June 30, 2017

17 brilliantly awesome short stories I read in June


June turned out to be another great month for short fiction, and it was another month where I felt like I should be reading at least twice as much as I actually did. Even reading as much as I do, I feel I’m only scratching the surface of what’s out there!

A special than you to Jason Sizemore at Apex Magazine for his kind words about my monthly short story roundup in his “Words from the Editor” at Apex! Pretty thrilled to be mentioned in some great company!

Here are seventeen of the many great stories I read this past month.

After Burning, by Wren Wallis in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “Almas’s heart has been breaking slowly for months: a numbing crush rather than a clean shatter. It has been ground so fine by now that sometimes she thinks she’ll suffocate under the weight of sand in her chest where her heart used to be.” This is a heart-wrenching story about the devastating losses suffered in war – by individuals and societies – and how difficult, but necessary, it is to keep at least a glimmer of love and empathy alive inside yourself. It is a gorgeously written piece, with prose so good it actually gave me goosebumps to read it. I wanted more more more of this, and luckily for me, the story is connected to the author’s WIP – a novel called ‘Ash’ (read more about it here). I am already looking forward to reading that in the future!

Dandelion, by John Shade in Shimmer. “Our consciousness they spit out like seeds. And we linger there, ghosts on the upload, a warning to all like the heads on spikes of old. They kill us every way they can.” Oh my goodness, how I love this story about a multitude of souls / consciousness, trying to resist being obliterated, trying to fight back against the entity/entities that destroyed them. So strange, so moving, and so mindbending, all at the same time.

Shape Without Form, Shade Without Color, by Sunny Moraine at Tor.com. “I can’t see his face. I know, I know, if I could I would see two ink-ball eyes and a beak ready to stab. In the dark, in bed, he was always looking back at me. He was ready. He was waiting.” Dark, evocative, and brilliant – this short story is a bit like poetry turned into prose (or prose moving like poetry). It explores the fear and fascination of (and attraction to) the haunting darkness outside, and also the darkness inside your own mind and body. An unsettling and mesmerizing read.

Anabasis, by Amal El-Mohtar at Tor.com. “Borders are shape-shifters, too: they change what goes through them. Time was, the only border worth crossing was into the underworld, to fetch back a lover’s life: Take off your shoes, said Ereshkigal to Inanna, your belt, your rings. Take off your armour, your hair, your skin, your flesh. Set your bones aside separately; bag your liquids. Do you have any sensitive areas—” Ancient myth, current politics, anger, fear, and defiance are woven together in this fierce short story. I love El-Mohtar’s incandescent prose, and the way she bares the pain and fury of living with everyday injustice, and of resisting that injustice, while also holding on to your true self.

Water like Air, by Lora Gray in Flash Fiction Online. “Until sludge climbs up her body and binds to the translucent armature of her calves and thighs. When the mud covers her fully, she heaves herself out of the water and onto the shore.” This dark fairytale of love and possession and yearning is beautifully written. In the space of a flash fiction piece, Gray deftly creates characters, builds a world, and reveals the lore and mythology of that world – in this case a pond, and the strange, shape-shifting creatures that live beneath the surface.

Wendy, Darling, by A.C. Wise in Daily Science Fiction. “Darling, darling, darling. Not a name anymore. A weapon. A word to soothe, to dismiss, to hush. Be grateful, darling. Be still, darling. Her name taken from her and turned against her. So what does she have left?” I have a weakness for inventive takes on old fairytales, and this refreshingly fiery take on Peter Pan is masterfully done. Wise tells the story from an older Wendy’s point of view, when Pan reappears to take her daughter. Exploring the issue of consent, this is an excellent, sharp new take on the story.

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time, by K.M. Szpara in Uncanny Magazine.

“You bit me,” I say, because he hasn’t danced around mystery, either. My grand accusation comes out as, “You’re not supposed to do that.”

“I was hungry,” he says, calmly. Like the obvious result of hunger is biting someone.

“So, go to a blood bank like you’re supposed to.”

“It’s not the same.” This story about a transsexual man who is bitten by a vampire is a razor sharp, hot-as-blazes, gut-punch. It brims and bristles with lust, desire, love, longing, regret, and transformation(s). It’s set in a world where vampires are accepted in society, but their behaviour is closely regulated. The various forms of transformation and control and consent at play here gives a lot of depth to the story. There are so many layers here, including the exploration of how society tries to contain and control individuals who don’t conform to whatever is considered “the norm”. This story goes deep, and hits hard.

