Now, this is a hefty chunk of goth right here. Demons, tattoos, crows and ravens: all the touchstones get a run out. This is the kind of book you’d meet skulking at the back of certain bars in Camden and be a bit wary about approaching at first, what with the piercings and all, but somehow end up hitting it off with before heading back to their flat for a long night of substance abuse, lyrical angst, and excellent yet terrifying sex.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Book of Apex opens very strongly with The Bread We Eat in Dreams by Catherine M. Valente, who after a slightly shaky start is fast becoming one of my favourite short story writers. As such I’ll skip over the details here and focus on some of the writers I’ve had less exposure to. The elevator pitch for Cat Rambo’s So Glad We Had this Time Together – ‘Big Brother with the Undead’ – would normally be enough for me to ignore it entirely, comprising as it does the rather tiresome ‘X with Zombies’ trend and the sitting-duck target of reality television, but instead I found myself really invested in a tale of late capitalist morality with some pleasantly chilling implications. Mari Ness gives us more ravens in Copper, Iron, Blood and Love as she plays with some standard fairytale tropes (orphans, mysterious visitors, blacksmith’s daughters) to surprisingly subversive and progressive effect, while simultaneously peddling a very nice line in bone-dry humour. Bear in Contradicting Landscape (David J. Schwartz), by contrast, is a thoroughly modern metafiction on creation and desire as the narrator meets a character from one of his stories incarnate and loses himself in world populated by heavily tattooed girlfriends, incongruous environmental apocalypse, and sentient bears: a world which may or may not be entirely his own creation. It’s very smartly done, has an entirely batshit ending, and, most importantly, approaches but never quite crosses the line between ‘high concept’ and ‘annoyingly clever-clever’.
Less dependent on that goth trifecta of devilry, ink, and corvids are stories such as Ian Nichols’s In the Dark (though, y’know, ‘Dark’), which lives up to its name before eventually seeing the light kinda sorta winning out in the Welsh Valleys, and Armless Maidens of the American West (Genevive Valentine), which I’m also still trying to unpack but is, I think, about parochial possessiveness, tentative acceptance, the sins of the father, and, obviously, girls with no arms.
With so many stories it’s inevitable that some work better than others, but what’s noticeable is that even those stories that don’t quite make it fall short in interesting, intriguing ways. During the Pause sees Adam-Troy Castro offering a shattering message on the imminent end of humanity and the meagre chance for a pyrrhic kind of redemption, and in Trixie and the Pandas of Dread Eugine Foster draws a parable on the righteous indignation of social media given form as divine retribution. Both are very sharp ideas but are also unevenly executed and ultimately don’t quite convince, and while the quality of the prose in Brit Mandelo’s Winter Scheming is very high it unfortunately can’t rescue a story populated entirely by characters whose fates are impossible to care about. Still, I’d rather read something that failed through too much ambition than too little, though I guess that depends on your definition of ‘failure’ (and it’s probably too strong a word to be bandying about here in any case).
Anyhoo, at this point it’s traditional to pick a favourite, so let’s say A Member of the Wedding of Heaven and Hell (Richard Bowes) which does exactly what it says on the tin, or maybe Mari Ness’s other offering, a reimagining of the Minotaur as Medea in Labryinth. I also really liked Alex Bledsoe’s Sprig, though whether that was largely because, as almost the literal definition of short and sweet, it contrasted so noticeably with everything else it’s hard to say. But in truth I’ll have to refer you back to the beginning and Copper, Iron, Blood and Love, which for all that the pedant in me is irritated by the lack of an Oxford comma is still the story that sticks most strongly in my mind.
It’s also only as I write that I realise Mari Ness has cropped up twice, and one of the principal joys of large collections like this is finding new authors. It is large though. Frankly it was a bit of a slog going through all these in one go, and if I hadn’t agreed to review this for the Book of Apex Blog Tour (there’s your disclaimer right there, due diligence fans) I think a more leisurely dip-in-dip-out approach might have served both myself and the stories much better. This is perhaps not surprising, given that these are collected stories from Apex magazine and thus Box-Set Syndrome is making its presence felt once again. Regardless, I’m a fairly recent convert to short stories as a form and I think this might be one further wobble down the slippery slope towards doing something stupid like getting a subscription. There’s just something about them goths…