September 15, 2022

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

 


The art for this roundup is a detail of Vincent Sammy's cover art for Interzone 292/293, titled 'The Repairer of Reputations'. More about Vincent Sammy: https://www.deviantart.com/karbonk

An audio version is available on YouTube:


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The Pain Barrier by Alexander Glass in Interzone 292/293

He could already feel the pain. It was on the other side of Pecado Street, somewhere inside the box of dirty light that was the New Penitence Twenty-Five Hour Pharmacy. He guessed it couldn’t be much bigger than a tooth – a nugget of hurt small enough to cradle in your palm – and yet it was familiar, unmistakable. It didn’t exactly bite yet, though. The ache was dull, diffuse, so that he couldn’t pinpoint where it was, not exactly, not yet. That was fine. The closer he came to it, the sharper it would feel.

This is a harrowing and gripping science-fiction take on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and a quest to bring someone out of the realm of the dead. This realm of the dead, or purgatory, is a town (of sorts) called New Penitence and it, like the entire story, has a decidedly noir/cyberpunk-hue. It's a story and a place where nothing and no one is what it seems, and where computer code, implants, and various tech-gadgets allow people--criminals and those in debt--to be enslaved or at least trapped, even after death. A man named Walker has found a way in to New Penitence and he's looking for a woman he used to know: Ariette. Walker has made a deal with someone very powerful in order to get in, but getting out will not be easy. A fantastic read from a great issue of Interzone , the final issue to be edited by Andy Cox and published by TTA Press. Interzone will go on with a new editor and a new publisher.

Bridget Has Disappeared by Tamika Thompson in Interzone 292/293

If I begin by telling you I don’t know where my wife is, that her disappearance has brought me as much consternation as it has anyone, then it will color everything I say. So, I won’t begin that way. I will simply say I met Bridget by chance when I visited my neighborhood bookstore and heard a brash woman arguing with one of the booksellers.

Yusef meets Bridget and falls hopelessly, helplessly in love with her. They get married, they have a child, but there is something profoundly strange and mysterious about Bridget, something Yusef can sense from the beginning, even before he sees her literally disappear into thin air the first time. I love the unsettling, off-kilter vibe of this story, where we are as mystified as Yusef and follow him into a deeper and darker obsession: how and why is Bridget capable of disappearing and reappearing? how come she doesn't seem to remember what's happened? Yusef's quest for answers puts a strain on his marriage, but he can't stop digging, can't stop trying to find an answer. And when he kind of does find an answer... well, things do not get easier. A wonderfully crafted, evocative, and profoundly haunting story.

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The Summer Dives by Samantha Murray in F&SF Sept/Oct 2022

Every year they dive, the girls and women of Aberfy. On the very first day of summer and the very last. And every year, one of them doesn't come back.

In the community of Aberfy, truths can be found in the water, and if you catch a truth, it might very well change your life. But in return for these truths, and for the protection of the community, the sea claims the life of a swimmer every year, and no one knows where those who disappear end up. Murray's story is gorgeous and lyrical. It follows a girl named Lila, and her friends Brin and Vess as they struggle to find their places in a community that is not always easy to live in for those who can't, or do not want to, fit in. Murray captures the conflicted emotions and bonds between a group of adolescents perfectly.

The Charcoal Man by Constance Fay in F&SF Sept/Oct 2022

There once as a life that was unmade. Or rather, halfunmade. It is hard to take back something as substantial as a life. They stick like cobwebs; metamorphose in new ways with slight changes. All it takes is a choice.

A boy called Shade who hates the dark finds that he can steal the life-light of living things and keep the glow in glass bottles. In the beginning he steals only the lives of creatures on the verge of death, but he doesn't stop there. Fay's story is deeply unsettling and quietly devastating as we follow Shade into many dark and terrible places, until Shade meets someone, or something, who shows him the truth about what he has done and the price to be paid. 

Tangle Her in Quicksilver Breath by Gerri Leen in F&SF Sept/Oct 2022

She was a sweet child, lovely of course, but also kind. I watched her from afar as she grew, tall and beautiful, my quicksilvered glass kept far away from her by her sister, the queen.

I do love fairytale retellings and this one is an excellent twist on Snow White. Here, the story's narrator is the magic mirror itself, and as it turns out, the magic of that mirror is not at all what we might assume. It is a far different, and far more dangerous, item than in the old fairytale. I love the way Leen spins something new from this well-known tale, and the way the characters and relationships we think we know are twisted into new shapes.

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The Greatest Mercy by Micah S. Vernon in The Deadlands #16

I stand before it: Witch House. Its locked door an invitation

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(how strange that it helps me remember)

not so aberrant or obvious as to shift on the surface, it always looks the same. But Witch House always changes. And when Witch House changes, it is changing me. Each time I stand before it, old neurons and synapses flicker, and I remember all the things We did

This is one of my favourite horrorish stories that I’ve read recently. It's also one of the most surreal and nightmarish/dreamlike portrayals of memories, death, and/or hauntings that I’ve ever read. It's a mystery wrapped in memory and repetition, where people and places surface only to be obscured again, with hints and echoes of their true meaning shimmering all around you as you read. There’s a sense of endless repetition, and of memories and knowledge that are always just out of reach, and there's also a sense of things that would be too traumatic to remember clearly. Some stories you feel in your bones, and for me this is such a story. Immerse yourself in Vernon’s prose and allow yourself to get lost in it.

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The Drowned Heir by Jennifer R. Donohue 

I recently read this self-published novella by Donohue, and I devoured it in one sitting. It is a wonderful, uniquely imagined tale set in a world of terrible and wonderful magics.

The official novella description:

When her uncle dies at sea, a third child with no place in society undergoes a ceremony to house his spirit and take his role, diminishing the family’s loss. But her uncle’s spirit hasn’t settled the way it’s supposed to, and will not content itself with shore-bound business. Her uncle’s spirit insists, angrily, that it was not just a storm that killed him and wrecked his ship, not a rogue wave; it was an unthinkably large monster.

Then his lover comes knocking with news of an adult son who has set sail along the same shipping lane, and dead uncle and living niece must work together to save a son neither of them knew existed.

This story grabbed me from the very first line and paragraph, and never let go, so let me just quote the two opening lines:

They drown me when my uncle dies. He has no children, no heirs, and I'm my parent's awkward third child, second daughter, so it can only be me.

I loved it so much I blurbed it! My blurb:

"A dark and richly textured fantasy novella that plunges you headfirst into a captivating and uniquely imagined world full of strange magic and implacable tradition, and where a family's expectations clash with a young woman’s soul. Donohue grabs you from the first line and never lets go with a rollicking, beautifully crafted tale where everything, from the tattoos to the ships to the sea itself, are imbued with magic, and where gargantuan monsters lurk beneath the waves..."

