June 16, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Maria Schrater - Assistant Poetry & Fiction Editor, and Submissions Reader at APPARITION LIT


This month’s Behind the Zines interview features Maria Schrater. She is an assistant poetry and fiction editor, and a submissions reader at Apparition Lit.  I am so grateful to get a chance to talk to her about her work at the zine!

More about Maria Schrater:

Maria Schrater is a writer & poet living with two spoiled cats and dozens of menacing pigeons. Her work has appeared in Sycorax Journal and in Air & Nothingness Press’s Wild Hunt and Future Perfect in Past Tense anthologies. She is also an associate editor for Apparition Literary Magazine. When not writing, she can be found imitating bird calls in the woods.

Each Behind the Zines interview is first published on my Patreon, and later here at Maria's Reading.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background, where did you grow up, and what do you do outside the world of speculative fiction?

Maria Schrater: I’m originally from Minnesota, mostly in the Twin Cities, and moved to Chicago for college – then stayed. I’m the oldest of five children, which definitely had an impact, I feel like I can be very classic Oldest Sister and I tend to root for oldest kids in books, media, and so on (imagine my deep 6-year-old frown of disdain when reading Grimm’s fairytales and seeing only the youngest succeed). My maternal grandmother is from Japan, so we had Japanese art, food, toys, etc. growing up – my favorite times of year were when Obahchan would send us candies from her trips to Tokyo. Outside of speculative fiction, I have a full-time job, and I have two cats and a puppy that take up most of my free time. I’m also obsessed with birds and escape rooms.

Q. What attracted you to the speculative fiction genre initially - as a child or young adult (or adult)? Were there any particular stories, books, movies, TV-shows, or something else that sucked you into the world of speculative fiction?

MS: I was a very early and voracious reader, and my parents had a rule that I could read just about anything on our bookshelves – but it was authors like Dostoevsky, Tolkien, Homer, and the Brontรซs, along with the occasional Magic Tree House. Once I graduated from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom it was either those Usborne science books or Lord of the Rings; there wasn’t much in-between those levels. Besides that, my media intake was restricted: I grew up without TV, didn’t watch a lot of movies, library books had to be approved by my mother, and my parents pushed me to read “above my grade.” I was also homeschooled until 6th grade. Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings were what really brought me into genre fiction, especially LOTR. I must’ve read the trilogy ten times during middle school. Everything since then has only whetted my appetite.

Q. Apparition Lit has been around since 2018, publishing some outstanding speculative fiction and speculative poetry. You have a few different roles at Apparition Lit: Assistant Poetry & Fiction Editor, and Submissions Reader. Can you tell us a bit about each of these roles and what’s involved for you in your work at the zine? What are some of your favourite things about the work you do at Apparition Lit?

MS: I originally started as a submissions reader in 2020, and that still makes up the majority of my role. I sometimes read for our monthly flash fiction contest, but it’s mostly for the quarterly issues. I have some background in poetry, and we get less poetry submissions, so I try to read pretty much all of the poetry we get – and choosing what to hold gets harder every issue! When reading submissions, I make a choice on whether to reject a story – maybe it needs a few more passes, the beginning’s too long, or so on – whether to get a second set of eyes on it because I see promise, or if I’m going to put a long string of exclamation points in the comment box like take this one!!

When we’ve chosen which poems are going into the latest issue, another editor and I work with the author on any tweaks. Poetry is such a delicate thing to edit because you have to take into account the rhythms, the length and shape of the lines, the flow of the piece: even changing a word can sometimes change the whole meaning, so I’m extremely surgical about it. I also sometimes do the audio versions of stories if our authors decline to do it themselves.

One of my favorite things every issue is when all the editors read through the stories on hold and leave their comments. At that point, we’ve narrowed the field down to some stellar stories that fit our theme, and I can start to put the issue together in my mind. I’m also very argumentative so I love pitching why we should take a particular story, though as an assistant editor, I don’t get to vote in the final meeting.

Q. How did you get involved with Apparition Lit? And did you have any hopes or worries before you started as to your own work and/or the fate of the zine? How has the actual work, and the situation for the zine, turned out compared to what you expected?

MS: I was just getting into the writing community on Twitter, and I happened to see that Apparition put out a call for volunteer submission readers and threw my hat into the ring. I wasn’t familiar with their work before then, but I read their latest issue and loved what I saw, and I was so excited when they invited me to join. I was hoping to learn more about editing, more about the industry, more about the craft, and make some connections – and everyone at Apparition is brilliant and kind and lovely, and I adore all our guest editors!!

Getting into it, I wasn’t sure what the workload would be, and that work has certainly grown over the last few years as we get more submissions. Still, it’s a bit of choosing how intensely you want to go at it: I read a ton for our latest issue, but the issue before that, I wasn’t in the slush as much as some of my fellows. Apparition is wonderful about offering the junior editors & submissions readers opportunities.

Q. What have you learned since you started at Apparition Lit, and what are some of the most enjoyable things vs. the hardest things about what you do?

MS: My critical eye has sharpened immensely since starting with Apparition. My first quarter, I read pretty much every story I picked in the slush from beginning to end, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The problem with that is, if you’re waiting to get to the end to see if the story is any good, it needs more work. Plus, it takes forever. I’m still pretty generous with how far I’ll read into a story that’s not quite grabbing me, because I think all sorts of things can affect an editor – mood, sleep, weather, biases (hard sci-fi is just not my thing), but I have a much better idea of what kind of work a story needs and if it’ll make the cut.

Rejecting stories is, of course, one of the hardest things I have to do! We get so many great stories but being great isn’t always enough; it must fit our theme as well. There are stories I love that I’ve turned inside out and backwards looking for an interpretation of our theme and just didn’t find it.

One of the most enjoyable things I can do is mark a story with a Hold. In our spreadsheet, it immediately highlights orange, like a shining lighthouse beacon beckoning to the other editors: read me next! I’m amazing! I also love working with our poets on edits, and our group call before each issue starts, where we discuss the theme and get to catch up a little bit. I’ve yet to meet any of the other editors in person but the energy through the call is palpable!

Q. You read both poetry and fiction for Apparition Lit. What do you look for in a poem or a story when you’re going through the submission pile for the zine? And is there any advice you would give to writers wanting to submit stories or poetry to Apparition Lit or any other zine?

MS: Language and rhythm are so important to me, in prose and poetry. I want to feel that momentum pulling me along – I’m much more forgiving than some of the other editors on pieces that need to be tightened or the beginning is too long if the prose and imagery is pulling me in. We also look for speculative elements to be present early in the piece – if the twist is that it was aliens or magic all along, and that twist happens on page ten, it’s likely not for us. I love strong character voices, worldbuilding concepts, and visual language. A great character or plot tension will get you farther than interesting worldbuilding, though.

For poetry, I want vivid, unusual imagery. Build me an intense mindscape, build me an emotional journey! I love narrative in poetry as well. If there’s a lot of lists, or if the spec element is mostly in metaphor, it’s probably not for me. I’m open to forms like sonnets, etc., but I think English is a particularly difficult language to rhyme in, and I will be checking your meter! Fair warning, though, other editors at Apparition are much harder to sell on form and rhyme.

Q. Do you have any thoughts on the interest in, and attention paid to, speculative fiction vs. speculative poetry, among readers and more generally in the “world” of speculative fiction publishing?

MS: I see a lot of magazines that focus only on speculative fiction and don’t take poetry, or take poetry in smaller increments than prose (which Apparition also does). I also think the readership for spec poetry is lower. My sense is that sometimes people find speculative poetry intimidating or feel like they don’t have the chops to write or read or edit it – and it is certainly a skill and requires a different way of thinking, but why should that keep you from trying? We certainly get poetry that I don’t feel equipped to understand, and I’m always trying to get better. In general, I think everyone should be more exposed to poetry – if you haven’t found a style or genre you enjoy yet, it’s definitely out there.

Q. What are some of your favourite pieces of fiction and/ or poetry published in Apparition Lit? Do you have any favourite speculative poets?

MS: I am so proud of everything Apparition has published!! It’s impossible to pick favorites. However, there’s something incredible about being the first person to read a story in the slush pile, write a glowing note about it, see it move to the shortlist, and from there be chosen for publication. It’s total luck of the draw at Apparition what stories you’ll wind up reading – I tend to move chronologically from when they were submitted, though I think some of my fellow editors skip around by title or have other methods. Some pieces I discovered were Six Steps to Become a Saint by Avi Burton, The Godmaker’s Cure by December Cuccaro, and trรคumerei by Ewen Ma, among others.

Q. Has being involved behind the scenes affected your view of the business of genre fiction publishing, compared to your perspective before? Have you gained any insights you didn’t previously have? And has being involved behind the zines changed your own writing, or how you think about your own writing?

