April 7, 2021

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - March 2021

Hi, hello, and welcome to my first short fiction roundup written for my new website / reading-blog, Maria's Reading. Starting with this March roundup, all my monthly roundups will be published here. After bringing over all my roundups previously published on my blog and at Curious Fictions, they are finally all together in one place. 

I started writing short fiction roundups for my blog in 2016, so there was a lot of content to bring over, but having them all in one place feels right. 

In 2018 and 2019 when I still wrote for B&N's now defunct Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, I put together two roundups each month: one for B&N and one for my blog. The B&N roundups are still available at the B&N website, but I have provided links to them here.

Currently, I'm proud to be part of the Strange Horizons team, writing a quarterly roundup for them called Short Fiction Treasures, and links to those columns are available on this site as well.

When B&N shut down in 2019, I brought my monthly roundup over to Curious Fictions, partly because I did not have the mind-space or time at that point to make a new home for my roundups, and partly because  Curious Fictions is an awesome site with a great interface for both writers and readers. I will still be posting weekly roundups, reprinted fiction, and more over there.

This month, I'd also like to shout a bit about a new speculative fiction zine that is running a Kickstarter campaign right now. The Deadlands "is a monthly speculative fiction magazine, exploring all aspects of Death and the borders it shares with the living". The Deadlands has a fantastic team on board, and a great lineup of writers too, and if you, like me, have missed Shimmer, then you should know that Shimmer-editor E. Catherine Tobler is the editor of this new zine. Check them out and support them if you can.

If you'd rather listen to the audio version of this roundup, it's available on YouTube

The art for this roundup includes a detail of Nilah Magruder's cover for Fiyah #17.

And now, here is this month's roundup!

Keeping House by Sarah Day at PseudoPod (narrated by Kat Day)

Matt ignored her. He went into the basement room and ran a hand along a wall. His face was distant and unfocused, like he was listening to something she couldn’t hear. He smiled. 

The dark room yawned out beyond them and Lydia felt a little dizzy. She had the sensation of standing on the edge of a cliff looking down. The floor was smooth and uninterrupted. It blurred out beyond the reach of the light.

A young couple are looking for a house. It will be their first home as a couple, and while the house they're looking at seems great, the basement... well, in the basement, Lydia feels the presence of something other. She shrugs it off, but after they move in, things get even stranger for Lydia who starts to feel consumed by the need to clean, to do her domestic chores, to keep house. This is an awesome horror story with a lot of layers that explore traditional gender roles, the way housework is often seen as a woman's responsibility, and the way marriage and relationships sometimes seem to consume women's other ambitions.

The Door by Ike Quigley in Flash Fiction Online

One of the neighbors got in his car and took off down the street like a crazy person. Almost hit a little girl… she looks okay though. The cat is acting strange. She keeps pawing at the air. I dunno. It’s weird. Okay, so give me a call.

Written as a series of transcribed voicemail messages, this story is a subtle and dark piece of cosmic horror in flash format. I love how Quigley captures the growing, unsettling sense of dread in each bit of this story, and I particularly love the pivotal role played by the cat.

A Cold Yesterday in Late July by David Tallerman in The Dark 

After his father's death, the protagonist receives a book of local walks for hikers that his father wanted him to have. He cannot quite fathom a reason why his aloof, and emotionally distant, father insisted he'd have the book, but after the funeral, he decides to follow one of the trails in the book, just to clear his head and get some fresh air. On the way, he finds a quiet empty calm, or void, that he has not  experienced before, and through the following years, he goes on the same hike several more times. And though the protagonist might not notice, there is a change that comes over him as time passes. This is a subtle horror tale with a sense of dread that tickles at the back of your senses right from the start. I love the way the protagonist's change happens quietly and stealthily, and I particularly love how firmly rooted this story is in the landscape and even the changing weather. There's a sense of inevitability here, of how our past and our own family history can reach out and hold us fast, even when we don't realize it's happening.

Spells For Going Forth By Day by V.G. Campen in Metaphorosis

In this story, the Egyptian jackal-headed god Anubis is living in a swamp near New York City. Years ago when they were children, Grace and her brother Matthew, befriended him and have continued to visit him over the years. But now Matthew is in hospital in a coma after an accident, and Grace has come to seek help and guidance from Anubis once again. As it turns out, she might also be able to help Anubis. I absolutely adore this story, and this depiction of Anubis in exile, and there are several scenes in it, in particular one inside the museum towards the end, that are stunning. The ending left me sobbing, and there's a gentle but sure wisdom in the way Anubis speaks to Grace about death and grief and letting go.

 “Every dawn is a victory,” he says. “Remember that, Grace. Every day of life a triumph over the chaos of night.”

The title, of course, refers to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, AKA Spells for Going Forth by Day.

Mouth by Sasha LaPointe in Strange Horizons

I wanted to say it with my whole body. I wanted to say it the way my ancestors would have. I let the words float from my belly up my throat. They caught there like a crash and splintered. I picked them out one by one. 

This is an evocative, lyrical piece about language and identity, and about how the culture and history of so many indigenous peoples, even their languages, have been stolen and buried and then used for other people's purposes, put on display in museums, studied as if they are dead things. In this story, even speaking one simple, intimate phrase has tragic repercussions.

More about Sasha Lapointe:

Sasha LaPointe is a Coast Salish author from the Nooksack and Upper Skagit Indian tribes. Her memoir Red Paint is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press and her collection of poems, Rose Quartz, will be published by Milkweed. Sasha’s writing explores her Coast Salish identity as well as her experiences in the underground punk scene in Seattle and what it means to grow up mixed heritage. Sasha lives in Tacoma, Washington. Website: sasha-lapointe.com

The Sin of America by Catherynne M. Valente in Uncanny Magazine

There’s a woman outside of a town called Sheridan, where the sky comes so near to earth it has to use the crosswalk just like everybody else.

There’s a woman outside of Sheridan, sitting in the sun-yellow booth in the far back corner of the Blue Bison Diner & Souvenir Shoppe under a busted wagon wheel and a pair of wall-mounted commemorative plates. One’s from the moon landing. The other’s from old Barnum Brown discovering the first T-Rex skeleton up at Hell Creek.

There’s a woman outside of Sheridan and she is eating the sin of America.

Valente's story, set in a diner in a regular part of regular America, is both brutal and beautiful. As so often in Valente's work, it's full of lush prose and keenly observed descriptions of the world, people, and food. Also, there is a whole lot of horror lurking beneath the surface here. The twist in this story, once Valente reveals what the "eating of sin" entails and what it means for the person who must consume this feast, reminded me of Shirley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery". 

The Dame With the Earth at Her Back by Sarah Pauling at Escape Pod (narrated by Tina Connolly)

The Glaze was a pretty sight when she first disembarked on Teegarden, at least compared to the dull orange deserts of Mars. Now the glare hurts her eyes, and the shore looks barren-grey.

Maryellen buttons her fur coat. She hops down the low seawall that separates the path from the rocky strip of beach below it, then rolls a luxurious blunt in privacy. She cuts open a cigar from her stash with reverence. The weight of several joints’ worth of giggle-smokes feels holy in her hand.

This story brings together two of my favourite things: an old-school noir vibe and science fiction. Maryellen is a standup comedian who left the solar system to escape some... problems. She found a new planet to hang her coat, but things are not uncomplicated there either, especially when there's espionage and intrigue and maybe even rebellion afoot. Gripping and entertaining from start to finish and full of wonderful characters.

The Center of the Universe by Nadia Shammas in Strange Horizons

This story is part of Strange Horizons' special Palestinian issue and it is also one of the best, gutsiest most harrowing short stories about virtual reality, identity, politics, and AI I've read since Rebecca Roanhorse's "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™" in Apex Magazine. I won't spoil the story by saying more, but please check out this story and this fantastic issue of Strange Horizons.

Studies In Microscopy by Samantha Xiao Cody in Split Lip Magazine

 I began to use my microscope to look at everything that frightened me.

This is a uniquely imagined, beautifully told, and wonderfully weird story about fear, and love, and microscopes, and about finding the courage to look for, and find, the things we want even though we're scared. I won't say more, just: read it.

The Techwork Horse by M.H. Ayinde in Fiyah #17 

The day the horses came to her town, Bola could think of nothing else.

She stood in the shade of the acacia tree while her little brothers clutched at her legs and pointed. Lord Kami rode at the head of the procession of nobles, standing high in the stirrups of his own horse. Three thousand years old, they said of his beast. Kami’s agbada flapped in the wind as he rode, and though his war-mask hid his expression behind the leering face of a jackal, Bola could tell he was grinning.

I have not stopped thinking about this story since I read it. It takes place in a world where humans are locked in an ongoing battle with a strange people called the feverborn. In this world, one of the most mysterious and powerful things used in battle are the techwork horses. It is said that no one but a highborn person can ride them, and that they will only bond to a person who manages to speak to them the right way in an old, almost forgotten language. When Bola first sees the horses as a child, she is mesmerized. All the horses are claimed by highborns, except one, which is left behind in Bola's community. Over the years, as she grows and ages and has a child of her own, and as she grows older still, her love for the techwork horse that no one could awaken remains. There is a moment in this story, the moment when Bola realizes the truth of what she needs to do, what she always needed to do, that spoke to me on so many levels: as a person, as a mother, as a writer, as a human being. A truly outstanding and original work of fiction set in a fascinating world I would love to see more of.

Upland Wildlife by Rhonda Pressley Veit in Black Static #78/79

Welcome to Normal Valley, home of 250 Good Normal People, the sign says. 250, more or less. Good and normal, more or less.

This is a stunningly good tale of horror from Black Static, about two touristing families driving through Normal Valley who happen to stop for a bit of fun horse riding at a seemingly normal farm. It's a trip that comes to quite a terrifying end. At the farm lives a family that are part of the valley, of its history and landscape and its folklore and mythology in a profound way that has terrible repercussions for everyone involved. I love the way this story captures the family dynamics at play among children and adults, both among the visitors and the locals, and I love how folklore and old tales are woven into the narrative throughout. There's a steely tension running through the story, and every twist of the plot  tightens that tension until the breaking point.

The Code for Everything by McKinley Valentine in Fantasy #65

When we meet Izzy at the beginning of this tale, she has just left a party because she feels overwhelmed by all the social interactions that are difficult for her to interpret and participate in without misunderstandings and frustration. What happens next, leads to a wonderful and unique twist on human interactions with the faerie realm, and the idea that there are a multitude of intricate rules you must follow in order to not get into trouble with the fae. A wonderfully quirky and darkly funny story.

Crazy Beautiful by Cat Rambo in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Mar/Apr 2021

This is a mind-bendingly strange and audacious story about an art-producing AI that either goes off the rails, or just follows its instructions extremely well, or maybe it's a bit of both. The story is written as a series of emails, transcripts, and other fragments of communication, and deals with an AI that is made to create art on its own, including gene art and biomodification. The AI was given two drives: to consume art and create it, and one of its creators also included some snippets of theology because what could go wrong with that, right? This is a thrilling, trippy, and spectacular short story.

The Captain and the Quartermaster by C.L. Clark in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

C.L. Clark's story puts us into the middle of an army that has been fighting for years, trying to win freedom from the reign of the Tyrant. After years of warfare, everyone involved is tired, run-down, and on the verge of giving up or at least believing that defeat is close at hand. This goes for the two people at the heart of the tale: the army's Captain and its Quartermaster who have been in a relationship that is as old as the war. In flashbacks, Clark tells us the story of their relationship and the war, and these two stories are tightly intertwined, as their love, and the fortunes of war, waxes and wanes and changes everyone involved in fundamental ways. I love everything about this story, the wistful, reflective mood of it, the way it tells a real love story that is not magically perfect, and how it captures the ups and downs of love, life, and war. How good is this short story by C.L. Clark? Well, I thought it was so good that I immediately went and ordered Clark's novel The Unbroken.

The Three-Day Hunt by Robert R. Chase in Asimov's Jan/Feb 2021 issue

In this story, an American ex-soldier struggling with life after his experiences in Afghanistan, finds a strange disc-shaped vessel, damaged in a crash, near his cabin. Unsure of the origins of the vessel, he sets out to find the presumably injured pilot of the wrecked craft. He is not alone: his dog Tripod, a rescue dog he adopted while overseas, is by his side, helping him track the pilot through the wilderness. While we soon realize that this is a first-contact story, the heart of the tale is the relationship between a a man and his dog, and I love how this story explores the profound and unique bond between humans and dogs.

Barefoot and Midnight by Sheree Renée Thomas in Apex Magazine

In the darkness the mound looked too small, too well-shaped to be natural. Only visible to eyes who had seen hell and lived. Beneath the grass was the specter behind the stories, no one knew the origins of the legend, the haint whose soul was said to hover above Voodoo Fields. 

One night, three white men burn down The Freedmen’s School in Gayoso’s Flats. The children sleeping inside the school perish in the fire. After that horrific night, the Black community grieves, but one of them, Dusa Dayan, is overcome not only by grief but by rage, and she goes looking for vengeance. She knows where to go, she knows what to do, and though the price for that vengeance might seem high, it's a price she's willing to pay. A gloriously sharp and jagged piece of horror.

Las Girlfriends Guide to Subversive Eating by Sabrina Vourvoulias in Apex Magazine

Who better than a trio of middle-aged (+) Latinas from South Philly to show you what can bubble up when la gente decide to cook?

Okay, then. Imagine that instead of reading this, you are climbing into our food truck ...

This is a terrific interactive (!) short story about political resistance and FOOD, and (I think) this marks the first time Apex has published an interactive story. Vourvoulias says that Las Girlfriends are also part of the universe in two of her other stories: "Skin in the Game" from 2014 at TOR.com and "The Life and Times of Johnny the Fox" from the anthology Knaves, published by Outland Publications. I really love the sense of subversive humour and the political edge of this story, and the interactive format makes it an especially interesting read.

If Those Ragged Feet Won't Run by Annie Neugebauer in Apex #122

This story is set in a world where predatory creatures called nightbirds hunt and kill humans. Humans have learned to run and hide from these creatures, but of course, that doesn't always work. As the story begins, a mother and her very young baby are caught in the wilderness and the mother has to find a way to get back to the safety of her village without getting killed. What makes the story stand out, is that the mother is dealing with all the issues of recent childbirth as she has to hide, run, dodge, and fight the monster: breastfeeding, a crying baby, bleeding, joint pain and vaginal pain, weak stomach muscles... I don't think I've ever read a story that takes these very real postpartum details and weaves them into the tale. The result is a tense, taut, and breathtaking chase story that had me on the edge of my seat. And the added twist of the tale, when we realize we're dealing with not one but two mothers... adds to the stories harrowing brilliance.

Submergence by Arula Ratnakar in Clarkesworld

Ratnakar's story is set in a future where humanity has managed to destroy much of the natural world and where a variety of new diseases are wreaking havoc on people everywhere. In order to find new cures, scientists are exploring the oceans, and the creatures there, ravaging life in the ocean as they once ravaged life on land. Another thread in the story involves the development of a radical new procedure that makes it possible to relive a person's memories after their death. The main character, Nithya is chosen to relive the last two years of the life of a scientist named Noor who has died under strange circumstances, and soon, she is plunged into a much more complicated and complex situation than she could have foreseen. This novella is marvelously rich and layered. It's a love story, and it's also a story about scientific ethics, family, grief and identity and the way our memories are deeply embedded in our thoughts and every facet of our existence. One of the story's highlights is the absolutely fascinating exploration of a very peculiar and unique species of mind-bending sponge, and I just love how Ratnakar blends science and fiction in her science fiction.

The art is a detail of Nilah Magruder's cover for Fiyah #17.

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