December 2018 Short Fiction Recs
Toward the end of 2018, a wealth of new magazine issues and stories were released. I couldn’t possibly keep up with it all (hello, I still haven’t even looked at the December issue of Anathema yet), but here’s some of what I did read and love.
I’ve found Bracken Magazine a delight since its first issue. The latest issue features two lovely, magical stories, as well as gorgeous poetry and art.
“Garden of Grudges” by Gwendolyn Kiste
This is the story of a bitter woman whose grudges grow from the ground, tainting the harvest. And it’s the story of the children affected by her, and of what her oldest daughter must do to save them all. This story is both dreamy and sharp, magical and oh-so-real in emotional terms. Exquisitely written and painfully incisive—one of my favorite yet from this talented writer.
“Ocean” by Su-yee Lin
Another dreamy tale of a mother and daughter. The narrator hears the ocean, even though there is no ocean in the middle of Shanghai. As she seeks it out, she also wanders through her own memories of the sea and of her mother. A lovely story, filled with yearning.
As stated in the magazine’s submission guidelines, Truancy “is a semipro market for revised folktales, legends, myth and other traditional narratives that have been made new by your retelling or your original fiction that has these folkloric elements or mythic elements.”
The December 2018 issue was my first read of the magazine, and I enjoyed every story. Each reworked (or was inspired) by old legends in fresh, evocative, thought-provoking ways. Although I cite my favorite pieces below, I recommend reading the whole issue, and I look forward to future issues.
“The Glint of Light on Broken Glass” by Jennifer Donohue
The Moon sits on the windowsill of the butcher shop, smoking cigarettes. The butcher doesn’t mind, much, because the Moon is good company and blows her smoke outside, dangling the cigarette from her fingers out the open window.
A gorgeous tale that places the Moon (i.e. Artemis) and her hounds in a modern-day setting, interacting with a female butcher who has bad taste in men. Evocative, lovely, and surreal, with a twist of primal brutality—it’s a wonderful reworking of old myths.
“Matchstick Reveries” by Rajiv Mote
A fierce, fiery retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” Poignant and powerful, with mythic imagery.
“All the Time We’ve Left to Spend” by Alyssa Wong in Fireside
In a future Japan, the memories and personalities of J-pop stars (and other celebrities) are embodied in androids who work at Aidoru Hotel. The clients who come to this hotel are superfans, otakus, would-be stalkers—those willing to spend what it takes for the chance of sharing a night with their favorite star. And to this hotel comes Ruriko, who is obsessed with one particular J-pop star. Over the course of repeated visits, her history and relationship with this singer gradually unfolds. A masterfully executed story, and quietly devastating.
“Monologue by an unnamed mage, recorded at the brink of the end” by Cassandra Khaw in Uncanny Magazine
Khaw’s prose is always pure poetry. This flash piece is a distillation of that—and exactly what the title says. A song of love and hope and defiance, at the end of everything.
“Unstrap Your Feet” by Emma Osborne in Glittership
I offer you wine. You take a long sip and hand me back the glass as you unstrap your feet. Your hooves shine as you toss your humanity into a pile by the door.
A nightmarish account of a human trapped in a horrific faerie marriage. Horror builds steadily throughout the piece, spiked with sharp imagery.
“A Spider Trapped in Wax” by Matt Dovey at Pseudopod
Margaret lives alone in the cold, silent rooms of Lindom Hall. She has driven away her son with her cruelty, and when he comes to her as an adult begging for money, she drives him away again. But then she hears a tapping in her house, and finds a strange, hidden room she never knew existed. . . A darkly elegant story of what we inherit from our parents, of cruelty passed down generations. The ending is chilling.
"Ten Things I Didn't Do" by Maria Haskins at Pseudopod
Oh my god. This flash piece is so powerful, and one of the darkest things I’ve ever read. A brutal, painful monster story of how the real monsters are sometimes those closest to home. Haskins twists fantastical language, horror-movie tropes, and bitter reality into pain that cuts like a knife.
“Mouths” by Lizza Huerta in Lightspeed
An immersive, completely compelling post-apocalyptic world that’s both strange and terribly believable. A world where civilization as we knew it fell apart. . . and the plumbers who can provide clean water and the dentists who can fix broken teeth are now as lords. When Fai falls and shatters her molars, she makes the difficult trek downcoast to find a dentist who can fix her mouth and allow her to chew again. With him, she learns a new and necessary trade, even as she dreams of the lover she left behind by the sea. This is a beautifully realized story, completely compelling and immersive, both strange and utterly believable. Something in the prose is hypnotic, mythic; I could feel dust, bone, and sea as I read.
