Short Fiction Recs! August and Sept 2018
October is here, first drizzly and gray, now bright but sharp with cold. It’s time to bundle up in sweaters, make stews and soups, and cuddle with good stories and a cup of tea. Here to keep you company are some stories I loved from late summer and the earliest fall.
Stories of darkness, healing, love, and passion
“The Last Epic Pub Crawl of the Brothers Pennyfeather” by L. Chan in The Dark
Chan is one of the most wildly inventive writers I know, and this story shows off his pyrotechnics of imagination, his poetic language and humor. . . as well as a delicacy of emotion that is all the more powerful for its restraint. Bob and Bill are the Brothers Pennyfeather, a duo of ghost hunters/exorcists who have been trained in their Work by their mother. After a job gone terribly wrong and mutual absence, the brothers reunite for one last epic pub crawl. Creepy ghosts abound at each pub they visit, and brotherly snark and banter enliven the night. But there’s something much deeper going on than a simple night on the town. The narrator, Bob, is struggling under a weight of grief and guilt. Slowly, this deeper story of brothers, and of their mother, comes through. I love the way the brothers circle around dark truths and their emotions, of how they love one another but can’t quite speak it aloud; the brotherly jokes and jabs feel real. In the end, this is a fun, twisty, and ultimately poignant story of ghosts teaching a man to live.
“The Pull of the Herd” by Suzan Palumbo in Anathema
A gorgeous, painful story of love and family. The narrator was born to a herd of shape-shifting deer-women who live free in the woods. But there are men in town who want to steal their doeskins and, in so doing, steal a wife. The narrator has consciously, willingly made the decision to cast off her skin and live with a human woman she loves. But she is also pulled back to the herd by love and obligation. There are so many layers to this story. Palumbo beautifully evokes the conflict between worlds, the bonds of family, the painful tension between individual freedom and the obligations due the people you love. Sometimes a skin never fits, and any choice made entails pain. A beautiful, haunting story.
“Jewel of the Vashwa” by Jordan Kurella in Apex
I watched my love die in the claw of a Scorpion Man. I watched him sever her in half; watched as her long hair dripped down to the ground; watched as her hand let go of her spear; as her long legs folded under her; as the Scorpion Man’s tail rose in triumph.
Oh, this fierce riptide of a story. A grief-stricken narrator who tells her story three different ways. A story of love and passion and jealousy, which changes upon each telling. Devastating and gorgeous.
It’s the third time today. She thinks awakenings are far more common in springtime, but all year long she is called this way. She sighs and tucks her dark hair back under her cap. She will not refuse the call.
A heart-warming story of joy and light. An afterlife where poets and writers are wakened whenever their words touch living hearts. This is a lovely, rapturous ode to art—to how poetry and literature connect people across space and time,
“Dead Air” by Nino Cipri in Nightmare Magazine
A story that takes the form of an art project that takes the form of a radio drama. Nita is an artist who records interviews with the people she sleeps with. But one person, Maddy, becomes much more than a one-night stand—or art project. Told exclusively through Nita’s audio transcripts, this story seemingly starts off as a sweet rom-com—and indeed, the romance is sweet. But Maddy holds a dark secret, and as Nita probes, the tension and creepiness of this piece builds and builds. The dialogue is brilliant, often laugh-out loud funny, expertly catching the rhythms of real speech. The “found-footage” format of the story is used to brilliant effect; atmosphere is set through details of ambient sound, like this:
[4 seconds of soft breath.]
[Rustling cloth. Nita stirs. The sound of skin touching skin; comfort.]
[Footsteps. Birdsong. Rain on a dirt road.]
There are also interjections in the transcript by someone, or some ones, else. Even as the love between Nita and Maddy deepens, the shadows grow. An absolutely chilling, heart-shredding story.
“Light Breaking on Glass” by Garrett Croker in Aliterate
An extraordinary tale, sharp and painful as shattered glass. The narrator’s family is haunted by a terrible disease; his beloved grandfather died slowly, of a disease that slowly turned his body to glass. Now the grandson is suffering the same disease. I love the way Croker depicts the slippery/malleable nature of memory, how events are retrospectively reshaped by current emotions and events. The way anger and pain and love, and the feeling of helplessness, shine through. Yet in the end, there is a seed of acceptance, too. Beautiful and raw and visceral. (Content warning: graphic depictions of self-harm)
“The Kite Maker” by Brenda Peynado in in Tor
The aliens are winged like dragonflies. But in Earth’s gravity, they cannot fly. The narrator makes and sells kites that remind the aliens of how they once soared. The narrator is also ridden with guilt over how she once participated in atrocities against the aliens, during the initial panic that humans felt over what they thought was a dangerous invasion. This is a haunting, painful, and layered story of the aftermath of First Contact, genocide, generational guilt, and ongoing violence. Echoes to current events are unavoidable (and almost certainly deliberate). This is a story that stayed with me.
Quietly’s roommate Imani stole the Pacific Ocean. Now Quietly has to track her friend down in the underworld, take back the Pacific Ocean, and set things to right. This is a rollicking, joyous adventure, breathing with a wild inventiveness that reminds me of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series. A sea is kept in a jar. There is an underworld beneath Athens, Georgia, filled with cast-off desires and monsters swimming through literal heaps of trash. The embodiments of the states of California, Washington, and Oregon run amok as they chase after the sea, displaying West Coast stereotypes to hilarious effect. I hesitate to describe any of these wonders in too much detail, for fear of ruining surprises. But there is wonder aplenty. A lovely story of friendship, love, and magic, perfect for an afternoon escape.
Selections from Syntax and Salt
Syntax and Salt is one of my favorite short story markets. Here are some of my favorites from the current issue, but the entire issue is wonderful and I strongly recommend reading it all.
“All the Ugly Things” by Brigitte N. McCray
Ingrid’s mother brushes her daughter’s hair so as to keep Ingrid beautiful, so as to attract the attention of the river-god (who loves long, shining hair) and to keep away the awful little river demons (who nest in tangled hair). All the mothers of the village do this. All the daughters compete to have the most beautiful hair of all. But beauty and ugliness are not always what you think. A chilling, vivid story of delusion and abusive beliefs and practices, passed down through generations.
"The Girl Who Ate Galaxies" by L’Erin Ogle
A story about a woman with a black hole inside her, a void that is literally swallowing the world. The power of this story is in the sheer emotion evoked: the ravening hunger, the hurt and the need at the core which cannot help destroying.
“I’m not much more than bitterness with a side of hunger, or maybe it’s the other way around.”
A story that is a raw scream.
“An Accidental Coven” by Laura Blackwell
A warm, beautiful story of solidarity and accidental magic. Three women show up at a party, all strangers and all wearing the same dress. How embarrassing, the other guests think. But the women are not embarrassed at all; they become friends that night, and lessons are learned.
Liminal Stories, Issue 5
Since its debut in 2016, Liminal Stories has consistently fulfilled its mission of publishing stories “beautiful,heartbreaking, and strange”—stories that consistently place within my top reads of the year. Issue 5 is one of their strongest yet. I wanted to take the time to discuss the entire issue, and not only because I have a story featured in it. The editors at Liminal Stories do a particularly fine job of selecting and arranging stories for thematic resonance, and I wanted to be able to address this. In this late summer issue, seven strange stories play off each other beautifully in mood and theme. Issue 5 breaks my heart in another way as well. Shortly after its publication, the editors announced that Liminal Stories is going on an indefinite hiatus. Like so many readers, I am hoping they will be able to come back some day. And until that time, I urge anyone to read this latest issue, and all the back issues, of a truly wonderful magazine.
“If it Were True Owls Dream” by Jan Priddy
In flight air flows and we wait for the small night creatures to reveal themselves. We lift with no sounding beat of wings, no ruffle, fluffle, shuffle of feathers. We are silent and silent be. We three.
This is a gorgeous, surreal tale of human children who are also owls. The mood is dreamy and generally gentle but studded through with sharp moments that remind us that owls are not all soft wings and peaceful flight—they’re predators, too. Absolutely lovely.
“Cold Fish” by Anjali Ravi
Down the hole the two sisters practiced climbing. Older shoved her toes into the dirt until they blistered. Younger clawed up the walls, hoisted onto jutting rock, tasted light, fell backward, got up, climbed again. They took turns boosting each other. They took turns catching each toher. When the hole high above darkened at the close of day, their moon eclipsed, the sisters crawled to the edge of the tight black cave, bodies bruised, silt in their hair, and wept.
Like Priddy’s story, Ravi’s is also about a surreal mystery. But the mood is entirely different: not gentle, but harsh and bladed. Two sisters are trapped in a hole. Every so often, cold, dead fish fall out of the sky to keep them from starving. Eventually one of them escapes. She can’t find the hole or her sister again, so she tries to move on with her life, to forget the nightmare. She grows up and becomes a respectable school teacher, going by the name of Ms. Prudence. But the hunger and horror of the hole never truly leaves. A chilling, surreal, indelible tale of horror and survival, trauma and memory.
“Till Human Voices Wake Us” by Rachel Halpern
They had traded us among themselves, for pearls and stones and shark teeth, and hurt us sometimes for their own amusement. Even as I tried to grasp the memories, they melted away, leaving only traces of beauty and terror.
Another story of trauma and memory, but one that ends on a note of strength and resilience, of finding support and comfort in community. This is a return-from-fairyland story as I haven’t quite seen it before. Geoffrey is one of four who have just escaped sea-captivity by mermaids. This is the story of how these four learn to live on land again. Throughout this process, the four humans must struggle against the ongoing song of the sea, which calls them back to the cold darkness. All had different reasons for following that song in the first place, and all must deal with those reasons before truly committing to life on land. I love the way this piece blends sinister fae magic with the grit of real human relationships and pain. It’s a truly painful read in places, yet it ends in hope. The steps these characters take toward reconciliation and human life feel real, as is the comfort and support they find in one another. Luminous and beautiful. (Content warning: suicide attempt and suicidal ideation).
“The Clearing of a Host” by J.M. Guzman
It is only at night that his house becomes a castle.
A haunted house that flickers between home and castle. A man who has abandoned the children who hunger for his love—who would prefer not to think of them, not to see them at all. Who would rather live in a castle of his own making. A strange, sharp story that vibrates with anger and hurt.
“Late Night at the Low Road Diner” by Frances Rowat
This is the heart of the night, and the only things in the building except her are yellow light and empty tables and the smells of coffee and old grease.
Empty, late-night diners always feel like weird, liminal spaces. Marisse, waitress and cook, is working alone at a diner on such a night when two suspicious characters walk in. Only one of them eats. This is a piece that pulses with quiet menace. But Marisse has seen a lot and knows how to handle dangers both human and inhuman. Watching the tense interactions unfold in this story is simultaneously nerve-wracking and (because Marisse is a badass) delightful. An original take on a late-night ghost story, masterful in its execution of mood.
“When Leopard’s Bane Came to the Door of Third Heaven” by Vajra Chandrasekera
The red tower is always busy, crowded all the way to the top, a queue that moves step by excited step. Our green tower is for the perverse and our door is its highest, the least accessible.
And oh, I love this story. The narrator and his work colleague, L (also known as Leopard’s Bane), are guards for the tower door that leads to the third nonsensual heaven. There are sensual heavens as well, which are far more popular. The two guards are often bored; they pass the time teasing one another, getting into harmless hijinks, and letting the occasional visitor through the door to heaven. They live in a world where a lottery system is supposed to randomly assign people to different jobs, but where the rich always seem to draw winning tickets while the poor are assigned the worse jobs, and lives, of all. And as L. says, "If you think the system is rigged, if you think the world is unacceptably fucked" you can always leave through one of the doors to heaven. This piece unfolds with dry humor, satire, and slowly, increasing feeling. The doors to heaven seem like a built-in safety valve for a fucked-up system, a cynical and easy way to dispose of malcontents. Yet at the same time, heaven appears real, and the narrator is increasingly drawn toward it. Chandrasekera has created a fantastical world to work through big philosophical questions e.g. what is the validity of personal salvation/escape versus the responsibility to stay and fight for the world? A surprising, quirky story that also has real gravity, warmth, and hope.
“The House of Illusionists,” by Vanessa Fogg
It's impossible to deny reality for long. Yet we all try; we're all pretending.
Yes, this is my story. A house of illusionists at a magical academy are doing what they can to survive a terrible war. This story actually appears first in the magazine’s table of contents, although I’ve left it for the end of this review. And I love it that it’s my story and Chandrasekera’s “When Leopard’s Bane Came to the Third Door of Heaven” that bookend this issue, for I feel that these stories are in conversation with one another. Both create fantasy worlds to address big, philosophical questions. Chandrasekera’s story asks about the validity of personal salvation/escape versus the responsibility to stay and fight for the world. Mine questions the validity of personal salvation/escape/art and asks whether it’s even possible—whether art can withstand the challenges of the “real” world at all. In the end, I see my story as one about both the power, and the limits, of art. I’ve been fascinated by the different responses to my piece. Personally, I find Chandrasekera’s story the more hopeful one, but I am also happy for any reader who finds hope in my own.
Bonus comic rec
"The Place We Once Called Home: A Comic" by Wendy Xu at Catapult
This made me catch my breath. An achingly beautiful piece about fantasy worlds, online friendships, and mourning.