All of the fiction in this issue of Apex Magazine turns back the clock to reveal historical takes on horror. Most of them are fantasy, as well, and look at the magic that might have existed in the past, the magic that always pales in its darkness next to the actual history of the times visited. What is a monster next to the way that people with mental health issues and developmental disorders were treated in the past? What is the grainy pulp of a noir detective next to the loss of millions of lives? These stories build worlds that might have been but that also reveal very real horrors that were and are visited on people. The horrors of societies that don't value certain people, that allow them to become victims, that even push them along that path. It's an uncomfortable month, and a dark one, which means that the publication is doing something right. To the reviews!
|Art by Billy Nuñez
"Uncontainable" by Helen Stubbs (4600 words)
[NOTE! There's a very good interview with the author that I didn't read until after I wrote this (admittedly lengthy) review. I encourage everyone to go check that out. It doesn't change my opinions or feelings about this story (so I'm leaving the review as is) but I do think that the interview gives some added clarity to the intentions behind the story and how difficult the issues are that the story addresses. So yeah, onwards]
This is a very dark and interesting piece about a young person living at a time when their condition (whatever it is, as I'm no expert and there is no diagnosis given) isn't understood but because they come from a wealthy family they are just…locked away in the house instead of put into an institution or just killed. The story is told from the perspective of a lodger with the family, one who comes to see a side of this young person that they don't really show anyone else. And the story does a good job of bringing together these elements, the historical feel and the tension that the person's condition causes and the feeling that everything isn't really what it seems. I'm not wholly comfortable with how the story treats the young person and the more archaic idea of "madness" and how harmful that mentality was. It does twist that, yes, and I think seeks to subvert traditional depictions of mental and developmental conditions. I'm not sure, though, from the text, if the young person is supposed to be autistic or if their affliction is meant to be magical in nature (as this is historical it can't really diagnose the person and as it's a short work I can't really fault it for not going into it). I lean toward the former, and in that I do appreciate that the character is allowed to have power as themself, without needing to "get better," but I'm also a bit uncertain how to feel that their autism would make them somehow magically attuned to the darkness surrounding the family and city. It's possible, I suppose, that they just learn about what's going on because they are always listening at the window, but there does seem to be something about the character and their condition that makes them "just know" what's going on, which seems to veer close to some troubling tropes. It's an unsettling piece, to be sure, and the visuals certainly paint a deeply creepy world with twisting shadows and lurking threats. If this were the start of something longer, one that might team the main character and this young person together so that it could have room to explore the implications of the young person's condition and identity while also battling against the forces of darkness in this admittedly neat historical urban fantasy, I think I'd be much more excited about it. As it is, I'm left a bit uncertain. I think it hits a number of things that trip me up personally as a reader, such as the dymanics surrounding consent (not sexual, mind you, but for things like gender and name and such that other people put onto the character but which they cannot or do not comment on) for those who have difficulty communicating. It's a difficult piece, and a complex one, and I'm very much willing to say that people should read it and make up their own opinions about it.
"The Love It Bears Fair Maidens" by K.T. Bryski (2200 words)
This is a rather disturbing unicorn story in a strong tradition of rather disturbing unicorn stories, one that takes the idea, the trope, of the bait, quarry, and hunter, and turns it on its head. The story focuses on a maiden, unnamed here, who finds herself confronted by the unicorn. And who is repulsed by it. But who is caught in the pull of tradition and misogyny so that she's expected to submit to it, expected to accept her roll in the hunt. And the story is framed as looking at a tapestry, at the cycle of everything, looking at how the unicorn is treated in art to show what it represents and the lie that is told around it. To hide that it is a tool to further the hunters. The men. And that the maidens are always disposable, always put back in their place. But this maiden realizes that the hunt is rigged, that she's always quarry as much as bait, that she is being used in order to keep her bound to this cycle, so for as long as she submits to it she is under its power. The power of whispers and hints and suspicions and envy and anger. The power of the people around her wanting her to be victimized because then at least that harm is something that can not be avoided. Because if it could be avoided, if it was wrong, then they have been complicit in it. And that's what they turn away from, and I just like how the story handles the enormous pressures on the maiden to conform. To lose. And the power and strength it takes to refuse. It's a great piece, short but visceral and quite satisfying. Go check it out!
"Red Christmas" by Lavie Tidhar (5700 words)
You know, I never thought I'd read an alt-history noir mystery featuring an exiled Hitler as a private eye in London in a timeline that didn't include World War Two. And if that was all the story was, I'd probably wish that I had gone my life without that particular experience. This story does so much more than make poo jokes at Hitler's expense (though it also does that, yes)—it reveals both the character of Hitler and his desperation and hate, and the character of Shomer, a writer living with the knowledge that stories cannot change reality. It's a very complex tale, one that works first as a mystery, as Hitler seeking to scramble through a blackmail scheme. It very much captures the feel of the pulp detective, deeply flawed and steeped in violence and bravado. That it's Hitler caught me a bit off guard but I actually like what the story does with that, not painting him as ridiculous (exactly) but rather as recognizable. He is the noir hero, full of himself and full of hate, seeing the world as a dirty place and him the only (relatively) moral arbiter. He's bitter and he's angry and the story works with that to show how that kind of character can work in another world. Why couldn't this have been his fate? the story seems to ask. It's an evocation of the power of stories to imagine a different world. To seek to undo the damage done by performing a sort of spell, a banishment. It's not one that, ultimately, works, but I love how the story plays with that idea, that here is the power of the powerless, to make stories that imagine better worlds, seeking to match the beauty they feel and see around them with a reality worthy of it. And the story, to me, becomes about the weight of history and the things that cannot be erased, however nice it would be, because they've left such a wound. It's a strange story but a great read!
"How to Know If Your House Is Haunted and What to Do" by M. Brett Gaffney
This is a nicely creepy story that is, well, about what it says it is. The title is long but very apt and I love the way that the story is in many ways like a flow chart. A sort of "is this the case?" yes/no flow that moves deeper and deeper into the grim reality of living in a haunted house. Because things start easily enough, making sure it's not the wind, but…well, things do not end there. And the haunting is painted in shades of possibility, many of them rather benign but some of them not so much. The structure of the poem is great, divided into the three parts that basically, again, follow the title. First there is telling if you're being haunted and then it's determining what kind of haunting and then, well, you sort of have some decisions to make. The language here is very well matched to the idea of a guide, keeping things somewhat professional and detached even as there are these creepers of fear and worry snaking into the piece, moving closer and close to the reader. From the external to the internal so that at the end there's really no way of avoiding the fact that there are ghosts and they mean you harm. It's a wonderful piece that moves across the page well and keeps an easy flow that sinks and sinks until the ending, which is powerful and disturbing. A fantastic read!
"The Familiar" by Donna Ison
Look, I don't know, this all seems like completely legit cat behavior to me. *rereads poem* Yup, nothing amiss at all here. You know, it's rare that Apex makes such a blunder in—okay, okay, I kid. This is a dark and fittingly horrific poem about a familiar, about a companion to evil. And I like how the evil of the poem is imagined, how this demon-in-cat's-flesh operates. Moving around as one would expect a cat to, but always stealing things. Little things, really, but the poem shows that it's little things that will kill you, given half a chance. The breath of an infant. The sole chicken of a family. The trust of a couple. The hope of a young person. It's a nice piece that moves in the shadows, always lurking, always looking for weakness. And it's something else, as well, working with that double meaning of the title. It is familiar. Meaning it plays with expectation and the tropes associated with demons, plays with the standard gender roles and tropes that are already in people's minds. And by using those standard ideas. The idea that a man's wife is cheating on him with his brother. The young woman who wants to have children but can't. The child who suddenly dies. The horror at least in part lies in the fact that it's so easy, that it doesn't take much evil magic to lead people to despair. It takes playing on their fears that society teaches us to have. It's an interesting poem and it might make you stare at the next stray cat you see and wonder… Go check it out!