From ghosts to magic schools to demons to Queen Elizabeth to arachnoid hive minds, here are ten of my favorite short science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories that I read in October 2023.
“All the Things I Know About Ghosts” by Isabel Cañas
I enjoyed the heck out of Isabel Cañas’ most recent novel Vampires of El Norte, and this story has similar vibes. It’s a historical, horror-tinged piece that takes a familiar premise and twists it into something vibrant and new. Ofelia’s town of Padilla flooded one day and now everyone lives underwater. Life goes on even in the hardest of circumstances. But sometimes that determination can curdle into stubbornness until you can no longer find the joy in the life you have.
The Deadlands (October 2023; Issue 30)
“Collective Bargaining” by Jonathan Olfert
Jane, an arachnoid hive mind, attempts to access accommodations at an Earth-based university. Jonathan Olfert really got how dispiriting it is to have a disability and try to get an organization to do even the bare minimum. They make you feel like a thing, like you’re not normal, not human, like you’re the one making everything hard when they’re being completely reasonable and here are a hundred reasons why everyone else can do this thing and can’t you just suck it up. In case it isn’t obvious, this had a lot of personal resonance for me.
The Future Fire (October 2023; Issue 2023.67)
“Crabgrass in October” by Elena Sichrovsky
“You wake up in the middle of the night and your girlfriend isn’t there. Your first thought is that she’s dead. Again.” A few years after a woman’s girlfriend died, the girlfriend returns, inexplicably, from the dead. But it seems as though death is not ready to let go of her. The girlfriend longs for small, tight, dark spaces and dirt to sink into. I’ll let you read the story to pick up on the metaphors Elena Sichrovsky hints at, because part of what makes this story so striking is how she unfolds them in the story.
Apparition Literary Magazine (October 2023; Issue 24)
“Crystal Hexagons on Windowsills” by Prashanth Srivatsa
“I was the only one among my friends who did not get the letter. Which is a real shame, because I was the only one who could snap a finger to conjure a flame.” A woman who can do magic is disappointed and frustrated when her mediocre friends are chosen to attend a prestigious school of magic instead of her. The life she had planned for herself vanishes and she’s left trying to build something new out of what’s left. Perfectly captures the ennui of being young and unmoored.
Cast of Wonders (October 27, 2023; 560)
“Forte/Foible or At the Center of Percussion” by Ash Howell
Just the look of this short story was compelling enough to get me to read it. The text is formatted as two columns and the two sides line up and don’t line up in visually interesting ways. It’s ostensibly a conversation between a sword and its wielder, but it’s also a meditation on violence, on who we are versus who we could be, on what we allow ourselves to become versus living our truth.
Baffling (October 2023; Issue 13)
“A Girl Fights a Demon” by Ruth Joffre
Ruth Joffre’s flash fiction about a girl and a demon was exactly what I needed right now. I’ve been (slowly) rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer after being reminded how much I loved that show by Alex Brown’s (no, not me, a different one) fun YA fantasy debut Damned If You Do. This story has the same kind of off kilter humor from both those properties. A girl has an encounter with a demon and legend builds up around it until she has demons coming after her constantly.
Flash Point SF (October 20, 2023)
“Homewrecker” by E. Catherine Tobler
“Homewrecker” is a collection of transcripts from a few episodes of a reality TV show of the same name. Set during the early days of the pandemic, the host, Dean Murray, ventures into a rundown colonial mansion called the Cutter House. There is something not right with the house, but only fractions of the filming remains. As each day and episode ticks by, Dean’s grasp on reality fragments, or perhaps something is fragmenting it for him. A haunted house where neither the house nor the haunting are what they seem.
Apex Magazine (October 2023; Issue 141)
“I Attack the Queen!” by Sarah Ramdawar
At only 554 words, this might seem like an amuse-bouche, but I was immediately struck by two things: Sarah Ramdawar’s use of Trinidadian dialect and the physical layout of the text. The story is told by a narrator who saw Queen Elizabeth during a royal visit in 1966, but it has the feel of an old woman speaking this story to a friend or family member. It’s written out in one big paragraph, which immerses the reader in the experience of listening to an elder reminisce. And I’m so glad Ramdawar wrote it in dialect. This is a story story, a memory instead of something formally structured.
Strange Horizons (October 30, 2023)
“Negative Theology of the Child from ‘The King of Tars’” by Sonia Sulaiman
“I am, like any hero of legend, in search of a monster. To see it for myself, to know it, to save it.” Our narrator, called “Digenia” although “it is not my real name,” descends into the realm of myth and legend, led by muse. “The King of Tars” is a 14th century English chivalric romance about the daughter of a pagan king who is married to a Christian king, but because neither will convert, their child is born formless. After a miracle, the King of Tars converts to Christianity and joins his former enemy waging war against other pagans. I could write a whole essay on this story, but I’ll keep this succinct. Sonia Sulaiman sifts through the layers of colonialism, religious extremism, racism, and privilege in powerful language that shows the beauty of Palestinian resilience. And on a solemn note, this is the last ever issue of Fantasy Magazine.
Fantasy Magazine (October 2023; Issue 96)
“On the Fox Roads” by Nghi Vo
“On the Fox Roads” feels like it’s a part of the same world as Nghi Vo’s novels The Chosen and the Beautiful and Siren Queen. It’s historical, it’s fantasy, it’s queer in delightful ways, and disquieting in the things it asks you to consider. A young woman attaches herself to an Asian Bonnie and Clyde couple robbing banks. She wants the deed to her family’s farm they stole. In exchange they ask her to be their getaway driver on the mysterious and magical fox roads that can only be accessed when running away. As she runs across the country with them, she discovers some things about herself she both always knew but never realized. Is it a story about running away from home, running to it, or about finding a home in the running?
Tordotcom (October 31, 2023)
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), bluesky (@bookjockeyalex), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).