Shock Totem 4: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted
K. Allen Wood, editor

Shock Totem Publications
Trade Paper, 132 pages, $6.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt

Following Shock Totem since its inception has been a joy: Embracing it as a splendid addition to the horror community, chiding it a bit for falling short in its sophomore appearance, then giving it an “atta boy” for rebounding and redeeming itself. Now with Issue 4, it is time to delight in the magazine’s growth and solid sense of identity. There is a fine array of stories, but what is perhaps most striking is the high quality of the non-fiction pieces. The interviews, essays, and columns, are extremely well done. They are mini works of art in themselves.

An interview by Nick Contor is entitled “Long Live the Word: A Conversation with Kathe Koja.” In the exchange, the astute and esteemed Ms. Koja has this to say about the current state of publishing: “As a writer, I think e-books and print books are both desirable and viable, for different reasons, just as traditional review outlets and book blogs are both desirable and viable. And Story is the one thing that does not change, the appetite for which does not die. So long live the word!” The quote is both an inspiration and affirmation.

Affirming family ties and softening a hardened heart is the subject of the essay “Living Dead: A Personal Apocalypse” by K. Allen Wood. This hard hitting and poignant account of jaundiced expectations being trumped by hope, reads like a lovely short story. Knowing that this is a real, personal experience is deeply touching.

In “Bloodstains & Blue Suede Shoes, Part 2” John Boden and Simon Marshall-Jones continue their column on music and horror. The article is certainly interesting, and the prose is quite lyrical: “The blues, when it emerged as a musical force, strove to express the tragedy and injustice of the slaves’ lives, but it also wormed its scaled fingers around horror’s cold hand, reminding us that tragedy is not necessarily personal but universal in nature.” Such words harmonize with a melody of the wounded.

The nine short stories are very good, and two struck subjective chords. “Beneath the Weeping Willow” by Lee Thompson is told in the problematic second person, but since the narrator is autistic this works extremely well. Looking both inward and outward, the protagonist’s confused world view is distorted and frightening. He hears his parents fighting, and his name bantered about in the arguments. His abusive older brother resents him, and seizes every opportunity to hurt and humiliate. Then there’s the willow that seems to possess a human consciousness: “You turn back to the window. Your vision blurs and you wipe your eyes, attention falling on a dark patch dangling from the lowest branch of the willow. Staring at it for several moments, unsure why it sets your skin crawling, unsure why if feels like there is something horrible living in the gloom beneath the thick branches, watching your whole family.”

The other story that most impressed is “Fade to Black” by Jaelithe Ingold. The last line of the first paragraph is bewitching: “The newly dead always mourn more than the living.” A ghost whisperer who runs a funeral home and the adjacent cemetery finds rebellion in the ranks of the revenants. A wrathful wraith is manipulating other specters, causing them to “fade.” When the plot is uncovered, there are grave consequences and a nifty, unexpected ending. Ingold opens the narrative with the lines: “Sasha leans over the freshly dug grave and drops fourteen black tulips into the bronze vase. Behind her, the ghost of Lucy Martin watches. Solemn eyes and milk-glass features twist into a soundless sob.” That is a subtle and irresistible attention grabber; and the tale, in total, lives up to its eerie expectations.

Shock Totem 4 is entertaining and thought provoking. It is a pleasure to chart the progress of such an intelligent periodical.

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