Short fiction recs! May-June 2021
This roundup is way overdue, and I also confess that I haven’t read as much as usual these last two months. I do note that I’ve found myself particularly drawn to dark fiction and horror of late, and these selections reflect that. But though many of these are stories of darkness and horror, there are also stories of beauty, hope, and love. . . and stories in which all of these coexist.
Darkness and Horror
“Of Claw and Bone” by Suzan Palumbo in The Dark
Your mother begins collecting the tiny skulls as soon as the flutter of your limbs causes her heart to skip. She curates each specimen, ensuring it originates from a disparate source: A mouse carcass picked from a ravine trail; a desiccated red squirrel shipped from her sister out East; a marmot, snared in a field three hours from the village.
A strange and striking story of a world where people choose animal bones to represent themselves—bones that represent their personalities, and perhaps influence their personalities as well. When the viewpoint character of this story is small, her mother has to choose the bones for her. The mother chooses rodents—quick, small, and cautious. The mother is like a rodent herself, in that way—and she is preyed upon by a fierce predator. But when the daughter becomes older, she’ll be able to choose her own bone symbol, and become a predator herself. A darkly enchanting story that quickly turns fierce, furious, and breathless. (Note: content warning for domestic abuse)
“The Family in the Adit” by A.T. Greenblatt in Nightmare
Even I could see the dinner guest was a shell of the person she once was. Her face was gaunt and there were dark circles under her eyes and a few festering scratches on her check. She had washed, but couldn’t wash away her desperation.
At first glance, this appears to be a story about a family with an abusive father, similar to Palumbo’s story above. But this is a most unusual family, and the strangeness of this tale soon moves into unexpected directions. This is a story of a family in an adit (a horizontal tunnel leading into a mine—I had to look up the definition). And it’s a story about the oppression of the mine workers, about greed, about fierce and terrible hopes and dreams. And it’s also about a terrible dinner party. A surreal, surprising, darkly satisfying story.
“All this Darkness” by Jennifer Donohue in Apex Magazine
Nobody ever says we have coal in our veins; they don’t have to. We have black half-moons under our nails when we wake in the morning; we ooze like oil when we skin a knee, split a knuckle fighting.
Another story about mines and darkness, with a very different emotional tenor. This is a dreamy, atmospheric piece about a mining community, about the children of miners who assumed that they, too, would one day work underground like their parents. But this mining community is dying, both mine shafts and local businesses closing. Donohue captures the desperation of this community beautifully: “. . .there’s no money for college and there’s no jobs and there’s just the mines and the town rusting away from the edges.” What are these children to do, who thought they had a future in this town, who assumed they would have a path in life that isn’t possible? Donohue’s prose is lyrical and magical, telling a kind of modern-day fairy tale of darkness, desperation, and longing.
“Shuck” by G.V. Anderson in The Deadlands
No one, not even Bridget, could remember how it started, and yet by the winter term, it was common knowledge that she’d taken over the old smoking area and, for a price, would answer one—just one—question about the death of her friend, Samantha.
A riveting story about a teen girl who has survived a motorcycle accident that killed her best friend. Except that her “friend” was something of a frenemy, someone with whom she had a complicated and painful relationship, someone she was already withdrawing from when the accident occurred. Bridget is a marvelous creation: a protagonist who’s all jagged edges and spikes, hunger and suppressed grief and guilt and longing. This is a story about complicated relationships and jealousy and grief, but it also twists in an unexpected direction, combining English folklore (the legend of the black dog, “Shuck) with what seemed to start off as a realist story. Anderson is one of my favorite writers, and something I love about her work is the way her fantasy and science fiction is so well-grounded in real-world emotions and relationships. A dark, moving, and wonderful read.
“Empty Houses” by Caspian Gray in Nightmare
All the mirrors sometimes showed my reflection wrong, but the one in the little room was the worst. It wasn’t lost on me that the room I spent the most time getting high in was also the room where I “saw” the most things.
I’ve always found mirrors slightly uncanny, slightly creepy. Gray’s story highlights that creepiness of the mundane—of ordinary glass and reflective surfaces—to a perfect, wonderfully sinister degree. The protagonist of this piece has just bought a new home with her partner. A home that’s filled with mirrors. Including one special mirror in the guest bedroom. . . An unsettling story that only grows more so as it winds to a dark and inevitable conclusion.
“See With Your Eyes, Not With Your Hands” by Monte Lin in Nightmare
When I was a boy, my left hand grew a cluster of tiny eyes on my pointer finger, right between the first and second knuckle, on the side facing my thumb, so I could always see them looking around, searching for something.
A flash piece of body horror that nearly took my breath away. A story about a vulnerable child, about “otherness,” and about living with that sense of being “the other.”
Fairy Tales and Magic
"Blood in the Thread" by Cheri Kamei in Tor
For her first awards show, you send her out covered in shimmering camellias and barbed butterflies that spiral down her bare arms, fading into the faint lines of her blue, blue veins. You saturate those delicate petals and wings with all the venom in your heart. You line her eyes sharp as spears.
The story of an actress and her makeup artist. The story of two girls in love, who become two women in love. A story of the abuse and exploitation that threatens to tear them apart. All this is interwoven with the narrative of the traditional Japanese fairy tale of The Crane Wife. The story of the actress and her makeup artist becomes a modern-day retelling of The Crane Wife—one with a very different perspective from the original. Achingly gorgeous, lyrical, and moving.
