Shock Totem 1: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted. Summer 2009. Pp. 100. ISBN 978-1448621743. $5.99.Reviewed by Steven Pirie
The news has been fairly bleak lately. With a number of short story venues closing down, or claiming hiatus as they try to ride out the ravages of the economy, it’s hard not to feel a sense of foreboding that the small press is creaking under the strain. Possibly it’s a brave heart, then, that seeks to launch a new print magazine right now—and a pro-paying magazine at that—yet clearly the chaps and chapesses behind Shock Totem are made of stern stuff.
I’ve followed the gestation of Shock Totem through various blogs and forums on the Internet, and I have to say I’ve been impressed with how the Shock Totem team have been open to suggestion and criticism; freely admitting that this publication is a new venture to them; happily taking guidance from other editors who have been-there-and- done-that, yet still feeling confident enough to impress their own personalities upon the project throughout. There are lessons for us all, there, I’m sure.
And the result, I have to say, is pretty good. Shock Totem is a digest sized, perfect bound magazine, full colour front and back cover with stunning artwork by Robert Hoyem, and with a black and white interior. At one hundred pages but with a relatively small font size, there’s enough content to match bigger rivals.
So, what’s on offer, here? What’s different about this one from what’s already out there? I think it’s fair to say that Shock Totem has resisted the temptation to be radically different in any way. The content follows a well tried formula of an opening editorial, fiction, interviews, reviews, a scattering of poetry and, at least as a promise in future issues, non-fiction. Where it excels is in the obvious care and love in its production. This issue is a very strong base from which to build. And who knows, as it does build maybe it will evolve away from the ‘formula’ in ways even the Shock Totem team can’t yet see.
The fiction reads rather Americanised: this is hardly surprising, perhaps, given all the authors featured are indeed Americans. Whether this is by design or by coincidence I can’t say, but it seems to me that on this showing the British writer writing quintessential British fiction, for example, may find it hard to break into this market. Of course, future issues may already be filled with international content to prove me wrong. I hope so. Add to this that the Shock Totem team have been known to delight in their high rejection to acceptance ratio of submitted stories—okay, that’s harsh—delight in their high standards—if you, the writer, do make the cut here you can probably feel some achievement.
‘Music Box’, by T.L. Morganfield has the honour of being Shock Totem’s first ever story. It’s a Chocky-esque tale in which the turbulent relationship between two sentient, malevolent ‘cuddly’ toys is paralleled with the equally turbulent marriage of Cheryl and Kevin. It offers a somewhat bleak view of relationships, as both human and toy are systematically torn apart, one literally, one metaphorically, and there is little or no redemption for any of them. The ending is particularly strong, and the reader is left fearing that the violence evident throughout is about to escalate to the extreme. That Morganfield ends the tale just as this fear is to be recognised leaves the reader to decide what happens next. If the reader is in the middle of a bad day, my guess is there’re kidneys and tubes everywhere!
Mercedes M. Yardley's ‘Murder for Beginners’ is a delightfully understated tale that at times borders on the whimsical. Two girls, one corpse, one bloody shovel is the backdrop for what is surely the ultimate trivialisation of murder most foul. It’s the almost nonchalant attitude of the characters and Yardley’s skill in merely brushing against the seriousness of the situation that produces a tale in which the reader feels there’s an entire back story there lurking below the surface. In this way, the story really engages the reader, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable vignette.
‘First Light’, by Les Berkley, is a lyrical tale of love and loss and life and death. In many ways, it’s a tale of gentler times, and I found myself lost in Berkley’s rolling prose. “I would dig Claire’s grave where no corpse-light would burn... ride her mare under the fainting moon and remember.”
‘Complexity’, by Don D’Ammassa, is a tale of paranoia ultimately proved valid. There’s an irony in that the technology Jake has grown to fear is the same technology he helped create. The story is a fine read, problematic only in that the set up to Jake’s paranoia seems a little drawn out in places and I found myself thinking long before the denouement: ‘Okay, I know this guy wants to be reclusive, is obsessive about ‘them’, is living in great fear, so I’d quite like to know why now.’ Also, because of the structure of the tale, to reach the conclusion required long passages of exposition. If you like that kind of writing (which you may guess I often find a little ‘dry’) you’ll enjoy ‘Complexity’.
Pam L. Wallace's ‘Below the Surface’ is a tale of jealousy and betrayal between two sisters, one the queen and the other bent on becoming queen. Set in an idyllic paradise, the story quickly darkens to the horrific and becomes compelling reading.
‘Slider’, by David Niall Wilson, is an odd tale of baseball, a death (or three) and a curse. Despite the fact that there’s a good deal of the esoteric in there—much of the nuance of American baseball will be lost on an international audience—the tale is conversational and otherwise easy on the eye, and despite the copious references to the game I was still able to follow the storyline.
‘The Dead March’, by Brian Rappatta, tells of Aaron and his hardship at the hands of his drunken, abusive father. Aaron can raise the dead with a single word, and the reader wonders how long Aaron will endure his father’s abuse before doing so to fight back. Ordinarily, I’m not a lover of zombie stories, but here Rappatta embellishes the tale with enough emotion, enough interest in the living, that the zombieism is almost secondary to the story.
Kurt Newton's ‘Thirty-Two Scenes from a Dead Hooker’s Mouth’ is unusual in structure in that it’s a tale in reverse. It begins with Nikki’s death, and then follows backwards in scenes of her life, all the way through to her birth. Newton’s prose pulls no punches, and the odd structure works very well to produce a fascinating read.
The interviews are with John Skipp, Alan Robert, and William Ollie (the latter including an excerpt from Ollie’s novel KillerCon) and are interesting reads. The poetry is there... sorry, poetry and me are ships in the night.
There’s a nice touch at the end of Shock Totem in the ‘Howling Through the Keyhole’ section in which the contributors are invited to talk about their motivations in writing their stories. Such insights round things off nicely.
So, it’s a strong first issue. I think, given the Shock Totem team’s willingness to improve, that if the magazine manages to survive in such shallow-pocketed times as these, it may go on to be a big player in the small press arena.
Here’s hoping, and good luck to it.
Shock Totem website
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