Critique Requested; Another Short Story (Weird Fiction)

Sun, Oct 8 2017 03:39pm IST 1
S.McQuail
S.McQuail
21 Posts
Hello again, critics. I imagin the choice of genre tag here has raised a few eyebrows, but I really can't think of another way to describe this piece. It's a very short (sub 2k words) thing I whipped together that only really fits into Speculative or Weird Fiction.

My biggest concerns are general entertainment factor and, well, whether or not the piece actually works.

"I can see them, you know. Every time I step into the street I can see the little black curls of smoke polluting everyone’s minds. Squirming, floating, writhing their way through otherwise pristine white thoughts. He worries about his loans; she fears for her mother’s health; they scheme around their crumbling relationship. Everything the smoke touches turns just a little darker until soon an entire lobe of grubby grey has blossomed into my sight. I can’t stand it. Who could? Knowing about all the nasty things that make smiles droop and eyes turn sullen. So, I do what I can. I use the second part of my gift.

I pluck the smoke out.

It doesn’t hurt. I would never do something if it really hurt. I just… reach forward with my mind and pull out the wispy worms before they can dig too deep. Sometimes they still leave a little grey behind but it quickly clears. And then the smiles are back. Those big, beautiful smiles I love so much. It only takes a few minutes and the room has gone from an ashen grey to a bright, pearly white. It makes me feel so good. Knowing that I’ve helped everyone just a little bit every day.

I don’t think they really know about it. People love being around me, and I thought it might be because I took their bad thoughts away. That they were being selfish. I had to pluck that thought away too. How could I make everyone happy if I wasn’t happy? And I am happy. I am very, very happy! And everyone loves being with me because I make them happy too. They don’t know it. Don’t know about my little gift. But they know I can always bring a smile to their face. It’s why I have so many friends! After all, friends are there to make their friends happy, aren’t they?

But…

Sometimes I find people who do know. People with the same gift as me. I can tell, because their heads are full of nasty things. Deep, black storm clouds. I try my best to pick away at their troubles. To let them know that it’s okay to have a gift like this! That it’s okay to make people happy. That they should make people happy. But it’s so hard with some of them.

They think it’s wrong to make everyone happy.

They think the black smoke is important.

That people should worry and be afraid and sometimes it’s important to be sad.

It takes me a long time to pluck that thought out of their heads. It’s such a deep-seated, nasty little thought, isn’t it? So insidious and corruptive. But it’s okay. I understand how hard it is to get rid of something like that yourself. How it can infest everything until your brain is full to the brim with it. That why I’m here. That’s why I help them to be happy. And help them to see why they need to make everyone else happy too. You understand, right? That everyone needs to be happy?

You’re not like her, are you?

Oh, who is she? She was a nice young woman from so many months ago. Pretty face, loving girlfriend, stable job… she had a lot to be happy about. But she wasn’t happy. No, she wasn’t happy at all. Her head was so ugly; so filled with black thoughts and wrong ideas. Ideas like how strange it was no one else had the same black smoke she did. She thought everyone was wrong. Thought we were all scary and strange. Us being happy made her unhappy! That wasn’t so bad. I’d seen it before, you know. People are always scared of what I do when they find out. But I pluck away the fear and they become just as happy as me. Not her. No, not her at all.

It was bad enough she wasn’t happy. Bad enough that it took me days to wriggle through her mind and pull the darkness away, only to find an even blacker blackness inside! Imagine that; how truly, desperately unhappy did you have to be to hide it so? No, no, no. What truly shocked me was what she did with it. Bad enough one person in a hundred thinks such thoughts, but for her to put those thoughts in others…

Horrific, I know! She would sit in the centre of town and watch all the happy people walking by, slipping in little bits of herself into their heads and polluting the pristine white. How dare she? How dare she?

Ahem, my apologies. Let me just… there we go. The anger is all gone now.

But you see how insidious it is? Even I became unhappy with her. Maurice was happy! He didn’t need to mourn his wife anymore. And the Joneses! The stillbirth was so hard on them, I simply had to take that away. And let’s not forget poor little Timmy being scared of his uncle. He’s such a nice, happy man with good, happy thoughts. The boy needed to focus on the silver linings of it all, you know? But not with her around. No, she just had to slip in all the negative thoughts into their heads. To make the Joneses cry, make Maurice lonely, make Timmy… well, it took me days to sort them all out, let me tell you!

