(Reviewer’s note: this novella is one of the Finalists for a Bram Stoker this year.)
The Shallow End of the Pool
By Adam-Troy Castro
Adam Troy-Castro’s novella The Shallow End of the Pool is a slim volume (56 pages) published by Creeping Hemlock Press, a small publishing house whose anthology Corpse Blossoms was a Bram Stoker finalist in 2005. Husband and wife R.J. and Julia Sevin of Gretna, Louisiana were frustrated by the shortage of “generous-paying, atmospheric and bizarre short story anthologies” so they founded Creeping Hemlock Press.
The book is blurbed by Tom Piccirilli, (who, coincidentally, was one of the contributors to Corpse Blossoms.) Castro has been at this for a while, with nominations for a Hugo, a Nebula and a Stoker award, and it shows. His writing is compelling as he sketches the tale of a bitter divorced couple attempting to settle their long-simmering marital score, once and for all, using their now-grown offspring. The ex wife is referred to as “My Mom the Bitch” in the very first sentence, and that is where things went downhill, for me.
Don’t get me wrong: the story is well written. I salute Adam Troy-Castro for the talent he obviously possesses, but this small volume had two problems:
1) The plot is implausible because it is inconsistent with feminine human nature and
2) This short novella needed to be proofread much more expertly before it was released to the public.
Let me recap the plot and explain my reservations, while expressing admiration for the writer’s descriptive prowess, which, for me, were undercut by the number of errors that should have been caught by the Creeping Hemlock Press proofreaders.
A couple who has had a nasty divorce bring their now teen-aged 16-year-old children, Ethan and Jenny, raised separately (the son by the mother; the daughter by the father) to an abandoned swimming pool in the desert, trap them there, and set them on each other like pit bulls, in a fight to the death to settle the bitterness between them, once and for all.
This is where my reservations with the logic of the piece reside. A man wrote it; the protagonist is female. Girls can be cruel savages (I once had my nose broken during a fight between two 8th grade girls), but the end of this novella (which I’m not going to reveal) flies in the face of the female’s nurturing instinct. It’s a man’s take on it, but Jenny’s actions do not seem representative (to me) of the average female.
Defenders will argue, therefore, that she is far from “average.” She’s not average, but she’s not inhuman, and women who are normal are about nurturing. So argue that she’s not “normal,” and I’ll give you that one, but I’m not budging on my next point, because it’s true, even if you don’t want to hear it.
The writing is accurately plugged by Blu Gillian (Hellnotes) as “vivid.” I agree. As Blu put it, it will ‘bruise you, bloody you, and burn you like a hot Vegas day” (a nicely-turned phrase). But genre fiction is often scorned by the establishment and when there are errors of grammar/sentence structure/syntax that could and should have been fixed by those responsible, before publication, we empower the literati to put down horror/genre fiction and horror and genre writers, in general. It’s a never-ending battle. As Rodney Dangerfield said, “I don’t get no respect,” and careless, sloppy errors like the ones here are the reason why. There’s no reason that the story couldn’t have been just as ‘vivid” and yet have the careless errors fixed before the book went public. (If you’re reading this, R.J. and Julia, I’d like to offer my services in that area.)
Genre fiction is action-packed, interesting, worthy in its own right. It’s a vital force. It’s pop culture. But it should still abide by the rules of conventional composition. There shouldn’t be face-off(s) at the O.K. Corral like those that have occurred at awards ceremonies in recent years between genre writers and the serious establishment types, who persist in looking down their collective noses at genre stars. As someone who values and has taught English composition at several levels for a very long time, while watching writing standards slowly sink in the west, I’m having some difficulty embracing the first page of a novella that starts out: “My Mom the Bitch lived in a desert fortress,” when Mom should be capitalized only if it stands in place of the woman’s name and never if a possessive pronoun (“my”) precedes it. In fact, the capital “B” on Bitch is not correct, if you want to get technical (and I realize that most of you do not).
Embrace all genres, but embrace the rules of standard educated English when you’re writing, no matter what you’re writing. Please don’t send hate mail, carping about the pickiness of these comments. First, walk a mile (or more) in my shoes, trying for decades to teach these rules to indifferent students who then go forth to write incorrectly.
But they aren’t professional writers, while Adam-Troy Castro is, and a good one, too, except for the dereliction to duty on the part of the trained eyes of those of us who try to pass the torch of proper usage, (even though the hand-off has been pretty shaky in recent years, and getting worse with every year that passes, it seems.) I exult in a book that is both this descriptive, has a great plot, AND uses proper grammar correctly.
So call me old-fashioned and get it over with, but I’m not dropping that torch on the floor while it’s still lit. It might burn down the whole damned English language house, and I’ve done my best to keep that torch burning brightly at several colleges and elsewhere. And so have my mother, sister, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, going back uninterruptedly for 82 years (and, no, I don’t mean me, personally, but all of us, collectively).
So, what other things were “wrong” that cost this otherwise-vibrant book my vote for a Stoker? There were many errors, but here are 7 that leaped off the page, for starters:
Number One (p. 7) “between my brother and I” (It’s “between my brother and me”, object form, object of the preposition “between”).
Number Two (Page 12): The sentence is missing “the” before the word “section” in this part of the sentence (4th line): “…I used a pair of wire cutters to peel a three-sided flap away from THE section over the steps….” (capitals, boldfacing, and underlining are mine, to indicate the MIA article).
Number Three (page 16, line 11): “He made the mistake of asking me to name the first thing I’d want for myself when WE were done,…” (capitals, boldfacing and italics mine, to indicate another MIA word, a pronoun, this time).
Number Four (page 5): “I hadn’t ever worn the getup against it a similarly-hobbled opponent tasked to kill me, …” (Why is “it” in there?)
Number Five (page 29…and there were 8 other instances I’m not mentioning between page 16 and page 29): “When I woke, (introductory dependent clause here, so it needs a comma) the sun had arrived, illuminating a sky that the wire above us sectioned into little diamonds.” [I would even check Webster’s to see if it should be “when I awakened,” but that’s just me.]
In that one sentence, the existence of vivid description (good) is hurt by the distraction of the missing grammar basics (bad).
Number Six (page 36): (line 14) – “…presented to the sun that would soon be attacking both of us will all its considerable force.” (boldface and underlining mine, to demonstrate that nobody read this thing as carefully as I did before it was published, or they would have recognized that this word should be “with.”) These are careless errors which, if they came from unknown writers or freshman composition students, would probably cause the short story or novel to be ripped a new one, handed off to others to correct, or…(if a student in a high school or college class)…would lower the paper’s grade.
Number Seven (page 47, 3 errors in one 60-word paragraph, the 3rd line on the page): “Ethan because he knew what was happening and myself because a tidal wave of white agony had flowed down my back at the moment of impact.” (This error occurs again in the last line on page 54). I’m not even mentioning the need to put a comma after “Ethan.” Okay. I lied. I mentioned it, and I’d have one after “happening,” too. But that’s just me…the old fuddy-duddy, the Dutch girl with her finger in the hole in the dike.
Okay. Enough. Hopefully, I’ve made my point (with fragments) and I won’t be attacked for trying (in vain, it seems today) to defend the established conventions of the English language.
Yes, there were great writers of the Hemingway/Fitzgerald caliber who had to have help, occasionally, from expert editors.
So, where were they on this one?