Catherynne Valente’s writing has always kept her readers on their toes. Chimerically shifting mediums between novels and short stories and poetry, effortlessly transmuting and transforming the key ingredients of fables, folklore, myths, and more, gliding between the narrow spaces between genres such that moving from science fiction to modern fantasy to murder-mystery to space opera (literally) can happen between the start and end of a single sentence. Despite back cover copy and listings, despite covers that shine iridescent on shelves and screens, readers have learned that you just don’t know what sort of tale you’re going to get from Valente until you open the front cover. A gentle sense of mystery has been lovingly cultivated from project to project, and it’s part of the joy of being one of her readers.
In her latest publication, Comfort Me With Apples, Valente truly embraces mysteries—not just that of the story she’s telling, but also in the genre she’s playing in and what puzzle box she’s giving to her readers. While this may seem like a domestic mystery from the outside, once you start turning pages, more and more trappings fall away as the true shape of this tale is revealed.
Sophia lives a perfect life. Waking up draped in the golden light of Arcadia Gardens, in a house built for her, with a perfect husband away, working to keep her in her happiness and perfect life, Sophia cannot complain. Oh, sometimes her husband is away, and for so long. When he returns, he doesn’t stay for long. There are some questions he’ll answer for her; there are many he won’t. There are many doors she may enter, but not the basement. And oh, isn’t her neighborhood beautiful, even if some of the neighbors, well, they cannot quite look her in the eye? Sophia’s life is perfect, isn’t it?
As someone who knows a thing or two about marketing, I have little envy for those that had to create the marketing and publicity synopsis for Comfort Me With Apples. What is there to say that doesn’t give the game away, that doesn’t reveal the beating, red heart at the center? Even here, I run the risk of ruining any little turn by saying too much about it. Which is all to say, if you have the chance to jump into this novella with little prep, do it. I promise you; it won’t take you long to read, but it’s effect on you is going to last for a very long time. For this isn’t just a book of mystery: it is also a horror story, through and through.
From the very first page of Comfort Me With Apples, the mystery sitting thick on the page, right alongside it is something else entirely: dread. Valente wastes no time in making something very clear to her readers: Something is wrong, she says almost immediately. Can’t you feel it? Something is very wrong.
Page by page, uneasiness followed by embarrassment, a pivot into gut-deep fear, it’s almost enough to make a reader queasy, the constant ups and downs of what amounts to gaslighting, this manipulation of Sophia and her reality; whether it’s her husband denying her feelings, or her many neighbors shoo-shooing her concerns, making her feel small or silly, or even her own memory and mind, suddenly as unreliable as a fraying rope, Valente hammers readers with uncertainty as we see moment by moment the effects of aggressive gaslighting and tender manipulation, even as her prose shines, describing this perfect world built for Sophia. For her husband.
For really, what’s the difference between domestic horror and domestic mystery? Where is the line of demarcation between the two when “Where does my husband go at night?” is a question that could be answered by either or both. Valente is playing with genre and trope, taking a magnifying glass to the reader’s eye and asking them to find it, that stark difference between playful mystery and harmful horror. And when they can’t, as Sophia finds herself spiraling ever further into the mystery and dread, Valente makes you wonder, makes you ask: if it was your life, your mind, your sanity, your very heart, wouldn’t this be horrific? Wouldn’t you want answers? Wouldn’t you be angry, too?
Because there is anger here; it is potent and it crackles with enough force to shake apart the idyllic life Sophia finds herself in, morning after morning. It burns with enough heat to finally get answers to what plagues her. It is justified, rightly. And when the full scope of what’s going on is revealed, you will want to pick up a torch as much as Sophia and burn it all down with her.
Comfort Me With Apples is a mystery stuffed inside a horror tale, with roots of a very particular retelling wrapped around it so tightly, that I dare not even whisper it at all. It’s a story of disorientation and supposed perfections, of betrayal and rage, of toxic masculinity and the harm husbands inflict on wives who do not fit their twisted visions of what bliss is; it is about freedom, true freedom, and reaching for the blue skies that sit outside gilded cages. It is a story by Catherynne Valente, something new and fresh and angry and beautiful, and it is a bittersweet mystery you’ll savor every bite of, no matter how hard it is to swallow. It’s well worth it, and I guarantee, you’ll finish it only to pick it right back up again and see how this world of apples and rot was built in the first place.
Comfort Me With Apples is available from Tordotcom Publishing.
Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.