Eventually I confronted her. I had to! I couldn’t let her keep going. I tried to talk to her, but she wouldn’t listen. She knew about what I could do; she’d seen me plucking the thoughts away. And she hated that I did it. I never found out why, you know. She was screaming such nonsense about right and wrong and something about freedom... honestly, she was too far gone! There was nothing but nasty black smoke in her head. She couldn’t see, no matter how hard I tried. I do free people. I free them from the nasty thoughts, from the burden of unpleasantness. I kept trying to pluck them away but more and more kept forming until everyone’s eyes were on us, filling with the same insidious thoughts…

I made it quick. I really, really did.

It took me quite some time to clear away the thoughts she’d left behind. Little worms squirming inside the deepest reaches of everyone’s minds. I understand. It wasn’t something you could be happy about. Even I wasn’t happy until I plucked the sorrow from my head. But now I am, and so are they, and even though she was never happy herself I do wish she could have been. If only she’d let me take all the nasty things away.

Oh dear, I’ve made a few little curls appear in your mind, haven’t I? I suppose it is to be expected. All this talk of unhappiness. If you’ll just let me reach inside for a moment…There. All better. Of course you remember what I said! I never took that away. You’ll remember every word I said, just like how everyone remembers what happened to that young woman. We remember everything. It’d be so cruel to take the memories away. And I’m not a cruel person.

I just want everyone to be happy, you see?"

Sun, Oct 8 2017 08:21pm IST 2
JtF
JtF
316 Posts
Dear S McQ, this for me loses much of it's imaginative impact because it's so conversational and you reveal in the second sentence. Maybe hook just a tad more before a 3rd or 4th para reveal. Don't feel you have to saytoo much; it's a skill you have until you meet another and your femme fatal is adversorial. Can she scar you? Can you win? A meeting of minds -- NOT! As with the best (blockbuster) wierdness the good dead Dr says "I just want to help people." All best JtF
Tue, Oct 10 2017 12:03am IST 3
healeymonster1
healeymonster1
33 Posts
I like that you've called it speculative fiction rather than a short story. The way that it's a disembodied voice with no world or timeframe for context makes this more of an 'artistically presented thought experiment' than anything else.
Good work transforming the character from a benevolent saviour at the beginning, then into a malevolent force of misguided kindness at the end. I loved the subtle transition.
It was certainly a wierd read. I felt like it was Philip K Dick's 'the hood maker' fused with Disney Pixar's 'Inside out' :)
Great fun.

Tue, Oct 10 2017 10:11am IST 4
Philippa
Philippa
1583 Posts
Hi SMcQuail.

I really like this. And, fret not, this IS a short story. Why? Well it's short, and it has a beginning, middle and end. Short stories can be in any genre, so it doesn't matter that it's 'speculative' in a way.

The great thing about short stories is they can be highly 'experimental'. You can write in a style (like the conversational style you've set up here) which wouldn't sustain over an 80k word novel. I think this is a good example.

You are exploring the question of whether it is better to be (falsely) happy all the time, or to have freedom over our authentic thoughts and feelings. Your protagonist / narrator sees it as his mission to eliminate all 'black' thoughts from the world, his own (and mine) included. The woman in the story believes the opposite. She believes people are entitled to experience the whole range of human emotion, even if this is painful. Your protagonist is so determined in his postion that he (I think?) kills the woman. I like the reference to my own thoughts in the final para. You are challenging me (the reader) to decide where I sit in this debate.

As a psychologist I find this whole theme very interesting. Do we sometimes aim to treat and "cure" normal human suffering?

There are various places you might submit a short story like this. See options via the lists of comps / mags here
https://shortstops.info
and here
http://www.christopherfielden.com

Tue, Oct 10 2017 10:37am IST 5
Philippa
Philippa
1583 Posts
Oh, ps you can drop the speech marks round this piece (""). It's cool just to have your narrator address the reader. See (the opening of) Catcher in the Rye.
Tue, Oct 10 2017 03:34pm IST 6
Gus
Gus
99 Posts
I like it - very creepy. Villains are always scarier and more interesting when they think they're trying to do good. Or perhaps it's just the perverse idea of taking joy in something questionable. Some of the most memorable villains, like Batman's Joker or Pennywise from IT, are like this. I think it could use an extra paragraph or so at the start, explaining how the narrator can see dark thoughts, before we jump into the meat of it. Also the line 'You’re not like her, are you? ' was a bit out of the blue, and threw me a bit. The other times when the narrator addresses the reader are ok. Overall I think it's really good though - it's a good length for what you're trying to achieve.
Tue, Oct 10 2017 11:49pm IST 7
Barny
Barny
708 Posts
Really enjoyed reading this, S. McQuail. I don't think you need an extra para at the start, but it could be clearer when you say "the second part of my gift" because you haven't previously mentioned/implied any sort of gift, or that the first part is being able to see those squirmy smoky little thoughts. Maybe don't need that sentence about the second part of the gift, although need to flow that through to the other references to gift. Or, mention gift early in the first para.

I particularly like that your MC obsessively plucks their own smoky thoughts. Nice. And yes over-plucking the lady to death.

Can you use a different term than black smoke/clouds to differentiate the people with the same gift from the ungifted (who also have grey/black smoke)?

The turning point paragraph - referring to Maurice and the Joneses, etc. - feels awkward to me. "how insidious it is" is too vague, what is "it"? I didn't understand the reason for "Even I became unhappy with her", seems like this is already implied by the previous paras. This paragraph is about this woman reversing what you main character has previously done, isn't it: a threat to your MC's control. Perhaps what feels awkward is the unexpected use of people's names - so the MC knows them which hasn't been implied before, previously (e.g. the first para) it seems like the people your MC de-smokes are just anonymous passers-by as they walk along a busy street.

I'd remove quite a few exclamation marks. Is your use of "everyone" accurate/fair/reasonable/effective, isn't your MC affecting only people who are close by?

BUT this is a really nice piece of writing - I hope these comments are useful, ignore if they aren't.

HTH
Barny
Tue, Oct 10 2017 11:52pm IST 8
Barny
Barny
708 Posts
Also, I didn't have a problem with "You’re not like her" because you've been addressing the reader as "you" previously, including the previous sentence, but right from the start.
Wed, Oct 11 2017 11:09am IST 9
S.McQuail
S.McQuail
21 Posts
Thanks for the advice! I've made a few minor adjustments, so tell me if this reads any better.

I can see them, you know. It’s a gift that I was born with; every time I step into the street I can see the little black curls of smoke polluting everyone’s minds. Squirming, floating, writhing their way through otherwise pristine white thoughts. He worries about his loans; she fears for her mother’s health; they scheme around their crumbling relationship. Everything the smoke touches turns just a little darker until soon an entire lobe of grubby grey has blossomed into my sight. I can’t stand it. Who could? Knowing about all the nasty things that make smiles droop and eyes turn sullen. These are the people I know; the people I grew up with. I can’t stand to see them suffer like that. So, I do what I can. I use the second part of my gift.

I pluck the smoke out.

It doesn’t hurt. I would never do something if it really hurt. I just… reach forward with my mind and pull out the wispy worms before they can dig too deep. Sometimes they still leave a little grey behind but it quickly clears. And then the smiles are back. Those big, beautiful smiles I love so much. It only takes a few minutes and the room has gone from an ashen grey to a bright, pearly white. It makes me feel so good. Knowing that I’ve helped everyone in town just a little bit every day.

I don’t think they really know about it. People love being around me, and I thought it might be because I took their bad thoughts away. That they were being selfish. I had to pluck that thought away too. How could I make anyone happy if I wasn’t happy? And I am happy. I am very, very happy! And everyone loves being with me because I make them happy too. They don’t know it. Don’t know about my little gift. But they know I can always bring a smile to their face. It’s why I have so many friends! After all, friends are there to make their friends happy, aren’t they?

But…

Sometimes I find people who do know. People who have just moved in or guests visiting our quaint little town, who were lucky enough to have the same gift as me. I can tell, because their heads are full of nasty things. Less like smoke, and more like… oil. Dirty black oil, thick and viscous with the knowledge of how others think. I try my best to pick away at their troubles. To let them know that it’s okay to have a gift like this! That it’s okay to make people happy. That they should make people happy. But it’s so hard with some of them.

