The inventive stories in Brenda Peynado’s glorious debut, The Rock Eaters, make powerful use of their fantastic motifs. Rich social commentary on immigration, xenophobia, and right-wing Christianity underlie the title story, which follows first-generation immigrants returning to their unspecified Latin American island home with the gift of flying. In “The Kite Maker,” spindly-legged, purple-faced aliens became enthralled by unremarkable human activities. Pendulous stones sprout from the human body in "The Stones of Sorrow Lake." Throughout, Peynado’s skillful storytelling soars.
I remember my local library as a sea of books—borderless, a drowning by story that I entered into every Saturday and emerged afterwards from its delicious depths having been visited equally by mermaids, heroes, childhoods, and histories. That books were separated into categories and genres was not something that occurred to me until I was older, and my writerly consciousness rejects the idea even now. The stories in The Rock Eaters are populated by angels perched on rooftops, alien arrivals, and Latin American superheroes storming the U.S. border, as well as tennis-playing girls and frenemies. For all their genre-bending, they’re all, at their core, about loving across boundaries and the walls we erect inside ourselves. I never think about genre distinctions. An image comes to me and then I write towards a character whose heart will break because of that image. Sometimes it’s a magical being, sometimes it’s a suburban Florida girl, but all of them are powered by the same desperate desire to connect.
My favorite short story collections are as multi-genred and vast as the library of my youth. They’re wild rides through time and space. They’re about love and heartbreak, and they celebrate and mourn the monstrous inside humanity and the human inside the monstrous, our hunger to love and be loved. They contain magic and histories and, sometimes, aliens.
Tales of mathematicians who can fly, dystopic worlds, and babies who come alive from mundane objects like mud and hair sit well alongside relationships between girls in Nigeria and the immigrant experience. This collection crosses continents with its depth of feeling. Each story draws you into an emotional battle between people.
This collection starts off with a heavy hitting political story: a racially motivated murder in the name of “self-defense,” and a young Black man considering how to respond. The events ring all too true. There are also George Saunders-esque tales, such as the title story, in which a zombie-like shopping disease afflicts much of the population, literally embodying capitalism’s bottomless voracity. This one stuns you with its conceits, and also hits hard politically.
These stories range from surreal retellings of NCIS episodes, to postapocalyptic worlds after a virus wipes almost everyone out, to fairytale-inspired horrors. Many of them are about relationships, and throughout all of their wonder and horror, the stories glimmer with true heart, people trying desperately to love and hold onto their dreams.
These tales mix science fiction, fantasy, horror, and Filipino folk tales. Monsters approach women, girls, and couples, offering them deals they can’t resist. But the tenderness in these stories overcome monstrosity, and in Yap’s hands even creatures from our nightmares search for love and compassion.
5. At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson
These stories including future-seeing queens, mysterious plagues of bees, bridges suspended over a toxic mist that hides monsters, and folktales come to life, with images so glowing, prose so precise, you’ll be utterly enthralled. Johnson packs so much into these stories—entire kingdoms, futures, continents, great loves—that you’ll find your brain reeling for days afterwards.
A Civil War ghost, a geriatric mecha-suit wearer, people who grow additional arms when they experience love—these stories take our everyday lives and imbue them with weirdness and a glimmering humor. “Tributaries,” with its final moment of tenderness between a teacher and the principal’s wife, utterly broke my heart.
Russell’s second story collection is my favorite of her three. Her stories include people who turn into silkworm creatures, dead presidents reincarnated as horses, and vampires contemplating a long relationship. They resist genre distinction, and offer a wide range of emotions. Earnest fantasies sit equally well alongside stories that lean more into horror (“Proving Up”) and those where the surreality bewilders the main characters (“The Barn at the End of Our Term”).
Link is a master at building incredible worlds in tiny spaces. From superhero conventions, to uncanny spaceships, to a house ruled in miniature by fairy-like people, to a world influenced by Egyptian Pharaohs, where rich teens get their own burial pyramids, but also have to pay attention to appearances, social media, and body doubles, these are worlds as contemporary as they are magical. Link deftly weaves horror with deep human yearning while delivering satisfying plot twists.
Evenson is a true master of literary horror, stories where humans and uncertainty are the true monsters, that leave you with the feeling that your whole life might not be real. Featuring houses with mysterious additional windows, an afterlife of walking through mist interminably, and boys who take over other boys’ lives, these stories feel like the kind you would tell over a sputtering campfire, the forest creaking at your back.
10. Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone by Sequoia Nagamatsu
Inspired pop culture, science fiction, and Japanese folktales, these stories bring Godzilla, ghosts, shapeshifters, and demons to life in a wild and vivid collection—as heartfelt as it is haunting—that makes the present look like a dreamlike fantasy.