Short fiction recs! May-June 2022
A selection of short stories I’ve loved from May and June: stories that are dark and brutal, funny and light, and warm and moving and lovely.
“The Eternal Cocktail Party of the Damned” by Fonda Lee in Uncanny Magazine
As the demons move unhurriedly through the crowd, dozens of giant screens suspended from the ceiling flicker in a rapid-fire onslaught of sound and images. Everything that’s happening in every corner of the boundless and constant underworld party is being recorded and replayed, far too fast for humans to keep up with, which is why infernal caretakers manipulate the screens, keeping the party mood going like DJs spinning dance tracks.
An utterly brilliant story. As the title says, it’s a depiction of the eternal cocktail party of the damned, overseen by the demons Bayzoth and Asphos. And it’s a party that’s all too familiar with anyone who’s spent much time online. The party of the damned is Twitter. It’s social media. It’s all of us online seeking attention, dogpiling one another, calling each other out for clout, engaged in fandom wars and more. Fonda Lee skewers all types of familiar bad actors and dynamics online, and I suspect that this story will hit a bit too closely for some. Hell is demons manipulating screens and attention for maximum damage. Hell is us doing this all to ourselves. Hell is familiar, and it’s also brutally, terribly funny.
“The Coward Who Stole God’s Name” by John Wiswell in Uncanny
“’People have always been kind to me. They don’t have a choice.”
A chilling story that, like Fonda Lee’s story, evokes real-world social dynamics in uncomfortable ways. Gavin Davenport is the most beloved man alive. To his legions of fans (and everyone is a fan) he can do no wrong—not even when threatening someone with a gun. But what happens when the spell is broken? Can the spell be broken? A story about the very human tendency toward hero worship, and the “heroes” that don’t deserve it.
he Scholar of the Bamboo Grove” by Aliette de Bodard at Uncanny
Liên’s hands tightened on the flute. A chance to be the brightest scholar in the world, to advise emperors and sages. To leave her mark at the heart of things. “Power,” she whispered. And, to her dead, revered parents, “Watch over me, Father and Mother.”
A rich fantasy novelette that is, ultimately, as fierce as it is beautiful. A story of scholars who duel one another with magical flutes. A story of dragons, and of love and sacrifice and ancient burdens. A story that feels both intimate and mythic, with stunning imagery and told in de Bodard’s characteristically gorgeous prose.
“The Morthouse” by Maria Haskins at The Deadlands
In her forty-two years on God’s wide Earth, Gerda has read no books other than The Bible and Luther’s Small Catechism, but once, after Sunday service, she heard the sexton say that there are places where the dead traverse a river after death, paying a boatsman to ferry them across the water. Gerda knows such a thing must be either blasphemy or fable, and she knows for certain the dead will find no passage here, not this far north in Sweden, not in January when both the creek and inlet by the village lie frozen; the murky, brackish waters of the Gulf of Bothnia slumbering below windswept ice.
Here, in winter, the dead go nowhere at all, not even into the ground.
A story of winter’s cold, and of a mother’s grief. Gerda’s son died of illness, and now he lies in the morthouse for the winter, waiting for spring burial when the earth thaws. But is there anything Gerda can do to prevent that, to bring him back? A story that’s sharp with winter’s chill yet also dreamy and delicate. A story that twists in ways I didn’t expect. A story that’s human and poignant, that’s grounded in a real place and time, yet also evokes old myths as it speaks of the liminal in between places of grief.
“The Projectionists” by E.M. Linden in The Deadlands
Nobody talks about what happened in Hasan’s city, so he looks for clues. His memories are jumbled up and broken. Boots thudding. Shards of glass. Shoulders and fists slamming on the thin wooden door of his flat. He remembers one night some men forced their way in. The latch is still broken. But Hasan’s father says no. That was only because Hasan locked himself in once and the neighbors had to rescue him. It’s a funny story, not a scary one. And his mother is with relatives. Hasan doesn’t need to worry.
Sometimes Hasan’s father wakes up crying.
Something terrible happened in Hasan’s city, but no one will talk about it. No one will tell him what happened to his mother. But as the snow falls, Hasan looks for clues. He sees people that perhaps aren’t there. And slowly, the city begins remembering. . . A beautiful story about mourning and memory, and also about resistance and defiance. A delicate story that ends in hope.
“As Though I Were a Little Sun” by Grace Chan in Fireside
In my new form, I drink sunrays with unfathomable need. I open the pores of my numerous leaves. I yearn for light to pour through my tender membranes, to soak the chlorophyll pigments embedded within my coiled thylakoid spaces. Only then will I vibrate with energy. I will remove electrons, dividing water into oxygen. I will catch carbon from the air and construct newer, sweeter shapes.
A strange, sad, and gorgeous piece about transformation. Of a young person who became a tree to save the world. . . but, more importantly and personally, to save their family. A story about exploitation and sacrifice and loyalty and love that shines “like a little sun.”
