It finally feels like summer here. The temperatures are up, the sun is up, so of course, I’m going to focus on stories featuring ghosts, monsters, the undead, and the otherworldly. What can I say? I grew up on Ray Bradbury; it’s always October somewhere …
Salt Lines by Ian Muneshwar, published at Strange Horizons in May, is a beautifully written story full of longing and feeling isolated from home.
The streets at the end of November shine with the slick of rain and the club’s neon glow soaks the alley in festering pinks and yellows. Ravi does not believe that the jumbie is a jumbie at all, at first, because it doesn’t look the way he imagined it would when he was a child and his mother sat at the edge of his bed and explained why they left a line of salt outside his bedroom door. Then, he thought a jumbie would look hunched and desiccated, like the twisted body of a man blackened by fire, something living that should be dead.
When Ravi spots the jumbie after a night of partying, it looks like any other queer man out on the town. However, Ravi immediately knows the jumbie for what it is because it smells like home. The creature follows him and he lays salt across his apartment doorway to protect himself, but the jumbie continues scratching outside, seeking entry. Not knowing what else to do, Ravi calls his father, though it’s been years since they’ve spoken. Ravi’s sexuality is a barrier between them, and now time and distance have made them almost strangers. As he’s asking advice, Ravi hears a baby crying in the background and realizes it must be his cousin’s child—a child no one in the family even bothered to tell him about. Awkward silences stretch and his father hurries him off the phone, leaving Ravi feeling even more cut off and alone. There’s a clear parallel to be drawn between Ravi and the jumbie haunting him—both trapped outside, seeking entry, feared and misunderstood. In just a few thousand words, Muneshwar perfectly captures the ache of being far from home, feeling like you can never return, and suddenly realizing the people you left behind are strangers to you now. Muneshwar’s writing is beautiful, and the imagery is striking. Despite its relatively short length, the story offers a complex exploration of how a person can both feel constricted by tradition, and yet long for it—or at least long for the sense of being connected to history and being part of a larger whole.
Bride Before You by Stephanie Malia Morris, published in Nightmare Magazine, is another story where much of the horror hinges on being separated from family. Everyone agrees that Cornelius Clay is beautiful, but even so, he seems to be having trouble finding a bride, or at least keeping one. His family has a dark secret—his twin sister, born moments before him, who also happens to be the narrator of the story.
Know this: that we were both born in this house, to the same woman on the same day in the same month of the same year. Ain nobody but me gon confess to it, but it’s God’s truth. You ask about that first child born to Mrs. Theodus Bethell Clay and you get two kinds of looks: confused and sidelong.
While Cornelius was born perfect, his twin sister was anything but, and the family has spent years denying her existence. She is monstrous, something their mother would rather forget, even though it was her greed that caused the monstrosity. Mrs. Clay visited a conjure woman for help conceiving and was given a pouch of seeds. Instead of eating just one, she gobbled up the whole bag, and in the process cursed one of her children. Now the eldest sister is determined she will marry first, even if it means wrapping her brother’s fiancées in spider silk and draining them dry. Morris balances the story perfectly. The narrator’s actions are monstrous, but she remains a sympathetic character. She cannot help what she is, and at the end of the day, she only wants to be seen and loved. Morris adds depth by hinting that elements of the story can be read as a metaphor for the desirability of being born Black and light-skinned, versus Black and dark-skinned, or for the freedoms that come with being born male instead of female. The story reads as a satisfying monster story, and a satisfying tale about family and acceptance, and there’s a nice reversal at the end, taking the story in an unexpected direction. It’s an effectively creepy tale, and one that has genuine heart as well.
What Gentlewomen Dare by Kelly Robson, published in the May/June Issue of Uncanny, is a story about the devil, or something that seems very much like the devil to a woman in Liverpool in 1763. Lolly works the dock area, picking up sailors to make just enough money to keep herself and her young daughter, Meggie, fed. As she’s looking for customers, she spots a corpse in the water, an apparent suicide. She convinces the Wharfinger’s men to look the other way just long enough to claim the dead woman’s fine smock, but to Lolly’s surprise, once she’s stripped the corpse, the dead woman sits up and slithers back into the water. Even so, Lolly keeps the stolen smock and discovers that, much like its previous owner, the cloth might be supernatural.
She dragged the smock over her face. Off came all the dirt that had built up since she’d last got caught in a rainstorm: salt grime, coal dust, and the crusty flakes of sailors’ leavings all embedded in her greasy mutton-fat rouge. She pulled the fabric away and held it out with both hands like a curtain. A ghost of her own self stared back, with rosy cheeks, a red smear for a mouth, and two blank spaces for eyes. Then the dirt flaked off, and the cloth shone white again.
Like a traditional ghost story, the dead woman comes looking for Lolly, but instead of demanding her stolen garment back, the dead woman only wants to talk. She offers Lolly additional gifts if she’ll simply answer some questions and Lolly grudgingly agrees, despite the fact that the woman seems to be talking in two different voices like there’s another entity inside her. The dead woman, who Lolly surmises must be the Devil, seems to need a certain number of individuals to agree that men are wicked and must be eradicated before she can undertake said eradication. Robson deftly mashes up elements of ghost stories, deals with the devil, and what might just be an alien encounter, and manages to give them all a unique spin. Lolly is a charming character, proud and practical, despite the horrors life throws at her. Even when faced with a talking corpse, she’s remarkably pragmatic, wringing as much as she can out of the deal. At the same time, there’s a melancholy about her, and her protectiveness and love for her daughter is genuine as she does the best she can by her, despite their circumstances. Robson captures a unique voice in Lolly, and it’s her character that truly makes the story shine.
What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (while you picnic) by Katherine Kendig, published in Shimmer (which sadly announced its closure at the end of this year, and will be much missed), shares similarities with Ian Muneshwar’s “Salt Lines,” in that it is largely about characters feeling adrift and seeking connection. Jamie is afflicted with a strange condition that turns her into a living skeleton. Caught between life and death, she does what any sensible person would do and decides to become a detective. She mostly works from home, disguises herself in a big coat and hat, and tries to keep a low profile while still helping people. When a woman named Angela comes to Jamie for help, saying her friend Paul has gone missing, Jamie finds a case she’s uniquely suited to investigate. Paul’s favorite place was the local skeleton forest, so Jamie poses as one of the regular dead and waits to see if he’ll turn up.
There are old skeletons, brittle-looking, skulls bleached by the sun and moss halfway up their shins. There are new skeletons with dark stains on their bones, like sycamores just shedding their bark. Real trees, too: big spreading elms, shady maples. Paths crispy with fallen leaves that look, at first glance, like withered skin. Soft shadows and a few nice places to picnic.
Instead of finding Paul, Jamie meets Jared, who is at loose ends in his life and doing some soul searching in the skeleton forest. After his initial fright, Jared becomes fascinated with Jamie’s case. They develop a kind of friendship, and working together, discover Paul’s disappearance may not be what it seems. The story’s title perfectly encapsulates its feel. There is a living skeleton, but she isn’t interested in anything more threatening than a picnic. It’s a quiet and charming story with a unique premise and striking visuals. Jamie’s living death is accepted as fact, as is the presence of a skeleton forest itself. These details are simply the fantastical backdrop for the story of a budding friendship between two people searching for meaning in their lives. The mystery of Paul’s disappearance is almost secondary, but the solution also speaks to a longing for connection, though in a less healthy way. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating slice-of-life story that just happens to involve a talking skeleton.
The Thing in the Walls Wants Your Small Change by Virginia M. Mohlere, from Luna Station Quarterly, is another story of a person separated from their family and longing for home, or at least parts of it. Caro has moved from Louisiana to Chicago. She has a good job and an apartment she loves in a charming neighborhood. She misses her nana fiercely, but she can’t go back home while her abusive, alcoholic mother is still around. So, she settles for talking to her nana as often as she can and keeping her grandmother’s old traditions alive, including leaving pennies out as offerings for the house spirits. To Caro’s surprise, the pennies vanish and she begins hearing sounds in the walls that point to something stranger than a house spirit, or even rats.
Caro heard the scritch and the little purr-sound and knocked one knuckle sharply into the wall panel. The resulting silence was full. Whatever was frozen on the other side of the wall, possibly praying that she had run into the wall by mistake, was too smart for standard rodentia.
As she investigates the mystery and tries to build a new life for herself, Caro discovers she does indeed have something very odd sharing her apartment—a tiny dragon. It’s a charming story with a light tone, but one with dark and serious underpinnings. There’s a fairy-tale feel to parts of the story, with the idea of a child—albeit a grown one—wishing up a supernatural defender for herself. Mohlere sets this story apart by having the “monster” turn out to be a tiny-but-mighty, fierce-in-spirit, adorable, cat-like dragon that stands up for the human kind enough to indulge its desire for shiny coins. The scene where the dragon defends Caro is perfect—simultaneously humorous, tense, and touching. Despite the darkness of Caro’s relationship with her mother, she still has loving and supportive people around her in her nana, her neighbor, her friends, and her supernatural protector, ultimately making this an uplifting story. Especially with the unrelenting grimness of the news, sometimes a sweet and playful story is exactly what you need.