Lotta death this month. Lotta death! My December was pretty grim, and that seems to have skewed my favorite January short science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories toward the dark and deadly. Come for the monsters eating nazis, stay for the mangled corpses being turned into pig food.
This is a world where people are not born but crafted out of special clay and fired in a special kiln. Emmanuel 7.18 is one of only three of his batch to survive the process, and each carry extensive damage from it. To pay off the debt of his creation, Emmanuel 7.18 is hired out as a courier, which is how he meets Abe, an older clay person. Abe has a plan to change the world, but he can’t do it with Emmanuel 7.18’s help. A quietly emotional story that left me feeling the way I do after watching Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle: moved and inspired and with a dash of righteous anger.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies (January 27, 2022, issue 348)
I read several of Aimee Ogden’s short stories this past month, but this was far and away my favorite of the bunch. Structured as descriptions of each course in a five-course meal, this story frames out the life of a queer woman, from the birth of her child to protesting inequities to imprisonment and beyond. Don’t let its clever layout and evocative style make you miss the weight of its message. “Suggested pairing: Bottled water left out all day in the sun, with a soupçon of plastic aftertaste.”
Lightspeed (January 2022, issue 140)
“It’s jarring to see a coffin here, lying exposed on a tree-lined residential street.” Almost as jarring as this story, I’d wager. A widower finds a coffin out on the street waiting for trash pick-up and gets a neighborhood kid to help him take it home. That turns out to be a bad decision on Old Mr. Byerly’s part, a very bad decision. Like sleight of hand, Corey Flintoff’s light and almost playful tone distracts the reader from the sinister trick being pulled. I won’t spoil the ending, but I gasped when I got to the twist.
Fantasy Magazine (January 2022, issue 75)
An unexpected yet unexciting work email appears in geophysicist Idris’ inbox. Next thing he knows, he’s checking at T-Port, a highly-rated teleportation company waiting to board for his trip to Jupiter’s moon. Except it isn’t Io where he arrives. It’s somewhere much, much worse. Just when you think Idris might actually pull this off, Adelehin Ijasan pulls the rug out from under the reader. This was my first Ijasan story, but it certainly won’t be my last. Great all around.
FIYAH (Winter 2022, issue 21)
“Jax glances at the timer on the dash. Seven times seven minutes that’s all. They just have to hold on a little longer, and they can have everything they ever wanted. Freedom. They can run and keep running, so long as they never look back.” Two young queer people make a dangerous choice in a desperate bid for freedom. A.C. Wise asks the reader what you would do if it felt there were no good options, if the only way to be your truest self was to battle your way out of the trenches. There is more than one monster in this story, the one trapped in Jax’s trunk and the one that forced Jax and Marcus into summoning it in the first place.
Kaleidotrope (Winter 2022)
This very short story is set during WWII as a group of Allied soldiers make their way through nazi-infested territory. But these are no ordinary soldiers. These men have fangs and amber eyes and too much hair and a taste for blood. Despite the rough tone and short length, there is a remarkable amount of depth and heart.
Flashpoint SF (January 14, 2022)
“She is aware of herself, of her limbs and torso bent to fit into a snug enclosure, like a garment chest, like a bamboo segment, without being able to feel her body.” In this story, a girl stolen by human parents is stolen from them by a cruel man. He thinks he can keep her for himself, but he doesn’t know the strength she grows like a seedling in her heart. Normally, stories with plots like this creep me out too much for me to get into them, but the fairytale-esque way Kiyomi Appleton Gaines approached it made it manageable for me, turning it from something triggering into something empowering.
Nightmare (January 2022, issue 112)
This issue of The Deadlands was stacked with excellent stories, so much so that I had a hell of a time trying to narrow down to just one. Alix E. Harrow has long been a must-read author of mine, and this one did not disappoint. After Ocean’s husband dies, she finds a way to the Underworld to bring him back, only to realize he doesn’t want to be rescued. As per usual, it has quirky character names, richly described settings, and a sugary charm that masks the bitter, sour layers beneath. It’s a perfect encapsulation of everything I love about Harrow’s work.
The Deadlands (January 2022, issue 9)
“The goddess’s features softened and, finally, Lisa saw her daughter in the ice. Every year Sophie’s face grew a little stranger, a little less like the flesh-and-blood girl who went into the river.” What starts as a mournful story about a mother who lost her daughter turns into a dark fairytale about a child whose life was traded away by those who had too much power. Lisa is no longer that sweet little girl but a woman bearing a terrible burden she cannot escape. Lina Rather doesn’t aim for redemption or revenge; instead, she lets both the characters and the reader sit in the chill of uncomfortable truths.
Fireside (January 2022)
“To Exhale Sky” feels less like fantasy and more like magical realism. A woman, Kila, can “turn grief into tiny little things.” Stars, cowrie shells, continents, all of it a physical manifestation of her grief. Everything about this story was beautiful yet sad, a bittersweet filling around an enchanting premise. A story as lyrical as a poem or a song.
Baffling Magazine (January 2022, issue 6)
Wait! I have one last story from 2021 for you that was just too good to pass up.
“Technician Qamaq North” by Kavelina Torres—Carousel Magazine, Winter 2021: I was hooked by this science fiction space story with an Inuk main character. It’s action-packed yet full of cultural details. In fact, while you’re reading this story, check out the rest of the Winter 2021 issue of Carousel Magazine. The whole thing is dedicated to Indigenous and Black voices.
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).