“How to Abandon Your Sourdough Starter: A Recipe for Disaster” by Theresa Delucci at Lightspeed
Realize with creeping terror that quarantine while married turns out to be “I dunno, what do you want to eat?” but now three meals a day until September. Agitate your husband with your silences; there is no satisfying answer to any of his questions, a preferred menu the least of them, that will dislodge what’s stoppering your throat. Watch the brownstones across the street rebound blue and red light in the wake of an ambulance’s keening every ten minutes. Spend the next week playing “Allergies or Am I Going To Die Alone and Intubated in the fucking Javits Center?” with yourself instead of baking.
A flash piece that hits hard. A story about bread making during the pandemic, and different kinds of grief. A story that does so much, and does it all in under 1000 words.
“The Light at the Edge of the World” by Avra Margariti in Flash Fiction Online (reprint, first published in Asymmetry Fiction)
Ours is a small planet, about the size of our god’s fist. Everything is water and sand. If it weren’t for my lighthouse illuminating the oily sea, the entire world would be a dark, solid mass. If I screamed, my voice would sound like a whisper, and if I whispered, my voice would sound like nothing at all.
Such an utterly strange, gorgeous story. On this tiny planet, the narrator tends a lighthouse and doesn’t know why. Until one day another person in the world appears. Someone in a boat, who needs the light. But can these two ever come together? A surreal fantasy of mystery and beauty, shot through with yearning.
“Iron Baba” by Shelley Jones in All Worlds Wayfarer
I have seen the many dangers these woods hold, but am unsure what to do when the hut—all scales of interlocking metal—rotates on an unseen axis, stands up on chicken legs, and begins to lurch toward me.
This story is a delight. Steampunk Baba Yaga meets an axe-wielding Gretel from “Hansel and Gretel.” It’s fresh and fun, but there’s poignancy here as well, as this version of Gretel reflects on her past and considers her future.
“A Strange and Muensterous Desire” by Amanda Hollander in Diabolical Plots
New guy Byron came to palely loiter over us while I had Maisie try Irish versus Wisconsin. He looked deeply into my eyes and said that he was hungry too and licked his lips. I offered him some of the cheese, but he refused, saying his is a tragic and eternal hunger. I guess he’s lactose intolerant?
And this is a delight from start to finish. A teen girl obsessed with winning a state fair grilled cheese sandwich competition. A broody new boy at school. A town where people have started disappearing (ever since the new boy arrived). But our protagonist is heedless of the strange happenings in town, solely focused on winning the grilled cheese sandwich competition and covering herself with eternal glory. This story is so much fun, with loads of wonderful cheese sandwich descriptions and also loads of cheesy (forgive me!) puns.
“The Many Taste Grooves of the Chang Family” by Allison King in Diabolical Plots
When Ba begins to lose his memories, he demands we get him a Remote Mouth.
“They’re only available in Asia,” Gerald complains.
“And they’re creepy,” I add, unhelpfully.
But Ba is set. He’s always been on the edge of technology and the Remote Mouth appeals to everything he would like. It is at the intersection of biotechnology (chips in the tongue and the nose) and big data (tastes and smells from all over the world, the data cleaned, encoded, and categorized) and — the quickest way to Ba’s heart — has a stupid name.
.And this one is also wonderfully funny, but ALSO tender and poignant and it will pull at your heart and it made my vision slightly blur at the end. A lovely depiction of food, food memories, and family. I love the sci-fi conceit, the way food tastes are so personal, the family dynamics, and the humor and poignancy.
"Love Heart Soup" by Wen-yi Lee in Augur Magazine
It starts like any other soup: garlic, onion, bones, ginger, scallions, salt. On top of that, though, and depending on the day, Sama layers notes of love. Today it is fourteen years since her sons died, and today love tastes like bitter gourd and silken tofu.
An achingly sad and beautiful story about the different flavors of love, of the bitterness of grief, and of love that continues past grief and of a heart that continues to create.
“Merry in Time” by Kathleen Jennings at Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Look at me,” she said. “Truthfully. Pretend you’re not be-spelled. I’m not a nymph, or a princess, or a swan-throated maiden. You would mock me with a crown of flowers? A dance? A kiss? What contract demands so simple a payment?”
In an enchanted forest, a young lord meets a silent young woman spinning nettles into thread. No, it’s not that fairy tale—it’s a fairy tale spun of bits and pieces of other tales, and also uniquely this author’s own. The two young people fall in love, of course, and they must pass many trials to be together: three forbidding aunts, an even more forbidding forest, and songs and riddles. But there’s a warmth and humor and generosity to this piece that sets it apart from many such tales. Charm, wit, and generous heart are wedded with gorgeous prose, in a way that reminds me of the late Patricia McKillip’s work.
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