September 2022 Short Story Reading Post

Photo of open notebook with handwritten notes on stories (transcribed and expanded below)

This post is a roughly tidied version of my September 2022 tweets about short stories. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post. Also, as usual, this post is long, so the rest is below the cut…

A few of the themes emerging (and re-emerging) this month include:

  • repeated moods
  • climate fiction shapes
  • where an idea lands in a narrative
  • variations on stories about loss and food
  • compressing a standard shape
  • common events vs less-common moods
  • voice and getting away with things
  • brevity and world-building
  • illusions of length
  • surreality
  • internal/borrowed timelines
  • ritual and/as/of narrative

Background and related posts:

And so, to begin…

  • The Bird Lover” — Sarah McCarry (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — a woman, loved by a swan, moves north with her twins as the world warms) 2,838
    • waiting — waiting — waiting
    • hope — doubt — staying
    • departures — (dis)illusion — partings
    • spells — realism — emergence
    • self — others — someone else

The repeated single mood “waiting — waiting — waiting” is strong in this one, and you can feel the gear and intensity and quality of the waiting change, shifting through the moods stacked below.

“The Bird Lover” is also a really interesting story to read alongside Helen Marshall’s novel The Migration, because as well as thematic resonances (wings, change, climate), there’s an echo (distorted, given this is short story vs novel structure) in the shape “spells — realism — emergence“.

Which suggest there is something in that shape that appeals to fabulist treatments of climate change and loss and transformation. Now that I can see it there, I can find echoes of it in other longer-form fantastic climate change stories, e.g. Marion Womack’s The Swimmers. (“Fantastic” in e.g. the influences and tone, such as Womack’s use of fairy tales.)

There’s a question to pursue there about the use of fairy tales when writing about climate change.

And as brief as McCarry’s short story is, it has a lyricism the whole way through that reminded me of a short lyrical-literary novel — I could imagine the story spun out and elaborated to function at that length.

(Looking back at these notes, this also answers a question I had about the structure of The Migration. It’s definitely novel-shaped, but its dreamlike quality permits it to lean back towards a short story progression. Or perhaps the dreamlike quality lets big moods spread out to cover a greater proportion of the book than is usual in a novel — or blanketing a large section of text in a sustained mood helps create a dreamlike effect. That’s probably the answer.)

That “spells — realism — emergence” and “departures — (dis)illusion — departures” shape also hints at the ways “The Bird Lover” is adjacent to being a retelling. It is primarily allusive, not reworking but building something out of the bones and words and expectations of other stories.

Anyway, if you’re teaching/studying climate fiction (especially lyrical-fabulist approaches to it), The Migration and “The Bird Lover” would be a VERY interesting pairing to compare.

  • D.I.Y.” — John Wiswell (Tor.com, 2022 — unable to attend an exclusive magical academy, two friends learn to use magic in their own way) 4,886
    • solo — duo — (vs) the world
    • disappointment — d.i.y. — reactions
    • hope — aim — means
    • withheld — taken — channels
    • want — get — give
    • dreams (nebulous) — dreams (practical) — realities

(Note: “solo” and “duo” are the focus. The characters aren’t purely isolated — there are other supporting characters throughout.)

Something I really like about this story, reflected in the shapes, is that you can see the idea dropping, encountering reality, and then continuing to encounter realities all the way down. It’s a story that keeps encountering and reacting (with frustration or action or…). So you get these neat little swings and switchbacks, the weight of the world occasionally landing on the protagonists, occasionally being used against itself (or to benefit itself).

  • “Clatter Tongue” — Karen Wyld (This All Come Back Now, ed. Mykaela Saunders, 2022, Borderlands 2020 First Nations Writing Award — a girl, confronted with violence, speaks in physical artefacts from a violent history) quite short
    • fear — frustration — exhaustion
    • possessive — dismissive — supportive
    • facing violence — facing violence — facing violence
    • bearing witness — bearing witness — bearing witness
    • physical — bureaucratic — human
    • evidence — truths — power

I also had “weapon — paper — bone“, which was a bit too event-based, vs mood, but you can see it in the combination of “physical — bureaucratic — human” and “facing violence — facing violence — facing violence“.

As a story that leans on the same mood, it shifts through the twinned moods of “facing violence” and “bearing witness” — passive, active, blank-faced, minimal, powerful.

  • Six Goats” — Isabel Cañas (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — on the eve of a coup, two servants of a princess recall legends from an oppressed nation) 1,120
    • fate — desire — hope
    • comfort — despair — desperation
    • tales — reality — power
    • acted upon — belief — action
    • stolen — stolen from — a chance

A very short story, and very much a situation, but tilting just enough into the future, into what *might* be, that the story definitely moves through a story shape.

A lot can be implied through/as the ending of a very short story, of course, and hope may be the reader’s as much as the character’s.

  • “Closing Time” — Samuel Wagan Watson (This All Come Back Now, ed. Mykaela Saunders, 2022 — during lockdown, a man is caught between past and future and the narrowing circle of anxiety) fairly short
    • circling — circling — circling (shift?)
    • wander — seek connection — presence of loss
    • isolation — brush against — release
    • displacement — panic — settle
    • worry — hope — reveal/understand

That repeated mood (circling — circling — circling), as well as achieving the usual variation-through-pressure (which you can see in the other dot-point descriptions of the story) helps build an intense, uncertain, anxious mood.

And that spiralling path also suits what is not a coming-to-terms-with-loss story, but an existing-in-the-(life-structuring)-knowledge-of-loss story: long past, present past, imminent…

Three stories into “This All Come Back Now” (ed. Mykaela Saunders), and it already looks like it will be a very interesting collection to study for its treatment of time. The title should, I grant, have been a clue.

  • The Part You Throw Away” — Elizabeth Bear (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — sisters and their grandmother, cooking through the food left in their mother’s house, begin to welcome unexpected guests) 3,091
    • honour — welcome — hold line
    • accept — receive — discern
    • overwhelm — comfort — certainty
    • beginning — acceleration — to roost
    • loss — joy — hope
    • decision — unexpected result — should-have-expected result

This story resonates with Samuel Wagan Watson’s “Closing Time” (above), and after recently making notes about food-and-grieving stories — see notes following Cassandra Khaw’s “We Can Make Death Work” (here in the August notes).

Also, this not a coming-to-terms-with-loss story so much as a steps-after-loss story.

And it plays with some story shapes. It would have been easy, I think, for initial choices to have unpleasant unexpected consequences, followed by pleasant ones. But the story shifts that — the unexpected results are lovely (if disconcerting), while the unpleasant moment, happening late, should (by the time it happens) have been anticipated. And yet, while that coming-home-to-roost mood is strong, it is laced with hope and strength and heady solidarity, and strength built over the story from love and its patterns.

Also, it isn’t unusual for a classic coming-to-terms-with-loss story to have a sense of hope/comfort/joy/acceptance as its final big mood. But while hope is definitely in there, it’s not the foreground action of that last section. But comfort and welcome and joy is firmly centred in the middle of the story. And I love that pulling of the end-game into the guts of a piece, because it opens up the story. It’s not “and so we reached peace”, but “having reached peace, what do we do with it?”

When that approach to a common/classic story shape shows up — concentrating it into the first two (or occasionally the first) mood, and then seeing what happens next — a story often begins to effervesce. (I know I’ve talked about this before, but I don’t seem to have used any easily-searchable key words.)

It’s an interesting thought-exercise: Take a classic or standard story-shape, compress it into two big moods instead of three, and see where it might go next. For example, “pressure — unbearable — conflagration” might become “unbearable pressure — conflagration — oppressor (or the bureacracy of liberation)”. Or “attraction — obstacles — uniting” might become “chaotic courtship — united (with difficulties) — tidying away the damage caused by the romance/re-establishing friendships“.

  • The Locked Pod” — Malka Older (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — a cloistered space station receives an escape pod that contains a dead body) 3,617
    • startled — patient — accepting
    • responding — curiosity — assessing
    • discovery — discussion — disclosure
    • practicalities — principles — adherence

It’s an interesting application of story-shape to subject, because it doesn’t end in quite the sort of way a locked-room (or pod) story tends to. But it’s a story that’s been very explicit, throughout, about the lives the characters choose to lead, and the shape fits that.

So it’s an interesting demonstration of taking a classic sequence of events, and frame them through a less-common sequence of moods.

  • Bite” — Emily Hope (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a teacher struggles to cope with an unsettling and violent girl) 2,832
    • unsettled — distressed — anguished
    • shaken — ineffectual — powerless
    • watching — avoiding — ravening
    • confront — impasse — shift
    • demand — exist — take

The power play in this story is interesting — tense and never reaching equilibrium. There’s an inevitability to it, each character has something they won’t get past, but rather than a typical progression there’s a tension there, waiting for something to finally give. It’s *uncomfortable*, and the structure matches the subject.

