February short story reading thread

This post is a roughly tidied/slightly edited version of a Twitter thread I’ve been keeping, tracking my February 2022 short story reading. It is extremely long, so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. Parts will very likely end up in other posts in the future. And at the very end of this post is a list of all the stories read.

Read on…

Here are the other posts:


  • See Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories for detail.
  • I like breaking short stories into progressions of three moods (rather than beginning-middle-end, etc). It’s a useful lens, simple and intuitive revelatory, and a straightforward starting point for comparing stories.
  • Each dot point is one three-mood shape — one way of reading the shape of the story.
  • I use “mood” very broadly.
  • Story notes are in regular text and dot points, and my general thoughts are in bold, in case that makes it easier to skip around. I often refer back to stories mentioned earlier — ctrl+F/search will likely be your friend.
  • Very often I am working my way back to well-known maxims from first principles — it’s me studying story structure in real time.

The majority of these stories are from the 2021 Locus Recommended Reading List and Supernatural Noir (ed. Ellen Datlow, 2011).

So, to begin…

  • “Sheri, At This Very Moment” — Bianca Sayan (Apex, 2021)
    • emergence — counting beads — submergence
    • parallel — diverging — widening
    • reunion — family — suspension
    • cautious — whole-hearted — delicate
    • watching — displaying — being watched
    • wary — warm — selfish

Something striking about these moods is that they could all be used on negative events. But here they are used to view and process very intentional types of love — loving wariness, loving selfishness… You can see something of how the moods interact with an overall tone or mode.

  • “Illusions of Freedom” — Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe (Baffling, 2021)
    • the ‘offence’ — compounded — persisting
    • existence — surviving — existing
    • x (lightness) weighted — y (love) hated — x & y while can
    • beset — doubly — resignation
    • pursuits — judgements — sentence

A very short story, and interesting for how much it echoes the form of fables (a — b — therefore), and how much it reflects a world rather than appearing to alter it. That’s more of a literary preoccupation, but this is subtly less “so it is” than the more SFF “must it be so?”

  • “Seen Small Through Glass” — Premee Mohamed (Fireside, 2022)
    • anxiety — fear — determination
    • general dangers — particular — rescue?
    • grumpy — dogged — stubborn
    • reluctance — clues — conclusions (acted on)
    • lost — seeking — found
    • didn’t sign up for this — did NOT sign up for this — have we signed up for the right thing?

Those are story shapes that are not incompatible with a classic Gothic (door — thing comes through — push it back/lingering unease) shape — particularly the final note it ends on. And it makes sense, given that this is not NOT a climate change story — and the Gothic is a useful mode for takes on climate change (and similar topics) dealing with guilt, ambivalence, complicity, change, and uncertain outcomes.

  • “We Are Not Phoenixes” — John Wiswell (Fireside, 2021)
    • avuncular — involvement — conclusions
    • opening — performance — extrications
    • revelation of magic — revelation of fate — palliation
    • instructions — cautions — sympathy
    • curiosity — realisation — grief

“We Are Not Phoenixes” is a very restrained story — it skirts close to being simply a list of advice, a world-building artifact. But there’s *just* enough shape to it to (things to realise, fates to grieve) to make it a story-shaped. (I liked it a lot.)

  • “A Pall of Moondust” — Nick Wood (Omenana, 2021)
    • deaths — guilt — coming to terms
    • door — stay inside — go outside
    • gripping — unclenching grasp — open
    • loss — working through — return
    • two problems — working mostly on one — solves both

A fairly straightforward loss shape, fitted to disparate worlds.

Demonstrating that some story-shapes work equally, simultaneously well for both love stories and near-future horror.

  • “The Knowledge” — Malcolm Devlin (Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land, 2021)
    • (specific) mundane — edging into tales — confirmation of tales
    • model on X — understand via X — confirm is X
    • allusion — simile/metaphor — literal
    • tease tales — link/gather tales — knot tales together

Loved this one, too.

“The Knowledge” is interesting re both fairy-tale retellings (creating a linked mythology out of them and then literalising it) and for being constructed out of vignettes which together build that story-shape. (Dare one say, a rat-king narrative structure.)

Running through the individual sections of “The Knowledge” to look at its vignette shapes:

  • 1. that you’re something — who you aren’t — (hint of) what you are
  • 2. mundane — linked metaphors — (room for) ominous interpretation
  • 3. link mundane to a (thematically consistent) tale — unpack that — how to use it
  • 4. advice — a retold (on-theme) tale — (a hint)
  • 5. advice/other side of a (themed) tale — advice/rest of tale — advice…
  • 6. Revision of tale from 4 — (a hint)
  • 7. Advice/apparently unthemed tale — deeper understanding — purpose & full picture

All (except 6) feel like whole objects, if not *stories*. Some are almost story-shaped but hold back on the last note. 6 is the least story-shaped but it’s the held breath before the end. 7 could be too small/simple, but it’s gathered momentum/impact from all that went before.

For reasons (looks at @Petermball) I’m getting interested in vignettes vs stories, and how the former connect into the latter. And I think if you look back at those seven sections of “The Knowledge” and compare them to the overall story shapes, you can more or less track the shifts.

(I suspect this sort of granular breakdown is more useful for analysing/editing than for initially shaping a story. But it also shows how different structures can work within that simple three-mood story shape).

Also, although their shape & tone & conclusions differ, “The Knowledge” (Devlin) & “We Are Not Phoenixes” (Wiswell, notes above) are both advice-as-stories, with unnamed characters, driven by engines of alternating tips and reveals, and exposing a world and a particular group’s place in it.

(I like them both a lot.)

  • “Immortal Coil” — Ellen Kushner (Uncanny Magazine, 2021)
    • revelations — temptations — what came of them
    • games — arguments — choices
    • promises — offers — hopes
    • teasing — earnestness — desires
    • broken links — chance to mend — linked chain
    • mortality—speaks with—immortality

This didn’t quite make the argument I was expecting it to (in the life vs art debate), and it was VERY like going to the theatre with its author. A story of a conversation, and what that can encompass. As well as a life, and what that can hold.

It does something else I like, too — that sense of skipping over the moment of crisis, and showing us what happens later, and letting us fill in the gaps between.

  • “Deep Music” — Elly Bangs (Clarkesworld, 2021)
    • chaos — attacks — missions accomplished
    • miscommunication — antagonism — clear communication
    • dressing — action — occasion
    • dazed — blazing — relieved
    • opaque — clarity — beyond

I have difficulty *writing* odd-viewed-through-mundane-interactions without sounding flippant, but it turns out I regularly *enjoy* it when other people manage it. Abyssal creatures through industrial espionage, universe creation through application process, quantum physics through reality tv formats, etc.

  • “For Lack of a Bed” — John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots, 2021)
    • desperation — danger — dosage
    • relief — desperate measures — careful bargains
    • the world outside — the world inside — coexistence
    • lack — excess — balance
  • “My Uncle Eff” — Malcolm Devlin, (Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land, 2021)
    • origins of myths — experience “” — the afterlife “”
    • deaths — vanishings — returns
    • deaths & presences — presences & vanishings — vanishings & returns
    • small myths — central myth — living by it
    • bricks — foundations — structural integrity
    • innocence processes experience — innocence gains experience — adulthood returns & reflects

It’s a fragmentary story in places, tending to vignettes, which is hinted at in those shapes. And while not a retelling of a particular story, it is a story of tales & tellings & re-understandings. And as such, a useful set of story-shapes to consider in light of both vignette-mosaics and outright retellings.

Here is a very fast set of notes on the sections of “My Uncle Eff”, and the stories that recur through them.

Handwritten notes on "My Uncle Eff" by Malcolm Devlin

Almost all of these could nearly stand as vignettes-edging-into-flash-fiction, although they all rely on those before them to varying extents. The last, tying them all together, stands least on its own and rests most on the others, but locks them into the full shape.

Here are the section notes for Malcolm Devlin’s “My Uncle Eff” (very fast):

  1. immortality — chills — opacity
  2. infidelity — deaths — lingering
  3. rumours — growing — another reality
  4. the teller — site-specific tale — the one who is left to tell
  5. tensions — dividing — choices
  6. inventions — a life — how to live it
  7. out-of-focus — how choose to remember — what truth became
  8. returning — changed perspective — refusal
  9. changes — seeing through other(s) — the myth

I think the more complete story-shapes give more of a faceted sense to the overall story, until the end caps it off, vs “The Knowledge” (notes above) which has more open-ended segments and so promises a more direct progression.

I’m trying to work out how to store all these story notes. Spreadsheets, for now.

Screenshot of thumbnail view of spreadsheets

It is neat to be able to skim through the notes on a collection and see the author’s patterns — the return to certain types of ending-notes, how their interests emerge, the genre-shapes they favour or avoid.

  • “Gordon B White is Creating Haunting Weird Horror” — Gordon B White (Nightmare Magazine, 2021)
    • casual — concerning — crisis
    • invitation — arrivals — crowding
    • flippant — intensifies — choice
    • observational — ludicrous extremes — reverse
    • door—something through—door reappears
    • expectations — unexpected — version of A to solve B

A variation on a classic haunting shape there — not the lingering knowledge of what’s behind a now-closed door, but a taunting new door, a spiralling mockery. As foreshadowed by the title.

  • “This Shattered Vessel, Which Holds Only Grief” — Izzy Wasserstein (Apex, 2021)
    • fighting one thing (fate) — fighting everything — acceptances
    • denying — mourning — remembering
    • cut-off — prickly — community
    • fight present — fight past — build/hold future

There are echoes in shape between some of the stories about revolution and some of those about chronic pain. A coming to terms with imperfect bargains, a maintenance of momentum, holding on to aspects of what might hurt, process vs cure, abundance in scarcity, community…

And they’re sort of a mirror-version of the sense of false scarcity vs abundance in the “why not both?” stories. Inability to settle vs refusal to settle, etc.

(I’m talking about genre fiction short stories, here) See e.g. notes on Schanoes’ “Emma Goldman Takes Tea With The Baba Yaga”, Wiswell’s “For Want of a Bed”, Wasserstein’s “This Shattered Vessel, Which Holds Only Grief” (above), and Krishnan’s “Bride, Knife, Flaming Horse”.

Not unrelated to some of the classic grief-story shapes, too, for obvious reasons.

  • “Walking to Doggerland (3)” — Malcolm Devlin (Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land, 2021)
    • falling into the past — reviewing the present — following the future
    • old certainties — new certainties — proliferating futures
    • faith — brittleness — open-heartedness

This third part of “Walking to Doggerland” has a fairly strong shape, yet depends heavily on knowledge of details from the first two. Its sections move from fragmentary vignettes to almost-stories.

  • Sections of “Walking to Doggerland (3)”
    • 1. dream — uncertainty
    • 2. yielding/simplicity
    • 3. dream — pursuit — left behind
    • 4. stripping away — childhood’s edge — pulling back
    • 5. ordinary — bid for independence — decisive
    • 6. abrasive — exchange (lives) — exchange (memories)
    • 7. departures — following — proliferation

The fourth section is the strongest independent story-shape there.

  • “Talking to Strangers on Planes” — Malcolm Devlin (Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land, 2021)
    • ordinary (unknotting) — a gathering thread — the stakes
    • endings (beginnings) — middles — beginnings (promised endings)
    • conscious separations — incidental entwinings — deliberate linkings
    • refusals — promising — complicit

I wanted to do a very quick look at the separate sections of “Talking to Strangers on Planes”, because they are quite contained, discrete vignettes, although they gather meaning from each other. All the more so because each takes place before the one it follows. The first and last, however — especially the last — could almost stand on their own as self-contained vignettes, if not stories.

Very roughly, the separate sections of “Talking to Strangers on Planes”:

  • 1. Arrivals
    alone — cautious reconnection — awkward disengagement
  • 2. Transit
    discomfort — cautious reconnection — growing confidence
  • 3. Stopover
    fragmented conversations — common topic — awkward disengagement
  • 4. Flight
    resistance to strangers — uneven connections — turbulence
  • 5. Departures
    reaching for connections — awkwardly building them — kind solitude

Also, a story told backwards necessarily has two story shapes — the one you’re given and the one you reconstruct. But they’re not mirror images, because the weight of meanings shift. Which is fairly obvious in theory, but it is interesting to see it set out this way.

  • “Gray Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts” — Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Apex Magazine, 2021)
    • mission — bargains with past — future
    • kindness — revision of cruelties — hope
    • solitary — remnants — patchwork
    • grimy — grimly dogged — gritted rest
    • decay — break down — growth

That “detritus — further rot — fertile soil” structure shows up often in grimly hopeful/growth-in-the-ruins stories. Many echoes with the revolution/chronic pain stories (upthread) both in shape and motifs (bargains, exchanges, cruelty, community), but perhaps less ambiguous, holding a promise of hope beyond struggle, vs hope-in-the-struggle, and of a (albeit remote) new stability rather than ongoing balance & maintenance.

That difference is contained perhaps more in the end *note* rather than the structure (fitting, as these stories often appear to be deliberately & thoughtfully ABOUT ways to understand/approach/survive a situation (however metaphorical), and so are careful to anchor that meaning).

  • “Space Pirate Queen of the Ten Billion Utopias” — Elly Bangs (Lightspeed Magazine, 2021)
    • surviving — living — choosing
    • outbound — in transit — inbound
    • reaching — learning — purpose
    • solo — team — more (love/legion)
    • ticked-off — madcap — joyful
    • wistful—admiring—triumphant

This story (“Space Pirate Queen…”) covers many themes and elements also in the stories above, but both the shape and final note (of brakes not being put on) are different. Even that confirmation of the points being made is still there, but slid a few moments back into the story.

Also, while it has a main character with a distinct approach to life, it’s narrated by a separate remote observer, which means you get these simultaneous, initially offset (gradually converging) sets of moods: “ticked-off — madcap — joyful” vs “wistful—admiring—triumphant”.

I love what either a really idiosyncratic character voice or an observer/commentator narrator (or in this case both) can do to modulate the moods and shapes of a story.

[There’s some point of comparison there, too, to the story-told-in-reverse (see “Talking to Strangers on Planes”, above — a point of view or shifted view that is strong enough to pull against the central flow/surface tension of the basic story-shape.]

  • “The Dingus” — Gregory Frost (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • mysteries — trail — revelations
    • drawn in — leads — flights
    • trailing past — encroaching present — end of the line
  • “The Getaway” — Paul G Tremblay (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • chaos — worse — inevitable
    • departures — journey — arrivals
    • things gone wrong — arguments — (getting the) last words
    • fleeing — increasing speed — outcome
    • door opened — something came through it — growing certainty as to fate

It’s also got a clear Gothic-weird shape: “door opened — something came through it — growing certainty as to fate”. That growing certainty is vs the lingering suspicion of e.g. an M R James story.

I’m curious to see if a group of stories taking strong pulp cues will have a clear central classic shape, and what those will be.

[And I’m having some thoughts about inevitability in a noir story.]

  • “Mortal Bait” — Richard Bowes (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • problems — distractions — conclusions
    • hold on — things taken — wistful
    • intimations — past returning — yielding
    • questions — gathering knowledge — consequences
    • acting — drawn-in — used

So far the noir stories have strong noir-typical shapes, centred on a main easily-named incident or problem (an investigation, a crime), and all the baggage that dredges up. They’ve also got a tendency to a final note of inevitability, finality, fate, fatalism…

I suspect that tendency comes heavily from the noir as well (and when I think back to caper stories, a lot of them have a version of it). A final inability to escape an orbit, if not for the narrator then for the people they’d hoped to bring with them. But you can see how tidily it fits with a good old-fashioned weird/cosmic-horror-adjacent supernatural (see comments re “The Getaway”, above).

  • “Dark Space Species” — Tessa Gratton (Sunday Morning Transport, 2022)
    • competence — connection — maintenance (of hope)
    • amidst doubt — despite system — persisting
    • working — circling — staying in motion

“Dark Space Species” has enough finality to loop it down into a story-shape, a quiet (far from emotionless) one. But also the feeling of a vignette that might have ballooned into a more drastic story shape, if and if… (and therefore keeping it to this shape asks questions about the necessity of that).

  • “To Rise, Blown Open” — Jen Brown (Anathema, 2021)
    • trying to get back in — going own way — breaking through
    • threat — attempts — new understandings
    • history affects present — struggles — present vs history
    • overprotected — solo attempt — the webs between people

It is a superhero story, modelled on well-known aspects, so it also follows a “threat — attempts to fight it — success-via-change” pattern, but that’s not always the same as the shapes made by moods. Not all stories written to belong to a common story type (ghost, romance, crime) *feel* the same.

Of course, many story types/genre staples depend on a final note (of triumph / finality / fatalism / happy-ever-after / lingering dread), but those can be modulated by many moods. Unsettling happiness, the ghastly grin of fatalism, lingering dread with a good dance tune…

And at other times a story leans hard on those shapes. I’ve read a few that *feel* like “beginning — middle — end”, as a first reaction, but only a few.

Currently taking most of these stories from the 2021 Locus Recommended Reading List and Supernatural Noir (ed. Ellen Datlow, 2011).

  • “Little Shit” — Melanie Tem (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • everyday case — big case — getting up close & personal
    • gung-ho — preparation — driving in a double-ended knife
    • life — knowledge — realisations
    • focus — honing — consequences

For stories using a very clear genre structure, that is often the main progression of moods, too, with the variations happening in the details, and backstory (the noir short stories in particular use a lot of personal history).

Whereas stories that seem to be driven by an image or concept, even if they adopt a particular sub-genre tone, allow themselves a freer hand with moods. (Vs those consciously modelling a particular type of story.)

  • “A House is Not a Home” — L Chan (Clarkesworld, 2021)
    • the situation — the daily round — the double meaning
    • clinical — personal(ity) — (the edge of) rebellion
    • bleak — persisting — faint hope

That final mood-shift is very delicate. If it held back OR the information was threaded more through the story, it would feel much more like a vignette. As it is, it *could* slot into a larger story — but knowing more would lessen the impact of this end.

  • “The Long Way Up” — Alix E. Harrow (The Deadlands, 2022)
    • grand ideas — disillusions — plain ideas
    • the plan — foiled — rebuilt
    • assumptions — determination — working it through
    • “knowing” — learning — trusting
    • what’s meant to be — bitter truths — strong quiet truths

Thanks to @baileys for recommending that in the context of yesterday’s discussion of purgatorial stories!

It’s an interesting — and slightly ambivalent — story in the context of the role of agency in those stories, and looking at the three-mood shape vs what the story says it’s saying highlights some of the tensions there.

  • “Oversharing” — RJ Theodore (Fireside Fiction, 2022)
    • denial — bargaining — acceptance
    • change begins — sloughing — emergence
    • grotesque — danger — monstrous/magnificent
    • means — motive — patience

A tiny story and a very straightforward shape (begin — progress — complete). Again, it could almost be a vignette, without the last line. The three-moods are there, but slight and close enough they could be two (inkling/change) or even one (transformation), but that final line nails it down into a story-shape. It gives the last mood enough gravity, which helps distinguish the stages of progress. That final note of patience, or cosmic glee, or baton-passing.

(Final note isn’t always the same as the overall mood, although it is part of it and ties it off, and sometimes clarifies/revises)

  • “Ditch Witch” — Lucius Shepard (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • door — things through — suspicion
    • meetings — ignoring the strange — swallowed whole
    • dalliance — resisting — succumbing
    • drawn in — bid for freedom — maelstrom

The final note of that story is dawning concern. Also, it too is not *not* a purgatorial tale.

Here’s the thread and side-conversations on purgatorial tales: https://twitter.com/tanaudel/status/1490873054347804672

I want to say I’m seeing this theme everywhere, but then I realise I’m reading Catherynne M Valente and she has a flair for this mode of story.

  • “The Sin of America” — Catherynne M Valente (Uncanny Magazine, 2021)
    • mirage — specific — visceral
    • resignation — held breath — complicity
    • representatives — individual — expiation
    • apprehensions — gentleness — violence/perpetuation
    • “ominous mundane — metaphor literalised — logical consequence”

It shared that “ominous mundane — metaphor literalised — logical consequence” shape with some of Schweblin’s (especially, amusingly, with “Butterflies”, see January notes) — a shape not uncommon in magic realism (in Schweblin’s case) and/or other fabulist modes dealing with historical etc traumas.

But also very clearly (and explicitly) those purgatorial elements: the low-ceilinged world, intense love, violence, removal of agency, stories cannibalising themselves, complicity, disproportionate consequences, biting at each other, attempts to reach to others.

  • “The Last Triangle” — Jeffrey Ford (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • invitation — partnership — inheritance
    • catch attention — focus attention — act in what notice
    • hospitality — mission — rescues
    • settling — learning — acting
    • edgy — sceptical — believing

Strong urban fantasy notes amidst the noir in that one — perhaps because it has a sense of possibility of change vs the more fatalistic noirs. Not that urban fantasy characters can’t be fatalistic, but it often seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, vs the inescapability of a noir *world*. Big genre overlaps, obviously, but tonal variations.

  • “How the Girls Came Home” — Eugenia Triantafyllou (Uncanny, 2021)
    • acceptance — realisations — actions
    • evasion — suspicions — pursuit
    • solitary — friendship — expanding
    • strange — human — strange/human

If, instead of reading across those three-mood patterns, you read down them in columns, you can see a few things the story is doing. Redefinitions of wholeness, for example, and the means by which actions are taken. Or in others, a split between the character’s & reader’s experience of the tone of the story.

Other stories can be more singly focussed — in those, it’s clearer the different readings of the three-mood pattern are closely related (or just me grasping for accurate vocabulary while reading first thing in the morning).

E.g. if you read down the columns of the next list, you can see there are subtle variations, but the central experience remains fairly consistent. (Mine — it may vary!)

  • “Barefoot and Midnight” — Sheree Renée Thomas (Apex, 2021)
    • horrors — summons — bargains fulfilled
    • crime — vengeance — consequence
    • injustice — crying out — justice
    • hatreds — old remedies — retribution
    • distress — grim purpose — acceptance of price

This tighter focus seems (appropriately) to occur most in very short stories, very pointed stories, and very mode-conforming stories, by which I mean, for example, a story written to be (e.g.) the noiriest of noirs or most romantic of romances. However, there’s a point at which that easily skips across into subversion or parody or turns into something else under pressure.

Also some Gothics but that’s because the Gothic LOVES to literalise its tropes and structures.

  • “The Captain and the Quartermaster” — CL Clark (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2021)
    • coming together — falling apart — distinct & whole
    • ends & beginnings — breaking & building — ends & beginnings
    • engaging — stumbling — disengaging
    • tested — bruised — redefined
    • soup — coffee — sugar

Another pattern there for a story of change and love and revolution, and the perpetual interaction of all three. The story jumps around in time which intensifies the cyclical aspect.

But I’m also really charmed by that food pattern:

  • soup — coffee — sugar
  • sustenance — exhausted endurance — brief energy

You can sort of see the energy that shifts the story through its moods.

  • “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” — Laird Barron (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • twitchy — strange — wild
    • distant threats — nearer threats — nearest threats
    • self-protection —questions of survival — divestments
    • gathered supplies — gathering threats — choices

An interesting one to consider re noir, as it is not set in a city or told from the point of view of someone investigating a crime — although crime and city and investigations are elements in it. You could imagine it reworked into a more typical and fatalistic noir shape. But there’s an element of bloody chaos, the gruesome glee of the wild, and an aspect of final *choices*, which shift the story into a more mountain-horror/Gothic space.

Tales to make you not go camping… Which seem to often end on a note of chaotic/vicious glee.

I’m really enjoying reading a bunch of stories consciously working in / mimicking / using / writing pastiches of / commenting on a particular subgenre/mode. I.e. seeing a genre not just as it exists, but as it is then filtered through other people’s deliberate interpretations of it. Among other things, it helps distill a sort of consensus idea of what that genre is, or what its hallmarks are.

And it also helps me decide what my personal working definitions of a genre’s edges are. (This is very useful for deliberately adjusting the tone of a piece, whether written or drawn.)

  • “Root Rot” — Fargo Tbakh (Apex, 2021)
    • lost — left — staying
    • hopes lost — connections lost — both actively severed
    • pushing away — longing — pushing away
    • giving up — giving up — giving up

I’m noticing more the subtleties in repetition in three-mood patterns. The harder a story leans on a mood (gears shifting to apply pressure), the more it reveals (either about those moods, or about the character or the reader’s experience of them, or the world). Things start to groan and splinter.

Or it can become a pattern or critique of inevitability. Or it can be thematic — an exploration of all the things “giving up” or “processing” can mean. (See also notes on “Cocoon” by Atreyee Gupta in the January short story reading post.)

  • An Arc of Electric Skin” — Wole Talabi (Asimov’s, 2021)
    • punishment — plans — crime
    • tragedies — steps — bitter hope
    • victims — systems — purposes
    • subjects — tests — results

The last pattern there could be a very straightforward, bald science fiction plot, but (as here) nearly every story I’ve read with a similar shape is not doing that “subject — tests — results” pattern as the *primary* journey it takes its readers on. And while the details occur on the page in this order, the story is not told in strict chronological order. For example “subjects” (and all that means) are shown in times after and before the main events.

  • “Thirteen of the Secrets in My Purse” — Rachel Swirsky (Uncanny, 2021)
    • fragments — links — purpose
    • inconveniences — interactions — instructions
    • odd — uncanny — fantastic
    • distraction — irritation — excitement
    • trash — autonomy — treasure

I enjoy a good list. Occasionally they stay only (‘only’) lists of cool things or important thoughts — fascinating writing, and a vignette (or group of vignettes) or article or experiment, but not unified into a story. So it’s interesting to see where others lists pull away from that, and start to gather meaning or emotion, and then swoop down to land as a tale-shaped thing.

Here are quick notes considering “Thirteen Secrets” as a series of vignettes.

Photo of tiny handwritten notes on the separate sections of Rachel Swirsky's "Thirteen Secrets..."
Double ((parentheses)) kind-of sort-of indicate links to other sections, single (parentheses) are when a mood isn’t quite fully formed or sufficiently weighted

Observations on the sections of Swirsky’s “Thirteen of the Secrets…”:

  1. morbid — curiosity
  2. odd — at a loss — (continuing)
  3. change — strange — (stuck with it)
  4. situation — experiment — (no result)
  5. wonder — mundane
  6. independence — communication difficulties — reaction
  7. ((horror)) — ((suggestion))
  8. uncanny — ominous
  9. specific from general — meaning-ness
  10. ((second attempt)) — wider consequences
  11. uncanny — urgency — frustration
  12. instructions — questions — (anticipation)
  13. ((communication)) — ((link)) — step out

At Secret #4 there starts to be some repetition, hinting at links or a pattern of action. 10/11 is where actions start having consequences and demands are made. These mark about where the big moods shift. 2/3/4 hint at story shapes, but don’t bring the finality needed to land them.

5 is quick, in a slightly different key, blending the sublime & the mundane. It’s followed by 6 and 7, where communications start being returned and there’s a suggestion of the potential for impacts elsewhere. 7/8 are ominous. Momentum gathers.

9 teases the possibility of *meanings*. 11 picks up the threads of several earlier sections and pushes them forward, while also being the closest to a full story shape. On its own, it could *almost* be flash fiction, but as it is, it does not answer the questions raised so far.

And 13 links several strands together. It doesn’t answer any questions, but it replaces them with a bigger question, and enough information to know broadly how this might play out, and the impetus to tip into a new story.

  • “If the Martians Have Magic” — P Djèli Clark (Uncanny, 2021)
    • pleading — supporting — escaping
    • positions — threats — chances
    • balances of power — weight of power — new power
    • meetings — sharing — entering through
      Or (see comments below)
    • bargains/arguing — threats/connections — bargains/sublime
    • urgency — peace — peace-in-urgency

It’s a longer short story (not *very*, but still), which gives it more to play with. Each mood/section seems to have two related halves. So: “balances of power — weight of power — new power” could be teased out into “bargains/arguing — threats/connections — bargains/sublime”. You could also look just at the pacing: “urgency — peace — peace-in-urgency”.

(Also the descriptions of the opening scene are *fun* — glittering and dusty and gilded and chaotic. I can imagine just the sort of warm, bright, busy, rounded painting that would illustrate it.)

  • “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” — Maria Dong (khōréō, 2021)
    • actions — consequences — corrections
    • what went wrong — spread — mopping up
    • choices — caught up — unknotting
    • refusal — unrolling — external aid
    • machinery — humanity — deity

That “actions — consequences — corrections” shape might be simple (or a romp/caper). Its particular nuance here comes from splitting the parts between characters. Consequences are spread and felt by other people than the ones who started them, passed forward to others to solve. Which, given this is a story about a weight too great to bear, is very fitting. And it’s also an approach to keep in mind when using these structures as a framework for an idea.

And again, a look at the 5 separately-titled sections.

Photo of tiny handwritten notes on the separate sections of Maria Don's "The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han"

The separate sections of “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han”:

  • 1. deaths — disillusions — what survives
  • 2. possibilities — discoveries — spread
  • 3. intentions — anxieties — grasping at cure
  • 4. resistance — advice — quest
  • 5. understanding — persuading — opening

Each has a progression of moods, but holds its punches on the last, for a cumulative impact. 1 & 3 are almost stories — they could almost be edited into little tales. 5 also ends on a note of finality but depends heavily on prior events. 2 & 4 end on an unanswered question. So there’s the engine of alternating levels of completion, clutching and releasing as the story is pulled along.

Something neat is how each section grows from the next. Each character is linked to the preceding one. And each character is alluded to in the preceding section, EXCEPT that first transition from Grant (very inward-looking) to Mi-Young.

If Mi-Young had been foreshadowed (instead a few paragraphs consider possibilities before settling on Mi-Young, who can’t let go of things), the nested pattern might have felt repetitive or pointed. Or if the pattern had broken later, it might have jarred, to another effect.

Anyway, it’s interesting to see the different ways fragmented/vignettey stories connect.

Also, the technological and the numinous are often an uneasy fit — I feel like I’ve read more awkward than comfortable pairings. I rather liked how they worked together in this story. Possibly because the underlying problem was one that could not and should not have been solved by machines.

  • “The Romance” — Elizabeth Bear (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • taking up positions — what’s underneath — breaking through
    • foreshadows — stories — realities
    • getting ready — circulating — tidying up
    • circling — riding — racing

“The Romance” is interesting structurally because the sections of the longer story (told forward) are interleaved with a series of shorter fragments (told backward) of (the/an) ending. That adds momentum/centripetal force to the stately progress of the main story (much of which occurs before anything goes wrong). But the smaller, violent fragments modulate the overall moods, as well as adding urgency. And there’s a nice moment halfway where they touch each other.

The story itself approaches “supernatural noir” from a more Gothic-fantastic angle — the gritty descriptions of violence are the noir-iest bits in a story that seems to bracket the usual noir time periods.

Considered as a Gothic story, the interleaved structure represents a useful way to deal with the dual risk of (a) boredom in the common slow build to the moment of terror/horror/surprise, and (b) the need to fit in more explanations than a denouement is usually designed to hold.

Screenshot of tweet: *slaps side of denouement*: This bad boy can fit so many explanations in it
  • “Dead Sister” — Joe Lansdale (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • questions — answers — actions
    • the first investigation — the second investigation — taking measures
    • what’s happening — confirming the details — dealing with it
    • sceptism — belief — pursuit
    • noir-y — grotesque — violence

You could again subdivide the shape “the first investigation — the second investigation — taking measures” into: (question — answer) — (confirmation — information) —(pursue — conquer).

The story leans heavily into the classic genre shape. It’s definitely going for supernatural noir, and leads with all the noir trappings — which lets it pull off the trick in a smaller town than usually associated with a mid-century PI (but a staple American supernatural setting).

  • The Wishing Pool” — Tananarive Due (Uncanny, 2021)
    • memories — present concerns — future trade-offs
    • warnings — wishes — costs
    • old loss — slow loss — new loss

A strong, familiar story shape used to tell a very personal and a very location-specific story. The familiarities and anxieties foreshadowed both in the story and by its shape (if you’re familiar with it from related tales) support and deepen those specifics.

  • “Comfortable in Her Skin” — Lee Thomas (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • losses — bargains — taking
    • introducing — misleading — consuming
    • violence sustained — mutual using — body horror
    • mundane horrors — crime — supernatural horrors
    • cross purposes — confluence — combination
  • “This Living Hand” — Marie Brennan (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022)
    • journey — conversation — action
    • quest — bargains — vengeance
    • following instructions — questions — gifts
    • seeking — finding — settling scores
    • anticipation — temptation — satisfaction

Three very different stories, but (especially Due’s and Brennan’s) all spinning around a central idea of getting more, or less, or something other than what you bargained for. The first two moods have overlaps (losses and journeys; conversations and bargains). The final moods differ: grim satisfaction; grotesque glee; beauty and loss.

If you considered all of them as retellings of a classic “be careful what you wish for” tale, it’s interesting to see where the impact of that base story lands. Due foreshadows it at the beginning, and then lands that final note in the classic position — it’s not a story about surprises, but about inevitable sorrows and hard choices. Thomas makes that the central engine of the story — a mechanism people are using and being taken over by. Brennan nests the classic tale in the middle, as backstory, framed by characters repurposing its mechanics.

  • Babang Luksa” — Nicasio Andres Reed (Reckoning, 2022)
    • reckoning — negotiations — truce
    • return/descent — feeling the contours — reaching a peace
    • homecoming — awkward settling — so it goes
    • what’s lost — what remains — what goes on

A couple of interesting points — first, “Babang Luksa” deals with a few of the same themes as “The Wishing Pool” above (the ones behind the wishing story), so the echoes of loss/time/place/family/return are intriguing.

Second: for a reasonably long speculative fiction story, “Babang Luksa” almost feels like a vignette because that third mood doesn’t end on a clear genre note. It ends in — and takes its shape from — a much gentler literary realism style. A “so it is, and so it goes” ending. That ending of course works for a how-it-might-be (and how people might exist in it) story, supported by the stately pace and clear observations. The fact that if you’re doing a lot of genre reading you might run at the end and go “wait? and then?” just serves to continue the effect of the story beyond that point.

And third: it intersects with some of the thoughts re purgatorial settings (see thread mentioned earlier).

The explicitly low-ceilinged world, persistence and return, a degree of complicity/traceable consequences but excessive, biting at each other, love, cannibalising of stories (and perpetuation through them), questions of agency, attempts to bring someone away with you… Death and time and inevitability and affection.

  • A Bird in the Window” — Kate Francia (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2021)
    • winkled out — coaxed out — breaking out
    • frightened curiosity — “ longing —last resistance overcome
    • encounters — part truths — full truths
    • meetings — friendship — testing

A straightforward shape for a story of friendship and power, given additional weight and beauty by the time spent on it.

  • Still Life with Vial of Blood” — Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (Nightmare, 2021)
    • ominous beauty — grotesque beauty — dawning horror
    • unsettling beauty — encroaching horror — arriving fate
    • contradictions — clinging — fear

Interesting for a couple reasons. First, it uses that horror-flash mechanism of letting you decide if and how it ends — the landing/that note of finality gets to happen in the reader’s head.

Second, a substantial portion of the story, and most of what’s happening, takes place in the footnotes and in the tension between the two things being said.

This affects the reading order, depending on layout, platform and preference. Do you read footnotes as they are referenced? Read them after the main text? Go back and reread? And that changes the shape of the story, and the order moods appear in.

It’s a way to layer and play with the shapes of a story, and set one against the other.

See also tweets following notes (earlier in this post) on Elizabeth Bear’s “The Romance” (interleaved stories going in opposite directions) and Devlin’s “Talking to Strangers on Planes” (here — vignettes in reverse order).

  • “But for Scars” — Tom Piccirilli (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • arrivals — investigations — accumulation
    • the dead? — the living? — living with the dead
    • escapes — returns — circles
    • damage — tracing scars — digging at wounds

Many noir stories end on a note of inevitability. This one does not as such — but if you take a few steps back, you can see inevitability/circularity is built into the whole story.

Also, while it shares many of the hallmarks of the purgatorial stories, it leaves out the note of (remote) hope. There might not be an awareness of despair, but there is no goal of ultimate salvation — there are daily efforts at grubby honour, but the dead build up, here.

I am learning so much doing this reading (often well-established things from first principles, but I learn best that way). I do wish I’d kept more extensive reading notes from my enormous reading of 2018 stories, because I can feel there have been some shifts in genre style and conversations but don’t have the references to hand — themes that were being sounded out then but are established now, topics that were only tentatively emerging into publication and which are now vigorously hammering out their place, etc.

  • “All Worlds Left Behind” — Iona Datt Sharma (khōréō, 2021)
    • preparation — grief — farewells
    • rites of passage — changing times — own rites
    • frail wonder — being reasonable — release

(Of all the stories dealing with the aftermath of portal fantasies, this one particularly worked for me — and wasn’t a take I’d seen often. Also, I might have cried a tiny bit.)

It isn’t not a story about grief. It shares a core loss with Reed’s “Babang Luksa” (notes above) and Due’s “The Wishing Pool” (see above). Its shapes certainly suggest it would be a story specifically and centrally about grief.) However, the story keeps its attention on something other than that close human bereavement, and shifts it to other matters — shared worlds and words and time.

And I like that sleight of hand. Not replacing a classic grief-story-shape with an unexpected progression of moods (although that can also be pleasing), but keeping the shape and braiding a slightly shifted story around it.

  • Not a Basking Shark” — Hesper Leveret (Fireside, 2022)
    • running away — seeking — running back
    • lack of evidence — first-hand experience — proof
    • setting out — discovery — revelations
    • introversion — over-excitement — correction
    • rainy days — sea level — rising tides

It’s interesting to check in on the climate vs fiction occasionally. “Not a Basking Shark” is another story conscious of and made possible by rising seas, but more about how that will or won’t change some specific element (the interaction of merfolk with humans here, the life of a neighbourhood and family in “Babang Luksa” (Reed) above. “Seen Small, Through Glass” (Mohamed, see above) touches on similar issues — changed migration patterns, risen water, but in that case the changes are changing people, too.

Reed’s “Babang Luksa” (see notes above) and Leveret’s “Not a Basking Shark” are particularly “here is how people will stay the same within this changed future”, while Mohamed’s “Seen Small, Through Glass” looks more at the unexpected changes.

Also: those approaches are consistent with the first two having a slightly more literary-genre shape, ending on “so things are/so we go on”, while “Seen Small” seems to follow a more speculative genre shape, and end on a speculative/Gothic note (lingering, anxious wonder).

Also, and I’m saying this with VERY little data, but 2021 climate stories seemed to skew dry, while 2022 is leaning into rising seawaters. Also, lately I’ve been seeing more climate change stories (especially about rising sea waters) that are less “warning!” and also less “what might it look like if…” and more “this is how humans will still be humans within this accepted future” (see comments after “Basking Shark”, far above). Which can be a tiny bit fatalistic, and I dare say I shouldn’t be seeking comfort from that particular subgenre, but this school of sea-rising stories do seem to dwell *slightly* less on the humidity.

  • RE: Bubble 476” — A.T. Greenblatt (Asimov’s, 2021)
    • chatty — concerned — panic
    • inconveniences — peculiarities — dangers
    • raillery — support — clinging
    • confidence — inklings — preparation
    • tinkering — momentum — acceleration

It’s interesting to compare “RE: Bubble 476” to some of the other not-straightforwardly-linear stories mentioned above, as the non-chronological events described by these characters are experienced in different orders by them — and the story being written during the story has a different pace of progress to other enterprises.

  • Oil Bugs” — Gwen C Katz (Translunar Travelers Lounge, 2022)
    • bright ideas — escalating consequences — spreading chaos
    • simple plan — unforeseen consequences — inevitable outcomes
    • offensively upbeat — holding it together — losing control

A classic bad-ideas-get-out-of-hand story shape, gleefully ridden to its conclusion. Also, a clear, innocent-looking romp of a story shape to deal with the story’s pointed concerns. It’s not a subversive or subtle structure: the story’s here to have a good time while yelling.

Also, the story is upfront about this structure — it’s clear from the note at the beginning that events reach a very definite conclusion at odds with the opening tone. The mystery is just how intentional the process of closing that gap will be (& whose intentions are implicated).

That opening note gives the story shape less of a runaway-carriage feeling, and more of a whip-crack loop — forces not considered by the main characters are going to affect their actions.

  • Cowgirl and Laundry Boy” — Celeste Chen (Waxwing, 2022)
    • run to earth — violence returned — getaway
    • beauty thrown down — death [vs/as] perfection — promised flight
    • story pulled down & hooked to history — story woven through violence — tale tossed into the air again

In relation to retellings, this is a lovely shape — pointedly anchored to history but also explicitly a reworking of a tale, the one opening the other (depending on what the reader sees when they look at magpies). And one perpetuating/surviving within the other — a grim immediacy folded with the beauty of fable.

  • Huginn and Muninn — and what came after” — Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s, 2021)
    • turning through — feeling through — unmaking
    • being led — taking guidance — taking control
    • arriving — getting comfortable — choosing
    • beginning — middle — end

(Again, not many stories have a beginning-middle-end shape, but this one definitely has a “when you get to the end, stop” conclusion — and allusion.)

  • The Center of the Universe” — Nadia Shammas (Strange Horizons, 2021)
    • breathless — opportunistic — weaponise
    • service — attention — pain
    • admire — receive — grasp
    • crumbs — hunger — ferocity
    • enough — more — ravenous

A contained, closed-circuit of a world, story themes tightly echoed in the story shape.

  • “The Blisters on my Heart” — Nate Southard (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • desperation — loyalty — conflagration
    • the price — the prize — the true cost
    • love — antagonism —retributions
    • mortality — violence — worse things

The story starts near its end, then flashes back. You can see that if you swap the first two moods in those progressions, you’d end up with a logical linear progression.

The changed order creates a (deliberately) bumpier ride. It also shows the stakes/weight of the chronologically earlier scenes. The significance of first encounters is now a given — we’re watching to see how A led to B. It creates more of a closed loop.

  • “The Absent Eye” — Brian Evenson (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • origins — education — career
    • victim of a tale — coming to terms — carrying further
    • enmity — truce — alliance
    • encounter — communicate — work with
    • acted upon — held at bay — acting
      or (from notes below)
    • a story you know — its consequences — the back of another story you know

This (much shorter) story is very linear in shape, and covers a life-to-date. Like “The Blisters On My Heart” (above), it’s also a “how I wound up here” story, but this time you wait to find out the destination. If it looped like “Blisters”… I think it might feel *too* small.

“Blisters” is about a single relationship, a close sequence of events. So the closed loop makes that into the world of the story. “The Absent Eye” is about a life, and looping it would make it too deterministic.

That would suit the fatalism/finality of some noir, but the noir element of “The Absent Eye” is contained in the final aesthetic. And that, in turn, is an interesting approach to a blended theme: how do you literally get from [adjective] to [noun]?

Anyway, it’s interesting to compare the “this is me, and this is where I got to” and “yep, that’s me, you might be wondering how I ended up here” story shapes

“The Absent Eye” is also a retelling/reworking. If seen as a version of one fairytale, it’s: “the tale — coming to terms — carrying further”. But it’s also a linking of two story types: “a story you know — its consequences — the back of another story you know”. Which is consistent with the very linear shape and “telling” style.

But in addition, looking back to the noir aspect, that pattern is another way of adding an existential sort of fatalism — always belonging to one archetypal tale or another.

  • “Mr Death” — Alix E Harrow (Apex, 2021)
    • duty — rebellion — doubling down
    • a chance — a second chance — a variation
    • a job — choices — vocation
    • reluctance — resistance — hold ground
    • sensing — stirring — waking

It’s a consciously (effectively) sentimental story, and I think a large part of the reason Harrow gets away with it is that that it’s not *primarily* a “situation — choice — reward” story (although that’s certainly in the progression of events). But those final two moods adjust the effect. For all the grief and affection, there’s an element of a cat sitting on a counter, making eye-contact, and pushing a cup off *again*.

It’s also interesting to look at “Mr Death” vs a more recent Harrow exploration of death & grief & bringing people back, “The Long Way Up” (see further above).

Also the setting choices vs the whole purgatorial discussion — “The Long Way Up” leans into that low-ceilinged world. The characters (living and otherwise) in “Mr Death” look resolutely beyond those apparently lowered horizons.

And the story shapes are almost inverted.

  • They Call It Hipster Heaven” — Lauren Ring (The Deadlands, 2021)
    • promise — denial — gaze
    • approach — chasm — proximity
    • metaphor — literal — surreal
    • place — desire — tension
    • frame — light — shadow
    • memory — impossibility — suspension

A few different readings! Very short stories tend to either have a narrow, targeted effect, or to be more impressionistic. Long stories have more material to work with but also need to commit more to their overall shape.

Also it’s not quite a purgatorial story (there are elements missing, eg of complicity, agency, opportunity), but it’s clearly adjacent, or at least on the banks of the Lethe. And that tension between place and desire, between frame and contents, is similar.

  • A Minnow, or Perhaps a Colossal Squid” — Carlos Hernandez & CSE Cooney (Mermaids Monthly, 2021)
    • marvels — defiance — wonders
    • dissatisfaction — resistance — wild gifts
    • materials — drawn together — something new
    • means of destruction — edge of destruction — other side
    • world as it is — specific instance — consequences (delight)

I find “A Minnow…” an interesting world-building/world-specific story, in how it (a) constructs (b) specifies and then (c) expands this place with its miracles and politics and natural philosophy. It’s a gilded, messy, flamboyant place, where language and debt and humanity matter, and for all the enormousness of its subject, it manages to fit all that through a very small lens — a trial, an academic discourse.

Also, it models how to get away with introducing a main character relatively far into the story by having their voice heard in extracts from their writing. Bear’s “The Romance” (see earlier in this post) did this too, although the reader is allowed to assume the person discussed might be the main character, until the actual person is introduced near the end.

  • The Hanging Game” — Helen Marshall (Gifts for the Ones Who Come After, 2014; Tor.com 2013).
    • tales — omens — tolls
    • games — realities — prices
    • pasts — gaming the future — dealing with it
    • violent delights — violent ends — parents’ debts
    • trust — desire — love-in-grief
    • given — taken — traded
      or (see note below)
    • intensify (mythic/sacred/place-specific) significance — play out the tale — play out the (heightened) consequences

While not looking at all Shakespearean, I think “The Hanging Game” has far more of the structures of e.g. Romeo & Juliet in it than many takes (and without having a Romeo/Juliet pair). Intergenerational consequences for elders’ actions, communication, systems, choice, the role of the priest, children making adult choices but taking on too-adult responsibilities…

To the extent it involves a folk tale retelling, the shape of “The Hanging Game” is something like: “intensify (mythic/sacred/place-specific) significance — play out the tale — play out the (heightened) consequences”.

  • Vampirito” — K. Victoria Hernandez (khōréō, 2021)
    • realities — current ways — old ways
    • analogues — specifics — taking measures
    • world — change (self/world) — prove (to self/world)
    • bullied — discussed — tested
    • children — parents — grandparents (and beyond)
    • bewilderment — background — alarm
      or (see notes below)
    • divorce from established lore & link to another system — explore human specifics — link consequences back to original legends

Also in terms not of retelling but of using a mythology with established narrative weight, it has an interesting shape (cf the previous story): “divorce from established lore & link to another system — explore human specifics — link consequences back to original legends”. It’s shifting the practical implications of the original vs dialing up the mythic quality (although I do note also that “Vampirito” is using an character type while “The Hanging Game” earlier is using a tale type).

Intriguingly, while “Vampirito” and “A Minnow, Or Perhaps A Colossal Squid” (above) are extremely different stories, their shapes have some commonalities — and they are both stories that create a world to hold an atypical version of a legendary character/creature (& the consequences).

  • “The Techwork Horse” — M H Ayinde (Fiyah, 2021)
    • childhood — adulthood — full power
    • desire — faithfulness  — stubbornness
    • envy — wistfulness — jealousy (complimentary)
    • ‘unworthy’ — patience — meeting of minds
    • fascination — dedication — determination

Because “The Techwork Horse” follows a life, it would be possible to break the story down into much more granular stages. But that formative childhood sequence takes up the full first third of the story (on page count), and the final sequence fills the last third. All the decades in between are compressed.

The feeling of time passing in a story is not always directly related to the number of pages. I frequently check back and am startled by how word count is actually distributed between I remember as fast or slow.

In particular, what feels like a short sharp beginning sequence frequently takes up a large proportion of a story, while detailed and involved final scenes might only be a handful of paragraphs. Not always, by any means, but often enough to be A Whole Thing.

Structure aside — there’s a visually-romantic aesthetic Ayinde has conveyed around some environment/tech details that, in fantasies, do not always have that effect on me. But Ayinde conveys a beautiful world, beautifully described, and I *ached* over threat and decay. There are particular descriptive techniques at play there, which delight me. The little pulls away from the weight of association…

I’ve rabbited on before about how mechanical items get described in different genre spaces, for example. And it’s interesting to see how different authors describe different types of beauty, and how they use or invert or avoid various weighted associations. E.g. how a warm/dry climate is described, and by whom, and to whom.

  • All Us Ghosts” — B Pladek (Strange Horizons, 2021)
    • job — resist — consequences of success
    • affection — resistance — rejecting
    • longing — using — surviving
    • business-like — conflicted — harsh
    • half-lies — half-truths — half-lives
    • lies — masks — honour

It’s interesting seeing where stories place a significant plot success — romps and twists and adventures, sub-genres with a strong classic structure, it falls at or very near the end. Others, as here, gentler or bleaker or concerned with human fallout, place it much earlier. Not surprising, of course! But neat to see the pattern laid out.

“All Us Ghosts” is also another variant for the people-being-people-as-waters-rise collection (see comments after “Not a Basking Shark”, earlier in this post).

“All Us Ghosts” is also relevant re the theme of an ongoing revolution, but in this case with carefully moderated resistance/advocacy. But as such it raises questions of perpetuation of cycles and affection, and narrative, and agency, and low sky/horizons and their maintenance — which bring it nearly into that purgatorial space, although without the more common initial culpability. The story is explicitly doing a Plato’s cave thing, rather than purgatory/Orpheus & Euridice, etc. But it’s alongside, so interesting for purposes of comparison.

  • Five Bailouts” — Brian Slattery (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022)
    • the players — the moves — the game
    • survival — habits — life
    • notes — tune — flourish
    • problems — vibes — payoff
    • debts — records — rivalry
    • foundations — building — structural integrity

It’s almost always entertaining watching a world (e.g. post-alien-invasion-volcanic-apocalypse) as glimpsed through the lens of a story ostensibly about something else (musicians-dodging-mob-debt). It limits the worldbuilding to fascinating glimpses & there’s tension between what stories in that sort of world “should” be about, and the immediate concerns of the characters. Those tensions/limits seem to add efficiency & effectiveness. A lot of story happens AROUND the words.

Using a classic structure for a classic story/setting (e.g., from previous notes, grief or ghosts) can concentrate an effect beautifully: polished, coherent, dense little tales. But mismatched, offset, syncopated arrangements break open the possibilities.

  • “The Maltese Unicorn” — Caitlín R Kiernan (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • complications — betrayals — tidying
    • grubby — seductive — infernal
    • ‘innocence’ (relative) — descent — stain
    • instructions — witnessing — meanings

The pattern of “situation — complications — betrayals” is a fairly standard story-shape, but here the situation is compressed into world/backstory, and the final mood is tracing out consequences. See also the notes re “All Us Ghosts” earlier in this post.

  • “Dreamer of the Day” — Nick Mamatas (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • doubt — wish — inevitability
    • approach — ask — granted
    • distaste — inquisition — revulsion
    • entrance — rooms — emergence
    • working way into rooms — consultation — flight through series of rooms

“Dreamer of the Day” is a curious little straightforwardly labyrinthine story, which suits its consultation-of-the-oracle tale type. (There are a bundle of cave/labyrinth classical allusions which while not necessarily related often appear together in stories.)

It’s also a wishing story, but less a “be careful what you wish for” than a “you’ll get what you wish for” story. And again, that relatively straightforward progression (approach — ask — granted) lets the story spend plenty of time leaning not on suprise/regret but on inevitabilities.

And with reference to previous notes about wishing stories, the point about wishes here is made at the beginning. The rest of the story keeps leaning on that point. You broadly knew the price, and you kept asking, and now you can’t act surprised. (See comments following “This Living Hand”, earlier in this post).

  • “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos” — John Langan (Supernatural Noir, 2011)
    • opportunity — sliding — plunge
    • bickering — suspecting — revealing
    • doubts — questions — confirmation
    • the future (from the present) — the past (from the present) — the loop

A phrase from this one sums up a lot of noir stories rather well:

If I’m damned, she thought, I might as well get paid for it.”

John Langan, “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos”, Supernatural Noir, p375

Re purgatorial stories: a lot of the noir stories feel adjacent, but I think that line highlights a key difference. Many noir protagonists are in some form of hell, or other bleak afterlife from which they can’t escape, whether or not they know it (and most of them do).

“All Us Ghosts” (see notes earlier in this post), while a very different story, with different types of complicity and blame, does something similar in that while people are trying to exist, they aren’t expecting to escape.

That circular, spiralling fate is built into “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos”, both in that looped pattern and in a the more granular constant referring back to the events (and crimes, and complicity) that began it all.

The Supernatural Noir stories have all been from “Supernatural Noir“, edited by Ellen Datlow, 2011.

I’ll need to look at all the notes in one place to collect my overall impression. But reading a collection where the authors are all operating in various interpretations of a genre/mode has revealed both many commonly agreed-upon features and the edges of my personal genre definitions.

Slightly more generally, it’s also shown a few ways authors approach a mode, when deliberately using it: as a frame, as a spark, as a structure, as a palette, as something to bounce off, as licence.

  • Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” — Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, 2021)
    • romance — metamorphoses — retribution
    • desire — shock — horror
    • love — proof — failure
    • lure — bewitching — peace
    • assertion — enchantment — affection
    • mysteries — mysteries deepen — mysteries remain

“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” is structurally fascinating to look at through a three-moods lens because there are two interleaved stories — the ballad, and the conversations around it. The ballad (for all its ambiguities) has the most distinct story-shape, although it varies depending on whom you consider to be the protagonist. (That’s the first 3 dot points.)

Then the surrounding conversation, with its digressions and debates, has its own story shape, flagged early and not hammered home (although clear enough, and implied by all the conversations and stories around such folkloric investigations). (The last 2 dot points).

Then there’s the way the two interact as a whole story. I’ve put that here as “lure / bewitching / peace”, although lure might not quite be the correct word — something restfully unsettling.

The song alone would still be a narrative, but with all the ambiguity discussed in the story — beauty, but less impact. The activities implied in the conversation (without the full lyrics) would be a vignette or situation or instigation for a larger story — but the ending not given to the present tale is implied in the song.

And because those parts are so intertwined, depending on where your attention/emphasis falls as a reader, any of those shapes could surface.

Also, while “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” isn’t *exactly* a retelling, it is playing with the nature of retellings, and “retelling” a tale invented for the purposes of the story — an academic/forensic/conversational/crowdsourced/implied creation of a greater truth and mythic weight for the ‘retold’ tale.

  • A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty” — Miyuki Jane Pinckard (Uncanny, 2021)
    • memories — reassurance — conversation
    • fleeing — gathering — releasing
    • losses — disapproval — understanding
    • holding — protecting — listening
    • loving — being loved — types of love

Re the discussion of time in “The Techwork Horse” (Ayinde, see earlier in this post), the space given to events in “A House Full of Voices” *feels* expansive. I’d describe it as the story of a life (or lives). But purely in terms of rough wordcount, the narrator’s life from childhood to adulthood takes about the same space as a few years of adulthood. And the final conversation is about that same length.

Noticing this highlights the telescoping effects of where things are placed in a story, and what effects they have on other events, and whether they are reflective or active… In terms of wordcount, this might a story about a relationship — and a significant conversation — between two sisters. But it is clearly about so much (so many) more.

  • Of Claw and Bone” — Suzan Palumbo (The Dark, 2021)
    • shaped — choosing — reshaping
    • hide — snarl — guard
    • fearful — prickly — strong
    • bend — break — fix
    • fear — survival — fighting
    • acceptance — disgust — love
      or (see further notes below:
    • establish equivalence (strange = familiar) — pursue the consequences as if real — re-anchor the metaphor
    • the rules of the world/this power — rebellion without change — leveraging all learned

It’s a compact story formed on a clear central metaphor/idea, and (considered in that light) it gives a clear example of a fairly robust shape for a metaphor-story: “establish equivalence (strange = familiar) — pursue the consequences as if real — re-anchor the metaphor”.

Compare that shape to Samanta Schweblin’s “Butterflies”, which does something similar but in a more literary/weird/horror-twist space:

  • From the January post: “Butterflies” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
    • ordinary — ordinary-odd — surreal-distressing
    • complacency — insignificant cruelty — unanticipated implication
    • action (proud affection) to A — action (casual cruelty) to B — literal equation of A & B
    • situation — event — drastic reframing

In “Butterflies”, the equivalence *exists* at the beginning of the story, but is not made explicit until the end (and largely the reader is left to reach that conclusion sharply on their own). That makes you re-evaluate what the story was saying, whereas Palumbo’s approach lets you consider the comparisons as you go.

See also notes on Valente’s “Eating the Sins of America”, earlier in this post, but compare it to Ring’s “They Call it Hipster Heaven” earlier in this post, which starts with the apparently metaphorical, then literalises it, then carries on into the surreal, leaving the metaphor behind (although not the memory of it).

(I say “metaphor” because there are elements in “Of Claw and Bone” very applicable to human relationships conducted without the benefits of the bone-magic, and it’s interesting to note as an example of how stories which weaponise parallels can be shaped. But it’s only one of the shapes to be found in it. You could also say it’s e.g.: “the rules of the world/this power — rebellion without change — leveraging all learned”.

  • “Baby Brother” — Kalynn Bayron (Fiyah, 2021)
    • warnings — changes — grief
    • foreshadow — apparent metaphor — truth
    • affection — jealousy — fear
    • peace broken — anger/division — truths resisted
    • watchful (love) — blame (out of love) — trapped (from love)

Reading “Baby Brother” immediately after Palumbo’s “Of Claw and Bone” (above), you can see the very different uses of that metaphor/non-speculative parallel. “Of Claw and Bone” puts a literalised metaphor into play and uses it both to shape the world and to tell a story about something non-magical.

“Baby Brother”, on the other hand, shapes a world, then sets up something that looks very much like a metaphor — and then proves instead to be a reality of the world originally set up. Using misdirection to distract the reader vs clearly directing the reader to follow an allegory.

Vs, e.g., Schweblin’s “Butterflies” (see January post), which lands the metaphor as a vicious truth without fully warning the reader what’s coming, or Valente’s “Eating the Sins of America” which maintains a heavily allegorical mode of reality throughout — surprises and violence happen within that, and the characters act as if they consider themselves within that, but the surrounding membrane of allegorical context never breaks.

Speculative fiction is a genre which relies so heavily on literalising metaphor (which makes editing stories and parsing illustration briefs exciting), and it’s interesting to see the different nuances and shapes that use of metaphor can take: unexpected, disturbing, didactic, fabulist, weird, troubling, problematic, problematising, enlightening, angry, loving…

Using reality in all the ways fairy-tale retellings use the source tales.

  • Laughter Among the Trees” — Suzan Palumbo (The Dark, 2021)
    • envy — emulation — redress
    • envy — theft — reckoning
    • dissatisfaction — guilt — atonement
    • careless — atoning/compounding — atonement
    • exclusion — secrets — answers
    • kindling — smouldering — guttering
    • jostle — reflect — surfacing

(“atoning/compounding” because you could take the main character’s actions either way)

“Laughter Among the Trees” is concerned with several themes overlapping “Baby Brother” (above) and “A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty” (see earlier): siblings, losses, time, understanding, rivalry, family, consequences carried.

The shapes are quite different, but some of the same shifts and tensions recur or are inverted: holding/listening; affection/jealousy, watchful love/blame, a sense of being trapped (for various meanings & degrees of choice).

Just looking at those pairs of terms in the tweet above, it seems fairly clear these belong to stories about siblings! Perhaps there are common tensions and groups of moods for these stories (vs strong classic full story shapes, as for grief), but I’m basing this statement on just three stories.

  • The Book of the Blacksmiths” — Martin Cahill (Fireside Fiction, 2022)
    • awaken — learn — act
    • world — role — change
    • affection — knowledge — gift
    • difference — share — contribute

It’s a rather generous little take on a usually bleak sort of set-up. Less “inhumanity”/”Vive la révolution” than “make something about it”.

But it could still be seen as a very small & apparently gentle relative of the incremental/eternal revolution story — there’s a sense of both acceptance and the tiniest of first steps. (See comment about “echoes in shape between some of the stories about revolution and some of those about chronic pain” much earlier in this post.)

It’s the beginning of an imperfect bargain, the first insertion of a slight wobble into the momentum, letting go of hurt by turning it into a gift, building something out of little, finding community — echoes of the quoted elements told by someone without a basis for comparison.

  • Presque vue” — Tochi Onyebuchi (Uncanny, 2021)
    • confident — anxious — gentle
    • becoming — broken links — connections
    • categorising — excising — recognising
    • springing — scratching — loving
    • toss head — fight time — brush fingertips

The shape of “Presque vue” echoes aspects of grief-story shapes (particular processing/accepting), but it’s not about loss (although that’s in there, as a necessary incident of time). If anything, it’s about the opposite — holding out a hand until finally something rests in it.

What I do find fascinating is how it echoes the shape of Pinckard’s “A House Full of Voices…” (see notes) which while about something else also turns on themes of voices and time. If you look back up at the notes on that story, and reverse the first two moods in the first two dot-points, there’s a resemblance there. (Flipped, they would read “reassurance — memories — conversation” and “gathering — fleeing — releasing“.)

And it *almost* shares a “carelessness — suppression — acceptance/reunion” shape with Palumbo’s “Laughter Among The Trees” (see above), if you put a very different emphasis on those words! And yet, for all the very different tone and point, both are about ghosts & generations.

So it’s interesting to put these three stories (Pinckard’s “A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty”, Palumbo’s “Laughter Among the Trees” and Onyebuchi’s “Presque vue”) side-by-side, and look how they deal with time, ghosts, and what is passed between generations, and how growing up and growing older affects how you deal with family and voices and the opening up and narrowing of choices.

Ayinde’s “The Techwork Horse” (see notes earlier in this post) also recorded most of a character’s lifetime. It’s doing something quite different, but the first shape I noted (childhood — adulthood — full power) works for “Presque vue if “full power” applies to the *idea* vs the character.

And you could summarise both “The Techwork Horse” and “Presque vue” as:

  • bond (to marvellous thing) — frustration with the bond (its existence/incompleteness) — communication (recognition of a voice)

Which is a story shape that might feel too tidy/simple if it weren’t stretched over a lifetime, so that time itself provides the tension/frustration of the narrative, and the effort required of the character or the test they must pass is, ultimately, to have lived.

Compare this to Cahill’s “The Book of the Blacksmiths” (above), which also covers much of a life, but a very compressed one. Time is limited and therefore creates urgency (the limitation is built-in rather than unexpectedly imposed, so doesn’t create a sense of unnatural opposition).

  • The Tale of Jaja and Canti” — Tobi Ogundiran (Lightspeed, 2021)
    • a wonder — a want — gifts
    • home — journey — embrace
    • love known — love pursued — love returned
    • suspended — quest — unfold
    • receiving — sharing — naming
    • youth — ageing — after
      and (see notes on retellings below)
    • how far we shall stray — what we discovered on the journey — what remains past the end of it all

(Again, I also like reading down that list as if it were columns — the wonder but incompleteness of youth and love *received*; the entwining in the quest of sharing and maturing; the final goal involving something returned, and named, and a process of transformation.)

“The Tale of Jaja and Canti” is another story that follows the shape of a life, told in a short (perhaps) lull in its denouement, but unnaturally long (the life, not the story). Compare it again to Cahill’s “The Book of the Blacksmiths”, above, which for all its compression has a similar shape — maturity as gift received/returned. (This is not inconsistent with “The Techwork Horse” earlier, either, although the vibe and emphasis is different.)

It’s also a story that begins near its end, then returns to the beginning. Here, the technique interacts with the retelling — making it clear how far the story will stray from its beginnings, so it’s almost a surprise to discover a moment later that it is a retelling, and of what. This also opens up the space for the shifted aesthetics/worldbuilding of the story. Knowing what the end (the person, the concept of time) might look like, there’s now room for the other events of the story to plausibly happen.

Beginning near the end before flashing back also both raises a question (how did this come to be) and *removes* a sense of urgency, although not of purpose. The tale will take the time it takes (which will be longer than it seems) — and what it will demand of the main character will be a lifetime, lived.

As a retelling, its shape might therefore be “How far we shall stray — what we discovered on the journey — what remains past the end of it all“.

It’s a very kind story, and to the extent it is a retelling, it chooses to dwell on and extrapolate from the good and the love and the gratitude in the original.

  • Him Without Her and Her Within Him” — Aimee Ogden (Zooscape, 2021)
    • bewildered — rehearsing — understanding
    • mortality — loss — holding
    • arm’s length — consume — stay close
    • inabilities — battered — stronger
    • pulled — grieving — wisdom

“Him Without Her…” is *very* unlike Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe’s “Illusions of Freedom” (see earlier in this post), although both stories centre on escape-by-shifting-into-bird/animal-form.

But escape in Ajeigbe’s story is just that — a (brief, illusory) escape from a reality that cannot be changed, at least for the main character. Not even a respite, as fears surround even the escape. (Arguably, the situation might be different for observers, such as the reader.)

In Ogden’s story the escape, apparently a retreat from problems insoluble by the character, becomes a place to rehearse how to deal with them on returning. This is a not-uncommon function of portal fantasies (technically this isn’t one, but there’s an argument the crow-world is),

Compare this to Iona Datt Sharma’s portal fantasy “All Worlds Left Behind” (earlier in this post) which, while also handling incipient loss, uses what elsewhere often functions as an escape/rehearsal space as a very real object representing a collection of griefs.

“Escape” gets used in such a variety of ways. Escape as indictment of ‘reality’, as reprieve, as rehearsal space, as source of power, as part of maturing, as personality, as treasure, as intervention, gift, strength, rebellion, as touchstone, talisman, memory, as an open and accepted/expected part of a person’s life…

(This is within speculative genre fiction, which for many reasons tends to be broadly in favour of, or at least at pains not to hastily dismiss, escapism as a concept.)

  • Proof by Induction” — José Pablo Iriarte (Uncanny, 2021)
    • numb — pressing — look elsewhere
    • inchoate — specific — reoriented
    • lack — pursuit — dissatisfaction
    • opportunities — striving — reevaluation
    • chance — repetition — other chances
    • as was — wishing — what is

José Pablo Iriarte discusses the structure of the story (and the process of building it) in this interview with Caroline M. Yoachim — Interview: José Pablo Iriarte.

And you can see those two story threads very clearly in the story. Separated out, it might be one story of “obsession — dedicated pursuit of it — achievement (vs satisfaction)” and the other “new loss — old lack — own choices“.

But as the two narratives thread around each other, they blend into an overarching shape. “Numbness” may be a product of “obsession” x “new loss”, after all. And dissatisfaction could be the result of a disconnect between an achievement and one’s own choices.

“Proof by Induction” is a different (not unloving, but repressed) take on the loss-of-father story shape. Compare to Due’s “The Wishing Pool” (notes above) where change is easier, if worse, Reed’s “Babang Luksa” (notes above) which has a more direct process of release, and Sharma’s “All Worlds Left Behind” (notes above) dealing with preparation & related loss — notes on those stories are all earlier in this post.

“Proof by Induction” is related to the wishing stories, too — but here the emphasis is on repeatedly wishing for the same thing, in the hope that somehow you’ll get a different answer. The question is whether you’ll be more satisfied if it works than if not.

  • How to Break into a Hotel Room” — Stephen Graham Jones (Nightmare, 2021)
    • games — skills — deadly serious
    • haunted (metaphorically) — present agency — haunted (actually)
    • forced cheer — nerves — panic
    • done — doing — done to
    • friendship — competence — consequence
      and (see notes below)
    • doors once opened — doors continually propped ajar — finally something comes through

It’s definitely a Gothic/horror tale, so I compared it to my favourite classic Gothic shape (“door opened — thing through — averted but lingering dread:). “How to Break into a Hotel Room” is more: “doors once opened — doors continually propped ajar — finally something comes through“.

That’s why it reminded me of the overall tone of stories in Supernatural Noir (see previous notes) — a sense of finality/fatalism. But it also makes clear that this is a story about a character who for reasons is making the same choices he always has, in spite of knowing what that leads to.

  • Pull” — Leah Ning (Podcastle, 2021)
    • resist — struggle — yield
    • protest — grieve — peace
    • tremors — quakes — collapse
    • dark trees — edge of doom — more sure
    • resentment — panic — reassurance
    • pulling other back — saving self — freeing third

As with Iriarte‘s “Proof by Induction” (see notes here) there’s a circularity and finality (if with more emotion) to this story of loss and grief and virtual pocket-worlds. But in both, it’s a finality without complicity (cf the noir stories) — mortality is inevitable; you choose what to do with that fact.

Re previous discussions of purgatorial stories: unlike Iriarte’s “Proof by Induction” and Ning’s “Pull”, the purgatorial stories fall somewhere between grief & fatalism — a limited world created out of the failure to either fight or yield, neither clawing back from the edge of the abyss nor dropping over it.

“Proof of Induction” does create a quasi-purgatory in the form of the Coda, but the main character does finally use it to change something and get out (to an extent).

  • Before Whom Evil Trembles” — Nhamo (Anathema, 2021)
    • origins — stand — rise
    • gutters — streets — stage
    • viscera — tears — flame
    • work — endure — change
    • prove — suffer — disrupt
    • seed — stem — blossom
    • disgust — prejudice — power

Read beside Nadia Shammas’ “The Centre of the Universe” (earlier in this post), there are common concerns: stages and artificiality and compact worlds and who is centred in them, the shifting forms of prejudice, the pain and suffering and heat in/of being seen. But while both narrators initially work within an established order, their awareness of pain arises at different points (Nhamo’s ballerina works through pain, and then breaks through it in fury; Shammas’ Fatima appears to accept the system, then pursues it to logical violence).

Very different story shapes and tones for similar concerns.

But I’d love to see an in-depth, expert appreciation and comparison of what Nhamo and Shammas do with those two stories.

  • The Shadow of His Wings” — Ray Nayler (Analog SF, 2021)
    • innocence — overturned — truth
    • promises — promises — promises
    • exploited — used — connected
    • joy — fear — realisation
    • haste — resisting — defeat

I’m twisting the focus in and out as I look for ways to describe these patterns. It’s always satisfying to find a mood-word that has multiple nuances in the story. But when that happens, it highlights how many connected things a story is doing at once.

E.g., in “The Shadow of His Wings”, “haste” includes racing, eagerness, cryptic urgency, warning; “resist” has class and generational as well as character implications; “defeat” applies in different ways to all characters.

(Some stories run in harness, others are made of conflicting strands.)

But basically I’m saying there is a significant amount of wordplay involved in these exercises.

  • My Mother’s Hand” — Dante Luiz (Constelación, 2021)
    • interrupted — quarreling — observed
    • harassment — grudging compliance — defiant obedience
    • defining a problem — unwieldy progress — deliberateness
    • irritation — violence — ritual

Quite a straightforward story shape, in some ways — the character’s hassled completion of what is necessary, without real opposition (to the central task), gives leisure to show place and world and its rules. It’s the… complicated relationship with his mother, the narrator’s successful life and aggravated exasperation give plenty of incident. Voice(s) can carry a lot of a narrative.

“My Mother’s Hand” is, in addition, another dealing-with-death-of-parent story, too. This time without much discussion of grief (for obvious reasons), but with a rather delightful (for the reader) consistency of approach. The relationship has always been terrible, and that doesn’t change. And there’s honour in that. A story that follows someone who did what needs to be done to survive, and therefore survives to do what needs to be done.

A useful & interesting part of this project has been noticing where the energy/momentum of various stories comes from.

Conflict, yes. But equally (or more) often curiosity, beauty, inevitability, voice, competence, attention, observation, contrast, confluence, the final expiring energy of some event long ago…

The March post is now up here: March Short Story Reading Post.

Here’s a full list of stories from this post:

21 thoughts on “February short story reading thread

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