From the author: 17 great stories I read in February 2021
An audio version is available for this installment. Listen online →
Laughter Among the Trees, by Suzan Palumbo in The Dark
I don't know what to say about this extraordinary horror story by Suzan Palumbo in The Dark, except that it's so good it's almost unbearable to read. And I mean that as the most sincere compliment. We know from the very beginning of the story that the protagonist's sister disappeared in the woods many years ago. We also know that she's heading back to look for her. As I read Palumbo's story, I was gripped from that first paragraph by an hollow, strangling sense of dread. I knew this would not to end well, and I could even vaguely make out the shape, the shadow of what had happened in the past and what must, MUST, happen now. And yet the conclusion, when it came, was completely devastating. It's a harrowing story where the perfectly captured details of a sibling relationship serve to deepen the horror, make it bite even harder.
The Love Song of M. Religiosa by Nibedita Sen in Kaleidotrope
When Grandmother arrived here, she appeared right in the middle of Skip Brook, ankle deep in cool water, carrying a small sack over one shoulder and a baby—my mother—in her arms. I’ve been to Skip Brook often enough to imagine how it must have felt: the fish staring up at her from beneath the tumbling water; the trees swaying with their gossip; the pyskie moths brushing against her ear with their airy whispers. The prayer she spoke—blessed art thou, blessed, blessed—still echoes in the rustle of grasses and the whispering of leaves and the drip-drop of the deepest caves.
"What if I don't feel like I belong entirely to this world?""I'm not sure any of us ever do....It's a choice we make, to be where we are."
Fanfiction For a Grimdark Universe by Vanessa Fogg in Translunar Travelers Lounge
And you choose now to go through my pack and ask me about the papers you’ve found? To stand there with your eyes wide and confused and accusing? To ask if I wrote them, and what they mean?
Okay. Remember when I was on assignment to that minor world in the Opal Sector? I found those stories there. I didn’t write them. They’re something called “fanfiction.”
Yes, Jenna, the stories are about us.
Vanessa Fogg has a wonderful ability to write stories that are heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, and that ability is on full display here. In a very grimdark universe parallel to our own, a universe where a group of friends (and enemies) have battled against terrible odds their whole lives, two fighters are contemplating the end of their lives and their struggle. They are also contemplating a very strange phenomenon: what happens in their world is somehow bleeding through into our world, influencing the creation of shows and stories, and, yeah, fanfiction. This is such a tender, harrowing, and rich tale: it's a love story, a war story with a whole space opera lurking in the background, and it is also a deep and nuanced contemplation of the value of stories, both reading them and creating them.
I Let You Out, by Desirina Boskovich in Nightmare
A woman waits for a monster to emerge from her closet. For years, whenever she's been in a room with a door, a monster has emerged and every time she ends up running away. She has been on the run for years, crisscrossing the country, never staying anywhere for long, avoiding houses, rooms, beds, since the monster always seems to find her there, but in the end, she cannot escape its clutches. This is a powerful, haunting story about fear and love and the monsters within us and without us.
Mr. Death by Alix Harrow in Apex Magazine
I’ve ferried two hundred and twenty-one souls across the river of death, and I can already tell my two-hundred-and-twenty-second is going to be a real shitkicker.
This story is a brilliant, heart-wrenching read that tempers its harrowing emotionally devastating core plot-point (one of the angels of Death is sent out for a baby) with a great, salty dose of foulmouthed, obstinate, straight-talking humour of the darkest and most desperate kind. Harrow is a brilliant storyteller, and trust me, you will want to read this one to the end.
Gray Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts, by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor in Apex Magazine
A girl has lost her soul down deep in the City. It wandered away while she chipped out another grave in the catacomb brickyards. She set down her pickax, wiped grit from her cheek, and noticed how empty her body was. Looked down at her wrist and found it blank.
A dizzying, dark, razor-sharp story set in a city where dread and fear stalk the streets and buildings, where demons devour the unwary, where souls can be dislodged and stolen, and where the decay and darkness of the city is a shadow-world existing below the closed-off world of Prosperous Above. Wolfmoor has packed a dark fantasy/horror epic into a short story here, and the intricate, gleaming threads of worldbuilding create a weft and warp for a lyrical, devastating story about Redcap Kestrel, Windchime Owl, and the memories that harrow and haunt them.
Lagoonfire, by Francesca Forrest, published by Annorlunda Inc.
The official blurb:
Decommissioner Thirty-Seven is not the most conventional decommissioner at the Ministry of Divinities, but she takes her role of helping fading gods to retire seriously—and feels bad when things go wrong. Take the decommissioning of Laloran-morna, former god of warm ocean waves: she botched that, somehow, and now he spurts saltwater when upset. When seawater invades a development project in Laloran-morna’s old haunts, suspicion naturally falls on him. But is the retired god the source of the problem? Or is it the work of a mortal saboteur? Searching for the answer to these questions brings Thirty-Seven face-to-face with a past she’d rather forget.
If you've read Forrest's fantastic novella An Inconvenient God, you're already familiar with this world and Decommissioner Thirty-Seven. Here, she has to deal with a strange case involving the (possibly) botched decommissioning of a god that is now causing flooding, potential political unrest caused by a construction project, and with her own past coming back to haunt her (and how!). Forrest's story is gripping, and it has a kind of gentle, cozy feel, like a cozy fantasy mystery, that really appeals to me. The intricate worldbuilding is so effortless, and Forrest has a real knack for creating characters that you want to follow anywhere and everywhere, including into new stories.
When Your Being Here is Gentler Than Your Absence Hard by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
A fighter is sent back in time to save the future, and to save the woman she loves (or rather, will love). Armed with a magic sword, she defeats one assassin, but that is not the end of it. She must also convince her lover-to-be of the danger that is approaching. I love how this story takes a time-travel plot and weaves in so much magic and emotion into it. Both this world and the characters in it are vivid and compelling, and it's a riveting ride as things go bad very quickly and there seems to be only one way out... or is there?
You Will Survive This Night by Indrapramit Das in Come Join Us By the Fire from Tor Nightfire
Das's story about what happens after an assault at a house party in Kolkata, India, is a dark, harrowing scream of a story. It captures that heady, vaguely ominous vibe I've had at some parties I've been to, the feeling that something terrible is happening, or might happen, just out of sight. But here, the horror of the assault is followed by some truly spectacular immediate retribution.
More about the anthology:
"Come Join Us by the Fire S2 is the second installment of Nightfire's audio-only horror anthology, featuring a wide collection of short stories from emerging voices in the horror genre as well as longtime fan favorites. The collection showcases the breadth of talent writing in the horror genre today, with contributions from a wide range of genre luminaries including Laird Barron, Indrapramit Das, Shaun Hamill, Daniel M. Lavery, Matthew Lyons, T. Kingfisher, Seanan McGuire, Nibedita Sen, and Nightfire’s own Cassandra Khaw and Silvia Moreno-Garcia."
A Test of Trouble by Catherine George in Luna Station Quarterly
When the baby is nine weeks old, Bree begins to suspect she is a time machine.
Now, if that's not a brilliant hook of a first line, I don't know what is! What follows is an equally brilliant and decidedly unsettling look at fraught relationship, and an insightful and unflinching look at the reality-warping exhaustion that is often part and parcel of a baby's first few months. I love how there is decidedly a method to the time-warping madness of Bree's baby, and I love how we slowly, over the course of the story, realize how profoundly awry things are in Bree's life. There are dangers lurking here that might impact not just Bree's life, but the world. I do love time travel stories, and this one is a keeper.
The Mathematics of Fairyland by Phoebe Barton in Lightspeed
Sara's Someone by Anna Vangala Jones in Wigleaf
An ingenious story, told from the point of view of a girl's (maybe?) imaginary friend. The whole phenomenon of imaginary friends is very close to my heart (I had an imaginary friend myself when I was little), and it struck me as I read this, that it's such an utterly weird and at the same time everyday occurrence that children imagine people, creatures, into existence. Here, we follow the trials and tribulations of the friend as the world, and Sara, begin to change and move away from her. Beautiful strangeness.
The Unrepentant by Derrick Boden in Escape Pod, narrated by Ibba Armancas
First time I saw her, she was bleeding from her left nostril with a nightstick jammed under her chin. Officer Vang was twisting her arm all kinds of unnatural behind her gene-hacked body, pressing her face to the exterior window with four thousand miles of freefall and filth and societal decay on the flip side.
I don't want to delve too deep into this story here, because I believe it's the kind of story that is almost best if you go into it with an open mind. I will say that it's the kind of story that made me go back for another read and listen after the first go-round. It's scifi, people are forced into positions of service and servitude without much say in the matter, and it seems, seems, there are no ways to real freedom. But when the protagonist meets Jena, a relationship is formed that might offer them both a different kind of future. Boden says he wanted to write a story about "emigration and criminal injustice and love", and it's all here, in all its twisted glory.
This Wet Red by Marisca Pichette at PseudoPod narrated by Autumn Ivy
The next sounds make me think of the house, and the house I stayed in before. Wet and full of bones. I think about the house before that, and the trailer before that house, and the apartment, and the motel. Thick swallowing and the smell of silence.
Pichette's story is a deeply unsettling, nightmarish tale of a person who is on the run from a monster or monsters in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic world. Danger lurks everywhere, from monsters and people, though there are not a lot of people around anymore. The narrator has been on the run from the monster for a long time, and they know when it's close. This story really got under my skin and I love the way it makes reality feel uncertain and shifting, as if you might fall through into the abyss at any point.