy in discovery of the world around him at the beginning of the story – ” All the simple things – like grass, and rivers, and rocks, and sunlight – are awesome to be around.” – seems clearly to be a reflection also of “Smoke’s” desire and delight to simply just exist. It was through this sense of perpetual observation that I found myself fully immersed in the 1970s childhood experiences of young Charlie. I could fully envision his home, his neighborhood, his classroom and school yard, and each of the scenarios, some of which at first pass might have seemed almost innocuous through the eyes of a young boy or his classmates, but bely a more profound underpinning in the machinations of a questionably motivated otherworld entity. While I learned so much about Charlie and his world through what the narrator shared, I also learned so much about the narrator through HOW it was written. That is what made this story all the more delightful. Not just to read the first time, but to re-read the second and third times. While this tory may be ABOUT the slowly dissolving Christopher Robin-esque innocence of young Charlie, the story IS the mind of Smoke. And I loved being in that mind, seeing the world through those eyes.
Now I suppose I need to cast my vote. I confess this round has truly proved most challenging. I loved both stories dearly, but for very different reasons. Each story demonstrated a maturity and expertise in storytelling for which the writers should be applauded. Each writer pulled out their A-game for this round and their love for the craft is clearly evident. In judgement I award points for originality, pacing, language, and style. To the very end the volley was neck-and-neck, coming down to the deciding factor in the story that carried the most emotional impact for me. This week, my vote goes to: “The Serpent’s Tooth” by David Webb
Some of us may have had one, any parent has dealt with them, and they have been fiction fodder for a long time. Imaginary friends are full of potential but can be as hard to handle as they are to see. Let’s find out how imaginative our authors were this week:
“The Serpent’s Tooth” by David Webb – I will readily admit that I wasn’t sure about the voice used in this story at first. The casual, conversational tone seemed a bit off, but as I continued the reading I saw what Mr Webb was doing and it all clicked into place. By starting off without a “fourth wall” and having our narrator speak directly to us, we get all the background info we need, we get a few hints or clues about what is to come, and some mystery about what our narrator is and what he is doing before we get into the story proper
The switch in perspectives was handled very deftly. What could have been a clunky change became a smooth part of the story.
The second part of the story is fantastic. I love how Charlie is written as a smart, somewhat lonely boy. Time alone is pretty much a requirement for having an imaginary friend and that isolation due to intelligence comes across well.
I liked the way that Smoke worked in this world. The idea that the imaginary friend draws form and power from the child he talks to was both very interesting and extremely creepy. I kept wondering what the endgame was here. Was Smoke a unique entity or were all imaginary friends trying to gain enough power to achieve their unspoken goal? Perhaps it’s best that we never find out.
The climax of the story is great. That the imaginary friend is defeated by an imaginary weapon is sadly poetic. As is the fact that Charlie has as imagination powerful enough to overcome Smoke but walks away from it in pursuit of social acceptance and girls.
This story, to me, takes our simple, focused prompt and expands it into a story that addresses a sad universal truth about growing up and how we sometimes have to suppress a part of ourselves in order to find a place in the world. Pure, sweet, melancholy.
“The Shadow’s Void” by Tony Southcotte – I liked the way this story starts. The opening line and paragraph set the scene very well.
Barlow is written very well. He comes across very smooth and very charming to his clients. He is the classic conman reading, reacting, fleecing them for all they are worth and then all of sudden he is a little bit more than that. When the imaginary characters start wandering through and interacting with Barlow the story take a bit of a turn.
Then we get to learn a bit more about Barlow we see that he inflicted these apparitions on himself. A trained psychologist, he used drugs and hypnosis to separate his psyche into its constituent parts. We’re not really sure why he does this, but it paid off. That he turned his new found powers into a fortune telling scam bothers him quite a bit. He longs to do more and perhaps that explains his choices later.
The real action starts when the couple shows up for a reading and Barlow sees something he wishes he didn’t. Chains, torture, and death are all that he sees. Now he is trapped. How does he explain what he knows? How does he save the girl? Well, he has to do it himself.
His infiltration of the house and inevitable capture are pretty straightforward. Things get more interesting when he awakes hanging upside down. I love that it is the darkest part of his psyche, Shadow, who won’t let him die. The child knight is a nice touch also, it hints at an innocent, naive, but yet not fully developed sense of chivalry.
I am not sure how I feel about leaving Theo alive and maimed. It’s a little twisted and he definitely deserves it but I don’t know if it’s “feeding his Shadow” more to kill him or to leave him as he is.
If I have an issue with this story it is the climax. It was a little confusing to read, and things wrapped up just a little too quickly and cleanly. Otherwise, this is a good, solid story.
One of my favorite things about the Arena is how different the two authors interpretations of the prompt can be. This week was no exception. One story gave us an unpopular child yearning for friendship and finding…something. The other gave us a psychological smorgasbord of Jungian archetypal apparitions. Both had their strengths and both their weaknesses. Ultimately I had to vote for the story that resonated with me more. That story was “The Serpent’s Tooth” by David Webb.
There you have it folks! David Webb is advancing to The Writer’s Arena Championship. He will face off against the ever formidable Donald Jacob Uitvlugt in what will surely be a battle for the ages.
Let’s see if our voters agree.
It looks like a full on unanimous decision for David Webb! Great work David. There is no rest for the wicked, as he will be getting his prompt tomorrow.
We have one battle left in 2015, and it is for all the marbles. Who will be crowned the first Writer’s Arena Champion? Help us decide in just a few short weeks!