THE BLACK PHONE: STORIES (20th CENTURY GHOSTS) by Joe Hill

The Black Phone: Stories
(20th Century Ghosts)
By Joe Hill
William Morrow & Company — December 2021
ISBN: 9780063215139
— Paperback — 480 pp.


First published in 2005 as 20th Century Ghosts, Joe Hill’s debut collection of sixteen short stories has been reprinted and rebranded as The Black Phone to coincide with another short story found within, now adapted into a film by Blumhouse Productions and directed by Scott Derrickson of the original Doctor Strange film. Blumhouse debuted the film at a festival in September 2021, with Universal slating it for broad release in January of this year. The film tie-in version of the collection therefore released just prior, in December. However, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic pushed the film into February, and then ultimately until now, June 2022. With the film now finally released to strong reviews, it seemed the right time for covering this copy I received. There is currently a new Goodreads giveaway for the collection as well, for anyone interested in winning a copy.

Of all the stories found within, “20th Century Ghosts” works the best as a representative title for the whole collection. “That Black Phone”, not so much. But, the latter does make some sense for adaptation into a film. It’s the most conventional horror story within the collection, with a plot that calls to mind real-life, serial-killer horrors and fictionalized retellings alike. And the characters of “The Black Phone” are closest to what one might find in something by Hill’s father, Stephen King.

The story of “The Black Phone is very simple. A young teen is abducted off the street by a fat man who works as a clown. The man gets the boy close to his van by drawing his attention after clumsily ‘losing’ a cluster of black helium-filled balloons from his van. The boy awakens locked in a basement, with only an old-style rotary phone hanging from the bare walls. The man seems on edge, both from keeping the abducted boy hidden in his basement, and from hallucinations of the phone ringing. But that can’t be possible. The phone doesn’t work. They boy hears the phone ring himself, and when he answers he hears the voice of one of the man’s past victims, a voice offering encouragement and the hope of escape.

Even with how well this general plot fits the mold of standard horror film plots, it remains unclear reading the few pages of “The Black Phone” of how it could be effectively expanded into a full length movie. And Ethan Hawke is a far, far cry from descriptions of the abductor in the short story. The short story is good, but its clear that the film is taking the basic plot and some visual elements of the story to craft something more complex, and perhaps more interesting, though also more derivative of King’s work in the opinions of some reviews I’ve read.

Though “The Black Phone” is good, other stories in this collection are clearly superior, with more originality and emotional resonance. Many fall into the category of horror, some simply the darker side of fantasy, and one of the best is actually on the conventional side of literature, and sweet. Hill also employs darkness and horror with a varying touch. Some stories, like “The Black Phone” are full-on horror from start to finish, while others only give a small dose of dread or terror, even just subtly implied.

And that calls to mind the stylistic tendency that does seem to unite most (if not all) the sixteen stories in the collection: Hill’s penchant for leaving things implied, for reader’s to form a complete image of their own, constructed from the pieces he provides. For some casual readers this could make the stories here feel unfinished, cut-off just when a clearly stated resolution or final image should be divulged. Hill’s stories typically lack any sort of coda, and even leave off directly telling the reader how things ‘conclude’.

However, this should not equate to the stories being interpreted as ‘unfinished’. Hill does provide plenty of details and contexts on how things will likely proceed from the moment the text of the story stops. His literary endings easily segue into film-like images that should spool through the reader’s mind. Often those ending moments also involve that little injection of horror, in a frightening realization and grim interpretation of where the story really has gone, despite expectations and assumptions.

The highlights of this collection for me were “20th Century Ghosts”, “Pop Art”, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing”, “Abraham’s Boys”, “Dead-Wood”, and “Voluntary Committal”. The last of these is a novella that concludes the main collection. I’ve written before how I dislike novellas, with their long length, at the end of things when my instincts call for a winding down. Despite this, the slow build unease of the plot and its understated horror were a success. “Dead-Wood” is on the opposite end of the length spectrum: a flash fiction done very well, touching on an aspect of ghosts I’ve often wondered about as a biologist. “Abraham’s Boys”, taken from an anthology on Van Helsing, is a powerful take on the effects of horror and trauma on the Dracula character, and his family, well after the novel concludes. It looks at the absolute violence and horror that define that character traditionally considered heroic and ‘good’. “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is a wonderful creature horror-Kafkaesque mash-up, with bits of gore and humor alike. “Pop Art” is a touching story of friendship that shows Hill has talent well beyond the fields of horror genre tradition (which, interestingly, father King has often showed as well with works like “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption”.) Finally, “20th Century Ghosts” is a well done ghost story of longing and memory – not ghosts for terror – that also displays a nostalgic love for the ‘ghost’ of cinema past.

Besides these stories, “Best New Horror”, the aforementioned “The Black Phone”, and “The Last Breath” were solid tales with a lot going for them, but also limitations. Like “The Black Phone”, “Best New Horror” felt very familiar, and predictable. Featuring a writer protagonist also seemed too well worn in this genre of horror, or any. Nonetheless, it’s still an entertaining horror read. “The Last Breath” has great atmosphere and is a fun idea, but falters at the end with predictable inevitability. It’s a case where Hill could have (and probably should have) ended it sooner, leaving the obvious conclusion unspoken and implied alone.

“In the Rundown”, “The Cape”, “The Widow’s Breakfast”, “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”, and “My Father’s Mask” all failed to really captivate me, though they had moments of inspired brilliance (“The Cape”) or a fun foundation from horror geekdom (“Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”).

If you are counting along, that’s fifteen stories, and I mentioned at the start that this a collection of sixteen. Don’t skip the acknowledgements, because Hill places a meta flash fiction within, “Scheherazade’s Typewriter” like a hidden CD bonus track. It’s worth the quick read.

While all the stories of The Black Phone (20th Century Ghosts) may not connect for readers, short horror fiction fans should find several tales within that make it worth reading, particularly when Hill’s general style works for personal tastes. If you only know of Hill vaguely and indirectly through the Blumhouse The Black Phone movie, or another of his numerous TV/film adaptations (and enjoyed any of those) you should definitely give his writing a look.


SCREAMS FROM THE DARK Edited by Ellen Datlow

Screams from the Dark:
29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tor Nightfire — June 2022
ISBN: 9781250797063
— Hardcover — 496 pp.


Amid a period of lots of horrible news, the 2021 debut of the Tor Nightfire imprint has provided a lot of literary relief as a major new outlet for horror fiction. The deeply respected editor and anthologist Ellen Datlow has long acquired short fiction for the Tor.com site, and its more fantastic news that she’s expanding that role into the Nightfire realm.

With Screams from the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous, Datlow compiles an impressively diverse array of dark fantasy and horror stories from an all-star lineup of authors. Indeed, reading this collection feels like the literary equivalent of watching an all-star sports team under the management of a venerated Hall of Famer. Screams from the Dark is a celebration of achievement in dark fiction. It takes a simple theme, gathers a broad panel of award-winning artists under Datlow, and lets them all do their thing. Like in a sports all-star game, some play as seriously as they normally would, some show off a bit, and some just have fun.

For casual fans, or people looking for a specific brand of the game of horror, the results might vary. But, there will surely be something to enjoy. For devoted fans of the genre whose tastes enjoy sampling across the range of the genre, there is unlikely to be a more successful anthology than Datlow and the authors provide in Screams from the Dark.

The theme of this collection, Monsters, is not a new one for Datlow. In 2015 she published The Monstrous, an original anthology for Tachyon Publications that I reviewed here back then. Screams from the Dark serves thus as a thematic sequel, bringing some authors back, but also bringing in new voices that give this a more modern vibe consistent with the latest in dark short fiction. Additionally, whereas that older collection mostly fell within the horror genre, Screams from the Dark, I would argue, draws equally from dark fantasy as horror. For me that is no problem at all. But some may wish for chills – or screams – from the horror side. The only criticism I have of the collection is actually its title. I feel it’s too generic for the specific monster theme, and a bit distant from the style and effects of the stories within.

29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous makes a better lead title, even if less evocative. But that number in there, 29, does reflect the hefty amount of text that this anthology gifts to its readers. Few of the stories here are very short, and also few are super long. Most fit into that perfect short story length to exert their spell. And for discerning readers with diverse stylistic or genre tastes, all 29 of these stories should captivate.

I started the anthology with plans to simply review/mention only my favorite stories. Though I did have favorites, I soon found that would be too difficult, or would shortchange a lot of stories/authors still deserving note. All the contributors in Screams from the Dark offer high quality tales that show off their talent and speculative, dark vision.

So, to the individual stories:

“You Have What I Need” by Ian Rogers – A perfect start to things, an entertaining story of the attack on a hospital ER by viral-infected vampires. The characters and setting, with pandemic relevance, play with the idea of exactly what a ‘monster’ is.

“The Midway” by Fran Wilde – The question of who and what are monstrous develops even more in this story of having to work a real lousy summer job at an amusement park where the electrical power and crowd draw come from sacrifices to an eldritch sea creature. Loved the combining vibes of nostalgia with something just a bit off.

“Wet Red Grin” by Gemma Files – A truly horrific tale set in a nursing home. Vividly written and grim, it delves into family and magic through the threat of a parasitic essence within a dying old woman. One of my favorites for emotional depth, language, and imagery.

“The Virgin Jimmy Peck” by Daryl Gregory – Should be among the favorites for anyone who likes humor with their horror. A cult has implanted a monstrous creation within the eponymous protagonist. The horrific set-up is played lightly, though still darkly, with character silliness and fun nods to horror classics.

“The Ghost of a Flea” by Priya Sharma – Fascinating and well composed historical dark fiction inspired by Robert Hooke’s early micrographs and William Blake’s painting that gives this tale its name. As a microbiologist I was excited to see something alluding to Hooke. Though I’m unfamiliar with Blake, the story here of a couple investigating strange, supernatural killings works even without the historical references as a dark fantasy/crime mash-up.

“The Atrocity Exhibitionists” by Brian Hodge – Another story with connection to the pandemic, this shows even more timeliness in its treatment of self-harm and the allure of the fleeting nature of fame. Such an intense and dark story, that will truly haunt readers.

“”The Father of Modern Gynecology”: J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813 – 1883)” by Joyce Carol Oates – Here, Oates goes the route of dark details from history to reflect on the fears and terror of today. You can look up the real J. Marion Sims, but the fictionalized autobiographical story here shows the monster just as well, with clear parallels to contemporary politics.

“Here Comes Your Man” by Indrapramit Das – Here is a perfect example of how to build tension and make that suspense pay off in a short story. Wit the tale of a young couple who leave their rural home for a festival in the city, Das makes the reader feel the discomforts of culture shock and displacement among things that still have the air of familiarity and safety. Exceptionally well-rendered characters and brutal story telling.

“Siolaigh” by Siobhan Carroll – Set among the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, this story grabs the reader with “A man’s severed arm lay in the surf” and doesn’t let go. Is it a legendary sea serpent that is the monster responsible? The local color of setting and the customs of lore give this tale an eerie, briny atmosphere as it considers what a monster may be.

“What is Love But the Quiet Moments After Dinner?” by Richard Kadrey – A date between Caleb and Patti seems to be going along swimmingly, heading for the bedroom, until they each reveal surprising secrets. Kadrey takes an absurd moment that could be played for humor, but twists it into a splendidly macabre romance of the monstrous.

“The Island” by Norman Partridge – The action of the story opens with a vampire aboard a ship, forced to flee hunters in his homeland, in dire and gruesome battle with the sailors. The vampire Count washes onto island that is not an island, shores that seem to gather monsters. The story has a vintage tone that ties to its allusions to the cast of the classic Universal monster films of old Hollywood.

“Flaming Teeth” by Garry Kilworth – Another story with a hidden island to follow the previous, this harkens back to old Hollywood adventures in exotic lands where monsters abound, in this case a corner of the southern Pacific where a giant creature known by a local name that translates into “Flaming Teeth”. It’s an entertaining look at natural predation and what we consider (hypocritically?) ‘monstrous’ from our point of view in the food chain.

“Strandling” by Caitlín R. Kiernan – This story paints a picture of a bleak future sadly too believable, saturated with the “hydrocarbon debris of a thoughtless world.” A lonely, exhausted desolation where mutant monstrosities are born from our monstrosity, and two women cling to one another against seeming inevitability. A beautiful, if dark, tale that features some lovely nuggets on the parasitic – mutalistic continuum of symbiosis that stands at the center of life and the the themes here.

“The Special One” by Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ – “They named her Joy, an ordinary name for a child who became extraordinary, at least in childhood.” Filled with luscious text, this story presents itself as a fable on expectations and the pressures one bears to meet them. On the dark side of fantasy, it turns into horror with an unsettling ending that masterfully closes things.

“Devil” by Glen Hirshberg – A second modern-day tale that plays upon classic stories of exotic exploration. Here, the devil refers to the Tasmanian devil, a creature some tourists seek sight of in the wilds of the island, in a place where only train tracks remain from the colonizers who attempted to conquer the wilderness. Predator-prey dynamics and the ghosts of history haunt the unsuspected interlopers.