  • All the Boys in the Sea” — Marie Croke (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — every year, a village sacrifices a boy to the sea, and when one survives he must decide what to do) 1,926
    • death — life — change
    • acted upon by group one — acted upon by group two — taking action
    • discarded — space — choice
    • salvation — existence — debt
    • found — listening — acting

A restrained story, with an incremental progression from acted-upon to taking-action — compare it to the conflagration stories.

It’s interesting, too, that while the trodden upon –> conflagration stories tend to centre female characters (not always, but often), this gentler take is about boys. Something about the way lashing out/finally taking action is framed.

Lovely lyrical little curls of the numinous in this, too. And that’s a very different approach to the oceanic sublime than is taken in the next story (also about sea spirits, also from Fireside).

  • The Day I Became Poseidon” — Leila Martin (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — now a media darling, the narrator relates a startling coming-into-power at an awkward dinner party) 1,763
    • snark — dissociating — power
    • descriptive — desperation — drama
    • situation — intrusion — seize moment
    • raconteur — voiceless — privilege

A very different approach to the oceanic sublime than is taken in the story above (also about sea spirits, also from Fireside). And also in first person, with a very different voice… and ALSO about finally taking action).

The story is deliberately very voice-dependent, as suits what is an anecdote about a delightfully ridiculous (in these hands) incident, with no excuse or explanation whatsoever given.

It’s certainly a story, story-shaped, and quite short, and demonstrates the power of a very distinctive narratorial voice (judgey, sharp-witted, funny, superior, dismissive) to carry a short piece, and get away with a tale about an Odd Thing That Happened.

Whereas “All the Boys in the Sea” (above) says very little about the village from which the boys came, leaving the reader to picture what lies over the horizon, “The Day I Became Poseidon” has no interest in even hinting at plausibilities. This happened, and you enjoy listening to it.

The one uses brevity to leverage world-building (by making the reader bring the world to the story). The other uses brevity with amused defiance — there is no need for a world that matters or makes sense outside the story. The telling is the point.

(Or perhaps being forced to extrapolate the improbabilities yourself is the point.)

I do love a narrator who refuses to narrate anything that doesn’t interest them. It’s not a voice or approach that is LIMITED to existing at the intersection of Weird Fiction and Tall Tales, but it fits very nicely there.

  • Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” — Fran Wilde (Uncanny, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — a bewitching, exclusive, elusive dress shop returns to New York, and draws two cousins into its orbit) 8,628
    • resist — intrigue — enter
    • anticipate — demand — relinquish
    • pursuit — offers — arrangements
    • desires — seductions — powers

Hello, fairy-tale contract stories!

The shape suggests a very simple progression from one point to the next, but the story plays with and around what is going on, breaking away and suggesting it might be a different story than what it turns out being.

This has the effect of making it feel, moment-to-moment, as if it has some of the complexities of a longer type of story.

That illusion of greater length also permits the emotion be lifted slightly away from the story — a very short version would have to be more emotionally intense, I suspect, whereas this is ultimately more a story of awakened curiosity, intrigue, and getting what you want.

  • Frost’s Boy” — PH Lee (Lightspeed Magazine, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — a beautiful, cold-hearted boy raised by Frost pursues a girl who might be clever enough to survive) 7,961
    • beginnings — going on — winding in
    • so it was — so it went — so it was resolved
    • how this came to be — used as a weapon — humanity vs eternal
    • fate — labour — application
    • elemental — cruel — human
    • chill — work — warm

There’s a lovely story-telling frame bracketing this story, calling things into doubt, seeding uncertainty at the beginning and undermining the final mood in the final note. And because of the storyteller-voice, you can never quite forget that possibility.

All of that plays with and around a very strong central fairy-tale/fable shape — once upon a time, and then, and so — which anchors a beautifully laid-back, wandering style. This is a shape that supports indulgence.

It also reminded me: there’s something in these “so it was”/”so it is” fairy-tale modes that is reminiscent of literary-realist short fiction. (“So it is/so we recall/so it could not otherwise have been/so the lesson that cannot be recalled was learned”.)

I also enjoyed, in “Frost’s Boy”, the application of the elemental/eternal to humanity, and vice versa, and the question of how far that can go, and whether the outcome will be good. It makes me wonder about echoes between that and the “numinous vs machines” stories. (See, for example, discussion after DaVaun Sanders’ “Papa Legba Has Entered the Chat” in the August notes.)

  • “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” — Karen Russell (Conjunctions:76, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — a woman encounters a unicorn on bin day, and an unexpected pregnancy) fairly long
    • scavenge — gather — hold
    • exist — realise — hope
    • augur — desire — anticipate
    • detritus — sensing — certainty
    • fragments — communal — visceral

This story has a lovely sense — visible in those story shapes — of a process of gathering unexpected gifts together into a partly discovered, certainly chosen life.

And while that sort of progression can be clinical and self-consciously pretty, in this story it is messy and visceral and jagged, mangy and hungry. But beautiful.

It’s also a story that takes its pace and limits from an internal, very set, biological timeline — one that’s incontrovertible, but long enough to give the story room to misdirect and move and grow.

  • “The Debutante” — Leonora Carrington (1937-38; The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, 2017 — a debutante enlists a friendly hyena to take her place at a ball) very short
    • audacity — callousness — abashed
    • spark — flame — soot
    • idea — momentum — ungovernable
    • sullen — sly — one’s nature
    • dissatisfaction — delight — self-sufficiency
    • delight — glee — scolded

A giddy, gleeful, heartless, bloody little dream of hyenas in high-heels. (It is by THAT Leonora Carrington, after all.)

It’s surreal, of course. There’s more than a hint of the fairy-tale in its shape. You can see ways it might have been more so — if, for instance, the comeuppance had been more dramatic (or really there at all), or more fable-y, or if the consequence had been wildly unintended, or deserved. But that muted mild alarm and disgruntlement — after the trickery and murder and being friends with hyenas — keeps the story in a dream/surreal space and mode.

  • “The White Road, Or How a Crow Carried Death Over a River” — Marika Bailey (Fiyah 18, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — a young crow, making a name for itself, discovers a terrible injustice) 6,343
    • yearning — purpose — next step
    • dissatisfied — compassionate — protect/avenge
    • dive — soar — strike
    • wish — understand — act
    • self — friends — allies

The story could have been halted earlier — the desire to prove oneself, the discovery of a way, the effort and success. Many stories would end there. But this story pushes over that threshold, into what next, the greater and more complicated step, towing more meaning and characters with it.

So again, this is a story that takes a fairly common/workable structure and squashes it into the first 2/3 of the story, and then asks what next. It also takes a glorious image, which a story could have rested on triumphantly, and pulls that back into the centre, so it isn’t the climax but the first step.

This makes a lovely story shape for the coming-of-age story “The White Road…” contains — the action that brings more actions, the taking responsibility that brings more responsibility, the striking out on your own that brings you together with (and taking responsibility for) others.

The last Bailey story I read before this was “Daughters with Bloody Teeth” (see here in the March notes).

Screenshot of linked tweet

That story also contained a sort of central gathering of purpose and meaning — not as a way-station but as what might in other hands have been the whole story — and then taking further action based on that. It’s a vigorous, joyfully bloody story mechanism.

  • “The Oval Lady” — Leonora Carrington (1939; The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, 2017 — the narrator enters a house and is swept up in the equine fantasies of the tall young woman who lives there) very short
    • desire — admiration — distress
    • enchantment — transformation — terrors
    • bold — swept up — unrelenting
    • observer — audience — witness
    • enter — enlisted — involved
    • vision — sight — knowledge
    • remote — mercurial — implacable

Surrealist story logic is great. It exists just sideways from fairy-tale, dream, and folk-horror logic. It is accepted by most characters — often but not always including the main character — and the *tone* of the piece refuses to be flustered by it. And yet…

Knives Out gif — it makes no damn sense... it compels me though

Which is to say it makes its own intensely localised feeling of making sense, but only if you enter into its house, as it were.

Everything is true at the same time. The girl is a horse is ten feet tall. But the intensity of the impressions are there, the mood-shape of a story is there. And that makes sense —  wonder and watching from a corner, the implacable peculiarities and cruelties observed by a visitor.

I think you can see this distinction in Gorey’s satirisations of the surreal, when he creates a sequence of delightfully odd events without necessarily involving a narrative (although sometimes sustaining a single mood of peculiarity or ominousness), vs when he’s being (gleefully) surreal. And vs the earnest, gleeful *meaning*-ness of Carrington.

  • Recipe” — Tina S Zhu (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — the narrator takes a part-time job as personal chef to a vampire) 500
    • exasperation — alarm — exasperation
    • desperation — desperation — desperation
    • difficulties — discoveries — practicalities
    • clues — solutions — choices
    • mysteries — domesticities — practicalities
    • search — find — move on

If you read down the first moods (the left-hand column), desperation/exasperation/difficulties are so closely entangled because the story is so short (500 words), which — along with the tone — give a lightness to the untenability of modern employment.

Again, it’s a story that moves what could have been the whole story into the first third. There’s a mystery and a solution. But the solution is moved into the middle, so the story rushes past it and into the actions taken by the main character in consequence.

Also — again, impressive in such a short story — there are at least two beats in each third. So story begins with two mysteries: the news coverage and how to make a living in this economy. Then it moves into two stages of the new job: the right thing and the inevitable thing — or the failed solution to mystery no. 2 and the unexpected solution to mystery no. 1. And finally, there’s a two (or even three) stage section of cleanups/decisions made: take action, deal with fallout, consider options.

It’s a lot for 500 words — and yet the exasperated voice and the just-one-thing-after-another style, as well as the continual roll-out of the world (these things exist, these exist, here’s the interaction, here’s how I fit in, here’s the structure around it, here’s what I do with that) make it feel larger.

Also, referring back to notes on Fran Wilde’s “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd” (above), here’s another pattern I’ve noticed: misdirection as to what a story is about (not necessarily a twist, just a subtle shift in emphasis) can make a a story feel like it’s taking up more space than it does.

And now the last Fireside Fiction story…

  • Grits, Goblins, and Good Times” — WC Dunlap (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a cook and her lover give the hungry what they need, and deserve) 4,412
    • purpose — professional — visceral
    • arrangement — temptation — yielding
    • ritual — supplicants — rites
    • domestic — cosy — bloody
    • beauty — off-kilter — rebalance
    • sensory — careful — indulge

It’s a story that strongly suggests it will go one way (cosy, life-affirming, using food as magic to heal emotional wounds). Then the gears skip and grind and it goes in a very different direction. But not one that wasn’t seeded to begin with.

The power and appetites, the control and ritualistic aspects are there, and they show through in the story shape. Under the willingness to let the reader believe they’ll be sanitised is a refusal to actually do so. Which adds to the violently voluptuous gourmandery of the story.

I’m looking back on some previous notes about the role of rites and rituals in stories. (Here, it’s not necessarily a formalised ritual, but there is that sense of function.)

See e.g. notes following Eugenia Triantafyllou’s “My Country is a Ghost” (see here in March notes) — ritual as a way to structure and bracket a story, to remake a world (in this case, to restore a private world AND update the reader’s view of it) and as a short-story-sized world-building tool.

Screenshot of linked tweet

And in the notes following Premee Mohamed’s “The Generals’ Turn” (see here in the May notes), discussing stories which take another side than “Grits…” does! But picking up on themes of ritual creating a stage/stagey/pocket-world; ritual vs the outside world; ritual as an opening/closing of doors.

Screenshot of linked tweet

So while the theatre/site of ritual is a cocoon (per those notes), you could rephrase this as: ritual turns a short story into a cocoon in which things are broken down and remade. Sometimes that’s the ritual itself, sometimes the world or the characters.

Screenshot of linked tweet

And no more Fireside Fiction! I think I’ve made notes on nearly every short story since the announcement was made, and certainly from the last few issues, and there have been many wonderful ones.

  • “Her Garden, the Size of Her Palm” — Yukimi Ogawa (F&SF, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — the narrator takes a dangerous job with an old woman (perhaps), collecting natural specimens in many worlds) reasonable length
    • acceptance — affront — act out
    • bewilder — accept — the machinery
    • elements — human — gardeners
    • taken advantage — resentment — voice
    • many places — one place — the two that matter
    • ‘rescue’ — ‘rescue’ — ‘rescue’

It’s really interesting to see how the shape of the story manages the moments of surreality. As you sit back and enjoy it, it comes into focus.

It’s also a rather kindly amoral take on the pushed-past-the-point-of-bearing story-shape. (That robust kindly amorality, the knowingly pushing someone into being more without giving them any information to do it with, reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones’ story mechanics.)

That, and worldbuilding by just picking a character up and flinging them into it.

Also, a note of two occasionally recurring themes, in case I need to find them again: old-lady-gardeners-make/save-the-world, and gardeners-in-space.

I was chatting to someone about this three-mood approach, and why I stack up the story shapes up without distilling them down. It’s definitely possible, and sometimes I’ll take that extra step, but I just like the implications and power of those aspects/refractions. And the three-word versions are snappier and faster, which are active advantages.

E.g. for “Her Garden…” you could condense and distill the various shapes I’ve listed (I’m doing this on the fly) to:

  • a bewildering, fragmented, dubious ‘rescue’
  • human nature grappling resentfully with a new reality
  • finally getting a handle on the forces at play, and leveraging them

So, to apply that to a story idea… I’m going to try this with the large creepy dog that was standing in my carport looking up into my kitchen window last night. (Update: Its name is Willow).

1. A person is ‘rescued’ from a terrible situation (accident?) by being transformed into a large dog, an experience which disorients them, and for which they are unable to seek an explanation, as they blunder through the suburban night.

2. They are horrified and bewildered by the shifts in perspective, the barriers in their landscape, the threats and pursuits, and get lost in the unfamiliar animal byways and secret paths of the suburb.

3. But they discover and begin to use the system of tunnels and holes and sliding fence panels all around them, and suspect they are not alone, although they never speak to anything like them, and although people regard them askance, as though they suspect something unsettling.

That needs work, and doesn’t incorporate the smaller mechanics, but it has (too many) legs. (I also realise, jotting this down, that I’ve essentially written the beginning of it as an ending to something else, before). But in working to that more detailed, distilled shape, I’m conscious of pulling and pushing against the original story, trying to use its mechanics but not too closely, where the simpler descriptions are less identifiable and more freeing.

  • The Minister’s Black Veil” — Nathaniel Hawthorne (1836 — a minister, for reasons he does not explain, begins to wear a black veil over his eyes) 5,163
    • obscurity — obscurity — obscurity
    • horror — revulsion — indictment
    • patience — acceptance — adherence
    • a moment — in life — unto death
    • a power — a power — a power
    • vs friends—vs love—vs doubt
    • discomfort—memento mori—and so
    • wedge — loss — gift?

It’s interesting reading the Hawthorne vs the Ogawa vs the Carringtons, tracing those edges of the odd vs the unexplained vs the explained-but-inexplicable.

There are some interesting echoes in shape, especially between the Hawthorne and Carrington’s “The Oval Lady” (see notes above). Elements of several shapes recur or are inverted, e.g. observer/audience/witness, enter/enlist/involve, remote/mercurial/implacable, vision/sight/knowledge.

But the Hawthorne is strong on the strong likelihood of metaphor being involved (and is subtitled “a parable”), while the Carrington — although parable-length — treats all its improbabilities as apparently real.

Ogawa’s “Her Garden…” (above), meanwhile, is closer to the Carrington at first, but as it extends in length begins to build the world into one with consistencies and consequences, instead of an endlessly unfurling dream of the surreal.

There’s something to do with the twin functions of length and the degree to which events/reality can be relied upon.

  • “Passing Fair and Young” — Roshani Chokshi (Sword Stone Table, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — a young woman must choose whether she wishes to be a myth or witness it) fairly long
    • preparation — completion — follow-through
    • apprehension — arrival — wait out
    • learning — choosing — partnership
    • told — decide — accept
    • grow — lock in — chronicle

This is a story-of-a-life story, and it’s notable again that the vast majority of that life (the character’s entire adulthood) takes place in the last third of the story (by length).

As a retelling, it uses a secret-history, myths-behind-the-myths, back-of-the-tapestry approach.

The crisis point, in this shape, is a fulcrum — the story centres on a decision that is neither the culmination of a life nor (quite) the beginning of it. The character has the chance to get the information to make her choice, and then gets to live it out in full knowledge.

So it’s neither a typical coming-of-age story shape (where the point is often either a final decision or growing in the consequence of an early one), nor an early choice setting off a purely responsive redemption/tragedy/heroic progress. (There are other placements, of course — the late choice poorly made, with compressed consequences, the early choice well-made, with gleeful ones…)

All of those story shapes run up to or descend from the choice. But “Passing Fair and Young” is securely balanced: by the time the choice is made, the main character is certain in it, having had time to consider options; a broad swathe of the story dramatises the time of choice; and the choice while not relentlessly happy isn’t doubted.

Which fits the memoir-history framing and pacing of the story, especially as a story told against the “official version of events”, and also the certainty of someone relating the unknown events behind a myth, and confirming and rewarding (to varying extents) a choice made.

And there’s also (especially in that last third) a particular … not passivity, but stately tapestry-effect tone, a measured, calendar-marking recounting that is often deployed in stories of people-to-whom-tales-happened-and-what-happened-after, so it almost becomes: “existing — acting — chronicling“, or if you look at how time and narratorial closeness is handled, “relatively swift, with presence/involvement — intensely present/involved — observed and remote“, with the narrator’s youth and early adulthood having the clearest focus & immediacy.

And that’s the end of the September 2022 short story reading notes.

All stories read in this post (with internal links to the first place they’re discussed)

  • The Bird Lover” — Sarah McCarry (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — a woman, loved by a swan, moves north with her twins as the world warms) 2,838
  • D.I.Y.” — John Wiswell (Tor.com, 2022 — unable to attend an exclusive magical academy, two friends learn to use magic in their own way) 4,886
  • Clatter Tongue” — Karen Wyld (This All Come Back Now, ed. Mykaela Saunders, 2021, Borderlands 2020 First Nations Writing Award — a girl, confronted with violence, speaks in physical artefacts from a violent history) quite short
  • Six Goats” — Isabel Cañas (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — on the eve of a coup, two servants of a princess recall legends from an oppressed nation) 1,120
  • Closing Time” — Samuel Wagan Watson (This All Come Back Now, ed. Mykaela Saunders, 2022 — during lockdown, a man is caught between past and future and the narrowing circle of anxiety) fairly short
  • The Part You Throw Away” — Elizabeth Bear (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — sisters and their grandmother, cooking through the food left in their mother’s house, begin to welcome unexpected guests) 3,091
  • The Locked Pod” — Malka Older (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — a cloistered space station receives an escape pod that contains a dead body) 3,617
  • Bite” — Emily Hope (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a teacher struggles to cope with an unsettling and violent girl) 2,832
  • All the Boys in the Sea” — Marie Croke (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — every year, a village sacrifices a boy to the sea, and when one survives he must decide what to do) 1,926
  • The Day I Became Poseidon” — Leila Martin (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — now a media darling, the narrator relates a startling coming-into-power at an awkward dinner party) 1,763
  • Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” — Fran Wilde (Uncanny, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — a bewitching, elusive dress shop returns to New York, and draws two cousins into its orbit) 8,628
  • Frost’s Boy” — PH Lee (Lightspeed Magazine, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — a beautiful, cold-hearted boy raised by Frost pursues a girl who might be clever enough to survive) 7,961
  • The Cloud Lake Unicorn” — Karen Russell (Conjunctions:76, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — a woman encounters a unicorn on bin day, and an unexpected pregnancy) fairly long
  • The Debutante” — Leonora Carrington (1937-38; The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, 2017 — a debutante enlists a friendly hyena to take her place at a ball) very short
  • The White Road, Or How a Crow Carried Death Over a River” — Marika Bailey (Fiyah 18, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — a young crow, making a name for itself, discovers a terrible injustice) 6,343
  • The Oval Lady” — Leonora Carrington (1939; The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, 2017 — the narrator enters a house and is swept up in the equine fantasies of the tall young woman who lives there) very short
  • Recipe” — Tina S Zhu (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — the narrator takes a part-time job as personal chef to a vampire) 500
  • Grits, Goblins, and Good Times” — WC Dunlap (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — a cook and her lover give the hungry what they need, and deserve) 4,412
  • Her Garden, the Size of Her Palm” — Yukimi Ogawa (F&SF, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran — the narrator takes a dangerous job with an old woman (perhaps), collecting natural specimens in many worlds) reasonable length
  • The Minister’s Black Veil” — Nathaniel Hawthorne (1836 — a minister, for reasons he does not explain, begins to wear a black veil over his eyes) 5,163
  • Passing Fair and Young” — Roshani Chokshi (Sword Stone Table, 2021; Year’s Best Fantasy (ed. Paula Guran) — a young woman must choose whether she wishes to be a myth or witness it) fairly long

5 thoughts on “September 2022 Short Story Reading Post

  1. Pingback: The Year’s Best Fantasy Vol. 1 | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: September 2022 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Short stories: Rites and rituals and structure | Kathleen Jennings

  4. Pingback: October 2022 Short Story Reading Post | Kathleen Jennings

  5. Pingback: August 2022 Short Story Reading Post | Kathleen Jennings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s