Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest: Volume 1, Issue 8 (Winter 2006)
The current issue of Apex is a little more science fictional than the last, which is fine as far as I am concerned. That’s not to denigrate the horror genre at all – it’s just a field that I’ve never really had the same attachment to that I have with sf. I can enjoy the tropes of horror when used in the right contexts, but I guess my experience was skewed by reading the wrong material early on (as well as sitting through innumerable schlock-and-splatter movies wondering when I would start to understand the appeal).
This issue also differs in that it carries a lot of smaller stories. While I have no particular bias against longer works, I find that short pieces are a better showcase for the writer, especially when horror elements are being deployed. This issue of Apex contains a few good examples of this.
The first work on offer is Madness Blows the Wind of History by Tom Piccirilli, an sf-horror story preceded by a lengthy list of the writer’s other publishing credits, including a number of Stoker awards and published novels. If it hadn’t been for this lead-in, I don’t think I’d have been quite so disappointed by the incredibly overwrought and clunky prose. The story follows Tobalt Tre, who is the ‘designate’ of a race known as the Mollunk. He is flying over a ravaged planet wearing an exosuit that is life support, spacecraft and combat enhancement in one package, seeking out a human named Thompson, the ‘destroyer of worlds’. It becomes increasingly clear that Tobalt is more than a little unhinged by grief for his dead race, and his monolithic lust for revenge on the perpetrator of this destruction. He follows Thompson into the jungles of the planet with the intent of destroying him, but instead comes face to face with his past, the details of which have long been lost to his conscious mind.
The actual core of the tale is very strong – an interesting variant of the amnesiac hero theme. But the actual writing is cripplingly baroque and overstated; greater transparency of prose would have allowed the harrowing premise to take centre stage, but instead the reader is forced to wade through unwieldy soliloquy and sentences full of poor punctuation and phrasing. It is only upon reaching the end of the story that the reader discovers that Madness… was originally published in another magazine (Talebones) almost a decade ago – which, given the writing style on display here, one is forced to assume was near the beginning of Piccirilli’s career as a published fiction writer. I believe I’d very much enjoy a re-written version of this story, but in its current form it is more than a little disappointing.
Jennifer Pelland‘s Blood Baby comes next, a brisk moral fable about responsibility. A girl called Kaia is chosen to be the ‘Blood Woman’ for her village, responsible for sacrificing her menstrual blood each month to appease an evil spirit that dwells in a cave in the valley. Kaia is hugely resentful of this burden of duty – all she has ever wanted is to be a mother, but the terms of the sacrifice demand that she remain childless for her entire life. After a time, she flees the village for the world beyond, settling down with the traditional big-hearted poor man and becoming pregnant in fulfilment of her dearest wishes.
Of course, it transpires that responsibility cannot be escaped so easily. When her child is born, it is not human – it is some malevolent demon, a glistening red humanoid creature that feeds on the psychic effluent of human pain and conflict. After it has destroyed the contented life she thought she had secured for herself, all Kaia’s efforts to be rid of it come to nothing – the curse cannot be shaken off, even by repeatedly thwarted attempts at suicide. Eventually she is forced to return to her home village, where an opportunity for redemption presents itself.
With moral tales like this, there is always a sense of the fiction being aware of its status as such, and Pelland handles the potentially cliched plot with just the right grip; a few linguistic slips break the spell momentarily, but otherwise the narrative holds out well as it moves toward the inevitable conclusion. The only glaring flaw in the entire story is the final line, which is so trite as to throw an unflattering light on the entire piece. Sometimes less is a whole lot more.
A Place of Snow Angels is a compact and thought-provoking work of collapsed-climate science fiction by Matt Wallace. A young boy named Joshua is being raised in a remote snow-bound location, somewhere deep in an America rendered all but uninhabitable by climate change. His guardian, Dedimus, is an old man who constantly reminds Joshua of how important he is to the future of the planet, and as the story progresses the reader discovers that this is not due to some prophecy or blessing, but to the application of technology. Like many characters groomed for a certain role, Joshua comes to resent the continual control of his life and turns the tables on his nominal benefactors.
This is a strong little story, with few words wasted, and chimes thematically with the preceding piece. Joshua’s alienation is captured effectively, and demonstrates that attempts to create a saviour may not always work out as well as hoped. Bleak, but very satisfying.
Continuing with the religious theme, albeit in a more blunt fashion, Shane Jiraiya Cummings turns to the Bible for inspiration – to Genesis 6, to be precise. Although a little overblown in places, Cummings knocks out a reworking of the Rapture trope that will leave true believers more than a little discomforted. I am personally very leery of fiction that references major religious works so overtly – history and dogma often end up bringing too much cutlery to the table – but Genesis 6 thankfully leaves both cheer-leading and criticism aside to focus on the main character, Libby, whose daughter’s unusual lineage makes her survival an imperative.
Although there is little to point out in this story that I didn’t appreciate, there is equally nothing about it that really inspired or stunned me either. It feels like an excerpt from a larger work, and the lack of context renders it rather lifeless – without knowing a little more about Libby and how she came to have such a unique daughter, it’s hard to care about what happens to them.
John B. Rosenman‘s The Death Singer is science fiction of the old school. A group of human space explorers are holed up on a distant planet inhabited by a peaceful race of aliens, and a mystery illness is killing them off. Musen, the ship’s captain, is in the final throes of the fever and being tended to by the ship’s surgeon, Weinstein. Weinstein refuses to give up the search for a cure, but Musen believes his number is up – the ‘Death Singer’ of the local tribe of aliens has been holding a vigil over his bed, as it did for the previous victims of the sickness.
Musen reflects on his past life, wondering what sort of music the Death Singer will make with the material of his mind when he passes away, and comes to the fevered conclusion that much of his allotted time has been wasted and joyless; he resigns himself to death. Once Weinstein manages to bring him back from the brink, they both receive a humbling demonstration of personal sacrifice from the aliens. Rosenman takes this opportunity to look at what it is about life we really value, not just while it is being lived but also through the lens of hindsight.
Very reminiscent of ‘Golden Age’ short sf, The Death Singer achieves a lot by not trying too hard – an absolute minimum of exposition and detail leaves the story itself to stand tall. While not the most original story a reader will ever encounter, it’s an excellent demonstration that good writing can make old ideas come to life all over again – a resurrection story at two different levels. The pulp-like feel is actually quite satisfying in a nostalgic way, but it would be interesting to see what Rosenman could do with more contemporary themes – his handling of narrative seems skilful and subtly modern.
Mommy, Daddy and Mollie is one of the type of horror stories that I’ve never enjoyed at all. To say William F. Nolan is an experienced writer is an understatement – he wrote the script for the original Logan’s Run movie, among many other published works on paper and screen – and I cast no aspersions at his skill or his knowledge of the form. But this story left me unimpressed, if not somewhat repelled. The first-person characterisation of the narrator (an abused an beaten boy who has murdered his parents and sister, and lives in an old shack in the woods with the ghosts of his guilt for company) is brilliantly done, the writing is tight and spare, but there is no sense of surprise or tension – it seemed obvious what had happened from the outset, and the story just seemed to be an well-written catalogue of unpleasantness.
I have no fundamental aversion to the horrors of human failing and psychology in fiction, but I prefer them to be in service to an overall plot that has something more to say. The overwhelming popularity of confessional books by victims of abuse indicates that I may well be in the minority with this opinion, but I read to escape the everyday horror of modern human society, not to bathe in it, and this piece did nothing for me. Excellent writing, awful subject matter.
Last Chance Morning is apparently Timothy Waldron Semple’s first published work of fiction, and that would bode well for his career to come. Even experienced writers struggle to write the stone-cold anti-hero, especially in first-person narrative, but Semple does an excellent job of it as he describes the escape of a death-row convict from an underground prison complex on a distant planet. Hostler is resigned to his fate – being crushed to death by a pneumatic press – but when an opportunity to escape in the company of a fellow lifer presents itself, he stops at nothing to reach freedom, to the extent of killing his partner when it becomes clear that only one of them has a chance. Hostler’s focus is emphasised by the transparent prose and the lack of expository detail; the setting is treated as a given, and as such is that much more convincing.
