October-November 2017 Short Fiction Recs

Snow is falling in thick flurries past my window as I type this. Winter is finally here; the nights are long and the daylight brief.

Stories are lights in the darkness. At least, the right ones can be. And even dark stories can bring comfort; they can give shape and a semblance of control to that which is chaos; they let us know that we’re not alone, that others have been through the darkness, too. 

This past fall brought so many wonderful stories of dark and light, often in the very same piece. I can’t hope to read more than a tiny fraction of all the worthy work being published these days. But of all the great stories out now, here are some that I did find and love. I hope you love some of them, too.  

Stories of Sea and River 

Gone to Wrack and Ruin by Meryl Stenhouse at Empyreome Magazine

Oh, what a creepy, eerie read!  Yeva and her granddaughter Lusine eke out a precarious living from the sea, gutting fish in warehouses and collecting wrack from the shore. There finally seems a chance at prosperity when Lusine’s new husband gets a job on the largest fishing boat in the city, iron-sided and driven by steam. But things go wrong. . . and then more wrong. The sea will claim what it will, and all the sacrifices the city offers cannot stop it. I love all the gritty details in this piece, how they create the sense of a real, lived-in world—from the descriptions of fish-gutting and whale-butchering to the other references to the city’s structure and economy. I love the slow escalation of weirdness which builds and builds, taking unexpected turns. Dark and mesmerizing.

The Better Part of Drowning by Octavia Cade in The Dark 

In this piece, the horror and weirdness kick off right from the start. There are giant, terrifying, man-eating crabs (which also sing!). There are children desperate to live, and those above who exploit them. There’s sweet chowder and sugar and darkness. This is gripping, visceral stuff. Octavia Cade is one of the best horror writers I know. 

Glasswort, Ice by Emily Cateno at Lackington’s Magazine 

She’s old enough to remember when the ice whales first crept into the subway tunnels and changed everything, when their underwater song fogged the harbour with ice and froze the freighters in their moorings. She’s old enough to remember the first icicles dripping off the washers and dryers of basement laundry rooms.

This is strange, rich, and gorgeous. Ice whales are besieging a city with their song. An old woman has lived 72 years with their songs. But perhaps, just perhaps, this might one day change. An evocative piece that had me feeling the cold. A story of sisters, persistence, and keeping faith.

River Boy by Innocent Chizaram at Fireside Fiction.

A haunting, wistful tale of a River Boy caught between his human family and his supernatural one, between dry land and his underwater home. The trope of a character caught between human and supernatural worlds is a common one in fantasy. . . yet Chizaram gives it fresh life. Heartbreaking, and truly lovely.

1,000-Year-Old Ghosts by Laura Chow Reeves in Hyphen Magazine

Every time he comes back, he feels more foreign. He says “néih hóu ma,” but she responds in English. She practices with Anne. She learns new words every day.

“One day Anne’s children will not know how to speak our language,” he tells her. 

She wants to say, "Maybe that will be for the best. They will stop longing for things they cannot have. There will be no reason to leave. Not everyone can live in between things. Not everyone can survive being split into two. There are fish that die in saltwater.”

An achingly gorgeous, yearning piece. The connection to the sea is more tangential than the stories I’ve listed above, yet it’s there. The narrator’s grandmother pickles painful memories in jars of salt-water to forget them. She tries to forget her husband, who so often left her to cross the sea. She doesn’t pass on the language of her birthplace to her daughter or granddaughter. This story is quite short, yet so sharp and beautiful. A haunting and complex tale of diaspora, assimilation, loss, and memory.

Also see Yosia Sing’s review (and I thank them for pointing me to this story via their blog!)

Stories of Love and Grief

Chasing Flowers by L. Chan at Podcastle

The sky is raining ashes, grey snow; the air is heavy with hope. Once a year, the gates are open. Once a year, the dead are free for a month and then to return.

In modern-day Singapore, Mei drifts through life unable to truly connect with anyone, downing pills and hurting herself to deal with her inner pain. In the Chinese afterlife, Lian means to escape to the land of the living. Their stories intersect in this gripping, immersive tale of the Chinese Ghost festival, hell, and enduring love. Keen and beautiful prose, and striking imagery and feeling. 

When One Door Shuts by Aimee Ogden at Diabolical Plots

A different story of love and the dead. In this world, doors have suddenly appeared on every house—doors which bring back loved ones who passed away. But the dead come back only at a cost. This is a somber tale of family and mourning and love, and the suspicion that you’re not as loved as much as another. Quietly devastating.

Strange and Shimmering

Hare’s Breath by Maria Haskins at Shimmer

It's Midsummer’s Eve and even this close to midnight there’s no darkness, only a long, translucent dusk that will eventually slip into dawn.

