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Shiny Shorts: Halloween Reads

We are deep in spooky season folks, and tomorrow is the spookiest day of them all. Just in time for Halloween, I have some recent haunting short fiction to recommend.

The Midnight Host by Gregory Neil Harris published in Fiyah #12: Chains finds brothers Donnie and Koda headed to the middle-of-nowhere North Virginia with their grandmother to visit their Aunt Pearl. One of the first things they notice on arriving at Pearl’s is a line of brick dust surrounding her property, which they mishear as being to keep away ants. The line is actually meant to repel haints, and Pearl sends the boys to the neighboring property to gather more. Next door, they meet Harlowe, who works for Mr. Hammond. He agrees to give them the brick dust, but seems very eager to get them off the property. As Donnie gathers dust, Koda wanders off and accidentally cuts himself on a piece of farm equipment. Harlowe tries to shoo them away again, despite the fact Koda is bleeding, and at that moment Mr. Hammond appears, seemingly solicitous of the boys’ health, offering bandages and cold drinks. That night, the boys return to Mr. Hammond’s property, intending to cut through his field on the way to town. They discover the fields watched over by an unsettling group of scarecrows, and the tobacco being worked by trapped black souls, bound to the land and forced to endlessly work the fields until they pay off an un-payable debt. Because Koda bled on the land, and because they accepted Mr. Hammond’s hospitality, now they are in danger of being bound too.

He scrambled over the fence and hurried to catch up to his brother, studying the nearest scarecrow with distaste. Even in the thin moonlight, there was something wrong with it. It looked too real. This one was a middle-aged white man with an unforgiving expression and pale grey eyes that practically glowed in the dark. A frown was evident above the thick, chest-length beard, and deep lines etched his sunburned face.

Harris effectively creates an atmosphere of tension and a sense of mounting dread. The first appearance of Mr. Hammond positively oozes menace even as he seems to express concern over the boys’ well being. While overtly supernatural and frightening things do occur, the true horror comes from the all-too-real system of “debt” keeping black workers enslaved on the plantation, pushed to the extreme of binding them to the land even after death, making for an unsettling supernatural tale rooted in real-world horror.

Luna Station QuarterlyThe Pet Owner’s Guide to Reptilian Hauntings by Jerica Taylor in Luna Station Quarterly is a bittersweet story with touches of humor. Maggie finds herself haunted by the ghost of her son Jason’s lizard, Howard. Meanwhile her wife, Kiersten, is deployed far away, and Maggie is trying to cope with solo parenting – getting Jason to the bus, and various after-school activities, while keeping herself going and helping her son come to terms with the concept of death.

Maggie immediately blames herself for forgetting something important in Howard’s care and feeding. His heat lamp is still on, but had she forgotten some supplement? It had been a terrible idea to get a new pet right before Kiersten left; animals were her wheelhouse. Maggie hugs her son, wipes his nose and encourages him to head downstairs and eat his cereal while she figures out what to do.

Howard’s ghost turns up in odd places, lurking by the coffeemaker and on top of the refrigerator. The desires of dead lizards, Maggie discovers, are largely unknowable, if Howard wants anything at all. She does her best to do right by the lizard, and even develops a strange fondness for his ghost, despite the inconvenience he adds to her life. Through Howard’s ghost and Maggie’s shifting relationship to him, Taylor explores loneliness, and the stress, guilt, and resentment that can come with solo parenting, parenting in general, or being separated from a loved one no matter how good the reason for their absence. It’s a lovely story that manages to make the idea of a lizard-based haunting sound almost soothing and therapeutic.

The Sloppy Mathematics of Half-Ghosts by Charles Payseur in Strange Horizons is another bittersweet story, but in a wholly different way.

Aboard the ghost ship Nine Lives there are the living, the dead, and a great many cats. And Jourdain, who likes to sleep in the observation nest, body caught somewhere between ship and stars—between everything. He half-sleeps, and half-dreams of a city he can almost taste, smog and sweat and endless endless streets alive with celebration. Then, with a shiver he’s not felt since he was beaten to death behind a theater ten years ago, knowledge crawls up his spine and into his half-conscious mind. “Napoleon is dead,” he whispers.

After that killer opening, Payseur treats readers to a weird (in the best sense of the word) journey that revels in beautiful language, and is suffused with longing. Even the dead, and the half-dead, can dream and desire things, and Napoleon has the power to grant wishes. The Nine Lives sets sail for Heart of the Universe to ferry the Emperor of All Things to his final rest, and perhaps get some of their own wishes seen to along the way. There are swashbuckling fights, and disdainful cats tasked with holding the ship together, and sex that manages to be intimate and tender and passionate despite, or perhaps because, of the lack of fully corporeal bodies involved. Payseur delivers a story that is queer and wistful with prose to leave the reader breathless and feeling like they do have been on an epic journey to the center of the universe and returned changed.

The Skin of a Teenage Boy is Not Alive by Senaa Ahmad from the August issue of Nightmare Magazine makes possession into a game played by bored, rich teenagers. The right kind of kids go to the right kinds of party, where the high school’s demon cult full of beautiful boys and girls invoke demons to possess their classmates.

It happens at one of their houses, a place built like a modern-day cathedral. The kind of hovel that has a saltwater pool with a vanishing edge and a wine cellar with someone’s entire life savings down there and red-glazed tiles cutting swoops into the Los Pueblos skyline. Six-day-old moon, a wide goblin grin from above. The hot strobe of synth-pop booming everywhere. The hazy, electrostatic currents of teenage bodies thrilling with vodka and happiness hormones.

Or rather ,one particular demon is summoned in a seemingly endless cycle to possess the young and stupid, causing them to harm themselves in its attempts to escape. The story moves fluidly through time, giving it a kind of timelessness quality, and Ahmad’s prose creates an almost dream-like feeling, with everything happening at a remove and no real consequences on the line. The style suits the story, underscoring the cyclical nature of demon possession, and also being young and feeling invulnerable. The demon cult kids and their classmates treat possession casually, like a demon is a trendy accessory, or a rite of passage, but they don’t appear to believe in their own mortality, or their ability to hurt those around them. Amhmad perfectly captures a sense of ennui that is frightening in its own right. Against this backdrop, best friends Aisha and Parveen search for a way to fit in, with Parveen acting the part of the perpetual outsider who will never be exactly the right kind of kid, trapped by a set of arbitrary rules that define popularity, just as the demon is trapped. The prose feels like a living thing, flowing and vibrant, carrying the story along and perfectly conveying the party atmosphere as well as the sense of alienation and being adrift, even among supposed friends.

Echoes CoverDeep, Fast, Green by Carole Johnstone from Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories is a standout story in an anthology full of incredible stories. In fact, I highly recommend checking out the whole anthology for nearly 800 pages of Halloween reads. Among so many incredible stories, Johnstone’s is one that keeps coming back to me, haunting me, if you’ll pardon the pun. Pinky lives with her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and a great uncle who she thinks of as Gramps. Gramps is haunted, and as a result, the rambling old estate they live in is haunted as well, manifesting Gramps’ decades old trauma from his time on the crew of a submarine that sank with most of the crew still on board.

When it’s bad, the lights flicker, dim. Go black. Nothing to do but suffer it. Nothing to see but dark and the red small glows ae fags. Stink squatting over your head. Diesel and smoke and bad hydraulics, old cackleberries and jock roast, shit and sweat. The heat like a morass, sucking you down, drowning you dry.

Pinky is the only one who can calm Gramps when his PTSD manifests, but even she can only do so much. Some traumas are too deeply ingrained, and the only way to dig them out is to relive them by sharing the pain, something both she and Gramps are both reluctant to have him do. Meanwhile, Pinky’s mother and her boyfriend are largely useless, leaving Gramps’ care to Pinky, only interested in inheriting the house when he finally dies. Johnstone takes the idea of a character haunted by his past, and dials it all the way up. The prose is claustrophobic, the sense of the submarine closing in, the feeling of being trapped and drowning palpable. The idea of submarine-as-ghost, and a traumatized character acting as a conduit letting a haunting out into the larger world is a wonderful and terrifying one, and Johnstone handles it perfectly, creating a narrative that is wrenching, heartbreaking, and deeply unsettling all at once.

