APEX MAGAZINE Issue 121 (Jan./Feb. 2021) Edited by Jason Sizemore


A welcome return for Apex Magazine. The recurring theme for the stories in this issue seems to be the possibility of hope amid darkness and despair. I can’t think of a better feeling to evoke in this time.

“Root Rot” by Fargo Tbakhi — Apex Magazine returns after a hiatus with a testament to why they should keep publishing short stories. This story is powerful, melancholy, and beautiful. A man who has fled his home in Palestine for a better future on Mars has instead descended into a painful addiction-filled existence of lost love and continued brutal colonial oppression. Not an ‘easy’ read as it builds up hope for salvation only for devastation to overcome, but the language is stunning and the symbolism in the characters and setting to real lives and political borders is too important to shy away from. This is a modern-day prophetic lamentation.

“Your Own Undoing” by P H Lee — You don’t read stories in the second person. But, if I do, then I should give this a try I guess.

“Love, That Hungry Thing” by Cassandra Khaw — “Like coming home from the blizzard and letting your heartbeat thaw in hot water. That same kind of sweet, slow pain.” Humanity has left a post-apocalyptic Earth, but a group returns to that home left behind, with remanifested gods among them. In a Daji shrine in Tokyo, Ama, one of those returned, requests a boon of white fox messengers. For that wish, Ama is willing to sacrifice, for a selfless love. A lot of the details in this story are left vague to distill this story down, in simmering language, to that core concept found in the title. Love consumes.

“Mr. Death” by Alix E. Harrow — A story that had me chuckling from the start, even as it talks about the death of a two-year-old. A reaper gets assigned his first difficult death, a 30-month old soul to fetch and ferry, in consolation, across the river of death. But, of course, “two-year-olds are contrarian bastards and it takes several hours and a family-size pack of M&Ms to coax them across…” The voice in this story is perfection for someone who has to deal with the emotions of such a job. Can there be a way to cheat the system? Harrow takes the touching story in great directions.

“The Niddah” by Elana Gomel — Additional pandemics after SARS-CoV-2 culminate in an ‘ebola’-related disease where transfer of any blood becomes potentially deadly – or in a female specific manner, transformative. This creates a resurgence in oppression against women, including the resurgence of the niddah (which I had to look up.) Oh, how I yearned while reading this for more precise biology. This will be one for me to feature in Biology in Fiction, between its general accuracies of virology, mischaracterization of evolution, and how this particular disease stretches belief. However, the point of the story isn’t in the likelihood of the pandemic’s reality, as much as the social situation it creates and the symbolism of the metamorphoses it engenders. And the story succeeds in revealing those wonderfully. Depressing thought while reading: “…when science promised that the horrors of the past were… well, in the past.” If this line from the narrator has ever actually entered someone’s mind, they cannot not have ever actually listened to a microbiologist. A reminder that science communication really needs improvement still.

“Gray Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor — A girl in the City loses her soul while digging graves in the catacombs. Redcap Kestrel agrees to help her for just a promise, that the girl will wear a sleeve to prevent her soul from going off again, or being taken. Though Redcap Kestrel’s surreal journey she – and the reader – discovers more about herself as well as the fate of the girl’s soul. Chillingly atmospheric and allegorical.

“All I Want for Christmas” by Charles Payseur — So much packaged in such a small word count. A story that reminds me that the most important gifts are not material, and that children are far more clever than usually given credit.

“The Ace of Knives” by Tonya Liburd (Reprint) — Superb story now used in multiple classes as an example of code-switching, it has so much to offer beyond as well, including an example of horror that contains an uplifting, empowering ending, and of treating mental illness, pain, and ways of healing meaningfully, with respect. This tale is full of magic.

“Roots on Ya” by LH Moore (Reprint) — A gathering, Virginia 1906. A young woman suddenly wretches, beetles, bugs and black garter snakes spewing from her mouth as she falls to the ground. A root man springs into action to prevent the curse from its end. The term ‘root man’ evokes both the meaning of herbalism and healing and simultaneously the spiritual aspect of ancestry. What I liked here is the attention to both victim and the person responsible, now under a curse of their own. A short bit of folklore from a cultural perspective that I did not grow up amid, but which universally connects.

Stories can be found online at Apex Magazine, with selections free to read over time. But it deserves purchase by those who enjoy.


INTERFERENCE by Sue Burke

Interference
(Semiosis Book 2)
By Sue Burke
Tor Books — October 2019
ISBN: 9781250317841
— Hardcover — 320 pp.


One truth being demonstrated by the current global climate is that societies are always at risk for instability. This represents not just a facet of political, cultural constructs, but an inherent aspect of ecology, of biology. Through life, individuals increase in number, coming together into populations. Growing populations of one species associate with growing populations of other species. Limited space and resources breed competition both within and between the groups. Coexistence toward a common purpose only becomes possible through sacrifices in each group and a sharing of resources in ways that minimize the effects of competition. In biology that common purpose is a self-centered organismal drive to reproduce and pass on one’s own particular genetic makeup. Paradoxically, the greatest chance for attaining that selfish goal amid competing individuals and groups becomes through some measure of balance with others. Of cooperation.

But, that balanced cooperation is a tenuous balance. Whether biologically or socially, the scale may be tipped by resurgences in selfish natures that overcome rational regard for a bigger long-term picture of success. Sue Burke’s phenomenal Semiosis series is a fictionalized version of such concepts on both the level of ‘artificial’ societies of intelligent creatures and of natural biology. The novels recognize that the two levels are, in fact, intertwined.

The first novel in the series, Semiosis, chronicles the establishment of a human colony on a planet that the colonists name Pax. Fleeing conflicts and devastations on Earth, the humans arrive in the hopes of setting up a society founded on principals of cooperation and care. However, complications during their dangerous interstellar journey actually force them to land on an unintended destination, leaving them with the challenge of establishing Pax in a completely unknown land with limited resources.

Burke reveals the human developments on Pax in Semiosis through a broad sweep of time across generations, structuring her novel into relatively long chapters told from the unique point-of-view of one particular member of the Pax colonists and their descendants (mostly). Each chapter then provides a time jump, with some overlap of characters and societal memory that allow the reader to easily track the development of the human Pax culture. While some have criticized this structure, I found it essential and fascinating for the character-driven story.

The original colonists and their first descendants learn about their new habitat as any intelligent organism would: observation, trial-and-error, and attempts at controlled study. They arrive to a planet covered already with lush life, including plant, animal, and bacterial. (I don’t recall fungus, protists, or archaea specifically named, but I could be wrong, and I assume they too are there?) Though the life on Pax elicits visual familiarity to the colonists compared to Terrestrial species, it also clearly is different in bizarre, unpredictable, and – at times deadly – ways.

Semiosis really should be read prior to its sequel Interference, and I highly recommend you do so if you haven’t yet. However, it isn’t a particular spoiler to summarize some details of the first novel that are present in its promotion or reviews in general. The colonists discover that the species of Pax demonstrate unique characteristics both cellularly and behaviorally compared to those of Earth. The plants particularly demonstrate signs of intelligence beyond those of Terrestrial origin. Gradually, through the generations the colonists discover that one of the plant species, that they name rainbow bamboo, has intelligence and sentience to a degree that permits communication. The plant, in turn, recognizes the potential benefit the new human arrivals could bring to its biological success and makes efforts to ensure their survival. Eventually the plant takes a name, Stevland, in honor of one of the original colonists and becomes an integral part of the new Pax society. Eventually he also gets his own point-of-view chapter(s).

Through those first generations on Pax the colonists and Stevland must learn the process of cooperation for the needs of mutual survivorship and success among the other species of Pax, and also another potential alien threat. After their arrival, the humans discover beautiful architectural remnants of another civilization amid the jungle-like vegetation that surrounds their first settlement. Dubbing the creators of these ruins ‘the Glassmakers’, they wonder where they all went. As they learn communication with Stevland they learn more about these aliens – also colonists to the planet. Eventually, the Pax colony is faced with the return of these Glassmakers and the threat they may bring.

Interference continues the story of Pax’s development in a time after the climax of Semisois. Like the first novel, Interference consists of relatively long chapters from the point-of-view of different central characters. However, it differs in that the time-scale is far less epic. Instead the novel focuses on one particular time period and converging events that threaten the colony’s continued existence as a cooperative between humans, Stevland, Glassmakers, and surrounding native species.

However, before getting to Pax, the first chapter of Interference starts us back on Earth. Amid rapidly changing political situations on Earth and intra-system colonies, a group of individuals is chosen for a mission to seek out the Pax colony and reinitiate contact with any who have survived. Here then arrives the first ‘interference’ of this sequel: a group of Earthlings arriving into the ecosystem of the Pax community. Though humans biologically make up a part of that community, they are certainly no longer of Earth in culture. How will the Earthlings want to interact with their human counterparts? What will they make of Stevland or the Glassmakers. Likewise, how will those non-human parts of the Paxian community take the new human arrivals? Not only do readers get to see these questions unfold from the point-of-view on those on Pax, we also get point-of-view chapters from those coming from Earth, a mixed population themselves of factions and motivations.

Before these Earth representatives arrive, Stevland becomes concerned about another form of ‘interference’ building on Pax itself. Fires seem to be breaking out on the edge of the territory that his roots and associated biological network run. Land-coral attacks from the plains beyond are on the rise. At Stevland’s urging, the ruling council of Pax sends a party out to investigate what the threat may be.

The arrival of the humans from Earth largely puts a pause on this second plot concern, until the final pages as that land coral threat looms more large. In the meantime, members of the Earth and Pax communities wrestle with changes that their introduction brings, and secrets that they withhold from one another before trust can be established. The technology that the Earthlings bring also provides Stevland with new possibilities, including the discovery of other rainbow bamboo life on a separate continent of the planet. Stevland is not alone. Moreover, some of the newly arrived humans intend to return to Earth, giving Stevland the opportunity to spread his genes to another world.

Interference thereby continues themes of Semiosis, broadening first contact situations and raising the question again of who is ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ in biological communities. Who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’. Is it a problem for one species to make use of another for selfish reasons if that also provides some benefit to the other? Is Stevland an alien plant that will slowly take over worlds like in Little Shop of Horrors, or is it a relationship that actually will help humanity build itself up from internal squabbles into a stable (at least temporarily) community?

Burke’s choice to stick with the structure of Semiosis, but compressing the timescale of the novel, produces one giant chapter that dominates the bulk of the text. The flow of Interference comparably suffers, and so does the character development. Burke now tries to follow many characters and viewpoints within one time period, rather than focusing on one per temporal episode. We’re with a given character in Interference longer, but know them no better than the one who just had one chapter in Semiosis.

The separate, but intersecting, potential threats to Pax in Interference could have been better developed across the novel (especially the coral threat and its investigation) by making the book slightly longer. The ending felt a little rushed, especially with it also ushering more questions/possibilities for a future in the final chapter and epilogue.

When I first read Interference, all material I could find on it indicated that it was intended as a duology, and readers commented how this seemed odd given some thing were left unresolved, and that Interference ‘felt’ very much like a middle novel of a trilogy. I agreed somewhat, though felt uts resolution was fine, as the future of any community is always precarious and may go for the good or for the bad in terms of a particular species. Stories never end, after all, and the next chapter doesn’t HAVE to be told. Star Wars should have certainly taught us that by now. But, I now see that another book is planned by Burke for the future, and the series is now indicated as a trilogy on Goodreads. Whether this is a response to reader/authorial/editorial interest in another novel or not, I have no idea. But I do welcome it.

Even though I find more fault in Interference than I did in Semiosis in terms of its structure, it remains a strong example of biological speculation and first contact science fiction. One of the delights of this second volume is the chance to get to know the Glassmakers more before expanding the scope of Pax and Stevland’s reach even more. There may be faults in the biology at times in the Semiosis series, and writing for humans from a hypothetical alien intelligence point of view will always be fraught with some degree of anthropomorphism. But, it still provides a solidly imaginative narrative that entertains while also educating about broad ecological principles and addressing themes of life, politics, and society.

