Dystopias, monsters, portal worlds, and troubled parents. These ten short speculative fiction stories featured here that I read in September are sometimes dark and foreboding and sometimes pensive and hopeful but are always totally enthralling.
“There was and there was not a world…” Thus begins each vignette in Fargo Tbakhi’s excellent short story where a Boy and a Drone perpetually meet. The thirteen sections are absolutely striking with imagery, and Tbakhi impresses with his poetic narrative style. This was my first time reading one of his stories, but it won’t be the last.
Strange Horizons (September 14, 2020)
In a future version of Puerto Rico where climate change has left new environmental scars over old social ones, a girl disappears. Her friend treks out to a clearing to rescue Camila from Mama Dlo, a creature from Caribbean folklore who appears as a woman with the body of a snake and is known for protecting rivers. Chilling and startling, Wenmimareba Klobah Collins’s story defied all my expectations in the best possible ways.
The Dark (September 2020, Issue 64)
I’m such a sucker for haunted house stories, and this one by Lavie Tidhar satisfied every craving. Set in the early 20th century in rural Yorkshire, a woman back from witnessing the horrors of World War I seeks solace in a job as a housekeeper at a rundown estate. It’s hard to write about in a way that doesn’t spoil the twist, but suffice it to say it’s delightfully ominous and perfectly gothic.
Uncanny Magazine (September/October 2020, Issue 36)
“A Machine, Unhaunted” is a masterclass in packing a lot into a few words. Kerstin Hall’s story explores the relationship between a postgraduate research student and an android. It is barely over 1300 words yet overflows with character development and worldbuilding. If you liked Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, you definitely need to check this story out.
Fireside Magazine (September 2020, Issue 83)
I really enjoyed this story about a celebrity-turned-activist and a retired private eye facing the end of the world. Nat is hired to track down Jonathan Aurélien Ibrahim, a disillusioned actor who has gone missing. Andrea Tang blends a bit of mystery, a bit of dystopian fiction, and a bit of cli-fic into something extremely compelling.
Kaleidotrope (Autumn 2020)
“The world changes incrementally and all of a sudden. It’s like a child in that way.”Jennifer Hudak’s story about a mother and son flows and skips, twisting the chronology until time folds in on itself. It is the beginning of a new life, the end of everything, and the messy parts in the middle all at once. It has the feel of a dream and a nightmare, the intensity of reality and the haziness of a fading memory. Just lovely.
Drabblecast (September 2, 2020, 431)
What do you call a ghost story where the ghost may not actually be a ghost? Leah Cypess writes about a woman returning to her childhood home to sit at her mother’s deathbed. The two never got along, and the narrator’s trauma haunts her to this day. She came home partly to say goodbye to the woman who made her life miserable, but mostly to see the ghost that no one else sees. A powerful story of letting go and coming to terms.
Asimov’s Science Fiction (September/October 2020)
“Day Thirty is here. So is Ông Ba Mươi. Stay by a fire, stay away from the jungle, stay in the village. Or he will come and eat you.” Ignoring the warnings, Hoa flees her abusive father’s house and into the sharp claws of Mister Thirty, “the tiger with a taste for man’s flesh on every new moon.” A tense accord becomes a true friendship. This is a beautifully written fairy tale about family and trust and doing what you can to help those in need.
Anathema (August 2020, Issue 11)
There’s no denying that Stephen Graham Jones is a god of horror fiction. His latest short story is about Chessup, a day laborer who hasn’t done much with his life since high school. He winds up working on a crew clearing a creek bed outside Boulder, Colorado. After another team digs up a skeleton, he gets caught in the middle of a century-old feud between two vampires. This is everything you love about Jones: tense, shocking, and unexpected.
Tor.com (September 2, 2020)
A “young and tall and artfully unshaven” gentrifier takes on an elderly witch in this clever tale by Thomas Ha. If you ask her neighbors, Mary Walker is a busybody, an irritating woman who hassles anyone who fails to live up to her impossible standards. Who will win in a battle of wills between a deal-making demon and a witch everyone underestimates?
Metaphorosis (September 2020)