Apex Digest, #7

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.
Image"Grass Land" by Michael Laimo
"Children at Play" Joshua Steiner
"How to Raise a Human" by Deb Taber
"Promise Them Aught" by Marlissa Campbell
"The Tow" James Reilly
"Kissing Cousins" Neil Ayres
"That Old Sandlands Fever" Douglas F. Warrick
"Doxies" by Brandon Alspaugh
"The Death of Self: Temple Part III" by Steven Savile
"The Minotaur’s Rabbit" by Beth Wodzinski
Issue #7 of Apex Digest leans more toward horror than science fiction. While I wish there would’ve been more SF, this is a fine issue with some good stories.

The first story is "Grass Land" by Michael Laimo. After crashing on an alien planet, two surviving astronauts deal with their predicament: the landscape is nothing but grass as far as the eye can see. They’ve sent a radio SOS, but will rescue reach them in time? Though their water supply is low, the big problem is that the grass is growing at an alarming rate, and a strange, mechanical vibration is coming from the ground. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what this vibrating sound is, as this grass is getting taller and taller and the vibration’s source is approaching relentlessly.

If you’re a fan of the old Twilight Zone TV show, you might like this tale. I have to admit that while it does have a nostalgic charm, it’s pretty dated to me. It’s a reprint, first printed in Burning Sky in 1998—which isn’t that long ago. The Turkey City Lexicon would call this a "Jar of Tang" story, i.e. the entire story takes place upon a desert of orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier, and surprise! our heroes are microbes in a jar of powered orange drink. As to "Grass Land," I figured out pretty quickly what the mechanical vibration was.

"Children at Play" by Joshua Steiner is a multilayered, multi-viewpoint tale that demands much from the reader. It’s framed in the POV of the Chronicler, who has a couple of tales to tell. The first is Catherine’s.  She’s a woman suffering from night terrors, whisked to another plane to battle a canine demon-god. The second concerns Alexander, a wannabe musician abducted by a demon woman who punishes him for giving up his art. In this novelette, both stories are tidied up when the Chronicler is visited by High Priest Calico. A very disjointed story, yet easy to read at the same time, the imagery leaps off the page, but the challenge is trying to discern what it all means. Some stories are so salient that the reader asks, Why didn’t I think of that? Here it’s more, Gee, whatever possessed the writer to think that up? Though I was left with many questions about this slippery tale, I recommend it, if only because of how well it’s written on a descriptive level.

In "How to Raise a Human," Deb Taber pushes the envelope of "odd narrative-form stories"—storytelling where the author tries to make a work unique more through structural presentation rather than content—in a new direction.  These have become quite popular of late, with no sign that they’ll quietly go away. Here, Tabor intersperses baby Janice’s entrance into the world with an instruction manual on how to raise a human being. In the latter, choices are to be made and homework assignments to be completed by the reader. I found the instructional parts tedious, but the story of Janice herself fascinating. She grows up to be a troubled young woman with an attitude, mostly due to the voices in her head.

The problem with odd narrative forms is their artificiality.  It’s almost impossible to get lost in these tales because they scream at the reader that he or she is, in fact, reading a story. Usually I don’t care much for this approach and find it gimmicky; it often appears that the author is more interested in the invention of a unique story structure than in portraying the characters well. But here, I have to say it works. Taber’s use of irony is skillful, and despite the awkward stylistic convention, the sections dealing with Janice come alive.

Marlissa Campbell combines Frankenstein and Pied Piper themes in "Promise Them Aught." In the city, children are dying. No one knows why; they simply go to sleep and are found dead the next morning. Enter the German doctor and his mysterious assistant who plays a tin whistle. The doctor claims he can stop the epidemic, requesting only a laboratory and to be left alone. But even though he does find a cure, the citizenry turn on him when they discover he’s digging up their dead children. Everyone believes that the deaths were caused by the doctor so he could carry out his grisly purpose.
Though set in a modern-day city, "Promise Them Aught" has the feel and narrative distance of a fairy tale. No character is ever properly named; they are simply called the doctor, his assistant, the mayor, the boy, and his mother. This is a relatively short tale and that works to its advantage. Despite its macabre nature, it’s a comfortable read that never leaves the reader dangling. Simply a good story.

James Reilly tells an exceeding gruesome tale in "The Tow," one I wouldn’t recommend to the faint of heart. Lex Daly, a young law student, is lured back to a rundown cottage, knocked over the head, and tied to a bed. When he awakes, a tube is forced down his throat and he’s force-fed live worms, all while waiting for a mysterious woman to arrive. And that’s only a taste of the horrible things that happen to poor Lex. Reilly certainly knows how to create suspense and describe the grotesque with grisly accuracy. He does with words what the most skilled Hollywood special effects teams do with their gore-simulating craft. You’ll either love this or hate it. I appreciated the writer’s talent, but the story left me feeling like I’d been force-fed a wad of slimy worms myself, which was no doubt the writer’s intention. Yet the ending was one of transcendence. Though what it transcended into, I’m not exactly sure.

In "Kissing Cousins," Neil Ayres tells a story of violent revolution in a near-future Britain. Written in first person, second person is used considerably at the beginning, and then it’s suddenly dismissed until the end. This was a difficult story to get a grip on. People appear, stuff happens, but it’s more a tale of angst and vehemence. While written well, at least on a sensory and stark realism level, I didn’t find any of the characters appealing, so I couldn’t warm to their cause. Perhaps you will.

"That Old Sandlands Fever" is a first sale by new author Douglas F. Warrick. In this rural horror story, Burt Salizar is the owner of a gas station that offers much more than the usual convenience store fare. Enter the Cool Man in his shiny new Cadillac. The Cool Man is looking to kill someone, and he chooses Burt. The two go behind the shop where they stand upon a gallows built for two, and Burt yanks the cord.  They descend into the ground and magically appear in the Sandlands. There they are mere shadows of their true selves and engage in a duel.

Considering this is Warrick’s first sale, it’s pretty damned good. This certainly is a unique idea, and for the most part, the prose is quite lucid. The opening scenes at the gas station are well done, suggesting a more seasoned writer. But when the story gets to the Sandlands the writing becomes a bit murky. I never could quite figure out the laws of the Sandlands universe. Still, an interesting piece that shows much promise of greater works to come.

"Doxies" by Brandon Alspaugh concerns the causality of time travel. Angela and her mom attend a group therapy meeting for Children of the Post-Contemporary, or "doxies." Doxies are children who shouldn’t exist because they are a product of a parent who came from the future. In some cases, the parent is a criminal who was sent into the past as a means of execution but somehow survived.

This was an interesting tale, but I feel the author mishandled it. No sooner is Angela introduced, when the POV switches gears and most of the remainder of the story deals with a young woman named Bella—an artist whose mother restricts her activities because she can’t matter, since she isn’t supposed to exist. I was left wondering what Bella had to do with Angela and her story, since the time travel aspect hadn’t yet been introduced or explained. As it turns out, Bella was relating her story in the doxy meeting.  The viewpoint then switches back to Angela, and the meeting adjourns.

The disjointed nature of the plot inhibits the story from gaining momentum. No character is focused on long enough to deal with any specific issue, let alone solve it. Just having a clever idea and a colorful cast of characters to present it isn’t enough for a story to succeed. A dramatic plot is needed. Consequently, this story came up short, which is unfortunate as there’s some fine writing here.

Beth Wodzinski’s "The Minotaur’s Rabbit is the parting shot of this issue. On a spaceship bound for Mars, an ageless minotaur mourns for a caged rabbit dying of radiation poisoning. The entire human crew has died from a solar flare, and the minotaur is alone except for various lower forms of life.

This worked well as a flash piece. Mixing ancient mythology with present-day scenarios has been a mainstay of modern fantasy for many years now, but it was interesting seeing this mythical creature on a spacecraft bound for the Red Planet. If this were any longer, I don’t know how convinced I’d be, but as a parting shot, I found it poignant and satisfying.

Additionally, this issue of Apex includes the third part of a four-part serial by Steven Savile, "The Death of Self: Temple Part III."