I recently judged a short story competition for Sentinel Literary Quarterly and they have just announced the results. A lot of fantastic stories were submitted. I enjoyed the variety of literary styles and genres represented, ranging from crime fiction to sci-fi to comedy. The six winning stories are very different in style, but they all take a courageous approach to their subject matter and in each, the quality of writing as well as structure and characterization, is strong. The First Prize Winner, Sarah Evans’s ‘Glittering Girls’, tells the story of Sofiya, a young girl caught in impoverished circumstances who dreams of the city, where ‘fluorescent lights turn night to tinted day’. The story combines a dystopian setting with telling details of Sofiya’s worlds – real and imagined – and has the timeless atmosphere of a fable. The narration is stark, pulling us into the fluctuating current of Sofiya’s emotions as she leaves her drab home behind, not knowing what her ambition might cost her.
The Second Prize-winner, ‘Memory’, by Paxton Avenue, explores a father-son relationship through the lens of reverie. Building up layers of careful detail to create a darkly nostalgic mood, this story is readable and compelling. The writer uses the five senses to lead us between the past and the present, shifting between seasons and years, between childish and adult impressions: ‘As a child, barely taller than the door handle, the boy woke into a high-mooned summer night’. The story ends on a bitter-sweet moment, beautifully evoking the narrator’s sense of loss. The Third Prize goes to a piece of historical fiction by Jim Kroepfl, ‘Spirit of the Pike’, which excels at natural description and skillfully conjures a far-off time and place. The main character, Kannihut, hunts a pike, his thoughts and movements echoing that of the elusive fish. The story is built up moment by moment to create a vivid sense of Kannihut’s experience and the writing throughout is taut and captivating.
The three Highly Commended stories, Julie Swan’s ‘Mind How You Go’, Joan Dowling’s ‘Cold Comfort’ and Andrew Campbell-Kearsey’s ‘Dying to Speak’ are all engaging tales that share a darkly ironic vision of life. ‘Mind How You Go’ creates a futuristic world in which a tour-guide hosts a journey through the mind of a killer. ‘Cold Comfort’ fuses the narrator’s wrenching grief to melancholy visions of her lost child returned to her, cleverly leaving the reader uncertain of whether or not this it a ghost story. ‘Dying to Speak’ is a darkly comic tale of illness, paranoia and eventual epiphany about the narrator’s tragic condition.