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The Magical Sow by Wen Wen Yang in Fantasy Magazine

Second Sister, the narrator of this darkly funny fantasy story that reads like a fierce fairytale, might have wanted to meet a magic fish that would grant her wishes. But instead she has to make do with a talking sow. And when Biyu, the youngest sister in the family, is dealing with some trouble in her marriage, the magical sow lays out a plan that is clever, vicious, and voracious. I love how this story keeps its fairytale vibe, and gives it a sharp and wicked edge. I am also a huge, HUGE fan of this particular pig and would gladly scratch her back or ears anytime she needed it.

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Heart-Eater by Tania Chen in Apparition Lit

On the road to St. Bernabé there is a gorge, a man-made indentation that goes deep into the hill, and there at the bottom lives Izel el Huesero; said to have eyes the color of a smoked mirror and a smile made of sharpened ribs, not teeth.

They say that Izel el Huesero is not a man to be looked for unless the injury is dire. And even then, it’s better to be dead than in the debt of this particular Huesero.

Lisandro knows the rumors but he presses on, undeterred.

This story left me gasping, and mostly I just want to say: go read it immediately. For me, this reads like a very twisted, and very original take on the story of Frankenstein’s monster, but that’s not all it is. It’s stitched through with threads of the darkest of fantasy and science fiction, and there's an old god peering through the cracks in reality, too. Lisandro wanted to become a doctor, but his outrageous acts at the morgue gets him kicked out of university. His quest for revenge opens up new avenues of magic (or is it technology like Lisandro tells himself?) when he finds a strange heart in a strange place and then that heart begins to grow.

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 YourSpace Between by Marie Croke in Apex Magazine

Nine years and seventy-three days after you disappeared—after I pressed that button—DoubleSpace had a suit brought against them. Not by us—Dad and Papa had nothing left financially and most people still believed the nasty things DoubleSpace had made up about them long after the situation was no longer newsworthy. This suit was brought forth by a middle-class family with three kids who had splurged on secondary spatial distortions for each of their kids’ bedrooms for their tenth birthdays.

A quietly devastating sci-fi story about a girl who loses her brother in the family’s new DoubleSpace closet, a strange and amazing new invention that allows the same space in your house to hold two different rooms and gives you the ability to switch between those rooms at the touch of a button. Years later, she meets a girl who lost her sister the same way, though her sister came back, somehow, from wherever the DoubleSpace closet had transported her. It’s a story about loss and guilt, friendship and hope, and it plays out like a grief-stricken ghost story where the ghost itself is mostly absent. Croke handles the emotional beats masterfully at every turn, and I love how this story focuses not on the technical glitch and a search for a "solution", but rather on the psychological aftermath and repercussions of losing someone you love.

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She Works in the Office Where They Died by Alex Singer in PseudoPod (narrated by Dani Daly)

Dezra works in an office where 1000 people died. Well, 1082. People round down.

No one’s told the ones who died.

Dezra works for a startup company in an office building that sits on a property where the previous buildings were destroyed when the earth just opened and swallowed an entire block. Every day when she goes to work, Dezra sees the ghosts of those who died that day. She navigates around them at her desk, in the hallways, everywhere. This story twists and turns as it is told, and there’s a point when Dezra, and the reader, understand the true scope of the horror that is taking place in the office, and it's the kind of emotionally resonant reveal that gave me real chills. Singer’s story is inspired by the events of 9/11, but it’s not just a ghost story or a story about a horrible event. It goes beyond that, delving into the indifference and lack of empathy we might see around us in a lot of different forms, every day, in companies and communities and society, no matter whether we see the ghosts of the dead as vividly as Dezra does.

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Tender, Tether, Shell by M.J. Pettit in Clarkesworld

It had been six months. People couldn’t handle the constant sight of Tess’ pearly white suit meandering about the station, her nameplate clearly on display, doing the same old maintenance tasks she used to perform, sitting silently beside us in the cafeteria, attending a post-shift screening at the cinema. Hae’cera even wore her suit to the memorial service. Tess deserved a proper burial. We all needed to put the accident behind us.

A brilliant and thoughtful science fiction story that does so much, so well, in a small space. It’s set in a future where humans have encountered an alien species that has brought them a lot of amazing technology, but where people also have to deal with the implications of that power shift in their everyday lives, and in society as a whole. That bigger story is fitted neatly inside a smaller, more personal, and emotionally wrenching story about Tess, who died in an accident, and Hae’cera the alien who survived the accident by crawling inside Tess’s pressure suit after she died in order to survive. (These aliens, much like hermit crabs, need a shell to survive.) The story’s narrator has been tasked with convincing Hae’cera to stop wearing Tess’s old suit since it is making everyone else at the space Waystation very uncomfortable, even angry. Pettit takes on the subject of how difficult it would be for humans and aliens to not just communicate, but to truly understand each other, and handles it beautifully.

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Hydroplaning by Peter Medeiros in GigaNotoSaurus

There was a boy in the road, taller than average and built like a tree, all thin limbs. The driving rain obscured his features, and I was spinning so fast I could only catch a glimpse, but he was there, standing with long arms to either side and watching me. I could feel his eyes even if I couldn’t see them, could feel his regard like a cold wet hand around my throat. I had never seen a child so angry.

This is such a terrific fantasy story, set in a uniquely imagined world where magic exists, though it is controlled and distributed by companies in what seems a rather bureaucratic manner. Our narrator, Birrs Escio, is an auditor who travels to various towns for a company called Okson Frontiers, putting together reports and recommending whether or not the company should invest in these towns, thereby providing them some very useful magic services. Birrs arrives in the small community of Deepcalm, and after an unsettling encounter on the way into town, he begins his work. However, things take several strange and ominous turns, and we soon realize that Deepcalm is haunted by the repercussions of desperate deeds done many years ago, and by the end... well... let's just say things go decidedly bonkers. I love the way this story builds up the mood, the world, and the characters, and how it interweaves magic, old deities, and small-town politics into something so riveting.

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Flash Fiction Extravaganza – Mortality at Podcastle - with stories by Samantha Murray, Lindsey Godfrey Eccles, and Stewart C. Baker 

A great episode of flash fiction.

  • “The Stars That Fall” by Samantha Murray (first published in Flash Fiction Online)
  • “On the Corner of Fulton and West” by Lindsey Godfrey Eccles - is a story about a Howard, a ghost, who is trying to tell the story of Joanna and how she died that day in September when an airplane hit the towers. But no one wants to listen. And when Joanna herself appears, Howard tries to make her tell the story, her story, the way he wants it to be told, but that is not what Joanna wants. A sharp, strange, and ghostly story that keeps its turmoil and pain visible and visceral just beneath the surface.
  • “No Blood of My Heart, No Breath of My Lungs, But Love” by Stewart C. Baker (first published in LampLight)

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Papa Legba Has Entered the Chat by DaVaun Sanders in Fireside

Another child stolen from us, and you allowed it. No matter that you drove straight home once you finally heard, up past the border, only stopping for gas in Tucson, ignoring your granny’s texts the whole way. No matter that you stand here now at the crossroads of the murder, pacing in the moonlight, churning over forensics and the coroner’s report.