“Disenchantment” by P.H. Low in Fantasy Magazine
A girl is born with a hole in her heart.
Her parents cannot touch her for weeks; instead, they whisper in immigrant languages over the rune-inscribed plastic tube in which she sleeps: terrified, for the first time, of death.
Oh, this little flash piece hit me so hard. A girl who survived a hole in her heart, but who continues to feel fragile, broken. Burdened by the love and expectation of her parents, haunted by their fears. A girl who finds a passion for magic and briefly has her own life, her own hopes. . .until she falls. But then who eventually finds a way to pick herself up again, to reconcile with her parents and their own hopes and fears. To heal. A beautiful, evocative, and deeply moving piece that does so much in such a small space.
“My Mirror, My Opposite” by Y. M. Pang in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
The song begins like this: “Once there was a fishgirl who sacrificed her heart and life and voice for a prince, and her reward was a path to heaven.”
All those stories, about fishgirls yearning for legs... Are human storytellers really so arrogant, believing we are the only enviable ones?
Let’s clear up one thing: that night, the storm didn’t hurl me into the sea.
The classic tale of The Little Mermaid, narrated from the viewpoint of the prince. A prince who is as desperate to belong to the sea as the mermaid is to belong to the land. A prince who is cruel in his desperation, who can’t understand someone who would give up what he himself so wants, who neither loves nor is kind to his mermaid. . .and yet is her own love for him as pure as the stories say? I love the way this piece twists and turns. I love the narrative voice of this story—the prince’s desperation, and the coldness and cruelty born from that desperation. The way that the prince and mermaid are indeed mirrors for one another. I adore complicated, not-entirely-sympathetic first-person narrators, and this one is definitely not-entirely-sympathetic. Nevertheless, I felt for him, as well. An absorbing, compelling take on the classic fairy tale.
“Wolf Tones” by Sofia Samatar in Lightspeed (reprinted from Conjunctions)
. . . and then the second tone enters, high and fierce, the waves rising, a sudden spasm of hail scattering across the deck like a shower of pearls . . . a tone like a moan that vibrates through the ship, down through the cabins lined in red like satin jewelry boxes, those elegant little coffins, and down again through the vessel’s bowels and down through the vast imponderable weight of water its icy knifelike blackness just on the edge of freezing . . .
Years ago, Wyland Alexander was a young artist on his way to Paris with a letter of introduction and forty dollars in his coat. On the ship that was taking him there, he met Nesha, a beautiful cellist who told him about “wolf tones”—mysterious overtones that can be heard on stringed instruments and best on the cello. She told him about the physicist Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman and the type of light scattering he discovered called “Raman scattering.” She spoke to him of light, and cold, and the Arctic. Mysteriously, the ship bound for Paris was caught in a freak storm and ended up wrecked in Svalbard, in the Arctic, with Wyland as the only survivor. Now an old man, he has taken to sea on a cruise ship bound for the Arctic again—this time deliberately. Time slips and blurs in his memory as he relives his earlier sea voyage, as he remembers the cellist he loved. This is a gorgeous, mysterious piece, and every line is poetry. The hopes of youth and dizziness of early love is here, and so is the passage of time and the nostalgia of age. Art, music, glaciers, physics, blue light. The grief a researcher feels over climate change. The fleeting and mysterious ways in which people’s lives can intersect; the ways we can briefly interact before scattering apart. A beautiful, intricate, complicated piece.
Grief and Love
Grief and Love
“Him Without Her and Her Within Him” by Aimee Ogden in Zooscape
Only his flapping wings save him from tumbling over backwards. He beats them harder, blocking out the sun that dares to shine on these bloody bones. A sky that would let her tumble from its grace doesn’t deserve her. Cat, he cries bitterly, or perhaps it is mine-mine-mine! that he shrieks.
A devastating, achingly gorgeous and sad piece about grief and death. Lincoln is a teenage boy who can shape-shift into a crow. He can take to the skies, and fall in love with another crow. But his human mother is dying, and there is nothing he can do to stop it. A heartbreaking piece about a son’s sorrow and his desire to escape it. About a painful web of family, and silence, and of reaching out to one another. The finely observed interactions in Lincoln’s human family—the way he and his father and aunt are all grieving what’s to come, and all inadvertently hurting each other in little ways—is set beautifully against the fantastical scenes of flight.
“We Will Weather One Another Somehow” by Kristina Ten in Diabolical Plots
He says he can’t pinpoint when it started, his erosion. Of course, I know—watched the videos in grade-school earth science same as everyone—that it’s one of those things that happens gradually over a long period of time. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing, nothing. Then one day, in the foreign angle of a changing-room mirror, a deep gully down the center of his back from where the shower water hit for ten straight minutes every day since he was a boy.
Another devastating story of grief and death, given in achingly lovely prose. The narrator of this piece is in love with a man who is slowly, literally, eroding away. A hereditary condition in this world. Repeated touch in the same places—a hug, a kiss—hasten the erosion. But the man, Benji, does not want to hold back, to protect himself from touch. He refuses to live within armor. His lover must watch him slowly wear away, and to accept it. Painfully, heartrendingly lovely; a story of vulnerability and love.