The art for this roundup includes a detail of "Bioluminescence" by Yu Ying which is the cover for Anathema #15. Read more about the art and the artist at http://www.anathemamag.com/bioluminescence.
An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:
Skinder's Veil by Kelly Link in the anthology When Things Get Dark
My first two story picks for this month come from When Things Get Dark, a fantastic horror anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow, with stories inspired by, and in tribute to, the works of Shirley Jackson. It is full of dark, weird, disturbing, and unsettling stories. Like the blurb for the anthology says:
A collection of new and exclusive short stories inspired by, and in tribute to, Shirley Jackson.
Shirley Jackson is a seminal writer of horror and mystery fiction, whose legacy resonates globally today. Chilling, human, poignant and strange, her stories have inspired a generation of writers and readers.
This anthology, edited by legendary horror editor Ellen Datlow, will bring together today’s leading horror writers to offer their own personal tribute to the work of Shirley Jackson.
Featuring Joyce Carol Oates, Josh Malerman, Carmen Maria Machado, Paul Tremblay, Richard Kadrey, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, Cassandra Khaw, Karen Heuler, Benjamin Percy, John Langan, Laird Barron, Jeffrey Ford, M. Rickert, Seanan McGuire, Gemma Files, and Genevieve Valentine.
Link's story "Skinder's Veil" made me need to go have a lie-down after I read it. Both because it's so damn good, and because of the vivid strangeness of it all. This is a haunted house story, but not really. Maybe more like a haunted life story? Anyway, it is a knockout story. A man goes to a secluded house out in the sticks to help out a friend who has been housesitting there for a long while. There are several very strict rules about what to do and not do while in the house, and several very strange visitors come calling while he's there, telling very strange tales.
Tiptoe by Laird Barron in the anthology When Things Get Dark
This is another one of my favourite stories from the anthology. It's a masterfully crafted slow-burn of a horror story where I kept having the feeling that there were things twisting and distorting just out of view as I was reading it. A man is recounting his childhood, and his memories of his family - in particular his father. There was nothing wrong with his childhood, he says. Nothing bad really happened... or did it? (Spoilers: something was really, really wrong.) I love the way childhood memories are dealt with in this story: there are the memories we actively remember and talk about with others because they are the "official version" of our childhood, and there are the actual, raw memories of things we might forget or almost forget because they don't fit into polite conversation.
Drowned Best Friend by Dominique Dickey in Fantasy Magazine
There is this cloud of silence that comes with death, I think—no one wants to talk to the bereaved for fear of saying the wrong thing. People say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and not much else. Four years later, that cloud still hangs around me, and it’s partly my own fault. I talk about Lesley too much, and as if she were still here—except for me, she is.
There is a similarly silent fog hanging around transition—the effect of people not knowing what to say.
Joseph is haunted, or maybe visited is a better word, by his dead best friend Les. Les died on the lake when they were both 12, and appears when there's water around: mostly at Joseph's house, still dripping wet, just like when she drowned. Since Les died, things have been difficult for Joseph. Not only because of Les's death, but because he has come out as trans to his mom and everyone at school, but he is trying his best to navigate through it. This story does so many things so very well all at once. It captures the mortifying awkwardness and over-confidence of being a teen, and it delves deep into grief and guilt and the terrible struggle to try to not just become and be who you really are, but to find out what and who that is. And the gentle way it deals with what it's like to be a 12 year old ghost, stuck forever in being 12 and dead, is both tender and sharp.
One Day the Cave Will Be Empty by K.J. Chien in Fantasy Magazine
The lantern catches Pearl’s two black eyes, ringed by gold, so they shine predatorial in the dark. And when Pearl’s thin human lips turn up into a smile, her small, barbed teeth glint.
A shiver whips down Li Shing’s spine as she folds her hands in her lap, careful to hide how they shake. Even after all this time, she is still afraid.
“Our bao bei,” says Li Shing, less for Pearl and more to remind herself. “Our sweet girl.”
I LOVE stories that put a different spin on motherhood and parenthood than the norm, exploring the darker sides of being a parent, and this story does that brilliantly. Li Shing thinks she gave birth to a monster, and maybe she did, though her husband doesn't seem to see it the same way. The parents have hidden their daughter in a nearby cave since she was born, but it's been 19 years and now things are changing--in the cave, and in their village. I love everything about this story, but especially how it explores Li Shing's feelings of failure and guilt and shame. I also love how Chien twists all those feelings, and Li Shing's expectations, in an unexpected direction.
Too Little, Too Little, Too Much by John Wiswell in CossMass Infinities
“Lark’s whole body seizes up and he begs the flame to go away. It grows taller instead, turning soft fabric into fire.”
Wiswell's story is marvelous and devastating, quietly aching and viscerally raw. Two brothers, Lark and Brantley, live with their father. Each brother has a “thing they do”. Lark's thing is the fire that snaps into existence from his body when he is upset, and Brantley’s thing is hurting Lark. It is not a good combination, and it's made worse by the abuse perpetrated by their father. That abuse is mostly alluded to, and mostly takes place out of sight, but it is harrowing all the same. Wiswell has such a tender touch with the brothers here, laying bare the hurt and the pain in their relationship and finding a difficult way for them to, maybe, survive, together.
A Monster In the Shape of a Boy by Hannah Yang in Apex Magazine
When Peng opens the door, he finds himself face to face with a boy who looks exactly like himself.
The other Peng stands in the doorway, as though surprised to have been caught. Two eyes peering out from the dark. Fluffy black hair, messy enough to stand up in every direction. Ruddy cheeks and scraped elbows.
It’s him. But it isn’t.
A perfectly constructed and intricately tied knot of a horror tale about monsters, and about a boy becoming a monster hunter. Peng is learning the trade of monster hunting from his father, but the monsters he meets take on shapes and forms that make it very hard to kill them. This story bites hard at the end.
Hoodie by Tonya Liburd in Apex Magazine
“A hoodie is what a Soucouyant give birth to when she trick a Midnight Robber.”
Or so Rose calls herself.
Passed off to orphanages. No idea who her mother and father were.
In Liburd’s story, we follow Rose who grows up in a Trinidad orphanage, not knowing who her parents are. She sings in the streets to make money, and one day on a lonely dirt road, she encounters a Moco Jumbie. Rose expects this encounter to be the end of her, but that is not what happens. Liburd’s writing pulls you in from the first line and goes deep into Rose’s fear and pain without reducing her to someone helpless. Rose has been dealt a bad hand in life, perhaps, but she finds a way to survive and maybe even shed the pain she's struggled with her whole life. It's a powerful, visceral story that packs a real emotional punch.
In the Water by Rowan Wren in Nightmare
She is alive again, in a way. An almost-there ghost life. The river’s water fills her in new ways, shifts her death into something else. It didn’t save her—nothing could. But it gave her something that’s good enough.
A beautiful, lyrical story about a dead girl floating in the river, being changed by death and water into something else, something new. I love how this story does not focus on the murder or the murderers, but rather on the girl herself. Commenting on the story, Wren says, "As a fan of true crime, I’ve thought a lot about how death is consumed, the dead often reduced to props in their own story. I wrote “In the Water” to explore that same loss from the perspective of the victim, returning some autonomy while maintaining the truth of death’s passive nature."
The Destination Star by Gregory Marlow in Strange Horizons
Ben had only visited the Star Room three times in his life. The first time was in the third grade. Each person in his class received a token for their field trip. His teachers spent weeks preparing them for the room, showing pictures and videos about what a star was, explaining that the light on the dome ceiling was just a symbol for the real star. The real star, the one they would see in the Star Room, was the ship’s destination.
I love generation ship stories, and here, Marlow tells a powerful and deeply emotional story about a generation ship by zooming in very close on a small scene and one character. Ben has to change a lightbulb in a room in the spaceship that has been his home since he was born, the ship he will die on, the ship that has already been traveling towards its destination star for several generations. Through this small scene, focused on Ben and his work partner, we get to see and especially feel the magnitude of the journey and the toll it's taking on the passengers. But this is not a story about despair, there is also hope here, even though it is suffused in longing, sadness, and hardship.
She Dreams In Digital by Katie Grace Carpenter in Diabolical Plots
“You will awaken one day,” Ship had promised them. But as ages passed, even their bones crumbled into minerals, leaving ghostly shapes beneath the panels of their cryo-capsules.
A generation ship is traveling through space carrying humans that are supposed to find a new place to live, beyond Earth. But the journey does not go as planned, and now, the only thing alive on the ship are the plants in a garden that is changing in unforeseen ways. This story puts an unexpected twist on the whole generation ship idea, and I love how it reimagines the whole mission and journey, ending up with a very different result than was originally planned.
Sleep Tight by Mark Joslyn in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Katherine Inskip)
You were right, you know. When you were a child.
I was hiding under your bed.
A wonderfully dark and menacing short flash fiction story that takes the "monster under the bed" trope and spins it into something else. There's a terrific sense of menace here that digs into real life, into the real pain and difficulty of growing up, and it packs a lot of emotional truth into very few words.
Nobody Ever Goes Home to Zhenzhu by Grace Chan in Lightspeed
I’d always known Calam would run.
He had all the signs. A taut restlessness, body brittle as an overstretched lute string, when we stayed too long in one place. A gloom in his eyes, as we drifted through stretches of dead space. A sullen crease between the brows, whenever I tried to ask how he’d landed in that dead-end Martian workshop at seventeen.
But after ten years, why now?
Zhenzhu is not a world anyone would likely want to visit: the acid rain is so bad it corrodes the buildings and is dangerous to human beings. And yet Orin is compelled to go there, looking for Calam. Almost immediately, we realize that both Calam and Orin have become entangled in a world of dangerous underworld shenanigans and that their lives are most certainly in danger. This hugely entertaining science fiction story is one hell of a ride - it's action packed and almost cinematic in its storytelling, and at the same time it manages to do some excellent worldbuilding, and give us a great set of characters, while never losing its momentum.
I Will Sing Your White Bones Home by Cat Hellisen in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
My brother died young.We are used to death. Our people go to war endlessly; we sharpen our teeth on the bones of the ones we drown, and in return, the finless ones net us, gut us, burn our flesh.But my brother died before he married, and it was an ill-omen. The eldest son of our brood, he was meant to rise high, to command the deep monsters, to make the waves turn. My brother Diev was to marry well and have sons and daughters and everything in between.
Oh my goodness. If you're looking for a mer-people story that will break your heart and make you want a whole novel, then this is the story for you. Hellisen tells a story of a dead brother, the sister who cannot forget the last time she saw him, and their mother, who is a fearsome and perilous creature in every way. I love the details stitched so beautifully into this story, about language and magic, death and afterlife, family and war. The world and the characters come to life vividly and there's a terse edge to the prose that is simply perfect.
Tell Me Half A Story by Jennifer Lee Rossman in Abyss & Apex
Of all the survival skills we learned from post-apocalyptic TV shows, this was the most important: no one could die unless their character arc was at a satisfying conclusion. So every time one of us left, we made a point to tell the other just enough of a secret to make it clear – to ourselves and to God or the Universe or whoever decided those things – we had more story left in us.
I love how this story plays around with tropes and expectations of how things work in TV shows and movies, and how these tropes might work if you try to apply them to real life. The two sisters living through a world gone terribly awry are trying to keep themselves alive by using those tropes to their advantage. Rossman's story explores both the sisters' determination, pain, and their grief, and it is beautifully done.
Plastic Bag Girl by Choo Yi Feng in Anathema Magazine
A girl uses her innate magic to turn plastic trash from the beach into living creatures, entertaining tourists in order to make a living: “A peacock with bottlecaps for eyes, and straws and spoons woven into tail feathers, danced among the sands to sparkling delight. Once she’d perfected her transfigurations, it could even spread its wings and take to the air, if only for the few transient hours that her magic persisted.” This gorgeous and sharp story has the feeling of fairytale woven together with near-future scifi, and I love the transformative ending.
Colors of the Immortal Palette by Caroline M. Yoachim in Uncanny Magazine
Mariko is a model and muse for painters, but she hungers for something else and something more. An encounter with one of the artists she poses for goes far beyond painting, and changes her life. This story came out last year and I somehow missed out on reading it until recently. It's been nominated for several awards, and I absolutely understand why. The prose is exquisite, and Yoachim weaves a complex and nuanced tale about art and history, identity and longing, life and love. It lingers in the mind long after reading.
Instructions To The New Waystation Warden: To Be Read Upon My Death by Shelly Jones in Rune Bear
Fair disclosure: I first read this story because Shelly Jones tagged me on Twitter to say that she had used some of the advice in my SFWA Blog post with tips for writing flash fiction when writing this story. Specifically, my tip about using your title wisely. It's always a treat to hear that something you did or said was helpful to someone, so, yeah, I had to check out the story. It's a wonderful, cleverly crafted, unsettling flash piece about how to interact with a very perilous people:
"Beware the fairies," the lost ones will tell you, their fingertips ashen, icicles burning their scalps. Their hopes have hardened in the ice, but their spirits shout their warnings, whisper regrets..."
This story also introduced me to Rune Bear, a publication that "focuses on small, promising bits of prose and poetry with elements of the Strange, Surreal, Supernatural, and Speculative."
The Heroine Kokofe by Ife J. Ibitayo at Escape Pod (narrated by Mofiyinfoluwa Okupe)
“Ori,” Muhamolu boomed, his voice echoing across the village square, “tell us your will!”
A faint, humanoid emanation appeared in front of the Kwanza’s head. It was the buggy remnants of the spacecraft’s AI, to Kokofe at least. But the villagers bowed as reverently to it as God Himself. Kokofe also sank to her knees. Of all days, today she’d need as many allies as she could get.
This is a science fiction story about a young woman who must go on a quest as a rite of passage, and one of the things I love about this piece is how effortlessly it blends what is clearly science fiction with a story that has the vibe and feel of a fairytale adventure. Kokofe's people live on a planet far from Earth, but they have brought the Orisha gods with them into space, and interact with these gods, at least partly, through an AI-program that is still active on their old spaceship. Kokofe brings along an unexpected companion on her quest, and she must use everything she knows, and everything she is, in order to succeed.
Peach Child, Woman, Stone by Dafydd McKimm in Flash Fiction Online
Yes, there were peaches, fresh peaches from the mountains, on the table that afternoon. January’s rice crop had already been taken in, leaving two glorious weeks of idleness until the July seedlings had to be planted. All the men were at war. In the small living room, cooled during the day by a dulcimer breeze, I watched as aunts descended on the fruit like egrets on a freshly turned field.
This is a gorgeous, evocative, and deeply strange story about a peach pit, a family, and a child. It's also about life, childhood, adolescence, and more. McKimm stitches real magic into the fabric of reality in this story, and the results are breathtaking.
The Many Murders of the Self by H. Pueyo in The Dark
“The first one to die is the little girl.”
"The Many Murders of the Self" is a devastating short story. It's profoundly disturbing, full of pain and dread, and it’s also brilliant. (Heed the content warnings because this one is strong stuff, and not because of gore, but because terrible things happen to a child.) The horrors that Pueyo weave into this story are only too real, but the story plays out like a nightmare where you cannot wake up, and you cannot escape.
Mal de Caribou by Becca De La Rosa in The Dark
This is a luscious, deliciously dark horror story where the food is described in almost intoxicating detail. The story’s narrator is hired to cook for Dorothy, a rich woman who is jolted out of her food-boredom by the feasts prepared for her. I love how this story hides its razor-sharp edge in the gorgeous descriptions of food, and I love how the truth of what is actually happening, is slowly revealed.
When You Stop Seeing Ghosts by Sam Rebelein in Bourbon Penn #24
In Molly’s family, everyone sees ghosts everywhere until sometime around puberty when they just stop seeing them altogether. No one explains how or why this happens to Molly, and she quietly dreads the day it will happen. She thinks the ghosts are trying to tell her something, maybe warn her about something, and in the end… well, she finds out the hard way what happens when you stop seeing ghosts. Is there something worse than seeing ghosts everywhere? Turns out, the answer is probably yes. There’s a dark sense of humour and a strangling sense of dread in this story, and it is a definite must-read.
Component Parts of a Belated Apology by AnaMaria Curtis in Fireside Fiction
Something unforgivable happened to the narrator’s mother when she was a child. Now, the narrator is traveling and visiting family, finding out what happened back then and who was responsible for the fate that befell her mother. I love how this story finds a visceral, and rather brutal, way of visualizing the parts of the belated apology. It's made clear that nothing can be said or done to fix the past, and that maybe beyond the apology, some retribution is needed.
Arbitrium by Anjali Sachdeva in TOR.com
The premise of this science fiction story is fascinating. As is explained in the story’s intro-blurb, the main character Vashti is a pathogenic diplomat, “an ambassador to the world of viruses, whom she communicates with through a machine that can translate their chemical signals into images, tastes, smells, sounds, and memories.” In the story, Vashti is negotiating with a virus which has just begun spreading a deadly mutation in Florida. At the same time, Vashti is thinking and worrying about her daughter who she rarely sees because she is part of a tech-averse commune. I love how this story imagines a way for a human to communicate with a virus and how the process has changed Vashti's life, and might also have changed the world of viruses in unexpected ways.
Do Me Out by Justine Kertson-Norton in Utopia Science Fiction Magazine
No one knew why the sun had suddenly started heating up and increasing in size, eating up its hydrogen fuel and growing ever brighter. But between its excess heat and global warming, the pace of climate change only accelerated. And as weather patterns became more unpredictable throughout the 2020s, huge multinational corporations went all-in on their short-term profit gamble, completely trashing the planet’s environment as they literally burned through the last of global fossil fuel supplies. They destroyed the planet—it’s been years since a person could go outside without a respirator mask.
This story is set in a future where the sun is heating up and expanding, which combined with the ongoing global warming, and corporations ravaging the planet for the last bits of resources before the inevitable apocalypse, is speeding up and worsening the destruction. Danele and Ziv are heading out together for one last trip, one last adventure, one last meal, before they go out with a bang. I love how Danele and Ziv’s love story is woven into the tragedy of the oncoming apocalypse. It makes for an emotionally charged story that finds bits of love and joy, even at the end of the world.