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April 4, 2024

4 Short Story Collections to Read

by MK French

Short stories are great when you are short on time or constantly being interrupted (like during spring break with kids). They are often overlooked for their literary merit, though. There is so much that a writer fits into a limited word count. 

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This Skin Was Once Mine and Other Disturbances by Eric LaRocca

book cover of horror short story collection This Skin Was Once Mine and Other Disturbances by Eric LaRocca
April 2024; Titan Books; 978-1803366647
audio, ebook, print (240 pages); horror

Within the title story, the wealthy family is emotionally battered and stunted. "The worst thing a person can do to you after they've hurt you is let you live." The twisted ties between Jillian, her parents, and then Jay surround the belief that people hurt the things they love, that there's no point in looking backward. There is no warmth or affection between them at all, only a need to possess or control. by the end, Jillian has accepted this about herself and her family, and we're left with the realization that she has no ties left to sever. Moving forward constantly means there are no connections left, and no one to recognize the skin that Jillian used to be.

With "Seedling," grief colors the story. Cancer is "a special plant" that grew from a seedling, and then the narrator sees wounds in her body as well as her father. It becomes bigger due to grief until everything is consumed by it. In "All The Parts Of You That Won't Easily Burn," Enoch has a bizarre conversation when buying a knife for his husband to cook with. When pays an odd price to get it, he forms connections with others he thinks are like him, but really aren't at all. In "Prickle," two friends reunite and play a game to inconvenience or harm strangers. It escalates, with terrible consequences.

The stories here are concerned with the monstrous that can exist within humans, with a tendency toward the gory and morbid. It's not frightening in the sense of monsters hiding in the dark seeking to kill the unwary. It's the darker emotions that might take over and drive people to do awful things in the name of connection or what they call love. The horror here involves the lengths that some people will go to in order to be who they think they should be, or what others want them to be, and losing themselves along the way.

The Trees Grew Because I Bled There: Collected Stories by Eric LaRocca

book cover of horror short story collection The Trees Grew Because I Bled There by Eric LaRocca
March 2023; Titan Books; 978-1803363004
audio, ebook, print (208 pages); horror

Opening with "You Follow Wherever They Go," we're greeted with a story that is almost peaceful and hopeful, without the casual harm that people in Eric's stories tend to inflict upon each other. There's still fear and uncertainty, a child unsure of his place in the world, and the lies that force him out. "Bodies Are For Burning" plays with obsessive thoughts and the fascination with watching things burn. "The Strange Thing We Become" is written as a series of blog posts as a couple deals with cancer. We see how chronic illness changes both the one with the illness and the loved ones who do the caretaking. There's horror in grief here, the way the hopelessness seeps in and robs the future as well as any plans for improvement.

With the title story of the collection, the main character literally gives pieces of herself to her lover, who she feels will protect them. She feels he will appreciate and accept her gifts, and expects the same in return. It's a quiet kind of horror at the end of it, playing up the grief and love of relationships gone wrong.

With an introduction by Chuck Wendig, we acknowledge that "Eric has an unending empathy for his characters, even the worst among them." And really, that's the horror in all of these tales. What begins as dread fascination grows, and we see the worst that these people have to offer. This isn't a supernatural horror, but the horror that all too readily could become real after all.

Reports from the Deep End edited by Maxim Jakubowski

book cover of science fiction short story collection Reports from the Deep End
March 2024; Titan Books; 978-1803363172
ebook, print (416 pages); science fiction

This short story collection is influenced by and inspired by J. G. Ballard. Though Ballard died in 2009, his work was known for dystopias, bleak manmade landscapes, and the psychological effects of technology. It's a facet often explored in science fiction, and one Ballard embraced with his career.

We open with "Chronocrash" by Jeff Noon. Time travel is an ordinary part of life, affecting work, commutes, and society at large. They can go fifty-three years backward and a few days forward, making it useful for field trips. Some people feel they owe the future to create catastrophes that can be visited, and others will try to do whatever they can to push further forward. As will the Ballard way of approaching tech, people are a means to an end. From here are other stories where people try to forge new connections despite technology or because of it, or peoples' attempts at connections fail badly. 

"A Free Lunch" clearly questions how capitalism leads to the destruction of perfectly viable goods and foods, but also makes you wonder what it is they're eating. "That's Handy" has the multiple functions of a phone slowly taking on more and more of an older woman's activities. We have stories that take us into the past, yet still have a sense of alienation and separation from other people that Ballard writes about. Ballard himself shows up as a character, whether making a film or TV show, or his words are directly referenced. Hollywood and politics certainly make it difficult to exert kindness to fellow humans, and the current American political landscape shows up for all that the stories are generally very British.

"They Do Things Differently There" was especially chilling, with a "V for Vendetta" vibe crossed with "1984," as the government is literally everywhere and has outlawed past tense speech and owning anything older than a year. I found that story more horrifying than "The Next Time It Rains" where the rain doesn't stop and transforms people, or the VR and AI-fueled finale "The Next Five Minutes." People need connections to others, a sense of belonging, and a sense of history. Once disconnected from that, the true dystopia begins. These stories show that in so many different ways, there will be plenty to think about and hopefully learn from.

Crocodile Tears Didn't Cause the Flood by Bradley Sides

book cover of magical realism short story collection Crocodile Tears Didn't Cause the Flood by Bradley Sides
February 2024; Montag Press; 978-1957010335
ebook, print (142 pages); magical realism

Full of magical realism, this collection of short stories takes ordinary events and transforms them. Pond monsters, vampires, an incoming apocalypse, ghost children, and broken robots populate the stories, but not everything about them involves the paranormal or fantastic.

The collection opens with "Raising Again," with a young girl and her dog surviving an apocalyptic flood. Even the stars are falling out of the sky, and the girl collects them. The hope to begin again gives this story a beautiful ending and gives a throughline for the collection. Even the directions to care for a pond monster have hope and love in it, and the survivors of a different apocalypse try to make a testament to their memory for future people. There are many apocalypse stories, actually; likely this is the case because disasters can bring out the best and the worst in people. Those snippets of time are the best fodder for stories.

Short stories give a chance for experimental structure, including choose your own adventure, a transcript, and a testing booklet. I actually really like "To Take, To Leave," which includes a parent's love in the midst of yet another fiery apocalypse. Beginning with "2 Truths & A Lie About The Monsters Atop Our Hill" there is a more melancholy slant to the stories, the hopeful thread woven with sadness as well. "Remembrance Day" will rip the heart out of any parent, as well as the fierce desire to become a parent in the title story, which closes out the collection. The characters are so very human, moving from joy to despair and back again, taking us along for the ride.

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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