Thread [short story reprint]

This story first appeared in Ideomancer, which is sadly no longer online. Therefore I’m reprinting this story here. It is On Brand for me, with the evil lights and creepy SF. I hope you enjoy!

CW: suicide, attempted suicide, torture, murder, imprisonment.

2,300 words
Science Fiction/Horror


image via Pexels

THREAD

by A. Merc Rustad

 

The nine-cluster appeared outside our unit’s bunker on the last day of the cycle. That meant only one thing.

They would take someone away.

I peered out the portviewer. All nine stood before the door, tall humanoid shapes composed of white light. They had heads like stars: translucent spheres with colored particles that suggested facial features. (That is how I imagined stars. I’ve never seen them for real.)

They didn’t have names. They didn’t have genders, either. We dubbed them he/she at random, although I never understood why. They weren’t like us.

Two smiled and knocked, as if politeness meant anything. I didn’t open the bunker door.

Bailey took charge, like he always did. “Everyone stay calm.” He glanced at me, and I nodded. “This is just a routine inspection.”

“How do you know?” Kory asked, wide-eyed. “We just got back. They don’t do inspections until the first cycle-day.”

Bailey slapped him on the shoulder. “Your record is spotless. They aren’t here for you.”

“Then who?” Tess demanded.

Everyone had unsuited except me. But Tess didn’t notice. (I often forgot to remove my pressure suit right away.) Tess let me stand by the viewer for hours after a shift and look at the empty road that connected the one-hundred-forty-seven bunkers on this facility.

“No one, Tess,” Bailey said. He could still tell lies. “No one is being taken to the House.”

Tess took a breath and glanced at Dom. “If you say so.”

“Mara,” Bailey said, lifting his chin and facing the door. Only Dom and I saw the tremor in his hands. “Let the overseers in.”

Dom took the scissors off the table and held them tight. They were long-bladed and heavy, used for snipping bone. He had already been to the House.

(But so had I.)

I keyed the pressure lock and opened the door.

Our unit’s bunker was a functional square room. Cots slid into the wall when not in use, and we were allowed a few personal effects. Tess had the geode collection; Kory had a holo-projection of a world he pretended was once ours, full of blues and greens and surrounded by the white of the universe. Bailey had a book—paper and leather—but there was nothing inside it.

I had a thread I’d mined and none of the nine-clusters knew about it.

All nine floated in and planted themselves around our bunker. We all smiled. The cardinal rule: never frown during inspection. Gemma had forgotten.

“Welcome,” Bailey said. He wouldn’t fail. He couldn’t. “Is everything in order?”

Two laughed. Two was always the leader. “A disturbance has been reported in your bunker.”

“What?” Kory said. “That’s impossible.”

“An anomaly.” Five glided around the perimeter. She stopped by Dom. He stared straight ahead, his knuckles bloodless. “Something is in this sector that does not belong,” Five said.

Tess tilted her head towards the floor, inhaling slow and deep. She practiced her breathing every night, because Gemma wasn’t there anymore.

Bailey shrugged easily. “We’re permitted to refine a portion of phosphates for our own use. No one has brought back anything else past quarantine.”

I hadn’t told the rest of the unit. Bailey said not to. “They’ll crack,” he’d said the day before, looking tired and sad. (I wish I’d argued, but I had no protest.) It would be easier if they didn’t know.

The thread squirmed in my gloved hand. I locked my jaw and kept my smile in place. Not yet, not yet, not yet.

We needed the nine-cluster agitated so they would touch us physically. I wouldn’t risk the thread failing to pierce their barriers. It was the only chance we had.

Kory swallowed and folded his arms. He was the youngest in our unit, and he still smiled when he didn’t have to.

“We’re making quotas,” Tess said from clenched teeth. “No one has violated the regulations. I check everyone’s suits upon entry.”

(She never checked mine. Bailey said not to. “Sometimes it’s all that holds her together,” I’d heard him whisper to Tess, when I came back from the House.)

Muscles twitched in Tess’s jaw. “What is this about?”

“Defensive?” Two asked her. “That is a common psychological signal that you are…hiding something.”

“We have nothing to hide,” Bailey said. He chuckled, his mouth stretched until it might break. “We’ve increased production by 127% this cycle.”

“So you did.” Four’s particle-expression swirled and brightened in warning. “And you were down 76% the cycle before, 58% the cycle before that, and 13% before that.”

No one looked at me. I had taken Bailey and Dom on the downward spiral. (Only I could see darkness, but they believed what I told them.)

Our unit mined minerals and ore on the debris rings of 6-X76. We averaged a 97% productivity level per work segment, and had for the last ten cycles. That was when Gemma went away, and Dom came back from the House.

“Fine. It’s my fault,” Tess said, pulling her shoulders back. “I didn’t keep the unit on track. You took Gemma.” Her hands fisted and she took a steady breath. “But I accept full responsibility for the unit’s decreases previously.”

Kory winced. I shook my head minutely. Don’t do this, Tess. It’s not your fault. They weren’t suspicious yet. (I couldn’t watch them take Tess away.)

Eight laughed, a faint hissing sound characteristic of all Eights. “Your statement is contradictory. You were the hardest worker in the unit during the previous three cycles.”

“It’s in here,” Five said. “It does not belong.”

“Disassemble,” Two told Five. “Find it.”

It was too soon. I shot Bailey a flat look. He sat on a plain metal stool and shut his eyes. “Dom,” he said, very quietly.

Dom tensed, ready to do anything Bailey asked. He always did.

Bailey’s smile weakened, and he tilted his head a fraction at Two. Dom’s muscles bunched. He might not harm Two—we didn’t know how to hurt the nine-clusters ourselves—but he would distract Two anyway.

Kory’s face beaded with sweat. “They found something,” he blurted. “I saw Mara put it—”

Dom jabbed his thumb into Kory’s eye. The eyeball popped. Kory screamed, clutching his face.

Tess snarled and raised a fist at Dom, but Bailey snapped, “Don’t.”

Two clapped his hands. “Oh, well played. You are hiding something.”

I didn’t know Kory saw me take the sock or put it back. Everyone had been eating when I did. (I didn’t eat much anymore.)

Five began expanding, translucent arms budding from her torso. She threw the holo-projector to the floor, scattered the geodes, pulled apart Bailey’s book. The cots were empty.

The thread was heavy, pressing into my skin through the glove. It had taken all my enhanced strength to lift it from the mines. I couldn’t hold it much longer.

Bailey’s breath came faster. They might question him—Dom could resist, but Bailey couldn’t. He had never been to the House.

I kicked the cabinet where we kept our pressure suits, jostling loose the plastic door and the lopsided drawer.

Three swiveled her head. She spied the single bit of fabric—a sock—peeking from the drawer. It was black. I’d rubbed the thread all over it to change it. (I was the only one who saw why it was different.)

Five hissed. “This house is touched by the dark.”

The nine-cluster’s heads began to pulsate in alarm.

“Anomaly found,” Two said.

Kory let out a strangled moan. Bailey sat rigid, his face ashen, and folded his hands on his lap. Tess inhaled shakily.  She put her arm on Dom’s shoulder, but Dom stared into the distance as if he wasn’t here anymore.

Nine looked at me, her eyes expanding until they encompassed her forehead. “Mara, you don’t seem surprised.”

I kept my arms around my knees, the thread in my hand. “Space is dark.”

They didn’t like that.

Our eye-filters were programed for light. We looked at the space between mining sites and planets and we saw the brilliant white of the universe. I shouldn’t have known what dark was.

But I had been to the House, where they pluck out your eyes and you bones and your skin and your neural pathways and remake you. And in between being remade (again and again and again), I saw beyond the light. I saw infinite blackness.

It was beautiful.

Nine strolled towards me. “This unit is no longer operational.”

We were all going to the House.

Another unit would replace ours. There was always another.

Dom lunged. He still held the scissors, the keepsake he brought back from the House. He aimed for Bailey. The scissors sunk through the back of Bailey’s spine at the base of his skull. Bloodied metal tips poked from his windpipe. Bailey’s muscles twitched and he slid to the floor.

Dom always loved Bailey the most.

Two sighed and pressed a radiant palm over Dom’s face, picked him up, and carried him out the door. Two left Bailey’s body where it lay. The machines to revive the body were all in the House.

Blood was darker than I remembered.

I held on tight to the thread.

Kory screamed and threw himself at Two. “Don’t take him!”

Eight batted him aside, and he hit the wall hard enough to break his ribs. (I didn’t flinch. I don’t think I can, anymore.)

Tess grabbed the scissors. She stopped smiling as she ran towards Kory.

One moved for the first time. He expanded a stasis field around Tess, rendering her immobile. She dropped the scissors. They bounced across the floor and skittered to my feet.

“Mara,” Kory gasped as Eight carried him towards the door. “Help me…”

I couldn’t. (I’m sorry, Kory.) If I moved, if I dropped the thread, we were lost. (I’m sorry, Tess.)

I smiled up at Nine. I didn’t look at Bailey.

“Space is dark,” I said again. “I’ve seen it.”

“We will fix that.” Nine’s face erased any particle expression. “The House will welcome you back.”

I snatched her wrist as if I wanted to push her away. I couldn’t. No one was that strong.

The tiny black thread wormed into Nine’s translucent arm. She didn’t notice. Her body was too full of light.

She pressed her palm over my face and the House came back in my mind, every imprinted memory.

#

In the House, you are unmade.

(—it hurts it hurts it hurts—)

The nine-clusters have no identical analogues for physical bodies, no way to feel pleasure or pain the way we do, but such things fascinate them.

They can record it in a million ways inside the House and translate it into data they can experience.

An Eight told me that when he extracted my nerves one at a time with his minute tools.

And in the House, even if you stab yourself in the brain with scissors, they can fix you and make you remember.

(Dom tried. He tried so many times, and so hard, but they remade his body every time.)

No one comes back from the House whole.

#

When I found the darkness, it was buried deep beneath rock and iron. A single thread, barely three centimeters long.

I told Dom. He stared at me, empty-eyed like he often was.

“I don’t know what dark is,” Dom said.

I grasped his gloves. “It can eat away the nine-clusters. All of them.”

This was my theory. If they had made the universe light, they must fear the opposite. They could not live in blackness.

Once a ten-cycle, all the nine-clusters gathered and merged their heads into a great sphere of light. They shared everything, knowledge and particles and experience and delights they’d witnessed in the House.

One drop of darkness would infect them all.

“I can get it,” I told Dom. “I just need your help.”

He shut his eyes. It was light out even when you didn’t look. “They’ll take us back.”

“I know,” I said. (I didn’t remember how to lie when I came back from the House.)

Bailey was deeper in the tunnel, his comm synched with ours. Dom could cover my workload while on shift, and Bailey could make sure no one else in the unit found out what I was doing.

“They’ll take Bailey.” Dom’s voice cracked. “They’ll take all of us.”

“I know,” I said. “But we’ll blot them out and no one will ever be taken again.”

We were made in darkness, before the nine-clusters came. We could live in it again. And we know how to make our own light.

Dom leaned his head against the wall, his helmet clicking against rock. All I heard was his breath over the comm.

“Dom?” I asked, when he didn’t move.

“Bailey,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” Bailey said. “I’ll help, Mara. Sometimes I think I dream of the dark.”

Dom fisted his hands.

“I can show you what the dark is like for real,” I said. “The light will end.”

It was what we all needed, even if we could never admit that.

Finally, Dom nodded.

We began to dig.

#

I look out one of the House’s many windows, at the nine-clusters watching. Specks of blackness float in their star-like heads.

The darkness is growing in the Five that leads Dom away again.

“It will be dark soon,” I promise Dom, but his blank stare never changes.

The nine-clusters glow brighter, as if to hide it, but I know what darkness looks like.

(I will never forget.)

Soon, the darkness will expand and the stars will collapse. Nine by nine, they will become vacuums and take away all the light in the universe.

It will be beautiful.

 


first published in Ideomancer, Decmber 2013
(c) 2013 by Merc Rustad

A Few Favorite Fictions: June 2018

June is my birthday month, and I am so delighted by the amazing stories I read these last few weeks. ❤

A note about my selections: on my blog I usually choose to review fiction that is available online and not behind a paywall. I subscribe to ebook/print markets and I’ve bought a few individual issues so I can read things I’m interested in. But when I want to link to things, I would rather have them accessible for as many readers as possible.  ^_^

In addition to this, I do not read everything in every publication every month. I bounce around a lot; some months I may read more from one publication than others. There is no method: I have several dozen tabs and always add more, so who knows what I will end up reading each month.

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Anyway, I hope you enjoy this month’s recommendations!


A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Lighthouse of Quvenle the Seer by Lina Rather (Lightspeed)

Rather has created a quietly powerful story here, one with a strong emotional core, and the premise is a nice take on oracles. This is a story about grief and hope; about new beginnings without silencing the griefs of the past, which are in many ways always present. It hits hard in a short amount of words, but leaves you with a breath of hope in the end.


Artful Intelligence by G. H. Finn (Diabolical Plot)

If you like puns, you will likely enjoy this a lot. 😉 This is a highly amusing tale about a steampunk engineer who creates an AI! It’s full of fun word play, great over the top concepts, and enjoyable characters. I laughed aloud often while reading, and the ending made me grin. What a great romp!


Destiny by Melissa Mead (Daily Science Fiction)

Mead has written a charming, meta-based story about an author who wanders into the story, and the kindness of characters who can make good changes. I really liked how sweet this was: working within the rules of the story-world, the protagonists can act and they choose to do so with compassion. ❤


Fascism and Facsimiles by John Wiswell (Fireside)

H*cking hilarious, hopeful, and heroic! Wiswell has a wonderfully keen wit and on-point commentary about social and political climate of our current times. This story pokes deliberate fun and criticism over the Marvel fiasco of making Captain America a Nazi (Hydra). When the protagonists in “Fascism and Facsimiles” realize that in their world, the so-called national hero is not the person he’s been portrayed as for forty years. Henchmen getting agency and upholding their beliefs is, for me, more powerful than a traditional hero/villain smackdown. This is great and I highly recommend it!

superhero landing


Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate by Anya Johanna DeNiro (Shimmer)

With stunning prose, a fantastic and gorgeous mythology woven into shiny shapes, DeNiro has created an ethereal tale about gods and monsters. It’s also a story about two women who find a connection neither of them expected, and how it changes their lives. It’s bittersweet but ultimately triumphant in the end, and so brutally arresting on an emotional level it left me breathless for days after reading. Highly recommended!

TW: transphobia and misgendering & threats against trans women.


Fault Lines by A.J. Fitzwater (3Lobe Burning Eye)

With haunting imagery and metaphor, exquisite writing, and a vicious edge so biting and aching that it builds tension so intense you are almost holding your breath, waiting for a release, this one is short and visceral and will stay with you long after the last words are glowing on the screen.
TW: self-harm.


Gone to Earth by Octavia Cade (Shimmer)

Poetically horrifying and full of powerful emotion and fantastic atmosphere and prose; it’s creepy and sad and gorgeous! Cade has created an astounding sense of claustrophobia and earth-sickness (missing being on Earth, while living on Mars), and it’s so vivid I had to take repeated breaks to catch my breath. This story has such weight, such horrible beauty, that it will linger with you for time to come.


Heron of Earth by Varja Chandrasekera (Clarkesworld)

 

This story is built around a really cool far-future setting; it has a great voice and  concept, and a riveting narrative that fully utilizes its conceit of a narrator whose name constantly changes. Chandrasekera’s skill ensures that it’s clear who the protagonist is all the time. Plus, there are so many BIRBS. 😀

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In the Belly of the Wolf by Gwendolyne Kiste (Kaleidotrope)

This one is gorgeous, haunting, dark and so satisfying. Very bitey and hungry, with a delicious finale. It’s a take on the Red Riding Hood tale that is fresh (and awesomely genderswaped from the more traditional mode), and is full of wolves. I enjoyed this story so much that I bought a copy of Kiste’s short story collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe.


In the Bottom of the Tower Where All Beasts Roam by Michelle Muenzler (Daily Science Fiction)

What a creepy and gorgeous and weird little story—full of bones and blood and teeth. It’s a fairy tale in the mode of the gruesome originals, and I love it!


In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same by A. C. Wise (The Dark)

This is heartbreaking, dark, and viscerally real: about the pressures and abuses put upon kids and how narratives are made and enforced, even when they are wrong. a vicious riff on teen detective tropes (Scooby Do, etc) that works brilliantly and will haunt you long after you finish reading.


Jiak liu lian by Yap Xiong (Arsenika)

This is a sensual, awesome story about vampires and durians—it made me hungry, even though I could almost taste the delicious fruit! Sumptuous and sublime. Definitely recommended!


Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare)

This is a luxuriously dark, creepy, horrifying story about whaling, whales, monsters and the terror of the void. It builds slowly, inevitably, layers of nuance and disturbing implications that resolve into a deep and unsettling realization. It will linger in your bones, the memory of whale song that you hear beneath the waves.

(Check out Sen’s awesome author interview as well—she points out the inspiration for this story is rooted in Dishonored games.)

Please enjoy one of my all-time favorite videos about whales.


More Tomorrow by Premee Mohamad (Autmota Review)

A brilliant, voicey, endearing, fun, bittersweet story about time travel and survival and the endurance of human ingenuity and spirit. I LOVE IT SO MUCH. It’s funny as hell, too: I nearly spit out my coffee so many times while reading this. And then SUDDENLY MY HEART IS MELTING AGAIN. A fabulous epistolary format, a great take on how time travel affects past and future, and it highlights the versatility and strength of humans. Also trilobites.


Mothers, Watch Over Me by Maria Haskins (Mythic Delirium)

Do you like feels? Far-future science fantasy? Then this story is for you: a gorgeous anthropomorphic fantasy, with the familiar yet alien tone reminiscent of Watership Down. It’s about family and legacy, it has awesome robots, magic, and ALL THE GOOD DOGS.

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Tank! by John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots)

If anyone can pull off a story about a literal non-binary tank going to a convention, it’s John Wiswell. The result? SO CUTE. MUCH LOVE. ADORBS. Tank wants to be your friend! They’re such a good tank.


The Cook by C. L. Clark (Uncanny)

Aww, this is lovely, a sweet story with gorgeous writing, one that will cleanse your palate, fill your heart, and leave you feeling energized. Read and enjoy!


The Day After the Red Warlock of Skull Top Mountain Turned Everyone in Beane County into Pigs by Susan Jane Bigelow (Fireside)

A long title that works beautifully to set up the premise. It’s one of those stories that examines the aftermath of a climatic event and how it has impacted the lives of the people who lived through it. This one has an edge, and in ways the end feels abrupt, but it haunts you long after you finish.


The Guitar Hero by Maria Haskins (Kaleidotrope)

Wow, this is GREAT. 😀 It’s visceral and rocking and such fun, with heart and a nasty streak. Haskins’ writing evokes all the senses in a perfect blend, transporting you into the story. You can almost hear the music, smell the air, feel the thump of bass under your feet. I also love the Ghostbusters-esque vibe of using SCIENCE!!1! to perform exorcisms. The story itself is like a great guitar riff: showy, entrancing, and makes you want to mimic the music in the air yourself. Definitely a win all around!

guitar


The Scarecrow’s Daughter by Hamilton Perez (Aresnika)

What I loved about this gorgeous, weird little story is Perez’s marvelous use of negative space. So much is said in what is not said. We get hints about what happened, and what will happen, with the absences within the narrative. It’s so incredibly well done! Haunting imagery and a mythic feel, this one is definitely I recommend.


The Steady State by Shannon Fay (Daily Science Fiction)

Usually you might not expect “cute and charming” to be applied to a dystopia story, but this one fits the bill: it has a dark undertone but the atmosphere is upbeat and it has happy lesbians! With a happy ending! If you need a little pick-me-up, this one should help brighten your day.


The Stories Of Your Name by J. M. Melican (Arsenika)

This tiny story is beautiful and a brilliant use of meta and second person: a story of stories told from one person to another. What a lovely ending; it gave me such feels in such a short period of time! ❤


Things We Will Never Say by Vanessa Fogg (Daily Science Fiction)

Awww. A poignant, moving story about family and silences and possible futures, some that are hopeful and true.

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What Monsters Prowl Above the Waves by Jo Miles (Diabolical Plots)

This is an adorable story about an octopus who meets and befriends a lonely cat—there is a perfect blend of an alien mindset that is at the same time very relatable, and the point of view of the octopus is charming and engaging. I hope the new buddies have great adventures together!

octopus


Bonus: Essay!

BETWEEN THE COATS: A SENSITIVITY READ CHANGED MY LIFE – AN ESSAY by Sarah Gailey (The Book Smugglers)

This is a powerful, beautiful, important personal essay that everyone should read. Gailey’s words resonated with me, and their story is so vital. Please do read.


 

Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

 

A Few Favorite Fictions: May 2018

We are living in the absolute Golden Age of SFF short fiction. There is so much brilliant writing happening and being published, and I love the sheer magnitude and variety we are blessed with on the internets. So here are a handful of stories I read in May and loved. Please enjoy!

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gif from The Emperor’s New Groove: Kronk and Yzma high-five

A Promise of Flight by Lee S. Bruce (Fireside)

This story is so fricking cute: a simple promise leads the narrator on a journey of self-discovery, and the ending is hilarious, sweet, and so perfectly earned. I loved everything about this. Plus, the artwork by Maggie Chiang is gorgeous! Never underestimate the power of the human spirit. Treat yourself and read this. 😀


Bride Before You by Stephanie Malia Morris (Nightmare)

Wow, this story. So creepy and evocative and full of voice. A story about family and loss and need. Stunning work—Morris builds a fascinating, gut-punch portrait of a family, of human and monster. The ending is perfect, because it brings us full-circle and allows compassion and hope into the darkness, a light to guide the future forward.


Cherry Wood Coffin by Eugenia Triantafyllou (Apex)

In less than 1,000 words, Triantafyllou builds a complex, haunting, heart-wrenching slice of life surrounding a coffin builder, and the wood that speaks to him. It’s evocative and surreal and the ending is spot-on and wickedly perfect.


Emperor All by Evan Marcroft (Pseudopod)

This is really fucking effective horror brought to a nearly cosmic scale, while deceptively stationed within the bounds of a single unnamed city. A man named John discovers that he has a nearly infinite power to alter reality around him and makes himself the king of the city. At first he just wants to make his life better for him and his wife. But as they say, power corrupts: and this story takes a horrifying brutal look at just how far power can corrupt, and the extents that people in power will go to keep what they have. The subtle manipulation of the narrative as the story progresses is brilliant and I love how it ends, with the chaos never-ending.

With evocative, compact, seemingly effortless prose, Marcroft builds the layers of corruption and horror the longer John is in power. It’s almost entirely told, without dialogue, and it’s incredibly effective: within a few thousand words, we cover decades of stagnation and entrapment horror within this city. The narrative is relentless and brutal and unflinching.

It’s damned good, and will haunt you long after you finish reading.

Trigger warnings: rape, genocide, atrocity, suicide, torture, gaslighting, abuses of power. This is a dark story and very much full of horrible things happening to people, as done by other people.


Godmeat by Martin Cahill (Lightspeed)

This story is a stunningly delicious sensory feast of fucked-up gods and broken mortals and it is amazing. Such layered, savory detail, blended with a cup of anger and garnished with hope at the end. Rich and exciting, with a dash of horror and a thick aroma of dread; fantastical and frightening; luxurious and lush; a story that will kindle hunger in your bones. Cahill has cooked up a masterpiece of gorgeous language and breathtaking imagery, of too-real people and the choices they make, of gods and monsters and mortals all adding to the narrative’s distinct, perfectly weighted flavors.

Trigger warnings: eye trauma, suicidal ideation, mass destruction.


Humans Die, Stars Fade by Charles Payseur (Escape Pod)

SO GOOD. SO POWERFUL. A star learns to live again after grieving the loss of their love, and connects with the humans who find them; it’s beautiful and brilliant and full of wonderful queers and hopeful at the end. It made me cry in a good way and I cannot recommend it enough. This is the kind of uplifting science fiction I want to see so much more of in the world. ❤


One Day, My Dear, I’ll Shower You With Rubies by Langley Hyde (PodCastle)

In this story, Hyde gives us a thoughtful, emotional, and nuanced look at the aftermath of war and the war criminals involved, and the complications of what makes people human. It’s a hard read, but worth it. Hyde builds up all the people involved in complex ways, not shying away from the good or the bad. It offers no easy solutions and no pat ending. This is a quiet, difficult story and it takes its time—no flashy finale, just a sad, necessary end that has as much catharsis as room for the narrator to come to terms with her past, herself, and her future.


Reliving My Grandmother’s Youth by Charlotte Huggins (Flash Fiction Online)

A sweet story about family and support and coming into your own voice. Also I love the narrator’s familiar!


So It Was Foretold by Mimi Mondal (Fireside)

Damn. This one is powerful, emotional, beautifully written and full of rage and loss and grief and refusal to give in, be forgotten, let the stories of one’s history and ancestors die untold. Mondal delivers a powerhouse narrative in few words and it will haunt you long after you read the last lines.


Sucks (To Be You) by Katharine Duckett (Uncanny)

This is a delightful mashup of modern tech and succubi mythos. Duckett blesses us with a great voice and gorgeous prose, a funny, sweet and bittersweet story about connections and all the threads that tie us, as people, together. Full of shiny yet grounded in all-too-relatable needs, this one will stick with you.


Take Pills and Wait for Hips by Anya DeNiro (Catapult)

DeNiro’s story about a trans woman who is transitioning is powerful and moving and hopeful, and there is such a wrenching, breathtaking sense of self in this narrative that it feels autobiographical. The prose is electric and sharp, the voice transcendent. Gorgeous, gorgeous work. ❤


The Paladin Protocol by Sydnee Thompson (Fireside)

What a fascinating look at tech and consent and the use of power; with a non-binary protagonist! I love seeing that. It ends a little abruptly, but in a way that makes you think. There is a lot packed into this, layers to unpeel and examine upon further re-reads. Thompson has created an awesome near-future world and technology that seems all too real and possible, along with the implications of its use.


The Pine Arch Collection by Michael Wehunt (The Dark)

Creeping and unsettling, this story about a found-footage horror movie project that two unsuspecting filmmakers get drawn into is eerie as fuck. “Heavy black lump” as a descriptor has never been more chill-inducing than in this story.

The arms of the heavy black lump reach closer to your windowsill. 

This reminds me in an excellent way of “each thing i show you is a piece of my death” by Stephen J. Barringer and Gemma Files. Found-footage as a genre is an uneven patchwork in the history of horror, but when done well, it can be brilliant. “The Pine Arch Collection” captures the horror and terror and sensory wonder of the best found-footage and metafictional insights into horror, movies, and our darkest selves. It is visual in just the right ways, and the format—a collection of emails—adds to the sense of reality and inevitability. It’s amazing and I recommend it a lot.


Variations On a Theme From Turandot by Ada Hoffmann (Strange Horizons)

In a word: magnificent. This story (which, disclaimer: I beta read in several different versions) is a pièce de résistance; a triumphant, harrowing, brutal, beautiful, operatic tour de force story taking on Puccini’s Turandot and the troubled narrative of dead women in the composer’s work. Hoffmann weaves an ever-more-complex series of narratives: Liu’s story with the Princess in the opera itself; Liu’s realization of who she is and what her role is; the Soprano who sings the role of Liu; the layers of ghosts and stories both Liu, the Princess, and the Soprano must navigate to find their own ending. This is full of grief and loss and pain and rage and hope and triumph. It is metafiction in the way it examines the opera, and changes the reality of the story through the agency of the women who take their destinies into their own hands; women who will not be forever silenced by the pen or words; women who find solace and who aid each other and build a better future, a truer ending for them all.

Trigger warnings: rape, genocide, torture, suicide.


We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice by Octavia Cade (Strange Horizons)

A brutal and wrenchingly sad, satisfying story about climate change and complacency and guilt; gorgeous visuals both searing and hauntingly cold. Cade’s prose is a masterclass of exacting language, tone, and pacing. The story builds and builds until you don’t think you can endure any more, and then like a breath, like a scream, it lets go, lets you release the tension and rage knotted taut inside, and then you can bask in fierce satisfaction at the end. Fantastic work.


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Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

A Few Favorite Fictions: April 2018

Pretty sure at this point I will just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ at the idea of reading everything I want in a given month at this point, so let’s move on! 😀 Here are a handful of stories I read in April and loved. Please enjoy!


50 Ways To Leave Your Fairy Lover by Aimee Picchi (Fireside)

A practical and hilarious guide to ditching your fae boyfriend, such as the idea a quest: Ask your fae boyfriend to find all the Easter eggs in “The Witcher 3.” 

geralt dancing
gif of Geralt dancing (from The Witcher 3: Heart of Stone DLC)

This story is utterly charming, funny, sweet and has the loveliest ending. Highly recommended!


A Priest of Vast and Distant Places by Cassandra Khaw (Apex)

Gorgeous, chilling story about plane gods and priests. HOLY WOW, this is so cool—all the world-building sketched in casual mentions and all the depth of this world alluded to in the smallest details— and hits you right in the feels. ❤


And Yet by A. T. Greenblatt (Uncanny)

A haunting story about family and disability and PHYSICS! A disabled physicist revisits a haunted house to try to document her theories about multiple universes, and in the process, she discovers truths about herself and is able to make peace with elements of her past. The ending is powerful and emotional and perfect.


Being an Account of The Sad Demise of The Body Horror Book Club by Nin Harris (The Dark)

A creepy, awesome story about a book club, and its founder, who lives under the apartment of a serial killer. Supremely rich in detail and atmosphere, and unsettling the more you think about it. Loved it!


Canada Girl vs The Thing Inside Pluto by Lina Rather (Flash Fiction Online)

This is a sarcastically charming take on superheroes and giant planet-eating space aliens! Also TV shows and nostalgia in Hollywood. It’s funny, with a nasty edge, and I love it.


Don’t Pack Hope by Emma Osborne (Nightmare)

HOLY FUCK. This story is a gut-punch of emotional resonance and it’s so goddamn real. About a trans NB person dealing with the apocalypse. Brutal, truthful, and despite the title, hopeful.


The Elephants’ Crematorium by Timothy Mudie (Lightspeed)

Weird and bittersweet and evocative, this story is about a world changed by some cataclysmic event. A researcher connects with the elephants she studies, and together humans and elephants learn how to hold on and look to a future they will make for themselves.


Flow by Marissa Lingen (Fireside)

This is a powerful, wrenching, beautiful story about disability and naiads and finding yourself again. It’s outstanding, emotional, triumphant, and will stay with you.


Giant Robot and the Infinite Sunset by Derrick Boden (Diabolical Plots)

A bittersweet story about Giant Robot who just wants to remember colors in the sunset. A great voice. I mostly want to give  Giant Robot a hug!


Her February Face by Christie Yant (Diabolical Plots)

This story will GIVE YOU LIFE. It’s so beautiful and real and aching and hopeful and uplifting. ❤ ❤ ❤ It’s fantastic start to finish, and oh what an ending it is. So perfect.


Logistics by A.J. Fitzwater (Clarkesworld)

A post-apoc story about a non-binary person navigating the plague-devastated landscape and it’s fantastic! Enfys is on the hunt for tampons, and their voice is charming, honest, cheerful and wonderful all around. There is a strong current of emotion running through this, too; Enfys starts off alone, but they find people along the way. Great use of streaming channels and internet culture, plus I love that people are good and help each other in the wake of chaos.


On Good Friday the Raven Washes Its Young by Bogi Takács (Fireside)

Angry, powerful, vivid—with sea monsters and tech and an intersex non-binary narrator. This is a fabulous story about faith and ecology and tradition. It will stick with you!


Pistol Grip by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny)

Sexy, kinky, and charming—a murder!bot and a human team up to escape their mutual destruction, and develop a relationship in the process. Prasad has incredible range in her writing, and this one shows off erotic prowess really well. 😉 Probably NSFW.


Snake Season by Erin Roberts (The Dark)

Deeply unsettling and creepy, with an unreliable narrator, and an incredibly articulated atmosphere. You can almost smell the bayou in the words. Roberts has such a wonderful sense of voice an eye for characterization. She’s so good, I recommend keeping an eye on her work!


And now have a gif of a kitteh and toebeans.

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Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

A Few Favorite Fictions: February and March 2018

February is a bit of a blur and I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted, so I decided to combine that month with March. (And let’s be real, I still didn’t read as much as I wanted. But What’s glorious about fiction is that it doesn’t expire. 😀 I can continue to work through open tabs in my browser and still read new releases as they come out. Wheee!) You can read January’s recommendations here!


 

A Cure for Homesickness by S. L. Scott (Escape Pod)

This is a hilarious, heartwarming, charming story about an alien crew who is trying to figure out how to help their human crewmate deal with homesickness. The solution will make you melty with glee. Such a great feel-good tale!


A Very Large Number of Moons by Kai Stewart (Strange Horizons)

Surrealist and very sweet; a great idea and has a lot of heart. The protagonist collects moons, and when someone comes seeking a specific moon, they might just have what is needed to help another person cope with grief. Lovely through and through.


A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow (Apex)

Utterly fantastic, brilliant story about books and need and helping people—a librarian works to help a depressed teenager survive with books. I’m a puddle of feels by the end, and I love it so much! It keeps you riveted by the heartstrings and gives you such a breath of relief and a smile of joy by the end.


By the Mother’s Trunk by Lisa M. Bradley (Fireside)

A quiet, moving story about an elephant—lovely sensory detail and fascinating historical factoids make this a compelling, thoughtful little tale. While animal fiction can often make me tense up, expecting the worse, I’m so glad to report this does have a happy ending and it’s overall a pleasure to read.


If Only Kissing Made It True by Jason Kimble (Cast of Wonders)

This is a sweet, full-of-feels time travel story with a positive-possible ending! Funny, real, compassionate and lovely, this one will make your heart warm (and maybe beat a little faster in places!). 


Lava Cake for the Apocalypse by Wendy Nikel (Nature)

A wonderful little story about food and friendship and hope IN SPACE! Bonus: it’s a fantastic take on the recipe format, and the ending is as sweet as the delicious cake that results.


Object-Oriented by Arkady Martine (Fireside)

What a lovely, emotional, powerful story. It’s about people who survey disaster areas and are empathetic to the places and people for which they are there to help. The prose is gorgeous and the voice strong, and it’s all grounded in a deep, immersive sense of compassion. 


Sour Milk Girls by Erin Roberts (Clarkesworld)

WOW. This has an awesome voice, a really sad and believable premise, and will knock you down, kick you in the gut, and make you remember every moment by the end. Erin Roberts has created a breathtaking, heartbreaking world and characters whom you will not forget soon. Amazing stuff.


The Ghost in Angelica’s Room by Maria Haskins (Flash Fiction Online)

Powerful, disturbing, emotional, haunting—this story, about grief and loss, ultimately has a trace of hope in the end. Trigger warnings for suicide and gun violence.


The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls by Izzy Wasserstein (Psudeopod)

Oh my god, this is disturbing and creepy as fuck, with a great voice and unsettling premise! It’s horror of the most effective sort for me: it defines the monsters without explaining them. We don’t really know what the Mothers are, or what is outside, and that makes it all the more terrifying. Brilliant stuff.


The Snake As Big As Their House by Sommer Schafer (Catapult)

This is a fantastic, fascinating story about a girl who’s trying to protect her family from a giant-ass snake that chases them through their house. It’s surrealist and gripping and refreshing—I loved it!


Unplaces: An Atlas of Non-existence by Izzy Wasserstein (Clarkesworld)

This story is gorgeous, haunting, and full of powerful emotions. Told through entries of an atlas of places that may have existed and with margin notes from one woman to another, this is a deeply personal and uplifting story by the end. It’s brilliant and will stay with you long after you finish reading.


When the Slipling Comes to Call by N.R. Lambert (Psuedopod)

Unholy wow is this story amazingly creepy and fantastic! It oozes dread and atmospheric horror and will make you not want to sleep (or look outside your door) for a long, long time. Loved it!


Where You Get Your Ideas by Meagan Lee Beals (Cast of Wonders)

This is a delightful, charming story about a magical shop and the people who manage it. It blends tropes, humor, and wonderful characters into a hilarious, sweet tale about making your place in the world. I love it. 😀

(Note: I had the honor of guest-hosting this episode for the Artemis Rising series, so I got to read Megan’s story a month earlier. It’s one I adore so much, I’ve read it multiple times and have been SO excited for it to be published so you can all enjoy as well. 😀 )


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Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

Some Awesome Stories From 2017

Every year I swear I will keep up on short fiction, and, as usual, I never quite manage to read as much or as widely as I’d like. This is far from an exhaustive list, because I simply didn’t get to read everything I wanted to this year. That said! Here is a list of some of my favorite stories I read from 2017 (short stories and novelettes; I’ve not gotten to longer form fiction yet).

It is alphabetized by story title!

A Human Stain by Kelly Robson (Tor.com, January 2017) [novelette]

Lesbian gothic horror that builds to a slow, horrifying climax. Wickedly delightful and creepy. You’ll never look at teeth quite the same way again.

Helen had first seen the nursemaid’s pretty face that morning, looking down from one of the house’s highest windows as she and Bärchen Lambrecht rowed across the lake with their luggage crammed in a tippy little skiff. Even at a distance, Helen could tell she was a beauty.

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Bear Language by Martin Cahill (Fireside, May 2017)

The voice is perfect in this bittersweet and fierce story about family and strength and survival. Plus, Susan is such a good bear—and one should never get between a bear and her cubs.

I crawl out from under the covers, shivering at the memory of his anger, and go to the door. The house is dark; ghosts made of sunlit wallpaper peek through curtains and down hallways. It smells like pine needles and mud.

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Caesura by Hayley Stone (Fireside, November 2017)

Grieving her brother’s murder, a girl develops a neural network AI that becomes self-aware—but it’s how she learns to reconnect to the world and her family, and her AI, is what gives this such heart. Language is used with incredible precision and perfection.

She should probably be documenting this. Taking notes. Instead, she fidgets on her desk chair, adjusts the mic absently. “And what, what’s the organ’s name?” she asks. At the same time she opens another window, hits the letters L and then I, highlights the word life from a list and deletes it.

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Don’t Turn On The Lights by Cassandra Khaw (Nightmare, October 2017)

Brilliant and unsettling, this horror story shows you just how much stories change, depending on who tells it. And sometimes, it’s far worse than you imagine.

Sleep wasn’t in the cards, though. Hell, I don’t know if she ever slept again. I know I wouldn’t be able to. Because when Sally finally walked all the way to her room, pushing past co-eds in their flower-printed pyjamas, she found police tape and policemen.

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Every Black Tree by Natalia Theodoridou (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 2017)

Haunting, beautiful and intimate, this story looks at loss and ghosts and family. How do you rebuild a life taken apart? One day at a time, with ribbon and whispers and learning how to live again.

“So did someone hang you from my blacktree, or did you hang yourself?” she asks, placing a cup of hot tea in front of him. She’s still mad, but he hears something soft in her voice now.

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Fandom For Robots by Vina Kie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)

This story is pure joy. Computron, stuck in a museum, discovers a TV show and begins writing fanfic—and in turn, makes friends and discovers he is not alone.

The Simak Robotics Museum is not within close proximity of a black hole, and there is close to no possibility that time is being dilated. His constant checking of the chronometer to compare it with the countdown page serves no scientific purpose whatsoever.

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The First Stop Is Always The Last by John Wiswell (Flash Fiction Online, December 2017)

A charming time-loop story about cute lesbians! Two women on the same bus, repeating the same few hours, bond and learn how to move forward into an unknown future.

Selma got an itch in her brain. She asked, “How many times have we talked about this today?”

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The Ghosts of Europa Will Keep You Trapped in a Prison You Make for Yourself by Matt Dovey (Escape Pod, May 2017)

Heartbreaking and raw and honest, this story shows us the grief of loss, and one woman’s revelation at what has been and how she can bring peace to the one she loves.

Amira knew that for a lie. Degradation took years of bit decay, even in Jovian radiation. The synaptic data was remarkably resilient to corruption. Even in virtual form, the brain found new pathways to work around any damage.

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The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant by Rachael K. Jones (Lightspeed, December 2017)

Deliciously disturbing and messed up, Jones’ story about cyborg cooks trying to earn stars for her newly opened restaurant is hilarious and gruesome in turn, and has sharp (knife-like) observations about humans. And food.

Humans were helpless, mewling children, so utterly dependent that they couldn’t even feed their meat without a steel fork to guide the process. And what were cyborgs, except meat-wrapped steel pressed into the service of lesser creatures? But now the forks were rebelling.

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If We Survive the Night by Carlie St. George (The Dark, March 2017)

What happens when the horror movie is over and everyone who’s not a Final Girl is dead? St. George’s horrific and unsettling story is about dead girls, the subjection and judgement women endure, and the power of stories. And revenge.

Harper makes Abby a cup of tea. It’s a soothing liquid, the universal sign for calm the hell down, and Abby thinks it’d be a lot more successful if the girl who made it hadn’t taken a fire axe to the back exactly one year ago.

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Listen and You’ll Hear Us Speak by A. T. Greenblatt (Flash Fiction Online, September 2017)

A small, perfect gem of a story: no one is ever truly voiceless, even if they do not speak.

My aunties always said there’s a market for everything in the universe. They said, watch out, everyone has a price.

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Maybe Look Up by Jess Barber (Lightspeed, April 2017)

A charming, understated time travel story that explores the relationship between two people who have the power to change the past. But what they do with this power is where the heart of the story lies.

The list lives in a little palm-sized flip notebook, plastic purple spiral holding it together at the top, glitter-outlined unicorn on the front. An Li claims the notebook is a metaphor for the risks of nostalgia. She brandishes a pink gel pen that smells like plasticky strawberry foam.

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The Moon, the Sun, and the Truth by Victoria Sandbrook (Shimmer, July 2017)

A gritty, fierce, sharp postapocalyptic western about rebellion and sacrifice. Tyranny can’t last when there are people who will speak the truth.

“Fleet of foot and light of heart,” he said.

The truth-rider salutation only made her stomach turn. She touched her hat and turned the horse toward the next town.

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Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree by Nibedita Sen (Anathema, August 2017)

This fantastic, charming, delicious story is about food, ghosts, and lesbians. Reading it makes me hungry!

My search had finally turned up two promising results: a temple in Rajasthan and another in Gujarat. Both still performed exorcisms for the princely sum of five thousand rupees and three boxes of chickpea-flour-and-sugar sweetmeats. The money was supposedly for the priests, and the sweets for the gods, but I had the sneaking suspicion the sweets, too, would end up going down the priests’ gullets the way the pret had gone down mine.

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Presque Vu by Nino Cipri (Liminal, November 2017)

Gorgeous, queer, and filled with longing and ghosts. Hauntings connect people and give them hope for closure and a future.

The postcards were vintage, with terrible puns and bland innuendo: the one he’d seen had had a naughty librarian with stacks of books propping up her cleavage, Interested in a thriller? On the other side was a spidery scrawl of words in faded brown ink.

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The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017) [novelette]

Bot 9 is SO FRICKING CUTE I CANNOT HANDLE THIS PERFECT LEVEL OF ADORABLE. This is a delightful, hilarious, charming story about bots!

The Ship had not actually told it what was in cargo bay four, but surely it must have something to do with the war effort and was then none of its own business, the bot decided. It had never minded not knowing a thing before, but it felt a slight unease now that it could neither explain, nor explain away.

Skins Smooth as Plantain, Hearts Soft as Mango by Ian Muneshwar (The Dark, August 2017)

Food horror is my jam, and this story is ripe with gorgeous descriptions and mouth-watering detail that will make you hungry…maybe not in the best way.

He ate a heaping forkful of the pie. It was wonderful: the goat was soft, savory, fatty; the salt and animal juices and hot water crust all came together on his tongue. The beast pushed up, stretching open the base of his esophagus, unfurling its own eager tongue.

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Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017) [novelette]

An #ownvoices (sans the vampire part) story about a gay trans man who’s bitten by a vampire and deals with the after effects of being turned. Raw, sharp, and so often unbearably human, Szpara examines many axises of marginalization and the trials and joys inherent in living in an imperfect world.

But vampires who break the law, who feed from un-certified donors, who steal blood bags, or drink without asking first, are put on the Blood Offenders Registry, which is basically a hit list for corrupt cops and stake-wielding bigots.

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Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus by Bogi Takács (Clarkesworld, April 2017)

Brilliant and subversive, the story examines how colonialism destroys environments and people alike. Also OCTOPI. ❤

I am going to meet Pebblesmooth. Pebblesmooth, who doesn’t have all the answers, but who has the best questions. Once I am there, I will ask, “Pebblesmooth, can a dead human affect the field?”

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The Sound Of by Charles Payseur (Nightmare, May 2017)

This story has haunted me since I first read it. The story shows a dystopia that is all too real, too believable, and will chill you. It has no happy ending; this is a horror story and the tragedy comes from the wrenching understand that sometimes, we cannot endure everything.

He checks his friends, makes sure no one is saying anything that could possibly be viewed as a violation. Just to be safe, he unfriends a few people who knew him back in college. His fingers stop when Ren’s profile comes up. He hovers, weighing his options, then swallows and closes the app.

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The Whalebone Parrot by Darcie Little Badger (The Dark, October 2017)

Ghosts. Dead whales. Colonialism being interrogated and resisted against. The voice is perfect, the structure and mix of narrative and journal entries firmly grounds this in time and setting, and it builds to a slow, excruciating and unsettling conclusion. Wonderful horror-fantasy!

“Not especially.” It was only a partial lie; Loretta’s married name still sounded like it belonged to a stranger. When Emily was summoned to the island, Loretta asked her to be discreet. Tell nobody that we are sisters.

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There has been so much excellent fiction published this year; the wonderful field of SFFH is growing and diversifying and shining with amazing gems. I’m so excited to read more breathtaking stories in the future!

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ETA: I had one more story in this list which I mistook as a 2017 publication, when it was 2016. Still keeping it here as a postscript because it’s SO good.

All the Colors You Thought Were Kings by Arkady Martine (Shimmer, December 2017 2016)

Gorgeous, riveting space opera on an epic scale that still remains deeply personal. Radiant with imagery and intense with emotion.

Even barefoot in gauze, your Tamar looks dangerous. You could die of pride if you weren’t half planning to die of something else first.

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Awards Eligibility 2017

So, this year was pretty damn good in terms of stories published. For people reading and nominating for various SFF awards, such as the Nebulas, the Hugos, and World Fantasy, I would be honored if you considered any of my work! ❤

 

Short Stories

Monster Girls Don’t Cry (Uncanny, January/February 2017)

Longing For Stars Once Lost (Lightspeed, September 2017)

For Now, Sideways (Diabolical Plots, August 2017)

What the Fires Burn (PodCastle, August 2017)

The House At the End of the Lane Is Dreaming (Lightspeed, December 2017)

Novelette

Later, Let’s Tear Up the Inner Sanctum (Lightspeed, February 2017)

 

Interactive Fiction

This Is A Picture Book (sub-Q Magazine, November 2017)

 

Other Short Stories

These are not available online yet, but I am happy to email a copy of individual stories in your preferred format. Just ping me and let me know (via the contact page). 🙂

Brightened Star, Ascending Dawn (Humans Wanted, ed. Vivian Caethe, August 2017)

Fathoms Deep and Fathoms Cold (Submerged, S.C. Butler and Joshua Palmatier, September 2017)

Thrice Remembered (The Death of All Things, Laura Anne Gilman and Kat Richardson, September 2017)

Two Reflections At Midnight (Gamut Magazine, September 2017)

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Happy New Year and here’s to a better 2018 for us all!

