It's January at Apex Magazine and that means another oversized issue full of wonder and darkness. It makes a huge amount of sense to kick off the new year with an issue like this, because if it's your resolution to try out some excellent SFF, this issues makes a strong argument why this publication is worth your time and attention. Apex's thing is dark SFF, and this issue shows that in many varieties, from violent darkness to humorous darkness to lyrical darkness to adorable darkness. The stories and poems in this issue weave a fairly comprehensive tapestry of the work that Apex does, providing space for dark stories that aren't necessarily crushing (though they can be). These are pieces that take a skeptical look at the nature of humanity, that don't flinch away from looking at the truly awful things people are capable of. Still, these are largely enjoyable stories that lift and flow and entertain, and I'm going to jump right into reviewing them!
|Art by Aaron Nakahara
"Soliloquy in a Cheap Diner Off Route 66" by James Beamon (3700 words)
This story plays with the trope of stopping time. Of being able to rewind and change things. Of there being people with the power to do this, people who aren't exactly human but something more, but who find themselves drawn to humans for their life and their challenge, and in some ways because humans exist outside of their powers, defy them by living their lives linearly. And here the main character, Lolonyo, fights against a fate that he doesn't want to face. Fights to win the affections of a woman who has loved him, or rather will love him, if he just lets events unfold. And I love the way the story plays with time, with the idea that there are these beings who can effect time and bend it, can do all manner of things but still have these very basic rules. They can't bend people's minds. The story is dark in many ways because it feels like Lolonyo might want to, because the general premise of the story is a bit creepy because he wants to seduce this woman into loving him and so treats her like prey, treats her like a game to be won. But I think that the story does a good job of tempering that rather fraught narrative by showing how creepy this can be. In some ways the story feels like a vampire story because the powers that the main character possess do twist his perception of people. He loves this woman and so wants to change their fate, wants to keep her to himself, and yet for all he tries to control her that very mentality keeps him from succeeding. He does not view her as entirely her own person and so loses whatever chance he had to change. It's an interesting and layered story that still manages to be fun, with a voice that is compelling and…well, not exactly subtle but more refreshingly brash. It's a story of a man who throws up a lot of red flags but that I feel does it to make a more nuanced point about humans and relationships and love and consent and agency. Definitely a story to spend some time with!
"The Dark Birds" by Ursula Vernon (7600 words)
Well this is a rather chilling story about cycles of violence and consumption and abuse. About mothers and daughters and sisters. About ogres and their children. The story sets itself up quite well, immediately dropping into a situation that really only makes sense from the inside, which is part of what makes it terrifying. That we on the outside can immediately see that something is going on but that, from the inside, this is normal. And that this could be normal is part of where the darkness comes from. Eating children is another part of it, certainly. But I love how mythic the story makes itself, blending in these ideas that in some ways trace back to Greek myth and mixing them with this vaguely rural American South. Maybe Appalachian? There is definitely this feel that it's taking place in somewhere tucked away, somewhere on the fringes of society. And the further terror for me as a reader comes from the fact that situations like this are made possible in these places. That there is no oversight here and that families can do awful, awful things to children in these places. Hidden enough from any who might see, and creating a cycle that is replicated again and again until it bursts from rot and violence and the hope of escape. It's not a comfortable story, but it fits very well with the darkness the publication promises and does hold some level of hope that these systems will fall and maybe, maybe there can be peace. Not for everyone involved, and sometimes that peace is only the silence that is left when everyone is gone—wiped away. But it is a peace of a sort and about the only thing the main character can reach for in this setting. It's a dark piece, visceral and tragic, but also an excellent read!
