An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:
Upside Down Frown by Jarred Thompson in Fiyah #22
Thompson’s story is set in a future society that has gotten past a looming climate disaster, and which might, if you look at it one way, be some kind of everyday, almost-utopia. There’s a new treatment for physical and mental discomfort and pain, for example: electroceutical surgery, a procedure that rewires the pain pathways in a person’s nervous system. There is also a Department of Happiness (lovely and Orwell-esque), which gives each citizen an in-depth life narrative analysis, advising them on how to set goals for their future and how to achieve those goals. And the newest thing is a “social cohesion project” meant to “heal inter-generational scars on the nation’s psyche”. Cassandra, the story’s protagonist, is not convinced that these things are all completely good for people or society, even though some of them might be. In her work as a museum curator, she is putting together an exhibit that is meant to explore history and the human spirit (“wrought, tortured, pummelled, yet enduring”) and that work might clash with what the Department of Happiness considers good and necessary work. It’s a great science fiction tale that delves deep into what is needed to achieve peace and real happiness for humans and society, and what we’re willing to do, and give up, in order to live together. There’s deep complexities here and I love how Thompson creates a world that is really neither a utopia nor a dystopia, rather a place where people are trying to figure out how to live.
Once on a Midsummer’s Night by Vanessa Fogg in GigaNotoSaurus
Fogg writes an epic tragedy that is also an epic fantasy and an epic romance, twisting together past and present in a beautiful, heartbreaking tale. There’s the Now of a boy entering a garden: a garden that remembers him, and wonders if he will remember everything he needs to remember before the wheel spins again and the chance to heal what was once broken is lost again. And there’s the past where a boy met a girl and they fell in love, before wars and pain and darkness tore them and the world itself apart. Fogg tells her story with a gentle touch, but that only goes to make the story more powerful and makes it cut deeper. I love how the grand sweep of a world falling into ruin is so intimately woven together with the personal tragedy of a man and a relationship being changed and torn asunder.
The Travel Guide to the Dimension of Lost Things by Effie Seiberg at Podcastle (narrated by Summer Fletcher)
Have you ever felt so tired that you just don’t feel anymore? Where you wake up, burrowed under the covers with a shaft of light somehow piercing through them and right into your brain, and realize that here comes one more day you need to endure, to wait through, until you can blessedly sleep again and stop experiencing this whole existence thing?
This is where I am.
Seiberg takes the serious issue of depression, where every small chore and act and movement seems too difficult to accomplish, and twines it together with a uniquely imagined portal fantasy. There may be no dragons to slay through this portal, no evil rulers to defeat, but there is a quest and a purpose: to go on, to live, to find the path to feeling better. It’s a brilliant story that manages to both capture the awful heaviness and inertia of depression, while also showing that there is hope, without ever giving into being maudlin or shallow like a motivational quote-poster.
Valor Bones by Derrick Boden in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
A tale of terror and woe, of terrifying magic and people being used (even killed) for profit and gain. In Boden’s story Leti flees her family and her home, and ends up in the bog outside town. There, a monster is born that is both part and not part of Leti herself. Leti feeds it: words and stories, objects too, tales both real and fictional and all the while the monster grows. But the horror in this story is not Leti’s monster, but what is happening in her town, in her house, in her family. And as that tale of dark deeds and horror is unraveled, the monster finds its own purpose too.
This is I by KT Bryski in The Deadlands
High in her eyrie, Elaine adjusts the beams of her loom. Hot, motionless air slicks the space between her shoulder blades. Her fingers cramp. She ignores the ache, weaving with the dispassionate industry of a spider, or a good Victorian housewife.
Knights ride along the road, two by two. Abbots, damsels, pageboys, shepherds. Passing her taciturn tower, they cross themselves and shudder.
A multi-faceted masterpiece of a story, Bryski delves deep into the way women artists are often minimized or entirely forgotten (both while they're alive, and after), and how some women in literature and art have been stripped of their own agency in order to serve the narratives of men. And all of this wrapped up in the most glorious prose and a story that leaps and soars through history, art, and art history. To quote Bryski from her Twitter thread on this story: "I got really mad about the way the pre-Raphaelites treated Elizabeth Siddall and combined my historical hot takes with a riff on the Lady of Shalott."
Trowel, Brush, Bones by Audrey R. Hollis in PseudoPod (narrated by Ibba Armancas)
We return to the compound that night exhausted. We flop into bed. We don’t stay awake long. We stay awake hours, looking at the stars. We’ve never seen stars like these before. We haven’t seen stars like these since we moved to the city. We get caught up looking at the milky way. We, all of us, miss home.
A group of female archeology students are at a dig run by a male professor and his (also male) helper, digging up artefacts and bones at a site that might have once been inhabited by witches. The past is unsettling here, both because of what might have happened then, and how the remains are being treated now by the professor. Adding to the unease and tension is the ever-present spectre of a professor who has a reputation for getting way too touchy-feely with his students. Hollis twines all the threads together into an unsettling, ever-more disturbing tale, where the bones seem to whisper stories into the dreams of the women. I love the way Hollis uses second person plural here, the "we", and it adds a layer of complexity and depth to this story that makes it even more powerful.
Knotlings by Aliya Whiteley in The Dark
Body horror, existential horror, psychological horror... this story has all that and more. I'm not even going to try to describe the central "thing" that happens to the narrator and her son in this story, because it really is something best read within the context of the story. I can tell you that this story, and the ways its central "mystery" can be interpreted, will live in my head for a long time. Mother and son both have the same condition here, but in the end, it turns out they deal very differently with what happens to them, and what the son does... horrifies the mother at least initially. It's an unsettling, deeply disturbing, and uniquely imagined story that is not easily explained, but it sure as heck packs a powerful punch.
If you've read Stephen Graham Jones's book My Heart Is a Chainsaw, you'll know that the man has a real deep knowledge of, and love for, old slasher movies and old horror movies in general. In this story, Jones weaves in allusions to, and a homage to, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (yes, the sequel) in this story about Jenna, and there are definite callbacks to Stephen King's Christine as well. There's a haunted/possessed/blood-drinking car, there's a revenge arc with Jenna's ex, and there's the unraveling of a mystery too, specifically the mystery of how Jenna's parents died. This story feels almost like a companion piece to My Heart Is a Chainsaw and I think Jade from that novel, and Jenna from this story, might become very fast friends if they ever managed to meet.
Beginnings by Kristina Ten in Fantasy Magazine
In the beginning, June and Nat are best friends. June is not yet a swarm of honeybees and Nat is not yet a cloud of horseflies, and the king hasn’t yet decided that separating them into parts like this—June’s left pinky finger one bee, her left ring finger another—is the only surefire way to strip them of what they really are. Which, at least in the beginning, is best friends, living together on the outskirts of town, sharing a dresser full of secondhand band tees, squeezing lemon juice onto one another’s hair in the summer, then sitting together on the blacktop to wait.
If you love fairytales, and fairytales being twisted and reimagined in new ways, then this story by Kristina Ten is definitely for you. I love all those things, and I love this story. Ten's story twists and loops around itself, it progresses, but it comes back to the beginning, this beginning, over and over again: "beginnings can be beautiful, something worth lingering and lingering in". (Read the interview with Kristina Ten for more about her inspiration for this story.) This is a love story, a romance, a tragedy, and a twisted fairytale, and it is beautiful.
Collecting Ynes by Lisa M. Bradley in Fantasy Magazine
Ynes doesn’t remember the marigold, but she has a recurring dream in which she accidentally swallows an entire tangerine. She grows very warm and realizes it was not a tangerine at all but a small sun. She knows if she tells her mother what she swallowed, there will be a panic. So instead, she keeps her mouth shut. The sun sits warm in her belly and shines tendrils of light down her arms and legs. When rays escape her fingertips, she puts on mittens.
I love this tale about Ynes so much. Bradley tells an evocative and lyrical story about a girl who starts changing, slowly but surely, after ingesting what she thinks of as a small sun. Ynes keeps changing throughout her life, much to the consternation of family and others. Her powers and her connection to plants (and especially the way plants and trees react to her) end up making her life, and eventually her career, very interesting. And what happens after she dies makes for a transformative ending. I love Bradley's prose and the musical, poetic rhythm of the tale.
An Expression of Silence by Beth Goder in Clarkesworld
She will meet the sentient beings of Ekara C like this, with juice running down her chin, in her worn jogging pants. If she’s going to die, she wants to be comfortable.
This is a wonderful, subtle and brilliant short story about first contact between humanity, in the form of Riley, an astronaut from Earth, and Yyfal’s of Ekara C (their body "is a mountain stretching from the lower valley of Turlanar to the coasts of Greater Dorn"). Goder shows us the first encounter, and what happens after, from both viewpoints, exploring the communication problems and misunderstandings, but also how the will and courage to give the other side the benefit of the doubt, of having just a bit of trust and a lot of curiosity, can bring about unexpected new insights (and adventures). It's a beautiful, subtle, finely crafted story that has a lot of depth beneath the surface.
Hiraeth Heart by Lulu Kadhim in khōréō
She smiles. All the time that has passed since I was a girl is in the lines around her mouth.
