I’ve been digging into a lot of epistolary short stories, new and old, over the last few months, and that is the theme of this quarterly short fiction roundup. First off, a definition: an epistolary story is a story written in the form of letters or other documents, such as emails, lists, text messages, or various other formats.
This kind of storytelling is nothing new, of course. Just look at Dracula by Bram Stoker (published in 1897) and written in the form of letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles. There’s been a recent spike in interest in that novel because of Dracula Daily, a Substack that lets followers read the book as a series of emails, sent out “each day that something happens to the characters, in the same timeline that it happens to them,” which seems like a very meta-epistolary thing to do.
There are plenty of reasons to love epistolary storytelling. Personally, I love the way various epistolary formats can shape a story in interesting and innovative ways, and I also love how the choice of format can hone the voice of a story.
One of my favorite epistolary storytelling techniques is when a story is told in the form of diary entries, as a journal. The hilarious and hugely entertaining “A Strange and Muensterous Desire” by Amanda Hollander in Diabolical Plots is written in the form of a diary. Through the entries, we follow a very dedicated and supremely cheerful teenager’s quest to come up with the perfect recipe for the state fair’s grilled cheese competition. While she is obsessed with cheese, there is a mysterious new student named Byron lurking in the background who seems rather obsessed with her, but our cheese enthusiast seems rather clueless about what his real intentions are and equally clueless as to his true (somewhat nefarious) nature.
Another standout example of a story written as a diary is Premee Mohamed’s exquisitely feisty and darkly funny “More Tomorrow” (first published in Automata and reprinted at Escape Pod), where some unfortunate circumstances involving a Temp Box and a Temporochronicular Adjustor lead to a scientist finding out firsthand what trilobites taste like and what the Devonian era was really like.
Stories written in the form of reports is another wonderful epistolary technique, and it’s used to brilliant effect in the mind-, time-, and space-bending “A Record of Our Meeting with the Grand Faerie Lord of Vast Space and Its Great Mysteries, Revised” by A.T. Greenblatt in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I have a special place in my heart for science fantasy, and this story is a superb example of how to blend the world of space travel with the world of Faerie. The narrator of the intricately woven tale is Felix, Chronicler of the ship, who endeavors “to capture a true and accurate record of transpired events on this precipitous evening in the event that we must return, once again, to this Point in Time.”
In “Letters from Roger” in Apparition Lit, Emily Sanders uses the classic letter-writing format to tell an unnerving story of a strange disease that soon spirals into horror. I especially love how the plain, straightforward writing style in the first letters morphs into something much more disturbing as the story progresses. Other stories that use letter writing to great effect include “Dear Parents, Your Child Is Not the Chosen One” by P.G. Galalis at Diabolical Plots, which is a memorable take on the Chosen-One-trope, and “Steadfast” by Trisha J. Wooldridge at PseudoPod, which tells a gripping and heartbreaking zombie story through a series of letters.
Emails work just as well as letters for epistolary stories, of course. Melanie Harding-Shaw tells a deep and emotionally resonant near-future science fiction story about the impact of climate change in “Data Migration” at Strange Horizons, written in the form of emails from a teacher to her young students. Other excellent examples are “#BloodBossBabes” by Rachel Kolar at Podcastle, which deals with old deities, bloody sacrifices, and acolyte-recruitment via email, and the absolutely bone-chilling “The Pine Arch Collection” by Michael Wehunt from The Dark, a story that continues to haunt me to this day.
Epistolary stories can also be written in the form of posts on online discussion forums or chats. One brilliant example of this format is “Notes on the Forum of the Simulacra” by Cadwell Turnbull in Many Worlds. Turnbull’s story is written in the form of online posts and conversations between various people who are experiencing, or have experienced, the deeply strange and unsettling effects of the Simulacrum, an entity of unknown origin that copies the world and adjusts it, while also adding and deleting things in the world for an unknown purpose. Turnbull skillfully works this into a profoundly disturbing horror tale where the world itself, and our place in it, might not be (or ever have been) what we believed it to be.
Another excellent example is Sarah Pinsker’s Nebula Award-winning “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” in Uncanny Magazine, written as a discussion thread on a folk music forum called Lyricsplainer. Pinsker uses the format masterfully, crafting a wickedly compelling horror story that creeps up on the reader. If you want to read more about Pinsker’s writing process for this story, check out Caroline M. Yoachim's interview with her in the same issue of Uncanny.
One of the most frequently used epistolary formats in short fiction, and maybe especially flash fiction, is probably the list format. In “The Acrobat’s Guide to Vanishing Without a Trace” (first published in Curiosities Magazine and reprinted in Daikaijuzine), Avra Margariti uses a list to tell a sharp, yet tender story of love and betrayal, and about how it might be possible to find unexpected ways out of the darkness, even when that darkness seems to engulf you. Tina Connolly explores the quiet, wistful aftermath of a portal fantasy in “How to Safely Store Your Magical Artifacts After Saving the World” from Uncanny Magazine, a beautiful list-story that resonates with blood-tinged memories of epic battles and quests once the hero has returned home: “This old life will feel unfamiliar and strange, like a scratchy sweater.”
Sandra McDonald’s “Advice from the Civil Temporal Defense League” in Lightspeed is a wonderfully constructed “Do and Don’t” list that tells a captivating story and paints a vivid world through admonishments like, “BE ON ALERT At All Times for TIME TRAVELER Arrivals, Especially In Empty Parking Lots, in Poorly Lit Alleys, or On Sparsely Traveled Roads Like Old Highway Seventeen Just Outside Town.”
Some of my other favorite examples of stories in list format are Benjamin C. Kinney’s ”Eight Reasons You Are Alone,” a powerful and emotionally resonant science fiction tale (first published in Nature Futures and reprinted in Flash Fiction Online), and Tonya Liburd’s formidable and visceral “10 Steps to a Whole New You” in Fantasy Magazine where Azelice’s encounter with her charismatic new neighbor Francine irrevocably changes Azelice’s life and Azelice herself. For a gutsy list-story that uses the format (and its title) with aplomb is James Beamon’s “17 Amazing Plot Elements... When You See #11, You'll Be Astounded!” from Daily SF. That story blew me away in 2016, and it still blows me away today.
“Four Glass Cubes (Item Description)” by Bogi Takács in Baffling Magazine is an intriguing and thought-provoking story that uses descriptions to tell a story: “Four glass cubes, with colorful pieces of paper sticking out of them, partially embedded in the material. From the estate of Ms. Eliza Sárásréti.” One of my favorite things about Takács’s story is how nimbly it describes the world these items were created in, and the people in it, while seemingly only describing the items in question.
Two other great examples of descriptions-as-stories are Stewart C. Baker’s evocative and poignant science fiction story “How They Name the Ships” from Flash Fiction Online (first published in Frozen Wavelets), and A.C. Wise’s terrifyingly haunting “The Last Sailing of the Henry Charles Morgan in Six Pieces of Scrimshaw (1841)” from The Dark.
Another one of my recent story favorites is Wole Talabi’s brilliant “Comments on Your Provisional Patent Application for an Eternal Spirit Core” in Clarkesworld. It's an ingeniously told story that blends descriptions of a daring new invention with the specific document format “patent memorandum cover sheet.”
For other inventive examples of epistolary stories, check out Aimee Picchi’s enchanting “For Sale: One Unicorn Saddle, Mostly Disenchanted” in Translunar Travelers Lounge, written as an online For-Sale ad, with added comments by the seller, and “Rider Reviews For FerrymanCharon” by Guan Un in the same zine, which serves up a twist on Greek mythology in a story written as a series of online reviews, with exasperated responses by BossHades.
Finally, I am including two outstanding epistolary stories that weave together all sorts of epistolary formats into a compelling whole.
“Memoranda from the End of the World” by Gene Doucette in Lightspeed is a simultaneously harrowing and hilarious account of a quite unexpected and bizarre apocalypse. It’s told through announcements and emails and other forms of communication, and it's written with such flair, and with such a sly, dark sense of humor that I might have chuckled, somewhat guiltily, even as further horrors were inflicted on humanity.
“each thing i show you is a piece of my death” by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer (published in Apex Magazine in 2010) should be considered a classic of epistolary short fiction. It weaves together emails, blog posts, online articles, chat messages, case files, and more into a potent and profoundly disturbing tale that crawls right underneath your skin, even as the creatures of the story crawl out of their hidden places. It’s an expertly crafted story that showcases the power, versatility, and creative potential of epistolary fiction.