MS: I now personally understand the agony of loving a piece and not being able to publish it, whether it’s not on theme for our issue, too similar to another piece, or just doesn’t hit the other editors in the same way, or a million other reasons. There’s a difference between hearing that rejections aren’t just about quality as a writer, and then actually being on the other side of that. I think it also gives me an appreciation for just how much work goes into these magazines, and what labors of love they are. Support your short fiction magazines if you can!!

As far as my own writing, I’ve touched on it in other answers, but it’s definitely helped me level up my own work. I’m much more comfortable writing long-form, but through the sheer volume of reading I’ve done, I’ve learned a lot about structure, pacing, and so on for shorter work. Flash writers, I don’t know how you do it. It’s still a mystery. I also learn so much from the poets who submit, in their gorgeous use of language and form.

Q. For writers and readers out there who might be thinking about getting involved with a zine in any capacity, what would you say to them? Do you have any tips and / or advice (or warnings!)?

MS: Do it!!!! We always need more paying magazines, and extra hands to hold them up. No matter which role you take you’ll learn so much about the way short fiction markets function and read some spectacular work. I usually see a few calls for submissions readers every year, but there are also experts who are willing to discuss launching your own zine. I’ve also found that it helps me spot problem areas in my own writing: why’s a hook not grabbing me? Where does the story actually start (because it’s often not on the first page)? How can I write better dialogue? Reading hundreds of stories with a critical eye is hard work, but there’s few better ways to learn. My tip would be not to overextend yourself, because I often do that. Longevity in the field is important, but it’s something that has to be planned for. You never know how many submissions you’ll get in a particular period, so pacing yourself and scheduling more time than you think you’ll need for tasks are a must.

Q. You’re a writer of speculative fiction and poetry as well. What’s up next for you as a writer?

MS: I’ve gotten off to a slower start to this year than I would like, thanks to a number of things in my personal life. I’ll have a nonfiction essay out in Apparition’s Omen issue. Other than that, I’m still submitting short fiction & poetry, and in the last stages before I start querying a novel for the first time! I lurk on Twitter @MariaSchrater.

Huge thanks to Maria for doing this interview.

 

June 8, 2022

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for May, 2022

 

The art for this roundup includes a detail of "Bioluminescence" by Yu Ying which is the cover for Anathema #15. Read more about the art and the artist at http://www.anathemamag.com/bioluminescence.

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:



Skinder's Veil by Kelly Link in the anthology When Things Get Dark

My first two story picks for this month come from When Things Get Dark, a fantastic horror anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow, with stories inspired by, and in tribute to, the works of Shirley Jackson. It is full of dark, weird, disturbing, and unsettling stories. Like the blurb for the anthology says:

A collection of new and exclusive short stories inspired by, and in tribute to, Shirley Jackson.

Shirley Jackson is a seminal writer of horror and mystery fiction, whose legacy resonates globally today. Chilling, human, poignant and strange, her stories have inspired a generation of writers and readers.

This anthology, edited by legendary horror editor Ellen Datlow, will bring together today’s leading horror writers to offer their own personal tribute to the work of Shirley Jackson.

Featuring Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman, Carmen Maria Machado, Paul Tremblay, Richard Kadrey, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, Cassandra Khaw, Karen Heuler, Benjamin Percy, John Langan, Laird Barron, Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Seanan McGuire, Gemma Files, and Genevieve Valentine.

Link's story "Skinder's Veil" made me need to go have a lie-down after I read it. Both because it's so damn good, and because of the vivid strangeness of it all. This is a haunted house story, but not really. Maybe more like a haunted life story? Anyway, it is a knockout story. A man goes to a secluded house out in the sticks to help out a friend who has been housesitting there for a long while. There are several very strict rules about what to do and not do while in the house, and several very strange visitors come calling while he's there, telling very strange tales.

Tiptoe by Laird Barron in the anthology When Things Get Dark

This is another one of my favourite stories from the anthology. It's a masterfully crafted slow-burn of a horror story where I kept having the feeling that there were things twisting and distorting just out of view as I was reading it. A man is recounting his childhood, and his memories of his family - in particular his father. There was nothing wrong with his childhood, he says. Nothing bad really happened... or did it? (Spoilers: something was really, really wrong.) I love the way childhood memories are dealt with in this story: there are the memories we actively remember and talk about with others because they are the "official version" of our childhood, and there are the actual, raw memories of things we might forget or almost forget because they don't fit into polite conversation. 

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Drowned Best Friend by Dominique Dickey in Fantasy Magazine

There is this cloud of silence that comes with death, I think—no one wants to talk to the bereaved for fear of saying the wrong thing. People say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and not much else. Four years later, that cloud still hangs around me, and it’s partly my own fault. I talk about Lesley too much, and as if she were still here—except for me, she is.

There is a similarly silent fog hanging around transition—the effect of people not knowing what to say.

Joseph is haunted, or maybe visited is a better word, by his dead best friend Les. Les died on the lake when they were both 12, and appears when there's water around: mostly at Joseph's house, still dripping wet, just like when she drowned. Since Les died, things have been difficult for Joseph. Not only because of Les's death, but because he has come out as trans to his mom and everyone at school, but he is trying his best to navigate through it. This story does so many things so very well all at once. It captures the mortifying awkwardness and over-confidence of being a teen, and it delves deep into grief and guilt and the terrible struggle to try to not just become and be who you really are, but to find out what and who that is. And the gentle way it deals with what it's like to be a 12 year old ghost, stuck forever in being 12 and dead, is both tender and sharp.

One Day the Cave Will Be Empty by K.J. Chien in Fantasy Magazine

The lantern catches Pearl’s two black eyes, ringed by gold, so they shine predatorial in the dark. And when Pearl’s thin human lips turn up into a smile, her small, barbed teeth glint.

A shiver whips down Li Shing’s spine as she folds her hands in her lap, careful to hide how they shake. Even after all this time, she is still afraid.

“Our bao bei,” says Li Shing, less for Pearl and more to remind herself. “Our sweet girl.”

I LOVE stories that put a different spin on motherhood and parenthood than the norm, exploring the darker sides of being a parent, and this story does that brilliantly. Li Shing thinks she gave birth to a monster, and maybe she did, though her husband doesn't seem to see it the same way. The parents have hidden their daughter in a nearby cave since she was born, but it's been 19 years and now things are changing--in the cave, and in their village. I love everything about this story, but especially how it explores Li Shing's feelings of failure and guilt and shame. I also love how Chien twists all those feelings, and Li Shing's expectations, in an unexpected direction.

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Too Little, Too Little, Too Much by John Wiswell in CossMass Infinities

“Lark’s whole body seizes up and he begs the flame to go away. It grows taller instead, turning soft fabric into fire.”

Wiswell's story is marvelous and devastating, quietly aching and viscerally raw. Two brothers, Lark and Brantley, live with their father. Each brother has a “thing they do”. Lark's thing is the fire that snaps into existence from his body when he is upset, and Brantley’s thing is hurting Lark. It is not a good combination, and it's made worse by the abuse perpetrated by their father. That abuse is mostly alluded to, and mostly takes place out of sight, but it is harrowing all the same. Wiswell has such a tender touch with the brothers here, laying bare the hurt and the pain in their relationship and finding a difficult way for them to, maybe, survive, together.

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A Monster In the Shape of a Boy by Hannah Yang in Apex Magazine

When Peng opens the door, he finds himself face to face with a boy who looks exactly like himself.

The other Peng stands in the doorway, as though surprised to have been caught. Two eyes peering out from the dark. Fluffy black hair, messy enough to stand up in every direction. Ruddy cheeks and scraped elbows.

It’s him. But it isn’t.

A perfectly constructed and intricately tied knot of a horror tale about monsters, and about a boy becoming a monster hunter. Peng is learning the trade of monster hunting from his father, but the monsters he meets take on shapes and forms that make it very hard to kill them. This story bites hard at the end.

Hoodie by Tonya Liburd in Apex Magazine

“A hoodie is what a Soucouyant give birth to when she trick a Midnight Robber.”

Or so Rose calls herself.

Passed off to orphanages. No idea who her mother and father were.

In Liburd’s story, we follow Rose who grows up in a Trinidad orphanage, not knowing who her parents are. She sings in the streets to make money, and one day on a lonely dirt road, she encounters a Moco Jumbie. Rose expects this encounter to be the end of her, but that is not what happens. Liburd’s writing pulls you in from the first line and goes deep into Rose’s fear and pain without reducing her to someone helpless. Rose has been dealt a bad hand in life, perhaps, but she finds a way to survive and maybe even shed the pain she's struggled with her whole life. It's a powerful, visceral story that packs a real emotional punch. 

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In the Water by Rowan Wren in Nightmare

She is alive again, in a way. An almost-there ghost life. The river’s water fills her in new ways, shifts her death into something else. It didn’t save her—nothing could. But it gave her something that’s good enough.

