April 12, 2024

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - #3/2024


The art for this roundup includes a detail of the cover for Hexagon #16 by Yorgos Cotronis. More about the artist: https://cotronis.com/

The Three Thousand, Four Hundred Twenty-Third Law of Robotics by Adam-Troy Castro in Lightspeed

If a robot stands alone in a field, staring into the forlorn distance as it obeys the last order it was given by a human,

that order being, “Don’t move until we come back for you,”

which it can remember uttered with a cruel sneer by a man who has taken a cruel dislike for it,

the kind of man who will not be coming back,

if the robot understood at once that no one would ever be coming back,

if it also understood that the laws governing its actions prevented it from objecting, or resisting, or even giving its instructions an expiration date,

I'm always a sucker for stories about sad and/or old robots, and Castro tells a beautifully twisted story about robots and laws, and how humans might treat these mechanical servants that have to obey the laws we made for them. There's a poignant, sharp darkness at the (robotic) heart of this story and I love it.

The Let Go by E. Catherine Tobler in Nightmare

I was not born
In this field of grass,
But know what it is
To let everything go.

A gorgeous and piercing poem that carries so much loss and pain in such a small space. There's a quiet fierceness to this that really cuts deep. To quote Tobler's comments on the poem: "We give pieces of ourselves away, we have pieces taken, we cut ourselves down to nothing in the name of love, and it is both a horror and a revelation."

Our Best Selves by Fatima Taqvi in Nightmare

“Muniza,” my husband says, eyes on the road. “Your skin is slipping.”

Clunky keys open our heavy front door. I used to be able to smell forest pine on it. I can’t anymore. I wince at the mud tracked in from outside. I can’t quite bend the right way, so it’ll take ages to clean.

“Muniza.” My name is a complete sentence when my husband says it in that tone. I pull up my skin. Give my shoulders a shake. It doesn’t really do much, but it looks like I’m trying, which is important evidence for the rest of my life.

There is body horror here, yes, in this powerful and deeply unsettling story about body parts slipping off, falling down, eyeballs dropping from sockets... but the real horror here is the emotional pain, the emotional and physical emptiness in a relationship that has turned a woman into nothing but a jumble of pieces. Victim and monster: Muniza is both.

 Matter of Taste by A.D. Sui in Hexagon

Taste blooms at the tip of my tongue, where most of the receptors live. The nexus of sweet and sour, bitter and umami, summons a memory of a sunny afternoon, when the poppy seeds are sweeter than the grapes growing from grandmother’s balcony vines.

A chef that "summons flavour from memory" and, using a technology called Reconstruct™, can "pull forth a deep memory and flood the mouth with succulent reminiscing". Sui pulls together such a heart-tugging, sharp, and bitter-sweet story and I love its light, darkness, and warmth.

Median by Kelly Robson at Reactor

Someone will stop, she thought. Someone will come. Someone has already dialed 911. But nobody stopped. Certainly not the cement truck, which had long since disappeared beyond the highway’s distant curve.

She climbed to her feet and waved at an oncoming car. One of its headlights glinted in the sun. The driver turned his head as he passed, mirrored sunglasses square on her, but he didn’t slow. The other drivers didn’t even look at her. The truck drivers stared straight over her head.

“I’m right here,” Carla said, waving her arms.

To quote the introduction to this story: "A professional caregiver’s commute takes an unsettling detour when car trouble forces her to pull over on the highway, where she begins receiving distressing phone calls from strangers…" Robson gives this story a surreal depth and increasingly nightmarish/dreamlike quality as Carla tries to find her way through a world that doesn't seem to acknowledge her existence anymore. This is quiet, devastating horror that manages to find the warmth of humanity in the middle of a nightmare. (PS! Reactor is the new name for TOR.com after they rebranded their website to separate it from the TOR publishing. Check out the FAQ for more about the name-change: https://reactormag.com/faq/)

Heathman Ldg by Brian Evenson in Bourbon Penn

That many days on the road, that many days in a row, and you started to lose track of yourself. Most mornings Erlend woke up unsure what town he was in, disoriented, confused. And whenever he picked up his phone, it seemed like the company’s app told him where he was to go next, not where he was. He was living away from what he thought of as his real life and, in this new false life, was always unsure of where he was at any given moment, always freed to look ahead to the town to come.

Erlend keeps driving for work, keeps going on the jobs he's sent out to do, following the maps and coordinates given to him by his work, even as it seems to him that he keeps going to the same town, or at least a town by the same name, over and over again. Evenson gives the story a quiet, increasingly unsettling horror vibe as Erlend ends up going off the map, into nothing. The emptiness inside mirroring the emptiness of the map, of the town, of the world he Erlend finds himself in.

The Alien in My Bathtub by Tony Dunnell in Escape Pod (narrated by Bryce Dahle)

The alien in my bathtub refused to leave. It was there when I returned to my apartment in Ring B. It ignored me when I asked it to vacate the premises, and when I enquired as to how it had entered my apartment it replied with a dismissive grunt. I had no intention of trying to remove it by physical force, which would have gone against the most basic rules of human-alien etiquette. And, to be honest, I didn’t want to touch it.

This is a straight-up and all-out fun and entertaining science fiction story about an alien visitor, really good soap, and a space-based, diplomatic incident. There’s a great sense of humour here, and I love how the story takes some unexpected turns on the way to its resolution.

In the Museum of Unseen Places by Marsh Hlavka in Kaleidotrope

There is a light in the collection hall. The curator left it burning.

The rest of the staff departed hours ago, leaving the exhibition rooms and preparatory labs shuttered and silent. In the center of the hall, a lone drafting table glows under a dozen lamps. The map on the table depicts a coastline speckled with harbors. A sketched route arches northward across the blank inland expanse. Once there were roads there. They have long since been erased.

The curator sits back from the drafting table, holding a jar to the light.

