Short fiction recs! July and August 2022
I find myself finishing this bimonthly round-up of fiction late, slipping it in just hours before September ends. It’s alternately gray and drizzly or bright and crisp here where I write in the Midwest. Both perfect types of weather for curling up with a good story.
“You, Me, Her, You, Her, I” by Isabel J. Kim in Strange Horizons
You are wearing Valentine’s clothes. You are wearing her body. You are everything that makes Valentine Manning herself, except for the throbbing electric lump that should sit in her cranial cavity. Her new brain is currently stored in a little closet in the Resurrection Clinic, bathed in goo and bombarded with targeted electrons. It will take two months to rearrange the freshly printed organ into the shape that she left it in before she died, all memories restored.
Valentine Manning is an art student who died. She can be “resurrected”—her memories and mind downloaded into a newly grown brain. Her new body is ready before her brain, however, and her family doesn’t want anyone to know that she died. So an unnamed “synthetic replicative intelligence” has been assigned to take Valentine’s place for two months: to pilot Val’s body and impersonate her to the world. The synthetic intelligence has access to all Val’s chat logs, social media posts, and every digital trace she left in the world. Fooling her friends and classmates isn’t hard. Understanding Val’s art, on the other hand, is something else entirely. A fascinating, gorgeous, complex story about identity, personhood, and art.
“We Were Ghostless Against Her” by Ionna Papadopoulous in the Future Fire
We told ourselves we were going home. The home of many, many generations ago. Our forever home. Nobody told us that the ones who never left would see us as foreigners, ostracising us from their communities. Nobody thought this land of never-ending sun, which burnt our flesh as we worked its fields, was also the ancestral home of another people, and when they left, their ghosts stayed here and hated us for coming to replace them.
A story about ghosts and displacement, about forced migration and people treated as objects, as things to be bargained between governments. A powerful, aching story that feels terribly real—one that is, indeed, rooted in real history. Moving and painful, and also beautifully told.
Friday night drinks become as regular as book club proper. You invite them all over and try to make sushi; Izanami rolls her eyes, brings the red slab of raw tuna to the table, and chows down while your husband calls for delivery. You and Kali marathon four early-century Marvel movies in one night at Hel’s request; she sits there grinding the teeth on the side of her face that can move and explains in excruciating detail just what they got wrong this time as the Hollywood battles crash and yell on her flatscreen.
An absolutely marvelous story, bursting with invention and ultimately with poignancy as well. A surprising and ultimately affecting story about death goddesses and the book club for them which Persephone founds.
“Do Werewolves Live in the Pacific Northwest?” by Ross Showalter in The Bureau Dispatch
Every night, I hear howls. I asked the guidance counselor once if she could hear the howls too. She frowned at me and said, I don’t hear anything. I don’t understand how she couldn’t. The howls are so loud, cutting clear through the night, clear even through my closed bedroom window.
When I asked my dad, he laughed. He said opportunists live around here, cashing in on Twilight folklore.
Oh, and the twists in this story. A creepy and exquisite little werewolf tale told by way of a Reddit forum thread. It is, as the OP would tell you, NOT about Twilight.
“I Will You Back to Time and Space” by Dafydd McKimm in Podcastle
They probe your little body as if you’re some thing from another planet, mapping your neural activity, scrutinising your biochemistry. When you’re older, they measure your IQ, ink-blot you until your eyes ache, perform every kind of exam imaginable, hoping to find some glitch in your makeup that will explain why you lack what every other living person has.
“The Ocean-Eyed Boy” by Timothy Mudie in Podcastle
Because he was formula-fed for the first months of his life, the Ocean-Eyed Boy does not breastfeed now. His parents take turns giving him his bottle every three hours. Sharks glide across his eyeballs as he suckles. Sperm whales battle giant squid in such intense displays that the boy’s father gets distracted and lets the nipple fall from the boy’s lips.
"I Will You Back to Time and Space" and "The Ocean-Eyed Boy" appeared as a double-feature in Podcastle this past summer, and the thematic reasons are clear. They’re both strange, gripping, and powerful stories of parenthood, of parenting a child who is different—who doesn’t fit into the world around them. The second story by Timothy Mudie made me outright cry. Both marvelous, heart-tugging pieces.
“What the Dead Birds Taught Me” by Laura Blackwell in Nightmare Magazine
“Mary, you got to stay away from men like that,” Anne told me when I came back to the car. She was a stricter parent than our parents had been. “He has death on his hands.” She had no interest in necromancy, but she had the knack all the same.
A darkly wonderful reworking of the Bluebeard tale, with allusions to other fairy tales. A story that builds almost unbearable tension at its climactic moments. A story about a woman who survives—of how all should have survived.
“The Tails That Make You” by Eliza Chan in Fantasy Magazine
Your tails flick subconsciously, crowding you until you push them back down. They grow when you aren’t looking. Like weeds between the cracks: no matter how you try to hide them, they nevertheless survive. Thrive.
