Short Story Challenge: Old Leech, new crime, giveaways and great reads

Kitsch Confidential,” by Janice Leagra, at Ghost Parachute. This is an amusing surreal story about Anthony Bourdain, explaining it would ruin it.

We Go Together,” by Eric McMillan in One Story. The story of a moto (overly motivated, oo-rah type) US Army combat infantry NCO who gets command of a support platoon in 1996 on the South Korean border. It captured the character well, and brought back the pre-9/11 military feel, when the peace seemed a possibility, but it’s really about how racism doesn’t seem like racism when you’re racist.

Faint of Heart,” by Amanda Rea in One Story. I liked this one a lot, a woman about to be married inadvertently rescues a child, and becomes obsessed with the criminal. Their paths meet again. It’s different than the usual stories of its kind, and a great small-town tale.

I finished The Children of Old Leech, edited by Ross Lockhart, an anthology of stories set in the cosmic horror mythos of Laird Barron. Barron is one of my favorite writers, and while he doesn’t contribute–that would be silly–the writers all did a fine job of tackling subjects dear to his heart. Some standouts were stories by Gemma Files, Orrin Grey, Jeffrey Thomas, T.E. Grau, Paul Tremblay, Michael Griffin, Joseph S. Pulver Sr., Daniel Mills, John Langan, and Scott Nicolay & Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay. Overall, an excellent anthology. I really enjoyed the last one by the Nicolays, about a gutterpunk and his dog riding the rails to flee pursuers who want a book he’s scavenged.

run, Jennifer” by doungjai gam at Tough Crime is a cathartic read for anyone who’s worked front of the house in a restaurant, or dealt with a douchebag in general. My first read by gam, and it won’t be my last.

Chris McGinley returns to the holler for a longer haint tale at Tough Crime, with “And They Shall Take Up Serpents.” Both McGinley and Gam are a little raw, but they both show a lot of promise and potential, and know how to spin a good yarn, which is the heart of being a writer. The polish comes later.

Our New Lives,” by Helen Coats in One Teen Story was a compelling read, about a big sister going off to college, right after her younger brother loses a classmate in a tragic accident. It captures the sibling dynamic and how much we communicate with siblings without saying a word. A fine read.

I picked up The Highway Kind again, so that will be my next story collection.

Some great reads, lately:

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. A sad, and stunningly beautiful book about the lead-up to Hurricane Katrina, in the part of the country hit hardest, the Mississippi Gulf country. Not that New Orleans didn’t have it bad, but the levees breaking are what did them. Mississippi took the direct brunt of the storm. Ward’s story centers on the Batiste family, from young woman Esch’s point of view, as her father tries to fix up a truck to get clean up work after the storm, her brother Randall hopes to go to basketball camp where he can get a scholarship, and Skeetah dotes on his pit China’s newborn pups, hoping to sell them to pay for Randall’s camp, and to keep their family going.

I’m in the middle of The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale, and it’s one of his best. I love Hap & Leonard, but his young adult tales like The Bottoms and Edge of Dark Water are my favorites, and this is in that vein, sort of a mash-up of True Grit and The Searchers, in a story only Joe could write.

I’m also reading Blackout, the latest Pete Fernandez mystery by Alex Segura, who never disappoints. He plumbs the darkness with a sensitive hero who unlike fairy tale knights, can’t escape battle unscathed. Start with Silent City, Down The Darkest Street, and Dangerous Ends.

Oh, Green Sun  by Kent Anderson turned out to be as excellent as his earlier Hanson novel, Night Dogs, one of the best police novels ever written. This one is ever so prescient, even though it is set in 1983 in Oakland, long before gentrification was a glimmer in a city planner’s eye.

If you’ve stuck around this long, if you don’t subscribe to my newsletter, today is the time. I’m posting a book giveaway at 3:30pm EST, so jump on the bus before then. I also have a Last Jedi movie poster that’s up for grabs.


Story Challenge 3/31: Thor, Lovecraftiana, and death row.

The best stories I’ve read since my last Short Story Challenge post are:

The President of Costa Rica,” by Shane Jones (thanks to Matthew Robinson for the rec). A good transgressive tale that reminded me of Katherine Faw.

Thor Meets Captain America,” by David Brin. A classic of SF alternate history, this was Brin’s snarky answer when solicited for an anthology in which the Nazis won WWII. It’s brilliant, ugly, horrifying, and somewhat offensive, when you think about it, but no more than any other “what if” story about Nazis.

Ain’t That Good News,” by Brit Bennett (Thanks to Nikki Dolson for the rec) A great story about grief and vengeance in Louisiana. One of the best I’ve read this month.

Another strong tale of grief is by Beau Johnson, “My Kingdom for a Fence,” at Spelk Fiction.

The Litany of Earth,” by Ruth Anna Emrys (Thanks to Rob Lawson for the rec). The other great story I read this month, is about the last living former resident of Innsmouth. She has “the look” and we learn what happened to her people. The story references the internment of Japanese people by the U.S. government and includes characters who were victims of it, but doesn’t use them lightly.

The Crossing,” by Matthew Robinson. A nasty shard of post-apocalyptic flash fiction that leaves you begging for more.

Neighbors,” by Shayne Terry (thanks to Matthew Robinson for the rec). A creepy quick read that didn’t work for me.

Rations,” by Ravi Mangla. This very short piece was called an essay, but it could be a story, for how it’s told. It’s about last meals, from the most famous to the personal.

You can read all the Short Story Challenge posts.

What great short stories have you read lately? Please share in the comments! I’ll read them if I can.


Short Story Challenge: Megan Abbott, Laird Barron, James Tiptree Jr.

As I am wont to do, I bit off more than I could chew with the story challenge and opened three anthologies to alternate through:

The Children of Old Leech, edited by Ross Lockhart, stories inspired by the mythos of Laird Barron. Laird is one of my favorite story writers. I’d already read “Ymir” by John Langan because it was chosen for the Year’s Best Horror by Ellen Datlow, and the others I’ve read have not disappointed. “The Harrow” by Gemma Files, “Walpurgisnacht” by Orrin Grey, and “Snake Wine” by Jeffrey Thomas all capture the spirit of what Barron does and gives it the author’s own unique twist, exactly what you want in a tribute collection. You’d think an author who’s only written a few novels an story collections wouldn’t have enough to inspire this anthology, but that’s what makes Laird Barron great.

The Highway Kind, car stories edited by Patrick Millikin. I am a motor head and love car stories. “Test Drive” by Ben H. Winters is a good twisty revenge story, but “Power Wagon” by C.J. Box was fantastic, a real down and gritty crime tale that knows its cars. “Burnt Matches” by Michael Connelly was a little too much of a superhero lawyer story for me. I liked his low-key story in the Edward Hopper anthology much better. Then again, following Box’s story would be tough for anyone.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, selected stories by James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree was actually Alice Sheldon, and famously fooled Robert Silverberg who said that “whoever this is, he has to be male” (paraphrasing). She was wise to use a male pseudonym, for her stories are the most brutally unapologetic depictions of the damage done by the rigid gender roles enforced by patriarchal society. “The Screwfly Solution” gives us an alien invasion that treats us like insects. Something is in the air that makes men kill women–more than usual–and it’s a genocide, much like how we deal with certain pests, by introducing a chemical that alters behavior to make their mating fatal, and so on. It’s brilliant and utterly terrifying. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is even better, about a space mission that brings the all-male crew to an all-female society whose origin is incredibly disturbing. Not all the stories are about gender, of course. “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” is about one of the things that makes humanity unique, and as we discover other species, becomes our downfall.

I’m about 1/4-1/3 through those. I had to review Second Story Man by Charles Salzberg, which is a fine burglar yarn. Now I’m reading Green Sun by Kent Anderson. His books are an event. He’s written three now. Night Dogs is my favorite. They are all about Hanson, who begins in the Vietnam War in Sympathy for the Devil, becomes a Portland cop in Night Dogs. Best depiction of PTSD I’ve read. in the latest, he is a cop in Oakland in the ’80s as the crack epidemic is about to take off. Hanson is a good cop, a social worker with a psycho Shirley Temple smile and a killer instinct, who sees his occupation as occupier and does his best to deflect the damage such an outlook will have on the people he’s trying to protect. As a smart-ass he’s in the “worst” neighborhood, but sees eye to eye with Felix, the local drug lord, and tries to keep the peace… so far.

Oxford Girl,” by Megan Abbott. Winner of the Anthony Award in 2017 for best short story. Megan read the beginning of this at the Montclair Lit Fest, and I had to read the rest! Her stories are so powerful. She’s a great novelist but an even better short story writer, and this is one of her best. A murder ballad made modern.

Schwimps,” and “rek-rek-kek-kek-kek,” by Bud Smith. Bud is fast becoming one of my favorite new writers. He often writes on his iPhone during breaks on his job in heavy construction, and brings an absurd sensibility missing from a lot of fiction these days, because of the perspective forced by so many editors, agents, and thus writers, being affluent and white. Both of these stories have a tall-tale element, as he strings us along, but they’re entertaining, funny, and reveal the repetitive and futile nature of life in the late capitalist era.

St Girard’s Ink Den,” by Mark Rapacz at Tough Crime Magazine. Mark is a newer writer who we will hopefully hear a lot more from. This story plays with expectations and like Bud, comes from a perspective lacking in a lot of crime fiction. No squalor porn here, or sneering at the downtrodden. I met Mark at Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee, and this is the first story I’ve read of is, about a tattoo artist trying to get along, and it reads like early the Willeford and even Goodis.

So, what great short stories have you read lately?

Short Story Challenge: Marching On

I picked up Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, his posthumous collection of stories. I enjoyed the eponymous story very much, although the title has little to do with the story, so it will never be titular. (I like saying titular. But titular and eponymous are very different in meaning, which I now know, thanks to following copy-editors on Twitter). Johnson was one of our best, and I discovered him late. I avoided Jesus’s Son because I assumed it was religious, and read Tree of Smoke, which was interesting, but overlong. His short stories have always been satisfying, and this one is no exception. He says so much with so little. The character lives a soulless life, rich and entitled. The opening scene is unforgettable and I won’t ruin it. Read the book. To give you an idea of the man telling it, he gets a call from an ex-wife who has terminal cancer and is giving her final regards, and he can’t remember if it’s wife one or wife two. This seems ridiculous, but in Denis Johnson’s hands, it’s chilling and perfect.

Do you get annoying when a title is misleading? I threw the DVD across the room when I watched Head Hunters, based on the Jo Nesbø novel. No one gets their head cut off. It’s a gimmicky thriller where a rich tech bro ex-special ops guy tries to kill a jewel thief and tracks him–seriously–by putting nanotech in his hair. So, get it? He’s hunting him… by his head! Oh, wait. The jewel thief’s cover is that of an executive recruiter. A headhunter… get it? And this dingleberry has the gall to say he doesn’t read thrillers or crime novels because he’s “above genre.” I don’t normally call out writers like this, but he threw the first shot at the entire genre, and he sleeps on a bed of money, so he can shrug off my pitiful tirade. It won’t hurt his sales. Headhunters is the biggest movie hit in Norway, which makes me not want to visit.

Another fun read was “The Cage” by Tania James in the Winter 2017 issue of Tin House. It’s short and sweet, about overprotective, harried parents of today versus those who raised in the ’70s. It made me laugh.

In Shotgun Honey, Albert Tucher delivers–like he always does–with a Diana story called “The Caffeine Cure.” Al’s got a great voice and tells a great crime story, check out his novella The Place of Refuge for a longer read.

Denis Johnson continues to amaze me. Largesse is wonderful. You can read one of the best stories, “Strangler Bob,” set in a county jail, here.

“King of the Animals” by Josh Russell in the latest One Story magazine is the most chilling tale depicting the Juggernaut of authoritarianism behind our latest leader and the nightmares it has brought to life.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark
at Fireside Fiction is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long while, mixing history and fantasy to ask the revolutionary general how he could have treated people so badly while fighting for freedom.

Story Challenge for February, part two

I had a few book reviews due–Walter Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea, and Eva Dolan’s incredible This is How it Ends–so I’ve cut back on the short stories a bit. Now I’m back at it, and here are some favorites:

Death Valley, by schizo604

“Fractal” by Joyce Carol Oates at Lit Hub. She writes many kinds of stories, but this genre tale about a child prodigy with abilities we can’t understand is a real winner.

“Nobody’s Fool” by R.D. Sullivan at Shotgun Honey has a nice twist. Sullivan is a new voice on the crime fiction scene and one to watch.

Blacktop” by Mrs. Fringe is an entertaining read about a cocksure never-been character some of us know well. There’s always one of them at the gym or on the court.

Mendelsohn,” in Tin House, by Seth Fried, is a bit long but an entertainingly bizarre suburbia story. I like this in part because I wrote a terrible suburban story about an anthropologist at war with a raccoon that keeps eating his trash. It was never published, the characters were caricatures, but it was good practice, and I liked reading what an experienced writer could do with the idea.

I have a book due at the library- I blew through the excellent House. Tree. Person. by Catriona McPherson, a gripping but entertaining and light psychological thriller, and now I need to finish the forgotten classic Black No More by George Schuyler in a few days, so I won’t be reading more short stories yet!

If you like short stories, my collection Life During Wartime was just released by Down & Out Books, and contains “The Big Snip” which was chosen for The Best Crime & Mystery Stories 2016, as well as a Jay Desmarteaux yarn, three Denny the Dent tales, and “The Cronus Club,” which has never before appeared in print. Signed copies are available from Watchung Booksellers and The Mysterious Bookshop.



Stories for February, week one

Here are the stories I’ve read in the first week of February. What good shorts have you read lately? Tell us in the comments.

We Were Holy Once
La Belle de Nuit, La Belle du Jour
The Man and Women Like Him
Things You Should Know About Cassandra Dee
The Fires of Western Heaven
…all by Amber Sparks, in her excellent collection The Unfinished World.

She can write. Some stories have a touch of Edward Gorey, others are more vicious, but they are all delightful. I especially liked “We Were Holy Once”, about an infamous frontier family of hucksters and murderers, from the point of view of the simple brother. “Cassandra Dee” is chilling like a good fairy tale. The title story is more of a novella and feels diluted among the others. Alone it would probably be stronger. I did enjoy it.

“The Crazies” by Maud Streep, One Story.

I bet she gets this a lot, but I was glad it wasn’t Meryl when I saw it. One Story publishes some great stuff, but they also publish stories and excerpts of novels by people who don’t really need exposure, like Tom Hanks and Elizabeth Gilbert. They’re not exclusive, so it’s not to boost subscriptions. I don’t know why they do it, when they only publish 12 stories a year. But anyway, this is one of the good ones, a quick read that draws you in. They’ve had a solid run for the last few months, with this, “Guerrilla Marketing,” and “Pups.” For a $21 subscription, you get a lot of good reading.

Back to McSweeney’s 50:

“Orange Julius” by Kristen Iskandrian is a great story about parenting and over parenting.

“The Secret Room” by Benjamin Percy is a dark and true little short that could kick off a great novel. I hope it does someday.

“Please Fund Me” by Rebecca Curtis is a hilarious poke at entitlement. Looking forward to reading her story collection, Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money.

McSweeney’s 50 peters out with a translation of a Honore de Balzac story called “The Unfinished Masterpiece” which was all right, and some end notes and footnotes that try to meta-story around it that I couldn’t be bothered with, but overall a good issue.

I love a good Appalachia story and “The Haint” by Chris McGinley at Shotgun Honey is a fine one.

In the new issue of Tin House (vol. 19, #2) “The Wolves” by Kseniya Melnik is a breathless fairy tale from Stalin’s purges. A really great read.

The Noises from the Neighbors Upstairs: A Nightly Log” by Amber Sparks in SmokeLong Quarterly is hilarious. I heard her read it at Noir at the Bar in DC last October, and it’s even better in print.

Another Tin House story is the excellent “Moon and Star” by Ginger Gaffney, about a horse trainer trying to rope two rescue mares at a prison ranch where the inmates learn to work with animals. It’s as tense as it can get and still beautiful. Don’t tell me “literary” stories are about nothing.