Dang Good Stories: The End is Only the Beginning

This time around, we have stories about endings, about conflict, and about hope in bleak situations.

“Beautiful White Bodies” by Alice Sola Kim (Strange Horizons December 2009)

God, this story.

Justine is a boomerang millennial working at a coffeeshop in the suburbs after she loses her newspaper job. She befriends an unpopular high school student, Pearl, right before something starts happening to the young girls in their town. The girls become beautiful, and strange, and deadly. Soon what was limited to the popular girls starts trickling down.

Kim works this delicate balance of quiet satire and horror that had me laughing even as my heart was pounding. Kim’s twenty-seven-year old Justine and sixteen-year-old Pearl are so spot on, they genuinely feel like real humans living now. Pearl is sarcastic and angst without being a Sassy Teen(TM) and Justine feels like one of my friends. Very rarely do story teenagers feel truly real.

“A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” by Amal El-Mohtar in The Djinn Falls in Love, and Other Stories

This story appears in The Djinn Falls in Love, a new anthology of djinn stories from Solaris, but I had the pleasure of hearing El-Mohtar read it at ConFusion this January.

Like “Beautiful White Bodies,” “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” is a careful balancing act. It is political yet sentimental, clearly a story and yet nearly a poem, strikingly original and yet instantly recognizable. An extended metaphor with bird ecology and personified nation-wizards standing in for the immigrant experience does not sound like a thing that should work, but it does, it does.

I’ve been reading a lot of El-Mohtar’s stories lately. I love the joy that is so often at the core of her stories (see “Pockets” in Uncanny, or “Madeline” in Lightspeed). “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” gets very dark indeed, but the joy still shines through in the cracks.

“The Shadow Collector” by Sveta Thakrar (Uncanny March/April 2016)

Rajesh grows girl-blossoms for the Queen, but in his spare time he collects shadows stolen from passersby and he covets the queen’s. When he has the chance to seize this most desirable of prizes, he thinks nothing of the destruction he will cause.

I love this story’s ambiguity. There is no explanation for the shadow-stealing or the girl-blossoms. It passes no judgement on Rajesh for his covetousness, his human fragility.

This is a story about…not redemption exactly, because Rajesh is not redeemed in the end, but about hindsight. About realizing how you have failed and seeing just too late the ramifications, and doing what you can to fix it anyway even if you can do very little.

 

 

Dang Good Stories #4

This week, three stories to keep you awake at night.

“each thing i show you is a piece of my death” by Stephen J. Barringer & Gemma Files (Apex Magazine September 2013)

The idea of infectious stories is an old one (and the basis for so many internet urban legends), but this piece dives right into the horrific possibilities of the concept. The story follows two filmmakers crowdsourcing their latest project. They receive a tape that appears to be of a man killing himself and reappearing, over and over. Things get worse when the man starts showing up in the background of other videos, and the filmmakers’ lives start going terribly wrong.

I am not, in general, a huge horror fan. My “freak yourself out” media of choice tends to be on the true crime side of things. But damn, this story is amazing. I think I’ve read it five or six times by this point. Barringer and Files tell the story through emails, press releases, and other ephemera to create a slow, slow build, so you don’t realize the true scope of what’s happened until the end. Go read this.

“The Food in the Basement” by Laura Davy (Apex Magazine July 2014)

Apex is not the first magazine that comes to mind when I think of horror, yet they’ve published some of my favorite dark tales. Like the story above, “The Food in the Basement” takes a common trope (here, vampires) and adds a new twist.

Sondra has been held captive, for months, by the vampire Kaden. He feeds off her but also cares for her the way one might care for a pet. The story follows her relationship with Kaden and her increasingly desperate attempts to leave, attempts that she knows are almost certainly doomed to fail.

For a story about vampires, there’s surprisingly little violence here. The real horror comes from the sense of dissonance, the ways in which Kaden tries to create a sense of normalcy for Sondra inside her cage. He buys her a chinchilla. He watches I Love Lucy with her. These mundane moments build the anticipation, because Sondra is waiting the entire time for Kaden to kill her. The whole story is built on these details, on what we can read between the lines of what looks, almost, like a normal life.

“Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions” by Gwendolyn Kiste (Nightmare September 2015)

Unlike the prior two stories, this one doesn’t obviously approach a notable horror trope. But I see something like a portal fantasy in it–or at least, an attempt to peel back the happy portal fantasy to reveal the horror implicit in the premise.

This is a story about people disappearing. Not just one person, but hundreds. Thousands. Those people who feel like outsiders (like the typical protagonist of a portal fantasy) seem to be more likely to disappear. Panic grows, and someone develops a test for potential disappearers. The narrator is just a child, but when the test shows she’s likely to disappear she is put in a special classroom with other “dangerous” children, including Tally, who seems to long for disappearance. The story follows the two girls as they come of age in a world frenzied over the increasing disappearances.

On a more thematic level, it’s a story about paranoia. The people who seem to be in trouble are the ones being punished by ostracization and fear mongering. No one is really sure who is in charge of stopping the disappearances. A shadowy “they” develops the Ten Questions and takes away people who may be about to disappear. The world is clearly not safe for those who are different and not just because they risk disappearing. An excellent read.

 

Dang Good Stories #3

This week, two stories about sadness because I’m in a melancholy mood today.

“A Flock of Grief” by Kat Howard (Lightspeed November 2014)

This story lingered in my TBR list for far too long because for awhile it seemed like every other story out there was about birds as a metaphor, and I kept clicking on it and going eh, birds again. But this story uses birds in a way I haven’t seen before. This is a world where birds appear after a death to burden the bereaved, literal specters of grief. In high society, men and women hire professional mourners to host their birds. That is, until the protagonist’s husband (who she didn’t love and didn’t want) dies and her complicated grief breaks the delicate system.

My favorite stories have multiple layers of meaning, and this one is no exception. On the surface it’s an interesting world with a neatly built economy of grief, but at deeper levels it’s also about the ways the rich use the poor, the constraints on women in this Victorian-esque society, and the social acceptability of public mourning.

“City of Salt” by Arkady Martine (Strange Horizons March 16th, 2015)

I love short stories that are concerned with the past. Usually we see only the immediate present, because of the limitations of length, but stories that address how the past haunts the present can work wonders.

“City of Salt” is all about aftermath. Ammar returns to the city he fled years ago, to see what became of his friend Sogcha who remained inside when the king they both loved used dark magic to try to win a war. The city is a dead place now, the ground entirely salt, and Sogcha has become a part of it.

This is a story not about regret, exactly, but about how past choices shape the future irreversibly. Ammar and Sogcha both made the only choices they could, neither right nor wrong, and now they can’t quite forgive each other. It’s also a story about death, and how grief endures. The dead are everywhere here–the undead army that the king Nilaq tried to raise, the illusions of the dead that Sogcha creates to keep Ammar away, the ever-haunting memory of Nilaq himself, the bodies that Ammar takes from the city for burial. I’ve reread this story several times, and each time I discover a new moment to savor in it.

 

Dang Good Stories #2

This week we’ve got stories about boats and trains. (No planes, sorry.)

“Boat in Shadows, Crossing” by Tori Truslow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies January 2013)

I originally read this story in Heiresses of Russ 2014: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction which was a kickstarter reward for Lightspeed‘s Queers Destroy SF! project, but it was first published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

I do not read enough of BCS. Whenever I come across one of their stories, they knock my socks off. “Boat in Shadows, Crossing” takes BCS‘s usual emphasis on interesting worldbuilding and kicks it up a notch. There’s so much packed into this world. Death-magic and ghost houses; living, vengeful boats; a many-gendered god and the festival inspired by them; a town that eats people. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that all of this remains comprehensible and consistent.

The story follows Bue, who journeys from a village to the above-mentioned people-eating town to make a living with their death-magic. In the process they save a girl from the ghost-house that was once meant to protect her and is now a prison.

In other hands, this could have been a simple story, but in Truslow’s hands the plot becomes as layered as the world. There are stories-within-stories, marriage plots, questions that interrogate what we think of love and gender. And gender is also integral to this story–Bue is the daughter of a village, who takes on the guise of a son to go to the city, and who seems to take on different aspects of genders as they choose. This is a world that plays with gender unseriously, where identity is mutable. It’s a fascinating topic that’s often not deeply considered in fantasy.