The huli jing are nine-tailed fox spirits of Chinese mythology. In many stories, they are portrayed as taking on the shape of beautiful, seductive women. In Eliza Chan’s story, the huli jing of contemporary times are girls growing up with complicated feelings about their tails. Men are drawn to the tails, prizing and fetishizing them—attracted to the tails but not bothering to see the young women who own them. Mothers teach their fox daughters to be ashamed of the attention their tails draw—to be ashamed of their tails, and ashamed of themselves. Yet there are girls who want to know about the tails, who want to know about themselves. This is a story that cuts deep, ones that spans time and generations and multiple women. It’s a story about girls and women, about sexuality and power and worth, and about shame passed down generations. In the end, however, it’s also a story about hope and change. A gorgeous and powerful story, one of my favorite so far this year.
“Ephemera” by Avra Margariti in Flash Fiction Online
It was here that I fell for a phoenix. We met at the first light of dawn, on the pulsing dance floor. From then on, everything was fiery and electric. I used to think I was the luckiest girl alive. Now I think we might both be cursed.
And oh, this fierce, fiery flash fiction of love and pain, painted in the brilliant colors of Margariti’s prose.
“Sunday in the Park with Hank” by Leah Bobet in The Deadlands
It is four in the afternoon, the perilous periphery of Sunday roast and radio-drama time, and the red-checked picnic blanket Hank bought new for them at Gimbels is cleared of all but crumbs. The spring sun has the shadows stretched, rolled out like mourning ribbon across the new grass, and the only sound above the breeze is the youth choir from a Harlem church singing the way young children sing, all enthusiasm and little finesse. It has been a show tune of an afternoon: one of the slow ones, sewn with sweet violin.
A Sunday picnic in the park in New York City. A courting couple, sweet music, sunlight. But also the ever-present memory of pain and loss, in the wake of World War I. Hank, a young veteran of the Great War, is tethered to Horatio, a soldier who died in that same war. Lilian, Hank’s sweetheart, wishes to meet Hank without the presence of his dead double—something Hank can’t agree to. Lilian and the other people in the park also have their own traumas and griefs, not all directly related to the war, and embodied in different and surprising ways. The rich prose of this story drew me in from the first line. This is a tale that entwines grief and beauty, trauma and hope. It’s a brief moment in time, a single afternoon at the park, told in honey-rich prose, sewn with both sweetness and pain.
“Hungry as the Mirror Bright” by Micah Dean Hicks in Lightspeed
Hundreds clustering low and high, dressed fine in egg shell and spider silk, tea towel and toad skin. They bobbed in clouds of lantern-light, abdomens spilling gold, drawing lines of fire against the black. Laughter chimed, and berry wine breath spilled down the breeze. Dew-touched and nectar-lipped, their chitin oiled shining.
A sumptuously dark, gorgeously macabre story of hunger and need and fairy revels, with fairies as you’ve never quite seen them before In the author interview, Hicks mentions that one of the inspirations for the fairy depiction here was “cannabilistic fireflies,” to give you a hint of the gruesome wonders of this story.
“Water and Glass” by Megan Baffoe in Worlds of Possibility, August 2022 Issue.
There is nothing that we fear more than reflections. We shut our eyes tightly when the rain begins to fall, descend into showers with eye-guards on and our necks twisted rigid to keep them upright. We hide the Thames behind thick white walls, stone-faced guards baring batons at anyone approaching.
In an alternate London, mirrors and reflective surfaces are feared because to look into one is to possibly disappear: to pass into the mirror-world on the other side. Sometimes the people who have passed to the other side come back: mirror-people wondrously transformed. A woman with fox-paws, a man with hair of bronze and gold and silver. Trees with the faces of women. Most people fear and shun those from the mirror-world. But the narrator and her friends—all children—find the mirror-people fascinating. A story that starts off on notes on foreboding, but takes a surprising turn. A wondrously fantastical story of beauty, discovery, and transformation.
More on Worlds of Possibility, August 2022 issue
Worlds of Possibility is a new speculative arts project that launched this year. “Water and Glass” appears in the August 2022 issue, which was kindly offered to me as a free review copy by editor and founder Julia Rios. I’ve long admired Rios’ editing work at Strange Horizons, Fireside, and other places, so I gladly accepted. Although I singled out Megan Baffoe’s story here, the entire issue is worth reading. This digital magazine features speculative art, fiction, and poetry. In the August issue, alongside Megan Baffoe’s “Water and Glass,” Keyan Bowes offers up a savory dish of family love, diaspora, and hope in “Bidaai ki Chicken Curry.” Lena Ng gives us a light-hearted adventure in “A Saturday Out,” as a bike ride becomes more than what a couple expects, and in Die Booth’s “What It Takes to Stay Wild,” a character finds unexpected hope waiting at a bus stop in the rain. These tales are bookended by a pair of lovely micro-fictions by Marc A. Criley, “Fencepost” and “Tree,” two related pieces about healing and renewal. Taken together, the stories of this issue are about transformation, hope, and renewal. This particular issue also features art and illustrations by Ukrainian artists; a particular favorite of mine was the piece, “Wheat Fields on Fire,” by Lesia Korol. The official website for this project states: ““Worlds of Possibility works leave us with a sense of hope, peace, or contentment.” Based on what I’ve seen from this issue, Rios and the writers/artists involved are indeed making good on that promise.