SFM: McDonald, Marzioli, Downum, McGuire, Headley, Castro, Anders, Porter

Special Halloween issue of Short Fiction Monday: This week all of the stories reviewed in SFM feature zombies, haunted houses, vampires, intelligent rats, and various other types of creepiness and spookiness. Enjoy! 

The Modern Ladies’ Letter-Writer by Sandra McDonald (March 2016, free at Nightmare, Kindle magazine issue)

There are customary ways to begin a letter and end it, to address the envelope and set it to post. We have delivered to you (while you slept so prettily, your pale face a serene oval in the moonlight) this polite and improving manual of letters for the Fair Sex. We know you will be grateful.

The Modern Ladies’ Letter-Writer is, appropriately, written in the form of a letter, addressed to a young lady named Susie. The undisclosed letter-writers seek to provide Susie helpful advice from the correct placement of a semi-colon to general deportment and good manners in society. The style and societal hints give the letter the feel of a Jane Austin novel, but there are also clues that the world Susie inhabits is not the same as our world. Susie is instructed to include the lunar phase and “pertinent zodiacal information” at the top right of her letters and her benefactors seem to possess a knack for seeing through the page and knowing exactly what Susie and other members of the household are doing. Though the letter-writers have the demeanour of an overbearing aunt, their interferences begin to take on a darker tone as the letter progresses. At the end we learn the consequences of following or refusing the good advice.

I thoroughly enjoyed the dark humour of this story. The voice of the letter-writers is spot on – pithy, sarcastic and generally rude – all with the upmost good-taste. The reader is left guessing as to Susie’s fate right up to the last line and the darkness to the story slips in almost imperceptibly; the end creeping up on you like an ominous shiver. The influence is Lovecraftian, but before you’re impressed that I detected that, please be aware that the author provides her readers with a sizeable clue. The mysterious letter-writers foretell Susie’s meeting with a certain “commercial traveller named Lovecraft”. Both Susie’s fate and that of her son-to-be Howard (guess who!) depend on whether Susie can maintain the proper dignity and purity that a lady of her class should maintain.

The Modern Ladies’ Letter-Writer is a splendidly funny and creepy tale, combining a comically antiquarian style with the spookiness of the unknown, all in the very best Lovecraftian tradition. Now I better go and work on my punctuation; I am a lady, after all. ~Katie Burton


“Pagpag” by Samuel Marzioli (Oct. 2016, free at Apex, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

“Pagpag” is a zombie type of tale with a Filipino twist. Recently creatures called the aswang have been terrorizing the country, taking the form of people who have recently died and attacking the living ― most often the family of the dead person whose shape they’ve assumed ― and eating them, sucking their innard through their second tongue, a long, sharp proboscis. Aswang are particularly dangerous because they are lucid, have the memories of the person whose shape they’re in, and can pass for human … until they show their second tongue or attack you. Jay’s young wife Malaya was recently killed by an aswang that took the form of her father. Jay is part of the Night Watch, and patrols the countryside looking for aswang and killing them with his gulok, or machete. But Jay desperately wants to see Malaya one more time, so desperately that he embarks on a highly dangerous search for her aswang, if only so he can tell her goodbye.

In Filipino folklore, an aswang is a shapeshifting creature with characteristics of zombies, vampires, weres and/or ghouls. Pagpag is food that destitute people, like Jay and his family, scavenge by dumpster diving, often eating it even if it has gone bad. Jay told Malaya that it’s called pagpag (which in Tagalog means “to shake off the dust or dirt”) because “we scoop it up and shake the dust off. It’s not what we wanted, but it’s all we have. We come from dust, we live in dust and when we die we go to dust.” Malaya’s aswang is a type of pagpag for him: it’s not what he really wants, but it’s all he has. But what will come of his hunt for this remnant of his wife’s soul? ~Tadiana Jones


“Fossil Heart” by Amanda Downum (August 2016, free at Nightmare Magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Nan Walker is tormented by something tragic that happened to her when she was young. She lost something important to her and she partly blames herself. Reminders are everywhere of what her life could have been like today if only she had been able to stop the disaster. She can’t sleep and the constant rumination affects her current relationships. Despite the pleas of those who love her, she can’t move on. So she decides to do something about it. Something really drastic.

“Fossil Heart” is full of spooky atmosphere and imagery, a desperate sense of loss, and a paradoxical feeling of both hope and dread. The story’s message is optimistic and healing, but also cautionary. It’s a reminder that we can’t change history, it’s a warning about romanticizing the past and discounting the present, and it gives the tormented soul permission to move on and brightly face the future.

Judy Young did a great job narrating “Fossil Heart” in Nightmare Magazine’s podcast. The story is 56 minutes long. It is also available on Nightmare Magazine’s website, in the Kindle version of the magazine, and in an anthology called What the #@&% Is That? The Saga Anthology of the Monstrous and Macabre, which is edited by John Joseph Adams and will release next week. ~Kat Hooper


“Anthony’s Vampire” by Seanan McGuire (2009, republished July 2016 and free at Nightmare, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

When Anthony is nine years old, he first meets the vampire, a scrawny and awkward young girl with thick glasses and dishwater blond hair, clinging to the tree outside his bedroom window. He invites her in, on condition of “no biting,” and they form an odd friendship that lasts all summer. But Anthony breaks off the friendship when he is almost ten. She invites him to come with her and become a vampire, but he tells her no, at least not yet. He doesn’t want to be a little boy forever.

Anthony doesn’t see his vampire again until he’s fifteen, out on a date with his girlfriend, whom he doesn’t really like, but she’s pretty and popular. The vampire looks more sophisticated now, and less lost. She repeats her invitation to him to join her as a vampire, but Anthony still demurs: he wants to learn how to be a man before he becomes a vampire.

And so it goes. “Anthony’s Vampire” has a disturbing twist that gradually sneaks up on you. It’s a thought-provoking study of Anthony’s personality and motives, and the choices he makes in his life. ~Tadiana Jones


“Little Widow” by Maria Dahvana Headley (2016, free at Nightmare Magazine), $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

“Little Widow” is a story about three teenage girls who were growing up in a Branch Davidian-style cult when the members decided to perform a Jonestown-esque mass suicide so they could assault heaven, a war the cult had been planning and training for. The three girls, because of their young age at the time, were spared and taken in by residents of a nearby city named Miracle. Due to their unsettling histories, mixed races, and genuine strangeness, they’ve been shunned by the town. When a traveling carnival shows up, the girls visit it and discover that a bikini-clad performer has been looking for them.

I loved the evocative prose and the eerie setting of this story, and especially the way Headley’s characters — three seemingly innocent girls — inexplicably made my skin crawl. If I lived in Miracle, I’m sure I would have avoided them, too. When they meet the performer at the carnival, though, the story takes a strange twist and the aura of uncanniness morphs into something that was just surreal and bizarre instead. I thought the earlier creepiness worked better. I’d love to see Headley write more stories about these young widows growing up and freaking out their neighbors in Miracle.

I listened to Gabrielle de Cuir of Skyboat Media narrate this story in Nightmare Magazine’s podcast. She was awesome, as she always is. “Little Widow” is an hour long. It is also available on Nightmare Magazine’s website, in the Kindle version of the magazine, and in an anthology called What the #@&% Is That?, which is edited by John Joseph Adams and will release next week. ~Kat Hooper


“Four Haunted Houses” by Adam-Troy Castro (Sept. 2016, free at Nightmare, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

“[P]erhaps this is your haunted house.” The narrative explores four different houses in turn, which are haunted in strikingly different ways, some insidious and subtle, some more overtly horrifying.

The room of quaint portraiture in which the two of you once drank yourselves silly, making up stories about the people in those paintings who you gave names like Commodore Tightass and Admiral Stupid-Beard, is now a room that you can no longer bear to enter: a gallery of malignant old bastards, guilty of terrible sins, in concert with God alone knows what otherworldly entities. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that they are still somehow conscious and aware on canvas, their antiquated features having long since twisted into sneers of pure hatred.

The last line of the description of the second house packs a particularly good punch. There’s no real plot to this story, but there is a progression that culminates in the description of the final haunted house, an unexpected shift that underlines the horror that can haunt our daily lives. ~Tadiana Jones


“Fairy Werewolf vs. Vampire Zombie” by Charlie Jane Anders (2011, free at Flurb)

As I was searching for good short stories to read and review for this Halloween issue of SFM, I came across this title, which made me laugh out loud. It was impossible to resist taking a look at it. Rachel owns a bar and grill in North Carolina, a place where “stains on the upholstery squirm to get out of the way of your butt” and there are “signed pictures of famous dragons and celebrity succubi on the brick walls.”

One day Rachel is approached by a young woman, Antonia, who asks her for a job in the bar, singing or bussing tables. She ends up doing both, even though Rachel realizes that Antonia is a Fae princess who’s been reported missing for months. But Antonia says she cannot ever return home, because of a curse that struck her when she left her faerie home to explore the wider world. (Hint: see the title.) Antonia is lovely, and her singing is a big hit in Rachel’s Bar and Grill and elsewhere ― Rachel strong-arms Antonia into singing at a zoning meeting to improve her chances at a positive decision ― and two men end up falling for her. But there’s trouble heading toward Rachel’s bar. (Hint: look at the title again.)

“Fairy Werewolf vs. Vampire Zombie” strikes me as the sort of story where the title likely came first and the story grew out of it. Given the bizarre title, the story understandably has its limitations. It’s not deep or meaningful, but it is an amusing, comical tale. ~Tadiana Jones


“Ratspeak” by Sarah Porter (August 2016, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle edition)

This short story left me more than a little bit baffled. It follows Ivan, a young boy who desperately wants to be part of the world of the rats living beneath New York City. The main conflict is between Ivan and his own greed – the more he tries to hold onto the world of the rats, the more terrible things happen to him and his family.

I found it extremely difficult to sympathize at all with the main character due to his astounding lack of empathy. His choices, for me, made him unbelievable as a character. Very simply Ivan made me uncomfortable because he has choices where he can do great positive things and consistently chooses not to. His selfishness seems boundless and destined for self-destruction.

“Ratspeak” has some wicked imagery and a good flow to the narrative. At no point was I bored or did I feel rushed. For me, these strengths do not make up for a main character I can neither get behind nor love to hate. Overall “Ratspeak” fell flat in my mind. ~Skye Walker

Editor’s note: Tadiana Jones also reviewed “Ratspeak” in our August 29, 2016 SFM column and rated it 2 stars.


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KATIE BURTON, who joined us in September 2015, is a solicitor in London and now an aspiring journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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SKYE WALKER, on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (but hanging around since 2007), is from Canada, where she is currently a University student studying Anthropology and Communications. When she isn’t reading or doing school work (or reading for school work) she can be found in one of three places: in a tent in the woods, amid a sea of craft supplies on a floor somewhere, or completing the task of finishing her ‘Must Watch’ movie list. Skye was practically born with a love of fantasy and science fiction (as her name might suggest). These days her favourite authors include Ursula Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Chris Wooding. Skye is in fact a Jedi (we know you were waiting for it).

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3 comments

  1. Katie, I thought your review of “The Modern Ladies’ Letter-Writer” was great, and I read the story myself last night. I liked it very much, except that I do wonder about one of the basic premises of the story.

    *Spoilers follow*

    The entities writing the letters to Susie promise all sorts of terrible things for the Lovecraft family if Susie (who’s portrayed as a very lusty woman) has sex with anyone other than her future husband, Lovecraft’s father. Since all those terrible things happened, the implication is that Susan did some sleeping around before her marriage. I find it very hard to believe that Sandra McDonald would include a highly personal detail like that about an actual person if it’s not true.

    Does anyone have any insights into this? Maybe I need to consult a Lovecraft biography. :)

    • It’s an odd choice, to be sure, especially since the rest of the story is so good.

      • I did a little checking around online and, while I found a lot of information about Susie’s relationship with her son and her later life (she and H.P did have a fraught relationship!), I didn’t see anything pertinent about her life before marriage. I suppose it will remain a mystery.

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