What are your favorite haunting Halloween reads, recent or otherwise?

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Shiny Shorts: Monsters and Memory

With Apex Magazine ceasing monthly publication, my review column, Words for Thought, is a bit up in the air. It may come back in some form, at some point, but in the meantime, I want to keep highlighting short fiction. So in that spirit, I intend to sporadically post reviews here of a few stories that have caught my eye, magpie-like, hence the name Shiny Shorts. Happy reading!

Colonized Bodies, Desiccated Souls by Nin Harris, published at Diabolical Plots, casts British colonizers in Malaysia as literal zombies, mindlessly devouring people and resources. In response, Penghulu Udin forms the Persatuan Pertahanan Manusia Sejagat – PPMS – training others to fight back and defend humanity.

Even in their present state the British could barely handle the heat of the tropics. Penghulu Udin discovered he was exceptionally good at killing the undead. He could spear them, decapitate them, blow them up or use the bamboo blowgun the way his Dayak ancestors had before they had travelled to Selangor to build a new life by marrying into the Javanese community.

He is joined in the PPMS by his love, Salmah who fights at his side. Their life isn’t easy, but at least they are together. However, one night while they are on watch together, Udin discovers Salmah has been keeping a secret that will change everything.

Harris does an excellent job of conveying atmosphere and creating tension throughout the story. Like the best zombie fiction, the trope of the unreasoning undead is used here to confront a larger issue, in this case colonialism. The British are consumers, and Udin and his people are the product as only the British are subject to  infection while Malaysians who are bitten simply die. Zombies here are the perfect metaphor for the ugly reality of the sun never setting on the British Empire. The British colonizers are immortal in Harris’ world, even if the life they possess is hideous. They continue blithely on, and everyone else suffers the consequences. There is a lot to unpack in this relatively short story as it explores the fate of people caught in the crossfire of empires, and what it seems they must inevitably become in order to reclaim control.

Where Nin Harris uses zombies to examine colonialism, Danny Lore uses werewolves to examine class in Fare, published in Fireside Magazine. Like Harris’ story, Lore’s is also short, but packs a punch. Werewolves are a known quantity in this world. Most are registered, and there are even swanky, government-sponsored kennels where wealthy and middle class people can ride out their transformations. DeShaun, however, is not registered, and he knows people from his neighborhood are not welcome at the Midtown Kennels. He has no desire to hurt anyone, he simply wants to get home before the moon changes him.

The change always starts at the back of DeShaun’s neck, and it takes everything not to claw the beast out — to not let it peel him open along his spine like pages of a book.

Lore’s prose is visceral and claustrophobic, creating tension through their descriptions – the suffocating heat in the cab, the cracked seats, the barrier separating DeShaun from the driver. The oppressive atmosphere creates a sense of urgency, making me want to squirm right along side DeShaun as he struggles for control. The story works perfectly as a sharp little bite of horror, but it’s more than that as well. Lore weaves in an examination of class, wealth, and privilege. The cabbie isn’t even aware of the existence of kennels in the Kingsbridge Armory where DeShaun and those like him go during their transformation. For the privileged, transforming into a werewolf is almost a holiday, and proud parents snap photographs of their children’s first change. As with so many things in life, privilege wipes away what could be monstrous, and replaces it with comfort and safety. The story is beautifully-written, and delivers satisfying horror as well as a reflection on society’s inequalities.

Apparition Lit CoverHis Heart is the Haunted House by Aimee Ogden in Apparition Literary Magazine takes on ghosts, beautifully twisting the trope of the tortured monster hunter. Karyn is a ghost, tied to a nameless monster hunter,  and she isn’t the only one. There are other ghosts – Tish and María-Belén and Easterday and more – all people the monster hunter failed to save. They are his burden to bear, the guilt he carries with him every day as he tries to ease his pain in all the usual ways – alcohol, cigarettes, and being an emotionally closed-off loner.

 

And then there are the ones who get towed helplessly in the wake of someone else who won’t let them go. The ones who don’t get to do, who only get to be carried around. The ones used to abrade the old scars of someone else’s guilt and shame.

Karyn and the other ghosts can briefly take possession of the monster hunter, nudging him towards certain actions, but it’s never long enough. They never get to do what they want to do, or resolve any of their own unfinished business. They simply get dragged along in the monster hunter’s wake, symbols he never sees or acknowledges. They are embodiment of his failure, letting him artfully wallow, but never recognized by him as human beings whose lives were lost. It’s a wonderful take on the tortured hero, motivated by a fridged woman’s death.

Ogden’s choice to never name the hunter is deliberate, framing the ghosts he carries as more real than he is, and reducing him to the cookie-cutter trope instead of them. The narrative is cleverly shifted, giving the ghosts more agency than the hunter, and the way the ghosts use their influence to steer the monster hunter toward  shedding his ultra-masculine loner persona is another lovely touch. The story is beautifully-told, refuses to go in expected directions, and is highly satisfying, particularly in an issue themed around retribution.

When Are You Wearing? by H.L. Fullerton in Capricious Issue 12 plays with the idea of memory and time. There have been a few recent short stories pairing food and memory, but Fullerton’s focus on clothing is a neat change-up, with lush, gorgeous descriptions of fashion that are every bit as mouthwatering as a good meal.

You are Narcissa Bloom. Once you made clothes, spent your imagination on hems and neck lines, buttons and zips, cut and fit. You remember every stitch, every thread, every look as it taxied down the runway and flew off hangars. Your closet bursts with memories – all the labels bear your name. All the clothes you’ve ever owned… They own you now. That’s how this works. This is what the time warlocks have done.

Narcissa is trapped, surrounded by memories and struggling with how to move forward in a world where time has become meaningless. Each item of clothing in her closet recaptures a day gone past, sparking nostalgia and recreating the emotion she felt at the time. She can revisit her first date with her lover, Fee, endlessly, but how can they create new memories together?

The story can be read as a metaphor for creative stagnation, something most artists fear. You’re only as good as your last dress, last story, last painting. How do you keep things fresh and new and not simply recreate what people loved about your work before? Making something new is a risk – people might hate it. In the same way, the future is a risk, an unknown, while the past and memories are safe, because they’ve already happened. Clothing can evoke memories every bit as strongly as a smell or a certain dish can, and Fullerton captures that perfectly, offering up a sensuous feast of pattern, color, and texture.

Fiyah 11 CoverIbrahim and the Green Fishing Net by Omar William Sow in Fiyah #11 is another story steeped in memory. Maam Iba is an old man, his eyesight failing. He’s lived a good life, which has given him children and grandchildren, and he seems happy. But every day near sunset, he goes down to the beach, sits in a plastic chair with a book he does not read, and stares at the water, watching for the man he loves.

He holds his book open, turning the pages when he remembers to do so, and the young men say to each other that he’s a well-read man. When the sun starts to harden in preparation for its dive, children run along the beach, and the older little ones say to the younger little ones that he’s watching for sharks. Only the occasional younger little one is ever right, when they tell the older little ones that no, he’s waiting for a friend.

In his youth, Ibrahim fished with his friend. Out on the water, free from the strictures of society and isolated in their own world, they were able to love each other – hold hands, touch each other’s skin, kiss. But when Ibrahim fell ill, his friend was forced to go out alone in order to make money for medicine. His boat returned empty, and Ibrahim never saw his friend – his love – again.

Sow offers up a lovely, contemplative story of a heart large enough to encompass multiple types of love over a lifetime, and explores the contrast between interior and exterior lives. Those around Maam Ib perceive him only as an old man and fit him into their vision of what an old man should be, incapable of imagining the passions he experienced as a young man. This is a love story, beautiful and poetic, but it’s also a meditation on faith. Ibrahim never gives up belief in his lost love even though he has no reason to believe he will see him again. Faith and hope are threaded throughout the story, giving it a dream-like, magical quality. Rather than dwell on loss and sorrow, Ibrahim looks forward joyously, even toward the end of a his life. In a way, Ibrahim is the ideal Fullerton’s Narcissa Bloom strives toward – someone informed by the past but not caged by it, with his eyes always on the horizon and what comes next.

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