I absolutely adored this story and I’m looking forward to finding more of Truslow’s fiction.

“Katabasis: Seraphic Trains” by Sarah Monette (Tales of the Unanticipated July 2006)

Sarah Monette might be my favorite short story writer. Her stories are incredibly varied in voice, subject, and style, but always beautiful. This story was republished in Monette’s collection Somewhere Beneath Those Waves, where I encountered it.

In this story, a young woman hopes her music will let her board one of the unnatural trains that circle the city, so she can find her lost love. But of course, such wishes don’t come without cost.

This is a story that showcases Monette’s gorgeous, almost-poetry writing, but it also has a depth of plot that a lot of “pretty” stories lack.

“The Strangers” by Anonymous (Creepypasta.org)

I’m not usually a creepypasta reader, but this story was linked in a discussion of the above Monette story and it is so good.

In this story, a man notices a person on the subway who is not quite…right and he follows the stranger to the end of the line. The true horror of the story isn’t what he finds there, but what it does to him.

One thing I like about this sort of internet story is how the form influences the reading experience. If this story were in an anthology, I don’t think I would have responded as strongly to it. The author’s anonymity and the ephemeral feel of the site gives the story, paradoxically, a sense of truth. This could be anyone, anywhere, posting this.

 

 

Dang Good Stories #1

One of my goals this year is to read more short stories. Between my own writing, slush reading, and all of the awesome books in the world, I read woefully few last year. So I’m going to write about my favorites here, probably 3-4 every couple weeks, both because short fiction needs more recognition and because its a nice way of remembering what I’ve read. (Hence the optimistic #1 up there.) In particular I’m trying to read older stories, since new stories often get a burst of discussion anyway.

Also, my second goal was to put something on this blog whose domain I’ve claimed. Two birds, one stone, you get it.

Her Husband’s Hands” by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed October 2011)

I read this story because of a recommendation on someone’s Twitter feed (no idea whose, sorry) so I went in blind. Before reading it, I was only familiar with Adam-Troy Castro as the author of the middle-grade series Gustav Gloom so I was expecting something a bit lighter. Humorous, even.

This is not that story.

This story punches you right in the sternum. It begins with Rebecca’s husband–what’s left of him, that is–coming home from the war. And you think this is the horrifying part, right? The disembodied hands?

Wrong again. The horrifying part is what happens after, when Rebecca and her husband have to deal with the psychological effects of the war, how the lives they imagined are now in ruins. There’s one particular scene set in a support group meeting for veterans and their spouses that is possibly the scariest thing I’ve read in a short story in a long time, even though all the characters do is talk. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say it will stick with me a long time.

“On Discovering a Ghost in the Five Star” by Peter M. Ball (Daily Science Fiction June 3rd, 2016)

The thing Daily Science Fiction does best is find stories that pack a hell of a punch in a tiny amount of space, and I love that approach. Publishing 365 stories a year does mean that the amount of attention each story gets is reduced though. This is one of the ones that deserves more discussion. I’m not usually a big fan of ghost stories–I find them overdone, and often reliant on tropes that are no longer frightening–but I’m still thinking about this one a week later.

In short, this piece is about a ghost in a laundromat, and how her death and reappearance reverberate through the community. To say more is hard because of the length, but it’s well worth your time.

I read this because of a tweet by Cassandra Khaw that called it “a powerful piece on anger, and being afraid to understand” and while I see that, I thought it spoke most powerfully about the lengths people will go to to ignore, to hide, the problems in their community. I found the ending a bit pessimistic (perhaps because of the current uproar over the Brock Turner rape case and how its made me think about women’s agency and justice) but powerful.

“Cafe Macondo” by Megan Arkenberg (Daily Science Fiction October 21st, 2014)

I’ve been on a bit of a DSF kick lately. A couple of years ago I would have said that flash fiction was my least favorite length, but these days I’m really digging how I can fit a bit of reading into my day and how through sites like DSF I can sample many different writers.

“Cafe Macondo” starts off goofy, with a customer at a grocery store trying to buy coffee from an alternate dimension, and then twists the premise to make it just a tad bittersweet. It’s a much lighter tale that the previous two but it makes a lot out of what could have been a one-note joke. It left me rooting for the protagonist, although she doesn’t even have a name.