March 6, 2023

BEHIND THE ZINES with Jennifer R. Donohue, author of speculative short fiction, novellas, and a new novel

At Behind the Zines this month, I'm talking to Jennifer R. Donohue and going behind the zines completely to talk about self-publishing. Donohue's short fiction has been published in magazines like Apex and Fantasy Magazine. She has also self-published several novellas and her self-published debut novel, Exit Ghost, is out March 7. I'm thrilled to be able to talk to her about her experience with self-publishing and the joys and challenges of getting your work out into the world without a publisher as intermediary.


More about Jennifer R. Donohue:

Jennifer  R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in central New  York with her husband and her Doberman. She is a Codexian and an  Associate member of the SFWA, and short fiction has appeared in Daily  Science Fiction, Apex, Syntax & Salt, Escape Pod, and elsewhere. Her  cyberpunk novella series Run With the Hunted is available on most  digital platforms. She tweets @AuthorizedMusin.

More about Exit Ghost:

After her father is murdered and an attempt is made on her  life, New Jersey heiress and witch Juliet Duncan is supposed to be  concentrating on getting better and moving forward. Instead, Jules  summons her father's ghost using her blood and tears and his old rotary  phone to answer the question: who did it? He reveals it was Hector, her  dad’s best friend and her mom’s new fiancé.

Certain  her life is still in danger, Jules flees the family estate to the Asbury  Park apartment she shares with her best friend and fellow witch, Ashes.  When another friend joins them, all three women get caught up with a  secret boyfriend who’s also big into magic, but in all the wrong ways,  all while Jules wrestles with whether her father’s ghost was telling the  truth. But what Jules does know is that power has its cost, and she is  more than willing to pay the price in order to get her revenge.


Q. First up: what’s your background, and what do you do outside the world of speculative fiction writing?

JD: I was born in New Jersey and went to college for psychology in a small town in central New York, where I ended up staying after graduation. My husband and I went to college together, and staying in town afterwards just made sense to us. What I do for my day job (my non writing career?) is I work at my local public library; I was on the circulation desk and then in charge of interlibrary loan for my first years there, and now I do what the library world calls “tech services,” I do the book ordering, and then receive and process them. There’s also the joke in libraryland (probably other fields as well) that our job descriptions all contain “other duties as required.” In addition to ordering materials, I’ve helped with our local history materials, I’ve researched the building’s construction projects, helped coordinate room remodels and asbestos abatement projects, and I’ve run a writing workshop there since 2014. The writing workshop feels a little bit like cheating; what a dream it is, to be able to write at work!

Since getting dogs (we’ve had them one at a time, but it’s been two now,) my ambient interest in animal behavior and dog training expanded, and I’ve said that I have to use my psychology degree for something, and so dogs it is. I was even a dog blogger for a little while, before the whole ‘fiction career’ thing got traction.

Q. What attracted you to the speculative fiction genre when you were a child or young adult (or adult)? What was your gateway into the world of speculative fiction?

JD: I was born in the 80s, and a lot of the media then (that I remember) was very fantasy/scifi/genre mashup, and I think that’s really influenced me my whole life. I read far more “literary” fiction than genre for a really long time, which might be what landed me in that “too speculative to be literary and too literary to be speculative” niche at times. The very first scifi book that I ever remember reading is The Magic Meadow by Alexander Key, though one of my aunts also lent me The Earthsea trilogy and The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings once I was old enough for those. I did used to try to write more literary fiction, especially in college when I was taking writing classes, but also in high school I hand wrote (but never finished) 1000 pages of an epic fantasy novel with many dragons and characters but no real plot.

Q. I always love reading your work and you have had many short stories published in various speculative fiction zines over the years, including "Into the Dark" in Fantasy Magazine and "A Country of Eternal Light" in Apex Magazine. Your novella The Drowned Heir was published last year, and you have a novel called Exit Ghost coming out in March. Both the novel and the novella are fabulous reads, and both are self-published. Can you talk a bit about why you decided to go the self-publishing route for these stories?

JD: Thank you so much!

I actually did try to go a more traditional route with both The Drowned Heir and also Exit Ghost. With The Drowned Heir, I submitted it to both magazines and small presses that accepted those lengths (20k words.) After a few years of that, though, and after putting out several books in my Run With the Hunted series, I thought “well fine, I’ll just do it myself,” and put it out in ebook and hardcover.