A beautiful, lyrical story about a dead girl floating in the river, being changed by death and water into something else, something new. I love how this story does not focus on the murder or the murderers, but rather on the girl herself. Commenting on the story, Wren says, "As a fan of true crime, I’ve thought a lot about how death is consumed, the dead often reduced to props in their own story. I wrote “In the Water” to explore that same loss from the perspective of the victim, returning some autonomy while maintaining the truth of death’s passive nature."

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The Destination Star by Gregory Marlow in Strange Horizons

Ben had only visited the Star Room three times in his life. The first time was in the third grade. Each person in his class received a token for their field trip. His teachers spent weeks preparing them for the room, showing pictures and videos about what a star was, explaining that the light on the dome ceiling was just a symbol for the real star. The real star, the one they would see in the Star Room, was the ship’s destination.

I love generation ship stories, and here, Marlow tells a powerful and deeply emotional story about a generation ship by zooming in very close on a small scene and one character. Ben has to change a lightbulb in a room in the spaceship that has been his home since he was born, the ship he will die on, the ship that has already been traveling towards its destination star for several generations. Through this small scene, focused on Ben and his work partner, we get to see and especially feel the magnitude of the journey and the toll it's taking on the passengers. But this is not a story about despair, there is also hope here, even though it is suffused in longing, sadness, and hardship.

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She Dreams In Digital by Katie Grace Carpenter in Diabolical Plots

“You will awaken one day,” Ship had promised them. But as ages passed, even their bones crumbled into minerals, leaving ghostly shapes beneath the panels of their cryo-capsules.

A generation ship is traveling through space carrying humans that are supposed to find a new place to live, beyond Earth. But the journey does not go as planned, and now, the only thing alive on the ship are the plants in a garden that is changing in unforeseen ways. This story puts an unexpected twist on the whole generation ship idea, and I love how it reimagines the whole mission and journey, ending up with a very different result than was originally planned.

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Sleep Tight by Mark Joslyn in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Katherine Inskip)

You were right, you know. When you were a child.

I was hiding under your bed.

A wonderfully dark and menacing short flash fiction story that takes the "monster under the bed" trope and spins it into something else. There's a terrific sense of menace here that digs into real life, into the real pain and difficulty of growing up, and it packs a lot of emotional truth into very few words.

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Nobody Ever Goes Home to Zhenzhu by Grace Chan in Lightspeed

I’d always known Calam would run.

He had all the signs. A taut restlessness, body brittle as an overstretched lute string, when we stayed too long in one place. A gloom in his eyes, as we drifted through stretches of dead space. A sullen crease between the brows, whenever I tried to ask how he’d landed in that dead-end Martian workshop at seventeen.

But after ten years, why now?

Zhenzhu is not a world anyone would likely want to visit: the acid rain is so bad it corrodes the buildings and is dangerous to human beings. And yet Orin is compelled to go there, looking for Calam. Almost immediately, we realize that both Calam and Orin have become entangled in a world of dangerous underworld shenanigans and that their lives are most certainly in danger. This hugely entertaining science fiction story is one hell of a ride - it's action packed and almost cinematic in its storytelling, and at the same time it manages to do some excellent worldbuilding, and give us a great set of characters, while never losing its momentum. 

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I Will Sing Your White Bones Home by Cat Hellisen in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

My brother died young.
We are used to death. Our people go to war endlessly; we sharpen our teeth on the bones of the ones we drown, and in return, the finless ones net us, gut us, burn our flesh.
But my brother died before he married, and it was an ill-omen. The eldest son of our brood, he was meant to rise high, to command the deep monsters, to make the waves turn. My brother Diev was to marry well and have sons and daughters and everything in between.

Oh my goodness. If you're looking for a mer-people story that will break your heart and make you want a whole novel, then this is the story for you. Hellisen tells a story of a dead brother, the sister who cannot forget the last time she saw him, and their mother, who is a fearsome and perilous creature in every way. I love the details stitched so beautifully into this story, about language and magic, death and afterlife, family and war. The world and the characters come to life vividly and there's a terse edge to the prose that is simply perfect.

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Tell Me Half A Story by Jennifer Lee Rossman in Abyss & Apex

Of all the survival skills we learned from post-apocalyptic TV shows, this was the most important: no one could die unless their character arc was at a satisfying conclusion. So every time one of us left, we made a point to tell the other just enough of a secret to make it clear – to ourselves and to God or the Universe or whoever decided those things – we had more story left in us.

I love how this story plays around with tropes and expectations of how things work in TV shows and movies, and how these tropes might work if you try to apply them to real life. The two sisters living through a world gone terribly awry are trying to keep themselves alive by using those tropes to their advantage. Rossman's story explores both the sisters' determination, pain, and their grief, and it is beautifully done. 

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Plastic Bag Girl by Choo Yi Feng in Anathema Magazine

A girl uses her innate magic to turn plastic trash from the beach into living creatures, entertaining tourists in order to make a living: “A peacock with bottlecaps for eyes, and straws and spoons woven into tail feathers, danced among the sands to sparkling delight. Once she’d perfected her transfigurations, it could even spread its wings and take to the air, if only for the few transient hours that her magic persisted.” This gorgeous and sharp story has the feeling of fairytale woven together with near-future scifi, and I love the transformative ending.  

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Colors of the Immortal Palette by Caroline M. Yoachim in Uncanny Magazine

Mariko is a model and muse for painters, but she hungers for something else and something more. An encounter with one of the artists she poses for goes far beyond painting, and changes her life.  This story came out last year and I somehow missed out on reading it until recently. It's been nominated for several awards, and I absolutely understand why. The prose is exquisite, and Yoachim weaves a complex and nuanced tale about art and history, identity and longing, life and love. It lingers in the mind long after reading.

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Instructions To The New Waystation Warden: To Be Read Upon My Death by Shelly Jones in Rune Bear

Fair disclosure: I first read this story because Shelly Jones tagged me on Twitter to say that she had used some of the advice in my SFWA Blog post with tips for writing flash fiction when writing this story. Specifically, my tip about using your title wisely. It's always a treat to hear that something you did or said was helpful to someone, so, yeah, I had to check out the story. It's a wonderful, cleverly crafted, unsettling flash piece about how to interact with a very perilous people:

"Beware the fairies," the lost ones will tell you, their fingertips ashen, icicles burning their scalps. Their hopes have hardened in the ice, but their spirits shout their warnings, whisper regrets..."

This story also introduced me to Rune Bear, a publication that "focuses on small, promising bits of prose and poetry with elements of the Strange, Surreal, Supernatural, and Speculative."

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The Heroine Kokofe by Ife J. Ibitayo at Escape Pod (narrated by Mofiyinfoluwa Okupe)

“Ori,” Muhamolu boomed, his voice echoing across the village square, “tell us your will!”

A faint, humanoid emanation appeared in front of the Kwanza’s head. It was the buggy remnants of the spacecraft’s AI, to Kokofe at least. But the villagers bowed as reverently to it as God Himself. Kokofe also sank to her knees. Of all days, today she’d need as many allies as she could get.

This is a science fiction story about a young woman who must go on a quest as a rite of passage, and one of the things I love about this piece is how effortlessly it blends what is clearly science fiction with a story that has the vibe and feel of a fairytale adventure. Kokofe's people live on a planet far from Earth, but they have brought the Orisha gods with them into space, and interact with these gods, at least partly, through an AI-program that is still active on their old spaceship. Kokofe brings along an unexpected companion on her quest, and she must use everything she knows, and everything she is, in order to succeed.

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Peach Child, Woman, Stone by Dafydd McKimm in Flash Fiction Online

Yes, there were peaches, fresh peaches from the mountains, on the table that afternoon. January’s rice crop had already been taken in, leaving two glorious weeks of idleness until the July seedlings had to be planted. All the men were at war. In the small living room, cooled during the day by a dulcimer breeze, I watched as aunts descended on the fruit like egrets on a freshly turned field.

This is a gorgeous, evocative, and deeply strange story about a peach pit, a family, and a child. It's also about life, childhood, adolescence, and more. McKimm stitches real magic into the fabric of reality in this story, and the results are breathtaking.

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The Many Murders of the Self by H. Pueyo in The Dark

“The first one to die is the little girl.”

"The Many Murders of the Self" is a devastating short story. It's profoundly disturbing, full of pain and dread, and it’s also brilliant. (Heed the content warnings because this one is strong stuff, and not because of gore, but because terrible things happen to a child.) The horrors that Pueyo weave into this story are only too real, but the story plays out like a nightmare where you cannot wake up, and you cannot escape.

