Ellen Datlow is a multi-award winning short story editor who has been working in science fiction, fantasy, and horror for almost thirty years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and is currently consulting for Tor.com. In addition she has edited or co-edited more than fifty anthologies. Datlow was recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award for outstanding contribution to the genre and has been honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association.
Notes on “Church Shoes”—first of all is the title “Church Shoes” or “Dust and Dead’Uns”? I prefer “Church Shoes”—all the author needs to do to make that title work perfectly is go a little more into grandma’s shoes—that she’s wearing her best ones for the big road trip. Then the last line works better as well.
The author hasn’t done anything new with the zombie story but the voice is an interesting one and I enjoyed reading the story.
I’ve gone through the manuscript carefully. The process from hereon in, if I were taking the story, would be that once the writer agreed to make changes and we agreed on those changes, s/he would rewrite the story. Then, I’d read the revision and go through it at least one more time to see what we both might have missed and if I have any other thoughts.
The author needs to go through the entire ms and ensure consistency in the use of dialect. I noticed, for example that sometimes the author uses “them” and other times “em”. The author uses ”spitting” but then “chuggin’” “something,’” and “fallin’”. There’s no good reason to say “cancer cough” every time. Just say “cough” most of the time. We get it ,we get it. And it becomes annoying when overused.
Some things I checked (that should be checked by a fact-checker/copy editor) are specific words and products mentioned in the story, to make sure they existed or were used during the period in which the story takes place: (1) jalopy and; (2) that there was a Hudson truck with a canopy. I tried to find out what a non-Catholic priest would wear during the period but couldn’t. The author also needs to clarify and not just call it a “doggy suit”.
The two mudbug references are never followed up—delete both.
Gardner Dozois edited Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine for many years and currently edits the long-running annual anthology series The Year’s Best Science Fiction. He has also co-edited many anthologies with George R.R. Martin, including the Jack Vance tribute volume Songs from the Dying Earth. He has won more than a dozen Hugo Awards for his editing, and two Nebula Awards for his own short fiction. Overall, Dozois is the author or editor of more than 80 books.
This story has a very slow, passive opening, with the narrative voice spewing generalities for several paragraphs without establishing who the narrator is, where she is, who’s there with her, what’s going on—what we used to call the “journalistic virtues,” who, how, where, when, and way. The folksy dialog it’s written in also comes across as phony, and forced. For what it’s worth, the first line of the story ought be “I ain’t got the cancer, you floozie,” which at least is interesting and hints at something confrontational to come in the story, as opposed to the wheel-spinning that goes on for the first few paragraphs.
The only other possibly useful bit of advice I could give would be to abandon the fake-folksy dialect and voice the story is written in and write it in clear standard English, with maybe just the smallest touch of dialect here and there. Dialect is a difficult tool to use, especially when you don’t have a feel for it, as this author does not, and too much of it in a story can ruin it as much as too much oregano in a stew. The author’s trying too hard to be folksy and funny. Just let the story tell itself in a natural way.
If I’d found this in a slush pile, I doubt that I would have read much beyond the first page. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because when I got to page three, I would have said, “Oh crap, another zombie story,” and stopped reading right there. I don’t have anything analytical to say after page 3, where the zombie attacks. Everything below that would fall below “The Line,” a term used by many editors who deal with slush piles, the place in the story where they know that it isn’t for them and give up on it. Sometimes it’s a real line, sometimes not. The editor Damon Knight used to draw an actual line with a pen across a manuscript at the place where he stopped reading, and sometime scrawl comments like “So what?” or “Who cares?” in the margin. I don’t draw an actual line, or scrawl comments, but forty years of slush-reading experience makes it easy to spot the point where I’d bail on the story. No point in trying to go on after that.
Under the circumstances, I kept reading anyway, and pretty much got what I’d expected to get—a standard zombie story, like dozens (if not hundreds) of other stories in every slush pile in the business, with nothing in particular to make it stand out from any of the others.
The best use of the author’s time, in my opinion, would be to give up on this story and write something else entirely. That’s not a lot of help with this particular story, though. Most helpful I can be is to say, don’t have passive beginnings where you spin your wheels for paragraphs or pages. Get right into the story, and, more importantly, get right into the characters. If you can immediately create an interesting character in an interesting situation, the human instinct is to turn the page and see what happens to that character next. That’s hardwired into us.
