Category Archives: Short Story Review

On Writers’ Groups

A few months back (in March, I think), I joined a Writers’ Group. A few weeks ago, it basically disbanded. It counts as the fourth such group I’ve ever joined. Anyhoo, I figured I would comment on what I’ve learned from such endeavors. Or, at least, give my opinions.

In my view, smaller is better. I say a maximum of five people is preferred. This latest one usually included about eight or so, at the meetings, and perhaps as many as fifteen in the group in total. And, of course, everyone wanted to expand and get more people. Not me. I didn’t mention it to anybody, but I wanted fewer.

There are several benefits of working with only a few people instead of a lot. First off, it is much easier to digest the comments of four other people instead of fourteen. Secondly, you will also have a better chance of getting your work looked at in a reasonable amount of time. In this last group, two people would submit their work on any given week, and the next week we would discuss it. That worked pretty well for a while, like when it was eight people, because then you would only have to wait a month to get more feedback as you cycled through again. Unfortunately, though, as the group got bigger, the time between your submissions grew. And I, for one, join writers’ groups primarily to get feedback, not give. I give in exchange for that, but my primary interest is still getting. Call me selfish, if you like, but I think that is the primary goal. Thirdly, the feedback you do get is usually much more in depth. With a large number of people, it just seems likely to degenerate into little more than proofreading. You simply don’t have time to get fourteen different commentaries on a ten page short story, unless you spend like five hours at each meeting… but who wants to do that?

I also think it is a good idea to focus on a single genre like speculative fiction, or fantasy, or what-have-you. Just keep it in one genre if you can. For myself, it would be fantasy. In this last group, we had poetry, sci-fi, fantasy, memoir, romance, and I’m sure a few more. It’s all very interesting, but I don’t really know how to comment on any of those except fantasy, and maybe sci-fi. Don’t get me wrong. You do learn things reading different genres, but I think you get the most bang for your buck from a genre-focused group.

So, to sum up, my ideal group would consist of five people, all involved in fantasy. We would meet every other week and we would focus on two people out of the group at a time.

Don’t know what else to say on that topic, so I’ll close it here.

Short Story Review: Dreams in the Witch House (H.P. Lovecraft)

The short story Dreams in the Witch House by H.P. Lovecraft is a devilishly good horror tale coming in at thirty pages or so. A few months back I reviewed the movie The Dark Sleep based on this very short story. You can read that review here. Having now read the story, I can compare the two, and I can unequivocally state that they are really quite different. The movie is only loosely based on the story; it had about three or four shared elements, and that’s it. Plus, the movie had a reasonably happy ending. Not so Dreams in the Witch House.

 

Anyway, the short story begins with the main character, Walter Gilman, living in a run-down garret in “changeless, legend-haunted city of Arkham …” Gilman is a student at a nearby university, caught up in studying advanced mathematics and quantum physics, as well as folklore. What has brought him to this particular building and the apartment therein, is his knowledge of said folklore. Apparently, the infamous witch (again, this is a witch with a Lovecraftian spin, not a practitioner of modern Wicca), Keziah Mason, of the Salem witch-trial days who escaped from Salem, and fled here to Arkham, along with a strange rat-like familiar that was often seen haunting the house and local area these many years later. The crux of the story is very much the crux of much of Lovecraft’s writing. He operates under the premise that advanced science and mathematics can be used to “rediscover” occult secrets; in this case, the secrets of witchcraft. As a result of his studies, Walter Gilman, while exploring the occult side of mathematics, using it to inadvertently travel across dimensions, is drawn into a confrontation with the ghost of Keziah Mason, and her hideous rat-like familiar, as well, one of Lovecraft’s personal favorites, Nyarlathotep … the crawling chaos. I won’t dwell on the final result; I’ll let the intrepid reader find out for him/herself.

 

Strengths: there was enough depth to keep the reader interested; the writing was typical Lovecraft with a masterful use of mood and surreal atmosphere that gave the tale a very haunting aspect. Weaknesses: I’d say the length: it was too short to be a novella, and too long to really be a short story. I guess it might qualify as a novelette, but I think it should have been expanded more into a novella. He had a lot going that could have enriched the story even more.

 

Anyway, I’ll give H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House four stars out of five.

Short Story Review: Polaris

I have a whole book of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft. One of the first ones in the book is a short piece entitled “Polaris.” It comes in at only 4 pages or so. But that is all it needs. Polaris is a clever little piece about the mystery of the North Star and dreams (the entire book is a collection of dream related stories, actually).

 

It tells the story of a man living in a house by a swamp who spends a great deal of time watching Polaris. Its position fixed in the sky gives him considerable pause to ruminate and wonder about hidden meanings. To him, it seems as if the star has a message, perhaps to him, but one that has been lost in time. So, he begins to dream. He dreams of an ancient civilization 26,000 years in the past; a civilization called Lomar that flourished at an earlier time at which Polaris held a similar position in the firmament (according to astronomers, the actual position of the North Star does change, but very slowly, as a result of a wobble of the Earth’s axis. This phenomenon is called precession (I think) and it causes the apparent motion of Polaris in the sky. It takes the star approximately 26,000 years to complete one cycle and return to the same position—it’s a clever little scientific insert into the story). After some time he assumes an identity in that civilization of a craven man who possessed incredibly keen eyes. As a result, he is tasked with watching for the advance of a hostile army of creatures called Inutos: “squat, hellish yellow fiends” that have been plaguing the ancient kingdom. Atop the watchtower, the accursed narrator is bewitched by Polaris and falls asleep. Instead of keeping faithful watch, he dreams of a future time in which he is a man grown accustomed to sitting by his window in a house by a swamp to stare at the North Star. He cannot wake from this dream, and no matter how he tries to explain his predicament to those around him, they do not believe him. There is no record of a long lost civilization called Lomar; the only beings to ever dwell in these frozen wastes before are the Esquimaux: “squat, yellow creatures.” (Another name for Eskimos is Inuit, a word deliberately close to Inuto) By the end of the story, the narrator’s descent into madness is all but assured as the division between dream and reality is so obscured. Which story is the dream? And which the truth? Is the narrator a dreaming watchman who has failed his countrymen in the lone task to which he was appointed? Or is he a modern day man who has lost his grip on reality? Or … is he a modern day man who is the reincarnation of a dreaming watchman who failed his countrymen? The story does not answer these questions; it simply asks them and leaves the reader wondering and with a profound distrust of the seemingly mundane North Star.

 

The only weakness in the story that I can think of is the possible accusation of racism against Eskimos. But that seems a trifle unfair and a bit too PC for my tastes. He described the Eskimos and imagined a conflict 26,000 years in the past with an imaginary ancient civilization. In the conflict, the Eskimos are the aggressors and every culture in history has been an aggressor at one point or another. If you seek to be offended by such, you can choose to be so; but for myself, I don’t think imagining conflicts between cultures or even using the terms “squat” or “yellow” to describe someone or a group of people is necessarily racist. I can see how it can be interpreted that way, but I choose not to (then again, I’m not an Eskimo). Putting all that aside, I thought this was a great story.

 

Overall, I’ll give this short story four and a half stars out of five. Most excellent!