Short fiction recs! May-June 2020

Why do so many of us love horror stories? I think that part of it—maybe even the major part—is that horror in fictional form offers a kind of control and catharsis of our fears that we can’t find in real life. When the horrors of the world seem more pressing and overwhelming than ever, some of us are—counterintuitively—drawn even more to dark fiction. The majority of stories in this roundup could be classified as “horror.” But there are stories of hope as well, and even some that manage both.  

Dark Tales of Body Horror, Hunger, Secrets, and More

“Sleeping in Metal and Bone” by Kristi Demeester at The Dark

It is summer the first time I dream of hooks at the end of my fingers. The cold metal buried in the soft tissue and then curving outward into a small, delicate point. How I creep through the shadowed damp of our backyard, the odor of soil rich and deep as I hunt through the underbrush you’ve promised for years to clear away, and snare tiny, wriggling creatures before stuffing them into my mouth and biting down.

Rilla and Henry have been trying to have a baby for years. For years, Rilla has suffered miscarriage after miscarriage, and Henry has grown ever more controlling of her body in his desire to have a child. Now Rilla feels an unusual huger, and dreams that her body is changing in strange ways. . . I’ve long admired Kristi Demeester’s work, and this piece showcases her characteristic deftness with atmosphere and visceral horror. A dark piece about control, monstrousness, body horror, and change.

“The Fenghuang” by Millie Ho at Lightspeed

Her skin was sore and feverish under her fingers, as it always was a few days after she came back from the dead.

Candice suffers from a mysterious medical condition in which she repeatedly bursts into flame and burns to ashes, only to resurrect from the dead. A new drug regimen helps her manage her condition; the medication suppresses her flare-ups, but it also dulls her emotions—including the love she feels for a young woman she met at the hospital. This is a vivid story of body horror and pain, but it’s also a beautiful piece about a young woman learning to accept herself, to go against her mother for a different kind of treatment plan, “to rewrite her narrative and make her condition into something beautiful.”

“As Dark as Hunger” by S. Qiouyi Lu at Mithila Review

The stench of the river mixes with the iron of blood as Ellen takes another step. The mermaid’s back is to her. She’s caught in the mangrove roots as if they were stocks, her face locked face-down as she struggles. Up close, what Ellen thought was a shadow turns out to be dark smears of blood slicking the silt on the banks.

An absorbing and disturbing tale of mermaids, fishers, and ex-lovers. A brutally violent story (content warning for self-harm) which gets its hooks into you from the atmospheric beginning and doesn’t let go. There are a number of lenses through which this story could be read, although the one that stands out most vividly to me (due to my own background) is that of a diasporic perspective. I love the world Lu creates here, and the way that Ellen’s connection to mermaids is slowly revealed. A darkly stunning story.

“Hungry Girls” by Cassandra Khaw, from the anthology Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles, edited by Ellen Datlow.
Note: Khaw’s story is available online for free as an exclusive excerpt from the book.

I couldn’t stop staring at the girl on the stage. None of us had the willpower to look away. Maria could sneer as much as she liked, but I knew she was only doing it because she was just as mesmerized.

An indie filmmaker has gathered a crew in Malaysia to shoot his latest low-budget film—a movie about a jiangshi, the “hopping vampire” of Chinese legends. The actress who plays the jiangshi and lead role is Roger’s latest find, his current muse and obsession. She’s the obsession of everyone else in the production, too—a beauty and a mystery, and unsettlingly strange. Khaw spins a sensuous, evocative, and marvelously creepy tale from the viewpoints of multiple characters on set, including Roger’s former muse and leading lady. This story breathes with hunger—the hunger of ambitious people trying to succeed in a brutally competitive field, the hunger of humans for one another. And quite possibly, a hunger that isn’t human at all.  

“We Speak with the Raven Men” by Alexis Ann Hunter in Daily Science Fiction

A dark and spellbinding fable of children who grow up to lose their voices, and are spoken for by raven-men who sit on their shoulders. But there are children who want to keep singing with their own voices. And there is a girl who would do anything for her sister. Hunter fits in an amazing amount of world-building in the space of a flash story; this tale is haunting.

"Resilience" by Christi Nogle at Pseudopod

The narrator of this piece survived an absolutely horrifying event in childhood. But she’s fine now. Absolutely fine, with a nice, normal, stable life. The doctor who treated her during childhood says that she was the most resilient child he’s ever known. But now, years later, the narrator has had to find a new doctor, and she’s beginning to remember and question things. . . This is an eerie, slowly unwinding story that twists in ways you don’t expect; the unease slowly builds, and the final revelation took me completely by surprise.  

“Two Truths and a Lie,” by Sarah Pinsker at Tor

Like Christie Nogle’s story, this is a slow-burn of a horror tale. It starts off in a seemingly mundane world, with seemingly mundane details, but there’s a sense of creeping unease that grows and grows. While helping her old friend clean out his deceased brother Denny’s house, Stella suddenly remembers (or does she?) a local television show on which she and the other children of the town regularly appeared. A local tv show that consisted of the town’s children playing with toys while a man read absolutely unnerving, surreal horror stories aloud. How on earth did such a show ever air? Why would the town’s parents allow their kids to appear on it? Did that show have an effect on the way Denny turned out? And what effect has that show had on the other town’s children—and on her? Seemingly irrelevant details of Stella’s seemingly ordinary life become entwined with these questions, and in the end, this is an unsettling masterpiece of existential horror.

“The Translator, at Low Tide” by Vajra Chandrasekera at Clarkesworld

The sea lapping at my back and my face to the fire, I translate: poems, mostly. Now that entire languages and cultures are on the verge of being lost forever to the sea, the storms, the smog, the plagues, and the fires, now the art of the dead and the almost-dead have become quaintly valuable to a small but enthusiastic readership of the living.

This is science fiction, but I would also classify it as horror. And it’s a horror that hits deep, for it’s a horror show of the worst that may happen—it’s a story of calamities happening right now, in real life. In a drowning city, an old translator is just trying to survive. But survival is hard, and the world is terrible, and the details of this world are absolutely terrifying. This is a story of grief and guilt and regret that captures something true about our real world today.

Stories of Gentleness, Hope, and Flight

The Decameron Project

The Decameron Project is/was a modern-day Decameron project for our age. Each day for a hundred days, a short story was posted to the Decameron Project’s website from some of the leading lights of the fantasy/science fiction field. The money raised from donations went to an organization in Italy which supports refugees, Cittadini del Mondo. Although the stories are now done, they are still available for free on the Decameron Project’s Patreon site and are also being reposted on that site. You can also still sign up to be a Patreon supporter and get the stories emailed directly to you.

I confess that I’ve only read a few of the stories so far from the Decameron project. But I did read and love the two below. I’d encourage you to check out the whole site, and consider signing up to be a Patreon supporter.

A story about a hemlock that is afraid to grow tall, but finds that it can grow deep. An absolutely beautiful, optimistic tale of hope and resilience.

“The Radicalised Dead” by Jeannette Ng

A businessman goes to his ancestral hall to ask for the blessing of his ancestors. But it turns out that the offerings he’s given them were not received in the way he expected. This is an absolutely delightful tale—clever and subversive, with a most satisfying ending.

More Stories

“High in the Clean Blue Air” by Emma Torzs at Uncanny

“Never tell anyone where you keep your soul,” my parents repeated to me over and over. It was our one family rule, aside from the obvious: do not reveal yourself to true humans.

This is a stunning, gorgeously lyrical tale about a shapeshifter. It’s also about love and jealousy, about existing in between, of choosing what and who to be. And of being seen.

“Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell at Diabolical Plots

133 Poisonwood Avenue is up for sale, and all it wants is a family to have and love. Will it find that family among all the visitors who trek in and out during this open house? This is a haunted house story of a different type: sweet, funny, gentle, and warm. You will cheer for the house and the family it finds, and like me, you may also find yourself tearing up. A truly moving, poignant, and heartwarming tale. 


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