When you consider the constant flow of multi-author anthologies, single-author collections, individually-published novellas and free online fiction, there is seemingly an endless amount short fiction stories to be found. I love the short fiction form, not only because I can easily squeeze in more reading time, but because of the economics of short fiction storytelling. There's no padding here, just pure story.
Here's a roundup of my recent adventures in short fiction reading…
Radicalized by Cory Doctorow
Few authors are as finely tuned to the effects of technology on society as Cory Doctorow. His latest collection, Radicalized, contains stories that showcase that connection, even when they are not overtly science fictional. The titular story, for example, taps into the present-day rage culture that seems to be increasingly evident on social media and in online forums. "Radicalized" is the about the unfortunate events that befall Lacey and Joe, a married couple. When Lacey is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Joe goes online looking for emotional support. He stumbles upon a Dark Web forum of extremists who think that those who prop up the current medical insurance system should pay the ultimate price. Joe is pulled in deeper to the forum as time progresses because insurance company policies seem to place a higher value on cost savings than they do on the life of the patient. This set up makes the story easy relatable to anyone who has ever had to deal with the unwillingness of insurance companies, but it's Doctorow's sympathetic portrayal of Joe that blurs the line he crosses.
Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures by Alex Acks
Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures is the second short fiction collection from Alex Acks about Captain Marta Ramos, a pirate in an alternate American Old West. In this fun mashup series, civilization lives predominantly in territories controlled by Dukes and the land between is populated by zombies, here called Infected. Ramos is a Sherlock Holmes of sorts, solving crimes in what is billed as a steampunk adventure. The story I read in this new collection, "Blood in Elk Creek," felt more like a Weird Western, but what's to quibble when you're consuming an entrancing story? It starts immediately after Ramos' plane has been shot down and her nemesis, Colonel Geoffrey Douglas, head of the Duke of Denver's security division, is inspecting the suspicious movements of the Duke's troops, led by General del Toro. What they both happen upon, separately, is a plan by del Toro to weaponize the zombie hordes for their nefarious gain by intentionally spreading the infection that people have been trying so hard to avoid. Between Ramos's determination to survive and investigate, and Douglas's resolve to get to the bottom of del Toro's irregular activity, readers have plenty to keep them interested. Throw in an unexpectedly knowledgeable Native American tribe and some naïve professors, and the story becomes increasingly captivating as it progresses. The world building is intriguing enough that, before I finish the other two novellas in this collection of related stories, I'm quite tempted to go back and start with Ramos' adventures in the previous anthology Murder on the Titania and Other Steam-Powered Adventures. Mashing together the flavors of steampunk, Sherlock Holmes, Weird West and zombies is just too delicious to ignore.
Future Science Fiction Digest #2 edited by Alex Shvartsman
Future Science Fiction Digest issue #2 features nine science fiction stories by ten authors, including one by Beth Cato. To describe her short story "The Peculiar Gravity of Home" as being about an Old Cat Lady on the Moon belies its charm. Ms. Harrington, who 15 years earlier flew her last spaceship to a military-run mining colony on the Moon and is now widowed, is currently assigned to take care of the half dozen cats that keep the base free of rats and the diseases that they carry. It's light work, to be sure, but it becomes increasingly difficult as tensions on the base rise due to falling levels of food—a result of extended volcanic activity on Earth that has put a stop to regular supply runs and mineral pickups. Harrington has grown accustomed to being dismissed by the all-male crew but finally gets a chance to prove her worth. She's as likable as the story and I wouldn't mind revisiting this setting again.
Skidding Into Oblivion by Brian Hodge
In his fifth short fiction collection, Skidding Into Oblivion, Brian Hodge offers readers eleven atmospheric stories in which readers can immerse themselves. The opening story "Roots and All" is perhaps one of the best stories I've ever read. It's about two cousins, Dylan and Gina, who visit the home of their recently-deceased grandmother to settle her affairs. Their visit to the small rural town, now falling into ruin at the hands of meth dealers, stirs up memories of summer vacations, of the stories Grandma Evvie used to tell (one of which involves a legendary being known as the Woodwalker), as well as the feeling of loss for Dylan's younger sister, Shae, who disappeared in the nearby woods eight years prior. Hodge's story is truly gripping and the imagery he creates is a marvel to behold. It's impressive how the prose simultaneously evokes mood, conveys background, and advances the plot—all while seeming conversational and matter-of-fact. So much so that you don't see the emotional wallop coming until it hits you in heart.
Broken Sun, Broken Moon by Brent Hayward
Hayward's debut collection Broken Sun, Broken Moon serves up twelve speculative tales to entertain. The opening story, "Cleaner," is about a team of cleaning people who scrub the underside of an unimaginably large bridge, the ends of which cannot be seen. The cleaners live their entire lives underneath the bridge suspended in a web of ropes and pulleys, diligently scraping the rust and flaked paint from beneath the bridge. One of the cleaners, named Bristle, begins seeing flashes of light that nobody else can see and hearing sounds that only he can hear, which he intuits to be a message of some kind. His curiosity leads him to doing something unimaginable in this setting. Hayward's world building here is sparse, but nevertheless effective in depicting what seems to be a Dystopian society revolving around the Have-Nots. However, by not filling in every corner, he leaves the reader to concentrate on the value of risk-taking.
