CBC Literary Prizes

Just a Howl by Will Richter

Will Richter has won the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize for his story Just a Howl.

2023 CBC Short Story Prize winner

Close up portrait of a man with short hair wearing a plaid shirt
Will Richter is a writer living in Vancouver. (Submitted by Will Richter)

Will Richter won the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize for Just a Howl.

He won $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point and his work has been published on CBC Books.

If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is open for submissions until May 31.

Will Richter is a writer living in Vancouver. Stories of his have appeared or are forthcoming in various literary magazines in Canada and the U.S., including Arts & Letters, The Fiddlehead, Fiction International, subTerrain, The Threepenny Review and Witness. Will has also written and collaborated on several comic shorts for Rogue Wave Comics, based in Düsseldorf, Germany. He's currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel. He previously made the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize longlist for Proverbs of the Lesser and was also longlisted in 2019 for his story At a Distance.

LISTEN | Will Richter's interview on As It Happens
Author Will Richter talks to As It Happens host Nil Köksal about his story Just a Howl, which won the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize.

"I wrote the story around the time of the Salman Rushdie stabbing, so although the scenario in my story is quite different from that one in many ways, the Rushdie attack was very much on my mind. And of course pointless violence of all kinds is constantly in the news." Richter told CBC Books.

You can read Just a Howl below.

When they brought Ana in for questioning, all she could think of to say was that she hadn't expected it. Expected what? they wanted to know, and she said the knife, the blood, all of it, and they said I guess not, at which point she started to cry, which so far she'd managed to avoid. After that she asked if anyone else should come, and they said like who, who should come? And she said I don't know, a lawyer, and they said if you like, it's within your rights, but by that point she'd stopped paying attention and was thinking of how surreal this all was, the two men with their epaulettes and their badges and their metal chairs and the desk, them on one side, her on the other, the desk like the ones she'd sat at so often in her tutorials at the University of Victoria, but this was no classroom, the detectives no professors of literature. You just don't expect it, she said again, that kind of thing at a reading. What kind of thing? the taller one asked, and she said you know, a murder.

And that was true, the detectives both, in their minds, agreed. You don't expect a murder at a book reading. But then again a murder, a random indiscriminate murder, could happen anywhere these days, couldn't it? At a picnic, at a birthday party, at a movie premiere. You might be at the grocery store with your wife buying cranberries and rice and the next thing you know you've got a bullet in your arm, your thigh, your spleen, your wife screaming, everyone running but not you, no, you're on the floor, dead probably, or at least wounded, or anyway a victim of mass violence. But still, yes, good point, not at a book reading. Of all the places…

On the other hand, they thought—and they thought alike on most things, their trained detective minds like computers running the same code—on the other hand this particular attack couldn't fairly be compared to those other random acts of violence, could it, much less a mass shooting. This was a knifing, a targeted knifing, particular to that author, almost a private affair, albeit carried out in a public manner, although what, you might say, was ever private anymore? And the knifing was only the beginning.

They continued with their questions. What was your involvement in the event? they wanted to know, and she said, involvement? Yes, they said, we understand you were the organizer, and she shook her head in confusion and said no, just the host, they took volunteers from among the grad students and I put up my hand, nothing more than that. Did you know the author beforehand, this Gilman Ross? That was the shorter one asking, and she said no, I didn't, but then corrected herself: Well, I've read his books, but then, who hasn't?

The detectives had not read his books. The taller one read nothing but local histories and the ghostwritten autobiographies of famous businesspeople, and the shorter one the occasional detective novel. Neither of them possessed any love of literary fiction, per se, had only endured the subject in high school, although the shorter one once briefly ventured into a Grade 12 lit class before withdrawing, finding Alexander Pope dull beyond belief. But these were no cut-rate detectives; they had done their due diligence on Gilman Ross, had read summaries of his more famous works, especially the controversial ones, of which there were many.

Can you tell us, they said, when you first noticed the attacker? Was he there from the start of the night?

She considered for a moment, then shook her head and said she wasn't sure, but she didn't think so. She'd been busy setting up for the event, unfolding the chairs as the guests arrived in ones and twos and threes—the guests the usual bookish elders but also a younger set, university students and others in their twenties and thirties venturing into the little bookshop, there for Gilman Ross's celebrity but also for each other, checking one another over for the usual reasons. It was a hot late-August night, lots of shorts and short dresses, the room soon muggy with human heat and crowded with voices. They talked about the weather and the end of summer and the news and their classes but not, as you would expect, books, and Ana almost felt sorry for the owner, gentle and grey and hovering alone by his register. The attacker must have slipped in late, said Ana, as the room was small and you would never have missed a man like that in such a crowd, him with his camo hat and cargo shorts and unslept eyes in a young pale hopeless face. He looked nothing like the others.

The taller one cut in: And Gilman Ross, when did he arrive?

Also late, she said, and then corrected herself: Well, not quite late, but later than we expected, almost six-thirty, which was when the talk was supposed to start. Did he seem off in any way? asked the shorter one, and Ana said, off, what do you mean, off? And he said, you know, nervous.

Nervous? Despite herself she gave a little laugh. No, I've never met a man who seemed more relaxed.

How so? they asked, exchanging a look, and she said I'm not sure, something about him, you can feel it in people sometimes, their relaxation. You could tell this was nothing to him. You have to remember, this is a man who's spoken in concert halls, at Davos, at Google, everywhere. He's friends with movie stars, with presidents, shaken hands with the Queen, and who are we? Nothing. Nobodies. It's a miracle he even came to our little festival.

The taller one was watching her closely. You seem to think a lot of him, he said, and something about his tone made her hesitate, made her see herself through their eyes, small and fidgeting and bespectacled, a neurotic excitable lit chick spotted with blood, and she started to run her hands together and could not stop. No, she said, not much, actually. I mean, like I said, I've read his books. I admire them. I admire him, in a way, what he's put up with, but I don't know…

She drifted off, but the detectives felt they could piece together what she was alluding to. They'd read of Gilman Ross's troubles, how he'd voiced certain opinions that transformed him temporarily into a pariah, a sort of mascot for those with extreme politics, until one day he turned around and disowned it all, called the extremists a pack of flag-sucking losers and said he wanted nothing more to do them, after which the correct people liked him again and the incorrect ones wanted him dead. But still… a certain stench now clung to his reputation, a whiff of opportunism and unreliability, and undoubtedly there would be those who, though otherwise polite, thought it only right that a young man in a camo hat should take it into his head to bring a knife to his reading and stab him with it.

That's when they asked about the books, and she said books, what books? You know, the shorter one replied, looking up from his notes and tasting the tail end of his pen, you know, everybody handing books around, whose idea was that? Oh, she said, that was Gilman Ross, it took us all by surprise, and she thought of the self-conscious laughter in the audience, everyone in a fluster as they took books randomly from the shelves and passed them along, the gentle bookseller forcing a smile as his eyes roved for creases and theft. After the commotion the audience settled down again, books in hands and laps, here a Don Quixote, there a Norton, and still there a White Teeth and the collected works of Chaucer.

That's when Gilman Ross began to speak.

He spoke in a casual style, as if by rote, as if utterly bored, as if this exercise were, admittedly, meaningless, but at the same time he did so entrancingly, so that everyone in attendance, even the bookseller, leaned forward to hear.

Take a moment, Gilman Ross had said. Take a moment and simply sit with it, with that stack of paper and ink in front of you, that inert transmission of one mind to yours, a transmission not so much through space as through time. Think of that crude piece of pulp, dressed up and marketed, sure, but still nothing more nor less than a teleportation device, not for flesh but for thoughts, for ideas, for stories... And he went on like that for a while before finally pausing, the whole room silent, the room no longer a bookstore but a church, and Gilman Ross there before them with empty hands resting on his knees, his shoulders slumped, his hair neat but his beard unkempt, going grey, a bit of wildness in it and in him, as if he'd just arrived not from a hotel or a flight but from the woods, from the ice fields, from a mountaintop. Then the empty hands moved. They retrieved a book by Gilman Ross from a stack to one side, and, thus armed, the author began to read.

