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The Cobra and the Key

by Sam Shelstad

Sam Shelstad (Cliff Haman)

The pitch for an article on “demystifying the writing process” that I received in my email within days of reading The Cobra and the Key was the kind of odd, grandiosely worded missive you might expect from Sam Shelstad, the narrator of Sam Shelstad’s sophomore novel.

Of course, the pitch was not from the fictional Sam Shelstad and he would never hide behind an alias. He would want you to know that he is an author – of a 1,200-page novel titled The Emerald (submitted to a celebrated San Francisco press better known for its budget travel guides); a novel-in-progress based on his own life; and, in anticipation of being discovered as an important literary talent, he is also writing The Cobra and the Key, a how-to guide to aid his fellow writers in their important work. We are firmly in the territory of metafiction and tongue-in-cheek satire.

As with so many guidebooks, Sam Shelstad opens his with a metaphor. It has to do with cobras hidden in boxes to represent the problems that writers face in achieving a good story, a nonsensical conceit that, fortunately, he drops after the prologue, so we are spared being beaten about the head with a recurring motif, something that commonly infests self-help books. (Although poisonous gas does crop up as a bit of an obsession for the narrator.)

Brief, often half-page explanations tackle everything from tips for getting started (what to keep on your desk for inspiration, etc.) to elements of character, plot, setting, and style, as well as navigating the business of publishing itself. The narrator announces his literary snobbery when he writes of arranging books at his job at Value Village in the hope of interesting readers in Virginia Woolf, but the writing advice given is of the most simplistic, juvenile, and slapdash sort.

The Cobra and the Key self-help book cites numerous passages from the work of major writers, but Shelstad fixates on odd details in their writing and inevitably draws ridiculous, and sometimes hilarious, conclusions. The first example, a dismissive take on a passage from Dune, draws a guffaw. When he looks at how Isaac Bashevis Singer uses the description of setting and clothing to establish a character’s circumstances, Shelstad’s conclusion is that: “this can be a clever way to drive up the word count if you’re having a hard time coming up with stuff for your characters to do.”

While dispensing advice, the fictional Sam Shelstad also repeatedly references his own experiences of writing, particularly as they relate to the inspiration for his novel-in-progress, which is based on his (squirm-inducing for the reader) affair with Molly, a much older friend of his mother.

The real Sam Shelstad has a knack for creating unpleasant and prickly, yet also humorous characters. Patti Houlihan, sidekick to the oft-bewildered protagonist of Shelstad’s first novel, Citizens of Light (which won the 2023 Crime Writers of Canada Award for Best Crime First Novel), is an outrageous, bullying, not-so-passive aggressive, but sometimes helpful, and occasionally vulnerable character. The fictional Sam Shelstad is a combination of obtuse and self-aware. He glories in the narcissism and ego that he believes is inherent to any (great) writer, and recognizes how it sabotaged his aforementioned relationship, but he is delusional about his abilities and unaware of how ridiculous and creepy a figure he cuts.

The cumulative effect is a bit much, and the humour can shine through when sections are sampled in smaller doses. Had the character of Sam Shelstad revealed glimpses of true vulnerability, or the self-help guide offered occasional jolts of credible insight, the novel might have greater heft. But for anyone interested in the writing life, or involved with writing and publishing, Shelstad’s metafiction will elicit chuckles of recognition, and the ridiculousness of the satire some definite belly laughs.


Reviewer: Attila Berki

Publisher: Brindle & Glass, Touchwood Editions


Price: $22.00

Page Count: 264 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-99007-112-6

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: December 2023

Categories: Fiction: Novels, Reviews