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.
His 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.
Ibrahim 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.