This month, we read stories about demon-hunting cats, necromancers investigating airplane crashes, memory loss on the Moon, climate change in San Francisco, ghosts and swamp monsters, a multitude of murderers, ancient Egyptian gods doing laundry, and the true nature of the stars.
“For He Can Creep“, by Siobhan Carroll at Tor.com
“Flash and fire! Bristle and spit! The great Jeoffry ascends the madhouse stairs, his orange fur on end, his yellow eyes narrowed!” This is a fantastical, wondrous story about a demon-hunting cat called Jeoffrey who is dedicated to protecting his human, a poet who has been confined to an insane asylum. When Satan himself turns up, scheming to use the poet’s work to destroy the world, Jeoffrey must fight, enlisting the help of the other cats in the neighborhood: his old lover, Polly; the alley-cat Black Tom; and the indomitable Nighthunter Moppet (who might have demon blood running through her veins). I love every bit of this story, from the rhythm of its beautifully wrought, evocative prose, to how it emphasizes the weighty importance of poetry, to the gripping confrontation between the cats and the devil.
“The House Wins in the End“, by L Chan in The Dark
“This is not a haunted house story,” L Chan tells us. “This is what happens after. Because Jia hasn’t stayed in a single place for long ever since she left the House.” What follows is a mind-bendingly twisted, deeply moving ghost story about Jia, who has left the House, but finds it—or is found by it—again and again, in new places, even in other houses. Jia is haunted and hunted by the House and the ghosts in her past, by guilt and trauma, and finding a way out of the labyrinth of pain seems almost impossible. L Chan’s story is dark and terrifying, fierce and devastating.
“Lacuna Heights“, by Theodore McCombs in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July/August 2019
“Lacuna Heights” is an incisive and deeply unsettling science fiction story about climate change and rising sea levels, and about how the loss of memory and identity can unmoor us from the world and even from ourselves. The protagonist is a San Francisco man who is struggling with odd memory lapses he believes might be connected to a new technology called “privacy mode.” This new technology can be used to partition a person’s brain, setting up a neurological private browsing mode that keeps certain thoughts and memories secret, even from one’s self. The connection between the destruction of the world as we know it and a technology that limits our access to our own memories of what the world was like before (as well as how and why it has changed) is handled with expert care.
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye“, by Sarah Pinsker in Uncanny Magazine
An excellently creepy tale by Sarah Pinsker about Zanna, a writer who has gone off to a remote cabin in order to finish her latest novel. She is accompanied by Shar, her long-time friend and devoted assistant, but (as is her habit) Zanna prefers to stay by herself in the cabin while she works. Little bits of disquieting weirdness and menace hook your interest from the start—dead insects, the solitary location, a woman left alone in the wilderness, an unexpected dead body—but the story really takes a turn once you begin to piece together the truth of what’s going on. I love how Pinsker deftly tugs at all the story threads, making you look in a different direction for answers as the tale is spun, and then snapping your attention back with the final twist.
“Daughters of Silt and Cedar“, by Rebecca Mix in Kaleidotrope
When she is four years old, Greta’s father leaves her tied up in the swamp. He tells her it’s a game, that he’ll come back for her, but he doesn’t. Greta should have died there, in the water, but she doesn’t. Instead, she meets Murga, a girl with gills and scales and with swamp water and duckweed flowing through her veins. What follows—as the girls grow up together in the swamp, with the Wisps and the frogs and the cedars—is a tale that is at turns both gentle and harrowing. Greta’s feelings for the swamp and for Murga shift and change with time, and when she realizes the sacrifices needed to tend the swamp and protect it from those who would destroy it, she faces some hard choices about who she really wants to become and what she is willing to do. Mix blends dark fantasy, horror, and a fairytale sensibility into a powerful and gripping story.
“Black Matter“, by Vivian Shaw at PseudoPod
The ingenious premise of this story is that necromancers work for the National Transportation Safety Board, employed specifically to use their powers to investigate the causes of airplane disasters. This might seem an unlikely turn of events, and it probably is, but thanks to Vivian Shaw’s delightfully dark imagination, this story is a real horror treat. Every bit of “Black Matter” pops and crackles with originality, visceral detail, and a cynical sense of humor. As for the ending? Well, I do advice you not to read this one right before getting on a flight.
“The Visible Frontier“, by Grace Seybold in Clarkesworld
Grace Seybold’s story follows a young man named Inlesh who sets out to sail the immense ocean of his world while he studies the stars intently. He draws maps of the cosmos and ponders its true nature. When he asks the ship’s captain about one of the tales he’s heard—that the sun is also a kind of star—he is rebuffed: “The captain gave him a disgusted look. “Of course not,” she said. “Don’t be stupid.”” When Inlesh finally finds out the truth about the stars, the reality turns out to be so different from what he once believed that he almost cannot handle it. “The Visible Frontier” is a compelling story with depth and nuance that recalls the work of Ursula K. Le Guin.
“Cavity“, by Theresa DeLucci in Strange Horizons
This spiky story that goes for the jugular in more ways than one. It starts off with the line, “The first time you meet a murderer, you are in kindergarten.” From there, DeLucci catalogues the murderers you meet through your life: the quiet ones, the old ones, the ones who don’t even know they are murderers, and so on—and at every step she expertly twists together strands of menace and darkness on the way to delivering a gloriously bloody ending that feels like a sucker-punch. “Cavity” feels terrifyingly true and nightmarishly disturbing. It bristles with sharp teeth and jagged edges.
“Miles and Miles and Miles“, by Andrew Penn Romine in Lightspeed
Noah Stubbs hits golfballs on the Moon with his friend Gord. Or at least he used to, once upon a time. Noah is, or was, a hardworking guy. He worked hard, even picked up some dicey side jobs, trying to make enough money to get his wife Mimi the medical treatments she needs, or needed… or will need? Time and reality are slippery in this story. Past and present bleed together, at least for Gord: his mind and his memory are deteriorating, making the world an ever more frightening and confusing place. Romine deftly weaves a story that deals with guilt and regret and memory—specifically the gradual deterioration of memory and the utter confusion that causes for the person it is happening to. I love this one’s non-linear structure—the way it brings us into the mind of a man who is trying to hold on, but is losing his past, his present, and, his future anyway, bit by bit.
“Crocodile Love Machine“, by Mackenzie Suess in Flash Fiction Online
“Soon as Sobek walks into the laundromat he sees Bastet, flipping magazine pages beneath a “Nile Cruises” poster in the back with that creep, Apep.” As I read the opening line of this story, I realized that sometimes, what you really need to make your day a whole lot better is to read a story about the gods of ancient Egypt, playing out their passions and rivalries in a laundromat. This flash fiction quickie has a vibe and a voice that takes what might seem like a ludicrous story idea and turns it into vivid, funny, sharp-tongued (and foul-mouthed!) slice of speculative fiction.
What’s the best SFF short story you read in July?