November 8, 2023

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for October, 2023

The art for this roundup includes a detail of the cover for Flash Fiction Online's October issue. Cover Design by Cat Sparks:

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:

On the English Approach to the Study of History by E. Saxey in GigaNotoSaurus

“Why does it disturb Them?” Sophia asked. She was conscious, again, of how little she knew about Them, even after all her studies under Geoffrey. She imagined Them sleeping much of the time. What else could They do, in the dark? Very rarely, if she stood outside the chapel in summer, she could hear music, reed instruments in solemn harmonies. But she never heard voices.

What an amazing, and amazingly original, story. At the start of it, I felt a little puzzled, which I think was the intent of the writer, because what is going on here? There's an academic conference, and it's about the study of history, and there's a mysterious presence, Them, at the English college where it's all taking place. And then, the slow reveal: that Them is a royal court, magically preserved for centuries. The story involves the academic rivalries and the research that swirls around the access to this source of unimpeachable (?) historical information. It's about all that, and it's also a meet-cute love story in the making, and there's body horror, and there's an ever-growing sense of horror, and it's funny and it's strange and well, you better just read it for yourself.

The Fate of Despair by Malena Salazar Maciá in Strange Horizons

The universe devoured you. Trapped in an escape pod of a stellar wreck, malfunctioning thrusters and molecular printer soon became heralds of a silent death, which might come in the blink of an eye, or the instant a comet’s fiery tail reflected in your dry eyes.

This is an utterly beautiful, utterly luminous story from Strange Horizons’ Caribbean SFF Special Issue. This story blends science fiction with something like magic and the results are devastatingly gorgeous.

The Cello in the Cell by David Janisch in Nightmare

When I arrived at my cell there, there was the cello . . . waiting. You would think they would have issued me the cello when they issued me my one set of baggy prison clothes but if they had, it would have been less dramatic. There was no desk. No pillow. No books. No paper to write on. No shelves.

Only a simple chair, a brown-varnished, stained cello with its bow, a mattress, and a cement floor.

This is a surreal, dystopian story that feels like some kind of trippy Orwell or Kafka but with its own unique strangeness, darkness, and beauty in the midst of horror. It's set in a world where people who commit crimes are sentenced to learn how to play certain pieces of music. The story's narrator has been sentenced to learn how to play the prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. What happens during the incarceration, what happens as they try to learn how to play, and the slow realizations that set in, eventually... it is all tinged with a sadness that made this story linger.

The Sound of Children Screaming by Rachael K. Jones in Nightmare

You know the one about the Gun. The Gun goes where it wants to. On Thursday morning just after recess, the Gun will walk through the front doors of Thurman Elementary, and it won’t sign in at the front office or wear a visitor’s badge.

A haunting and absolutely devastating story that blends the reality of gun violence and school shootings with a dark and chilling portal fantasy. There's a shooter at a school, and a teacher hides with her students inside the Portal which is supposed to keep them safe. Once inside, the teacher and some of the children find themselves in a strange world that is both thrilling and menacing. I love how Jones blends the horrors of the real world and the fantasy world, and how the power gained in one terrible place might be used in another. 

We Will Witness by Martin Cahill in The Sunday Morning Transport

Dee, Richie, Mom, Pop. Dee, Richie, Mom, Pop. Dee, Richie, Mom, Pop.

He says their names like a mantra; they’re the only thing keeping the pain from sweeping him away. That they exist far from here, worrying over the radio and the fuzzy television signal about if he’s alive or not . . . they’re alive. That’s what matters. It’s a shield from the truth that soon he won’t be counted among that number.

Heartbreaking, and quietly devastating story by Cahill about a fighter, dying on the battle field, and what happens when someone comes to see him there, to sit with him at the end. This story is not free to read, but you can get a free 7-day trial at Sunday Morning Transport and access it that way. 

The Constellations of Daughter Death by Lyndsey Croal in Flash Fiction Online

When Death decided he wanted a child, he plucked a ghost orchid from the furthest edge of the world – the kind of flower that could survive in the dark indeterminate edges between life and death – and grew her from its roots.

Such a gorgeous and lyrical flash story by Croal. I love the prose, I love the imagery, and I love that this story about Death, and the realm of death, contains so much light.

Tuesday, June 13, at the South Valley Time Loop Support Group by Heather Kamins at Escape Pod (narrated by Heather Thomas)

Each time, Jessica begins the meeting the same way. “Well, here we are again.” The same introduction, the same mild chuckles from the group in response. She is the leader of this support group for time loop survivors, a rare experience, yet there are a handful of us in the area. For this, we count our blessings as many of us once counted the days. It isn’t like there are guidebooks for this sort of thing. All we have is each other.

