I’ve picked an unofficial theme for each one of my Quarterly Roundups here at Strange Horizons. For each roundup, that theme has appeared to me more or less organically as I’ve read stories during a particular period, and for this roundup, the theme is Death. A lot of the stories that made an impression on me in the last few months seemed to revolve around and deal with death in various forms, and while this might seem like a dark and terrible theme at first, that isn’t really the case. Because what became clear to me once I saw that theme emerging was that stories about death are also, usually, very much about life.
To prove my point, here are 13 stories, new and old, that deal with death, and life, in a multitude of ways.
“The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” by Maria Dong in khōréō
This is a breathtaking, intricately woven short story about the bizarre events that take place after scientist Grant Rutherford dies, a death that occurs right after he has completed his life’s work: building a machine that “extracts energy and matter from ambient sources to create exact copies of anything it scans.” What happens after Rutherford’s death is both tragic and mysterious, and it ends up affecting both the living and the ghosts that linger in the world with them. The story shifts its point of view throughout the telling, but my favourite character might be Kim Geum-Ja; she’s a grandmother and mudang, meaning she’s a person who can speak to the gods and travel to the underworld. Read and savour this for its unsettling strangeness and its piercing beauty.
“We, the Girls Who Did Not Make It” by E.A. Petricone in Nightmare
The narrators of Petricone’s gritty and compelling story are a group of dead young women who were all abducted, abused, and murdered. After their brutal deaths, they haunt the basement where they died, watching the men who killed them commit new murders, unable to stop what is happening. What makes this story so powerful is that Petricone keeps the focus on the women rather than dwelling on the perpetrators and the details of their crimes. The dead women tell us their own stories about who they were, what they loved, how they lived. They tell us, too, some hard truths about what kinds of stories we expect and favour when it comes to murdered girls and women. Things take a new turn when yet another girl is brought into the basement and the ghosts desperately try to set themselves free.
“Honey and Mneme” by Marika Bailey in Apparition Lit
Bailey masterfully weaves together the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, tales of the underworld, and the fate of a woman trapped in a relationship that is not of her own choosing. The result is a powerful, harrowing story about the corrosive bonds of jealousy and possessiveness, about finding the courage to cross the boundary between life and death on your own terms, and about saving yourself. If you want another bold and compelling re-imagining of Greek mythology, check out Bailey’s novelette “An Irrational Love” in Fiyah #12.
“Returning the Lyre” by Mary E. Lowd in Kaleidotrope
Greek mythology is woven into this story from Kaleidotrope’s winter issue as well. Lowd gives us a gender-flipped retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice’s story, twisting and turning the weave of the tale in new ways, bringing out new layers and patterns. Here, death is really only the beginning, and the difficult quest that follows changes everyone involved in fundamental ways.
“We Are Not Phoenixes” by John Wiswell in Fireside
A pyromancer is brought in to perform fire magic for the residents of a hospice. Everyone in the audience is close to death, but this is not a tragic and sad story. Rather, it’s an insightful and gentle tale about life, about how to find and give joy even at the end, and about how to treat those who are facing old age, disease, and death with respect, compassion, and even a sense of humour.
“You Cannot Return To the Burning Glade” by Eileen Gunnell Lee in Reckoning
The sense of grief and loss that flows over us when a loved one dies, mingles, very intimately, with the grief and loss of seeing our world ravaged by climate change in this unsettling and piercing story. Both life and nature are changing in ways that seem, at first, almost unbearable to the narrator. But in the end, there is hope and maybe even the possibility of finding new ways to live in an irrevocably changed world.
“Quintessence” by Andrew Dykstal in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Death, and a very particular form of afterlife, are of crucial importance in this dizzying and gripping tale. Loren is part of a group of miners working high up in the mountains at an altitude where it’s barely possible to sustain life during the winter months. The miners are working for a company that extracts and sells a mysterious and valuable substance called “quintessence.” The mining company also employs a witch—or “magically gifted medical professional”—who is in charge of dispensing a medicine called “red,” which is needed to counteract a fatal condition that afflicts the miners. But when Loren's brother-in-law gets sick, the company-witch refuses to treat him, and Loren ends up taking desperate action. This story is a wild ride that takes several spectacular twists and turns in the telling. It’s the kind of tale that reminded me, again, of how much I love Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
“The Horrible Deaths of Helga Hrafnsdóttir” by Christine Tyler in Podcastle (narrated by Sigríður Gunnarsdóttir)
This is an absolutely fantastic story about a community where girls find their future fate, and the nature of their own deaths, by picking a flower from their Ævilok tree. “When each girl of the village reached her first blood, she climbed her own Ævilok to find a suitable demise.” Most girls try to find a good and gentle kind of death, but the flowers foretell all sorts of gruesome fates for Helga. When it’s time for her to climb the tree and pick her future death, things do not go the way they usually do. This is a wonderful, strange, dark, and wild story that has the sharp bite of a fairy-tale.
“The Night Princes” by Megan Arkenberg in Nightmare
Arkenberg’s tale is a gorgeously wrought story that incorporates several “stories within the story.” It’s about Death and Life, about trying to survive against all odds, about caring for others even in the darkest of places, and about telling stories to keep fear and despair at bay while darkness falls. I love the unflinching nature of this story, and the way it finds love and compassion even on the threshold of annihilation. Arkenberg creates a wonderful, intimate world that lingered long after I stopped reading.
“Praying to the God of Small Chances” by L Chan in Arsenika
Death is so close you can almost touch it in this wrenching, heart-piercing story by Chan, where a man visits his cancer-stricken father in the hospital. “I meet the god of small chances in a hospital waiting room, amidst the smell of unwashed bodies and overwashed floors. Chairs in cemetery rows, blue plastic headstones each one of them.” Chan perfectly captures the despair and helplessness we can feel when a loved one is sick and suffering, and surely, if a god were to appear before us when we were in such dire straits, we’d be willing to bargain with them, and pray to them, even if we rarely did so before.
“Moonboys” by Stephen Graham Jones in Lightspeed
“On the moon you can breathe in deep, moments after your brother’s died, and you can feel your heart unmoor in your chest a little, and rise up into your throat.” In this profoundly moving science fiction story, two brothers dream their whole lives about traveling to the Moon, but when they finally get there, something goes terribly wrong. This is a science fiction story that isn’t really about tech and science. And this is a story about death that isn’t really about death at all. What this story captures, beautifully, is the bond between siblings—the threads of shared dreams and shared memories that tie you together from childhood.
“Humans Die, Stars Fade” by Charles Payseur in Escape Pod (narrated by Veronica Giguere)
Payseur’s shattering story offers a highly original perspective on astrophysics and the life and death of stars. Several space expeditions have met an untimely demise while investigating an X-ray binary star system. For a long time, the visiting human observers remain unaware that they are also being observed. This story is suffused with a sense of desperate loneliness and grief as it explores how the loss of a friend, and the loss of a friendship, can plunge us into fathomless depths of despair, and how we cannot always save or follow the friends we’ve lost, even if we miss them terribly.
“The One Who Waits” by Ray Bradbury (available in the short story collection The Machineries of Joy)
I’m adding this short story by Ray Bradbury to this roundup for two reasons. First, it’s one of my all-time favourite short stories and a great example of Bradbury at his lyrical best. Second, it deals with death, and with an entity who has lingered long after their corporeal death, in a devastating and evocative fashion. An expedition lands on Mars. The men who disembark think they are alone, but, of course, they are not. “The One Who Waits” was originally published in The Arkham Sampler in 1949. It was later included in the short story collection The Machineries of Joy, published in 1964. And if you Google it, you might also find it online.
Finally, on a non-Death related note, I want to recommend three wonderful zines you should read if you’ve got a taste for even more speculative short fiction:
- Mermaid’s Monthly – “Mermaids Monthly is a digital magazine all about mermaids. What kind of mermaids? Every kind. Happy mermaids, murderous mermaids; mermaids, merdudes, mermxs – maybe even a few highly confused manatees!”
- Constelación Magazine – “Constelación is a quarterly speculative fiction bilingual magazine, publishing stories in both Spanish and English. Writers can submit their stories in either language. Fifty percent of the stories we publish in every issue will be from authors from the Caribbean, Latin America, and their diaspora.”
- Translunar Travelers Lounge – “Translunar Travelers Lounge is a biannual speculative fiction magazine that aims to explore the fun side of fantasy and science fiction. Put down your bags, take a seat, and relax with our fine selection of short fiction.”