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 seems this column has reached its X-piration date. For a year now it’s been my honor and privilege to play guide on these X-cursions through the wilds of short SFF. This will be the final X Marks the Story, and I feel it’s fitting that it comes in December, when many consider the year to end—as the holidays move into full swing, and celebrations attempt to find a bit of joy even in the coldest of climates. Which is what I’d like to focus on in. Not celebrations, but rather characters pushing back against the cold, against forces that seem pervasive and harsh and unstoppable. And how, against all that, sometimes all a person has is another person. A single connection that makes all the cold seem warm. It might be a family member, or a stranger, or a partner against a broken world. But sometimes all it takes is two candles burning against the night to make the world a bit brighter.
So bring along a friend today, or a lover, or a random person you just met, and let’s get out X-ploring one last time!
“Antumbra”, Cory Skerry (Published in Shimmer #46, November/December 2018)
What It Is: Coming in the (*sob*) final issue of Shimmer Magazine, “Antumbra” follows Jasper and his twin brother Jesse, two boys who no one has any trouble telling apart. Because Jesse is popular and easy with people, always surrounded by admiring girls, and Jasper is awkward and queer and angry that he’s having to move yet again because his parents have decided they need to. Except that it turns out that the reasons for his family’s constant moving isn’t because of the whims of their jobs. No, the truth is much darker than that, and it has everything to do with Jesse and Jasper. The story takes high school drama and angst and wraps it around a gooey center of brotherly love and the promise of freedom. And coming as it does in the final issue of a much-beloved publication, it hits an appropriate mix of hopeful and tragic and beautiful.
Why I Love It: Jasper’s easy for me to fall for because of the way he’s always compared to his twin. Like looking into a magic mirror and seeing the living, breathing, well-adjusted young man he could have been. Or, according to how he feels everyone else thinks, who he should have been. He feels stuck in a shadow, trying to live up to expectations in a way that always means erasing himself, denying himself. Throw in a twist on a foundling story, and the layering gets more complex still. Because it turns out that the reason for the parents’ constant movements across the country has to do with the fae and a dark secret that’s finally caught up to them. A secret that involves Jesse and Jasper, and yet not in the way that Jasper’s really expecting. It’s heartwarming to get to witness him realize that he’s more magical that he thought, and the reason that he’s felt out of place his entire life is, in part, because he has been. And through it all the story doesn’t weaken or trivialize the relationship between Jesse and Jasper, the push and pull between them that doesn’t push them apart but rather draws them together, connects them by their own sorrows and hopes. And, ultimately, I love that the boys don’t look to each other for who to blame for the strange mess that they find themselves in—but they do lean on each other to find their own way out, one free of entanglements from either their parents or the hidden world they’ve just discovered.
“Toothsome Things”, Chimedum Ohaegbu (Published at Strange Horizons, November 2018)
What It Is: Fairy tales often feature girls. And wolves. And the relationship between them is rather set—it tends to involve a lot of blood on both sides. And at first crimson blush this story seems to promise the same, with the voice of the wolf coming through clear, talking to a woman who has been devoured. As the action progresses, though, links are formed between girls and women, between women and wolves, all of them prey to a different, human monster. One with an axe and the power to shape narratives to fit his will. It’s up against that power that the wolf has come, and now faces a hunt, and a flight, and perhaps a few transformations—in good fairy tale fashion. But the story defies expectations, refusing to let the weight of tradition pull down the narrators into the dark depths of obscurity and erasure.
Why I Love It: The language here is tooth-sharp and intensely captivating. There’s a poetic logic to it, one that flows as the characters move through a dark wood, exploring their shared history and connections as they flee from the storybook ending they’ve been taught to expect. And I do love how the story provokes the reader into questioning the assumptions of fairy tales, the intentions of wolves, the genders of wolves, and what it means to have teeth and claws in a world of axes and fire. The voices of the characters are strong and defiant, weaving together in an almost dreamlike grace as they dive further and further into narrative form and structure, trying to outpace those chasing them by running headlong for a future where they might be free. Where the stories don’t all end the same way. It’s a subversive tale, showing an unashamed love of the tropes and trappings of fairy tales without looking away from the troubling and dark ways they’ve been used to leverage the status quo against those women who would transgress the roles and boundaries of polite society. It’s a voice cutting through the miasma of dominant narratives to reclaim something freeing and hopeful from fairy tales, which for the most part have always been grim.