This story is such a gorgeous, fluid, surreal, and dreamy trip about memory and loss, and about how the past keeps reappearing and disappearing from memory in a society that does not seem to value its people. The story ebbs and flows as the memories ebb and flow, and I love how Hlavka tells us a story about a society and about a life in such a beautifully subtle way.

Rhythms of the Resonant Revolution by Rodrigo Culagovski in khōréō

Market Hexagon is loud, even in the middle of the night. Behind the noise of commerce comes the staccato symphony of the City’s factories working their indentured servants round the clock; the shriek of steel sliced into weapons so the poor may fight and die for aristos’ entertainment; the whine of cement and stone under iron carts pulled by captive magical creatures; the banal melodies piped into working class neighborhoods to quell thoughts of revolt—a perversion of the true sound of my People; their heritage warped into a weapon of bondage. 

Oh gosh, music is described in the most vivid and visceral way in this story, and it is used as an actual tool of revolution and resistance and survival. It’s a masterclass in how to describe sound and music and rhythm in writing, and how to make you feel the force and power of it through text.

Your Sword, Your Trumpet, by Anjali Patel in The Deadlands

The first time I saw you was at the beginning. This world was flat and featureless and newly made, and I its named guardian. With my hammer in hand, I waited for time to spin into motion. When the first sunrise broke its yolk on the horizon, I thought I would never feel anything as glorious as those first rays of light.

You showed up to ruin everything.

A beautifully evocative and thoroughly haunting story of a relationship, a rivalry (and more) that spans the ages. I love the scope of this story, the way it soars and plummets through the years as two beings crash and clash and shape each other and the world. It is an epic in short story format.

What Any Dead Thing Wants by Aimee Ogden in Psychopomp

The third week of a planetary exorcism is the hardest—at least if the planet in question has megafauna to deal with. Enthusiasm wanes even faster on worlds that never evolved past microbes. Hob’s crew always comes in like a team of intrepid explorers, swapping stories with the outgoing terraforming crew as they run down the handover checklist. 

Science fiction with terraforming and human colonization of exo-planets is woven together with honest-to-goodness magic, and the supernatural dynamics of exorcisms (of the lingering spirits of dead alien creatures). Yes, Ogden’s story brings all the speculative fiction elements together in a truly original story that is also, very much, about human beings and humanity, and about caring for the lives of any living thing. To quote Ogden herself on Bluesky, this story is about “human ghosts, alien ghosts, fucked-up terraforming practices, the inherent value of life however strange”.

 

Finally, I want to recommend three short story collections that will all be out later this year. I’ve read advance reading copies of all three and loved them.

Ghostroots by ‘Pemi Aguda (coming in May, 2024)

A brilliant collection of short fiction that gleams with glints of unsettling, quiet horror. The stories have a surreal quality to them, as if reality is shifting and twisting beneath the surface. You can read Aguda's story "Manifest" from this collection in Granta.

Pick Your Potion by Ephiny Gale (coming later in 2024) 

Gale’s short fiction has an unsettling beauty, and, in this collection, warmth and closeness mingle with deep, dark, and decidedly uncanny undercurrents. Pick Your Potion is full of stories that will snag your mind and work their way underneath your skin, maybe even into your dreams. You can read Gale's story "Rewind" from this collection in The Dread Machine

Slow Burn by Mike Allen (coming in July 2024)

This collection of short stories and poetry is a beautiful, dark, and thoroughly unsettling trip. I love the way Allen twists and skews the reality and the everyday, tucking shadows and terrors into the cracks of what we think is real. You can read Allen's story "The Feather Stitch" in Lackington’s.

I have recently paused my Patreon, but I am still accepting tips on KoFi: https://ko-fi.com/mariahaskins

 


 

 

March 15, 2024

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - #2 / 2024

 



The art for this roundup includes a detail of the cover of Nightmare #137, by Anya Juárez Tenorio / Pexels Stock Image. More about the artist: https://www.pexels.com/@anya-juarez-tenorio-227888521/highlights/

The Cold Inside by Vanessa Fogg in Metaphorosis

When she first met him, they were in their twenties and she thought fifty-two ancient, an unfathomable age, the age of parents and professors and bosses. Old. And now fifty-two is young, far too young. Too goddamn fucking young.

A hauntingly beautiful and chilling (in more ways than one) story about grief and loss, and about Anna, who has lost her husband and is spending time alone in the cottage where they were supposed to spend their retirement years together. One night, Anna is visited by a local ghost, though she doesn't realize it is a ghost at first. It's a young woman, dripping wet and cold, who knocks on Anna's door one night. What follows is a delicate and profound unspooling of emotions, love, regret, and loneliness.

Preamble to the Death of a Small God by H.B. Menendez in Nightmare

Now, in this house in the trees, with a girl who is dead, the witch thinks of that word: useless. A terrible word to use for a person. A terrible way to say a person doesn’t matter if they aren’t giving you pieces of themselves to chew up and swallow.

The dead girl says, they were quick to cast us out when they no longer needed us to banish their omens.

Yes, says the witch.

 Oh what a great witchy, magical horror tale this is. There's a haunted house, though it's haunted in a somewhat different way than most haunted houses. And there's a story behind it all, of destruction and exile, of witches being hunted and driven out of their homes. I love the voice and melody of the prose, and I love how we see the darkness seep into the cracks of a life, changing it forever.

Swarm X1048 - Ethological Field Report: Canis Lupus Familiaris, “6”, by F.E. Choe in Clarkesworld

You are born not long after the disaster. The city center has lain evacuated for two days by the time your mother makes her nest. She builds a small burrow from packing blankets, rags, her own sinewy body behind a row of waste containment units, and you are the sixth of your litter to slip out of her. A rubbery cord of pink flesh and matted fur, slick and slippery and new.

I do love dog-stories, and this dog-story cuts very deep. The story is told by the mysterious swarm that is studying life on Earth after a disaster. We see the post-apocalyptic landscape and the dog's life through the "eyes" of the swarm and there is both beauty and tragedy here as they watch life in all its forms, but still retain a special bond with that one doggo. The ending left me sobbing.   

The Lime Monster by Shelly Jones in Flash Fiction Online

“Don’t go near that stuff. It’ll boil your skin,” my father would warn, turning his attention back to the vinegar-smelling rice hulls, remnants of the cider press.
I did not listen as I ran through the orchards, a journal tucked into the pocket of my overalls, a pen jammed through my ponytail, and sat in a pear tree near the lime pile, waiting for her to rouse. Perched there, I would write, collecting snatchets of stories like flailing butterflies in a net, my eyes on her: a white mound like an iceberg or a bleached Mediterranean cliffside. But I knew what it really was: the scarred, protruding eye of the lime monster, hidden away below.

I love the quiet, wistful tilt of this story and how the monster is not exactly a monster at all, even though it scares of developers and workers and worried parents through the years, ensuring the land stays as-is. Stories and paper, songs and memories, they all go into the lime monster, creating a strange, but enduring bond.

Fording the Milky Way by Megan Ng at Cast of Wonders (narrated by Amanda Ching)

She tells me a story about a beautiful weaver girl who lives among the stars and falls in love with a human cowherd. She tells me about a vengeful mother goddess who rips the sky in two with a hairpin to keep the lovers apart forevermore.

What a fabulous tale this is, weaving together astronomy, folklore, an old love story, and life on a ranch. A daughter who watches her parents and understands more than they ever tell her about their relationship. And then, a horse, and her mother's determination, changes everything.

The Color of Wings by Riley Tao at Cast of Wonders

Momma says there’s no girl in the barn, that feathers ain’t fingers and caws aren’t words, but the girl gives me gifts and I know that she’s real. A bit of chalk that Momma says got all over my hands. A fork, cold and heavy, that Momma sold off at market. A feather, good for quills or fletching arrows, but best pressed up to my cheek at night.

This is part of a special episode at Cast of Wonders featuring flash fiction by young authors. This is a dark and haunting story about a boy who meets a girl in the barn and she gives him gifts, and more. I love the sadness of this tale, and the way it feels like fairytale and folklore woven into everyday life.

At the Edge of Nowhere by Peter Gooley at Cast of Wonders

It saddens me to look out my window and see the secrets lying sad and broken across the dusty road. The sprays of wind toss them along, scattering the letters among the little, cream-coloured chunks of gravel. I think that sadness was what made me first start collecting them. I gather the tiny, sparkling thoughts from the dew-painted ground each morning as I tend my garden, like manna from heaven.

Another lyrical and quietly piercing tale from Cast of Wonders, this one about a  person who gathers secrets, most of them sad, but some of them, a precious few, joyful. Gooley's prose is wonderfully crafted and I love the sweetness that mingles with the sadness here.

A Cure For Solastalgia by E.M. Linden in Strange Horizons

When I leave home at seventeen, my mother tells me three things. Not to care too much. To keep my gift a secret. And to get used to being alone.

“You’ll see what it’s like,” she says. “Out there in the real world.”

None of this is good advice.

There is real magic in this story, magic that can change and reshape the world, the soil, the trees, the landscape, the waters... Magic that can be used to twist and drain life from nature as well. I love the way magic and environmentalism are woven together here into a tale that carries a bright, if brittle, hope for change and rebirth. 

Do Not Waver, My Heart by Shanna Germain in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

My spaceship is not, for all intents and purposes, a living thing. At least not according to the laws of the Witch and her War, which has strict rules for such things. Whether or not I see Akasma as alive (I do) is luckily irrelevant. I find it hard to believe that the Witch regrets any of her choices–one, I suspect, does not become the Witch (capital W) if saddled with complex emotions like regret or fear or love–but I like to imagine she sometimes wishes she’d done things a little differently.

This story is part of a science-fantasy issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies (I love the science-fantasy issues!), and it weaves together strands of fairytales that seem familiar and yet strange. Added to the fairytale strands are spaceships and technology, and a sister weaving suits for her lost brothers, the ones that were taken and cursed by the Witch. It's a beautiful, unsettling, wrenching tale with sadness running deep and dark through it. 

Level One: Blowtorch by Jared Oliver Adams in Diabolical Plots

Usually Friend gives me three food pouches after sportsgames, but today only one. He spits it out of his chest slot, and I kick off the bulkhead to snatch it before it gets caught in that jumble of wires over by the vents. When I grab the nearest handhold and swivel in the air for the next one to come, Friend just floats there with his slot closed and his metal arms at his sides.

A child and a robot Friend, and the games played to teach the child what they need to know to survive, outside the ship. It's a wonderfully sharp little story, about childhood and the way a child sees the world depending on how they grow up, and that even in a harsh place, there can be space for care and comfort.

The Geist and/in/as the Boltzmann Brain by M. J. Pettit in Diabolical Plots

Lem had existed for all of ten nanoseconds (give or take) when she realized she was a Boltzmann brain pulsing away in the otherwise nothingness of space. She consisted of a conglomeration of particles that had randomly bounced off one another until they spontaneously formed into a structurally-sound and fully functional human brain. Lem came complete with a full inventory of false memories detailing a richly lived life back on a place called Earth.

I found shades of Douglas Adams in this lovely and funny and quite compelling science fiction story about Lem who keeps popping into existence as a Boltzmann brain. What's a Boltzmann brain you ask? Well, to quote Wikipedia: "The Boltzmann brain thought experiment suggests that it might be more likely for a single brain to spontaneously form in a void, complete with a memory of having existed in our universe, rather than for the entire universe to come about in the manner cosmologists think it actually did." Lem keeps sort of remembering a life, and a love, and eventually, maybe Brain-Lem can find a way to live again.

Auspicium by Diana Dima in The Deadlands

There has always been a sparrow inside me. At first it was just an egg, something I felt in my belly before I even had the words for it. I remember asking my mother about it, the way she hugged me and said, it’s nothing, trust me, try to ignore it and it’ll go away, and that was the first time I knew the world was not simple, not to be trusted, and it would never be simple again after that.

A gorgeous, precious, intricate gem of a story that just about broke my heart. Everyone has a bird inside them, but you don't know when it will take flight. Death and wings go together here, and Dima turns it into an exquisite, delicate tale.

The Ghost Tenders of Chornobyl by Nika Murphy in Apex Magazine

Not all the ghosts of Chornobyl died in 1986. Some died years—decades—later, bodies ravaged by mutated cells. They were a hundred kilometers away, not realizing their favorite mug was doused with irradiated atoms from the destroyed reactor. I died in anger, during the invasion, volunteering to drive a truckload of baby formula and ammo, trying to prove to my father, to the world, that I was a man, only to be blown apart by an enemy mine. After, I wandered around for weeks looking for my legs until Kyryl found me and brought me here.

A ghost story set in Chernobyl, playing out in a landscape devastated by the nuclear disaster and the on-going war in Ukraine. Here, nature is full of ghosts. Ghosts wandering the woods, following the animals, tending plants and fungi, sometimes trying to help the living, too. I love how Murphy stitches together the present with the past, the existence of ghosts and the tribulations of soldiers and civilians. A mournful, quietly piercing story.

A Voice Calling by Christopher Barzak (release date: March 19, 2024)

"Button House has stood for centuries, digging its roots and its rot deeper and deeper, consuming all who approach: twin brothers, a child bride, an innocent baby, four young factory workers.

And then came Rose Billings, who had an affinity with the house like no other. Rose, who could hear the house and the pleas of its many ghosts. Rose, who would attempt to solve the mysteries of Button House, or die trying."

I am one of the staff-writers at Psychopomp, so I might be biased, but this is my mini-review: A Voice Calling is deep and dark tale of a haunted house (and orchard) that twists its way into the lives of every family that inhabits it through the years. I love how this is also a story of a community, and how the house and the fate of the people touched by the house, becomes a communal tragedy of sorts. Barzak gives this story a mournful, elegiac, and almost choral tone, as if we're listening to a gathering of voices as they bear witness to the menace and unraveling of the darkness in the house. Gorgeously wrought, and profoundly moving, horror.

 The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe at PseudoPod (narrated by Alasdair Stuart)

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled—but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity.

No, this is not a new story, it's the classic, narrated by the wonderful Alasdair Stuart! It's a must if you love Poe and if you love audio fiction. 

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February 14, 2024

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for January 2024

 

The art for this roundup includes a detail of Vadem Sadovski's cover for The Deadlands #32. More about the artist here: https://www.artstation.com/vadimsadovski

Why Don't We Just Kill the Kid in the Omelas Hole by Isabel J. Kim in Clarkesworld

"So they broke into the hole in the ground, and they killed the kid, and all the lights went out in Omelas: click, click, click. And the pipes burst and there was a sewage leak and the newscasters said there was a typhoon on the way, so they (a different “they,” these were the “they” in charge, the “they” who lived in the nice houses in Omelas [okay, every house in Omelas was a nice house, but these were Nice Houses]) got another kid and put it in the hole."

A furious, fiery story that is sharp as a knife's edge as it brings Ursula K. LeGuin's Omelas into the real world, our present-day world, right into social media and TV and Reddit and YouTube. It's a brilliant story and will surely be one of the most read and talked about speculative fiction short stories this year.

An Infestation of Blue by Wendy N. Wagner in Analog (available to read free online)

The first thing she knew was that smells didn’t have the same shapes or colors anymore. Not wrong, exactly, but different. Even her own scents—rawhide and dirty paws and bits of grass that had brushed her belly—were changed, not just undercut with the stench of iodine and other human-sick smells, but made new.

An unsettling, but also deeply moving, story about a dog that wakes up and finds herself altered. There’s something in her head that wasn’t there before and it’s making her, and the world, different. I love dog stories, and this one is quietly devastating and full of grief, but maybe, maybe, there is hope.

Analog has made two other stories available to read for free online, both of them on the BSFA longlist together with Wagner's story:

The Imperfect Marble by Rae Mariz in Grist

Lærke’s first word was wing.

She lay cradled between the moss and her mama, watching the branches cut the sky in precise patterns. Her poor ma Suzume had fallen asleep after chasing the child around the farm, trying to keep Lærke’s tongue out of the beehive. The city’s colorful turbine balloons hovered high in the atmosphere, silently harvesting wind — and look there, the giggle of a single cumulonimbus in an otherwise blue sky.

An intricate and beautiful future-tale from Rae Mariz who excels at creating futures that are hopeful, if imperfect. Here she tells a story of a future we might even glimpse from our own present, and she tells it through the way adults and society at large interact with their children. Lovely, sharp at the edges, and with so much depth beneath the surface.

Blood Water by J.A. Bryson at CatsCast (narrated by Tatiana Grey)

The blood on Zip’s hands is dried the color of rust and sticks like clay under her fingernails. Mostly, it isn’t hers. Mostly, it belongs to the man she shivved, the one who mistook her for an easy mark. Zip is gray-eyed and hunger-slight. She’s a lot of things – fast, fierce, speechless since birth – but she isn’t easy. The old timers know this. The man waiting at the pits to grab her while she took a piss, he did not know this.

A rather harrowing tale of blood and water and a seemingly helpful cat. To quote Bryson: “’Blood Water’ is set in the brutal, resource driven dystopia of my science fiction novel, Zero Sector, which I hope to begin re-re-re-revising in 2024.”

Rembrandt, Graffiti, and the Strange Disappearance of Ducks by C.H. Irons in Strange Horizons

The alert comes screaming in on Jana’s implant, bright light lancing through the fog of REM sleep:

[New glyph. Intersection of 148th and Cliffton.]

When her eyes snap open, it’s there, the only thing fully in focus. A blurry image of the yet-untitled glyph #75 hovers beside it.

A beautiful near-future science fiction meditation on art, and the interpretation of art, and the interplay between artist and audience. What does a piece of art mean? Is there a "true meaning" or is the meaning created, again and again in different ways, somewhere in the space between what the artist wants to say, and what the audience experiences? I love the layers of this story, the subtle way it leaves things open-ended. 

The Last Oracle of Atlantic City by C. H. Irons at Escape Pod (narrated by Elie Hirschman)

“Look, don’t shoot the messenger.” Baz holds up his hands, the tapestries behind him rustling in an ocean breeze coming off the boardwalk. “If it’s not in the cards, it’s not in the cards.”

Full disclosure, Baz has no clue what his cards have to say on the subject. That’s all part of the act. But AyGee calculated based on his customer’s inflection, body language, and social media activity that her relationship has a ninety-eight-point-nine percent chance of imploding in the next week. And Baz would take AyGee’s word for it over the will of the spirits, conveyed through a pack of cards he stole from a strip mall pharmacy.

It wasn't until I was putting together this roundup that I realized that both this story and the previous one is by the same author! I'm intrigued... In this science fiction story, old-school fortunetelling with cards blend with some real high-tech stuff: an experimental implant that shares Baz's brain and thoughts. It's such an original and great idea, and Irons sets it all in a small seaside community where Baz has lived as if he wasn't hunted... but he is. 

All I Know by Josh Eure at Many Worlds (first published in James Gunn’s Ad Astra)

A timebolt. I don’t know what else to call it. I imagine it sped from the void with random trajectory, arcing through systems unhindered before Earth and my family in that car, ignoring my once Newtonian mind, and finding me quite by chance. An impossible accident from the heavens. And yet—maybe this has happened before, just one more phenomenon in a boundless vacuum filled with inflation and gravity waves, black and white holes. My body was inexplicably left behind. And I became a time traveler.

A car accident turns this story's narrator into a time-warping, time-traveling entity who is able to watch events from history play out, and view his own life from the outside. He visits himself and family members, unraveling his own past and trying to change the small tragedies that have always haunted him. Quietly devastating, and yet not without a gleam of light.

The Angel Azrael and the Dead Man’s Hand by Peter Darbyshire in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The angel Azrael rode the dead horse across the broken land under the light of a half moon until he came across a graveyard that seemed to have no end. Wooden crosses stretched away to the horizon, more than he could count. Many of the crosses were bent close to the earth by time and the elements. Some were decorated with worn hats or gun belts with guns still in their holsters while others were adorned with bits of tattered lace or other fabric. None of the crosses bore names, at least none that Azrael could see.

Oh, how I love Darbyshire's stories about the fallen angel Azrael and his travels and travails in a future, post-apocalyptic weird west, riven by strange magics. In this latest tale, Azrael comes upon a very strange card game in a lonely saloon, set in the midst of a vast graveyard. There are many secrets hidden there, and of course, Azrael will unravel them but it's an unraveling that is not without cost. You can read all of Darbyshire's stories here: https://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/authors/peter-darbyshire/ 

Agni by Nibedita Sen in The Sunday Morning Transport

Upasana reaches slowly for the sacred flame. The priestesses hold their breath. They are all one in that moment, their hands her hand, their hearts thudding in conjoined chests. They’ve all stood before that brazier, silently chanted those prayers. Reached forward and wondered if this would be the day their faith was found wanting and their flesh inadequate.

An absolutely stunning story by Sen, about a group of girls in a temple dedicated to holy fire, Agni. There is so much happening here, between the girls, between them and the priests, between them and the fire, and between the girls and their past. The ending is a knockout, a fiery finale that left me gasping.

Untitled, by Abhinav in The Deadlands

memory is a rot
in the ribs and nothing
                                       you say adds up
to a quench you can name
                                       “enough”
              so you name other things for the sake of it.
flesh and bone.
                 carve and cartilage.
         shadow,       eyelid,
                                  vein and light—

I don't often cover poems, but I always wish I gave myself more time to read poetry. This is gorgeous and exquisite, sharp and deep.

All the Missing Mothers by Kelsea Yu in Nightmare (non-fiction)

I gave birth to my second daughter on a cold winter eve, the first day of the Year of the Tiger. She arrived quickly—a healthy infant with a well-developed set of lungs that she immediately put to use, screaming her outrage at being expelled from my (presumably) cozy womb.

She was fine; and at first, the doctor and nurses thought I would be, too.

But the bleeding didn’t stop.

This is a fantastic and deeply moving non-fiction essay by Yu. It's about the dangers of giving birth, and about all those missing mothers in all those fairytales we all know so well. 

Chase Scene by Megan Kiekel Anderson in Nightmare (creative non-fiction)

My little brother once chased me through the house with an ax.

He was joking, mostly. But it certainly didn’t feel like a joke at the time.

I love Nightmare’s dedication to publishing creative non-fiction pieces, and this one is haunting in the way it weaves together memory and movie horror. The intersection of childhood and popular culture are fertile ground for great fiction and non-fiction, and this piece is a fabulous example of that.

In the Tree’s Hollow, a Doe by Lowry Poletti in Lightspeed

Finneus Lark finds the man nestled inside of the abdominal cavity of a doe, his skin so pale that his veins are like spiderwebs. Slick with visceral fluid, leaves and petals cling to the man’s bird-boned wrists. His face, haloed by damp curls and crowned by the doe’s diaphragm, is so peaceful he might as well have been asleep.

Holy whoa, this story is such a gorgeous, mesmerizing piece of fiction. Beautifully crafted prose to draw you in, and then horror and beauty threaded together into a tale that blends horror and folklore, magic and the world of the fae.

The Ghost on the Server by Gregory Neil Harris in IZ Digital

Illy was a design prodigy. She’d been designing implants since she was fifteen – she was better at cybernetic modifications than Warpspeed Williams was at racing pulsebikes, and he’d won the Sub-Warp trophy ten years in a row. A few years ago, she’d sold some of her designs to her old boss. Ten-thousand credits was a lot of money at the time. Three years later, the creds were gone, but the mods based off Illy’s designs were still top sellers. Raked in ten million so far.

A great science fiction story about implants and modifications that can alter your brain and give you extra access to all sorts of resources. When Ori makes a deal to get his hands on an illicit and very fancy new implant, he ends up with more in his head than he bargained for.

 

I'm still blown away that my short story collection Wolves and Girls is featured on the British Science Fiction Association's Awards longlist. 

You can find all BSFA longlists here: https://www.bsfa.co.uk/bsfa-awards-longlist 

 

January 10, 2024

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


The artwork for this roundup is taken from Francesco Crisci's cover for Kaleidotrope's Winter Issue. You can find out more about the artist at https://dedmunki.artstation.com/

In addition to my usual short story picks, I also read and thoroughly enjoyed two short story collections and an anthology recently:

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It Takes Slow Sips by Michael Wehunt at Pseudopod (narrated by Jonathan Danz, first published in the anthology Lost Contact)

The light inside the apartment was like stagnant water through the blinds. His laptop and phone waited on the kitchen island, and a dryness spread through his mouth. He hadn’t seen her face since before the sun rose. He couldn’t get used to missing her, but leaving these devices behind was the only way he could keep a job. The job was the only thing stopping him from moving back to her early. Before the fall. Her name.

Wehunt's story is so deliciously dark and twisted. A man  is stalking a woman remotely (after being told to stay away from her by the courts) but, somehow, the tables are turned on him. Wehunt has a great ability in all his fiction to take everyday situations and settings (and bodies!) and infuse them with an almost disorienting sense of creeping dread and deepening darkness. 

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Maladaptive Camouflage by Ann LeBlanc in Strange Horizons

“Ask me something only I would know.”

You say this to your wife because you know you’re human. You can feel it in the familiar ache in your back, and the fear writhing in your guts. You feel it in the cold seeping into your bare feet from the kitchen floor. You know you’re real because you remember.

A terrific twist on the horror / science fiction theme of mimics and doubles, about tricking people into believing the copy is the original, or vice-versa. I love how LeBlanc weaves uncertainty and duplicity into every strand of this story.

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Useful and Beautiful Things by E. Saxey in Metaphorosis

This house was a man’s home, he was the gravity which kept these objects together. Without him, they spin off and spill into the garden, and get damp and chipped. But estate sales are bread and butter to the Guvnor; he’s a genius at house clearance, he can strip a place in a day. He helps to mitigate the tragedy of death by finding every item a new home.

A thoroughly enjoyable story where objects - furniture and all sorts of knick-knacks - can have unexpected effects on people who touch those items. For example, at an estate sale, there's a chess set where each piece seems to cause different sensations, abilities, and even physical and mental changes. Saxey's story is gloriously strange, finely crafted and utterly fascinating. Oh, and wrapped around that core of "weird items doing weird things" is a (possible) meet-cute, and a subtle, quietly delivered twist toward the end.

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Tilamin by Carol B. Duncan in Fiyah #29

When he stepped out onto the Guineaman ship’s deck and into the sunlight, Tilamin, then Lamin, could hardly see; so used to the dark of the ship’s hold was he, a seaborne coffin stuffed with the nearly dead and barely living. He inhaled deeply through his tingling nostrils, his lungs struggling for the next breath.

An incredible story, threading together folklore and history, magic and reality, shapeshifting and the jagged evils of slavery. It's the story of Tilamin, who is taken from his home and brought elsewhere, and it's a story about his family and the people he meets on the way. Harrowing and gripping from start to finish.

D.E.I. (Death, Eternity, and Inclusion) by N. Romaine White in Fiyah #29

Carolyn Boone stood in the cavernous study of Demetrius Giannopoulos, her wedges sinking into the plush blood-red carpet, and knew that her goose was about to be cooked. Again. For the last time.

Vampire humour? Yes, vampire humour. Carolyn, who used to work in TV until things kind of fell apart, has just been turned into a vampire and now the big boss vampire calls her into his office for a talk. Turns out, she might be a diversity hire? A hilarious and just plain wonderful vampire story with a sharp sense of humour.

Kiss of Life by P.C. Verrone in Fiyah #29

I may be the last left who can tell you how the angels came to us, my beloved. 

Most from that time were snuffed out with the Kiss of Death. The Prophets told those of us who lingered that thinking back on those days, when the angels walked among us, was blaspheming. So few of us remain now, today’s Prophets need not forbid such talk and can get on to forgetting it themselves. They preach that our world was always like this, bridges climbing through bodies. But I lived it, and I have kept the angels’ Works in my heart.

I don’t even know how to properly describe the beauty and the darkness of this story. It takes the real history of the horrors of conquest and colonization, reimagining and refashioning it, and fusing it with luminous, lyrical prose and devastatingly terrifying imagery. It’s an outstanding piece of fiction that packs and emotional punch and with a weight and a depth that lingers.

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Woke Up New by Erica L. Satifka in Kaleidotrope

The protection provided by Oregon’s ocean-hugging Coast Range keeps the worst of the poisonhead clouds away, but not all of them. Sandra pauses on her way to the chicken coop, wicker basket in hand, and surveys the sky.

“Storm coming,” she says to the wall in her mind, but the anchorite does not reply.

Satifka's story is set in the Pacific Northwest, where Sandra lives in her house, alone. Or kind of alone. The anchorite, another presence, is also there, living in Sandra's head, and sometimes forcing its way out. When a stranger comes calling saying he wants to talk to Sandra about her experience with a certain medical procedure involving the so called Narcissus Virus, Sandra is initially reluctant, but eventually shares pieces of her life story. I love the quiet and subtle way secrets are revealed and withheld in this story, and I love the central idea: an infection that causes profound changes in a person's mind and body. 

A No-Good Man, A Broken Cup, A Stolen Child by Sheila Massie in Kaleidotrope

We want to kill him. We don’t want to kill him because he cheats, right? We have big, tough-knotted and weighted fishing nets full of other reasons. But most by what he does to the child. For that we want to kill him.

A dark and sharp fantasy story about a community dealing with one of its own, a man who is bad and getting worse. Massie's writing is so excellent, and I love the way she threads this story together into a tale of empathy, revenge, and maybe even redemption for a community pushed to the brink by a no-good man's cruelty.

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The Dreadful and Specific Monster of Starosibirsk by Kristina Ten in The Dark (first published in Weird Horror, Issue 2)

I know what you will say. You will say to me, Arseny, there are enough real monsters in this world—why do you make your own? But before I begin, before you make your judgments, like the others, before you tsk-tsk-tsk our failures and tell me what you would have done, there are some things that you should know.

You should know, first, that things were very bad in Starosibirsk.

What makes a monster? How can you create a monster, and what happens when and if you do? How does making a monster change the creator, and how does it change the world around both maker and monster? Ten's story has a terse, lyrical beauty and a visceral, psychological darkness that seeps into the everyday reality of a community and its inhabitants.

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Disposable Gabriel by Brian D. Hinson in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Marguerite Kenner)

Since Gabriel had been so expensive, Jude had worked him into the play far more than the gospel narrative implied. The archangel watched over Joseph and Mary on their trek to Bethlehem, the wind from his wings blowing Mary’s hair as they walked on an embedded treadmill. He not only made the announcement to the shepherds, but also became the star that guided the wise men, holding aloft a bright, flickering torch of hologram flame. And after the newborn Jesus’ first cry in the manger, Gabriel stood atop the thatched roof of the barn and blew his curved horn to announce the birth of the Savior.

Ordering a real, live, manufactured angel for the nativity play might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but trouble starts when the angel Gabriel doesn't ... expire... the way he is expected to, but lives on, just a little longer. I love the dark humour and strangeness of this story, and the way Gabriel and those around him must deal with what it means to be, or think you are, an angel, with memories of heaven, who was made to serve a purpose and then die.

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Five Books from the Alnif Crater Traveling Library by Stewart C Baker in Flash Fiction Online

The rim farms are older, more established. With the perchlorates that make Martian regolith poisonous to greenery leached away on their own farms, those who live there spend their spare time making the communal soil arable. Afterward, they seed dandelions, kale, ornamental onions. The plants have gone wild by now, spreading with a fierce determination, belonging to everyone and no-one, their green smell redolent in a way that belies their planetary surroundings.

A beautiful and tender story of a settlement on Mars, told through the books at a traveling library. I love the way Baker tells us so much about Mars, the way humans settled there, and the way they live their lives, with precision and evocative details. A beautifully crafted science fiction flash story.

Little Pound Shop by Rebecca Harrison in Flash Fiction Online

If one more numpty asks me how much the enchanted hand mirrors cost, I’m going to scream. A pound. Everything in the shop’s a pound. The clue’s above our door. Pound Kingdom. That’s a hint. Take it. Just because a silver bat flew through our doors last Wednesday sprinkling magic dust over everything doesn’t mean our prices have gone up.

A charming fantasy story set in a little shop where the items have been enchanted by a magic bat. Now, the pest control guy is coming to gather up the bat and things don't go quite smoothly from there. I love the whimsy and humour of this story, and the tickle of possible romance.

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Morag's Boy, by Fiona Moore in Clarkesworld

Morag had a way with tech, everybody knew it. She’d found Seamus up on the spoil heap near the ruins of Gwydion Manor, or the Big House as it was known locally, and she was always mending people’s solar arrays or wood-burning tractors, or coming up with clever hacks like that machine she’d built for her neighbor Owen, which had started life as a rich person’s sentient grass-cutter and now saved Owen a lot of time around the rye harvest.

This is a great science fiction story, set in a near-future post-apocalyptic world where our current technological and political system has collapsed. People are finding different ways to live in this world, and many don't take kindly to those who try to take even tiny steps back toward the way things used to be in the bad old days. Cliff is good at fixing and building machines, and when he comes to Morag's place, he has a lot of ideas. I love how Moore keeps this story small and human, and nuanced, rather than going for some big explosive action. There are moments of learning and listening here, and there are glimpses of a new world, maybe, in the making.

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The Blizzard Song, by Ed Grabianowski in Nightmare

You draw one icy breath before the blizzard snatches it away. You moan in the same key as the storm, a polyphonic nightmare sound: ice cracking across a wide lake, a melody of numbness, backed by whispers of death and the rhythmic thud of something nearby swinging in the wind. A blizzard is blindness, confusion, cessation.

A hauntingly beautiful non-fiction essay by Grabianowski. It captures the feeling of being in a blizzard, the feeling of winter and cold, the feeling of being exposed to the elements and vulnerable to the forces of nature, with exquisite precision.

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Stones, Sins, and the Scent of Strawberries, by Kai Delmas in Zooscape

I skulk among the roots and fallen branches of ancient trees. My hackles rise at the scent of fungal growth and decay. This is my dark forest and I am its wicked wolf.

Little Red Riding Hood is my favourite fairytale and I love reading retellings and reimaginations of it. Here, we get the story from the perspective of the wolf. Delmas turns the tale into horror, with the slow realization for us, and the wolf, that nothing in this forest is the way it seems. I particularly love how the nature of Grandma and Little Red is turned on its head here.

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Crumpled, by Steve Toase in The Deadlands

We erupt into the world of ghosts like ink congealing through water. There is a moment when I think we won’t have any form before we become coarse grey fabric.

A chilling and devastating story set in the afterlife, where a mom and dad find themselves turned to ghosts. The description of being turned into something made of fabric, like a ghost made of sheets, and losing what made you human is drawn in such beautiful sensory detail here. And the ending, well, it hits like a sledgehammer.

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The Mercer Seat by Vajra Chandrasekera in Future Science Fiction Digest

The prosecuting bartender picks up the second bottle of poison and refills the jigger in silence. Hemlock is followed by an infusion of katkar oil. The murderer, after taking his second swig, drums his feet impatiently for a long half-minute while his legs strain from the effort of not swelling up. This bar has, of course, no tenderer of defenses.

Oh goodness. Read this, and dive deep into the strangeness and brilliance of the prose. A surreal and deeply moving story about guilt and sin and impossible justice. To quote Chandrasekera himself: "It's a story about most of the things that are on my mind lately—art and AI, war crimes and (denied) justice, dehumanization, science fiction, and the uses of the paradiegetic manoeuvre. I wanted to write a story that AI couldn't."

The story is part of the specal publication The Digital Aesthete: Human Musings On The Intersection Of Art And AI, edited by Alex Shvartsman. More about this anthology here: https://future-sf.com/issues/the-digital-aesthete-human-musings-on-the-intersection-of-art-and-ai/ 

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Born a Ghost by Nadia Bongo in Apex

The day I was born in Mwana hospital in Libreville, Mother realized that I was born to become a ghost. When I emerged swathed in amniotic mush, waste, and blood, Mother, the doctor, and nurses stared at the cobwebs enmeshed in my musty hair. The hospital staff remembered whispers that my father was some seaweed or eel living in the rill across my mother’s house.

A haunting tale of a girl growing up, partly a girl and partly ghost. I love how everyday reality blends with the spiritual world and magic here, where the presence of a ghost girl is accepted and even used by some. I also love the intimate point of view and the voice of the girl as she tells her story.

Just You and Me, Now by KT Bryski in Apex

The campsite looks like it wants to eat them. A fire pit yawns in the middle, an ashy-grey mouth ringed by rocks like rotting teeth. The trees crowd in, sizing them up, knifing the daylight. One gulp of that smoke-and-pine air, and Henry shudders head to foot.

Well, don’t read this story before you go camping, that’s all I can say. It’s a chilling tale where a family wakes up at their campsite, and the world around them and everyone else in it, has seemingly disappeared. Bryski expertly deepens the darkness and the strangling terror bit by bit until there’s no way out.

Spread the Word by Delilah S. Dawson in Apex

Mr. Marsh seems really nice, for a dad. He came out here to say hello to us, he was polite, he tried to make jokes. Maybe he’s so nice because he has a huge house and a pretty wife who makes lemonade. Or maybe some dads are just friendly and kind. I wouldn’t know.

A profoundly unsettling story set in the 1980s. One boy has just arrived as the new kid in town, and the new kid in school. He and his mom are starting a new life, but they are trying to leave behind a very dark and bloody secret that has everything to do with a Very Bad Dad. Dawson draws you into a familiar, almost Stranger Things / Stephen King-ish reality, and then, when the TV comes on during a sleepover, reality slips and shifts and twists into horror.

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Gamut stories

I'm listing these stories separately from the rest because, hey, I'm kind of biased since I'm one of the fiction editors at Gamut. But I am also so very proud and excited that the first issue of the magazine is now out in the world. This first issue is free to read online. For future issues (and you'll want to read those future issues!), you can pick up a subscription at https://houseofgamut.com/register/magazine/

We Never Went Away, We Just Hid Better, by Sam Rebelein in Gamut

"You know about the uncanny valley?” he asks.

It’s one of those questions where your answer doesn’t matter, he’s going to explain it to you anyway. He’s already mansplained a number of things to you tonight, including the end of Inception, which is the reddest of flags, as far as things men can mansplain go. But he did make a good case for how Leonardo was in a dream the entire time, and it actually did make you want to rewatch the movie for the first time since 2010, in spite of yourself.

Rebelein has a knack for uncanny stories, stories that twist what seems like ordinary reality into something else. This story about a first date that goes... awry... is quietly unsettling, and I love the way it gets stranger and weirder step by step all the way to the end.

Date Night by Jan Stinchcomb in Gamut

Nobody thinks of the mother, given the babysitter’s ordeal. The mother, still young, is counting on dinner and a movie with her husband. It is the best time of her life—the children aren’t babies anymore, but they still need her. They’re good at school. They have interesting things to say, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant.

They don’t ask her about the darkness, but they see it in her eyes, and she sees them seeing.

This story is an awesome and original take on all those slasher horror movies where a poor babysitter has to deal with a serial killer. There's this feeling of a whole world moving beneath the stories we know, a hidden world of mothers, babysitters, and children, locked in a strange symbiosis with the men looking to kill them. If you like slasher movies, if you like twists in the "final girl" trope, then this is a must-read. 

Persistent by AGA Wilmot in Gamut

You wait. You keep your right hand elevated, make sure the dish towel you’d grabbed before heading out the door, still smelling of tuna salad from the mess you’d cleaned up earlier that afternoon, is covering the evidence. That’s what your landlord will call it when he launches his next surprise inspection and sees what’s happened, what you’ve done. He’ll demand answers you don’t have, not now, not yet. He’ll say, Your damage deposit is fucking gone, Lena. You know how this works. And don’t ever let me catch you doing something like this again.

I am not even going to try to describe this story to you, but it is an outstanding piece of fiction. Wilmot masterfully conveys this feeling of a crack in reality, of something coming through, changing everything.

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