Finding excellent short SFF can often feel like hunting for buried treasure. Sometimes it takes a guide to help fill in the map, connecting readers with fantastic fiction and showing where X Marks The Story–a new monthly column from Charles Payseur.
April showers are supposed to bring May flowers. So what does April snow bring? I’m not sure I want to know. But it seems fitting given today’s speculative treasure hunt–I’ve traveled far and wide to unearth some short SFF that carry a rather chilling touch. Whether it’s from the cold altitude of an airplane’s flight or the creeping dread of knowing that something is going on in the apartment upstairs, each of this month’s stories have yet to shake off winter’s lingering influence. Even so, there is still the knowledge that the cold won’t last forever–as long as people create a bit of warmth with their own resilience, compassion, and hope.
There are six stops on today’s travels around the wilds of speculative short fiction, so make sure you’re fully hydrated, pack an emergency sweater, and let’s go!
“A Priest of Vast and Distant Places”, Cassandra Khaw (published in Apex Magazine #106, March 2018 )
What It Is: A woman has a conversation with a plane on a trip back home. She’s a priest of planes, able to communicate with them, to speak as well as listen, and traveling is in her heart. Just as she takes confession from these mechanical beings, though, she is also called by them to fully embrace their lifestyle. To renounce the ground, and find her home in the clouds and the movement of planes. The story looks at what holds the priest to the earth, what makes her hesitate to accept the planes’ offer. Haunted by a future that might be inevitable, the story resonates with longing, love, and the feeling of home.
Why I Love It: The way this story imagines home not as a place, but as the people who take up room in your heart is beautiful and moving. remains tethered to the earth not because of a location, but because she has people to return to: connections that keep her in the world of humans. And yet there is the sense that those connections are neither unbreakable nor immortal. Parents can die, and friends can move on, and it all might mean the main character is left on her own, all alone. To me, the story seems to ask what if she accepted the planes’ offer? Would that be a tragedy or a loss? Or instead, would it mean embracing a part of herself that she has been denying for so long? The story doesn’t offer any easy answers to these questions, but it does show that the main character is focused, as always, on the journey. On movement, which at this particular moment is toward a terrestrial home full of people she loves.
“The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes”, Siobhan Carrol (published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #247, March 2018 )
What It Is: Part fable, part lesson, and entirely delicious, this piece unfolds as a multiple course meal delivered by a master chef to a group of students. The meal itself is an experience of taste and place, a sort of walking tour of a nation, its people, and its history. While the food itself speaks volumes, the meal is further refined and guided by the tale told of Leu, an aspiring cook caught up in a great war between good and evil from this nation’s not-too-distant past. The reader becomes a student and takes a place at the table, sampling each meal as it is rolled out, and tasting the weight of history, choice, and hope through Leu’s narrative.
Why I Love It: Cooking and short SFF are two of my favorite things, so seeing them together is always a treat. What I love about this story aside from the gorgeous and mouth-watering descriptions of the meals is that it takes a rather classic fantasy backdrop (almost like Lord of the Rings) and even further emphasizes the connections between food, culture, and identity. Leu is pulled into the “evil” army and set to work feeding the soldiers. Instead of poisoning them outright or engaging in some other resistance tactic that probably would have gotten him killed, he decides to embrace his role as cook. He tries to capture the flavor of each city the army occupies (and conquers), and through food, he tries to show the soldiers what they are destroying It’s a lovely and touching story, though it doesn’t erase the horrors of war, even when it seems that Leu can’t be bothered by them, that maybe he has no problem cooking for the enemy in the burned remains of a place that was once his home. There’s an ambiguity to Leu’s motivations and thoughts, because he comes filtered through a nested narrative, and the narrator admits his story takes on different dimensions depending on who’s telling it. For me, it’s a triumphant story about how food can help to awaken empathy, and compassion, and maybe help to sway a conflict that threatens to destroy everything.
“Don’t Pack Hope”, Emma Osborne (published in Nightmare #67, April 2018)
What It Is: A trans man prepares to brave the zombie apocalypse in the hope of escaping what’s left of Melbourne for the safety of his family’s home in the country. If it’s still there. The story is told in the second person as a sort of list of what he packs and what he doesn’t as he prepares for his journey, and as he remembers what has already happened, what he’s lost, and what the world has lost. For all that, and despite the bleak title of the piece, the story itself is anything but bleak. It’s a story that embraces hope and fear in order to explore the extent of what has happened, the profundity of the disaster, and to put it all into perspective–another horror to face, another challenge to overcome.
