22 fabulously fantastic stories I read in December

December was full of wonderful short fiction, and in this monthly roundup I am making space for some special mentions.

  • I’m very sad to say that December 2017 brought us the last issue of Gamut. I’ve really loved the strong voice and vivid dark/noir vibe of this magazine. Gamut published some of my favourite stories last year (and yes, they also published one of my own stories!), and I will sorely miss it. All the best to everyone involved with this publication.
  • This past month I read The Fantasist for the first (but definitely not the last) time. It’s a magazine of fantasy novellas, and it looks rather brilliant to me. Read more about it. Check out their Patreon.
  • Finally, December brought fabulous issues of Lamplight, Anathema, and Capricious. I’ve included stories from all three publications in this roundup, and I highly recommend them for further reading!

DeCStories

The First Stop Is Always the Last, by John Wiswell in Flash Fiction Online. “People of shapes she’d never seen streamed down the sidewalk, all in black suits or black dresses. One broke from the crowd and boarded Selma’s bus. The woman climbed up to her and asked—” Time shenanigans. That’s all I’m going to tell you, because I’m not even sure how to really describe this excellent flash fiction story by John Wiswell. I will say that it’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s surprising, and it’s fabulous.

The Poet and the Spider, by Cynthia So in Anathema. “She peers down at you, her eyes fathomless and dark, and you feel a queer twang inside, as though someone is playing the guzheng between your ribs. You don’t think there’s any hope for you at all.” What a gorgeously written story this is. Fairy-tale, fantasy, myth, romance and reality blend and twist together throughout this fantastic story by Cynthia So. I was not sure where this tale was taking me, but I loved every step of the way there. Glorious prose.

Death Comes To Elisha, by Iona Sharma in Anathema. “Death slumps on the table, head balanced on their elbows, and lets out an exasperated huff. I’m not here to collect.” Another awesome tale from the latest issue of Anathema. Iona Sharma’s story captures a mood and vibe that is both tender and sharp. We meet the fortune teller Elisha dealing the cards in Brooklyn, when Death comes to visit. “Does it turn out okay in the end?” is the question everyone wants Elisha to answer and the way that question is dealt with makes for a subtle, multi-layered and deeply moving story.

The Weight of Sentience, by Naru Dames Sundar in Shimmer. “The price of sentience in Barsan was death, and sometimes that price demanded symbols. The shards of his skull-plate shattering were as delicate as the dandelion rosettes in the gardens he had once tended.” Oh, what an exquisite soul-piercing story this is. It deals with humanity and sentience and hope and despair, all cradled in Sundar’s beautifully crafted prose. A must read.

Sidewalks, by Maureen McHugh in Omni Magazine. “She says the story is about the cost of the journey. That when you journey to yesterday, you lay waste to today. When you return, your today is gone and it is a today that belongs to somebody else.” A strange woman is found in Los Angeles, but no one can understand the language she speaks. She is promptly committed to a psych facility. The speech therapist tasked with trying to communicate with the woman soon realizes there is a lot more to the case than meets the eye. A captivating and quietly mind-blowing story that doesn’t go where you might expect.

Better Angels, by Angela Slatter in Review of Australian Fiction. “…Patrick’s chest doesn’t move, he’s not alive. There’s just the echo of his words in her ears: ‘I know what you did, Fionnuala.’ ‘No,’ she says softly, ‘you don’t.'” A story by Angela Slatter is always a treat, and this wonderfully dark tale keeps twisting the knife ever deeper as the story progresses. There’s a dead husband, there are children to care for, and outside the beautiful house, there’s a young man watching the new widow. The strands of the story are woven together with care and purpose: grief and tragedy, love and lust, violence and vengeance. And the ending? Well, sometimes people end up exactly where they deserve to be…

The Cure For Cancer, by Ryan Fitzpatrick in Metaphorosis. “The cure for cancer grows, when the conditions are right, in the cell membrane of a rare and specialised fungus, belonging to the class of Basidiomycota known as Polypores.” Quietly devastating, this story touches on both the frailty and strength of life on Earth, and how human beings can pass right by the miracles of nature (and even destroy them), without ever knowing they were even there. There’s a glimmer of hope woven into this story as well, but what I love most about it is how it delivers such a heavy blow of truth with such a soft voice.

The Frozen Sea Takes Everything I Love, by Meryl Stenhouse in The Fantasist. “And sometimes, when the sky darkened and the breeze stirred the crystals into shifting clouds, to be thrown rat-a-tat against the hull of poplar and oak, the voices of dead sailors claimed by the ice would whisper and beg for release from their servitude to the cold gods.” This is a beautiful and harrowing story of family and desperation, loss and hope. Days after reading it, I am still processing the world and the emotions it brought up in me. I love that the protagonist is an older woman, and I love the working-class setting – this is a fantasy tale with calloused hands. Set in an icy, cold version of our world, the story is full of masterful, tactile world-building, and characters that feel alive and real. Stenhouse’s prose is gorgeous from start to finish, and she brings the people and places to life with such skill, you might even feel the windburn and the shiver in the cold.

Tam Lin, by Lane Waldman in Capricious. “Call it a love story, then. But a slippery one. Time moves differently there. Start here: you have never seen him before but you recognize him immediately.” I don’t even quite know how to describe this story, except to say that I felt like I was dreaming while reading it. Dreaming I was reading a story written in a dream, perhaps. Everything twists and turns and follows no logic but to dream’s. Excellent and mesmerizing.

Three May Keep A Secret, by Carlie St. George in Strange Horizons. “You know any ghost stories?” Because yes. That’s where her stupid, morbid brain goes whenever she’s somewhere dark, whenever she’s somewhere small with no windows. This is why she will never have friends.” Funny, moving, desperately dark and filled with terror – this (literally) haunting story manages to do so many things at once. It deals with love and loss and grief and horror, and there are scenes here that gave me bone-deep chills. A girl has lost her friend and in an unguarded moment, she shares a secret she promised never to share with anyone. There is a monster, but where is it? what is it? A brilliant modern-day ghost story.

In the Beginning, All Our Hands Are Cold, by Ephiny Gale in Syntax & Salt. “Everyone in the village is born without hands; the children get along just fine with elbows and teeth and toes.” This story follows the lives of a group of friends in a village where everyone is born without hands, and if you think the premise of the story is strange…well, you’re right. Gale masterfully spins that strangeness into a tale that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. Audacious and brilliant.

Trette’s Bones, Grace Seybold in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “When Trette was thirty, she gave her skull to the Ossuary, which was exactly the sort of thing she would do. I’m not angry—no, yes, I’m angry about it, but I want to tell it all, how it went.” This is a stunningly original fantasy story. Seybold pulls the reader into a unique world where the inhabitants of a certain isolated small town give up their bones (meaning actual body-parts) to an institution called the Ossuary. The sacrificed part is replaced by ghost-flesh, but, as the tale says: “Ghost-flesh isn’t like born-flesh. Some of what it does is unpredictable.” And when Trette gives up her skull…well, things happen. Spectacular fantasy.

The House at the End of the Lane Is Dreaming, by A. Merc Rustad in Lightspeed. “You wake up one morning and know something’s wrong…No one but you knows anything is different about today. You pull on your red jacket. It has three pockets, all empty for now.” Every story I’ve read by Rustad has been a stunner, and this one is a knockout. There’s action, monsters, and the end of the world…so, yeah, it’s definitely a wild ride. There’s an off-kilter feel to the story right from the start, telling you something not quite right with the world, and there is a sense of danger lurking everywhere. But it’s what happens once the monsters appear (again and again) that really makes this tale stand out. Even when I thought I’d figured out what was going on, I wasn’t ready for where this tale ultimately ends up.

Not Quite Taken, by KL Pereira in Lamplight. “You get meaner when you start dying. You’ve noticed that.” This is one of Pereira’s two stories in the newest issue of Lamplight, and it’s a dark and luminous tale that is both chilling and gorgeous at the same time. Someone is dying, again. And while it’s happening, memory blends with death, and death blends with transformation – or, rather (maybe) death is transformation. I love the enigmatic and evocative language of this piece.

Tall Grass, Shallow Water, by Sarah Read in Lamplight. “Mothers say “stay clear of the water”. At least the good ones do. The kids say “Dip a toe in and Genny will grab you”. Maybe some Gennies grab. Maybe some Gennies have to. But my Genny never did.” A monster story with a twist , this story is both unsettling, scary, and deeply moving. Instead of ending with a child taken by a monster, this story explores what happens to the child after she’s been taken. There’s so much darkness moving beneath the tale’s surface, and Read’s prose is utterly mesmerizing.

Implicate Order, by Morgan Crooks in Lamplight. “A figure inched closer, and some of the starlight, a pitiful glimmering, fell upon the pale face of a woman, half-hidden below the curve of a bonnet.” This story is a fabulous slow-burn, blending childhood and horror and the terrible darkness of family secrets – secrets kept quiet for years, and not shared until it is almost too late. Crooks skilfully ratchets up the tension throughout the piece, from that wriggle in the back of your mind at the beginning of the story when you know something isn’t quite right, to the spine-chilling final revelations. An excellent ride.

Will You Meet Me There, Out Beyond the Bend?, by Matthew Kressel in Nightmare. “The others linger like summer fog and flies, like campfire smoke and ash, like streaks of grease on glass. On nights like tonight, when the moon is high and the wind is still, she sees their forms clearly.” This is a terrific horror story, chilling and dark and evocative. Several lost souls (and bodies) mingle on the roadside somewhere in the middle of nowhere, hoping for someone to find them. Cars pass, but the souls remain lost, and in the darkness among them waits the Neverman. Lyrical and haunting.

The Thrum of the Locust, by Axel Hassen Taiari in Abyss & Apex. “Swallow an egg and carry a hatchling. Carry a hatchling and spawn a broodling. Spawn a broodling and raise a brood. Raise a brood and expand the hive. Expand the hive and bless us all.” This story takes the reader into a strange (and in some ways strangely familiar) world and a society where men swallow eggs from the Mother’s hive, hoping to spawn broodlings. Failure carries a social cost, and the protagonist of the story is willing to do pretty much anything to carry a broodling to term. I love the vivid prose and the original world-building that makes this strange place come alive.

Packing, by T. Kingfisher in Uncanny Magazine. “No, you can’t stay. This place won’t be here soon. It’s already going, slipping away, each new summer tearing off strips. You can see the new flesh underneath.” This is a quiet story that whispers in your ear and breaks your heart a little bit with every word and sentence. Wistful, sad, and moving, it glows with a bit of hope tucked inside the sadness like a lit candle in a snow-lantern.

Necksnapper, by MP Johnson in The Dark. “Delayna snapped the first crow’s neck without thinking about it. She had learned this from her parents. Before they robbed and prostituted their way out of her life and into prison, they had taught her to ignore the weight of sin and instead focus on doing what needed to be done to get by.” Johnson’s story is a deeply uncomfortable read, one that made me squirm and almost turn away several times, because it deals with the kind of horror that feels almost too close, too real, creeping right beneath your own skin. It’s an unflinching look at a young woman who does what she has to in order to survive. Not an easy read, but an excellent haunting story.

Snow as White as Skin as White as Snow, by Karen Bovenmyer in Gamut. “In the abandoned amusement park, which is your favorite playground, a boy lies sleeping in a circle of birdseed. His long eyelashes are black as raven wings, his lips the blue of jays, his coat the red of cardinals.” A lovely and evocative piece of short fiction. Dark and glistening, it captures magic and childhood, fantasy and reality, all at once, and the prose is just a wonder.

Darkness, Our Mother, by Eleanna Castroianni in Clarkesworld. “I’m one of my mother’s kind. Numbers speak to us in whispers and screams. We weave the world in complex mathematics and the world weaves us back, keeping our sky above and our earth below, keeping our organs inside our bodies, keeping us here, keeping us together.” Castroianni’s science fiction story weaves together space, Greek myth and mathematics, fantasy and magic to a stunning tale. It’s a highly original and beautifully written take on the story of the minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne.

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