January 25, 2023

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for December 2022/January 2023

The artwork for this roundup is a detail of the art for Kaleidotrope Winter 2023 by Aylin S Erkan. You can find more of her artwork at www.aylinsop.com.

For more of my story picks, check out my latest Short Fiction Treasures column at Strange Horizons. The theme for this particular column is science fiction. Read it here: http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/short-fiction-treasures-quarterly-fiction-roundup-5/

An audio version of this roundup is at YouTube:

We Grew Tall and Strong By the Water by Leah Andelsmith in Fiyah #25

It’s brute work moving this body around. It takes every ounce of my spirit to keep the pieces together. I pick up one leg, move it forward, try not to let it thump to the ground. It’s not at all like I remember walking. Even on my worst days, even at the end, when I was bone tired from the cancer treatments and gasping with each step, I didn’t have to think so much about what order the motions should go in. It’s like being inside a steel robot and trying to manipulate the controls while dragging around the hull.

A gripping story that skips through time and spans several generations, but which returns to the same place: the town of Rainey, an all-Black town in Oklahoma, founded by refugees from the American South, after Reconstruction. We follow the life (and afterlife!) of Helen, through the loss of Ada, her childhood friend who leaves the town by means of a strange and sudden magic. We follow Helen through the agony and longing that never leave her as she regrets not going with her friend in that one, strange, life-defining moment. Andelsmith's story is both a history lesson and a fantasy tale, and it is suffused with magic. The passage where we follow Helen through death and back into the world again is just exquisite. I love this story, and one of my favourite parts, is the transformation the narrator undergoes when she returns to the world of the living as a spirit, and builds her own body from leaves and twigs from the trees of Rainey. This is a gorgeously wrought, profoundly moving story and part of an excellent issue of Fiyah.

Mother Trucker by Wailana Kalana (narrated by Jen Zink and first published in Mother: Tales Of Love And Terror) at PseudoPod

Motherhood is full of horrors, and Kalana brings this out masterfully and with both ferocity and insight in this story. I love everything about it. Its descriptions of the Rockies, of the roads through the mountains, of the forest and the darkness, of a life lived on the highway. The narrator's mother is a trucker, and on this trip through Canada up to Alaska, we follow the winding path of a life, as the trucker follows the winding highway, until the crash, until nothing can be hidden anymore. What I particularly love about this story is the way nature, and the landscape (the road, the mountains, the empty spaces) entwine with the plot and the characters.

Until It Has Your Reflection by Katherine Quevedo in Nightmare

Well, consider me well and truly freaked out of my own skin after reading this story. Horror that involves mirrors is very much up my alley, and in this story, the horror is so surreal and terrifying in both how it manifests itself and how it can be counteracted. There’s a scene here when the mother in the family makes the decision to counteract the horrifying presence that has somehow gotten into their home (and heads), and the way Quevedo describes the numinous horror that almost, but only almost, shows its face is masterful.

Missed Connections - Central Square Today Around 930 by Jess Cameron in Strange Horizons

You ever have that thing happen to you—maybe your eyes meet with someone on a train, just as you’re glancing around, and they’re cute and you imagine maybe they think you’re cute and you let yourself wonder, what if some contrivance happened and you had a reason to talk? And what would your relationship with them be like? Nothing serious, you know, just a little daydreaming to pass the time on a train. That happens to me too.

But when it happens to me, some contrivance actually does happen, and I do talk to the person, and indeed, some sort of relationship comes of it, and then that relationship ends in whatever way, and suddenly I’m back on the train. Then the contrivance does not happen, and usually we both just continue on our way. Life resumes.

A trans woman has been cursed to occasionally, and haphazardly, experience relationships that start with some small and random occurrence. These relationships might last weeks, months, or even years, but when they end, she is returned to the moment when the relationship first started. Except this time, nothing happens, and her life goes on as if that relationship had never been even though she can remember every moment. She's lived like this for years, accepting it as a kind of cruel twist of fate, but now, she is trying to reconnect with a person from her latest time skip, trying to convince them to pick up a relationship that never even happened as far as the other person is concerned. It's a real mind-twist of a plot, and it makes for an aching, desperate love story, and an even more aching and desperate attempt to reconnect with a lost love. Tender and wrenching, this story wears its broken heart on its sleeve.

Sweat Rice by Shari Paul in The Dark

Using magic to get your way in a bad situation doesn’t always work out well, but in Paul’s story, there is some satisfaction in following the main character of this story as she makes her anger and her desire felt any way she can. And food is part of the writerly magic here, its presence and its power, in the everyday flavours, and in the way that food can be a lure and a way of showing and receiving love and attention. But here, it’s turned into something more powerful still.

Sailors Take Warning by Gretchen Tessmer in Nature Futures

I’ve heard this broadcast before: Charlie Gale’s Incredibly Accurate Weekend Forecast. Sure, it’s accurate. With a partly sunny, partly cloudy outlook, the guy always hedged his bets.

Gran sighs from her rocking chair, sitting near the front-room windows, eyes on the eastern horizon, lips soon pressed together. She’s heard this show more times than me and probably wants me to switch it off. But there’s something about hearing other voices in the house, even ones long gone.

On Earth, a girl and her grandmother are listening to a broadcast from the asteroid belt. It's the same broadcast that has played again and again for years, ever since the grid went down on Earth, and ever since the nuclear disaster almost wiped out the planet's civilization. They listen to the broadcast that keeps bouncing around the airwaves, replaying again and again. Tessmer's story is tragic and bleak, and yet it is not devoid of hope, because there are still people listening, still hunkering down, hoping for better days. I love the way this story captures so much in such a small moment of time.

Treacle Blood by Joyce Chng in The Future Fire

“You don’t have to cut open your veins,” the old woman warned me, “just to let them feed on you.”

It was the day after Qing Ming, when the tombs were swept and the visitors had already left in their cars. The hill of the graves was buried in its usual silence, filled only by the sound of wind and the skitter of spirit voices.

“My blood’s treacle,” I said quietly to the elder. “Like spun sugar.”

In Chng's story, strange things are happening in the world. People are changing in unforeseen and peculiar ways, and werewolves and vampires live cheek by jowl with those who have changed, and are still changing, in other ways. Everyone is trying to figure out how to live with the consequences of the changes, trying to find love and safety, and a way to make it through every day, any way they can. Even if it is by letting others drink their sweet, sweet blood. There's a lovely gentleness to this story even as it describes an often harsh world, telling us that even in the dark and difficult times, there are ways to survive, and people who care. 

Ratatoskr by Kij Johnson in Sunday Morning Transport

Norse gods, squirrels, squirrel ghosts, childhood fears (that are often absolutely real, no matter how adults try to explain them away), and thunderstorms come together beautifully in this story by Johnson. There are scenes here of jawdropping beauty and terror, vivid like nightmares or dreams, or like a vision you catch somewhere between waking and sleeping. Lila is ten when she sees something, a towering presence outside her window. For the rest of her life, it haunts her. And for the rest of her life, she finds its tendrils reaching into her life, and her world through the dead squirrels she finds, and helps.

The Pruner by M Leigh in Apparition Lit

Stories about hell and the nature of hell can sometimes feel a bit played out. Sure, fire and brimstone, timeloops of punishment, eternal torment, etc. But Leigh’s story finds a horror, a meticulous, implacable, and merciless horror that feels like true damnation, like true punishment, like the truth of hell. The visceral, unique vision of eternal punishment is unforgettable.

Don’t Look Down by Jennifer Lee Rossman in Kaleidotrope

So maybe she shouldn’a touched it. Maybe when you live next to a factory constantly pouring thick storm clouds of pollution into the air, you’re supposed to think twice before you let some strange substance that fell from the sky come into contact with your bare skin.

Yeah. She probably shoulda poked it with a stick first. But no point in dwelling on that now.

First up, I read this story because of Jennifer Lee Rossman's brilliant description of it on Twitter: "A little autistic girl touches some mystery goo and runs away into the sky to save an atmospheric whale". I mean, who wouldn't want to read that story? And this one is such a wonderfully strange, almost dreamlike, tale of unexpected magic that appears in unexpected places. The little autistic girl is named Aracely, and she is living in a group home because she was being abused at home. Things are better, Aracely knows this, but she is finding it difficult to trust in people, and trust that things can actually stay good or get better. Rossman captures Aracely with such gentle precision, and allows the magic of sky whales and flying to blend with the challenges Aracely faces in the real world. To me, the story's dreamlike vibe, and how the magic is threaded into the everyday world, is a convincing depiction of how children see the world.

I’m Not The One They Come To See by Corey Farrenkopf in Cold Signal

“Oh god,” she exhaled, peering over the bow.

Inside the skiff lay the body of a young boy, red swimsuit, flip flops dangling from his feet. He was pale, redheaded, clutching the dried body of a box turtle to his chest. Mila waded into the water, soaking her jeans to mid-calf before lifting the boy. She strained to carry him up the beach, stumbling around water-eaten knees of pine.

Mila is at the lake reading a book the first time it happens: a boy who disappeared turns up dead in a boat that suddenly just appears, seemingly out of nowhere. The incident gets Mila a lot of attention at school and elsewhere, but it's just the beginning. Every time she goes to the lake, it seems someone else, someone long since disappeared, turns up, and soon, people around her are not fascinated, but seriously creeped out. This is a terrific dark and emotionally resonant piece of fiction that skirts the edges of horror. Is what's happening to Mila a gift or a curse? And what does a community do when its deepest darkest secrets are dredged up from the waters? 

As One Listens to the Rain by Andrea Chapela (translated by Emma Törzs) in Uncanny Magazine

They say the City had been built over a lake, of which only a whisper remained once all the water had turned to vapor and all the rivers had been piped. But the land had remembered the water, and cried out for its ghost.

The storm came in spring.

It rained every day and every night, it rained for months and months, for years and years, and when finally the rain had passed, there was once again a lake where the City had been. Where there had been light, there was now only darkness, and all the people had fled.

Yes, this is a story about a drowned city. It’s about the community living around the lake, and on the lake. It’s about the dangerous weather and the difficult choices people in this place have to make to live their lives and make a future for themselves. But most of all, this is an exquisite love story, tender and gentle and real and painful and also full of quiet joys. Axóchitl and Nasmi meet, and then they go to the heart of the lake where things both fall apart and come together. A brilliant, luminous gem of a story.

The title is from a poem by Octavio Paz:

Listen to me as one listens to the rain,
not attentive, not distracted,
light footsteps, thin drizzle,
water that is air, air that is time,
the day is still leaving,
the night has yet to arrive,
figurations of mist
at the turn of the corner,
figurations of time
at the bend in this pause,


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