“Song of the Oliphant”, KT Bryski (published in Lackington’s #18, November 2018)
What It Is: For the most recent Lackington’s, the theme of the issue was Magics. Instead of tales of intrepid mages and long-bearded wizards wandering the fantasy realms, setting right ancient wrongs, the stories mostly took a much different direction. At turns dreamlike and surreal or, as in the case of “Song of the Oliphant,” all too believable and razor sharp, the stories by and large turned to the stigma of magic, the danger of being marked as different, but also the power that can bring. In this piece, the unnamed narrator is a Canadian witch helping refugees flee an America that has moved even further down the nightmarish road it’s on. She part of a new kind of underground railroad, and her latest charge is a young woman named Ellie who claims to have a kind of weapon to fight back against the oppressive tide that makes what the narrator does very illegal.
Why I Love It: The narrator is a witch of the no-nonsense variety, older and unwilling to quietly accept the injustice she sees around her. She’s decided to act, even though it might cost her everything, because she knows that if she does nothing, she’s complicit in the horrors that are going on south of the US-Canada border—as complicit as her country, which lets US forces go where they please in order to capture American refugees. The narrator doesn’t have a lot of magic left, but what she does have she uses for the underground, to try and bring people safely north. Things keep getting worse, though, and when Ellie shows up the pattern the narrator has grown to expect is broken. There’s a lovely and aching sense of timing in the piece, paralleled by the story of the Oliphant, the sounding of a horn too late to call for crucial aide. The characters seem to realize that by the time they blow their own horn, time has long sense run out. Whether or not that’s the case the with the reader is another matter entirely.
“The Island of Beasts”, Carrie Vaughn (Published in Nightmare #75, December 2018)
What It Is: In the world of this dark alt historical fantasy, werewolves run a lot of the world. They’re a sort of nobility, organizing their power to maintain their own brand of order and control. For all that, women werewolves are rare, and don’t enjoy the same privileges as their male counterparts. Lucy, however, refuses to be the property of a man, forced to marry and breed to further a cause she cannot even participate in. So she refuses. And fights. And is banished to the Island of Beasts, where all the outcast werewolves of the nation are sent to live a supposedly feral and lawless existence. She’ll be murdered for sure, she’s told—punished for refusing to submit by being savaged without hope of deliverance. It’s a nightmare worthy of the name of the publication, except when she arrives on the Island of Beasts, things are not exactly how they were described.
Why I Love It: The story sets up a tension as taught and sharp as razor wire, set just so the reader following along has no idea where it is, but also no option of stopping or turning back. Lucy’s situation is indeed a dire one, promised essentially that for her crime of refusing to marry as she was supposed to, she’s going to be raped and murdered. And yet even knowing that, she persists. She doesn’t stop fighting. It might almost seem like a blessing when, instead of being immediately attacked and assaulted, she finds the island isn’t quite so lawless, and it’s been divided into two rival groups who live more or less peacefully together, lead by two very different men who, nevertheless, manage to be polite and civil with one another and with Lucy. Their intention is still clear, though—both wants her to mate with someone from their faction. And I love how this is pulled off, promising the harshest possible outcome and then backing off, giving Lucy the chance to “reconsider” her earlier rebellion. And yet the story shines for me exactly because she doesn’t doubt herself or negotiate. She doesn’t back down, always more willing to die than to submit, and it’s only through that kind of all-or-nothing approach that she is able to carve out a place for herself, and a future free from rules that never suited her.
“Fluxless” Mike Jansen (published at Samovar, December 2018)
What It Is: Samovar specializes in translated SFF, and this piece comes translated by the original writer, which is always interested because it means the piece is being filtered through language but not through a different person. It’s a new text, but one that shares the same author with the original work. And it’s a story that takes the reader on a journey into a future where things…well, aren’t so great. Like in the last story, Tanmee is a woman being pressured to marry someone and start putting out babies to try and repopulate the world that’s been decimated by phages—nano tech and bio weaponry that have forced humanity into pockets they try to protect with EMP-like blasts they call fluxes. Tanmee wants nothing to do with marriage, not with a quest dropped in her lap to complete a device that might just have the power to control the phages and give humanity a fighting chance to retake the planet. So she runs. Or, rather, she flies on a pedal-powered bike that takes her through the skies and toward a future she hopes is bright.
Why I Love It: The visual detail of the story is just lovely. The piece conveys the feeling of flying over a ruined world, unsure what might be around the next corner but certain at the very least that it might be weird and deadly. But Tanmee meets it with an energy and a hope that can’t really be crushed, wanting so badly to take up the question of their dead mentor and do something about the state of things. Because it’s not like humanity is even holding its own. The world that Tanmee moves through is one where even the settlements that were supposed to be safe have fallen to new and different and aggressive kinds of phages—ones that have merged with plant life in order to become something capable of challenging humans for dominance. And I love that Tanmee’s mission is, at its heart, a rather conservative one. The whole project refers to a blank slate. To going back to a point before everything got messed up. And okay, maybe it’s not that exactly that I love, but rather that the story takes Tanmee to a point where they see that it’s a false kind of hope. That wiping everything clean really is only going to let the same things pop up again. The same fears and prejudices. And I love that Tanmee (with a little help from a more helpful phage named Swarm) sees that the way forward isn’t backwards, isn’t hitting reset, but rather is moving forward, towards a future full of stars and possibilities.
And if those weren’t enough, try out some further X-plorations:
“The Bells of Bel-hazir”, Michelle Muenzler (Published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #38, November 2018) – In Bel-hazir, a set of monstrous bells give riotous testament to a festering wound slowly rotting the city. Beautiful language slowly reveals a bracing horror in this very short piece.
“Birch Daughter”, Sara Norja (Published in Fireside Magazine #61, November 2018) – What begins as a quest to free her mother from a curse that transformed her into a tree turns into something else for Aino when she meets a powerful and magical bear who makes a deal with her for her mother’s life. A strange and fantastic adventure.
“Grandma Novak’s Famous Nut Roll”, Shaenon K. Garrity (Published in Lightspeed Magazine #103, December 2018) – What seems at first like an innocent recipe exchange between family members twists unstoppably into something else entire—something dark and ravenous and just a bit sarcastic. Perfect for fans of unusual monster stories (and cooking shows).
“When We Find Our Voices”, Eleanna Castroianni (Published in Clarkesworld Magazine #147, December 2018) – In a world where the Sons of Man need and control the Adapted in order to remain viable, Keredi and Nyalu are bonded, neither of them a woman but both of them wives to a man who is part of the group oppressing them. As they find out more about the nature of their abuse, though, grim acceptance begins to give way to open rebellion.
“The Thing About Ghost Stories”, Naomi Kritzer (Published in Uncanny Magazine #25, December 2018) – Leah is a folklorist studying ghost stories but also caring for a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. After her mother’s passing, her research that had been on hold because of caregiving can resume, only it seems her involvement with ghosts might have become a bit more personal. Touching, haunting, and ultimately heartwarming.
And there you have it! I hope that over the last year you’ve found some stories that have made you laugh or cry or sit forward on the edge of your seat, X-cited and terrified to read on. Whatever the case, I hope you go forth into the wilds as much as possible, because as large and untamed as short SFF can seem, it is full of treasures. So get out there and make your own maps. Share them, so that the world can be filled with dotted lines leading to something X-quisite. Happy hunting!