Shock Totem: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted, Second Issue
K. Allen Wood, Editor
Shock Totem Publications
Trade Paper, 82 pages, $5.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
Small press horror magazines require a lot of effort to produce and sustain. When Shock Totem: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted first appeared, it created a transfusion of vibrant new blood. Excellent in every way, the novice publication couldn’t help but impress. Issue Two suffers from a slight sophomore slump. In his editorial, K. Allen Wood explains that the publishing of the debut edition went rather smoothly: There was the luxury of time; enabling a gestation of almost two years. Number Two proved more problematic. Complicating the pressure to get the follow up out in a relatively timely fashion, was a dearth of quality submissions. The editor chose to wait until material worthy of the publication’s standards crossed his desk. This resulted in a delay from the projected release date. The stress and strain does show in the second outing, but the caliber of the periodical remains high.
A spirited interview with author James Newman is one of the highlights. He is at once practical: “Ya know, at one time I had this big dream of doing this for a living. I guess I still do, in a way, though now I look at this business through the eyes of a guy who’s had a little bit of experience (read: a guy who’s seen what this writing gig actually PAYS!)” Such pragmatism is shifted, however, when Newman takes a fond stand on books as opposed to e-books and Kindle: “I prefer the look, feel, and even the smell (yeah, I said it) of a real book.”
The outstanding story in the volume is “Message From Valerie Polichar.” A woman obsessed with the internet yearns for information about people who have died. She starts with Facebook searches of friends, and then goes wider, hoping to find a connection that crosses the barriers of life and death. Her relationships with the living suffer and dwindle as her drive to find answers, and bridges, to the mysteries of mortality override the mundane. This contemporary cautionary character study cuts to the core: “The important things – the things worth saying – are always said too late.” What adds to the fascinating aspect of the narrative is how its co-writers, Grá Linnaea and Sarah Dunn, crystallized the work. The opening line, “Valerie Polichar sometimes searches Facebook for people she knows are dead,” comes from an actual Facebook status message. Linnaea saw it, and threw down the gauntlet to Dunn; each would write a story based on the prompt. They combined, edited, and refined their respective pieces; and obtained the real Valerie’s permission and good wishes on the result. The anecdote is recounted in Shock Totem’s column “Howling Through the Keyhole: The Stories Behind the Stories.” It’s an eye-opening glimpse into the inspirations, thought processes, and construction of the stories included in the journal.
Shock Totem, in its second incarnation, doesn’t attain its premiere edition’s delirious and unexpected heights. Still, it is a gift to genre fans; filled with reviews of books and films, as well as the interesting interview and fine fiction. The third installment is eagerly awaited.