A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro
The name of the story is “The Last Straw.” It is not one of my more famous stories. It is certainly not one of the more successful. I wrote it twenty years ago, spent years trying to sell it, and ultimately sold it to a newspaper’s fiction supplement.
To tell you the advice I didn’t take, and why I’m still glad I didn’t, I need to quickly summarize the story.
It’s the frenetically-told story of young single mother Janet Watson, who here suffers one of the worst Mondays of her life. She has troubles getting the four-year-old ready for the Day Care Center, troubles with the oncoming Period From Hell, troubles in traffic on the way to the Day Care Center, troubles with the snotty lady at the Day Care Center, troubles getting in touch with the oaf of an ex-husband who should have sent the tuition check; troubles at work with the company stooge who clocks her in at ten minutes past nine, troubles with the boss, troubles all morning with nasty customers; troubles with HR, which has just summarily canceled the vacation about to begin; troubles during her lunch hour with the Dentist, who delivers grave news about her periodontal health; a traffic ticket on the way back to work; more troubles with the boss; more troubles with asshole co-workers, more troubles on the phone with the ex-husband who continues to dodge her; a last chewing-out by the boss; complaints from the Day Care Center about aggravating problems with her kid’s behavior. I mean, a Day from Hell.
Throughout all this, she keeps encountering news updates about her municipality’s latest serial killer du jour, a baby-faced, round-cheeked guy whose sketch is inescapable on local news and the front page of local papers, Mama’s Boy. Mama’s Boy goes after young mothers raising young children by themselves. He has killed six in the past three months. Janet does not go two hours, throughout this long and horrific day, without encountering a fresh reference to this guy, but let’s face it; for her, on this particular Monday, it’s background noise.
So we get to the final scene. Janet arrives home with three grocery bags and a squalling toddler, and is sticking her key in the apartment door when the bags break all over the hallway linoleum. Freaking, she runs into the house, dumps the kid in the playpen, runs back out to the hallway, fights off the neighbors big stupid great dane who thinks that this bounty has all be laid out for him, runs in with gooey dripping packages to drop them in the sink, runs back out to get more of the food, makes four trips between the hallway and the sink while her kid screams in the next room, and takes her last trip just in time to hear the message come through on her answering machine that her beloved Uncle Leo has died and that the funeral is tomorrow.
She is literally spinning in emotional overload when she spots the baby-faced, round-cheeked guy standing behind the couch with the butcher knife in his hand. She realizes that he is not emerging from hiding. He has been standing there, in plain sight, all along. She actually did see him all four times she passed through the room, but was too frazzled to actually REGISTER what she saw. It is, of course, Mama’s Boy, here to kill her next.
He comes after her.
I remember the end of the story, verbatim.
”He did not even manage two steps before Janet’s voice shook the entire building like the wrath of God.
”DON’T. EVEN. THINK. IT. BUDDY.”
”Mama’s Boy looked in her eyes and saw his own immediate future written there. It was not pretty. Not pretty at all.
”He almost made it to the window before she brought him down.
”Starting Tuesday morning, when news of his condition hit the papers, everybody started being very, very nice to her.”
Okay, so there you have it. A nice three-thousand word story with, I believe, a strong punch line. And when I had trouble selling it, I went to my friend, the then-bestselling horror writer, to ask him if he could discern what was wrong with it.
He told me that the ending sucked.
He told me that the beginning was okay, even if I put in too many of the aggravating frustrations that made up Janet’s day. He said that I needed to add about three thousand additional words, about the battle for survival that ranges throughout the three rooms of Janet’s apartment, where the killer keeps coming after her and she keeps fighting back with the tools on hand, determined to keep the maniac from her daughter. He said that she should be wounded and keep fighting anyway, come close to death and keep fighting anyway. He said that she should finally win, at horrible cost,driving herself to an act of incredible, vividly-detailed savagery as she ends the guy in some ruthless and bloody manner. There should be the lingering impression being that she would never, ever be the same. He offered to suggest ways to make Janet’s battle for life a grueling ordeal.
I listened to all this and said, “Aren’t there other stories like this? I’m not saying I’ll never write a conventional woman in jeopardy vs. crazed killer story, but it wouldn’t be THIS story; it wouldn’t be the story of a serial killer who attacks the wrong woman at precisely the wrong moment.”
He said that there was a reason why that kind of story was popular, and built careers. He said that if I wanted I could make a novel of it. Maybe the serial killer takes the baby and Janet has to go after him, on her own, to save the child. That could last hundreds of pages, and indeed has; see, for instance, McCammon’s very suspenseful MINE. Why, I could…
”But,” I interrupted, “then it wouldn’t be THIS story. I’m sorry. The ending is non-negotiable.”
The bestselling horror writer shrugged and said that I clearly couldn’t take constructive criticism. I think I can, and have. I also think he completely missed the point of what I was going for, in this particular instance. The story is by standard commercial measurements a failure, but is a nice little artifact that I’m proud of; it’s certainly not a clone of every other story of its kind, but its own separate creature, something that could have only come from me at that particular moment. There were critical successes in my future. I don’t love this story any less, and I believe I showed substantial good sense in protecting it.
This has been an object lesson in the importance of occasionally saying No to story advice from learned eminences.
Thus endeth the lesson.