Following my post rounding up my favorite novels and novellas of 2021, I wanted to highlight my favorite anthologies and collections of the year. A final post covering short stories and novelettes is on the way too. This year was an excellent one for short fiction collections, which sadly often seem to get overlooked, and there were some really wonderful anthologies too. Here are the ones that stood out as my favorites.
Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes
This is a truly lovely collection, full of gorgeous stories playing on fairy tales, mythology, and history and blending them together seamlessly. The stories balance anger with hope, fantasy with reality, and demonstrate perfectly how powerful short fiction can be. The one very minor thing that bothered me about the collection was that I couldn’t find any indication of where the stories were originally published or if any were original to the collection. Perhaps it was an error with the printing, or perhaps it was so well-hidden I just missed it. Regardless it was a wonderful collection overall with my favorite stories being “Among the Thorns”, “Phosphorous”, “Ballroom Blitz”, “Lily Glass”, “The Revenant”, and “Burning Girls”.
Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan by Usman T. Malik
I have a feeling this collection will end up on a lot of people’s lists of favorites, especially among those who have a true appreciation for short fiction. I’ve heard Usman lament on twitter that he’s only managed to publish one story a year recently, and while selfishly, I’d be thrilled to read more from him, when each story is so stunning, it’s hard to complain. Like Schanoes’ collection, the stories here draw on myth, fairy tale, and history, but venture a bit more into the realm of horror as well. The stories are beautifully written, haunting, and lovely. I failed to note down my favorites as I was reading them, but I also suspect that may be because I would have ended up listing every single one.
Fantastic Americana: Stories by Josh Rountree
Like Schanoes and Malik, Rountree’s stories delve into myth and history, but specifically the myths and history of America – from literal tall tales to larger than life celebrities who become mythic figures through their fame. It would actually be a pretty interesting exercise to read the collections together or in close sequence (as I happened to) to compare and contrast each author’s use of myth, their sense of place, and see the various threads of history and heritage and memory they pull on in their tales. Rountree captures the perfect voice for each of his stories, making them each feel unique and yet at the same time part of a larger whole. Everything is soaked in magic and wonder, but grounded in humanity as well, making for an overall wonderful collection. My favorites were (though again it’s hard to choose): “Chasing America”, “Guadalupe Witch”, “Veronica”, “Gone Daddy Gone”, “Her Soul a Dark Forest”, “February Moon”, “Rattlesnake Song”, “Cigarette Lighter Love Song”, “All My Pretty Chickens”, “Escaping Salvation”, and “In the Teeth”.
To Drown in Dark Water by Steve Toase
Where the other collections mentioned thus far mix genres a bit more, Toase’s collection is pretty firmly in the horror lane and it’s a fantastic ride. The stories are full of striking and haunting imagery, with the absolute standout of the collection for me being the original piece “Dancing Sober in the Dust”. The story concerns a very disturbing bit of performance art and the unearthing of the costumes used in said performance, hidden away in the attic of a museum collection. Art and obsession that form their own kind of haunting is totally my jam, and Steve does it perfectly in this story, which I believe is inspired by a real world performance art piece, which makes it even more chilling. Other favorites from the collection were “Not All Coal That is Dug Warms the World”, “Flow to the Sea”, “Split Chain Stitch”, “Beneath the Forest’s Wilting Leaves”, and “Verwelktag”.
The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories by Charles Payseur
Not only is Charles an incredibly prolific author, he’s an incredibly prolific reviewer, and he does both so well. I remain convinced he doesn’t sleep, or that he has access to extra hours in the day that the rest of us can’t touch. However he does it, the results are fantastic. This collection ranges across the genre spectrum with fantasy, science fiction, horror, and the surreal and uncategorizable weird. The stories deal in hope and despair, love and loss, and many are masterclasses in worldbuilding in the short form. The collection is also gloriously queer and beautifully-written, and sometimes heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. Two of my favorites happened by be two originals from the collection “Little Blue Men” and “Just Toonin'”, the first an incredibly weird and wonderful take on the Smurfs that looks at family legacy, desire, hunger, and living in the shadow of the expectations placed on children by their parents, and the second a take on the Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons that looks at the roles we’re assigned to play in life and the struggle to break out of them. Other favorite were: “Snow Devils”, “Spring Thaw”, “Door Thirteen”, “Nothing”, “Dance of the Tinboot Fairy”, “Medium”, “Rivers Run Free”, and “Undercurrents”.
Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap
I’ve long been a fan of Yap’s work and it’s a delight to have so many stories gathered together in one place to enjoy. This is another collection that draws on myth, fairy tale, and is immersed in a sense of place and history. (You may be sensing a theme here.) Once again, one of my favorites happened to be one of the original pieces in the collection, a novelette entitled “A Spell for Foolish Hearts” about a witch dealing with his first real crush, afraid he’s accidentally cast a love spell on the guy he’s interested in and dealing with the ramifications and responsibility of having power over other people’s hearts. It’s a touching, sweet, gentle, and truly lovely story. Other favorites were: “Milagrasso”, “Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez”, “Misty”, “All the Best of Dark and Bright”, and “A Canticle for Lost Girls”.
It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility edited by Isabel Oliveira and Jed Sabin
This anthology does what it says on the cover, offering up stories of queer joy, possibility, and belief in a better future. There’s a mix of new stories and reprints, and a mix of genres, with the unifying theme being a sense of hope that even in the midst of dark times there is a light and things will get better. Overall, it’s an incredibly strong anthology, with the standouts for me being: “The Ghosts of Liberty Street” by Phoebe Barton, “Weave Us a Way” by Nemma Wollenfang, “Custom Options Available” by Amy Griswold, “Frequently Asked Questions About the Portals at Frank’s Late-Night Starlite Drive-In,” by Kristen Koopman (which is incredibly sweet and charming and just plain fun), “Midnight Confetti” by D.K. Marlowe, “Venti Mochaccino, No Whip, Double Shot of Magic” by Aimee Ogden (another author who is just killing it with short fiction lately), “I’ll Have You Know” by Charlie Jane Anders, and “The Cafe Under the Hill” by Ziggy Schutz.
