The November issue of Apex Magazine brings the focus directly to the fiction. Most months feature one or two original stories, but this one features four, and they are all shades of dark and disturbing and good. Which, who knows, maybe the publication is trying to make a case for supporting their subscription drive. Which is going on. Right now. If so, then for me they have definitely succeeded. The stories are strange and they are dark, disturbing, and deep. They look at the twisted side of human art and human civilization, and ask some very difficult questions. There’s also two reprint poems that I decided to look at as well, and all told the issue is quite strong and kinda messed up. To the reviews!
|Art by Ania Tomicka|
"Every Winter" by E. Catherine Tobler (5300 words)
To me this story tackles hauntings and art in the twisted dreamscape of an isolated house overrun by long shadows. It’s a story that follows Halla, an artist who comes to the house every winter for the isolation and for the peace and also for something else, something darker and more difficult to understand or capture. It’s a nicely creepy piece, too, that sees Halla’s dreams reaching into the real world, where she is a dangerous dance with some figure, where she wakes with wounds, where she dives into painting not on canvas but on the walls of the house, on a room that becomes a sort of representation of her own artistic drive, her own inspiration and yearning. And through it there is something sexual and charged in the way that she interacts with this haunted house, with this place that seems part prison and part sanctuary. And I love how I feel the story deals with art and inspiration. Halla is an artist and not unsuccessful but there is something in her that is driven to this, that isn’t about the success or recognition. Something that is necessary. And when alone in the house that force seems to become manifest, becomes something she can touch and feel. Something that feels to me rather destructive, that burns too hot, but in that darkness there is also light and the hint of light. And I love that image of the sky as a door is closing, of the hope and the draw of that feeling, that feeling of creating art and doing something that is so fulfilling, emptying yourself into it and being taken apart by it. It’s a visceral piece and a rather disturbing one but on top of that a beautiful story about art and hunger. A fine read!
"When She Comes" by Onu-Okpara Chiamaka (800 words)
This is a short piece that manages to capture the swagger of a man who fancies himself a match for the gods. And, like how most of these things go, there’s a lesson he is forced to learn about how there’s no getting around your fate, especially when you let yourself be blinded by your own prejudice. The story features a self-proclaimed witch-doctor, Ozokandu, who is visited by a representative of a god to collect him for death. That the representative is a woman, though, or at least has that appearance, informs how the interaction goes. From the start Ozokandu is dismissive and rude and I like how it shows that he can be so powerful while still being such an ass, that he can hold power but obviously doesn’t know respect and how he feels there should be exceptions made for him and his comfort. The story explores the classic idea of mortals thinking that they can outsmart and overpower the gods and learning that…well, that it’s a mistake. And it’s a fun tale, full of magic and light, hubris and comedy. There is a feel to it like it’s a sort of joke, the kind of story you tell in a group, each person waiting for the punch line. A moral story, of sorts, with a strong message of don’t be a misogynist asshole and don’t think you’re bigger than the gods just because things mostly go your way. A great story!
"The Island in the Attic" by Natalia Theodoridou (1700 words)
This is a rather surreal and haunting story about time and about distance. About a woman trapped in some way, always separate from the child that she wants to be with and always pursued by the hulking figure of a man who wants to hurt them, who wants to hurt her. Like the first story there is a dream-like quality to the prose, a blurring of the lines between body and environment. The woman is first an attic without windows and later an island. Both cast the woman as isolated, as alone, and longing for a child that seems both absent and present. For me the story evokes a situation ripe with abuse, the looming figure of an abusive man in the main character’s life who is keeping this child from her. At the same time, I can’t quite tell what’s really going on, what’s really the situation. The main character doesn’t exactly seem in a good place, plagued by dreams and visions of failing, of being consumed, of not being enough for the child. It’s possible that these are brought on by fear or by abuse and manipulation, but there is a feeling I got while reading that these events are tied to a past that isn’t revealed. That there has been harm done and that the woman is trying to recover, trying to reach out toward this lost child, trying to create in herself something that he might need—openness and refuge. There is a heavy oppression that runs throughout the piece, and makes it feel slow to me. Deliberate. But there is also this rising hope toward the end, a reaching toward relief and release from the fear and the darkness the man represents. And while I struggled at times with the opaqueness of the story, I think it’s definitely one to spend some time with and dig into. Indeed!
