Starting this month, my monthly speculative short fiction roundups will be appearing here at Curious Fictions. Every month, I'll share a roundup of stories I've read and liked. A brand new feature, for me, is a Soundcloud link to an audio version of the roundup. This first roundup was read while I was drinking a cup of glögg, AKA Swedish mulled wine. (The recipe can be found on my blog.)
If you feel so inclined, you can leave a tip for me right here at Curious Fictions. You can also support the publications that published these stories by picking up a subscription, buying an issue, supporting them on Patreon, or by sharing links and reviews on social media.
"This Is How", by Marie Brennan in Strange Horizons
This is how a valravn is made:
A child dies. Lost in the woods, he curls up at the base of an ancient oak, and never rises again.
I somehow missed this story back in September when it was published in Strange Horizons, but I am very glad I caught it now. Brennan tells us the tale of the valravn -- how it is made, how it dies, how it weakens, how it falters, how it fights, breaks, and changes -- in a tale that is both grim and dark and devastating in its power. A valravn is a terrible creature, a merciless killer that can look both raven and human. It drinks the blood of its victims and keeps their souls locked inside itself, but as the story is told, we also understand that even such a terrible creature as this can be unmade, and maybe re-made, in unexpected ways. Quite simply, this is one of the best short stories I've read this year.
"Whom My Soul Loves", by Rivqa Rafael in Strange Horizons
In Rafael's story, we meet Osnat, a Jewish woman with special powers that make her what you might call a Jewish exorcist. She is the one people in the community turn to when a soul or spirit of the dead clings to the living and the world it should leave behind. Osnat's latest case involves a spirit that is possessing an old woman, and it proves an especially challenging case to solve, as the emotions and regrets fueling the possession bleed into Osnat's own life and past. A gently told, yet unflinchingly sharp and piercing story about love and regrets and a life lived in the shadow of what might have been.
"The Lie Misses You", by John Wiswell in Cast of Wonders
Wiswell's story explores the idea that a lie, even a white lie, can (quite literally) take on a life of its own and affect all those who tell it, as well as those who believe it. In the aftermath of a terrible plague with alien origins, The Lie lives in the house with the parents who made her up. The Lie's sister, Vi, is far away on a dangerous mission, but when she returns, everything changes. Wiswell tells this story with devastating simplicity and clarity, and it's the kind of story that is heavy with both the weight of grief and truth. Wonderful narration by Athena Haq.
"The Eight People Who Murdered Me (Excerpt from Lucy Westenra’s Diary)", by Gwendolyn Kiste in Nightmare
Taking its inspiration straight from the pages of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Kiste's story delves into the life of Lucy Westenra, and puts a new, entertaining and unorthodox spin on her life and afterlife. In Stoker's novel, 19-year-old Lucy is Mina Murray's best friend who attracts the attention of the vampire and eventually becomes an undead herself. In Kiste's version of events, we see it all from Lucy's point of view, giving us a wonderful and subversive take on the classic story.
"The Forge", by Andrew Dykstal in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
In the messy aftermath of the murder of a king, in the midst of the ensuing power struggle, Hodge, who was supposed to guard the king, and Lyric, who was the king's mage, are fleeing the city with the apparently immortal murderer. Behind them, in the city, reality itself seems to be crumbling. The story switches between their perilous flight, and flashbacks to the murder and that followed. Who really killed the king, and how? The clues include shattered runestones, a knife that is impossibly sharp, and a murderer who can't die no matter how many times he is executed. This is an outstanding fantasy story that is both gritty and suspenseful. It is also nuanced and rich in its description of the characters and the world they inhabit. I finished it wanting more of this world and these characters.
"The Longest Night", by Emily B. Cataneo in Black Static #72
I loved Cataneo's short story collection Speaking to Skull Kings when I read it a few years ago, and this story showcases her considerable skills as a teller of strange, haunting tales. In a small, isolated Icelandic village, a ghost lingers on the outskirts of the community. The only way to appease when it appears, is with an ancient ritual that has to be performed in just the right way in order to work. But Birta, who has lived her whole life in the village, has a secret: ever since she was a child, she has yearned to disrupt the ceremony and meet the ghost, to find it, out there in the cold winter night. Cataneo vividly captures the feeling of growing up in, and being part of, a small community: the safety and sense of belonging, but also the claustrophobic feeling of being hemmed in at all times. As a former inhabitant of a small community, I felt for Birta, and I really loved this story.
"Knit Three, Save Four", by Marie Vibbert in F&SF Nov/Dec 2019
There's a dire need for more science fiction stories that involve old-school crafts that will surely still be useful even in the far future, and even if we're traveling among the stars. In Vibbert's story, the art of knitting and crochet end up saving the day on-board a spaceship that is in immediate need of assistance. The story has a quiet sense of humour, and a satisfying down-to-earth appeal (in spite of its spaceship-setting), and has that everyday, working-people vibe that often makes for the best kind of science fiction, in my opinion. Delightful and original.
"The Touches", by Brenda Peynado at TOR.com
I’ve been touched exactly four times in real life. The first was when my mother gave birth to me, picking up her bacteria as I slid out of her womb, the good stuff as well as the bad.
This story is set in a future where humans are isolated from each other and the world, each one living in their own pod, tended by a caretaker robot. Most of the time, except for brief moments spent awake in "dirty" (AKA the real world), they live their lives in a clean and orderly virtual reality where they work, fall in love, and even raise their children. Salipa is one of the humans living this way, but their protected existence might not last forever, as the caretaker robots have begun to age and glitch. A tender and thought-provoking story about human existence and our need for physical interaction with the world and other people.
"Logic Puzzles", by Vaishnavi Patel in The Dark
America is devoid of the chaotic magic of her homeland, devoid of any kind of magic. She tells her father, I would rather die than stay here one more day. Please can we go back to India.
When the daughter of an immigrant family in this story finds her first puzzle books, her world changes: "clean black grids printed against stark white paper, each puzzle a self-contained story far more interesting than her sixth-grade reading materials". She senses a new kind of magic in the books, and soon, she spends most of her time solving puzzles, or even better: making puzzles of her own. There's a slow-creeping, chilling feeling worming its way through this story, as we begin to see that the puzzles are not just changing the girl's life, but that she might be able to change world around her. This is unsettling, skillfully crafted horror.
"The Beckoning Green", by Elizabeth Childs in The Dark
"...I dig with my hands in the backyard until my fingers are sliced open by the earth, until my blood mingles with the blades of grass and the bits of doll. I am hot, but the green under my fingernails seeps coolness into my veins that lodges itself somewhere deep inside of me. I shiver and rub goosebumps from my arms."
Some stories, like this story, are so beautiful and sharp and painful that they cut you right to the bone. We follow a woman from childhood, through war and loss (her brother goes to fight in the Vietnam War), through political and personal changes. And always, always, there is "the green", the longing to, and fear of, disappearing -- utterly and completely -- lurking beneath the surface of her life. Childs's lyrical prose packs a tremendous punch, deftly capturing complex nuances of sadness, loss, and alienation, but also of love, hope, and renewal.
"Written in the Book of the Woods", by LJ Geoffrion in Reckoning
It wasn’t until I had stomped around for about an hour that I began to get the creeps, and not because I was lost. It was the sun.
It hadn’t moved; it just hung there in the sky at about twenty degrees above the western horizon.
This story feels like slipping inside a dream bordering on a nightmare, and I mean that as the most sincere compliment. The protagonist goes into the woods, and there, something happens -- the magic of the woods, of nature, perhaps -- changes them forever: body and soul. It's a gorgeous, evocative and lyrical piece of writing that pulls you in and creeps beneath your skin. Haunting and devastating and fiercely original.
"The Lawman's Boy", by Setsu Uzumé in The Bourbon Penn
Content warnings for this story include suicidal thoughts, bone saw use, and violence against a child. As you can tell, it is strong, dark stuff, and it is expertly told at every turn. The story is set in a world where some people's souls can move to another person, a family member, after death if precautions aren't taken when they die, and especially if they die violently or with unfinished business. Palla, who was formerly a criminal, is now the lawman of her community. Her husband, the father of her child, is in custody after committing a crime, and she has to keep him imprisoned until trial knowing he'll likely be put to death, and also knowing that if he dies in the wrong way, his soul might transfer to someone else and take them over. What follows is a tense, taut, and utterly harrowing story of terrible choices and hard lives.
"Failsafe", by Tim Chawaga in Escape Pod
Machines had been replacing humans in the workplace for years, one job at a time, until finally, for one brief minute, they were all connected, working together as a Singularity.
Ten million people died in seven seconds, and another thirty before it was broken.
"Failsafe" is set in a future where society has been rebuilt with certain security precautions after humanity was almost destroyed by sentient machines. Liv is one of those precautions, a failsafe, there to monitor a certain set of machines and protect humanity from being wiped out by them, if technology were to turn murderous again. However, while the machines are supervised and controlled, they are also still intelligent and aware, and don't necessarily appreciate whatever status quo the humans think they have imposed on them. A thoughtful, unsettling, and thoroughly compelling tale (with a twist!) that touches on grand themes with small gestures. Fantastic narration by Tina Connolly.
"Cloud-Born", by Gregory Feeley in Clarkesworld
“The planet was a ball of wind, which was strange because it was named after a god of the sea.”
I have an irrepressible love for stories that weave together myth and speculative fiction, and Feeley's story does just that. Here, we're aboard a spaceship with a mission to the stars that spans generations. Asia, a young girl, and the other children on board have studied Greek and Roman mythology, and those ancient stories are threaded into the narrative in both subtle and overt ways, as the children try to come to terms with their fate and future, and how different they and their lives will be than that of their parents. This is a layered and deeply moving story that is worth both reading and re-reading for its richness.
"Personal Rakshasi", by Suzan Palumbo in Fireside
"Personal Rakshasi" is a haunting, disquieting, and profoundly moving story about childhood and adolescence, and about what it's like to grow up feeling like an outsider in your own life. It took me straight back into some of the darker parts of my own life, and I believe it might have that effect on a lot of people. On Twitter, writer Suzan Palumbo has this to say about her story: "A Rakshasi is a figure found in many Hindu epics. They are particularly prevalent in the Ramayana. I identified with the Rakshasi growing up, being an outcast and bullied in many ways myself. This story, for me, is partly about reclaiming the Rakshasi and welcoming her in." I especially love how Palumbo infuses the story with the kind of darkness that is often found in horror to tell a story that is about much more than a scary monster.
(First published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of Romolo Tavani's cover art for The Dark #54.)