June turned out to be another great month for short fiction, and it was another month where I felt like I should be reading at least twice as much as I actually did. Even reading as much as I do, I feel I’m only scratching the surface of what’s out there!
A special than you to Jason Sizemore at Apex Magazine for his kind words about my monthly short story roundup in his “Words from the Editor” at Apex! Pretty thrilled to be mentioned in some great company!
Here are seventeen of the many great stories I read this past month.
After Burning, by Wren Wallis in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “Almas’s heart has been breaking slowly for months: a numbing crush rather than a clean shatter. It has been ground so fine by now that sometimes she thinks she’ll suffocate under the weight of sand in her chest where her heart used to be.” This is a heart-wrenching story about the devastating losses suffered in war – by individuals and societies – and how difficult, but necessary, it is to keep at least a glimmer of love and empathy alive inside yourself. It is a gorgeously written piece, with prose so good it actually gave me goosebumps to read it. I wanted more more more of this, and luckily for me, the story is connected to the author’s WIP – a novel called ‘Ash’ (read more about it here). I am already looking forward to reading that in the future!
Dandelion, by John Shade in Shimmer. “Our consciousness they spit out like seeds. And we linger there, ghosts on the upload, a warning to all like the heads on spikes of old. They kill us every way they can.” Oh my goodness, how I love this story about a multitude of souls / consciousness, trying to resist being obliterated, trying to fight back against the entity/entities that destroyed them. So strange, so moving, and so mindbending, all at the same time.
Shape Without Form, Shade Without Color, by Sunny Moraine at Tor.com. “I can’t see his face. I know, I know, if I could I would see two ink-ball eyes and a beak ready to stab. In the dark, in bed, he was always looking back at me. He was ready. He was waiting.” Dark, evocative, and brilliant – this short story is a bit like poetry turned into prose (or prose moving like poetry). It explores the fear and fascination of (and attraction to) the haunting darkness outside, and also the darkness inside your own mind and body. An unsettling and mesmerizing read.
Anabasis, by Amal El-Mohtar at Tor.com. “Borders are shape-shifters, too: they change what goes through them. Time was, the only border worth crossing was into the underworld, to fetch back a lover’s life: Take off your shoes, said Ereshkigal to Inanna, your belt, your rings. Take off your armour, your hair, your skin, your flesh. Set your bones aside separately; bag your liquids. Do you have any sensitive areas—” Ancient myth, current politics, anger, fear, and defiance are woven together in this fierce short story. I love El-Mohtar’s incandescent prose, and the way she bares the pain and fury of living with everyday injustice, and of resisting that injustice, while also holding on to your true self.
Water like Air, by Lora Gray in Flash Fiction Online. “Until sludge climbs up her body and binds to the translucent armature of her calves and thighs. When the mud covers her fully, she heaves herself out of the water and onto the shore.” This dark fairytale of love and possession and yearning is beautifully written. In the space of a flash fiction piece, Gray deftly creates characters, builds a world, and reveals the lore and mythology of that world – in this case a pond, and the strange, shape-shifting creatures that live beneath the surface.
Wendy, Darling, by A.C. Wise in Daily Science Fiction. “Darling, darling, darling. Not a name anymore. A weapon. A word to soothe, to dismiss, to hush. Be grateful, darling. Be still, darling. Her name taken from her and turned against her. So what does she have left?” I have a weakness for inventive takes on old fairytales, and this refreshingly fiery take on Peter Pan is masterfully done. Wise tells the story from an older Wendy’s point of view, when Pan reappears to take her daughter. Exploring the issue of consent, this is an excellent, sharp new take on the story.
Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time, by K.M. Szpara in Uncanny Magazine.
“You bit me,” I say, because he hasn’t danced around mystery, either. My grand accusation comes out as, “You’re not supposed to do that.”
“I was hungry,” he says, calmly. Like the obvious result of hunger is biting someone.
“So, go to a blood bank like you’re supposed to.”
“It’s not the same.” This story about a transsexual man who is bitten by a vampire is a razor sharp, hot-as-blazes, gut-punch. It brims and bristles with lust, desire, love, longing, regret, and transformation(s). It’s set in a world where vampires are accepted in society, but their behaviour is closely regulated. The various forms of transformation and control and consent at play here gives a lot of depth to the story. There are so many layers here, including the exploration of how society tries to contain and control individuals who don’t conform to whatever is considered “the norm”. This story goes deep, and hits hard.
Secret Keeper, by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam in Nightmare. “You know how this story goes: the girl was kissed in the womb by the devil. When she emerged into the too-bright world, she was missing half her face where his teeth tore it off.” This story is a must-read. Stufflebeam skillfully reworks the “Phantom of the Opera” story into a dark, frightening and somewhat hallucinogenic exploration of identity, power, manipulation, love, confidence….and, well, human relationships in all their messy, flawed glory. Plus, it’s set in a high school (a great place to explore raw, wounded relationships). Brilliantly done with an ending that made me gasp.
The Bois, by R.S.A. Garcia in Truancy Magazine. “It don’t speak. The Bois don’t have language. But impressions and emotions push against my mind and the metallic taste of them fill my mouth. It’s angry, disgusted, but curious too. I grab hold of that feeling like a life-line.” Communicating (and communing) with an alien life-form is a dangerous, deeply unsettling, but also exhilarating experience in this story by Garcia. The language is beautiful and evocative, and there’s so much fear and wonder and longing infused in every scene and sentence. Powerful in every way.
Daddy’s Girl, by Jennifer R. Donohue in Syntax & Salt. “When I was born, my daddy didn’t come home from war, but the army sent a drone, hand sized and with tiny little pincher arms, in a broken-sealed box.” Well, break my heart, why don’t you? This excellent short story will tug at all your heartstrings, mess you up, and rip you apart just a little bit. It’s a fantastic tale about grief, about growing up, about finding love and finding your place in the world, about family and friendship, and about how we’re shaped by those around us, while also shaping ourselves and our lives through the seemingly small choices we make every day.
The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory, by Carlos Hernandez in Lightspeed.
“Gavin, slowly and evenly, says, “Some hornstalkers believe that unicorns are attracted to virgin girls. So they kidnap one to help them in their hunt.”
“What? You can’t be serious.”
Gavin shrugs. “One too many fairy tales when they were kids.” Darkly funny and also rather disturbing, this story imagines a world where our reality is blending with the realities of other, parallel universes. Hint: it turns out the Great Hadron Collider might have had something to do with it…. I loved every bit of this: the mad science of it, the drama of hunting the unicorn hunters (drones!), the occasional flash of gore, and the sadness of unicorns trapped in the wrong universe.
Elena’s Angel, by Aimee Ogden in Apex Magazine. “Universes of color and opportunity explode behind her eyes, and raw emotion dredged up from the core of her provides the cosmic background radiation. — There is an ecstasy in serving as an angel’s medium, she can’t deny that, but whenever it embraces Elena it comes robed in sackcloth.” An incisive and touching story about inspiration and creativity, and what we might consider giving up in order to follow “our muse”. In a world where angels act as “personal helpers” to augment the work of a chosen few, Elena tries to resist her angel: but isn’t it worth the sacrifice to create better art? I especially love the manipulative nature of the angel in this story: it gives their otherworldly powers a frighteningly familiar vibe.
In Your Wake We Sin, by Hadeer Elsbai in The Dark. “The jinn stared at her with insectoid black eyes that were much too big for its small, angled face. Thin lips, flat nose, papery skin stretched taut. Its legs ended in black hooves.
And then it moved.” Good ghost stories are always a treat, and this one is both chilling and moving. The setting is modern day Egypt, and it takes place during a time of protests against the government. A young woman is killed, and when her friends try to find out what really happened to her… well, things don’t go exactly the way they planned. Excellent storytelling by Elsbai, escalating the tension throughout and giving the story a terrific payoff.
The Last Family Pillar, by Timothy Johnson in Gamut. “In the dark, he closes his eyes. In the dark, she glances toward the doorway. In the dark, their worst nightmares materialize.
The dead boy looms in the doorway.”
A deeply disturbing and harrowing story of grief, loss, and family. What happens when the dead come back? When they don’t leave and they don’t turn into ferocious zombies or vengeful ghosts, but rather just…linger? The darkest and most unsettling thing in the story, for me at least, is the deep, dark pit of roiling emotion that hides beneath the strength and determination the father forces himself to maintain.
Special mention: Shoreline of Infinity #8
This month I also read Shoreline of Infinity #8. It’s the first time I’ve read this publication, and I was very impressed: this issue was full of terrific stories. Three that stood out for me were:
Goddess with a Human Heart, by Jeannette Ng: an evocative and beautifully written story of the divine, sacrifice, faith, cruelty, and a glimmer of hope.
The Pink Life (La Vie En Rose), by Nathan Susnik: a disturbing and funny tale of a world where you can sell yourself on the stock exchange, and where the real world is hidden beneath a veneer of virtual reality.
These Are the Ways, by Premee Mohamed: a fast-paces, moving, and also heart-wrenching science fiction story of war, love, bad decisions, and loss.
For more short fiction picks: