June 7, 2021

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

The audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube.

Before Whom Evil Trembles by Nhamo in Anathema

You are the kind of ballerina whose whispers paint red the sky under which you sleep. The kind who stays behind and rides the air long after everyone else has gone home to rest.

You are the kind of ballerina who does not know rest.

Because it is the only way out of this room, and you have to get out. You have no choice.

Nhamo's story is a masterpiece of lyrical, evocative prose and a story that is sharp as a razor. A ballerina with a harrowing backstory works herself to the bone in order to succeed in her chosen artistic profession. The memories of her past never leave her, and the world around her won't let her forget that they do not believe she fits in or belongs, or that she can become what she longs to be. And yet... below the surface, the ballerina has a strength that is only revealed at the utmost end. I love how this story weaves together memory, the power of ancient deities, and present day hostility. An outstanding story from an impressive new issue of Anathema.


Worth the Whistling by Adriana C. Grigore in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The people in the village did this thing to keep the soul from finding rest after they hit and burnt and killed the body. They never stoked their kilns enough to ash the bones. They let them burn for days, smoking softly, then scraped off the charcoal flesh, threw the bones in a bag, and took them to the Whistling.

A haunting story about a community where violence and murder are always close at hand, and where the bones of those who have been killed, are put in a strange area called The Whistling. Agneta has lived at the edge of the Whistling for as long as she can remember, learning how to "write the bones" from her grandfather who is now gone. Carving words and memories into the bones works as a kind of magic to free the ghosts that linger in the Whistling, but the work must be done carefully so as not to raise the ire of the villagers. Then, one night, Agneta watches as yet another woman is murdered, and afterward someone comes knocking on her door, and they are not a ghost... yet. A sorrow-filled, beautifully written, moving story about ghosts and people who linger, bound by memories and darkness and tendrils of love, and how to set them, and yourself, free.

The Woods Echo Back by Tania Fordwalker in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

In the next snare, the one by the lake, they find the lindwurm.

Utterly still at first, she looks like a patch of spring snow spread alongside the taut rope, luminous in the early morning light. She is wolf-sized, hawk-sharp, white and regal as a swan. The trees thin out at the lake’s edge, admitting a seep of rising sun between the narrow trunks that traces her motionless form in pale gold and rose and snow-shadow blue, from sleek head to arrow-tipped tail.

I love every bit of this wrenching and gorgeous story about Shon, who rarely speaks and has recently lost his mother who was one of the few people who really understood him and brought some joy into his life. He lives in a cottage in the woods with his father, a trapper, a man who is harsh in word and deed, and who does not treat Shon with any kindness. But when Shon and his father find a rare and magical lindwurm in the woods, everything changes. I won't give away anymore of this story, but I love the lindwurm (you will too!), and these characters. It's a rich and compelling tale and the ending had me at the edge of my seat. 


My Lakeside Graveyard by Peter S. Drang in Flash Fiction Online

My lakeside graveyard’s all I got. I inherited it from my Pop, like he did from his Pop, and you get that old picture. I’m king here—ruling over my quiet darlings. And I wear all the crowns: sole proprietor, groundskeeper, gravedigger.

This is some great, flash-sized horror. The setting is creepy and the narrator unsettling as soon as the story opens. There is a graveyard, but there isn't enough space for all the dead that need to be buried there, so, while some corpses are "planted", others must be dug up and ...relocated. But one old corpse is not happy about this procedure and resists, and, well... things get worse from there. Fabulous horror that will definitely haunt me.


Balfour In the Desert by Fargo Tbakhi in Strange Horizons

When he looks at the stars, they are different than before. When he can no longer look at them from pain, he looks to his feet, scraped and bleeding and coated in sand. He has forgotten his name. He searches for it in the sand on his feet, looking to create through geomancy some knowledge of himself or of his world which has disappeared into timelessness. Somewhere ahead of him, the creature is running. When he finds it he will kill it, and things will be different.

Balfour is journeying across the desert, hunting a creature that fascinates and frightens him. He is really utterly lost as he travels through the changeable landscape with "the Arab". Balfour himself is changeable too, vacillating between helplessness and senseless cruelty, between the rags he wears in the desert, and his memories of the fine clothes and suits, the power, he once wielded (though he cannot quite remember who or what he was then). In his moments of cruelty, he almost remembers himself: who he is, who he is supposed to be, why he is even in the desert at all. This story is a shapeshifting, harrowing, haunting fever-dream. It's about revenge and retribution, and more besides, and it lingered in my mind long after reading.


Mishpokhe and Ash by Sydney Rossman-Reich in Apex

In Hungary around the time of Hitler's reign, a Jewish girl named Magda builds a Golem. She builds it to help out around the house, and the Golem does whatever Magda teaches it to do. She tries to teach it to be something good in a world that is becoming ever worse for Magda and the people around her. She teaches the Golem not to lie, or steal, or hurt anyone, and while the Golem obeys, the wisdom of those rules are not always apparent to the Golem. Eventually, the war and the persecution of Jews catches up to Magda and her family, and by then, the relationship between Magda and her creation has changed. There is a painful weight of sadness and grief in this story, a darkness that becomes ever deeper, and almost consumes both Magda and the Golem. Powerful and devastating.

All This Darkness by Jennifer R. Donohue in Apex

Nobody ever says we have coal in our veins; they don’t have to. We have black half-moons under our nails when we wake in the morning; we ooze like oil when we skin a knee, split a knuckle fighting. We aren’t afraid of the dark or closed spaces. We don’t crave the daylight like some people. 

I love the voice and vibe and darkness of this gorgeously wrought story, of the children living in a town where the mountain and the coal mine looms over everything, and always has. But then the mine closes and the town begins to shut down too, shops and schools and more goes away bit by bit, as if the town is dying. But the children find a place to belong anyway, picking up the pieces of the broken mountain and the broken world. 


Peristalsis by Vajra Chandrasekera in The Deadlands #1

This is that kind of show. We know when another year has passed when the new year birds hoot in the background. There are only two kinds of show: the kind where people grow older and the kind where they don’t. We, the fandom, love the first kind best. We love this show so much..

A profoundly surreal and haunting story about a TV-show (or is it?) and the audience watching it (if that is what they are). There's a sense of a ghostly, unspoken, barely perceived connection between the show and the audience, as if they are all connected but in ways even they themselves cannot understand. The story is beautiful and unsettling with a sense of existential dread seeping through in every part. This is a story that I keep turning over in my head: it's a stunner from this excellent first issue of The Deadlands.

(Note: "Peristalsis is a series of wave-like muscle contractions that move food through the digestive tract. It starts in the esophagus where strong wave-like motions of the smooth muscle move balls of swallowed food to the stomach."


Pros and Cons of Spending the First Weeks of Your Son's Life in the NICU by Timothy Mudie in Daily SF

Pro: The doctor you meet with says you did the right thing bringing your son in when you did. You caught whatever is happening early. So perceptive of the little changes happening in his behavior.

Con: You register the words but hear the tone, see the look in her eyes that says: You are a failure as a parent. There is something wrong with your baby because there is something wrong with you.

This story cuts deep for me. It's so raw and jagged, so tender and lovely and painful. I spent 10 days in the NICU with my son, many years ago now, and every bit of this story rings true. It made me cry and yet it doesn't end in grief and hopelessness. Thoroughly wonderful.


Weaving by January Adams in Fireside

A week before Lauri declared an end to our friendship by throwing a cheesecake into the river, I found the Tessitura sitting in her closet. At the time, I had no idea what it was or what it was called. It just looked like a small roll of Scotch tape in a curved container, with thin, gold-trimmed red ribbon where the tape should be.

The roll was warm to the touch and buzzed faintly. I held it to my ear to make out the sound: a soft hum, blended with a rush of expectation and potential. 

Oh, this story is a TRIP. It's about transformation, of a person and of relationships, and it's about things ending and new beginnings, and how things can end even though we don't forget them and even though we carry the memories with us. I love how the story seems to say that endings are not automatically bad -- sometimes, often, relationships end and it's not anyone's fault, it's just Life. I also love the mysterious item, the Tessitura at the heart of the story, and how its enigmatic nature reveals itself bit by bit. A warm, heart-healing story.


Taking Control of Your Life in Five Easy Steps by P H Lee in Nightmare

In order to address the problems of your life, you must address the underlying causes.

Understand that your reality is not the only reality. There is another reality, which we only perceive through mirrors and reflections.

Masterfully chilling and sharp as a razor's edge, this story is horror that cuts very deep. In the story's intro, Lee says, 

Taking Control of Your Life in Five Easy Steps” is inspired by and dedicated to all the people who have tried to sell me their quick and easy surefire fixes for my mental illness.

