Last year I started reading short fiction regularly, following magazines like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I read and reviewed a few anthologies – Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor, The Color Master by Aimee Bender, and Once Upon a Time edited by Paula Guran, to name my favourites. Outside of the anthologies however, I didn’t review or even mention what I’d read on on my blog, so I thought I’d start a feature for it.
I’ll use Short Fiction Review to share my favourite short stories for the month or according to a theme, with a brief review or recommendation. It won’t necessarily be stories published that month, just whatever I happened to read. Most of them will be stories available for free online, since I’ll most likely write reviews for any anthologies I read. I’ll try to read all the award-nominated stuff as well.
Anyway, here are my favourites for January 2013:
“Equoid” by Charles Stross (Tor.com)
I read this just because I liked the artwork. I had no idea what it was about except, obviously, that it was some kind of horror story with unicorns. However, these unicorns are not cute or noble. They’re extremely fucking scary carnivorous tentacled monsters that gave HP Lovecraft nightmares he would never escape.
The narrator, Bob Howard works for a secret government agency called The Laundry, and is annoyed to be sent to “Ruralshire” to investigate a unicorn infestation. His brief comes in the form of letters written by HP Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, describing a terrifying encounter he had with a unicorn when he was 14. Bob assumes it’s some kind of joke but he’s horribly, nightmarishly wrong.
It’s not all tentacles and gore though – “Equoid” has mystery, action, and lots of humour (some of which comes from Howard’s annoyance with Lovecraft’s purple prose and inability to just get to the point). Although the story is standalone, it’s part of Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series, which I am now very keen to read. The first book is The Atrocity Archives.
“The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan (Nightmare Magazine)
I don’t know if I can really ‘like’ a story as bleak as this, but it certainly makes a strong impression. I won’t be able to think of Hansel and Gretel without recalling Lanagan’s version. Hers is set several years after the siblings escaped the witch, who is known as the mudwife. Gretel – or rather, Kirtle – is absent and Hansel is a sullen, damaged teenager with a habit of eating dirt (no cottage made of gingerbread and sweets in this horror story). Shortly after escaping the witch, Hansel was taken by a paedophile named Grinnan, who both rapes him and cares for him. They get by through petty thievery, and end up at the mudwife’s cottage. Grinnan – apparently looking for some variety – is hoping to get into her bed.
Hansel is just disgusted, by sex, and by people. It’s not hard to understand why. Fairytales don’t get much darker than this. One of the best stories I’ve read at Nightmare Magazine.
“Ghost Days” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed Magazine)
On a lighter and more touching note is “Ghost Days” by Ken Liu. His writing amazes me – it seems like his stories never fail to strike an emotional chord, even when the story itself is not that memorable (although most are). He often tackles the tension between moving into the future while trying to hold on to the past. This story does that by following an object across three periods and places – a post-human colony on another planet in 2313, a highschool Halloween dance in Connecticut 1989, and Hong Kong in 1905.
Each of the characters is a young person frustrated by the clash between past and present. On Nova Pacifica, where the human colonists have genetically modified their children to survive on the alien planet, Ona doesn’t understand why she needs to learn about Earth history when she has much more in common with the alien planet. In 1989, Fred Ho, a Chinese immigrant, is trying to be as American as he possibly can while knowing that he’ll never fit in. In 1905, William has just returned to Hong Kong after getting an expensive education in England, and wishes his father would stop calling him Jyu-zung and acting like a villager. As always, Liu handles his characters difficult relationships with past, present, culture, and change beautifully.