When Things Get Dark edited by Ellen Datlow
It’s hard to go wrong with an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. This one, full of stories inspired by the works of Shirley Jackson, is no exception. There are ghost stories, horror stories, slice-of-life stories, and stories that slip past the boundaries of genre, much like the work of Jackson herself. Possibly my absolute favorite, though it’s hard to pick, was “Skinder’s Veil” by Kelly Link, one of the hard-to-define, genre-less stories about a young man filling in for a friend as a house sitter in a remote cabin whose owner has a very strange and specific set of rules that must be followed, leading to a trippy, dream-like experience where the real and the unreal blend to throw everything into question. Other favorites were “In the Deep Woods; the Light is Different There” by Seanan McGuire, “Quiet Dead Things” by Cassandra Khaw, “Money of the Dead” by Karen Heuler, “Hag” by Benjamin Percy, “Refinery Road” by Stephen Graham Jones, “Pear of Anguish” by Gemma Files, “Sooner or Later, Your Wife Will Drive Home” by Genevieve Valentine, and “Tiptoe” by Laird Barron.
Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness edited by dave ring
Neon Hemlock makes another appearance, as I promised they would. This is a fantastic anthology featuring original tales of all things witchy, magical, and queer. It’s an incredibly strong anthology overall, and I enjoyed just about every story with a few which really stood out to me including: “The Passing of Sinclair Manor or the House of Magical Negroes” by Danny Lore (I would totally read more set in this world), “To Hell, With Hope” by Die Booth, “This Deviant Flesh” by Diana Hurlburt, “Before, After, and the Space Between” by Kel Coleman (another author who is killing it with their short fiction in general this year), “Sutekh: A Breath of Spring” by Sharang Biswas (a fun and touching meta-story about gaming, choice, free will, and fandom), “Sacred Heart” by Cecilia Tan, “Antelope Brothers” by Craig L. Gidney (an eerie and perfect piece of darkness), “Dizzy in the Weeds” by L.D. Lewis (I would also read the heck out of more work with this character set in this world), “Human Reason” by Nicasio Andres Reed, and “Coven of TAOS-9” by RJ Theodore.
As I said, it’s a really strong year for anthologies and collections. It’s a golden age for short fiction and it’s wonderful to see so many small presses putting out such fantastic books, which are clearly put together with care, dedication, and love.
It appears I’ve read 60 books this year, which might be a new record for me, and I might even manage to sneak in one or two more before the year is done! As with the past several years, I want to highlight some of my favorites reads, starting with novels and novellas. (I’ll put together separate posts for collections and anthologies, and short stories and novelettes – they deserve their own space to shine!) But to kick things off, in no particular order, here are my favorites of 2021!
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
The story takes the basic premise of a wife discovering her husband having an affair, but throws in a speculative twist by having the other woman be her clone – not just genetically, but also secretly developed from her research. A few of the early story beats felt somewhat predictable, but the story ultimately went in unexpected directions, providing a satisfying and unsettling exploration of identity and self-determination, and a look the chilling mindset of a person who feels entitled to be the center of another person’s world. Evelyn is an excellent character, flawed and spiky, and Martine has a wonderful arc as she grows from a clone to become more fully her own person.
Dealbreaker by L.X. Beckett
A sequel to Gamechanger, one of my favorites reads last year, which picks up several years later with many of the same characters while introducing new ones and vastly expanding the world. Beckett’s writing is smooth, their plot satisfyingly twisty, and they strike a perfect balance between carrying forward familiar elements from the first novel and making everything feel so much bigger, upping the stakes by introducing alien races to the already fraught situation on Earth as humanity continues it recovery from near environmental collapse.
The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler
You’ll see Neon Hemlock’s titles turn up several times on these lists, and with good cause – they are absolutely killing it with their publications! I adored all four of the novellas they published this year, starting with The Necessity of Stars. Tobler’s prose is always lush and gorgeous and sweeps me up. The opening paragraph of this one took my breath away and I pretty much stayed breathless until I put the novella down. It’s a first contact story, as the main character discovers an alien in her garden, but it’s also a story about aging, memory, perception, seeing and being seen. The idea of who we see and who we value as a society, as well as the things we refuse to see, is threaded throughout the story, which manages to be quiet and lovely and vast and cosmic all at once.
A Broken Darkness by Premee Mohamed
A sequel to Beneath the Rising, another one of my favorite reads last years, rejoining Johnny and Nick shortly after the events of the first novel as they’re thrown back together by the fresh threat of cosmic horror. The stakes and scope of the threat are ramped up here to feel more global, with additional tension caused by the fallout from the first book between the characters. I’m a sucker for good cosmic horror (no pun intended), which this is, and the characters are a joy to spend time with.
We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker
The novel looks at the impact of a new technology meant to help people focus and be a better version of themselves on one particular family. Pinsker does an excellent job with small-scale and personal stakes, showing the human side of a life-changing technology through characters the reader immediately cares about. The conflict between the members of the family feel real, relatable, and is very well done, and the novel also takes time to examine some of the larger social issues like who has access to technology, who gets left behind, and the ethics (or lack thereof) of corporations, while never losing sight of the characters at the story’s heart.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
The novel opens as main character Vern escapes from the cult-like commune where she was raised and goes on the run with her newborn twins. The story takes several unexpected twists as Vern builds a new life for herself, getting progressively weirder in the best of ways. The slow introduction of the more fantastical and supernatural elements is incredibly well-done, and the writing is powerful, painful, and lovely as the story explores gender, relationships, the reclamation of one’s self, found family, evolution, and transformation.
