I read a lot in February, it seems, but as usual I feel like I didn’t read enough: there are so many great stories out there, just waiting to be devoured. I’ve come to the conclusion, that if I could ever clone myself, I’d make one clone just for reading.
Anyway. Here are fifteen fantastic stories I read in February.
HEL 266, by Sara Rich in See The Elephant. “A thousand gigantic serpents slithered through the tops of the trees, catching her eye. Rustle. Shuffle. Hiss.” I love stories that start out solidly realistic, only to slowly but surely twist themselves into deep, dark horror, and that is exactly what Hel 266 does. It starts off as a scientific expedition to gather core samples from ancient trees, only to end up with visions of hallucinatory, existential, even biblical, terror. Vivid and terrifying, this story has haunted me ever since I read it.
Rockport Boys, by Megan Arkenberg in See The Elephant. “She’s not sure what it means, she says. Or maybe she’s too sure. Maybe she knows what she wants it to mean, and that’s what frightens her: not the knowing or the not knowing, but the wanting.” Arkenberg’s stories are always wonderful and evocative, and this one is no exception. A woman is telling the tale of a relationship, and of a place and time that she can’t quite let go of – or that won’t let go of her. There’s a sense that the people she met, and the very landscape they inhabit, are all shaped by a powerful and ancient malicious magic. The history of Salem and its witch trials, dreams, nightmares, visions, and memory, all these things are skillfully twisted together into a slow-burning, mesmerizing tale.
The Bells, by Lyndsie Manusos in Apex Magazine. “…I knew Bishop’s presence. He was like a plastic bag over my head. He knew every thought and everything I could, or couldn’t, feel.” In this tense and emotionally devastating story, there is a heavy presence of claustrophobic darkness and despair, though much of it moves just beneath the surface of the words. The marvel is the way Manusos manages to evoke that darkness and horror without explicitly showing us every detail of it. Even so, the weight of all the horrors we don’t see is crushing. This is not an easy read, but it is a masterfully crafted story and absolutely worth reading.
How Bees Fly, by Simone Heller in Clarkesworld. “This is how you defend yourself against the demons of old, should they cross your path: You grind down their bones with a millstone and burn them; the ash you bury under a Blackwillow tree and salt the whole field where you happened to find them.” Heller’s science fiction story, set in an unidentified, alien landscape, is a masterpiece of deft world- and character-building. It describes an encounter between Salpe, midwife and tender of bees in her community, and two demons. The story is told from Salpe’s point of view, and Heller uses language in a very effective and skillful way to make the reader understand the world, as well as Salpe’s fears, hopes, and superstitions. By the end, Salpe is fundamentally changed by the encounter with the demons, and I found the story riveting from beginning to end.
London Calling, by Philip A. Suggars in Strange Horizons. “And then one morning she’d woken to the city’s voice. She didn’t mind that no one else could hear it.” London comes to life, quite literally, in this story; and a woman who is looking for a change, and to be changed, gets her wish, too. This story is sad and hopeful at the same time, and I love the aching weirdness of it. I also love how it deals with profound grief and loss, while still showing the hidden joys that life can bring us, when we least expect it.
A Nightingale’s Map of the City, by Suzanne J. Willis in Metaphorosis. “Julietta left the city long ago, much longer than Gustav cares to remember. So he holds the city close like a well-worn photograph, folded and re-folded and disintegrating with time.” The prose in this piece is so gorgeous that reading it is sort of like running your fingers through a treasure chest of the most exquisite gems and jewelry. Every word, every phrase, every sentence is a thing of beauty. The story itself is a strange and ethereal tale of love and hubris and memory, with the the giant Gustav haunting the city he once built for his beloved Julietta, now inhabited by mere mortals.
Zombies in Winter, by Naomi Kritzer in Persistent Visions. “The zombie plague lasted three weeks, and didn’t end civilization as we knew it.” A zombie story that is unlike any other zombie story you might have read or seen, Kritzer’s tale deals with the aftermath of the “zombie apocalypse”. What happens once the zombies are sort of defeated, but still live among us? What do we do with zombies that are our family and friends, and who can no longer take care of themselves? A truly original take, and so real it feels like this might have already happened…
Snow Devils, by Charles Payseur in Persistent Visions. “Before the Change snow devils were just pretty things, a breeze and a dance and nothing more. People used to say it was a spirit coming to say hi. Since the Change it’s another matter. The spirits have grown hungry, fat.” This is a lovely and very well-crafted tale set in a cold, post-apocalyptic world. A young man tries to find his place and purpose after losing his parents, and experiences the first intense throes of love, and lust, after a new family comes to the remote, isolated community. There is an undercurrent of fear and death and despair tugging at the edges of the story, but also a strong sense of hope and the possibility of forging new paths and new lives – as long as you’re willing to brave the unknown.
