“SHOCK TOTEM 6” (Book Review)Book and Comic Reviews,Books/Art/Culture,News John Skipp
SHOCK TOTEM is a genuine oddity in the horror/dark fiction field. Not quite a magazine, not quite an anthology series, but quite a bit of both, it’s published semi-regularly in gorgeously-designed trade paperback (and ebook) form. Which is to say, they don’t publish on a tight schedule. They only publish once they think it’s good enough to legitimately share.
But that isn’t the oddest thing.
Subtitled “Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted”, SHOCK TOTEM delivers on this modest promise with an old-fashioned quality I like to call “taste”.
For example: despite the presence of the word shock in the title, they’re not in it for the sensationalized gore or transgressive meatball violence; which is not to say that horrible shit doesn’t go down on these pages. (It absolutely does.) Just that the emphasis is on unusually good writing: thoughtful, skillful, haunting, creepy, provocative, and unusual. In a word: unique.
Continuing this tradition, SHOCK TOTEM 6 (Shock Totem Publications, trade paper and ebook) opens with “For Jack”, a phenomenal not-a-love-story of soul mates and serial killers that’s sharp as the knife it uses to slaughter. It’s author P.K. Gardner’s first print publication, and as is often the case (ST has a knack for spotting brilliant newcomers), it made me want to read everything she writes from now on.
Jack Ketchum is the big name this time, and his “Lighten Up” is a blackly-comic warning to strident anti-smoking zealots that made me smile with every ratcheting second of tension. Color me contrarian, but I love it when he drops the soul-hammering horror end of his talent and lets his hard-boiled warmth shine through. It’s a genuine pleasure.
But the star of the show, for me, was “No One But Us Monsters” by Hubert Dade: another guy I never heard of, delivering a staggering meditation on fear of the dark that literally gets weirder and deeper with every single paragraph. When it started out, I honestly did not know what to make of it. But by the time it reached the end, and its elements congealed, I found myself admitting to being smacked across the face by a virtuoso mini-masterpiece. And I don’t say that shit lightly.
Bottom line: there’s not a close-to-mediocre tale in the batch. If horror traditionalists would have any grounds for complaint, it might be with the consistent surrealism of Michael Lehunt’s “Orion”, Lucia Starkey’s “Ballad of the Man With the Shark-Toothed Bracelet” (a title worthy of the late, great Captain Beefheart), and Lee Thompson’s “The River”. But then you’ve got John Guzman’s sin-eating short-short “Magnolia’s Prayer”, and Addison Clift’s starkly political hardcore horror thriller “The Cocktail Party” to balance things out on the blunt end of painful reality.
Throw in smart interviews with Thompson and fellow abnormalist author Gary McMahon, John Boden and Simon Marshall-Jones’ ongoing exploration of horror in music, some nonfictional nightmarishness by Ryan Bridger, and a bunch of reviews (including one for my crazed short story “Art Is the Devil”), and you have a serious motherfucking handful of genuinely fine reading in store.
Mr. Ketchum and I are in firm agreement that SHOCK TOTEM is living proof that we’re in a golden age when it comes to the short horror story. Some of the best stories ever written are being written right now.
Because the fine editors at ST don’t give a shit whether you’re famous or not, there’s an integrity here that demands one bring their A-game. To be published by them is a writerly honor that must be earned.
As such, I am fiercely proud of them and unhesitatingly recommend SHOCK TOTEM to all lovers of quality dark fiction.