January, and oh what a year it’s been so far. It’s hard to just sit back and talk about reading and the wonders of short stories, isn’t it? What with the world being what it is, and everything in constant flux. I know, a lot of you are thinking but this years was supposed to be better. And yet, January was a year long and a million things happened and boy oh boy, do we need short stories now more than ever before. Let’s put aside these interesting times and discuss what the wonders of fiction can do for us, shall we?
Grab a mug of hot chocolate, lock the cold outside of our doors, and pretend the world doesn’t exist for a little bit. Politics can wait until tomorrow, the snow can be shoveled in the morning, and dinner can just be a frozen pizza you’ve been saving for just the right occasion. Let tonight be that occasion, the world can wait. Short stories are here for you, they are here for all of us.
And here are the ones that I most enjoyed in this month. We have a lot of cool stuff going on this month. The triumphant return of Apex! The second issue of Fantasy Magazine. As well as lots of good stuff from our usual suspects, so much so that it’s making it harder and harder to narrow these down into a digestible list ever month. But I will try, I will try. What a good time to be a reader of short stories. We have an embarrassment of riches, filled with university journals, hand stapled zines, small press publishing online, larger publishing houses throwing out a few novellas, and anthologies after anthologies.
What a time to be alive. What a time to be a fan of short stories!
With that out of the way, is your mug warmed up and ready to sip? Is your furnace roaring, your fireplace crackling, and some nice homemade bread sliced and buttered beside you? The windows should be shut, the doors locked and the frost kept at bay. Climb under your pile of blankets, and get ready to read and enjoy. Now is the time to leave that droll burning world behind and move to a place where the horrors are at an arm’s length and unreal, the adventures are rife with dangers that can’t touch you, and the science is astounding and bright.
First, we turn to Apex Magazine’s grand return. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t limited myself to only picking two stories per issue, but there is a reason for that. I don’t want a few magazines to dominate these overviews, that would be unfair and boring and not really what I’m trying to go for here. I need limitations, so as much as I want to gush for the return issue, I’m just going to list my two absolute favorites for this month. The first one being The Niddah by Elana Gomel. I know, some of you might not want to read a pandemic story, given the whole gestures at the world burning thing. But trust me on this, if you were to read only one pandemic story during our own pandemic, I would shove this one into your hands and tell you to read it straight away. It’s that good. I mean, look at this line and tell me you don’t want to read it straight away-
There was a stigma attached to your origin in the graveyard of the world.
My next favorite from this issue was Mr. Death by Alix E. Harrow. It’s technically published in January, since you could buy the issue and read the ebook version in January, or wait until it comes online in February. I will say this- you need to buy the issue and read this. Do not wait, do not pass go, do not collect 200$. If you’ve read Harrow before, you’ll know what I mean when I say this is a stellar short story. I don’t want to give too much of it away, so really you should just go out and read it right now. And while you’re there, you might as well check out the rest of the issue.
From Apex we move onto another sparkling return of a great magazine, the second issue of Fantasy Magazine. My favorite one of this month was Megan Chee’s Incense. Here we have a memory thief, a story weaver, and a very well realized city that fills you with tiny details. The sentences are sharp but poetic, and the story is like smoke. A very short bit of flash, but so delicious. Perfect for a snowy day. My second favorite from this issue was Ten Steps to a Whole New You by Tanya Liburd. One of my favorite writerly tricks are stories written in the form of a list. There is something so interesting about this format, and I can never get tired of reading stories that use it. This one does so exceptionally well, using the second person narrative in a way that feels unique and not trite or gimmicky. Instead, we get a strong narrative voice that oozes poetry with its own rhythm and structure. Both of my favorite stories this month were on the shorter side, but I think that works in their favor. They are both literary amuse-bouches, and I found them very amusing, indeed.
With Fantasy tucked away, let’s turn to yet another revival of yet another magazine. The second new(ish) issue of Weird Tales also came out in January. The history of this magazine is complex, and the most well-known revival had come in the mid 2000’s, with Ann Vandermeer leading the helm and publishing some amazing short fiction. I found it odd that her run isn’t mentioned on the website, and instead focuses on the more classical aspect of the magazine. Because of this, I feared that we were going to get something very retrograde and not very interesting or contemporary.
While not quite as groundbreaking and wonderful as Ann Vandermeer’s run a few years ago, the magazine does contain a few decent stories. My favorite stories this issue were Seanan McGuire’s Too Late Now and Marguerite Reed’s The Beguiled Grave. Too Late Now is an excellent riff on the usual invasion by growing things trope, and it knows that’s what it is and says so straight away. No beating around the bush here, we are in a world that knows about Triffids, and runs with it. What makes this one work is the clean, narrative prose that propels the reader onward, with interesting characters and settings. The Beguiled Grave is a nice gothic period piece that calls to mind some of the classics Weird Tales, as well as the shorts in Tales from the Crypt or House of Secrets. A nasty little chiller, fans of classic horror will find a lot to enjoy.
And now, we move from reborn magazines with new eras, and turn our eyes instead to the ending of an editorial age, with January/February issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This is the final issue for editor C. C. Finlay, before Sheree Renée Thomas takes over. I am, as most of you probably are, sad to see him go, and interested to see what the magazine will look like moving forward. I’ve read a few things Sheree Renée Thomas has edited in the past, and have always been moved and blown away by her take on the genre.
So, let us have a moment of reflection, discussion, and see what delights this issue brings us, as we say goodbye to C. C. Finlay’s amazing run. And oh, what delights we have here! I’m going to start it off with my absolute favorite story for this month, and probably a contender for best of this 2021. A Little Knife Music by Jenn Reese is more than just a brilliant pun on Mozart’s jaunty classic. I put it on while reading, and oh, did it add an extra layer to the whole thing. It’s violent, beautiful, and contains and odd joy in its visceral poetry. I mean, look, if this doesn’t go down as one of the best first sentences ever written, I’ll eat my hat- The first song I learn is how to slit a throat, and the first time I sing is on my tenth birthday. If that doesn’t make you want to run out and a buy a copy of this issue, then there is something wrong with you. Read it. You will be rewarded a million times over. Just absolutely, wow.
My second favorite short story in this issue is The Diamond Family Glitters by H. Pueyo, but calling second favorite seems like a slight for such an excellent short story. The writing here is top knotch, poetic prose that sings to the heart and mind. A story about a family of psychics, and their lives, and the gift their grandmother has left them. This was another wow story, and another one that I think would be in any year’s best, hand’s down. The writing reminds me of Geek Love, in the way it turns things and uses language to express a completely different world, and making it poetic and beautiful and personal.
From the parting issue of F&SF, we turn to Uncanny Magazine’s January issue. Holy shit, pardon my French, but here is another great issue with more short stories to read. This month truly is a gift for short story readers. I’m only grateful that I don’t have a wordcount limit here, and can talk for as much as needed to cover some of the great stories this month has to offer. In Fantasy, my favorites were Pathfinding! by Nicole Kornher-Stace and A House Full of Voices is Never Empty by Miyuki Kane Pinckard. Pathfinding! is an absolutely riveting short story about children and simulators, death, and what they become. The writing is taut and poetic, full of narrative power. I will be returning to this one to reread it in the future, I am certain. I really loved it that much, A House Full of Voices is Never Empty is another story whose narrative voice and writing propels us onward from the first line. It also uses the second person narrative form, but like the one I mentioned above, it doesn’t feel gimmicky (as second person often does), and instead feels like a natural outcrop of how this narrative is supposed to flow and subsume us. Just wow, that is what I have to say about this story. Wow.
I mean: The scarf sighed, Don’t cry. Be strong for your em gái. In a gentle voice, it whispered, We’ll remember Auntie together. The poetic line, the living inanimate object, the whole thing just breathes with life and wonder. Another great story. Uncanny is really knocking it out of the park lately.
And now we run away from Uncanny and turn to Baffling Magazine’s second issue, also released this month. Baffling is probably one of my favorite places to turn to for flash fiction. Always surprising, this month I think the standout story was Birds are Trying to Reinvent Your Heart by Jennifer Mace. This reads like prose poetry, and if it were had been in a literary a journal like The Paris Review, it would’ve been labelled poetry and not fiction. But here in genre, we tend to keep separate walls between flash and poetry. A wall that would not benefit a story like this. At first glance, yes, it is about birds rebuilding a heart. But the language and inventive surreal detail is what pulls this one forward. Here is but a taste of what I’m talking about- A heart is a carbuncle knot, a cancerous mass of grief around which your ribs have seized. A heart is a siphon to dread, to guilt, to every spear and lance the world would pin you by. A heart is a wound.
This is language that needs to be experienced and felt.
And as a final note, a brand new magazine was released from Underland press in January, Underland Arcana. My favorite short story in this brand spanking new magazine was A Pamphlet Found Among Broken Glass Near the East Wing Entrance by Jonathan Raab. I love these bits of metafictional “found literature”, that try and exist both as a fictitious thing and a real thing. Stories like this are much like list stories which I mention above, and that they are an exploration of narrative design as much as story itself and plot. A really good use of such metafictional devices can trick is into reading a story without reading a story, and instead try invite us into another reality of sorts. This pamphlet is a master class in this kind of thing, and I hope to see more bold experimentation like this in future issues of Underland Arcana.
Well, that’s it for January! What a way to kick off 2021. So many fantastic publications and stories, I only hope that the rest of the year keeps up pace with all this excellence. I’ll see you all near the end of February, with some new suggestions and hopefully a handful of sparkling favorites.