Another month full of wonderful stories. This month, I was absorbed by a wonderful new issue of LampLight, and at the end of the month, Syntax & Salt snuck in a wonderful issue that I will probably come back to next month as well. Here are 19 of the many excellent stories I read this month.
Fixer, Worker, Singer, by Natalia Theodoridou in Shimmer. “Yes, the world is quiet now, but for the creaking of the sky. The hum of the machines below has stopped for the night. There used to be thunder beyond the firmament, but not any more.” A small, tightly controlled and enclosed world inhabited by clockworks in various states of disrepair. What’s beyond the sky? What’s the meaning of their existence? I can’t properly express why and how this story breaks my heart into an infinite number of pieces. One thing is for sure: Theodoridou’s prose is exquisitely crafted, and every word and every sentence sings and trembles.
Monsters, by Edward Ashton in Flash Fiction Online. “Niko starts awake, eyes wide and frantic. He’d been dreaming of the monsters, their long legs enfolding her, their velvet-soft claws caressing her face.” Pain and grief and love entwine in this beautifully crafted story about loss and sickness. A great example of how good and how deeply moving flash fiction can be when it’s done right.
Gone to Wrack and Ruin, by Meryl Stenhouse in Empyreome Magazine. “…the shadow spread before the ship, streaking across the sea bed. The clear blue water darkened as if under a storm, though the sky was bright and clear.” This is a vivid, powerful, and haunting fantasy tale, set in a world that feels real enough to touch, painted with all its scents and sounds, its beliefs and superstitions. There’s the people with their calloused hands, eking out a living from the ocean, fishing and processing the catch. There’s the new, grand ship. There’s the old gods, lurking in the shadows. A gripping read.
The Ouroboros Bakery, by Octavia Cade in Kaleidotrope. ““Please take it back,” he says. “Please.” It’s not the most urgent plea Oksana has ever heard. This one is still mostly sane. He can still look her in the eye, and if his hands are tight-clasped together so that the knuckles show white, his voice has very little waver in it.” Aaah, this story… Such delicious horror and magic, so carefully and effectively told. And I mean “delicious” literally: the descriptions of baked goods in this story might make your mouth water, even when you start to realize that something other than sugar and flour lurks in the tasty pastries…
River Boy, by Innocent Chizaram Ilo in Fireside Fiction. “A liquid, like ink, swells through your veins when you stare at these watery surfaces. Recently, the watery surfaces have started whispering to you, telling you that you belong to the other side.” An aching, strange, and wonderful story filled with dread and wonder, about of a boy teetering between two worlds. I love this story: the voice, the mythology woven into it, the sadness and longing mixed with water. Gorgeous and unsettling.
The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter, by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Liminal Stories. “Areti is not a fox, not most of the time. She has the beating heart of a fox hidden in her dowry-chest, under layers of linen, blankets and rugs.” A dark and gripping story about war and family, love and deception, and shape-shifting. The prose is exquisite and the story is the kind of multi-layered tale that sticks in your mind and heart long after you’ve read it.
The Heart Seed, by Joanne Rixon in Liminal Stories. “Once upon a time there was a girl who was certain everyone was her enemy. In preparation for the treacherous attacks against her she was convinced were coming, she cut her heart out of her chest.” Dealing with fear and identity, strength and survival, Rixon’s story grips you from the first paragraph, and then burrows ever deeper in beneath your skin. Masterful.
Krace Is Not A Highway, by Scott Vanyur in Strange Horizons. “<Tanks and rockets degrade highway safety,> HiQIRR transmitted. <Blood causes traction inefficiencies.>” Oh my, this deceptively simple story about a robot plugging away at its work in a post-apocalyptic world is something special. Vanyur manages to write a deeply moving tale using small and precise movements. A must-read.
Airswimming, by Aisha Phoenix in Strange Horizons. “I stood there yawning and willing Celeste to make it quick so I could get back to bed, when she bent her knees, pushed up, and started to swim through the air as though the sky were a clear blue sea.” A piercing and haunting tale of grief and family and how we deal with family trauma and abuse. The abuse lurks in the background of the story; at the forefront is how others sometimes try to make us deal with grief and pain in certain ways, even when our grief and pain does not fit into the space provided. Love and friendship, healing and acceptance… these things provide the glimpses of light.
The Weirdo, by Davide Camparsi (translated by Michael Colbert) in The Dark. ““Their eyes are scars. Their fingers are thorns,” the old man continued, drunk. Now that he’d started speaking, it seemed like he couldn’t stop, that he needed to expel the horror that ate away at him or he’d be ripped apart from the inside out.” Italian horror in translation from The Dark, and it is a classic, creepy, unsettling, and gut-wrenching tale. You can feel the wrongness, the ever darker tilt and shift of the world as the story unfolds, and then it grabs you with all its fangs and claws by the end. Fabulous horror.
The Elevator Illimitable, by James Van Pelt in Mythic Delirium. “A tall structure is made up of stories. This building has too many stories to count.” A quiet and moving story of an elevator operator in a strange building that seems both familiar and unsettlingly out of the ordinary as the story unspools. I love the use of small pieces of dialogue, brief but vivid descriptions of characters and floors to create the world, set the mood, and make you see what the building is all about.
Forty Acres and a Mule, by Stephanie Malia Morris in Fiyah. “My parents’ farm has shrunk, as old things tend to do. The shed, the workshop, the paddock with its doubled wire fences and chicken coop — all squat and rain-blackened, coming into focus as I step from the car as if I have put on glasses or wiped rain from a window.” A woman climbs a tree in her parents’ yard while her boyfriend watches and worries. That’s the simple surface of this story. Beneath that surface, there is so much happening: history, memory, and both physical and emotional tension. A wonderful story with so much depth and weight.
Small Town Immortals, by Valerie Alexander in LampLight Magazine. “Like a fairytale witch, she handed me a wineglass filled with greenish-tinged water. — “One sip is all it takes,” she said.” This is a beautifully written, slowburning story that twists itself ever darker and weirder as it goes. I read it late one night, and there are parts of it (for example, at the pond when we first encounter the real magic), that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Excellent story from a great issue of LampLight.
What I Told My Little Girl About the Aliens Preparing to Grind Us Into Hamburgers,
by Adam-Troy Castro in Lightspeed. “She tilted her head, in the manner of any little girl who needed to stay in some kind of motion even when doing something as sedentary as asking a question, and said, “How are they going to grind us into hamburgers?”” Full of sorrow and regret and love, this is also a horror story about an alien invasion and about facing your own demise (as well as the demise of everyone you love). The story’s real strength, is in the telling: the calm and measured way the father talks to his daughter, revealing the horror lurking beneath their life.
No Sleep, by Julia Dixon Evans in Monkeybicycle. “Theo’s face snaps toward mine. His eyes are open, pupils large and black, and he’s not seeing me. He’s not seeing me. I swear he’s not seeing me.” Whoa. This story deals with a child’s night terrors, and I can tell you, that having experienced this very thing myself, it tore. me. apart. Terrifying, chilling, creepy, and just plain excellent.
Prey, by S.L. Coney in Gamut. “Bowing my head, I said a quick prayer against bloody claws and sharp teeth, against things that moved too fast to see.” If you’re looking for the kind of horror that makes your skin crawl and your mind twitch, then this is a story for you. The darkness descends slowly but without mercy as the story progresses and as the victim of the monster…changes. I love how Coney strips away the normal reality bit by bit, revealing the nightmare beneath.
Fandom for Robots, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad in Uncanny Magazine. “Computron has been spending less time in sleep mode after Episode Thirteen’s cliffhanger, and has spent his time conducting objective discussions about HyperWarp’s appeal with commenters on various video streaming sites and anonymous message boards.” What a lovely, funny, an moving story this is, all about an Artificial Intelligence discovering fan-fiction. Prasad masterfully tugs at both funny-bones and heart-strings in this tale, and it’s nice to be reminded that science fiction can feel this good.
Forgive Us Our Trespasses, by Bennett North in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “Then the man’s grin faded and he let out a low keening noise. Smoke began to trickle out of his nostrils. The man spasmed, kicking his legs. A hot white light blossomed under his shirt, and then the fabric began to burn away, and I could see the silhouette of his ribcage over the fire inside.” Set in a parched, harsh world and unforgiving landscape, this story deals with revenge and sin and faith, and what you choose to do with your life. There’s so much excellent worldbuilding packed into this story, yet it never feels weighed down by it. It just serves to tell a story that is part weird west, part horror, and part something utterly unique.
Seven, by Sarah Krenicki in Syntax & Salt. “By far the best age is seven, when the summer grass grows around splayed fingers and each winter breath forms little clouds that morph into animals and pirate ships.” Krenicki’s wonderfully crafted flash fiction piece is perched perfectly between fairytale magic and human reality, packed with emotions: joy, loss, jealousy, anger, regret. What happens when you lose what you think made you special? What do you do when someone else is suddenly more special than you? Exquisite.
For more short fiction picks: