Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shock Totem 1 (2009)

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

Buy this issue from


Mercedes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Ha, sorry about that. I said that it was in depth and beautifully written. Thank you for the kind words. :)


David Niall Wilson said...

You know, it never once occurred to me the size of the audience for whom baseball would be "esoteric" ... I've written a few such stories, and have always found them a hard sell...good insight...and glad you still enjoyed it!

David Niall Wilson
Glimpses Into An Overactive Mind

Pam said...

Compelling! I like that! Thanks!

Pam Wallace

Djibril said...

Over at the Shock Totem forums, Kenwood wrote, in response to this review:

"In regards to the Americanized comment, we're not biased to American writers, nor will we ever be. If it turns out that any issue has all American authors, it will be purely by chance."

This is good to know, but in a sense it misses Steven's point slightly.

(1) On the one hand, Steven was talking about perceptions, and the perception that this is a deeply American magazine with a preference for American-themed stories may well exist. This may not matter, but if it does, then it's good to have had it brought to the editors' attention.

(2) More importantly, bias of this kind is rarely about deliberate choice, or even conscious preference for a national literary style. Steven did not suggest that non-American authors would be excluded from the magazine, but that "quintessential British fiction" might find it hard to break into Shock Totem. Of course no one is actively discriminating against other national literatures, but it requires active effort to be inclusive when ones own background is in the dominant culture (in this case American writing).

I'm not saying that there is a problem here--but that bias is more complex than the comment above suggests.

K. Allen Wood said...

I've been on vacation since the 16th, so I've only had time to get online about three times, and for short periods. My comment on our forum was so short simply due to time.

I probably couldn't tell you what "quintessential British fiction" is, by definition anyway, but I did live in Britain for four years so the culture isn't completely lost on me. In fact, I traveled the world while in the Air Force, from Europe to Asia to the Middle East and places in between. But I'm not sure that matters. I'd like to think--I truly hope, actually--that we will be able to see a great story for what it is, despite the nuances of culture and our possible ignorance of them. Great writing should transcend that.

I'll be back online sometime Friday night or Saturday afternoon. The last days of vacation. =(

But Steven, please know that I truly appreciate your review and support. I can't thank people like you enough.


Djibril said...

I'm not sure what "quintessential British fiction" is either.

Again I don't mean to suggest that you guys are not open to all sorts of cultural influences and literatures. I'm glad to hear that you are. Although it was a riff off of your comment, I wanted to make a general point about bias not always being deliberate, and that open-mindedness is not always enough to combat it. It really wasn't meant to criticize you--and it's just as true of our case, for that matter.

Keep up the great work!

K. Allen Wood said...

Oh, I completely understand. Human nature tends to prevail even when we think it won't.

But we've already accepted a story from an Australian author for issue two. I think, anyway. He may just live there.

Either way, we'll always do our best to keep each issue as diverse as possible, but it really comes down to what we like as it comes through the shoot.

Anonymous said...

"But we've already accepted a story from an Australian author for issue two. I think, anyway. He may just live there."

Maybe it's just the British you dislike then.