This winter has brought such a treasure of great stories that’s it’s been more of a struggle than usual to keep up. Here are just some that I read and loved in December and January.
“Out From Behind a Rock” by K.C. Mead-Brewer at Cotton Xenomorph
This was the debut story in Cotton Xenomorph, a new literary journal of poetry and flash fiction. It exemplifies much of the other fiction I’ve seen in Cotton Xenomorph since: not outright speculative fiction or fantasy, yet seeming to tilt in that direction. Reality that feels askew, or that’s related from an unusual vantage point. Mead-Brewer’s piece is particularly strange (while also being set in a plausibly real setting); it’s violent, disturbing, breath-taking. Its central image is also dazzling, and the last line is haunting. Mead-Brewer is a writer to watch, and Cotton Xenomorph (which has also published stories far gentler than this one) is a magazine to follow.
“Mother’s Rules for a Burned Girl” by Rebecca Mix in Flash Fiction Online
I love how an entire story can be contained within 1000 words. Rebecca Mix achieves that in this searing tale of dragons, abuse, rules, and breaking free.
“Milk Teeth and Heartwood” by Kathryn McMachon in Syntax and Salt
A creepy, creepy tale of a haunted wood, and of that which takes root and grows within.
“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw at Clarkesworld
An aching tale of love over long (very long!) distances. Khaw is the one of the best prose stylists I know, and I love the way she writes of bodies here, of how physical touch becomes poetry. Every line here is a poem.
“The Feast,” by K.C. Mead-Brewer at Carve Magazine.
Another story by K.C. Mead-Brewer, in a literary journal which is new to me. Mead-Brewer enters the world of the overtly fantastical for a lovely, haunting, infuriating, and piercing tale of giving and giving and hunger which can never be satisfied.
“In the Beginning, All Our Hands are Cold,” by Ephiny Gale at Syntax and Salt
Everyone in the village is born without hands; the children get along just fine with elbows and teeth and toes.
The story of a village where children are born without hands. . . but when they are old enough, they walk to a forest to pick out the hands that fit just right. This is such a strange and wonderful story. It’s a tale about friendship, the paths you choose, the paths you didn’t foresee, and the twists that life takes. It’s a gentle story filled with warmth, light, and the inevitable heartbreak that comes with life. Poignant and filled with love.
“When the Night Blooms, an Artist Transmutes: A Three-Act Play” by Nin Harris in The Dark
A disquieting fever-dream of a story, told in the format of a three-act play. A young woman comes to paint a crumbling old tower on the Straits of Malacca. What unfolds is a mash-up of English Gothic horror with a Malaysian monster story, a riff on “Bluebeard” set in the tropics and with more than one twist. The near-overwrought language expertly evokes the mood of Gothic tales. An eerie, atmospheric piece.
“The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” by Rachel K. Jones in Lightspeed
And oh, this is a change of pace! A group of cyborgs steals a restaurant-ship to escape the luxury resort where they’ve been forced to wait upon humans… And hijinks ensue. Horrifying, grotesque, hilarious hijinks. I laughed aloud several times while reading this. You’ll never encounter a restaurant like this anywhere else, and the menu served is fascinatingly, mesmerizingly disgusting. This is a cautionary tale against chasing those stars on Yelp reviews. . . and in chasing external validation in general. There’s some poignancy in that lesson learned (or rather, not learned). But oh my, this is fun as well.
Boneset by Lucia Iglesias at Shimmer
The story of a bonesetter and the price he will pay to write his magnum opus. A strange story of gorgeous prose with unusual and hypnotic rhythms. It’s both gruesome and whimsical, richly inventive and utterly entrancing.
The Poet and the Spider by Cynthia So at Anathema
You saw the Empress once, when you were still a pillow-cheeked and blossom-mouthed child. She was tall and severe, and the train of her yellow dress flowed behind her for miles and miles, a river of pure gold. You stood behind your mother and wanted to bathe yourself in that river, and the Empress turned, her crown twinkling like a cosmos of cold stars, and she looked at you.
Told in the second person, the main character of this story dreams of becoming Court Poet after seeing the Poem of The Land written on the flowing train of the Empress’ dress. To achieve her dream, the main character dares seek the help of the Spider Sisters of the West “who, like the Empress, are lovers of rhythm and metre, and strict critics.” This is such a gorgeously, gorgeously written fairy tale, written with lovely imagery, humor, and heart. And wonderful characters, too, with wonderful names! (e.g. the Spider of Bruises and Plums, who becomes the main character’s poetry mentor). I smiled so many times while reading this.
“On the Highway” by Francesca Forrest (available as an Amazon single)
This was released just before the New Year, and it’s a chilling New Year’s Eve tale set on a cold, lonely highway. It’s a story of ghosts, love, marriage, and (possibly, or possibly not) second chances. The author packs a lot into this slim story, and it takes unexpected turns within a small space. A sharp tale that leaves an echo.
“The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” by in Senaa Ahmad in Strange Horizons
A moving, brutally gorgeous tale of girls who were made to be weapons.
Presque Vu by Nino Cipro in Liminal Stories
And oh, this story bent my mind and cratered my heart. A surreal tale of millennial angst in a town where people are haunted by housekeys that appear in throats, mysterious postcards, phone calls. . . and real wraiths that call for car rides. Clay is a driver for an Uber-like car service, picking up both wraiths and humans. Like everyone else in town, he’s haunted. And he’s hollow, detached, just trying to get by in life. “Presque vu” (I had to look this up) is a term for that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, where you know the name of something but can’t quite recall it. And that title has a fitting resonance for this story, which somehow manages to obliquely convey a mood and theme which I know but can’t quite put into words. But I do know that it’s something to do with the sadness of this modern world, and with an underlying horror which we are all trying to ignore. But there’s also the warmth of community in this story: friends, lovers, and neighbors come together toward the end, and it’s enough, if only for a moment, to help keep the darkness at bay.
“A Cookpot, a Knife, a Pile of Rags,” by Virginia Mohlere at Cicada Magazine
She can’t stand the taste of apples. It’s the flavor of waking up from a nightmare, the flavor she chokes on in the dark. Can’t stand the smell of them, not even the sight.
And oh, this story of my heart. This fierce, gorgeous, painful, and ultimately healing retelling of the tale of Snow White. A Snow White who, traumatized by her past, walks away from her prince and eventually finds new strength in herself, with the help of a new friend.
She will walk until she reaches the top or until her body cannot walk anymore, she has decided. Her second great decision: the first was to walk away, and the second is to walk on.
Pretty Marys All in a Row by Gwendolyn Kiste (Broken Eye Books)
A house of urban legends and nursery tales come to life, the five “Marys” of the title. There’s “Resurrection Mary” a ghost who hitchhikes along a lonely stretch of highway. “Bloody Mary,” who appears in your mirror if you chant her name three times. Twists on “Mistress Mary” who grows her garden quite contrary, “Mary Mack” dressed in black, and an incarnation of the Welsh legend of the Mari Llyd. The Marys have lived together like sisters for untold years, haunting separately and then coming back to their house to feast together on the fear they’ve gathered from their hauntings. But a change is coming. And “Rhee” (Resurrection Mary) must fight to save herself and the others, and to remember who she used to be. This novella is stylish and elegantly written, atmospheric and with an often sly wit. Compelling and highly recommended.
“The Frozen Sea Takes Everything I Love,” by Meryl Stenhouse at The Fantasist
People who lived on the land, who saw the changing of the seasons, who heard the rush of meltwater over the soil did not know, would never know, that ice had a voice. Sometimes it sang under the iron runners, a grating harmony that you heard through your ears and through your bones. If the sails were belling full its frozen voice would rise to a scream that travelled faster than your ship, faster than the wind.
This story will make you feel the cold. An intensely atmospheric, gritty, tense story of survival in an alternate-history where the seas of Europe are frozen and traders sail their ships over ice. There are similarities with another story of Meryl Stenhouse’s which I love, Gone to Wrack and Ruin. Both this story and her previous one are grounded with details that make their worlds feel real, lived-in as few fantasy worlds are. And as Stenhouse said in a recent interview, both these stories “are about older women struggling to protect their families when they have little to no personal power or agency.” I love that about these works. I love the fierceness of Marta, the matriarch of “The Frozen Sea Takes Everything I Love.” And I love the sense of realism, of unsparing narrative honesty, in a unique secondary world.