Short stories

The Feather Wall

I’ve a new story out! “The Feather Wall” is in Reckoning 3, which is free to read on their website. You can also buy the full anthology rather than waiting to read all the rest of their wonderful 2019 stories as they come out if you would prefer!

Anyway, “The Feather Wall” is about kakapo conservation after the apocalypse. Kakapo, if you don’t know of them, are an extremely endangered flightless parrot from New Zealand. They were getting along fine until humans came, but they’re a bit dopey and hopeless and were easily caught and eaten – not just by humans, but by the cats and ferrets and dogs and so on that humans brought with them. There are only a couple of hundred kakapo remaining, at time of writing, in their predator-free island sanctuaries. Fortunately their numbers are actually going up, thanks to the kakapo conservation programme run by NZ’s Department of Conservation (DOC). If you think about it, the world we live in today is actually post-apocalyptic from the perspective of the kakapo!

Be that as it may, “The Feather Wall” takes place in a time where plague has killed off most people on the planet. Martin, a DOC ranger on Resolution Island, is left trying to preserve his tiny population of kakapo, knowing as he does that when he dies they’ll likely be overrun by the predators he keeps away. It’s a hopeless task, he thinks, but he can’t make himself stop.

I love post-apocalyptic stories, but I’m really fed up with a) their insistence on humans falling into horrible brutish violent behaviour, and b) the rate of sexual assault that’s supposedly justified in the name of preserving the species. Here, the obsession with breeding after apocalypse is directed in a wholly positive way, in ensuring the continuation of the kakapo, and the people who survive the plague have no time for viciousness when there’s conservation to be done! Anyway, here’s a short taster, and please consider buying the antho. It’s full of environmentally-flavoured fiction, and is well worth reading.

“No, I’ll not leave you,” he said, stroking one of the big soft heads. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.” They were as good as quarantine, were kakapo. It was as if Resolution had a wall around it of feathers and expectation, a thin wall and a flexible one but one that kept him in regardless. And there was nowhere else for him to be, really. His biology had been ecology and conservation more than anything, his university experience a series of field trips punctuated by lectures, and if there was anyone left out there looking for a cure for plague he’d be pretty bloody useless. Better to stay with the birds and hope that Resolution was isolated enough to keep him healthy, hope that if he caught sick anyway the species barrier would protect them.

They were still, he thought, the more precious population.

 

Advertisements

The Sharp and Sugar Tooth

I’ve a new book out!

The Sharp and Sugar Tooth is a speculative fiction anthology of food and horror stories, edited by me and published by Upper Rubber Boot Books. Part of their Women Up To No Good series, it focuses on women’s experience with food and feeding. Because food is a necessity, something we can’t live without, there’s power in the managing of it, and power in the enjoyment of that management. Sometimes that’s a frightening thing, both for the women who cook and for the women who feed… but sometimes food needs to be frightening. There’s so much in it of temptation and of threat, and implicit in many forms of consumption is the tension between taking life from some so that others can live. This is fertile ground for a horror anthology, and the 22 stories in The Sharp and Sugar Tooth explore what that tension means for individuals, communities, and ecosystems.

The Sharp and Sugar Tooth features stories by Kathleen Alcalá, Betsy Aoki, Joyce Chng, Katharine Duckett, Anahita Eftekhari, Chikodili Emelumadu, Amelia Gorman, Jasmyne J. Harris, A.R. Henle, Crystal Lynn Hilbert, Erin Horáková, Kathryn McMahon, H. Pueyo, D.A. Xiaolin Spires, Rachael Sterling, Penny Stirling, Catherynne M. Valente, Sabrina Vourvoulias, Damien Angelica Walters, Rem Wigmore, Alyssa Wong, and Caroline M. Yoachim.

You can buy print and electronic copies at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indiebound, and Wordery.

 

The Little Beast

I’ve a new story out!

Well, it isn’t really new. “The Little Beast” was originally published back in 2017, in the anthology Respectable Horror from Fox Spirit Books. It was a great anthology to be a part of, but I’m happy to say that the story has been reprinted in this month’s issue of The Dark, making it free to read online for the first time.

“The Little Beast” is inspired by my least favourite fairy tale. Come at me, all you Beauty and Beast fans, but Beauty creeps me out. She always has. There’s something so unrelentingly good about her. Now I’ve nothing against good characters usually, in fact I tend to like and admire them. But sometimes goodness is so ostentatious you start to wonder if it’s a put on – like a politician kissing babies – and not to be trusted.

It’s the rose bit that always made me suspicious. “Oh, I just want a rose, Daddy!” At which point I bet the poor man cringed in himself, because over long distances a rose is the worst of presents. Can you imagine trying to keep a cut flower in good condition after several days of an overland trip, taken on a horse and cart most likely? It doesn’t bear thinking about. And there’s Beauty, smirking in the background like butter wouldn’t melt, getting all the credit for wanting this simple little gift that ensures her poor bloody father has to think about her every single second of that trip back, lest that simple little rose gets bruised or dry or the petals start to fall…

Horrible girl. There’s something extremely disturbing about her.

Nation Building and Baptism

I have a new story out! “Nation Building and Baptism” is in the new issue of Capricious, available here. It’s part of a series of stories I’ve written about future post-apocalypse New Zealand, rebuilding itself after global ecological collapse.

I love post-apocalyptic fiction, mostly because I really enjoy seeing how communities choose to reinvent themselves afterwards. Do they fall back into the same old patterns? Do they do worse than that, building dystopia out of destruction? Or, what I’m more interested in, do they do better? Apocalypse is a dreadful thing, but it’s also a chance to improve, to look at the ashes of life around you and say “Right. Let’s not do this again” and go on.

It’s not that I don’t like dystopias. I do! But I think we’re over-heavy on the miserable response to apocalypse. Of course there’s going to be misery, there’s no getting round that, and hard choices. But I wanted to do a series of stories where choices were about how best to help, how to support the environment and each other. How apocalypse can be repurposed as an opportunity for the creation of a better way of living. “Nation Building and Baptism” is set in a world where conservation and ecological protection has been made a central concern – as it would have to be, after ecosystem collapse. And that has a whole lot of consequences, such as what to do with refugees, for instance, people from places where the environment lacks viability enough to support them. That’s what this story is about – valuing desperate people as people, and giving the them chance to be a part of a safe and stable community again. If you’re interested, pop over to Capricious and take a look!

Sugar Ricochets to Other Forms

I’ve a new story out! “Sugar Ricochets to Other Forms” is in the Mother of Invention anthology that’s just come out from Twelfth Planet Press. As soon as I saw the call for submissions I knew I had to send a story in. A feminist anthology focused on gender and artificial intelligence? Who could resist.

Luckily for me, I had a story idea in the wings ready to go. (This is why it’s so useful to jot down ideas when you have them, even if you’ve not got time to write them immediately.) I’d read, some time back, a book on the history of robotics, and it happened to mention a 17th century text called the Pentamerone, by Giambattista Basile. In this book was the story of Bertha, who built herself a boyfriend out of sapphires, scented water, almond meal, pearls, and sugar. And I thought at the time I read it how delightful it was, and how suited it would be for an updated version.

What it is not is the basis for a science fiction story. Luckily, Twelfth Planet Press wasn’t limiting themselves to sci-fi interpretations of the theme, so I used inspiration and theme to whip up what is probably the only sexbot story I will ever write. I’m not really a fan of that particular trope, but it turns out that if you can build a man out of almonds and sugar you can probably build one out of cake… and cake improves everything.

Here’s a little appetiser for you… if you want to read more, go pick up the awesome anthology!

She filled his skull with honey.

Honey made him thick and sweet, perfect for love. It also looked better if things went wrong. Once she’d filled his head with cherry jam, a thin sweet-sour mix that gave him a measure of tartness in bed, but the woman who rented him became over-excited, smashed the back of the sugar skull against the bedhead and the jam had started to ooze from eye sockets.

She’d brought him back with half his face eaten off. “I couldn’t help it,” she said, red-cheeked and unable to meet Berta’s eyes. “He was just so delicious. I’ll pay for damages, of course.”

It was a good thing she’d kept the moulds. It made it much easier to bake a replacement cheekbone, cover over the exposed and splintered sugar teeth with thin layers of almond icing. But from then on it was honey in the skull, which if it leaked at least had the appearance of scented tears, and bloodless….

The Backward Lens of Compromise

I’ve a new story out! “The Backward Lens of Compromise” is the third novelette of mine to appear in Asimov’s, and I’m really happy for it to be there. Like the other two, “Backward Lens” is about science history – this time, the history of telescopes and the astronomers who look through them. Interwoven with this is a modern day story of science education.

As a science communicator, I’m all for science ed. But science can be expensive to teach – it needs labs and equipment for hands-on work – and in impoverished communities, with underfunded public schools, it’s easy to cut. And in this story that’s what’s happening, except it’s going further than the classroom. An old observatory is being shut down, one that works with schools to teach students about the stars. The observatory doesn’t make money, and the kids from this disadvantaged community are deemed to be no-hopers anyway, so why throw good money after bad in getting them a proper education? Needless to say, the observatory’s astronomer has no truck with this… and neither do the kids themselves. And the observatory is changing around them, all magic and seeing and comprehension, and it turns out that what these no-hoper kids have already been taught about science and science history is an empowering thing…

Because it is. Because critical thought and objective methodology, the ability to discover new things, is a crucial aspect of education. Kids who lack it become citizens who lack it, and that’s what leads to poor schools in the first place.

Sharp and Sugar Tooth Kickstarter

So, the anthology that I’m editing for Upper Rubber Boot Books, The Sharp and Sugar Tooth, is getting closer! There’s a kickstarter on for it right now, so if you like short stories and horror and food, and feminism in your fiction, please take a look. There are all sorts of levels and rewards, including copies of Sugar Tooth and the other speculative anthologies in URB’s Women Up To No Good series, so it’s totally worth your while!

The anthology had its early genesis in the food and horror essays I did for The Book Smugglers a couple of years back. Once I’d finished that non-fiction collection, I was still interested in the food horror theme, and when I saw that URB was looking for new anthology pitches I thought I’d give it a go. The pitch was accepted, and last year I read through a heap of tasty slush, looking for the creepiest and most empowering horror stories I could find. There was a wide, wide range and it was really difficult to pick the best, as so many wonderful stories were submitted. But pick I did, and there are 22 fantastic stories from 22 wonderful, food-loving authors!

From Chikodili Emelumadu to Alyssa Wong and Catherynne M. Valente, as well as newer authors like Jasmyne J. Harris, H. Pueyo, and D.A. Xiaolin Spires, come stories of the sweet and the savoury and the scary, of apples and confectionary and strong meat, of little Wonderland cakes and post-apocalyptic nature preserves, of honey bees and hungry daughters and organ-eating. Please come back us, you won’t regret it!

 

Gone to Earth

I’ve a new story out! “Gone to Earth” is free to read in the latest issue of Shimmer.

It’s a psychological horror story about Mars: the effect it has on astronauts, and their inability to adapt to it. “Gone to Earth” is also one of the earliest stories I ever wrote. It’s been sitting on my computer for close to a decade now, and most of the time it was lying fallow. New-writer me sent it out a couple of times, and it was promptly rejected, and I was disappointed but not all that surprised.

I knew the idea was good, but the execution was… lacking.

That’s why when you’re a writer it’s so very necessary to be a reader as well. Especially if you’re not a very good writer – and none of us are very good writers when we’re starting out. If you don’t read, and read widely, it’s all too easily to fall into an isolated creativity where you simply don’t have the tools to recognise that you’re producing sub-par material. But because I did read, I could assess that early version of “Gone to Earth” with some objectivity, and if I didn’t quite know why the writing sucked, I still knew that it did.

So I left it and left it and left it, and then late last year I pulled up that old file and started again. And I’m really glad I did, because I still love the ideas in this story. Take a look!

He’d thought the green would keep him from dreaming of the memory of arid sterility, the red and waterless horizon.

It didn’t.

His body was racked with chill and he hunched in his bed, trying to breathe with the rhythm of tides, to slow his heart to growing things. Yet even the warm night air of the Coromandel summer, straight from the coast and rustling through rātā trees, couldn’t dispel the cold. The nightmares still came regularly, suffocating waves of homesick regret. Strange that they hadn’t passed now that he was home again and anchored to the world of the living, and even stranger that they came from an adventure marking him a hero. He’d even felt heroic at the beginning, but all the bravery of heroism had come from ignorance, the assumption of a strength not yet tested because the testing was unimaginable.

An astronaut on the first manned mission to Mars! All the psychological tests he’d undergone had been for other things: socialization, conflict resolution in close quarters, the ability to cope with long-term and claustrophobic isolation. Alan had passed them all and felt himself stable enough, had never wavered either in ambition or explorer’s faith.

They’d never thought, none of them, that what brought him down would be a different sort of lack….

 

The Huntsman’s Sequence

I’ve a new story out! “The Huntsman’s Sequence” is free to read (and to listen to) in the new issue of GlitterShip.

I tend to write a lot about the history of science, but never have I written about it in such a nerdy way. “The Huntsman’s Sequence” is a story about Alan Turing, who worked at Bletchley Park during WW2 and who broke the Enigma code there. His contribution to the war effort was enormous, and he was not rewarded for it. Persecuted for being gay, Turing took a leaf from his favourite movie – Snow White – and killed himself with a poison apple.

This story is a mash-up between the fairy tale and the facts. Turing, of course, is cast as the Huntsman, tracking down Enigma (Snow White). And – I warned you I was a nerd – the story’s structured in the form of a Turing machine programme.

Anyway, take a look!

The war is blank.

Not in its individual parts, but as a whole. It covers everything, smothers everything. It blows continents open with opportunity. Much of that opportunity is for death, for carcasses hung up and split open in massive consumption, a grind of bone and blood, but for some the opportunity is a tool for all that. Something to insert into the space between ribs, to lever open and dissect.

Not everyone dies in war. Not everyone sinks into blank nothingness, into unmarked graves and mass burials, into fields turned red and mud that stinks of iron. Some fight with symbols instead of flesh, their weapons heady and hidden, and it is in combination and in permutation that Turing finds his battleground.

He’s under no illusion that it keeps his hands clean. The information he extracts from the body of Enigma, the sweet little Snow White of his waking dreams, is used for murder as much as if he did the stabbing himself….

Year’s Best Hardcore Horror

Last year I wrote a story, called “The Better Part of Drowning“, about carnivorous crabs and the girls who kill them. It was published in The Dark, and I’m happy to say it’s been reprinted this year as part of the Year’s Best Hardcore Horror series from Red Room Press! Volume 3 of the series, containing stories from 2017, has just been published. I can’t wait to get my hands on my own copy, because I love horror (as you would expect, writing so much of it) and I’m really looking forward to reading all the other creepy, bloody, lethal stories herein.

If you haven’t come across “The Better Part of Drowning” before, here’s a small excerpt:

Alix was never sure what kept the groaning rickety-spider of a dock up, unless it was the mussels that swarmed over the piles, turning them to hazards that could slice a swimmer open. The divers were all over scars from waves and mussels, always being pushed into shell sharp as knives and leaving their blood to scent the water.

“You kids be careful you don’t draw the crabs!” If she heard that once a day she heard it fifty times, and each time she had to smile over the slicing pain and wave up, because coins weren’t thrown to kids who wailed. Wailing made her choke if she tried to dive anyway, and there were always kids enough to squabble over coins so tears did nothing but anchor her to surface and starvation and blind her to the sudden scuttle of predation.

Don’t draw the crabs, they always said, and smiled as they said it, because it was entertaining to see kids dive in crab beds, and entertaining to see the bloodshed when they were slow enough for catching. Alix didn’t blame them for that. She’d never been able to look away either, no matter how much bile rose in her throat, the metal taste of panic.

Crabmeat, crabmeat. It was their own little circle of carnivorism, the smallest crabs providing one and the smaller kids the other. Not that the biggest of the scuttlers couldn’t take a man full-grown, but usually the bigger you got the more sense you had, and the more the habit of watching claws kept them away from bone.