Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. In this installment, I’d like to take a look at last month’s issue of Apex Magazine, issue #68. There are a couple of good stories here, and this magazine has been shifting through some editorial changes, so it’s also interesting to get a sense of the directions that it might be going in.
The two pieces in particular that stood out to me, here, were Ursula Vernon’s “Pocosin” and Samuel Marzioli’s “Multo.” Both are stories about the supernatural or spiritual that lurks on the edges of mundane life; both deal with particular cultural milieus and the sorts of other-worldly things that exist (or don’t) in each. It’s a good pairing, and the stories appear alongside other pieces by Andy Dudak, Allison M. Dickson, and E. Catherine Tobler.
“Pocosin” by Ursula Vernon is of a similar kind to the last story of hers in Apex I discussed here (“Jackalope Wives” from the January ’14 issue)—it’s grounded distinctly in an American natural landscape with a specific cultural resonance. As the author’s note that opens the story says, “Pocosins are a type of raised peat wetland found almost exclusively in the Carolinas. The name derives from an Eastern Algonquian word meaning ‘swamp on a hill.’ They are a rare and unique ecosystem, today widely threatened by development.”
It’s not often enough I see fiction that reflects the complex roots of the South and its mythologies—the blending of the beliefs and stories of the Native Americans with the particular flavor of Christianity that flourishes in back counties (as well as the occult cousins of Christianity that take up space there too). There’s an echo to it, a resonance, that I think Vernon has done well to capture here. The secluded cabin with its pool surrounded by pitcher plants, the dank and sandy soil, the quiet steady thrum of the woods and the life that fills them; all of these things feel rich and richly realized in this brief piece.
There’s also the traditional feel of the story to bring that sense of place and time: the various supernatural figures come to bargain for the soul of a god older to the land than they are, God and the Devil on a wood porch with an old witch-woman—it’s a familiar and evocative scene. Vernon illustrates it well. The old woman’s exhaustion with having to clean up other folks’ messes while also knowing it must be done is a strong through-line, too. Each of the characters, though their appearances are brief, occupies a vivid and clear space in the narrative.
I did, obviously, like this one. I think it’s got a certain strength in its awareness of the material it’s working with. Vernon’s facility with local cultures—the Southwest, in “Jackalope Wives,” and the South here—lends a depth to the basic framework of the tale that works well. It’s about bargaining for someone’s soul, but on some level it’s also about the pressures of cultural change and the lifeways of the pocosin: the new gods coming for the old, and the old resisting.
“Multo” by Samuel Marzioli is also a story about death and the supernatural, which is a bit of a running theme sometimes at Apex—its roots as a horror magazine still inflect the editorial bent, or so it seems. This story is told by a Filipino-American man and is informed by Filipino culture, which makes it an interesting pairing with the Vernon’s American South ethos: different angles onto mortality and the uncanny. The multo, the ghost, that haunted Adan’s childhood is connected metonymically with the fears his parents had of things like the Norteños—and, as an adult, he believes that he has moved past fear of the supernatural into that more reasonable fear of the mundane.
The thing about ghost stories is, of course, that it doesn’t much matter if the protagonist has stopped believing in or fearing the uncanny. On that note, there’s also something to be said about the fairly traditional structure of this piece as well: like Vernon, Marzioli is working with a familiar version of the ghost story. The childhood horror has come back to haunt the adult, and the piece closes on its footsteps coming up the stair—
It’s almost Lovecraftian, that ending. This ghost has followed an old grandma from the Philippines to America and moved on to haunt the friend of her grandkids thirty years later, possibly, but it’s still got the same sort of narrative core as the traditional sort of haunting-story where it’s not quite clear if the nightmare has come to life or not. The thing that makes “Multo” stand out is the small details of life and character that illustrate the familiar story. For example, Adan’s a first-generation Filipino-American, but his children are second; their names are Peter and Stacy, unlike he and his siblings Tala and Amado.
It’s also interesting to think about his primary education in the lore and tales of his parents’ homeland being older neighbor kids, whose story-telling might or might not be an accurate reflection of the real thing. He tells the reader that, before meeting the other kids, he mostly watched cartoons for stories; he was not particularly aware of the other cultural inheritance he carried with him. It’s a small but intriguing point, one that also seems to cross over into his own adult life and his resistance to those stories coming back, literally or figuratively, to bedevil him.
It’s quite a short piece, and in a lot of ways predictable or familiar, but I still appreciated its tone and characters—particularly paired with Vernon’s “Pocosin.” I’m glad to drop back in on Apex and find more stories I like, more stories doing interesting things with traditional sorts of narratives told through different lenses. Each of these pieces takes the familiar and runs with it to do something subtly changed, and that can be a pleasant reading experience.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.