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A Human Stain

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A Human Stain by Kelly Robson is a disturbing horror novelette about a British expatriate at loose ends who is hired by her friend to temporarily care for his young, orphaned nephew in a remote castle-like structure in Germany.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

40 pages, ebook

First published January 4, 2017

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About the author

Kelly Robson

59 books240 followers
Like you, I'm a passionate reader. I spent most of my teenage years either hanging out at the drugstore waiting for new issues of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, or when I was in the city, lurking in the SF and Fantasy section of the bookstore. This was pre-Internet and since there were no bookstores in my town and the library was pretty bare, good books -- the kind that made my heart sing -- were precious treasures.

To this day, nothing is more important to me than reading, nothing is more delicious than a great novel, and few people are as important as my favorite writers.

My writing life has been pretty diverse. I've edited science books, and from 2008 to 2012 I had the great good luck to write a monthly wine column for Chatelaine, the largest women's magazine in Canada.

I've published short fiction at Tor.com, Asimov's Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and a number of anthologies. Several of my stories have been chosen for "year's best" anthologies, and in the past two years I've been a finalist for several high-profile awards.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 223 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,968 reviews170k followers
July 26, 2018

Under one of the beds she found a thin rib from a rack of lamb, riddled with tooth marks. Somewhere in the house was a dog. She’d have to take care to make friends with it.

i have gotten really REALLY bad about reviewing these free tor shorts. for the past few years, i have given myself the enjoyable task of reading one per week, but i've slacked on reviewing them and they have added up into an unapproachable, never-gonna-do-it number of pending reviews. every once in a while i get it in me to review a bunch of them at once, even if they're just jerk-off brief reviews so i can feel good about myself for eight minutes, and then i fall back into slacker-territory and the shame begins anew.

today i am going to do something unheard of - review the one i read today immediately! ish. i read this like 6 hours ago. but still - a triumph of getting shit done!!

i am totally going to give this story five stars even though it does many things i have complained about in the past, because i cannot be oppressed by such trivial things as holding consistent opinions!!

there was just something about this one... it dug its way into me and it told me a story that tickled all my bits and kept me engaged and shiveringly delighted throughout. which, at 5 am, is a pretty impressive feat. YES, there is a lot left unexplained, YES i have a lot of questions, but unlike all the other stories i have grumbled at for their "poor world-building" or "lazy ambiguity," this one had such strengths: an initially spooky setup which escalated into further spookiness at just the right speed for maximum karen-chills, strong, memorable imagery (tiny bones everywhere! DIY dentistry! a delicious door!) whose lack of conclusive explanations forced my mind to hunt for answers in a not-frustrating way, and a creepy kid!

plus, a ballsy main character in helen - aggressive flirter/would-be seducer of young nursemaids, down-on-her-luck debauchee fleeing debts and trying to get her life back on track accepting a governess position for a recently(?) orphaned boy, finder of bones, picker of locks, bold explorer of mysteriously-alluring basement doors, too brassy to suffer from a schoolmarm's fears:

Helen had seen crypts before. They didn’t frighten her. At age five she’d seen her mother shut away in a Highgate Cemetery tomb. She’d kissed her first girl in the crypt at St Bride’s, after stealing the key from the deacon. And she’d attended parties in the Paris catacombs, drank champagne watched by thousands of gaping skulls.

But this was no crypt.

indeed, not. "what is it?," you ask. it is... dunno for sure, but WHOO! it'll mess you UP!

do i have any idea what's going on here? very little! but i know enough that it affected me as a reader; it came alive for me and i was an active participant - rolling my eyes at helen's lame jokes, muttering "ewwww" when appropriate, bracing myself whenever that kid was on-page.

“No, Miss York. I know you.”

creepy little bugger.

at any rate, i really enjoyed this one, more than i have enjoyed a free tor short for some time now. and i see i'm one of the few to like it, which is fine - i can totally understand why the ambiguity would be a turn-off, since it usually is for me. i don't know why i wasn't bothered by it this time, but i'm glad i wasn't, because reading a great story before the sun is even up is a good way to start the day.

i didn't realize until i added this to my gr shelf that i had read another story by this author, during my december 2016 "read one short story a day" challenge: Waters of Versailles, which *technically* i reviewed, but only shallowly, in one-a-day review mania. this story was even better than that one. PLUS, bonus points for not being philip roth.

read it for yourself here:


come to my blog!
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,845 followers
September 16, 2019
Nicely classical gothic horror that happens to be an actual, nicely gruesome, horror. :) What is it about Germany and crypts, anyway?

Ah, kids. Nothing scarier in the world.
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,620 reviews4,956 followers
April 25, 2021
a delicious tale of a feast unknown. a heartwarming story of family coming together.


a toothsome secret recipe is shared. a servant problem is resolved.


devour for free:


I would like to provide a Very Special Note for my Goodreads friend who erroneously considers the protagonist's lesbianism to be the "checking of a box" and for "extra credit"... I'm sorry my friend, but you couldn't be more wrong, and in some surprising ways. Your forthright reviews always demonstrate an assertive tolerance and open-mindedness, so I know that this isn't coming from a place of reactionary ignorance. And yet your comments on this topic are actually ignorant. Particularly to a queer like myself.

First of all, a protagonist being gay or bisexual or whatever does not need to be developed beyond "surface level" - just as a character's straightness does not need justification. Lesbians exist and they can be the leads of short stories that aren't about lesbianism, because a person does not solely equal their orientation. It is just another facet of their being. Inclusion of LGBT leads in a story does not mean their presence requires a logic model, or even depth. Do straight protagonists have to have their sexuality explored in great detail to justify their heterosexual presence?

Second, there does not appear to be a "checking of a box" in this story in an attempt to coddle (or monetize) the infernal Woke. Such sucking up would have looked more like a story in which the lesbian protagonist also had a black best friend, the butler is of the Roma people, the cook has announced herself as a Proud Asexual, and the maid is a Manic Pixie Asian. It would have meant something like the execrable Every Fart a Doorway. Rather, in this story we have a protagonist who is a lesbian and another important connected character who is a gay man. And that's that.

Thirdly, you are mistaken that these two characters' sexualities are "tacked on" - I fear you may not have read the story too deeply. This is a story of parenthood and it is a tale of horror. It features a lead who
SPOILER ALERT is being trapped into the role of a parent; the manipulative jerk who brought her to this place is specifically portrayed as horrified at the idea of being forced into such a role. That these two characters are a lesbian and a gay man does have resonance and a certain meaning. When reflecting on the author's intentions, the meaning itself is rather obnoxious (*cough* many LGBT actually want to be parents, author)... but that does not take away from what is - to this bi gent who also never wants to be tied down to any progeny , at least - an obvious intentionality from the author in deciding to make her protagonist a person who is not straight. Sexual orientation is organic to the plot, thematically.

Forgive the Very Long Harangue! I usually appreciate your perspective, but those points you made really got under my skin. Let's just hope that you don't read this Very Special Note and then decide to unfriend me, because I do enjoy your reviews.
Profile Image for Dennis.
652 reviews252 followers
September 3, 2019
A very creepy read, perfect for Spooktober.


Bärchen offers his friend Helen to join him for the summer at his family home in Bavaria and to pay her for teaching his orphaned nephew English. Having nothing left but debts in Paris, Helen accepts his offer and joins him on his journey to Germany.

Bärchen’s childhood home turns out to be something like a castle, set on the edge of lake Meresee, hemmed in tight by the Bavarian Alps and with no neighbors in sight. It’s a very isolated place.

There are a few inhabitants though. A nursemaid that doesn’t talk much, two servants that are not very good at housekeeping (or meaningful conversations) and of course little Peter of whom Helen is to take care of for the summer.

With Bärchen mourning the loss of his brother and therefore mostly staying on his own, Helen is trying to become acquainted with the house and the people living there. And slowly she’s realizing that something isn’t quite right.

This is a story that is slowly creeping up on the reader as more and more peculiar details show up and the feeling of unease keeps growing until the very unsettling end.

I recommend reading this in the dark and free of potential interference.

It’s all about atmosphere and it does what it sets out to do so well that I’m giving it all the stars.
You shouldn’t expect to get all the answers though. That’s not what this story is about and if you’re looking for that you might be a little disappointed.

I wasn’t. I truly loved it and thought its ambiguity was part of the fun.

A deserved winner of the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

Read it for free here.

2017 Nebula Award Nominees

Best Novel
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly (Tor)
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (Saga)
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (Knopf; riverrun)
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (Orbit US)
Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz (Tor; Orbit UK 2018)

Best Novella
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages (Tor.com Publishing)
And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen (NobleFusion Press)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novelette
Dirty Old Town by Richard Bowes (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction 5-6/17)
Weaponized Math by Jonathan P. Brazee (The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3)
Wind Will Rove by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
A Human Stain by Kelly Robson (Tor.com 1/4/17)
Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)

Best Short Story
Fandom for Robots by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
Utopia, LOL? by Jamie Wahls (Strange Horizons 6/5/17)
Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard) by Matthew Kressel (Tor.com 3/15/17)
Carnival Nine by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
Exo by Fonda Lee (Scholastic Press)
Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren (Tor)
The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller (HarperTeen)
Want by Cindy Pon (Simon Pulse)
Profile Image for Trish.
1,848 reviews3,363 followers
October 31, 2018
Read this story for free here.

The story was recommended to me by a friend who warned me to read it in the dark in a relaxing atmosphere. Oookaaayyy ... not creepy at all!

A young woman accompanies a friend to his family's residence in Bavaria to help take care of his nephew. However, as one can imagine from the title and indeed cover, there is something profoundly wrong and the reader, along with young helen, soon gets sucked into this creepy world where all is not as it first seemed.

I must say that I do have a question or two after reading this story, such as or ?! The whole point wasn't entirely clear but the story made up for it with the oppressing and dark atmosphere throughout, the sense of dread, and that something is lurking in the shadows.

Wonderful to read in Spooktober!
Profile Image for Leo Robertson.
Author 35 books429 followers
April 3, 2017
In my litmag perusals (due another best-of-stories list asap!) one of my favourite discoveries was Kelly Robson. She got her first story published at forty-seven, and has written about being a late bloomer here:

Now her work is quickly getting picked up and celebrated by the top outlets today, including this horror story, published by Tor! It's awesome that she represents so many reassuring messages about life: you can start at any time; it's difficult to waste time/to avoid life-years converting into experience; the whole fiction thing isn't as subjective as most writers like to claim. If you're good, you'll get noticed.

And it's easy to see why Robson's prose is so celebrated. It masterfully interweaves plot, setting, characterisation, mood... the prose is economic but poetic where it finds an opportunity to be. If anything, it's annoyingly clipped, not a word or sentence spared. It's prose that really demands your attention.

I would've said this story was a masterclass in contemporary writing, in fact, but while all signposts along the way indicated a neatly wrapped ending on the horizon, it did seem to end abruptly. In fact it was quite confusing.

Still, Robson's one to watch! If she gets round to attempting a longer form, dear lord—you'll want to pay attention to every page.
Profile Image for Jessica.
1,159 reviews81 followers
October 16, 2018
So, quick take on this one. It's definitely creepy. Kelly Robson sets off right away by building tension, and it keeps you guessing for a good half of the story. When the actual cause of all this tension broke through the story though, I kind of lost interest. I don't know what I was expecting. Honestly. Still, the twist here was just a little too odd for me to wrap my mind around. Be warned that this is a bit gory, which should be evident by the title but I figured I'd put a warning out. Overall, not a bad way to pass a half hour or so!
Profile Image for Rachel (Kalanadi).
709 reviews1,398 followers
February 21, 2018
Wonderfully written and really creeped me out with just hints and a few images. I don't enjoy reading scary stories but this was on my awards season reading list, and I'm always happy to read more by Robson.
Profile Image for Lena.
1,136 reviews238 followers
May 12, 2018
Salt caves are to die for...

Unsettling, creepy, and gruesome - Kelly Robson is one to watch. Her mind is full of monsters.
Profile Image for Ellen Gail.
826 reviews369 followers
February 4, 2022
She didn’t have to look out the window to see them; every time she blinked they were behind her eyelids. Beckoning.

4.5 stars. Gruesome, gothic, and gross, A Human Stain is short fiction at its best.
Profile Image for Mehsi.
11.5k reviews359 followers
January 5, 2017
I spotted this one being promoted on twitter and just had to read it for the cover alone. :P

Really, that cover is just sooooo creepy. *shivers* Especially now that I read the book and know who that is/what that represents.

The books starts off quite nice, with our MC getting to a castle/house in the middle of the mountains/in the middle of nowhere. She has nothing, nothing to lose, and her friend takes her to take care of his nephew for him. To teach him English, to teach him some stuff before shipping him to boarding school.

The MC is not your average girl. She isn't afraid to talk back, she smokes, drinks, she openly flirts with the girl who is caring for the nephew. Yes, this might all seem normal these days, but the feeling I get from the book, it wasn't that normal for a woman to do that.

Quite quickly in the book I had the feeling something is wrong. The way the boy acts, the way the nursemaid is acting (and the fact she is missing her teeth and can't speak or do much), the house, everything. There was just this big vibe of death, horror, and NOPE NOPE NOPENESS over it. The author did a brilliant job on doing this. I was worried that because it was a short story it might not get scary until later, but I had goosebumps quite early in the book.

There are some normal patches here and there, a requiem between the creepiness that is fast getting creeper and creeper.

As soon as her friend leaves though the creepiness levels up quickly and you don't want to put down the book. Or well, maybe you want to, but the book won't let you. You need to finish it, need to find out what is wrong with this place. What happened to the boy's parents? Why is the crypt so creepy and located under the house? Why are the servants so afraid? What happened to the nursemaid?

And then the ending comes and it quickly escalates to a big fat NOPE NOPE NOPE NOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPPE. At least for me. I was already scared out of my mind, goosebumps running over my body, but with that ending? *shivers*

I did like the ending even though it was creepy as hell. It connected all the little dots together, though I do have one or two questions (for instance why, and how), but I did feel satisfied with the ending and I definitely think the amount of pages is perfect for this story. I think if it would be longer it would be fun, you could explain more, but now you can keep the creepiness to the maximum levels.

All in all, a book I would recommend!

Review first posted at https://twirlingbookprincess.com/
Profile Image for J. Boo.
697 reviews20 followers
May 19, 2017
People I like, whose views I respect, keep enthusiastically recommending free Tor shorts, so I, to whom "free" is like heroin to a junkie, will download them, read them, and wonder if my computer is infected with a very specific virus, one with an advanced AI that corrupts the plots of Tor shorts as they arrive on my computer. (*)

A Human Stain was no exception. Everyone's actions are nonsensical -- both the monster and the human sides. There's no reason for characters to do X or Y except that the author wants them to for obscure reasons of her own. Elements of attempted atmospheric horror show up wearing tags that say "HELLO, MY NAME IS Vague Sense of Unease".

It put me in mind of William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland, which also had motivational incoherence, but did have genuine creepiness that "A Human Stain" lacked. I'd given House on the Borderland a single star, but I have to say it looks a lot better after having read this.

(*) The two exceptions to "Tor=terrible" are The Lady Astronaut of Mars, which had its moments, and Wikihistory, which was genuinely good.
Profile Image for Paul (Life In The Slow Lane).
591 reviews26 followers
February 14, 2021
Don't feed the animals!

It takes a special skill to write a good short story. Think about it; in 40 pages or thereabouts, you have to construct a good plot, create believable characters your readers can relate to, create the scenes/worlds, tell the story, create tension, release tension and do a creditable ending (an art in itself). That's not easy especially if you want to add a twist or two. Arthur Clark had the knack. So did Lovecraft.

Kelley Robson has done a great job with her shorty. The title is most literally appropriate. The tension starts almost from the minute Helen arrives at the "castle in the woods" - a bit of a cliche but never mind that. I can't say I was totally happy with the ending but it was okay. The writing style is almost classical - or neoclassical I guess. And no typos! Such a relief.

A great read for when you've got an hour or two, and it's storming outside.
Profile Image for Hannah.
547 reviews15 followers
February 25, 2017
This was a super creepy short horror story where you think you know where it's going, and then you don't.

At first, it's all "Yay! Representation in turn-of-the-century Europe" and then things start getting weirder and weirder...

Maybe this should be 5 stars for me because it left such an impression.

Don't read spoilers. I'm impressed.
Profile Image for Samuel.
220 reviews28 followers
October 7, 2020
An atmospheric and unsettling tale about a young woman tasked with looking after a boy who has lost both his parents. Set in a creepy castle-like house in a remote part of 19th-century Germany. Written in beautiful, descriptive prose. Quite good. 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Stephanie M. Wytovich.
Author 68 books229 followers
January 4, 2017
A beautiful, grotesque novelette that swept me up in its arms from beginning to end. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Snickt Snackt.
56 reviews
January 12, 2017
I like Gothic Horror, the cover drew me, the premise seemed intriguing; I should have loved this by all accounts. The prose was aiight at the start, very reminiscent of the genre, but once you hit the halfway mark the transitions and revelations become very ham-handed and jarring. I am supposed to feel horrified by the end, creeped out, but all I was left with at the end was a disappointing "...what?" because there was no build up to it. The ending was rather expected, and the blurring of lines between the Human and the Monster should have been more gradual instead of a very stark two-line change. I lost a lot of interest at that point. Perhaps a longer word count could've made the experience more surreal and terrifying...? I do not know TOR's publishing policy.
Profile Image for Serene  Djent.
108 reviews10 followers
May 22, 2018
This story started off very well but the climax was pretty flat... I had to reread the last chapter to make sense of what was actually happening because the author lacked clarity. I fully appreciate that it is simply a novelette but it still left much to be desired. I feel it was supposed to finish with suspense but I feel too many aspects were left unexplained for the ending to feel totally satisfying.

Still, I enjoyed it and I will definitely be looking out for this author in the future. To be honest, this story would make a great movie adaption.
Profile Image for Tracey the Lizard Queen.
250 reviews38 followers
March 10, 2017
2.75 stars

I really wanted to like this. Like, really really like it. But I found it very flat. I think I would have enjoyed it more if it was longer, maybe I would have more of an opportunity to get to 'know' the characters.

I can't tell if its just me or if my lack of enjoyment is a reflection on the quality of writing. So please don't take my word for it.
Profile Image for Babbs.
216 reviews66 followers
December 12, 2020
Short read but I am a little surprised this won a Nebula. If it had been any longer I don't know if I would have finished, though there were a few interesting ideas I can't elaborate on without spoilers. A solid "meh" from me.
Profile Image for Jeraviz.
894 reviews379 followers
October 17, 2018
Ganador del Nebula a mejor relato en 2017. Es interesante y está muy bien escrito pero tal vez sea por el tema me ha dejado un poco frío.
Profile Image for Kirk.
103 reviews25 followers
December 13, 2021
Short story, horror. Takeaway: new governess in unfamiliar place? Beware little German boys who keep saying "Bitte, miss."
Profile Image for Fiona.
1,187 reviews216 followers
January 13, 2017
Love me some free Tor shorts :) And this is another good one in the series - echoing the classic gothic horror of the old Victorian ghost stories, but differing enough to bring a fresh and original tale.
Profile Image for Sya Barlez.
122 reviews10 followers
September 7, 2022
A short story/novelette with echoes of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Henry James's novel The Turn of the Screw--but more spookier and more "horrifying" than either.

The ending left a lot of the questions unanswered. But I liked the atmosphere, mystery, and the third person narrative voice, which felt very much like a candid first person narration. The writing style isn't as strong as Kelly Robson's new novel High Times in the Low Parliament (which is the reason I was led to the short story--I wanted to read more of her writing), but for a short story it works well.

I was fascinated by the characters, both the protagonist and the nursery maid (the kid's a little disturbing and, if I may use the word, disgusting). I wish we'd seen more of Herr Lambrecht--he was by far the most intriguing and complex character, with a lot of unexplored potential. It's a pity the short fiction format didn't leave a lot of space for him...

That, combined with the ambiguous, unexplained ending, makes me think the story could've been much more interesting with a little more length.
Profile Image for The Bookclectic.
49 reviews18 followers
March 31, 2019
This story.

places left elbow on desk. leans forward. places hand on forehead. stares blankly at computer screen.

Where should I even begin?

WTF. That's the only appropriate description I have for this story. I dislike using that kind of language in a public forum, even when it's abbreviated, but that is exactly how I felt. In fact I actually said that out loud after reading the last page, because what the heck was that?? Then something happened...

Over a period of three days... and I'd even started another book... my mind slowly started to unravel what happened in this story. I was having eureka moments at completely random intervals. Using my hand mixer in the kitchen; Oh that's why there was blood on the bed. Pulling weeds in the garden; Oh that's why such-and-such happened (I won't mention what that was, because it's a spoiler, but trust me when I say it's super cringey and weird). Laying in bed almost asleep; Ohhhh... THAT'S why he shoved his fingers in her mouth. Those weren't the only moments I had, but you get the idea. However there are still so many unanswered questions. So, so many, and I still can't decide whether or not I liked this story, but it has definitely left me very curious about her work, and I have already picked up another piece she has written.

Now having painted my emotional picture for you, I will say part of my confusion was caused by her writing. It doesn't flow well in places. I had to read a few scenes two or even three times to figure out exactly what was going on, but there is an awful lot of talent here. The fact that I was unconsciously contemplating this story for several days, says an awful lot about her abilities as a writer and her imagination. emnoir.wordpress.com
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