Short Fiction Recs, 31/10/2020
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
For a good many reasons, this has been a troubling and frequently, frankly, terrifying year - and there are no signs of that lessening any time soon. That being the case, I can well understand why horror might not be everyone's genre of choice right now, regardless of today being Halloween. Indeed, I am not really a diehard horror aficionado myself. Yet, I have been increasingly drawn to some scarier stories than usual of late, both in prose and on TV; perhaps for the catharsis I sometimes feel through confronting such fear. It's also worth noting, however, that when I do dip my toes in those dark, chilly waters, my tastes run more towards creeping dread and weird/gothic/weirdly gothic imagery than outright shock value and gore, so don't expect anything too extreme here. Still, consider this a general content warning for the recommendations that follow, in particular for issues surrounding death and grief.
Her Voice, Unmasked (Suzan Palumbo, Weird Horror #1) - I have long been fascinated by early automata, whether of the writing, chess-playing, or musical variety, so when I heard that Palumbo (one of my favourite recent speculative writers) had published a story featuring one, I was suitably excited. With shades of Coppélia and The Phantom of the Opera, this is a gripping, timely tale of a life-sized singing automaton, Justine, who when relentlessly pushed to meet her Maestro’s high yet constricting standards, begins to wonder whether there might be another way to improve. It is both an indictment of exploitation in the arts, and an acknowledgement of the importance of friendship and support when pursuing one’s dreams; atmospherically gothic, but aspirational and even inspirational, too.
Note: In contrast to most of the stories I’ll be reviewing both this week and elsewhere, this isn’t currently available anywhere for free, but you can buy the issue in both print and ebook formats, and with lots of other good stories included - as well as the bonus of supporting a new magazine - it’s well worth the price.
Also, for any writers of dark fiction out there, Weird Horror are currently open for submissions until 30th Nov, ‘seeking pulpy dark fiction in the weird fiction and horror genres of 500 to 5,000 words. Monsters, ghosts, creatures, fiends, demons, etc. Dark crime. Suspense. Mutants. Killers. Ghouls. Golems. Witches.’ They pay a semi-pro rate of 1 cent per word, but as one would expect for an Undertow publication, they’re already attracting some serious talent, so be sure to send them your best.
Jade, Blood (Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Nightmare Magazine, Issue 60) - A wickedly unsettling story of faith and a novice’s need to be wanted, accepted. Moreno-Garcia’s brilliant prose, startling and vivid, conjures a landscape of Mayan ruins and ‘treacherous’ jungle, with cenotes scattered throughout like the pockmarks on the young nun’s face. The tension between the new beliefs and older ones, between simple prayer and dark ritual, are developed with a fullness and keenness that belies the tale’s short length (1557 words). Though I haven’t yet got around to it myself (my progress with novel-reading has been… slow this year), Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel Mexican Gothic has received some great reviews, so if you like the writing here it should be well worth seeking out. Also, on a more general note, if scary stories aren’t simply a Halloween thing for you, then definitely dive into Nightmare’s back catalogue.
Flash on the Borderlands LIII: What Dreams May Come (Lyndsie Manusos, Eugenia Triantafyllou, and Sarah Read, PseudoPod 724) - There are 3 flash stories in this particular issue of PseudoPod, and all are available in both prose and audio formats. The Funeral Coat, by Lyndsie Manusos, is a sharp and splendidly unexpected story about, well, a coat bought to be worn exclusively to funerals. No point me saying more, just read and/or listen now! Eugenia Triantafyllou is another relatively new author whose work I rate highly, and though I thought I’d read all of her freely available fiction, I’d somehow missed Cherry Wood Coffin upon original publication, so was glad to catch the reprint here. The sense of oppressive dread and compulsive duty that drives the coffin-maker protagonist is unnervingly tangible, and leads to a biting and bittersweet twist. Grave Mother, by Sarah Read, is a darkly moving finale to this triumvirate of tales; a poignant, lyrical expression of parental grief. Read’s Bram Stoker Award-winning debut novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard, was released in 2019.
The House Wins In The End (L Chan, The Dark Issue 50) - ‘This is not a haunted house story.’ Which is a bold opening line, and mostly true; rather, it’s about a house that is actively haunting. And hunting. A reliquary and repository of all the other spectres that the protagonist, Jia, is attempting to flee. The losses that she is refusing to face. Skilfully paced, Chan builds the tension of this predicament to a complex and satisfying conclusion. An audio version is also available. I’ve read several of Chan’s stories in the past, and hope to read a lot more in the future. He’s had a wide range of fiction published, and I’d very much recommend a trawl through his Bibliography to sample the many surprises in store.
That's it for this spooky special edition. If you like these and my other reviews, I would be grateful if you would considering supporting me on Ko-fi or Curious Fictions. (Disclosure: If you buy books through links on this page, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees also support independent bookshops.)