Short Fiction Recs! July--August 2021
It’s a busy time, as students and teachers/staff return to school, parents return to the school drop-off/pickup and homework supervision grind, and work ramps up in general for many of us. But the cool, gray days and autumnal drizzle are also perfect for reading. In a world that can be strange and tense and sometimes overwhelming, fiction offers both an escape and a reflection of our fears and darkness. Here are some stories—hopeful, warm, strange and dark and more—to spend time with this fall.
Visions of the Future
“He Leaps for the Stars, He Leaps for the Stars” by Grace Chan in Clarkesworld
Yennie shivered. His assistant was right. Fans were obsessed with the intimacy of a bodily merger with their favorite celebrities. Inside Your Idol had become a cornerstone of an entertainer’s profile. A couple of bad ratings could nosedive a promising career.
A story about an absolutely nightmarish pop idol training program of the far future. Yennie was bred to be a pop star, engineered and born from an embryo farm on Enceladus. Continuously monitored by his management company, his days are scheduled down to the minute, filled with practice session, business meetings, livestream product endorsements, and more. This life is all he’s ever known, and all he’s ever wanted. But in the hectic leadup to the release of his latest single, strange encounters and happenings lead him to believe that a new life—that an escape—is possible. Wildly inventive, lyrical, and ultimately moving.
“When the Sheaves are Gathered” by Nick Wolven story in Clarkesworld
“I’m sorry, I just, I have this feeling. Like it’s all slipping away. And we don’t talk about it. No one ever talks about it. But we’re losing people, aren’t we? Losing people from our lives?”
Johnny’s world is becoming strange. People are literally disappearing—people he can’t remember, but whom he knows he once knew. There was someone staying in the guestroom the other night. Someone broke a light at the party. There was someone just sitting at the next table over, eating a sandwich. Friends whose names and faces he can’t remember. The city is emptying out. And a song haunts him, sung by friends and strangers alike, that starts, “When the sheaves are gathered. . .”
I love the unsettling, mysterious atmosphere of this piece, the slowly unspooling tension. But beyond the seemingly supernatural elements, this story also evokes the real loss that occurs when people change and leave you; it’s about community and loss of community, aging and time and grief. And at the end, there’s a twist that asks the reader to reconsider everything.
“Candide; Life—” by Beth Goder in Clarkesworld
Seva sets her microenvironment to play the Overture to Candide on loop. The intensity of the first few measures is a roar that lifts her entire body. She conducts compulsively, her arm twitching in time to the music; she doesn’t care who sees her. When the main theme comes in, that soaring melody that runs up against the frenetic pace of the whole but is never swallowed, her heart feels like it is transcending her chest. This is music!
The third time through, she makes an emotion capture.
Seva and Jal are students, making multimedia pieces of art in the future. This story raises some complicated questions about art, and also includes a depiction of a jealous artist who would denigrate and steal another’s work. But most of all, this story is about the joy of art, of music, of creation. That joy is evident in the story’s opening lines, and sings throughout the piece. An absolutely wonderful piece about the joy behind the impulse to create, and to share that creation with others.
Stories of Warmth and Light
“Love, Your Flatmate” by Stephanie Burgis at Podcastle
I know that cultural exchange is healthy. I’m glad that you and Lady Silvana had such a wonderful time as flatmates all those years ago, and I understand that humans and fey have different attitudes because of our different lifespans and expectations. I get it, okay?
. . . But Maxi and I are never going to be BFFs and penpals for life like you and Silvana.
This is the pandemic romance I didn’t know I needed. Emmeline’s mother didn’t know there would be an imminent lockdown in London when she agreed to let her fey friend’s daughter stay in Emmeline’s flat (without first asking Emmeline). But it happened, lockdown occurred, and now the human and fey daughters of best friends are stuck with each other. What follows are a series of cultural misunderstandings, complaints to their respective mothers, cocktails and tv binge-watching, and nice, long baths. An utterly charming tale of romance—definitely something to lighten the mood.
“More Than One Zodiac at High School” by Eliza Chan in Cast of Wonders
“I just wanted toast,” Amy said as her mother poured another ladleful. The response was a crispy yau char kwai pushed across the counter. Amy hesitated. She loved the fried bread, the perfect balance of crisp and soft when dipped into her congee. But she could hear the taunts already—deep fried sticks and rotten eggs for breakfast, what a freak—and it killed her appetite.
