Following up on an earlier post this month, here are some more recommended short stories available online.
Magic for Beginners (2005) by Kelly Link
A collection of short stories available for PDF download. Do yourself a favor and grab it immediately, or do both you and the author a favor and buy a copy. Every quirky story is a winner. Here’s part of the blurb:
Link’s engaging and funny second collection — call it kitchen-sink magical realism — riffs on haunted convenience stores, husbands and wives, rabbits, zombies, weekly apocalyptic poker parties, witches, superheroes, marriage, and cannons — and includes several new stories. Link is an original voice: no one else writes quite like this.
“The Euonymist” (2005) by Neil Williamson
There is a plant called a euonymus, which the dictionary tells me is “a shrub or small tree that is widely cultivated for its autumn colors and bright fruit.” The entry goes on to say,
ORIGIN modern Latin (named by Linnaeus), from Latin euonymos, from Greek euōnumos ‘having an auspicious or honored name,’ from eus ‘good’ + onoma ‘name.’
In Williamson’s story, Calum is a Euonymist (a namer of things) working for a bureaucracy of interstellar diplomats. Visiting home in Scotland, he is caught up in a naming crisis with far-reaching implications.
Calum knew there was a word for it. This sick feeling that had been accreting stealthily in his gut since the transport burned down from the orbital and lit in over the North Atlantic; that had formed a discernable kernel over Arran and bubbled up to his chest when they landed. When he set foot on Scottish tarmac again, he felt it tickle his heart in a most unwelcome way. It was like anticipation of something you knew you should be looking forward to but suspected might not turn out the way you wanted at all. Anticipation, yes, and there was an element of leaden fatigue to it, too. There was definitely a word. Calum pondered it as the government car shushed him southwards out of Prestwick on the rain-glittered expressway heading down the Ayrshire coast. If anyone should have been able to come up with the name of this feeling, it should have been him but, even with the implants off, his head was still mired in the Lexicon mindset. None of the words that came to him out of the residuals created in his flesh brain by the thousand-language database were quite right.
It was a human feeling. It needed a human word. He was sure it would come to him in time. Now that he was home.
A most satisfying ending to a Science Fiction story that goes to prove that rocketry and astrophysics aren’t the only sciences worthy of stories about them.
“The Compass of His Bones” (2004) by Jeff VanderMeer
Set in 17th-century Peru as the last Incan Emperor is killed, a Spanish officer sets off on a Heart-of-Darkness, Apocalypse-Now mission into the wilderness. Lots of details that lend it both an air of authenticity and a discomforting reality — hallmarks of the best in fantastical fiction. Gives going native a whole new spin.
Manuel hands Gaspar the still-warm skull of his enemy. The skull—the freedom of its eye sockets, gaping mouth, hollow nasal cavity—gives Gaspar no answers. As he stares at the skull, he imagines it talks to him. It says, “Nothing is left that can betray my will. Not eyes. Not hands. Not arms. Not legs. Nothing.” Gaspar gives a little laugh. It is hard to concentrate through the layer of sweat that always coats him; never a cool breeze in Cuzco now.
“We’re a long way from Madrid,” Gaspar says as he stares at the skull. “I wonder if the Church knows how far?”
Another must-read is VanderMeer’s “Errata” (2009), which I described as “Hunter S. Nabokov: Pale Fire and Loathing in Siberia.” Awesome.
“The Difficulties of Evolution” (2008) by Karen Heuler
A metaphorical take on growing up, and on the monumentally difficult task of raising children. Heuler manages a melancholy story with an uplifting ending that is unexpected yet inevitable in retrospect.
“I want to save this one,” Franka said, stroking Yagel, her youngest. The child sat in Franka’s lap, her dark eyes following the doctor happily. She chattered and waved her small hands around.
“She’s my second,” Franka added. Her hand rubbed the spot on Yagel’s ribs where it was thickening.
“Ah, yes,” Dr. Bennecort said. “Evan. What was he ― ten or so ― when it started?”
“Yes. I thought, at her age, it was too early, there should be lots of time.”
“You know it can happen at any point. I had a patient who was sixty …”
“Yes, you told me,” Franka said impatiently, and stopped herself. She took a moment to calm herself, and the doctor waited. He was good ― patient, professional ― and Franka hoped that he could help. She wanted to say, “I’m imagining the worst,” and have him reply, “The worst won’t happen.” She knew better, but she was hoping to hear it nevertheless.
Be sure to check out these other spiffy Heuler short stories:
“Al Roosten” (2009) by George Saunders
If Walter Mitty were ruled by a capricious inner voice rather than a domineering wife, he would be Al Roosten.
What the heck? thought Roosten. Whoops? Cheers? Would he get cheers? Whoops? He doubted it. Who whooped/cheered for the round bald guy in the gondolier costume? If he were a woman, he’d cheer/whoop for Donfrey, the guy with the tight ass and ripped brown arms.
The blonde cued Roosten by pointing at him while pretending to walk in place.
Oh God oh God.
Roosten stepped warily out from behind the paper screen. No one whooped. He started down the runway. No cheering. The room made the sound a room makes when attempting not to laugh. He tried to smile sexily but his mouth was too dry. Probably his yellow teeth were showing and the place where his gums dipped down.
Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity-whoop from near the salad bar.
“Zora and the Zombie” (2004) by Andy Duncan
An author repeated from the last entry, Andy Duncan has been captivating in the three stories of his I’ve read so far. And appropriately enough comes this zombie tale that deftly blurs the line between reality, mythology, and storytelling in modern-day Haiti.
Another night, another compound, another pencil. The dead man sat up, head nodding forward, jaw slack, eyes bulging. Women and men shrieked. The dead man lay back down and was still. The mambo pulled the blanket back over him, tucked it in. Perhaps tomorrow, Zora thought, I will go to Pont Beudet, or to Ville Bonheur. Perhaps something new is happening there.
“Miss Hurston,” a woman whispered, her heavy necklace clanking into Zora’s shoulder. “Miss Hurston. Have they shared with you what was found a month ago? Walking by daylight in the Ennery road?”
The first short story of Duncan’s I read and mentioned last time was “Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse” (2007). I can also highly recommend another, “The Pottawatomie Giant” (2000), in which he ponders the true story behind a real-life bit character in the lives of boxer Jack Johnson and illusionist Harry Houdini.
On the afternoon of November 30, 1915, Jess Willard, for seven months the heavyweight champion of the world, crouched, hands on knees, in his Los Angeles hotel window to watch a small figure swaying like a pendulum against the side of the Times building three blocks away.
“Cripes!” Willard said. “How’s he keep from fainting, his head down like that, huh, Lou?”
“He trains, Champ,” said his manager, one haunch on the sill. “Same’s you.”
Duncan doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable events and language that is historically accurate and hard for a modern reader to hear. This is a very good thing.
Thanks to the authors and the sites below for making these stories available.
See you next time!