Love is in the air for Apex Magazine's February issue. Er, well…maybe not exactly love. What's sort of like love but awful, horrifying, and uncomfortable? Well, the issue is probably first and foremost concerned with the loss of agency. With the way that (mostly women but also other) people can be stripped of their autonomy. Their will. Their bodies. Their souls. The way that they can be made into dolls and puppets and controlled. So okay, maybe the story's not about love so much as about people and things that mistake abuse for love. Who think that love means cutting away what makes a person human. It's a difficult issue with a wide range of stories, some hopeful and some…decidedly not. But that's the nature of dark SFF, so let's just get to the reviews!
|Art by Adrian Borda|
"Queen of Dirt" by Nisi Shawl (5600 words)
This story takes on quite a bit—education certainly, and parenting to a certain extent. Perhaps most of all, though, this story looks at change and the way that people and situations fall outside of the standard understanding people have. Fall outside the expectations of what should happen and be. Brit, the main character, is a woman deeply dissatisfied with how the world is structured, how everyone is expected to act and be in order to be acceptable. She's drawn to children, to teaching, and in some ways to parenting, but not in the way that it's understood. And this works brilliantly into her power. Her supernatural ability. Which is to make visible and tangible the invisible forces around her in order to defeat them. To me, this involves something close to making tangible the invisible societal expectations and burdens that push people into and out of roles and defined spaces. When Brit is confronted by the supernatural entities she makes tangible, it's in the shape of a confining and transforming force trying to get her to fit into a very specific role. And it's a role that she rejects with every bit of herself. She's never been someone to submit to the will of others, to the expectations of others. And this goes for the entities of the story, which seem to see in her a power that they wish to co-opt. To take. And I love that Brit is able to twist that. That she is not untouched by her battle but also not broken by it. Indeed, it gives her a new power. A new ability to further break the barriers that were containing her and containing others. A chance to redefine and redraw the world in terms that better suit her and her situation. [SPOILERS] It's a story that respects the power of teaching, the way that it becomes like being a parent, helping students transform but in ways that they can shape and control, not to fit into a mold but to self-determine their destinies. It's a fun and deep story that builds a fascinating world and it's a great way to kick off the issue!
"You Too Shall be Psyche" by Rich Larson (5800 words)
This is an intensely dark sci-fantasy story of a young woman, Reva, seeking to make right what she feels has been a wrong done when her sister was selected to be a bride of the God in the Pit. The story is stark and uncomfortable, and sets Reva as a bit of a conflicting character, intensely jealous and prideful of her beauty, looking to take her sister's place not for her sister's benefit but for her own. In that the story draws a little close to punishing her for being a beauty-obsessed woman (and rather grotesquely so), which I don't particularly enjoy. But the story does a very nice job of slowly building up the tension and horror of the situation. That Reva is someone who has caused pain to others, and especially to her sister, is complicated by the fact that she does care for her sister and does try to do the right thing. And yeah, this story is creepy as fuck, getting into body-horror and the grotesque and really diving right into the visually terrifying. The nature of the God in the Pit is also slowly revealed and it's appropriately dark and twisted. There's a corrupt logic to what happens and the setting is one that I'm still interested in. [SPOILERS] The story does some interesting things with the ending, as well, showing how Reva is thinking and what she hopes might happen. Of course, the story also shows what even her nobility gets her—betrayed. Perhaps not semantically but the story does prevent her from making too large a difference in her situation. The story is not one that holds too much to hope, though it's not completely bleak. But it is very dark and horror-driven and even in the ending it underlines this aspect of the tale. For fans of this kind of horror, there's lots to enjoy, though others, like me, might have some reservations about some of the choices made. Still, it's a solid bit of chilling horror.
