October 31, 2017

19 freakishly good short stories I read in October


Another month full of wonderful stories. This month, I was absorbed by a wonderful new issue of LampLight, and at the end of the month, Syntax & Salt snuck in a wonderful issue that I will probably come back to next month as well. Here are 19 of the many excellent stories I read this month.

Fixer, Worker, Singer, by Natalia Theodoridou in Shimmer. “Yes, the world is quiet now, but for the creaking of the sky. The hum of the machines below has stopped for the night. There used to be thunder beyond the firmament, but not any more.” A small, tightly controlled and enclosed world inhabited by clockworks in various states of disrepair. What’s beyond the sky? What’s the meaning of their existence? I can’t properly express why and how this story breaks my heart into an infinite number of pieces. One thing is for sure: Theodoridou’s prose is exquisitely crafted, and every word and every sentence sings and trembles.

Monsters, by Edward Ashton in Flash Fiction Online. “Niko starts awake, eyes wide and frantic. He’d been dreaming of the monsters, their long legs enfolding her, their velvet-soft claws caressing her face.” Pain and grief and love entwine in this beautifully crafted story about loss and sickness. A great example of how good and how deeply moving flash fiction can be when it’s done right.

Gone to Wrack and Ruin, by Meryl Stenhouse in Empyreome Magazine.  “…the shadow spread before the ship, streaking across the sea bed. The clear blue water darkened as if under a storm, though the sky was bright and clear.” This is a vivid, powerful, and haunting fantasy tale, set in a world that feels real enough to touch, painted with all its scents and sounds, its beliefs and superstitions. There’s the people with their calloused hands, eking out a living from the ocean, fishing and processing the catch. There’s the new, grand ship. There’s the old gods, lurking in the shadows. A gripping read.

The Ouroboros Bakery, by Octavia Cade in Kaleidotrope. ““Please take it back,” he says. “Please.” It’s not the most urgent plea Oksana has ever heard. This one is still mostly sane. He can still look her in the eye, and if his hands are tight-clasped together so that the knuckles show white, his voice has very little waver in it.” Aaah, this story… Such delicious horror and magic, so carefully and effectively told. And I mean “delicious” literally: the descriptions of baked goods in this story might make your mouth water, even when you start to realize that something other than sugar and flour lurks in the tasty pastries…

River Boy, by Innocent Chizaram Ilo in Fireside Fiction. “A liquid, like ink, swells through your veins when you stare at these watery surfaces. Recently, the watery surfaces have started whispering to you, telling you that you belong to the other side.” An aching, strange, and wonderful story filled with dread and wonder, about of a boy teetering between two worlds. I love this story: the voice, the mythology woven into it, the sadness and longing mixed with water. Gorgeous and unsettling.

The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter, by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Liminal Stories. “Areti is not a fox, not most of the time. She has the beating heart of a fox hidden in her dowry-chest, under layers of linen, blankets and rugs.” A dark and gripping story about war and family, love and deception, and shape-shifting. The prose is exquisite and the story is the kind of multi-layered tale that sticks in your mind and heart long after you’ve read it.

The Heart Seed, by Joanne Rixon in Liminal Stories. “Once upon a time there was a girl who was certain everyone was her enemy. In preparation for the treacherous attacks against her she was convinced were coming, she cut her heart out of her chest.” Dealing with fear and identity, strength and survival, Rixon’s story grips you from the first paragraph, and then burrows ever deeper in beneath your skin. Masterful.

Krace Is Not A Highway, by Scott Vanyur in Strange Horizons. “<Tanks and rockets degrade highway safety,> HiQIRR transmitted. <Blood causes traction inefficiencies.>” Oh my, this deceptively simple story about a robot plugging away at its work in a post-apocalyptic world is something special. Vanyur manages to write a deeply moving tale using small and precise movements. A must-read.

Airswimming, by Aisha Phoenix in Strange Horizons. “I stood there yawning and willing Celeste to make it quick so I could get back to bed, when she bent her knees, pushed up, and started to swim through the air as though the sky were a clear blue sea.” A piercing and haunting tale of grief and family and how we deal with family trauma and abuse. The abuse lurks in the background of the story; at the forefront is how others sometimes try to make us deal with grief and pain in certain ways, even when our grief and pain does not fit into the space provided. Love and friendship, healing and acceptance… these things provide the glimpses of light.

