This market report is courtesy of D.L. Snell, who writes with Permuted Press and Richard Finney. He edited Dr. Kim Paffenroth twice, John Dies at the End once, and provided a constructive critique to Joe McKinney on his next major novel after Dead City. Snell’s zombie/vampire novel was also Tomoviewed once and he felt honored. You can shoot D.L. Snell in the head at Exit 66.
Zine: Shock Totem
Editors: K. Allen Wood, John Boden, & Nick Contor (interview with K. Allen Wood)
Pay rate: 5¢ / word upon publication
Response Time: 2 months
Description: We consider original, unpublished stories within the confines of dark fantasy and horror—mystery, suspense, supernatural, morbid humor, fantasy, etc. But the stories must have a clear horror element. (More in guidelines)
Note: Horror author D.L. Snell conducted the following interview to give writers a better idea of what the editors of this specific market are seeking; however, most editors are open to ideas outside of the preferences discussed here, as long as they fit the basic submission guidelines.
1) What authors do you enjoy and what is it about their writing that captivates you?
I am very much a new-school kind of reader. The style of early horror writers — and yes, this includes the likes of Poe and Blackwood and Lovecraft — often makes me cross-eyed. I appreciate the legacy of their work, of course, but it’s not often that I can truly immerse myself into their stories. And I’ve tried countless times.
I like Dean Koontz and Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, and hell, I dig John Saul too (even if he’s been re-writing the same story nearly his entire career). But horror isn’t the only thing I read. I love Ken Follett and Boris Starling, Terry Brooks and R.A. Salvatore, George R.R. Martin, Naomi Novik, and tons more.
My tastes are very broad, which is why I can’t pinpoint one particular thing that captivates me about their writing besides this: the story. To me, the most important thing is not the author; it’s whether or not he or she can tell a great story. It’s why so many people enjoy Dan Brown. He’s not a great writer, as we all know, but he’s a hell of a storyteller. Too many people forget how important that is. Of course, a good amount of writing skill is necessary as well.
So that’s what I dig. Great stories. The author really is unimportant.
2) What are your favorite genres? Which of these genres would you like to see incorporated into submissions to this market?
Well, horror is definitely my favorite. It’s where I first discovered my love of reading. In particular, Dean Koontz’s Lightning. Although I’m not sure that’s even a horror novel, but it did get me reading his other books. As I got older, I began to broaden my horizon a bit, reading thrillers and mysteries, crime novels, fantasy.
For Shock Totem, I think we could incorporate all these styles. In our first issue, we have a story by Pam Wallace (“Below the Surface”) that is very much a fantasy tale. It’s dark fantasy, however, so it works for us. Take away that element and it would be a straight-up fantasy story which we would have had no place for.
Anything can be horror; it just needs to tap into the right emotions. And some would argue that horror is more an emotion than a genre, if it’s a genre at all.
3) What settings most intrigue you? Ordinary or exotic locales? Real or fantasy? Past, present, or future?
The short answer is medieval or historical settings. But those aren’t things many writers can tackle. So touching upon the answer I gave for the first question, I think it really depends on the story. Obviously I need to be able to relate to the setting in some manner; if something is so region specific it excludes people who’re unfamiliar with that area, that won’t work for me. But if the story is written well, I can put myself anywhere.
4) Explain the type of pacing you enjoy, e.g. slow building to fast, fast throughout, etc.
Probably a little of both. Ebb and flow, you know. But it also depends on the length of the story. Short stories generally need a faster pace than a novel. When a story is only ten pages long, too much ebb—or all ebb, which countless stories suffer from—makes it a chore to read. When nothing has happened by page seven (if I’ve been patient enough to read that far), I’m not a happy reader. I’m more forgiving of this, as most people are, with a novel.
5) What types of characters appeal to you the most? Any examples?
I like realistic characters. Who doesn’t, right? What I mean is, they have to act appropriately to whatever situation they’re in. If a character is running down a hallway from a killer who’s five feet behind her, she’s not going to notice dust on the picture frames on the wall, or a nickel on the floor by the radiator, or reflect on how the wallpaper doesn’t match the carpet. But a lot of writers will write a character this way, and it’s always struck me as unrealistic. Is that what you’d be thinking about when running from a killer?
6) What is your policy for vulgarity and sexual content? (Question by Ralph Robert Moore)
It has to be appropriate to the story. If there’s a baby in a post-apocalyptic story, don’t just have it killed or eaten at the end for the sake of shock value or “horror.” It’s cheesy—and it’s done all the damn time!
However, if it’s appropriate, eat the hell out of that baby.
7) Horror and violence can be blatant or suggestive. Which one do you prefer and why?
Suggestive works best, usually. Let the readers do the math. Show them the shadows, and let them work out the rest. It makes the story more personal and allows their own icy fears and emotions to worm through their veins. The scariest stories are those that never shine the spotlight too bright.
Then again, in the hands of a great writer, like Jack Ketchum, blatancy can be very powerful.
8) In fiction and in life, what do you find most horrific?
In fiction, probably the stuff that would seem impossible on paper but is very possible in reality; the sort of stories that any one of us could be thrust into at any time.
In life, I find humanity horrifying.
9) In general, do you prefer downbeat or upbeat endings?
Whatever fits the story. One thing that has always bugged me about Koontz is that he loves the happy ending (cue massage parlor joke). Well, in my world, that’s not so common. John Saul, on the other hand, loves to give you that upbeat ending…for a second. As soon as you think the main character made it—WHAM! Dead.
In that respect, I probably dig the downbeat ending more, just because it’s much more realistic.
10) What are the top three things submitters to this market should avoid?
In light of recent events, I’d suggest not sending us a plagiarized Stephen King story. Or any stolen work, for that matter — haha. Beyond that, we’re pretty open to anything, as long as it’s within our guidelines and it’s not blatant commentary in the guise of fiction. Or fan fiction. Please don’t do that.
Just be an honest writer. It goes a long way.
11) What commonalities are among the stories you’ve rejected? Is there a particular aspect authors seem to get wrong? (Question by Martel)
We accept stories that we all dig. We’re readers, first and foremost. The common thread running through our rejections is that we simply weren’t collectively excited about them. At least most of us. Majority rules at Shock Totem. We’ve all had to wave goodbye to stories that some of us, but not enough of us, loved.
I think the main thing most writers get wrong is that they write for other people and not for themselves. It’s not the readers’ story until it’s in their hands. Before that, it’s your story. Too many authors write for the heart and not from it.
12) If you reject a story, how open are you to a revised version, or do you only want revisions upon request? (Question by Martel)
We’re not open to revisions unless we request them. We read so many submissions it would be hard for us to even see the changes unless we specifically asked for them.
13) Describe a story you’ve recently accepted or short-listed. What made it stand out from the slush pile?
We just accepted a story called “Sweepers.” It’s a flash piece, at 1,000 words, but it packs the punch of a much longer story. The writing is solid, of course. It’s very visual, but subtle as well. It’s a story that has that suggestive element I mentioned above. It shows us the shadows, but never fully reveals their true nature.
14) What trait are you seeking most in submissions to this market?
I’d say originality, but that’s overrated. When a writer strains his eyes looking for originality, he blinds himself to the art of just writing a good story. Readers want good stories. Of course, originality is nothing to be shunned; it’s simply too elusive to be chased down and caught. It’ll come when it’s good and ready.
A writer looking to get into Shock Totem should just sit down and write a good story. Hell, a great story. Let it flow unbidden, and be honest with it.
15) Any last advice for submitters to this market?
What I said above. Be honest. Write from the heart, not for it.