For the past several years, Diabolical Plots has opened for submissions for an annual submission window during the month of July. This gives enough time to fully resolve the submission window before things start getting busy in August for The Long List Anthology production. In 2020, the pandemic threw us off our usual cadence and the submission window was postponed, to finally be held in January 2021. Since we are running on a bit of a tight schedule, we solicited a few to make sure that we would have some ready to fit in the schedule without gaps (we haven’t usually solicited any, so this is something new for us). For the submission window itself, 1938 stories were submitted by 1397 different writers. 120 of those stories were held for a final round, which resulted in 20 acceptances from the submission window, plus 4 solicited works that were accepted for a total of 24 for the year.
This submission window marked the first submission window since Ziv Wities became assistant editor! Thank you Ziv for helping to manage the submission queue and for your help with editing stories since the last window’s selections!
There are some familiar names, and at least some authors for whom this is their first professional short fiction publication! All of these stories will be published regularly on the Diabolical Plots site between April 2021 and March 2022, with each month being sent out to newsletter subscribers the month before.
This is the lineup order for the website.
April 2021 “The Day Fair For Guys Becoming Middle Managers” by Rachael K. Jones “For Lack of a Bed” by John Wiswell
May 2021 “The PILGRIM’s Guide to Mars” by Monique Cuillerier “Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan” by Lauren Ring
June 2021 “One More Angel” by Monica Joyce Evans ‘We Will Weather One Another Somehow” by Kristina Ten
July 2021 “Along Our Perforated Creases” by K.W. Colyard “Kudzu” by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers
August 2021 “Fermata” by Sarah Fannon “The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells” by Alexandra Seidel
September 2021 “Rebuttal to Reviewers’ Comments on Edits for ‘Demonstration of a Novel Draconification Protocol on a Human Subject'” by Andrea Kriz “A Guide to Snack Foods After the Apocalypse” by Rachael K. Jones
October 2021 “Audio Recording Left by the CEO of the Ranvannian Colony to Her Daughter, on the Survival Imperative of Maximising Market Profits” by Cassandra Khaw and Matt Dovey “It’s Real Meat!™” by Kurt Pankau
November 2021 “Forced Fields” by Adam Gaylord “Lies I Never Told You” by Jaxton Kimble
December 2021 “There’s An Art to It” by Brian Hugenbruch “There Are Angels and They Are Utilitarians” by Jamie Wahls
January 2022 “Tides That Bind” by Cislyn Smith “Delivery for 3C at Song View” by Marie Croke
February 2022 “The Galactic Induction Handbook” by Mark Vandersluis “Coffee, Doughnuts, and Timeline Reverberations” by Cory Swanson
March 2022 “The House Diminished” by Devan Barlow “The Assembly of Graves” by Rob E. Boley
Most Horror stories are built on contrivance. In Jaws, a shark that absolutely isn’t native to that region attacks swimmers. How did it get there and why is it behaving this way? Neither Benchley’s novel nor Spielberg’s film cares. Little more effort is put into justifying the mayor and business owners forcing beaches to stay open. Those contrivances are compelling because characters are suddenly in peril they’ve never prepared for and are so vulnerable to.
You can find integral contrivance in stories from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Ari Aster’s Hereditary. It can create an eerie sense that things are wrong because characters suddenly lack agency on some important level, or that a pattern of plot events is being broken. It can be your premise, or it can push the plot out of wherever it’s stuck. It’s the thing coming from nowhere – the unjustified jump scare, or needlessly antagonistic bully, and coincidental run-in with a witch.
The problem comes from overuse. Even audiences that don’t know about plot mechanics sense when it happens. There’s an irritation that the story isn’t moving right because event after event isn’t the result of anything they’re invested in.
A great example of this is 2019’s The Lodge, which recently hit streaming platforms including Hulu. The movie’s premise is that a pair of kids and their dad’s new girlfriend get stranded in a lodge and spooky events start happening to them. It’s a perfectly decent premise, right?
The movie begins with the two children’s birth mother committing suicide. The little sister is shattered. The older brother tries to comfort her. It feels like the start of a painful journey for the kids. If you have any parental instincts, you’re ready to care about them.
Then the contrivances hit.
Contrivance 1: There is a six-month time skip.
Time skips usually pull the audience out of a story, but if you haven’t done anything else weird and get the plot moving right away, the audience will adjust. We all adjusted to the beginning of Avengers Endgame, right?
The time skip means we miss the kids’ grieving, coping, and growth. The movie has reset them to not be fully healed, and now they’re mostly anxious and resentful towards their dad. The story is hedging that we have enough residual care for where the kids were before the time skip to still care now.