The way this story uses the list format, the way it uses the strangeness and creepiness of mirrors and reflections, and the way it twists itself into darker and more disturbing territory in the telling... it makes for beautiful, deep horror that has the unsettling ring of truth.


Queen Minnie's Last Ride by Aimee Ogden in Apparition Lit

Well, darlin’? asked the ghost in the spook gun at Ruth’s hip. Death had never yet hammered flat the teasing lilt to her voice, nor sanded smooth its hoarseness. You going to shoot, or not?

A weird and wonderful western-flavoured story where we find out the terrible, harrowing truth about Ruth's spook gun. A spook gun in this story is a gun that "held on tight to the last soul it had killed". And the ghost in Ruth's gun is the ghost of the ferocious and indomitable Queen Minnie, who tries to lure Ruth away from the life she is living, whispering desires and dreams into her head that are hard to resist. Ruth is trying to find a way to free herself from Queen Minnie without trapping someone else as a ghost in the gun, and without cursing someone else with the dangerous ghost within her spook gun. This is a fabulous story, and I love the intertwining of western and speculative fiction here. And Ruth is one heck of a protagonist.


For Lack of a Bed by John Wiswell in Diabolical Plots

She meant to run a hand over its arm rest, but immediately found herself sitting on it. Sinking into the cushions felt like a hug from a friendly giant. The honking and crying and thrumming of the city outside their apartment seemed to calm down.

Noémi suffers from chronic pain and sleep is hard for her to come by, at least until her friends tells her about a free couch. As soon as Noémi touches the couch, she knows there's something special about it, and soon she is getting the very best sleep of her life, untroubled by pain. As it turns out, the couch has its own secrets AND its own agenda, and that is not altogether good news for Noémi. Wiswell's stories are always a delight, and this one is no exception. (John Wiswell won the Nebula Award for his brilliant story Open House On Haunted Hill, also in Diabolical Plots.)


Homebody by Kyle Winkler in Coffin Bell

The first time they came as cartographers from Britain. They couldn’t say who they worked for, except that the Tableau was based in London, Bishkek, Kinshasa, and Montevideo. They were working hard in Eastern Europe, too. This was months before the New Berlin Wall fell.

I'm not sure I can accurately describe how strange and haunting and also darkly funny this story is. It's set in the (not too distant) future, where two strange men from an even more mysterious organization called Tableau come to visit KB, the story's narrator. They seem to have a serious interest in her neighbour, a man called Yardley. Eventually, KB is recruited to perform various tasks for Tableau, finding things, taking things, and spying on Yardley. "Yardley told me he was never lost. He said he was constantly in the process of being found by himself whether he wanted it or not." This is a darkly brilliant story about maps, cartography, and finding patterns in the body that mirror or echo the world, and it got right under my skin (and oh, the things you might find under your skin in this story...).


The Steel Magnolia Metaphor by Jennifer Lee Rossman in Escape Pod (narrated by Ellora Sen-Gupta)

This is a funny, poignant, and heartbreaking story about Astrid who really doesn't like metaphors or hugs; and it's about her relationship with her family, especially her mom, who has cancer. Astrid has made a steel magnolia, full of razor sharp metal flowers, and it can kill mosquitoes. Her invention was inspired by her mom's love of the movie Steel Magnolias, but Astrid hasn't watched the movie, and she has a hard time understanding why she'd want to watch it, once her mother explains that it is not a movie about magnolias made of steel at all, and in fact includes no robot trees at all. I love Astrid and her mom, and the way their relationship is both loving and fraught in this story. Wonderful, through and through.


Langsuir by Nadia Mikail in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Fash Wahab)

This story begins by telling us that in Malay folktales, the langsuir is a woman who has died giving birth to a stillborn child. After death, it roams the world, looking for its child and when it can't find it, it enters other homes and drains other children of their blood.

We soon realize that this story is told from the point of view of an owl, and owls particularly fear langsuirs. The reason why is because a langsuir can "Keep" an owl, meaning, it enters its body and uses it to seek out its prey. 

“My grandmother told me: keep away from women having difficult births. They can sense you there. After death, they will rise up, and find you. We don’t know what it is that attracts them to owls.”

But the owl narrating this story doesn't just fear the langsuir that hunts it down; this owl also feels compassion for the woman she once was, and even the creature she becomes. A beautifully told story of pain and horror, and also of the possibility of redemption. Be warned that this story is strong stuff, so do check out the content warnings!


Unseelie Brothers by Fran Wilde in Uncanny Magazine

Sera and Rie stood before the broad oak doors, wound with metal vines for hinges, set beside a narrowly arched, darkened window. Sera remembered those details and shivered. It was all a little bit strange, the way the story changed each time her aunt told it, and to whom: how she and her sister Serena spent all they had on their gowns—The Butterfly Gown and The Gown of Flowers—or that they’d gotten them last minute, at discount, or that they had been surprised with them by a well-off relative—and then how well they’d done at the ball, how lucky Mr. Saunders and Mr. Sebastian had been.

A sumptuous adventure that involves the most amazing clothing, created by the Unseelie Brothers, working in a shop that may appear whenever and wherever, and where the price you pay might not be due just in money... There are so many amazing magical dresses here (and pieces of jewelry), and though all the dresses are striking and often beautiful, the effect they have on the wearer can be unpredictable. I love how this story has a dark edge as it explores the dangers inherent in any deal you make in a fairytale, but that it also is full of friendship and love and humour.


The 21 Bus Line by Gabriela Santiago in The Dark

I wish I could tell you if the bus looked normal when I sat down. I wish I could tell you if the other passengers looked normal.

But I had a backpack full of comics just begging to be read, and honestly, nobody ever really looks at anybody on the bus.

What an absolutely wonderful, utterly weird, and profoundly trippy and unsettling story this is. A woman gets on the bus. There is a very strange woman in a peculiar fur coat on the bus, and as she strikes up a (rather one-sided) conversation, things get increasingly bizarre AND increasingly menacing. Pitch-perfect dialogue, a deeply surreal vibe, and so many twists and turns make this story stand out for me. The strangeness, and the change that seems to come over the world and the bus and everyone on it is beautifully done by Santiago.

This story is part of a fabulous issue of The Dark that also includes the haunted house of family horrors in Crooked House by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; the devastating ghost story Water Child by Frances Ogamba; and the unforgettably harrowing and fierce Of Claw and Bone by Suzan Palumbo.


The Last Stanza of General Pfeil, by H.L. Fullerton in Lackington’s #23

The theme for this issue of Lackington's is "battles" and in this particular story, a general goes to visit the place where she once fought in the war, a place where she won victories but where so many other people lost their lives. Fullerton links art and poetry with war and violence in intricate, uniquely imagined ways and there is so much depth and nuance to this story as the general goes to find a part of her past, and maybe create something new from what once was. I will be thinking about this story for a very long time. If you want to read more by Fullerton, check out The Boy Who Was Mistaken For a Fairy King, from Annorlunda Inc.


Mysteries of Visiocherries by Rio Johan in Samovar

As with artists, it’s only natural for fruit engineers to experience arid periods of inspiration. Kwodvide, one of the senior fruit engineers in the Bio-Corporation, managed to design something to solve this problem: an inspirational cherry which he named visiocherry.

This story about a fruit engineer starts out as science fiction, but soon adds twists of a mystery tinged with horror. Kwodvide invents an amazing cherry, and while it seems to have amazing properties, it turns out to be rather more problematic and insidious than Kwodvide first thought. When Kwodvide disappears, the police realize he left behind clues, hidden in texts and documents he wrote, clues he seems to have tried to hide even from himself! A creepy and thought-provoking, mind-bending, and just plain awesome story that is part of a short story collection: 

His next book, Rekayasa Buah (Fruit Engineering), will be published this year. It's a whimsical science-fiction short story collection about fruits of which Mysteries of Visiocherries is a part. 


Golden Girl by A. M. Guay in khōréō 1.2

Jasy has been taken from her mothers and adopted by a 'picture perfect' family that find her disappointing in almost every way. Guay spins a fantastic and deeply disturbing story that explores the problematic issue of transracial adoption, and also explores who is considered to be a good and worthy parent in world where some people are considered worthless and "wrong" by mainstream, "polite" society. I saw a description online of the story as reminiscent of Get Out and The Stepford Wives, and that is spot on. One thing I love is how Jasy is no meek victim, though she is certainly treated horribly, and finds ways to resist and even strike back. Part of a fantastic new issue of khōréō, which also includes a wonderful non-fic essay / review titled “Seeing Myself in Unexpected Places” by Jaime O. Mayer, about adoption and identity and families and more.


The art for this month's roundup includes a detail of the cover for khōréō 1.2 and it is by Isabelle Lin.


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