Apex Magazine is a monthly online magazine featuring works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Issue number 19, the December issue, features two new stories, one reprint, and two works of poetry. In many parts of the world, the month of December is one in which the days grow increasingly short, the nights long, and even visions of sugarplums dancing do little to dispel the cold melancholy that creeps over the world. The offerings in this issue of Apex reflect that cold melancholy, offering up delicious chills, stark reflection, and challenges to the imagination. In the submission guidelines at the end of the magazine, editor Catherynne M. Valente, points out that Apex Magazine seeks to feature stories with “a dark speculative element.” Issue 19 succeeds in this quest by offering works that are varied in their approach yet stay true to the central premise of printing “stories full of marrow and passion, stories that are twisted, strange, and beautiful.”
The fun begins with a work of short fiction entitled “Radishes” by Nick Wolverton. An unnamed protagonist and his wife, Melody, live in a dank, weed- and mold-covered house in a world in which food is scare and growing scarcer by the day. Food products are rationed and residents are told to eat only foods approved by the Colonial Department of Agriculture, a list of “safe” foods is conveniently provided in binder form. The narrator and his wife are growing increasingly frail and Melody screws up her courage at the local commune meeting to suggest that they begin to try “new foods,” meaning that they experiment with the wide variety of strange plants that grow rampant throughout the city. When her suggestions are met with derision, Melody decides to take matters into her own hands.
“Radishes” is a dark and desperate story whose desperation mounts as circumstances grow increasingly dire. It is a delicious, pardon the pun, work of horror with science fictional elements within a setting that immediately called to mind Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris universe. Not long into the narrative you find yourself wanting to avert your gaze from this tragic form of existence and are thus sympathetic to Melody and her desire to eschew caution for a full stomach. Have you ever wondered how our ancestors discovered which plants, vegetables, fruits were edible and which were not fit for human consumption? Or how people discovered that if a food was prepared one way it was healthy but if eaten another it would prove fatal? Who were these brave pioneers and what horrors did they experience in their quest for a good meal? I could not help but follow that train of thought as I read “Radishes.” Stories, be they short or long, are often touted as being about more than what meets the eye. Reading Wolverton’s tale around the exact same time that the local and national news began to air stories about the large number of children who leave school every day to return to a home with little or no food drove that point home quite vividly. “Radishes” made me contemplate the ends I might be driven to in order to provide sustenance for myself and my family. At its heart, however, “Radishes” remains the kind of story that you cannot look away from, however strongly you might want to, and has a feeling of inevitability that you might expect from a story by Stephen King.
“Pale, and from a Sea-wave Rising” by C.S.E. Cooney is the second work of original fiction in this issue. The story opens with 18-yr-old anatomy student Aquilo Vickery Makepeace, “Quill,” looking for corpses among the remains of a recently destroyed lighthouse. There he comes across an undine, a female water spirit, something he patently does not believe in. Much to his chagrin, she is crying. It seems she was tossed from her boat in the recent storm, cruelly separated from her twin brother. With the voice of his own twin sister battling reason in his mind, Quill soon finds himself reluctantly helping this strange, beautiful girl.
“Pale, and from a Sea-wave Rising” comes from the same vein of myth mined so well by authors like Patricia A. McKillip, Terri Windling, Charles de Lint and Apex editor Catherynne M. Valente. I have a predilection towards stories of this nature and C.S.E. Cooney has crafted a gem. This story maintains a delicate balance of humor, particularly in regards to Quill’s analytical assessment of the undine’s various feminine charms, and the unease that attends the standard fairy tale. Growing up has taught us all too well to distrust our first impressions when it comes to things glittering, and gold. Sea-myths and superstitions, especially from an historical perspective, are every bit as interesting as the examination of the corpse-obtaining methods that allowed early medical practitioners to learn their art. These inclusions add the weight of time to Cooney’s story, giving the reader an impression of antiquity. This story alone is worth the price to download this issue.
In “At the Core,” by Erzebet YellowBoy, the arrival of an old worn basket filled with a variety of fruit, including one lone perfect red apple, signals the death of a grandmother who plagued the life of all within her influence, including the now-grown protagonist, Isobel. Warned that family would descend like locusts to pick the house clean, Isobel returns to the place where she experienced a death of self, to retrieve a locked attic trunk that she believes holds the key to explaining a hollow existence.
Erzebet YellowBoy’s tale, a reprint from a 2006 issue of Fantasy Magazine, is a sad, heavy story that examines, within the context of forgotten memories and a creepy old house, the profound effect that one human being can have on another, particularly if one of those human beings is a child. There is a poignant realism in “At the Core” that will resonate with anyone who has been exposed to neglect and abuse, whether that exposure is of a personal nature or through second or third hand accounts. Yellowboy’s descriptions of Isobel, a character hollowed by a life of fear, are uniquely and skillfully crafted and stayed with me long after I moved on from this story. In some short stories the elements of fantasy are so subtle, so nuanced, that you forget you are reading a genre collection. Such is the case with “At the Core,” a story that is both bitter and sweet that, among other things, is a gentle reminder to the reader to find peace, forgiveness, and healing while there is still time.
Apex Magazine #19 concludes with two poems, “Flourless Devil’s Food” by Shweta Narayan and “Canceled Flight” by W.C. Roberts. I find the assessment and appreciation of poetry to be even more subjective than the critical analysis of literature. There is an idea present, which is not entirely without merit, that to truly understand poetry a working knowledge of meter, of rhyme, of form must be present. I do not hold to this idea largely because I admittedly know next to nothing about the structure of poetry and yet find myself enjoying a greater variety of poetry each year. However, when I read a poem that I do not immediately understand, my natural tendency is to place the blame firmly on my self and not on the poet.
This is what occurred with “Flourless Devil’s Food.” On the surface I understand that this is a recipe. A recipe for something dark and sinister, something one should be afraid of eating. Yet I cannot help but feel I am missing an ingredient or two for a full understanding of the work. If you’ve read Valente’s own A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects, you may understand what I mean. It is apparent in Narayan’s poem, as it is in the longer poetical works of A Guide, that there is a rich, deep history of folklore providing the foundation. While I enjoyed Valente’s book, and enjoyed “Flourless Devil’s Food,” it left me wanting to further my education on the myths and folk tales that give birth to so many of the creative works that we enjoy reading. In the final assessment I would consider that a success.
“Canceled Flight” is a more direct work by comparison. It tells the story of a death and the immediate aftermath of loss. It has its share of enigmas to challenge the reader to a deeper examination of various stanzas, but the pain it conveys is universally understood.
This is my first experience with Apex Magazine. The ever-increasing presence of published works online has given rise to a number of publications, all with arguably different merit. In spite of my familiarity with and respect for the works of Catherynne M. Valente, it was not without a slight degree of trepidation that I accepted the assignment to review this issue. Though I cannot speak for what has come before, I can unequivocally state that Issue #19, December 2010, is worth the $2.99 download price. If you are interested in checking out this issue, or previous issues of Apex Magazine, you can visit their website at www.apexbookcompany.com .