Welcome back to Words for Thought, and welcome back to Apex Magazine! As I’m writing this column, it is October 2020. It’s a cold, grey day. There’s a pandemic raging, and an election looming. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that Apex returning to publish new issues full of wonderful speculative fiction is a bright spot in a strange and often terrifying world.
For those unfamiliar with Words for Thought, with each column, I pick a handful of short stories that either speak to me in some way, resonating on a mood or a theme, or stories that speak to each other, sharing a commonality that puts them in conversation with one another. The five stories discussed here all share an element of darkness, touching on monsters, regret, and unintended consequences, looking back at the past, but still, occasionally, holding out hope for the future.
“The Goatkeeper’s Harvest” by Tobi Ogundrian in September’s issue of The Dark is a highly atmospheric and deliciously creepy story with echoes of Lovecraft, specifically Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.
The wind shrieks its displeasure as it rattles the house, rattles it like a child in the throes of a tantrum, and we, little gnats in this container of brick and mud, tumble from our huddle by the table. The awful shriek reaches a peal of fury, and within it I hear the abominable voices of Eleran’s children.
A young mother living on a farm is merely trying to do her best for her children, Teju and Ebun. One day, she finds that goats have broken into her barn and are devouring all her tubers. As she chases them off with a rake, a woman appears claiming the goats are her children, and that the young woman has killed one of them. Even though the death was an accident, Eleran, the goatkeeper, claims a goat for a goat as revenge. The young mother soon learns from her neighbor, Yomi, of an ancient pact made to protect the land, and how she has unwittingly broken it, and finds herself hunted, haunted, and her young daughter, Ebun, beginning to transform into something unnatural.
The family’s terror as their house is surrounded by goats is palpable, and Ogundrian’s writing is incredibly evocative. The sense of not knowing who to trust is heightened by the protagonist’s status as an outsider to the land, and the unfairness of the knowledge regarding the land’s curse being held only by the men of the village. The story evokes Lovecraft not only in the figure of Eleran and her children, but in its sense of cosmic dread and the uncaring nature of the universe. The protagonist is a victim of circumstance, merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, while monstrous forces sweep her up, uncaring of her guilt or innocence. It is a dark story, but wonderfully written, perfectly capturing a sense of dread and mounting terror.
“The Last Trophy of Hunter Hammerson” by L. Chan in issue 2 of Hexagon Magazine is a lighter take on the monstrous theme, but still brings the creep factor and the sense of threat. A reporter from a small newspaper sets out to interview famous monster hunter M. Hammerson about his illustrious career. It quickly becomes clear that many of Hammerson’s heroics were less noble than advertised, and over the course of his career, he resorted to trickery, brutality, and other under-handed tactics to achieve his victories.
The Black Deer, the Hunter explained, was not unreasonable. He bargained with the Hunter, speaking with a voice like a children’s choir, high and sweet and multi-layered. For the survival of his children, he would gladly lay down in the pit and take the Hunter’s fire.
Like Ogundrian, Chan also evokes Lovecraft in the monster’s naming and description, however the outcome is very different. The Black Deer willingly sacrifices itself for its thousand children, rather than seeking out revenge, proving the Hunter to be the true monster of the story. While the tropes may be familiar, the voice elevates the piece, perfectly capturing the feeling of a classic exchange of supernatural and fantastic tales around a fire. The asides from the journalist’s editor add to the piece, and the small descriptive details Chan drops in throughout help build a sense of wrongness and contribute to the ultimate reveal at the end.
“Deep in the Drift, Spinning” by Lisa L. Hannett published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies in September is more dark fantasy than horror, but it is a story suffused with longing and regret. Winnifletch distills hopes for the future from the gulls and other sea birds her customers bring her, squeezing their essence from them for potions to bring about luck, love, or transformation.
With a mental inhalation, Winni sifts the drift for the right whirl in the air, the right future Gert’s here to imbibe. She draws everything in: these avian vessels, their airborne calls, their salt-spray scent. Magic, not marrow, will soon fill the gull’s delicate bones. Magic to set them all flying.
While Winni strives to provide hope for others, she struggles to hold onto it for herself. Her daughter, Shale, always believed herself to be a harpy, mourning the sea birds her mother uses to make her potions, and begging to be transformed into what she believed to be her true form. The harder Winni tried to hold on, the more Shale became determined to fly and to live her own life, rather than the one her mother would choose for her. On top of her regrets about her daughter and her hope to see Shale again one day, Winni has regrets about Bear, Shale’s father. In trying to hold onto him, she fed him a potion she believes accidentally destroyed his mind, leaving him blank and empty inside.