The Weirdo, by Davide Camparsi (translated by Michael Colbert) in The Dark. ““Their eyes are scars. Their fingers are thorns,” the old man continued, drunk. Now that he’d started speaking, it seemed like he couldn’t stop, that he needed to expel the horror that ate away at him or he’d be ripped apart from the inside out.” Italian horror in translation from The Dark, and it is a classic, creepy, unsettling, and gut-wrenching tale. You can feel the wrongness, the ever darker tilt and shift of the world as the story unfolds, and then it grabs you with all its fangs and claws by the end. Fabulous horror.

The Elevator Illimitable, by James Van Pelt in Mythic Delirium. “A tall structure is made up of stories. This building has too many stories to count.” A quiet and moving story of an elevator operator in a strange building that seems both familiar and unsettlingly out of the ordinary as the story unspools. I love the use of small pieces of dialogue, brief but vivid descriptions of characters and floors to create the world, set the mood, and make you see what the building is all about.

Forty Acres and a Mule, by Stephanie Malia Morris in Fiyah. “My parents’ farm has shrunk, as old things tend to do. The shed, the workshop, the paddock with its doubled wire fences and chicken coop — all squat and rain-blackened, coming into focus as I step from the car as if I have put on glasses or wiped rain from a window.” A woman climbs a tree in her parents’ yard while her boyfriend watches and worries. That’s the simple surface of this story. Beneath that surface, there is so much happening: history, memory, and both physical and emotional tension. A wonderful story with so much depth and weight.

Small Town Immortals, by Valerie Alexander in LampLight Magazine. “Like a fairytale witch, she handed me a wineglass filled with greenish-tinged water. — “One sip is all it takes,” she said.” This is a beautifully written, slowburning story that twists itself ever darker and weirder as it goes. I read it late one night, and there are parts of it (for example, at the pond when we first encounter the real magic), that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Excellent story from a great issue of LampLight.

What I Told My Little Girl About the Aliens Preparing to Grind Us Into Hamburgers,
by Adam-Troy Castro in Lightspeed. “She tilted her head, in the manner of any little girl who needed to stay in some kind of motion even when doing something as sedentary as asking a question, and said, “How are they going to grind us into hamburgers?”” Full of sorrow and regret and love, this is also a horror story about an alien invasion and about facing your own demise (as well as the demise of everyone you love). The story’s real strength, is in the telling: the calm and measured way the father talks to his daughter, revealing the horror lurking beneath their life.

No Sleep, by Julia Dixon Evans in Monkeybicycle. “Theo’s face snaps toward mine. His eyes are open, pupils large and black, and he’s not seeing me. He’s not seeing me. I swear he’s not seeing me.” Whoa. This story deals with a child’s night terrors, and I can tell you, that having experienced this very thing myself, it tore. me. apart. Terrifying, chilling, creepy, and just plain excellent.

Prey, by S.L. Coney in Gamut. “Bowing my head, I said a quick prayer against bloody claws and sharp teeth, against things that moved too fast to see.” If you’re looking for the kind of horror that makes your skin crawl and your mind twitch, then this is a story for you. The darkness descends slowly but without mercy as the story progresses and as the victim of the monster…changes. I love how Coney strips away the normal reality bit by bit, revealing the nightmare beneath.

Fandom for Robots, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad in Uncanny Magazine. “Computron has been spending less time in sleep mode after Episode Thirteen’s cliffhanger, and has spent his time conducting objective discussions about HyperWarp’s appeal with commenters on various video streaming sites and anonymous message boards.” What a lovely, funny, an moving story this is, all about an Artificial Intelligence discovering fan-fiction. Prasad masterfully tugs at both funny-bones and heart-strings in this tale, and it’s nice to be reminded that science fiction can feel this good.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses, by Bennett North in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “Then the man’s grin faded and he let out a low keening noise. Smoke began to trickle out of his nostrils. The man spasmed, kicking his legs. A hot white light blossomed under his shirt, and then the fabric began to burn away, and I could see the silhouette of his ribcage over the fire inside.” Set in a parched, harsh world and unforgiving landscape, this story deals with revenge and sin and faith, and what you choose to do with your life. There’s so much excellent worldbuilding packed into this story, yet it never feels weighed down by it. It just serves to tell a story that is part weird west, part horror, and part something utterly unique.

