The art for this roundup is a detail of the cover art for Apex Magazine #133. This cover art was created by three artists: Angelica Alzona, Alyssa Winans, and Pamela Zhang. Read an interview with the artists in Apex: https://apex-magazine.com/interviews-2/interview-with-artists-angelica-alzona-alyssa-winans-and-pamela-zhang%ef%bf%bc/ For more about each artist, check out their websites:
- Pamela Zhang: http://www.pamelazhang.com/
- Alyssa Winans: http://www.alyssawinans.com/
- Angelica Alzona: http://www.angelicaalzona.com/
An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:
Though the Heavens Fall by Louis Evans in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
A space (ship) opera, of sorts where the main characters are three massive spaceships: Sunspire, Happy Hippo, and the ancient Carmine. What follows is a ritual, and a judgement, playing out between and inside the ships. A crime has been committed, maybe, and now the ancient Carmine will render its judgement on the ships, and on one escaped cyborg. Evans’s prose is rich and ornate, and resonant with emotional power as we come to know the ships, especially Carmine, and the universe they inhabit. Having the story told through the ships gives this story a point of view, and a voice, that is unique and enthralling. I loved the reveal of Carmine’s tragic past and new purpose, I loved getting to know the cyborg at the heart of the judgement, and I loved the majestic feel of this story. As it says in the story’s intro: “How can we lonely aliens trust each other? How can we tear down a civilization of exploitation and replace it with one of care?”
In the Smile Place by Tobi Ogundiran in Fiyah #24
If you love found-footage horror (I do), if you love the kind of weird and dark and creepy stories that reach back into childhood and turn you inside out as you read them, then this horror story is absolutely for you. An older brother has gone back home after years away because his younger brother has gone missing. Hidden in the past is an incident that might explain what’s happening now, and there is also a stash of old VHS-tapes… I love everything about this story, the way it cracks open the relationship between two siblings, and the way it burrows into the deepest darkest places.
The Eighth Cigarette by Lisa Cai in The Dark
The only thing new to me was the perspective. He described me, my friends, my family as small, dainty, and child-like. Or, we were ugly yellow monkeys. In particular, I was tiny brained and thoughtless. Granted, those of us who sold our bodies were girls growing into women, but he didn’t know the training we went through. I spent years perfecting my singing and samisen skills. Would he have thought differently if he knew that part of me? Would he have cared?
I love every twist and turn of this story by Lisa Cai, as we follow a woman being reborn, reincarnated, again and again into a story, or stories maybe, written by someone else. It’s the story of Madame Butterfly, and of Madame Chrysanthème, stories written by authors who somehow know intimate details of the narrator’s past lives. We follow the narrator through lives and deaths, war and loss, horrors and glimpses of peace and also glimpses of a sister who is lost, again and again. Finally into a life where she tries to put an end to power of the author who keeps reducing her to a victim and thoughtless, child-like bystander in her own story. There’s such a gloriously shifting, dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic quality to this story, and I love how the narrator refuses to be what the fiction wants her to be, and fiercely keeps fighting against the stories told about her in order to live her own life and tell her own story.
Burning Sassafras by Cassie E. Brown in The Deadlands (non-fiction)
In the Ozarks of my mother’s people, clocks are stopped and mirrors are covered when the last breath leaves the body. The sound of the clock—the house’s heartbeat—is stilled, and the mirror—a place that the soul could get lost—is hidden away.
We feel our vulnerability deeply in the thin places. The Ozarks are a thin place.
I mostly recommend fiction here, but this piece by Cassie E. Brown is so exquisite as it delves into death and belief, magic and the deep roots of the past in the Ozarks. The ways in which people deal with death, how they try to ward it off, to understand it and get a grip on it, the way death used to be so close in everyday life… all of it is captured so beautifully here. I love stories and essays that have a strong sense of place, and that tell you something about a particular corner of the world while also telling you something about what it means to live in this world in general, and this piece does all those things.
There are seventy seven pipes under the town called Jairaz. Of these, only fifty two can be accessed- the rest have caved in or been blocked. Not a lot of people live here anymore post the ‘32 bomb explosion, and now, almost four years later, most of these streets are desolate, deserted and depressing. Those who didn’t die in the blast live in dark alleys, or the blown apart rooms, only coming out in search of food, and sometimes family.
The fifty two pipes still standing have a center point called the Circle. It’s far from an original name, but it’s the one given by the forty year old lady, Nina and her husband, Kaz, who live there.
Set in a world riven by a terrible, destructive war that is poisoning the world and everyone in it, Asif’s story follows two people, Nina and Kaz, living in hiding from the horrors of the surface world. They keep away from others, and away from the world, navigating through the pipes that connect them to the town of Jairaz, avoiding the potholes that might claim their lives if they were to stumble into them. The story plays out like a tense psychological mystery/drama, as Kaz and Nina bring children and dogs to alleviate the loneliness, but everyone that’s brought into their hiding place eventually disappears without a trace. There’s so much tension in this piece, so much dread, and Asif captures the claustrophobia and inertia of their survival beautifully. A gripping read.
Sister, Silkie, Siren, Shark by M.A. Blanchard in Strange Horizons
A fiercely powerful story that cuts to the bone. Blanchard weaves together myth and folklore into a new tapestry where a community of women, and their shapeshifting daughters, live out their lives on an island, trading some of their daughters to the sailors who visit: trading them to buy safety for the community, giving up their own, knowing they won’t come back. From this bleak setting, Blanchard tells us an epic tale about coming of age, coming together, of resistance and survival, where there is pain and grief but also glimmers of new hope. I love how the characters in this story, come full circle in the understanding of their past, and how they decide to find a different future than they thought possible.
Anu and the Vetala by Srikripa Krishna Prasad at Podcastle (narrated by S.B. Divya)
This story is one of several stories in Podcastle’s Indigenous Magic special, and it is a fabulous tale. Anu is on a quest to find a way to live, to defeat the disease that will claim her life. What she needs is the magic of a vetala, but they are not easy to capture and not easy to control or bend to your will. The specific vetala she goes after turns out to be every bit as strong and unrelenting as Anu had expected. But when Anu and the vetala meet, something unexpected occurs. This story weaves together folklore and horror, fantasy and fairytale, and I love how the tropes and themes are splintered and reshaped here.
Warm Beds / Camas Calientes by Mónica Bustos in Samovar (translated by Analía Villagra)
A surreal and absolutely gorgeous story about three people sharing a room and a bed, but who never see each other. All they see are the traces the others leave behind, like the indentation and warmth of a body in the bed. To me, this is a story about human nature, loneliness and companionship, and the difficulty of connecting with others or truly understanding the people we long to be with.
The Princess, NP by Brian Hugenbruch at Escape Pod (narrated by Leigh Wallace)
If he was as informed about Princesses as he appeared, he’d have read that we were once trained to sing on command. Tradition had become habit, and habit became a means of self-defense. Our minds were fragile after the Conditioning; evening songs drowned out the noises of our existence. Too much data could overload our brains and leave us useless wrecks.
A thought-provoking and fascinating science fiction story about data princesses, indentured thinkers, used by a ruler known as the Queen. The princesses are Conditioned, their fundamental brain processes altered to accrue and analyze massive amounts of information. Emotions and opinions are not required and actively suppressed. One of these princesses has been assigned to Hexa Station where she suddenly finds herself faced with a situation that will put her on a collision course with the Queen who has ruled her entire life. I love the world this story is set in, I love the characters, and the way Hugenbruch blends fantasy elements into the science fiction tale.
Of all the New Yorks in all the Worlds by Indrapramit Das at TOR.com
The story description at TOR.com: "A student of multiversal time travel slips from one version of New York to another, discovering that love may transcend timelines, but so too can heartbreak…"
This story is about a multiverse, and about a man traveling through that multiverse, but it’s also a story of how he lost the woman he loved because she turned him away, and how he holds on to that relationship by visiting an alternate version of his ex. Officially, he goes to see the alt-gf to deliver a letter from the other version of her to her alt-world self, but he’s also hanging on to something that he lost. There's this quiet sense of sadness and loss in this story, and an acute awareness of all the immense possibilities of pain and love present in a universe and in a life. A life, and a multiverse, can keep so many secrets, and so many stories told and untold.
Tithe the Bones, Sell the Blood by Auston Habershaw in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
In a city ruled by the bloodless dead, Cédric is playing cards with three ghosts and a wight. He’s trying to win a stolen soul back from them, and he’s betting using his own blood. Habershaw’s world in this story is a desperate place, and I love the detail and texture of it, and the way the terrible powers at play are laid bare in a game of cards. Cédric does have a plan, but in this card game, things don’t always go to plan.
The Karitela by Io Carpiso in Anathema
Miguel heard it first: the hot, huffing breath in the humid night air. The sure, definitive clop of hooves on the grey asphalt. The stiff, dull rustle of dried grass and woven wood rubbing against each other.
From the doorstep of his house, he watched as the carabao trudged into view. His little mouth was agape as the buffalo shrugged past the cars parked on either side of the narrow street, its head low, almost burdened by its wide horns and the carriage it pulled. Distantly, he could hear the cheerful chatter of televisions in living rooms, music coming from radios, and nanay shouting at his brother from inside the house.
I'm late reading and reviewing this wonderful issue of Anathema, but it is FULL of great stories and this one is one of my favourites. This story has an evocative fairytale vibe, though it's a fairytale anchored and shaped by the real world. Miguel gets a ride on the strange carabao, and gets to see some magic up close. There's darkness and menace here, much of it lurking beneath the surface, and I loved the resolution.
His Soul’s Keeper by Koso Agboanike in Anathema
The boy on the floor of the room was the child of the village head. From the peep, she saw him roll around and around, muttering to himself; and she was going to tell him to get up and not mess up his locks any further, but someone slapped her back and her spirit was almost startled out of her body.
A wickedly tied knot of a story where a child tries to survive in a new place after her village has been destroyed and she has been taken away. She finds a friend in a new boy there, and even tries to help him by using some of the magic she was taught as a child. This is a sharp and jagged story where the repercussions of cruelty are laid bare again and again. I love the voice of this story, and the way it weaves together fantasy, magic, and horror with real world evils.
The Ghost Eaters by Spencer Ellsworth in Nightmare
The Man had come and gone, other Someones too, and all the lessers, but Barley still guarded the House.
He still patrolled, passing right through the gate instead of getting caught under the slats, still lifted his nose and trotted the fence line every morning, though he could no longer smell the asphalt baking in the heat or rabbits in the hedges. At sundown he returned to his grave and lifted his leg even though he hadn’t urinated since the Man put his body in a cardboard box and dropped it into foot-deep earth.
With our old dog passing away so recently, I should have known this story would break my heart and it did. It's an exquisite dog-ghost story about a Very Good Dog who has been guarding his house for much too long. And now he's in danger from a new pack of foes. Luckily for the Dog, there is someone who wants to help him, though it isn't easy to gain the trust of an old, lonely guard-dog. I was sobbing at the end, and I love this story with every fibre of my being.
Sharp Things, Killing Things by A.C. Wise in Nightmare
We saw the first billboard while driving along Lake Road. We’d driven the road a hundred times before, because it was the only road out of town that went anywhere worth going, and there was fuck-all to do in town except get drunk, get stoned, and get in trouble.
A profoundly unsettling and deeply disturbing horror story about a place, about a town, about people who are slowly immersed into darkness, and where that darkness seems to enter them, creeping under their skin and into their souls. Strange images and messages on billboards. A strange person appearing in their midst, or was he there all along? A ruined building. Sharp things in the rubble. And so many deaths. This is horror that doesn't flinch from self-harm and suicide, so be warned that it is strong stuff. It is also brilliant.
This Excessive Use of Pickled Foods by Leora Spitzer in khōréō
“Bex gave up attempting to present herself as anything but a clueless newbie from a backwater planet just six seconds after stepping into the food court in the central concourse of Konkarken Station. Even with the translation glasses that let her read signs, she was entirely lost. For example, “Sunshine Glow Swish” might have been a literal translation of the name of whatever was served in the large iridescent cups at least half the beings in the concourse clutched the way humans held coffee mugs, but nothing about that name helped Bex know what was actually being served, let alone what effect it would have on her human metabolism.”
I've been reading my way through the latest issue of khōréō, and it's full of fantastic stories. This is a quiet, lovely, beautifully written, slice of life science fiction story that really hit home for me. It's about identity and memory, it's about food and community, it's about communication and loneliness, about friendship and so much more. AND it's also about pickles. When Bex arrives at Konkarken Station, she finds a shop that sells pickles. And when she tries the pickles, strange things happen. Bex also meets an alien and as it turns out, food and friendship might go hand in hand.
All Good Children, Come out to Play by Karlo Yeager Rodriguez in khōréō
For longer than I could remember, we had been Lázaro and Marta. We should have been celebrating our ninth birthday together.
Instead, my twin brother was laid out on our table. He looked so small and still and pale: the silent point around which our family and neighbors swirled, dancing and singing and laughing. Abuela Trini held me in her lap and cradled my head in the crook of her arm. Her reedy hum meandered through the cuatro music until my tears dried and my sobs shrank to hiccups.
You might already know that I love stories about siblings, and this is a great story about a complicated, and complex, sibling relationship that goes on after one of the siblings dies. The horror simmers just below the surface of this story, and we know right from the get-go that Marta feels a lot of guilt about the death of her brother. And when there's an annual festival for the dead, things happen and things change... Dark and sharp, this story cut me to the quick.
Skin by Isha Karki in khōréō
From outside comes the scour of frost, the trail of a lit cigarette catching at your eyes. You drag the bathroom window shut and go back to watching your face mask harden into a white crust.
A rap on the door, and there’s your mother’s soft voice: ‘Chhori, I’m making momo for dinner tomorrow. You’ll be home, right?’
You twist open the tap and massage the mask with wet hands. The motion is soothing. But this skin, it won’t let you be. It’s tightening even now, pinching at your chin and nose.
Speak, it commands.
A surreal, yet so very real, story about the different faces we wear for different people, and what we lose and gain as we change ourselves to fit what others think we ought to be. Here, those faces are tangible and real, items to slip off and on, and when they are lost... things do not go well. There is a lot of pain and sadness in this story, and there is so much here that feels unsettlingly familiar.
Rabbit Test by Samantha Mills in Uncanny Magazine
It is 2091, and Grace is staring at the rabbit in the corner of her visual overlay. It is an Angora rabbit, fluffy and white, and when Grace picked the icon out, she did not realize how much she would come to dread the sight of it. She moves, and the overlay moves with her. A reminder. A threat.
There are three other authorized users with access to her rabbit test: her mother, her father, and the family doctor who installed it at their request shortly after her first menses.
In two months, Grace will turn 18 and at that point she can maintain or disable the app as she sees fit. But she doesn’t have two months. Her period is six days late, and tomorrow her tracker will automatically administer a pregnancy test.
Grace pulls up the profile of her best friend, Sal, and sends their usual emergency alert: Coffee??
Powerful, incisive, and packed with a bright, blazing, ferocious anger at those who want to control and limit people's power to choose what to do with their own bodies, Mills's story hits hard and it hits true. We follow Grace and what happens to her in 2091 when she gets pregnant in a country that is controlling and supervising every facet of her body and denying her the right to make her own choices. Woven into this story is the history of abortion and contraception and oppression. Of choices and choices denied and made illegal. This is near future scifi that is also a history lesson, and it is so finely written, and illuminated from within by both anger, hope, and incandescent resistance.
The Skinless Man Counts to Five by Paul Jessup in Apex Magazine
The first corpse rode the waves to the beach and greeted the librarian on the shore. It was tied to a chair with catch ropes, skinless with eyes popped open and mouth gaping wide. Inside the mouth was a speaker, connected to an old ghostdrive in the corpse’s chest. The speaker said the same thing over and over again, in a rusty metallic voice. Clear and sharp as a bell.
"Five. Five. Five. Five. Five.”
Jessup's story is set on a generation spaceship, but this is science fiction that bleeds very much into horror of the strange, surreal, and (literally) cosmic variety. I love the enigmatic, yet foreboding sense of doom that infuses the entire story from start to finish, and I adore Jessup's darkly luminous, haunting prose that pulls you in and twists the perspective of everything around you.
Kings and Popes and Saints by Jon Hansen in Apex Magazine
Patricia could hear them gathered on her front porch, the kings and popes and saints, gossiping and chattering and generally having a good time. She turned. King Solomon lay sprawled across the bed like it was his golden throne. He raised his head to regard Patricia. “It’s time,” he said. “Ready for battle?”
“I am,” she said. Solomon nodded.
Delusions or visions, the world Patricia sees is not the world others see... at least not most of the time. There are indeed kings and popes and saints all around her yard, and there are also the strange weed things in the yard that trouble her (even though she's got tinfoil to protect her brain). And then Justin comes along, trying to sell magazine subscriptions... This story has a dark sense of humour and I loved how it takes you into the surreal mind of Patricia, and I love how you're not quite sure until the very end of what is real and what is not.
Ten Steps for Effective Mold Removal by Derrick Boden in Apex Magazine
We used an old sock to apply the disinfectant, because all our rags are in the garage and the EPA was very clear about us not leaving the house NO MATTER WHAT. If you ask me, they went a little overboard with those explicit instructions about what to do if you get the stuff in your nose, your ear, wherever. Anyhow, the sock worked fine.
The mold apocalypse/pandemic as told in a series of product reviews by Hitomi A. I cannot do this story justice in a short recap and review, all I can do is tell you to read it. It is heartbreaking, hilarious, and spine-tingling horror all at once. The mold is everywhere, but surely there must be some products out there that can help get rid of it, or protect you? Boden captures Hitomi A's voice so perfectly in this story, and manages to tell a story, and let us see the characters, so vividly. And at the end, when the twist of the knife comes, it gave me chills.
Nothing that Bleeds by Leah Ning in Apex Magazine
Rain patters lightly on the pavement, and you bleed among broken glass in the cool afterglow of the sunset. Sometimes it’s like this: it is sunset, and you bleed, and clear, rain-studded umbrellas shatter the blue-white of phone screens into a thousand drops of light.
A devastating, powerful, and gorgeously told story about violence and love and a relationship that shatters the lives of those in that relationship. Again and again the same relationship plays out in different iterations, with the same darkness and the same secrets and the same pain and love. And yet things change, and things pass. Masterfully told and sharp as a knife's edge.
On the Sunlit Side of Venus by Benjamin Parzybok in Apex Magazine
She used to stand here with Jorn, her husband. What was it now … six … seven months ago? He’d made it all of three weeks after Earth went silent, the poor emotional, beautiful wreck of a man, weeping nonstop for days.
In this science fiction story, a woman finds herself alone on a research station on Venus. Earth has gone silent and she doesn't know what happened. Her husband is gone. Her only company is the station's AI. For all she knows, she's the last human being left alive, until a message comes in... There's so much going on beneath the surface of this story, love and grief, hope and despair, and I love that Parzybok allows the quiet moments to unfold... quietly.
The Day When the Last War is Over by Sergey Gerasimov in Apex Magazine
It’s the day when the last war is over, and skeletons of swallows are already starting to return. They don’t have beaks, and their white, hard-boiled eyes fly three inches ahead of their semi-transparent faces, or sometimes on their side.
Gerasimov is from Ukraine and reading this story about the remnants of humanity returning and fading away, dissolving, absolutely gutted me. There's a sense of exhaustion, of hollow hopes, of a yearning for something that cannot be in this story that makes it cut deep and linger.
Sweetbaby by Thomas Ha in Clarkesworld
You don’t look Sweetbaby in the eye when he pushes out from under the tree throw. We know that now. Instead, the ears, or what’s left of them, are a better place to settle your gaze. They’re close enough to the face that you can tell which way he’s looking and whether or not he’s smiling at you, and, in the end, those are the two things that matter most with him.
A truly unsettling and profoundly disturbing story about a family that is so dysfunctional as to descend into utter horror. The relationship dynamics at play between the children, between the parents, and between parents and children in this story are both painfully incisive and devastating. This was a hard read for me, but Ha brings some grace and salvation at the end that I wasn't expecting, and that elevated the story even more for me.