Shock Totem magazine describes itself as offering “curious tales of the macabre and twisted.” That’s not a bad description for the contents of issue #5. This was the first issue of Shock Totem that I’ve had the opportunity to read – that is an oversight on my part, and one I hope to correct soon. If the first four issues are anything like this one, Shock Totem is one of the strongest horror fiction magazines on the market today.
The production values of Shock Totem are extremely high: despite the fact that Shock Totem is published by a small press, this issue is not some raggedy, stable-bound magazine that will fall apart during the first read. It’s a nicely-produced, perfect bound book with a spine, great cover art (reminding me of some kind of weird telephone pole golem wandering through a desolate wasteland with creepy raven companions), and excellent graphic design and interior layout. The editing is top-notch and the stories and other features well chosen. The opening editorial notes that there was a long hiatus between issues #4 and #5, in part because they were waiting for enough good material to fill the issue. Issue #5 was worth the wait, as Shock Totem’s editors clearly selected the best pieces they found; they clearly did not simply rush the issue to print with filler material.
Shock Totem #5’s table of contents:
* Taking Root: An Editorial by Mercedes M. Yardley
* In Deepest Silence by Ari Marmell
* Girl and the Blue Burqa by D. Thomas Mooers
* Digging in the Dirt: A Conversation with Jack Ketchum by John Boden
* Hide-and-Seek by F.J. Bergmann (poetry)
* Eyes of a Stranger: An Essay by Nick Contor
* Postmortem by Kurt Newton
* Jimmy Bunny by Darrell Schweitzer
* Strange Goods and Other Oddities (Reviews)
* Little Knife Houses by Jaelithe Ingold (2011 Shock Totem Flash Fiction Contest Winner)
* Canon by Anaea Lay
* Bloodstains & Blue Suede Shoes, Part 3 (non-fiction) by John Boden and Simon Marshall-Jones
* The Catch by Joe Mirabello
* Three Strikes by Mekenzie Larsen
* To ‘Bie or Not to ‘Bie by Sean Eads
* Howling Through the Keyhole (author notes)
None of the stories or other sections of the magazine were stinkers – which is highly unusual in collections like this, in my experience – though a couple of the flash fiction pieces didn’t quite do it for me. That’s always the problem with such short pieces: either they grab you by the lapels and give you a good shake or the premise just doesn’t quite gel for you in a single page or two. None of the stories in this issue are gorefests; they tend toward the creepy and psychological, with overt violence mostly happening off-screen.
Mild plot spoilers for a couple of the stories contained in this issue follow.
Particular highlights of the magazine for me included two stories – “In Deepest Silence” by Ari Marmell and “To ‘Bie or Not to ‘Bie” by Sean Eads – as well as the author notes section closing out the issue that describes the origins and background of almost all of the stories. Those two stories each do something truly original. “In Deepest Silence” is a Lovecraftian tale that never once references any of the established set of Lovecraftian horrors. Also, being set entirely inside a submarine deep underwater, it’s not forced to awkwardly and unsatisfactorily describe non-Euclidean entities that don’t conform to the known laws of physics because the protagonists can only perceive the…something through the sub’s sensors and instruments. That’s well done. “To ‘Bie or Not to ‘Bie” caught my attention because, all kidding aside, it does something entirely new with the idea of a zombie apocalypse (and no, I won’t spoil the surprise here). I’ve read a lot of zombie stories and novels – I’m sure we all have – and many have claimed to have an entirely new take on the genre; almost none do. In the hands of a lesser author, the premise of “To ‘Bie or Not to ‘Bie” could have been absurd, but Sean Eads did a great job with it. The lengthy author notes section at the end of the issue was also very much appreciated. As a reader, I always wonder about how the stories I’m reading came about, but that curiosity is rarely sated. The inclusion of these story notes provided some welcome insights into the featured authors and their writing.
Shock Totem #5 is a magazine that will be right up the alley for discerning readers of modern horror fiction. I enjoyed this issue so much that I now plan to seek out the first four issues. If they live up to the promise of this issue, I will be very impressed. Highly recommended.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers