#ShortReads Days 20-21

Both stories are by James Tiptree, Jr., published in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, because I can’t seem to get enough.

“The Girl Who Was Plugged In”

Dark and complicated, this story is about a young woman who yearns to touch the beauty of the starlets she worships like gods. So, when a corporation offers her the chance, she agrees to be the mental controller of a waldo, a beautiful puppet-girl who dazzles audiences and sells product. But everything comes at a price.

One of the many fascinating things about this story is the voice of the narrator, a voice I associated at first with the girl, but is clearly separate and slightly omniscient. It’s not clear who this narrator is, nor is it clear who she is speaking to — maybe us, but maybe someone else specific from the past.

“The Man Who Walked Home”

I can’t really talk about this story without giving too much away, but I can say it’s apocalyptic and portrays an array or humanity after the fall. About halfway through the story, I started thinking I wasn’t that into it and then the ending. Oh, my, the ending. And, yeah, it’s just as fantastic as all the rest of the Tiptree stories I’ve read.

#ShortReads Day 19: "12:02 P.M." by Richard A. Lupoff

Published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2011

A man is caught in a time loop, the same hour repeating over and over again which no one else seems to notice. A basic fun adventure, time travel story. 

Tell me your short story suggestions in the comments. 

#ShortReads Day 18: "The Grief Frequency" by Kealan Patrick Burke

Available on Kindle.

This is a knock out of a short story, creepy and sorrowful. After his wife dies, Paul is drawn so deeply into his grief that he begins to see… I won’t tell you what. Burke does a fantastic job with this story, creating deep characters in a short space and invoking the feeling of grief, while also making it all so unsettling. 
Favorite Line(s): I dug deep into the pockets of my overcoat and grabbed fistfuls of patience as I watched them queue for the opportunity to be sorry.”

#ShortReads Days 13-15

“As Good As New” by Charlie Jane Anders
Published in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2014

A young woman playwright who is the only survivor of the apocalypse. You’d think that would mean the end of all things, but it turns out the apocalypse has some surprises left. The story is charming and funny and has a lot of dialog about theater and stage writing. So much fun.

Favorite Line(s): “When Marisol let herself think about all the people she could never talk to again, she got so choked up she wanted to punch someone in the eye until they were blinded for life.”

“The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey
Published in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2014

A considerably darker and more fatalistic story than what I generally like, in which a bleak ruin is slowly consuming the world and the rich spend the end of days in lavish parties with some picking themselves off periodically in suicide. It dragged a bit for me, but the characters were lost and real, and the ending brought it around to a powerful and moving conclusion.

Favorite Line(s): “Words were but paltry things, frail hedges against the night. Ruin would consume them.”

Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar
Published at Strange Horizons

A young woman deals with the aftermath of her mother’s departure. I don’t really want to say anything more than that, because this is a sad and moving tale, one I recommend you should go read right now.

After you read the story, check out this fabulous analysis of what’s not said by Anaea Lay.

Favorite Line(s): “I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.”

Friday Flash: The Dead Among the Dead

Behind a gate on a hill, the house skulks with the weight of its memories. It’s gardens bear rotting fruit. Vines crawl up its siding and peel back it’s wooden skin. It’s windows are cracked and broken, shutters clinging to rusted hinges, peeling away like a woman’s fake eyelashes at the end of an alcohol soaked night. The roof gapes up at the sky, open mouthed, drinking in sunlight, rain, and snow indiscriminately.

The house is home to specters, fragments of broken hearts and shards of regrets, drifting lonely and angry over the termite infested floors, nestling under the mildewed drapery, curled up in soggy chairs. They roam the many tilted floors, drift through peeling walls scattering mice, and wander into spiderwebbed rooms tasting the lingering once-was that paints a sheen over slow destruction.

When the front door falls off its hinges and the interlopers wend their way through the entry, taking up and altering space, the specters wail a distant keening easily mistaken for wind whistling in the eves. The interlopers offer up their own low moans, and for a moment their two lost nations take up a song of esurience.

Accustomed to percieving the ancient house as draped in its historic glory, as vibrant and fresh as when they were alive, the specters do not recognize the interlopers for what they are. They do not notice the flesh peeling in strips from bone, do not smell the too sweet stench of decay, do not comprehend the hollowed out emptiness of the interlopers that shamble without apparent purpose through the dim rooms.

The specters respond as they always do to invasion — slamming shutters, knocking wrinkled books off shelves, casting dark flitting shadows — expecting the screaming flight such actions traditionally evoke. But the just-bodies of the interlopers give no response other than to amble jerkily in the direction of each new sound. Confounded, the specters use up their electrostatic strength in games of fright that have no effect.

One interloper, in shuffling toward the sound of a portrait crashing, collapses through a wood rotted floor and smashes like an overripe melon on the stone basement floor. Specters huddle around it, waiting for one more to rise up and join their numbers. But the husk remains a husk with nothing to offer, not even its own ravenous hunger.

The specters learn. Unable to terrorize the interlopers into fleeing, they draw them with their howling, herd them with their bumping and knocking, guiding them to the hole to fall and smash and shatter and grow still. One unravels wire bit by steely bit until the chandelier, dusty and laced with cobwebs, crashes into a clutch of shambles, driving them through the cracking stairs into the rooms below.

One by one, the specters steer the interlopers to destruction until at last their home returns to its own quiet ruination, allowing the specters to slip back into their rumination and drift cloud-like through the fading chaos of memory.

* * *

Chuck Wendig invited writers this week to play the sun genre boogie this week. My random drawing pulled “haunted house” and “zombies” — which is utterly perfect for me.

#ShortReads Day 11 & 12: "There Will Come Soft Rains" and "Tuning Philomel’s Steely Strings in the Wasteland’s Dark Matter"

“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
Published in The Martian Chronicles.

This is one of my favorite short stories of all time, which haunts me every time I think about it, so of course I had to reread it for this Short Story Month challenge. 

I got chills all over again. Bradbury makes this tragic smart house come alive, breathing with its own mechanical needs and passions and fears in the absence of humanity. 

A reading by Leonard Nimoy of “There Will Come Soft Rains” can be found on YouTube.

Favorite Line(s): “And one voice, with sublime disregard for the situation, read poetry aloud in the fiery study, until all the film spools burned, until all the wires withered and the circuits cracked.” (Hard to choose a favorite line, since each word in this story sings.

Tuning Philomel’s Steely Strings in the Wasteland’s Dark Matter” by Carina Bissett
Published in Nonbinary Review.

This lyrical retelling of the myth of Philomela and her sister Procne poetically unveils a story of brutality and revenge. Two women reclaim their own sense of power following terrible and brutal abuse.

Favorite Line(s): “Through the centuries our story twists and turns, contorting to fit into new molds, yet the rumors persist as rumors will. They tear apart truths to meet their needs, finding new ways to silence our protesting screams. Only we know the truth.”

Any story suggestions?

#ShortReads Days 9 & 10

The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu
Reprinted at iO9.

Such a bittersweet tale of magical realism, in which folded paper animals live. It shows the pain of internalized racism and the loss it can cause. Beautiful and so moving.

Favorite Line(s): “She turned the paper over and folded it again. She pleated, packed, tucked, rolled, and twisted until the paper disappeared between her cupped hands. Then she lifted the folded-up paper packet to her mouth and blew into it, like a balloon.”

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu

Published at Clarksworld Magazine.

This is a reread for me and it is as astounding experience now as it was the first time around. A group of wasps enact a form of colonization on a nearby hive of bees, though that’s only a small fraction of the story. It is beautifully told with vibrant language, relating an alien view of life in very relatable terms.

Favorite Line(s): “… it was discovered that the wasp nests of Yiwei, dipped in hot water, unfurled into beautifully accurate maps of provinces near and far, inked in vegetable pigments and labeled in careful Mandarin that could be distinguished beneath a microscope.”

Friday Flash: The Shadows Among Us

(Note: This is in the horror realm, so wary readers be warned.)

“Look, I don’t think you understand — we open those doors, we let them in.” My dad’s voice is a growl. His eye is puffy and turning black, where I struck with my book and his face is red with rage, but in his eyes I see only terror. The same terror that had kept my family and I huddled in the locked basement, shivering in the dark for the past week.

“You don’t understand. We need water. Food,” I said, my own voice thick with fear and anger and guilt. I’m halfway up the basement stairs. The book — hard bound, sharp edged, thick as a brick — still hangs heavy as a dead weight in my hand. I suck in a stale breath. “We’re going to starve to death, if we don’t get food.”

“You’ll let them in—,” he snarls, shifting forward aggressively.

Continue reading “Friday Flash: The Shadows Among Us”

#ShortReads Day 7: "The Screwfly Solution" by James Tiptree, Jr.

Published in the collection, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

Sometimes you read a story that impacts you with the same intensity of a novel. This is one of those stories. I’m still floored, just sitting her thinking about it.

Alan is an scientist in South America studying ways to decrease the productivity of parasitic caneflies. Meanwhile, his wife in Ann Arbor is writing with increasingly disturbing news about a Sons of Adam cult and a spreading violence against women.

“The Screwfly Solution” is incredibly unsettling and absolutely brilliant. One of the best stories I’ve read in a long time and I’m considering retreading it right now, even though I should really go to bed.

Favorite Line(s): N/A, I’m having a hard time picking just one when I pretty much adore this entire story from beginning to end.

What short stories have you read and loved lately? I would love some recommendations.

#ShortReads Day 5 & 6

Missed a day yesterday. (Eep.) So, here are two story reads today, both published by Tor.com.

Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” by Vandana Singh

This tale is presented in the form of an engineering exam offered by the Ministry of Abstract Engineering, in which three investigations involving “reports, rumors, folktales, and intimations of machines that do not and cannot exist” are offered. Each of the accounts presents different people from different parts of the world. They are a beautifully written tales with common themes of longing, sadness, and loneliness, although each seems to find ways to overcome this either through the machine or in avoidance of it. A gorgeous story.

Favorite Line(s): “So into his design he put the smoothness of her cheek, and the light-flash of her intelligence, and the fiercely tender gaze of her eyes. He put in the swirl of her hair in the wind, and the way her anger would sometimes dissolve into laughter, and sometimes into tears. He worked at it, refining, improving, delaying as much as he dared.”

The Two Weddings of Bronwyn Hyatt” by Alex Bledsoe

Bronwyn Hyatt is Tufa (a kind of fairy creature) who is marrying her love, a human. In preparing for her wedding day, she’s torn on what to wear for a dress, wanting to honor her people, while also not wanting to be bound by tradition. While pondering her problem, she meets a Yunwi Tsunsdi (another kind of fair, known as little people) who presents a solution to her problem as long as Bronwyn makes a deal. This was a fun, light-hearted story, in part due to the mundane way these events and fantastical creatures are described.

Favorite Line(s): The woman reached into a bush beside the trail and produced a miniature fiddle. She tucked it under her chin and played a high, mournful note. “It is a beautiful day for thinking. What are you pondering?”

It’s Short Story Month! What shorts have you read and loved lately?

#ShortReads Day 4: "Baba Makosh" by M.K. Hobson 

Published in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, November/December 2013.

What happened when communist revolutionaries travel to hell and encounter old gods? I really enjoyed this one and its connection to mythology. Baba Makosh is a kindly old grandma figure who takes in three soldiers with offers of sympathy and food. Though the narrator remembers old ways and knows better than to accept the food of the gods. He survives the encounter in part due to his respect for old ways and for his skill in music. I always like seeing folklore and mythology done well and this is certainly that. Recommended for those who like Russian folklore.

It’s Short Story Month! What great stories have you read lately? Any I should be reading?

#ShortReads Day 3: "Sing, Pilgrim!" by James Patrick Kelly

Published in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, November/December 2013.

When a seemingly ordinary chair appears in the middle of a sidewalk, it sparks a new religion and hope of transcendence. A very short and simple story that paints a picture of what the world would be like if there existed a religious relic that actually did something. Not a story with any deep emotion or insight and not the type to linger after being read, but a decent read.

Favorite Line(s): “It has been said that every age gets the chair it deserves, and the history of chair culture is checkered at best.”

It’s Short Story Month! What short stories have you read and loved lately?

#ShortReads Day 2: "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain" by James Tiptree, Jr.

Published in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

This is the first Tiptree I’ve read and it’s excellent. The short story is told omnisciently giving little bits and pieces of what happened based on the comments of people who happened to notice him on his journey. Though dark and fatalistic, it’s brilliantly executed. 

Favorite Line(s): “The woman seemed stronger here. She was panting in the sea wind, her large eyes fixed on Ain.”

