Writing Down the Shadows: Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Tales of Horror

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As with most everything in 2020, Halloween was a very short, quiet affair. Traditionally a holiday that I spend the whole month of October looking forward to—decorating, watching horror movies, planning outfits—this time around I almost forgot the whole thing until the day itself came around. Instead, I got high (which is legal in Oklahoma, where I live, with a medical license, which I have) and watched Remi Weekes’s His House, a stunning entry in the new wave of horror cinema, and went to bed early. I didn’t even make the time to go out the next day and buy discount candy.

Now that 2020 is over, I find myself wanting to recreate the holiday I skipped over. That’s where Tiny Nightmares comes in. Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Tales of Horror is the second anthology of flash fiction from Black Balloon/Catapult, edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto. Before it, in 2018, came Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder, and I can only hope the duo will continue to compile such fantastic flash anthologies in the future (a third flash anthology, Gigantic Worlds, is centered around science fiction, and was published by Gigantic Books in 2015).

Why am I so obsessed with horror? It’s been a part of my life in some way or another since I was born. I mean that; some of my earliest memories are of me rifling through the books on my parents’ bookshelves, looking at the covers and thumbing through the pages even before I could read. King, Koontz, Paterson, Harris, Rice, Stine. Couple that with an imagination that was probably a bit too active, and I was always seeing things move in my closet, watching shadows from the corners of my eyes. Now that I’m an adult, I’m no longer afraid of those things in the shadows: I write them down.

This collection, which is made up of tales of serial killers, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and more, include new stories from Samantha Hunt, Brian Evenson, Jac Jemc, Stephen Graham Jones, Kevin Brockmeier (imagine my surprise when the collection finished on Brockmeier’s “Parakeets” from his latest novel, The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories, a story I had the privilege to hear read before it was published at my MFA alma mater), and Rion Amilcar Scott, as well as newcomers to the world of horror.

A fun game you could play is to read each of the stories without reading the author’s name beforehand, to see if the story matches what you expect from the writer. Amber Sparks wins for me with her entry, “The Story and the Seed.” Sparks is known for her dark, angry fiction, though she’s funny, too. But there’s no humor in “The Story and the Seed,” a retelling of “Hansel and Gretel”; instead, there’s a bleakness to it that took my breath away. “The earth already told us the story of humans,” Sparks tells us, but I still wasn’t ready for Gzifa’s fate.

I have to talk about the utterly spectacular organization of this anthology. Every story falls into one of four categories: Heads, Hearts, Limbs, and Viscera, “loosely held together by sinews of weirdness,” as Michel and Nieto put it in their introduction. The way the stories are organized is perfect—under Hearts there is “Pipeworks,” under Limbs there is “Fingers” and “Leg,” while Viscera gets “Veins, Like a System” and “Human Milk for Human Babies.” We get to devour our horror from the top of the head down to the tips of the toes.

Even before you read a single word, how can you not be drawn into this book? At just over three hundred pages, this is an anthology that might at first seem intimidating, but each story is less than fifteen hundred words, and the forty-two stories fly by. Even if one doesn’t tickle your fancy, it’s over so quickly that you can move on to the next with no hesitation. The artwork at the “head” of each section is penned by Nieto herself, and the understated, black-and-white prints are stunning additions to the anthology.

There is so much beautiful, fantastic prose in this anthology. If I could, I would quote from every single story, but at that point, you’d just be reading the entire book (which you very much should do). There are so many astonishing turns of phrases and details in these very small stories. Instead, I will pepper the rest of this review with a few of the most stunning examples I found—a tantalizing taste of what’s in store.

Not enough people in the modern age write Choose Your Own Adventure books, which is a shame. The form gives agency to the reader in a way no other medium can. Carmen Maria Machado’s amazing In the Dream House, which redefined what a memoir could be, utilizes one. Here, Monique Laban is very clever with hers in “Marriage Variations.” On top of the form, “Marriage Variations” is more than a subtle nod to the legend of Bluebeard: “One night, the noises are unbearable. You aren’t to disturb him, but you will break if this continues. If you intend to learn their cause, go to 2. If you must escape these ghastly moans, go to 3.”

Even with the constraint of staying within fifteen hundred words, some stories play with other forms: second-person, fairytale retellings, emails. This anthology, while full of horror, is also playful.

From: Zuzu

To: Cori

They just keep growing and growing. Always hungry.

– Lindsay King-Miller, “Human Milk for Human Babies

You never know what you’re going to read as the pages turn. Even with as short as each story is, each tale is as gripping as the last, and it’s easy to devour the entire anthology in one sitting (although you’ll most definitely want to reread your favorites, just to glean every single detail you can).

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.

– Andrew Sullivan, “Grimalkin

I know that flash fiction tends to be the form most people complain about—too short, not enough answers, just a tiny taste of an intriguing world before it’s taken away—but that’s what I love most about it. After every story, my mind went spiraling in so many directions, wondering what happens next, where these stories could go. Maybe that’s why I love the form so much: its sense of potential.

And with her dead, she’s not able to provide any sort of counternarrative. Officer Duncan nodded: Yeah, that sounds possible, doesn’t it? Officer Marsh snorted, smoothed his mustache. Who would believe the alternative? he said. It’s almost too horrible to conceive, isn’t it?

– Rion Amilcar Scott, “Jane Death Theory #13

This anthology is also one of the most diverse I’ve seen in horror. Included here are authors of color, queer authors—people who have traditionally been sidelined in this genre, to its own detriment. As we’ve seen over the last few years, the most diverse voices can tell the most horrific stories, ones that linger on, clinging and creeping their way into our minds.

Chavisa Woods’s “Pipeworks” still lives in my mind rent-free. Woods’s young, unnamed protagonist narrates a night when her mother’s friend goes from figurative monster to literal. The woman’s alcoholism brings out the very worst in her, and leads to a moment that scars four lives at once. In my own writing, my protagonists tend to be children or teens. Maybe it’s the only way I can truly process my own childhood, to write about other children facing literal monsters instead of figurative ones. So, “Pipeworks” sticks.

Sometimes, trees look like men. In the dim light of dusk when they sway in the wind, from a distance, the white trees especially stand out against the forest edge. They look like a slim man watching and waiting for something unknown, so that he can begin his brutal work.

Chavisa Woods, “Pipeworks”

As we’re all coming to understand about the genre of horror, it’s not just about the creatures that live beneath our beds. In Tiny Nightmares, we deal with the underlying issues of systemic racism, sexism, global warming, online radicalization—those tiny nightmares we see and experience daily.

Her words twine with the tractor’s hum. The wheat is high and whispering. The daughter longs to let her in. She could let her mother go and thus be free of her mother’s burdens, of feelings that smear her own sense of self. The house as tense and sharp and twisted as barbed wire. She grasps the feeling close. She lets it cut her.

Theresa Hottel, “The Wheat Woman”

This is very clearly an anthology that was crafted with love of the genre. Nothing makes a horror writer seeing that happier—to know our genre is being treated with such attention and care. The words, the illustrations, even the cover—everything works together to make Tiny Nightmares a must-read, for any holiday season.

A. Poythress is a non-binary lesbian currently working towards a PhD in creative writing/fiction at Oklahoma State University after receiving their MFA from Columbia College Chicago in creative writing/fiction. A lover of all things spooky, they primarily write horror and surreal fantasy stories about women and queer folk. When they’re not working on their first novel, they are reviewing books and interviewing authors for various literary publications. AP has been published in print and online at The Lit Pub, New Southern Fugitives, Hair Trigger, Thresholds UK, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Asymmetry Fiction, the AWP Writer’s Notebook, and more. More from this author →