Tell us about the attack, the detectives interjected, and for a moment Ana blinked in surprise and almost told them no. She wanted to go on and describe the reading, a bit of a surprise, a selection from Gilman Ross's first book, autobiographical, about his childhood, before all the scandal, something timeless and touching and strangely pure. It was the only book of his that she really loved, not academically or intellectually but spiritually, and she remembered wondering why he'd chosen it, this lesser-known book with shabby sales and little acclaim. She'd wondered if he'd entered a more introspective period in his life, if instead of pressing forward into the same unknown future as everyone else he had decided to circle back and back toward something more finite, namely his own past, as if to say that that was elusive enough, thank you, it's all overgrown and I have to beat away the bushes and uncover the old paths, the better to find my way forward again, the better to find myself. That's what she wanted to focus on, on the reading, not the attacker and the knife, not the pale face and despairing eyes and the blade that disappeared under Gilman Ross's blazer and withdrew again, bringing blood, disappearing and reappearing again and again, five or six times at least before Ana or anyone else could react, the audience shrieking, some of them surging forward, others back… and over it all the attacker's guttural bellow like the bleating of an animal, something like "aaaoungggckk," just like that, "aaaoungggckk," that's all he could think to say, or maybe he'd formulated a speech for the occasion, plotted every syllable just like Gilman Ross with his pretty words about pulp, but then in the moment all that emerged, all the coherence still possible after years and years of drowning in memes and chat rooms and slogans and video games and conspiracy rabbit holes, all the eloquence left to him was that sound, just a howl, almost an admission of defeat: "aaaoungggckk."

That's when the rage came over her.

Were you the first one to strike? asked the taller one, and she blinked at him and rubbed her hands together and said what? What do you mean? To strike, the shorter one repeated. With the book—which one was it again?

A collected Shakespeare, she thought but didn't say, a chill suddenly gripping her, a deep-down sickness like her bones themselves were vomiting. Why did they ask that question, of who struck first? Their expressions hadn't changed, their eyes identically attentive and almost friendly under the fluorescent lights. They could have been brothers, not in looks but in spirit, these late-thirties detectives with their few grey strands, these members of the last pre-internet generation with the years only now starting to hammer away at their crueller edges, but were they yet kind, these men? Were they on her side? She felt the weight of it in her hand, the Shakespeare, she saw it swing, felt it crunch into a cheekbone and then the back of a skull. She'd never hit anyone before, was surprised at how satisfying it felt, the thick thud of it, and then the bodies all around her, the grunts of effort and the hiss of flapping pages, the thump of weight against flesh, and then screams, of course, the screams of the attacker, not Gilman Ross, who only gasped, his mouth wide open, taking in too little air, his last laboured and shocked inhalations inaudible over the commotion, over the wail that gathered and spread among the audience members but also in Ana's throat, in her mind as she struck and struck, not able to stop, none of them able to stop, not even when the attacker lay still next to Gilman Ross, not even then.

A lawyer, she croaked, I want a lawyer.

Are you sure? one of them answered, and she nodded and put her face in her hands, closed her eyes to stop the spinning. First to strike, she thought, first and last—that's who they charged in a case like this. But that wasn't fair, she wanted to howl, she'd been defending him, defending Gilman Ross as he lay there without air, maybe taking one last crack at his childhood. She'd been defending metaphor, empathy, introspection, a clever turn of phrase. She'd been defending against the same thing that every decent person had to defend against these days—philistines, philistines and the fixations of the wrong type of stranger. So to hell with them, she thought, to hell with these barely differentiated detectives, one of them getting up now, she heard, getting up and walking out and never realizing that he was part of the problem, part of the vast ignorant blob, although maybe that was too unkind, too judgemental, and who was she to think a thing like that, she who wasn't even sure of her studies anymore, who thought daily about quitting and taking up something useful like hydrology. She opened her eyes, and there before her the shorter one sat tasting his pen and frowning, not liking this either, it seemed, probably wanting to think about something else, something like hockey, anything but Gilman Ross lying there sharing last breaths with his killer, anything but those books with torn spines and red pages finally put to good use, anything but Shakespeare's eternally incurious expression on the book sleeve, that delicate face untroubled by murder, untroubled by centuries, untroubled even by its own high pale forehead turning to blood.

Read the other finalists

About the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize

The winner of the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is currently open until May 31, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. ET. The 2024 CBC Short Story Prize will open in September and the 2024 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January 2024.

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