“Girls Who Do Not Drown” by Andi Buchanan in Apex Magazine
This is an island that sends all its girls into the sea.
Some of the girls on the island come back. Some do not; some are taken by the glashtyn, the shape-shifting horses of the sea. Alice is a girl who isn’t seen as a girl; she feels desperate, trapped on the island, trapped in preconceptions and what the island people allow. When she meets a glashtyn, everything changes—both for her, and for all the other island girls. An absolutely gorgeous, exhilarating piece of magic and hope.
“Palace of the Silver Dragon” by Y.M. Pang at Strange Horizons
He was so beautiful her pained eyes banished all thoughts of closing. Thin silver lines patterned his delicately carved face, suggesting scales. The black tendrils were his hair, silken ropes towing her toward him. His white robes shone, edged with shimmering detail Aliah had seen only in her mother’s paintings.
I missed this story when it came out earlier in 2018, but I happened to see it on a recommendation list and looked it up. I’m glad I did. It’s the tale of a desperate woman, no longer willing to live in the human world, who throws herself into the sea with the hope of meeting the Silver Dragon. But she’s not exactly the poor, innocent maiden that you might think, and nor is her tale of woe. This gorgeous fairy tale twists and turns, subverting expectations even as it enchants with lovely images and lines. Dragon and maiden are a match in more ways than one. I loved it.
The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed
In an alternate (roughly Edwardian era?) England, a young solder returns from war wounded and haunted. Literally haunted, by the ghost of his military commander. Lieutenant Benjamin Braddock is one of the few survivors of his regiment, who were nearly all massacred due to a fatal error by his commander, Theodore Wickersley. Wickersley’s memory is now disgraced, while Braddock grieves and recuperates. Without family in the world, Braddock gives in when Wickersley’s family takes him in as a kind of substitute son. But their real son, although dead, is not pleased, and nightly comes to Braddock’s window. . .
This a strange, rich, gorgeously written story. As the author herself notes in this post, it’s not quite a horror story and it’s not quite steam-punk, despite intriguing glimpses of an alternate steampunk technology. It’s a quiet story that slips between genres. It is, most of all, a story of grief and trauma, of trying to live in a world which no longer fits. The haunted Braddock is an immediately winning character, a narrator with a wonderfully wry, intelligent, and compelling voice. Here is an example of his wry thoughts upon meeting Wickersley’s former fiancé:
“I am impressed by her hair,and spend an injudicious amount of time staring at it, for ‘chestnut tresses’ are referenced often and carelessly in pulp novels, but I have handled my fair share of conkers and the precise colours of sepia and vermillion that must be mixed to produce a true chestnut hair outside of a literary setting is surpassingly rare.”
And here’s an example of Braddock’s pain, heartbreakingly rendered in the same elegant diction. A friend has just asked the soldier how his wounded leg is.
“I want to tell him how when it is rainy or foreboding I wake in the middle of the night muffling screams into my pillows, how the pain comes in low like a wave and then washes over me, as if my entire body is lifted by it. . . I want to tell him I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, and that the X-pictures show a leg as perfectly repaired and sturdy as this legendary roast that Victoria will cook for us. . . I want to tell him there is no rhyme or reason for this pain, and yet it is always with me, sometimes asleep, sometimes awake, like a large dangerous animal I have been forced to host in my rooms.
Instead, I say, “Oh, still settling. Some days are better than others.”
There’s so much in the passage above—Ben Braddock’s quiet suffering, his stoicism, his desire not to impose upon other people. He’s an incredibly easy character to love—witty, smart, self-effacing and thoroughly decent. But he also has friends that I fell in love with because they loved him, too. The Apple-Tree Throne is suffused with generosity and compassion; there are portrayals of arrogance, entitlement, and foolishness, but even those characters are treated by the author with compassion. Every character is seen as human. Amidst pain, there is the glow of love and support. And the ending contains a twist which is deeply moving and beautiful, and which rings utterly true. This is a wonderfully immersive read, elegant and witty as well as moving.