Short fiction recs! January 2019

For a few years, now, I’ve been writing up these short story round-ups on a bi-monthly basis. But of late, there’s been so much good stuff coming out that summarizing two months’ worth of great fiction at a time is overwhelming. So, I’ve decided to try a monthly format. . . and, of course, I still found myself behind.

But better late than never. Here’s a list of things I read in January—stories dark and brutal, and stories beautiful and hopeful and full of light. Sometimes all of those at once. 

“Red” by Malinda Lo at Foreshadow Magazine

A retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” as you’ve never seen it before. Set in China during the Cultural Revolution, this is an incredibly dark, brutal tale in which real-world violence stands in for the fairy-tale wolf. Yet at the end, despite horror, there’s a kind of triumph as well.

Burrowing Machines” by Sara Saab at The Dark

There was a strange agitation to London that summer from the very beginning, a hormonal moodiness, a belly heat, if cities could be said to go through such things. We had enough sunshine to roll around in, but twilight snapped to dark between one sentence and the next, like someone’d tossed a quilt over the giant lamp of the sun.

From the beginning, there is a steadily building sense of unease to this piece. Jo is an engineer in charge of a team drilling a tunnel expansion for the London Tube. But as the team tunnels, strange things start to happen. The tunnel they’re digging runs close to a lost, underground river. And Jo has begun dreaming of her little sister, who was lost long ago on the banks of the river Thames. The creepiness in this piece just builds and builds; it’s wonderfully atmospheric and strange. An unsettling story that invokes hidden waters and the awakening of ancient beasts.

"Impostor/Impostor" by Ian Muneshwar at The Dark

Edgar and Lyle would seem to have an ideal life together. They are both artists: Lyle is a successful sculptor and Edgar is a composer. They live in a house in the country, and Lyle turns out beautifully composed meals (candied walnuts, quiche) from their kitchen. But a visit from Lyle’s intimidating mother arouses Edgar’s insecurities, and he becomes increasingly convinced of a mysterious presence in their house. . .  I love the way Muneshwar combines the fantastical with the domestic details of the mundane. I love the way he probes into the cracks of human relationships, pushing into the darkness that underlies our everyday hopes and fears. This is a story about artistic ambition as well as relationships, of what we want and fear and keep hidden from ourselves. Haunting and beautifully executed.

“The Daddy Thing” by K.C. Mead-Brewer at Electric Lit

And oh, this story! A weird, surreal story of ghosts, and a talking vampire bat, and a little girl and her mother and father. It’s a story of violence and dread, of an abusive father and a terrorized but protective mother; of girls and vampires and strange bargains struck. The weirdness puts me in mind of Kelly Link, but this is also inimitably Mead-Brewster’s own unique voice. A sharp, modern, and haunting fairy tale of darkness.

 “Poems Written While” by Natalia Theodoridou at Uncanny

A post-apocalyptic story of hope. A paean to the power of poetry. In a world where no one alive can remember a starry sky, “Daddy” collects and shares poems about the stars. He cares for the young people who have gathered around him, and for anyone else who might stumble into his community. This is a story of community and kindness, even in the wake of devastation—it’s about the sharing and power of art.

“The Beast Weeps with One Eye,” by Morgan Al-Moor in Beneath Ceasless Skies

The High Sister has led her people on a desperate escape from a flock of murderous ravens. At last, they reach what may be a land of shelter. . . but to have it, the shamaness must strike a bargain with a terrible god. This is a tense, taut story of adventure and wits, of sorrow and darkness. . . and in the end, it’s also a story of light. The ending is one to make you cheer.

“Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins at GigaNotoSaurus

Tilda loves to dance. Tilda loves being a troll. What she doesn’t love is dancing to Edward Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and giving in to her ballet teacher’s ideas of how a troll looks and dances just to pander to human expectations. Even though pandering to those expectations is what it might take for Tilda to win admittance to a prestigious dance academy.

This is a really lovely story; it’s warm and gentle and touched with humor, even as it’s also pointed in the way it depicts how stereotypes and societal expectations can hurt. In the end, of course, Tilda decides to be true to herself. It’s a delight to follow her as she comes to that decision, supported by family and friends. And it’s also a delight to see writer Haskins’ range; she has written some very dark stories, and it was something of a surprise to me to see a piece from her that’s so gentle. Yet for all its humor and lightness of touch, this story does touch on real pain; like all her work, it contains complexities of both dark and light.   

“We are Here to Be Held” by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Strange Horizons

The first time your mother swallows you whole you don’t really see it coming.

A very short but oh-so-fierce, sharp tale of mothers and daughters, of what mothers will do to protect their daughters. . . even if it’s not the right choice.

“Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear” by Senaa Ahmad in Uncanny Magazine

A tender, sharply observed story of family and the bond between sisters. Sisters Huda and Amina, along with their little brother Sameer, are spending the summer in their family’s vacation house near the lake. Their father works during the day and their mother is preoccupied, for her own sister is dying an ocean away.

The part that always gets to Amina is: how can her mother feel such complete devastation for a woman that Amina and Sameer and Huda only met once and can hardly remember?

The theme of sisters is woven through this piece; Amina develops an obsession with Amelia Earhart and knows that Amelia Earhart and her sister Grace once lived in their vacation town. This story never feels heavy, however, despite the recurring motif of loss; the siblings all squabble in a very human way, and their banter sparks with relatable humor. The story as a whole is one that sparkles with grace and tenderness, with affection as well as poignancy. The speculative fiction element, until the end, is slight; it seems to me that the story could also have worked well as a gorgeous and completely realist piece. Yet that speculative element, at the end, does work to tie everything together in an image of joy and flight.

"Bitter Perfume" by Laura Blackwell at Nightmare Magazine
Another story about family, most decidedly speculative although subtle. This is a quiet horror story about one very tight-knit family, and the secret that binds them together. It’s a story of slowly building unease; there’s a quietness to the horror which I love. 

 “The Time Traveler’s Husband” by A.C. Wise in Shimmer Magazine

The time traveler’s husband leaves cups of tea throughout the too-empty apartment, waiting for his wife to come home. Sometimes — hours or days later — he finds the mugs drained, bearing the ghost imprint of lips, dregs staining the ceramic in dark, overlapping rings. Other times, the mugs are untouched, smelling of jasmine, bergamot, and orange pekoe gone cold.

I love this aching, yearning story so much. It’s not easy to be a time traveler’s husband, to be the one holding down the fort at home while she’s off saving the world, rescuing the time-lines. It’s not easy holding down the regular 9-5 job, walking the dog, cleaning out the tea mugs, while she’s traveling through the ages. It’s not easy not knowing when she’ll next appear, or when she’ll leave. Permanence, stability—this is what the unnamed husband wants. But love is powerful, and marriage is work, and this is what the time traveler and her husband chose. This is an absolutely beautiful, singing, story of love; of the work that love entails, of the little details and sacrifices (big and small) that make a marriage.


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