Shock Totem: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted. Eds. K. Allen Wood and Michelle Howarth. Seattle: Shock Totem Publications, July 2009. 100 pages.
I purchased a copy shortly after publication but was unable to read it cover to cover, uninterrupted, the way I would most journals. This was odd because, honestly, this was a very good read. It was when I read the first issue of Dark Moon Digest in just two or three evenings that I realized what prevented me from speeding through Shock Totem and instead leaving it on the pile of currently reading (sadly, a very large pile) material beside my desk; it was the interior design. The borders are fine and I do like the font style, but the font size is tiny, something I'm used to only when reading old, yellowed editions of the classics, or older paperbacks in general. Normally I would pick up something like Shock Totem when not in the mood for a bulky classic, and there was something of a flow-over effect so that I ended up reading a story every week or so. (Minor quibble, I know, and wholly subjective, but that currently reading pile is just plain ridiculous.)
The publication is quite diverse. There are three author interviews, with John Skipp, Alan Robert and William Ollie, the last which includes an excerpt of a forthcoming novel, KillerCon. There are also a few pages of brief book, movie and music reviews, and it was nice to see some older work reviewed: Daniel Cohen's Monsters, Giants and Little Men from Mars. There is also a brief end page nicely titled "Howling through the Keyhole," which includes notes on each story by their authors. This is an informative bookend companion to the introduction, and generally I am a sucker for such information. These extras are all nice additions, balancing the fiction quite well, and each being quite short so they don't distract from the stories.
And as for the stories... The overall fiction content seems to prefer some element of fantasy, and all but two stories function on the basis of a strong fantastical element. This is risky since fantasy can often ruin a good story and, personally, it is a genre I enjoy only when integrated with the real world, as Rod Serling's Twilight Zone did so well. In most cases the fantasy is well presented and does not drown its story's intent or intervene with its characters. Despite this continuity in genre, the editors chose well and present a wide range of story type and writing style, with stories ranging from competitive stuffed animals to zombie love, paranoia and baseball. There is only one weak entry but also a stand-out story worthy of a future reprint. Overall the selections are above average, and I commend the editors for making the inaugural issue of the bi-annual publication something worth picking up. I've since ordered the second issue and just hope I can read it at least within a week.
The Music Box by T.L. Morganfield 7/10
A good lead-in story about a pair of stuffed animals competing for a boy's attention. Snowflake the elephant was father's childhood favourite while Boo Bear was mother's. What works here is that it's not just the animals that are in competition, but the parents' own unhealthy relationship is highlighted in their efforts to thrust upon their only child a part of their individual pasts. Troubled and unable to face their problems, it is the tensions in their relationship that manifest themselves in this competition. The father has an advantage for, long ago, Snowflake had revealed to him the secret of stuffed animals: they are sentient, have acute feelings and are able to enact horrible acts of vengeance. Of course, it's all for love.
'Til Death Do Us Part by Jennifer Pelland 6/10
A piece of flash fiction, lightly entertaining.
Murder for Beginners by Mercedes M. Yardley 4/10
A comedy about women who are indifferent to a sleaze they've just killed. This was the one that did not work for me; I found it contrived and dull, the humour forced and the narrative lacking in suspense. Perhaps this one needed some element of fantasy to elevate it from the ordinary. In the endnotes Yardley mentions that writing the story required no labour, and I believe her.
First Light by Les Berkley 6/10
Well written zombie modern world western love story. It is a "quiet" story, its prose elegant and flowing, like sitting by a river and watching it flow past. Though I like to see stories investing emotion over plot, I felt that something was missing here. This feeling of absence is likely the effect of the writing, which at times might be reaching too far into the realm of sentiment. It is nonetheless a good read.
Complexity by Don D'Ammassa 7/10
A taught, suspenseful story of a software programmer with a persecution complex. The details are excellent, enough to make the story vivid without tiring the reader, and piled so nicely and so high that I felt I couldn't read fast enough to figure out what was actually going on. I liked the lengthy day-to-day description, the patience in the telling, information withheld (though not unfairly) and revealed through the character's background. There is also an excellent ironic element in the character's having unleashed the source of his paranoia onto himself. The ending becomes evident a page or so before we arrive, but the trip is nonetheless worth taking. Though the ending makes it clear whether or not the paranoia is justified, there is still that token element of ambiguity.
Below the Surface by Pam L. Wallace 5/10
It's the fantasy that killed this one for me. Competently written tale of two sisters, one the queen of a realm and mother of the future king, the other spiteful and jealous who wishes to share in her sister's good fortune. The opening dialogue is patiently composed, a tight read that progresses nicely with the sinister sister trying to convince the younger naive one that she should become the king's second wife, allowing the queen to rest and recover from two recent miscarriages. Then someone dies and a ghost appears and my interest went out for a walk. The second half is essentially a chase sequence with little tension since we know exactly how the sentimental tale will be resolved. Too bad.
Slider by David Niall Wilson 6/10
Wilson was the only author in the collection I recall having previously encountered. A year or two ago I read "Blameless" which appeared in the somewhat disappointing posthumous Robert Bloch edited anthology Robert Bloch's Psychos (Cemetery Dance, 1997). The anthology was uneven, and though it included some fine stories, "Blameless" was not among the good ones. I am pleased, however, that "Slider" had me hooked. On the surface it is a tale of baseball, and though I know little about the sport, Wilson's detailed but not overdone telling makes it quite intriguing. The historical aspect and the unusual pitching circumstance make baseball interesting. It helps that the story is well written. The ending is the weakest part of the tale, and it appears Wilson himself was more interested in the history and the circumstance than in the plot; the story is primarily constructed around a conversation and tightly woven into a single event. It does not ruin the story, but covers it with enough haze to mar its stronger aspects.
The Dead March by Brian Rappatta 8/10
The strongest story in the collection. A troubled boy from a dysfunctional family within a dysfunctional trailer park society has an unusual affinity with death. Not only can he sense when someone is about to die, he can also raise the dead. This story is about life as much as it is about death. The world depicted is one of living zombies, of families and individuals who maintain existence rather than live. Written in a straight-edged style, at times gruesome and even oddly and darkly comic, the story manages also to be somewhat touching. The society that Rappatta has created is one I would re-visit, even with different characters and circumstances. (As I mentioned above this one's worthy of a reprint, and John Joseph Adams should consider this one if he is planning on a third installment of the Night Shade Books series The Living Dead.)
Thirty-Two Scenes from a Dead Hooker's Mouth by Kurt Newton 6/10
The tragic story of a prostitute, told backwards beginning from her death. There is no linear story, no surprise at the end to tie it all together, just a straightforward backward telling (yes, forward backward). Very well written with some strong imagery make this entry a worthy read.