Such a wonderful story that takes a different approach to the weirdness of time loops. Here, many people end up in time loops, struggling to break free, and then dealing with the aftermath and trauma if they DO break free. That's what the support group is for, but the stories of those attending the group are very different from each other, because there is no one single cause for time loops, and no single solution to breaking free. I love the quiet, contemplative vibe of this story, and I ADORE the ending.

Building by Marlee Jane Ward in IZ Digital

‘Yep,’ Elleen says. ‘It sounds simple. You go to the city, source your materials for the house and bring them back. Then you build. If can still stand each other afterwards, and your house is sound, you can hitch together.’ She pauses to roll her head around, her neck crack-crack-cracking. ‘The doing is the hard part. I hope you’re ready for this.’

This story is set in some kind of post-apocalyptic future, but what I love about it is that the apocalyptic events are not at all the focus of the story. Instead, it's a story about people in communities finding new ways to live and build communities and families. A young couple want to get married and according to the new custom, they must first show they can build a house together after scavenging for materials in a nearby abandoned and dilapidated city. Ward tells this story with such a stealthy sense of humour and such a gentle touch. Beautiful and powerful.

Out of Trauma - Martha Wells in conversation with Kelly Jennings at IZ Digital

I think it’s one of the most important uses of fiction, to try to engender empathy and understanding for people in situations that are not things the reader has ever encountered. To understand the power dynamics the reader might be part of, and how these dynamics affect other people who don’t have the same advantages, or who might be trapped in systems they can’t escape. I don’t know how much it helps, but creating a little bit of understanding and context through fiction is better than none.

This is not a short story, but a fantastic interview with author Martha Wells (maybe best known these days for her Murderbot series). She talks about her writing, about the origins of Murderbot, about trauma and compassion, and it's just a brilliant read through and through.

Four Words Written on My Skin by Jenn Reese in Uncanny Magazine

When the Fae stole my wife, I followed them into the dark woods to win her back. Jess dropped breadcrumbs along the trail, except she had no bread, so she dropped other things instead. Not far from the house, I found

a blue sweater, embroidered with gold bees, still smelling of the night we cooked mussels on the grill and burnt the shells and she laughed, her fingers black with char

Reese gives us a different and incisive take on how and why the fae might lead your loved one astray. What if it's not really the fae's fault at all? What if your loss has more to do with the things you've done, or didn't do?

Kryvoye Lake by Oksana Marafioti in Luna Station Quarterly

There once lived a young Romani man plagued by a love for two Romani women.

Every morning he would rise and think, Today, I will choose. The beautiful Darya or the industrious Marina. And every night, sated by Darya’s love and Marina’s cooking, he would go to bed undecided.

This story has the feel and texture of a folktale, and I love the flow and melody of the language, and the dark twists and turns of love and desire. I love the way the horror creeps closer through the telling of the tale, until it is revealed in all its tragedy. The prose is gorgeous, and the ending is just as chilling as it should be. 

Glass Flies by Gwen C. Katz in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Alasdair Stuart)

“A glass fly is not a pet,” said his mother. Jonas didn’t listen. He placed the glass fly in a shoebox and offered it some Oreo crumbs.

“Jonas,” he said, pointing to himself.

“Jonas,” repeated the glass fly.

A lovely, and heartbreaking flash story about the glass flies who want to learn everything about the world and have so little time to do it. There's a gentle, bittersweet vibe to this story and I love it.

Midsummer Refrain by Wendy Nikel in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Katherine Inskip)

Beware the fae who tinker with the cables that wind through their tree-root burrows. With electricity in their digits, they meddle with human technology, manipulating impulses to set their trap. An invitation arrives on electric waves— no origin, no number or host to trace it back to. Party tonight. You know the place. You wouldn’t want to miss out. Come.

A story like a warning, Nikel's story is dark and full of hidden dangers. I love the way the world and wiles of the fae are entwined with the present day, and how chilling and powerful the whispered threats are. 

Both of these stories are part of a special Cast of Wonders episode of flash fiction on the theme of mortality.

Zoraida la Zorra by Ana Hurtado in The Dark

The glutted river roars the names of all the drowned, from rainclouds en el cielo to the young women with hair down to their waist, the ones with tattoos on their wrists and hickies on their clavicles, the ones who keep their eyeliner wings sharp and their glasses smudged, the ones who texted it’s over, ya nada an hour ago.

Today the Machángara river opens its jaw and weeps Zoraida.

A gorgeous and lyrical story about Zoraida and Ari, best friends, and about the river that swallows so many lives. Love, lust, and sex, and the judgements meted out by other people on both Zoraida and Ari run through the story, tightening the noose around the two friends. Hurtado tells her story in prose that whispers and sings, slips and cuts. There's love here, between the lines, love in all the things left unsaid and undone.

The Four Gifts of Empress Lessa by Myna Chang in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

I remember the night I became a ghost. My husband, the Emperor, served the tainted tea himself; my punishment for giving him yet another girl-child. I was not the first Empress to drink from this cup.

This story about the dead and very ghostly wife of an emperor, has a delicate and exquisite dark-fairytale vibe. There’s horror here, but Chang subverts the tropes you might expect, and gives us a story that finds cracks where the hope and the light can get in. It’s beautifully done as the story is spun out to its haunting end.

In the Forest of Talking Animals, by Makena Onjerika in The Deadlands

The girl watches the forest taking over the street and changing buildings, people, and rubbish into trees, bushes, and animals. The world elongates, darkens, and gains shades of green, brown, and burnt orange. 

A deeply unsettling and thoroughly haunting story about a girl and her brother and the things that hunt them and haunt them, using their pain and their loss against them. There’s such a sharp and painful tilt to Onjerika’s prose as the girl does everything she can to save her brother from the danger he cannot see, does not want to see. Yeah, this story got right under my skin.

The Sky, Imperceptibly Darker by Michael Kellichner in Kaleidotrope

A powerfully lyrical tale where everything feels like an edge of darkness cutting through the light. A hunter remembers hunting godbeasts: the thrill and horror of the hunt, and the feeling of emptiness and loss that followed:

Without their gods, the forests decay. This was what people heard, though they could not imagine it truly. Your partner probably imagines forests receding, the land slowly turning to desert. But it is much different to walk in a silent forest where trees stand as ashen monoliths to what had been there before. Seeing plants crumbling to dust, the soil purging up dead worms and insects that had been burrowed beneath the surface. Birds dropping out of trees and shattering bushes.

You stopped believing in the power of permanence after you watched a mountain crumble.

Hunters rarely revisited the places where they were successful.

Why did you do it?

It was what we did, you say.

Kellichner’s prose is exquisite, the flow and rhythm of it, and the ending, the final lines of this story are sheer perfection.

Like Ladybugs, Bright Spots In Your Mailbox by Marie Croke in Diabolical Plots

Oh gosh, I do love a witchy story where magic and spells are used in innovative ways, and this is definitely such a story. Someone is using magic to spread good vibes and joy and just overall goodness. 

Then the goodwill witching spread. Not like California wildfires. Like ladybugs. Crawling into people’s houses via their mailboxes, with goodness hidden under their stamps and well-wishes printed out every fourth letter in the mundane notes.

But since our narrator is a witchery watcher, she goes to track down the witch, and what happens next is something you might not have expected. I love the twists and turns of this story, and the way I truly wasn’t sure where it was taking me, but I definitely wanted to be there for the ride.

Recent short fiction award winners and nominees

The Hugo Award nominees for Best Short Story:

  • WINNER: Rabbit Test - Samantha Mills (Uncanny Magazine) 
  • D.I.Y.  - John Wiswell (
  • On the Razor’s Edge - Jiang Bo (Science Fiction World)
  • Resurrection - Ren Qing, translated by Blake Stone-Banks (Future Fiction/Science Fiction World) - available in the anthology Galaxy Awards 1: Chinese Science Fiction Anthology 
  • The White Cliff - Lu Ban (Science Fiction World)
  • Zhurong on Mars - Regina Kanyu Wang (Frontiers)

Unfortunately, three of these stories, all by Chinese writers, don't seem to be available in English right now. I can only hope they will be translated and available soon. 

The Ignyte Award finalists for Best Short Story:

 Another recent award winner:

Arboreality by Rebecca Campbell (Stelliform Press). This book was just awarded the 2023 Ursula K. Le Guin prize for fiction, and I love the selection panel's motivation for this choice:

“Arboreality is a eulogy for the world as we know it. Rebecca Campbell’s extraordinary, deeply felt book explores the difficulties of the long hard project of survival. There are no heroes or villains here—only people making brave, difficult choices, out of hope and love for their community, for art, knowledge, and beauty. Arboreality imagines things that we haven’t yet considered about what can and will go wrong with our gardens, libraries, and archives if we don’t act now (maybe even if we do). In her masterful and profoundly ethical stories, Campbell asks us what might be saved, what must be saved, and what it will take to do so. ”

Arboreality started out as a novelette in Clarkesworld, and I loved that version of the story too: An Important Failure by Rebecca Campbell in Clarkesworld.

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