January derives its name from the Roman god Janus, the god of doorways and gateways and journeys. The god of beginnings and also the god of endings. Apex Magazine Issue #20 embraces the Janusian name by presenting three stories and two poems that speak to what some consider the ultimate ending and what others believe is merely the first step of a new journey. This issue is the perfect companion for a cold winter’s night, offering chills to match those which may be right outside your door. Apex promises to deliver stories that are “twisted, strange, and beautiful.” I can attest to the “twisted” and the “strange” and will warn the reader to remember that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Night clowns, stilts, and an End of Days parade are just a part of the accouterment with which Douglas F. Warrick dresses his strangely beautiful Apex debut, “The Itaewon Eschatology.” This story is set in South Korea, where the unnamed narrator, an American male, spends his days with a prostitute/friend he calls “Alice” (because he cannot pronounce her Korean name) and his nights as a clown with his native friend Kidu. These are not your average traveling circus performers. They are Night Clowns, equipped with a special book that Kidu will not allow our protagonist to read, and they travel the streets of Itaewon practicing a very special magic—a magic that allows those who follow their procession to see the end of the world.
“The Itaewon Eschatology” is the kind of short story which lulls you in with its strangeness and its wonder only to reveal a darkness which is both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. Douglas F. Warrick lives in Seoul, South Korea, and his story is flavored with the spices of that land, which make it intriguing and enigmatic for a reader unfamiliar with the culture. My own experience with Asian culture is limited to a small but highly enjoyable exposure to anime, the literary works of Haruki Murakami, and the films of Wong Kar-Wai. As an American partaking of these works, I find myself drawn in by a beauty that I do not fully comprehend and by a sense of humor that elicits joy despite the knowledge that, at best, I am experiencing this humor through a veil. This is the way I felt about “The Itaweon Eschatology.” On one hand there is an engaging fantasy story about two men practicing a deep magic. On the other there is a deeper level of story going on for those with a working knowledge of the culture. Warrick succeeds in crafting a short story that makes the reader want to know more about the art and culture of South Korea.
The second work of original fiction in this issue is “The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells” by Seanan McGuire. Alternating between moments before and after the key event in her story, McGuire tells a tale of biological terrorism and cold, calculating vengeance that is frightening in its reality. Part of my role in reviewing literary material is to give the reader an inkling of a story’s content without harming the potential impact of that story. At the risk of being deemed a failure, I must admit that I cannot share anything more specific about the characters or the plot of “The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells.” I have already shared too much. It is tempting to describe Seanan McGuire’s story as “the ultimate zombie story, without the zombies,” although the impression that gives is not entirely accurate. “The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells” brought to mind films like 28 Days Later and the various incarnations of Resident Evil, stripped of all their implausibilities so that all that remains is the sheer horror of a very real threat to mankind. Horror is not my favorite genre. However, when it is done this well, without the presence of the blood and gore that are stereotypes of the genre, I can do naught but recommend that you read it too.
“Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is a story by Mary Robinette Kowal that originally appeared in Gratia Placenti in 2007. Tuyet is a house keeper who works for a rich family in which the wife is an intolerable terror and the husband is kind and accommodating, that is, when he is not arguing with his wife. This is not work that Tuyet enjoys doing, but it is a necessary evil if she is to save up enough money to pay for a lung replacement for her son before illness takes his life. On this particular day Tuyet arrives to find a colossal mess in the kitchen, and she cannot help but think that the dogs inhabiting the home have more compassion and understanding than their owners.
With this relatively straightforward set up, Mary Robinette Kowal pens a story that builds layer upon layer of suspense, with a reveal that has you going back to the beginning to review each event with a new clarity of vision. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is by far the most openly disturbing tale in this issue. It proceeds at a quiet pace, drawing you in before exposing the truth. The astute reader will see the end coming long before Tuyet does, but that fact actually makes the reality of the situation that much more horrifying. I have read short fiction by Mary Robinette Kowal prior to this and I consider her to be a skilled author. My frustration with “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is that it is too short to be anything more than a gimmicky tale with a high “yuck” factor. The reveal felt rushed, as if the story was written to a strict word specification and thus story had to be sacrificed for space.
“The Terminal City” by Preston Grassman is the first of two poems that close this issue of Apex Magazine. The narrator walks through the derelict streets of a city that once was so much more than what remains as he picks at memories of a forgotten mother. “The Terminal City” is filled with imagery that stirs the imagination to recall images from art and film of the beauty and sadness of a city post-destruction, where nature is beginning to reclaim its rightful place. Preston Grassman offers a poem in which hope emerges from melancholy, cleansing the palate of the darker morsels sampled earlier in this issue.
Mike Allen’s “The Unkindest Kiss” offers up a visceral description of what can only be described as a dysfunctional relationship. The poem feels akin to the poetry I have read by Apex editor Catherynne M. Valente, and I suspect that “The Unkindest Kiss” has allusions to older folk tales.
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Finally, Apex Magazine has recently made changes to its submission process. If you are interested you can read the new guidelines here.