Paula Guran Reviews Short Fiction: Apex, Nightmare, and Black Static
Black Static 78-79
Apex #123 presents six original stories. Technology allows the protagonist of “This Is the Moment, Or One of Them” by Mari Ness to review and “shift,” if she desires, some of her memories of a relationship. That’s a far too simplistic description of a story with both subtle nuance and profound consideration of life choices. Just read it. “Throw Rug” by Aurelias Raines II was probably inspired by the very real and sickeningly racist 2018 event of a Black high school wrestler who was forced to cut his dreadlocks in order to compete. It relates how small, skinny Umchasi “Umi” Reed becomes a formidable foe. Interesting, but reads like more of a progression than a story to me. Sydney Rossman-Reich‘s “Mishpokhe and Ash” features another young protagonist, Magda, who, along with her Jewish family, struggles to survive the Nazis. Magda builds Golem, a mechanical “gépezet,” and teaches it to be “good” and adhere to her rules. This one doesn’t quite work for me for several reasons, including the obvious consequence of setting up unbreakable rules. Jennifer R. Donohue is more convincing with the short (1,600 words) “All This Darkness” in which the children of coal miners go to the deserted mines and discover the mountains’ dark “gifts.” “Demon Fighter Sucks” by Katherine Crighton is not much longer. Young Run is a 16-year-old girl who – as part of her campaign against the fake magic of supernatural TV shows – attempts to summon a fairy for her Fun with Public Domain Magic livestream. Both entertaining and poignant. A.K. Hudson‘s “The Life & Death of Mia Fremont: An Interview with a Killer” is thought-provoking, but somewhat marred by the character of the interviewer, evidently a police officer, who reflects a reader’s perspective more than the personality of someone in law enforcement.
“Paradise Retouched” by Marc Laidlaw in Nightmare #103 is not profound, but it is the well-crafted weird tale of a graphic designer whose prank altering family photos found at a vacation home comes back to haunt him. A.T. Greenblatt‘s “The Family in the Adit” tells of a dinner guest who, in a bid to win release from “the Mine,” survives course after course of a meal intended to kill her. The ending seems to be a twist, but it really isn’t as Greenblatt has cleverly foreshadowed everything. The northern location of flash story “When the Snowshoe Hare Turns White” by Eileen Gunnell Lee has been warmed by climate change, and the world has been irrevocably changed in other ways as well. Lee also hints that death itself is altered. It’s an evocative story that I wish were longer.
Earlier this year, Black Static announced they would switch from bi-monthly issues to three double issues a year. Black Static 78/79, an all-fiction double issue with ten original stories and a barebones layout, is the first since the change. It provides over 67,000 words of fiction, starting with novelette “Upland Wildlife” by Rhonda Pressley Veit, a slow burner of a story that takes time to set up its remote North Carolina mountain locale, introduce the narrator’s family, and describe the arrival of some obnoxious tourists from Georgia. Over 900 words then introduce us to a native predator, the timber rattlesnake, before returning to the tourists, who hire some horses for a guided ramble in the woods. We learn more about the snake. After a small fright in the woods, we get a folktale involving the snake. Bad things happen and, yes, we also get more snake – this time a Cherokee legend. It is all satisfactorily told, but – especially as a lead-off story – seems too long and too slow.
After her mother’s death, Caroline and her father inherit her rundown childhood home in “These Birdhouses Are Empty Now” by Jo Kaplan and decide to renovate, but any progress they make is somehow damaged. It is as if the house does not want to be repaired. A book of bad eldritch poetry belonging to a grandmother is found. As one might expect, other, stranger things start to happen. Not particularly surprising, but all deftly handled to make a good read.
Like most actors, Cal has a day job. In “Delivery” by Tyler Keevil, his is driving a delivery truck. He receives word of a promising audition and, as he is wondering if acting is worth the effort, picks up a hitchhiker, Mickey. Mickey proves to be interesting, irritating, and threatening. Cal winds up making an odd pact with the hitcher who is, of course, not at all an ordinary bloke. Entertaining and clever.
Christina, a “paracognitive forensics consultant,” is called in to investigate a “mystery of bones” in Zandra Renwick‘s “Of Wrath“. Mid-18th-century skeletal remains have been found in the catacombs beneath an Italian chapel. Christina delivers a horrific tale of an inadvertent murder followed by an intentional one. A good story, well-grounded in historical fact, although I would have liked to have had a bit more modern-day resolution at the end.
Mike Buckley introduces a number of employees, visitors, and creatures – both magical and nonmagical – in “A Phantasmagorial Bestiary of the La Brea Tarpits“. Stories grow delightfully from the descriptions.
“Subtemple” by Ashley Stokes begins after public places, shut down for a period during “The Great Disorder,” are about to reopen. Jay is visiting his microbrewery pub with financial backer Pfaller. Jay senses someone has been in the closed pub, that someone is still here. The place has a history of murder and death. There are intimations of Jay’s desire for Pfaller’s wife, intimations Pfaller has discovered they had a fling. Downstairs in the basement microbrewery, Jay finds disturbing things. Or maybe not. Maybe it is all just minds disordered by recent events. Too confusing to really deliver.
“Moon-Boy” by Jess Hyslop introduces young Naomi, who doesn’t want the same sort of boyfriends her friends want. With an imagination fed by a series of romance books, Naomi wants a boy who lives on the Moon, or rather the lunar colony there. When her class is scheduled to attend a museum lecture featuring a colonist family, Naomi thinks she may finally have a chance to meet a boy of her dreams. Not surprisingly, she discovers reality instead of dreams. An okay “girl coming-of-age” tale, but the lunar colony angle is the only thing that makes it speculative.
John Brand remembers, in “The Great West Gate” by Alexander Glass, a place that evidently does not exist. One evening, while playing with a pair of unusual coins at a bar, he meets a stranger, Michael, who recognizes the coins and promises to reveal something of their mystery if Brand tells him how he came by them. Brand tells him of his life near a place he spent much of his childhood, but which no one else has heard of and doesn’t appear on any maps. Michael neatly provides a twisty if incomplete explanation.
The narrator of Stephen Bacon‘s “The Undulating” tells of a few short summer months at Twelvetrees, the estate of his recently deceased grandfather: the only time he ever “truly felt alive; my escape from the regimented monotony into a place of love and excitement. And magic.” Enchanted by the presence of his often-absent father, his happiness ends when the father departs, but not before revealing and bestowing a family secret upon the ten-year-old boy. Or does it happen that way at all? An odd but entrancing tale.
Greg, in “Thirty-two Tumbling Teeth” by Neil Williamson, is “part night manager, part maintenance man” for a chain of eight launderettes who begins to find human teeth in the dryers at one location. His wife nags him to start trying for another child. They tragically lost their first daughter, Layla, years before. Greg feels compelled to blurt some of Layla’s story to a thin, haggard lass who comes to one of the launderettes late at night. A gripping, ultimately horrific tale.
Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.
This review and more like it in the June 2021 issue of Locus.
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