Sanders's story is the best kind of gut-punch, spinning a tale of magic, fate, and justice that also lays bare the wrenching truths about racism and police violence we see play out far too often on the news and on the streets. It is a story sharp as a knife's edge that also delves into questions of complicity, and what people do in order to keep themselves safe, and what happens when they finally turn on the perpetrators of violence. Powerful, harrowing, and beautifully crafted.

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Always Home by Jeff VanderMeer in Motherboard at VICE

A thousand languages traced their way through the forest. She could read them all. While this, too, was pleasurable, it had a purpose. Her job was to be the steward and defender of a vague territory that stretched two hundred miles through the valley, until it met mountains, where another of her kind lived and did the same.

I flat-out LOVE this science fiction story by VanderMeer where we meet one of the New People of an imagined future Earth: an artificial intelligence that has great powers of understanding and transformation at its disposal. These guardians are tasked with protecting a specific area, defending it and also cleansing it after centuries of pollution and environmental destruction. The guardian runs into one of the Old People, a human who will not accept the new order of things:

Old People found New People disconcerting, so she paused to become bipedal, to absorb all but two eyes and to create a face with a mouth and a nose. Then she made a sound half-welcoming, half- threatening. It brought the Old Person rushing out from the tent flap, clutching an outdated weapon.

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DIY by John Wiswell at TOR.com

Wiswell takes on the beloved trope of the magical school, and turns it into a complex and compelling  feel-good story that is funny, profound, and sharp as a shiv. The magical school in question is the expensive and elitist Ozymandias Academy, run by a legendary magician and headmaster called Vamon Kinctuarin. Noah grows up idolizing Kinctuarin and dreaming of going to the academy. He tries everything he can to get in, but when he is finally accepted, things don’t turn out the way he had planned. Instead, Noah becomes a self-taught magician with a very singular purpose. And when he meets Manny, who has also taught himself magic, they join forces and focus on trying to solve the terrible drought plaguing the world. Wiswell’s story is fierce and tender as it portrays both an unjust world, the power of community, and also the true power of partners supporting and loving each other while sticking it to the powers that be.

The Ghost of Workshops Past: How Communism, Conservatism, and the Cold War Still Mold Our Paths Into SFF Writing by S.L. Huang at TOR.com

When I began receiving invitations to teach, it motivated my own research into writing workshops. With substantial teaching experience but no workshop experience—as instructor or student—I polled everyone I knew on what different structures they’d seen.

Milford, I was told.

Milford.

And again Milford.

I was flummoxed. Was every teacher in every writing classroom in SFF using the exact same method? With variations, I was told, but still Milford: a method of critique in which the author stays silent, each participant has a timed slot for feedback, and then the author has a timed slot to speak themselves.

I thought of the myriad pedagogies in other fields. How could there be only one method?

I don't often recommend non-fiction pieces in this roundup, but if you haven't read this long, fascinating, and well-researched essay by Huang, I highly recommend you check it out. There's so much to savour here: thoughts on writing workshops, the SFF writing community, the history of that community and the history of workshops and the techniques used there, and much more. As someone who has never attended a writing workshop, I found this essay to be both vital and absolutely engrossing. Huang shares a lot more on the various subjects from the essay on Twitter, and you can find a lot of that in this thread: https://twitter.com/sl_huang/status/1561158658372894720 

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August 31, 2022

Behind the Zines with Clara Madrigano, co-editor at THE DARK

This month’s Behind the Zines interview features Clara Madrigano. She is co-editor at The Dark, and I am so grateful to get a chance to talk to her about her work at the zine!


More about Clara Madrigano:

Clara Madrigano is a Brazilian author of speculative fiction. She publishes both in Portuguese and in English, and you can find her fiction in The Dark and in Clarkesworld.

On to the interview!

Q. First up, what is your background, as in: where are you from, where are you now, and what do you do inside and outside the world of speculative fiction?

Clara Madrigano: I was born in Brazil; in Rio de Janeiro, more specifically. And I still live in Brazil, but now I dwell in the city of Curitiba, in the occasionally cold-as-hell South of my country. I love it here, with all of its problems. I’d say I live a very Dickinsonania, Brontëania life: I enjoy being inside, I enjoy my room, my writing desk, the company of my books. Being surrounded by them, I can let my imagination roam free, chasing stories wherever they are.

Outside of speculative fiction? Is there an outside?

(I practice calisthenics. There you go, a random fact about myself).

Q. What attracted you to horror specifically, and the speculative fiction genre in general if applicable, when you were a child or young adult (or adult)? What lured you into genre fiction, and are there some specific books, movies, TV-shows or similar that you feel were responsible for pulling you into the world of horror/SFF?

CM: Fantasy has always been a big part of my life, as well as horror. My parents never stopped me from watching or reading anything I wanted, which means that, by age 10, I was both a fan of The Princess Bride and Alien; or Labyrinth and A Nightmare on Elm Street. I grew up with this mix of fantasy and horror, first as movies, and then as books. Inevitably, that diet made me what I am today. Ray Bradbury’s The October Country, which I stumbled upon as a child, haunted me for years. And, of course, there was Harry Potter—a series I nowadays think about with less and less nostalgia, but that had a huge impact on me at the time it was being published, introducing me to the world of fanfiction—which is how I began to write in the first place.

Q. What do you love about the horror genre, and why does it appeal to you as a reader and writer?

CM: I’d say terror is what is so appealing to me. Not knowing what it’s happening. Or knowing, but suffering from the anticipation of getting there. The raising of the hair in my arms, the cold sweat; that’s what always glued me to my metaphorical chair—as a kid and as an adult. And it’s the feeling I try to impart in my stories.

Q. Who are some of your favourite writers or creators in any medium right now? (Both living and working today, and older works and creators?)

CM: There are so many people I could name. I’ll focus on the authors working today, because I think we live in such a wonderful age for spec fiction—so many great writers are working right now, I even have trouble keeping up. I have to name Kelly Link, of course, Audrey Niffenegger, who wrote my favorite book of all time, The Time Traveler’s Wife. Eugenia Triantafyllou, Suzan Palumbo, A. C. Wise, Stephen Graham Jones, you—yes, you, Maria [my note: I AM BLUSHING]—Tananarive Due, Octavia Cade, Angela Slatter, Carrie Laben, Gemma Files, Kaaron Warren…

Q. You have recently picked up the reins as co-editor of The Dark Magazine. How did you first get involved working at The Dark, and what are your thoughts on this new role for you. What do you do as co-editor on a day-to-day basis, and what are some of the best, and worst maybe?, things about being a co-editor?