All the Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter
This is another novel that to my mind took several unexpected turns and went in directions I didn’t predict, but ended up in a highly satisfying place. Slatter blends a Gothic atmosphere and set up – a lonely house, an orphaned young woman, an unwanted marriage, dark secrets – with a fairy tale feel as Miren uncovers the truth behind the legends passed down through the generations about her family’s wealth and their bond with the sea. The stories nested within the novel add to the overall richness, making the world feel deeper and more lived-in, while also adding to the feeling of reading a fairy tale.
Engines of Oblivion by Karen Osborne
A sequel to Architects of Memory, which deals with the fallout of the first book, and like the other two sequels mentioned here so far, vastly expands the world of the first novel, digging further into the interstellar war, greedy corporation, and shadowy factions moving behind the scenes. The writing is sharp and evocative, and Osborne doesn’t pull punches, putting her characters in increasingly brutal situations that never feel gratuitous, but rather an inevitable reflection of the unfair world they inhabit. While the world may be grim, her characters never cease fighting, and they do the best with terrible situations, giving the novel a grace note of hope.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
A take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which introduces magic to the glittering high society world in a way that makes it feel as though of it always should have been there. Multiple forms of power are explored, along with the question who has access to it, and all the machinations that go into maintaining it. Vo’s version of the novel focuses on Jordan Baker instead of Nick Carraway. Brought to America by a missionary as a very young child, she remembers almost nothing of her home. Raised in wealth, almost as a sister to Daisy Buchanan, she has all the privilege and access money can buy, yet her race still sets her apart, adding a further layer of depth to her character as she struggles with her identity, where she belongs, and where she wants to belong. The voice of the novel is perfect and Vo captures the feel of the original while making it wholly her own. The writing is gorgeous and the characters are all spot on with their conflicting desires, their struggles to define themselves, the bits of themselves they show to the world, the bits they keep private, and all the spaces in-between the two where they risk losing themselves.
And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed
I mentioned that Neon Hemlock is killing it with their releases this year. So is Premee Mohamed. In addition to releasing A Broken Darkness, she also released three novellas this year, and while I haven’t had a chance to read These Lifeless Things yet, I adored And What Can We Offer You Tonight and The Annual Migration of Clouds (which I reviewed here.) And What Can We Offer You Tonight is a beautifully-written story of a murdered brothel worker who returns as a ghost seeking revenge on the client who killed her. It looks at the way money and power allow certain people to commit violence without consequences and how lack of access to justice, resources, and many other things the wealthy take for granted, can in itself be a form of violence. It also provides a powerful look at the idea (and idealization) of victims of violence and the question of who is allowed to be angry and seek revenge, versus who is expected to be passive, pure, “rise above it” and “not sink to their level”.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
Can a novel both exist within a genre and be a love letter to it? Yes. Much like the original Scream helped reinvigorate the slasher genre, while poking fun at it, being a loving homage to it, and being a satisfying slasher movie in and of itself, My Heart is a Chainsaw is a tribute to the genre, a stunning example of it, and moves beyond the borders of the genre as well. Jade is a super horror fan, the weird kid who doesn’t fit in and doesn’t really care to either. She knows the rules of slasher horror inside and out, and when a mysterious death occurs in her town occurs, she’s thrilled, certain her purpose is to help the new girl in town realize her destiny as the final girl who survives the horror and faces down the killer. Jade is a wonderful character, the deep-dive into slasher lore is highly satisfying, and the slow reveal of information and the uncertainty maintained until the end is incredibly well-done. The novel also manages to be heartbreaking and poignant on top of everything, and I can’t wait for the sequel due out next year!
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
It’s a classic trope of the horror genre to have a character move back to their small hometown and face a dark past or an ancient evil. (In fact, you’ll see it show up at least twice more just on this list, and it’s done incredibly well each time!) The cyclical nature of evil, inter-generational trauma, the idea that we carry our ghosts with us and can never outrun our pasts is a staple of horror, and Wendig adds an extra level of weirdness here, setting the trope askew in a way that makes it feel completely fresh. The book is fast-paced, full of eerie imagery and ideas, and all the unsettling threads and questions about what’s really going on in the small, unnaturally accident-prone town Nathan Graves returns to with his family are expertly woven together, building to a satisfying conclusion.
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
I knew very little about this book going in other than that it was a highly-anticipated, much buzzed about horror title. Based on the cover alone, I expected a haunted house story. In a way, I was right, though not at all in the traditional sense. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I won’t say more, other than I thoroughly enjoyed the read and the exploration of characters dealing with trauma, healing, and horror centered around the unsolved mystery of a child who disappeared years ago.
Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo
I promised the trope of a character revisiting their traumatic past and coping with personal hauntings would return. Here, the haunting is very personal indeed, intimate almost, as Andrew follows his best friend Eddie to Nashville after his apparent suicide and tries to piece together what happened in the last months of his life. As children, Andrew and Eddie experienced something inexplicable, which linked them to the world of the dead. While Andrew tried to leave it behind, Eddie delved deeper, making it the focus of his graduate research. The novel is a slow burn, a deeply atmospheric Southern Gothic, and gloriously queer. Tension of multiple sorts simmers under the surface throughout, the characters are wonderful, and the ending is perfect – realistically messy and showing the lasting impact of hauntings and horror rather than tying up everything in a neat bow.
The Deer Kings by Wendy N. Wagner
The theme of excavating one’s past and coming face-to-face with old ghosts continues in The Deer Kings as Gary returns to the small town where he grew up, and to which he swore he would never return. As a child, Gary and a group of friends made an appeal to the Deer Saint to protect them from their violent and terrifying new neighbor. As an adult, Gary discovers that the mysterious Deer Kings club his parents were a part of seems to have grown and morphed into something (even more) sinister, leaving the whole town under its sway. The appeal to power by a group of innocent children parallels nicely with the appeal to power from a group of the town’s adults, showing the way intention and desire can twist a “haunting” that is neither good nor bad into something either good or evil. As frequently turns out to be the case – it is humans, not the supposed monsters, that are the problem. Along the way, the novel looks at themes of faith, sacrifice, and friendship, and the way each can shift with perspective and time. I’ll also throw in a bonus shout-out to Wagner’s novella, The Secret Skin, another Neon Hemlock novella, which sees a character return to their family home to confront old secrets, and blends a small town Gothic feel with hints of cosmic horror.
& This is How to Stay Alive by Shinga Njeri Kagunda
This gorgeously-written novella expands the author’s short story by the same name, published last year in Fantasy Magazine. Following her brother Baraka’s suicide, Kabi is given a potion that seemingly allows her to travel in time. Initially, she believes it will allow her to save Baraka, but she grows increasingly frustrated as it appears she isn’t able to shift events at all. The poetic, flowing nature of the language here is perfectly suited to the dream-like feel of a story that is both disconnected from time and deeply immersed in time s a cyclical concept. Memory, story, grief, art, how we act towards others when they’re with us and when they’re gone, what we carry forward into the future, and what we carry with us from the past, are all at play here in an exploration of what it means to be alive.
The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling
Starling takes on tropes from Gothic romance and horror in this novel and flips them around. The story begins with Jane Schoringfield, a very practical and pragmatic woman, proposing marriage to Dr. Lawrence as a pure business arrangement. When he reluctantly agrees, Starling does a wonderful job with her first flip of the script, putting the marriage up front while maintaining a sense of sexual and romantic, will-they-or-won’t-they, tension between her characters. A dark past and family secrets are at play in Dr. Lawrence’s crumbling family estate, and Jane is determined to uncover the truth of what happened despite the lies, the obfuscation, and the doubt constantly thrown her way. The uncertainty over whether she can trust her own senses allows Jane to be both the mad woman in the attic and the new bride threatened by said mad woman at various points in the novel. Starling adds an extra element to the classic Gothic with the introduction of magic. Jane is a wonderful character, and the doubt cast on the truth of what’s really going on is incredibly well-done, carrying the suspense and mystery through to the very end.
Submergence by Arula Ratnakar
Published online at Clarkesworld, this novella explores the ethics of experimenting on living creatures and using them to medically benefit humans, as well as looking at the idea of memory persisting beyond death. Nithya is submerged in the memories of a woman named Noor in the course of investigating her death. The technology was originally designed to let people relive their own memories, meaning that in essence, Nithya becomes Noor when she is inside the memories, allowing the story to also explore questions of identity, self, and free will. It’s a fascinating look at medical and scientific ethics, while also being a satisfying science fictional mystery.
Arisudan by Rimi B. Chatterjee
Another novella published online, this time at Mithila Review, Arisudan is full of deep worldbuilding and has an epic feel as it moves backward and forward to visit multiple points in its characters’ lives, centered around a disaster on a submarine and the question of whether it was an accident or something more sinister. The story explores the idea of heroism and characters struggling to do the right thing according to their personal code and their understanding of the world. At the same time, it looks at corporate greed, humanity’s impact on the environment, and the weight of both societal expectations and family expectations, especially when it comes to gender. The novella packs in a lot, but does it effectively, and it’s an excellent read.
The Giants of the Violet Sea by Eugenia Triantafyllou
This was a great year for novellas published online. This one, appearing in Uncanny Magazine, shares some common themes with the Clarkesworld and Mithila Review novellas, including deep and evocative worldbuilding, a science fictional mystery, and an examination of humanity’s impact on the environment. In this case, the environment happens to be an alien planet, which adds an extra layer to the story’s depth. A sister returns home to unravel the mystery of her brother’s death and spend time with her mother, despite their fraught relationship. The story touches on complicated family relationships, the expectations parents put on their children, the expectations children can put on themselves, and how all those expectations can lead to resentment, sibling jealousy, and feelings of not belonging. With its setting, the story also touches on issues of colonization, humanity’s impact on the native life of a colonized planet, and the way colonists with the same roots can diverge into vastly people different peoples with different traditions in a short period of time, ultimately leading to tension and distrust.
So there you have it, my favorite novels and novellas published in 2021.But of course, I can’t leave it with just that, so I’ll close out with a few honorable mentions (aka non-genre works and works published prior to 2021):
You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Lacey Lamar and Amber Ruffin
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Piranesi by Susannah Clarke
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Deep by Alma Katsu
The 79th World Science Fiction Convention (aka WorldCon, aka DisCon III, aka the Hugo Awards Weekend) is coming up next month. Programming will be both virtual and in-person, and barring any disaster I plan to be there in-person and participating in said programming. Here’s a schedule of where I’ll be throughout the weekend.
Author Reading – Thursday, December 16 at 1pm – Capitol Room
I will be reading along with Chris Panatier. I haven’t decided exactly what I’ll be reading yet, but I do intend to come well-supplied with chocolate!
Autograph Session – Thursday, December 16 at 2pm – SFWA Table/Dealer’s Room
I’ll be hanging out at the SFWA Table in the Dealer’s Room immediately following my reading to sign stuff in case anyone has stuff they want signed! Brenda Clough will be signing at the same time – come say hi to us!
Reviewing: Widely or Deeply? – Thursday, December 16 at 4pm – Virtual
Arley Sorg; Karlo Yeager Rodriguez (M); Jake Casella Brookins; Gary K Wolfe; Penelope Flynn; A.C. Wise
Presented with all of SFF to review, how does a reviewer determine their beat? Should they read widely, and address work as a knowledgeable generalist, or read deeply within their specialty, and bring that specialty to bear? Reviewers will discuss their practices of how they choose what to review or not to review, their path to their current specialty, if any, and their intentions for future work.
Holding Superheroes Accountable – Friday, December 17 at 11:30am – Empire Ballroom
Brenda W. Clough; James Bacon; Jenn Lyons; A.C. Wise (M); Peter Adrian Behravesh; Hildy Silverman
For superheroes to feel heroic, we want them to fight evil while remaining above the moral fray. But in many comics and comic book films, superheroes cross moral lines. How do we ethically evaluate heroes who act immorally, like Batman torturing villains, Wanda holding an entire town hostage, or Wonder Woman sexually assaulting a mind-controlled bystander? How can we talk about these stories in a way that holds heroes accountable for their immoral actions?
Short Fiction, Expanded – Saturday, December 18 at 11:30am – Diplomat Ballroom
Dana L. Little; Jenny Rae Rappaport; Michael Swanwick; A.C. Wise (M); Sarah Pinsker
Sometimes an excellent short story or novella demands to be fleshed out and republished as a novel. How can you do this successfully, and what are some of the pitfalls to avoid? When is the expansion an enhancement, and when is it just a marketing necessity?
Worldbuilding in Speculative Horror – Saturday, December 18 at 1pm – Virtual
Erika T. Wurth; Nino Cipri; A.C. Wise (M); Usman T. Malik; L. Marie Wood; KD Edwards
A horror setting generally starts with a safe and familiar world, and then introduces strange and frightening elements. But what if you don’t want to use the real world as your setting? How do you construct a horror novel that takes place in an entirely speculative world? What techniques can make the unfamiliar a safe starting point on which to build your horror?
Why Won’t You Stay Dead?!? – Saturday, December 18 at 5:30pm – Forum Room
Carrie Vaughn; Jennifer R. Povey; Jenny Rae Rappaport; A.C. Wise (M); Mari Ness; AJ Odasso; Ada Palmer
Characters have come back from the dead so often in superhero comics that it’s become a running joke, sometimes cheapening the impact of the death in the story. Creators have come up with a wide variety of tricks to resurrect or otherwise return “dead” characters to life. Is it just lazy storytelling, editorial decisions driven by commercial reasons, or is it something inherent to the storytelling form and round-robin method of collaborative authorship of comics?
Tis the season! I’ve been gathering links from author others, editors, and publishers listing their award-eligible work published in 2021 for my annual Eligibility and Recommendations Link Post. Sometime next month, I’ll be putting together posts of my favorite reads of the year. But for now, I’ve put together a list of my own award-eligible work for the year. These works are eligible for all the usual awards (Hugo, Nebula, Stoker, etc.) in the categories noted below.
Wendy, Darling, my debut(!) novel was published by Titan Books in June 2021. It’s a dark, feminist re-imagining of the aftermath of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, picking up with Wendy Darling as an adult with a daughter of her own.
There is a boy outside her daughter’s window.
Wendy feels it, like a trickle of starlight whispering in through a gap, a change in the very pressure and composition of the air. She knows, as sure as her own blood and bones, and the knowledge sends her running. Her hairbrush clatters to the floor in her wake; her bare feet fly over carpeted runners and slap wooden floorboards, past her husband’s room and to her daughter’s door.
It is not just any boy, it’s the boy. Peter.
When Peter unexpectedly reappears in Wendy’s life and kidnaps her daughter, Jane, Wendy must return to Neverland to rescue her, confront Peter, and reckon with her traumatic past. The story includes themes of found family, PTSD, queer relationships, mothers and daughter, and just how unsettling the idea of a boy who refuses to grow up is when you really think about it.
The Ghost Sequences is my third short story collection, released in October 2021 from Undertow Publications. As the name implies, this collection leans toward horror and dark fiction, with stories focused on ghosts and hauntings. The collection includes reprints and an original novelette, The Nag Bride. The collection received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist.
The Nag Bride is an original novelette included in my collection, The Ghost Sequences. It centers on a young woman who must face her family history of violence when an ancient haunt returns to stalk her and her childhood best friend.
Weld marks cross the iron like ragged scars, and beneath the horseshoes there’s a folded piece of paper. Dirt sifts loose, trapped in its creases, as Sophie draws it out and unfolds it.
Detailed drawings of hands and feet cover the page. Her father trained as an artist – he’d met her mother at art school, where she was studying to be a sculptor. He’d even worked in medical illustration for a while, but together, Sophie’s parents fed into each other’s self-destructive habits, their talent squandered, uninterested in pursuing their art anymore and doing just enough work to pay for the next round of drinks, the next fix of their current chosen drug.
But even unused, Sophie’s father had retained his skill and Sophie has no doubt these drawings are his. Long-fingered hands and long-toed feet, a woman’s face, the skin flayed on one side to show the delicate bones of a horse’s skull. A woman’s hand splayed, the tips of each finger anchored with nails to a horseshoe.
At the very bottom of the page there are words: This is how the Nag Bride is wed.
The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early Twentieth Century was published in Apex Magazine in March 2021. Two actresses from the early days of silent trick films harness their inhuman powers to take control of their destinies.
Mary Catherine freezes. The reel flickers to life and a woman swirls across the screen in her lover’s arms, all dark curls and smoke-lined eyes, and the space behind Mary Catherine’s breastbone stutters. A shout of warning lodges in Mary Catherine’s throat. She’s halfway to reaching for the screen, as if she could save the woman who is far too lovely to burn. But her beau dances her backward and flames scale the woman’s dress, little hands and hungry mouths framing her face and her open, silent mouth, as prettily as her curls.
Jenny Come Up the Well published at PodCastle in April 2021 features a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality while being hunted by a preacher named Brother Justin who has dark powers capable of erasing her and those like her from existence.
I made the mistake of looking up, and the glittering black pins of Brother Justin’s eyes caught me. I’d never experienced anything remotely like drowning, but looking at Brother Justin was what I imagined it would feel like — the world narrowing to a terrible point, my chest crushed with pressure, everything in me screaming for breath I was unable to draw.
This Height and Fiery Speed included in the anthology Prisms from PS Publishing is a take on Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo. After a man has a strange encounter on an airplane, his sense of identity and reality begins to break down.
His eyes adjusted to the dimmed lights. All around him, passengers had their tray tables down, eating meals that gleamed wet and red. His stomach lurched and the plane followed it, going into free fall. Alan couldn’t gather enough breath to scream. Something had him by the shoulders, lifting him from his seat and he kicked violently.
“I should have died in the woods that day,” the man in the seat next to him said.
The Hunt at Rotherdam published in Bourbon Penn is my take on the Gothic trope of the woman in the attic as a group of men – including one unwilling protagonist – gather at an ancestral estate for a very unusual hunt.
I was spared the need to reply when the bell rang announcing dinner. Course after course appeared, all meat, bleeding and on the edge of raw. My stomach twisted. I watched our hostess, who had perfected the art of moving food about her plate to suggest consumption, though I never once saw her put a morsel to her lips.
I could not deny her loveliness, but nor could I deny the eerie, otherworldly quality to her beauty. Her black curls were perfectly coiffed, her dark clothing chosen to blend with Rotherdam’s walls, features sculpted from wilder stuff to match some Platonic ideal. Ropes of jet beads dripped from her throat and ears, and two thick, silver cuffs circled either wrist. I thought of chains.
How to Find Yourself in a Fairy Tale published in Daily Science Fiction is a flash fiction piece drawing on fairy tale imagery and rules that examines the length people are willing to go to in order to get what they want and what happens when they actually get what they believed to be their heart’s desire.
Find your way into the woods. Find yourself a bird. For best results it should be a turtle or mourning dove. Stick to the path. This part is important: do not stray. Be bold. Be bold as you can. Pluck every feather until the bird’s skin is pale and smooth as a newborn child’s. Break the bird’s wings–every single fragile bone one by one. Children come into this world helpless, after all. You may choose to blunt the beak, or remove it entirely. That part is up to you. Remember–this is a fairy tale, choices have consequences.
Tips for Living Out of Synch for the Frequent Time Traveler podcast at Simultaneous Times is another flash piece examining the perils and complications of time travel.
At least once in your journeying, you will find the people who matter the most in your life don’t know you yet. From their perspective, you haven’t met, and they will be reluctant to trust you. They may even think you unhinged when you, in turn, tell them that you trust them with your life and they are the only ones who can help you.
ECW Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Premee Mohamed’s The Annual Migration of Clouds, and let me tell you, I was thrilled that they did, since it was already on my must-read list for the year. I’m a big fan of Mohamed’s work, and this latest novella did not disappoint!
You don’t name it; you don’t give it a name either. They must have names for each other. I don’t know what mine calls itself and if it told me, I would try to forget, I swear I would.
Set in a post climate-disaster world, the novella opens with Reid receiving a coveted letter from Howse University in one of the domes, a near-magical place no one has ever come back from, but which promises a better life. She’s thrilled at first, until her mother begins to sow seeds of doubt in her mind – what if the university isn’t real, what if it’s only a scam, what will their neighborhood do without her.
Reid is already torn, plagued with guilt over leaving her mother behind and the thought of the extra work that will be pushed off onto her neighbors and friends. Their life is already one of scarcity and scraping by, and making matter worse, Reid and her mother both have a genetic disease known as Cad, a kind of parasitic, symbiotic creature living inside them that could go off at any minute, causing them to die in horrible pain.
The thing is of me, does not belong to me. Is its own thing. Speaks its own tongue. A semi-sapient fungus scribbling across my skin and the skin of my ancestors in crayon colors, turquoise, viridian, cerulean, pine.
Reid worries what will happen to her mother when she’s gone. She worries what will happen to her neighbors. She worries what will happen to herself. Reid’s best friend Henryk encourages her to go, as do several others. She wants to go, but that doesn’t stop her fear or her guilt. When a group of hunters offers Reid the opportunity to join them in bringing down wild boar, she sees her chance. If she’s successful in the hunt, Reid can leave her mother set-up with a nest egg in meat for trade before she goes. Hunting boar is dangerous however, and Reid knows the Cad inside her will go to great lengths to protect its host.
Pack of demons. Sulphur breath. Cloven as the devil. Calm down, quick: the invader in me cannot see what is happening, it only knows to respond to my fear.
The novella is beautifully-written in its exploration of environmental disaster, community, and complicated family relationships. Mohamed does a wonderful job of paralleling the Cad Reid inherits from her mother with the fears and guilt her mother passes down in a passive-aggressive fashion. Her mother accuses Reid of being selfish, and instead of being happy for Reid and trusting her, she lets her own selfish fears of being alone manifest in trying to guilt Reid into staying. There are hints at some underlying jealously in their relationship, even in the midst of the love. Some element of Reid’s mother seems to want to hold her back, resenting that she may have the opportunity for a better life when she herself never had that chance. The near-paralyzing fear Reid’s mother tries to infect her with is mirrored in the way the Cad literally freezes Reid when Hen is threatened by wild dogs and she wants to help him – both cause her pain in order to keep her safe, which is ultimately a means of protecting themselves.
Mohamed strikes a delicate balance in showing a family relationship which could be toxic or genuinely loving, symbiotic or parasitic. The question of whether Howse University is real is left open, underlining that life is complicated and full of risk and unknowns. The decisions Reid and her community face aren’t easy, and there’s always a chance of someone getting hurt, but should that stop them from living their lives and taking their chances on a better future? There is a comfort in the idea of sticking to tradition and what is known, over forging a new path through the world. Again, the fact that the disease is hereditary speaks in its own way to the idea of parents wanting what is best for their children, but smothering them in their efforts to protect them, versus children wanting to live their own lives and being forced to rebel in hurtful ways in order to do so.
The Annual Migration of Clouds does an excellent job of exploring all of this, and does an excellent job with all the relationships in the community as well. It’s a plausible imagining of post-collapse society and the way humanity has a tendency to survive and find ways to carry on.
In closing, I also have to call out the fact that this book is absolutely stunning as a physical object. There’s a silky, textured feel to the cover, and the cover art by Veronica Park is gorgeous and just keeps getting better the longer you look at it. The design is echoed throughout the book with the interior illustration that heads each chapter. If you like books-as-objects, this is another one that I recommend grabbing in hard copy.
Hello, lovelies! I can hardly believe it, but we’re almost at year-end, which makes it the perfect time to look back on what we accomplished and the things that we loved. As I’ve been doing for several years now, I am once again compiling links to author/editor/publication eligibility posts, year-in-review posts, year’s best lists, and general reviews and resources. These posts serve several purposes – to help those who nominate works for awards to remember what eligible works have come out during the year and what category they fall into; to help readers find work they might have missed and might love; and for creators to reflect on the amazing things they accomplished over the year. If you are an author, editor, publisher, artist, poet, etc., I highly recommend making a post of your own, and if you do, please let me know! I’ll be putting together my own lists of my favorites of the year, along with what I published, at some point as well.
I’ve divided the post into a few hopefully helpful categories, and I will continue to update with new links as I receive them. Please do spread the word, tag me with your posts on twitter (@ac_wise), drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or drop links in the comments. I look forward to seeing what you made this year and what work you loved!
Note: Cat Rambo maintains a similar list, and they were kind enough to set up a webform to gather information for our posts. Please feel free to use the form as well and that will get both of us your information.
Links to authors/editors/publishers posting their award-eligible work, organized alphabetically. (** denotes an author eligible for the Astounding Award.)
Palestinian Speculative Fiction (various authors eligible work listed)
Treehouse Writers (multiple authors sharing eligible work)
What did reviewers love this year? What books are your peers seriously digging? Click through the links below to find various recommended reading lists and various best of the year lists.
Review Sites and Resources
Looking for yet more recommendations of things to read? The links below will help you find reviews, news, interviews, and more!
What awards are out there? Who can nominate works? What are the various deadlines? The links below may help answer your questions!
Aurora Awards – Eligibility lists are now open to CSFFA Members to suggest work.
British Fantasy Awards – Suggested reading/eligibility list is open for additions until March 31, 2022
Ignyte Awards – Public voting opens April 18, 2022.
Locus Awards – Public voting is open through April 15, 2022 (link at the bottom of the page.)
WSFA Small Press Awards – authors and editors may submit work originally published in 2021 for consideration through March 31, 2022.
World Fantasy Awards – authors, editors, and publishers may submit work originally published in 2021 through June 1, 2022. Members of the 2020, 2021, or 2022 World Fantast Convention may submit nomination ballots through June 1, 2022.
Girl Reading, Artist/Maker Unknown, c. 1932, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Reading by Lamplight, Wanda Gág, c. 1927, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Sybil Reading, Attributed to Ugo da Carpi, c. 1517-18, Philadelphia Museum of Art
After much back and forth, giving up, cancelling plans, and re-making plans, I will actually be at the World Fantasy Convention in Montreal in person! Unless something dramatic happens between now and the weekend, of course, but otherwise, I will be there Friday and Saturday and looking forward to seeing other folks who are attending in person. I have two programming items scheduled, so if you happen to be there as well, here is where you can find me!
Reading – Friday – 5:30 p.m. – Outremont 5
My current plan is to read an excerpt from Hooked, which is coming out next year. This will be my first time reading any part of it aloud for other humans, so if you’re into exclusive sneak previews, come join me!
The Power of Speculative Non-Fiction Essays – Saturday – 5p.m. – Virtual
Eugen Bacon, A.C. Wise, F. Brett Cox, Sean Dowey, Angela Keely (M)
We’ll be discussing non-fiction essays and their contribution to the genre. Hope to see you there!
Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas edited by Carina Bissett, Hillary Dodge, and Joshua Viola is forthcoming from Hex Publishers at the end of November. They were kind enough to send me an advance copy, and let me say first off, this books is really wonderful as a physical object. If you’re the sort of person who likes books-as-objects, then I definitely recommend snagging a print copy of this one. The conceit of the anthology is that it collects various legends and hidden histories from across the Americas. These documents, gathered by the Umbra Arca Society, include case files, illustrations from agents in the field, and even blank pages for readers to contribute their own notes and thoughts to the titular Shadow Atlas. The cover wrap under the dust jacket is even designed to look like a leather-bound tome, complete with a mysterious clasp, which may or may not open of its own accord.
Authors contributing to the volume include Gwendolyn Kiste, Josh Malerman, Julia Rios, E. Lily Yu, and Kay Chronister, among many others. Interspersed among the stories and poems there are also snippets of history and maps in addition to the above-mentioned illustrations, case notes, and blank journal pages. Even when the stories themselves get dark, the anthology’s design is light-hearted and fun, and it’s a pleasure to flip through its pages.
While many of the stories draw on existing mythologies and legends, others rely on a more personal kind of mythology, or weird and inexplicable happenings encountered by one or two people. I’m a sucker for hidden histories, mythology, and folktales, and this loose theme gives authors a wide field to play with. A few of the stories really stood out to me, and they are highlighted below.
Moon-Eyed Women by Kay Chronister is the story of a Welsh immigrant living in America whose father has arranged for him to have a true Welsh bride. The moon-eyed women of the title are rumored to be descendants of the mythological Madoc, though descendant is a tricky term in this case as the women are constructed in the model of Blodeudwedd of Welsh myth who was built out of flower petals by the magicians Math and Gwydion.
Deep in the honeymoon passion, Roderick overlooks his new wife’s faults. He toils without complaint, taking on both his own labor and what should rightfully be hers: the cooking and the milking of the new cow, the gathering of the firewood. Seeing his Blodeuwedd flinch from the sun, he holds his tongue, thinks tenderly on the underground hollow where she waited all her life to belong to him.
Chronister’s eerie tale explores the dark side of what it might mean to belong to someone, and to have someone belong to you, as well as exploring the idea of purity. It also follows the implications of what it means to have compliant, constructed wife to a logical and unsettling conclusion.
Things to Do in Playland When You’re Dead by Gwendolyn Kiste is an ode to the past, where the America-that-was is in itself a ghost. The story nests haunting upon haunting, but these hauntings are more melancholy than frightening as a ghost wanders through the soon-to-be closed Playland exploring its fading glory, contemplating San Francisco’s history, and searching for their purpose in the afterlife.
At the front window, you meet Laffing Sal, who always lives up to her name. She’s the giant animatronic clown that never stops smiling, her wide eyes staring out through the glass. It doesn’t matter where you are in the park–nobody can ever escape the sound of that laugh. It follows your every step.
There is a sense of nostalgia to the story, but it also reckons with the darker side of San Francisco’s history – its earthquakes, its murders, its overdoses, and its heartbreak. Kiste strikes just the right balance of sorrow and hope in this short yet satisfying tale.
You Ought Not Smile As You Walk These Woods by Annie Neugebauer caused me to wonder whether a story can be simultaneously cute and horrifying. This one certainly feels like it strikes that balance with its dark sense of humor and a classic (in the violent and bloody sense) fairy tale feel. A grandson goes to visit his grandmother and isn’t wise enough to heed her advice. Being the typical arrogant, greedy, and not too bright youth of fairy tales, he steals what he shouldn’t and even though he tries to gift what he steals to his grandmother out of kindness, the results are still horrifying.
The man smiled, nodding, and promised her that he would not show his teeth, even though he knew that the fairies of East Texas are scavengers and opportunistic carnivores. The small flying mammals posed no threat to a big strong, young man such as himself.
Like all good fairy tales, this one comes with a moral: Always listen to your elders, respect nature, and never think you’re cleverer than a fairy – especially one with a fondness for teeth.
Xtabay by Julia Rios presents readers with a series of stories nested within stories, evoking mythology, urban legends, and ghostly tales. A young girl grapples with her family history, in particular the history of her Mexican father who spent his life desperately trying to fit in and be something he wasn’t. As a young man, his cousin constantly teased him about his virginity, which led to an unwise relationship with a mysterious girl. Rather than doing what he knew in his heart to be right, he allowed himself to give into pressure, resulting in tragedy and a curse that followed him for the rest of his life.
“I don’t care that you’re sorry,” said the girl. “He deserved to die. And so do all like him! And you? I curse your oppressor heart a thousand times! May you always find that the harder you try to be one of them, the more you will feel your own heart being devoured! And when it happens again, remember me.”
The story deftly explores themes of racism, class, and the expectations society places on men vs. women, where women must remain pure, while men are mocked for not making sexual “conquests”. Rios shows the way these gendered expectations tie back to issues of class, race, and colonization with the idea that lower-class women are expendable and good enough to fuck, but not worthy of marriage, and showing how constantly trying to fit into someone else’s image of what and who you should be slowly erodes you from the inside out.
Blood Sisters by Christa Wojciechowski weaves together personal mythology and local legends as a pair of childhood friends travel to Columbia on a last girls trip before one of them gets married. Tina is afraid of things changing and brings Beats to a supposedly cursed mountain where standing at the top as an unmarried person dooms you to always to be alone. On their last night in Columbia, they go drinking with two local men, one of whom reveals the mountain’s nature to Beats, and thus also reveals Tina’s betrayal.
Since seventh grade, Beats and I were one soul in two bodies. Her freckled limbs–the scar on her right knee from falling on my driveway–were as familiar as my own. My voice came out as hers. The smell of her body, dryer sheets mixed with the funk of her greasy old shepherd, was my smell. Our periods were always in synch.
The story realistically captures the way friendships can drift apart as people grow, from a time in your life where you know everything about the other person and they’re you’re entire world, to a time where you just exchange emails occasionally, and how scary that transition can be. It’s not about a friendship breaking or anything dramatic happening, simply the way things change over time. Tina’s feelings of jealously feel very real and grounded, as does her fear of change leading to destructive behavior. The story also offers an interesting exploration of belief and the power it has over people. Sometimes simply knowing about a supposed curse is enough to bring it about, whether the curse is “real” in any objective sense or not.
Keep an eye out for this anthology when it releases at the end of the November, and if it sounds like it’s up your alley, consider pre-ordering it now!
Capclave is coming up the weekend of October 1-3. It’s being held in person this year, which is both a weird feeling – the return to in-person cons! – and exciting as I’m really looking forward to seeing several people I haven’t seen in far too long.
The tentative schedule is up on the convention website, so this is where you should be able to find me throughout the weekend.
Saturday 12:30 pm – Author Reading – Monroe
I haven’t fully decided what I’ll be reading yet. An excerpt from Wendy, Darling? Something from The Ghost Sequences? Something else entirely new? You’ll just have to show up to find out! I will quite possibly have chocolate with me to bribe/thank you if you do.
Saturday 2:00 pm – All Writing is Political – Truman
Participants: Natalie Luhrs, Michael Swanwick, Caias Ward, Joy Ward, A.C. Wise (M)
Some critics say SF, Fantasy, and Comics have become too political. Has there been a change in the political content from the days of Brave New World, 1984, and Starship Troopers? Should entertainment be free from politics? Is it even possible? When something claims to be apolitical, what is it actually supporting? How can we be more conscious of the political implications of our own work?
Saturday 3:00 pm – Ghost Stories – Truman
Participants: Tom Doyle, Dina Leacock, Darrell Schweitzer (M), Michael Swanwick, A.C. Wise
Humans have been telling ghost stories since the first campfire. Peter S. Beagle has ghosts in ‘A Fine and Private Place’ and ‘Tamsin’. What is so attractive about ghosts? How are ghosts used in fiction – both in scary stories and non-horror fantasies? Are ghosts more important in cultures with religions focused on the afterlife? What are some of the best ghost stories in fiction? Do you believe in ghosts and if so why?
Sunday 1:00 pm – Twice Upon a Time – Revisiting Classic Tales – Washington Theater
Participants: Leah Cypess, Mark Huston, Jean Marie Ward, A.C. Wise
Disney was not the first to redo fairy tales. As part of an oral tradition, they were never static but were altered by every storyteller. Re-tellers have remixed archetypes and traditional elements down to the present day. So how can writers give new life to these old stories? How can they preserve the archtypes while providing fresh insight into familiar stories? And, given that everyone knows how the original stories went, what can authors do to make their version stand out?
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