Paula Guran is a senior editor for Prime Books and the editor of the annual Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror series as well as numerous other anthologies. She edited the Juno fantasy imprint for six years including through its incarnation as an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books. In an earlier life, she produced the pioneering weekly email newsletter DarkEcho (winning two Bram Stoker Awards, an International Horror Guild Award Award, and a World Fantasy Award nomination), and edited the print zine Horror Garage (earning another IHG Award and a second World Fantasy nomination).
I think the author had two interesting ideas: (a) Dust Bowl dust caused zombies; (b) the character of Timothy who evidently is not the usual zombie. A valiant attempt was made to establish a dust metaphor that does not hold up and something of an attempt to give the story some theological reference to set up the ending. Neither is a success. Then there are so many “detail” problems. If actually reading this for purchase, I might not have got past the first section break: by that point it is obvious we have a story that needs so much rethinking/rewriting that it was not in contention. That would have been a shame because I would not have realized there were some good ideas. Writing is both art and craft; much of the art is imagination and that cannot be taught. The craft, though, can be learned. The author has imagination, so I would have preferred coming across this in a workshop or student situation. If we were workshopping this, as much as I commented on, suggested, etc., there is more I would suggest after a rewrite on this.
A note on marketability: zombie stories have a limited market. Historical zombie stories have a more limited market, so I hope this was written with specific market in mind. The only reason I would consider it editorially would be for a zombie theme.
Liz Gorinsky is an acquiring editor at Tor Books, where her authors include Cherie Priest and Brian Slattery. A finalist for the Hugo Award, she is also a fiction editor for Tor.com.
I confess that the first time I read this story, I really disliked it. I found more to like on my second reading, though I was still deeply irritated by the first page or two, so I suspect a lot of my reservations are localized at the beginning. Writers often place a lot of stock in the “Where would you have stopped reading?” test. Truthfully, in an unfiltered slush context, there’s a good chance I would have rolled my eyes and stopped reading this after the very first sentence. At that point, the story has not yet earned the right to its inverted “What everyone remembers” construction, which is a bit odd, and a bit twee, and no better than the more straightforward “What does everyone remember” phrasing. I’ll stress that it is a particular regret to see a first page that undermines the rest of the story, because there are so many contexts—from slush piles to readers picking which stories to devote their time to in an anthology—where those first few lines really matter. If anything ought to be polished to a shine, it’s the first page. In any event, based on my initial read, I elected to write up a general critique rather than doing a line-edit, though I will hedge slightly and say that some of these critiques apply more to the first chunk than the rest.
The aspect of this story that most often gave me pause was dialect and language choices. First problem: most of the prose here feels like a standard kinda-Southern morass rather than conforming to its clearly stated historical time period. Of course, dialect is tricky and few of us were around to witness how people spoke in the thirties, but there is some archival footage online. Failing that, the author could do worse than to just ape The Grapes of Wrath, which is the document of this period that everyone will think of first—and which this story sounds nothing like. When in doubt, check Google Books to get a sense of the currency of word use in text during particular periods. For example, I couldn’t really find any references to mudbugs until the 50’s, and then only in the deep South. I still don’t know what to make of “Roadite.” It sounds like it’s intending to be period accurate language, but I can’t find any evidence of it in American books of the period. It’s possible that this was intended as a coinage or a clever joke, but the meaning shifts, anyway, so it just winds up being distracting.
Aside from pure period accuracy, there are spots when the story doesn’t feel consistent from page to page, or even from one line of dialogue to another. For example, it’s hard to see how any line in this piece comes from the same world as “Ven I shaaa be barld,” ingested fingers notwithstanding, and I don’t see any logic as to when “yer” is used instead of “your,” or “git” versus “get,” as you would with a true accent. Nor am I seeing much consistency between the dialogue and narrative sections, which often seem entirely contemporary. This might be excused a bit by being told from the future, but…is it? My thoughts on that in a paragraph or two.
My next general quibble was a lack of specificity: there are too many sentences that raise more questions than they add to the story. Just to give a few examples, I hate the line, “Not much else to it, but mudbugs on a griddle,” which is just too confusing, three sentences into the story: Not much else to what? What are mudbugs? Why are they on a griddle? Or consider the phrase “Hail Mary and God Rest (but not often enough)” What about that prayer is “not often enough,” given that so many people have been dying? (Or is this supposed to be foreshadowing the fact that they are being reanimated, a.k.a. not resting often enough? It’s not clear.) And the “Then:” right after that is a stutter in the prose, forcing you to jump back in the paragraph to figure out what the causal connection leading to the “then” is. SF readers are trained to clamber over a certain amount of language that they don’t understand, but when there are too many of those within one paragraph, or it’s a historical setting where most readers feel like they should get the references, the urge to turn to a dictionary eventually overpowers the urge to continue reading.
Next, I’m not convinced that this story comprehends itself—that is, I’m not sure how the author justifies such a high degree of naïveté in the text itself when it’s stated (via the mentions of books about the thirties in the first paragraph) that the narrative vantage point is several years in the distance. Why do that and then not have the narrator express any hindsight about what is coming throughout the story? And why bother providing the future perspective when it is never mentioned again?
There are also a few plot elements that I think are insufficiently plausible as written. First, I’m not buying that Eliza would wilfully give up her rifle because her gram is being threatened. Given that she’s a pretty good shot and it’s obvious at this point that Elias is out to kill her anyway, what’s the downside of just trying to shoot him? I’d find this far more plausible if she just dropped the gun, full-stop, during the struggle with Vivian. The second plot quibble is everything involving Timothy’s exceptionalism: not only is he the only zombie who can talk, but he can cure cancer AND he can heal surface physical injuries AND he can gauge a person’s character from the outside. This might be my particular bugbear, but it feels like cheating to have all these varieties of specialness stacked upon a scenario that has already been abstracted from reality by adding zombies to it. Adding a zombie with four “special powers” is like creating magic without paying any toll for it.
My final note is about the church shoes themselves, and especially that groaner of a last line. It’s cute at first, but this “reason [she] wore [her] church shoes” doesn’t really wash when she’s been wearing her church clothing on a constant basis since the beginning for no particular reason other than the implied one, which is that she has no other clothes right now. And while I understand the temptation to string Important Symbols and Thematic Resonance throughout the piece, I’m not sure there’s any point where her “church shoes” and “church clothes” couldn’t be replaced by their more mundane variants without affecting the story. Alternately, if the argument is that those shoes somehow contributed to her guise of goodness, doesn’t that undermine the uncanniness of Timothy’s response to her? It just seems like a false equivalence given that no other pathway is available.
Nick Mamatas works at Viz Media as an editor of SF, fantasy, and horror translated from the Japanese. His novels include Move Under Ground, Under My Roof, Bullettime, and Sensation. He is also the author of many published horror, fantasy, and science fiction short stories, some of which are collected in 3000 Miles Per Hour In Every Direction At Once and You Might Sleep... From 2006 to 2008 Mamatas co-edited the fiction magazine Clarkesworld, nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. He has also edited and co-edited several anthologies, most notably Haunted Legends and The Future Is Japanese.
The major problem with this story as I see it is that it’s far too long for its content. It really begins when Eliza and Gran encounter the Vogels for the first time. The introductory scene-setting is overlong and could easily be handled in a sentence or two—When folks reminisce about the Dust Bowl, they all always go on about the dust and the poverty and the mudbugs an’ all. They always forget about the damn deadduns—and then the scene with Eliza and Gran camping for the night, without the initial and inexplicable zombie encounter episode, can begin.
Another major problem is a common one: too much televisual influence. Many of the action scenes make little sense, as a small number of people on a mostly empty landscape simply cannot continually pop out of nowhere to surprise one another. The “blocking” of the scene is confused because such “pop-up scares” are typical of film and TV, but not at all of how someone, years after the fact, would tell a story. Nor are many of these pop-ups physically possible. There are many other set pieces, scene breaks, and even turns of phrase that bely the first-person narration in which the story is told.
A small problem—Gran is described as a “Roma”, but she seems to have the religious sensibilities of a nominal American Protestant and not a Roma or Sinti person of the era. There’s no specific reason to give Gran or Eliza such a potentially interesting ethnicity (if a problematic one for non-Roma writers, as so-called “gypsies” are often depicted stereotypically and poorly in fiction and the news media) and then do nothing with it.
When these problems are fixed, we have an okay zombie story—it is interesting that Timothy ends up being a ‘good’ deaddun and one with the power to heal. And the setting is interesting, if uneven. However, the ending is too pat and perhaps too obviously religious for some editors or markets, while being too sacrilegious for others. The story certainly needs to be significantly shortened; as a 2,500-word piece it might work for a horror magazine or a zombie anthology. Right now, there’s a lot of prose that goes nowhere for too small a payoff.
JAMES PATRICK KELLY
Hugo and Nebula Award winner James Patrick Kelly has written novels, short stories, essays, reviews, poetry, plays and planetarium shows. With John Kessel he is co-editor of the anthologies Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology, Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, The Secret History Of Science Fiction, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, Rewired: The Post Cyberpunk Anthology and SFWA’s Nebula Awards Showcase 2012. He is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.
This is not a bad story, but it isn’t yet a compelling one. A big part of the problem is that it attempts to revive very tired material. The author introduces some new wrinkles, maybe too many, since none really pay off. In order to freshen the story, the author deviates from the Standard Zombie Model (SZM) but that introduces problems in the ecology of magic. This is a concept I learned from Gardner Dozois and which I use constantly. It refers to the rationalization of the fantastic in a story; readers expect that there will be rules to what can happen, and that those rules should point to some kind of rough balance in the way the world works. In the SZM, zombies are a new species, extending their range. If Timothy a mutant of this zombie species, why has he mutated and how is he different? Are there or will there be more like him? If he is conscious, are the non-verbal zombies also conscious? In the SZM they are not, they are pure horrific appetite, like the first zombie we see. If dust is the vector of the zombie “disease” (another variation from the SZM) why aren’t Gran and Eliza taking better precautions against it? What do these zombies eat? Is there a way to accommodate them? Also the way the dust reanimates the dead seems variable. Can the long undead revive? Do skeletons walk the earth?
But the real problem is that this story isn’t about much more than its plot. Two appealing characters are trying to survive the Zombie Apocalypse. They meet zombies, subsidiary characters die, they get away but there are still zombies. The end. How to rewrite then? One way to inject some energy into this Same Old Plot is to focus on character and play up Eliza’s and Gran’s emotional lives. How has witnessing horrors changed them? The story suggests that they make light of their painful history and their plight as a way of coping, but the tone seems off. While there are many funny lines, we are never convinced that our heroes have suffered. Gramps’s death is merely a flashback, not a wound. Another way forward would be to play around more with the ideas of the story, deviations from the SZM. Timothy’s character raises the ethical question of zombie sentience. Others have explored the problem of what is right action if the monsters are very much like us, only hungry for our flesh. But this interesting question comes late in the story and is more of a plot twist than a central idea. Another potentially compelling deviation from the SZM arises from the implications of the world building here. Is it really possible that there could be a limited Zombie Apocalypse, that the dead rising is more of a nuisance than a cataclysm? In this world there is still a government that will punish murder. There are presumably working gas stations and an economy “out west.” Eliza asserts in the first sentence, “What everyone remembers about the Dust Bowl of the Dirty Thirties? The dust, of course.” This implies that the rise of reanimated dead people wasn’t as important as the economic and environmental disruption caused by the dust. Were the deadduns a local phenomena confined to the prairie states? Do the dead hunt in Boston and Miami and Mexico City? Possibly not. I think any, or all, of these changes might improve the story if they were given the space to develop.
The founder of the award-winning Buzzcity Press, Ann VanderMeer currently serves as an acquiring fiction editor for Tor.com, Cheeky Frawg Books, and Weirdfictionreview.com. She was the editor-in-chief for Weird Tales for five years, during which time she was nominated three times for the Hugo Award, winning one. Along with a nominations for the W Shirley Jackson Award, she also has won a British Fantasy Award and World Fantasy Award for co-editing The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Other projects have included Best American Fantasy, two Steampunk anthologies, and a humor book, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals. Her latest anthologies include Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, and an as-yet anthology of feminist speculative fiction.
The story starts off in a funny, sarcastic tone developing this relationship between granddaughter and grandmother, and they travel across an alternate past of the Dust Bowl days avoiding and killing zombies. We think in the beginning that we are in store for a funny story throughout. However, once the two come across the ‘reverend’ and family, it seems like you don’t really know what to do with this story. I can’t tell if this is a commentary about religion and good and evil or just a gosh-darn fun zombie story. The mixture of seriousness and sarcasm doesn’t work for me.