CM: The first magazine to ever publish a story I’d written in English was The Dark, so I feel like I’m coming full circle now. I feel like it’s an honor, really—to be able to publish authors who sometimes are just starting their writing careers. There’s a particular joy in finding a good story—recognizing that talent—and then having it published, so others will feel the same joy you did. My days as a co-editor are spent reading good stories. I have no complaints there. But the hardest part is always having to reject some of those stories—because most of them are really, really good. They just don’t fit the magazine’s theme, most of the time. I wish I could publish it all.

Q. What advice would you give to writers submitting stories to The Dark, and publications in general? What do you look for in a story, and how do you approach the process of selecting stories for the zine?

CM: First: read the submission guidelines. I can’t stress enough how important that part is. As I mentioned before, we get a lot of good stories, beautifully written stories, that simply don’t work as horror or dark fantasy. In approaching the magazine—any magazine, really—I’d recommend reading a lot of what they have already published—so you get the idea of what they work with. As for myself, I’m a terror girl. Everything that keeps me on the edge through the entirety of the tale—that’s my drug of choice. When we get these types of stories, those are always my favorite moments.

Q. Has your work behind the scenes at The Dark affected your view of the world of speculative fiction publishing? What do you see as the main challenges of running a zine like The Dark.

CM: I always knew the market was very competitive, and that there are a lot of great writers working today. So this hasn’t changed. The main challenge is letting people know they are wanted—their stories are wanted. Some minorities, because they’ve already been shunned by the market—in one way or another—will sometimes shy away from submitting their stories; they think they have to be really, really good, when they already are really, really good. I try to encourage minorities to send us their stories (white men don’t need encouragement, believe me). I want them to realize how talented they are, and that they deserve to be published as much as any other author they admire.

Q. You are a writer yourself and you have had work published in both English and Portuguese. What are your thoughts on the sometimes rather English-speaking and North America-centric focus in speculative fiction when it comes to SFF publications, awards, cons, publishing, etc.?

CM: I think I started publishing in English at a time when things were already changing. Of course, there’s still a prevalence of certain types of fiction and tropes—but all in all, I feel like the market is becoming more diverse by the day. All one needs to do is check the last ballots for the major spec fiction prizes. Things are changing. People opposing that change, trying to keep the status quo intact, will lose—like old men yelling at clouds. You simply can’t contain so much talent, so many voices, all the stories being written and published; you can’t, and you won’t.

Q. For people out there who might be thinking about getting involved with a podcast or a zine in any capacity, what would you say to them? Any tips or advice?

CM: I hope you love reading. Because you’ll be doing a lot of it. Passion for fiction is a prerequisite. And so are kindness and patience.

Q. What’s up next for you, both as a co-editor and as a writer?

CM: For editing, I have a feeling I’ll be staying in The Dark for a while (unless Sean Wallace gets tired of me and locks me in the dungeon). I simply love what I do there. As for fiction, I have a new story in Nightmare this September; and a few other stories, in other venues, I still can’t speak about.

Huge thanks to Clara for talking to me about her work!


About Behind the Zines:

In this interview series, I talk to people working behind the scenes at various speculative fiction publications. My goal is to highlight the work that goes into keeping these publications alive, and to share insights from the people doing that work. Each interview is available exclusively on my Patreon for one week, and is then posted here at Maria's Reading

If you want to support my work, check out my Patreon or Ko-Fi.


August 15, 2022

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

 

The art for this roundup is a detail of Cindy Fan's art for Kaleidotrope. Find out more about the artist here: https://cind.ca/

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:

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Schlafstunde by Lavie Tidhar in Apex Magazine

There was a shop in old Haifa that specialised in Treif artefacts, so that was where Mili went first. Haifa sprawled along the side of Mount Carmel. Successive waves of regeneration didn’t do much to change it. Now adaptoplant buildings sprouted like weeds between the cracks, and down in the harbour Drift ships waited, gleaming in the sun. Mili crossed through federated streets and enclaves, moving between Judean and Palestinian authority, briefly cutting through a Baha’i enclave, her ident tag pinging off each authority server, but it didn’t really make any difference these days. The quilted land slumbered: in Haifa the afternoon rest was still sacrosanct.

This story is such an excellent science fiction tale, and an excellent example of Tidhar's lush and immersive storytelling and world-building. I love the way the details of this future-world are hinted at and described in passing without slowing the narrative, the way descriptions and story flow together and then flow outside the frames of this particular story until it feels like a real place and time. Everything in Tidhar's world is anchored firmly in the past, and our now, in a place where war and peace, enemies and allies, life and death has played out in a thousand different ways throughout the millennia, and will continue to play out in new and ancient patterns in years to come. In this land, Mili is searching for an old, maybe imaginary, entity and in the process, it seems she stirs up the dust of a very old conflict. A compelling tale from start to finish.

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Termination Stories for the Cyberpunk Dystopia Protagonist by Isabel J. Kim in Clarkesworld

Cool and Sexy Asian Girl stands outside the convenience store under the striped awning and waits for the rain to stop. The rain is never going to stop. Cool and Sexy Asian Girl would need to go to a different city for the rain to stop, a city not built on phosphorescent fluorescence and slick glass, a city that doesn’t breathe through its elevated train lines and subways. Cool and Sexy Asian Girl doesn’t remember when they built the train lines. She dreams of cities where it is not always night. Not that it’s always night here. But it is. In the heart, it is.

Kim's story about a cyberpunk dystopia and the characters/archetypes inhabiting that dystopia is an absolute thrill to read. Cool and Sexy Asian Girl navigates the city where it always rains and where it seems it's always night, and where the story's protagonist keeps searching for something he'll never find. Kim weaves together the story while reflecting on and interrogating these KINDS of stories, including how tropes can be used to trap and/or empower various characters over others, and what it would be like (what it is like) to inhabit a world where you are not the main story. But, even if you're not the main story, you might find ways to use the main story to change yourself and your own life, though this might come at a cost.

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Timecop Mojitos by Sarah Pauling in Diabolical Plots

So what happened was, I’m back from clicker training Ms. Jordan’s dogs over on Dexter, sitting on the porch with a mojito, thinking how fucked up it is that the Old West Side Association stealth-planted tulips in our garden (because the yard looked so shitty without them, I guess—sorry for having a rental in your high-value neighborhood, Evie) when the Viking or whatever comes down Eighth.

This story by Sarah Pauling is a fantastic romp that puts new twists and sharp turns into the usual scifi/fantasy quest, time-travel / time-cop story. I adore the voice and style and vibe of this story and its decidedly darkly humorous take on the genre.

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What the Dead Birds Taught Me by Laura Blackwell in Nightmare Magazine

The first time I saw him, I was crouched in a ditch by the highway, lancet poised, holding a crumbly-paged book open to the words to reanimate a dead owl. Anne leaned against our dad’s old car on the shoulder, just a few feet past the impromptu memorial some of Mom and Dad’s students had put up. The flowers were wilting and the photos were fading, just like our parents’ ghosts in the ditch where they’d died. I walked all up and down it, grasses itching at my legs despite my jeans.

This is a dark and brilliant gem of a story by Blackwell. Two orphaned sisters grow up together, and one of them is teaching herself all sorts of magic of reanimation and necromancy, using blood and birds and spells to connect with the dead. One day they meet a man, and both sisters can sense that he has death on his hands. What follows after that is a deliciously sharp and incisive twist on the tale of Bluebeard, planting the story firmly in what feels like our own world, except that here, it's also run through with magic... if you know how to access it.

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A Start to Judgment by Benjamin C. Kinney in Kaleidotrope

Arsha plays the role expected of her, though she’s known for years how their rebellion will end. She thought she could endure one last survey of her knights and archers and footmen before the final battle, but the guilt still cracks her insides like a pickaxe. The free people of the world have placed their faith in her, the Chosen One. Tomorrow she’ll face the Flensed Lord and betray them all.

I love stories that twist the trope of the Chosen One into new shapes, and Kinney does that brilliantly in this short story. Arsha is the Chosen One, so everyone around her believes, the one with the power to destroy the evil Lord of the world. But Arsha, secretly, has another theory as to what her power is, where it comes from, and what her true purpose is, and she is riven by guilt and self-loathing. Even so, she faces the final battle and enters the Flensed Lord’s keep, convinced that the terrible truth will be revealed to all those who have followed her into battle. There’s so much pain and doubt in Arsha, and Kinney explores her journey as he crafts a story where good and evil are not what you might think.

After Midnight, in a Dead Woman’s Shoes by Frances Rowat in Kaleidotrope

She can’t have been dead more than an hour, most of the night still to come, when she staggers up to her feet in the rain.

Such a deliriously, deliciously dark tale of an avenging ghost. Rowat’s tale is beautifully told and grisly terrible in its details as a young woman haunts the living in order to find her murderer. The prose is exquisitely crafted to capture and paint a specific world, a place, and a character. I love every bit of this story, including its wrenching end.

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Explorer / Cartographer by John WM Thompson in Fusion Fragment

I am given to understand that, on an afternoon many years ago, Klimt found and opened the door through which Nell beckoned me. Properly pre-pared, Nell tells me, a thought becomes Thought, and becomes to that other place what mould is to plaster. I am, she says, the articulation of a shape that she very carefully imagined.

An evocative, strange, and riveting story about a place where doorways can be found to other, very peculiar, worlds, and where a living, sentient camcorder is being used to record and document various phenomena in our own world. I love the unabashed weirdness of the world in this story and the way it hints and slowly reveals the purposes and motivations of its characters. To quote Fusion Fragment on Twitter: "Explorer / Cartographer" might be your jam if you're into living camcorders, finding gates to other worlds, and discovering the smell of garlic.

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Constructed by Brandon Crilly in Haven Speculative

A beautiful story that shows us a world on the verge of being reconnected to the rest of the universe after many years of isolation. Like everyone else in his world, Kenli is excited about the Reconnection, and he is also excited (and worried) by his discovery of an old piece of magic and technology: a machine/creature called a Construct that has deep ties to the past. I love the wistful tone of this story and the way it builds a compelling world and place in such a small space.

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Ídol by James Bennett in The Dark

A wicked sharp horror story about a journey to a small Spanish town and two men in a relationship that has just gone from bad to worse. There's something so ur-horror-ish about stories where someone travels to a small community and doesn't have a clue about what kind of terrifying rules and rituals are enforced and practiced there. (For other recent examples see the game Resident Evil: Village and the movie Midsommar, for example.) Bennett adds the element of vengeance, an affair, and a protagonist that is rather full of himself, for a story that plays out like a twisted nightmare.

A Game at Clearwater Lake by Gillian Daniels in The Dark

At that moment, I should have known what sort of story I was in. I used to yell at characters in horror movies who split from the group or went into the basement without turning on the lights. I threw popcorn at the screen which always made Ryan laugh and Becky smother her giggles. Maybe I didn’t realize it because, when you just think of yourself as the hero of your own story, you don’t realize you’re the bit player in someone else’s.

Another great horror story from The Dark. In this one, Daniels gives us a terrific take on the haunted lake, the final girl trope, and summer-camp horror, all at once. This story has an earthy, tactile vibe that I really love, especially in the depictions of childhood and friendship in a small town, and in addition to its horrors, this story also has a satisfying, darkly funny streak. I LOVE the turn things take toward the end, and the historical and emotional depth to the "villain" of the story.

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Overnight Home Companion by Frank J. Oreto at PseudoPod

Position: Overnight home companion for shut in. Must be able to read. Lack of imagination a plus.

Salary: 250 dollars a night. I’ve never seen who pays. But the cash is there every morning at sunrise. A brown paper bag in the mailbox, twenties and tens. Good money, right? But I need to explain some things. I don’t want you coming in blind like I did.

This flash fiction story is part of the excellent episode Flash on the Borderlands LXII: Flash Fiction Contest 7 Winners. As you might surmise from the quote above, this story is horror with a sense of humour, and it's all about a job that seems so easy... but is it? Well, you be the judge!

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Flowstone by Steve Toase in Three-Lobed Burning Eye

His Father had been a few steps in front of him, letting Dave take the steep descent at his own pace, so he never saw what caused his Father to lose his footing. Didn’t see why he fell so far and broke so certainly. The stairs are now lit with industrial-looking lamps laced with safety cages. He reaches out to one and flinches at the heat.

There's a new issue of Three-Lobed Burning Eye and the entire thing is well worth your time (and your money). This story by Toase is wickedly, profoundly disturbing and creep. It's one of those stories where you know something is wrong, but it still catches you by surprise just how wrong it is. Wonderfully written horror.

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This Place Is Best Shunned by David Erik Nelson at TOR.com

A lot of things are twined together in this story: the nursery rhyme about the church and the steeple and the people, the scientific research on how to warn people away from a place long after our own languages and societies are gone, and, well, the horror of tentacles. Nelson builds this story and his characters with such precise and exquisite care, and then unravels the world and plunges those characters (and the reader) into a pit of terror. Excellent stuff.

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This Residue Light by Ewen Ma in The Deadlands

A lyrical and gorgeously wrought story about death and the afterlife, belonging and loss, love and fear and loneliness. To quote the author from Twitter, this story features: "death caught in the city lights, young queer hipster lovebirds, urban hunger, and defiant joy as a means of survival." This is the kind of story where the language, its rhythm, its quiet spaces, and its melody, tell the story just as much as the words themselves. Please read it, because it sings.

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Singing the Ancient Out of the Dark
by RJ Theodore and Maurice Broaddus in Lightspeed

This is a terrific and mind-bending science fiction story where a researcher from Earth crash-lands on a planet that was populated by humans a very long time ago. What she finds there is something so strange and, in essence, alien that she can barely understand what she's experiencing at first. In the end, the encounter changes her in profound and unforeseeable ways. There's so much depth and texture to this story, and it is infused with both science and fantasy and ancient religion.

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Just Deserts by A.M. Barrie in Fiyah

My name is Hercules, and the name nearly lived up to me. Or perhaps I, it. Time, I suppose, will tell.

I have been called many things in my life, and alone, none have done me justice. Titles never do. The children of the home I served called me Uncle Harkness, a name I could not fathom how they conceived out of my birth name. They thought their familiarity was a kindness. The Chief of the Kitchen because of my profession and my possessor. Mister Lee called me cook, the closest thing to disrespectful as he was able. I imagine that I could be grating and being told what to do by someone like me must have irritated him greatly. Boy, I have not been called in many years, but we all remember the keen sting of the first time.

The theme for this issue of Fiyah is food and cuisine and it is chockfull of excellent stories that will likely whet your appetite and make you hungry as anything. In Barrie's story, the narrator is Hercules who cooked for George Washington. Hercules was a slave and an excellent chef, and his abilities with food went way past regular chef's skills. It's a rich, powerful tale of slavery, US history, food, and also righteous vengeance. I love the way fantasy and fiction is woven into the fabric of real history here and Barrie's prose is exquisite. 

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Dr Daidalo's Kouklotheatron by Nathan Makarios in Flash Fiction Online

There is a little alleyway that hooks off İstiklal Caddesi known only to the children of Karaköy. On summer nights they spill through the dim doorway at arcade’s end, under the sign that spells “Dr Daidalo and Son”. The little theatre is cramped, its wooden benches bare. They squabble and cuss in their seats, elbowing for room, until Dr Daidalo himself steps out to welcome them, clever knobbled fingers tugging at grey whiskers.

The July issue of FFO features stories that have are either reimagined fairytales, or at least inspired by old stories and tales. Makarios's story has a bit of Pinocchio in it, perhaps, but what I really love about it is the vivid and gorgeously wrought prose. The melody and rhythm of it is just exquisite, and its set in a world and place that feels at once utterly familiar yet also thoroughly magical. This is a tragic tale, about a place riven by conflict and violence, but there is hope here, and some of it comes from Dr. Daidalo and his son.

Fire Organ, Fire Blood by Lowry Poletti in Flash Fiction Online

The white lady of Irrigan is so named because one of her experiments bleached a lock of her hair. Her maids, affectionately, claim she is more badger than woman. It makes her smile, but they won’t say a word about the scar that runs down her chest.

Irrigan now keeps the windows in her lab open to test her most recent work. She holds a vial to her face, purses her lips, and blows over the top. The air ignites into a stream of blue flame.

She laughs, each new breath fueling the fire.

I do love dragon stories, and this one is beautiful and fierce. Irrigan is supposed to get married, but she has no interest in being a wife. What interests her is dragons, and her own research, and on this day she will bring these two things together, finally. The scene in this story with the multitude of dragons flying the skies overhead - "Above her, the dragons weave through the clouds like thread through linen. From horizon to horizon, they do not begin or end." - it's so perfect and so alive with wonder and magic. This whole issue of FFO is wonderful, and the whole thing is well worth reading.

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A Once and Future Reckoning by Rajan Khanna in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The stone was legendary even before Myrddin embedded the sword within it. Fallen from the heavens, it gave off strange emanations, energy that those close enough could feel. The stone was a relic from the time the Masters entered the world and still contained some of their energy. The sword... well, Myrddin was proud of that clever, poetic fiction.

I am a big fan of The Once and Future King by T.H. White (I was obsessed with the book as a teen), and also a big fan of stories that do new things with the old Arthurian legends and stories. Khanna's tale is wonderfully complex and intricately constructed and I love the way it reflects on the power of the story, and the telling of stories as a source of power. Both Khanna's story and R.K. Duncan's "Uncounted Leaves of Ends of Camelot" in this particular issue of BCS do new and inventive things with the tales about King Arthur, and both are definite must-reads.

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Fate, Hope, Friendship, Foe by Marie Brennan in Uncanny Magazine

The highway unwound before her like a spool of frayed grey ribbon. Once the jewel of America, now the system was cracked and crumbling, its future stolen by children too greedy for the present. Not broken—not yet—but in time all things must come to dust. Or gravel, as the case might be.

A beautiful and compelling story where ancient myth is woven into the fabric of our own world, or rather a (maybe) not too distant future version of it that teeters on the edge of destruction and collapse. Strange things are afoot in the haunted and haunting Midwest landscape, and as the story unspools, and as we begin to understand more of the deeper things at work in this story, things turn ever stranger. Brennan is a wonderful storyteller and this story is a real showcase of her craft.

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The Memory of Chemistry by Sabrina Vourvoulias in Fantasy Magazine

If you’ve read the brilliant novel Ink by Vourvoulias, you might remember the wonderful character Meche. This story in Fantasy Magazine is Meche’s prequel, told in the form of an evocative and mesmerizing story. There’s also an excellent interview with the author in the magazine, where she has this to say about Ink, and this prequel:

Meche, the protagonist in “The Memory of Chemistry,” first appeared in my novel, Ink—an immigration dystopia originally issued in 2012 and reissued by Rosarium Publishing in 2018. Her character is, in fact, a reader favorite, and over the years a number of them have expressed interest in finding out what happened to her after the events of the book. I’ve always resisted writing a sequel, to be honest, because what follows dystopia is the unbelievably hard work of living.

But at a friend’s urging, I decided to write a prequel story focused on what made Meche who she was in the novel—a ferociously smart and self-possessed chemist who used her science as a form of resistance. Still (as she did while I was writing Ink) Meche wanted to take her story somewhere other than what I had first imagined. So I followed.

It turns out both Meche and I wanted to explore the emotional landscape of aging. How you cross a threshold after which, no matter how innovative or brilliant you are at your craft, no matter how deep your activism, no matter how rich the well of your experience—you will be defined, and invisibilized, by your age. So I set out to do the unpardonable to a favorite character: to let her get old and see her.

Anyway, read Ink, and read this story: it's great stuff.


July 7, 2022

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

The artwork for this roundup is a detail of Hazem Asif's cover art for Tasavvur. Read more about the artwork and the artist at Tasavvur's website: https://tasavvurnama.com/cover-art-spring-2022-issue/

Hazem Asif is a multidisciplinary international illustrator, designer and social design activist based in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts campus in Doha, Qatar with a BFA in Graphic Design and MFA in Design Studies with a focus on speculative design, south asian futurism, and world building. 

Hazem has exhibited internationally, and has worked in a wide range of markets, such as Publishing, Editorial, Film and Academia. Hazem currently works as a Science Illustrator at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

For more short story recommendations by me, check out my latest Short Fiction Treasures column at Strange Horizons. Also, consider supporting Strange Horizon's Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/strangehorizons2019/strange-horizons-2023/description

The audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:


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You, Me, Her, You, Her, I by Isabel J. Kim in Strange Horizons

You are the unalive thing possessing her body. Her body was printed three days ago from blueprints transferred moments before the motorbike crash over the bridge. Her flesh and fat and keratin and bone are accurate to prior specifications, except for the absence of a few cosmetic scars on her arm which her family had requested not be replicated.

A haunting and beautifully crafted story that dives deep into what it means to be a person, to be human, to be an artist. It's also a story that is very much about art and creativity, about how and why we make art and where the ideas and the craft come from. In Kim's story, an artificial intelligence, the "unalive thing", is inserted into the new body of Valentine, a young woman who recently died in an accident. The AI is only meant to inhabit Valentine's body for a couple of months while her real brain is restored and placed back in the body before her "resurrection". The story doesn't focus so much on the resurrection of a person who died in (what seems like) an accident. Instead, it focuses on the experience of the artificial mind that is inserted into the body and provided with as many of Valentine's experiences and memories as possible in order to impersonate her until the real Valentine can return. But while inhabiting Valentine's life, the AI becomes ever more interested in Valentine's art, and then in art itself and how it is created, and where the ideas and inspiration come from. It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking story with an original take on sentient AIs and creativity.

The Harp by E.A. Petricone in Strange Horizons

The story Mirra had always heard was this: Poppa provoked some angry spirits, but when they set upon him Nonna bewitched them with her harp and made a deal. On the first night of every month, for the length of a soccer game, Nonna performed a concert for the spirits, and in exchange they left Poppa in this world. 

Mirra is a young teenager, grumpy and sarcastic and quite happy to roll her eyes at the rest of her family: her baby sister Evie, her mom, her grandparents... everyone. Mostly she finds them embarrassing and boring and she can't wait to get old enough that she can move out and get away from them. And when she's tasked with helping her grandmother prepare the harp for the spirit concert...well, she doesn't take that task very seriously. I love how Petricone captures Mirra's tween/teen state of mind, and then also captures what happens to Mirra when the spirit concert goes wrong. It's a sharp and dark story that was inspired by the artwork that accompanies it.

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Before Hand Meant Hand, by Nathan Alling Long in Lackington’s

The theme for Lackington’s final issue is “prehistories” and in this story, we go back to a time “before hand meant hand, we simply had these things at the ends of our arms, which were not even called arms”. It’s a story about humans living before developed language, and I love the slipstream rhythm of this story and I love how evocative it is. It’s a mysterious thing to try to capture what life would be for humans before the development of language as we know it, but there’s a gorgeous, lyrical quality to this story that is absolutely captivating. A story that should be read, rather than described, I think. Dive into the tale and the whole issue. Lackington's will be sorely missed. Thank you for the fiction, Lackington’s.

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Time, Wolf, Emit, Flow by Anna Madden in Metaphorosis

I love this twisted and twisting story of a gate/portal, and two worlds seemingly ripped apart and sundered. In Time's world there are memories of the Shapers, beings who brought technology and a better world, but the Shapers have now disappeared, leaving Time's world to destruction and disarray. Time is intent on finding a way to fix the polluted world and save its weakening inhabitants who take the shape of various creatures depending on their mood and need. When Time finally manages to assemble and repair a Shaper gate, things take a very unexpected turn. It's a brilliant, wonderfully crafted story with luminous prose.

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Bring Your Own Spoon by Saad Hossain in Tasavvur

Have I told you lately that I love science fantasy? Well I do, and "Bring Your Own Spoon" is a great example of this blended genre. It's set in a nearish future version of Dhaka city, ravaged by pollution and environmental degradation, a place where people's lives are precarious, and where almost no one relies on growing their own food anymore, instead getting their sustenance from replicator-like machines. Oh, and did I mention there are Djinn!? In this world lives Hanu, who likes to cook using scavenged and naturally growing ingredients, something that is seen as extremely suspect by most everyone else. Hanu is visited by Imbi, one of the Djinn now inhabiting the world. Imbi is so impressed with Hanu’s cooking that he suggests he start a restaurant, something that seems impossible to Hanu, but which brings about all sorts of changes. The story is a delightful and fabulous romp through a rather dystopic future, where the bright light and hope is Hanu’s cooking: fragrant with spices and mango and more. Hossain’s descriptions of smells and tastes are divine and I basically wanted to eat everything described in the story. 

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The Projectionists, by E.M. Linden in The Deadlands

Hasan learns the rules. Grief shows that you remember. If people disappear—terrorists, traitors, not citizens—they never existed. But grief gets in the way. So in Hasan’s city, people do not grieve. No smoke and jasmine and blue beads to map the dead’s path to the next world. No mourning prayers, no tears or other defiances. No keeping vigil until the right moon sets. No bodies.

Linden's story about life (and death) in a place where terrible things have happened, and continue to happen, is a quiet, lyrical ghost story that cuts deep. Hasan and his father, and most of the people they know, have lost friends and family members, but it is impossible for them to express their grief or their anger openly for fear of repercussions. Linden expertly weaves together the stories of the ghosts, with the stories of those left behind, with the past and present horrors of their stricken community.

To Build Eternity, With Bones, by Gunnar De Winter in The Deadlands

Every summoning is a deal with the bone baron.

I see him dance toward us across the floes of ice. No one else on the ship can see him; I’m the only necromancer. His features are hazy. Across his gray skin, shadows dance independent of any light source. Not that there is not much light here, in the eternal night on the sea of shards.

The baron’s bowler hat is too small, and his mouth stretches into a rictus grin. It’s the only sharp thing about him, the smile seared into reality.

First off, you can read de Winter's story intriguing story notes for this story here: https://thinkingahead.substack.com/p/behind-the-story-to-build-eternity.

To quote the story notes:

The story’s protagonist is a young promising necromancer looking to make a name for herself (and please check out her name if you choose to read the story). Necromancers are a small, but powerful guild in the story’s world. Respected. Feared even. Also greeted with suspicion and superstition.

From that premise, De Winter weaves a bone-shivering tale about a necromancer hunting for a legend. It's a story about death and bones (gigantic bones) and what it might cost you to reanimate them. It is also a story about love and desire and ambition. I love the voice and vibe of this story, and I love the necromancer's relationship with the Bone Baron, the patron saint of necromancers. 

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Potemora in the Triad by Sara S. Messenger in Fantasy Magazine

There are always three: the father, the unfather, and the child. That’s why Vriskiaab threw my unfather off his back after she bore my baby sister, or so Vriskiaab tells me when he stops in the shade of a dune, his massive scales warm under my calves and the tail of him stretching behind me for leagues. My baby sister is soft and crimson-tacky in the crook of my arm.

A luminous and mysterious tale of scaled creatures (some more snake and some more human) traveling a strange desert and haunted by the stories and myths and fate that guides their lives and their actions. The narrator’s sister, the child in the triad, is named Baaiksirv, and as the narrator says, “Unlike me, she will have round pupils, and no scales anywhere, not even in a thin line down her spine. In that way, she is just like our unfather.” The triad has a dark purpose that will spell doom for one of the three, and this haunts the narrator and her sister more and more. I loved reading Messenger’s interview in Fantasy Magazine where she talks about her writing process, and the inspiration behind the story.

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Linden In Effigy by Kay Chronister in The Dark

The witch died in the middle of May. Everyone said that after she was gone, her daughter stayed in their sagging old bungalow for three days without telling anyone what had happened.

Chronister’s story is set in a small community where modern life is intertwined with ancient and ominous magic, and where the ceremonies and sacrifices in the fen are a vital part of life. When the local witch dies, her young daughter moves in with a local family, and the spectre of the upcoming Saint Agnes' eve ceremony for the young women in the community looms large in everyone’s mind. Laurie, who now shares a room with the witch’s daughter, and Laurie's (former?) best friend Ellie both dread the upcoming ceremony that may have dire implications for them, and even more dire implications for the community and maybe the world if the girls don’t go through with it. Ellie plans to escape whatever fate is laid out for her, but Laurie isn't so sure. An excellent horror story that brings ancient magic into our own world and time, and I love the focus on the relationship between the young women, and between them and the community.

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C(h)oral by Hamilton Perez in Kaleidotrope

A father has lost his only child to disease, and grief-stricken, he heads out to sea again. He used to be a sailor but left that life behind to take care of his child and now that he’s back, he tries to bury himself and his memories in the work on board. And it works, for a while, even though memories and a song haunts him wherever he goes. Perez’s story is a powerful tale of grief and loss, where the vivid details of life and work on board a sailing ship anchor the story’s lyrical spirit in the real world. I love the feel and texture of the prose and the world, and I love the mysterious nature of what happens at the end once we dive deep beneath the surface.

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The Bones Beneath by Vanessa Fogg in Podcastle (narrated by Tatiana Grey)

The bare field is on the outskirts of town, several miles away. But she can still feel it as she walks to school. She feels the movement of buried bones there, the remains of the little creatures of the earth — mice, voles, and moles. Things that once saw light, and things that stayed underground, blind and digging. Hidden things, forgotten things.

Deep underneath, the earth is frozen. But it’s thawing near the surface. Fay feels the twitch and shiver of waking bones in the dirt, like the wingbeats of new birds trying to fly.

As A.C. Wise pointed out on Twitter, Fogg's powerful and wrenching story almost seems to be in conversation with Linden's story "The Projectionists" from The Deadlands. I love both these stories and highly recommend reading them back to back. In Fogg's story, we find ourselves in a community where terrible things have happened, and where regular people were the perpetrators of that terror. No one talks about it anymore, and everything is supposed to be fine and normal even though it's not. And while the people try to stay silent, the bones buried in the ground are restless and keep surfacing, reminding everyone of what they would like to forget.

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A Belly Full of Spiders by Mário Coelho (narrated by Bryce Dahle) at PseudoPod

Alone in a dark basement, Davey’s learned to do much without his eyes. He can hear the groaning of a house that never settles. He can taste different flavours of humidity: rust, cloth, mould, sweat. When he sniffs, he knows what Mom and Dad are cooking upstairs. Baked potatoes, drizzled in olive oil and peppered with garlic. Sirloin steak, charred on the outside, bloody within.

Sirloin. Sir Loin, Lord Gone whispers in his mind, his voice like scratches. Sir Loin, knight of the rotund table. You don’t need a knight, Davey. You just follow what I say.

Fair warning: this horror story is not an easy read. It involves terrible things being done to children, though the details of what is being done are kept mostly off the page. These terrible things are only too real if you read the papers or listen to the news, and need no supernatural monsters as perpetrators. Coelho is well aware of this, and in the story, the supernatural presence is of a different kind. Lord Gone seems like a monster, a monster that is tormenting Davey in the dank basement where he has lived most of his life. But Coelho twists and turns our expectations expertly in this story, and I really love how we get to follow Davey past the point when you might think the story might end. It's not a story about hopelessness and insurmountable evil. No, in the end, it's way more nuanced and complex than that.

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Excuse Me, this is the Quiet Car by Cara Mast (narrated by Lalana Dara) at Cast of Wonders

The magic of the quiet car is best when everyone follows the rules.

I’m halfway through the math problem I’ve been mulling over when a sudden bleep-bleep-bring-a-ling in the quiet makes me jump, slamming my knees into the fold-down tray table. Ouch.

And then, as if the phone ringing wasn’t enough, the man across the aisle from me picks up. “This is Paul Whitford. Yeah, hey Jerry, what do you need?”

If you've ever been really annoyed with the people who break the obvious, publicly posted rules, and disregard the care and comfort of others in public places (such as a train), then this story is definitely for you. People are supposed to be quiet in the quiet car, and when someone breaks that rule, the other passengers try to correct them. But what happens if the offender ignores them? What if they don't care about the rules or who they inconvenience? Mast's story is both dark and hilarious, and it has a very satisfying ending.

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Safe Places by Sylvia Heike in Martian - the Magazine of Science Fiction Drabbles

A wrenching sci-fi drabble by Heike. I love the obscured words here, and the way the horror of what's happening is both revealed and hidden at the same time.

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There Are No Monsters on Rancho Buenavista Isabel Cañas in Nightmare

Rosario was not the prettiest young woman on Rancho Buenavista, nor even the prettiest of her sisters; she was too aloof, too dreamy to be useful in a hardworking home. But that did not change the fact that her suitor Beto, Antonio’s cousin, was the most envied man. See, Rosario had secrets. Secrets have a way of drawing moth to flame, and Rosario’s lit her like a lamp.

A deliciously wicked flash fiction story about Rosario, and what happens when a man stalks her in order to find out her secrets. Cañas tells the story with such panache and with such a biting sense of dark humour that it had me charmed from the first sentence to the last.

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Into The Thunder by Michelle Muenzler in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

It’s late morning when Syenok catches the worrying tang of blood on the wind. There, then gone again before she can confirm it. Still, in the wasted lands, blood is not a scent you ignore.

Not if you want to survive.

“Hold,” she says, cautiously reining in her strider. The two-legged raptor—a rosie, so called by most caravanners due to the pink roseate pattern painting its scales—twitches its tail in irritation, no doubt calculating yet another attempt to unseat her.

There are simply not enough stories about people riding domesticated monster-dinosaurs in speculative fiction, so I always rejoice when I read such a story. Muenzler gives us a rip-roaring, swaggering tale of Syenok and Olva, two outriders on a mission, riding their raptors when they run into some very dangerous thunderclaws. I love absolutely everything about this story, from the inspired curse-words, to the way Muenzler incorporates her world- and character-building into the action of the story, to the understated sense of humour. I also LOVE how the contrary nature of the raptor-mount pays off at the end of the story. Fantastic storytelling set in a world I wanted more of immediately, and with a duo of characters I'd follow into any adventure.

🕮

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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 Brontës, 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 träumerei 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.