I am growing very frustrated with the new wordpress editor, which erased the content of the original post for no reason I can fathom. Here are the recommended stories, but unfortunately I didn’t back up the text so the reviews are lost forever.
Featured Image from “Investigate” by Andis Reinbergs, cover art for Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298-299
Must Read Stories
“A Study in Shadows“, Benjamin Percy [Nightmare Magazine Issue 90, March 2020] Short Story
“A Study in Shadows” is a grim, phantasmagoric character study of the appropriately named Dr. Harrow, a psychology professor who engages in a field study “on the belief in the invisible”. He has a penchant for manipulating his subjects to induce a state of terror, unleashing deadly havoc but always escaping the consequences of his actions. The calmly anecdotal tenor of the prose is what really twists the knife.
A tour de force of old-fashioned Outer Limits-style existentialist sci-fi, “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” follows internet reporter Cory, who is handed the story of a lifetime when his ex-girlfriend Milagros creates an extraordinarily complex simulated reality. Milagros generates a race of beings more suited to problem solving than humans, and by throwing one cataclysm after another at them she uses their virtual solutions to solve real world problems like climate change and cancer. Things go horribly wrong, of course, when her creations turn out to be even better at solving problems than she could have anticipated.
I love stories that create their own rules and teach the reader how to follow them. Santiago’s second-person narrative deposits you in a mad scientist b-movie, where you pine for the nefarious and charismatic Dr. Markoff while you are both complicit in and victimized by his dastardly schemes. It’s a flick with a flexible fourth wall, continually re-shooting and re-editing itself, wandering offscreen and backstage at its leisure and blurring the line between performance and reality.
“Tend to Me“, by Kristina Ten [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 118, March 2020] Short Story
Nora is stuck in a pattern of taking on the interests and hobbies of whomever she is dating at the time. She has no real interest in any of these activities (which include rock climbing, scuba diving, beekeeping, gardening, auto repair), in fact she often actively disdains them. Her life shifts gears in a totally unexpected but weirdly logical way when she starts dating an acupuncturist. Ten’s very short story is propelled by sly, ticklish prose and a generous empathy for its characters.
More Recommended Stories
“The Amusement Dark“, Mike Buckley [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 162, March 2020] Novelette
A sober and engrossing story about people looking for meaning in life after humanity loses the war against the AI. The peculiar, murky relationship that develops between the humans and their new “benevolent” oppressors is fascinating.
A constable is instructed to arrest, without evidence, a young girl from another town who may be connected to the disappearance of five local boys. The girl has some unusual habits and is definitely hiding something, but she’s not the only one. An eerie little dark fantasy, and a devilishly satisfying one.
Ever down-on-his-luck Ardal flees town after assaulting his bully of a co-worker. After a sequence of further misadventures he stumbles upon a house in the woods beset by mysterious enchantments, its sole inhabitant afflicted with a strange kind of memory loss. Hughes charming, episodic meta-adventure lives up to its title in the literal sense.
Izuchukwu is in trouble with his school and his family when he is caught kissing a boy. He is also an “amusu” who can transform into a finch, and he’ll be in more serious trouble if they find out about that. A smart, well-crafted and poignant coming-of-age fantasy.
This exciting and suspenseful novelette draws together the characters and storylines from Sanford’s two previous “Grains” stories. This time, Alexnya is being prosecuted for Frere-Jones’s crimes (from “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories“) by the inflexible grains, who zealously “protect” the earth from the people who would harm it. A glimmer of hope arrives when she crosses paths with Colton’s day-fellow caravan (from “The Emotionless, In Love“). There’s enough context to anchor new readers, but the other stories are well worth investing your time in.
A fun caper story about a coffee-obsessed waitress who discovers she can create the perfect cuppa joe, if she can just get her hands on a newly invented mini-collider. A fresh and quirky concept, well-realized.
