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.
It’s August here at X Marks the Story, which means the seasons are starting to shift. The year, once young and bright, is now well past middle age and the end is like a taste of harvest spice. The perfect time for an X-ponential increase in ghost stories! So come on, huddle close while I X-pound about the spooky, the spectral, and the supernatural.
Now, some of the stories’ ghosts aren’t X-actly of the literal variety. For a few, the ghosts come in the form of losses that fester, wounds that have not healed—cannot heal, because of what’s at the heart of them, tainting them. Whether that’s the lingering touch of war and senseless violence, or bigotry and intolerance, the ghosts here are figurative, but perhaps even more difficult to X-orcise.
So grab an X-tra large container of salt, make sure your proton packs are charged and properly installed, and let’s check out the stories!
“Dead Air”, Nino Cipri (published in Nightmare #71, August 2018 )
What It Is: Nita is compiling an audio sexography: a series of recorded interviews with the people she hooks up with, as part of an art project that becomes the frame of “Dead Air.” Told in transcripts of audio recordings, the plot focuses on Nita’s most recent lover, a woman named Maddie, whose mysterious past pushes Nita into confronting something that perhaps should have been left dormant. “Dead Air” is complex horror, centering not only Nita’s lack of caution when interrogating her lovers but also the darkness dwelling in their pasts. Expertly paced, unashamedly queer, and absolutely terrifying, the story is one to read with the lights on, the sun out, and the radio off.
Why I Love It: I think that there’s something both amazing and irresponsible about Nita. She’s bold, sarcastic, and brash–it’s that impatience that drives a lot of the horror and tragedy of the story. Because, for all that she is well adjusted enough to look at her sex life with a sort of artistic humor, she doesn’t leave quite as much room for her partners to protect themselves from her questions, from her project. She never forces anything, but she dives into people’s lives without the skill or training of a therapist. What she finds with Maddie is a deep well of trauma that Nita wants to squeeze for material (at least, that’s how it reads to me). But when Nita pries, Maddie’s back story is something that neither of them can control–the drive to create art from pain is dangerous. Pain and trauma can are like living things, lurking and waiting to be called out from the darkness–voices that become clear only in retrospect. Maddie’s ghosts only become clear when listening back on the conversation’s recording and we hear the voice speaking that shouldn’t be there; that wasn’t there before. It’s creepy as heck and unsettling and horrific and makes for a memorable and multisensory experience.
“The Percivals: The Bennett Benefit”, Eboni J. Dunbar (published in Fiyah #7, July 2018)
What It Is: In this story from the music-themed issue of Fiyah Literary Magazine, the Percivals are a family of vampire slayers who have recently suffered some tragic losses. Of the original four members, the two brothers Percival have died, leaving their wives Anna Maria and Eleanor to carry on the family business. In addition to being sisters-in-law, the two are also lovers, having shared a complex but wonderful relationship with their husbands and each other. The story traces the pain and loss that Anna Maria is dealing with, the pressure to keep going and the lure of despair, made worse by the racism and misogyny she endures each day. Anna Maria is a diva, a singer, and it’s her voice that is her greatest weapon, lending her poetry, song, and magic to the story, making her world come alive. The story isn’t available for free online, but if you aren’t subscribed to Fiyah, you are seriously missing out.
Why I Love It: Okay, so: historical bisexual polyamorous vampire slayers is probably all I need to say here to encapsulate why I fell in love with this story. But even as awesome as the premise is, the prose is what makes the characters and the setting pop from the page. “The Percivals” carries an authentic historical voice, focused on reclaiming a history that has been erased: a history containing black singers and monster hunters and scholars. A history where queer and polyamorous relationships hid in plain sight, thumbing their noses at the prudish sensibilities of the early 1900s. The threat that Anna Maria faces is cunning and dangerous, and even with the support of Eleanor (who is a complete badass), the couple is trying to find their rhythm after having effectively lost two limbs in the form of their other lovers. And yet, they are fierce and they are skilled, used to having people underestimate them, and it’s incredibly fun to watch them turn the tables on those hoping to make an easy meal of the duo. The action is intense, the world building detailed and vivid, the resolution deeply satisfying, and the entire project makes me want more. More short stories, novels (and did I mention this would make an amazing show?)—more everything!
“Hide Me in the Shadow of Your Wings”, Christopher Caldwell (published at Strange Horizons, July 2018)
What It Is: Late July saw the release of the Southeastern USA special issue of Strange Horizons, focused especially on marginalized voices form an area that is often both underrepresented and misrepresented in fiction. And “Hide Me in the Shadow of Your Wings” continues the theme of reclaiming history, this time in the Antebellum South, following a free black boy who is just discovering what “freedom” means before the Civil War. This story examines both the need for people to fight locally against oppression, as well as the need to escape injustice, to escape the fate of dying for a cause. The piece weaves together magic, music, and transformation, into a touching portrait of a character torn between expectation and prejudice, finally able to spread his wings.
Why I Love It: Tucked into this story about magic and transformation is also a rather tender and affirming romance between the main character and the escaped slave he meets when he finally decides to literally fly outside the relative safety of home using powers he was always forced to hide. So much about the story for me comes down to the levels of safety, the way that the narrator is taught that there is safety in staying within the prescribed boundaries of living black and free in the South. And yet for him, because of his queerness, because of his magic, those boundaries mean that he is not free, not safe, not even in the limited sense people expect for him. He feels the constant pull of taking to the sky–not because he wants to abandon his home or the people who raised him, and not simply to flee from a bad situation, but in order to reach for a place where he can embrace both who he is and who he wants to be with. The story is tense, surrounded by violence without being consumed by it. Ever-present violence is a reality that the characters live in and one that they seek to overcome, for all that sometimes they can’t avoid fighting for their lives and loves. And it’s a beautiful vision of two men finding in each other and in their journey to find a home together a much truer freedom.
“The Last Epic Pub Crawl of The Brothers Pennyfeather”, L Chan (published in The Dark #39, August 2018)
What It Is: The brothers Pennyfeather are something of a big deal in the ghost hunting community, working together despite their issues because whatever comes, they have each other’s back. Except since a disastrous last outing, the brothers haven’t really spoken or had much to do with each other. Which is why Bill invites Bob out on a pub crawl, visiting a special selection of bars (and ghosts) in order to try and give Bob some perspective. The piece is organized around the pub crawl, each section a new location with a new ghost, all leading to a final destination that comes as something of a reckoning. For all that the brothers are hotheads, more willing to fight than talk, the piece is a quieter experience, not about ghost hunting so much as being haunted, and learning how to move on.
Why I Love It: Well, drinking. And okay, okay, there’s a lot more to it than that. The story reminds me a bit of a certain show about ghost hunting brothers, in that it takes two men who are very good at avoiding talking about their feelings and then forces them into a situation where that’s exactly what they have to do. Bob especially is tortured by what happened on their last outing, and seems ready to quit and give up the Work entirely. And it takes Bill to remind him what the Work really is. Not just punching ghosts in the face. Not just exorcism. But trying to do good. To find peace. Which starts at home, quite literally, it turns out. I love the way that the brothers bicker around the heart of their conflict, how they have to take this circuitous path to what they need to talk about. There’s such a deep vulnerability that exists between them, because they know each other so well. They know each other’s weak spots, and know how to apply just enough pressure to dissuade a real confrontation. Except there’s no running from what’s happened to the brothers—no avoiding what’s been building since their last job. The story breathes life into these two men who could have been walking billboards of unhealthy masculinity, and complicates them in ways both subtle and delightful. It draws the reader in to this world of ghosts and legacies, brothers and messy relationships, and brings Bob to a place where he can begin to heal, and maybe move forward with his life.
“Chrysalis in Sunlight”, Sarena Ulibarri (published at GigaNotoSaurus, August 2018)
What it Is: An alien invasion has left Earth reeling, slowly recovering but still very much bearing the scars of the seemingly senseless attack. The most obvious scars live in the bodies of the Exposed: soldiers who had contact with actual alien bodies. These veterans undergo cycles of nearly catatonic downswings, followed by vivid hallucination upswings, experiences that just might be flashbacks. Erin’s entire family was lost in the attack, except for her Exposed former soldier Aunt Melissa. When the disease, or condition, or whatever it, begins to accelerate and mutate, it becomes Erin’s job to bring her aunt across the country. This seemingly simple task becomes nearly impossible because of Erin’s own chronic, debilitating pain, as well as because of the infrastructure issues stemming from the invasion. And yet Erin must try, to push back against all the war has taken, and all it still might take.
Why I Love It: For Erin, recovery is a loaded term. It’s magical and impossible at the same time, because she knows. intimately, that for some things there is no cure, no going back. As with her pain, the trick is not hoping for something to wipe it away, erase it from existence, and make everything easy again. The trick is finding ways to minimize it and keep on living the best life possible. It means lots of swimming, and movement, because her pain gets worse the more she stands still. I love how the story connects this, Erin’s personal story of chronic pain, to the situation following the war. So many people hope that recovery means a magic do-over; one that will allow everyone to move forward as if the war never happened at all. Because victory, if that’s what humanity has won, isn’t all that pleasant. It’s difficult and draining and it hurts the more people sit still and think about what’s been lost, what will no longer be possible. And it’s such a complex and difficult bundle of feelings to approach–the knowledge that things are different, that opportunities have lessened. And as tempting as it is to get lost in the grief of that, the necessary thing is to keep moving. To keep looking forward. To accept the new reality, the new pain, so that it can be managed. Not cured, but not standing in the way of trying to make the best of a possibly bad situation. Because hope isn’t gone as long as the people remain, though it’s by no means easy to come by.
“In Summer Broken”, Steve Berman (published at Chelsea Station, July 2018)
What It Is: Four men, back from their first year of college, go out together to party in their small, mostly rural home town (well, home for three of the four, at least). They find themselves drunk,driving on a course for horror on the quiet endless roads between them and safety. Young and queer, the princes have returned to all the pains and mistakes and betrayals they had left behind, grown rotten in the year’s absence. The story is daring in its formatting, a single brick-like paragraph until the end, flowing with a charming and devilish voice well loosened by underage drinking. For Mullim and Charles and Frances, the party and drive represent a visitation to the origins of their hopes and hurts, their dreams and their disappointments. For Nick, Frances’s new boyfriend, it means a baptism by fire into the world that these three boys, now almost men, had created for themselves. And for all of them, the road brings a confrontation with the ghosts of home, and with their own inner demons.
Why I Love It: There’s something almost magical about these four young men, messy with their own problems and yet engaging in this effortless weave of casual fun, dancing on a razor wire above utter ruin. They’re driving fast and drunk on county roads while subtly pushing each other to confront the seed of rot that has taken root among them. Their tool of choice for this is ghost stories, and as they speed along, their play takes them closer and closer to the truth, until it tumbles free and they must handle the bloody aftermath. It’s a story that for me shows these characters reaching for each other, for the shared warmth and safety they can offer, while not really acknowledging the danger lurking under and around them. In this moment they’ve forgotten about the eager violence of the world, even as they evoke it in their stories, and are headed straight on a collision course with this darkness. The story slowly increases the tension, the drama, and yet the real horror remains hidden until the end, when the story veers sharply away from expected release and resolution, instead barreling downwards into the uncertain and terrifying.
And there you have it! For the truly intrepid, there’s also a slew of other stories that I’ve found and particularly enjoyed, which can be found in these…
“Chasing the Start”, Evan Marcroft (Strange Horizons, July 2018) – A veteran mech suit racer suits up once more to outrun time itself in the hopes of fulfilling a promise she’s been chasing her entire career.
“When You’re Ready, M. Ian Bell (Apex #110, July 2018) – A man in a ruined future plays through iteration after iteration of his own life, hoping to find a man capable of healing the wounds that he cannot.
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good”, LaShawn M. Wanak (Fiyah #7, July 2018) – Music is the only thing that can contain the stumps, a deadly contagion sweeping 1930s America, and yet suppressing this fungal outbreak might just be glossing over a deeper infection rotting the country.
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections”, Tina Connolly (Tor, July 2018) – A couple, separated in order to keep them under the control of a brutal tyrant, find a way to work together through food and memory in order to resist, and rebel, and reach for a better future.
“Everything Under Heaven”, Anya Ow (Uncanny #23, July/August 2018) – Kee is a chef who wants to hunt and cook all different kinds of dragons, while Sarnai is a skilled warrior fleeing a marriage she does want—together they are more than the sum of their parts, a dish that matures and blossoms as it simmers.
“A Compendium of Architecture and the Science of Building”, Kate Elliott (Lightspeed #99, August 2018) – A semi-retired architect returns home hoping to get some distance from people only to find that his work, and his value, are far from being spent.
Thanks as always for coming along on this literary treasure hunt! Hopefully you found something to haunt you for a while at least, and for those hungry for more, remember to be back here neXt month for another X-citing adventure!