Contrivance 2: Within one minute of the skip, the dad tells his kids that his girlfriend is coming with them on a ski trip. The kids are hurt by this idea and are in ready-made conflict with the dad.
The movie’s time skip elided all the conflicts in the decision-making. The ski trip isn’t the result of past choices; it’s from nowhere. What the movie has done is skip to a point of conflict without building it up. It’s cheating on narrative. Especially when a story like this has a functional opening, a move like this breaks flow. The hope is that what comes next will justify it.
Next in The Lodge, the kids have to meet the girlfriend. They wait in the car to avoid the social cues of having to greet her. She gets into the car and doesn’t say hi at first. She’s nervous, too, which feels valid. The dad will have to break the ice for them.
Contrivance 3: The dad gets a phone call and leaves them in the car.
Who called? It’s barely mentioned and doesn’t reflect anything else in the plot. He was basically called by the screenplay.
The call is a contrivance to make this scene as awkward as possible. It’s a redundant contrivance since the kids and girlfriend were already awkward. Now it’s just super awkward.
Since it comes close to other recent plot contrivances, it’s easy for this moment to feel forced and grating. This is the compound contrivance effect. The more things that feel unearned, the testier your audience will get.
That night the kids poke into their dad’s computer and reveal the girlfriend’s backstory: she is the survivor of a suicide cult. Part of why she’s so awkward is that she has enormous unresolved trauma.
You might call this an infodump and accuse it of contrivance, but it isn’t really contrived. The kids are using their agency to pursue believable curiosity about this woman who is basically a stranger. What they’ve learned complicates the plot. This is utterly different than arbitrarily jumping forward six months.
Further, the girlfriend is now much more interesting because of the revelation. This sets her up as a trauma victim. When the movie shows her unpacking medication, it’s meaningful to us. With its characters set up, it feels like the movie is finally about to start and we’ll get that scary goodness. We’re ready for chills rather than just awkwardness.
Contrivance 4: In a bold choice, the movie switches POV to the girlfriend.
She isn’t a co-POV. The kids are suddenly supporting characters in her story. On the one hand she’s a fish out of water and mentally ill, so she’s supposed to be sympathetic. On the other hand, if the audience has been attached to anyone it is the kids, and it’s a huge writing risk to relegate them behind her after what they’ve already been through. Such a big change after the earlier contrivances makes the story feel janky. It makes you question what story the movie is even trying to tell.
Following the switch, there are a few minutes of scenes building the girlfriend’s tension with the kids. They freeze up when she accidentally wears their mom’s old hat and demand it back.
The dad sees that she’s having a hard time so he decides to do something nice for her. He decides to give her the combination to his safe, shows her his gun, and takes her shooting.
This is neither contrivance nor natural. It’s in-between. His motive makes sense, but why the hell does he think shooting things will make her feel at home? It’s so brazenly a Chekhov’s Gun scenario, except a character is literally pausing the plot and forcing the gun to appear in scene. Thanks to the compound contrivance effect, things that aren’t pure contrivance cause the same irritation.
It underscores that all the contrivances have made the father a plot device rather than a character. Who is this guy? Why does he want these people to go on vacation together? Why isn’t he helping them bond? He’s never unpacked as a character.
Then we find out why.
Contrivance 5: The dad gets a mystery call from whatever job he has and abruptly decides to leave in their only car, leaving his kids and girlfriend with no way to leave the lodge.
So it turns out the story put no thought into the dad character because it planned to get rid of him ASAP.
Inside the fiction, it’s exasperating that this person did so much to make this unwanted situation happen and then ditched them all. He’d be a good antagonist if he wasn’t leaving the movie now.
Outside the fiction, bigger things are wrong. The movie isn’t telling a story; it’s forcing one to happen, which isn’t nearly as engrossing. It doesn’t feel like the movie has gotten to where it wants to be despite messing around with so much stilted plotting.
The girlfriend and kids watch a movie in the lodge and have cocoa. None of them are acknowledging how awkward their situation is. The daughter feels sick and the girlfriend isn’t super-considerate, but checks her temperature and says her she’s fine. This is tolerable.
Contrivance 6: They wake to find the power, heat, and water is all off. Their phones don’t work. Their clothes, toys, and the girlfriend’s medication is gone.
This one thing is no more contrived than any one thing in Us or The Shining. This contrivance is the premise of the movie, and you probably were watching to get to this point. In fact a sudden contrivance can be exciting. If things build up naturally and then something dramatic changes, like the blood falling into the eye of the dad in 28 Days Later, it can be terrifying.
What The Lodge has done is replace character agency with too many contrivances. Nothing that got us to this premise feels earned. A Horror story can easily get more tense (or intense) as a protagonist makes a series of dangerous decisions, or as an antagonist makes choices raising the stakes. Here instead things keep being pushed along by forces from off-screen or by virtual non-characters.
It feels additionally cloying because we have three viable protagonists here who should have been able to carry the movie up to this event. We cared about the kids. We understood that the girlfriend was unwell and in a tough position. When they do the standard fare of freaking out and blaming each other and ignoring the apparent supernaturalism of their circumstances, it feels like just the next weird contrived thing that’s forcing them to dance.
Before you can even ask what interesting ways they’ll respond with after they finish panicking, well…
Contrivance 7: You’ll be shocked to learn that they are soon snowed in. There is absolutely no leaving the lodge.
From here it’s obvious that they will perform standard trope responses to outside stimuli until some big twist or reveal. The characters never got proper opportunities to inhabit or push their own narrative forward. These are three people with heavy pain in their lives and reasons to be strong individual characters, and an hour of runtime into the movie the most interesting thing now is what bumped into their window.
Overuse like this is why “contrived” is a pejorative. When it’s used well, these intrusions can push characters to reveal more of themselves or just scare the crap out of the audience. If they aren’t used carefully, though, the only victim of a Horror story is the story itself.
John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.
Diabolical Plots was open for submissions once again for the month of July, to solicit stories to buy for the fourth year of fiction publication. 1432 submissions came in from 1066 different writers, of which 122 stories were held for the final round, and 24 stories were accepted. Now that all of the contracts are in hand I am very pleased to share with you the lineup.
There a few names in there that Diabolical Plots has published before, there are some others whose work I know from elsewhere but who are making their first DP appearance in this lineup, and there are yet others that I didn’t know before this–I like to see a mixture of these groups!
All of these stories will be published for the first time around March 2020 in an ebook anthology Diabolical Plots Year Six, and then will be published regularly on the Diabolical Plots site between April 2020 and March 2021, with each month being sent out to newsletter subscribers the month before.
This is the lineup order for the website.
April 2020 “A Promise of Dying Embers” by Jordan Kurella “On You and Your Husband’s Appointment at the Reverse-Crematorium” by Bill Ferris
May 2020 “Everything Important in One Cardboard Box” by Jason Kimble “Synner and the Rise of the Rebel Queen” by Phoebe Wagner
June 2020 “Open House On Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell “The Automatic Ballerina” by Michael Milne
July 2020 “Minutes Past Midnight” by Mark Rivett “Bring the Bones that Sing” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
August 2020 “Finding the Center” by Andrew K. Hoe “For Want of Human Parts” by Casey Lucas
September 2020 “The Last Great Rumpus” by Brian Winfrey “That Good Old Country Living” by Vanessa Montalban
October 2020 “A Complete Transcript of [REDACTED]’s Video Channel, In Order of Upload” by Rhiannon Rasmussen “Are You Being Severed” by Rhys Hughes
November 2020 “Many-Faced Monsters in the Backlands” by Lee Chamney “Mama’s Hand of Glory” by Douglas Ford
December 2020 “‘My Legs Can Fell Trees’ and Other Songs For a Hungry Raptor” by Matthew Schickele “Tony Roomba’s Last Day on Earth” by Maria Haskins
January 2021 “Everyone You Know is a Raven” by Phil Dyer “Unstoned” by Jason Gruber
February 2021 “Energy Power Gets What She Wants” by Matt Dovey “A Study of Sage” by Kel Coleman
March 2021 “Boom & Bust” by David F. Shultz “The Void and the Voice” by Jeff Soesbe
The tank hates revolving doors. They’re petrified watching the doors whoosh by, trying to imagine anyone getting into the convention center through these things. The curb crumbles beneath the tank’s treads, and commuters honk for them to get their back-end out of the road. Two tweens sneak around the tank’s chassis, carrying a rack of brightly colored cosplay wigs, and slip into one of the revolving glass chambers.
“Be brave,” the tank tells themself.
The tank nudges their barrel inside, getting barely halfway in before the door clanks against their barrel. Instinctively they try to back up, rending steel frames and shattering glass everywhere.
Sighing, they tell themself it’ll get better. They’re going to make friends this time.
The Pre-Registration Line is so long that they miss the morning programming. Once they reach Registration, the lady frowns up at them like she was a landmine in a previous life. She says, “You didn’t fill in a gender.”
The tank rumbles. “I don’t associate Male or Female.”
She points at the tank’s cannon. “With that thing?”
“Are you calling my turret genitalia?” It wasn’t, and even if it was, they had the equivalent of a vasectomy and filled it with cement years ago. They lower their cannon, showing the orange safety cap protruding from the muzzle.
“I don’t care what you call it. Guns aren’t allowed, and you have to pick a gender.”
A Marceline from Adventure Time leans around the tank’s treads, squinting at the registrar. “They’ve got the peace bonding cap on there. And the gender crap on the form was optional.”
The registrar says, “Since when?”
“You want me to complain to Con-Ops?”
The registrar grouses and forks over the badge, while the tank turns to Marceline. Her badge reads ‘XIAO.’ They want to tell her that they love Adventure Time, but they can’t word it right. A moment later Xiao whisks away with a plastic-fanged smile and a, “Have a good con!”
Small-talk is hard for tanks.
They get in line for the Cowboy Bebop Cast Reunion, and the hallway is too narrow. Human con-goers have to climb over them to get by. Even though they have no eyes, the lack of eye contact stings. They scooch over, and accidentally cave in the wall to a Men’s Room.
A minute later, gofers come out of the panel room and wave everyone off. “We’re full! Sorry!”
The show’s opening theme blares as the gofers shut the doors. Ironic, but the tank loves that song.
They sulk over to the food court, feeling at least a little companionship with all the other disappointed con-goers. The crowd dissipates to watch an inter-fandom mock battle. MCU Avengers cosplayers desperately fend off assorted Crystal Gems.
A couple of Iron Mans ask for a picture, but they just want to pose like they’re blowing up the tank. The tank revs up to leave.
That’s when they see a Princess Bubblegum with a plastic pink wig, her shoulders hunched, looking around for someone who plainly isn’t there. But someone plainly is: a tall guy in a Red Hood graphic tee.
“The show went off the rails when she didn’t get together with Finn,” Red Hood Fan says in the tone of someone who might never have enjoyed anything in his life. “I don’t see why people ship her with Marcy.”
Her badge just reads ‘PB.’ PB cranes her neck around Red Hood Fan, still avoiding eye contact with him. “Uhm…”
“Wouldn’t it be weird to have gay characters on a kids’ cartoon?”
The tank rolls up behind Red Hood Fan, brushing his shoulder with their cannon. Red Hood Fan cringes away, looking as uncomfortable as PB has this whole time. “Hey, thanks for waiting for me,” the tank lies. “Ready for lunch?”
PB arches a brow, then says, “Yeah!” and sidesteps around the guy.
PB and the tank get out of there quickly, heading south along the titanic line for George R.R. Martin’s autograph. The tank asks, “Were you looking for someone?”
“My girlfriend. We got separated at registration.”
The tank lets PB ride on their turret so she’ll be more visible. This earns thousands of photos from strangers, and halfway down the endless pilgrimage of Game of Thrones fans, they spy a familiar Marceline. PB hops to the floor and kisses Xiao in front of everybody. The tank could blush.
Xiao gives the tank a plastic-fanged smile. “You get around.”
The tank tries to be funny. “Anywhere without revolving doors.”
Both PB and Xiao tilt their heads. Small-talk is hard for tanks.
They chatter, and Xiao balls up her fists at the story of Red Hood Fan. “Why do we even come to these things?”
PB raspberries at her. “You know why.”
The panel doors fly open behind them, and the theme from Cowboy Bebop rings forth. They pivot to get out of the way of the exiting crowd. Missing the panel wasn’t so bad since they made these friends.
Except when the tank looks again, Xiao and PB are gone in the flood of people headed to their next panel. People promptly complain that the tank is obstructing the hall, and they roll along, alone, wondering why they came here at all.
Exiting the building is the only way to avoid people, but the first one they find is another revolving door. The tank heaves a sigh through their chassis. Are they going to have to smash through this one, too?
“We almost lost you!” someone calls, and tugs on their mudguard. It’s Xiao, gesturing toward the adjacent corridor, where PB is waving for them both. “We’re going to the dance party. Want to come?”
The tank is so happy they almost commit several hundred cases of vehicular manslaughter. They roll very carefully to BALLROOM B, where PB and Xiao drag chairs aside to make more room. That lets the tank spin some doughnuts without fearing crushing any dancers.
Xiao whispers something to the band. As houselights dim and glowsticks crack, the band plays the theme from Cowboy Bebop.
PB says, “You know what the song is called, right?”
Author’s Note: At a convention one year, Max Gladstone and I were joking about the problems a tank might have at such an event. That’s what you do when you’re like us. For the same reason, I couldn’t help writing about the poor non-binary tank trying to overcome their social awkwardness.
