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Maria Haskins

My two most recent quarterly short fiction roundups have focused on science fiction and fantasy, respectively, so this time around, it’s obviously time for horror. Ghosts, monsters, murder, death, haunted houses, various kinds of supernatural mayhem, body horror, the frights of the unexplained … Horror comes in a multitude of flavors.

One of my recent short fiction favorites in the genre is “Cecil and the Dismemberment” by Errick Nunnally in Nightlight #615 (narrated by Jarvis Bailey). It’s a nightmarish, exquisitely gory, bone-chilling tale about Cecil, who finds himself adrift in his own life with no real prospects or purpose. He’s standing on a subway platform, down in the tunnels, when he finds the first body part: a twitching eyeball. Likely, he would have just left it alone, if it hadn’t been for the telephone call and the unknown voice imploring him to pick it up. And once he’s done that, well, all he has to do is find the rest of the body. It’s a gruesomely awesome body-horror tale, and Nunnally perfectly captures Cecil’s descent into an ever-more surreal and gut-churning darkness. The story is part of the new anthology Blackened Roots, “a groundbreaking anthology celebrating nontraditional zombie stories from the African diaspora,” edited by Nicole Givens Kurtz and Nightlight’s Tonia Ransom.

A body is taken apart and reassembled in a different way in Fernanda Castro’s gorgeously crafted “The Inside is Always Entrails” (translated by H. Pueyo) in The Dark, where a daughter toils away over the corpse of her taxidermist father. He might be dead, but she still shares the house with him, and his presence still permeates her life and memories. Castro’s visceral story cuts to the bone, quite literally, as the daughter works on her father’s body. Every step of the taxidermy process is a step in the process of grieving him, of grieving the missing parts of her own life. In the end, it might also be a way to set herself free.

Mother’s Teeth” by E. L. Chen, also in The Dark, is another horror story where a child is dealing with the aftermath of a parent’s death. Here, a boy is visited by a shadow every night, and the shadow brings his dead mother’s teeth, to tap on the window, and it brings his mother’s voice, to whisper his name. It’s a ghost story and a monster story, and also a haunted house story because the boy’s home contains a darkness of its own.

Haunted house stories are one of my favorite kinds of horror. I particularly love how different writers can infuse these stories with such a range of moods and voices, exploring a variety of horrors. One of the most moving and painfully beautiful ghost/haunted house stories I’ve ever read is Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Memoria” in The Deadlands. Here, a man has become a fading ghost in his own house and his own life. “During the untold hours, he is all memory and imagination. If he has a body, he is unaware of it.” Tem weaves together memories and forgetfulness, life and death, and the very real horrors of aging, in a tale that is aching with dread, grief, and a sorrowful tenderness. Not every ghost story makes me cry, but this one did.

In M. Bennardo’s quietly unsettling “The Number of Ghosts” in Kaleidotrope, we find ourselves in a very old haunted house filled with ghosts and their stories, because “all any ghost wants is to have its story told.” But it’s hard for the living to listen to so many stories, and to believe there could be so many dreadful fates in one house. And yet, the owner of the house, who has to carry the burden of these stories, must find a way to live with them.

Another haunted house story I’ve read and loved recently is A. C. Wise’s devastating and supremely harrowing “The Dark House” at TOR.com where a multitude of lives, and deaths, are tied to a strange house and the mysterious photos left behind there. And in “The Bleak Communion of Abandoned Things” (narrated by Kitty Sarkozy) at PseudoPod, Ariel Marken Jack puts an almost tender spin on a haunted house tale. Here, a woman welcomes and even seems to bond with the haunting presence in her new house. It’s a story that explores our yearning for companionship and belonging, and how some relationships can both comfort and consume us.

Relationships, in all their complex, fraught, funny, and horny glory are also explored in A. V. Greene’s “The Monster Fucker Club” in Apex. Yes, that is an A+ title, but it’s also a wickedly sharp, darkly funny, and truly thoughtful tale about a group of young friends who are all in relationships with some kind of monster: a she-wolf, a dead guy in a mirror, that cryptid in the woods, a faceless monster in the choir room, and so on. They are all just kids, really, maneuvering their way through adolescence, school, and everyday terrors like school shootings, an abusive youth pastor, and tornadoes. I love the way Greene captures the bond between the club members, and how all of them, just like most teens, wonder and worry about being normal, even as they keep hooking up with their monsters: “Was this another fucked-up part of growing up that no one bothered to warn you about? Did everyone have a monster and just hid it better than we could?”

The woman in Orrin Grey’s gruesome and deeply unsettling story “The God of the Overpass” in The Dark also forms a relationship with the enormous and implacable creature she glimpses after a car accident kills her boyfriend. This terrifying monster/god haunts her steps from that moment onward, but it does not just inspire fear. It also inspires a twisted, and supremely powerful, devotion. There’s a grand, dizzying cosmic-horror vibe to this tale, with a monster, or god, born from the concrete and asphalt spanning the world.

In the fierce and compelling “Chupa Sangre” by Tre Harris Salas in Apex, the relationship between a dog-devouring monster stalking an American neighborhood and a family of Mexican immigrants goes way back into the past, bringing an abuela’s long-hidden secrets to light. It’s a story about monstrous deeds, perpetrated by monsters and people alike, and about the terrible things we might do in order to survive and protect those we love in a hostile world.

The monsters in the harrowing and heartbreaking “They Say” by Matt Dovey in Nightmare are all too familiar to many of us: “They surround us both in the school car park, enough of them that numbers don’t matter, their shadows snatching the hot sun from our faces. Boys stalking like hyenas; a pack mentality of cruelty and fear.” Every line in this story quivers with fear and desperation as a group of children are hounded and bullied for who they are, what they are. What is left of you when you try to placate your tormentors, when you do everything to convince them you deserve to live?

In Gwendolyn Kiste’s “All the Ways to Hollow Out a Girl” at PseudoPod (narrated by Rose Hofelich and first published in the anthology Horror for RAICES), the bullies and tormentors turn to murder: “It’s almost noon on Friday when the neighborhood boys murder me again for the third time this week.” The narrator, and the victim of the boys’ cruelty, is a girl who can’t die. Or rather, she doesn’t stay dead. And once the neighborhood boys realize this, they take advantage of the situation to the fullest. It’s a brutal read, but what I love about it is the way Kiste sticks to the girl’s point of view, how deftly she pencils in a whole life lived in the shadow of a blessing that is also a curse, and how she finds room for both revenge and maybe redemption in the end.

Gillian, the narrator of “Primal Slap” by Keith Rosson in Nightmare, is dealing with a different kind of daily hell. There is the soul-crushing contempt for her rich family, a family she has left to protest the way they make their money, profiting off war and weapons. There are the everyday indignities inflicted on her at work, by her insufferable co-worker Jeffrey, by her well-meaning boss, and by the struggle of trying to survive paycheck to paycheck. Also, there’s Thurman, the ghost boy that follows her around, holding his head in his hands. It’s a story that tightens its grip like a vice, building up the pressure until the only escape is a raw, ragged, primal scream: “Regrets, humiliations, resentments, your inadequacies. All of it leaving you. A comet of entropy you’ve cast out. Scream.”

Revenge, punishment, and retribution can make for powerful horror, as is the case in “Chainsaw: As Is” by Gillian King-Cargile in PseudoPod (narrated by Melissa Hofelich). Dustin, the narrator’s cousin, has died in a bloody, gruesome, and completely unnecessary chainsaw accident, and now the question is, what do you do with a chainsaw that just killed someone? “The 911 people didn’t take the chainsaw. That’s the thing that surprised me the most. That and all the blood.” I love the way this story unfolds, the way the truth of what has happened is revealed bit by bit, and I love how the woods, the Pine Barrens, and the Jersey Devil haunt the tale from start to finish.

The horror of the unexplained, the lack of logic and reason, is a fundamental part of the horror genre. H. V. Patterson’s neatly titled “Unexplained” in Flash Fiction Online is a surreal, profoundly unsettling tale that twists the mundane and everyday ever deeper into horror. The story begins with the sudden and inexplicable loss of a finger: “One second: I have ten fingers. The next: I have nine.” Patterson then follows the thread of that inexplicable event into some decidedly harrowing territory.

In the gruesomely gory “A Little Seasoning” by Neil Williamson in IZ Digital, inexplicable horror comes in the form of a strange kind of salt, the “magical ingredient” that Tom and Hutch inherit from the suddenly deceased Rafe. In life, Rafe was something of a master chef, and while Tom and Hutch don’t know what the mysterious substance they find in Rafe’s old grinder is, they do know it makes everything taste irresistibly delicious. Sure, Rafe warned them against using too much of it, but like any fans of good food, they just can’t stop themselves. Their lack of restraint has gruesome consequences, transforming both Tom and Hutch and compelling them to both eat and cook things they would never have consumed otherwise.

There’s more food- and drink-related horror in the horror-comedy “Good to the Last Drop” by Mike and Anita Allen at The Sudden Fictions Podcast (narrated by R. B. Wood). If you’re familiar with Hellraiser and Clive Barker’s Lament Configuration Puzzle Box, you will likely get a kick out of this twisted tale. Paola is tired of her co-workers mocking her baking skills and their loud complaints that even the coffee she makes is so bad it makes them barf. All she wants is someone, anyone, to show her the appreciation she deserves ...

For a final horror treat, check out “Recipe for a Zombie” by Eden Royce at Nightlight #613 (narrated by Tonia Ransom). I love this darkly humorous take on zombie stories, giving us precise directions on how to create a zombie servant. You just have to be careful and follow the recipe’s directions to the letter ... Like “Cecil and the Dismemberment,” this story is part of the anthology Blackened Roots, edited by Nicole Givens Kurtz and Tonia Ransom.

 



Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and poetry, and currently lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in Black Static, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Flash Fiction Online, Shimmer, Cast of Wonders, and elsewhere. Find out more on her website, mariahaskins.com, or follow her on Twitter, @mariahaskins.
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