Her dragon growled, weaving underfoot until her mum tutted. She tossed the contents of a bamboo steamer—a trio of pork bao—into its mouth.
This story is absolutely charming. It depicts a world where people have different types of spirit animals or objects depending upon which zodiac sign they were born under. Amy, the only Chinese-British student at her high school, has a dragon. But although this makes her stand out, it doesn’t win her friends; her dragon isn’t “cool” because it doesn’t breathe fire or act like the Western conception of a dragon, and Amy is bullied for her Chinese ethnicity. It doesn’t help that her mother doesn’t understand her and embarrasses her. Then a new girl, Teagan, moves in next door. Amy thinks that Teagan is polished and perfect. But Teagan is hiding her own secrets about herself and her spirit animal, and surfaces are not always what they seem. . . This tale is delightful. Although the bullying scenes can be painful, there’s a certain lightness even to the darker moments, and the friendship between Amy and Teagan, and the revelation of Teagan’s own secrets and pain, is deftly handled. Amy’s mother is also a delight: loud, domineering, bullying, but also deeply loving—a love that shows itself in the food she makes and the urge she has to feed everyone (including the new girl next door). Amy’s relationship with her mother is complicated and resonated with me, as much of this story did. This layered tale is filled with humor and warmth, and braids complexity and poignancy with lightness and humor in a way that reminded me a bit of Zen Cho’s work. A lovely tale about not fitting in, and friendship, and learning to not-fit-in together.
“The Loneliness of Former Constellations” by P.H. Low at Strange Horizons
I spend the afternoon in my chair, stringing together poems like strands of pearls. Supper’s at four, on plates I wash by hand when I am done: honey on soft white bread, cheese cubes petaled with almond slices. Evening by the fire, a mug of chamomile tea warm in my palms.
This is my exile: it may be interminable, but I do not see why it must be spent in agony.
At night, the house groans, slow, like a tree broken by wind. I remember crystal spires and eyes like seas, and hold my breath until my vision blurs.
A gorgeous, gorgeous, slowly unwinding tale. The narrator has lived for many years by herself, in exile, in her beautiful house. But she is in chronic pain, not well, and it is no longer safe for her to live alone. So she takes in a housemate, a beautiful young warrior woman. As their friendship grows, the mystery of the narrator’s background slowly unfurls. And when Alanna, her housemate, suffers a devastating loss, the narrator must come to terms with her own loss during the process of comforting Alanna. A beautiful story that weaves together elements of fantasy and fairy tale and science fiction. A rich, lyrical tale of pain, survival, love, comfort, and healing. Of daring again for what you’d thought you’d given up.
Stories of Horror, Loss, and More
“The Spelunker’s Guide toUnreal Architecture” by L. Chan in The Dark
In time, the dedicated Spelunker will grow to instinctively recognize unreal architecture, senses picking up the minutiae that others miss. Wind coming from impossible directions; shadows cast at awkward angles; a dearth of wildlife; a strange doppler effect to sound, as though distance between source and listener stretched like taffy. Details and nothing more, but the details separate lost wanderers from professionals and the details are where the devils lie.
An eerie and atmospheric tale of “unreal architecture,” of liminal and haunted spaces. Dalvey and Benjamin have been friends since childhood, explorers together of these unreal buildings. Over the years, the differences between them—differences in careers and social circles, in life outcomes—have widened, yet they remain attached by their shared hobby and past, and complicated guilt. Now they’ve come across the biggest “unreal” building yet, a building that will lead them back to their past. A wonderfully unsettling, creepy tale, touched by cosmic horror.
“Gordon B. White is Creating Haunting Weird Horror” by Gordon B. White in Nightmare
You’ve enjoyed a few of his stories and you follow each other on Twitter, so when you see that horror and weird fiction author Gordon B. White has started a Patreon, you think, “Sure, I’ll throw him a couple of bucks.” You pick the $7 tier—Postcards of Lesser Known Haunted Houses—thinking it might be a lark to get a picture and a microfiction each month for your modest contribution.
A wonderfully meta flash horror story, clever and also genuinely creepy. What happens if you subscribe to horror author Gordon B. White’s Patreon for postcards of haunted houses? You probably don’t want to do this, but you will enjoy reading about the “you” who does.
“What Sisters Take” by Kelly Sandoval in Apex
Here’s the thing you need to know to understand this story: I was meant to be an only child. The doctors, when they examined my mother, only counted one heartbeat.
I don’t know when my sister came along. My mother, so ready to accept, so unwilling to look, says she didn’t see the doctor much, back then. Couldn’t afford to. After that early scan, she didn’t go back until the day we were born.
On the same night, three sets of twins are unexpectedly born to three families in the same town. Three sets of girl-twins who will grow up together, their lives intimately entwined. An absolutely horrific, harrowing tale of sinister magic, of faerie sisters who feed upon their human twins. But in the final moments, this story turns suddenly heartbreaking. A story about hunger, survival, sisters, and love.
“The Night He Said I Love You” K.C. Mead-Brewer in Craft Literary
She thinks of all the babysitters in the world and she hates every one of them. She isn’t going to die as part of their pack. She isn’t going to die trying to save these kids from the killer downstairs. She isn’t going to die at all, ever. She will rise up like the goddess she’s always known herself to be and yawn as the world devours itself.
A breathlessly intense take on classic horror movie tropes, on the story of the babysitter making out with her boyfriend on the couch as the children escape supervision and the serial killer enters the house. Also, there’s a dog. Don’t worry, the dog doesn’t die (as the narrative helpfully points out before the end). A brilliant story that makes something new of old tropes, that moves swiftly from character viewpoint to viewpoint, breathing specificity into each one. A story of intense tension, that finds horror in the immediacy of the serial-killer-situation—but that by the end evokes a more existential, elemental sense of horror.
“The Failing Name” by Eugen Bacon and Seb Doubinsky at Fantasy Magazine
What was his name? Alain, Divin, Rivlin, Yavan? At the time he told her, it was an unfailing name. She listened to its echo in the night breeze—such was her joy, she wanted to thunder with laughter. She raced to the river the next day and the next, but he never showed. Alain, Divin, Rivlin, Yavan was gone.
And then Jolainne’s mother gave her away.
A strange, gorgeous, aching piece. As a child, Jolainne once saved another child—a little boy whose name she didn’t quite catch. Later, her mother sends her away from her home in Kinshasa to the glamor of Paris—for the sake of her future, her mother says. But Jolainne’s life in Paris is not what she expects. She is a servant for the aunt who has taken her in, abused by her aunt’s boyfriend, and taunted by other children. She’s lonely. And throughout her loneliness—even as she leaves her aunt behind and goes to college, as she begins life on her own and the world goes into a pandemic lockdown—throughout this, Jolainne never forgets the nameless boy she loves. And she’ll do anything to bring him back. Mysterious, startling, and exquisitely written.
“The Songs Her Mother Used to Sing” by Aimee Ogden in Flash Fiction Online
Marigold Henry was twenty-three when she made her first child, from deer entrails and kitchen scraps.
A strange and gorgeous story of motherhood, about the pain and loneliness and doubts that come with being a new mother. Of yearning for support from one’s own mother. And of what a mother can do for her child—even if her own mother never did for her. A beautiful, painful story that hit me hard.
“L’Espirit de L’Escalier” by Catherynne Valente in Tor Magazine
Eurydice picks up a slender and very clean fork. The problem has never been that she doesn’t want to get better. Her short fingernails have black dirt under them. No matter how she scrubs and scrubs in the sink, no matter what kind of soap she buys. Orpheus hears the water running at three a.m. every night.
Orpheus has succeeded in bringing Eurydice back from the Underworld. But all is not well; the dirt and mold of the Underworld cling to her, mold that must be washed away every night. Asphodel threatens to overtake the garden. Eurydice is not what she was; she won’t eat human food, she’s not the girl Orpheus married. But did he ever know who she was? Did he even ask whether she wanted it when he “saved” her from death? A rich, wild, and poignant retelling, in which Orpheus is a modern rock ‘n roll star and Apollo and his dirtbag friends come to party and trash the house. A retelling in which Greek gods are cast as modern artists and celebrities. A story with Valente’s characteristic lush and evocative prose, wit and inventiveness. The ending feels foretold from the start, but is no less painful and perfect for it—just as in classical Greek tragedy.