The art for this roundup includes a detail of the cover for Fantasy Magazine #77. Cover art by Анна Богатырева / Adobe Stock.
An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Embroidery of a Bird’s Heart by Nelly Geraldine García-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.