It’s Short Story Month! What short stories have you read recently? 

Friday Flash: Resident Ghost

A soft padding of feet comes from above, my cat Jaspar stalking across the attic floor. How he manages to get up there is a mystery, one I’ve long ago given up on solving. His slow prodding bursts into the rapid thumping of running, then silence. Scuffling sounds. A loud crash follows as something falls over.

He’s playing with the ghost again.

I sigh and climb out of bed, grumbling at having been woken up before 5 a.m. My limbs are heavy with sleep as I pull down the steep steps to the attic and ascend to discover what sort of mess they’ve made. The air in the attic is always chill and little goosebumps crawl up my arms.

When I bought the house four years ago, I didn’t know it came with a resident. We didn’t get along at first. My presence offended the ghost. I was an interloper, changing their home into something unrecognizable. I tore up the ugly carpets and replaced them with wood, remodeled the kitchen and the bathrooms. I repainted everything and arranged furniture. The ghost responded with loud thumping in the middle of the night, startling me from sleep, my heart pounding. Pictures would fall off the walls and shatter. Objects would move from one location to another, making me hunt for a pencil or my toothbrush or any other small thing when I needed it. Fruits and veggies went rotten in hours if left out on the counters. The electricity flickered and went out. It wasn’t I made a deal, promising to leave the attic alone and unchanged that the ghost left me mostly in peace.

Mostly. It still plays tricks sometimes.

I scan the attic with a flashlight. Jaspar blinks at me in the beam of the light, his pupils flashing green.

“What have you been up to,” I ask.

He yawns innocently and pads over to me, weaves in and out between my legs, purring loud as revved engine. I push him gently aside with my feet, afraid to step on him, but he just resumes his rubbing of my ankles.

The crate Jasper — or the ghost — knocked over lays on its side, its contents and packing grass spilling out onto the floor. I trip over Jasper on my way across the room, quietly cursing him and start stuffing picture frames and old knick knacks back into the crate. Every time I lift an item back into the crate it feels as though I’m touching a secret. I’ve never looked through any or the boxes or chests up here. Maybe because I associate them as belonging to the ghost, though they could belong to some family that left them long before or long after they arrived.

I pause to glance at the old black and white family photos, as I put them away. Turn-of-the-century photos always seem creepy, the pasty faces, the too white whites of their eyes, the blank expressions —presumably happy people at one time and all that’s left is this unsettling imagery.

A draft whispers along my neck. Something knocks against the attic floor. My heart races and the hairs on my arms stand on end.

“Alright, alright,” I say to sooth myself as much as the ghost. “I’ll get on with it, then.”

Jasper scampers down the ladder before him. I step down onto the first step and flick off my flashlight. “Have a good day.”

A bubbling sound like laughter comes back to me out of the darkness, unsettling, but not hostile. It’s a strange coexistence. But I’ve had worse housemates in my lifetime.

Jasper yowls downstairs for his breakfast. And that’s one of them, I think as I climb down and close up the attic behind me.

* * *

Footnote: Hmmm. I have to admit that this feels like a piece of a story rather than a complete story in itself, but it’s what I could manage today. I’ve always wanted to write a story where the owner of a house chooses to coexist with a ghost rather than try to remove it. Will have to see about expanding this someday.

* * *

In related news I’ve just learned that May is Short Story Month. Yes!

I’ve also learned that Sara Zarr has started a challenge in which she will be reading a short story a day in May and tweeting about it with the tag #ShortReads. I plan to do the same, posting short reviews on my blog here as well as on twitter.

And since I always need more reasons to write, I’m also planning to post a Friday Flash every week this month (maybe, we’ll see how it goes).

My first read:

Among the Sighs of the Violoncellos” by Daniel Ausema, published at Strange Horizons — The story is a poetic vision of a Eden-esque garden with fairy tale trees, wish granting lizard tales, and a single glinting white swan. It’s told from the point of view of the tenders, the ones invisibly keeping paradise tended and beautiful. Wonderful.

Favorite Line(s): “In the back of the garden is a tree that bears orphan farmboy fruits. If you pluck one at just the right time, it will become a hero. A moment too soon, and the unripe hero fails in his quest. A moment too late, and he lives out his life bitter over missed opportunity, brooding on the injustices of life.”