The Lily Rose, by Emily B. Cataneo in The Dark. “The walls heaved like the decks of a roiling ship and then more water ran down the crease. It trickled across the oak floor, soaked her house slippers, reached its tendrils beneath the rug that she had bought second-hand at an estate sale in Cambridge.” Lily Rose runs an orphanage inhabited by a band of spirited girls, but when disaster strikes, her whole life changes, and so does she. I love the way grief and death take physical shape in this story, and how the real world – the house, Lily Rose’s own body – are transformed. The story is beautifully told, with a restrained and carefully crafted prose that perfectly conveys both horror, grief, pain, and the lingering endurance of love.
The Last Dinosaur Rider of Benessa County, by Jeremy Sim in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.”Once you get to know a pleesaur, he likes to say, you’ll see they never do anything by accident.” Sim’s story is set in a weird-western, steampunk, dinosaur-inhabited kind of world, and I confess I fell in love with the setting and the protagonist pretty much right off the bat. I also confess I especially fell in love with Essie the pleesaur. The plot is a gripping western-ish tale of debts owed and old scores to settle, and my first thought as the story ended was: I’d love to read more of this.
Suddenwall, by Sara Saab in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I do love stories that break my heart, and Saab’s story broke it carefully and skillfully and completely. The two main characters are haunted by their past: by the war they took part in, by the atrocities they committed, and by the relationship they had. They are simultaneously bonded and broken apart by that shared past. Saab’s description of a society that commits genocide against people because of the language they speak, and how that society then turns against the soldiers who carried out that genocide… well, it’s a wonderful, but heartbreaking read.
Your Mama’s Adventures in Parenting, by Mary Robinette Kowal in Shimmer. “She skipped back in the wormhole, and the dark closed around her until all that remained was the memory of warmth on her skin.” Kowal’s story is that rare and wonderful beast: the kind of tale that makes you laugh and cry. There is time travel, space travel, and whole lot of other things all wrapped up in the silliness and fun and absurdity of keeping your sanity and your sense of humour while parenting (how do we survive all the stuff our kids do?). BUT it is also a brilliant story about aging and the relationship between parents and children, and about holding on to your dreams.
The Famine King, by Darcie Little Badger in Mythic Delirium. “The hands were gone. The lanky shadow was gone. But my window still chanted, “Hunger, hunger.”.” If you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis (I have), then this story might bring back some frighteningly vivid memories. Add the specter of cannibalism, and a menacing entity that lurks everywhere and nowhere, and you’ve got a fantastic horror story. This is a visceral, and supremely goosebump-inducing tale.
The First of Her Name, by Elaine Cuyegkeng in Lackington’s. “I was born of the First, in the height of spring. Removed from Her presence and christened by my sisters, I was set among the cots of the scholar-explorer castes.” Oh, what a fabulous slice of delicious weirdness this story is! Delving deep into life inside a busy, squirming collective, Cuyegkeng’s tale beautifully captures the terrors and frenzy and purpose of a very different, non-human kind.
Marking The Witch, by Lina Rather in Flash Fiction Online. “Alina told the witch of chemistry—the hum of autoclaves, the orderliness of stoichiometry, always in balance; the near-sorcery of mercury II thiocyanate.” This is a delightful story of love, transformation, and the bargains we make in life, even when we don’t realize we are making those bargains. Lina Rather’s prose is playful, but there’s a depth beneath the playfulness. As the story makes clear: allowing magic and love into your life will change you. Or, as Alina’s grandmother (who can only speak in metaphors after being cursed by a witch – perhaps my favourite detail in this story!) says: “Love is a chrysalis, my dear, everything inside it transforms.”
Love Is A Cavity I Can’t Stop Touching, by Stephen Graham Jones in Gamut. “When I was fourteen, I ate a cooked piece of thigh meat off my girlfriend Sherry Wilkes.” You know a short story is good when it causes a physical sensation in your body as you’re reading it. This story gave me an actual pain in my thigh for the entire day after I read it. The heat of young love is captured perfectly here, and then Jones pulls you into another kind of darkness at the end… Brilliant stuff.
For more short fiction picks: