Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Best Free Short Speculative Fiction of 2022

 

Image Credit: mskathrynne at Pixabay


Welcome to my fourth annual Best Free Short Speculative Fiction list! I saw some success in my own short story writing accomplishments this year. Dark Recesses Press published both “The Grotesque Truth” on the web in February and my flash fiction “With Teeth” in the October print edition. Paradox Ghost Press published my sci-fi horror short “One Hundred Million Mouths” in its October issue of Bleed Error and my story “His Hands May Be Dirty, But His Brain Is Freshly Washed” was published in the December issue of Cosmic Horror Monthly. As all writers should, I spent just as much time reading the past twelve months as I did crafting my own work. My tastes still dwell in the darker corners of genre fiction so with that in mind, I highly recommend the following ten best free speculative short stories of 2022. They’re all available to read at the links below.

 

Beyond the Shore

In a future where viruses have nearly wiped out all humanity, one doctor must face the possibility that extinction is not just inevitable, but enviable. Writer Tania Fordwalker’s melancholy tale can be found in the November issue of Lightspeed.

 

Charlie Eats the Paper Gods

This fun little tale tells of a kindergartener’s belief in and ultimate proof of a mischievous deity who wreaks havoc on the exclusive private school he attends. Author H.L. Fullerton’s vivid picture of religious inclusivity meeting all-powerful reality is found in the Fall issue of Underland Arcana.

 

Sharp Things, Killing Things

This story about small town bullies being haunted by their past cuts deep. Work by author A.C. Wise can be found in most of the top genre lit mags on the market, but this one in the October issue of Nightmare might be my favorite. 

 

Sweetbaby

Author Thomas Ha made my list last year and he’s done it again with this sci-fi tale found in the October issue of Clarkesworld. It’s got interplanetary travel, rebellious robots, monstrous siblings - rebirth has never felt so dismal.

 

Bramblewilde

This short story by author Jordan Taylor could be taken as a prequel to the traditional three witches in a cottage trope. I think any fan of fairy tale witches will enjoy it and it’s found in the July/August issue of Uncanny.

 

To Build Eternity, With Bones

This tale by Gunnar De Winter grabs you with its opening sentence and refuses to let go. A necromancer spurs her crew across the icy sea toward a dark purpose only she can understand and only she is likely to survive in the May issue of The Deadlands.

 

Beginnings

Kristina Ten is another author who showed up on my 2021 list and is back with a story in the April issue of Fantasy. This sad all-too-real tale of toxic masculinity and a lack of acceptance of otherness is sweetened with just the right amount of poetic magic to make it go down like honey followed by a sting.

 

The Bear Across the Way

Fellow Atlanta-based writer Emily Rigole’s first published story landed in one of the best online markets out there and for good reason. Published in PseudoPod 801, this tale of an unusual neighbor brought down by mistrust and deceit hits hard given some of the top news stories of the day.

 

Seven Vampires: A Judge Dee Mystery

Lavie Tidhar’s latest tale of his vampire detective Judge Dee was published in February at Tor.com. Two of his earlier stories made my list last year. This time the Judge and his steadfast human companion Jonathan are escaping Paris with a pack of vampires who wind up murdered one by one. It’s up to the Judge to determine who is behind the deeds and why.

 

To People Who’d Never Known Good

I try to spread the praise across a wide selection of authors in my year-end reviews, but sometimes a writer is so good he/she/they need to be mentioned twice. Thomas Ha delivers again with a tale in the February issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. This story of a mother and son who protect planets from plant-like monsters that poison everything their tentacles touch feels like Jeff VanderMeer taking a shot at writing an extended Star Wars universe episode. I loved it.

 

If any of these stories entertain you, you can find more like them at these 20 websites.

https://www.3lobedmag.com/

https://apex-magazine.com/

https://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/

http://thedarkmagazine.com/

https://darkmattermagazine.com/

https://thedeadlands.com/

https://www.diabolicalplots.com/

https://escapepod.org/

https://ethereamagazine.com

https://www.fantasy-magazine.com/

http://www.kaleidotrope.net/

http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/

https://magazine.metaphorosis.com/

http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/

http://pseudopod.org/

http://www.strangehorizons.com/

https://www.tor.com/

https://uncannymagazine.com/

https://www.underlandarcana.com/

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Five Times the Screen Version of a Sci-Fi/Fantasy Character Was Clearly Superior (and five times it wasn’t)

 

Photo Credit: Matt Handle

I finished the first book in author Andrzej Sapowski’s Witcher Saga, The Last Wish over the weekend. As I read it one thing that jumped out at me is that while the Netflix series tends to stick pretty close to the storylines and characters in the book, I like Henry Cavill’s stoic version of the sword-wielding hero better than the original. The version in the book is more talkative, even friendly at times and some of the literary version’s dialogue is so old fashioned it’s downright corny. Try this line on for size: “Thank you for the spread. A hundred thanks, dear host. And now, if you permit, we’ll get down to business.” Ugh. The quieter, meaner screen version is more my speed. It got me thinking. Which other screen versions of sci-fi/fantasy characters are superior to their originals and more common, which screen versions are disappointments?

 

Five Times the Screen Version of a Character Was Clearly Superior

Geralt of Rivia (The Witcher) – Why speak when a simple grunt will do? The Netflix version of the white-haired Witcher lets his sword do most of the talking and I think the character is better for it. It’s not that I don’t appreciate dialogue. It’s just that Cavill’s gritty portrayal of the main character is less traditional and therefore more compelling than the version that shows up in the first book of the series.

Rick Deckard (Blade Runner) – Harrison Ford’s portrayal of nihilistic bounty hunter Rick Deckard remains one of my favorite film characters ever, but if you read the source material, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? You’ll find a much weaker man who’s more focused on obtaining the perfect pet rather than falling in love with his beautiful replicant target.

Missandei (Game of Thrones) – Say what you will about the storylines of the later seasons of this huge hit show, but one thing they definitely got right was the expanded role of Daenerys’s counselor, Missandei. The book series depicts this slave-turned-interpreter as younger and of minor importance, but the HBO show really fleshed out the character and made her a fan favorite.

William Cage (Edge of Tomorrow) – Translating Japanese manga to an American film doesn’t work all that often. As evidence, see Ghost in the Shell below. However Tom Cruise’s version of the hero known as Keiji Kiriya in the source material All You Need is Kill outshines the original as more heroic and with a more satisfying character arc.

Camina Drummer (The Expanse) – My favorite character from the recent sci-fi series The Expanse was “Belter”, rebel, and eventual ship captain, Camina Drummer. Played by actress Cara Gee, the show expanded (pun intended!) the role to combine several different characters from the novels in order to streamline the story. This allowed Gee more screen-time and made the series that much more fun.

 

Five Times It Wasn’t

Major (Ghost in the Shell) – Casting Caucasian American actress Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese cyborg protagonist set off plenty of alarm bells before the 2017 film version of the manga series arrived and rightfully so. Johansson has a solid action hero track record, but she was badly miscast here and the movie suffered as a result.

Abraham Van Helsing (Van Helsing) – You can’t blame Hugh Jackman for the lousy script, but you can blame him for accepting a lousy role when he clearly wasn’t hurting for money. You know those X-Men paychecks were nice. Jackman plays an action hero version of Bram Stoker’s famous vampire hunter in this poorly conceived and largely forgettable 2004 film.

Walter (The Dark Tower) – Plenty went wrong with the 2017 adaptation of the first book in Stephen King’s classic dark fantasy series, but one of the film’s worst sins was casting Matthew McConaughey as the villain. McConaughey has done plenty of great work over the course of his career, but if you enjoyed the novels, I bet he isn’t the evil wizard you imagined.

Duncan Idaho (Dune) – No, I’m not knocking Jason Mamoa’s portrayal of the loyal Atreides warrior in the 2021 version of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi tale. I’m still laughing about the 1984 version where Richard Jordan played the part. Jordan may have been handsome and slick, but a fearless badass? I don’t think so.

Moreau and Montgomery (The Island of Dr. Moreau) – And finally I couldn’t choose which portrayal was worse, so I’m awarding a tie to Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer for their awful performances in the 1996 version of the H.G. Wells classic tale of medical malpractice, genetic mayhem, and murder. Both are remarkable actors, but if you believe the stories of the troubled production of this film neither actor wanted to be there and it shows.


Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Bonaventure Cemetery

 

All Photo Credits: Matt Handle

Like any good detective tale, the novel I’m currently querying features a number of side quests the protagonist must complete while in pursuit of his quarry. One of those missions takes him to the Bonaventure Cemetery just outside Savannah, Georgia. I had the opportunity to visit this famous boneyard last month and I thought I’d share some of the photos I took. Located aside the Wilmington River and featuring burial plots from as old as 1802, this quiet Spanish moss-draped place seems perfect for the sort of spooky encounter my occult detective faces there.

















Monday, June 20, 2022

Visiting Savannah

 

All Photo Credits: Matt Handle

While the majority of the occult detective novel I’m shopping to agents this summer takes place in my home turf of Atlanta, a key scene happens in the port city of Savannah, Georgia. This created the perfect excuse to take the family to Savannah this past weekend for a wedding anniversary/Father’s Day celebration where we could not only have a great time, but I could do some fact check reconnaissance as well. Does this mean our trip was deductible? I’ll leave that decision to my tax professional, but it definitely means I took lots of photos. I’ll save the pictures from the Bonaventure Cemetery for a future post since that’s a very specific location in my book but here are plenty of shots around town including the smaller but still spookily impressive Colonial Park Cemetery.


















Sunday, May 22, 2022

Love, Death & Robots – Season 3

 

Image Credit: Netflix

Friday marked the release of Netflix’s sci-fi/horror series Love, Death & Robots Season 3 and like the two seasons before it, the show offers some entertaining short stories told through a host of talented directors and animation studios. The nine episodes this season range from 7 to 21 minutes long and they feature returning writers John Scalzi, Neal Asher, and Michael Stanwick along with series co-creator Tim Miller and award-winning sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling.

There’s enough variety in the stories and styles that everyone is bound to have their personal favorites and I encourage you to give them all a try. Below are my brief descriptions of each episode in my order of preference.

 

In Vaulted Halls Entombed

A military team sent to rescue a captive from terrorists runs afoul of something much more sinister deep in the caves of Afghanistan. This violent, creepy tale ends in a Lovecraftian twist that makes it my favorite of Season 3.

Bad Travelling

I didn’t find the main character to be particularly likeable and the ending felt a little too convenient, but watching a crew battle a tank-sized crustacean who has taken over the ship and developed a taste for human flesh was still a lot of gory fun.

Jibaro

This episode doesn’t include a word of dialogue, but the animation might be the most visually arresting of the series. An invading knight is initially spared from death by a seductive river siren because he is deaf, but her fascination and his greed get the better of him in the end.

Swarm

Another minute or two of exposition to fill in some of plot would have made this episode way more successful. As it is, the story feels a bit disjointed, but it still features excellent world-building as a space-faring human attempts to enslave a uniquely adaptive alien species.

Mason’s Rats

I tend to like the serious episodes more than the silly ones, but this gore-fest about a farmer who goes to extraordinarily violent lengths to rid his barn of intelligent rodents is a fun ride and it features the voice talent of one of my favorite comedians, Craig Ferguson.

The Very Pulse of the Machine

Imagine an astronaut exploring a peyote fever-dream and you’d have the general idea of this episode. While short on action, the artwork is beautiful and it has the sort of ambiguous ending that allows your mind to ponder the story long after it’s over.

Three Robots: Exit Strategies

This humorous continuation of an episode in Season 1 doesn’t offer much in the way of new ideas, but it’s still amusing to imagine what future robot archeologists might think of our strange and self-destructive culture long after we’re gone from Earth.

Kill Team Kill

There’s plenty of violence and vulgarity in this episode, but not much characterization or story. A group of mercenaries runs across a cybernetic monster that’s nearly indestructible and apparently a result of their own government’s experimentation.

Night of the Mini Dead

Given my love for zombies, you’d think I’d rank this one higher, but it just didn’t do much for me. I appreciate the novelty of telling the tale of a zombie apocalypse via miniatures, but other than the fact they’re tiny, this episode doesn’t offer anything you haven’t seen before.


Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Book of Boba Fett – Season 1 Review

 

Image Credit: Disney+

 

Season 1 of the latest Star Wars offering from Disney+ wrapped up last night and being the Star Wars geek that I am, you know I watched every minute of it. If you haven’t seen it yet but plan to, I do share some mild spoilers below but I tried to avoid spilling the best stuff. If you’re on the fence about seeing it, I’ll say up front that it isn’t as good a show as The Mandalorian, but it’s still a fun ride. Boba Fett always struck me as a galactic High Plains Drifter. I assumed this series would depict that same quiet, cruel bounty hunter who just happens to now be more interested/invested in punishing bad guys instead of good ones. That isn't what we get. Instead, Fett is an aging, softening man who just wants to settle down and get the locals to like and respect him.  For me at least, this makes for an uncompelling lead. There’s no doubt that the show is an entertaining piece of nostalgia, it's just not everything I hoped it would be.

That said, here are brief summaries and my thoughts on each episode written immediately after I watched them.

 

Stranger in a Strange Land

Fett’s appeal in the original Star Wars trilogy was his quiet menace. We didn’t hear much from him. We just knew he looked and moved like a bad ass. This new version of the infamous galactic bounty hunter does a good bit of talking and frankly, most of it isn’t very bad ass. I would have enjoyed seeing his sidekick Fennec Shand do more of the talking on his behalf. Like Netflix’s The Witcher, allowing the warrior to rely on grunts and growls would let him keep more of his air of mystery. I also think a set of hand signals between the pair similar to the House Atreides battle language in Dune would underline the importance of their relationship and Fett’s ability to act swiftly and mercilessly with a minimum of words. Robert Rodriguez’s direction of the Mos Espa fight sequence left something to be desired as well. It felt more Spy Kids than Desperado. Improved stunt choreography and editing would have dramatically improved the scene and our belief that Fett and Shand are forces to be reckoned with. This first episode is fun in that it takes us back to a planet and characters that we love, but I think it does less to set up a strong series than what we saw in The Mandalorian.

The Tribes of Tatooine

This second episode has some weak spots, but it’s a definite improvement over its predecessor. The arrival of the Hutt twins and their Wookie enforcer, Krrsantan who want to lay claim to Jabba’s former domain and run off Fett in the process is a highlight as is the appearance of the Ithorian mayor of Mos Espa, Mok Shaiz. However a large portion of this episode is backstory and while interesting, it further damages our image of Fett as a bad ass as we see him repeatedly get beat up by Tusken Raiders. Eventually he earns their respect by saving one of their youths from a desert monster whose odd appearance and movement wouldn’t be out of place in Clash of the Titans. Fett follows that victory with another against a gang of ruffians in a bar brawl, cementing his place in the Tusken tribe. Our protagonist then goes on to lead the sand people in a high-speed spice train robbery that could have been great, but like the Mos Espa fight in Episode 1, feels short-changed by the stunt performers and special effects. It ends up coming off a bit like Fury Road-lite. All-in-all still underwhelming, but the series is at least moving in the right direction.

The Streets of Mos Espa

Fett reflects on the tragic fate of his former Tusken tribe then wakes from his bacta tank dream to an assassination attempt by Krrsantan. He survives thanks to a new gang of young bikers he’s recently taken under his wing and he soon accepts an apology from the Wookie’s Hutt twin employers. The Hutts have decided to leave while they still can and they offer both the Wookie and a rancor as payment for the trouble they’ve caused. I didn’t dislike the teens and their colorful speeder bikes nearly as much as many critics on Twitter did, but I did take exception to director Robert Rodriguez again choosing cheap-looking Spy Kids-type special effects in a chase scene through the busy streets of Mos Espa that could have been a series highlight if done well. Cheers to the casting of Danny Trejo as the rancor keeper though!

The Gathering Storm

The quality of the special effects continues to disappoint, the most glaring example in this episode being Fennec’s cybernetic surgery scene, but watching Fett rescue and befriend Fennec was fun as was the mission to retrieve Fett’s ship from Bib Fortuna, and Krrsantan’s dismemberment of an unfortunate gambler in the Sanctuary club. The highlight of this episode is Fett and Fennec’s exploration of and subsequent battle with the Sarlacc while inside Slave 1. I thought it was a great way to tie the show to Fett’s last scene in Return of the Jedi and yes, for this old-school fan, the name of his ship will never change.

Return of the Mandalorian

Chapter 5 isn’t so much an episode of The Book of Boba Fett as it is a lost episode of The Mandalorian. We follow Din Djarin as he stops in to show off the Darksaber to The Armorer, dukes it out with Paz Vizsla over which of them is the rightful wielder of the legendary blade then promptly gets booted from the Mandalorian ranks when he admits he broke their code to remove his mask for Grogu. This leads Djarin back to Tatooine where he commissions a small, Phantom Menace-era ship to replace his destroyed Razor Crest. The new ship is ridiculously fast but also completely impractical for a bounty hunter who needs to be able to live on, sleep in, and transport prisoners in a cargo hold. The episode ends with Fennec showing up at the shipyard to ask Djarin for his help, finally tying the story back to Boba Fett. While out-of-place in regard to telling Fett’s story, this episode is a blast. I don’t know if it is the superior direction of Bryce Dallas Howard, the superior acting of Pedro Pascal, or if writers Jon Favreau and Noah Kloor are just more in tune with Djarin than Fett, but chapter 5 is far more satisfying than the four episodes before it.

From the Desert Comes a Stranger

The penultimate episode of Season 1 is again mostly about characters other than Fett and it’s even better than episode 5. Not only do we get more Djarin, we get the return of Luke Skywalker, Ahsoka Tano, R2-D2, Cobb Vanth, and maybe coolest of all, the first live action appearance of Star Wars: The Clone Wars baddie, Cad Bane. All of this fan service and world building seems to be leading to a big battle for control of Tatooine between Fett and his allies against the spice-smuggling Pyke Syndicate and their hired guns. Meanwhile Grogu faces the choice between his friendship with Djarin and his Jedi training with Skywalker, a decision which should clear up which direction the next season of The Mandalorian will take.

In The Name of Honor

The final episode of the season is all action and while some of it doesn’t hit as hard as it should, quite a bit does. We get the Star Wars version of Godzilla vs. King Kong, we get Fett and Djarin fighting side by side against overwhelming odds, we get a great showdown between Fett and Bane that’s practically lifted straight out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, and we finally get to see Fennec Shand act like the deadly assassin she was built up to be. This finale isn’t as strong as the two episodes that preceded it, but it’s a fun wrap up of Boba Fett’s rise to power on Tatooine and a nice segue into the upcoming third season of The Mandalorian.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Best Free Short Speculative Fiction of 2021

 

Image Credit: Enrique Meseguer at Pixabay


Welcome to my third annual Best Free Short Speculative Fiction list! In regard to my personal writing accomplishments, 2021 was another period of minor victories but still no major breakthrough. My flash fiction piece “The Stony Gaze of Eternity” can be found in the new horror anthology 99 Tiny Terrors alongside stories by authors Cat Rambo, Seanan McGuire, Scott Edelman, Meg Elison, and more. I also sold a story entitled “Children of the Moon” that will come out next year. My tastes still dwell in the realms of horror and darker/grittier sci-fi and fantasy so with that in mind, if you’re looking for more stories to read, I highly recommend the following ten. They’re all free to read and every one of them is excellent. Here is my list of the best free speculative short stories published in 2021.

 

Orla, Always

I’ve read and enjoyed multiple short stories written by Thomas Ha this year. All of them are dark, otherworldly, and thoroughly engrossing. This tale in the latest issue of Metaphorosis explores how far a father will go to save his only child from a horrific disease and death.

 

White Ribbon, Grey Fur

Uncharted is a welcome new entry in the short story market and this twisted tale of living through a deadly epidemic in a world that’s both similar yet weirdly different from our own by Marisca Pichette hits particularly hard given our current COVID plight.

 

The Lonely Box

The Fall issue of Underland Arcana features this melancholy piece of flash fiction by Manfred Gabriel. I think anyone familiar with the heartache of seeing relationships die as time marches past can relate.

 

Judge Dee and the Poisoner of Montmartre

Combine Dracula with Sherlock Holmes and what do you get? It might be something like author Lavie Tidhar’s character, Judge Dee. This tale found on the Tor website of a vampire detective and his long-suffering human familiar Jonathan is highly entertaining and will leave you wanting more.

 

The Nature of Things in Motion

A single-minded robot in post-apocalyptic America befriends a curious boy, doing its best to protect him to the (very) bitter end. Marlan K. Smith paints a dark picture of mindless industry and the fragility of man in the premier issue of Etherea Magazine.

 

We Will Weather One Another Somehow

This tragic sci-fi tale by writer Kristina Ten will ring especially true for anyone who has watched a loved one suffer from a debilitating illness. Poignant and touching, it can be found in the June issue of Diabolical Plots.

 

Brightly, Undiminished

This tale of mourning and magic by Sarah Grey was published in the March issue of Lightspeed Magazine. I don’t know if so many of my picks this year are sad and reflective because of my feelings about the pandemic or because so many great writers out there felt much the same, but this story fits right in.

 

Cleaver, Meat, and Block

Maria Haskins’ post-apocalyptic tale of a young woman coming to terms with the cannibalistic murder of her family is harrowing in a way few short stories can manage. Originally published in 2020 by Black Static, it is available for free in PseudoPod 745.

 

Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels

That’s right, author Lavie Tidhar and Tor.com not only earned two places on my list; they did it with the same characters. I can’t get enough of vampire detective Judge Dee’s adventures with his sidekick Jonathan. I could easily picture this becoming an animated series on Netflix or HBO Max in the near future. Sign up Tim Burton to direct, Johnny Depp to voice the judge, and I’m ready to binge watch!

 

Mr. Death

And finally this tale of a harbinger of the afterlife and the moral quandary he must face written by Alix E. Harrow and published in the resurrected Apex Magazine hit me right in the feels. I challenge you to finish this one dry-eyed.

 

If you enjoyed these stories and want to find more great short fiction, check out these 20 websites.

 

https://apex-magazine.com/

https://www.apparitionlit.com/

http://arsenika.ink/

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/

http://thedarkmagazine.com/

https://darkmattermagazine.com/

https://thedeadlands.com/

https://www.diabolicalplots.com/

https://www.dreamofshadows.co.uk/

https://ethereamagazine.com

http://www.kaleidotrope.net/

http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/

https://magazine.metaphorosis.com/

http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/

http://pseudopod.org/

http://www.strangehorizons.com/

https://www.tor.com/

https://uncannymagazine.com/

https://www.unchartedmag.com/

https://www.underlandarcana.com/