December was a busy month for me: lots of feasting, lots of traveling, lots of reading, too. Here are nine stories that are for keeps.

Wooden Boxes Lined with the Tongues of Doves, by Claire Humphrey in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Quite simply one of the best short stories I read in 2016. Magic, love, war, and secrets kept for nefarious purposes… It’s the kind of story that made my heart skip as a reader, and as a writer, I feel like reading it a million times just to appreciate the amazing craftsmanship and luminous talent of how Humphrey creates a world, a mood, and spins it all into such gorgeous dark magic.

Where She Went, by Linden A. Lewis in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “Rhee walked towards the towering obelisks, a hundred feet tall and thick as two men, spurs singing in the desert sand, his wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his brow and one hand poised above his revolver.” A grandfather goes on a quest to find his grand-daughter, a quest that has him heading into a place where nothing is what it seems… and oh my gosh, how I love this story. It is fantasy and science fiction in one, weaving in fairytale creatures and settings in the telling. And, it also has a sort of wild west flavour.

The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage, by Alix E. Harrow at TOR.com. “Without us, the land won’t lie still. It writhes and twists beneath their compasses…” In an alternate version of our world, the land itself changes shape when people move through it, defeating the attempts to tame and cultivate it. Mapmakers are needed to hold the land still, but it is a job that takes a heavy toll. An amazing story, in a uniquely imagined world, with a heart of grief and hope and sorrow.

Too Many Ghosts, by Steve Rasnic Tem in The Dark. “As the tiny lights blinked indistinct faces and pale twisted bodies floated momentarily out of the bark.” An old man carves wood, and sometimes pumpkins, finding the faces of the dead in the material. This is a ghost story of sorts, and Tem expertly weaves a deep and evocative mythology into the telling. A gloriously inventive and evocative read.

Uncontainable, by Helen Stubbs in Apex Magazine. “At intervals, all night, she fights invisible monsters. It’s like something is trying to devour her soul.” A child who doesn’t act the way she is supposed to. A lodger who becomes her friend. And a very strange, seemingly helpful woman feeding her special milk to babies… This is an exceptionally creepy tale of mounting horror as you begin to realize just how much darkness lurks beneath the surface. 

The Blood Drip, by Brian Evenson in Nightmare Magazine. “My jaw?” asked Nils. He reached up and prodded it, and Karsten thought he saw a jag of bone push up beneath the skin. Then, with a swift movement he crunched the jawbone back in place. “What do you mean?” Evenson’s story is the kind of scary story I love: it’s unsettling to the extreme, and suffused with a slow-creeping, disorienting, almost hallucinatory madness and horror. Brilliant stuff.

All the Souls Like Candle Flames, by Vanessa Fogg in Luna Station Quarterly. “Mikki thought of the Sea Witch. She thought of the songs she heard in the night, the voice calling and the chime of drowned bells. “It’s all one sea,” she said.” This is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking stories I’ve read, and yet it is also full of love and hope and light. Fogg tells the story of orphaned children, the hard life near the sea, and the charms woven to protect the living from the Sea Witch, with exquisite care and skill.

Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou in Shimmer. “I used to grow chrysanthemums in my garden. Now it’s sown with cigarettes and shards of glass.” A story I could read over and over again, just because of the gorgeous language: how it flows and sways and sings, and makes the story shiver to life as you read it. The brutality of war lurks just beneath the surface and the hope of peace, even in defeat, is there too. A must-read.

The Three Nights of the Half-Gent, by Mário de Seabra Coelho in Strange Horizons. “More than once he told himself he would talk to her. After all, he was already dead, you can’t lose anything when you’re dead.” A ghost who revisits the love of his past. A flicker of hope, maybe, just out of (or within) reach. This is a different kind of ghost story, all aglow with gorgeous prose, and its very own take on what might happen after death.

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