Similarly, with Exit Ghost, I queried agents with it……….starting in 2020. Querying agents is difficult in the best of times, but the pandemic really made things that much harder on all levels. I did get several full requests, and continued querying for perhaps longer than I otherwise would have while waiting on a very exciting, high profile agent to decide, and when that rejection finally came, I thought “well fine, I’ll just do it myself.”

Q. Can you describe the work involved in getting your work ready for publication when you self-publish. How do you go about the process of editing, getting a cover, and then publishing and distributing your work?

JD: Most of my covers come from screwing around with things on Canva until I arrive at something that I don’t hate. I’m actually personally a minimalist when it comes to book covers; as a reader, I’ve been frustrated with movie tie in covers, or covers that have people on them that don’t end up representing the characters as they are on the page, and I would just as soon have a black book with the title and author name on it, and maybe some cool embossed designs, like those leatherbound-with-a-ribbon-bookmark editions of things that get put out.

I benefit greatly from having very good friends (some of whom are also writers) who are willing to read my stuff for me, ranging from short stories on up to novels. My ultimate proofreader has been my friend since high school, and I’m super grateful for his keen eye.

I use Draft2Digital for my formatting, and for distributing my non-Amazon ebooks. I’ve done paperback on Amazon, and the hardcovers through IngramSpark (who then will distribute to Amazon and everywhere.) I find it very frustrating that Amazon will only do preorders for digital items, and that is one reason I have not tried out their (new) hardcover options. In general, I like the Amazon book building tools better than Ingram’s, but that ability to run preorders is just too compelling.

Q. What are some of the things you’ve learned about the self-publishing process? Any insights, tips and tricks, or bloopers you’d like to share? What are some of the biggest joys and some of the hardest challenges?

JD: The very first time I formatted a book for self publishing (Run With the Hunted, back in 2018), I came to the belated realization that everything that is in the book has to be in the file when I upload it, which is VERY obvious but I wasn’t thinking about, say, an author bio, when I was in the homestretch of getting that ready. Since then, Draft2Digital has really expanded their tools, and you can add things like the dedication, copyright page, author bio, etc. in their interface (they don’t pay me for being happy with them, I’ve just found them crucial to my process!)

It’s truly a joy to see people engage with my work, be it discussion with a podcast or even just somebody responding to a meme that I put on twitter. These are characters and events that only existed in my head for however long, so seeing how they exist in the world is delightful. It’s also really exciting if somebody picks up on a reference that I’m making, or even mentions liking something that I am particularly pleased with or proud of.

Q. For writers who might be interested in doing this for themselves, what advice would you give?

JD: It’s important to be pragmatic, and behave professionally. Did I think I would be rich and famous by now, perhaps even discovered by a big publisher who wanted to do a run of my books, and then movie producers who want to bring my work to the screen? Maybe! We hear those self-publishing success stories, like with Hugh Howey, and E. L. James, and many others. I guess it could still happen at any moment, given my ever-growing back catalog, but it hasn’t yet. Does that mean I’m going to stop? Absolutely not. I write first and foremost for myself, and then also because I want to be read.

And I am read! People, not just my family or friends, but strangers have bought my books, and even rated or reviewed them, and that’s a really gratifying experience. People who I don’t have social currency with are still interested in my work, and I hope that they continue to be.

When I say behave professionally, that includes treating your fellow writer and other peers with respect, and also never going after reviewers, which is something that happens with alarming frequency, and is wildly inappropriate. Not everybody is going to love your book and give the ratings that you hope for, and that is just part of the territory. You can complain to your friends if you need to, or your group chat, venting can be really important, but that’s for private.

Q. What are your thoughts on the business of speculative fiction publishing and the challenges and joys of taking control of that process yourself? And also any thoughts you have on the challenge of getting self-published work reviewed and noticed for awards season?

JD: It’s really very freeing to be beholden only to myself. I push preorders because that is a thing that is “done,” but having a shortfall in expected preorders isn’t going to get anything canceled, if that make sense. I’ll continue to put out Run With the Hunted as long as I’m having fun with it. I’m publishing Exit Ghost as my debut because it is my most personal novel. When I publish my trilogy of werewolf books, I won’t have to worry about an editor rejecting my books 2 and 3 and sending me back to a blank page.

Admittedly, it is difficult being my own marketing department. I don’t have a background in it, and my self-promotion has largely been on Twitter, which is the social media site that’s meshed best with my own habits and how my brain works. And it is very hard getting self-published work reviewed and noticed for awards season; indeed, and I might be wrong, but self-published novellas (and probably novels, but I didn’t have a novel out when I looked this up) didn’t used to be eligible for the Nebula Award, but are now eligible for the Nebula and Hugo. But even my non-self-published short stories haven’t gotten awards nomination levels of attention, so it’s difficult to know what will hit the cultural consciousness just right and then sustain that attention right up until awards nominations. So many writers are producing work at such amazing levels, it’s really a privilege to have these stellar peers.

