Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shock Totem #1

Shock Totem is a relative newcomer to the horror scene, but you wouldn't know that from the quality of the publication. The editorial that opens the first issue of Shock Totem is stunningly humble; it and the ethereal and beautiful cover art set the tone for what follows. The stories are generally a blend of more whimsical humor with out and out horror, though tales fall on both sides of the spectrum.

Our opener, T.L. Morganfield’s The Music Box, seems on first glance to be as odd a horror opener as imaginable. The story is told from the point of view of Snowflake, a sentient stuffed elephant who does his best to get his nemesis, the stuffed Boo Bear, to be eaten by the family’s dog instead of him. The first pages are more cute and amusing than scary – and then comes the part where Snowflake and the other animals display sickening cruelty in their competitions with one another. At the edge of the story, the reader can make out sympathetic characters on the periphery, coming into the light just long enough to be pushed aside.

Mercedes M. Yardley’s Murder for Beginners follows. Like many of the stories in the collection, it’s centered around violence – the two main characters are standing over the corpse of a murdered man – but, like many of the first issue’s stories, it’s the bizarre atmosphere that really defines the story. The two characters are completely nonchalant and unconcerned by their recent crime, though they are well aware that a dead man’s pockets are gross, and their snappy dialogue is laugh out loud funny in context.

Brian Rosenberger’s Mulligan Stew and Jennifer Pelland’s ‘Til Death Do Us Part operate in a similar manner. Both are short (a poem and a piece of microfiction respectively), and they each quickly build to an amusing and light hearted climax. Neither is jaw dropping, but they are enjoyable and flow very well between the longer pieces and nonfiction articles.

Like the opening stories, Brian Rappatta’s The Dead March only has violence on the side, and the grotesque dismemberments that are not infrequent in the tale either happen on screen or are just alluded to in a single sentence. The story’s protagonist has the ability to raise the dead with a word, leading to some good old fashioned zombies. Said zombies are too matter of fact in their creation and mindless obedience to be particularly frightening, but the sympathy generated by the protagonist’s relationship with his mother in the early pages is powerful enough to make the read an affecting one.

There are difficulties inherent with short fiction, especially with a hard word limit (5,000 words), and one of those difficulties is weaving exposition into the narrative. Les Berkley’s First Light and Don D’ammassa’s Complexity both irked me to a greater or lesser extent by blocks of exposition.  The first of them, First Light, is a short tale set in a bizarre and anachronistic countryside where ghosts wander. The actual horror aspect of it is relatively typical, but Berkley’s prose is powerful and manages to convey setting, atmosphere, and personality all at once:

Time’s a strange commodity in the County. Moving out here struck me like coming home, if home was a couple centuries ago. We hang on to the past as though it was worth something. Roads stay unpaved so they can’t develop things, and we mostly take care of our own problems without recourse to outside authorities or laws. The .357 Colt Python in my saddle holster reminded me that this way of living comes with its own dangers. (p. 29)

Complexity is intriguing, and the narrator’s attempt at isolation are fascinating. D’ammassa skillfully evokes the narrator’s paranoia and is adept with the description of his home, but I felt that the tale ran into problems as it progressed. The revelation of just what the narrator was afraid of was kept back until it was told in a great lump towards the end, and the story’s climax felt jerky and abrupt.

David Niall Wilson’s Slider sets itself apart by being about a rather normal fellow (compared to the relaxed killers of Yardley’s piece or the zombie-raiser of Rappata’s), but I’ll admit that this is the one story in the collection I was apprehensive about. See, I may live in New York, but I know nothing about baseball. Nothing. I needn’t have worried. Wilson’s passion for the sport shines through and invigorates the characters, but the little terminology that there is is easily either picked up or bypassed, and the story’s core is filled with sympathetic characters and delicious twists.

The only story in the collection that felt like a true weak link to me was Pam L. Wallace’s Below the Surface. This story has more of a high fantasy bent than the others, but (though I’m generally a large fan of fantasy) the tale overall didn’t work for me. The betrayal at its core was too obvious, and the conclusion felt clunky, though the prose was generally strong throughout.

Things end with Kurt Newton’s Thirty-Two Scenes From a Dead Hooker’s Mouth closes the collection. The story is a backwards journey through the murdered woman’s life, featuring thirty-two tenuously linked scenes. The actual events are in danger of being cliché (the “weird” client, the specific abuses and difficulties of the lifestyle) but the manner of their telling is excellent, painting the picture of a tragic life a shade too out of focus to ever be ordinary. The final scene, though expected, is extremely powerful and ends the collection on a highly emotional note.

In addition to fiction, the issue also includes three interviews and a lengthy review section. The interviews were varied and content and had interesting questions; the reviews were more cursory than I’d prefer but well written. Further nonfiction articles are promised in future issues. Finally, there’s a “Howling Through the Keyhole” section of the stories behind the stories which I loved.

Shock Totem is a quality product. The stories are powerful, and the editors’ drive and determination is clear from the beautiful paperback binding, though some credit for that surely goes to the collection’s artists, Rex Zachary and Robert Høyem. It says something about a collection when the weakest story has strong prose and a generally good atmosphere. At 5.99, this issue’s a great buy for horror fans (even if the print’s a tad small).

Standouts: Murder for Beginners, The Dead March, and The First Light


  1. Hey, thanks for such a thoughtful, in-depth review! It was a joy to read.

    I have a thing for writing quirky women in unusual situations. In another story, one throws her Manolo at a werewolf and then demands it back. ;)

    Thanks again.


  2. Sounds like a magazine to read for sure. Stuffed animals from hell and a cover to match the content. Very well done indeed.