MERC vs. BOOK: Revising a Novel, Part 5–Recharging Batteries for Fun and Profit

Additional Posts In This Series

Part 0 | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 (you are here) | Part 6 | Part 7.1 & 7.2 | Part 8 | Part 9


Welcome back! I’m delighted by the responses to these posts so far, and I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.  🙂


BATTERIES, or, Refilling Your Creative Tanks

I love horror movies. Good, bad, hilarious, terrible–it’s all entertainment, and it’s all narrative. I believe visual/audio mediums are a perfect vehicle for horror stories. I just watched [REC] and the terrifying sequel, [REC]2. (As I said on twitter, these are a grand blend of zombie possession found footage.) On the queue I have a selection of movies pulled from this list.

I’m also listening to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (on Audible), and I have the latest issues of Nightmare Magazine and The Dark on my Kindle app.

Why so much horror, when I’m writing/revising a kinky, lyric fantasy novel?

Narrative recharging.

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Screencap from the abridged version of What Monsters Hide Beneath (a short film)

Similar to when you use any electronic device that runs on battery power, sooner or later you need to plug it in and recharge. Or it stops working. (And if this is a horror movie, you really do not want your flashlight or camera batteries dying on you in the third act.)

Brains have electric currents in them, and I mean, HOW COOL IS THAT? There’s also a creative component. For people who are focused on narrative construction–telling stories–we run off the storytelling batteries wired deep in our minds and hearts. We operate the story-apps, create new narrative, sketch artistic mediums into existence, and we do all this by pulling energy from ourselves. We use those batteries. So eventually we need to replenish what we used.

Everyone has a unique way of powering up again after depleting their store of energy. Everyone’s charge time until full is different.

Maybe you read a lot, or binge-watch a show on Netflix, or go hiking, or hide in a dark cave and hibernate until unwary adventurers disturb your crypt and unleash an ancient, terrifying evil into the world.

For me, I love watching horror movies.

Regardless of quality, they generally satisfy my three main criteria for battery-refueling:

  1. It has a narrative. Even if it’s one I’ve seen a hundred times, even if it’s barely there, even if it’s choppy and WTF, there is some semblance of story construction going on.
  2. It provides stimuli. Visual and auditory, often with a textual component since I tend to watch movies or shows with subtitles or Closed Captioning [CC] turned on. (It takes a lot of pre-planning and emotional prep to see a movie in theaters, because there is a thing as too much stimuli, so most often when I binge watch horror, I do so from the comfort of my couch, with headphones on and lights dimmed.) I’m a filmmaker as well as a writer, so I’m looking at the composition, the pacing, the lighting, the sound design, the makeup. My brain then subconsciously runs a translation program wherein it digests the visual/auditory input and churns out a low-frequency running commentary in my mind, wherein I’m narrating the story as I see it to myself as I watch. This translation process takes much longer with purely written text, and I’m a slow reader; but I can, comparatively, watch a movie in about two hours, and receive many of the same benefits from narrative deconstruction as I can from written fiction. I get prose-level feedback from reading (I’m consciously or unconsciously analyzing the specific words, placement, layout, etc), while I get craft-level feedback just as well from visual storytelling.
  3. It’s not the broadly-catagorized genre I’m writing in. Does The Collars We Wear have horror elements? Of course! It has some creepy as fuck imagery and ideas going on. But it is still not structurally or aesthetically horror. (I can also watch action movies in the same headspace as horror movies.) It has a specific feel for fantasy, to me, which is why, at the moment, I have a difficult time reading or watching straight-up fantasy to recharge. I need the distance of genre or aesthetics or trope-wrangling when I’m recharging. Once I am done with this project, I will happily devour more fantasy in all forms–shorts, novels, movies, art. Until then, when I need recharging, I turn to one of my favorite categories: horror.

 

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Obligatory cuteness

Thursday was my day off this week, and after I got up and fed Bucky (pictured above), I was about to open the laptop and do some words. But there was a very specific feeling of tiredness knotted around me. I recognized this.

Since Sunday, I have written–between blog posts, synopses, and fiction–9,500+ words. That is more than I have written in months.

REMINDER: There is no “right” speed at which to write. Fast, slow, interdimensional–what is right for you is valid, acceptable, and does not need to be compared to anyone else. There is no “right” way to write, either. You do not have to write every day to be a writer. All you need is to write. How, and why, and when–those are personal details. You do what works for you. That’s all that matters.

Okay? Okay.

I used up a lot of batteries this week. Blog posts are just as much work a brand new fiction, for me. 🙂 I love writing them, but they are not easy. So between all these words, I was getting low on battery.

In an attempt to be a smart!Merc and not wreck myself as I have too often in the past by trying to press through to unachievable goals or comparisons with others, I took the day off from fiction.

I watched horror movies, I listened to more of The Haunting of Hill House, and I took a nap.

You need energy if you want to run the various functions in your brain and produce creative output. It’s okay to take a break when you need it, to refuel and recharge.

I mean, even Energizer batteries run low eventually. (Don’t let the commercials lie to you.)


Whether you are writing new words, revising old ones, or running from zombies in a quarantined apartment building*, it is okay to take a break.

Rest. Recharge. Play games or read books or watch shows or take a walk or sleep or [your choice activity here]. Whatever works for you.

Burning out is, unfortunately, a thing that happens to everyone at some point. It sucks. If you feel fragile, if you feel depleted, if you feel down–it will pass, if you let yourself take the time you need and be kind to yourself if it’s not instantaneous. Self-care is a revolutionary act for many of us.

No, it is not always easy. Often, it is hard for so many reasons. Hard and impossible are not the same word, even if at times they seem indistinguishable.

I believe in you. ❤ I want you to take care of yourself, and it may take many different forms. I can’t tell you what to do on this front. It is as personal as the stories you tell. It may not look like anyone else’s version of self-care and recharging. (I mean, so long as you’re not a serial killer or something like that.)

You take care of your mental health needs, you recharge your batteries the best way that suits you, so you can continue to share your stories with the world.

*Maybe don’t stop and take a break if this is the situation. It might not end well.

So what’s next? Well, personally I plan to watch another horror film or two and then go to bed. (Hai there, anticipated WTF dreams… o.O)

After that? Well. Tomorrow I think I will feel more refreshed, more recharged, and can dive back into organizing sections into a Scrivener file and adding new words into the novel.

❤ ❤ ❤ to you all! Keep those batteries well-charged.


NEXT: [Merc gives up trying to predict the next topic in an ongoing series of blog posts at this point] WE’LL HAVE TO SEE, WON’T WE.

“Thread”

My short story Thread” is now live in the December issue of Ideomancer!

This story was inspired by a nightmare, and it ended up being one of my favorites of things I’ve written. I’m so delighted it found an awesome home.

From the Editor’s Note on the issue:

A. Merc Rustad’s “Thread” upends light, dark, alien intelligence, and the symbology of far-future science fiction in a story of quiet revolution.

Read all of Vol. 12, Issue 4 here.

I hope you enjoy! 🙂