Why I Love It: Zombie stories might be a little out of fashion because of the recent-ish flood of all things zombie, but this story pushes the sub-genre into brand new territory. The apocalypse is exported to Australia and the main character is faced with not just the practical concerns of food and testosterone, but the more spiritual ones as well: music and writing and other objects that he has to either put into his limited carrying space or chooses to leave behind. And the story recognizes how hard the main character has worked to simply stay alive even before the current walking dead nightmare began–for this character, going out has often been about preparation, desperation, and dealing with the imminent threats that came along with being trans. In this way, he has honed the skills that have helped him evade trouble. He continues to look forward, past the pain and the loss and the possibility of failure. To a future where he is safe and whole and with people he cares about. It’s not hope–not exactly. Rather, it’s a determination to act, and to take chances, knowing that the only other option is to accept death.
“Being an Account of The Sad Demise of The Body Horror Book Club”, Nin Harris (published in The Dark #35, April 2018)
What It Is: Lila is a single woman living alone in an apartment with an upstairs neighbor from hell. At least, that’s what it sounds like at night, when she hears nails dropping on the floor and rhythmic pounding and the drip drip drip of what might be blood. Unless there’s some perfectly innocent explanation for what’s going on. With the full weight of her isolation pressing down from above and with the knowledge that the police won’t take the word of a woman that things just aren’t right, Lila decides instead to try and distract herself from what might be happening above by starting a book club. A book club exploring horror and the Gothic, the very tropes and subjects that she’s struggling with on a nightly basis. And when a new member wants to join the group, things go from creepy to nightmare in record speed.
Why I Love It: The story explores the distance between the horror of fiction and the horror of reality to great effect. Lila and the rest of her book club are in some ways experts in the way that horror stories are structured, having discussed them in their club for so long. And yet many of them don’t see how that horror is reflected into their lives. The way that the authorities won’t listen to women. The way that predators hunt, and are let in, and seem almost normal because people just accept that there’s nothing to be done about them. Horror fiction is supposed to be enjoyable because of the distance between the reader and the fear the stories evoke–safely closed between the covers of a book, extinguished with the closing of a browser window. But that sense of security falls apart in the face of real predators, and it takes Lila recognizing what’s happening and taking action to thwart the horror that no one else seems ready to recognize–before it’s too late. The piece provides a wonderful metatextual experience, and a lingering dread and tension because of how it breathes life into the shadows, and crowds our mundane lives with a hungry darkness.
“Pistol Grip”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (published in Uncanny #21, March/April 2018)
What It Is: Two super soldiers set to be decommissioned find in each other a hope for escape and the chance to create a life unbound by the orders of others. Told in second person, the story opens with a bang (I’m so sorry) and doesn’t let up, with a narrative voice stuck somewhere between numb and broken. These soldiers have been defined by the trauma inflicted upon them, and in the ways that they have been made into killing machines. It’s not a lifestyle that either of them seems able to walk away from. And yet that doesn’t mean that they can’t grow and live and fuck and dream and feel and maybe hope to heal from what’s been done to them. The story is gloriously explicit (and features some incredibly dangerous uses for guns), but even as it pushes the envelope with its depictions of sex and lust, it holds at its core a seed of something tender and kind and wonderful, just waiting to take root and blossom.
Why I Love It: I am a sucker for queer super soldier stories (for more, John Chu has written both “How To Piss Off a Failed Super-Soldier” at Book Smugglers and “Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me” from Uncanny #16, among others), and this particular story does an amazing job capturing the way that these soldiers have been messed up and ways that they try to help each other through their shared trauma. Through violence and through sex, though lies and through loyalty. The main character was made for heavy combat and yet he finds himself drawn to tenderness, to small acts of kindness and touch. His partner, designed for infiltration, chooses instead to modify himself, to make himself into something other than what he was built to be. Both soldiers go about trying to take their lives back–lives that were to be thrown away because they were deemed obsolete and worthless–by meaning something to each other, and by rejecting their programming, even if they can’t shed it entirely just yet. They are beautiful works in progress, dangerous and powerful because they’re in so much pain and don’t know quite how to deal with it. But they’re learning, and the story seems full of this fragile hope, that for all the violence in their lives, maybe they’re finding ways to be partners in a way that has nothing to do with their mission.