“Crick Crack Rattle Tap” by A. C. Wise – One of the most impactful stories of the collection, troubling and brutal, yet compassionate all at the same time. A young mother grapples with post-partum emotions, her desires conflicting between nourishing and exasperated. Shamed as flashes of tendernesses give way to resentment, her mind nonetheless turns in horror to a fairy tale rhyme, to rid her aching of its burden. Hardly an easy read in its emotion, this is just a brilliant fable of darkness and melancholy.

“Children of the Night” by Stephen Graham Jones – Light fare from Jones that embraces silliness and humor to have fun with the monster theme. The title evokes the classic line from Tod Browning’s Dracula (or was it even in Bram Stoker’s novel?) However, this one is actually about Bigfoot, and plays fancifully with the typical explanation of sightings of the cryptid as people in ape costumes.

“The Smell of Waiting” by Kaaron Warren – Such a touching and bittersweet story of a girl who discovers she has the power to resurrect life after the death of her puppy, and later, a vicious attack/murder of her mother. While she has this extraordinary power that others might view as ‘monstrous’, Warren forces readers to confront what such abilities might be like when able to provide relief to others, but never oneself.

“Now Voyager” by Livia Llewellyn – Wow, ummm, what? This was my first reaction to this genre-bending offering by Llewellyn. Then I reread it and loved it even more. The story is a science fiction dark fantasy that imagines a far-future Earth where a Princess, member of a deformed royal family looks out over a caldera considering the approaching death of the human Camera of the Gods and the selection of a replacement from among potential novitiates. This gem does so much, and so subtly, with exquisite prose. Are the monsters the alien Gods, or the Princess and her family who look the part and knowingly sacrifice others to a form of slavery? The richness of the story allows interpretations and new discoveries with rereads. An unconventional horror amid the rest of the collection, but superbly uncanny.

“The Last Drop” by Carole Johnstone – A tale that echoes the earlier offering from Oates, this is a fictionalized retelling of historical events and (at least some) characters. Set in the mid/late 19th century, it involves a woman put on trial for murder. In it, Johnstone includes details from actual court transcripts. The modern reader’s uncertainty of the woman’s guilt of the monstrous crime becomes accentuated by appreciations of societal blindness and atipathy toward women.

“Three Mothers Mountain” by Nathan Ballingrud – I have adored everything I’ve read by Ballingrud I think, and this was no exception. I still haven’t read his recent (now maybe old?) collection and really need to. Anyway, this story about witches, repercussions of magic, and the painful choices/sacrifices people make for family has familiar tones and themes for any dark fantasy fan. Yet, somehow Ballingrud manages to make it all seem fresh and evocative.

“Widow-Light” by Margo Lanagan – Fans of modern feminist recasting of fairy tales should adore this short fantasy from Langan. It stands unique among the other offerings of the collection in having perhaps the most hopeful, happy of endings. This is not to say it doesn’t touch upon darkness or horror in getting there, with themes of relevance to today’s reality as much as a fantasy world. I particularly appreciated how this is an original story in the fairy tale style, rather than something based off any particular fable or trope.

“Sweet Potato” by Joe R. Lansdale – The neighbor of an old woman who likes to set out bird seed, sit on her porch, and then shoot the birds who come each day, decides to take up gardening. When he discovers the perverted old lady dead and decomposing in her yard, he considers whether her body might be put to better use. This reads like a fairly standard contemporary short horror, but Lansdale’s talent keeps it engaging and fun.

“Knock, Knock” by Brian Evenson – A man kills his uncle, but soon a knocking comes on the door, revealing the murder may not have quite taken. This plays well both as a literal horror and as a psychological one of a man being tormented by his monstrous actions. In either case it is another familiar horror theme, but again one handled in just the way, with just the right atmosphere and structure, to make it enjoyable.

“What is Meat with No God” by Cassandra Khaw – I believe this is the shortest story within the collection, but Khaw does a lot within its fitting length. Heavy on hypnotic atmosphere, with an equally dazzling title, the story is a simple one of a monstrous soldier who cannot be killed, whose path of bloody carnage has no deviation until complete. The short length leaves a great deal of ambiguity to the background of the story and its interpretations, leaving a lot of room for the reader to draw conclusions.

“Bitten Himself” by Laird Barron – This one is a follow-up to one of Barron’s most known stories, “The Procession of the Black Soth.” I haven’t actually read that one, to my memory, so can’t comment on connections beyond the reappearance here of the title entity. In this, the protagonist is a deprived criminal/murderer who encounters his doppelgänger, and then cosmic-horror-vibed Black Sloth, to face his eternal punishment. Fans of Barron’s horror won’t be disappointed.

“Burial” by Kristi DeMeester – Something about DeMeester’s writing tends to hit the right notes with me. They are windows into the dark and pain that women have faced, and continue to face in life, tales of finding power and agency in that. Even so distant from my own experiences, the passion of her writing still resonates with me. No different here, a tale of a girl trying to save her sister and herself from a selfish, abusive mother, and her creation of a new mother from that agonizing desperation.

“Beautiful Dreamer” by Jeffrey Ford – In a time of increased partisanship, mistrust, and rancor between those on opposite ends of the US political expression, it is nice to see this short monster story of a horror that might help bridge the divide. Despite its themes, the story is a simple, unadorned one of people protecting themselves/hunting a dangerous mutant creature. Not very dark in tone, it is gory and splatter filled, an entertaining story that creature feature horror fans should enjoy.

“Blodsuger” by John Langan – Datlow saves the longest story for last, a practice that seems common to collections and anthologies. But, it’s one that I don’t really care for much, I’d rather a shorter sip to end things. The title of this one is an Anglicization of ‘bloedzuiger‘, the Dutch word for ‘leech’. (Advanced copies of the anthology used the Dutch spelling for the title from what I can tell.) A horror author tells a tale about an ice fishing experience with his grandfather where he lands a monster from Danish lore, that proceeds to unleash terror. Though I personally found the text too long, Langan certainly does a great job balancing an atmosphere of dread/horror with the nostalgia/mundane of family life.

Screams from the Dark is an anthology I could see easily returning to. Many of the tales bear rereading, and I am sure that personal favorites (or ones that resonate most strongly with me) might vary with time and age.

Datlow concludes her introduction to the anthology with these words, which I find just as fitting here:

What’s most interesting to me as a reader is the range of monstrousness that exists within ourselves and that we impose on the creatures unlike us that we name monsters. Monsters are our mirrors: in them, we see who we hope we are not, in order to understand who we war.

This is why the diverse range of authors, styles, and sub-genre are so integral to the success of Screams from the Dark. Monsters are deeply personal beasts, and the monstrous will change over one’s life experiences, through the political and social upheaval that surround us. Not every story here will likely resonate with you. But, which do, may change. And even at this moment of now, they all offer an empathic glimpse into what others see lurking in their mirrors, darkly.


YOU HAVE A FRIEND IN 10A: STORIES by Maggie Shipstead

You Have a Friend in 10A: Stories
By Maggie Shipstead
Knopf Publishing Group — May 2022
ISBN: 9780525656999
— Hardcover — 272 pp.


A debut collection of short fiction written over a span of ten years, You Have a Friend in 10A highlights Maggie Shipstead’s versatility of fiction and empathic range. Readers are likely to be familiar with Shipstead’s name through her multiple-award-nominated novel Great Circle, out last year. I haven’t read that, or any of her short fiction prior to receiving this collection.

The power of a collection like You Have a Friend in 10A lies in its survey of an author’s depth and range over the span of years. This summation of Shipstead’s short fiction reveals a literary craftsmanship and keen insight into human identity that none of her individual stories can completely reveal on their own.

Yet, this power comes along with the risk that some readers might find the stories within the collection to be uneven, particular with the broad spectrum of setting, plot, and voice that Shipstead employs. I appreciated the majority of the stories in the collection. They sparked reflection, stimulated emotional connection with their everyday characters, and evoked wonder with turns of idiosyncratic language that fit those characters perfectly. Many entertained. Only in a couple cases did the style of the story leave me less engaged. Readers who enjoy a variety of literary short fiction, or who are fans of Shipstead, would find this worthwhile as well.

The title of the collection comes from one of the stories within, but the number 10 seems fitting. Besides the roughly 10 year span of time of publication, 10 stories fill the pages. “The Cowboy Tango” opens things strongly with a story of a love triangle on a Montanan dude ranch between the owner, a young female employee, and his nephew. It’s a beautiful story of rejection, told with a simple honesty that reveals the discomforts and complexity that people abide in relationships of life.

This theme of loss echoes through many of the other stories in the collection, perhaps the only thread that ties the disparate tales. Shipstead’s frank depiction of difficulties and resilience of characters through it reminded me of the short stories of Katherine Anne Porter that I’ve also recently read. It may be solely due to the correlation of timing in my reading these, but the familiarity strikes me in their foundational core of hardship/pain, with Shipstead’s stories being more modern and global in setting.

Unfortunate burdens and complications of life/relationships appear in other stories that I adored. “Souterrain” moves through time to reveal the connections – real and perceived – between an American woman and a French man in Paris, two young people whose past, present, and dire futures link to a wealthy, older, blind man who has just died. It’s a story might be most accessible to readers who crave plot and appreciate mystery and twists, even in short fiction. “Angel Lust” likewise features a character dealing with a recent death, in this case his father. The experience leads to symbolic unloading of emotional weight alongside handling the father’s physical possessions.

The standout story for me was “La Moretta”, a devastating tale of a couple on honeymoon in Europe. The growing antipathy and rancor between two people who realize they might not actually love one another overflows into tragedy. The dissolution of the marriage partnership into dark isolation contrasts with a world where people put value and power in community. It’s a literary horror tale, subtle even in the darkness.

The eponymous “You Have a Friend in 10A” completely changes tone and style from many of the other stories. Though still featuring the theme of loss and missed opportunities in life, there is a humor and parody to this story that makes it lighter. It features a character on a plane who ruminates on her experiences as part of a cult. Though Shipstead changes all the vocabulary, it’s a very clear allusion to Scientology. Though I think the story is largely successful, the ersatz details within really broke my connection to it, and made it sillier than I feel Shipstead intended.

“Acknowledgements” represents a solid literary story whose character of an author reflecting on publishing their first novel and the relevant impact of past relationships also made the story a little less engaging. A tad overlong, its metafiction really felt like an obligatory writing class exercise as opposed to heartfelt.

The remaining stories: “In the Olympic Village”, “Lambs”, “The Great Central Pacific Guano Company”, and “Backcountry” were ones I appreciated less, particularly the closing “Backcountry”. “In the Olympic Village” is a short and simple take on relationships, featuring two athletes hooking up for sex during the international games. Their relationship felt empty, and their likewise seemed to be less depth to the story than Shipstead usually achieves. “Lambs” succeeds very well in its atmosphere around the theme of loss of life. I only would rank it lower compared to other entries due to its relative simplicity. Which, for some may be a strength.

Although I now look forward to reading her novels, I also hope that Shipstead continues to produce short fiction that can be enjoyed in literary magazines and future collections. The successful experimentation and evolution in her writing displayed in You Have a Friend in 10A promise substantial achievements to come with continued maturity in the short form.


Tara Bush Cover Art for Luna Press Harvester Series Debut Collection by Steven J Dines

Upcoming from Luna Press Publishing

Cover Art by Tara Bush

In the most recent mailing from Luna Press Publishing I noticed this stunning cover art image by Tara Bush for an upcoming entry in their Harvester Series, a debut collection from Steven J Dines.

From Tara Bush writing about her cover art:

“I knew early on I wanted to use the colours and tones to portray emotion and feelings, and during the process, I allowed the colours to wash organically over the face. Colour was mainly applied digitally, enabling me to keep the detail of the underdrawing. I knew I wanted yellow tones in the image and the blue washes felt right as the artwork was nearing an end.

The result is a combination of traditional and digital, which I think can work in harmony with each other. Steven’s writing is so evocative and haunting, that it really helps translate those deep emotions to the page for an artist.”

You can read more about this cover on the Luna Press Blog, or on the artist’s site.

I’m also looking forward to this book. From the publisher:

Look Where You Are Going Not Where You Have Been is a stunning debut collection of dark literary fiction exploring grief, regret, and hope. A family is torn apart by tragedy and misadventure, their future creaking under the weight of judgment. Old men play at being ghosts while a young boy sees real ones wherever he turns. A wandering immortal desperately seeks an end to his pain. Intimate, unflinching, and poignant, these eleven tales of the broken and the unmade include the two previously unpublished novellas, dragonland and This House is Not Haunted.”

You can read more about the collection here.

FARTHEST SOUTH by Ethan Rutherford

Farthest South
By Ethan Rutherford
A Strange Object (Deep Vellum Press) — 13th April 2021
ISBN: 9781646050482
— Paperback — 184 pp.
Cover Design: Nayon Cho; Illustrations: Anders Nilsen


I have such a fondness for surreal short fiction, stories on the edge of familiar and unsettling. If dreams are the product of the mind’s processing of events and emotions, dream-like fiction represents an ideal format for writers to pierce the veils of the human condition, the assumptions and ignorance of our everyday interactions that shroud from insight. In Rutherford’s new collection Farthest South, his stories provide a foundation for magical lyrical prose intermingling with a frugal simplicity. Like bedtime stories, his style cuts to the core of the mundane while still meandering into asides, conveying tantalizing flashes of the fantastic.

