Book Review: Tiny Nightmares edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto
This is an exquisite collection of short stories perfect for spooky season, with 42 gems of flash fiction carefully curated by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto to offer readers nearly every variation on horror on the popular market today. Whether you prefer a classic ghost story, a near-future dystopia, or a far-future tale of space horror, you’ll find something to your liking here.
The book itself is divided into four rather loose categories: Head, Heart, Limbs, or Viscera. The front of each is decorated with an eerie Far-Eastern-style woodcut illustration by Daehyun Kim that feel like tiny nightmares all their own. Story-wise, we open with Meg Elison’s gangbusters “Guess”, where readers are shown the end of the world through the eyes of a carnival psychic who can foretell how a person will die. Following soon after is “Grimalkin” by Andrew F Sullivan, which begins with the gruesome appearance of the titular creature:
The kitten climbs up and out of my sister’s mouth in the middle of the night, emerging as one long strand of hair and bone. I watch as it draws a wet tail past her lips and then drops to the floor, stretching out on the ragged red carpet between our twin beds.
That’s probably about as bad as it gets when it comes to outright goriness, though there are certainly other instances of body parts and assorted graphic violence to be had in this encompassing collection. For the most part, though, the stories here rely less on our bearing witness to the horrors endured by others and more on the creeping possibility that these terrible things might happen to us. One of the best examples of this is the distressingly timely “Jane Death Theory #13” by Rion Amilcar Scott. I was so shaken by it that I had to set the book aside for a moment to recover from how grievously it wounded me.
In fact, many of the stories that are set in the modern day strike uncomfortably close to the bone. Whether discussing the sinister nature of the gig economy in Chase Burke’s “The Mask, The Ride, The Bag” or demonic art in the age of Instagram in Lena Valencia’s “The Blue Room”, it’s impossible to escape the idea of ancient horrors lurking beneath our technologically up-to-date lifestyles or, worse, using our own inventions to prey upon us. Nowhere is this explained better than in Sam J Miller’s terrific “Candy Boii”, which is about a group of friends swapping hook-up app horror stories:
We focus on the wrong fears. The man who might chain you up and torture you to death, or inject you with something unspeakable, or have a perfectly pleasant time but then come back later to rob and maybe murder you. As long as we stay alive, unharmed–as long as we can walk away–we think: we’re fine.
The real danger is how we open ourselves up. What we let in, when we believe ourselves to be safe. We let them in. Like Klingon Birds of Prey, which can’t fire when cloaked, we must drop all our defenses before we can engage.
Another of my favorite subgenres included here was that of the twisted folk tale or legend. Amber Sparks’ “The Story And The Seed” places the familiar story of Hansel and Gretel in a horrifying outer space, while Monique Laban wrote a brilliant choose-your-own-adventure in the fairy tale-themed “Marriage Variations”, dwelling on the many murderous (and murdered) characters that lurk in these stories’ backgrounds. Inverting the formula of benign-to-terrifying, Amrita Chakraborty’s “Twenty-First-Century Vetala” introduces a monstrous figure from Hinduism and imagines a life of compassion for it in the present day.
I could just go on and on about the many stories here I enjoyed (a quick shout-out to Vajra Chandrasekera’s thought-provoking “Joy, and Other Poisons”). Frankly, I was surprised that there weren’t any stories here I disliked, which is quite unusual for me. At worst, I might have found a story confusing, in the sense that I felt that the author’s cultural touchstones differed so significantly from mine that I couldn’t at this moment in my lived experience understand what they were trying to tell me. But even then it’s easy to recognize the sheer quality of what they are trying to say. This is especially impressive given that every story here comes in at under 1,500 words, an artificial constraint that perhaps crystallizes the authors’ skills (as pressure forms a diamond). Regardless of whether or not this was the case for every writer represented here, the end result is an excellent treasury of short horror fiction that belongs on the shelves of every reader who enjoys a good little scare.