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Shiny Shorts: Distances

In the midst of this time of social distancing, in addition to highlighting short fiction to enjoy while staying away from other humans, I thought it would be interesting to consider stories that deal with various forms of distance. It might be physical, emotional, or even the distance between perception and reality. Either way, all these stories offer some take on the idea of distance, how can be be bridged (or not), and what it means.

Yo, Rapunzel! by Kyle Kirrin published at PodCastle offers a fresh and charming take on that early social distancer, Rapunzel. In this case, instead of a princess passively waiting rescue, Rapunzel is quite content to be alone. In fact, the story opens with this irresistible line: And lo, the Princess said: “Motherfucker, I am content.” She has a Dragon to keep her company, the mural she’s painting, plenty of board games, and a Time Wizard who drops by occasionally to refresh her supplies. Of course that doesn’t stop an endless stream of Knights from demanding to be given Heart Quests in order to prove themselves worthy of  her hand. Despite her repeated protestations that she has no interest in getting married, and is in no need of rescue, they continue to show up, and so she dutifully sends them away with impossible tasks hoping to never see them again.

The Princess dropped her head into her hands. “Please tell me you’ve got a Quest in mind. I am so fucking tired of this.”

“Uhhh,” said the Dragon. “Drink the ocean? Swallow the stars?”

“Too figurative,” said the Princess. “He’ll just come back in the morning with a loose interpretation and a scroll full of shitty poems. It’s fine, I’ll figure something out.” She crossed the room and threw open the window. “Yeah, what you want?”

Everything changes when a Knight arrives with an adorable mini donkey named Steve. He is as uninterested in completing a Heart Quest as she is in giving one, going through the motions of accepting one in the same way she goes through the motions of giving them out. Intrigued by this break in the pattern, she invites him into the tower to play board games, and friendship develops between them.

The story is refreshing in its inversion of tropes, its foul-mouthed princess, its uninterested knight, its tame dragon, and the way it places friendship on equal footing with romantic love. The solution to the fairy tale conundrum isn’t a forced bridging of distance, where two strangers are thrown together, and expected to marry immediately because of destiny or a completed quest. Their friendship grows based on mutual interest, respect for each other’s boundaries, and a mutual decision to spend time together, while continuing to give each other space when needed. The story has a wonderful and engaging voice, and it has true heart beneath the light tone while still being a lot of fun. Plus, how can anyone resist an adorable mini donkey named Steve? Even if he is a bit of a dick sometimes.

Fireside Quarterly CoverThe Imperishable Birds by Vajra Chandrasekera in Fireside Magazine explores the distance between symbol and object, and the distance between  perception and lived reality.

Kusul burns the birds on camera. The shot is wide so that you can see all seven birds, yellow-billed babblers that won’t sit still long enough to catch fire. Whenever she lights a match and squats to hold it under their tails, they flutter up and come down again a few feet further away, so she crab-walks over to them and lights another match.

The imagery is striking and the prose lovely and evocative. In under 1,500 words, Chandrasekera delivers a gut punch of a story that captures the outsider, colonialist mentality of the Director who is only interested in forwarding his vision of what he thinks Kusul and her family should be. He barely sees Kusul, or anyone else in his film, and casually talks about using CGI to edit reality to fit his worldview. He transforms people into caricatures, flattening them into pieces he can move around, trying to further shorten the distance between symbol and object and make reality conform to him. The story does an excellent job of highlighting the grossness of misery porn, and the ways in which those who claim to “give voice to the voiceless” end up silencing those very voices by drowning them out with their own.

Forgive Me, My Love, For the Ice and the Sea by C.L. Clark in Beneath Ceaseless Skies deals with both physical and emotional distances that the protagonist must travel. Laema promised her lover that she was done with the sea, but with her lover falsely imprisoned, she agrees to sail with the Pirate Queen Issheth to the bottom of the world and arrange for her death, either by accident or assassination, in order to win her lover’s freedom.

For the next month, we sailed through wild seas, farther and farther from land. It felt like the world had gone as mad as Issheth and the ocean had turned devil, not the beautiful, if temperamental, creature I had fallen in love with. We had nights of blissful calm, only to be wracked by vicious storms all day—or the opposite. The further south we sailed, the longer the days became. One night lasted only a couple of hours. Frost coated everything—ropes, rails, coats, even beards for those of us that grew them.

To Laema, Issheth seems like a woman haunted, prone to wild changes of mood, but she soon learns they have more in common than she first realized. Issheth lost her wife to the sea, and the true purpose of her journey is to seek the goddess and ask to speak to her wife one last time. A relationship grows between them, one built on respect, attraction, and shared sorrow. Laema’s perspective shifts, as does her purpose on board the ship. She still seeks to free her lover, but her expectations for their relationship cannot stay the same. She has already betrayed her by breaking one promise, even though it was for the purpose of saving her, and she knows things can’t go back to the way they were. Laema can only hope that giving her lover space and time to deal with things will allow their relationship to heal.

Like Chandrasekera’s story, this is another piece with stunning imagery and gorgeous prose, though the settings of both stories are vastly different, and the imagery us employed to different effect. And like Kirrin’s story, Forgive Me, My Love, For the Ice and the Sea, reframes the standard quest trope as well as the way they relate to relationships and love. Laema knows there is a very real possibility she will lose the person she loves, but ultimately she chooses her lover as a person rather than attempting to preserve their relationship by any means necessary. It’s a lovely story on many levels, and well worth a read.

Rat and Finch Are Friends by Innocent Chizaram Ilo in Strange Horizons is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of friendship, love, and loneliness, that explores physical distance as well as the distance between the stated intention to protect and the lived reality of the harm done by that attempt at protection.

At twelve years old, Izu is sent off to boarding school. He’s afraid he’ll be lonely there, but he’s buoyed by his father’s parting gift of the Frog and Toad series of books and his wish that Izu find a best friend the way Frog and Toad found each other. At school,  Izu meets Okwudili, and discovers like that him, Okwudili can transform into an animal.

They said Nnemuru, my father’s mother, was a falcon when she was alive. Her wings were so radiant the rainbow envied them. She was beautiful. She was feared. They also said she swooped down on people’s farms and destroyed their crops. Nnemuru was found dead on a Sunday morning, her back pierced by the pointy cross on the church steeple, her wings arched and stiff. People called it witchcraft.

Izu inherited his grandmother’s power and can transform into a finch, where Okwudili can transform into a rat. As a child, Izu’s father could transform into a crow until his older sister clipped his wings and scraped off the mark on his neck that allowed him to change, all in the name of protecting him. She tries to do the same to Izu, but his father stops her, but also extracts a promise from Izu that he will keep his power hidden lest someone else try to take it away from him.

The friendship that develops between Rat and Finch quickly becomes something more, and the story creates a parallel between Finch’s attraction to Rat and his ability to transform. He’s asked to suppress both for his own good, and it is utterly heartbreaking. Even as his aunt and his mother try to take away aspects of Izu’s true self “for his own good”, Izu’s relationship with his father remains beautiful and heartening. He supports and understands Izu, and does his best to allow him to be himself until he feels he has no choice but to hurt him as well. The story is truly bittersweet in the way it explores relationships between friends, lovers, and family, and the way love brings people together and sets them apart, leading them to hurt each other in the guise of caring. In this way, the story shares similarities with both Clark’s story, and Chandrasekera’s story – in the way it presents the flipside of Laema’s choice to do what is best for her lover, not what is best for herself, and in the way Izu’s mother and aunt refuse to see Izu for who he is, fitting him into their own narrative of what is best and justifying doing him harm.

How We Burn by Brenda Peynado in Lightspeed Magazine explores the distance between generations and again, the idea of parents’ controlling their children’s lives in the name of protecting them.

Look at how bright we burn. I’m driving my spaceship with a hacked joystick and my friends in the side-seats: Tiger, Grizzly Bear, and Joshua Tree, my boyfriend. And me, Sequoia—all named after extinct species, as if our light could bring them back.

Tiger, Grizzly, Josh, and Sequoia view themselves as rebels, bucking their parents and grandparents’ unfair rules. They steal spaceships, hack the controls to drive them manually and recklessly, and take drugs, wanting to experience the world on their term, including the freedom to make their own mistakes. They consider each other siblings, but they also wonder what it would be like to have real blood siblings and build families by choice and outside of strict government control. When the group is arrested for joyriding, Sequioa ends up in a cell with a Procreator named Thalia,who lives off the grid and shuns society’s rules. Her lifestyle is both fascinating and frightening to Sequioa, and leads her to further questions the true shape of the world, and the possible lies her generation has been told.

The voice of the story is slick and stylish, and even at novelette length, it seems at times to rush by at breathless speed, mirroring Sequioa, Grizzly, Tiger and Josh’s headlong rush into danger of their own choosing. At other times, the narrative slows, allowing for quiet contemplation of the contrasting worldviews presented in the story. Rather than painting things in black and white, with the kids as clearly right and the parents and grandparents as joy-killing villains, both generations are presented with sympathy and both viewpoints are understandable. Sequoia’s parents and grandparents lived through scarcity and the near-destruction of the environment. Their rules are there to preserve society as a whole and ensure the survival of humanity. At the same time, Sequoia’s generation is stuck with a mess not of their own making, forced to follow handed-down rules that restrict their freedom and their choices through no fault of their own. There’s plenty of food for thought in the story and it’s wonderfully-written, with dazzling turns of phrase, characters with real depth, and a world that feels fully fleshed out and lived in.

I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I did. What brilliant short fiction have you been reading lately? I’m always on the lookout for more things to read.

 

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Shiny Shorts: Ghosts in the Machine, Far From Home

It’s a new year, which means a whole new crop of short fiction to enjoy! January is off to a fantastic start, with new issues of magazines bringing forth haunting, beautiful stories. The month is only half over, but a few stories have already caught my eye, boding well for a year of wonderful fiction. Three of these stories feature characters far from home, longing for what was lost, or making their own way in the world, forging new paths and new futures. The other two explore the blurred line between technology and the supernatural, bringing back lost voices, and finding justice.

Fireside January 2020 CoverGreen Tunnels by Taimur Ahmad in Fireside Magazine packs an emotional punch in a very short space of time, telling the story of Alice, a young girl growing up among the stars who is trying to recapture the feeling of home.

Dad reaches into his pocket and pulls out a slightly battered picture. He holds it gently, like it is a flower that might bruise if touched too carelessly. He stares at the image for a long moment. His shoulders ease downwards, the subtle tightness in his body unwinding just a bit.

Alice barely remembers what it was like to feel the sunlight on her face, or breathe in the scent of green grass. Much of her longing is reflected from her father, which is part of what makes this story so effective. Alice sets out to recreate a garden in her room, nurturing flower and plants and mushrooms grown in a lab, transforming them from something functional into something beautiful. She does this as much for her father as she does for herself. With deep empathy, she recognizes his longing, and also the change just seeing a photograph of growing things brings about to his mood. While Alice’s father holds out the hope that they might go home one day, on some level, Alice seems to understand that they will never return to Earth, and home must be something they carry with them, paradoxically helping her father let go of the past by memorializing it and making it anew. It’s a beautifully-written story, and Ahmad does a wonderful job of infusing it with loss, longing, and hope.

Familiar Face by Meg Elison in Nightmare Magazine presents the simultaneously chilling and comforting idea that facial recognition software might allow the dead to communicate with those they left behind. Annie recently lost her wife, Cara, and is coping with her grief as best she can. Her roommates support her, and the caring network Elison depicts is wonderful to see. As Annie tries to process her pain and find a way to move on, the camera in their home begins insisting that it sees a familiar face at the door – Cara’s.

Annie stepped forward and opened the door anyway. She didn’t believe Cara would be there. She didn’t believe she had seen what she had seen. There was nothing on the doorstep. Fog swarmed in the streetlights and droplets of it landed on their parked cars.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Cara’s death wasn’t ordinary, but that she was the victim of violence. The facial recognition technology built into the home’s security camera becomes the key to unraveling Cara’s death, and giving Annie a sense of closure and justice, if not peace exactly. Elison leaves it up to the reader as to whether Cara’s ghost is actually haunting the machine and Annie, or whether it’s merely a means to allow Annie to get in touch with her intuition and process her loss. Leaving enough room for either interpretation makes the story all the more powerful, and takes nothing from the eerie and atmospheric encounters Annie has with Cara’s ghost. The characters’ use of signing, and the way they adapt it into a highly-personal mode of communication adds an extra layer of poignancy to the story. It’s refreshing to see cameras and facial recognition software depicted as a means of broadening communication – and highlighting that communication isn’t limited to speaking aloud – rather than being painted as the big bad in a speculative story, especially one with horror overtones.

Miss Karami’s Academy for Time-Warping Ladies by Kat Otis in Kaleidotrope Magazine sets a very different tone than the first two stories. It is charming, cheeky, and above all, fun. It still deals with a character far from home, as Elzbieta finds herself exiled to Miss Karami’s Academy for warping time in an un-lady-like way. It’s not that women shouldn’t manipulate time, only that they should do it within certain socially-acceptable boundaries, a skill Miss Karami purports to teach her students. Of course, there’s always wiggle room, and the students of Miss Karami’s, Elzbieta and her twin sister Ryska among them, find a way to get firmly up to no good while putting on the face of innocence and making the stuffy Chronology Protection Agency look foolish to boot.

I suppressed a grin as I warped threads to slow the cup’s flight, then carefully plucked it out of the air before it could hit something and shatter. Miss Karami had sworn to me that manners were an effective weapon, when wielded properly—it looked like she was right.

The story presents a different angle on the idea of being far away from home allowing a character to establish a new life. Rather than mourning home, Elzbieta is more cranky than anything else, but she quickly discovers a new kind of freedom and the ways in which the very rules set to bind and limit her can be twisted to her advantage. Otis plays with the idea of women’s power lying at least partially in their tendency to be underestimated, and their ability to use society’s perceptions of them against that same society. It’s assumed Elzbieta, Ryska, and the other students of Miss Karami’s couldn’t possibly be clever enough to stage a cover-up, thus they must be just what they appear on the surface – up to mischief, but only the frivolous and silly girlish kind. Elzbieta and Ryska are delightful characters, the tone of their banter and interactions is perfect, and I would happily read more stories set at Miss Karami’s school.

Uncanny January February 2020 CoverMy Country is a Ghost by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Uncanny Magazine returns to a more melancholy and bittersweet take on the loss of home. In the process of immigrating to a new country, Niovi is forced to leave her mother’s ghost behind.

Foreign ghosts were considered unnecessary. The only things they had to offer were stories and memories.

Niovi had prepared herself for this, and yet she had hoped she wouldn’t have to leave her mother behind.

She gave the necklace to the impassive woman and let herself drift down the aisle as if a forceful gust of air ushered her away.

Niovi underestimates just how much of an impact cutting ties with her ghost will have on her. More than ties to her mother specifically, her mother’s ghost is a link to her heritage, her traditions, an entire life she’s leaving behind. Food and cooking play an important role in the story. Niovi struggles to prepare food for the Saturday of Souls, finding herself at a loss without her mother’s guidance her, and finding her relatives back home of no use either, seeing her as “other” and almost a traitor now. Triantafyllou perfectly captures the idea of a character caught between worlds. Niovi is trying to build a better life for herself, pursue opportunity, but fears that to do so, she will have to let go of who she is – assimilate as a ghostless person with no ties to her heritage and home. However, over the course of the story, Niovi learns there is balance to be had, she can move forward while still carrying the past with her, honoring her family, while still building a future for herself. This story is at once heartbreaking and filled with hope, and a gorgeous exploration of what it means to leave home and find a new one.

Fiyah 13 CoverThe Transition of Osoosi by Ozzie M. Gantrell in Fiyah Magazine is a novelette that once again blends technology and the supernatural. Mal is a young, black Choctaw man, thus a citizen, but not considered a “True American”. He is followed by cops, under suspicion, and constantly at risk of losing his life simply for existing in the world. He’s also an extremely skilled hacker, and along with his best friend Machine, he sets out to enlist the skills of the Anansi, a top-tier hacker collective who manifest themselves as African gods.

Still shaky from the turbulent introduction, I concentrate on the leader, the one who’d first spoken, and offer my thanks. He waves it off with one of his eight hands. His avatar wears the form of a dark skinned, handsome man with long dreads tipped in gold. Bulbous shades hide his eyes. Steel plates feather along his ribs in shades of iridescent black-blue.

With the Anansi’s help, Mal believes he can bring a measure of justice to the world, and change the way non-True Americans are treated. Change requires sacrifice however, and the Anasi ask Mal how far he is willing to go. He says he will gladly give up his life, but simply willing to be a martyr for the cause is too easy. To effect real change, Mal will have to transform himself, betraying those he loves, and giving up everything that made him human.

The blend of cyberpunk aesthetics with African mythology is brilliantly done, strongly hinting at the possibility that Mal is dealing with actual gods, and not simply very talented hackers. The exploration of empathy and the idea of sacrifice is also beautifully done, as Gantrell looks at the role technology might play in creating a kinder world. Mal and Machine’s different approaches to this idea set them up in opposition while working toward the same goal. Machine creates a VR experience which in essence summons the ghosts of water protectors in North Dakota, immersing the viewer so completely that it actually manipulates their emotions. Where Machine sees this creation of empathy as a voluntary process, Mal sees the potential to create a kind of empathy bomb, giving people no choice in having the pain they’ve caused turned back on them.

The story is wonderfully written, presenting justice and change as a double-edged sword. In order to win, Mal must lose part of himself, but is it worth it for the greater good? According to the ToC, this novelette is Gantrell’s debut publication, and what an incredible start. I can’t wait to read more of her work.

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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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