More on the Semiosis series can be found at Burke’s website. The third novel, Usurpation, is not planned for until 2024. Until then, Tor Books is releasing an unrelated novel by Burke this year, Immunity Index. Given that I’m a microbiologist I’m very excited to read this one, though I fear I might be harsher in reactions than I was to transgressions of botany in the Semiosis series! Regardless, I hope to have a review of Immunity Index out to coincide with its release in May.


IT CAME FROM THE MULTIPLEX: 80s MIDNIGHT CHILLERS Edited by Joshua Viola

It Came from the Multiplex: 80s Midnight Chillers
Edited By Joshua Viola
Hex Publishers — September 2020
ISBN: 9781733917759
— Paperback — 316 pp.


Inherently as an anthology, It Came from the Multiplex embodies variety not just in its contributors, but in the style, tone, and depth of its stories. Even when looking at their shared genre of horror or theme of 80s movie nostalgia, the fourteen offerings vary considerably in their approach to those molds. Readers are likely to approach the collection through the lens of their expectations, perhaps based on the excellent B-horror-VHS-inspired cover art, or recognition of a handful of contributing authors. Readers might interpret the variation in stories they discover, and distances from their expectations, as indicative of differing ‘quality’.

I tend to enjoy a pretty wide-range of fiction and styles, but still of course have things I don’t care for. I found It Came from the Multiplex to be rather consistent in quality. The majority of stories are good, there are a handful of excellent ones that stood out to my preferences. And there were a few that I liked less. If you are a very particular reader, and are looking for one or two ‘kinds’ of horror stories (or only particular approaches to the thematic prompt), there might be a lot less for you here to enjoy. If you are a general fan of horror short fiction, you should be satisfied with a spectrum of enjoyable reads. If, like me, you are a sucker for cult horror movies and metafiction about them on top of that general interest, you should love the hell out of a good percentage of the offerings, well exceeding the price of admission.

Before I get to comments on each of the individual stories in the collection, two additional comments about the art. Not only does the cover fit well, but stories are also accompanied by illustrations. Growing up with a horror diet of Edward Gorey art in John Bellairs’ novels and Stephen Gammell drawings in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, spooktacular images are almost an essential element for me to really dig into a horror tale. Readers of an ebook edition of this might miss out on this, but a repeating cartoon of a creature appears in the header of each verso page. Subtle differences between them create animated tentacle waving as readers flip through the pages. While certainly not a huge deal, it is a whimsical little addition.

On to the stories!

“Alien Parasites from Outer Space” by Warren Hammond An enjoyable lead story that immediately brought to mind plots and spirit of SF/horror B-movies in the Body Snatchers vein. Set in a drive-in theater with a group of teenagers, the story didn’t really fit into the 1980’s theme so much as the 1970’s, though my memory only really goes back to the mid to latter 80’s for experience.

“Return of the Alien Parasites from Outer Space” by Angie Hodapp Consistent with the tendency of sequels to not be quite as good as their original offering. This directly continues the events from the first story, and the overall tone stays consistent. But, the story went into directions completely different from what I had in mind after finishing the first. The danger of a sequel, I liked my version better, even though this was technically good.

“Negative Creep” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro After two relatively light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek entries things go more creepy with a story that we see from the start won’t go well. Through flashback we learn of a supernatural entity stalking a group of teen cinephiles. As some of them wind up dead, the survivors try to figure out what draws the force’s attraction. One of my favorite stories in the collection, this contains a host of 80s references from music to film, but also has depth beneath it all, themes on the growing culture of noise and distractions, and silence.

“Helluloid” by Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore Another story with a group of teenage characters, this time featuring a self-described necromancer who conducts a summoning ceremony in an old movie theater basement with her boyfriend and others. You can guess how things will go. Even if predictable it’s an enjoyable read.

“Rise, Ye Vermin!” by Betty Rocksteady A welcome addition of a female voice in a collection that like the 80s skews far too much toward the male point-of-view. The villain of the story, a theater owner, actually reminds me a lot of a John Bellairs villain, but here those standing against him are a pair of employees who have been trying to keep their lesbian relationship a secret from the close-minded town. Rocksteady does shock and gore well, and this story is no exception, another standout.

“The Cronenberg Concerto” by Keith Ferrell Another standout selection of the collection follows here, by an author who It Came from the Multiplex honors at its start with a dedication in memorial. The first of what I would characterize as disturbing horror stories in the collection, building from the previous. As the title indicates, the plot involves a fan of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg. The creepiness builds as the reader realizes what is happening here, and Ferrell accomplishes this through some of the most ‘literary’ crafting of sentences and voice in the collection.

“Creature Feature” by Gary Jonas Imagination reins in this entry, both from the author in crafting it and within the minds of the protagonist and the readers, as one tries to guess what horrific secrets lie behind a curtain. A man is tasked with making precisely timed deliveries to a theater that appears closed to the public, yet constantly showing footage to an unknown audience. His rules: Never be late. Don’t ask too many questions. His curiosity and friendliness with the young woman working there draw him into discoveries.

“Invisible” by Mario Acevedo As with Ferrell’s story, one that makes the reader squirm by seeing through the eyes of a disturbed character, a serial killer at a drive-in. There are several twists in this one, but despite them I could always tell where things were going. It still works in achieving its effect at bringing the horror to you.

“Screen Haunt” by Orrin Grey A young woman writes and directs a film inspired by a missing sister. Melancholy and disturbing, it reminded me a lot of the types of stories in another movie-themed collection I read, Lost Films from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. Most of the stories in the collection don’t fit into Halloween time when I actually read this collection, but this one sure does, with the creepiness of costumes at the fore.

“The Devil’s Reel” by Sean Eads & Joshua Viola Parents at a Baptist Church don’t want their children to be attending a lock-in movie night at the local theater where they might watch questionable material. But the new theater owner talks them into it with the wholesome movies he promises to show. Only he lies. Oppressive religion is a staple of horror, I’d even say a cliche. Here at least it is turned a bit in that they are proven right to suspect. I guess this is really a story that goes in the direction of: what if movies really are Satan trying to corrupt the youth?

“On the Rocks” by K. Nicole Davis Two couples settle in for an outdoor summer showing of The Howling in a natural amphitheater. The sun goes down and a full moon rises for the start of the show. Then mayhem. A shorter entry that doesn’t aspire to too much, but ends with a perfect final sentence.

“Coming Attractions” by Stephen Graham Jones Teenagers sneak into a supposedly haunted theater and end up investigating what lies behind panels in a men’s room that was remodeled when putting in urinals to replace the previous, more communal set-up. Creepy terror awaits. I usually love Jones’ work. This is good, but didn’t stand out to me compared to some of the others after one read.

“Late Sleepers” by Steve Rasnic Tem Another big name author in horror, I’ve liked much of the short fiction I’ve read by Tem, but the one novel I’ve read I found simply okay. This one is great. Home for Thanksgiving, a college student wakes at night after being at odds with his family, now feeling not quite right, with a hazy memory. Going out for air he finds himself at the local small theater, showing weird clip montages and an independent feature for those who can’t sleep – all the way until dawn. Tem perfectly captureslate night eerieness and the paradoxical relief and discomfort that the genre can offer.

“Special Makeup” by Kevin J. Anderson Probably the most widely recognized name among contributors to this collection, this story seemed to fit least into the overall theme – and decade. To boot, I couldn’t find anything particularly remarkable about it. An unfortunate end to the shows.

It Came from the Multiplex also features: Foreward by Bret & Jeanni Smith, Introduction by Paul Campion, Listing of Cast and Crew, and Acknowledgments. Cover by AJ Nazzaro. Story illustrations by Xander Smith and Header Art by Aaron Lovett