The whole scene where we discover Timothy is difficult to follow. We can’t see exactly where we are, what the characters can see, and what the real action is. And when we determine that the father thinks his son is some kind of Jesus-like savior, the story doesn’t follow through. Is this guy really a religious nut or an opportunist trying to make a quick buck? Yeah, I know… some people think religious zealots are also money-hungry opportunists, but I am not sure what is driving the ‘reverend.’ I know exactly what’s driving the mother. (Also a side note: The names Elias and Eliza are too similar; maybe that’s part of what makes this difficult to follow.).
Then Timothy turns on his father and kills him. Why didn’t he do this sooner since it seems that Elias has turned Timothy loose on other innocent old ladies in the past? What makes this one woman so special? Also, we could see this attack coming.
And then it ends…they ‘ride off into the sunset’ and all is hunky-dory. What’s the plan, now that they have both Timothy and Vivian along for the ride?
Bottom line—I don’t think the writer knows exactly what kind of story s/he is trying to tell.
Sheila Williams is the two-time Hugo-Award-winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. She is also the co-founder of the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. Williams is the editor or co-editor of twenty-five anthologies. The most recent of which are Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine’s 30th Anniversary Anthology and Enter A Future: Fantastic Tales from Asimov’s Science Fiction.
This is a fun story. The wit, plotting, and interesting details in the line-by-line writing would definitely warrant a letter of encouragement and a request to see more of the author’s work. Unfortunately, though, that might not have been the letter the author would have received. If I was reading this story as a submission to Asimov’s, I would have had a difficult time getting past the first paragraph and even if I had, I would have been too confused by the third paragraph to proceed any further. As a result, the author would almost certainly have received an ordinary form letter.
If I had read farther, I would have enjoyed the story, but I would not have chosen it for Asimov’s. The subject matter–zombies–isn’t right for our market. This story is a traditional horror story and Asimov’s publishes very little horror. I don’t read a lot of zombie stories, but I don’t think this one adds anything new to the zombie oeuvre. Even if I were predisposed to buy stories in which old ladies chomp on the fingers of the dead, I’d be looking for a story that transcended the traditional themes. Stories that use extremely well established tropes have to have an original interpretation of the idea to work for me.
From the start, I didn’t find the two main characters to be believable 1930’s women. Their attitudes, language, and mindset seemed to have been lifted from today’s world. I think it would work better if the two women had been introduced first and the scene and circumstances were filled in later. Also, people may have been irreverent, but it would have been very unusual and they would have been more self-conscious about it. Saying the grandmother is Roma helps to get around this problem, but there’s no follow up. Nothing else in the story indicates that she is and the fact that she had a farm almost contradicts the idea.
If an author is going to set a story in a different era, especially a fairly recent one, researching the temperament of the people is just as important as getting the historical details right. It’s a joy to read a story where the character’s voice convinces me that I’m actually in another time and place. I think much of the humor and even the idea of taking down a sanctimonious, duplicitous, and hypocritical preacher could have been done in a manner that would have convinced me the story was taking place during the dust bowl.
I’d have read farther into the story if it had immediately started off with the main characters and if I’d found them convincing. I don’t think I could be convinced that they would make camp right where they’d found a zombie, however. Something should have developed, some obstruction–a flat tire, low on gas, some reason they couldn’t drive–to convince me that they’d throw caution to the wind like that. In the best stories, the characters are usually as smart or smarter than me. I don’t want them to go out looking for the cat when they already know that the monster is out there, too. Their plan for sleeping through the night isn’t very well thought out, either. Even if it didn’t work out, there should have been a plan to take shifts, so as to give the granddaughter a chance to sleep.
My other major problem with the story is that it fails to convince me that it is taking place during the Dust Bowl of the thirties. It could be a very good story if more hardship details were built into it. Indeed, if this story is brought more sharply into focus, the characters rendered more a part of their time, and the background details shown instead of told, I think this story would have a good chance of selling to a darker market than Asimov’s.
By the way, I like the title of the file “Church Shoes” much better than “Dust and Deadduns.”