"The Bells" by Lyndsie Manusos (4700 words)
Well this story certainly continues the gruesome and terrifying theme begun by the last story. Or perhaps that the entire issue has featured to some extent or another with the loss of bodily control. With someone trying to take over. I don't think it's a coincidence that in each story the character being besieged, losing autonomy, is a woman. The way our culture moves, it's something that walks hand in hand with how women are objectified. In this story, that objectification is literal as Mary, the main character, has been transformed into a sort of doll. A wooden entity who is forced to perform in various ways for the amusement of wealthy men. The story focuses on just how much every man in Mary's life has let her down. Has failed her. Has accepted in some way that she is an object and so there is little they can do for her. And when she tries to do something for herself, she is punished. She loses more. It is an extremely uncomfortable story that is vividly told, but I can't really say it's a surprising story. Sadly, the treatment of Mary in the piece reflects how many men treat all women, either as objects that the lust after and want to control or objects that they want to protect and control or as objects that they don't care about but trust are being controlled by other men somewhere. The general idea is always the same, and Mary's lack of safety is what drives her, what ultimately fuels her actions. There is no hope of real safety there, no hope of breaking the cycle, and so at some point the pain and the pressure become too much. It's a wrenching and difficult read but it is also solidly constructed and rather devastating. A gripping read!
"As Long As You Can Stand It" by Joanna Truman (250 words)
This is a neat and rather sensual micro fic about a strange festival and a woman who knows what she wants. The action of the piece is largely surreal, unfolding with tangible dreams and nightmares that I assume make for excellent lovers. The piece is rather darkly romantic, and I like the imagery of it, the way that this woman sees something in the dark and is drawn to it. The way that the nightmare is doomed to some degree, and the way that they are linked. There's just something rather magical about this story, about the world that it conjures. And I love the way that the main character is allowed to own this moment, is allowed to find this work-around so that she need never truly be separated from the nightmare. In some ways it seems to capture how some people are drawn to horror, to the darkness, and how they can carry it with them. It's a neat piece and definitely one to check out!
"Butterfly Man" by Tonya Walter (250 words)
This piece focuses on a love that seems straight out of a storybook. An innocent kind of love between a woman and a butterfly man. The story is a tragic one, though, showing perhaps what happens when the lovers must be apart. To me the story has a feel of a sort of portal fantasy, where the woman is in this fantasy realm and in love but must return to a world (here called the mountain) of more mundane concerns. And while there she loses track of what kept her connected to the man she left behind, so that while he is forced to remain true because of what he gave her, a part of her has betrayed him. And it doesn't seem intentionally, but rather that the world away from the butterfly man, with its realities, damaged her link back. Forced her to prioritize her life there, and she didn't realize what it was doing to her love, so that when she returned it couldn't be with the same innocence and freedom. So in some ways, to me, it's a piece about not being able to go back. And it's a lovely, sorrowful piece that really sells its final moment. A great read!
"St. Theophilus the Penitent" by Rich Larson (250 words)
This story takes a look at a man in a relationship with, essentially, a constant reminder of a mistake that he made. At least it's implied from the piece that because of Wyatt his wife is in a bad way, needing constant care and unable to remember a lot of her past. So every year he brings her back. A facsimile that he confesses to so that she/it can blame of forgive him. It's an interesting concept and doubly so because it does subvert a little of the expectations surrounding a man bringing back a younger version of his wife in android form. Only for a night. That this is a sort of catharsis for him is obvious, a way of trying to maintain distance from what's really happened, but coping mechanisms take all forms. The darkness of the piece for me comes from the way that Wyatt centers his own guilt and suffering by facing this ghost from his past instead of trying to seek help in his present, if not with his wife who might not be able to interact much because of her injuries then with a therapist. Instead he traps himself in this cycle he cannot escape from and cannot learn from. Definitely an interesting piece!
"Fury" by Simona Sušec
If this is the last poem that Apex is going to be putting out then it is certainly a strange and disturbing one. There's a certain language to it that reminds me of taxidermy or maybe of morticians. There's certain imagery from the beginning about cutting into a body and things not being quite right, almost like they've been put back together wrong. And the poem almost feels like the way that creatures can be constructed from the bodies of other creatures. That the fury here is something that has been cobbled together or seems to be cobbled together but is actually birthed. It's a disturbing thought and throughout the language of the poem flows in stilted bursts, returning and moving on and stalling and the effect is rather unnerving. I'm not sure I can say, for instance, what's "happening" in the poem, but I can say what it makes me feel. I can say that it puts me in the mind of bodies and something twisted. That there seems to be the idea that fury is a creature but also a feeling, that it's an idea that we carry and we assign a presence to but it's not what we think. That instead of something mobile that hunts and haunts us it is something that we create out of pieces of ourselves, out of hope and out of rage, and what comes out is terrible. But it's a poem that seems very open to different readings and I definitely recommend you spend some time with this piece and find your own. An excellent way to close out the issue!