|Art by Vincent Sammy|
"Agent of V.A.L.I.S." by Lavie Tidhar (8200 words)
I think having read some Dick novels both made this story more enjoyable and more frustrating. It is a wonderful story, and the feel is expertly pulled off, echoing an older kind of psychedelic SF that Dick was a master of (and in truth my frustration is that I haven't read all the Dick and so there is a part of me that wonders how much more I could get if I knew more, had read more). It follows Thomas as he moves about a world that is infused with paranoid delusions, with visions of a reality behind reality, with a sense that nothing is real or that reality itself is uncertain, shaky, and insufficient in many ways to support a human mind, which craves engagement and belief and meaning. Thomas is an interesting character in that he's completely unreliable and his adventure is one that takes him nowhere. But through that is an examination, I think, of the human thirst for knowledge. For being special. Of course that is filtered by Thomas not exactly being in the greatest of mental health but the story does a nice job of throwing some uncertainty if he is the one with the altered view of reality or if he's seeing something really there. The idea of V.A.L.I.S. is a religious belief (and okay yes did make me think of Scientology), and looks at the perspective nature of the universe, the central lack of objectivity that makes humans humans. We cannot know, and so we have to believe in something. And if our senses, if our minds, tell us that something is real, how can we tell if it isn't? It's a paranoid thought but a very interesting one and the story is fun and trippy and a bit bizarre while being intense and complex and rather good. Indeed!
"Death Flowers of the Never-Forgotten Love" by Jason Sanford (1700 words)
This story is on the short side for what Apex normally puts out but it carries with it a strong emotional punch and a weirdly compelling setting featuring beings created by humans to rewrite the past. In many ways this is about death rights, about spousal rights, about so many things that revolve around the uncomfortable realities of death and dying. The main character is a former Death Flower, current human, who has no real rights when it comes to their partner who has passed. And in an effort to make things less painful for those left behind, an entire system has popped up to rewrite people's lives to make them less painful for the family left. Family that does not recognize the wishes of the dead person or the choices they made in regards to partner. It's a heartbreaking story, rendered with a quiet care and a truly human voice. The situation is instantly recognizable and yet nicely speculative, with a heavy dose of weird thrown in in the form of the Death Flowers. There is an anger to the story, a raw hurt, that sells the value of emotion and immortality both, the resolve to remember in the face of revisionist history, to be true to the wishes of a person and to their true impact in favor of erasing what might be difficult or painful for others. The family, and the mother especially, do not come across as nice people, but they do come across as real, not merely caricatures but rather people more invested in themselves than any pretense of decency. And the story examines what happens that people like that are given power over death and memory, which is what gives the story its darkness and makes it fit in with the publication as a whole. Definitely a story to check out.
"Screaming Without a Mouth" by Travis Heermann (4300 words) TRIGGER WARNINGS!!!
I do appreciate Apex taking some risks when it comes to style, and this story makes good use of text messages and social media and a number of different forms to weave together a tale of hurt and revenge. The story is built with a steady rise in tension and suspense, a growing unease and disgust. And I think the story does a fair job of structure. Unfortunately this is not exactly the kind of story I tend to enjoy. It's disturbing yes, and almost gleefully so, crafting a story of abuse and pain on a level that seems almost to necessitate the level of revenge-fantasy that goes on. Except that…I always get uncomfortable when stories seek to create "perfect victims." Basically, in seeking to create a situation where no amount of revenge is too great, the victim has to be so wronged that…well, I'm not sure I got the sense that the story was examining how cultures create victims, how gender roles and even "casual" misogyny do incredibly harm and lead to rape and abuse and all number of other things. The story does examine voicelessness, both literally and figuratively, and in that it does show how difficult it can be for victims to be believed or be encouraged to speak or to be able to find justice. And it does show that that frustration can lead to harm and anger and resentment and hate. However [SPOILERS!!!] it also saves its greatest punishment not for the rapists of the story but for the woman raped. To me it is much worse to be stripped of every vestige of humanity and become a rage-ghost-demon than it is to be tortured to death. To me it implies that what victims want most is revenge instead of safety and security and an end to the harm being done and the pain associated with that harm. The idea that abuse creates monsters strips victims further of their agency and makes the most important thing about them their abuse. That the main character of the story is punished bothers me because it dilutes the blame of what happens. It was not her fault for not going with her friend. It was the rapists' fault for raping. But then, maybe I'm just overly sensitive or something. I cannot really recommend this story, but I can encourage people to make up their own minds on it. So yeah…
"Allegory of the Woman from the Earth" by Rodney Gomez
Something about the title makes me think that I'm missing something about this prose-poem, which features a woman being expelled through the ground from the underworld. It's a poem about mundanity and about toil and about sustenance to me, the woman coming from a place like a corporate office, impersonal and tedious and invasive. She emerges surrounded by children, free and at play, who see her and understand what she is, what she represents, but can do little to help her. [SPOILERS?] The woman, though free perhaps of the hell that she's come from, is still bound to it, has been fed on it for too long to truly see the world with the same freedom and wonder as the children, who view her intrusion as a momentary aside and nothing more. The piece is striking and strange with a great central image and a language that is effortless and rather fun. There's a contrast here of childhood and adulthood and a lasting idea that there's no real going back, that adults are in many ways poisoned away from being able to return to that wonder, that looking forward to retirement is in some ways an illusion because by the time you get there you've been stripped of your ability to really enjoy it. Formally it's a dense block but it's easy to digest and I quite enjoyed it. Indeed!
"BlackRiver" by Caleb J. Oakes
This poem seems intentionally and sensually vague to me, a poem that might be many things, that seems to be about two people in a moment of passion. The imagery is body based and stacked with graceful metaphors. The spread of fingers on skin, the beat of a pulse, the music of two people entwined. Everything seems almost straightforward until the end throws a bit of a wrench in things (because really, those last lines are not exactly romantic). That is where the darkness of the poem lurks, in that end and how it frames and contextualizes the rest of the poem, making something that could be two people having sex into something that might be that or might be more and much darker, much deeper. And it's in that vagueness, the way it sort of grows, the doubt that it evokes, that I rather like the poem. That it refuses an easy explanation. That in that ending it implies so much buried under the surface of the poem, dark waters that are impossible to pierce but that exist to challenge and taunt and unsettle. The language is sensual and strong, the feel of it alive with a thrumming rhythm. Another fine addition to a great month of poetry.
"The Sword Excalibur" by David Barber
This poem has a nice amount of grit and a flowing sense of magic. There is a brutality to it, the truth of swords and kings, none of it pretty but here rendered with a sort of cold beauty that makes the poem shine. There's a lot of romance around Excalibur, and the poem takes aim at that, tying it back to the grim and gritty images of battle, lamed smiths and decomposing corpses. This is a sword that is used as a sword, that finds purchase in flesh and ends lives. It is also a symbol of kingly power, which is not always graceful, which is in fact normally tyrannical and power-mad. And I like the way the story goes about it, crafting a magic but also an ugliness to contrast the traditional clean nobility of the myth. Not that all the myth was clean, but it has been quite…well, there's a Disney movie featuring the sword, so it has been moved toward being "safe" for public consumption. But the poem captures nicely a magic and also a tragedy and history of violence that the sword promises and represents. Another nice poem!
"Naked" by Annie Neugebauer
Nice. Creepy. This is a rather short and deceptively complex poem about nakedness. Or, more, about stripping someone naked. Not just without clothes but deeper than that. And the poem is complex to me because it links nakedness with gaze. The voice of the poem, after all, is just a gaze, is someone viewing the "you" of the piece so that the reader is the one being stripped, examined, peeled. And there's such a calm confidence to the voice, the way that it gaslights the subject, the reader, telling us all that we know what it wants, that we know it is only being reasonable. The way that the world examines people, and especially certain people. Their bodies but also their hurts, demanding the right to have access to them, to be able to see them and play with them. It's an unsettling effect that the poem manages expertly, deepening the impact which each layer taken away, with each defense shattered. And there is an insatiability to the voice, the creeping suspicion that it will never be satisfied no matter how much it shaves away, like we're all trees being shorn down to toothpicks, found wanting, and then discarded. And I like it. The language is simple, the voice direct and familiar, the poem a nice cold blade that dissects the reader. A great read!
"Chimney Witch" by Matthew Chamberlin
This is a strange and rather long poem that meanders a bit but with a great meter and subtle rhyme that gives it an older feel, full of witches and devils and promises of mischief and trouble. It feels almost like a fairy tale told in a different time, the language thick and strangely constructed but lyrical and still rather accessible. The story of the poem involves a witch and witches, and a father and child and a whole town and everything is rather odd. Things move with the ease of the stanzas, rhymes tucked into the middle of lines and there is both the feeling of a dance and a battle, magic and otherworldliness combining to create a sometimes jarring but always entertaining experience. The scenes are vividly drawn with a heavy dose of darkness and a bit of grotesqueness and a very good ear. I want to hear this poem read because I feel like it deserves to be, that it has a spoken element of an old epic, a saga. But as it is reading the poem is still a great experience and this poem is a great way to close out the issue!