Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shock Totem #2

Shock Totem’s second issue was a long time coming. The supposedly biannual magazine didn’t end up released until a full year after the original. Reading the issue, however, it’s hard to be upset. Changes are immediately apparent. The issue’s shorter (with more readable font), there’s only one interview, there is a nonfiction article, and, more importantly, the more whimsical nature of many of the first issue’s stories is gone, replaced by something darker and more relentless.

Ricardo Bare’s The Rat Burner opens the collection, an oppressive and moody piece about life in a bizarre, run down, and infested future city that the reader can learn in the story’s notes is a transformed Austin. Like many of the issue’s pieces, this is more of a mood piece than one particularly concerned with plot. There’s no traditional structure here, no true beginning middle or end. That’s not to say that nothing happens, though; the populace’s (and the neighborhood’s) steady, inevitable disintegration is painful and intoxicating to watch.

The most haunting mood piece, however, is Leslianne Wilder’s Sweepers, a flash story set in post-apocalypse New York City. The characters come through strongly, the imagery of the destroyed city is powerfully evocative, and her prose is mesmerizing:

Some cried and wiped their eyes with hundred dollar ties. Some jumped. They dropped down into the soup of everything that had been, and where they hit they left little black holes where they dragged the bodies down with them. Then the holes closed up. (p. 27, Sweepers)

Some of the mood pieces are not as successful. None of them are outright bad, but a few fail to attain the necessary weight of atmosphere to make their stories more than passively interesting. Christian A. Dumais’s Leave Me the Way I was Found shows a mind-destroying, Lovecraftian youtube video that savages the world as it goes viral. The concept is interesting, and the story is certainly amusing, but there’s never enough of an idea of just what the video actually is for the story to be particularly affecting. Cate Gardner's Pretty Little Ghouls is also intriguing in its premise, and manages to make the reader desperately want to know more about the world it shows, but I felt I had far too many questions at the end of the brief piece to be satisfied.

Of the fuller stories, most are quite successful. In his introduction to The Exit to San Breta (in Dreamsongs), George R.R. Martin says that he wanted to update the ghost story, taking the traumatized undead from gothic mansions and putting them in the middle of where modern tragedy occurred: the expressways. Taking Martin’s 1972 logic and bringing it to the 21st century, Grá Linnaea and Sarah Dunn explore death through facebook in Messages from Valerie Polichar. Over the course of the story, Valerie becomes a sympathetic character, and the way that she becomes obsessed and then is taken over by her obsession is chilling.

Vincent Pendergast’s The Rainbow Serpent, too, intertwines invented mythology with the modern world and never loses the flow of either. The imagery is bizarre and fascinating here, and the multitude of threads make for a well done dreamlike feel. Though the story seems to be building to a predictable finale, Pendergast manages to avoid the obvious ending and manages to make all of his story’s various strands end satisfyingly.

Kurt Newton’s Sole Survivor and Nick Bronson’s Return from Dust both suffer from being too familiar. Sole Survivor’s immediate action is compelling, but the overall setup is overused and has lost its punch through repetition, leaving the story unable to compete with Newton’s 32 Scenes from a Dead Hooker’s Mouth from the first issue. Return from Dust is also interesting in its telling, but the tale is ultimately devoid of surprises. The final tale, David Jack Bell's Upon My Return, is a relatively familiar concept but told well. The gifted but strange carnival worker manages to evoke our sympathies quickly, though the conclusion feels rather obvious when it pretty much explicitly states the tale's core.

There are less interviews this time around, but Yardley’s chilling nonfiction prose more than makes up for it. Like before, the reviews cover a wide array of horror releases, from books to games and music. They’re generally good, though I did note a bizarre phrase in John Boden’s review of the Road: This is a PG book: No Swearing, very little violence, and sex free (p. 44). Good to know that books don’t impact people based on content, just language. After all, cannibalism and slow but inevitable starvation were my favorite middle grade reading material.

The first issue of Shock Totem was very good; almost every story in it was well worth reading. The second issue is even stronger. There are a few weaker tales here, but the strengths of those that do work make this magazine essential reading for horror fans.

Standouts: Sweepers, The Rat Burner, Messages from Valerie Polichar

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