Paul Jessup’s February Short Story Roundup

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February. The shortest month of the year, and yet the longest at the same time. Winter hit hard this month, and dragged everything out making the snow coated hours infinite. My car was buried under snow, and I had groceries delivered to my house. It was no big deal, there was a pandemic going on anyway, so I wasn’t planning on leaving my house no matter what. The snow just made it easier, I had no one to turn down, no one to turn away, no one was driving in that insanity.

I just felt lucky, compared to so many other people. At least we had heat and electricity and internet access. There were a few days when our electricity was spotty, a few small brown outs, but it could’ve been way worse. I was worried about my friends in Texas, and family members I had that lived down there. I kept calling, checking in on them all, just to make sure everyone’s okay. I knew how bad winter could get, and I knew how rough it can be without working heat or electricity. My grandparents live not far from here in rural Ohio, right in the middle of another snow belt, and I’ve lived at their house when the snow and wind knocked down powerlines, and it would take weeks to get it fixed because they lived so far out in the middle of nowhere.

Now here is where I usually pipe up with, and short stories helped keep us warm and got us through it all! And that’s, sort of correct? The stories didn’t keep anyone warm, but it can help keep your mind off of things when you have no television, no internet, no electricity. Well, if you’re reading print copies, that is. I always print up what I read for the month, my eyes don’t handle the flickering LCD screens too well, and after a day of working on them they need a rest.

And how where the short stories this month? Absolutely fantastic. This month I stuck my ear to the earth and listened for word rumblings in far off, unsearched corners of the genre o’ sphere. I wandered down strange literary alleys, and uncovered things that many readers of this magazine might find surprising, unique, or different and interesting. It only shows that we should all read widely and eclectically, and not stick to our same old magazines all the time. It was one of the things I liked a lot about Best American Fantasy, the wide net they cast pulling up interesting fantasy stories from places you would probably have never even looked at twice.

My first story I’ll cover here was my favorite of this month, and it was published in No Contact. It’s called Tinnitus, and it’s by Ross Showalter. This story is absolutely fantastic, the prose is so good, and it moves with an ache and haunted rhythm. In it, you can feel the loss of his boyfriend, and I find it so beautiful and interesting how he uses the disability in the story as a way of punctuating and adding poignancy to the loss of a lover. I can understand him leaving his hearing aids behind because of the ache he feels inside. Just absolutely, wow. The ghosts may be metaphorical, but this is still on hell of a good short story. Showalter is going to be going places, mark my words.

The next story is also from another place not routinely appearing in genre-adjacent articles like this one- Wigleaf. The story? The Babysitter by Kat Solomon. This at first may seem like a horror story, but the horror here is every day existence for most women. It is bare and traumatic and will leave you lingering over shadows, haunted by every single word. When it ends it takes your breath away.

That last story feels like it leads nicely into my favorite from Pseudopod this month – Cleaver, Meat, and Block by Maria Haskins. Haskins’ stories are always a treat, the writing razor sharp poetry. The line that dragged me in was: More often, though she tries not to, she thinks about Pete from school, and the way he looks at her. Until this point we get talk of how real the cleaver is, and the sense of dread is building and building. It’s about forty minutes, sit back and take a listen, you won’t be sorry. Bone chilling in a delicious sort of way.

While we’re in a horror frame of mind, let’s turn to Nightmare Magazine, and visit my favorite story published there in February, We, the Girls Who Did Not Make It by E. A. Petricone. This is probably the first short story I’ve read of Petricone’s and I have a feeling it will most definitely not be the last. This story absolutely wrecked me, and the key to this story is the sentence We understand now: assume they are all murderers. In this way it combines some of the themes and ideas with Kat Solomon’s The Babysitter I mentioned above, except in this story it starts with the voices of the dead and follows them, rather than ending on it. Here again we have bodies buried, and voices rising up in ghosts. I think if I have one theme so far in the stories I’ve loved in February it’s ghosts and haunting. I mean, even look at the first story I mentioned above, Tinnitus is just filled with ghosts. 

I guess that makes sense, February is the haunted month, after all. It is the era of cold ground, of all the muttering voices of the dead buried under snow graves and forgotten. 

Now we move onto another literary venue for another literary horror story. This time, it’s Literally Stories, and the story is The Dying Disease by Elad Haber. This story ties death and rain together, and a slow reveal of a horrifying situation done in such a unique way, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Go and read! It’s a mundane apocalypse, but done in such a beautiful, haunting way.

And we’re not done with our collection of literary horror stories published in literary magazines, not yet! Up next is Longleaf Review, the story? The Bone House by Caelyn Cobb. Damn, just damn, this story has a delicate sort of surreal world building. You feel like you are trapped in that bone house, too, building it up femur and humerus along with our narrator. The bones aren’t creepy, per se, they are family. They protect you. I don’t want to say any more, just read this story. It’s an absolute knockout.

So now we move away from the literary magazines and move towards the usual genre fare we talk about here. Although, the stories I mention are no less poetic, no less literary than the ones I mentioned above, and I think this is an important thing to note. I really honestly think the best kind of fiction straddles the line, takes the best of both worlds, so to speak. 

Now let’s turn out gaze to Strange Horizons and the Demon Sage’s Daughter by Varsha Dinesh. Here we have a second person story, written with really good world building and an eye for tiny details. Second Person seems to have been back in fashion again lately, with a lot of stories these last few months employing this literary technique, for good or ill. When it’s done well it can add another dimension to what you’re reading, when done poorly it can feel artificial and gimmicky. Obviously, I would not be mentioning this story here if I felt it was artificial or gimmicky! Quite the contrary, it’s extremely well done and necessary for this story to work as well as it does. Here there are variations of a story, nested and unfolding before your eyes. You may know the players, it seems. And yet, inside there is a surprise.

From Strange Horizons we move onto Lavie Tidhar’s latest Judge Dee story! I’ve covered these before in the past, and the latest one is a cause for celebration. This time we have Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels at Tor.com. Like all good Judge Dee stories Tidhar plays with the form of genre, giving us a combination of the literary, the pulp, vampires, horror, and murder mysteries. There is such a joy to the way he plays with the forms we read, and it’s impossible not to smile at the end when all the clever twists and turns tie themselves up into a nice and neat little bow. Here’s hoping Tor eventually puts out a collection of these stories, a nice little fixup novel of sorts would be great!

And now we turn to my favorite story in Daily Science Fiction for the month of February: Jupiter Stone by Kelly A. Jacobson. It, too, is a very playful story, and a simple delight to read, with a gut punch of an ending when you get to it. It’s nice following the horror stories above with some lighter fare, that play with form and language and genre expectations. 

The last two stories I’m going to talk about in February are as light as playful as those last two I mentioned, if not even more so. In Nature Magazine’s So Your Grandmother is a Starship Now: a quick guide for the bewildered by Marissa Lingen, we get a playful riff on stories similar to Rachel Swirsky’s If You Were a Dinosaur My Love, or Christopher Booker’s novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, where humans are transformed and changed and there is a sense of off balance that is fun and comedic, yet somehow contains a core of sorrow. Lingen’s story is much like that, yet completely its own thing. The structure is a list based structure, in a FAQ format (similar to Kelly Link’s short story, The Cannon), also using second person in a sense. The back and forth, question and answer lends to the lively, enjoyable story as it unravels. 

And last we have Some Observations on Beekeeping for Beginners by Ruth Bradshaw, published in Reflex Fiction. Like the last story I mentioned, this also uses second person and a list format to undermine our genre expectations, and take them into interesting places. It’s a very short story, so I won’t give you an overview, since that might actually be longer than reading the story itself. Still, you should go and read it. It’s a good way to end this month’s short story overview, for certain.

And that’s it for February. Much like the month itself, our stories started dark and moved darker, only to reach for the light near the end. And the light shines all the brighter because of it.



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