Hannett’s writing is utterly gorgeous, poetic, and rhythmic, bringing to mind her story “A Shot of Salt Water” published in The Dark, set in the same world as “Deep in the Drift, Spinning.” While “A Shot of Salt Water” is like a sea shanty, this story is more like a dirge, but in both you can practically feel the salt-laden wind and the longing of the characters left on shore while others go to sea. Like Ogundrian’s protagonist, Winni is accidentally monstrous, and the story provides a bittersweet exploration of losing what you love by trying too hard to hold on. She is filled with regret, looking back on her life, but unlike the characters in the first two stories here, she has more hope. Even as hard truths are revealed to her, she finds a way to believe in the possibility of redemption.
“Tea with the Earl of Twilight” by Sonya Taaffe in September’s Nightmare Magazine is another moody and atmospheric story laced with melancholy and regret. Sid repeatedly passes a man smoking by the canal, and even though there is nothing especially remarkable about him, she notes him as odd and out of place.
She saw him first as a silhouette, one more line of the industrial geometries overhanging the boardwalk of Broad Canal. It had been a wet, dispiriting winter full of gusts and mists, but with January the water had finally hardened into a thick pane of cormorant-black ice, chipped and glossed with refreezing like volcanic glass; it was pond-green at the edges of the channel where the stubs of older piers stood up like snags, but the snow lying over the floating dock of the canoe launch could still pretend to seasonal pallor if the fanned brown branches of the trees along the old towpath could not.
When her roommate forwards her an article on a retrospective exhibition of the work of an artist named Geoffrey Axtell who recently passed away, she immediately recognizes the man from the canal in one of the artist’s paintings from 1981 titled The Earl of Twilight. Sid and her partner Torrey attend the exhibition, and learn from one of Axtell’s contemporaries how the artist painted The Earl of Twilight for his brother who was murdered, very likely as part of a gay-bashing incident.
In contrast to the other stories discussed here, Taaffe presents a quieter form of haunting, as a loved one’s ghost is conjured into the world of the living through the power of art. There is plenty of regret and longing in the story, and Taaffe’s language is beautiful, conjuring the atmosphere of the canal, the chilly, dripping weather, and the oppressive architecture just as the story’s artist conjures his brother’s ghost. The story blurs the line between memory and haunting, and delves into the idea of art as a reverse exorcism. An artist returning to a theme over and over again, the act of repetition in the process of painting, makes something real that was never intended to be part of this world. There is tragedy, but also beauty, just as one person’s memorial can be another person’s haunting.
“To Inherit Hunger” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert in issue 21 of Bourbon Penn is another unique and bittersweet take on a ghost story. As a child, Jillian delighted in the cartoon characters she would see romping about her mother’s feet as she tucked her into bed each night. She didn’t fully grasp then that the things she saw were a symptom of her mother’s sickness, an inherited disease causing visual hallucinations so strong that others are able to see them. As an adult, Jillian is increasingly concerned about her mother, who seems to be in denial about the severity of her condition.
Now, standing in her mother’s dated kitchen with an empty-eyed Detective D’Onofrio from her mother’s favorite police procedural looming over casefiles on the kitchen table, Jillian ached for that blissful childhood ignorance.
“How long has this one been going on?” she asked.
Slapping down a casefile, Detective D’Onofrio announced a new theory. Her mother shrugged without looking up from the sausages on the stove. She had thirty-odd years of practice at ignoring hallucinations.
“Don’t worry about it, darling. There’s no harm in it.”
Jillian is not only concerned for her mother, but concerned for herself. If the disease was passed to her mother by her grandmother, then will she, too, eventually succumb? How much time does she have left, and how will she cope? Will she be able to meet the disease head-on, or sink into denial like her mother?
The story straddles the line between being a ghost story and an exploration of disease and mental illness, leaving the question of whether what Jillian and her mother are experiencing is a real supernatural phenomenon or not open to interpretation until the very end. It can be read satisfyingly either way—as a haunting or a sickness—and the story is both touching and painful either way it is read. Jillian’s worry for her mother, and her frustration, are wholly understandable and feel very real. At the same time, Jillian’s mother’s refusal to see anything wrong is also completely understandable. She is lonely, her ghost keeps her company, and she’s not harming anyone else, so why take medicine that will risk sending her ghosts away? Hilbert perfectly blends eeriness with a touching, emotional tale that works on multiple levels, and like Taaffe’s story, offers a take on the idea of a haunting being therapeutic, depending on perspective.