Some months, I feel like I just cannot keep up with all the wonderful, beautiful, addictively terrifying stories coming out. Actually, that pretty much describes every month…
Here are 16 of the many fabulous stories I read in May:
Lares Familiares, 1981, by Rebecca Campbell in Liminal Stories. “Over the girl’s shoulder lay the forest’s edge. No movement in the trees, even so he wanted to pull Billy away from the door, and lock it tight and say nothing to anyone in the house—”
Set in British Columbia, this story deals with the inner workings of a family, and the forces shaping its past and present. What grabbed me right from the beginning of the story, was Campbell’s perceptive description of the grand family dinner. If you’ve ever been at one of those big family shindigs (whether or not your family has the same kind of dark undercurrent as the family in the story), you’ll recognize the familiar patterns. I love every facet of this story, especially how it knits together an ancient family mythos with the visible realities of abuse and love, power and submission. Once the unsettling stranger appears, things get even stranger… One of the best stories I’ve read this year.
Fallow, by Ashley Blooms in Shimmer. “He doesn’t have the words to describe how the field reminds him of himself. – – – How it feels like maybe the field needs something only William has, and all William has is the bottle.”
This is a breathtakingly good story with so many layers of love, longing, loneliness, desperation. A boy plants a bottle in a fallow field. Something happens, to the bottle and to him. This story has elements of magic realism, fantasy, and horror – but it becomes something different than any of these pieces. Shimmer is a magazine with a very specific vibe, and this is a very “shimmery” story. Unsettling and stunning.
Feathers and Void, by Charles Payseur in Shimmer. “Iv’s thoughts coat mine like oil, slide away, always so clear in the moment but impossible to hold on to. Iv, my crow. My shell. My ship.”
Lyrical, evocative, haunting… I was absolutely floored by this heartrending science fiction story. In a far future, some human test subjects have been fused with birds, and they are used to fight in space – attacking ships, killing enemies, and stealing “treasure”. A space opera on crows’ wings, this story packs an emotional power and an epic vibe into a short story. Stunning and intoxicating writing by Payseur.
Bear Language, by Martin Cahill in Fireside Fiction. “I only have eyes for the mass of brown fur sitting in Daddy’s chair. Maybe it has special bear senses. Maybe it heard me with its big bear ears. The tower of brown fur turns around in the chair and looks at me.
Hello, the bear says.”
I love this story so much. LOVE. IT. Heartbreaking and dark, this story of two children stuck in a house with an addicted and abusive father who is not capable of being the parent they need, still manages to be oddly uplifting, thanks to the presence of a Very Good Bear. I really love how Cahill manages to infuse a desperate and nightmarish situation with a fairytale vibe, and gleams of resilience and hope. This story will stick with me for a long time.
Witch’s Hour, by Shannon Connor Winward in Fantasy & Science Fiction. “Before she let them take the stag, Esmelda did one last thing: Her hands greased with its own hot fat and gritty black spices, sigils for gluttony and hunger-lust ground into her palms, she massaged the beast as one might a lover, from the charred wreck of its neck to its crisp, round rump.”
This is a knockout story – so deliciously wicked, vivid, rich and bold. It’s set in a castle, and more specifically: the castle’s kitchen. There’s a cook, there are feasts, there’s a ghost (or maybe more than one?), a dead king, a new king, and whole lot of food (if you’re anything like me, reading this tale might actually make you hungry). A rollicking good read.
They Will Take You From You, by Brandon O’Brien in Strange Horizons. “It did feel like I was making it for she. I start calling she Goldie—this lovely barn owl, wings like they was shimmering in water under full moonlight. She would come every night, watch me make something, see it when it finish, and then give a kind o’ bow and fly away…”
A beautiful story about art and creativity and inspiration. Owl-like beings called the Benefactors walk the world, and their presence is at once enticing and threatening: they plant seeds of genius in some chosen humans, but they also claim these geniuses after death, calling it a “cultural harvest”. O’Brien’s prose is lyrical and spellbinding, and this story really got under my skin.
Rest Stop, by Letitia Trent in Gamut. “She looked up at the blue and imagined this sky during a storm, the clouds piling up, bruised and filled with electricity, threatening funnels and hail and rain enough to flood a prairie. It must be such a burden to live under such a heavy sky, she thought. It must do something to you.”
I love stories that take the every-day and twist it into spine-chilling horror. Trent does just that in this sharp and terrifying tale. A rest stop, a mysterious symbol on the wall, a familiar name, a date, and then, the inescapable smell of death. Perfectly crafted, this quietly told story still manages to hit you where it hurts.
Like The Desert Dark, by Chloe N. Clark in Gamut. “I turned from the darkness. Somewhere, time was different and my daughter was gone and I had never been the parent that she needed.”
Clark weaves together a moving and deeply unsettling story from a man’s memories of his daughter, and of his wife, both of them scientists. There are strange experiments that involve space and time and a “shadow biosphere”. There’s a childhood accident that almost claims a life. There’s another accident, or is it an accident?, that results in a disappearance and maybe a death. With each beat, this story twists itself into something stranger and more mysterious, and the ending left me breathless.
The Bone Beaters, by A.M. Muffaz in The Dark. “Watching long leg bones crack and splinter, listening to the rhythmic pounding while she sucked on a new sliver of meat, Tashi felt more at ease. – – – It was easy to believe that in that moment, all their problems were as insignificant as little shards of bone.”
This story plays out on a mountain where the dead are brought for their (somewhat gruesome) last rites. Muffaz skilfully wraps up the darkness and horror at the story’s core, in richly evocative descriptions of custom and tradition. This is a world where everyone tries to behave the way society expects of them, while all the while, something terrible is happening just beneath the surface. The story pulls you in with lush descriptions of the world and the inhabitants: their food and rituals, clothing and environment. Brilliant stuff from start to finish.
The Three-Tongued Mummy, by E. Catherine Tobler in Apex Magazine. “For a penny, the three-tongued mummy will tell you your fate. The three-tongued mummy will speak to you in sibilant whispers of the waters at the edge of the pier, the way they lick the stones as if in an effort to climb onto the pier itself...”
I have a soft spot for stories about ancient Egypt, curses, and yes, mummies. Tobler’s story twists and turns the usual cursed mummy story into something even darker and more disturbing than I expected. Ripped from its ancient tomb, sold, and then awakened by Jackson at the traveling circus to be put on display, there’s a horrible, haunting loneliness to this mummy. “You may have whatever you wish,” Jackson tells the mummy, and eventually, the mummy does get its wish. A wickedly dark tale, excellently told.
Heartwood, by L. Chan in Metaphorosis Magazine. “My lord,” she said. Her voice held the rough edge of granite crypts and the cool of marble tombstones. She took in her surroundings with glittering eyes. “The Mansion is not as I remembered it, and neither am I.”
The beautiful, poetic prose drew my right into this dark and chilling story that deals with love and obsession that last well beyond death. Again and again the protagonist resurrects the woman he loves hoping to recapture something he lost long ago. What really makes this story work is the defiant nature of the woman. Again and again she resists becoming what he wants to turn her into. This is a fascinating tale, that has the vibe of an ancient legend, retold.
Hexagrammaton, by Hanuš Seiner in TOR.com. “…the quiet song of the running engines could be heard. Their sound wavered with the rhythm of the crew’s words. The virus mediated the crew’s feelings to the engines, just as it opened their minds to the engines’ distant thoughts.”
I’m not sure I can even properly describe the premise of this unique and captivating story. Aliens have visited the solar system. They have infected? blessed? some humans with a virus that rewrites their genetic code into…something else. The aliens have left, but the infected humans are stuck, halfway to their ultimate metamorphosis. Now, a woman might have found something that will change everything. Mathematics, genetic reprogramming, fear, loneliness, a longing to explore the universe… All I can say is: read it. It’s a trippy, disorienting story that is well worth savouring.
A Heart, An Egg, A Lock of Hair, by Kelly M Sandoval in Daily Science Fiction. “She tries to remember the last time anyone touched her. She tries to remember her name. Ruin tugs her along, and she allows herself to be led.”
Oh. This one moved me. It’s such a deep and lonely story of love and loveless-ness, wanting and longing. Sandoval stitches a thin, silvery thread of possible redemption and hope into the tale’s weave, making it shine and glimmer. A profound love-story, with something that looks a lot like a happy ending.
When No One’s Left, by Lora Rivera in Reckoning. “And this broken species of ours should never again have dominion over the earth, now that it’s free. We do not deserve this second chance. I’ve told him this. He agrees.”
I love the dark, unsettling, and lyrical tone of this story, set in a world that is almost completely devoid of humans. Two people remain, and they are trying to survive together, haunted by the choice between extinction and… maybe, something like love. Gorgeous prose, and a mesmerizing voice.
The Rule of Capture, by Christopher Brown in Reckoning. “I knew foxes were living back in there in the woods behind the door factory, but the first time I saw one was when it was running away from a realtor.”
This is a non-fiction piece, full of laws and regulations that deal with property and ownership, but the ending, and the skillful writing elevates it to something a lot more than just dry legalese.
Prayers to Broken Stone, by Cat Sparks in Kaleidotrope. “I’ve got ghosts,” says Morgan. “They cling to us when they want to.”
This is a profoundly strange and evocative tale of a world haunted by shadows and ghosts, war and despair. It’s a world that feels eerily familiar to our own, but where reality shifts and warps in the presence of mysterious, shadowy figures. Each person in the tale is somehow caught up in a nameless fear they can’t defeat or even see or understand clearly. “We let these creatures through and there’s no turning back…” I re-read this piece a couple of times, just to savour the prose and the ever-twisting and shifting layers of reality.
For more short fiction picks: