It’s twitching toward the end of 2014, and so I’m posting this as a clearinghouse of stories and novellas for your reading/ordering pleasure. It’s all the items in print this year. Wheeee! There are many things, in many styles, from dark horror to light comic trilling. What can I tell you? I am a Gemini. I hope you enjoy them – most of them are available with just a click!
It was a terrific year in writing, with a huge highlight in THE END OF THE SENTENCE hitting the NPR Best Books of 2014 list (!!!) and another highlight in the launch of Uncanny Magazine, with If You Were A Tiger I’d Have To Wear White in the inaugural issue.
THE END OF THE SENTENCE: A Novella. Subterranean Press. Cowritten with Kat Howard. (33K, October, 2014)
This is a literary horror-fantasy novella published in hardcover by Subterranean Press. It’s a story about ghosts, guilt, and redemption, and it’s set in rural Oregon, stuffed full of a lot of folklore and myth. Kat Howard and I wrote it together. It got lots of lovely reviews, and made NPR’s BEST BOOKS OF 2014 list, which is a glorious surprise!
“This novella is as dark and rich as European drinking chocolate, both in the story it tells and in the way it’s written…Kat Howard and Maria Dahvana Headley’s separate styles blend beautifully here, as do myth and folklore, in this intricate and elegantly forged plot.” – K. Tempest Bradford, NPR Best Books of 2014
“The End of the Sentence only really represents an evening’s reading, but be prepared to feel the fallout of this fairytale—perfectly formed from a hodgepodge of half-forgotten mythologies—for far longer than the few hours it takes to unfold.”
– Niall Alexander, Tor.com
“How to succinctly describe this elegant, eerie, deeply meaningful book? (Or did I just do so?) Dahvana Headley and Howard collaborate so seamlessly that after less than a page I’d completely forgotten there was one author, let alone two: The voice of this mythologically tinged ghostly murder mystery captures the reader immediately, and the rest is less a matter of that voice not letting you go than you holding on for dear life.” - Bethanne Patrick, The Bookmaven
I didn’t feel alone. The house felt occupied, but I spun, and no one. Paranoid, Malcolm, no sleep since Kansas.
I stepped again into the entryway. I thought about taking my pack and running back down the road to town, the bus, but I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket, and I had nowhere to go. Everything in my life was gone. I opened my hand and uncrumpled the letter.
Here I stay, one hundred and seventeen years after my capture, waiting for release. My sentence was two lifetimes and a day, for the lives they say I took, but I didn’t commit that crime.
And your crime? Did you commit a crime, Malcolm? Are you running from something? I can help you. Your son is not gone. There is hope.
I rely on you now, Malcolm. You’re my own, as has been everyone who has lived in my house.
I held my knees and pressed my back against the wall, feeling the house shake with me. There was a sound in the kitchen. The opening of the refrigerator door. The opening of a cupboard. Haunted. My house was haunted. I didn’t look up. I didn’t move. I shut my eyes and listened to liquid pouring into glass. .
When I opened my eyes again, some time later, there was a glass of pale, yellow wine beside me, and a note in that same shaky hand.
WHAT THERE WAS TO SEE: A Novella – Subterranean Online (Summer, 2014. 19K words)
The unlikely history of the first human corneal transplants, along with a story about the last wild German bear. Literary horror and ghosts, along with science. I love this novella, actually. I worked on it for a long time, and it required tons of scientific research, so it was a pleasure to see it out in the world.
“This story is based on actual historical events, and I like how Headley blends what little the historical record gives us with her own invented truths. It’s an ode to the many women who have assisted in medical breakthroughs, be it by doing the research and work or being experimented on, and whose names have been erased, accomplishments and assistance reduced, voices silenced.” - K. Tempest Bradford, io9
“Mother,” Beate said, adjusting her eyeshades, tugging her hair away, seeming to peer out the window. “Stop.”
There was something visible, hanging in the trees, or at least, Beate assumed the unseen things from which the thing dangled were trees. From the way it moved, hanging by its neck from an unseen rope, they might be passing an old gallows. She slid across the leather to get closer to the window, and stretched out a hand to hold herself in place, but it was gone.
“Nearly there, and a time we’ve had,” huffed Johanna. There was a piece of boning stabbing her, just below the left breast, and there was no way to get at it. Instead, she fussed with her daughter’s hair. Fräulein could not be made to care about such things.
Beate was calm. The train wasn’t the worst place. The things she saw were nearly invisible at that speed, most of the time, and they rarely noticed her. Early in the journey, she’d seen a bad one, but it had eventually left her alone, drifting back to the front of the train where it belonged. Beate wasn’t sure if it was male or female. Once it had leapt before the train, and now it was part of it. She could only make out its mouth, and that spoke ceaselessly, a maddened murmur. She could hear it now, though it had returned to its place beside the conductor, watching the snub-nose of the train, opening its mouth from time to time to taste pipe smoke.
The things Beate saw in substitute for what other people saw were much more than just light and dark. She was familiar with faces that had disappeared from flesh a thousand years prior to her birth. Her closest companions had lived in her bedroom since she was seven. The house had been built atop a plague burial. They’d moved house several times because of her affliction. There was no place where the dead were not. Every building, every room, every small garden plot. Everything had something buried beneath it, and if you thought things were green and gold, you were wrong.
The ghost she’d seen first on this journey had curled into her lap in order to whisper. She couldn’t see her own skirts but she could see the stains its blood had left on them. Sometimes the space around her body was defined only by the presence and spoor of ghosts.
Another ghost was sitting beside her mother, looking expectant. She shook her head at it, but it looked at her hungrily anyway.
IF YOU WERE A TIGER, I’D HAVE TO WEAR WHITE (Uncanny Magazine, November/December 2014, – 5366 words)
This is a fantasy story about the Jungleland Theme Park in Thousand Oaks, CA. It’s set in the late 60’s, at the very end of the golden era of animal actors, and includes Garbo, Gable, Mabel Stark the tiger trainer, Mr. Ed, and the MGM Lions, among many other things. The animals are sentient, and classically trained actors. A journalist tries to get an interview from the reclusive Leo the lion. I wrote it in the style of Gay Talese interviewing Frank Sinatra. So…it’s a very major oddity! I was lucky – Uncanny came around at the perfect moment, and Lynne and Michael Thomas Uncanny’s editors, bought it! Reviewers have said many nice things about it, including:
“Like a film from the classic period it portrays, it’s a story both coy and breathtakingly passionate, wringing wonder from bleak, drab despair. There’s magic in the fade of diamante, in the reduction from main-stage to side-show, in going from riches to rags, and Headley captures that mixture of self-destructing desperation perfectly.“
- Amal el Mohtar, Rich & Strange, Tor.com
“The brutality of the Hollywood machine is part of the allegory, of course, but the story also functions as a piece of realistic narrative itself; though it treads on the surreal in its imagery, the strong emotional undertone keeps it from becoming either a morality play or a flight of fancy.”
- Brit Mandelo, Tor.com
After a while, I walked back to the lion’s cabana and heard, as though an MGM film was rolling, the song of the Forever Roar. I ran along the edge of the pool, hoping he hadn’t seen me, and I was in luck. Through a cracked window, I could see the lion alone at the microphone. His blondes were nowhere in sight.
I sat down on the pavers and listened to his rendition of a torch song interspersed with quiet roars. He was singing like a radio hero, like a drive–in movie idol. He was singing a song that might make every lover on earth turn their head and kiss the one they were with. It was music to fly by, both feral and beautiful, though something told me the lion would never record it.
The Forever Roar’s voice, though aged, still sounded like he’d eaten a velveteen rabbit, and the song he sang was a heartbreaker of lost love and transgression.
I inhaled and discovered that the air was full of cigarette smoke. He’d attracted everyone, from the hippos to the serpents to the scarlet macaw, and they were, like me, entranced.
WHO IS YOUR EXECUTIONER? (Nightmare Magazine, November 2014 – 7932 words)
A dark horror story about children’s games, resurrections, and time travel over thirty years in the lives of three friends and sometimes lovers. There are insects in here, if those scare you. Some people ran screaming from them.
I look up at her. I’m sweating, like I’ve played another childhood game, a dizzying prelude to a blinded hunt. Her boyish body, her long white throat, her thighs in her cut-offs. Oona’s head is blazed out by the sun behind her, and for a moment it’s like it’s gone. The way I’m seeing her is not the angle I should be seeing her from. I feel like I’m looking up from too low, and from behind myself. I feel like I’m on the ground, and I start to turn to see what’s there.
The next moment, I’m down on my hands and knees, puking in the grass.
“You’re so sensitive,” Oona says, holding back my hair, her fingers on the back of my neck, and I shiver. She got down from that tree faster than she should have. I didn’t hear her land.
There’s something boiling inside her, a kettle left on the fire. I raise my head to look at Oona, and what I see is not Oona but something else.
TAXIDERMIST IN THE UNDERWORLD (Clarkesworld, October 2014, 3957 words)
This is a love story set in the Edwardian era, involving a taxidermist, the Devil, and a collection of hell’s ghosts that need stuffing. Reviewers have said some lovely things about it, including:
“Like many folk tales and songs about golden fiddles where the Devil has sway over the main character, I expected a story of deals, backstabbing, and soul bargaining. But Headley has a different set of surprises lurking under the intentions of her characters. The ride toward the ending is gorgeous and just a little bit cruel.”
- Gillian Daniels, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination
Ghosts are the prettiest things in hell, and in that way, they’re like songbirds, but when it comes to skinning and reassembling them, they’re invertebrates. Louis knows that truth, here in his frenzy, attempting to stretch and gentle ghosts onto their forms. No. They refuse him. They collapse, puncture, snag, and tear.
It’s nothing Louis could have known coming in, but they’re boneless and as such, impossible. Were he allowed to embalm them, or to wet mount, yes, but not traditional taxidermy. The specimens refuse.
He tries clay, a heavy, old-fashioned mounting method, but the skin of ghosts is weightless and the clay shows through. He tries a wire armature, wrapped in wads of cotton, but the structure of the ghost, being rhetorical, refuses to commit to the wire, and just as he gets it stitched into position, it shudders and dissolves, leaving him covered in dust, a needle stabbed into his own thumb and out again the other side.
He sits for a moment, head in his hands, trying to calm himself, counting the hours in the waking world. How many years are passing above him as he sits here, trying to stuff spirits with sawdust? There will be Carl, and Carl will be missing him. Carl will be trimming his mustache shorter, and Carl will find someone new to love. Carl will walk with a swagger and then with a stick, and then Carl will die, and Louis will still be down here in hell, trying to preserve ghosts.
THE CULL - The Toast (June, 2014. 1800 words.)
A debutante ball goes horribly wrong, and there is a literary assassination. Horror/satiric black comedy. If you want a very short, very fun thing to read during a coffee break, this is the one.
From Little Maude’s bunk, at around 10a.m., we heard the sound of a spoon rung against a flask. Some of us giggled, but others pretended not to hear. The smell of the stuff made us sick. One night in March, there’d been a flood, and five of us had drowned before the rest could pull them to safety. The flood was not water but whiskey, and where had it come from? We could not say.
This was our home, this dormitory, and the grounds around it. We had no way off the island. All we could do was wait. We’d managed to keep from trembling as we dressed in our finery and stepped into our pumps, but now that we stood here, in our perfect line, we were in terror. A hundred and one of us were in the room, and this, according to our calculations, was at least ninety too many.
DIM SUN (Lightspeed Magazine, Women Destroy Science Fiction, June, 2014 – 5500 words)
A funny science fiction story that’s part Roald Dahl, part Douglas Adams. A restaurant critic in outer space, and his best friend Rodney, who is the critic’s chosen eating companion. The two men face down the critic’s ex-wife Harriet, who has lately become president of the universe. The story isn’t online – it’s exclusive to the ebook and print editions. Which got named on NPR’s Best Books of 2014 list this year! Yay!
“Hysterically funny stuff, highly inventive, ex-wife’s revenge in a gonzoid universe.”
– Locus Magazine
“Rings of Saturn,” the chef says. “Deep-fried, flash drenched in Mars water-ice, and then fried again.”
His assistant is standing by with a fire extinguisher, but this is nothing. The rings are small, a bit blurry, and clearly crisp. They glow a little, which might be worrying for some, but Bert Gold and I are invulnerable. We’re connoisseurs of spice. These rings are fried in some kind of astral napalm. I take one, and crunch into it with my front teeth, feeling it beginning to burn the roof of my mouth. It makes me hard, I’m telling you. I miss onion rings. Back in the day, me and Bert were at a bar one night, and I put seven onion rings around my business. Didn’t end the way I thought it might. I was looking at the ladies. They were laughing at me. People, it turned out, didn’t feel the same way I did about rings. There’s a photo somewhere.
THE TALLEST DOLL IN NEW YORK CITY – Tor.com (February, 2014. 2600 words)
I wrote this romantic, funny Damon Runyon riff about two famous buildings in love for Valentine’s Day this year. I went as Guys & Dolls as I could. It’s fantasy, obviously. Liz Gorinsky acquired it for Tor.com on very short notice, and I am so grateful!
The Chrysler is a devastating dame, and that’s nothing new. I could assess her for years and never be done. At night we turn her on, and she glows for miles.
I’m saying, the waiters of the Cloud Club should know what kind of doll she is. We work inside her brain.
Our members retreat to the private dining room, the one with the etched glass working class figures on the walls. There, they cower beneath the table, but the waitstaff hangs onto the velvet curtains and watches as the Chrysler walks to Thirty-fourth Street, clicking and jingling all the way.
“We shoulda predicted this, boss,” I say to Valorous.
“Ain’t that the truth,” he says, flicking a napkin over his forearm. “Dames! The Chrysler’s in love.”
For eleven months, from 1930 to 1931, the Chrysler’s the tallest doll in New York City. Then the Empire is spired to surpass her, and winds up taller still. She has a view straight at him, but he ignores her.
At last, it seems, she’s done with his silence. It’s Valentine’s Day.
THE BADGER BABY – Glittering Scrivener (June 2014. 2900 words)
Here’s an extra item, which I put it up for free on my own blog! But it’s fun reading. A horror story regarding a real painting of a baby in a lake, by an artist named T.H. Badger. I stumbled on the painting on eBay, and have since been trying to exorcise it from my inbox. This story was an attempt. I put it up on my own blog as a free story, because the exorcism was time sensitive. :)
Why had I bought a baby? I could have properly had a baby, with a nice woman, and instead I’d ferretted a baby from a stack of landscapes. I tugged at my earrings, trying to disavow my purchase.
From upstairs, the Badger baby cried again, and my neighbor’s corgi barked a bark of short legs and slow heft. The baby was too old to cry like that. It had hair. It could probably talk in sentences. It was a baby from 1857. I took a slug of bourbon and it cried more. I felt a lullaby roiling inside me. I wanted to give the baby my finger to suckle. I wanted to immerse myself in the lake and walk on the bottom. I wanted to try to breath beneath the water. I thought about the baby floating in its own light, out in the center of the lake, its arms frozen at its sides, its body an unknown shape and size.