Short fiction recs! Dec 2023--Jan 2024

 Late, but here are some stories I read and loved in December 2023 and January 2024.


Published in 2023 (many from earlier in the year)


“What is Owed and What Can Never Be” by Ariel Mark Jack in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

“I am owed this death.” All that is around Viktoriya halts as the words exhale into whiteness against the winter-bleached sky. She squeezes the chilly trigger between steady beats of her sturdy heart. The rifle, held tight to her shoulder, kicks like a storm. The five-legged deer crumples into the brush.

A young woman ekes out a living for herself in a harsh wilderness, hunting to feed and clothe herself and pay off a contract debt that she was tricked into as a child. But what starts off as a gritty, compelling tale of survival and debt bondage takes on an unexpected turn toward the end, becoming a beautiful, hopeful tale that asks: what is owed to us in life? What do we owe? What is owned, what is ours, and what can never be taken away?


For However Long” by Thomas Ha in Khoreo Magazine

When I tell people that I feel like I’m the mother of a ghost, they laugh.


Not cruelly. But gently, reassuringly, to remind me that my son is in space, not gone forever. They talk about the ‘Turners they know, maybe a church friend’s child or a colleague or relative, and how my son might be one of them—the ones to return rather than renew their initial  contracts, because everyone gets tired and wants the comfort of stable soil eventually, or so they say.


An aching story of the choices that children make, and the physical distances that occur within families as a result. A mother misses her son, who has immigrated to Mars. But she reflects that she herself left her own mother—moving only across the width of a continent, but a distance that also irrevocably separated her from regular contact with her mother. As the narrator counts up the limited time she had with her mother, and the limited time she’ll have with her own son, the story irresistibly asks the reader to consider: how much time do we ourselves have with our loved ones?  A  beautifully told story, and deeply moving.


“In Memories We Drown” by Kelsea Yu in Clarkesworld

It’s too risky.

Rosalie’s conducted tests, checked for toxins . . . the known ones, anyway. Still, it doesn’t take a marine botany degree (Rosalie has two) to know she shouldn’t eat anything that shines brighter than a startled jellyfish.

But that scent.

She leans down to inhale, marveling the way she did the first time. Somehow, this little plant smells of butter and apples and dough, fresh from the oven, with hints of five spices she’d recognize anywhere. Her longing runs bone-deep, dredged up and powerful after so many years.

Rosalie lives and works in a deep-sea research station which has been cut off from the surface world. The station is running out of food. . until one day the station’s remotely operated submersible brings back a mysterious plant. A plant that might not only offer survival to the station’s residents, but that also invokes memories—tasting and smelling just like the favorite childhood food of whoever tastes it. This is an achingly gorgeous story about loss, longing, and memory. A story that deftly entwines science fiction and fantasy.



“Nextype” by Sam Kyung Yoo in Strange Horizons

Her post-op recovery had been difficult. She had fever dreams of worms crawling into her brain through the still-healing metal port. Even after she was fully recovered and ready to be plugged in for her first update, images of the plug’s pin connectors piercing too deep and puncturing her occipital lobe made her hands shake.


Mirae remembers her mother getting impatient with her. She grabbed Mirae’s hands and guided them—forced them—to shove the plug the rest of the way in. “See? Everything is fine. Stop overreacting,” her mother said. And she was right. All systems normal. Software installation completed without any issue.


But Mirae still cried that first night.


A wrenching story of family pressure in a ferociously competitive society. Of new parental controls enabled by technology. And of a young woman trying to find her brother—and herself—in this world.


“The Darkness Carried by the Beasts” by Maria Haskins in Sunday Morning Transport

Death was already inside Gunvor long before any diagnosis, and it has been inside the world itself, in every strand and filament, since this world was knit together.


After two hours, Torsten knows he’s lost even though it is not possible for him to be lost here. He knows these woods; knows them, whether they are covered in snow or not, but something has changed. It’s as if the landscape has shifted around him, or maybe the world has swallowed him whole, spitting him out elsewhere.

A deeply immersive and compelling tale of loss, grief, love, and winter, told in Haskins’ gorgeously lyrical prose.


“Pulmonary” by Avra Margariti in The Rumpus

I build a home inside my mother’s cancer-riddled lungs. This is a product of my belief that if I stay close to the flesh that killed her, what I am most afraid of will fail to find me, because I will have already hidden within its blind spot.


An exquisite and haunting piece of flash fiction. A delicately strange tale of grief and love.


“Bird-Girl Builds a Machine” by Hanna Yang in Clarkesworld

Your mother spends every evening working on her machine.


It looks like no other machine you’ve seen. A hunk of metal on the ground, with wires stringing each section to the next. Like the inside of a giant robot’s belly, if someone cut it open to expose the raw gape of its innards.


She’s been constructing it, piece by piece, for as long as you can remember.

The enigmatic tale of a girl and her mother and the machine that her mother is obsessed with. A tale of a complicated mother-daughter relationship, of the resentment that can co-exist with love, and of repeating life cycles. Spare and mysterious, this is a tale that lingers.



“Once Upon a Time at the Oakmont” by P.A. Cornell in Fantasy Magazine

On the island of Manhattan, there’s a building out of time. I can’t tell you where it is, exactly. It has an address, of course, as all buildings do, but that wouldn’t mean anything to you. What I can tell you is that the building is called The Oakmont.


A gentle and slightly bittersweet story of community and love in a most unusual apartment building. The Oakmont building is a building out of time, and its residents come from all periods of time. Sarah is from our present day, and she’s fallen in love with Roger, a man who exists in his own time in the period just before World War II. Sarah’s knowledge of the upcoming attack on Pearl Harbor—her knowledge of the whole tragedy of World War II, and of other disasters and events that her friends from the past will endure—haunt her and the story as a whole. Despite this sense of looming tragedy, however—and Sarah’s fear for Roger’s life, and the inevitable parting of the time-crossed lovers—there’s a lovely gentleness and warmth to this story, and particularly in its depiction of community. No one finds the Oakmont on a map; this is a special place that selects for the few residents that need it. It’s a place—and a multitude of time periods—that’s captured beautifully. Any time travel story—or a story like this one, which plays with time—has a twist, and the twist here is also most satisfying.


Gamut Magazine (the relaunch).  Issue 1: January 2024 

Gamut Magazine appeared in its first iteration in 2017. It published some wonderful horror and dark fiction but folded at the end of its first year. However! It’s now back as a dark speculative fiction magazine under the new House of Gamut imprint and non-profit. The first issue of the relaunched Gamut came out at the beginning of this year and is free to read online. I highlight some of my favorite pieces below, but the entire issue is well worth reading, and features poetry as well as fiction and essays.


“We Never Went Away, We Just Hid Better” by Sam Rebelein

You know about the uncanny valley?” he asks.


.It’s one of those questions where your answer doesn’t matter, he’s going to explain it to you anyway. He’s already mansplained a number of things to you tonight, including the end of Inception, which is the reddest of flags, as far as things men can mansplain go. But he did make a good case for how Leonardo was in a dream the entire time, and it actually did make you want to rewatch the movie for the first time since 2010, in spite of yourself.


A short, sharp, wonderfully creepy tale.  A story about what seems like an ordinary date with a slightly annoying and “mansplaining” ordinary man. . . which becomes steadily stranger and stranger as the night unfolds. It’s a story about the “uncanny valley,” and it offers up one explanation for why this phenomenon exists—for why we fear that which looks close to human but not quite human.


“Date Night” by Jan Stinchcomb

Nobody thinks of the mother, given the babysitter’s ordeal. The mother, still young, is counting on dinner and a movie with her husband. It is the best time of her life—the children aren’t babies anymore, but they still need her. They’re good at school. They have interesting things to say, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant.


They don’t ask her about the darkness, but they see it in her eyes, and she sees them seeing.


A tense, propulsive story that’s a twisty riff on the babysitter-versus-serial killer/Final Girl tropes. A story that is centered on one particular mother and one particular babysitter, but which seemingly evokes an entire world of babysitters who grow up to be mothers, of mother who were once babysitters; of the mysterious masked men who prey upon them, and the terrible bargains struck.


“Up from Slavery” by Victor LaValle

I’m going to start with the pregnant woman because she survived.

79 other Amtrak passengers weren’t so lucky. 243 people boarded the Lake Shore Limited at Penn Station; we left at 3:40 PM. I had an appointment in Syracuse; me and a couple of lawyers in a windowless room. That occupied my mind more than who was sitting nearby. So I didn’t notice the pregnant woman until the train had flipped.


An absolutely propulsive story that starts off with a train wreck and then goes in completely unexpected directions. Simon is a lonely and isolated man, an orphan who knows nothing of his birth family. He’s also a Black American man who is copyediting a new edition of Booker T. Washington’s memoir, an experience which is affecting him deeply. When Simon receives word that the father he never knew has passed away, it’s the start to a bewildering and shocking revelation about his true family history, self, and identity. But it’s also an identity he doesn’t have to accept. An intense story which draws on painful American history and the contemporary world to create a most unusual and startling science fiction/fantasy superhero-origin story.


“To a Puppet, From a Dummy” by Jon Padgett (essay)

I saw the episode at the age of four and had recurring nightmares about the Doll for the five years that followed. I can see her now, four decades and more later, perfectly rendered by my imagination. The Doll has a rather square face (like my own) with matted, blond hair and smeared black circles under her eyes. When about to kill, the lids pop open, revealing eyes that are blue and rather beautiful. Her closed mouth breaks into a fixed grin revealing bright, white teeth. The Doll sits up, and she seems to float towards me.


This is an essay, not fiction, yet this personal essay by Padgett is every bit as gripping and atmospheric as the horror fiction in this issue of Gamut Magazine. A deeply personal exploration and reflection on dolls and ventriloquist dummies, and how the author’s relationship with them has evolved throughout his life.


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