Rutherford frames the collection with two stories that integrate that concept of a child’s bedtime story into the plot itself, with the same characters. Both are outstanding stories that start and conclude Farthest South in a perfect way, introducing readers to Rutherford’s style and leaving them with uncertainties to ponder. In some respect, the stories feel more unsettling after their conclusion, as they stick with you.

“Ghost Story” (originally published in Tin House) begins things, where a father is asked by his son to tell a scary story before bed. Prior to this ghost story getting underway, the father and mother discuss normal marital concerns; the father considers the art of telling a story, how to strike the right balance between something being ‘scary’ for a child, but not over so, and how to still include a valuable lesson. Soon the story settles in with the father telling his story of the ‘Seal Woman’, a witch-like creature he encountered when younger while working one fishing season on his dad’s boat. “Ghost Story” is two stories in one, meta-fiction in a way; though I enjoyed all the parts (the relationship side between the parents, the father-son interaction, the Seal Woman tale) I still am not sure how they all fit together.

The final story in the collection, “The Diver” (originally published as “The Soul Collector” in Conjunctions) returns with the same story for another ocean-set tale featuring ‘Old Gr’mer’. Shorter than “Ghost Story”, “The Diver” doesn’t feature the mother-father interactions as much, and that tighter focus made it seem more cohesive in comparison.

These, and the other stories in Farthest South, are reminiscent of fairy tales in style, but with important functional distinctions. Most focus on adults, over children without guardians. And they aren’t written to convey a morale, so much as invite insights, subtly. The stories all revolve around family matters, the anxieties of people not acting just for themselves, but also for a unit, a pack. “Fable” takes this most literally in a story where a fox couple without any kits of their own adopt a human child. However, like in “Ghost Story”, this fable becomes nestled within a larger framework of friends coming together. One, a translator and storyteller, relates the fox fable to her friends.

The uncertainties and unease of families, of parenthood in particular, crop up again and again in Rutherford’s stories. “Family, Happiness” delves into that specific theme in a very short, but lush and emotive handful of pages. “The Baby” (originally published in Post Road) uses the same theme from an opposite, almost nightmarish, perspective. A couple bring their feverish child into the hospital emergency room:

“The weather outside is feral and snow-clotted. And when the doctor says hold the baby, they do.”

In probably my favorite story of the collection, Rutherford depicts the frightening unease of any patient putting their trust into a doctor, having no choice but to do what the doctor says, even amid doubts or evidence that the doctor can’t be expert in all. The story is the most absurd of the collection, with details that will ring familiar to anyone who has ever faced a medical bureaucracy that seems to prioritize everything but patient care and communication.

“Holiday”, approaches the parenthood theme from yet another angle, the haunting of possibilities and chance encounters. This eerie tale almost reads like a horror story, but never goes into full darkness.

A couple of stories do focus on the childhood perspective of the family relationship. In “Pools, I am a Hawk” a young girl goes with her mother to a fancy club where the woman’s more affluent friends have invited them as guests. There, the girl goes off on her own and encounters other children who think she’s a ghost of a dead classmate. In “Angus and Annabelle”, two siblings deal with the trauma of a lost mother. Amid a flutter of sparrows, Annabelle practices a skill that their mother had taught them, making stick-and-berry dolls that disquiet Angus (and perhaps the reader.)

The title story of the collection, “Farthest South” first published in BOMB can still be read there. It’s a fitting one to pick for the title of the entire book, as this story combines many of Rutherford’s elements into one tale. It’s surreal and has bits of comic absurdity, yet also is chillingly haunting. It also is a story nestled within another, though done far more quietly. It recounts the experiences of a man across the inhospitable terrains of Antarctica, a survivor among children and animals that inexplicably were among an expedition team. The survivors are plagued by the ghostly skulls of those from the team who died. But the man has a companion to help him in this ordeal: a talking Emperor Penguin named Franklin. Told from the perspective of a grandchild of this man, only a brief line(s) of the story suggest that what the tale in reality represents. While that detail may not be essential, it is a touch that lends added layers of appreciation to “Farthest South”.

Layers of appreciation is something that all of Farthest South offers readers. It’s imminently readable, neither dense nor pretentious. It capitalizes on key tricks of genre fiction to build something that’s certainly more in the literary camp – entertaining but giving things to intellectually unpack and ponder, even over multiple reads.

Ecotheo Review, a blog on ecology, theology, and art hosts an interview with Ethan Rutherford on Farthest South and his other work. It offers additional insights into the collection and what readers might take from the stories. It’s something that could be read after reading the book, but might also be useful to potential readers who still haven’t made up their minds if this is for them. There are also multiple upcoming events with Rutherford, including one at Madison’s Books in Seattle. If you happen to live near there, you can find more information on the event here.


LOVE. AN ARCHAEOLOGY by Fábio Fernandes

Love. An Archaeology
By Fábio Fernandes
Luna Press Publishing — 26th March 2021
ISBN: 9781913387426
— Paperback — 164 pp.
Cover: Francesca T Barbini


What exactly is a translation? For a multilingual writer, does every piece become a sort of translation within the creator’s mind, or is each story pre-filtered though one linguistic route of the brain?

These question came to mind as I read Love. An Archaeology, the first collection of short fiction from Brazilian writer Fábio Fernandes, just released from Luna Press as part of their “Harvester Series.” The books in this series intentionally gather a collection of old and new works from a writer, along with authorial reflections as an appendix. For Fernandes’ stories, language becomes another layer to that harvest of past and new works.

Two of the stories in Love. An Archaeology were originally written in Portuguese and translated into English by Fernandes for the collection. One of those two was translated into Spanish for its original publication. One, Fernandes wrote in English for submission to an anthology. When it didn’t make the cut, he then translated into Portuguese and published that. Though the majority of the stories in the collection were written and published originally in English, they still exude an aura of being cultural hybrids. While the characters and plot do contribute, Fernandes’ English also adds to that flavor. Though technically correct, he often turns his phrasing in a way that feels slightly off from that of a native speaker. And that is absolutely wonderful, fitting perfectly with the unexpected turns of his stories, and those moments of surreal wonder particularly found in his forays into New Weird.

But as Paul Jessup notes in his introduction to the collection, the stories here are more than a literature of atmosphere. They are “an exploration of idea with depth. Each story is poetic, at times spiritual and transcendent.” That depth permeates into realms both emotional and intellectual. Love. An Archaeology will make you think. Though pointing out the uniqueness of Fernandes, Jessup also compares his writing to that of Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugène Ionesco, Jeffery Ford, and Ted Chiang.

The name that pops to my mind first, however, is Samuel R. Delany. In part that’s because I first encountered Fernandes with “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell. Reading Love. An Archaeology I increasingly noticed the shared fundamental elements between Delany and Fernandes: the intensity, the intellect, the curiosity, the subtle complexity exploring a basic idea. Both can leave readers disoriented one moment, only to lead them to startling revelation the next. Throughout that all, a love for – and power over – language.

I didn’t appreciate all this when reading “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip. I ended up relatively ambivalent to the story then, certainly not disliking it, but not enjoying either. Starting Love. An Archaeology I at first felt similarly. The opening story “Seven Horrors” revolves around a fascinating premise taking the idea of time travel in truly unique and mind-bending directions. A man simply called the Time Traveller and a woman known as the Assassin hop across the eons of time, locked together in an immortal struggle for/against death and love for one another. In this tale Fernandes takes the contradictions inherent to time travel stories and simply runs with the trope’s bewildering anti-logic. The framework becomes an opportunity to meditate on themes of spirituality, love, and persistence.

On the one hand, I loved the concepts of the story and its gentle luscious prose, which contras with the apocalyptic settings and chaos through time. On the other hand, I found it dense to get into with a formality to its tone that almost clashes with the personal nature of the character interactions at its heart. A lot of the references were lost on me. (The first section of the collection contains four stories ‘to the memory of Harlan Ellison’ and this must be Ellisonesque in some way I wouldn’t be able to grasp.) It’s a hard story to start things off with, yet appropriate and easier to appreciate as one digs deeper into the collection and becomes familiar with what Fernandes is doing.

Aside from showing how he approaches classic speculative fiction themes, “Seven Horrors” introduces readers to the themes of metaphysics/spirituality that Fernandes draws upon, especially Buddhism. Both “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip and “Seven Horrors” that opens Love. An Archaeology represent titles that invite speculation for numerical symbolism. Fernandes uses this type of title in additional stories in this collection, and dates. These numbers are yet another example of the cultural depths that he digs for details in his stories. Numbers mean something equally as much as words, and they are in some ways the purest form of science fiction, even more so than physics as they underlie the language of the universe and the sciences.

By the second story of Love. An Archaeology, I became hooked. Its plot is more conventional, yet still contains the elements that Fernandes plays with so effectively. It’s also a fantasy/horror as opposed to a science fiction, and I feel they are so much easier for me to get into. “The Emptiness in the Heart of All Things” may be my favorite story of the collection. It draws from the Matinta Pereira folklore of the Brazilian ‘northern wilderness’, but Fernandes works with political and feminist themes inspired by the legend of this witch-like creature, and he casts it into a crime plot. Though it contains elements of Weird, the linear narrative gives the early reader a bit more stability in navigating Fernandes’ references and themes. I wish he wrote more in this genre, because this is exceptional.

Though still in the section dedicated to Ellison, “The Remaker” is a meta-tribute to Borges, a near-future remake of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The original apparently being a story about a fellow (Menard) who recreates (not copies) Cervantes’ classic. So this is a remake of a remake concept, and we are several recursive layers deep here. Again the concept is intriguing, and now a few stories in, I had begun warming to Ferndandes’ style. As the backdrop to that, Fernandes gives his “Pierre Menard” lovers, allowing rich character development while also tapping into diversity of sex and gender. Originally published in a collection titled Outlaw Bodies, the rawness of biology, love, and sex in the story again recalls Delany. Such a wonderful ending for this story as well, and though the title has no numbers, the numerical fascination continues within chapter headings and the remade books of the plot.

A cyber-punk story that mashes up 3D printing technology with dreamscape exploration follows in “WiFi Dreams” to conclude the first section of the collection. It’s another trippy one, where I had a hard time seeing how the 3D printing idea actually integrates in.

The next two sections of stories in the collection consist of relatively shorter works. The first, dedicated to Cordwainer Smith, includes “Tales of the Obliterati”, a series of connected stories Fernandes writes about ‘lost discoveries’ and future eras where humanity faces annihilation. “Nothing Happened in 1999” is a piece of solid, if not remarkable, flash fiction. My interest really picked up for “Mycelium”, a story set in a hidden enclave of surviving humanity where a fungal symbiosis might be the key to save the human remnant. “Nine Paths to Destruction” approaches spiritual, existential matters of an individual and a species facing extinction. Beautifully and emotionally resonant.

The second of short fiction sections bears dedication to Fredric Brown and presents “Three Snapshots”, further flash fiction. Fernandes comments in the appendix that he feels very short fiction is one of his strengths, and with these I’d largely conclude. “Other Metamorphoses” is great and “Who Mourns for Washington?” is a profound take on the persistence and loss of memory.

“Archaeologies” the fourth and final section of Love. An Archaeology contains additional stories on love and includes the short story that gives the collection its title. “A Lover’s Discourse: Five Fragments and a Memory of War” returns to surreal New Weird tones, with a plot that’s hard to peg into any particular sub-genre. “The Unexpected Geographies” is notable in that it is another fantasy, darker than the prior one and more firmly in the realm of horror. Though I liked the story overall, I felt this was the most uneven and in need of further editing to make it cut more effectively.

The concluding story “Love. An Archaeology” ends things with another high point. Sisters use a new device that allows experience of alternate history timelines to discover what may have happened between their father and mother. But alternate, after all, is a relative term. The story reinforces what Fernandes excels at: taking well-worn SF ideas for a ride in new and fascinating directions. Some of those may verge into confusing dream-like realms, and others – like this one may be more standard. But they all use that platform to delve into base human relationships/emotions, like family, partner, love to see both the ecstasy and the cracks.

Fernandes is both a graduate of the prestigious Clarion West course, and a former slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine. His appreciation for classics of the SF genre and of literature, mythology, and philosophy in general should be obvious. This is a debut collection that literary speculative fiction fans should not pass up, and I believe they will look forward to seeing more from him in the future as much as I do.


THE DARK MAGAZINE #69 (February 2021) Edited by Sean Wallace


Another issue with three of four stories to read. Those three fit the billing of dark fantasy, and were notably good, with one particularly sticking with me to lead off the issue:

“Laughter Among the Trees” by Suzan Palumbo — An immigrant to Canada with her parents from the West Indies, Anarika has mixed feelings about the birth of her sister Sabrina, an immediate citizen of this new land, her only home in contrast to the rest of the family. But, when Sab goes missing on a family camping trip, Ana deals with the guilt and the pain of her parents for the years to come. The eerie story combines familiar conventional themes of sibling rivalry and the immigrant experience with elements of classic horror (ghosts) and the monstrosities of colonization in very effective ways.

“The Yoke of the Aspens” by Kay Chronister — I do not read you.

“One Last Broken Thing” by Aimee Ogden — Liv’s mother has abandoned her and her father, who now live on an unproductive farm where her father shoots any animal that he sees in the fields. At school Liv is mocked and outcast. But as HS graduation approaches, Liv yearns to depart for college, though her father remains set against it. An apt title for a story showing how people can be broken by the past and loss, but also the power of staying true to oneself.

“A Resting Place For Dolls” by Priya Sridhar — A baker who is distraught over the suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain uses a doll-making hobby – and power – inherited from her grandmother to help friends and acquaintances in her life who struggle with depression and stress. An anti-Voodoo doll kind of concept here, in a brief but good short story.

The issue also features cover art “Angel Fire East” by Tomislav Tikulin.


CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE #173 (February 2021) Edited by Neil Clarke


A particularly strong issue this month for Clarkesworld, with a much appreciated return of translated fiction. I still am not a fan of novellas in short fiction outlets, but both of the ones here at least connected with me to largely appreciate and enjoy them.

“The Failed Dianas” by Monique Laban — A delightful story that shares themes with Sarah Gailey’s recent novel The Echo Wife, albeit a far less dark direction here. At the restaurant she runs, Diana greets herself – the latest clone created by her parents in an attempt to raise their daughter according to their vision of professional success. The new Diana comes to learn the truth that was kept from her, and soon meets a group of prior Dianas who have all found their own personal, diverse successes. The story effectively shows how much potential an individual can have and how one outlet/profession is never the defining or sole identity for them.

“Terra Rasa” by Anastasia Bookreyeva, translated by Ray Nayler — Hoorah! Translations are back again this issue and here is a great one of a fabulous story. Set in a climate disaster future where the world burns, the story follows a young woman who has worked as a rescuer and earned a coveted ticket onto a ship fleeing the devastation for salvation. It’s a brutal story and ending, but nonetheless offers a look into the beauty of the human heart that can occur even amongst all this.

“Obelisker Adrift in the Desert” by K.H. Meridian — The world has been devastated by inter-computer warfare. A cybernetically enhanced woman discovers one of the computer AIs in an obelisk and the two begin to form a friendship born from the loneliness, and perhaps regret. But, computers and humanity still remain for conflict to again rear up. A bit too long for my tastes, but Meridian writes the characters and their interactions so well that I was easily able to move past that and enjoy this.

“Mercy and the Mollusc” by M. L. Clark — Way too long for a short fiction outlet, and could’ve been used for a novel with a bit more in it to balance that length. A man goes around an alien world that humanity is terraforming, riding atop a giant sentient mollusk and trying to make up for the native life he destroyed prior as a soldier. Fascinating concepts in this story, both the biology and the themes of colonization.

“‘Remember the Washington,’ They Said as They Fed the Ugoxli” by Jeff Reynolds — SF set on a colony world with vibes more of a Western and concepts of frontier justice, as an unnamed former soldier who is tasked recovering bodies from the destroyed ships enacts retaliation against the aliens, and others. A difficult story where the horrors of war de’humanize’ all, and challenging then to read and connect to such characters and monstrosity. Almost more of a horror story in this regard.

“We’ll Always Have Two Versions of Pteros” by Dominica Phetteplace — “Everything was going great until Barry announced one morning that he was in the wrong timestream… He seemed sluggish. Disoriented. In need of coffee.” A lovely short story touching on the possibilities of relationships, but also that some things are just not meant to be.

“History in Pieces” by Beth Goder — Told in fragmentary ‘puzzle pieces’ of alien Archivists observing humans who have arrived on a world to colonize, the scattered construction of the narrative and jumps in time works well even in this ~1400 word story. The aliens literally create pieces filled with sensory and emotive records that fit together and become part of them. What could be gimmicky is formed into the core of the story, a poetic beautiful tragedy yet with continued hope.

The issue also features the nonfiction articles “Peter Pan Through the Years” by Carrie Sessarego, interviews with Karen Osborne (“Thrilling to the Harmony”) and S.B. Divya (“Science, Math, Fiction, and the Oxford Comma”) by Arley Sorg, 2020 Reader’s Poll Finalists news from editor Neil Clarke, and cover art “Forward” by Wenjuinn Png.


LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE #129 (February 2021) Edited by John Joseph Adams


The majority of the stories in this issue were average to good. Two of the three that stood above the rest are reprints: “Small and Bright” by Autumn Brown and “Sidewalks” by Maureen F. McHugh. The original other that I adored was “Me Two” by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown.

“The Mathematics of Fairyland” by Phoebe Barton — You feel as if this doesn’t bode well as a start to the issue. So you stop reading and go onto the next story.

“Bulletproof Tattoos” by Paul Crenshaw — A reprint from an anthology themed around the concept of: If This Goes On. The story serves as a satire on gun violence and the lengths that people (or technology) might go to prevent it, without really solving the heart of the issue. Works for its purposes of making a validly good point with interesting speculation, but I found the satire a bit too heavy to really enjoy it as a story.

“Me Two” by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown — A lovely short story about two souls who cannot be together, through a scifi twist. A young boy grows up realizing that every other day he wakes up as a girl on the opposite side of the world (and she switched with him). However the distance they each swap is more than just across one world. Beautiful take on connection and loss.

“Sidewalks” by Maureen F. McHugh — Reprint from an issue of Omni several years back, this fantastic story begins as the protagonist Dr. Gupta is given a psychiatric patient who seems to speak gibberish. Dr. Gupta soon discovers it is actually Old English, but what is her origin? The story unfolds almost like a mystery and is extremely satisfying.

“Church of Birds” by Micah Dean Hicks — Originally published in The Kenyan Review, this story comes inspired by the Grimm fairy tale “The Six Swans”. I’m not that well-read in fairy tales and while I’ve enjoyed some retellings or things done in their style, it’s not a sub-genre I gravitate toward. This does explore an interesting theme though around the repercussions that would come for a person who has been turned into some other form of animal, like a bird.

“The Memory of a Memory Is a Spirit” by A.T. Greenblatt — After leaving her island home, a caretaker returns to tend the overgrown environment and live again with the angry spirits she had abandoned. Although very straight-forward, it is beautifully written, and the themes/character are easy to empathize with or relate to.

