It’s my first Short Fiction Treasures column of 2022, and I am celebrating the new year with a roundup chock full of flash fiction. All the stories in this roundup are one thousand words or less, and while there is no “official” word count for flash fiction (some zines set the limit at one thousand, and others at 1,500), I think one thousand words makes a nice, round number.
I love flash for a lot of reasons. There’s the instant gratification of reading a complete work of fiction in just a few minutes. And there’s the way flash lends itself to playful, inventive experimentation with form, prose, style, voice, and subject. I also love the way a flash story can be honed and sharpened as everything extraneous is eliminated, and the way it can capture and convey the essence of something—an emotion, a world, a situation, a possibility, an idea, even a joke!—in brilliant brevity.
One of my favorite zines for speculative flash is Flash Fiction Online, which just released its hundredth issue (congratulations!). There are four terrific stories in this issue, and I’m featuring two of them here. First up is the deliciously defiant “The Recipe Keeper” by Beth Cato, where a woman on an alien-occupied Earth risks her life to gather the now-forbidden knowledge of old recipes in order to keep hope, and the memories of better days (and food!), alive. My second pick from this hundredth issue of FFO is the poignant and haunting “The Lighthouse Keeper's Guide to Pulau Belakang Mati” by Wen-yi Lee. Here, a new lighthouse keeper must pay their respects, and the proper tithe, to the local martyrs before taking up their position. Along the way, we learn the details of the fateful mistake that once devastated the community.
There are other zines like Flash Fiction Online that publish only flash fiction. One example is The Arcanist, where you can read the harrowing “Here Be Monsters” by Avra Margariti. This is a dark, vividly etched gem of a tale that delves into the true, murky nature of monsters and shapeshifting. It takes place in a village where girls and women hope, and dread, the day when the community’s men return aboard their ships: “White sails mean the men return from their journey for provisions unscathed. Black sails mean the men on the ship—some or most—have perished. Red sails mean they have changed.”
Factor Four Magazine also publishes all flash fiction and has recently started up again after a hiatus. In the captivating and thought-provoking “The Tangled Web” by Patrick Hurley from the magazine’s December 2021 issue, we meet a woman who isn’t quite sure whether she died the previous day or not, and when she meets a talkative spider at the bus stop, things only get stranger.
Daily SF publishes one speculative fiction story every weekday, all between 100 and 1,500 words. In “We Want to See You On a Plate” from December 2021, Andrew Kozma blends the intensity of reality cooking shows, and a very dark sense of humor, with the grimmest, bloodiest horror as a group of competing chefs crack open their latest mystery box of (very belligerent) ingredients. If you missed it, you should also check out Xander Odell’s razor-sharp, post-apocalyptic flash “Final Warnings in Open Fields” in Daily SF.
If you want your stories even shorter, there’s Martian Magazine, which publishes drabbles, or stories of exactly 100 words. Wonderful gems can be found here, including Rich Larson’s “Night Shift,” a truly relatable slice of science fiction about the future (not too distant future, I’d say) of work, and the heartbreaking “The Last Dream” by Sylvia Heike.
Many other speculative fiction zines also publish brilliant flash on a regular basis.
Laur A. Freymiller’s “The Mothers” in Nightmare is a deeply unsettling and compelling horror story about Theodora, who loses her baby and begins to see the strange and previously unseen Mothers everywhere, “peeking out from sewer grates, secreting themselves behind lampposts, staring out from the other side of mirrors.” At first, their presence just flutters at the edge of Theodora’s vision, but soon they are inside her and her husband’s apartment—in the walls and elsewhere—and Theodora cannot unsee them.
“In the Cold Dark Sea” by Jenny Rae Rappaport in Lightspeed is a fierce and pugnacious mermaid story where the mermaids will do everything in their power to stop the whalers that travel through their waters to “slaughter our kin, and dim their songs.” While these mermaids might redden their lips and sing enticing songs, their teeth are sharp, and they have a mighty thirst for revenge.
Two other fantastic flash stories from Lightspeed are Izzy Wasserstein’s “To Reach the Gate, She Must Leave Everything Behind,” where Susan Pevensie gets to tell her side of the story (finally!), and “Writing You” by Sharang Biswas, a gorgeously wrought tale of grief and transformative funerary rites.
Two of my recent favorite flash fiction reads are from The Deadlands, a zine that has been publishing a wealth of outstanding stories, poetry, and non-fiction since starting up in May 2021.
“L’hiver est assis sur un banc” by Margaret Dunlap is an ominously beautiful, icicle-sharp tale about Winter, who is seated on a bench and unable to move as she melts, slowly, while her brother, Spring, is approaching. Dunlap reeled me in from the first line, and kept me hooked until the end, chilling me to the bone, just like winter should.
“In the Window” by Patrick Lofgren is another standout from The Deadlands. This is a soul-strangling, reality-warping slice of horror that reads like a nightmare I might have dreamed and then forgotten, and it will linger in my mind for a long time.
The range and depth of speculative flash fiction is astounding, and it never ceases to amaze me how much a writer can say with a thousand words or less.
In “Motivation Augmentation” by Clara Ward in Strange Horizons, we see a future where augmented, indentured workers must toil in hazardous environments to pay off their debts. One of these augmented workers, Jaysee, endures this harsh, punishing work by clinging to ephemeral memories of their lover, Esvee, and a time when they can be together again. Ward skillfully twists this tale like a knife in your gut.
“When Evening Arrives” by Tiffany Morris in Apex Magazine is an exquisitely crafted alien encounter story with a lyrical heart, focusing on a Mi’kmaq community’s efforts to share their language, culture, and the world they live in, with visitors from beyond the stars. There is joy in trying to share, but also trepidation: “She tried to ignore the fear and doubt clenching her fists shut. Invasion wouldn’t have to be laser beams dissolving tall buildings to rubble. They all knew that much.”
Another excellent science fiction flash is “Things You Should Be Aware of on Waking, Daniel Carter” by C.L. Holland in Kaleidotrope. Written as a list of instructions to a newly awakened individual, this story captures a whole saga of oppression, resistance, rebellion, and revenge with great skill and power.
Unexpected twists are a mainstay of flash fiction (confession: I am an unapologetic fan of such twists), and that device is used with real panache in “Shouty Lads” by Charles EP Murphy in Fantasy Magazine. One night, Sammy finally loses patience with the local group of shouty lads, “the ones around each night, every night, apparently drunk, sound like they’re murdering each other.” Sammy heads out in the alley to tell them off when things take a turn that he (and I) did not foresee.
Though her story is very different in tone, Lina Rather, much like Murphy, threads a strand of old magic into our everyday world in her superb and heartbreaking “The Night the River Meets the Sky” in Fireside Fiction. Here, on a solstice night, a woman waits at the edge of a river where a bargain was struck long ago that changed an entire community and altered the flow of more than one life.
One great place to find must-read flash fiction is Apparition Literary Magazine. This zine runs a monthly Flash Fiction Challenge with a story prompt. “After the Salt” by Nicole Tan won the zine’s Flash Fiction Challenge in October 2021, when the story prompt was to write a flash story inspired by the “historical badass” Ching Shih. Tan threads the true history of this pirate leader into a riveting tale of space piracy, where the Pearl River is “a vast, meandering current of cosmic dust and planetary shards.” It’s a rich and lush gem of a story, one that might also make you hungry.
Finally, if you’re looking for flash in audio, PseudoPod, Escape Artists’ horror fiction podcast, regularly features flash fiction in their Flash on the Borderlands episodes. Flash on the Borderlands LVII from 2021 includes “A Short Story in Seven Looks” by Sarah Turi Boshear (narrated by Kara Grace). This story plays out like a fashion show, where a selection of outfits is shown off in front of a rapt audience. It’s a cleverly crafted, uniquely imagined horror tale with a marvelous payoff. And in Anthony Oliveira’s wonderfully fashioned “The Incident In Exeter” (part of Flash on the Borderlands LIX) we get a new and vividly imagined perspective on the demise of the infamous Christopher Marlowe.
In addition, each one of EA’s podcasts—PseudoPod (horror), Podcastle (fantasy), EscapePod (science fiction), and Cast of Wonders (YA fiction)—take turns running flash fiction contests where anyone can enter and also vote on the participating stories. If you’re interested in reading and/or writing flash, these contests are a lot of fun. Check out Podcastle’s “Flash Fiction Contest Extravaganza” from October 2021, and Cast of Wonders’ “Flash Fiction Contest Winners” from May 2021 to get a taste of what it’s all about.