John (@wiswell) lives where New York keeps all its trees. His fiction has appeared at Fireside Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and Daily Science Fiction. He has never had a cosplayer ride him across a convention center, but he does try to help where he can.
Pseudopod is the weekly horror podcast edited by Shawn Garrett and Alex Hofelich. 2016 marked some major moments in the podcast’s history. 2017 marked a major landmark for them when they were added to the SFWA list of professional short fiction publications, after raising their flash fiction pay rates to be in line with their pay rates for longer fiction, which means that all four of the Escape Artists podcasts are on the list–Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders.
After running a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016 for their 10th anniversary to fun an anthology, that anthology went live in 2017, Of Mortal Things Unsung which included many Pseudopod favorites as well as some brand new original fiction. (My story “What Makes You Tick” that had previously appeared on Pseudopod was reprinted in the anthology.)
In February Pseudopod once again participated in the Artemis Rising theme across the Escape Artists podcasts, publishing horror stories by women (including some originals picked out from a special slushpile just for this purpose).
Pseudopod publishes episodes weekly, with occasional Flash on the Borderlands episodes that collect 3 similar-themed flash stories for a single episode, for a total of 66 stories published in 2017, by my count.
Stories that are eligible for this year’s Hugo and Nebula Awards are marked with an asterisk (*), all of which would be credited to Pseudopod as the original publisher.
1. “Under the Rubble” by John Wiswell*
This story as told by survivors in a collapsed grocery store, which collapsed for reasons unknown.
Diabolical Plots was open for submissions once again for the month of July, to solicit stories to buy for the fourth year of fiction publication. 1003 submissions came in from 720 different writers, of which 25 stories were accepted. Now that all of the contracts are in hand I am very pleased to share with you the lineup, which will start as soon as the Year Three stories have wrapped up in March.
This year I think the overall submissions were more on-target to my peculiar tastes than ever. Emphasis on the weird, with a lot of great stories that involve religion without preaching or demonizing it. I am very excited to share these excellent stories with the world.
Since I accepted 25 stories instead of 24, there is one month that will have three stories (which I’d like to see as a regular thing if the recurring funding is there for it).
“Giant Robot and the Infinite Sunset” by Derrick Boden
“Her February Face” by Christie Yant
“The Efficacy of Tyromancy Over Reflective Scrying Methods in Divining Colleagues’ Coming Misfortunes, A Study by Cresivar Ibraxson, Associate Magus, Wintervale University” by Amanda Helms
“Graduation in the Time of Yog-Sothoth” by James Van Pelt
“Tank!” by John Wiswell
“Withholding Judgment Day” by Ryan Dull
“Crimson Hour” by Jesse Sprague
“Jesus and Dave” by Jennifer Lee Rossman
“Medium Matters” by R.K. Duncan
“The Vegan Apocalypse: 50 Years Later” by Benjamin A. Friedman
“Glass in Frozen Time” by M.K. Hutchins
“The Fisher in the Yellow Afternoon” by Michael Anthony Ashley
“Pumpkin and Glass” by Sean R. Robinson
“Still Life With Grave Juice” by Jim Moss
“The Memory Cookbook” by Aaron Fox-Lerner
“The Coal Remembers What It Was” by Paul R. Hardy
“The Hammer’s Prayer” by Benjamin C. Kinney
“For the Last Time, It’s Not a Ray Gun” by Anaea Lay
“The Divided Island” by Rhys Hughes
“The Man Whose Left Arm Was a Cat” by Jennifer Lee Rossman
“The Dictionary For Dreamers” by Cislyn Smith
“Local Senior Celebrates Milestone” by Matthew Claxton
“How Rigel Gained a Rabbi (Briefly)” by Benjamin Blattberg
“Heaven For Everyone” by Aimee Ogden
“The Last Death” by Sahara Frost
Podcastle, the fantasy branch of the Escape Artists podcast, has been running for almost eight years now. And this has been an eventful year for the podcast for several reasons:
They upgraded their pay rate for new fiction to professional rates. The other Escape Artists sister publications are now all pro-paying as well. I’m hoping that will draw ever wider talent (and hopefully get more award interest).
They are now paying their voice acting talent for the first time.
Dave Thompson and Anna Schwind have stepped down from co-editor positions.
Kitty Niclaian and Dawn Phynix were chosen to co-edit, but were unable to fill the roles.
Finally, Rachael Jones and Graeme Dunlop are now the co-editors.
6. “Makeisha in Time” by Rachael K. Jones Makeisha takes reflexive jumps back to random points in time, and each time lives a full lifetime before returning to the exact moment in the present when she left.
7. “Wet” by John Wiswell Immortal helps a ghost girl move on to the other side.