It’s not a perfect piece of work – the dialogue is a little hackneyed, and there’s a partial deus ex near the end in the form of the local aliens – but Last Chance Morning is a great start for Semple, and it will be worth watching for him to reappear if he can build on the strengths displayed here.
M. M. Buckner‘s Babble displays the craft that has won her awards for her novels, while taking a break from the science fiction she is best known for. Babble is a horror story that relies on suggestion and inference for its tension, rather than all-out gore and nastiness, and is all the more powerful for it. A mobile phone antenna mast built on a Native American sacred site has a sinister reputation for causing people to behave in bizarre and violent ways when they are nearby – or so crazy Frank will tell anyone who’ll listen long enough for him to get out his collection of newspaper cuttings from the local press. The reader gets a few vignettes of these weird events as the story progresses, and it becomes clear that the narrator’s disgust with Frank has deeper roots than mere contempt.
I enjoy stories that hint at supernatural happenings without relying on them, and this is a prime example – it’s never explicitly clear that there is anything more sinister at work than Frank’s guilt and obsession, but the possibility is left open to interpretation by the reader, and the conclusion of the tale is not dependent on it in any way. The ending feels somewhat hurried, but brevity is to be preferred over unnecessary extension. A solid thriller, well crafted and well thought out.
Spatial Spiders, Temporal Webs is a striking and lyrical piece of flash science fiction, following a sentient self-replicating probe on its journey out from the inner solar system to the cold lonely rocks of the Kuiper Belt. Lavie Tidhar has a hefty selection of publishing credits to his name, and with the imagination on display in this story that comes as little surprise. It might be considered a little twee for the more cynical hard sf aficionado, but there’s plenty of sensawunda in this very small package.
Stephen Savile‘s Temple IV: Incarnations of Immortality has the qualities of a fever-dream; vividly detailed, tense and confusing. It would probably be less confusing for a reader who has read the preceding three parts, but the very nature of story ensures that it stands alone fairly effectively – the confusion seems to be deliberately built in, a function of the viewpoint character’s own sense of dislocation. Temple wanders a plague-ravaged Paris that teems with the dying and the undead, with supernatural events and appearances occurring around him with their own inscrutable logic. He’s searching for the missing pieces of his memory – the fragments he has portray him as a murderer, and as an involuntary bringer of death to millions in the form of the plagues that follow him from city to city.
Eventually, he passes through the Channel Tunnel on foot to return to his home town of London, which has fared no better than anywhere else he has been. He finds his way to a location where he was told he could find the truth he sought, only to find that the truth is more intolerable than his prior ignorance. This story burgeons with ideas, but the prose tends to run away with itself a lot of the time. Long sentences with little punctuation are fine in small doses, but after a while breathlessness gives way to exhaustion – greater variation in pace and rhythm would have made for increased readability, as would a cut in the length of the overall piece. The ending is somewhat disappointing, in that Temple is revealed to be a pawn in some cosmic game, but it is never made clear why that might be so. Perhaps this would be more obvious to a reader who had encountered the previous instalments.
Following pair of articles and a brace of interviews, Aaron Gudmunson gets the parting shot with a one-page piece of flash called Worlds. A darkly poetic piece based around the last thoughts of a suicide, it holds the sense of futility that accompanies modern life up against the possibility of an infinite number of other possible existences. Definitely not a life-affirming piece of fiction, but a vivid sketch that makes dexterous use of language to portray despair.
So, quite a mixed bag – though it is doubtless plain to see from this review that the individual tastes of a reader are always going to influence their opinion of a piece of fiction, no matter how objective they might wish to be. However, I’m a great believer in stepping outside the ‘comfort zone’, and reading something that you otherwise might not have bothered with. Apex manages to stretch my tastes quite a distance – not always in ways that I enjoy at the time of reading, granted – and it is always interesting to see how different writers approach various genre tropes, old and new.