Mal de Caribou by Becca De La Rosa in The Dark

This is a luscious, deliciously dark horror story where the food is described in almost intoxicating detail. The story’s narrator is hired to cook for Dorothy, a rich woman who is jolted out of her food-boredom by the feasts prepared for her. I love how this story hides its razor-sharp edge in the gorgeous descriptions of food, and I love how the truth of what is actually happening, is slowly revealed.

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When You Stop Seeing Ghosts by Sam Rebelein in Bourbon Penn #24

In Molly’s family, everyone sees ghosts everywhere until sometime around puberty when they just stop seeing them altogether. No one explains how or why this happens to Molly, and she quietly dreads the day it will happen. She thinks the ghosts are trying to tell her something, maybe warn her about something, and in the end… well, she finds out the hard way what happens when you stop seeing ghosts. Is there something worse than seeing ghosts everywhere? Turns out, the answer is probably yes. There’s a dark sense of humour and a strangling sense of dread in this story, and it is a definite must-read. 

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Component Parts of a Belated Apology by AnaMaria Curtis in Fireside Fiction

Something unforgivable happened to the narrator’s mother when she was a child. Now, the narrator is traveling and visiting family, finding out what happened back then and who was responsible for the fate that befell her mother. I love how this story finds a visceral, and rather brutal, way of visualizing the parts of the belated apology. It's made clear that nothing can be said or done to fix the past, and that maybe beyond the apology, some retribution is needed.

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Arbitrium by Anjali Sachdeva in TOR.com

The premise of this science fiction story is fascinating. As is explained in the story’s intro-blurb, the main character Vashti is a pathogenic diplomat, “an ambassador to the world of viruses, whom she communicates with through a machine that can translate their chemical signals into images, tastes, smells, sounds, and memories.” In the story, Vashti is negotiating with a virus which has just begun spreading a deadly mutation in Florida. At the same time, Vashti is thinking and worrying about her daughter who she rarely sees because she is part of a tech-averse commune. I love how this story imagines a way for a human to communicate with a virus and how the process has changed Vashti's life, and might also have changed the world of viruses in unexpected ways.

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Do Me Out by Justine Kertson-Norton in Utopia Science Fiction Magazine

No one knew why the sun had suddenly started heating up and increasing in size, eating up its hydrogen fuel and growing ever brighter. But between its excess heat and global warming, the pace of climate change only accelerated. And as weather patterns became more unpredictable throughout the 2020s, huge multinational corporations went all-in on their short-term profit gamble, completely trashing the planet’s environment as they literally burned through the last of global fossil fuel supplies. They destroyed the planet—it’s been years since a person could go outside without a respirator mask.

This story is set in a future where the sun is heating up and expanding, which combined with the ongoing global warming, and corporations ravaging the planet for the last bits of resources before the inevitable apocalypse, is speeding up and worsening the destruction. Danele and Ziv are heading out together for one last trip, one last adventure, one last meal, before they go out with a bang. I love how Danele and Ziv’s love story is woven into the tragedy of the oncoming apocalypse. It makes for an emotionally charged story that finds bits of love and joy, even at the end of the world.

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May 13, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Marie Baca Villa, Assistant Editor, Marketing, Blogger & Submissions Reader at APPARITION LIT

This month’s interview in my BEHIND THE ZINES interview series features Marie Baca Villa. She wears a few different hats at Apparition Lit: Assistant Editor, Marketing, Blogger, & Submissions Reader and I am so grateful that she was able to chat with me about her work.

Each Behind the Zines interview is first published on my Patreon, and later here at Maria's Reading.


More about Marie Baca Villa:

Marie Baca Villa is a chicana writer and artist in California. She has a master's degree in psychology and used her education to build a long career in crime victim advocacy. As a fan of speculative fiction, she loves anything involving strange worlds, complex characters, and unexplained phenomenon. She's a bonified cat lady, covered in tattoos, and she loves cussing, beer, and flaming hot cheetos. You can find Marie on Twitter @okay_its_marie.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background, where did you grow up, and what do you do outside the world of speculative fiction?

Marie Baca Villa: My name is Marie Baca Villa, and I hail from sunny southern California. In addition to writing and editing, I’m also a visual artist, and my day-job is coordinating a forensic sexual assault center, where victims of sexual assault and child abuse can go to get supportive services. It’s very serious work, and it’s what propelled me directly into the world of speculative fiction because, at the end of my very long day, I can always do with some wonderful escapism.

Q. You are part of the team behind Apparition Lit, a speculative fiction zine that has been around since 2018. What attracted you to the speculative fiction genre initially - as a child or young adult (or adult)? Were there any particular stories, books, movies, TV-shows, or something else that sucked you into the world of speculative fiction?

MBV: I can definitely say my mom opened that door for me, beginning at a very young age. She never shied away from the likes of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, etc etc. She loved a good ghost story. One fateful day, I picked up her first edition copy of Firestarterand it was all over. As I grew, I found horror to be a very happy home for me, and in particular modern horror. Everything from Carnival of Souls to Scream. I love 80s and 90s schlock; you name it, and I’ve seen it. After 9/11, postmodern horror began to set in and I lost my sight for it, so entered my interest in sci-fi. The classics, of course, from Soylent Green and Logan's Run to X-files and Stargate. In recent years, I’ve come to love cerebral sci-fi, like Moon and Ex Machina, that blends the horror of being human with the fantastical visions of the future of humanity. You’ll notice not much mention of fantasy. Sadly, before this point in my life, I had scarcely allowed myself to be interested in fantasy. Joining Apparition Lit has altered my view on that and has opened my eyes to the beauty of fantasy writing. I’m still getting my feet wet, but I know there’s many great pieces waiting for me to experience!

Q. You have a few different roles at Apparition Lit: assistant editor, marketing, blogger, and submission reader. Can you tell us a bit about each of these roles and what’s involved for you in your work at the zine? What are some of your favorite things about the work you do at Apparition Lit?

MBV: Yes, and oddly enough, I really do all of that bit by bit! Slushing is by and large my biggest role as we have really started to pick up steam and gain submission numbers. I am a first submission reader, so I get to dive right into subs and just start moving through them. I occasionally do second and third readings when other readers want extra eyes, and now I also get to provide feedback to the senior and guest editors about which of our held pieces I would most like to see published. My favorite part of this experience is that every reader and editor at Apparition have vastly different tastes and ideas. It has taught me so much, both as a reader and writer, about how finding the right voice and home for your piece can mean the difference between a rejection and a hold. And also, how rejections are rarely, if ever, personal. They’re just about who is reading and what they see for your piece at their publication.

In my second year of working with Apparition LIt, they gave me the reins over the App Lit Blog. I exclusively write all of the blog posts that are put up on our site, and it’s quite fun. In my first year, I’ve kept it light and enjoyable for our readers. My primary features are the guest editor Q&As, where I interview each of our partners. I’m in awe of the amazing insights, knowledge, and gifts those editors have seeded in those answers. I also love to do curated playlists for every issue; posts highlighting accomplishments and updates; and throw in the occasional seasonal game/printable. Marketing comes into play where I am primarily responsible for the fun visuals you get on our blog and Patreon posts; the most prominent of these are our Patreon exclusive visuals which show our submission stats and results.

Last, and definitely not least, I assist reading, selecting, and editing our monthly flash contest winners. Editing flash has its own unique opportunities; namely, the word count has meant that the authors have already ruthlessly cut into their own work, and we are really just left with the occasional tweak. It makes it easy and enjoyable, and getting the opportunity to see new work every month keeps the voices in our magazine fresh and exciting.

Q. How did you get involved with the zine? And did you have any expectations or worries before you started? How has the actual work been compared to what you expected?

MBV: Apparition Lit graciously opened up applications to become a submission reader, and so I took a chance and was selected. I was so honored, and the other readers who came in with me (Maria Schrater and Tamoha Sengupta) are world class, so I am still so excited to be here. Only one worry - every author’s worry, truly - was that I wouldn’t fit in and/or measure up. The team as a whole is so amazing and supportive, and from the first editors meeting, those fears have faded. They have given us all many opportunities to get involved beyond reading (see my answer to your previous question) and I can’t imagine a better environment in which to read/contribute. As I shared a bit before, it has also taught me that most, if not all, editors/readers behind a magazine/publication are just fellow writers doing their best to make the best publication. Rejections are not personal; decisions can be hard; and competition is fierce because there truly are so many amazing writers out there. It has given me more confidence in submitting, and we often echo this sentiment (in our twitter, on the blog, on the website) to encourage people to consider us! We are truly great to work with!

Q. What have you learned since you started at Apparition Lit, and what are some of the most enjoyable things vs. the hardest things about what you do?

MBV: Oh boy, am I really going to take a third opportunity to say rejections are not personal? Yes, I am. Because while reading, and getting the honor of reading amazing works, is truly the best part of this experience, choosing which pieces to pass on is the hardest. Every one of us at the magazine has our own unique tastes and interests. I have loved stories dearly to only see them rejected by another reader. And vice versa. Some stories that we never got to publish still come to mind on occasion as truly stand out pieces, and all I can say is that I hope they found a home! Sometimes I love a story so much, it actually hurts my feelings when it gets passed on. I think “How can you not see how great this is??” and I’m sure the author is thinking the same. The reality is a good magazine, like ours, really hashes out the strengths and weaknesses of a story and isn’t afraid to be honest about if something is a good fit. That is how our issues come together so successfully. Sometimes, at the end of the day, it’s a hard decision you have to make to truly get the best product.

Q. What do you look for in a story when you’re going through the submission pile for Apparition Lit? And is there any advice you would give to writers wanting to submit stories to Apparition Lit or any other zine?

MBV: Yes, I wrote a whole blog post about this once! The dos and don’ts of submitting. I’ll start with my personal do’s and some of our magazine dos. First, I love a good tearjerker. Not in a sappy way, but in an authentic, moving way that shows me the author was not afraid to give characters and conflict depth and challenges. I also love a good horror piece. We don’t get a ton of horror, for some reason or another, and - fair warning - not all of the other editors/readers enjoy horror, but boy do I love a good horror story in the slush pile. For the magazine, one of the best things we love is intention. When a piece comes to us with a cover letter that demonstrates they’re familiar with our publication and intentional with our submission, we feel very seen and appreciate the author’s attention to detail. In terms of what not to do: do not ignore our guidelines and rules. They exist for a reason. We always get a range of pieces that fall so far outside of anything we are interested in (or break our rules) and it takes our time away from truly deserving pieces. This is not the same as self-rejecting. Self-rejecting is when you have a good piece you think will fit but do not feel you can take the time to submit to us. I am talking about people who don’t even bother to read the call/guidelines and its obvious to us in a variety of ways. Intention is best and will always put you ahead in the game, even if your piece doesn’t end up being selected. Editors will appreciate your efforts!

Q. I love Apparition Lit’s flash fiction contests. I’m guessing you get a lot of submissions for this contest every month and I know a lot of people love writing for the prompts. What are your thoughts on the benefits of prompts and contests like this, and also: as a submission reader, do you see a big range in what types of stories come in for these contests?

MBV: Truthfully, sometimes we get flooded. That’s when it gets tricky, because since it’s flash, and monthly, we are trying to be ruthless, but we get caught up in many stories and it’s back to being the hard decision we never wanted to make. With the high number of submissions we see, it also means we see so many fantastical interpretations of our prompts. We see everything from the literal to the types of stories that have only a faint reflection of our prompt. We welcome everything, because true to form, you never really know what is going to grab you until you read it…

I personally love a themed/prompted contest. Apexalso does a good one, which is microflash, and I like to take a stab every month. Sometimes the prompts are elusive for a writer, and that can both be an exciting challenge and also a sign that maybe this month they just won’t have anything to submit. That’s fine! There’s always next month! I also see authors who use it as an exercise to practice and challenge themselves, and really keep up with it just for their own benefit, not even to get published. I am the same way! I have written to many a prompt and just shelved it. You never know what seeds you will plant!

Q. Has being involved behind the scenes affected your view of the business of genre fiction publishing, compared to your perspective before? Have you gained any insights you didn’t previously have?

MBV: Is this the fourth time I will mention rejection? Yeah. It can not be overstated. Before entering Apparition Lit, I viewed magazines and publications to be a monolith of tastes and an impenetrable fortress. Now I know there truly are homes for all types of work, and it’s really just about the challenge of finding the right publication. It does not mean your piece is not wonderful; it just means it was not for us. Never mind, on to the next! Take heart and don’t self-reject!

Q. For writers and readers out there who might be thinking about getting involved with a zine in any capacity, what would you say to them? Do you have any tips and / or advice?

Be sure you like/love the publication you want to join! I have now met many a slush reader, and one thing is for sure is that we all compare notes about how our publications work, our comfort working with specific editors, and how much we enjoy reading the types of submissions we get. Just like finding the right home for your work, you can also be selective about finding the right home for your unique tastes and skills and you should know that every magazine out there works differently. No two are alike. Ask around, talk to current readers, and see how you can get involved at any level before diving in!

Q. Anything in particular you want to promote here, some exciting projects coming up for you?

MBV: I have no big projects on the horizon, but I am ridiculously excited about this year’s flash contest prompts. We have a range of beautiful photos rolling out every month, from amazing female photographers, and so far we have seen some stunning pieces get submitted. Check us out monthly! And please read our guidelines!

Thanks so much to Marie Baca Villa, and check out all the great poetry and fiction in Apparition Lit!

 

May 8, 2022

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for April 2022


The artwork for this roundup features a detail of the cover for The Deadlands #12 - "Charon's Burden" by Julie Dillon. More about the artist here: https://www.juliedillonart.com/

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:



Upside Down Frown by Jarred Thompson in Fiyah #22

Thompson’s story is set in a future society that has gotten past a looming climate disaster, and which might, if you look at it one way, be some kind of everyday, almost-utopia. There’s a new treatment for physical and mental discomfort and pain, for example: electroceutical surgery, a procedure that rewires the pain pathways in a person’s nervous system. There is also a Department of Happiness (lovely and Orwell-esque), which gives each citizen an in-depth life narrative analysis, advising them on how to set goals for their future and how to achieve those goals. And the newest thing is a “social cohesion project” meant to “heal inter-generational scars on the nation’s psyche”. Cassandra, the story’s protagonist, is not convinced that these things are all completely good for people or society, even though some of them might be. In her work as a museum curator, she is putting together an exhibit that is meant to explore history and the human spirit (“wrought, tortured, pummelled, yet enduring”) and that work might clash with what the Department of Happiness considers good and necessary work. It’s a great science fiction tale that delves deep into what is needed to achieve peace and real happiness for humans and society, and what we’re willing to do, and give up, in order to live together. There’s deep complexities here and I love how Thompson creates a world that is really neither a utopia nor a dystopia, rather a place where people are trying to figure out how to live.

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Once on a Midsummer’s Night by Vanessa Fogg in GigaNotoSaurus

Fogg writes an epic tragedy that is also an epic fantasy and an epic romance, twisting together past and present in a beautiful, heartbreaking tale. There’s the Now of a boy entering a garden: a garden that remembers him, and wonders if he will remember everything he needs to remember before the wheel spins again and the chance to heal what was once broken is lost again. And there’s the past where a boy met a girl and they fell in love, before wars and pain and darkness tore them and the world itself apart. Fogg tells her story with a gentle touch, but that only goes to make the story more powerful and makes it cut deeper. I love how the grand sweep of a world falling into ruin is so intimately woven together with the personal tragedy of a man and a relationship being changed and torn asunder.

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The Travel Guide to the Dimension of Lost Things by Effie Seiberg at Podcastle (narrated by Summer Fletcher)

Have you ever felt so tired that you just don’t feel anymore? Where you wake up, burrowed under the covers with a shaft of light somehow piercing through them and right into your brain, and realize that here comes one more day you need to endure, to wait through, until you can blessedly sleep again and stop experiencing this whole existence thing?

This is where I am.

Seiberg takes the serious issue of depression, where every small chore and act and movement seems too difficult to accomplish, and twines it together with a uniquely imagined portal fantasy. There may be no dragons to slay through this portal, no evil rulers to defeat, but there is a quest and a purpose: to go on, to live, to find the path to feeling better. It’s a brilliant story that manages to both capture the awful heaviness and inertia of depression, while also showing that there is hope, without ever giving into being maudlin or shallow like a motivational quote-poster.

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Valor Bones by Derrick Boden in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

A tale of terror and woe, of terrifying magic and people being used (even killed) for profit and gain. In Boden’s story Leti flees her family and her home, and ends up in the bog outside town. There, a monster is born that is both part and not part of Leti herself. Leti feeds it: words and stories, objects too, tales both real and fictional and all the while the monster grows. But the horror in this story is not Leti’s monster, but what is happening in her town, in her house, in her family. And as that tale of dark deeds and horror is unraveled, the monster finds its own purpose too.

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This is I by KT Bryski in The Deadlands

High in her eyrie, Elaine adjusts the beams of her loom. Hot, motionless air slicks the space between her shoulder blades. Her fingers cramp. She ignores the ache, weaving with the dispassionate industry of a spider, or a good Victorian housewife.

Knights ride along the road, two by two. Abbots, damsels, pageboys, shepherds. Passing her taciturn tower, they cross themselves and shudder.

Fuck them.

A multi-faceted masterpiece of a story, Bryski delves deep into the way women artists are often minimized or entirely forgotten (both while they're alive, and after), and how some women in literature and art have been stripped of their own agency in order to serve the narratives of men. And all of this wrapped up in the most glorious prose and a story that leaps and soars through history, art, and art history. To quote Bryski from her Twitter thread on this story:  "I got really mad about the way the pre-Raphaelites treated Elizabeth Siddall and combined my historical hot takes with a riff on the Lady of Shalott."

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Trowel, Brush, Bones by Audrey R. Hollis in PseudoPod (narrated by Ibba Armancas)

We return to the compound that night exhausted. We flop into bed. We don’t stay awake long. We stay awake hours, looking at the stars. We’ve never seen stars like these before. We haven’t seen stars like these since we moved to the city. We get caught up looking at the milky way. We, all of us, miss home. 

A group of female archeology students are at a dig run by a male professor and his (also male) helper, digging up artefacts and bones at a site that might have once been inhabited by witches. The past is unsettling here, both because of what might have happened then, and how the remains are being treated now by the professor. Adding to the unease and tension is the ever-present spectre of a professor who has a reputation for getting way too touchy-feely with his students. Hollis twines all the threads together into an unsettling, ever-more disturbing tale, where the bones seem to whisper stories into the dreams of the women. I love the way Hollis uses second person plural here, the "we", and it adds a layer of complexity and depth to this story that makes it even more powerful.

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Knotlings by Aliya Whiteley in The Dark

Body horror, existential horror, psychological horror... this story has all that and more. I'm not even going to try to describe the central "thing" that happens to the narrator and her son in this story, because it really is something best read within the context of the story. I can tell you that this story, and the ways its central "mystery" can be interpreted, will live in my head for a long time. Mother and son both have the same condition here, but in the end, it turns out they deal very differently with what happens to them, and what the son does... horrifies the mother at least initially. It's an unsettling, deeply disturbing, and uniquely imagined story that is not easily explained, but it sure as heck packs a powerful punch.

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Men, Women, and Chainsaws by Stephen Graham Jones at TOR.com

If you've read Stephen Graham Jones's book My Heart Is a Chainsaw, you'll know that the man has a real deep knowledge of, and love for, old slasher movies and old horror movies in general. In this story, Jones weaves in allusions to, and a homage to, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (yes, the sequel) in this story about Jenna, and there are definite callbacks to Stephen King's Christine as well. There's a haunted/possessed/blood-drinking car, there's a revenge arc with Jenna's ex, and there's the unraveling of a mystery too, specifically the mystery of how Jenna's parents died. This story feels almost like a companion piece to My Heart Is a Chainsaw and I think Jade from that novel, and Jenna from this story, might become very fast friends if they ever managed to meet.

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Beginnings by Kristina Ten in Fantasy Magazine

In the beginning, June and Nat are best friends. June is not yet a swarm of honeybees and Nat is not yet a cloud of horseflies, and the king hasn’t yet decided that separating them into parts like this—June’s left pinky finger one bee, her left ring finger another—is the only surefire way to strip them of what they really are. Which, at least in the beginning, is best friends, living together on the outskirts of town, sharing a dresser full of secondhand band tees, squeezing lemon juice onto one another’s hair in the summer, then sitting together on the blacktop to wait.

If you love fairytales, and fairytales being twisted and reimagined in new ways, then this story by Kristina Ten is definitely for you. I love all those things, and I love this story. Ten's story twists and loops around itself, it progresses, but it comes back to the beginning, this beginning, over and over again: "beginnings can be beautiful, something worth lingering and lingering in". (Read the interview with Kristina Ten for more about her inspiration for this story.) This is a love story, a romance, a tragedy, and a twisted fairytale, and it is beautiful. 

Collecting Ynes by Lisa M. Bradley in Fantasy Magazine

Ynes doesn’t remember the marigold, but she has a recurring dream in which she accidentally swallows an entire tangerine. She grows very warm and realizes it was not a tangerine at all but a small sun. She knows if she tells her mother what she swallowed, there will be a panic. So instead, she keeps her mouth shut. The sun sits warm in her belly and shines tendrils of light down her arms and legs. When rays escape her fingertips, she puts on mittens.

I love this tale about Ynes so much. Bradley tells an evocative and lyrical story about a girl who starts changing, slowly but surely, after ingesting what she thinks of as a small sun. Ynes keeps changing throughout her life, much to the consternation of family and others. Her powers and her connection to plants (and especially the way plants and trees react to her) end up making her life, and eventually her career, very interesting. And what happens after she dies makes for a transformative ending. I love Bradley's prose and the musical, poetic rhythm of the tale.

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An Expression of Silence by Beth Goder in Clarkesworld

She will meet the sentient beings of Ekara C like this, with juice running down her chin, in her worn jogging pants. If she’s going to die, she wants to be comfortable.

This is a wonderful, subtle and brilliant short story about first contact between humanity, in the form of Riley, an astronaut from Earth, and Yyfal’s of Ekara C (their body "is a mountain stretching from the lower valley of Turlanar to the coasts of Greater Dorn"). Goder shows us the first encounter, and what happens after, from both viewpoints, exploring the communication problems and misunderstandings, but also how the will and courage to give the other side the benefit of the doubt, of having just a bit of trust and a lot of curiosity, can bring about unexpected new insights (and adventures). It's a beautiful, subtle, finely crafted story that has a lot of depth beneath the surface.

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Hiraeth Heart by Lulu Kadhim in khลrรฉล 

She smiles. All the time that has passed since I was a girl is in the lines around her mouth.

“The heart yearns,” she says, “not just for what it had, but for what it almost had, too.”

We make bed for the night, right by the fire, side by side.

This story brought me to tears. It's 950 words, and packs so much beauty and loss and pain and love into that space. The narrator is traveling with her mother, traveling through stories and memories, and a landscape that is intimately familiar to the narrator, even though she has never been there. A place she has seen through her mother's stories all her life. Kadhim captures the feeling of both mother and child so beautifully. I also love how gently Kadhim captures the experience of having a profound connection to a place you've never been, and the kind of longing that brings with it.

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Everything the Sea Takes, It Returns by Izzy Wasserstein in Lightspeed

Just as no coastline is impervious, just as the sea claims what it will, grief can hollow a heart. Who can say what will fill it?

Oh, what a story. Near future scifi, set in a world that hasn't exactly experienced an apocalypse, but is definitely in dire straits both environmentally, socially, and politically. We follow Jess through her life from when she loses her grandmother at 16, through love and loss, despair and hope. Jess keeps wandering the coast, up and down, here and there, and the sea takes and it gives, it carries things away and might return them again, but nothing is the same even if it comes back. Gorgeous writing by Wasserstein.

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Where the Heather Grows by Shaoni C. White in Nightmare

Every now and then she messes up. She’ll let herself hear water dripping or rushing or pouring or roaring and then the melody will come. The song will trickle into her ears, note by note, line by line. Once the song starts, it’s hard to remember where she is, what year she’s in, what name she has. It’s crucial that she stops it, that she stems the river. If she doesn’t, the flood will come.

White tells a chilling, haunting, twisted tale of old sins, strange dark magics, and murder in "Where the Heather Grows", a story which is partly written in the form of emails (and which uses that epistolary form to great effect). Clara has a fear of water, even the sound of it, and definitely the feel of it. It haunts her and threatens to change her (or maybe change her back) into something other. There's a great interview with White in Nightmare about the Child Ballads that were an important inspiration: 

The Child Ballads are a great example of this, which is why I became obsessed enough with one of them to twist it to my purposes in this story: “The Cruel Sister,” also known as “Two Sisters” or “Wind and Rain.”

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Rider Reviews for FerrymanCharon by Guan Un in Translunar Travelers Lounge

Review by LostAndLonelySoul:

4 Stars: Quick and prompt service. Ferry driver was prompt and efficient. Although might want to do something about that smell.

This story is part of a terrific issue of Translunar Travelers Lounge. It serves up some slices of Greek mythology in a flash fiction story written as a series of reviews, all with responses by BossHades. Funny, and with a neat twist at the end.

Bee Balm Bergamot’s Tele-Sympathic Space Cats by Adam Lee Weatherford in Translunar Travelers Lounge

When I got here, TS Space was mostly void, and we few residents were okay with that. We were minds loosed from bodies. We explored the frontiers of a new way of being. We toyed with our own perceptions of time, space, and being in radical, nearly psycho-phantasmagoric parties.

A former barista now sells virtual cats in a virtual reality called Tele-Sympathic Space that has recently opened to paying customers. The former barista, AKA Bee-Balm-Bergamot has some objections to the new way of doing things in TS Space, and while it seems B-B-B is playing along... well, there might be more to their welcome message than meets the eye. A lovely science fiction flash with something rebellious brewing beneath the surface. 

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Heavy Possessions by Seoung Kim in Strange Horizons

Why do you ignore me, like a warning light in your car or a toothache you can’t afford? In those first few days, you barely reply when I talk. I was bored and lonely even before I died, so you can imagine how much worse it is living with someone who thinks you’re the result of laced weed or possibly ergot.

Ok, so this one came out in early May but I’m sneaking it into this April roundup anyway because I love it so much. A young woman is working online as a digital medium, pretending to be able to contact the spirits of the dead and communicating with the people who want to speak to them again. It’s a sham, but then something unexpected happens: the spirit of a dead woman enters her body for real. I love how this story is so gentle as two very different people share the same body, and find that they have things to learn from each other.  

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Letters from Roger by Emily Sanders in Apparition Lit

June 22

Lettie has died again.

I thought that the sickness would stay gone from her, but it seems that the cure we were promised was a myth. Her mind took to the hallucinations quickly this time, and by 2 p.m. she had gone over into that place from which no one returns. This time, I think it is permanent.

A quiet, enigmatic, and rather terrifying horror tale of a strange disease that we follow in a series of letters from Roger. I love how the plain, straightforward style at the beginning slowly morphs into something more twisted and dark as the story progresses. There are hints of quarantine and physical distancing here, but whatever this sickness is, it might be even more frightening than COVID. This story was the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine March Flash Fiction Challenge.

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April 13, 2022

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - March 2022

 


The art for this roundup includes a detail of the cover for Fantasy Magazine #77. Cover art by ะะฝะฝะฐ ะ‘ะพะณะฐั‚ั‹ั€ะตะฒะฐ / Adobe Stock.

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:


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The Angel Azrael Encounters the Revelation Pilgrims and Other Curiosities by Peter Darbyshire in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The angel Azrael rode across the badlands on the dead horse for so many days and nights that he became lost, until a dying woman’s bloody bible set him on a path back to the world.

An absolutely wild and captivating weird west tale, Darbyshire's story involves angels walking the earth after some kind of devastating apocalyptic event that has laid waste to much of mankind. There are also nephilim about, we encounter zombies and terrifying gargoyles, and there are bibles of various kinds that are sources of power and magic. At the beginning of the story, the angel Azrael is entrusted with a powerful book of a different kind from a dying woman and he promises to bring it to her daughter in a place called Jerusalem's Sorrow. What happens after that is an angelic/diabolical western tale of deception and strife that had me hooked from beginning to end. Brilliant worldbuilding and characters.

A Nickel For The Burlap Man by Patty Templeton in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This is folklore-horror-fantasy of the very best kind. In a tense and taut tale studded with shards of violence and darkness, Templeton lays out the chilling backstory to what is introduced in the story's first paragraph:

 If you walk west of town and into the woods there’s a scarecrow. A steward of the forest instead of the field. He’s nailed to repurposed railroad ties. The cross obstructs a cart-sized hole in a cottonwood tree. The scarecrow is a cadaver wrapped in potato sacks. His exposed hands are leathered. Critters’ve nibbled fingers to pointed bone. Bit through boot, sock, and honed his toes. The face is not a face. It’s a middle-meeting seam gracelessly sewn. He has no hat.

A masterclass in folk-horror that packs an emotional punch.

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Becomes the Color by E. Catherine Tobler in Three-Lobed Burning Eye

“Muscle, bone, and marrow dissolved, deepened the turquoise, and created the darker depths, where the blue went black.” 

A hauntingly, eerily beautiful story about a very strange lake with an ominous and mysterious history. When the narrator goes back to the lake, and a nearby cabin, after many years away, the ghosts of the past are present everywhere. Near the water, even the landscape seems nightmarish or dreamlike as night comes. I love the way Tobler gives us a sense of a larger world, and a life lived, beyond the edges of the story, and I love how the darkness (and the mystery) deepens with every line and paragraph.

Oak moss and Ambergris by Joe Koch in Three-Lobed Burning Eye

This story is filled with heady scents and beguiling perfumes, and it's set in a future where there is an interplanetary smuggling business involving various rare and expensive compounds that are valued specifically for their scent. Laden, the protagonist, has been working as a mule, smuggling such substances inside their body, for years, but the work has changed them (and has taken a toll) in more ways than one. This is an emotionally and erotically charged story of love and desire, greed and lust and transformation. It's science fiction with a carnal, hungry vibe and I adore every bit of it.

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Ribbons by Natalia Theodoridou in Uncanny Magazine

Monday’s lover tugs at Jan’s ribbon with his teeth. Jan doesn’t yell at the lover to stop. The guy just received bad news from the front—a friend lost to a bomb, perhaps, a sibling blown to bits; Jan doesn’t ask. He tells the lover, instead, to be careful: We don’t want my head rolling off now, do we? We’ve all heard of them, after all, the stories of women taking it off and their heads falling to the ground.

If you're looking for a story to tenderly, gently, yet fiercely undo your heart and soul, then this story by Theodoridou is the perfect thing. Jan lives in a world of war and strife, trying to find a way to live with the grief and sorrow and longing that permeates his life. Jan also wonders about the ribbon around his neck, about those he meets that wear no ribbons, wondering what that would be like. There is love and caring in this story, violence and fear too, sex and desire as well, gender and identity, but what gets me the most is the gentleness beneath it all.

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Seven Times Seven by A.C. Wise in Kaleidotrope

They are going to have to look. They are going to have to face the thing in the trunk and know for sure what it is they brought out of the woods. The dreams could merely be memories. They could. But they don’t know for sure.

(They know. They do not want to know, but they do.)

A twisted, twisting, harrowing tale of Jax who is in a car with a timer on the seat and a creature (maybe) in the trunk and the memories of their friend and lover Marcus running through their head. Jax is trying to get everything they want, but what they have to do to get it, what they have already done (maybe?), could also be their undoing. I love how reality is changeable and slippery here, as Wise lets memory and fear and hope weave together in Jax's mind. Whatever Jax brought out of the woods, whatever they left behind, nothing is certain in this tale except Jax's desperation and pain.

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Hush by Mary Anne Mohanraj at TOR.com

A subtle, quiet science fiction story about violence and bigotry and about the small, everyday choices we can make in order to reduce the evil of the world, even if it's just in some small, flawed way. The story is about Jenny, who returns to her home planet in the midst of widespread and ominous civil unrest. There are anti-alien protests, and a stay-at-home-order, and all Jenny wants to do is go home. However, her homecoming is made more complicated when she has to escort her neighbor Katika, an alien Razuli girl, home safely.

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Nine Tails of a Soap Empire by Maria Dong in Lightspeed

I’ve never told him about the coal I swallowed three years ago, the way it has plagued me ever since. Some nights, when I’m trying to sleep, it burns like the feathers of the vermilion firebird, five-colored fury that threatens to turn me to ash. Other times, it is barely the faint warmth of a finger on a wrist, a flutter that could be drowned out by the pulse of a thumb.

But the coal is always lit. I am always hungry.

This is a fantastic fantasy tale about a very ambitious, magically inclined, soap-maker with grand dreams of establishing an empire, and what happens when they receive a summons from the Maripgan. The journey to the Maripgan is not easy, and on the way there, the soap-maker is haunted, and maybe hunted, by a mysterious fox. I love the fairytale texture of this story, and I absolutely LOVE the ending.

The Heaven That They Never Knew by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor in Lightspeed

Ginger clings to the skin of Heaven, wrapped in deep, cold vacuum. She’s a speck in the void and her breath trembles inside her helmet. No sound in space. So she breathes. She has to stay grounded, keep her thoughts from shaking and drifting to hostile sensors.

A scifi epic in flash fiction format, where Ginger, humanity's only hope to survive, approaches Heaven, the terrifying alien construct that devours and destroys life anywhere and everywhere. Tense, taut, and with a lyrical space beauty, Wolfmoor's story is like a song at the edge of space.

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Christopher Mills, Return to Sender by Isabel J. Kim in Fantasy Magazine

This is the dead thing becoming the body. This is the dead thing opening the body’s eyes. This is the dead thing rising from the grave. This is the dead thing saying “What the hell—I didn’t ask to be summoned. I was having a great time being dead and dreaming about nothing.”

Oh how I love this gritty, growly, sweary story of necromancy, death, revenge, and with a complex and complicated sibling relationship at its heart. It's set in a world where necromancy is an accepted and rather normal part of life (with necromancers working office hours), and where the testimony of the dead can be used in legal proceedings. All of this is the setup for a fabulous tale where a sister resurrects her brother in order to solve his murder. This story is both dark, painful, and funny and I could not put it down once I started reading.

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Emmory and the Wolf by Lowry Poletti in LampLight Volume 10 Issue 3

The wolf wakes beside a corpse she doesn't recognize. When she stands, she realizes her paws have been replaced with hands scraped raw by the asphalt, and she cries.

I do love wolf and werewolf stories, and this one is both powerful and devastating. A woman who is/was a wolf has made a domestic life with her partner with a home and children. The wolf still calls to her, and the change still happens when the moon is right, but she insists she wants the life she's made away from the woods, away from the wolves. Poletti unravels the domestic peace bit by bit in this story, digging into the unhappiness and darkness beneath with sharp claws, and the ending hit me like a ton of bricks.  

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Them At Number Seventy-Four by Lindz McLeod at PseudoPod (narrated by Katherine Inskip)

When body number four is discovered, Mrs Patterson thinks that surely now she and her husband will be caught. Days creep past, then a week. 

Two. 

Three.

Their excitement and relief begins to fade.

A marital murder tale, this story really resembles nothing else I've read recently. We follow an old married couple as they go about their daily regular lives in retirement (TV shows, food, shopping, gardening). There seems to be nothing really notable about them, except that they murder people, together, as a couple's activity. McLeod tells this story with such quiet, detailed focus, and it makes the story chilling, darkly humorous, and devastating on a number of levels. This one will stick with me for a while, and I think one terrifying aspect of it is how McLeod shows us two people who seem like regular everyday humans on the outside, but who also do not see others as human in the same way they are. It's a fascinating story and also, Katherine Inskip's narration is pitch-perfect.

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The Assembly of Graves by Rob E. Boley in Diabolical Plots

From the bathroom, a dripping noise. It doesn’t sound like a leaky faucet though. No, it’s heavier somehow. More ominous. Naomi stares a moment into the flickering, throbbing darkness.

My favourite kind of haunting tale, this one involves a hotel getaway for Naomi and her wife Jeanne. Naomi feels like Jeanne is slipping away from her, and she is trying to reconnect, but in the hotel room, strange sounds and sights keep intruding, including some very strange happenings in the bathroom. A love story that holds a lot of sadness, and a little bit of hope.

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Embroidery of a Bird’s Heart by Nelly Geraldine Garcรญa-Rosas in Strange Horizons

Grandma died last year, yet she comes every Saturday to have lunch with me.

When she was still alive, she loved telling everyone that we were roommates. She would say to her embroidery club friends that her roomie had landed a very hip job in the city because she did not want to admit to them that I had moved in to take care of her, that our family had come to the decision that she should not—could not—keep on living alone. 

Oh goodness. This story broke my heart in several different ways and I love every bit of it. It's a story about grief and loss, about trying to find a way to live on and remember, and it's very much a story about family and love, as well. Crafts, like cooking and needlework, bind Grandma and her granddaughter together here, in more ways than one. Beautifully told from start to finish.

“The land of the dead is nothing like this. Not at all.”

“How is it then, abue?”

“It’s like a normal town, hijita, but as if everything was covered by a thick fog or smoke or I don’t know what.”

“So, pretty much like here,” I said as I opened my arms wide to signal the entire city, and looked up to the polluted sky that never allowed us to see the stars.

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The Wrong Side of the Sky by Raymond Roach in Escape Pod (narrated by Sandy Parsons)

There’s an old woman who lives in the desert, and who has lived in the desert a very long time. So, too, have her people, but many of them have gone, while she remains. She’s old enough that she should have a child on her back, or even a grandchild, but she doesn’t. 

I do have a weak spot for tales about aliens that are written from the aliens' perspective, turning humans into the real aliens. Here, we meet a strange group of beings that live in a harmony of sorts with their planet's environment. Their way of life, their culture, is in many ways tightly regimented and controlled, but there is a definite magic and beauty and a vast intelligence among them as well. Roach's story delves into family relationships, forgiveness, second chances, and grace.

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The Golden Hour by Erica Ruppert in Nightmare

His memory stuttered, caught on faces and places and angles of light, aromas and flavors that had long since faded to dust. He sighed, and closed his bleary eyes against the visions.

This is a gorgeous, quietly devastating story about two brothers, the strange light they find in the creek near their house when they're children, and about the terrible thing (things) that happen afterwards. Reading this story, you realize at some point that it is a sort of monster/ vampire story, though no one in the story says so, and the vibe and feel of this is more sorrowful and riven by pain than most stories I've read about vampires. If you've read Lord of the Rings, there's a moment early on that echoes (for me at least) a pivotal scene with Gollum, but Ruppert moves past that into something else, into the loneliness and ever-present hunger of being something that is not human, but with all the memories of who you were.

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Animal Sacrifice by Mar Stratford in The Deadlands

I lost consciousness during liftoff. When I came to, you had appeared. You were floating outside the meter-wide porthole of the orbital waste management craft. Ears pointed up, tongue lolling out of a half-opened mouth. Impossible, I thought, because I knew how fast the craft had to be moving to maintain orbit, and there was no way such a little dog could keep pace. Then I realized I was attempting to apply the standard model of physics to a dog that had died a quarter of a century ago, and stopped asking questions. You were here, Laika. Of course you were.

If you grieve over the good dog Laika who was sent into space and lost her life there, then this story is absolutely for you. If you want to read a science fiction story that deals with death, including ghostly dogs, then this story is also for you. It is surreal, beautiful, and wistful. 

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It Rises and Falls and Rises Again by RJ Taylor in Apex

The screaming began, as it always did, from above, from far away, from someone falling off the summit, or maybe being pushed. No one knew.

Lori was cutting a pattern for a new skirt when the screams reached her. She tried for a second to ignore them, but her hands shook and the metal scissors slipped off her fingers down to the counter. The blades were still tangled in the fabric—a pale paisley—and muffled the clatter. All she could hear was the screaming. It always took so long to come.

Lori lives in a ledge town, towns located on the ledges of a very high mountain. Now, the strange thing about the place, the mountain, is that the people who decide to climb to the top all end up falling off the mountain. They scream as they fall, and then they keep falling, over and over, until the fall is done and they are gone and they are never seen again. No one knows what makes them fall but the rumour is that maybe God is up there and makes them fall. When Lori's partner Koel climbs the mountain, she almost thinks it will be different for him, but it isn't, and once she sees him fall, Lori decides to climb the mountain too. A surreal and uniquely imagined story, where the answers might be even stranger than the questions.

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Where the Prayers Run Like Weeds Along the Road by Fred Coppersmith in Bourbon Penn

You find the dead man waiting for you right where you left him, leaning against the old wooden fence at the side of the road. He looks like he’s smiling, a lopsided grin of too many teeth, but you’re sure that’s just a trick of the light, or of too little sleep. Because when you pull the truck over and rub both of your eyes until you see stars, the grin is gone, and the dead man just grumbles at you and says, “What took you so long?”

I love every bit of this strange and enigmatic post-apocalyptic tale. Nothing is certain here: not death, or life, or what has caused the apocalypse that changed the world and the people in it (at least the few who remain). Was it angels? Aliens? No one seems to know. Coppersmith weaves a story with emotional depth and power that moves back and forth in time and where everything is both dreamlike and terrifyingly real. It feels a bit like cruising through a nightmare, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.

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Douen by Suzan Palumbo in The Dark

I see Mama in de cemetery when dey put de white casket in de ground. She was crying so hard she was shaking like when grandma died and Tanty, Mama’s aunt, had to hug Mama up tight, tight, to keep Mama from falling down.

A ghost/afterlife story that might shred your heart and chill your bones, all at the same time.  There's horror here, but horror mixed with sadness and anger, as a dead child tries to make sense of what's happened to her, and as she clings to the people and places she loved (and still loves). There is grief and betrayal here, and a child's wicked vengeance, and I love the prose, and how skillfully Palumbo captures the logic of a child in all its terrifying glory.

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Fried Rice by Shih-Li Kow in Flash Fiction Online

We’ve had Cook for a month now. Ever since Mom died, Dad’s been trading one obsession for another. After periods of relentless exercising, house cleaning, and cataloging of Mom’s books, he’s now fixated on perfecting Cook’s fried rice. We’ve had fried rice every day for two weeks.

A family is trying to come to terms with the death of Mom, and it's a difficult time for everyone. Dad pours all his energy into arguing with, and berating, the robot cook that seems incapable of truly capturing the essence of Mom's cooking. There's a gentle sense of humour here, and Kow has a deft touch for capturing family conflicts and love, as well as the many strange ways humans experience and express grief.

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The Precipice by Jiksun Cheung in The Molotov Cocktail

Every year, on the fifteenth night of the seventh lunar month, when the gates of the underworld are thrown open, he returns to the corner just off the main road in Kam Tin beside the entrance of a rundown amusement park, where he sets a bundle of joss papers alight in a rusty tin can and then takes a pinch of gravel and rooster blood between his fingers and rubs the vile mixture into his eyes until it burns.

Beautifully crafted flash fiction set in an amusement park where a father and a daughter enjoy the rides and games, while the dead gather round, looking for the gifts left behind by the living. Gripping, heartbreaking, and utterly fabulous.

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