SHORTS: Cho, Machen, Rambo, Scalzi, Andrews

SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve recently read that we wanted you to know about.

“Head of a Snake, Tail of a Dragon” by Zen Cho (2018, free on the author’s website)

This short story is a delightful sequel to Zen Cho’s Hugo award-winning novelette, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again.” And both are free online, so win-win!

Jin-Dae is an imugi, a magical serpent that can — if it learns and grows in the right way — turn into a dragon. But Jin-Dae has no particular interest in becoming a dragon; she’s just fine with her life the way it is. Except that there aren’t as many wild animals around to eat as there used to be, so occasionally she has to resort to eating a human.

Humans were infinitely preferable to snakes as dinner, but the disadvantage of eating humans was how personally they took it.

Unfortunately the human she’s planning to eat for dinner talks loudly enough to catch the attention of a nearby dragon named “Aspire to Heaven.” Aspire to Heaven announces that it wants to instruct Jin-Dae in the Way to become a dragon, which, it tells her, does not include eating humans, especially teenagers (who “haven’t even had the chance to grow out of being obnoxious”). But Jin-Dae really isn’t interested in anything Aspire to Heaven has to say to her.

It’s an amusing story; I particularly enjoyed the brief appearance of Tyrone, the human who’s the imagi’s intended dinner, and who doesn’t react to his situation in any of the ways you might expect. There’s also a solid if somewhat heavy-handed message about accepting others for who they are, without trying to change them.

You really need to read “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” first, or you’ll miss a lot of what’s going on in this story. ~Tadiana Jones


“The White People” by Arthur Machen (1904, free on Project Gutenberg or 49c Kindle version)

My recent read of T. Kingfisher’s 2019 horror novel The Twisted Ones, which is by way of a sequel (set many years later) to Arthur Machen’s 1904 novelette “The White People,” led me to seek out this classic horror work. Cotgrave’s friend has taken him to visit a recluse named Ambrose, who has unusual views on the nature of sin. Real evil, Ambrose argues, is when men improperly or in an unnatural way try “to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain alone to angels”. As proof, Ambrose loans to Cotgrave an old green book containing the diary of a young girl, raised primarily by her nurse, who over the years initiates the girl into occult secrets, and even an eerie hidden supernatural world.

The bulk of “The White People” consists of the girl’s diary, and it’s rough sledding: an extremely long, disjointed and breathless tale told in stream-of-consciousness fashion, with almost no paragraph breaks. (I can’t tell you how much I missed having those paragraph breaks.) Her experiences are partly Lovecraftian, partly Arabian Nights-type stories told by her nurse, and partly terrors of Machen’s own creation, like the strange and beautiful bone-white people the girl sees and the terrible field of rocks that she wanders into:

I went on into the dreadful rocks. There were hundreds and hundreds of them. Some were like horrid-grinning men; I could see their faces as if they would jump at me out of the stone, and catch hold of me, and drag me with them back into the rock, so that I should always be there. … I went on among them, though they frightened me, and my heart was full of wicked songs that they put into it; and I wanted to make faces and twist myself about in the way they did, and I went on and on a long way till at last I liked the rocks, and they didn’t frighten me any more. I sang the songs I thought of; songs full of words that must not be spoken or written down. Then I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones …  

H.P. Lovecraft considered “The White People” a story of “enormous power” and a source of inspiration, and scholars consider it a classic in the horror genre. Personally, most of the real horror passed me by, as I got lost in the hallucinogenic maze of the girl’s diary. But this story certainly has its moments, and I can see how a deeper study would very likely yield a greater appreciation of its merits.

In any case, reading this novelette did make The Twisted Ones much more meaningful to me, and vice versa. If you read either one, I definitely recommend reading the other as well. ~Tadiana Jones


“Carpe Glitter” by Cat Rambo (2019, $2.95 Kindle version)

“Carpe Glitter” is a novelette by Cat Rambo, published by Meerkat Press. For some of us it’s hard to resist that title.

This short work of fiction is largely a puzzle. Persephone Aim has inherited her grandmother Gloria Aim’s Las Vegas house — or, more accurately, compound. Gloria Aim was a famous stage magician, mentored by an even more famous woman magician, Susan Day. Day was not only a performer: during World War II she spied on the Nazis for the Allies. Gloria has inherited much of her apparatus, and there is always interest in magic memorabilia.

To Persephone’s dismay, Gloria was a hoarder, and her complex of three houses is a maze of trash and treasure. As she digs through mounds of moldering magazines, household receipts, rotting furs, food wrappers and clothes, she finds an intricate life-sized mechanical hand inscribed with swastikas. The mystery deepens when two men show up, saying they are from the government and offering to buy the entire contents of the houses. Persephone’s suspicions deepen when her mother, who advised her to have nothing to do with the house, suddenly announces that she is flying out to Nevada to “help.”

This is an enjoyable mystery with a healthy dose of actual magic, and even a ghost or two. The prose is atmospheric, contrasting sunny Las Vegas with the dark, trash-filled, curtained houses. As Persephone continues to search Gloria’s house, the interior does seem like a kind of underworld.

An old family friend, Eterno the Magician, gives Persephone some useful information about Susan Day and Gloria. Persephone’s childhood, as the battleground between grandmother Gloria and her mother, is at the heart of this story, and it resonates throughout.

I enjoyed the mystery and the atmosphere, both the moody interiors and the bright, glittery exteriors. I had trouble understanding the mother’s motivation. Her change of heart did not surprise me, but her original stance didn’t make sense. And however complex Persephone’s relationship with her mother was, I found her emotional reactions muted and not completely convincing at the end.

Overall, this story introduces a fun narrator, a creepy house, a good puzzle, and, pun intended, plenty of glitter and glitz that fails to hide dark and seamy secrets. I recommend it; it’s a fast, enjoyable read. ~Marion Deeds


“The President’s Brain is Missing” by John Scalzi (2010, free at Tor.com, 99c on Kindle or $1.32 in new audio format)

Despite what you might have thought when you read the title of this story (I know you did!), “The President’s Brain is Missing” was published in 2010, six years before you-know-what. I just wanted to get that out of the way right at the beginning.

After feeling a little light-headed, the President of the United States has had an MRI, and the news isn’t good: his brain is gone. His staff decides not to tell him because:

The President gets freaked out when he has a cold. He has nightmares he’s going to drown in his own phlegm. The last time he got a paper cut it was like ninjas had slashed his carotid artery. The President is a good man, but he’s a hypochondriac. If he knew he was missing his brain, he’d probably have a stroke…

So, it’s up to the Deputy White House Chief of Staff to find the president’s brain. It’s a silly but entertaining story that seems even more so in our current political … er … situation.

Macmillan Audio just released an audio edition of “The President’s Brain is Missing” and it’s wonderfully performed by P.J. Ochlan. It’s 47 minutes long. ~Kat Hooper


“Silent Blade” by Ilona Andrews (2009, 99c on Kindle)

This novelette by popular urban fantasy author team Ilona Andrews is more science fiction than fantasy, but it remains solidly within their “hot romance” wheelhouse. In a world where certain families have been bred with near-magical mental and physical powers, arranged marriages are made to keep the families and their powers strong (a concept that the Andrews team developed more fully later on in their HIDDEN LEGACY series, but that series is set on Earth while the KINSMEN stories are set on other, distant planets).

“Silent Blade” involves an elaborate revenge plot. Eighteen years ago, a marriage was arranged between Celino Carvanna and Meli Galdes, when he was 16 and she was 10 years old, the intent being that they would get married when she turned 18. But Celino always resented being forced into marriage, and when Meli was 16 he abruptly broke off the engagement, unintentionally crushing Meli’s general marital prospects in the process. She ended up officially excising herself from her family to avoid the shame, becoming a skilled assassin who helps her family out periodically where she feels like a revenge killing is justified.

Now Meli’s brother has come to her with one last assassination request: take out Celino, who’s recently damaged their family’s business. The prospect of bringing him down is too much for Meli to resist. As powerful as he is, she has some inside information that will help her get past his guards and protections. But what she doesn’t plan on is the strong attraction that develops between them.

There are some imaginative concepts at play in “Silent Blade” and a few memorable scenes, but the story really focuses on the pair’s romance, which is rather superficial, possibly because of the short length of the story. I never completely engaged with the main characters, and there wasn’t enough to really make me buy into their relationship or the motivations for their actions in the end. Because of this, the relationship (not to mention the sexytimes) left me pretty much unmoved. I also found the long lapse of time before the final scene deeply irritating rather than romantic.

Read “Silent Blade” if you’re an Ilona Andrews completist or really enjoy SF romance; otherwise I’d point you to their novels or even just “Silver Shark,” the second novelette in this KINSMEN series. It’s a loosely connected sequel that works fine as a stand-alone read, and is a much more compelling story (and romance), in my opinion. ~Tadiana Jones


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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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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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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 and conducts brain research 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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