"After We Walked Away" by Erica L. Satifka (3700 words)
This story takes a look at a situation like the one proposed in Le Guin’s Omelas, where there is a rather idyllic life that is lived because of the suffering of one person. Because everyone knows that there is this suffering going on and that they haven’t tried to stop it and so they try to live better to earn not being that person, to assuage their guilt and shame. And this story focuses on two people who left because they felt it was wrong to stay, only to find out that the world they leave for is one very much worse, were so many people suffer like the child only with the “reason.” It’s a very difficult story in many ways because it’s about the drive to return to the city, called here the Solved City, that exists in harmony because of that suffering child. The couple that leaves, a man and a woman, find that outside the city things are worse. Things are worse and they are constantly scared and stressed, constantly exploited and debased. And people still die. Children still suffer. It forced me to look at the suffering of that one child. At this hypothetical city with its one suffering. And it forced me to ask if it would be better. And it’s how the story goes dark that really tries to shake the reader into seeing the appeal of the Solved City. The simplicity of it. When, really, what the characters are still complicit with is walking away. Which is very different from taking a stand against it. They leave, and in leaving they are unwilling to help the child. And after they have left they continue to not try to change the broken system they find there. To me the story becomes much more about the immorality of leaving than it is about the immorality of staying. Not because the system is just but because leaving allows it to continue just as much. And I like the way that the story circles around these very difficult questions and situations and I appreciate the darkness of the piece (and it. Is. Dark.). It’s a powerful story and a memorable experience!
"Love's Ideal Envisioned by a Satyr" by Tiffany Midge
This is a poem of longing and of lusting, one that definitely lives up the title by showing what a Satyr would demand from love. And I love how the poem can work either as an exhaustive list or as a very, very short one. At least, as I read it, there is the sense that this could be a list all adding up to one person. That there's this impossible dream of a person out there that the Satyr thinks is the only one that he'll surrender for. But that, really, the list feels to me more like someone remembering more and different things that would each individually be the ideal love. That, really, the Satyr is saying that it doesn't always matter the person, that she could be any of those things, and that by saying she must be all of them he's not really being wholly honest. Because Satyrs are known for their loves, for their lusts. What the narrator seems to want is anyone, is the person in his arms, is the woman of that moment, and then that one, and then that, that his ideal love is a series of loves, a new one every moment, to feel that sugar-rush addiction he has not just for women and pleasure but for love, that he feels it every time but that it's not something that can be thought about or measured. The perfect love is fleeting and immediate and always now and I like the way the story conveys that and wraps it in this list. A great read!
"The Annual Scarecrow Festival" by John Paul Davies
This is a nicely creepy poem about absence and about presence. About something having gone wrong but not really being sure what. The action of the piece shows scarecrows in scenes mimicking the living. In school. At the pub. Watching a live performance. And yet there is a sense through all of it of silence, of rotting, of decay. The language evokes sickness and death, of people becoming like scarecrows. Rotting. Rail thin and about to expire. And there is a nice feel of mystery to the poem as well, that not knowing what exactly is going on. There's the annual festival mentioned in the title but there's something that happened to interrupt it. To twist it. So that what was being acted out was something darker, infinitely darker. And I like the mood of the piece, the way that it manages to capture that sinking dread and uncertainty. It's a weird poem but one that's quite fitting for the season, for that time after Halloween but before the snow when the Jack-o-Lanterns rot and there's a feeling of dread in the air. It draws the borders of a picture but doesn't quite fill it all in, and it makes the scenes all the more eerie for it. A fine poem!