Secret Keeper, by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam in Nightmare. “You know how this story goes: the girl was kissed in the womb by the devil. When she emerged into the too-bright world, she was missing half her face where his teeth tore it off.” This story is a must-read. Stufflebeam skillfully reworks the “Phantom of the Opera” story into a dark, frightening and somewhat hallucinogenic exploration of identity, power, manipulation, love, confidence….and, well, human relationships in all their messy, flawed glory. Plus, it’s set in a high school (a great place to explore raw, wounded relationships). Brilliantly done with an ending that made me gasp.

The Bois, by R.S.A. Garcia in Truancy Magazine. “It don’t speak. The Bois don’t have language. But impressions and emotions push against my mind and the metallic taste of them fill my mouth. It’s angry, disgusted, but curious too. I grab hold of that feeling like a life-line.” Communicating (and communing) with an alien life-form is a dangerous, deeply unsettling, but also exhilarating experience in this story by Garcia. The language is beautiful and evocative, and there’s so much fear and wonder and longing infused in every scene and sentence. Powerful in every way.

Daddy’s Girl, by Jennifer R. Donohue in Syntax & Salt. “When I was born, my daddy didn’t come home from war, but the army sent a drone, hand sized and with tiny little pincher arms, in a broken-sealed box.” Well, break my heart, why don’t you? This excellent short story will tug at all your heartstrings, mess you up, and rip you apart just a little bit. It’s a fantastic tale about grief, about growing up, about finding love and finding your place in the world, about family and friendship, and about how we’re shaped by those around us, while also shaping ourselves and our lives through the seemingly small choices we make every day.

The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory, by Carlos Hernandez in Lightspeed.

“Gavin, slowly and evenly, says, “Some hornstalkers believe that unicorns are attracted to virgin girls. So they kidnap one to help them in their hunt.”

“What? You can’t be serious.”

Gavin shrugs. “One too many fairy tales when they were kids.” Darkly funny and also rather disturbing, this story imagines a world where our reality is blending with the realities of other, parallel universes. Hint: it turns out the Great Hadron Collider might have had something to do with it…. I loved every bit of this: the mad science of it, the drama of hunting the unicorn hunters (drones!), the occasional flash of gore, and the sadness of unicorns trapped in the wrong universe.

Elena’s Angel, by Aimee Ogden in Apex Magazine. “Universes of color and opportunity explode behind her eyes, and raw emotion dredged up from the core of her provides the cosmic background radiation. — There is an ecstasy in serving as an angel’s medium, she can’t deny that, but whenever it embraces Elena it comes robed in sackcloth.” An incisive and touching story about inspiration and creativity, and what we might consider giving up in order to follow “our muse”. In a world where angels act as “personal helpers” to augment the work of a chosen few, Elena tries to resist her angel: but isn’t it worth the sacrifice to create better art? I especially love the manipulative nature of the angel in this story: it gives their otherworldly powers a frighteningly familiar vibe.

In Your Wake We Sin, by Hadeer Elsbai in The Dark. “The jinn stared at her with insectoid black eyes that were much too big for its small, angled face. Thin lips, flat nose, papery skin stretched taut. Its legs ended in black hooves.

And then it moved.” Good ghost stories are always a treat, and this one is both chilling and moving. The setting is modern day Egypt, and it takes place during a time of protests against the government. A young woman is killed, and when her friends try to find out what really happened to her… well, things don’t go exactly the way they planned. Excellent storytelling by Elsbai, escalating the tension throughout and giving the story a terrific payoff.

The Last Family Pillar, by Timothy Johnson in Gamut. “In the dark, he closes his eyes. In the dark, she glances toward the doorway. In the dark, their worst nightmares materialize.

The dead boy looms in the doorway.

A deeply disturbing and harrowing story of grief, loss, and family. What happens when the dead come back? When they don’t leave and they don’t turn into ferocious zombies or vengeful ghosts, but rather just…linger? The darkest and most unsettling thing in the story, for me at least, is the deep, dark pit of roiling emotion that hides beneath the strength and determination the father forces himself to maintain.

Special mention: Shoreline of Infinity #8

This month I also read Shoreline of Infinity #8. It’s the first time I’ve read this publication, and I was very impressed: this issue was full of terrific stories. Three that stood out for me were:

Goddess with a Human Heart, by Jeannette Ng: an evocative and beautifully written story of the divine, sacrifice, faith, cruelty, and a glimmer of hope.

The Pink Life (La Vie En Rose), by Nathan Susnik: a disturbing and funny tale of a world where you can sell yourself on the stock exchange, and where the real world is hidden beneath a veneer of virtual reality.

These Are the Ways, by Premee Mohamed: a fast-paces, moving, and also heart-wrenching science fiction story of war, love, bad decisions, and loss.


June 1, 2017

16 fabulously fantastic short stories I read in May


Some months, I feel like I just cannot keep up with all the wonderful, beautiful, addictively terrifying stories coming out. Actually, that pretty much describes every month…

Here are 16 of the many fabulous stories I read in May:

Lares Familiares, 1981, by Rebecca Campbell in Liminal Stories. “Over the girl’s shoulder lay the forest’s edge. No movement in the trees, even so he wanted to pull Billy away from the door, and lock it tight and say nothing to anyone in the house—”

Set in British Columbia, this story deals with the inner workings of a family, and the forces shaping its past and present. What grabbed me right from the beginning of the story, was Campbell’s perceptive description of the grand family dinner. If you’ve ever been at one of those big family shindigs (whether or not your family has the same kind of dark undercurrent as the family in the story), you’ll recognize the familiar patterns. I love every facet of this story, especially how it knits together an ancient family mythos with the visible realities of abuse and love, power and submission. Once the unsettling stranger appears, things get even stranger… One of the best stories I’ve read this year.

Fallow, by Ashley Blooms in Shimmer. “He doesn’t have the words to describe how the field reminds him of himself. – – – How it feels like maybe the field needs something only William has, and all William has is the bottle.

This is a breathtakingly good story with so many layers of love, longing, loneliness, desperation. A boy plants a bottle in a fallow field. Something happens, to the bottle and to him. This story has elements of magic realism, fantasy, and horror – but it becomes something different than any of these pieces. Shimmer is a magazine with a very specific vibe, and this is a very “shimmery” story. Unsettling and stunning.

Feathers and Void, by Charles Payseur in Shimmer. “Iv’s thoughts coat mine like oil, slide away, always so clear in the moment but impossible to hold on to. Iv, my crow. My shell. My ship.”

Lyrical, evocative, haunting… I was absolutely floored by this heartrending science fiction story. In a far future, some human test subjects have been fused with birds, and they are used to fight in space – attacking ships, killing enemies, and stealing “treasure”. A space opera on crows’ wings, this story packs an emotional power and an epic vibe into a short story. Stunning and intoxicating writing by Payseur.

Bear Language, by Martin Cahill in Fireside Fiction. “I only have eyes for the mass of brown fur sitting in Daddy’s chair. Maybe it has special bear senses. Maybe it heard me with its big bear ears. The tower of brown fur turns around in the chair and looks at me.
Hello, the bear says.

I love this story so much. LOVE. IT. Heartbreaking and dark, this story of two children stuck in a house with an addicted and abusive father who is not capable of being the parent they need, still manages to be oddly uplifting, thanks to the presence of a Very Good Bear. I really love how Cahill manages to infuse a desperate and nightmarish situation with a fairytale vibe, and gleams of resilience and hope. This story will stick with me for a long time.

Witch’s Hour, by Shannon Connor Winward in Fantasy & Science Fiction. “Before she let them take the stag, Esmelda did one last thing: Her hands greased with its own hot fat and gritty black spices, sigils for gluttony and hunger-lust ground into her palms, she massaged the beast as one might a lover, from the charred wreck of its neck to its crisp, round rump.

This is a knockout story – so deliciously wicked, vivid, rich and bold. It’s set in a castle, and more specifically: the castle’s kitchen. There’s a cook, there are feasts, there’s a ghost (or maybe more than one?), a dead king, a new king, and whole lot of food (if you’re anything like me, reading this tale might actually make you hungry). A rollicking good read.

They Will Take You From You, by Brandon O’Brien in Strange Horizons. “It did feel like I was making it for she. I start calling she Goldie—this lovely barn owl, wings like they was shimmering in water under full moonlight. She would come every night, watch me make something, see it when it finish, and then give a kind o’ bow and fly away…”

A beautiful story about art and creativity and inspiration. Owl-like beings called the Benefactors walk the world, and their presence is at once enticing and threatening: they plant seeds of genius in some chosen humans, but they also claim these geniuses after death, calling it a “cultural harvest”. O’Brien’s prose is lyrical and spellbinding, and this story really got under my skin.

Rest Stop, by Letitia Trent in Gamut. “She looked up at the blue and imagined this sky during a storm, the clouds piling up, bruised and filled with electricity, threatening funnels and hail and rain enough to flood a prairie. It must be such a burden to live under such a heavy sky, she thought. It must do something to you.”

I love stories that take the every-day and twist it into spine-chilling horror. Trent does just that in this sharp and terrifying tale. A rest stop, a mysterious symbol on the wall, a familiar name, a date, and then, the inescapable smell of death. Perfectly crafted, this quietly told story still manages to hit you where it hurts.

Like The Desert Dark, by Chloe N. Clark in Gamut. “I turned from the darkness. Somewhere, time was different and my daughter was gone and I had never been the parent that she needed.”

Clark weaves together a moving and deeply unsettling story from a man’s memories of his daughter, and of his wife, both of them scientists. There are strange experiments that involve space and time and a “shadow biosphere”. There’s a childhood accident that almost claims a life. There’s another accident, or is it an accident?, that results in a disappearance and maybe a death. With each beat, this story twists itself into something stranger and more mysterious, and the ending left me breathless.

The Bone Beaters, by A.M. Muffaz in The Dark. “Watching long leg bones crack and splinter, listening to the rhythmic pounding while she sucked on a new sliver of meat, Tashi felt more at ease. – – – It was easy to believe that in that moment, all their problems were as insignificant as little shards of bone.

This story plays out on a mountain where the dead are brought for their (somewhat gruesome) last rites. Muffaz skilfully wraps up the darkness and horror at the story’s core, in richly evocative descriptions of custom and tradition. This is a world where everyone tries to behave the way society expects of them, while all the while, something terrible is happening just beneath the surface. The story pulls you in with lush descriptions of the world and the inhabitants: their food and rituals, clothing and environment. Brilliant stuff from start to finish.

The Three-Tongued Mummy, by E. Catherine Tobler in Apex Magazine. “For a penny, the three-tongued mummy will tell you your fate. The three-tongued mummy will speak to you in sibilant whispers of the waters at the edge of the pier, the way they lick the stones as if in an effort to climb onto the pier itself...”

I have a soft spot for stories about ancient Egypt, curses, and yes, mummies. Tobler’s story twists and turns the usual cursed mummy story into something even darker and more disturbing than I expected. Ripped from its ancient tomb, sold, and then awakened by Jackson at the traveling circus to be put on display, there’s a horrible, haunting loneliness to this mummy. “You may have whatever you wish,” Jackson tells the mummy, and eventually, the mummy does get its wish. A wickedly dark tale, excellently told.

Heartwood, by L. Chan in Metaphorosis Magazine“My lord,” she said. Her voice held the rough edge of granite crypts and the cool of marble tombstones. She took in her surroundings with glittering eyes. “The Mansion is not as I remembered it, and neither am I.”

The beautiful, poetic prose drew my right into this dark and chilling story that deals with love and obsession that last well beyond death. Again and again the protagonist resurrects the woman he loves hoping to recapture something he lost long ago. What really makes this story work is the defiant nature of the woman. Again and again she resists becoming what he wants to turn her into. This is a fascinating tale, that has the vibe of an ancient legend, retold.

Hexagrammaton, by Hanuš Seiner in TOR.com. “…the quiet song of the running engines could be heard. Their sound wavered with the rhythm of the crew’s words. The virus mediated the crew’s feelings to the engines, just as it opened their minds to the engines’ distant thoughts.”

I’m not sure I can even properly describe the premise of this unique and captivating story. Aliens have visited the solar system. They have infected? blessed? some humans with a virus that rewrites their genetic code into…something else. The aliens have left, but the infected humans are stuck, halfway to their ultimate metamorphosis. Now, a woman might have found something that will change everything. Mathematics, genetic reprogramming, fear, loneliness, a longing to explore the universe… All I can say is: read it. It’s a trippy, disorienting story that is well worth savouring.

A Heart, An Egg, A Lock of Hair, by Kelly M Sandoval in Daily Science Fiction. “She tries to remember the last time anyone touched her. She tries to remember her name. Ruin tugs her along, and she allows herself to be led.”

Oh. This one moved me. It’s such a deep and lonely story of love and loveless-ness, wanting and longing. Sandoval stitches a thin, silvery thread of possible redemption and hope into the tale’s weave, making it shine and glimmer. A profound love-story, with something that looks a lot like a happy ending.

When No One’s Left, by Lora Rivera in Reckoning. “And this broken species of ours should never again have dominion over the earth, now that it’s free. We do not deserve this second chance. I’ve told him this. He agrees.

I love the dark, unsettling, and lyrical tone of this story, set in a world that is almost completely devoid of humans. Two people remain, and they are trying to survive together, haunted by the choice between extinction and… maybe, something like love. Gorgeous prose, and a mesmerizing voice.

The Rule of Capture, by Christopher Brown in Reckoning. “I knew foxes were living back in there in the woods behind the door factory, but the first time I saw one was when it was running away from a realtor.”

This is a non-fiction piece, full of laws and regulations that deal with property and ownership, but the ending, and the skillful writing elevates it to something a lot more than just dry legalese.

Prayers to Broken Stone, by Cat Sparks in Kaleidotrope“I’ve got ghosts,” says Morgan. “They cling to us when they want to.”

This is a profoundly strange and evocative tale of a world haunted by shadows and ghosts, war and despair. It’s a world that feels eerily familiar to our own, but where reality shifts and warps in the presence of mysterious, shadowy figures. Each person in the tale is somehow caught up in a nameless fear they can’t defeat or even see or understand clearly. “We let these creatures through and there’s no turning back…” I re-read this piece a couple of times, just to savour the prose and the ever-twisting and shifting layers of reality.

   (Originally published at mariahaskins.com


9 incredible speculative fiction short stories


December was a busy month for me: lots of feasting, lots of traveling, lots of reading, too. Here are nine stories that are for keeps.

Wooden Boxes Lined with the Tongues of Doves, by Claire Humphrey in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Quite simply one of the best short stories I read in 2016. Magic, love, war, and secrets kept for nefarious purposes… It’s the kind of story that made my heart skip as a reader, and as a writer, I feel like reading it a million times just to appreciate the amazing craftsmanship and luminous talent of how Humphrey creates a world, a mood, and spins it all into such gorgeous dark magic.

Where She Went, by Linden A. Lewis in Beneath Ceaseless Skies“Rhee walked towards the towering obelisks, a hundred feet tall and thick as two men, spurs singing in the desert sand, his wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his brow and one hand poised above his revolver.” A grandfather goes on a quest to find his grand-daughter, a quest that has him heading into a place where nothing is what it seems… and oh my gosh, how I love this story. It is fantasy and science fiction in one, weaving in fairytale creatures and settings in the telling. And, it also has a sort of wild west flavour.

The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage, by Alix E. Harrow at TOR.com. “Without us, the land won’t lie still. It writhes and twists beneath their compasses…” In an alternate version of our world, the land itself changes shape when people move through it, defeating the attempts to tame and cultivate it. Mapmakers are needed to hold the land still, but it is a job that takes a heavy toll. An amazing story, in a uniquely imagined world, with a heart of grief and hope and sorrow.

Too Many Ghosts, by Steve Rasnic Tem in The Dark. “As the tiny lights blinked indistinct faces and pale twisted bodies floated momentarily out of the bark.” An old man carves wood, and sometimes pumpkins, finding the faces of the dead in the material. This is a ghost story of sorts, and Tem expertly weaves a deep and evocative mythology into the telling. A gloriously inventive and evocative read.

Uncontainable, by Helen Stubbs in Apex Magazine“At intervals, all night, she fights invisible monsters. It’s like something is trying to devour her soul.” A child who doesn’t act the way she is supposed to. A lodger who becomes her friend. And a very strange, seemingly helpful woman feeding her special milk to babies… This is an exceptionally creepy tale of mounting horror as you begin to realize just how much darkness lurks beneath the surface. 

The Blood Drip, by Brian Evenson in Nightmare Magazine“My jaw?” asked Nils. He reached up and prodded it, and Karsten thought he saw a jag of bone push up beneath the skin. Then, with a swift movement he crunched the jawbone back in place. “What do you mean?” Evenson’s story is the kind of scary story I love: it’s unsettling to the extreme, and suffused with a slow-creeping, disorienting, almost hallucinatory madness and horror. Brilliant stuff.

All the Souls Like Candle Flames, by Vanessa Fogg in Luna Station Quarterly. “Mikki thought of the Sea Witch. She thought of the songs she heard in the night, the voice calling and the chime of drowned bells. “It’s all one sea,” she said.” This is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking stories I’ve read, and yet it is also full of love and hope and light. Fogg tells the story of orphaned children, the hard life near the sea, and the charms woven to protect the living from the Sea Witch, with exquisite care and skill.

Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou in Shimmer. “I used to grow chrysanthemums in my garden. Now it’s sown with cigarettes and shards of glass.” A story I could read over and over again, just because of the gorgeous language: how it flows and sways and sings, and makes the story shiver to life as you read it. The brutality of war lurks just beneath the surface and the hope of peace, even in defeat, is there too. A must-read.

The Three Nights of the Half-Gent, by Mário de Seabra Coelho in Strange Horizons. “More than once he told himself he would talk to her. After all, he was already dead, you can’t lose anything when you’re dead.” A ghost who revisits the love of his past. A flicker of hope, maybe, just out of (or within) reach. This is a different kind of ghost story, all aglow with gorgeous prose, and its very own take on what might happen after death.

 (Originally published at mariahaskins.com