How long have we been in lockdown now? It feels like an eternity, it feels like this has become a new normal and the world before, the world that existed when we could walk freely outside, hug each other, laugh and kiss without care at the strangeness of the world is gone completely. It has been replaced by masks and social distancing, and we go on, day after day, moving through this existence, changed into some kind of new normal. What will happen on the other side?
Who knows. Will we ever be the same way again? Who knows. All I know is that I’m spending this time indoors to good benefit. I’m reading more and more than ever before, and here, I have brought some short stories share with you. These are a handful of my favorites that I read over in the month of August. Here, take these words, read them close. It is the nearest thing we have to human touch these days, it is breathing without a mask, it is a hug in the dark by a friend who was sad.
The first story I’m going to talk about is a story I’ve been wanting to tell you about for most of the month of August now, dear reader. I couldn’t even wait until I wrote this roundup, the minute I was done reading it I took to twitter and expounded on my love for this story. This, of course, is White Cloth, Red Giraffe by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu, in FIYAH number 15. You should go right now, cough up the four bucks and download that issue, you won’t be sorry. It’s a story about death, and the men who scheme and use women as money and property and debt. It’s about rage, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time reading it. I haven’t felt that *in* a story in a long, long time. Go, read it now. The only word I can say is wow, just absolutely wow, over and over again, wow.
Okay, with that out of the way I’m going to move onto another fantastic story. Now, remember what I said before, in my older reviews- I’m only doing short stories, I’m only limiting the number of stories I talk about per magazine, and I’m only talking about stories I’m absolutely over the moon about and want to talk about nonstop. So, if it seems like I’m only praising and not being critical, that’s on purpose. Criticism is important, don’t get me wrong, I think there is a necessary function for criticism and it is very important. But that’s not what this article is about, okay? This article is about finding those hidden stories you probably didn’t know were published during August and telling you all about them.
So ignore my gushing as I move onto A Voyage to Queensthroat by Anya Johanna DeNiro, in the latest issue of Strange Horizons. First off, I absolutely love the voice of the narrator. I get this very Dunsany meets Cordwainer Smith style of poetic archaic in the far future world, like we’re listening to someone tell us a future mythology or folklore. I mean, just listen to this:
Their sweetness was amplified by the salty tang, and traders who came to the village closest to me had buyers from distant moons who prized them—rarely for eating, but rather for pickling and preserving for decades, if not centuries, in the holds of thousand-year-old caravels that plied the emptiness between the moons
Look at the musical line, the way the rhythm of it all begs to be read out loud! Fantastic. And like most heavily personal stories, it transcends the weight of individual pain to become a universal pain that we can all empathize with. Stories like these are why I consider fiction to be empathy engines, that show us how we are all connected in our differences, since at the seat of our collective hearts there lies the same kind of sorrow and pain that comes from being alive.
I could go on and on and on about this story, but really you should just hop on over to Strange Horizons and read it. It’s about a half hour of your time well spent.
And now I turn to a second story I loved in this month’s Strange Horizons- Alone, by Emma Törzs. This is a sweet, melancholy story, all about the musings of our place in the universe and what it means to be lost and alone. What sells this story are the characterizations, the humanity, and the philosophical musings. It’s a piece that makes you think, and then think some more, ponderous and weighty.
Next up! We have Bereft, I Come to the Nameless World by Benjamin Rosenbaum in the July/August issue of Asimov’s. There is a lot to recommend in this story. The way it plays with negative space, parenthesis, and the start and stop of sentences half way through remind me of the same textual experimentations Delany did in both Nova and Dahlgren (not quite as extreme as House of Leaves, but a breath of experimental fresh air in a time when most genre short stories seem to be happy to exist in the status quo and not push anything too far). The way it creates it’s scifi lingo is the best way to create scifi lingo, in my humble opinion. It combines one or two or three word pairings that jarringly conflict with each other, creating a space between the words that is surreal, poetic, and contain entire worlds of implication. An exquisite corpse of secondary world tech, so to speak.
If you don’t trust me on that, here are some wonderful examples:
scent gardening celebrity, torture harmony, exsanguitory grooming
As you can see they imply meaning, but are slippery because the words contrast and conflict with each other. You want to know what they represent, and you can sort of glimpse at an idea of what they could be, but it escapes you. This is absolutely wonderful, and thrilling to read. The plot itself is pretty straight forward stranger in a strange land style experiential experience of an alien landscape and technology. I love stories that use multi-factored consciousness, or rather one consciousness controlling and experiencing things through several bodies, which the story does very well and interestingly.
It goes beyond the mere idea of clones, and extends into a sense of ego-death, much like that experience of psychedelics where the concept of I disintegrates and you experience the world in a way without ego. The consciousness of one experience multiple bodies dissolves and becomes a we instead of an I.
So where do we go from here? Why, The Bone-Stag Walks by KT Bryski, in this month’s Lightspeed Magazine. My, what a haunting faery tale of a story. A family who are followed by the snow and the winter lights, a cruel mother, grandmother, story teller. A bone stag who symbolized death and the unknown, and yet exists as something more than a mere symbol, something powerful and archaic, it clings to the mind. Each line of this one is poetry, and I relished the words over and over again.
To round it all out I have two horror stories from two different magazines. The first one is by the fantastic Llivia Llewellyn, in the August issue of Nightmare Magazine. Yours is the Right to Begin is a master class in creating dread with prose. Not an easy thing to do, it is a balance of perfect word choice, setting, and rhythm. Another story that had me on the edge of my seat all the way through, I could not stop reading even for a moment, not until I got to the ending…
And oh man, what an ending. Sometimes a story builds and builds and falls flat, and does not live up to its own promise. This is especially hard in a short story, since you have less room to let the ending breathe in the way it needs to breathe. Not so with Yours is the Right to Begin. It fulfills the promise of dread, in a way that harrows the reader to the bone. Given time, this could be another future classic of Weird and Horror fiction. The fact that this story pulls from, references, and transcends Dracula (one of my favorite pieces of fiction- I love all things Dracula, from the novel to Bela Legosi to Hammer Horror and to Coppola…) makes this even more powerful and poignant.
And at long last I’m going to leave you with chills and a fright, the perfect emotions for the promise of autumn hanging in the air. Cold wind, fogs rolling on through, winter hanging around the edges of dead leaves. We move onto Dead Girls Have No Names by Claire Wrenwood, another story from this August’s Nightmare Magazine. And wow, what a gut punch of a story. We’re thrust directly into the perception of dead girls in a freezer, and the mother who killed them. We roll on in that dark faerie tale dusk, inhibited by other dead children from Grimm’s. Like those found in The Children Who Played at Slaughtering, or The Bone Flute, or Two Sisters. What’s amazing is how this story is grounded in such small details that add a physical realness to it, even with the frightening and fantastical hanging on every paragraph. Absolutely brilliant.
Now! I’ve done my part, telling you about such amazing stories. You should do your part and go forth and read. I feel the need to share my love of short stories, the least you could do was go out and find out why I loved these stories, and maybe catch the short story bug yourself. It is the golden age of short genre fiction these days, with so many greats coming out every single month, what a wonderful time to be a reader.
Paul Jessup – Paul Jessup is a critically acclaimed/award winning author of strange and slippery fiction. With a career spanning over ten years in the field, he’s had works published in so many magazines he’s lost count and three or four books published in the small press. You can attempt to find him at https://pauljessupmain.wordpress.com/