Robots and Artificial Intelligence Short Stories (Gothic Fantasy)
Flame Tree Publishing continues to publish excellent fiction with their Gothic Fantasy series of anthologies offering themed compendiums of both classic and modern fiction. By doing so, the series lets readers note similarity, differences and trends of subgenres over time. Take, for example, the recent anthology Robots and Artificial Intelligence Short Stories, which on one "classic" hand offers readers robot stories like "Moxon's Master" by Ambrose Bierce. First published in 1899, it's the story of an inventor who creates a machine to play chess. Before we see it, though, Moxon is contemplating the philosophical nature of life and consciousness—particularly with regards to machines—in a conversation with the point-of-view character. This story thus serves as evidence of the early beginnings of that common theme of robot stories. It also serves as a warning for the ensuing consequences of creating life, even if embodied in a robot. (It's worth noting that the word "robot" didn't actually exist until 1920, when it was used in the play Rossum's Universal Robots written by Karel Čapek.)
Then, on the other "modern" hand, there's 2017's "Dispo and the Crow" by Rich Larson, the story of a Wall-E-like robot named Dispo—a Post-Mortem Retrieval/Disposal Unit tasked with retrieving and burying bodies in a post-nuclear city wasteland—and a crow who also wants the corpses, but for reasons of survival. Larson's story is deftly told. While it also incorporates themes of artificial intelligence and robotic "life," its impact comes from the touching ending it delivers.
Haunted House Short Stories (Gothic Fantasy)
Another recent volume of the Gothic Fantasy series is Haunted House Short Stories, which offers another selection of excellent fiction. Sitting alongside classic authors like Elizabeth Gaskell, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton are more modern authors like John Everson. Everson is no stranger to haunted house stories; Last year, I read his spectacular haunted house novel The House by the Cemetery and was blown away by how gripping it was. No less gripping is his entry in this anthology. "The House at the Top of the Hill" is about a pair of schoolchildren who dare one another to enter a haunted house. As the story unfolds—the reason for the house being haunted, the confrontation with evil, and the trial that must be overcome to survive it—the reader can almost feel the atmospheric tension.
Another standout story in the anthology is "Pictures at Eleven" by Mikal Trimm. What's impressive about this story—a short fiction piece about a cantankerous old man, his wife and their children—is how its impact sneaks up on you, perhaps because it's not a conventional haunted house story at all. It starts out as an unassuming and quaint (almost humorous) depiction of family life…and then morphs into something much more emotional that won't stop pulling at your heart strings.
Speaking of unconventional haunted house stories, there's "Gretel" by Zandra Renwick". Imagine a much, much darker version of the fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel", only here, Hansel and Gretel are a pair of drug addicts who meet in a sanatorium, but escape in the nearby woods where they stumble upon a witch's house. By story's end, you may not realize whether you read a fairy tale, a haunted house story, or social commentary on drug addiction. But then, the fun part of the story is chewing it over in your mind and realizing it works as all three.
Maledictions by Cassandra Khaw, David Annandale, Richard Strachan, et. al.
Although I've never played the Warhammer 40K miniatures game, I'm a huge fan of WH40K fiction because of the excellent world building the stories inevitably contain. Up until recently, the Warhammer universe predominantly consisted of fantasy stories (labeled as just Warhammer) and science fiction stories (WH40K), despite having some elements of horror within them. Those elements come to the fore in a new imprint of Warhammer fiction called Warhammer Horror. One of the first releases under that imprint is an anthology of short fiction called Maledictions, a collection of horror fiction that leverages the already-mighty world building of the universe and props it up even more on horror tropes. For example, the anthology opens with "Nepenthe" by Cassandra Khaw, a story that focuses on the exploration of a spaceship and two brothers, both Adeptus Mechanicus tech priests, who harbor a secret mission to answer a mysterious signal. (For the uninitiated, tech-priests are people who are well-versed in the workings of technology—knowledge that is otherwise beyond others who do not worship the almighty Omnissiah Machine God.) What's interesting here is the spaceship itself, which will emerge from the ominous Warp dimension only temporarily, and the antagonistic relationship between the tech priests and the enginseer who would rather err on the side of caution and delay the investigation. Being billed as a horror story, it's perhaps no surprise whose advice is wiser. But this wouldn't be a Warhammer 40K story without a reason for characters and readers to experience plenty of action and, now, extra horrors.
Meanwhile, in "The Last Ascension of Dominic Seroff" by David Annandale, Commissar Dominic Seroff and inquisitor Ingrid Schenk are two once-proud servants of the emperor who, after their respective encounters with Sebastian Yarrick exiled them to the dying world of Eremus. (Yarrick does not appear in this story, but appears in a series of Annandale's novels.) They encounter a plague that they believe will redeem them if they are able to contain it. It's worth noting here—in addition to the gruesome horror that awaits the plague's victims—the complexity of the characters: Seroff and Schenk are not angels, but they are suffering for their misdeeds. Hence, they come off as heroes in the wake of a horrifying threat. This was a fast-paced and fun story with the right mix of world building, action and horror.
Maledictions also comes with fantasy-tinged horror as well. "The Widow Tide" by Richard Strachan is one such story. It's about a woman named Kat, a widow still in mourning for her husband lost at sea. The villagers say she should move on with her life, but Kat thinks the sea might somehow spit out the body of her husband and she can finally lay him to rest. She's partly right; something does come out of the sea, but it isn't her husband. What begins as a poignant tale of loss quickly turns into a situation where someone is in way over their head—with gruesome consequences.
The Dark Magazine #47 edited by Sean Wallace
A hallmark of horror is the dread that is created in telling a story. A good example of this can be seen in the story "Seventy-Seven" by Francisco Ortega, which was originally published in the anthology Cuentos Chilenos de Terror and translated from Spanish by David Bowles for The Dark Magazine #47. To merely classify this as a story of horror subgenre "X"—which I will not do because it would spoil the gripping, must-read opening scene—would be to underplay the way the story pulls you along with its mystery and the details teased along the way. One-sitting reads don't get much better than this.