An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:
Always Be Returning by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Sunday Morning Transport
It’s August when Demeter’s daughter returns. Demeter is in a fishing boat, pulling at the heavy nets with her time-dotted hands alongside the young men and women. The people on the boat don’t see her for who she is. Terrible and divine, motherly and familiar.
A gorgeously wrought retelling/reimagining of the myths surrounding Demeter and Persephone. The prose is pure beauty, and I particularly like how Triantafyllou’s story centers on the fraught and sometimes destructive relationship between a mother and a daughter. There is love there, profound love, but you can feel the weight of their past in every interaction. Triantafyllou deftly explores the raw edges and complexities of a relationship that has never, and will never, be easy. There is so much depth and power here in a story that finds new nuances and new shades and shadows in an ancient tale. A real tour de force by one of my favourite writers.
Nubbins by Seán Padraic Birnie in IZ Digital
Ever since he’d been born, Frankie had seemed different.
He had never cried. Hardly moved. Kelly’s sister had not reserved her judgement. She did not bite her lip – never had. Your kid is creepy, Kel, she said. Your kid is weird. The way he just watches you and that.
It’s like he’s waiting, ain’t it?
I love stories about parenthood that let the darkness in and allow you to see the cracks and fissures that can be found in a parent’s relationship with their child. Here, we crawl inside the fear and terror Kelly feels in the presence of her baby boy, Frankie. Frankie is different though it’s hard for Kelly or anyone else to put into words what is so different, strange, and even disturbing about him. Kelly knows it, but she fears what she knows about her child and tries to hide it, to hide Frankie, from others and herself. The real brilliance of this story is in the way it delves into true darkness and horror (especially body horror!), and yet somehow keeps its heart intact. This is not an easy story, its full of terrible thoughts and actions, and frightening changes, and yet it is full of humanity rather monstrosities.
A Change of Clothes by Derek Des Anges at Podcastle (narrated by Isaac Harwood)
Ivan picked up the bag with the fur coat, a packet of Doritos, a can of Coke, and one of the phones he’d lifted. It still had sixty percent battery.
He went into the master bedroom, the one that Darren technically took for himself, wrapped himself in the fur coat and got into the massive bed under two duvets.
“Smells of fucking fish,” he grumbled to no one, and opened the Doritos.
This is a rather unique and rather hilarious selkie story and I love it from beginning to end. Ivan finds a coat and he steals that coat. After that an odd man turns up outside his house and from there things only get weirder. What I really love about this story is the way it plays out once Ivan transforms. I mean, what are the pros and cons of turning into a seal?
First in Fear and Then in Pain by Adam R. Shannon in Nightmare
I wouldn’t describe it as waking up. If you’ve been in a car accident, you know the violence. One moment, your life feels the size of your body, muscular years of loves and hurts wrapped around a thousand calcified tasks, a routine that bears you up even on the mornings when nothing makes sense. Then your days break open with the sound of rupturing metal. You splinter like a windshield. It’s an awakening, of sorts, but it’s not like waking up.
This is a haunted house story that turns and twists into something different than a story about horror and ghosts. There is horror, and there are ghosts, and there is a lot (a lot!) of screaming, but Shannon keeps the story going past all that into something else, into what happens after the horror, about how to find a way to live in the presence of pain and trauma. I love the way friendship finds its way into this story, too, and the reflections on what kind of support and help we might need to find a way to survive.
The Ferryman by Fernanda Coutinho Teixeira in The Deadlands
You are the ferryman. You have no memory of being anything else. Your posture is molded by the whims of the river, your fingers made to curl around the handle of your oar. You know only a certain number of shapes and colors—dark grey for the ground made of stone, black for the river colored with pale shadows. Always moving, the currents guiding you in the right direction. The river always takes you where you are meant to go.
This is a quiet, beautiful story about the ferryman and about how to be the ferryman, and about what happens when you might want to leave the work, the river, behind. I love this deeply personal version of the ferryman's task, and I also love how the landscape of the afterlife is tied so closely to the ferryman and their task. And then that landscape changes when the ferryman changes. It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking story with a unique take on the realm of death.
Muna in Barish by Isha Karki in Lightspeed
The truth is that in sunlight Muna becomes too visible, the umber of her skin, the horns curving from her head, stark markers of difference. That first desperate night in Barish, sneaking in and bedding down in a livestock pen, she had desperately thought of ways to hide these markers. Could she cloak her skin and face? Wrap cloth around her horns? That bone-deep shame of entertaining those thoughts—Muna never wants to feel that again.
An absolutely lovely and wonderful fantasy story about Muna, an outsider in the city she has traveled to, who wants to learn the craft of writing, or rather: word-weaving. It's a story about finding and trusting yourself, about creativity and learning a craft, and it's also about friendship. I love how Muna's story isn't tied up neatly into some kind of big dramatic ending, but is more about how to try to find your own way in the world and not let others dim your light.
Probably Nothing, by Cameron Fischer in Translunar Travelers Lounge
I’m not going to ignore this, but I’m not going to call my doctor either. Not yet. The last time I made an appointment, it got scheduled weeks out, and the problem had cleared up by the time I arrived. I paid money just to look like a hypochondriac explaining what had been going on. Instead, I’ll keep an eye on it. I’ll even take some photos on my phone—document their progress.
OK, so I love shapeshifting stories, and this is a really funny and ingenious take on the genre. I mean, if you start changing a little bit is it really cause for concern or should you just wait and see what happens? I mean, how bad could it be? I really like how this story also hints at what is happening in the wider world and how understated (and darkly funny) the observations and reflections are. One of the many great stories in the latest issue of Translunar Travelers Lounge.
The Ghasts by Lavie Tidhar in Uncanny Magazine
Mara remembered being afraid. So afraid you couldn’t move, knowing there was a monster in there with you, and there was nowhere to run, and no one to believe you. The closet door creaked open. Then it stopped.
The ghast was there.
Mara gets rid of ghasts. She goes into the rooms of children, spends the night, and rids them of the monsters lurking in their closets, or under the bed. But the truth is, Mara is haunted by her own monsters, as well as by the bills piling up at her door, by the money she owes, by the life she is leading that isn't working out the way she thought it would. Tidhar's story weaves together childhood fears and the monsters stalking us into adulthood, and there's a visual and sensory originality to this story that I absolutely love.
Ashes and Buttercream by Malina Douglas in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Yelena Crane)
The domovoi is protecting them. Sofiya knows this, even as her mother’s dismissive remarks prod the fireplace like skewers.
When the flames burn to embers and the ashes in the fireplace thicken, she sees him. A miniature creature with short limbs and stubby toes, a round face and snub-nose, a burnt texture to his skin. He smells like crème brûlée just after the surface has been singed.
Magic, fairytale creatures, and the ragged reality of war and loss come together in this beautiful and heart-piercing story that starts in Lviv, Ukraine and ends up in Poland. I really love how Douglas blends reality and magic, fiction and present day reality here. There's a gentle touch to every facet of this story that makes it resonate and hit home. The story notes at Cast of Wonders say, in part:
The author of this story is not Ukrainian herself, but has friends in the Ukraine and Lviv. She tells us that a close friend asked her to write stories about Ukraine, so she began to write stories set there. This story is part of a series of interconnected stories set in Ukraine and following characters from the Ukrainian diaspora.
City Grown From Seed by Diana Dima in Strange Horizons
Long before you came along, I was myself just a seed in Raffa’s pocket, something she fumbled with as she stepped on the plane, her other hand clutching her mother’s. Small as I was, I sensed her fear. I tried to hum reassuringly. Above the ocean, I helped her fall asleep.
A brilliant, gorgeous story about Raffa, a girl coming to a new country, and about the city that grows from the seed she has brought with her. It's a story about how the city grows, listening to Raffa's stories through the years, and it's also a story about Raffa's life - about love and pain, and about hope. I love how Dima makes the city have a voice and will of its own, and how we see the way Raffa's words and life affect how it grows. It's such a deep, and wonderfully joyful story, even as it contains the darker pieces of Raffa's life.
Resistant by Koji A. Dae in Clarkesworld
Examination rooms are safe. They stay what they are. The memories they drag to the surface make sense. You assume it’s because you’ve been in so many hospital rooms that your brain is packed with too much realism to have space for the random connections it usually throws at you.
In a future where most people have had their brains altered and augmented by nanobots, it is difficult to make a life when your brain rejected those alterations when you were still a small child. In this story, we follow the twin points of view of a scientist using a new form of bio-tech to help those without nanobots, and that of a woman with a brain that is not working the way most people think it should. Running through the story is the experience of synesthesia, AKA experiencing one of your senses through another. Examples are hearing music but seeing shapes, hearing a word and seeing a colour, reading a name and tasting a flavour or seeing a colour, and so on. I really like the way this story focuses on the personal experience of a phenomenon and predicament, while also hinting at the larger world and the wider implications for the people involved. Lovely, subtle science fiction.
The Demon Lord of Broken Concrete by Alex Irvine in Bourbon Penn
Do you believe in God? Sometimes Zack and his friends ask each other this question. They all have different answers, and their answers are always changing. Zack believes that there is more than one god, and that different gods rule over different people. Kids like him, all of them worshipped the Demon Lord of Broken Concrete whether they knew it or not. That was the answer Zack never gave, but the truth of it was all around.
Oh wow, this story really grabbed me. It's horror lurking in everyday life. It's a coming-of-age tale, and the history of a place and its people followed in close detail so that you feel that neighbourhood, that time and place, the dread of walking those streets, and of trying to navigate that adolescence. Some short stories have the weight and heft of an entire novel, and you can feel the darkness and glimpses of light of one life through them. Zack's view of the world he lives in, of the demons and deities ruling the streets and people, is visceral and devastating. Sacrifices are made, blood and death are required, and there's such a real and haunting darkness running through every line of this tale.
The Angel Azrael Battles a Dead God Among the Heretics by Peter Darbyshire in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
The angel Azrael rode the dead horse across the empty lifeless land for what seemed like an eternity, not encountering another living soul until he crossed paths with a mutilated preacher, who erupted from the a great rent in the earth as though Hell itself had spat her out.
This is the latest story in Darbyshire's series of stories about the angel Azrael, wandering through a post-apocalyptic, horror-western landscape ravaged by a devastating war between angels and humans. I love all of these stories, and in the latest one, Azrael's travels take him back to a place he knows only too well: a place of a great battle where he almost lost his soul and life. Turns out, there's another battle waiting for him there, though the enemy is not quite the same as it once was. If you like this story, check out all the other stories about Azrael in Beneath Ceaseless Skies here: https://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/authors/peter-darbyshire/
The Comma: With Her, Bear Is Savage by Rachel Rodman in Kaleidotrope
If a bee larva is raised on royal jelly, it will become a queen; if an alligator embryo is incubated at a low temperature, it will become female; if an Acrididae insect matures under crowded conditions, it will become a locust.
Otherwise, each will develop in another way, to become (respectively) a worker bee, a male, and a plain old grasshopper.
This is called developmental plasticity.
A group of scientists are trying to deal with a terrible, and terrifying, new mutation that seems to be occurring among the bears in certain areas. There's a factory involved, and mysterious emissions into the water, but I won't spoil it because this dark and humorous story is all about what's lurking in that river water. I love when writers commit whole-heartedly to a weird and wonderful story idea, and Rodman definitely goes all out here.
Misericorde by Mari Ness in Kaleidotrope
He has just started eating when she enters the tavern, bringing all conversation to a halt.
She is, he supposes, beautiful. But that’s not why he–and everyone else–is watching her. Nor is it the rich redness of her mouth against the absolute dead whiteness of her skin, or the shimmering fall of white hair framing her face and dancing in the light, or even her eyes, dark blue and glittering.
Oh, what a beautifully wound twist of a story this is. It starts out as fantasy, then takes a turn into science fiction, then comes back to fantasy, and all the threads are lovely and strong. I love Ness's gorgeous prose, and I love the idea of this tale, of those taken "under the hill".
The Broken Princess by K.R. Segriff in Luna Station Quarterly
Somewhere between the melting mountaintops and simmering seas was a magical land called Polk County, Iowa. The people there worked tirelessly for almost no money, and what little they could save, they wagered on horses at the Altoona Raceway.
On the outskirts of Altoona sat a pittance of a farm, ironically named “Queen’s Acres.” Its owner was Juno, an ornery woman who had inherited the property “fair and fucking square” from her thankfully departed mother, Sybil.
Wow, this is a terrific tale that had me hooked from start to finish. I mean, what's not to love? Horses, a horse girl, a witch, a family of witches!, a race, and a family that is messed up in ways you might not even imagine. I just love the way Segriff weaves together present day and magic, fantasy and family into a ripping great story.
Umeboshi by Rebecca Nakaba in khōréō
When I get the first email I think it’s some sort of role-play, a scavenger hunt set up by the conference organizers for participants between presentations. I had only arrived that morning, a day after everyone else, and had spent my time sleeping my way into a jet-lagged cage. Now it’s past midnight and I am wide awake.
At the beach at night, there is a red tide.
This story is both lyrical and visceral as it deals with family, ancestry, history, identity, purpose, relationships, self-knowledge, and so much more. There are intricate layers of emotion and history here, tied into the present and the past, and all of it haunted by the mysterious unknown presence that is sending the narrator chain-emails. And the imagery! There's such a vividly imagined and exquisitely crafted set of scenes here at the beach, in the water, in the dark... What do we carry with us from our ancestors? What shadows and what light? What might hold us back or shape us or help us forward? What happens when you hardly know the names or stories of anyone in your family that came before you? A brilliant, deeply moving read.