Our weekly sampling of free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.
Aphra Marsh lives in San Francisco, listening to the sounds of the sea and relishing freedom after spending years in an American internment camp. Her crime: belonging to a peculiar heritage, a dark legacy, and a little New England town called Innsmouth. World War II is over, now, and Aphra works in a bookshop, exchanging what “Enochian and R’lyehn” she remembers from her childhood for glimpses at her boss Charlie Day’s spellbooks. Charlie is mortal, but curious about the occult, and Aphra is … something else.
One day a stranger comes into the shop, asking after old and forbidden texts, and he’s not a good enough liar to hide that his interest is more than merely superficial. He wants Aphra’s help in tracking down what he calls “Aeonist fanatics.” She isn’t in a position to refuse — but perhaps there is something to be gained.
While some readers may call Ruthanna Emrys’ prose slow, I prefer to say it’s deliberate, each word specifically chosen and placed for the greatest effect. This novelette is neither as wordy nor as labyrinthine as Lovecraft’s work, for which I’m grateful, since it shows that Emrys is interested in actually telling Aphra’s story rather than showing off thousand-dollar words and navel-gazing philosophy. Lovecraft’s body of work makes for interesting reading and, obviously, is a tremendous influence on modern horror, but the current manifestation of “Lovecraftiana” is a much-needed shift toward inclusivity for the genre. ~Jana Nyman
Editor’s note: João Eira also reviewed “The Litany of Earth” in our SHORTS column on Sept. 14, 2015 and rated it 5 stars.
Edelstein’s story is set in a fascinating world, a kind of cross between the world of Ursula Le Guin’s EARTHSEA CYCLE and the short Pixar film Lava, a Micronesian-like archipelago where the islands are gods/heroes long ago turned to stone, though once every hundred years or so an island god awakens and returns to the stars, a cataclysmic event for those living on the island.
The story begins with a bang, as six-year-old Mei barely survives the awakening of her own island, Dakuwanga (the shark-god). The rest of the story follows Mei through her youth and into motherhood as she moves through different stages of life and different islands of the archipelago. The islands are awakening at a faster rate, seemingly connected to one island’s empire-building, and eventually Mei herself gets caught up in the conquest and what is happening to the islands/gods.
It’s a wonderfully vibrant setting, brought nicely to life throughout, and I loved the underlying idea as well as the particular gods we see, such as the shark-god and the poet-god. Edelstein tells his story efficiently and concisely, and to be honest, I would actually have preferred to have spent more time with both the setting and the character; I can easily see this story stretched out to novella or even novel length. Strongly recommended. ~Bill Capossere
Dr. Daphne Levitt, an American university professor, travels to Great Britain to investigate the murder of one of her ancestors, Daphne Merwin, as part of a book she is writing. The Victorian-era Daphne suffered from an extremely rare genetic disease known as Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia or “Tree Man” disease, which can result in crippling wooden branch-like growths, especially on the hands and feet. She ended up as the star attraction in a Victorian freak show, and was married to Professor Lewison Merwin, the proprietor of the quasi-scientific show. The police arrested a habitual drunk, semi-homeless man, Alfred Potts, for her murder, and he was hanged shortly after.
Dr. Levitt feels a connection to her ancestress, especially because she shares a milder form of the same disease. As she reviews the evidence, including a knife and a blood-stained nightgown, she realizes that it is pointing her to a different answer about the murder.
This novelette alternates between excerpts from Dr. Levitt’s book The British Freak Show at the Fin-de-Siècle, passages from the Victorian-era Daphne’s personal journal, and newspaper clippings and correspondence. Together, they create a sympathetic picture of a woman striving to live with dignity against all odds, and her great-great-granddaughter’s search for the truth.
I would rather be back on the streets of London, begging for crusts of bread. Am I insensate, a piece of wood for him to move about as he wishes? Am I the mythical creature he likes to call me? No, I am human, whatever I may appear to be. I breathe, I feel, I love.
Although Tor calls this a fantasy, it’s not actually speculative fiction. Tree Man disease is an actual disorder; a Google image search shows heartrending images of a few people who suffer from this disease. But Theodora Goss has written a touching, quietly tragic tale of a woman who yearned to be seen as human, not as just a strange curiosity. ~Tadiana Jones
“Lampblack and Dust” by J.L. Forrest (2017, anthologized in Principia Ponderosa, $3.99 Kindle ebook)
Principia Ponderosa is an anthology from Third Flatiron Press. The theme is Weird West, and there were a number of stories I really enjoyed here. “Lampblack and Dust,” by J.L. Forrest, is my favorite, with the writer conjuring an eerie frontier and a main character, the Orioness Faireweather, whose narrative voice was so immediate I felt like she was standing next to me as the story unfolded.
“My rage told me to hurry after the Dusters, to conjure fiercely and unholster my ironpieces. Though now, drowning my heartache in the Ricka Saloon, I spin ink into my whiskey and the swirls tell me to nurture patience …”
As an “Orioness,” Faireweather has tattoo ink under her skin that allows her to do magic. When her brother and niece are taken by the dreaded inhuman Ice Dusters, Faireweather demands to ride along with the sheriff’s posse, but he refuses. They ride off on their motorcycles (not horses), and Faireweather follows.
In between the descriptions of a lurid and strange landscape, the suspense, and the action sequences, Forrest drops just enough hints about the witches, their history, and how they are viewed by the townfolk to make us feel that this is a real frontier, a real world with real joys and dangers. Forrest marries the retro-futuristic world with the sensibility of the American Old West.
The Ice Dusters are terrifying, and Faireweather’s magic wonderful, but the core of this tale is Faireweather’s love of her family: her guilt that she could not save her sister-in-law, and her commitment to save her niece at least. The imagery of the swirling ink on her body, and the magical beings like the ravens she releases, stayed with me after I’d moved on to other stories, and this is the first one I went back to for the pleasure of a reread. This story is complete and I don’t need any more, but if there were more stories set in this world I would certainly read them. ~Marion Deeds
Harry Lee is a clone, one of over fifty new genetic copies of Harry Lee Kuan Yew, a famous leader who almost single-handedly lifted his small island nation out of poverty. His skill set makes him a valuable resource in the modern world, so the Academy raises clones of the original Harry Lee and other famous people, giving them simulated experiences that match the original’s in order to hone the same skills in the copies.
These were faces familiar to anyone who had lived through the early twenty-first century: Leaders and thinkers, a catalogue of genetic excellence carefully curated and propagated by the Administrator himself. Pod-grown like heirloom tomatoes, they were made-to-order for clients, spending years in algorithmically-tailored training programs. Each one came with the Administrator’s mark of quality assurance.
If there was proof of the consistency of their training and genetic integrity, it lay in the patterns which emerged in their interactions. The Suu Kyis and the Hillaries seemed to get along well, for example, but the Modis and Merkels never did. And sometimes there were surprises, like the frequent friendships between the Gateses and the Ahmadis.
The clones who achieve the closest match are graduated and sent out to the nations and groups who have purchased them; the rest are, impliedly, destroyed. But the fiftieth Harry Lee clone feels the need to make different choices in the simulations than those he knows are expected of him. His sudden display of leadership qualities may be his doom.
I expected a resolution similar that of a 1957 Isaac Asimov novella, Profession, and there is some echo of that, but JY Yang gives us an ending that is more subtle, if disturbingly indeterminate. It’s not at all clear what Harry’s fate will be, and whether it will be good or (what seems more likely) bad. The Latin title, meaning “Hope of a better age,” which is the Academy’s motto, has a sting to it. ~Tadiana Jones
“The First Confirmed Case of Non-Corporeal Recursion: Patient Anita R.” by Benjamin C. Kinney (2016, free at Strange Horizons)
Anita R. died thirty years ago during a tornado when, annoyed that her husband hadn’t brought the cat down to the basement with them, she went upstairs to find it. For years she has been reappearing, in the form of a ghost, every time someone comes down the basement stairs. Each time she re-lives those last few minutes of her life and it seems like the cycle is going to go on forever. Fortunately, Anita R. is a scientist and, if there’s one thing she’s good at, it’s persistent experimentation. She is determined to break the cycle and to figure out what she has become. She finally has a breakthrough one day when Malati, a curious and similarly scientifically-minded girl, walks down the stairs.
You’d probably think that a story about a frustrated ghost who keeps reliving her death would be depressing, but “The First Confirmed Case of Non-Corporeal Recursion: Patient Anita R.” is lively and fun. I found it refreshing that Anita didn’t mope about her inglorious death and the way she yelled at her husband before she died. What I liked best was the way she recognized and groomed the spark of potential she saw in Malati. As someone who also engages in this mutually beneficial mentoring process, I could relate to Anita, and I thought this story was touching.
I listened to the podcast version read by Anaea Lay. I can recommend it. ~Kat Hooper
Editor’s note: Tadiana Jones also reviewed this story and rated it 4 stars in our July 11, 2016 SHORTS column.
A pair of stray shoes follows Alison home one evening, whining at her door when she refuses to let them in. Finally she gives up and opens the door for them; they trot inside and settle down at the foot of her bed.
The next morning I kept tripping over them. They followed me into the kitchen and nudged my feet as I drank my tea. “No begging,” I said.
Rhona, sitting at the table drinking coffee, said, “Someone’s got shoes.”
“No, I don’t. I just didn’t want them to tangle with the ugly Christmas sweaters in the alley,” I said, and it was true. Those sweaters could be mean.
Anyone who’s ever adopted, or has been tempted to adopt, a stray cat or dog will get a kick out of this story. The love you get from an adopted pet makes the trouble well worth while! And Alison finds that the shoes help her out in an entirely unexpected way.
In keeping with our policy, I’m not giving “Strays” a star rating since it’s by one of our current reviewers. But I can tell you that it’s an absolutely delightful story and made me smile for a long time afterwards. ~Tadiana Jones