Seven, by Sarah Krenicki in Syntax & Salt. “By far the best age is seven, when the summer grass grows around splayed fingers and each winter breath forms little clouds that morph into animals and pirate ships.” Krenicki’s wonderfully crafted flash fiction piece is perched perfectly between fairytale magic and human reality, packed with emotions: joy, loss, jealousy, anger, regret. What happens when you lose what you think made you special? What do you do when someone else is suddenly more special than you? Exquisite.

(Originally published at mariahaskins.com

October 1, 2017

22 glorious short stories I read in September


There are 22 stories in this month’s roundup, and one reason there are so many is because my kids went to the wave-pool. Sounds weird, maybe, but the best place for me to get the time to read uninterrupted is when I take them to the wave pool. Drop them in the water, sit down, and zone out with some good fiction for a couple of hours. It’s a dream, I’m telling you.

One of my stories this month is from a fantastic issue of Mithila Review. This is an amazing zine, and it is looking for Patreon backers to help them keep going: check out Mithila Reviews Patreon page, and give them some love (and cash!) if you can.

Stories We Carry On The Back Of The Night, by Jasper Sanchez in Mithila Review. “He speaks of that ritual of light and color, of those prayers of song and silt. He narrates a story beyond gravity and physics about people who glimmer and vanish like ghosts.” Read this story. Read read read, this amazing tale by Sanchez. It’s tender, powerful, and utterly unique. It pulls together story-threads about family and identity and friendship, and then blends an other-worldly presence, with the utterly earth-bound joys and sorrows of a young person, coming of age. A brilliant piece of fiction.

Though She Be But Little, by C.S.E. Cooney in Uncanny Magazine. “When the sky turned silver, Potter Hill became… Something else. Just like everything.” How to describe this story by C.S.E. Cooney? Indeed, how to describe any story by C.S.E. Cooney? There’s really nothing like it. An attempt: This story is sort of like a joyfully psychedelic version of Pippi Longstocking, with a child making her way, more or less alone, in the world of grownups. Except that the world is a brightly coloured, frightening, phantasmagoric, post-apocalyptic place where people and places and objects and memories flicker and change. Cooney’s prose skips and jumps over the yawning dark reality beneath the tale, and as always, she is mesmerizing.

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand, by Fran Wilde in Uncanny Magazine. “A shadow ducks low, then high. You hear soft breathing, a giggle. Curious?” Some stories are so sharp and painfully true that they sort of stab right in between your ribs and into your heart. This is one of those stories. The “normal” observer / gawker is brought inside the world of those he would gawk at, and then…then Wilde twists and bends the perspective, making us see the world from a different point of view. Masterful.

The Last Man on Earth Crawls Backs to Life – A Mini-Novel Sequel by John Guzlowski in Flash Fiction Online. “All he knew was that some soft brightness, some color as rich and varied as all the billion names of God was gone. And he was here on this road looking for it.” Guzlowski’s flash-sized, post-apocalyptic mini-novel (this is part two) vibrates and sings with beautiful prose and imagery that makes your mind tremble. As always, he’s a must-read.

Listen and You’ll Hear Us Speak, by A.T. Greenblatt in Flash Fiction Online. “I’ve got what you want,” says the Voice Stealer. But the way he slip-slides into the chair says, “Like hell you’re getting it back.” Another amazing tale from the September edition of FFO. This one is a heart-piercing, emotionally charged story about victims and perpetrators, and how those thought to be voiceless are not necessarily meek or helpless. Fantastic flash by Greenblatt.

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe in Shimmer. “When I dreamed of the peat girl, she was always dead, though she walked out of the bog at night to meet me.” A dead girl is found in a peat bog. She haunts the dreams and days of those who find her, including the protagonist, Roddy. Taaffe’s prose is gorgeous, and the tale itself is a wonder, the kind of story that plays out as much beneath the surface as above it. There is love, desire, and longing in this tale, and many thoughts on how we judge and imagine others to be, and how wrong we often are.

Tumbledown, by Kameron Hurley in Apex Magazine. “…the bear roared and snapped up one of the dogs into its great jaws. The bear was a massive thing, matted and shaggy, with a gory hooked beak and feet as big as Sarnai’s head.” What a kick-ass tale this is! A taut, gripping adventure set in a harsh environment, and against terrible odds. Go read this amazing story right away. Also, I don’t think I have ever recommended two stories by the same writer in one Monthly Roundup, but I’m making an exception this month. Hurley’s story in Beneath Ceaseless SkiesThe Fisherman and the Pig (online on October 5th, or buy the issue right now) is just that good. Don’t miss it: it made me cry and worry over a pig, and there are llamas, too!

Hidden In Skin, by Ian Muneshwar in Gamut. “Something warm and slick nests in the low pit of her stomach, just above her tucked balls. It’s pushing against her skin, pushing up through the dozens of hives which, she sees now, run up her arms, under her dress.” On Twitter, Muneshwar describes this as a “horror story about two conniving, magical drag queens” and says that it “draws inspiration in equal parts from Clive Barker and All About Eve”. I seriously cannot beat or improve on that description, especially since I was flashing back to All About Eve as I read the story. Muneshwar’s horror-tale is a brilliant, dark, gut- and heart-wrenching story of transformation and ambition, and it kept me hooked from the first sentence to the last.

Two Reflections at Midnight, by A. Merc Rustad in Gamut. “There’s an old crossroads a few miles south of the dusty remains of a town that once had a name. It doesn’t anymore. Build your gibbet there. Oh, and you’ll need a body.” Aaaah, this is so good! This tale of an old ritual and sacrifice, performed again and again, is evocative, dark, and haunting, with a glimmer of something that might be hope in the end.

Metal and Flesh, by Marie Vibbert in Daily Science Fiction. “My superiors had warned against giving the organics names–it made them seem too much like people, but I supposed, in private, there was no harm.” Vibbert manages to infuse this story with a dark, twisted, and perfectly understated sense of humour, even though (or because) it is set in a terrible place where enslaved humans are worked to death. Choosing to tell it from the POV of a rather well-meaning, but somewhat clueless, “alien” who tries to understand its complicated, and disposable, organic underlings is a master-stroke,

Jade, Blood, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia in Nightmare. “Yellowed bones tangle with jade necklaces and gold bracelets in the depths of the cenote, where blind fish and crayfish swim. She stands near the edge of the waterhole, observing its beautiful depths, her hands clutching her long skirt.” Oh, what a beautifully told piece of evocative horror this is. A call from something powerful and ancient, lurking below the water. A young woman, above, who has been slighted, overlooked, ignored, and pushed down all her life, and who glimpses the possibility of something else – strong and frightening, yes – but also alluring and liberating. A compelling story.

These Bones Aside, by Lora Gray in The Dark. “Tonight is the last night Yagra will hold her hand. Tonight, Bina swallows the moon.” This is a heartbreaking, painfully beautiful story of love and sacrifice. Motherhood and spirituality, magic and the recurring pattern of an old, sacred ritual… everything is twisted together in this fabulous tale by Gray. There’s a scene towards the end, when the daughter looks up at the inside of the tent and sees what’s been left behind of those who came before her, of what her mother has done, of what she is and will become, that just stunned me.

Twelve Pictures From A Second World War, by Nghi Vo in Strange Horizons. “Across the grainy darkness of the metal crate, white block letters are clearly visible: WENDIGO.” This is a short, sharp piece of flash that sets your imagination on fire like a thrown match. Excellent.

Gallows Girl, by Mel Kassel in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “A good Gallows Girl will open herself a tiny bit, let him scrape off some of her innocence to carry with him as he goes. My sister told me that it hurts a lot. But it’s supposed to be a good hurt, and it’s the only way to know that you did your job.” The voice of Kal, the main character in this story, drew me into this tale from the get-go. She’s strong and delightfully ornery, unwilling to become what society demands: a good and piously pliant gallows girl, charged with the task of easing condemned men’s passage into the next life. The world-building here is perfectly done, with magic and religion and social mores woven skillfully into the telling of the tale. And the ending… well, the ending is perfect, too. (Can I ask for a novel set in this world? Please?)

Corpus Grace, by William Broom in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “As always, there was a moment when their minds formed a bridge and he found himself inside her body. He looked through her eyes into the blackness of the tomb; he smelled the musk of old stone and moisture; he felt the cloth bindings biting into her skin. He felt her pain.” Wow. Broom creates an amazing, vivid world with this story, threading a dark and deliriously strange and unsettling religion into it. The cult and worship of saints is re-imagined in a way that I have not seen before, and I love how the story explores questions of faith and heresy, persecution and spirituality. A thrilling and moving read.

God Thing, by Julia August in Kaleidotrope. “The Last God’s angel met them in the ruins of Sepharvain. It was Rob who first caught the ashen flash of the angel’s hair, because the goddess was surveying the soot-streaked walls and rubble and fractured streets in growing outrage.” What a strange, gripping tale this is. A goddess, possessing a man who now finds himself very far from home, looking for an angel in the rubble of a fallen city. A captivating and uniquely imagined story.

Taiya, by Vanessa Fogg in The Future Fire. “Karen stands behind him, peering into the dusk that gathers outside the kitchen window. She can’t hear it anymore, the ghost. The taiya. So many different ghosts in this strange country, she can’t keep them straight.” A quiet but deeply moving and unsettling ghost story. The strange, foreign ghost outside is not the only thing that haunts the lives of the protagonist and her husband. Fogg expertly weaves together the darkness running beneath everyday life, with the supernatural presence outside the walls. A singular and flawless piece by one of my favourite writers.

Bibliopothecary, by Danielle Atkinson in Cast of Wonders. “The Bibliopothecary was writing out the contraindications on the labels for the dystopian sci-fi when Gretchen stepped up to the counter on her first visit.” One of the stories featured during Cast of Wonders’ Banned Books Week, this is a fantastic and imaginative story. Fiction used as medication, requiring a prescription, and dispensed by a bibliopothecary – this story is fabulously inventive and rich in emotion and detail.

Tasting Notes on the Varietals of the Southern Coast, by Gwendolyn Clare in Fantasy & Science Fiction. “In Rambekh there is a body floating in the mashing vat…Such a waste, eighty or ninety gallons in total, all of it ruined. — It comes as a consolation when I discover their early harvest red is nothing special anyway.” An exquisitely crafted story. On the surface, it’s all about wines, vineyards, and wineries, with deliciously mouth-watering descriptions of various vintages. But below that surface, in the asides, in passing, out of the corner of the observer’s eye, we see a world ravaged by conflict and war and disease. Glorious prose (as always in F&SF).

On Highway 18, by Rebecca Campbell in Fantasy & Science Fiction. “Because these are the sharp, poignant scenes that spark the story, and what begins with two sixteen-year-old girls pledging their eternal ambition and their absolute affection will, in fact, end somewhere else entirely.” Whoa. I love this story in so many ways and for so many reasons. Campbell perfectly captures the feeling of a particular place, in this case small-town Vancouver Island; and the feeling of being a particular age – in your teens and dreaming of where you might go, and what you might become. There are the ghosts that haunt the highway that leads to and from this place, and the ghosts of their own past selves that haunt the characters, too… Brilliant, flawless story.

You and Me and Mars, by Sandy Parsons in Luna Station Quarterly. “The drones are like great eggs, and they pulse with life when I press my body to them. I want to stay there, mesmerized by the juxtaposition of the vast cold emptiness and the warm buzz of potential life.” I have a weakness for stories about Mars. Maybe it’s because of my life-long love of Ray Bradbury’s fiction? This story in LSQ starts off with the promise of scifi-adventure: a trip to Mars in order to establish a colony there. Then, it slowly twists and descends into a tale of loneliness, love, companionship, fear and betrayal in space. But it doesn’t end there, there is no final catastrophe, instead, it keeps going, through the pain of loss and solitude, through to something else. A wonderful, thought-provoking read.

   (Originally published at mariahaskins.com