Britt and I are fifteen, and she has just come back from That Place, the one the adults won’t talk about even when they think I’m not listening. Something’s happened to her there, but I don’t understand what it is, and she can’t find the words to tell me.
This is one of the most exquisitely beautiful and heartrending things I have ever read. Swedish folklore and Midsummer’s Eve magic frame a tale of real-world horror—of a real moment in history, and a crime which was not limited to Sweden. This crime is revealed only slowly, and the oblique glances at the horror make it only the more devastating. Sunlight, flowers, song, magic—these are all contrasted against the darkness, sharpening both shadow and light. This is the story of those who can’t fit the roles society demands, who can’t make themselves “fit into small rooms, into narrow and cramped words.” And it’s the story of what society does to people like this, how it tries to cut them to fit. Haskins’ control of her story is remarkable; it’s so perfectly crafted, delicate and shimmering and utterly devastating.

The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science by Octavia Cade at Shimmer

Another pick from Shimmer Magazine, and another pick from Octavia Cade. Cade doesn’t just write chilling horror; she also writes of science and science history. Here, she spins a strange, surreal tale from the lives of the scientists and others involved in the development of the atomic bomb. Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn discover nuclear fission in Europe; Oppenheimer leads his team in the desert of New Mexico. Niels Bohr and others make appearances. Dorothy McKibbin, an office manager with the Manhattan Project, witnesses the first testing of the nuclear bomb.

At 5:30 am, a light from the sands flashes toward them, a spear from the waste land stabbed out and shining. The leaves are transubstantiated and the trees turned to brief gold about her--lovely and gleaming in the sterile sunlight. 

"I'd never have thought that light had a taste," she says. That taste is lemony, with undertones of burning.  

This is a surreal tale of bold, striking imagery. The atomic blast is a spear, and Lise Meitner’s fingernails become spears, too. Glyphs appear on Robert Oppenheimer’s neck and paintings appear on the back of his knees. Armadillo-like plates grown on Dorothy’s McKibbin’s tongue. Bodies and minds are transformed. This is a story of war, guilt, betrayal, transformation, and consequences. Cade’s prose shines and startles. I confess that it’s a work I don’t fully understand, yet it’s spellbinding, and worth more than one read.  

Flash Stories

Elemental Love by Rachel Swirsky in Uncanny Magazine

A beautiful prose-poem of light. You, dear reader--dear human--are a miracle.

Everyone’s at Our Place EvenThough We’re Gone by Chloe Clark at Ellipsis Zine

An absolutely lovely flash piece of ghosts, love, and the burdens we share. I’m awed by how Clark does so much in so few words.


 Hungry Demigods by Andrea Tang in GigaNotoSaurus

And oh, this story hits nearly all my buttons. Food. Food magic. Family and cultural code-switching, and can I mention food again? This is the warm, wonderful tale of a Chinese-French-Canadian-baker-witch in Montreal, her family, and the cursed young man she’s trying to help. Within the first few paragraphs, I’d fallen utterly in love with Isabel Chang and her snarky, code-switching banter. This story is charming and delightful, with a wonderful lightness of touch; yet there are also some truly poignant moments about family and the difficulties of love. Also, there are both beignets and cha siu bao.

For a more extended analysis, check out Charles Payseur’s review

And for a more spoiler-y take (with excerpts of some of my favorite lines!) see Yosia Sing’s review 


Water into Wine by Joyce Chng. Published by Annorlunda Books

Xin has inherited a vineyard on another planet from their late grandfather. In the wake of a divorce and other transitions, Xin decides to uproot their children to try to fulfill their dream of being a vintner—even though they have no experience in the field. Xin’s mother comes along, and is a comforting figure of support. Xin’s vineyard has just started to put forth the first flower buds, and they and their family have just started settling into a new life, when war comes to their new home.

This is a lovely, moving tale of family, love, war, identity, and endurance. It’s about ordinary people--not military heroes, not political leaders—just trying to survive war and its aftermath. Xin and their family undergo many changes during the course of this novella. Near the beginning of the piece, Xin reveals that they had been taking hormones to suppress menstrual periods and had been “living openly as a man.” However, after some time on the new planet of Tertullian VI, Xin decides to discontinue the hormone treatment and claim a gender identity which is neither man nor woman.  Through the course of this novella there is love, death, and suffering, but also warmth in family meals and celebration. There is growth and transformation. Yet there are no easy resolutions, no simple happy endings. There is an emotional honesty to this piece which I adore. The prose is spare and graceful, seemingly delicate. Yet underneath is steel.


The Shape of the Darkness as it Overtakes Us By Dimas Ilaw in Uncanny Magazine

If you read anything at all on this list, please, please read this essay. Dimas Ilaw reminds us why stories matter.

If you are a writer struggling to create in dark times, you need to read these words:

You don't know me and probably my words will never reach you. But I want to say to you: you have made a difference in my life; you continue to make a difference. You tell me there are things that continue to exist outside of evil, beautiful and defiant and brilliant as fire. You tell me to look at the sky. How high it is, dear reader. How it stretches endlessly on. 

If you are a reader who has been told that stories don’t matter, that your reading is frivolous, then you need to read these words:

Reading transforms us as much as it gives stories flesh. Is this not what is needed now? When tyranny would have a monopoly on what must be believed or heeded; when dictators would have us cower in fear, too starved of words to resist or dissent.
Readers join the massive chorus of resistance. You refuse to let voices be silenced. 

Everyone: read the whole thing. 


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