November 29, 2016

12 awesome speculative fiction short stories


It’s been a strange month for me, and maybe some of you as well. Even so, I read some awesome short fiction, and here are my favourites.

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies, by Brooke Bolander in Uncanny Magazine. “This is not the story of how he killed me, thank fuck.” The fiercest and most ferocious piece of prose I’ve read in a while: this story cuts like a jagged knife. Superb and breathtaking in its fire and focus.

A Spell To Retrieve Your Lover From the Bottom of the Sea, by Ada Hoffman in Strange Horizons. ““Tell me the future,” you will say to your runes, but they will not quite tell you that. Instead you will cast them, again and again, and each future you see will be different.” Wow. This story by Hoffman starts out one way, like a fantasy tale with spells and magic and foreboding warnings, and then, in the telling, twists and turns into a story that goes right into everyday life, and in under your skin. Hoffman’s prose is exquisite: it sings and flows and dances. Outstanding and captivating from start to finish.

The Banshee Behind Beamon’s Bakery, by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali at Diabolical Plots. “Her fury would not allow her to die, nor live. It consumed her flesh but not her horror.” A flash fiction piece that made me cry: yeah, that happened. Expertly twisting together mythical creatures, fantasy, and a real life tragedy, this story glows with righteous anger, grief, and emotional power. Breathtaking.

Every Winter, by E. Catherine Tobler in Apex Magazine. “Halla is barefoot and bloody-mouthed and dancing in the arms of a creature she cannot name.” This story flows and swirls, breathes and moves in a dream-like realm of its own. It is dark and ominous, forbidding and frightening, and mesmerizing at the same time. Halla is an artist who is alone in a house that seems to come alive, a place where things happen that cannot be explained or maybe even fully understood, and at the same time there is inspiration and art in the midst of it all. A gorgeous story with a unique voice and rhythm.

You Said, Promised, Swore, by Alexis A. Hunter at Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. “I cradle my swollen stomach. You used to sleep with your hand there. She kicks that abandoned patch of skin, searching for your touch.” A pregnancy. A spaceship. An accident. And then, someone left alone when they shouldn’t be. This story is riveting and lyrical all at once.

Masks of the Mud God, by Greg Kurzawa in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “The human cocked his head. “Human god? You believe you are the only one who fashions masks?” He grinned for her, and his cruel smile revealed a mouthful of thorns.” Oh, what a strange and at the same time oddly familiar world and mythology this story delves into. Ferocious monsters rule the human beings in this world, but there is something very mysterious lurking in the stories and myths and tales, and when it is unleashed into the world, everything changes. Kurzawa creates a lush and complex story-verse here, and populates it with a strong cast of characters. Great world- and myth-building, and a story that captivated me.

Pay Attention, by Sarah Pinsker in WORDS Zine at Hex Publishers. “Silence blankets chaos, but chaos is my milieu. I’m familiar with chaos.” Pinsker spins this engrossing tale out slowly and deliberately with masterful attention to detail both within (the thoughts and emotions ravaging the main character as she wakes up after a serious incident in battle), and without (the society and technology that changed her life). Near-future science fiction can be hard to pull off, but Pinsker handles it beautifully: I love her quiet storytelling voice and the way she pulls you inside a character and story.

The House That Jessica Built, by Nadia Bulkin in The Dark. “Eventually the only threshold they hadn’t crossed was the sacred basement door. Trevor—or something—was plaintively whispering “no,” but Rue knew she had to open it.” This story is haunting in so many ways and on so many levels: there’s a haunted house, a haunted character, and a haunted life, too. One of the things I love about this story is how Bulkin moves into the horror of the haunting and the ghost and the darkness of that, and then goes beyond it, into what happens if you survive.

Full Up, by Mark Morris in The Dark. “She’s looking over at the window when a shape passes across it. It’s a dark, hunched figure, blacker than the night in which it’s framed.” Confession: this story scared the living daylights out of me. Morris tells it perfectly, keeping everything even-keeled and seemingly solidly realistic, while still infusing every paragraph with that unsettling, creeping feeling that something is really wrong. The suspense builds slowly, steadily, and by the time the payoff comes at the end…it really got to me.

Migration, by Tananarive Due in Nightmare Magazine. “Go on and fucking do it already, said a voice in her head.” That voice was supposed to be dead. Expelled.” This is an evocative and compelling short story, with a deep and dangerous undertow: Tananarive Due doesn’t spell out exactly what is going on with the main character Jazmine, but the hints and tells and signs are there – tugging and nipping at the reader throughout. A fascinating story that puts an ancient presence in the middle of modern life and into a strained and troubled relationship. It left me wanting more, in the best way.

Seven Birthdays, by Ken Liu at Whoa. A mind-blowing and mind-boggling scifi story, this is the kind of science fiction story that is dizzying to read: it is vast in scope – moving through vast reaches of space and time – and yet retains a very real and moving human perspective to the very end.

Second Chances, by Stephen Graham Jones at Gamut. This short story about a scientist studying the strange creatures in her lab, while mourning a very personal loss, hooked me instantly and drew me in. I might have thought I knew where this was going, but then, I got the wind knocked out of me. Brilliant stuff.

(Originally published at

October 30, 2016

11 wondrous speculative fiction short stories


Another month gone by, another leap into the wealth of excellent speculative short fiction available online. There are so many wonderful websites and zines that publish short fiction these days: support the ones you like. Subscribe, use Patreon, buy single issues… it makes a difference to the sites and zines, and it makes a difference for the writers, too.

Here we go: 11 wondrous speculative fiction stories I read this past month.

Man of the House, by Pamela Ferguson in Daily Science Fiction. “Our man is not producing any energy. There is no electricity to power the house. Nothing works.” This is a fabulous short-short story that is so deceptively simple in its construction, and so completely brilliant. If you want to read a story that demonstrates how you can completely twist a story sideways with one sentence (I actually gasped), then this story is for you.

So Normal and Unwritten, by Karen Bovenmyer in IronSoap. “An empty house lived at the end of his street.” This story of a haunted life and a haunted house is beautifully rich and evocative, and it’s the kind of story that worms its way deep inside you. Bovenmyer manages to tell the story, convey a mood, and create a place, with few words but a lot of skill. Terrific soul-piercing horror in one paragraph.

One-Quarter Dreaming, Three-Quarters Want, by Helen Marshall in Liminal Stories. “You waved your hands, and you stamped your feet, and inside you felt a shudder growling and growling inside you.” This story is gut-wrenching because of all the emotions it explores and evokes, and it is also  exquisitely crafted: the language has a poetic gracefulness that is a joy to read. Marshall creates a world and a family that feels vividly real (with all the obvious and less obvious magic stitched into the tale). A fantasy gem.

Late Nights, He Comes, by Armel Dagorn in Liminal Stories. “She’d reached the lake now, could see the water lap up the reedy shore. It looked like something a monster would come slithering right out of.” This story moves through both time and space, exploring a dark and ominous landscape that is weighed down by its own past, its own evils, dangers, and ghosts. Two different timelines run through that landscape, and Dagorn weaves it all together masterfully into an unsettling and poignant tale.

John Wagner’s Last Blues, by Andrew Gilstrap at Mythic Delirium. “He wrestled lullabies from his guitar and then snapped lyrics out like the crack of a whip.” This story hits that often elusive sweet spot between heartwarming (and heartbreaking) sentimentality on one side, and magic-infused reality on the other. It’s a fabulous ghost story that manages to say a whole lot about life, music, and death. A wonderful read that brought tears to my eyes by the end.

The Invisible Stars, by Ryan Row in Shimmer. “It was cold, and the delicate streetlights made him want to shiver and click his mandibles in appreciation.” A completely original take on the “alien stuck on Earth” theme, this story is imbued with such a sense of sadness and longing and loneliness that it made me shiver as I read it. Row’s prose has a melody and sharpness to it that really makes this story special.

What Becomes of the Third-Hearted, by A. Merc Rustad in Shimmer. “The sand has turned to glass and my heels crack the shore in tiny percussions like the breaking of my hearts.” With language that blends prose and poetry, Rustad’s story feels like both a story and a half-remembered dream – existing somewhere in that place between waking and sleeping. One of the most original stories I’ve read about the end of the world.

Damnatio Ad Beastias, by Kristi DeMeester in Apex Magazine. “But it had never been the need for blood that changed her into something monstrous. Had never been the drive to hunt that made her spine arch and crack…” A monster-tale. A tale about self-medication, about addiction, about loneliness, about transformation. DeMeester’s uniquely imagined world is full of fear and pain and longing. I love the way she does not spell out every detail of backstory here, but still manages to pull you in, and make you understand and empathize with the troubled protagonist, and also feel as though you’ve stepped into her life and world.

Rabbit Heart, by Alyssa Wong in Fireside Fiction. “I am not God. I cannot bring back the dead. But I can give them the next best thing.” Wong writes an evocative and darkly beautiful and disturbing tale that puts a new twist on tropes like cloning and bringing the dead back to life. It’s achingly beautiful and terse, and perfectly conveys the madness that can lurk just beneath our grief and loss.

See The Unseeable, Know The Unknowable, by Maria Dahvana Headley in Lightspeed.”She spins slowly, trying to see, but there’s nothing to be seen.

We are the ones above her.

We know better than to be visible, not at this point.

This story knocked me for such a loop that I hardly know what to say about it, except that it’s magical, wonderful, dark and twisted, and absolutely enchanting. There is a forest, there are lights in the forest, there is a woman, and there is a cat. Dahvana’s irresistible prose has a wonderful, mesmerizing cadence and rhythm that mesmerizes from the first sentence to the last.

The House That Creaks, by Elaine Cueygkeng in The Dark. “Do you see my chrysalis, covered in dust and particles, by spider webs whose weavers were innocent of its malevolence?” Deeply unsettling and painfully terrifying, this story blends the supernatural horrors of a haunted house with the much-too-real horror of an oppressive regime that thinks nothing of torturing its citizens. Cueygkeng keeps twisting reality and terror ever tighter, ever darker, making for a truly bone-chilling read.

 (Originally published at


September 30, 2016

13 most excellent speculative fiction short stories


This month, like every month, I read a lot of amazing speculative short fiction. This is also the month when I’ve decided to switch from calling the stories I list “fantasy and science fiction”, to calling them “speculative fiction”. Quite simply because I include stories that are horror, magical realism, and, well… whatever other kind of beautiful weirdness I can find. “Speculative fiction” works nicely as a catch-all in my opinion, so here goes: here are 13 excellent speculative fiction short stories I read this past month:

So, You’re In an Alternate Universe, by Jeremy Packert Burke in Metaphorosis. “Dylan is from the real universe. It’s not alternate, not like your universe. This is what he’s told you just now, although you’ve known him for years.” I fell in love with this exquisitely told story as I read it. Something about it, or maybe everything about it, struck a deep and resonant chord inside me, because in many ways, this is what I remember that my adolescence felt like. Not that I was in an alternate universe (perhaps), but that feeling of not quite knowing what you are and what you will become, or where you belong… those friends and friendships that feel comfortingly familiar, yet in flux and strange at the same time… all of that. I love the language here, the fluid vibe of the story, and the characters. It’s an amazing story that takes a familiar place and tweaks it so you’re not quite sure what reality is anymore.

Homesick, by Sarah Gailey at Fireside Fiction. “She’s staring back at me with those ancient iridescent bug-eyes of hers. They’re starting to frost over — her eyelashes are limned with white and it’s spreading. She’s grinning at me.” Crab-like, fortune-telling aliens that freeze as they tell your fortune. Humanity at home on an alien planet. Earth abandoned. One desperate woman. This story by Gailey is awesomely weird. It twists the whole “alien invasion” trope inside out AND tips it on its head. Fantastic stuff.

War Dog, by Mike Barretta in Apex Magazine. “He had seen the Dog twice before, and they had acknowledged each other at a careful distance. As veterans, they shared the bond of war, but whereas he had emerged from conflict a respected soldier, she had come out as an illegal gene splice, a piece of dangerous biological equipment.” Barretta’s story starts out feeling like a pretty hardcore, noir-ish military scifi tale, set in a future USA ruled by religion and a fascist-like government, and haunted by a strange disease. By the end, it had me sobbing and crying. A jaded ex-military, a genetically altered human, and a society that has no time or place for those who do not obey… this one’s a gut-wrenching heartbreaker.

The Warrior Boy Who Would Not Suffer, by Abhinav Bhat in Apex Magazine. “An old baba come in from the waste, the boy almost smiled. His would be the old not of frailty, but of strength and wisdom and … cruelty. Wise, yet cruel.” This short story, written in such a way that it feels like a myth rediscovered, is profoundly moving and unsettling at the same time, and I mean unsettling in the best way: it is unpredictable and strange and wonderful. Cruelty, wisdom, pain, knowledge… this is a story that cuts deep.