"The Invisible Box" by J.J. Litke (1100 words)
This is an interesting story wrapped around revenge and poetic justice, the story of a woman punishing others for what they have done and, to me at least, so that she doesn't have to punish herself for the tragedy that surrounds the death of her mother. The premise is simple and effective: Viola put her mother into an assisted living home to try and protect her, and instead condemned her to a place that would cause her death. Now she's out for revenge. For the simplicity of that premise, there's a lot wrapped up in it. It's a short story but it plays with parallels quite well, building up this similarity between Viola's mother and Viola's current victim. There's a lot to say about the satisfaction of situations like this, for all that they prey on this desire to hurt someone who has hurt others. For this desire for revenge and the thought that it might be just. It's a dark piece for precisely that reason, because it blurs the line between justice and violence, because it creates a situation where everyone, even Viola, become victims to the violence they perpetuate and ignore. I like how the story builds it up, too, how it frames the guilt that drives Viola. Because, more than justice, this story seems to me to be about guilt. About catharsis. About Viola trying to burn away the feeling of responsibility that she feels because she was a part of her mother's death. Because she didn't believe her mother. Because she knows that if she had done more work she might have made different decisions, that her not trusting her mother (who was suffering from memory loss) she was condemning her to die. It's a wrenching story in that way, where Viola wants to show that this is something that people just do, that we ignore what we don't want to see. Even when it leads to death. It's a deep story that doesn't really offer any answers, that doesn't really look at if what she's doing is right. It leaves those issues for the reader to decide, and the effect is stirring and provocative. A fine story!
"Next Station, Shibuya" by Iori Kusano (3700 words)
This is a vivid story told as a city's love poetry to one person. And I love the way that the feeling of that is captures, the city whispering to Nagiko, the main character, as they move through the world, as they go about their life. It's a story that, to me, about love and obsession and something a bit deeper, a bit stranger. Nagiko is drawn to the city, drawn to walking its streets and riding its train, but is also under a sort of continuous attack from the city, which wants something more than to have her inside it—it seems to want her to become a part of it. That, I think, is where the darkness of the piece comes from, from the idea that the Nagiko is never truly aware of the city until it's too late, that they don't quite know what's happening but they resist it, want to resist it but don't really know how. And it makes things easier for them. It makes it so that they don't miss their stop and never have to wait at a light. It is drawn to them just as they are drawn to it, and it's like a courtship in many ways but one that one party isn't quite conscious of. I love the way the story takes on the idea of place, though, by making it something that Nagiko studies, by making it something that drives them, as if they can feel something at the back of their mind telling them that this is important but aren't really sure why. But it feels right. Only this right-feeling is…well, is something hungry and massive and strange. And I like how the story approaches that and slowly teases it out, how it shows this thing that could be wonderful but for the fact that it leaves a weird uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. That the language is so beautiful and poetic but it might be hiding something much deeper and darker. It's a great experience, though, and as far as sentient cities are concerned it's innovative and lyrical and just the right amount of creepy. Go read it!
"Mag, the Habitat and We" by Lia Swope Mitchell (3100 words)
Okay, this was delightful. Probably not if you've ever had a rat problem, but otherwise this story is completely cute and cuddly and okay, absolutely nightmare-inducing on top of that. The story follows a collective of…well, that's sort of the thing. Throughout the story they aren't quite given names. They are sentient beings, similar to small rodents but different. Concerned only with staying alive and enjoy the many things that they enjoy. And concerned with Mag, their mother, the human who owns the house that they live in. And I just love the glimpses into the world that they inhabit. It's like someone imagined a children's book where the rats are really people but then actually drew out what that might look like. They die. They fight. They eat each other. But they also cooperate. And the story is about how they must try to cooperate and how they must work around Mag and how they must try to help her keep her house up to code. I really can't get over how much I want this to be an animated film. Like, Pixar should get right on that because it's terrifying but also CUTE AS FUCK. I want the plushies. I want the computer game (which I imagine would be a lot like Lemmings but even better). It's just this delightful story that manages to be fun and sweet while also having this undercurrent of terror. Because of what these creatures are capable of. Because of how they seek to control the humans that live with them. Because, for all their cuteness, they also seem to want to eat those same humans. It's a bit disturbing and a bit funny and all around wonderful. Read this story. Seriously. I love it!
"Disobedient" by Barton Paul Levenson
This is a nice prose-poem of a singular experience of a Roman soldier in a cave with a witch. I say that it's a prose poem not exactly because of the form. The poem looks like a poem and I don't want to say that it's not a poem. It is. But the tone and the language runs throughout as a story, breathless at times and almost bored at other times but it reads to me a bit more like sentences than lines. Still, it's a great story of what happens, a layered narrative that is actually telling a few tales. At the closest to the surface, the poem follows a soldier talking to his superior officer as a sort of final rite. He's about to be killed for disobedience and wants to set the record straight. That's when the poem drops into the story of him in the cave. And I like how the piece builds the tension and the mystery of the soldier's story. How it sets the time and the scene and then goes into the way the situation affects him. Gets into his mind. Unnerves him. And then completely pulls the rug out from under him. The language of the piece, as I said, is a bit more prose-ish, but captures the voice of the soldier quite well, guiding the reader down the dark corridors of possibility and depositing them at the same ending the soldier came to. And the darkness of t he piece arises from that final confrontation but also from the implied ending of the poem, because it seems doubtful to me that the sentence will be commuted because of the tale. A nice read!
"On the Edge of the Stone-Meadow" by Laura Madeline Wiseman
This poem speaks to me of plants but also of control. Cultivation. The language of the piece is lush and alive, green and growing but also loaded with words that evoke for me the treatment of women by societies that center the desires of men. At least, to me, the stanzas are about the ways to shape the plant but also to shape people. If you want them a certain way, do this. If you want them pretty, then attack their self-esteem and give them standards of beauty that appeal to what is wanted. If you want them powerless, then take away their community. Take away their touch and keep them isolated. Keep them alone and unable to lean on anyone else. And if they produce too much, then poison the field. Make it so that only certain ones can live. Require only a certain number of them and never more, and cut away those that don't fit. There is this feeling for me that the piece goes much deeper than fruit, and get at the ways in which people and especially women are treated like plants, like things to cage and control. To be pretty and to be twisted to fit the desires of those growing them. And I love the frame here and the language, the darkness and the way that it doesn't flinch away from the abuse that goes on. The cutting and the smoking and the rotting, pointing to a treatment that is inhumane because it views certain people as less than human. It's a wonderful poem that you should definitely check out!
"Wormhole" by Tracy May Adair
This poem is a bit more opaque to me than the previous two. It doesn't really build up a story, like the first one, and it doesn't seem so concretely metaphorical, as for me the second one was. Showing a nice range of poetry, this third piece gives touches of shape and form, concentrating in my opinion on the areas between things. This works for me as far as the title is concerned as an examination of cutting out this vast middle ground full of dangers and meaning. Full, at any rate, and when cut away all that leaves are the edges of things, these lines that don't seem to capture the true depth of the narrative, of the sensations. There is a feeling here of this being drawn away from the celestial wormhole and into those wormholes that we use in our everyday lives, that cut out the space between and instead overload with instant access and communication. That continually prompt us to step through some sort of hard line from what we were doing to…something else. To buying something or watching something or interacting in some way. And that, given how that works, some people can get a sense of whiplash or just the feeling of being lost without context. A desire not to have just the edges of things but the entirety. For me at any rate the poem seems to point to the vast potential but also the dangers of wormholes. It's an interesting piece that evokes a certain wormhole-induced sensory confusion that I quite like. Read it. Spend some time with it!
"The Galatea" by Amanda Pekar
This is a fascinating exploration and complication of the trope of the artificial lifeform, and especially the AI seeking to understand life and love. And slowly the piece unveils the situation, the titular character aware and alive but at some expense, at the loss of her creator. And what remains is an absence that she seeks to understand through art and through logic, that she hopes to understand because the gift that her creator gave her is also a curse, that of mortality. And that is a nice touch, a nice wrinkle in standard depictions of AI which typically are viewed as immortal, or at least hypothetically so. But here the breakthrough seems to come from this very idea, that Galatea is different because in her clockwork there is a winding down that cannot be wound up again. Which gives her a certain tragedy but the tragedy of mortality which seems to be what drives her, what gives her urgency and desire and want. It's not exactly scientific or logical but it is nicely poetic and mythic, creating this character defined by a life that will end, that is therefore more meaningful and powerful and vivid. And I like what it does with that space, making an AI that feels and fears and yet also wants to better understand what love is, doubting its feelings but grateful for the opportunity to try and figure them out. Ah, the wonders of a limited lifespan. It's a great piece and a nice way to close out the poetry and the issue, to remind us all that we will die!