Q. Talk a bit about your new book, Exit Ghost. It’s a witchy story that might have some connections to a certain work by Shakespeare, with dead father, witches, and a Yorick (even though your Yorick is a dog). How did this story come to you and what kind of journey has it been to get it to publication?

JD: I’ve loved Shakespeare from my first contact, which I think was Romeo and Juliet during my freshman year of high school. That teacher taught two half-year Shakespeare electives, so my sophomore year of high school, I just spend the whole year immersed in Shakespeare, which he taught by actually just having us watch the plays, as is kind of the whole point of plays. There were a lot of BBC productions (The Taming of the Shrewwas the notable one I remember of those) and then a lot of Hollywood Shakespeare around that time, so we watched Romeo + Juliet, and Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet, and Laurence Fishburn’s Othello. I don’t remember which Macbeth we saw, maybe that was BBC as well, though when we did Macbethin junior year English, we watched the 1971 film that was produced by Playboy, and we as a class were very mature about that. Since then, I’ve happily watched a number of Macbeths (Patrick Stewart’s is particularly good) and King Lears (no surprise that Anthony Hopkins’ is very good) and other Hamlets.

There is an unfortunate category of my writing that is “my dad died and I’m sad about it,” and this novel falls under that heading.

My original idea for this novel was actually two separate ideas for two separate novels, one a thriller-y sort of thing that was a modern girl Hamlet but not speculative, and one that had nothing to do with Hamlet and was two friends who were witches in 1970’s Asbury Park, NJ. Both of those drafts petered out, as things sometimes will, and then I got the notion to combine them, so I essentially shuffled them like a deck of cards, picking the elements that I liked from both, and then wrote to The End. Then came my own rewrites and edits and adjustments, and then my trusted first readers got it, and then the dreaded query letter and synopsis, and Exit Ghost started hitting agent inboxes in January of 2020.

In the course of querying, I did get several full requests, some of which took longer for that rejection than others, and I waited an entire year to the day for a particularly high-profile agent’s full rejection. Had that agent not requested the full, I might not have queried for more than two years, but in November of 2022, when all was said and done, I’d written four more novels while waiting (they always say “write something else,” right?) in addition to three Run With the Hunted novellas, and I decided that I didn’t want to wait for rounds of small press slush pile submissions. I was seeing witch novels getting published, I was tired of waiting, and that was that.

Q. As a fellow dog lover, I approve very much of Yorick in this story. I know you are a Doberman lover in real life too, so I’m guessing it was important for you to include not just any dog, but this particular dog. What’s so great about Dobermans? 😊

JD: It’s funny, first draft Yorick was actually a mastiff, due to their occasional historic estate guardian roles, and then I thought it would be very funny if he was a Great Dane, giving the certain work by Shakespeare that Exit Ghost is inspired by/in dialogue with, but really, he always needed to be a Doberman. The Doberman Party Line is that they are the first/only breed that was created with personal protection in mind, and while I have never protection trained a dog, I can absolutely testify to the breed’s need to be with their people at all times. Our first Doberman, Elka, was eerily intelligent, and our current Doberman, Ulrike, is one of the sweetest dogs that I have ever known, and both of them performed the important role of “rest for my left elbow” as I’ve sat on the couch with a laptop in addition to their other duties of alerting us to neighborhood goings-on an getting me out of the house for constitutionals. Dobermans want to be with their people, and also would love to share whatever it is that you’re eating. I’m absolutely heart and soul sold on them as the breed for me.

Q. I loved your novella, The Drowned Heir, and found its description of magic and the society it takes place in to be fascinating and uniquely imagined. It’s a place where people are literally magicked into being possessed by the deceased. Tell us a bit about the inspiration for that story the world you created.

JD: I literally dreamed the first line of The Drowned Heir: “They drown me when my uncle dies.” I woke up and immediately wrote that down, so I wouldn’t lose it, and then texted it to one of my aforementioned writer friends who was like “well that’s a lot.” I went about my morning, but the sentence stuck with me, and the general textural feeling of that scene, the place in the rocks where the water comes up, the salt, the strangeness of it all. I very rarely plan when I write, and it was no different when I wrote The Drowned Heir; I started at the start, and wrote to the end. The first draft was about half the length but contained essentially the entire plot arc, and then I went back and expanded it because it just didn’t seem like enough.

Q. Is there anything in particular you want to promote here, some exciting projects coming up for you in the near future?

JD: With all of my Exit Ghost promotion, I don’t yet have any sense of what comes next. There will be another Run With the Hunted in October (book 6! Title as yet undecided!) so that gives people who are new to the series plenty of time to catch up with the first five novellas. I’ll release a Run With the Hunted short story collection eventually, but need a few more to make it a reasonable length. It’s such a fun project, and I love playing with those characters and their points of view.

I do have a short story forthcoming in Interzone, and another that’s a secret right now, because the anthology hasn’t yet done the Table of Contents reveal but that I’m very excited for.


Thanks so much to Jennifer R. Donohue for talking to me!


About Behind the Zines:

In this interview series, I talk to people working behind the scenes at various speculative fiction publications. My goal is to highlight the work that goes into keeping these publications alive, and to share insights from the people doing that work. Each interview is available exclusively on my Patreon for one week, and is then posted here at Maria's Reading.


If you want to support my work, check out my Patreon or Ko-Fi.

February 27, 2023

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for Jan/Feb 2023

The artwork is a detail of artist Artur Haas's cover art for Clarkesworld #197. More about the artist at:

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube (with mic-noise courtesy of the dog...):

Who the Final Girl Becomes by Dominique Dickey in Nightmare

What a tour-de-force this story is. At first, it clobbered me hard with horror-movie / final girl setup that is brutal and devastating in all its gory detail as Cinda sees her friends murdered and then manages to turn the tables on the killer. But it’s happens after that setup that holds the true greatness of this story as we follow Cinda’s transformation into something other than the “final girl”. First, she finds community in an online group of other final girls who have lived through similar horror-movie-esque experiences. She goes to college, she tries to live her life, but nothing ever seems to fit her quite right, and she never seems to fit in quite right either. Cinda tries to get away from the way people see and react to her based on her reputation, by creating an online persona, but the dissonance between who people think she is, and what she feels like inside, never seem to go away. Dickey’s story is beautifully layered and complex as it follows Cinda past the trauma and into something totally new. One of the best stories I’ve read so far this year and by the end, I was in tears.

Subject: More Monsters Will Not Make Us Safer by Paul Crenshaw in Lightspeed

I also disagree with the liberal argument that having an ogre or dragon or an armored T-rex outside our schools might make children less safe...

This story made me smile and even laugh out loud, despite the fact that it actually deals with some pretty dark subject matter: protecting children from at school. Crenshaw brings together balrogs, gun control, climate change, dystopia, firenados, giants, and a lot more into a madcap vision of the future that is both hilarious and disturbing.

Our Grandmother's Words by M.H. Ayinde in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The Ishani called the white-robed figure a Scribe, I learned, but I heard the others calling him Word-Eater.

Ayinde's story is a sharp and powerful tale about colonization and the power of language. The outlanders in the story come to a new world and they are looking to take, to steal, and to dominate the population. To help them do that, they have a devastating form of magic that robs others of their words, and in the end, robs them of their language. But this isn't just a story about invaders conquering a people. It is really a story about resistance and survival, and the ways in which a people can find a way to survive, even when it seems almost impossible.

Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea by Kelsey Hutton in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

A sharp and wonderfully crafted story that flows like a fairytale told by firelight, and cuts as deep as a knife: “There once was a woman who sewed clothes so powerful they made you become the person you needed to be.” This wondrously gifted woman is called Miyohtwāw, and, “at the direction of the grandmothers”, she is asked to leave the Plains and go with the foreigners that have come to their lands. She will meet the newcomers' kwīn and find a way to protect the land of her people from further invasion. At the royal court, Miyohtwāw’s gifts are much appreciated, but finding a way to protect the land of her people is not easy, not even when the kwīn makes use of the seamstress’s gifts. This story grabs you by the short hairs and never lets go. It’s about magic and power, about using your gifts, about learning and teaching, and daring to see the truth of yourself and others, and about protecting what yourself and those you love, even when others try to use your gifts against you.

What It Feels Like To Die by Warren Benedetto in Martian Magazine

“Mama?” Madelyn asked. “What does it feel like to die?”

I love reading the stories in Martian Magazine. It's always a kick to read drabbles - 100 words, no more, no less - and find whole worlds, characters, and tales. This one by Benedetto is a prime example of what you can do with just 100 words. Excellent stuff, and a great reminder to check in on Martian Magazine when you can.

Somewhere, It's About To Be Spring, by Samantha Murray in Clarkesworld

Lacuna knew winter. Winter was the vast distances between the stars. Winter was the cold of space.

You couldn’t measure cold; it was not a thing in itself. It was only the absence of heat. As darkness was only an absence of light. Yet both of these—the dark and the cold—felt like things that reached toward her as she moved through space.

I unabashedly LOVE sentient ship stories, and this one is beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful and just so exquisitely crafted. We meet Lacuna, a ship that finds itself all alone and damaged, having lost its crew and seemingly its purpose. The ship is nowhere near a planetary system, but there is something there: a rogue planet and its moon. As Lacuna sifts through old memories, songs and conversations, scientific results and memories, things inside the ship are changing in unexpected ways. It's a gorgeous, lyrical story of change and memory, of a strange evolution, and of finding (and making) new family where there was only loneliness.

Silo, Sweet Silo by James Castles in Clarkesworld 

A silo is a good home. It is snug, secure, and shielded. It maintains optimal temperature and humidity. The walls are all perfectly equidistant from my fuselage. This pleases me.

A silo is a good home. But it is wrong that it is still my home. I failed. My siblings soared, while all I did was watch. Now I am alone. Now I am useless.

I love this thought-provoking and ingenious take on the post-apocalypse. Here, a war starts, weapons are launched, and the world is plunged into dystopia. But one warhead did not launch as it should have. Instead, the warhead's artificial intelligence finds it has the run of the silo and the military base, a new and unexpected kind of freedom that is soon put to the test when a group of humans, trying to survive in this new bleak world, come knocking on the door. It's a great story where the meeting between a potentially deadly AI and humans looking for shelter plays differently than SkyNet would have you believe.

In Lieu of Natural Habitats, by Brian Hugenbruch in Translunar Travelers Lounge

A wonderful science fantasy tale where humanity has terraformed a new planet to live on, and where they've manufactured an ocean to hold all sorts of life that once lived in Earth's oceans. And it's not just fish that have come along, but also the merfolk. This is a terrific flash story, with bite.

Interzone recently changed hands. Andy Cox's last (wonderful) issue as editor was the double issue #292/293 which is currently available from the TTA Press shop. #294 is the first issue edited by Gareth Jelley, who is also the editor of Interzone's digital sibling, IZ Digital, which has its own slate of stories. Subscriptions, including print subscriptions to Interzone, are available on the zine's website:

The Disappeared, by J.F. Sebastian in Interzone

Ghalib woke up thinking he was drowning in an ocean of sand. He heard himself cry out as he took a deep, painful breath against the suffocating embrace of the life vest.

Set in a refugee camp on the Mediterranean, we follow Ghalib who has lost his wife and child while fleeing war and destruction. Devastated and in pain, he almost loses his grip on reality, but is pulled back from the brink by the presence of his cousin who has also survived the storm that wrecked their boat. And then the story takes a turn, when Ghalib seems to slip from reality to reality: is he losing his hold on the world, or is the world not what it seemed to be? This is a haunting and wrenching story with so much depth and nuance.

Murder by Proxy, by Philip Fracassi in Interzone

As a twenty-year veteran in the most crime-ridden area of the city, I've seen things no man or woman should ever lay eyes on. But even I had to wince at the carnage inside apartment 327.

A terrific science fiction/noir with dames (AI and otherwise) and a wisecracking detective trying to solve a horrific and mysterious murder. I'm a huge fan of noir stories, and this one hits all the right notes. The science fiction part of the story dovetails perfectly with the noir-tale beneath, as Detective Merriweather must track down a killer, and understand how the murders were committed, while also making sure he isn't the next victim.

The Black Box Killer, by Kat Clay in Interzone

There are shades of Fahrenheit 451 in this though-provoking and ingeniously told story by Kat Clay. It's set in a future where names of criminals (real and fictitious) in the present and the past, in fiction and reality, are being redacted, blacked out of existence. In the story, visually, this is shown in the text by names being blacked out as if redacted. Even faces are obscured in this society, with people wearing devices that blur and pixelate their features. Clay only gives us nicknames for some of the characters, and the redacting, eventually, becomes part of the story itself as we get closer to the killer.

The Building across the Street, by R.T. Ester in Interzone

The night Leland met Agent Everly, he had expected her to inject him with a Homeless Tagging Chip.

The chip was for adults - able-bodied and otherwise - without proper living arrangements. You could not sleep on a park bench without the chip passing electric current through your body in intervals. You could not ride the train past a set number of stops.

Oh my goodness. This science fiction story hits so many of my sweet spots as we follow Leland, a homeless man who insists he isn't really homeless, he just doesn't have a place to live. For a time, he is not sure how long, he's been making enough money to get by on cleaning an office floor in a building, trying as hard as he can to avoid getting chipped by the authorities. His sister was injected with the chip and then he never saw her again. At least that's how he remembers it, though the details are hard for him to grasp. When he meets Agent Everly, she gives him a strange new task to carry out with the promise of permanent, secure housing but Leland soon realized the agent isn't quite what she seems, and neither is his new job. It's a gripping, twisting, absolutely fantastic story from start to finish, set in a vividly drawn, yet nebulous future city as we see it through Leland's weary eyes. Everything has a dream/nightmare vibe where things are clear and distorted simultaneously, and where Leland, and we, are never quite sure what we are actually experiencing. And that ending.... oh oh OH, I do so love that ending.

Common Speech by Elise Stephens at Escape Pod (narrated by Ibba Armancas)

A harrowing and incisive story about communication and about how we treat others, and expect them to treat us in turn. This story is set on a planet only recently settled by humans. Unfortunately for the new settlers, the planet turns out to be not as livable as people first thought, and the only way to cure the horrible disease that is threatening to wipe out all the colonists, seems to be a cure produced by Sonitus, the local intelligent species. At first, the humans believed the Sonitus were some kind of plant life, but they are much more than that. Now, in a desperate search for a cure, the humans have captured several of the aliens and are trying to communicate with them, but captivity and the use of force have poisoned the relationship between the two species. I love how this story looks at the conundrum of communication and co-existence, capturing the complexities and diverging opinions among the humans. And I love how it illustrates that it’s not just our methods of communication that matter, but how we treat those we try to communicate with.

Time: Marked and Mended by Carrie Vaughn at

The description of this story at is:

Graff isn’t quite human. His people move through the galaxy collecting memories and experiences, recording their lives and passing them on. Then, one day, he breaks: he discovers a chunk of his memory is missing. This should be impossible—he’s never forgotten a moment in his life. Now, he has to learn to forget, and to remember, and this has consequences for all his people, his culture, and his whole world.

Vaughn weaves a mysterious and compelling tale filled with strong characters and a story I’d like to follow beyond this short story into a novel. Graff’s strangeness, and the nature of who he is, and where he comes from is the central mystery of this story, as we follow him and his human crewmate, as they head back to Graff’s home, trying to find a cure, a fix, for what has happened to him. I love the characters and the world, and I especially love the way Vaughn makes you feel the presence of a vast, complex universe beyond the pages of the story. My only real problem with this story is that I wanted more of it!

Amma’s Kitchen by Rati Mehrotra in The Deadlands

I make the girl’s fish pakoras first. I flip open the notebook to a random page, and her mother’s recipe materializes in small, neat script. Chop tilapia filets into two-inch squares and set aside. Make a paste of chickpea flour, water, crushed garlic, ajwain, salt, turmeric, and red chili powder. Coat the pieces of fish in the paste and deep-fry in hot canola oil until golden brown.

The aroma of fried fish fills the kitchen, making my mouth water.

But the food is not for me. It’s never for me. 

Amma works in a kitchen where the dead come to visit. There’s a magic in the kitchen that makes it possible for Amma to cook whatever it is the dead want to eat. It’s not just that she can make the same dishes they want, Amma can make them taste exactly the way each person remembers. But there is a darker secret, a deal, that ties Amma to her kitchen, and when a girl walks in with a frog on her shoulder, things start to take a different turn for Amma. It is a gripping and emotionally powerful tale, full of flavour and scents (and recipes!). It's also subtly funny, with a unique take on Death, and what might happen after we die. Also, if you think a story about death can’t make you hungry, this story will definitely prove you wrong.

The Carousel by Eliza Gilbert in Flash Fiction Online

On the day Grandmother swallowed a piece of the sun, the carnival was in town.

“They’d just elected Eisenhower,” she swears. “A do-nothing. Creepy looking, too. Bald, sun-spotty. That Normandy heat sucked the collagen right out of him, poor thing.”

I adore this surreal and haunting story of a grandmother who tells her grandchildren what seems like tall tales of her past. There’s a gorgeous rhythm and melody to the prose here that enchanted me, and the payoff at the end is just right.

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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

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:

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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