Many thanks to our judge, Michael Conley, for picking this quarter’s winners from the excellent stories he was sent. Congratulations to our winners and to all who were shortlisted and longlisted in this round.
First of all, thank you to Retreat West for giving me the opportunity to judge these fantastic pieces.
I’ve been at the disappointed end of enough shortlists to know that it’s never very much consolation when the judge says how difficult it was – but now at least I know it’s true! I came back to all ten of these stories several times during the period I’d set myself to make the judgement, deliberately returning to them in different moods and different times of the day. I found myself changing my mind about my top three quite often and I do feel that I saw the value in all of them – hopefully your appearance on the shortlist in the first place is enough to convince you to keep sending these out – I feel sure they all belong in print somewhere!
I chose the theme of Amok because for a while it was the alternative working title of my own debut short story collection, Flare and Falter. I was really interested to see what other writers would do with a theme that I tend to often explore myself. I’ve always liked stories about chaos, where the normal rules of the world are suspended. The shortlisted entries interpreted the theme in different ways and I enjoyed the magic of Uniform, the strong sense of voice in Love Letter To Dr Burns, the passion of The Running, the bitter-sweetness of All At Sea, the bleakness of Twenty Golden Notebooks, the romance of Double Fisherman’s Knot and the surprising twist of My Procrastination. Thank you for letting me read them.
First Place: Skimmed Milk by Emily Harrison
This piece jumped out to me the first time I sat down to read the entries, and remained with me each subsequent time. I liked how subtly it related to the amok theme – all of the chaos had already happened, and this was all about aftermath, the hard business of taking responsibility, tidying up, making things as right as they can be. The ending was a small ray of light out of the story’s dark murk: uplifting without being sentimental or trite. Lennie’s choice felt inevitable but not predictable and I loved her for it.
And the style too: spare and uncompromising. That pigeon, ugh. My favourite thing was the thread of metaphors running through the piece, showing us Lennie’s temptation to let loose and run amok herself – to make the easy choice of cruelty or indifference instead of compassion – ‘if Lennie had a barb wire mouth’, ‘if Lennie had a tar heart’, ‘if Lennie had dust for a spine’. These little moments provided a structure for the piece but also kept reminding us of how hard it can be to do selfless things. Finally, I admired the restraint of not (fully) revealing what had happened to Lennie’s own daughter – this absence at the heart of the story gave it all the more power. Congratulations on a brilliant story.
Runner Up: Alan, On His Birthday by Mikki Aronoff
I need to make sure this report isn’t longer than the story itself! I loved the brevity – it was something that made the piece stand out from the others immediately, but it didn’t feel like a gimmick or like the story was unfinished. I loved the direct engagement with ‘amok’ and the playfulness of your choice of beaver antagonists. How did they get into the amusement park? Why did they run amok? What did that look like, exactly? I love that you didn’t tell me. The beavers were running amok and I believed you. I loved the ending. I love how inappropriately inadequate his mother’s reaction was to realising she’d swapped him. Poor Alan, on his birthday. Or maybe not?
Runner-Up: Bulkheaded Dragons by Maria Thomas
This story crackled with energy. The dragons in the sky managed to be believably real and also a metaphor, and I really enjoyed the lushness of the fantasy-genre descriptive language there. The descriptions of Andy and Sophie felt like a natural extension of the dragon-weather, and I believed in the lust between them – such a difficult thing to do well, but you managed it through the heavy repetition and the simplicity of the verbs and adjectives. The dragon-weather also worked as a backdrop for Danny’s murderous rage, which you picked up through the clever doubling of the basalt rock. This was a really finely wrought piece which impressed me more each time I returned to it – the balance of the weather, the lovers and the murderer was like a finely-tuned machine.
Well done to the winners!
The next and final deadline for this quarterly competition is 30th December and it’s an open theme – just send us your best! See all the info here.
2022 is the last year that we are running this competition. We are launching the WestWord journal and will open for submissions for the month of January 2023. The theme for this submission period is VISION. We want your best micros, flashes and short stories for our new publishing venture! Get all the submission info here.