SHORTS is a column exploring some of the free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read that we wanted you to know about.
“For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll (2019, free at Tor.com, 99c on Kindle)
This short story, told entirely from a cat’s point of view, is a must-read for feline fans! Jeoffry the cat belongs to a mad poet who is confined to an insane asylum in 18th century Great Britain. Jeoffry regularly battles the imps and demons who torment the inmates at the asylum. But when Satan himself enters the picture, planning to use the poet’s abilities to bring about the end of the world, Jeoffry just might be overmatched.
Siobhan Carroll drew me in with this whimsical and insightful tale. She tells this story from Jeoffry’s point of view, capturing the elusive essence of cats.
Jeoffry knows he is a good cat, and a bold gentleman, and a pretty fellow. He tells the poet as much, pushing his head repeatedly at the man’s hands, which smell unpleasantly of blood. The demons have been at him again. … Jeoffry feels … not guilty exactly, but annoyed. The poet is his human.
There are so many marvelous elements to this tale, including some Turkish Delight that would have been better not eaten and a scene-stealing black kitten named the Nighthunter Moppet. Bonus if you’re familiar with the long religious poem “Jubilate Agno” written by the poet Christopher Smart around 1760, or at least with the “Jeoffry” section of the poem. Smart wrote this poem when he was committed to an asylum, with only his cat Jeoffry for company. A brief excerpt:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. …
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
This is one of the most appealing stories I’ve read on Tor’s website in a long time. ~Tadiana Jones
I learned about “When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis” from one of Marion’s columns, and the title instantly caught my eye. I’m from the St. Louis area, and there’s not a lot of SFF set here! So, of course, I had to check it out, and what I found was a thought-provoking story about intelligence, linguistics, and friendship.
Robot is, well, a robot, programmed to travel around near-future St. Louis checking for signs of a disease outbreak. Robot is also very cute, which helps in getting humans to trust it. When it flies across the river to East St. Louis, a poor suburb, its programmer, Bey, sends it some information about sociolects and about transient ways of living. On its latest trip there, Robot gets a sample to test, but is unable to connect with the CDC network afterward to analyze it.
A week later, it finally hears from Bey. The CDC has lost its funding. (In a chilling little aside, considering the growing privatization of pretty much everything, Bey now works at “Amazon Health.”) Robot is on its own. While deciding what to do next, Robot encounters a group of crows and begins to learn their language. One in particular, 3cry, grows especially close to Robot and alerts it to a hotbed of sick humans. Robot, 3cry, and a couple of sympathetic humans work together to investigate and fight the outbreak.
Along the way, Robot begins experiencing emotions that are not dependent upon human reactions, and discovers friendship. Robot, crow, and humans all learn to communicate with one another. With both artificial intelligence and corvid intelligence much in the news, “When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis” feels timely — and it’s charming, too. The illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker is also a treat. (That building is the Majestic Theater and it’s a gorgeous ruin.) ~Kelly Lasiter
Set in Cairo in 1912, “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” is a wonderfully atmospheric tale about Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. She is trying to solve a case involving the murder of a huge and powerful djinn. Her gumshoeing leads her to visit some seedy sections of Cairo where she meets angels, a necromancer, and some unusual enemies and allies.
This was my first story by P. Djèlí Clark, who recently won the Locus and Nebula Awards for his short fiction. I’m looking forward to more. His writing style is elegantly spare with just the right amount of description, explanation, and plot details. I loved his vision of Cairo (found also in his novella The Haunting of Tramcar 015) and I loved Fatma, a serious but flamboyant woman who wears men’s suits and carries an ostentatious cane. I hope I’ll be seeing her again someday.
“A Dead Djinn in Cairo” has a steampunk vibe and also some Lovecraftian elements. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes that sort of thing or who’s looking for non-European characters and settings.
Macmillan Audio just released an audio edition of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” and Suehyla El-Attar gives a fabulous performance. This 100 minutes long audio version is definitely worth the current asking price of $1.00. ~Kat Hooper
“A Misunderstanding” is a snippet, deleted from Ilona Andrews’ recently-published Sapphire Flames, that wants to be a short story but doesn’t quite get there. Arabella, the youngest of the three magical Baylor sisters of the HIDDEN LEGACY series, is called by her cousin Leon to come get him and Grandma Frida out of trouble in a case they’ve been investigating. Since Grandma Frida is involved, you know the trouble involves heavy machinery and random acts of destruction.
When Arabella gets to the Katy, Texas home of Sandra Mills, the suspect they’ve been investigating, she finds Leon and Grandma Frida … and a large, vehicle-shaped hole where the front door of the house should have been. She also finds a dented but intact panic room where their suspect is holed up with, per Sandra’s exasperated and upset husband, their “little girl.”
The story is brief and the plot slight, and Sandra is out of touch with reality and more annoying than amusing. But Arabella, a teenager who has the ability to morph into a monstrous Beast of Cologne, has an appealing personality. The rare insight into her thought processes and magical powers makes this a fun snippet for fans of the HIDDEN LEGACY series. And the illustration is delightful! ~Tadiana Jones
I am a fan of Jeff VanderMeer’s weird fiction. It’s one of my life-goals to read everything he’s ever written. Unfortunately, “This World is Full of Monsters,” though beautifully written, didn’t work for me. It was just too abstruse.
On the surface the story appears to be about a man who discovers a strange alien creature that he calls a “story-creature.” He interacts with it and is transformed many times, even falling asleep and waking up in the distant future. The creature seems to gradually (and beautifully) overwhelm the world. (Which reminds me of VanderMeer’s SOUTHERN REACH trilogy.)
The “plot” of “This World is Full of Monsters” sometimes feels like a metaphor, sometimes a hallucination, sometimes word salad. I have some vague ideas, but no concrete certainty, about what was going on in this story. Another reading would probably help but I don’t feel inclined to put more time and thought into it. In the words of the story’s narrator: “But I would never understand. How could I? I had not understood the story to begin with.” This one is just a little too weird.
I’m going to use the word “beautiful” again to describe the narration, by Vikas Adam, of Macmillan Audio’s new audio version of “This World is Full of Monsters.” ~Kat Hooper