The Drifter: and other short stories, by Robert Scott-Norton (17:34)

IOD score cardToday we see that invented or foreign prose that is close to English needs to be lampshaded or it feels like an error.

What I gleaned about the stories: If clockwork blackbirds raising the dead don’t move the needle, your world is probably too stressful to be worth leaving the house.

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Note: This is a short story collection, so the rules are slightly different from standard Immerse or Die: instead of reading on every time I lose immersion, I stop reading that story and move on to the next one. As usual, I stop reading after the third WTF.

WTF #1: Conflicting emotional states

Analysis: The first story opens with the protagonist’s cat bringing in a blackbird that’s filled with gears. After a couple of paragraphs, the protagonist snaps awake and realises it was a nightmare about his cat bringing a bird in. This “all a dream” felt a touch clichéd, but the mechanical blackbird image was strong enough that I was still interested in why he had the dream. Then the protagonist rushes from his bedroom to check, and discovers that the mechanical blackbird is still there. So, the nightmare made sense: discovering a bird that my cat had captured was actually a really good mechanical replica would give me odd dreams too. So where was it from, and what was going on?

However, the protagonist’s reactions from this point on were flat, almost blasé. Which threw me out: if the mechanical blackbird wasn’t surprising, then why did the protagonist have the nightmare? And – even if the blackbird was normal – it had featured in a nightmare, so surely there’d be some echoes of the fear?

Both thoroughly muddled about what was supposed to be mundane and what wasn’t in this world, and lacking trust in the evidence presented so far, I pulled the plug.

WTF #2: Unsignalled foreignism

Analysis: The protagonist of the second story is alone in a school after hours. He wants to finish up so he can get back home before Helena drinks all the wine. However, he starts to think someone else is in the school. The author builds the tension with little hints that things might or might not be his imagination. Then, just as he’s certain the intruder is right behind him, the scene cuts to a conversation with Helena later that night. The transition itself was solid, so I was left wanting to read on to see what had happened rather than annoyed at being denied.

Until Helena said “You sure you not been drinking the wine before you go?” The first time I read it, I had a simultaneous sense of the meaning and of something being wrong in the prose. So, I reread it to make sure I hadn’t got the words in a muddle somehow. Again, I could parse it well enough to get a meaning, but also became very aware of the odd tense structure and at least one missing word: I suspect the author intended “You sure you’d not been drinking the wine before you went?” or some variation.

De-immersed I wondered for a moment whether it was intentionally mangled; however, nothing in the protagonist’s thoughts about Helena in the first scene had hinted she might not speak good English and the sentence had brought me to a halt, so I moved on.

Kudo #1: Tactical bathos

Analysis: In more than one story, after a careful build-up of evidence that something unusual or extreme is going to happen, the author closes the story with something less dramatic than expected but still interesting. This slight slackening subverted the tropes without feeling like a bait and switch.

WTF #3: Unsignalled foreignism

Analysis: Several paragraphs into a story, the schoolgirl protagonist referred to a classmate as Natashia. My mind immediately flagged up a spelling mistake, reigniting the fear of errors created by the previous WTF. A moment later, I thought that it might be intentional (Natashia is a Russian name). However, as with the previous WTF, there was no sign that the referenced character was foreign (or had a foreign name).

Kudo #2: Engaging ideas

Analysis: The WTFs smacked me clean out of the stories. However, even the stories I glitched on were engaging until then, so I’ll be returning to this collection when I’m in a leisurely enough mood that having to regain immersion isn’t a major issue.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Download one of these free short stories, in the format of your choice, and decide for yourself.

The Space Between, by Scott J. Robinson (33:30)
White Rabbit Society, by Brendan Detzner (3:59)

About the author

Dave Higgins has worked in law and IT for both public and private sector organisations. When not pursuing these hobbies, he writes poetry and speculative fiction. He was born in Wiltshire, England. Raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and has not stopped since. He currently lives in Bristol with his wife, Nicola, his cats, Jasper and Una, and many shelves of books.