A colleague at work recently told me she hates short stories. Not mine specifically (that would have been brutally honest of her) but all of them. All of them ever, because she feels they’re a waste of a good story idea. So, my second round of holiday reading recommendations are all short story collections, in the hope that minds can be changed.
Grudge Punk by John McNee (Rooster Republic Press)
I bought a copy of Grudge Punk from its author, John McNee, at Cymera Festival in June. The premise – “Diesel punk noir stories about people made up of different bits and pieces of stuff,” was how the nice man helping John at his stall described it – and the bold cover by April Guadiana sold it. As promised, the characters are made up of machinery, building materials, jewels and, in one case, concentrated human waste, and all live in a doomed city called Grudgehaven, a place run by ruthless gangsters, from city hall to the sewers. The series of hardboiled tales (there is an overarching plot but they stand alone well) are as funny as they are gruesome, and by mixing noir with a bit of bizarro horror and a macabre, nihilistic sense of humour, McNee has injected fresh air into the crooks, tough guys, and femme fatales of the genre. (If pushed to pick a favourite story it would be ‘A Hand Walks into a Bar’.)
Blood Bath Literary Zine Issue 2: Demons
Another Cymera Festival acquisition. I reviewed the first excellent issue of Blood Bath Literary Zine in Shoreline of Infinity 15, and here we have another anthology of creepy horror stories, this time based around the theme of ‘Demons’. Highlights for me are ‘Strawberry Wine’ by Angela Forrest – a tale about a woman becoming increasingly disturbed by her husband’s relationship with his sex doll – and ‘They Shall Hunger No More’ by Charles Cline – don’t eat any odd little goblins, no matter how hungry you are. Not content with simply providing more weird and wonderful short stories, editor Katy Lennon and team have upped the ante with the second issue’s design. Commissioned artwork is spaced throughout with a lot of thought going into the goth motif and layout of every page, culminating in a beautiful, pencil-drawn fold-out piece at the end by Mary Trodden. Books like this are a reminder that print publishing is still relevant in the digital age.
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (Penguin Books)
If Shirley Jackson doesn’t convince you of the necessity and excellence of the short story form then nobody will. The Lottery itself is an infamous tale, one that catapulted Jackson to public attention upon publication in 1949 due to the (still) shocking and nasty turn of events the story takes. Most of the collection is less openly tuned to horror but every story is bubbling with a stomach-clenching sense of unease. Socially conscious and progressive for mid-century America, Jackson’s tales tackle racism and misogyny, particularly when found in so-called polite company (‘Flower Garden’, ‘After You, My Dear Alphonse’, ‘Dorothy and My Grandmother and the Sailors’). My personal favourites are ‘Trial by Combat’, where two neighbours are repeatedly breaking into each other’s rooms but are too polite to address the issue head on, and ‘The Renegade’, about a woman whose dog begins killing chickens in the village. There is something ineffably brilliant about Jackson’s writing, it makes me want to sit down and write something myself.
Interzone 280 (TTA Press)
Shauna O’Meara’s novelette ‘’Scapes Made Diamond’ in Interzone Issue 280 is worth the price of admission alone. Set in a facility where captive aliens are killed for their valuable internal organs, handler Graeyan knows they are, in fact, sentient creatures who communicate telepathically, able to broadcast memories and visions. This is a powerful and emotional tale, not only about human barbarism, but about love lost and missed opportunity. An editorial by O’Meara explains how the story was inspired by her work as a vet, experiencing up-close the bond between owner and pet and the inevitable heartbreak at the end of the line. Short stories ‘Cyberstar’ and ‘Coriander for the Hidden’ by Val Nolan and Nicholas Kaufmann, respectively, are also both incredible, their originality and sheer quality of writing demonstrating why Interzone remains one of the most respected sci-fi mags in the world.
Worst Laid Plans by Aidan Thorn / Bang Bang You’re Dead by Nick Quantrill (69 Crime)
New imprint of indie crime publisher Fahrenheit Press, 69 Crime, has revived the tête-bêche – a staple of pulp fiction in the fifties and seventies where two novellas by different authors were printed together, back to back and head to tail (hence ‘69’ Crime and its tagline, “Flip me over and do me again”). 69’s first book brings together Worst Laid Plans by Aidan Thorn and Bang Bang You’re Dead by Nick Quantrill. The former a caper that sees two hapless young lads get involved in a crazy kidnap scheme with a strung-out rock star, the latter a gritty, realist piece about a man fresh out of jail and already returning to a life of crime to support his wife and child. The sweary, adolescent humour of Thorn’s story is a good counterpoint to the sober social commentary of Quantrill’s, where we spend most of our time skulking around the dying heart of a run-down post-industrial town near Hull. Two excellent novellas in one, printed in a pocket-sized edition that’s perfect for taking with you wherever you go, even to Hull.
You can check out the first part of my holiday reading recommendations here.