“The heart yearns,” she says, “not just for what it had, but for what it almost had, too.”
We make bed for the night, right by the fire, side by side.
This story brought me to tears. It's 950 words, and packs so much beauty and loss and pain and love into that space. The narrator is traveling with her mother, traveling through stories and memories, and a landscape that is intimately familiar to the narrator, even though she has never been there. A place she has seen through her mother's stories all her life. Kadhim captures the feeling of both mother and child so beautifully. I also love how gently Kadhim captures the experience of having a profound connection to a place you've never been, and the kind of longing that brings with it.
Everything the Sea Takes, It Returns by Izzy Wasserstein in Lightspeed
Just as no coastline is impervious, just as the sea claims what it will, grief can hollow a heart. Who can say what will fill it?
Oh, what a story. Near future scifi, set in a world that hasn't exactly experienced an apocalypse, but is definitely in dire straits both environmentally, socially, and politically. We follow Jess through her life from when she loses her grandmother at 16, through love and loss, despair and hope. Jess keeps wandering the coast, up and down, here and there, and the sea takes and it gives, it carries things away and might return them again, but nothing is the same even if it comes back. Gorgeous writing by Wasserstein.
Where the Heather Grows by Shaoni C. White in Nightmare
Every now and then she messes up. She’ll let herself hear water dripping or rushing or pouring or roaring and then the melody will come. The song will trickle into her ears, note by note, line by line. Once the song starts, it’s hard to remember where she is, what year she’s in, what name she has. It’s crucial that she stops it, that she stems the river. If she doesn’t, the flood will come.
White tells a chilling, haunting, twisted tale of old sins, strange dark magics, and murder in "Where the Heather Grows", a story which is partly written in the form of emails (and which uses that epistolary form to great effect). Clara has a fear of water, even the sound of it, and definitely the feel of it. It haunts her and threatens to change her (or maybe change her back) into something other. There's a great interview with White in Nightmare about the Child Ballads that were an important inspiration:
The Child Ballads are a great example of this, which is why I became obsessed enough with one of them to twist it to my purposes in this story: “The Cruel Sister,” also known as “Two Sisters” or “Wind and Rain.”
Rider Reviews for FerrymanCharon by Guan Un in Translunar Travelers Lounge
Review by LostAndLonelySoul:
4 Stars: Quick and prompt service. Ferry driver was prompt and efficient. Although might want to do something about that smell.
This story is part of a terrific issue of Translunar Travelers Lounge. It serves up some slices of Greek mythology in a flash fiction story written as a series of reviews, all with responses by BossHades. Funny, and with a neat twist at the end.
Bee Balm Bergamot’s Tele-Sympathic Space Cats by Adam Lee Weatherford in Translunar Travelers Lounge
When I got here, TS Space was mostly void, and we few residents were okay with that. We were minds loosed from bodies. We explored the frontiers of a new way of being. We toyed with our own perceptions of time, space, and being in radical, nearly psycho-phantasmagoric parties.
A former barista now sells virtual cats in a virtual reality called Tele-Sympathic Space that has recently opened to paying customers. The former barista, AKA Bee-Balm-Bergamot has some objections to the new way of doing things in TS Space, and while it seems B-B-B is playing along... well, there might be more to their welcome message than meets the eye. A lovely science fiction flash with something rebellious brewing beneath the surface.
Heavy Possessions by Seoung Kim in Strange Horizons
Why do you ignore me, like a warning light in your car or a toothache you can’t afford? In those first few days, you barely reply when I talk. I was bored and lonely even before I died, so you can imagine how much worse it is living with someone who thinks you’re the result of laced weed or possibly ergot.
Ok, so this one came out in early May but I’m sneaking it into this April roundup anyway because I love it so much. A young woman is working online as a digital medium, pretending to be able to contact the spirits of the dead and communicating with the people who want to speak to them again. It’s a sham, but then something unexpected happens: the spirit of a dead woman enters her body for real. I love how this story is so gentle as two very different people share the same body, and find that they have things to learn from each other.
Letters from Roger by Emily Sanders in Apparition Lit
Lettie has died again.
I thought that the sickness would stay gone from her, but it seems that the cure we were promised was a myth. Her mind took to the hallucinations quickly this time, and by 2 p.m. she had gone over into that place from which no one returns. This time, I think it is permanent.
A quiet, enigmatic, and rather terrifying horror tale of a strange disease that we follow in a series of letters from Roger. I love how the plain, straightforward style at the beginning slowly morphs into something more twisted and dark as the story progresses. There are hints of quarantine and physical distancing here, but whatever this sickness is, it might be even more frightening than COVID. This story was the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine March Flash Fiction Challenge.