They think it’s wrong to make everyone happy.

They think the black smoke is important.

That people should worry and be afraid and sometimes it’s important to be sad.

It takes me a long time to pluck that thought out of their heads. It’s such a deep-seated, nasty little thought, isn’t it? So insidious and corruptive. But it’s okay. I understand how hard it is to get rid of something like that yourself. How it can infest everything until your brain is full to the brim with it. That why I’m here. That’s why I help them to be happy. And help them to see why they need to make everyone else happy too. You understand, right? That everyone needs to be happy?

You’re not like her, are you?

Oh, who is she? She was a nice young woman from so many months ago. Pretty face, loving girlfriend, stable job… she had a lot to be happy about. But she wasn’t happy. No, she wasn’t happy at all. Her head was so ugly; so filled with oily thoughts and wrong ideas. Ideas like how strange it was no one else in town had the same black smoke she’d seen before. She thought everyone was wrong. Thought we were all scary and strange. Us being happy made her unhappy! That wasn’t so bad. I’d seen it before, you know. People are always scared of what I do when they find out. But I pluck away the fear and they become just as happy as me. Not her. No, not her at all.

It was bad enough she wasn’t happy. Bad enough that it took me days to wriggle through her mind and pull the darkness away, only to find an even blacker blackness inside! Imagine that; how truly, desperately unhappy did you have to be to hide it so? No, no, no. What truly shocked me was what she did with it. Bad enough one person in a hundred thinks such thoughts, but for her to put those thoughts in others…

Horrific, I know! She would sit in the centre of town and watch all the happy people walking by, slipping in little bits of herself into their heads and polluting the pristine white. How dare she? How dare she?

Ahem, my apologies. Let me just… there we go. The anger is all gone now.

But you see how insidious it is? Even I became unhappy with her. Maurice was happy. He didn’t need to mourn his wife anymore. And the Joneses… The stillbirth was so hard on them, I simply had to take that away. And let’s not forget poor little Timmy being scared of his uncle. He’s such a nice, happy man with good, happy thoughts. The boy needed to focus on the silver linings of it all, you know? But not with her around. No, she just had to slip in all the negative thoughts into their heads. To make the Joneses cry, make Maurice lonely, make Timmy… well, it took me days to sort them all out, let me tell you!

Eventually I confronted her. I had to! I couldn’t let her keep going. I tried to talk to her, but she wouldn’t listen. She knew about what I could do; she’d seen me plucking the thoughts away. And she hated that I did it. I never found out why, you know. She was screaming such nonsense about right and wrong and something about freedom... honestly, she was too far gone! There was nothing but roiling oil in her head. She couldn’t see, no matter how hard I tried. I do free people. I free them from the nasty thoughts, from the burden of unpleasantness. I kept trying to pluck them away but more and more kept forming until everyone’s eyes were on us, filling with the same insidious thoughts…

I made it quick. I really, really did.

It took me quite some time to clear away the thoughts she’d left behind. Little worms squirming inside the deepest reaches of everyone’s minds. I understand. It wasn’t something you could be happy about. Even I wasn’t happy until I plucked the sorrow from my head. But now I am, and so are they, and even though she was never happy herself I do wish she could have been. If only she’d let me take all the nasty things away.

Oh dear, I’ve made a few little curls appear in your mind, haven’t I? I suppose it is to be expected. All this talk of unhappiness. If you’ll just let me reach inside for a moment…There. All better. Of course you remember what I said! I never took that away. You’ll remember every word I said, just like how everyone remembers what happened to that young woman. We remember everything. It’d be so cruel to take the memories away. And I’m not a cruel person.

I just want everyone to be happy, you see?

Fri, Oct 13 2017 03:00pm IST 10
Willow
Willow
116 Posts
I enjoyed reading this, S McQuail. A great short story and a very interesting idea. I particularly like the end.
Sun, Oct 15 2017 08:26pm IST 11
Mr.Smith
Mr.Smith
31 Posts
A good short story with an original idea. It made me think which is something that doesn't happen often. The idea of having our pains removed is so enticing, and yet isn't it these and how we handle them that makes us who we are?

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