Sandstone Press

Sandstone Short Fiction Competition – the winners!

Sandstone Short Fiction Competition 2020: Final Results and Judge’s report

Drum roll, please! We are delighted to announce the winners and runners-up in this year’s Sandstone Short Fiction Competition.

1st place:

An Epidemic of Kindness by James Thellusson

2nd place:

A Cat Among the Pigeons by Orla Owen

3rd place:

Helen and the Green Man by Rebecca McKinney

Highly commended:

Quarantine by Electra Rhodes (EE Rhodes)

Mosquito Hawk Graveyard by Grace Mappes

The Watcher by Emma Oswin

The Cave of Curious Counsel by Ian Murphy

Longlisted:

English Practice by Elizabeth Smith

Lockdown in Squirrel Lodge by Sue Dawes

Some Kind of Bug by John McMenemie

To Swing Free by Rebecca Ou

You Are Not Alone by Shelagh Campbell

Judge’s report

I have read quite a few summings-up by judges of short story competitions over the years, and invariably they tell us how they were blown away by the quality of the entries, how so many of the stories could have made the shortlist or the podium on a different day, and how coming up with an actual winner was an exquisite agony.

Just to be different, I would love to report how your stories were all sadly very mediocre, and the handful of vaguely good ones basically picked themselves. The bar was embarrassingly low, and judging your stories was a dreary and tedious business. But I can’t.

We received over 70 stories for Sandstone’s first-ever Short Fiction Competition. Reading through them all, many of them several times, was a joy. You took our two prompts (‘Self-isolation’ and ‘An Epidemic of Kindness’) and ran with them in all sorts of interesting and creative ways. Some of the stories were moving or inspirational. Others were unnerving or darkly satirical. Still others were ingenious or just very funny. And often, of course, they managed to be several of these things at once.

Choosing the winning entries really was very hard indeed. I looked for stories that spoke to their chosen prompt in interesting and unexpected ways. I looked for stories that made good use of the wordcount, that didn’t try to do too much (or too little) within that 500 words but instead made a virtue of the constraint. I looked for a combination of great writing and a great idea. And above all, perhaps, I looked for the stories that stayed with me long after I’d read them.

Your responses to the prompts were fascinating. Some stories looked at the positives emerging from lockdown – of furloughed people helping out with the vulnerable, and neighbours making new connections and paying things forward. Others, like ‘To Swing Free’ and ‘Quarantine’, found small consolations in lockdown: a moment of timeless liberation on a swing, a solar radio that switches itself on every morning when the sun hits. Love under lockdown, sometimes illicit, was another theme.

Our winning story takes a different view of ‘kindness’. In this dystopian satire – a partially redacted dispatch from a Carer on the Frontline of a world with many unnerving echoes of our own – the epidemic has become an enduring fixture of life, the elderly are subject to news censorship and coercive caring, and the phrase ‘Kindness Services’ has a very sinister meaning.

Indeed, the strongest theme to emerge from the stories was a focus on those most overlooked and yet most affected by the epidemic – keyworkers, vulnerable groups, and especially older people. One shortlisted story, ‘The Cave of Curious Counsel’, cleverly imagines a young man going to visit an elderly relative for advice and wisdom as a callow seeker consulting a guru – without ever noticing that the guru has basic needs of their own too, for connection and sustenance. In ‘Lockdown in Squirrel Lodge’, the experiences of lockdown and dementia are movingly compared.

In our second-place story, ‘A Cat Among the Pigeons’, we see an older woman rebel against the so-called kindness of her daughter and son-in-law. Do they really want to keep Dolores safe from harm, as they claim – or have they moved her down to theirs for the free babysitting and ironing? In her defiant mischief-making, Dolores is not about to go quietly…

Other stories focus on the weird states of mind that these strange times can lead us to. In ‘The Watcher’, for example, a lonely academic starts detecting unwelcome messages in the eyes of a passing squirrel. And in our other runner-up, ‘Helen and the Green Man’, fringes and fronds run wild and a most unexpected return to nature is on the cards.

Thank you to everyone who sent in a story. Massive congratulations to everyone on the longlist, and to our winners, of course. But congratulations too to everyone who took part, some of you for the very first time, some of you squeezing in precious time to write in a time of great difficulty. Every one of these stories is testament to the ability of writing to find inspiration in adversity; every one is an achievement.

Dan Brotzel, author of Hotel du Jack