If you'd rather listen to the audio version of this roundup, it's available on YouTube.
Electronic Ghosts by Innocent Chizaram Ilo in Escape Pod, narrated by Mofiyinfoluwa Okupe
This story kicks off with the excellent line, “If Nneora had died two weeks earlier, her daughter, Anaeto, would not have resurrected her ghost.” You might think a story about death and ghosts would be horror, but it's not. Instead, this story masterfully twines together scifi, family bonds and traditions, and a filament of the supernatural. I love every little bit of this wonderful story. There are so many layers here, and I especially love how storytelling is a thread that runs through the tale and Anaeto’s family, and which also leads to her “resurrecting” her mother, partly because she fears the Ghost of Unfinished Stories: “Nobody would believe, not that you can blame them, that Anaeto will do what she does because she is scared the Ghost Of Unfinished Stories will haunt her. Not even Anaeto herself.” Fantastic story that is darkly funny, and deeply moving.
The Heart That Saves You May Be Your Own by Merrie Haskell in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
You are a girl alone on a prairie.
You hunt alone and you sleep alone. You sleep alone, with your thighs clamped tight on nothing at night, but not too tight. You carry a rifle and a dream of a white dress. You sleep under the stars. You hunt.
A stunningly good story that is a bit of a weird western, a bit of fantasy, a bit of fairytale and portal magic, and all together a brilliant piece of fiction. In order to court and marry her chosen man "properly", and be able to wed in white and not wear the rust-red of the "half-married", Tabby has headed out on the prairie, hunting for a 'corn, a unicorn, as is tradition. It's a dangerous business, this hunt, searching for a beast that comes through strange rifts in the fabric of the world. Tabby is a clever and resourceful and determined woman, and yet... things do not go as hoped. I love this story for its unique take on unicorns and westerns, and love it for the way Tabby finds a different ending than the one she thought she needed.
A Stranger Goes Ashore by Adam R. Shannon in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
He remembers when Heora loved its people; when their island chose a thousand small adaptations to shelter them, give forth fresh water, provide light, and nourish them. For years, he has slept inside his ship’s airless belly, dreaming of home. Now he feels as if he has returned to the wrong island.
He doesn’t belong here any more. No one does. Heora has rejected its children.
In a world where the island they live on is barely able to sustain life, Heora's people send out ships, trying to find new islands to inhabit. But Alain, one of those who has set out on the expeditions searching for new habitats, is losing hope: every island he's seen is unable to sustain life. When the crew he's part of do locate an island where a few people are able to eke out an existence, strange forces seem to be at work, and Alain eventually comes to a mind-bending conclusion about the nature of the world and the islands and those who go searching for new places to belong. This story is an incisive, thought-provoking and evocative take on climate change, and the hunt for new worlds to inhabit.
The Giant With No Heart In Her Body by Nike Sulway in Strange Horizons
The truth is that I lost my arm the same summer I lost my brother.
Lost is a euphemism. In fact, my arm was retrieved by the paramedics and brought to the hospital, along with the two fingers severed from my left hand, and the various parts of my brother’s body. My right arm was broken in three places: I can still feel the ache and itch of my poorly mended bones. Several parts of my brother’s body were not retrieved.
Sulway expertly weaves together so many threads in this stunning tale where a young woman's grief and loss and pain after her brother dies, and she herself is maimed, are woven into the weft of fairytales. We start off in the (somewhat) recognizably real world of a car accident and hospitals, but even then there is the presence of a crow familiar, telling us that something else, another layer to the world, is close at hand. And when Sulway dips into the fairytales, into the story of a giant trying to save herself by hiding her heart in an egg, and then hiding that egg in various places, the tale soars high and cuts deep. Outstanding prose and I am now definitely on the lookout for more from Nike Sulway.
Wives at the End of the World by Avra Margariti in The Future Fire
This is a love story set in a post-apocalyptic world and it manages to be simultaneously heart-warming and heartbreaking. The two women hold on to each other, and hold on to small bits of goodness, of memory and love, in a world that is crumbling around them. Even in the darkest places, they find a bit of hope and beauty and solace in each other. A brilliant story that feels like a bit of brittle hope wrapped in sorrow.
A Song Born by Remi Skytterstad in Reckoning
This rich and riveting story is set in Norway in the 17th century, and takes place in a Sámi community in the north. The people are nomads, moving with their herd of reindeer through the seasons and the landscape. Their old ways of life, of living in and with nature, and their old religion has been almost completely suppressed by the state and church, but the knowledge of the old ways of living, and the old ways of song and magic, are not completely gone. A young boy, Kvive, is haunted by a song that came to him when he fell through the ice into the cold lake and almost drowned. The song eventually leads him to learn more about his people and the magic they once possessed, but that also means that he ends up at the knife’s edge between the old ways and the brutality of the new. I seldom read spec-fic stories set in Scandinavia, and it’s even more rare to find one that delves this deep into Sámi culture, language, and life. It's a deep, powerful read.