My Body, Herself, by Carmen Maria Machado in Uncanny Magazine. “When the cave’s ceiling crumples, so do I. Through my body, stone kisses stone. I die.” As story-openings go, I’d rate this one a 10 out of 10. And it gets even better from there. Machado’s story is both haunting and haunted: it deals with death and ghosts and the remains (mind and body and soul) of a girl. Machado’s prose is superb – evocative and beautiful – and this story really got under my skin. According to an interview with Machado, the idea for this story came from a dream she had, and it has a dream-like, hallucinatory quality to it that I really love.

The Night Cyclist, by Stephen Graham Jones at “There must be no compulsion to hide the bodies. Otherwise I’d have never found them.” This is a spectacularly good, and very dark story that I might have to go back and study a few times just to get the full flavour of it. What really gets me about this tale, is how Jones manages to a) get me to care about a rather unlikable character, and b) get me to understand and sympathize with what might at first glance appear to be some rather questionable choices that character makes, as the story develops. It’s marvelously well done, firmly planted in the real and everyday, and then slipping a monster into that everyday reality.

Three Kingdoms, by Matthew Sanborn Smith in Kaleidotrope. “My name is Process Five. I’m a product of the former Shyler Military Labs, a cybernetic organism joining the elemental living kingdoms of vegetable and mineral.” This is a gripping story of transformation and unlikely friendship, playing out in a rural landscape in a war-torn world where people wield amazing technology: technology that can both harm and help. A boy and…well, something that is not quite machine, as we know it, form a bond, and then disaster strikes. I love the original world Smith creates in this story, and it’s a really fresh and original take on the “machines vs. humans” science ficion theme.

All the Mermaid Wives, by Gwendolyn Kiste at 87 Bedford. “In the ocean depths, where the water is blacker than squid ink, we’ve never seen nets, so we don’t know how to hide from them. We don’t know how to hide from men either.” Kiste’s story about mermaids, brought up from the ocean to be experimented on, and eventually also sold off as wives, is part horror story, part dark fantasy. There’s so much pain and dread here, and what struck me was how Kiste explores the terror of being separated not only from your home and your family, but also separated from who you are. It’s a harrowing story, beautifully told.

Hungry, by Shveta Thakrar in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. “…she longed to sink her sharp fangs into freshly caught flesh, how delicious a still-beating heart would taste“. Bloody and gloriously grisly, this story about a rakshasi who awakens in the present-day after centuries spent… well, let’s say “petrified”, is a lot of fun, and terribly, awfully good.

Some Breakable Things, by Cassandra Khaw in The Dark. “As though to make up for his absence in life, your father’s ghost follows you everywhere.” This evocative ghost story by Cassandra Khaw is dark and heart-wrenching. The main character is haunted by regret and grief and memories in addition to the actual ghost of her father. It’s the kind of story that made me ache inside when I read it, because the feelings it evokes are so excruciatingly real. A powerful read.

Who Binds and Looses the World with Her Hands, by Rachael K. Jones in Nightmare. “I am sorry to hide you, she would say. I do not want to lose you. The apology mollified the darkness inside me, but never quelled it completely.” This story really knocked the wind out of me. Jones creates a stark and bleak world, alive with its own magic: a magic that does not use spoken spells, but sign language. It’s also a story of complex relationships that are not what they might seem at first. There’s so much tension and suspense threaded through this story, and so much emotion coiled beneath the surface: an amazing read.

Shadow Boy, by Lora Gray in Shimmer. “My shadow seethes and I press my forehead against the rear window glass, neon lights flipping my reflection from infant to ancient. From ugly to divine. From girl to boy.” Ripping into questions of gender, identity, and the struggle to be who we really are (even when the world around us wishes we were otherwise), Gray’s story is brutal and beautiful at the same time. The main character’s desperation and loneliness are vivid and palpable, as Gray’s prose both soars and cuts. This is definitely a must-read.

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde in Shimmer. “What it took for Sam to turn into a laurel tree was a river dream.” People are turning into trees – in their rooms, in their offices. It just happens, and no one is sure why it’s happening, or how it’s happening. This story by Fran Wilde is wonderful, strange, and mesmerizing. It twists and turns through a world where people are haunted by strange dreams and visions, and where people grow roots and bark. As always with Fran Wilde, the world and its people feel real and vivid in the midst of the strange reality they inhabit. A gorgeous, dream-like tale.

(Originally published at