(Joe M. McDermott says: In our continuing efforts to help everyone find the very best books, I reached out to a friend and fellow Stonecoast Alumni who always posts interesting art and books on her Facebook page. I am pleased to introduce author, poet, and educator Carina Bissett, who shares her best of the year below.)
Every year, I set out to read as many new writers as I possibly can. I inevitably fail. However, somehow, I always stumble across fresh voices and nuanced narratives. This tends to be especially true of the amazing work being put out by small publishers and curated collections. The following list includes a few of my favorites from this incredibly difficult year. They range the gamut in size and scope, but all of them are gems. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
The Best of Shimmer, edited by E. Catherine Tobler (Independently Published, May 2020)
I first discovered Shimmer Magazine in May 2013, and I distinctly remember the glorious experience of feeling like I had found a place on the margins where I belonged. As I didn’t have funds for “extras” at the time, I begged my parents for a subscription as a birthday present, and I never once let that subscription lapse. This decidedly shimmery publication introduced me to many writers who I now follow today: Angela Slatter, Fran Wilde, Nike Sulway, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Alix E. Harrow, Megan Arkenberg, Carmen Maria Machado, Maria Haskins, Karin Tidbeck, Sonya Taaffe, and Lisa L. Hannett. I was devasted when the magazine closed, after thirteen years of publication, in the fall of 2018. But those stories where not forgotten, so I was thrilled when editor E. Catherine Tobler released the collection The Best of Shimmer, which features forty-three stories gleaned from the magazine’s brightest years. The diversity of the writers included offers a wonderful array of stories. My favorites include the story of grief and loss in “Palingenesis” by Megan Arkenberg, the beautiful horror in “The Creeping Influences” by Sonya Taaffe, and the haunting midsummer disappearance in “Hare’s Breath” by Maria Haskins.
Drowned Country by Emily Tesh (Tor, August 2020)
The second novella in the Greenhollow duology picks up the story of Henry Silver after he takes the place of Tobias Finch as the Wild Man of Greenhollow. Drowned Country expands on the forest folklore that creates the evocative setting in Silver in the Wood, Tesh’s debut and winner of the World Fantasy award for best novella. Two years after his confrontation with the Lord of Summer, Henry Silver spends his days moping around his dilapidated country home. And then his mother Mrs. Silver, a renowned folklorist and monster hunter, shows up with a request for help. Henry uses his connection with the wildwood to expand his boundaries to Rothport, where a vampire is suspected of kidnapping a certain young lady named Maud Lindhurst. Henry and Tobias attempt to resolve their feelings for each other during the pursuit of the vampire, but their rocky reunion goes further off the rails with the discovery that Maud is not the proto-typical damsel in distress. She defies prediction and accidently drags Henry and Tobias on a terrifying trip into Fairyland. This enchanting story winds it way through worlds, both present and distant, with luminous imagery and elegant prose. It effectively combines elements of Gothic horror and romance into a satisfying story that lingers long after the last page has been turned.
Cursed, edited by Marie O’ Regan and Paul Kane (Titan Books, March 2020)
A wish can be a terrible thing, and this curated anthology sets out to explore the theme of curses in a collection of short stories by such well-known authors as Neil Gaiman, Charlie Jane Anders, and Christopher Golden. Bookended between poems by fairy-tale aficionado Jane Yolen, the eighteen collected stories draw inspiration from the rich tradition of fairy tales and folklore. Although there are a few stories that didn’t quite hit the mark for me, this anthology is an interesting addition the continuously growing canon of contemporary retellings. Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Black Fairy’s Curse” explores the dreams of “Sleeping Beauty,” Angela Slatter’s “New Wine” offers a wicked twist on “Bluebeard,” and “The Red Shoes” finds new life in “The Merrie Dancers” by Allison Littlewood. Whether you’re interested in fairy-tale mash-ups or hard-hitting horror, you’ll be sure to find the perfect malediction in this magical blend.
Upon a Once Time, edited by Todd Sanders (Air and Nothingness Press, November 2020)
It’s a rare occasion when an anthology meets all expectations, but the pocket-sized Upon a Once Time delivers in this promise. This small press makes a splash with the release of this limited-edition collection of fairy tale mash-ups told in a range of genres including fantasy, science fiction, horror, steampunk, cyberpunk, solarpunk, slipstream, historical biography, and Appalachian folk tale. The Air and Nothingness Press started in 1997 with the intention of publishing art books and French Surrealist poetry, so it isn’t surprising that this collection features gorgeous art and exquisite prose. This unique fairy tale collections opens with a brilliant mash-up of traditional rusalka tales combined with elements of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” in N.A. Sulway’s “Six Rusalki.” In this tale the women win the day with their blades concealed in bouquets and their sharp, sharp teeth. Each of the twenty-one stories included is a decadent treat, a series of “happily ever afters” best savored as bite-sized morsels.
Twelve: Poems Inspired by the Bothers Grimm Fairy Tale by Andrea Blythe (Interstellar Flight Press, September 2020)
Andrea Blythe follows up her award-winning chapbook “Every Girl Becomes the Wolf” (co-written with Laura Madeline Wiseman), with her poetic retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” The inter-linked stories take a feminist slant on one of the most overlooked tales in the Grimm canon. The original tale is told from the point-of-view of the soldier who defeats the murderous sisters who emerge from their chambers each morning exhausted, dancing slippers in tatters. Blythe flips the script with twelve prose poems, a telling for each of the betrayed princesses and their “ever afters.” From poisoner to thief, alchemist to bibliophile, these women embrace the dangers of dark desires and step away from propriety to claim destinies of their own makings.
The Heart is a Mirror for Sinners & Other Stories by Angela Slatter (PS Publishing, March 2020)
A new book by this Australian author is always a beautiful thing to behold, and this gorgeous collection of stories is no different. Although only two of the stories are originals—“But for an L” and “Reading Off the Curriculum”—the only one of the reprints that I’d read before was “Finnegan’s Field,” which was published by Tor.com in 2016. This dark fantasy, changeling tale was also my introduction to Slatter’s work. Many of the collected stories originally appeared in such journals as The Review of Australian Fiction and the limited-edition Murder Ballads, compiled by U.K. publisher Egaeus Press, so it was a treat to find these hard-to-find stories bundled and accessible to readers world-wide. The diversity of the collected stories exemplifies this virtuoso’s range. There are the familiar fairy tales retold in Slatter’s signature style including “Tin Soldier” and “The Little Mermaid, in Passing.” There is a nod to Lovecraft in the chilling “Lavinia’s Wood” and the quieter terror present in “Neither Time nor Tears.” Whether Slatter resurrects old Egyptian gods or flips the script with a new perspective on Jack-the-Ripper, her mastery of the short form is only equaled to the beauty of her prose. With the upcoming publication of her Gothic fairy tale All the Murmuring Bones and the interconnected collection The Tallow-Wife, fans of Slatter’s work have plenty to look forward to 2021. I, for one, can’t wait.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow (Redhook, October 2020)
When the paths of the estranged Eastwood sisters cross in New Salem, they unintentionally summon the lost tower of Avalon and release women’s witching back into the world. In an alternate history of 1893 New England, the women’s suffrage movement has stalled and segregation is in full swing. The young murderess James Juniper arrives in New Salem with a pocketful of charms and litany of spells she isn’t afraid to use. Agnes Amaranth, the middle sister, is a factory girl who finds herself in the family way. And the eldest, Beatrice Belladonna, denies her attraction to other women and spend her time seeking tidbits of lost lore in-between her duties as a junior librarian. On the day Juniper arrives on the run, Beatrice discovers a lost verse tucked away in a first edition of the Sisters Grimm’s Children and Household Witch-Tales. She recites the spell fragment, which brings the sisters together and opens a doorway to the stars where a rose-bedecked tower promises the revival of witchcraft and the salvation of womenkind. Together, the Eastwood sisters learn lessons of the unity and the true powers of family, friendship, and love. This marvelous, complex novel combines folklore, fairy tales, Arthurian legends, nursery rhymes, and historical accounts into a magical blend that defies expectations. The only disappointment was that the story had to eventually come to an end.
White Trash Warlock by David R. Slayton (Blackstone Publishing, October 2020)
Adam Binder has the Sight, but this family trait also means he has the potential of becoming as evil as his father, a warlock who isn’t above the mutilation of magical creatures to create dark artifacts. Adam follows a trail leading to his missing father and ends up in Denver, where a monstrous spirit has taken possession of human inhabitants including Adam’s sister-in-law, Annie. In his quest to save Annie and the rest of the world, Adam must face his brother Robert (Bobby), who committed Adam to an insane asylum as a troubled teen dealing years earlier. The brothers haven’t spoken since. The novel is primarily told in Adam’s point-of-view, but several chapters in Bobby’s voice adds insight to the Binder’s family curse and the history that threatens to tear them apart forever. Slayton’s debut takes a refreshing twist on urban fantasy and offers LGBTQ readers a hero who embraces inclusivity. (After all, it’s not every day you find a fantasy novel featuring a hero trapped in a love triangle with a gay elven prince and a bisexual Mexican cop.) The second book in the trilogy, Trailer Park Trickster, is scheduled for publication next year, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Adam’s angst will take him next.
Carina Bissett is a writer, poet, and educator working primarily in the fields of dark fiction and fabulism. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in multiple journals and anthologies including Weird Dream Society, Arterial Bloom, Gorgon: Stories of Emergence, Hath No Fury, Mythic Delirium, NonBinary Review, and the HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. V and VI. She has also written stories set in shared worlds for RPGs at Green Ronin Publishing and Onyx Path Publishing. She teaches online workshops at The Storied Imaginarium, and she is a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at Stonecoast. She is a member of Codex, SFWA, SFPA, and HWA. Her work has been nominated for several awards including the Pushcart Prize and the Sundress Publications Best of the Net. Links to her work can be found at http://carinabissett.com.