August 7, 2021

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

 

Art is a detail of Martina Boscolo's cover for Apex #124. More about the artist here: https://www.artstation.com/jestervish


You can also listen to the audio version of this roundup on YouTube:



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The Child-Feast of Harridan Sack by By Kaitlyn Zivanovich in PseudoPod (narrated by Jasmine Blake)

The storybook mother goes on a quest to find Harridan Sack’s hut. She crosses rivers and braves dark forests to rescue her children,  but I am trembling in a police station while the detective nicely encourages me to admit maybe I murdered my preteen. Life is tough when a spouse is deployed. And I’m new to the area aren’t I? The neighbor said she heard yelling sometimes. Did my daughter and I fight a lot? 

Possibly one of the most harrowing, powerfully real, and terrifying horror stories I've read and/or listened to recently. Zivanovich expertly weaves together fairytale and reality, the terrible truths and struggles of parenthood, and the inescapable horror of real human beings doing terrible things. A mother comes home and finds her twelve-year-old daughter gone, the daughter she loves, the daughter who she has fought with as adolescence and puberty comes a-calling, the daughter who is nowhere to be found and who won't answer the mother's texts or calls. In a fairytale, there are things a mother must do in order to save her child. In the real world, there are also things that must be done, but the endings are not always happily ever afters. An outstanding story that had me by the throat from beginning to end.

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Hold on Tight to Me by Joy Guo in SmokeLong Quarterly

Ma is scrabbling up the trellis again. She has already cast off much of this world as extra weight, including me and Chao, her six-year-old grandson, but the muscle memory of climbing remains. 

A heartbreaking, yet also life-affirming, story about aging and dementia, and about seeing our parents as whole people, not just parents, but people who have a backstory, memories, dreams (shattered and otherwise), that shaped them and their lives. Guo's story is gentle, but sharp, a beautiful splinter of glass, working itsway toward the heart.

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Yaakov, Meyn Bruder by Filip Wiltgren in Kaleidotrope

She had eyes of smoke. I know it sounds like one of them literary similars, but it’s not. Look into her eyes long enough, and you’d realize they weren’t there at all. But of course, by then, it was too late.

I love the dark, ominous, atmospheric vibe of this story, the feeling that resistance is futile and that some things cannot be fixed and mended once they're broken, or once someone decides to break them. The beautiful woman in this tale haunts and taunts the protagonist, and lures away Yaakov into a terrible delirium and, ultimately, possible damnation. There's a strong current of cosmic horror here, and I love how the evil is not pinned down and defined, but remains terrible and menacing, right until the end.

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An Island in His Splendor by Christopher Caldwell in Baffling Magazine

The summer after Octavio Paz died, Eric stood on the rocks below Point Dume and tried to cast his heart into the sea. Lips swollen from crying, eyes puffy from sleeplessness, dizzy from grief, he invoked the compact he made as a child with a creature from the depths. His voice croaked. “Flounder, flounder in the sea, come up from the depths for me! Though you may not care for my request, I’ve come to ask it nonetheless.”

A story that begins like this, the summer after Octavio Paz died, grabbed my attention from the get-go. What follows is a twist on the fairytale trope where a magical creature must fulfill the wishes of its rescuer. I love how Caldwell turns things around here, finding hope, of a sort, even when the protagonist might not be looking for it. For more wonderful fiction by Caldwell, check out “Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan in Uncanny Magazine.

The Heart is a Spare Part by Hailey Piper in Baffling Magazine

I realized the town was too quiet just when I reached Gyrocore’s outskirts. No rust-bucket kids running loose, no cyber-centaurs lined up outside the saloon. It seemed I was the only bot on the street, my steel feet corroded after the long stroll from the train station.

A weird western love story that involves a whole lot of robots and other mechanical beings. Piper's tale is strange, quirky, twisted, and darkly funny, as well. It's definitely not your typical love story, but I adore how the characters try to find new ways of solving their problems, other than demolishing each other completely.  Another terrific story from a great issue of Baffling Magazine.

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Faithful Delirium by Brent Lambert in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The goddess’s pained cries screeched out of the tent and up to the heavens, as they did every night. The wounds of a war the holy priest Volgrum had never witnessed still plagued her. But he knew every story there was to know about her. Many Queens and Pharaohs had thrived and lived long lives at her blessing. History said those who dedicated themselves to her in this life were given the positions they rightfully deserved and granted eternal bliss once the physical existence came to an end.

A wonderfully rich and layered tale by Lambert, and a story that explores and challenges a lot of the ideas and ideals celebrated by religious zealots and "true believers", in fantasy and in the real world. Volgrum serves his goddess with absolute conviction, as he has done for a long, long time. He cares for her and tries to follow her wishes, even when they are difficult to decipher. War and violence is often the result. The ending is perfect, with Lambert giving us a twist, and then another twist, on what happens when true believers almost lose faith.

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Factory Baby by Frances Ogamba in Yaba Left Review

I look at the child―quite big for a three-month-old―and see the thing that has engulfed him. It moves fast, receding and reappearing in his face. The skin of his hands grows transparent and something scaly shimmers, and then vanishes.

When a neighbour brings home a new baby that will not stop screaming, the narrator soon realizes that something is not quite right. The mother is exhausted, and the screaming won't stop for weeks, but when it finally does stop, things get better... or do they? A chilling story that tightens like a vice.

(If you want to read more by Frances Ogamba, check out The Dark, for example.)

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Gordon B. White is creating Haunting Weird Horror by Gordon B. White in Nightmare

You’ve enjoyed a few of his stories and you follow each other on Twitter, so when you see that horror and weird fiction author Gordon B. White has started a Patreon, you think, “Sure, I’ll throw him a couple of bucks.” You pick the $7 tier—Postcards of Lesser Known Haunted Houses—thinking it might be a lark to get a picture and a microfiction each month for your modest contribution.

Darkly funny and also legitimately terrifying, this short story by White about what happens if you support the (fictional?) Gordon B. White on Patreon is absolutely amazing. Once the postcards start arriving, the Patreon supporter has.... misgivings about the enterprise, but as it turns out, it's not so easy to escape the grasp of this particular author. Clever, scary as hell, and with a sense of humour sharp enough to cut, this one's a must-read.

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He Leaps for the Stars, He Leaps for the Stars by Grace Chan in Clarkesworld

Yennie glanced out the window. An ice storm, a froth of glassy dust, was blowing in over the bone-colored hills. He was on Enceladus; his therapist was on Mars. He wanted to describe how sometimes his body felt hollow, and other times he felt his skin could not contain all that was within him—but he didn’t have the words. Half the solar system divided them, and more.

Oh my goodness I love this story. Science fiction with a tender, gentle heart and spirit, this story is bittersweet and lovely through and through. It's a story about pop idol Yennie who lives a seemingly blessed yet hollow life and is worshipped and followed with intense interest by his many fans. Beneath the surface he shows the world, he is looking for a kind of freedom he has never experienced. To quote Chan herself, it has a "lonely pop idol on Enceladus, superfans, quantum entanglements, tender queer feelings, duplication, and duplicity". There's also a caring android and prose so gorgeous it made slow down and re-read several passages just to savour the beauty of it all.

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Data Migration by Melanie Harding Shaw in Strange Horizons

Go for a walk in your sector. Count the cars you see on the street. How many green stickers do you see? How many red? Write down your answers every day and see how it changes over the week. Ask mum or dad to explain why some of the cars are being taken away. Make a graph of your results on a poster.

A beautifully crafted story about society caught up in, and trying to deal with the severe repercussions of climate change, and trying to make people live in a way that will make it possible to survive. I love how this story describes this future society as a series of assignments, tasks, and lessons for kids, and as a teacher replying to their students. We glimpse the harsh and sharp edges of this society through someone who is trying to soften the world, to make it easier to bear, for the kids that have no other choice but to live through it.

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A Softness of the Heart by Lulu Kadhim in Fantasy Magazine

Louise made the cocoa for the two of them now. She did just as she was taught by Aunt Violet: broke a dark chocolate bar into tiny pieces and melted them with great sloshes of almond milk. And she always made a third cup, for the ghosts that Aunt Sinna tried so vehemently to banish from the house.

A ghost story with a gentle, and imaginative, heart. Louise is dealing with the ghosts gathering around her after her aunt dies. The ghosts used to be drawn to her aunt, but now it seems Louise attracts them too. But these ghosts aren't all bad, even if they might be restless and somewhat demanding. Lovely and hopeful.

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Shuck by G.V. Anderson in The Deadlands

No one, not even Bridget, could remember how it started, and yet by the winter term, it was common knowledge that she’d taken over the old smoking area and, for a price, would answer one—just one—question about the death of her friend, Samantha. Year Nines were especially bloodthirsty. Balancing on the threshold between childhood and everything after, they demanded to know things like: Did her brains wash off your parka afterwards? Did she die right away? Did you actually see her head come off?

Oh, what a gorgeously wrought, raw, and utterly devastating story this is. Bridget who can't quite let go the memories of Samantha and the night Samantha died. Her life still spins tightly around this death, and she can't quite seem to break free of the influence Samantha had on her in life: a fraught, painful, and complicated legacy that seems to be seeping through her, and seeping into her life, like a slow-moving nightmare. And then there's the dog, the one with the red glowing eyes, haunting her steps. The same dog she saw right before Samantha's life ended. The ending carries a fierce, profound sadness with it and this is another terrific story from The Deadlands.

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Kudzu by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers in Diabolical Plots

For Caris, the mech did all Her body had been, still was, still would be, ravaged by cystic fibrosis. It wasn’t so bad that she needed a transplant, but she’d been on disability for some time, each paycheck slim, each breath feeling numbered and tighter than the last.

A science fiction story about Caris, who earns a living by working a mech, joining her own body and mind to the machine and heading out in the ravaged world in order to clear it, clean it, maybe even make it better. There's a joyfulness and brightness beneath the surface of this story, beneath the tale of a world changed and almost destroyed, and I love how it embraces that joy, in the end, without making the story sappy or glossy.

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Across the River, My Heart, My Memory by Ann LeBlanc in Fireside

I am Michelle’s artificial pancreas, stolen cleanly and carefully from her gut. The surgeons are quick; before I can finish my hard reset, they place me inside you.

I don’t even have time to say goodbye to Michelle’s other organs. I know her heart — and all its memories of Tobin — is dead. Did the taser kill the others too? Why am I the only one awake — alive?

I can’t say goodbye to Michelle, because she’s dead.

Such a uniquely imagined scifi story, I absolutely adore it from start to finish. The narrator, our point of view character, is a pancreas, yes, an ornery and rebellious pancreas that still carries all the memories of the woman it once belonged to, In fact, many of the organs in this story are repositories of memory, of the life experience of individuals, meant to join their voices and their experience, inside whoever accepts them. And when such organs, who are indeed sentient, are stolen and put into a new person, well.... that can lead to some very interesting complications.

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What Sisters Take by Kelly Sandoval in Apex

I don't know when my sister came along. My mother, so ready to accept, so unwilling look, says she didn't see the doctor much, back then…..Maybe my sister was whispering in her ear even then. She's always been able to twist people.

Three sets of twin sisters grow up in the same neighborhood, and in each case, one sister is born a monster (though they appear human) and are slowly devouring their sibling. It's horror, but it's also something deeper: a heartbreaking and deeply unsettling story about childhood and the relationship between siblings, and about identity. There is a dark magic swirling at the heart of this tale, and I love how Sandoval shows that there is a choice to be made, even for the monsters (or the monstrous part in all of us), and that we can save ourselves and others even when it is frighteningly difficult.

Without Wishes to Bind You by E. Catherine Tobler in Apex

Michael is afraid to go farther. Pudgy pushes him on.

They walk through the shrouded city, the sound of footsteps all but obscured. Pudgy holds hard to the band of the broken fedora that perches crooked atop Michael's bent head; the knees of Pudgy's trousers are soaked from kneeling against the brim.

A leprechaun story, set in a world ravaged by climate change. Yes, it is indeed awesome. Michael is trying to find his way back to Heather. Heather who told him all about how to catch a leprechaun, except that Michael caught Pudgy a different way altogether. This story is aching and tender, even as Pudgy and Michael traverse a terrible landscape, even as Michael holds back his wishes, even as Pudgy clings to Michael, trapped by the magic that binds them. The story shifts between Pudgy and Michael's trek, and letters from Heather to Michael, and once the mystery of those letters is revealed, we understand that there is a bond of a different kind between man and leprechaun. A strikingly original, uniquely imagined, and emotionally powerful blend of sci-fi and leprechaun-fantasy.

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The Soul Catcher by Leila Martin in CossMass Infinities

All souls caught with ease on this clear night. But only five appeared, and of these, two have lost their luster. This is becoming a trend. Some kind of disease? He’s angry, but what can I do?

Oh, what a gloriously dark and ominous tale this is. It's written as a series of journal entries by "the soul catcher" and as the story unfurls, we soon realize that the true task and purpose, and the true nature of the work, is not quite what the journal writer believes. And when the truth starts to reveal itself, everything unravels. Or so we think. The solitude and quiet dedication and desperation of the narrator in this story reminded me of Susanna Clarke's novel Piranesi, and I mean that as very high praise.

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Divine in the House of Hunger by Dare Segun Falowo in The Dark

A devastating horror story that is firmly anchored in the horrors, cruelty, and injustice of the real world, describing reality with razor sharp clarity before revealing an even deeper rot and evil beneath. There's a sense of dread and inescapable destruction lurking here as we follow Divine into a new household in Lagos. Divine has worked her fingers to the bone for years, offering her services as an impeccable housekeeper in many homes, hoping to earn enough to do something better with her life. And then, she meets Mrs. Arowolo... Masterful horror. 

The Spelunker’s Guide To Unreal Architecture by L Chan in The Dark

In this bone-chilling and twisted (and twisty!) read by Chan, two friends have spent years finding and exploring buildings that aren't quite what they seem and that might not quite be part of our world. They also share a backstory, and a traumatic loss, that has scarred them both, and now, in the latest house they enter, that past comes back to haunt them (literally). Chan builds the suspense and horror expertly, and there's a real depth of friendship and grief and guilt running through this story that gives it an emotional heft and makes it linger, long after reading. 

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Black Leg by Glen Hirshberg at TOR.com

Some places—schools, office complexes, even other malls—feel eerie with no one in them, because it always feels like there should be someone in them, right? Or has been, moments before. But these Southern California sidewalk worlds . . . they feel eerie because the thousands of people who pass through them leave no trace. 

At TOR.com, the intro-blurb for this story says, "Haunted by stories he hears while on jury duty, a documentary filmmaker finds himself in an abandoned mall at the dead of night." And that is the bare bones of this story. Beneath the surface, as Hirshberg peels back the skin of the everyday world and the veneer of what we might think is reality, lurks a terrifying darkness that gathers you in close. I love how this story gives you that sense of vertigo, as if you're falling into an abyss you didn't even know was there right in front of you. 

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Him Without Her and Her Within Him by Aimee Ogden in Zooscape

A tender, aching story about adolescence and grief and death. Ogden tells the tale of a son who is losing his mother and who feels the world, and life, is slipping away from him. When he shapeshifts into a bird, he is able to find some relief, but it's not enough to heal the hurt he's feeling. Ogden skillfully captures how difficult it can be to communicate our true feelings to others, even those we love, and how the world can shatter us even when we decide to go on living. Beautiful and heartbreaking.

A List of Historical Places Frequented by a Boy and His Dog by Eleanor R. Wood in Zooscape

1.) The tree fort your friend built, that you so longed to play in, but instead only visited once. When you realized I couldn’t climb up and play too, you never went back. I marked it for us anyway.

Well, if you would like your heart broken by the thoughts of a Very Good Dog, then this wonderful and quietly shattering story is for you. A dog remembers, and each memory is filled with both longing and love. For another wonderful dog story by Wood, check out "What the Sea Reaps, We Must Provide" from Diabolical Plots and also available at Podcastle, narrated by Summer Fletcher.

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A Smell of Jet Fuel by Andrew Dana Hudson in Lightspeed

We met on the 107th floor of the South Tower. She was standing in quiet contemplation, watching fire spread through the building across the plaza, smoke and paper billowing out into that baby blue sky. I was nursing a thunderous hangover, neglecting my tour group, which had all gone to the southern side of the observation deck to watch the second plane’s approach. She wasn’t supposed to be here.

Time travel for tourists. Visit an old catastrophe and see it up close! In Hudson's story, we find ourselves in a group of tourists being shepherded through the terror of 9/11, seeing it all play out in the South Tower. The tour guide is our narrator, and we soon realize that not everything will go according to plan on this trip. As Hudson tells us in Lightspeed's author spotlight, this story is a riff on, and an homage to, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”, and as a fan of Bradbury, I have to say that this is a terrific read. The ending got me good, and reminds the reader that you really should be careful what you wish for. 

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Shandy by Gabrielle Emem Harry in Omenana

The thing about family is that sometimes when you hold them close, you must hold their grudges too.

A darkly funny story about Ibi who uses a bottle of la casera to summon one of her ancestors to help her with an exam, and ends up getting way more "help" than she bargained for. I love how this story takes the idea of ancestors coming to help and guide the living, and then twists it into something quite unexpected when Ibi's great grandmother runs into a great great grandmother and the sparks fly, putting Ibi's future in question.

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