“The Spoils“, Aliya Whiteley [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298, February 27, 2020] Short Story
Citizens of an underground-dwelling civilization covet pieces of a massive, recently deceased creature known as an Olme for its magical properties. Most have little idea what to do with their cut, but Kim knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. Or, at least she thinks she does. “The Spoils” is the kind of story that gradually peels back its layers to reveal a wider and deeper world than it shows at first glance.
The unnamed narrator of K.J. Parker’s delightfully cynical novella is an exorcist in a world where demon possession is common – though, tragically, the ritual to remove them almost always results in the death of the host. When he learns that the greatest genius of their age, philosopher/scientist/artist Prosper of Schanz, is possessed, he must choose between turning a blind eye to his duty and risking the gallows by causing the beloved man’s death. Parker’s kaleidoscope approach to world-building, where fractured mirror pieces of our own history and culture are combined to create new patterns, is always a joy to dive into. And I can’t get over that sucker-punch of an ending.
The fortune teller’s daughter Theresa is deeply smitten with her schoolmate Lucille. Just as Theresa is about to seize her chance, Lucille is targeted by the abusive, controlling Gerry. The bees (yes, bees!) can help, for a price. This author quickly became one of my favorite fantasists when her novel Witchmark arrived a couple of years ago. “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid” serves as a great reminder why: the refined prose and emotional intelligence stand out, but most impressive is the way she makes the mythic and the magical feel at once both common and uncanny. A wise, generous take on first love and the meaning of sacrifice.
Anders new novelette is set on the planet January, following the events of her terrific novel The City in the Middle of the Night, as the seeds of Sophie’s dream of unification are being planted and the accompanying moral dilemmas are explored. There is enough context for unfamiliar readers to catch the drift of what’s going on, but if you haven’t read the novel (and are planning to) you may want to hold off on this for spoilery reasons. Which also means to say, if you weren’t already planning to you should definitely read The City in the Middle of the Night.
“Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa“, by Dare Segun Falowo [The Dark, Issue 57, February 2020] Short Story
The title character is an aspiring model who, while stuck in an hours long traffic jam, buys an ornate mirror from a strange old woman. The sinister looking glass shows Ngozi parts of herself she would otherwise want to keep hidden. The sustained tone of eeriness and dread is impressive, as is the genuinely ghoulish imagery.
The narrator and his partner Gareth – the former money collector of the title – find a valuable magical object that could change their fortunes for the better. First they must confront the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other. I really enjoyed the sensory details in the prose and the nice, fluid world-building. A tender and open-hearted queer romance.
Late 17th-century natural philosopher Mr. Waites – who is NOT the greatest scientist of his age thanks to the incomparable Mr. Newton – is trying to perfect his God-Machine. Waites wishes to glean the secrets of the universe with his invention, using his nearly dead (and perpetually disappointed) father as a conduit to the vast reaches of the unknown. Surely, nothing could go wrong. Old school weird fiction at its best: grisly in all the right places, with an appetizing garnish of grim humor. (Podcast narrated by Alasdair Stuart.)
“The Cliff of Hands“, by Joanne Rixon [Diabolical Plots #60B, February 17, 2020] Short Story
This quick but inspiring fantasy adventure follows Eešan’s journey to fulfill an important rite of passage – leaving her mark on the fabled Cliff of Hands – in spite of the disability that makes it nearly impossible for her to do so. An exciting, suspenseful tale with a hero you can root for.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.”
“Still 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.
“An 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.”
“Wilderling“, 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
After England’s devastating war against the robots ends, the plan for reintegrating the automatons mostly involves “hats and parasols and cutout mustaches made of cheap aluminum”. And also corgis. If that gives you some indication of the tenor of Cassandra Khaw’s id-poking sci-fantasy treat, I’ve got news for you: this is the kind of story that turns on a dime. Full of tragedy and cynicism and caustic wit, and bolstered by the author’s inexhaustible energy and descriptive ingenuity (at one point, a character’s eyes are “like cracked ice…The uneven striations in her irises compounded the effect, invoking the impression that her pupils had somehow shattered.” WTF.), by the end we get the idea the author doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks speculative fiction is supposed to speculate about.
Solomon’s crimson-hued tale of Sully, a teenaged slave with “a heart made of teeth” who turns on and kills her captors, is the kind of story that blocks all the emergency exits. The disturbance caused by Sully’s actions knocks something loose in the ether and she gives birth to Ziza, a fully-grown teenager who died as a slave centuries before. Soon, Sully’s rage births an “army of revenants” in place of the racist whites she exacts her vengeance on. This story keeps the reader suspended somewhere between the malicious logic of a fever dream and the order imposed by a conventional narrative structure. What it doesn’t do is allow the comfort of escape.
Christopher Smart lives in an asylum, where Satan looks to hoodwink the beleaguered poet into writing an epic apologia for his benefit. Smart’s loyal cat companion Jeoffry isn’t having any of that. An absurdly entertaining bit of escapism, especially for lit nerds.
“Thin Places“, by Kay Chronister (The Dark Issue 50, July 2019) Short Story
The townspeople of Branaugh operate under an uncanny state of affairs, one that does not suffer newcomers well. School teacher Miss Augusta knows what it means when the new lighthouse-keeper’s daughter arrives at her door, and though the other townsfolk implore her to send the girl away, she can’t bring herself to do it. Chronister’s unsettling anti-fable offers a world where community, and the security it promises, is a site of horror rather than of safety.
Haskins often writes about characters who sidestep conventional moral boundaries in favor of their own spiritual reality, and while the results are usually capital-D Dark, there is also a poignancy that creeps up on readers willing to reset their own parameters (temporarily, one hopes). “The Brightest Lights of Heaven”, about a pair of childhood best friends who make an unbreakable pact that transcends time and distance, is devilish fun, and quite touching in its own twisted way.
“I wonder what my dog is thinking” is a premise with more than a few miles on it. In “The Work of Wolves”, author Tegan Moore flips the coin by giving us Sera, an enhanced-intelligence search-and-rescue dog who has to figure out what her new handler is thinking in time to save the day. Engrossing with a nice brisk pace, it’s a quintessential Asimov’s piece: just hard-enough sci-fi to satisfy our inner lizard brain, though with the emphasis squarely on character-driven plotting and action.
“Black Matter“, by Vivian Shaw (Pseudopod #655, July 5, 2019) Short Story
The premise of Shaw’s story, in which a consulting necromancer (ahem, contingency communications specialist) for the NTSB investigates a plane crash by interviewing the deceased witnesses, reads like a modern day paranormal fantasy while the narrative builds like something out of pulp-era Weird Tales. It also has the feel of a “pilot episode”, and with its pitch perfect first-person narration and provocative hints of larger forces at work, a return trip would be welcome.
There is a cool casualness to A.C. Wise’s prose that contrasts nicely with the sometimes startling events that punctuate her narratives. “How the Trick is Done” is a tale of death and resurrection and revenge, in which Angie, the magician’s assistant/girlfriend (and true progenitor of his most famous trick) decides it’s time to part ways with the man. It’s an understandable choice: the women he uses and discards can do the real magic he takes credit for. The story has an unusual structure that works despite itself—we already know what happens to the magician from the start, yet Wise manages more than a few surprising moments before events come full circle.
Featured Image from the cover art for Apex Magazine Issue 120 by Godwin Akpan
“Raices (Roots)“, by Joe Ponce (Anathema Magazine Issue 7, May 2019) Short Story
Jerry lives on the US side of the US-Mexico border, recently joined by his long-estranged sister Lola and her son Macho. Lola and her family fled drug traffickers in Veracruz, but the authorities captured her husband David and older son Chucho at the border and they are now in legal limbo while they await their hearing. Then Macho gets a strange infection that gives him tree-like features, and soon the other migrant children follow suit. The emotional exhaustion Jerry experiences while just trying to help his family survive is palpable, while all rage and fear and paranoia of America’s current uptick in anti-immigrant nationalism project onto the children (they might set down roots, literally). “Raices (Roots)” is a gripping and beautifully composed story of people just trying to survive when no good options are available.
“The Wilderling“, by Angela Slatter (The Dark Magazine Issue 48, May 2019) Short Story
Readers are so used to getting twists and surprises at the end of a story we forget there are other strategies at the author’s disposal for creating a memorable resolution. Giving away the ending too soon seems counter-intuitive, but that’s just what Angela Slatter does in her story of a woman’s disturbing fascination with a beast-like child (or child-like beast?) that lives in the wild near her home. Once the last act of the story begins, we know with a fair certainty exactly how things will turn out—the trick is that we really, desperately hope it doesn’t happen, and like a maestro Slatter keeps stringing us along until damn near the last sentence.
From the ashes of our broken civilization, the surviving human population fashioned a new utopian world intent on learning from the mistakes of the past. Scattered pieces of the old world remain, treated with novel fascination by the citizenry. 84-year-old Mai relates a story from her youth, of receiving a message from a former lover to meet him in New Atlantis (the London ruins) where he has discovered a working “Millennial Vault” of uploaded consciousnesses living in an artificial reality. Tidhar’s amazing sci-fantasy dreamscape depicts the overlap between a tech-heavy future past and a more pastoral future present, and people living a life at once simple and clear and obvious, but also completely alien. Mai begins by summarizing her tale: “I visited Atlantis. I came back. That is the story. Everything else, as the old poet once said, is just details.” That’s the understatement of a lifetime.
“Fugue State“, by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due (Apex Magazine Issue 120, May 2019) Short Story
Arthur has lost interest in work and his hobbies, distressing his wife Charlotte. The reason for his dulling intellect seems to be his obsession with a cultish political figure known as The Reverend. Arthur insists he’s never been happier and can’t understand his wife’s objections. When Charlotte investigates the Reverend phenomenon, the answers don’t come in quite the way she expects. The authors take their time setting the table for an ending that is as disquieting as it is unavoidable. It’s tempting to read the “Fugue State” as allegorical to our present political climate, with Arthur suffering from a kind of supernatural Fox News Dad syndrome. But “ignorance is bliss” is an old saying, as old as messianic figures offering truth and salvation at a terrifying cost.
“Dune Song“, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (Apex Magazine Issue 120, May 2019) Short Story
With the world swallowed up by desert except for the village of Isiuwa, the elders keep the population confined by decree—anyone who leaves Isiuwa endangers all who remain. Nata’s mam was one such deserter, and Nata’s determination to know what her mother found outside the gates supersedes any poorly reasoned rules society imposes on her. “Dune Song” asks us, in expressive and lyrical prose, if freedom is worth the cost for its own sake rather than for the promise of reward.
Teenagers make great protagonists because they exist at a turning point between the youthful desire to transgress boundaries and the adult desire to uphold them. In Wasserstein’s multiverse drama, the 16-year-old narrator knows she’s living in a simulated universe and can “Snap” from one iteration of the world to another. She escapes her native reality, where her mother is terminally ill, to check in on alternate versions of their life in rundown South Topeka; sometimes they are happy, sometime they aren’t even there, and sometimes she runs across another version of herself looking for or running away from the same thing. Every time she Snaps, she alters each new reality just by her coming and going, but no one else is better or worse off for it. Anyone who has ever felt like a stranger in their own hometown can relate.
I must have an affinity for weird whaling fiction. Like Nibedita Sen’s excellent “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” (Nightmare Magazine #69, June 2018), Caldwell’s story draws the reader into a tense sea voyage tinged with supernatural menace. Beyond that, the two stories couldn’t be more different. Where Sen depicted a rapid and surreal decent into madness, Caldwell crosses whaling lore and the legacy of the Middle Passage in his tale of John Wood, a former slave working as a carpenter on a whaling ship who receives warning from a god of his ancestors about the ship’s fate. Complicating the “will they believe me in time?” narrative are his shipmates’ attitudes about John’s race and sexuality. Great characters, high stakes, and a well-executed plot.
Navid’s job is to dredge the river for bones that his father can use to enchant the coats his mother makes. A nobleman comes to them offering a lifetime of riches for the titular item, which would make the wearer impervious to harm. With only thirty days to complete the task and his family’s honor, not to mention their financial future, at risk, Navid gambles his life and his freedom on securing the materials they need in time. An intense story with a captivating sense of urgency.
“The Wiley“, by Sara Saab (The Dark Magazine Issue 48, May 2019) Short Story
This wild, alt-history sci-fi horror story follows Manon, a rare woman tech guru in Silicon Valley who struck gold during the dot-com craze of the early oughts. A spectral being borne of her own loneliness haunts her, though it may be her salvation when her revolutionary software spawns a devastating computer virus. Thoughtful and circumspect as much as it is creepy and discomfiting, with gooseflesh-inducing visuals at the climax.
Sen has a knack for drawing blood from a stone in her stories; she excels at creating expansive narratives from self-imposed formal restrictions. In this very short tale of terror (or possibly wonder? A little of both?) she never deviates from the guidelines the title establishes but still paints a broad and memorable portrait of the history of a near-annihilated people’s diaspora. There is also an undercurrent of satire with some pointed, if affectionate, jabs at academic writing (“If I have to deal with one more white feminist quoting Kristeva at me…”).
Vaughn’s generational epic typifies the brand of widescreen, high-concept, character-and-action-driven novellas Asimov’s is famous for. It begins with a Russian fighter pilot who finds an unusual creature (with an unusual appetite) riding along on her missions against the Nazis in WW2 and follows the legacy of her family’s relationship with the creature through the centuries to come. The author’s concise prose and her eye for detail serve the story well.
Featured Image from the Cover Art for Augur Magazine issue 2.1, by Janice Liu
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
The Bjebu have been chased from their homeland by a murderous horde of ravens; in desperation, High Sister Nwere strikes a deal with Babawa-Kunguru, the Keeper of Sorrows, for the safety of a new homeland. She soon learns that the cost may be too much for them to bear. Riveting action and suspense from the first sentence to the last, with a brilliant and complex protagonist and breathtaking worldbuilding.
“Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins (GigaNotoSaurus, January 2019) Short Story
The story of a teenage troll (the “real” kind, not the internet kind) named Tilda who wants to go to a famous dance academy while battling stereotypes about her identity. A heartfelt story about self-love and family ties, with nice touches of macabre humor.
In a dream-like fantasy world called the Escapement, the Stranger realizes that agents of the Colossi plan to rob the train he is on to acquire a dangerous new weapon. But is it too late to stop them? A carnivalesque reverie told in classic cliffhanger style.
Draiken abducts a hired killer and attempts to get him on board for his plan to fight the conspiracy while they is pursued by a mysterious ship with lethal intent. The latest in a cycle that began with “Sleeping Dogs“.
A tax protester is thrown into a hellish, lightless tower that slowly funnels its prisoners toward the bottom.
“The Willows” by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Novelette [will add link when available on 2/5]
An unsettling variation on Algernon Blackwood’s classic horror story, which finds a young music star and her partner haunted by the sinister history and character of the family retreat where they’re recording their new album.
Featured image from the cover art for The Dark Issue 37, “Boy with a Torch Facing Smoke Monsters” by grandfailure
My short fiction recommendations are split into five categories: Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror and Space-Based Science Fiction; Part 2 – Earthbound Science Fiction and First World Fantasy; Part 3 – Second World Fantasy. Each category features a “Desert Island Pick”, while the remaining picks are listed alphabetically by author. Each title is accompanied by a short synopsis and a quick excerpt for the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers.
Not every story fits neatly into any one category. Some could fit into more than one category, some defy categorization altogether. I did my best to place them where I thought they fit best. Links are included for stories that are available to read online, or to purchase information. Sometimes the traditional print magazines will make stories available online during award season, so I will update links when possible.
Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)
The Guild of Natural Philosophers is sponsoring Captain Bodkin’s final whaling voyage; their representative on the ship, Arcon Glass, has some unusual – and grisly – demands in exchange for the Guild’s support.
North of this organ he has placed a preserved section of the dense mass of tissue that lies beneath the oil organ; sailors call it the junk, for it provides no oil and has no use. His research, he explained to me, concerns itself with the spermaceti organ’s role in producing the unearthly noises that whales issue forth. He proceeded to demonstrate by connecting a number of wires and waxed cotton threads to the sac and tissue, then setting up a number of small drums at various angles to both. From his tools he produced a small instrument that he pressed against the soft swollen side of the wax and glycerine-filled organ and blew on—and lo, a low note echoed and swelled to great size and shivered off all corners of the room in a manner that rose the hairs on my arms.
The slaves of Andre Plantation rose up and overthrew their captors, and helped establish the United Tribes of Mother Africa in what was once the Southeastern United States of America. So why does Heloise’s Manman keep that creepy white man locked in her closet?
The familiarity of his face frightens me. He is dressed in ratty clothes: a grimy black shirt with frills at the throat and his sleeves with their stained ruffles set off the sickly paleness of his skin. He doesn’t try to move — no point in doing that, his wrists are shackled together with a chain, connected to a bolted plate in the wall. He looks up at me, eyes bright in the dark and smiles, baring his white, straight teeth.
As a child Susanna struck an unholy bargain to acquire her beloved dog; a decade later the bill comes due.
They even burned a witch in town, just after Easter. She went to look, but though the woman’s hair was shorn and she was already burning, Susanna could tell it wasn’t anyone she knew. After, when the bones still smouldered, the priest in his stiff black cassock puffed himself up before the crowd, assuring them the witch’s spells and crafts would all unravel now that she was dead. Susanna stood there until dusk, waiting to see if anything would change, but the world remained the same as far as she could tell.
“Triquetra” by Kirstyn McDermott [Tor.com, September 5, 2018; 11,826 words]
Snow White is all grown up now, living in a castle with her husband and daughter. Her wicked stepmother and that awful mirror are locked away, but one of them may be the key to saving her daughter from a horror worse than she faced in her own youth.
“You—” I cough, backing away from the table, away from the woman now supporting herself by its edge. “You spelled me!” “Only your memory, Fairest. My needs are precise.” “You—you wretched creature! I wish you had died on my wedding day!” Smiling, she sinks back down into her chair. “No, you don’t. There is too much kindness in your heart, even now, even for such a wretched creature as myself.”
“Black Fanged Thing” by Sam Rebelein [Shimmer Magazine Issue 41, January 2018; 4823 words]
Every sundown, a strange beast stalks the streets of town dragging its clatter of bottles behind it. Each bottle contains a slip of paper, one for every adult. If anyone wishes to know what is written on theirs, all they have to do is ask…
The pathetic, hunched little figure shuffled laboriously past Jude’s home, tugging those bottles on twine behind itself. Sisyphus against thousands of boulders. The thing passed, and vanished around the bend at the other end of the lane. The neighborhood became silent. And the sun sank. Phil sniffed. “Tomorrow, then,” he said. “Tomorrow,” said Jude.
Yard Dog plays music so glorious he can reduce the room to tears, turn the drinks sour, render all drugs useless. No one knows who he is or where he comes from, but before long someone comes looking for him.
Shed said it slower and louder. “Please. Have you. Seen my. BROTHER. Thank you.” “I don’t know you or your brother. How did you get in, anyway? We’re not open. Get the fuck out of here.” The way I heard it, Shed just smiled at her and went to use the john, but never came back out. Hours later when tempers had cooled somewhat, Sue got curious about him, had one of the men check the bathroom. They found his raggedy clothes, a trail of blood, strips of skin, meat and other fluids leading from the door to one of the stalls. Al said it was like he had shed his skin, which is how come we called him Shed. It wasn’t till later that we figured he was looking for Yard.
The Undertaker knows how to get the crows to take people’s sorrows away when they lose a loved one; but they also want something from her she refuses to give.
Walking down a sidewalk, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Not aware of where she is, only knows that she’s been walking, walking so long that there are blisters on her feet, but the pain is nothing, nothing. A crow lands at her feet, pecking at the pavement before looking up at her with one black, bright eye. —what you looking at? Think you can bring her back? Unless you can take away my pain, go, shoo, take off!
One by one, the children on Richard McGinty’s school bus route are disappearing. So the sheriff does what any good sheriff would do, and calls the Super Teen Detective Squad – who’ve got their own issues to work out.
Lately she’s been having recurring dreams about murdering Greg. In fact, she’s dreamt about murdering every single member of the Teen Detective Squad. More than once, she’s woken with blood on her hands. She has no idea where the blood comes from. The only thing she knows for certain is that it isn’t hers. Sometimes she wonders if she’s spent so much time thinking about becoming a monster that she’s turned into one after all.
Space-Based Science Fiction
Desert Island Pick
“Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 137, February 2018; 18,059 words]
The colonists on Dust don’t know much of what happens to the surface of the planet when it faces Umber – the planet’s second star – they just know it’s deadly. When much needed supplies are dropped right in the middle of Umbernight, a brave few will find out why.
The road had sprouted all manner of creatures covered with plates and shells—little ziggurats and stepped pyramids, spirals, and domes. In between them floated bulbs like amber, airborne eggplants. They spurted a mucus that ate away any plastic it touched. We topped a rise to find the valley before us completely crusted over with life, and no trace of a path. No longer could we avoid trampling through it, crushing it underfoot. Ahead, a translucent curtain suspended from floating, gas-filled bladders hung across our path. It shimmered with iridescent unlight.
The Best of the Rest
“Traces of Us” by Vanessa Fogg [GigaNotoSaurus, March 1, 2018; 6572 words]
Two sentient starships cross paths in the vastness of space, each carrying a passenger that has been waiting a long time to connect with the other.
The ship contained the memories of over a thousand individuals. Recorded patterns of synaptic firing, waves of electrical and biochemical activity: the preserved symphonies of a human mind. The minds currently conscious in and around the ship were not the same as their flesh-and-blood progenitors, the human beings of Old Earth. These new minds had had centuries to meld with one another and evolve; to modify themselves. They delighted in sensory inputs unimaginable to Homo sapiens—some could sense the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Some could consciously track the movement of a single electron or see all the radiating energies of a star. Yet the second ship requested the recording of a single unmodified mind from the first.
“Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 140, May 2018; 9216 words]
After the invaders overrun her home town, Senne takes refuge with a group of soldiers searching for the rest of their unit. Not everyone in the group may be trustworthy.
Better the cold mist and these days of hunger and endless walking than trying to hide in broken Oslyge. Better this than letting myself be taken to the camps the Tysthänder, the Peace Hands, claim are for our safety. Our safety in this time of transition; that’s what their bulletins said. No one is sure whether the invaders—“project administrators” as they call themselves—are of human stock, as we are, or are alien. Their guards are human enough.
Olani is a young marine biologist interning at a fuel refinery on the frontier planet Zephyr. She’s not getting much out of her time there: most of the crew either ignores her or treats her with disdain and she basically just mops up shit all day. When an inspection crew comes to the plant she has an opportunity to advance her career and she must decide if she’s the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to get ahead.
Olani was a child when Pico erupted. The supervolcano vomited up so much gas and debris that Zephyr’s albedo increased. Light bounced off the cloud tops and back into space instead of heating the atmosphere. The temperature fell inexorably. As a kid, Olani had fun doing unusual things like playing in snow in an equatorial city. Only later did she understand why adults were whispering and crying.
It was touch and go for a long time. If the sea had frozen over, the oxygen produced by phytoplankton wouldn’t have been released to the atmosphere and everyone would have suffocated. Ocean, bless them, had kept that from happening. If you were looking for heroes of applied marine biology, Ocean was the place to find them.
“Prophet of the Roads” by Naomi Kritzer [Infinity’s End, Solaris; 4721 words]
The Engineer was an AI that once shaped the course of human development; now it exists only in fragments. With the solar system mired in violent conflict, Luca hopes to reunite the fragments and return human society to a state of peace and prosperity.
I was on a ship in orbit, so I didn’t watch people die; I went down, searching for survivors, since we’d been told they were well-prepared, defiant, probably equipped with pressure suits and subdomes and any number of other possibilities. Instead, we found bodies of civilians. In the moments before death, people clung to one another, uselessly trying to shield their loved ones from the vacuum of space that was rushing in around them. In the dream, I look for the Engineer, but do not find it. Everything is destroyed. Everything.
Kinesis Industrial One hires Mallory Iheji to win an auction for a rare and mysterious Qath box. The reward – a long lost film made by her favorite artist – should be more than worth her risk, but the Qath only accept personal sacrifices as payment and more than a few participants are willing to give up anything to get it.
I’m not into aliens the way the Qath groupies are into aliens. A Qath box doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t tell you anything about someone else’s mind; it won’t let you out of yourself, even for a minute. It’s just not human, which apparently gets to some people: the strangeness of it, of owning something made by otherwise life, otherwise minds. The Qath are the only aliens we’ve got, and they don’t interact with us much—but they like their auctions. Their auctions and their little boxes. What Kinesis Industrial wanted with one I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
Like most humans, John is a social animal. He’s marooned on a remote planet with a Kinri named Colophinanoc and the Kinri can’t conceive of why anyone would require social interaction to maintain their mental health. And any possible rescue is years away.
Colophinanoc was a captive audience. It was crucial that Colophinanoc didn’t feel like a captive audience. If that happened, Colophinanoc would surely suggest that they leave off the fishing boat and work on the traps—which they did separately. It had not taken long for Colophinanoc to come up with a dozen or more tasks that they did separately. He waited; watched the sunken fan tree where they had herded the fish. In his impatience, the words came to fast. He couldn’t wait anymore. “Yeah, so there we are, Sully and I, trying not to bust out laughing at Nanooni and—” the slightest shiver runs through the reed boat, Colophinanoc shifting, Colophinanoc getting sick of him.
The starship Eriophora treks across the galaxy, waking various crew members for a few days every thousand years or so when it needs assistance building gates for other ships to fast-travel through. These are not ideal conditions to stage a mutiny, but Sunday Ahzmundin is going to try anyway.
Back when we first shipped out I played this game with myself. Every time I thawed, I’d subtract the duration of our voyage from the date of our departure; then check to see when we’d be if Eriophora were a time machine, if we’d been moving back through history instead of out through the cosmos. Oh look: all the way back to the Industrial Revolution in the time it took us to reach our first build. Two builds took us to the Golden Age of Islam, seven to the Shang Dynasty. I guess it was my way of trying to keep some kind of connection, to measure this most immortal of endeavors on a scale that meat could feel in the gut. It didn’t work out, though. Did exactly the opposite in fact, ended up rubbing my nose in the sheer absurd hubris of even trying to contain the Diaspora within the pitiful limits of earthbound history.
(Though The Freeze-Frame Revolution is slightly over the word limit, the author considers it a novella and Hugo rules allow some leeway for stories within twenty percent of the limit if the committee deems it appropriate. I am unsure if other awards have similar caveats.)
Murderbot takes a job protecting a group of scientists who are trying to negotiate the return of their data from the company that fired them, but its true goal is recovering information about its own troubled past.
“I’m not your crew. I’m not a human. I’m a construct. Constructs and bots can’t trust each other.” It was quiet for ten precious seconds, though I could tell from the spike in its feed activity it was doing something. I realized it must be searching its databases, looking for a way to refute my statement. Then it said, Why not? I had spent so much time pretending to be patient with humans asking stupid questions. I should have more self-control than this. “Because we both have to follow human orders. A human could tell you to purge my memory. A human could tell me to destroy your systems.” I thought it would argue that I couldn’t possibly hurt it, which would derail the whole conversation. But it said, There are no humans here now. I realized I had been trapped into this conversational dead end, with the transport pretending to need this explained in order to get me to articulate it to myself. I didn’t know who I was more annoyed at, myself or it. No, I was definitely more annoyed at it.