The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror

My “Best of 2019” is split into three parts: Part 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror; Part 2: Science Fiction; Part 3: Fantasy. My choices in each category are not ranked; they are presented in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Each title is accompanied by a quick introductory statement and a short excerpt from the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers. For the purposes of this column, short fiction is defined as less than novel-length, or under 40,000 words.

 

The Best Short Dark Fantasy/Horror Fiction of 2019

 

Nightmare 83The Skin of a Teenage Boy is Not Alive“, by Senaa Ahmad (Nightmare Magazine Issue 83, August 2019) 4967 words

Parveen is more than ready to move on from high school, but for now she figures to get her kicks hanging out with the demon cult kids. Turns out demon possession isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, for the demon or the possessed.

The music clicks off. Now it is shivery and quiet, only California crickets lisping into the dark. The night closes upon them, an enigmatic fist. And when it opens its fingers again, Benny is possessed.
He tries to speak, but it doesn’t quite work. His eyes are wet, black. Crawling with unrecognizable stars. They know it is Benny and not Benny. The way anyone knows that something is wrong. There is a face underneath his face, and it is very, very old. The face swivels on its neck to look at them.
Say something, one of the cult kids whispers, practically palpitating with fear and excitement.
Benny, who is not Benny, hisses: What a waste. What a fucking waste.

Fireside 69The Brightest Lights of Heaven“, by Maria Haskins (Fireside Magazine Issue 69, July 2019) 3398 words

Moira and Rae are childhood best friends who grew up playing some pretty imaginative, and pretty immersive, games together. The two are devastated when Moira’s family decides to move away, but Moira has an idea for a game they can keep playing no matter how far apart they are in distance or years.

“I had a vision, Rae.” Her voice was an unfamiliar, hoarse whisper, skittering up my spine. As if she’d found another voice in the dark. As if another voice had found her. “You are a daemon escaped from the deepest depths of the void. And I am a daemon hunter blessed by the brightest lights of heaven. We are enemies henceforth. Before we both turn twenty-five, one of us must kill the other.”
My palm stung and I felt dizzy. I already knew it was more than pretend, more than imagination. Moira had always made our games seem real, but that night was different. I felt the blood and smoke twitch together between our palms, as if we had stirred up something sleeping, something dormant – whether within or without, I couldn’t tell. I felt it shudder and twine, snaking around my flesh and bones. Words and smoke and blood binding me, changing me. Changing Moira, too.

FSF 11-12-2019“Shucked”, by Sam J. Miller (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019) 4181 words

Adney and Teek are an adventurous young couple vacationing in Italy, where they are approached by an older man who wants to pay them $10,000 dollars for an hour alone with Teek. The guy makes them both a little uneasy, but who couldn’t use that kind of money?

“One hour…doing what?” Teek asked.
The man put both hands on the table. They were big, coarse. Hairy. The sight of them thrilled her, as if she was the one he wanted to grab hold of. “We’re not children here. I don’t think I need to spell it out. I’ll respect your boundaries, of course, but I’m not paying you to talk.”
“Can we have some time to think about it?” Teek asked.
“You cannot,” the man said, and this, too, was thrilling to Adney, and the thrill unsettled her. She imagined the most degrading of demands being issued to her in that same imperious, commanding tone. But of course it wasn’t her he’d be degrading.
Teek looked at her, pretty eyes wide, like, What the fuck, this is so bizarre, but also like, What do we do?

“Bird Thou Never Wert”, by James Morrow (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019) 7726 words

The infamous Darko Cromdahl, an author of weird fiction who mysteriously vanished in 1955, is soon to be memorialized with a volume in the American Literary Icons series. But his former lover and fellow writer Marsha Waszynski has a story about Cromdahl for the series editor – of a talentless hack who won fame, and lost everything else, by unnatural means.

“The mythic Garuda was a fabulous creature who once served as Lord Vishnu’s preferred steed,” said Skelter. “My employer believes that he, Kalioghast, summons his bird from the Hindu netherworld, but I suspect he simply cast a spell on an ordinary eagle.”
And then it happened, Ms. Tunbridge. The quill possessed me. My hand pirouetted across the blank sheet, leaving behind bold ellipses and emphatic squiggles. I had no trouble believing the phial held eagle blood, for the nine-word verse that emerged before my eyes was formed of vibrant reddish-black characters. In thrall to the quill, I produced a second verse, then a third, then a fourth—fourteen in all. My hand jerked automatically to the top of the page and gave the sonnet a title, “Cardiac Allegro.”
I set down the feather, recorked the phial, and perused the result of my literary fit, realizing that Garuda had wrought a poem to rival anything in The Oxford Book of English Verse . Darko read “Cardiac Allegro” and in a quavering voice declared it “as haunting as a half-remembered dream.”

Anathema_CoverIssue8.jpgStill Water“, by Ian Muneshwar (Anathema Issue 8, August 2019) 5953 words

Miles and Trent take a trip out to their family cabin to try and repair their fractured relationship. While kayaking down river, their surroundings start taking on a sinister air.

Miles rowed furiously, his paddles raising ropes of water that slapped across the front of the kayak and soaked through his shorts. The air chilled; a great grey bank of clouds had choked the sunset and settled across the sky; cold raindrops cratered the river.
“Trent?”
Miles’ glasses had begun to fog with the heat of his desperate, heaving breaths. He let himself pause, for just a minute, so he could see again, and listened. But Trent, if he could hear, didn’t respond; there was only the slow crescendo of rain on the water, wind through the treetops. When his glasses cleared, he found that Trent had disappeared beyond a bend in the river. The orange life preserver was nowhere in sight.
He took himself to the middle of the river. It wasn’t long before he found the current that had carried Trent away. In all his summers swimming and fishing here, he’d never felt the water pull like this. The kayak skimmed across the surface, as if it was pulled along by some great, invisible hand. His gut tightened as he felt himself lose control of the kayak, of the direction he was taking.

The-Dark-Issue-47-220x340An Open Coffin”, by H. Pueyo (The Dark Issue 47, April 2019) 3067 words

Amélia goes to work for General Estiano to care for a corpse that lies in rest at his house. The corpse has been on display for decades and attracts many devotees, who appear daily to fawn over it.

One by one they came in, congesting the front room with their presences and handbags. The second one to greet me was Jair, a spindly man with sunken eyes, who hugged me like we were old friends.
“I reckon you must be close to General Estiano,” I said.
“Yes, yes, we joined the army in the same year!” Jair opened his arms, as if trying to embrace the whole room, coffin included. “Have you met him before?”
“We didn’t have the chance to meet face to face.”
“Of course. You’re too young to remember that time, after all.” Jair sat on the couch, watching as the women placed white lilies around the body. “This death . . . Amélia, right? This death, Amélia, it took us all by surprise. It ruined the christening of my son, such was our shock.”
“Some people simply can’t be replaced, right?”
Jair looked at me for a second, but his bloodshot eyes went back to the crystal box lying on the other side of the room. Then, he smiled, nodding.
“You’re right—you’re absolutely right.”

The-Dark-Issue-48-220x340Wilderling“, by Angela Slatter (The Dark Issue 48, May 2019) 5540 words

LP is middle-aged and childless, and tired of people judging her for it. Most people would be terrified if a feral child with long, sharp claws for nails suddenly decided to use their property for a hunting ground, but LP almost feels an affinity for it.

Whiskey didn’t even see it coming.
Which meant the kid was silent, like stealthy as a fox, light as a breeze, because the kid’s fingers—closer up now, LP could see how long the nails were, black ragged things—were around Whiskey’s thick neck before he knew it. That neck was broken in a freakishly swift motion—there was no doubt the cat was dead, the way it hung in that strong, nasty little grip.
But LP couldn’t muster even a lick of sympathy for the feline. Too many years of him tearing up her favorite cushions and couches, her craft supplies and works-in-progress, her clothes whenever he could get his paws on them, and the smell of piss in the house because Kurt wouldn’t get the fucking animal neutered. There were deep red scratches on her arms, the latest in a series of Whiskey’s “love taps” while she slept; she’d got infections from them three times before. LP felt the first genuine smile in a long while lift her lips, and imagining life without Whiskey distracted her from watching the kid tear him open and feast on his innards. She kind of glanced off to the side, so she saw but not quite.
When the cat was no more than a sack of bloodied fur and bones, the wilderling tossed Whiskey on top of the little iron table again, almost well-mannered, and disappeared back into the woods.

bloodisanotherwordforhunger_fullBlood is Another Word for Hunger“, by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, July 24, 2019) 6971 words

On learning that the master of the house was killed in the war, 15-year-old slave girl Sully slaughters the rest of her owner’s family while they sleep. Her rage is not sated by their deaths, and the etherworld takes notice, sending her a family of her own.

“Yes, yes, yes!” Ziza called as she descended from the spirit realm down a tunnel made of life. Breathing things, screaming things, hot, sweaty, pulsing, moving, scampering, wild, toothy, bloody, slimy, rich, salty things. Tree branches brushed her skin. Sensation overwhelmed her as she landed with a soft, plump thud into the belly of her new god. Ziza took in the darkness, swum in it. It was nothing like the violent nothingness of her home for the past two centuries. For here she could smell, taste, feel. She could hear the cries of the girl carrying her, loud and unrelenting.
Sully had never been with child before, and she didn’t understand the pain that overtook her so sudden as she shoveled the last gallon of dirt over the graves of her masters. Spasms in her abdomen convinced her she was dying.
As she fell backwards to the ground, her belly turned giant and bulbous. She stared up at the crescent moon and spat at it for the way it mocked her with its half-smile. Sully hated that grinning white ghoul, and with all the spite at the fates she could muster, she howled and she howled and she howled at it. She howled until she became part wolf, a lush coat of gray fur spiking from her shoulder blades and spine. It was magic from the dead land that Ziza brought with her, where there was no border separating woman from beast.

Nightmare 87Methods of Ascension” by Dan Stintzi (Nightmare Magazine Issue 87, December 2019) 5708 words

The unnamed narrator tries to reconnect with his estranged brother Robert, despite Robert’s penchant for transgressing boundaries. Robert’s latest kick is a series of streaming videos by a new age guru called Rudyard Vespra, who promises enlightenment through “ascension”.

“You may not have known about this portal before beginning my program and that’s okay. I’m here to help. I’m here to help you access those hidden parts inside yourself, so you can release your full potential, release what has always been inside since the beginning of time.”
The video ended and I thought Rob was snoring again, but then I turned and saw that he had his palms pressed into his eye sockets.
“I fucked my whole life up,” he said, heaving a little. Then he started crying so hard he couldn’t breathe. I stayed quiet. He’d get it out of his system, and we’d move on, pretend it never happened. “Why couldn’t somebody just tell me what to do?”
He said more words that aren’t worth repeating and eventually the crying stopped.
“Would you like another drink?” I said when it was over.
He said yes, and then he said, “If only I had something like this when I was eighteen.” He pointed at the TV. Vespra’s face still lingered there. “This shit, if I had had this shit, I would have been fine.”

Nightmare 84Sweet Dreams are Made of You” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Nightmare Magazine Issue 84, September 2019) 2417 words

Vore is a new kind of game, one you play in your dreams. Until it crosses over into the waking world.

The game begins:
There’s a girl with long hair, wet from drowning, and a white dress stained at the hem by mud. She smiles. You can’t see her face, but you know she smiles. “Do you want to play Vore?” she asks. “Do you want to play? Do you?”
This is the last chance for you to terminate the experience. If one of you says no, you’re woken up and given a refund. You will not be allowed to be partnered together in any future attempts to play.
Say yes.
She will gently eat your faces, pushing her mouth of vacuum into your skull cavity, sucking you clean until there’s just a ring of bone and hair at the back of your head. Don’t worry: you can still see.
It’s exhilarating, being eaten into facelessness. You are made anonymous, unburdened of all your shame and responsibility and social expectations.
She ties your bodies together with wire. She’s just begun.

You can find Part 2 – Science Fiction HERE

You can find Part 3 – Fantasy HERE

Additional Reading:

The above choices are based on my own personal tastes from my own reading experiences, and are meant to be taken as such. There are many other “best of” and “recommended reading” lists that offer up quality reading choices for short SFF. Here are a few:

Maria Haskins, author and translator

Charles Payseur, author and proprietor of Quick Sip Reviews

Eugenia Triantafyllou, author

A.C. Wise, author

Locus Recommended Reading List

Rocket Stack Rank 2019 YTD (aggregate list), compiled by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

More links will appear as I find them!

The Best Short SFF – April 2019

Featured Image from the Cover Art for Augur Magazine issue 2.1, by Janice Liu

Must Read

“Clear as Quartz, Sharp as Flint”, by Maria Haskins (Augur Issue 2.1, April 2019) Short Story

Jenna can hear the stones singing to her, much to the chagrin of her Grammy, who prays to the wooden god. “She heard that same song the day the baby quickened. Heard it again when Grammy laid her hands on her belly, shaking her head, muttering of ill-made children, saying that the stones would claim what the wooden god would not.” Maria Haskins’ dark fables often remind me of the classic films of F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer in her ability to distill the act of storytelling into pure emotion and bald imagery, displayed in acute yet elegant compositions. The title of this story is a more apt description of what it does than what it’s about, as it feels far brighter and deeper than its 1000 words should allow.

The-Dark-Issue-47-220x340
Cover Art: “Drawlloween Swamp Thing” by Iren Horrors

An Open Coffin”, by H. Pueyo (The Dark Issue 47, April 2019) Short Story

Amélia goes to work for General Estiano to care for a corpse that resides at his house. The corpse has been on display for decades and attracts many devotees, who appear daily to fawn over it. “You must always let them in,” one servant tells her. “Don’t ask too many questions.” Brazilian author Pueyo uses classic literary devices to build her story—red herring, unreliable narrator, foreshadowing—while its reality unspools like a waking nightmare. It’s a sinister cautionary tale about the noxious behavior that ensues when people fall into the nostalgia trap.

 

Highly Regarded

How to Move Spheres and Influence People”, by Marko Kloos (Tor.com, 27 March 2019) Novelette

A new entry in GRRM’s Wildcards universe, this novelette tells the origin story of T.K., a teenager will partial left-side paralysis who gets picked on at PE by the mean girls. Her “card turns” one day during class and she discovers she has the power to control spherical objects with her mind. Her squeamishness after engaging in a mild act of revenge convinces her she’s better off just using her powers for good. That opens its own can of worms once the opportunity presents itself. Kloos built his reputation on military SF, but here he shows that his skillful plotting and ability to craft believable, relatable protagonists crosses over to other genres. The not-so-subtle ways T.K.’s tormentors bully her without running afoul of school authorities is effectively done. Context clues abound, so readers new to the Wildcards premise shouldn’t have any trouble getting the gist.

FIYAH Issue10_150
Cover Art by Olivia Stephens

“In That Place She Grows a Garden”, by Del Sandeen (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10, Spring 2019) Short Story

Rayven is one of the few black students among a sea of white faces at Queen Mary Catholic High School. She’s proud of her four-years-in-the-making locs, but when the new principal Mrs. McGee takes office, she declares that Rayven’s hair violates the dress code and makes her cut them off. Soon after, a flower sprouts from Rayven’s scalp, followed by an entire garden. And this garden doesn’t let anyone mess with it. Del Sandeen’s fabulist piece finds the right balance between pragmatism and the uncanny. The precariousness of Rayven’s circumstances give the reader plenty of reasons to root for her and she doesn’t disappoint, even when the people who should support her let her down.

Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird”, by Eric Schwitzgebel (Clarkesworld Issue 151, April 2019) Short Story

After a 95,000 year journey, robot J11-L arrives at the planet it was sent to terraform ahead of the generation ships that left earth. But those ships died off millennia ago, so instead J11-L fashions new life from the likeness of its only companion, a stuffed toy it calls “Monkey”. But even engineered evolution takes a long time to perfect. Thoughtful, gentle, optimistic sci-fi in the classic mold.

 

Also Recommended

A Conch-Shell’s Notes” by Shweta Adhyam (Lightspeed Issue 107, April 2019) Short Story

A crafty and engaging story about a village called Peacetown whose residents make their choices based on the whisperings of a magical conch-shell. Fruit-seller Kwai goes off on a magical adventure, while the shell’s advice pushes cookware vendor Var to become mayor. Shai is a fruit harvester caught in between the two men’s destinies and forced to question whether the conch-shell’s instigations really benefit anyone.

Interzone 280
Cover Art by Richard Wagner

“Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again”, by Sarah Brooks (Interzone #280, March 2019) Short Story

In this slow-burning apocalypse, people are dying en masse for unknown reasons, their souls turning into black butterflies and flying away. The oddly casual tone of the story, as the narrator wonders and worries and which family and friends she will lose next, is captivating.

“No Late-For-School”, by Shari Paul (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10, Spring 2019) Short Story

Shari Paul’s broadly comical “No Late-For-School” is the story of a blogger named Delilah who one day finds a feather growing out of her scalp. Delilah uses a long blog entry to relate the outlandish tale of how she discovered the culprit responsible for her malady. Perfect comic timing and momentum build to an uproarious climax. The story also has some weight to it, as Delilah comes to realize she is in a toxic relationship.

“The One Before Scheherazade”, by Bianca Sayan (Augur Issue 2.1, April 2019) Short Story

As the title suggests, this is the story of the girl chosen to be queen-for-a-night right before Scheherazade captivates the King with her tales for 1001 successive nights. With one day left to live, she must determine what kind of queen she will be, and how she will be remembered. An ingenious premise and an engrossing character study.