“The Sower”, Takim Williams (published in Fiyah #6, April 2018)
What It Is: Imagine a movie trailer that claims to show a glimpse into the future. A future that reveals humanity’s place in the larger scheme of things. In which Earth is a pot of soil that was seeded long ago, and is now fully ready to sprout with life. This terrifying short story follows a planet whose plant life is asserting its superiority over humanity, and unfolds as descriptions of the visual elements of the trailer paired with voiceovers and a visceral sense of poetic justice. Where humanity learns not only that it’s not the dominant will on Earth, but also that it’s place is purposeful and…disturbing.
Why I Love It: Eco-horror occupies an interesting place in SFF for me, because it always seems to act both as a warning of what can happen and a piece of entertainment. Framing that complexity into a media-bending trailer for a movie leaked from the future is a great touch, and something I think I appreciate because it doesn’t really frame the destruction or horror as some sort of punishment on humanity for our abuses to the planet. Instead, it is a sharp critique of the very system that humans use to justify our exploitation of the natural world. Namely, that we can, and so we should. Because we are at the top, because we are the strongest will. Here instead, we find a vision that finds humanity a mere footnote in a larger story. A more alien story. Where humanity’s great destiny is only as fertilizer for something larger, and stronger, and cosmically more valuable. It turns the human-centric take on the environment on its head, and basically reminds us that if we define our relationship with the Earth as moral because of our supposedly innate superiority, that’s a system that works only until we run against something more powerful than ourselves. At which point, everything that would happen to humans would be moral, too. So the terror comes both from without and within, from the dark unknown of space and from the hungers and abuses of our own hearts.
“By the Mother’s Trunk”, Lisa M. Bradley (Fireside Magazine, March 2018) – Tillie the elephant uses the power of her nose, and the way that everyone assumes her to be a mere beast, to protect herself and survive captivity, experimentation, and exploitation in this surprisingly poignant tale.
“Music for the Underworld”, E. Lily Yu (Terraform, March 2018 ) – Feo is a musician in a time when corporations have far more rights than humans. When faced with the prospect of losing his love, he digs into the power of his art to try and get her back, only to find that in certain systems, hope truly is a losing game.
“The Questing Beast”, Amy Griswold (Glittership #53, March 2018) – Playing with Arthuriana and more specifically with Sir Palamedes and the Questing Beast, the story delves into identity and faith and why one knight, at least, is in no rush to complete his quest.
“Nitrate Nocturnes”, Ruth Joffre (Lightspeed #95, April 2018 ) – In a world where everyone sports a counter in their arms that tells them precisely when they’ll meet their soul mate, Fiona is a woman who struggles with the pressures and expectations that go along with having a long wait…until her counter suddenly starts changing.
“If a bear…”, Kathrin Köhler (Shimmer #42, March/April 2018) – Pairing very nicely with the Ruth Joffre story above, this piece looks at a pace where women are taught to wait for a bear to come to them, and to not miss the opportunity they represent. For the main character, though, the wait doesn’t end nearly as they expect.
“The Howling Detective”, Brandon O’Brien (Uncanny #21, March/April 2018) – When Ken finds out that his nocturnal habits might be leaning a bit…supernatural, he vows to get to the bottom of things, and ends up neck deep in a mystery surrounding the disappearance of a young boy.
“Strange Waters”, Samantha Mills (Strange Horizons, April 2018 ) – Mika the fisherwoman has sailed out of her own time, and is desperate to return to the family she accidentally left behind. Full of strangeness, hope, and a stubborn resilience that drives Mika toward storming seas and possible ruin.
And there you have it! Another adventure in speculative treasure hunting has come to an end. But that doesn’t mean you have to hang up your khaki shorts. I encourage you to push out into unfamiliar waters, take some chances, and see what else is out there. And if you find a gem, please come back and share it either in the comments or on social media. Half the fun of finding treasure is showing it off, right? Until next time!