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.