Second Death of the Father by Cristina Jurado in Samovar (translated by Marian Womack and James Womack)
A dark and haunting trip into the mind and nightmares and memories of a woman who finds that her life, and her self, changes slowly but surely, after her father dies. Jurado twists reality so tight that the tension is almost unbearable, exploring the ways a person can haunt you—inside and outside your own mind and body—even when you thought they didn’t mean much to you. The ending is an absolute gut-punch. Masterful horror. It’s available in both Spanish and English in Samovar.
A House Is Not a Home by L Chan in Clarkesworld
Chan’s story about a sentient, high-tech house that is trying to keep it
all together, even when its inhabitants are all gone, is both subtle and
piercing. There is so much brokenness here, in the house itself and in the
society that it exists in, but the house is trying to fix what it can, while it
also has to exist with the knowledge of its own guilt (if a house can be
guilty!). Chan weaves in a political subtext, and a lot of emotional power into this scifi tale.
The Family In the Adit by A.T. Greenblatt in Nightmare
I’ve always been a terrible cook.
Our meal started with turnip soup laced with arsenic and a tossed salad. Husband doesn’t like feeding guests past the first course.
Oh oh OH. This story is a harrowing, dark tale of patient cunning, violence, and terror. It's set in the home of Husband who is guarding the only exit from the terrible mines where people come to search for riches before they realize the horrors that lurk within. In order to pass through the only door to freedom, the guest must make it through the dinner. Not an easy feat when everything is poisoned and the host would like to devour you. Greenblatt perfectly captures the claustrophobic, desperate mood of the place itself, and of its inhabitants. What would you do? What would you risk? Who would you kill and betray to find the way out of this hell?
The Woman With No Face by Alice Goldfuss in Fantasy Magazine
Ankuin knew she was in a sim by the mineral taste in her mouth. The other tells were more subtle: the fractal pattern of moss on the cave wall, the cyclical rhythm of the rain on wet fronds, and the lyrical birdsong piercing through the dense forest. Most people wouldn’t notice such details, because most people didn’t have a reason to doubt their senses. But Ankuin’s senses were never fully her own.
I was blown away by this story in Fantasy Magazine. It's so rich, intense, and trippy, and I love the grit and detail of it. We are in a world where some people can connect their minds to each other, an ability they explore and hone as a community in rituals when you reach a certain age. But when Ankuin is old enough to undergo the ritual, something goes terribly wrong and afterwards, her own community doesn't know what to do with her. When invaders attack the community years later, Ankuin's singular ability helps her lead a resistance, but even then, she's shunned and feared by many. This story packs a powerful emotional punch on so many levels.
Vampirito by K. Victoria Hernandez in khōréō
Oh my, I love this story . A vampire story that imagines vampires and vampire society in a way I’ve never seen before. We follow a boy called Eli through his everyday life with his family. His family are all vampires, and sometimes Eli gets caught in the middle when the everyday American way of life clashes with his family's vampire traditions. But there is also a clash within his family between the old European vampire traditions and the ancient American vampire traditions. There’s so much vampire goodness and cultural context here, and it’s also an excellent exploration of the family dynamics between Eli, his parents, and his grandfather. A wonderful story, through and through.
A Study In Ugliness by H. Pueyo in The Dark
Basília is considered to be the ugliest girl at her all-girls boarding school. And, according to one of the school’s teachers, “Ugly girls will never be happy...never, ever, ever.” The other girls mostly avoid Basília, and since Basília despises most of them, it suits her just fine that they fear her. Then, one day, she realizes there is another girl, Gilda, living in her room (the room she thought she had all to herself), and while Basília is convinced she’s never seen Gilda before, everyone else at the school acts as if Gilda has always been there. Gilda is beautiful, almost too perfect, and Basília soon realizes that she is not at all what she seems. This is a chilling, twisted, and razor-sharp story that got right under my skin.
Art, and Wit, and Changing by Dafydd McKimm in Kaleidotrope
I’m waiting for you.
Nine months, feeling you mature in my belly, convinced I am your enemy, waiting to take your revenge. You’re set on it, I know, so much so that no amount of wine tainted with hellebore would flush you out. You’ve dug yourself in deep, bided your time. Clever boy.
Ah, this is such an excellent flash fiction story from the latest issue of Kaleidotrope! There is terrible magic at work here, as a woman waits for the birth of her child. It's a child that was definitely not conceived by regular means, and she awaits its arrival with both terror and fascination. The real magic here though, for me, is McKimm's darkly lyrical prose which sings and flows like a spell.
Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather by Sarah Pinsker in Uncanny Magazine
→“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” (Roud 423, Child 313) is a traditional English folk ballad. Like many traditional songs, the lyrics are unattributed. Child transcribed twenty verses, and a twenty-first got added later (and is included here for some unknown reason—I keep writing to the Lyricsplainer mods to get someone to delete it or include it as a separate entry, but nobody responds, and all they’ve done is put brackets around it. Sometimes I hate this site.)
Written as a discussion thread on a folk music forum called Lyricsplainer, this is a masterclass in how to use a common internet format as the structure of a short story. It's also a master class in how to write unsettling horror that creeps up on the reader, slowly but very surely. I love how Pinsker establishes a cast of characters solely by their posts on the discussion thread, and how she weaves in the increasingly disturbing real world backstory (and repercussions!) of investigating the song. If you want to read more about her writing process, you can check out Caroline M. Yoachim's interview with Pinsker in the same issue of Uncanny.
Centennial Nights by Amanda Michele in Lamplight volume 9 issue 3
"I mean... have you ever lived a different life in a dream?"
This story from Lamplight will most certainly haunt me for a very long time, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. Jamila has struggled with insomnia, but now, suddenly, she sleeps for days and when she wakes up, she often does not seem to remember where she is, or even the people in her life. As we learn more about Jamila and her partner, a complicated and conflicted love story is unspooled, and we understand that Jamila has struggled with finding happiness in the world ever since she was a child. And now, her "weird dreams" are pulling her away from the one person who has been determined to be in Jamila's life, to be the one that shares her life, ever since they were kids. This is a beautiful, stark, and thoroughly weird story that put a spike in my heart. And the ending is absolutely perfect in its utter strangeness.
The Samundar Can Be Any Color by Fatima Taqvi in Flash Fiction Online
“Do not look upon the sea at night with your heart heavy with wishes, ” her mother warns her every dawn. “For everything has a cost.”
Which means Durnaz must never look, for her heart is ever yearning.
This is a powerful story by Taqvi, about magic and longing and about the sea that can change you but will ask a price for the change. Durnaz is unwanted and cast out from all the places she would like to belong. Her mother sees her as a disappointment. She cannot go to school, and cannot even read. Yet, in her dreams, so many things are possible and maybe, just maybe, they could come true for her in the waking world, if she pays the price. I love how this story delves into fierce longing for a better life and a better world, and I love it for its sense of audacious hope.
Children Between Lines by Soham Guha in Mithila Review
A Heritage Scanner. The voice again states, “Thank you for your cooperation. You are fifty-seven percent Arya; you may now enter.”
What would happen if I was not? I know about the Citizenship Act and how it is making a new Aryavarta in the eyes of our Neta, the great leader. If this was Germany of the 1940s, I would have called him the Führer. Instead, I gulp that thought and step in. They want me to register because I am one of the new millions reaching adulthood. I have to register because I want to remember my mother’s face for one time, whatever the cost.
This is a wrenching, beautifully told, and absolutely heart-piercing science-fiction story about identity and memories, about motherhood and climate-change refugees, and also, very much, about supremacist politics. In the story, a new kind of technology allows the state to extract and view memories and it uses this technology in order to enforce its brutal racial purity ideology. There's a sharp, jagged edge to Guha's storytelling that is both painful and brilliant.
Bride, Knife, Flaming Horse by M.L. Krishnan in Apparition Lit
Kalavati has turned 26 and her parents keep pestering her about getting married. When she finally gives in and allow her parents to post her profile on an app to find her a good matrimonial match, she ends up with two serious suitors, a “man that was a ghoul, but also a knife” and a “woman that was a deity, but also a mare”. This is a strange, extremely funny, and rather trippy story about what happens when Kalavati has to choose between these two.
Winter’s Song by Spencer Nitkey in Fusion Fragment #5
Nikol’s family has fled a poisoned and ravaged Earth and are now headed for a spaceship that is waiting for the last remnants of humanity to come aboard before it heads out, looking for a new home. Aboard their escape pod, is Nikol's grandmother who is teaching him about transmogrification, “It’s a family secret,” she’d say. “I’ll teach you when you’re ready.”
“Transmogrification is really just knowledge and timing. The knowledge that everything is, at base, made up of everything else, that the future is always malleable, and that change is inevitable.”
Nitkey’s story spins this scifi/magic tale into something beautiful and hopeful, even in the midst of destruction and grief.
The Trolley Solution by Shiv Ramdas in Slate
This is a delightfully funny and incisive look at teaching, academia, and yes, the famous trolley problem. What happens when you’re teaching creative writing courses and looking for tenure and then you’re pitted against a teaching AI in what is basically a fight for your job? In Ramdas’s story, the answer to that question might surprise you. I also really, really appreciate the take on that damn annoying trolley problem in this story.
The art for this roundup includes a detail of Flash Fiction Online's cover art for April 2021.