“Small and Bright” by Autumn Brown — Reprint from Octavia’s Brood, a collection on my shelf that I really have to get around to reading. This tale of a post-disaster subterranean human civilization includes feminist themes around motherhood and discovery of hopeful new worlds. I found the biology in this of reproduction and symbiosis particularly interesting, but the beautiful language of it all, even when describing something horrendous, is just transcendent.

“Destinations of Beauty” by Alexander Weinstein — Part of a series of short stories written in the style of travel guides for exotic lands, this focuses on ones that – as the title indicates – feature beauty. Usually a beauty now lost or unappreciated amid noise or melancholy. I am not a personal fan of this kind of plotless story, but it does excel at evoking mood in the reader here.

The issue also features an excerpt of the novel Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, book reviews “On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu” by LaShawn M. Wanak, “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), by Katie Mack” by Chris Kluwe, and “Latinx Screams, edited by V. Castro and Cynthia Pelayo” by Arley Sorg. Author spotlights by Audrey T. Williams, Benjamin C. Kinney, Elan Samuel, and Laurel Amberdine. Editorial by John Joseph Adams, plus Coming Attractions and other miscellany. Cover by Grandfailure.


THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION #753 (January/February 2021) Edited by C.C. Finlay


An overall solid issue to mark the final issue under the six-year editorial tenure of Charles Coleman (CC) Finlay. While I didn’t remotely dislike this last editorial era, there didn’t seem to be as many stories falling in as favorites for me as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction previously had. There are likely more stories purchased by Finlay still slated to appear in upcoming issues, but I am excited to see how this beloved genre outlet evolves under Sheree Renée Thomas. I also have liked Finlay’s fiction a lot in the past, so I’ll be please to see him return to more of it.

“The Dark Ride” by John Kessel — A blend of history, fiction, and SciFi Fantasy, this relates the assassination of President McKinley by the Anarchist Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo New York. Beside the historical narrative is an alternate version of events where Czolgosz travels to the moon and becomes a resistance leader against the oppressive.y ruling moon people. As the novella progresses, the two histories begin to blend together, highlighting the similarities of the social and political ideals that Czolgosz holds on the two worlds. And contrasting the failure that the assassination was in bringing larger change, compared to the hero he becomes on the moon. The SF moon world here is styled after the SF of the early 1900s when the story is set. Though it had some interesting aspects to it, those didn’t need a novella to be accomplished.

“Interludes with the Gunwright” by Jonathan L. Howard — One of my favorite stories in the issue, a touching tale of passions: of love between two characters, and a devotion to one’s chosen craft. A soldier visits a gunwright to secure new weapons, and without money instead leaves a valuable gun in her possession for study/reference as payment. The gunwright is pleased to see the soldier one day return alive, and the two find themselves craving time spent together in life despite their professions tied to destruction and violence.

“Bible Stories for Adults, No. 51: The Great Fish” by James Morrow — I have yet to enjoy or even appreciate any of the stories from this series by Morrow. For this one I gave up trying and stopped reading halfway.

“Integral Nothings” by Robert Reed — Though a series of vignettes, Reed relates how things on Earth have been altered by unknown, alien forces with a step-wise series of “Blessings” that appear to help preserve the planet and its populations. Each section focuses on one particular human representative point-of-view, but written with an omniscient, distant voice that playfully describes the human as the epitome of some trait (most intelligent, most wealthy, etc.) while contrasting that with an anecdote that shows how little and insignificant humans are in the scheme of the cosmos. They style works well to tell a story – whose heart is pretty familiar to the SF field – in a fresh, fun way.

“The Diamond Family Glitters” by H. Pueyo — The grandmother and matriarch of a family is dying. Each of her children and grandchildren has inherited some sort of unique supernatural ability, and they wonder whether that magic that helps keep them spiritually connected and unified will vanish with her passing. Well written and touching story of the symbolic magic that passes between generations and how that can be kept alive.

“A Little Knife Music” by Jenn Reese — Another powerful short story around the symbolism of weapons in this issue. This one explores the nature of using a dangerous gift or talent, and devotion to mentors and friends. An assassin gifted by the Goddess of Music with a deadly, cutting voice becomes conflicted when she is ordered to kill a friend. Superbly written.

“N-raptured” by Justin C. Key — Unseen aliens have converted racists on Earth into rats, and anyone who has used used the n-word has a tick mark scar appear suddenly on their forehead for each infraction as warning to not go too far like those turned. Six scar marks, and you become a rat. Those not so ‘raptured’ away have been left to carefully consider and watch their language and interactions, but Carl finds it hard, even though he only used the n-word when singing lyrics to a song. Well, and that one other time… But that doesn’t make him racist, right? Thought-provoking satire on race relations, language, perceptions, and the socially ingrained.

“Hard!” by Van Aaron Hughes — A SF story revolving around the sport of curling. The intro mentions how this is surely the best written of such stories (perhaps the only?) Nonetheless it is enjoyable, light-hearted fare featuring a warm father/son relationship. Makes sense to me that aliens would be a fan of curling.

“Litter Witch” by Susan Palwick — A lovely parable or fairy tale type story about resilience and strengthening over bullying. A young girl who dreams of being a witch is made fun of at school, but uses those injuries to build a home in the woods, to be in a place where years later another young girl arrives who needs some of that strength to survive.

“Wild Geese” by Lavie Tidhar — Nothing about the plot really engaged me with this story, but the far future cyberpunk and blend of cultures made for a fascinating atmosphere/setting that feels very real even within a short story, albeit mysterious. Tidhar also writes it with a flowing beauty. I wish there were more here in the terms of plot or even themes that I could have found to grasp onto. But it may also be one to reread.

“The Piper” by Karen Joy Fowler — A young man follows a friend in joining the army to fight for the King, but changes his mind about the decision after their departure and learning a possible other path. Relatively short (though not flash fiction length), it’s a good spin on familiar tropes (as the intro to the story promises).

“You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” by Paul Di Filippo — Published within the “Plumage from Pegasus” feature that Di Filippo writes each issue, this is still short fiction, so I find it odd that the feature is so rarely mentioned in other reviews that cover every other story. They are usually humorous and/or satirical and/or farcical and/or etc in tone. They’re rarely earth-shatteringly deep, but they are usually clever and entertaining. This one plays well with the seemingly ever-expanding “Best of…” collections in the genre and the fragmentary sub-genre niches of SFF.

The issue also features the poem “Annabel Digs Her Own Grave” by Gretchen Tessmer, book reviews by Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Hand, game reviews by Marc Laidlaw, film reviews by Karin Lowachee, and the science article “How Fast Are We Going?” by Jerry Oltion. With “Coming Attractions”, and “Curiosities” by Thomas Kaufsek. Cartoons by Ali Solomon, Arthur Masear, and Kendra Allenby; cover art by Kent Bash.