The glossy cover of Shock Totem #4 is striking. More like a high-quality paperback or graphic novel than a magazine, it holds its place on the shelf with confidence. This publication will never be found in the recycle bin, nor filed away for later reference as market research, like some of my other fiction magazines. The art design and layout is to be applauded; inside, creepy black-and-white images accent the text.
But content is what counts in a publication, and thankfully Shock Totem #4 is brimming. With approximately one-hundred and thirty pages, there are nine short stories, two interviews and a number of non-fiction pieces. They are worth the time.
I was looking forward to Lee Thompson’s story Beneath the Weeping Willow, and wasn’t disappointed. Told in second-person POV, it is the experiences of a twelve-year-old autistic boy as his family tries to handle his condition. The piece is beautiful and moving, and I cannot recall a better use of second-person POV. I can't put it better than K. Allen Wood, Shock Totem's editor-in-chief did in the Editor's Note: "as you read it, you will realize it is the only way it could have been told." This is the first work of fiction in the issue, and sets the bar high.
Other stories which stood out were Rennie Sparks's Web of Gold, the tale of a sociopathic temp; Full Dental by Tom Bordonaro, a hilarious look at what happens to office workers and the Demons of Hell under the influence of today's PC-panicked HR departments; and, The Many Ghosts of Annie Orens by A. C Wise, about how chronic visitations by ghosts influence a woman through her life.
The interviews by Mercedes M. Yardley and Nick Contor, of Rennie Sparks and Kathe Koja respectively, are insightful and amusing. Shock Totem's crew also review a number of books, movies and albums in the section Strange Goods and Other Oddities. The writing is vibrant, and though reviews of Doom Metal and Power Metal albums are not usually my thing, the two by K. Allen Wood and Alex Mull were both of interest, and Mull actually raised a chuckle from my skeptical self. The book and film reviews were well-presented, enthusiastic and often amusing, irrespective of their subject--particularly Ryan Bridger's idiosyncratic look at the graphic novel Harbor Moon.
K. Allen Wood's essay Living Dead: A Personal Apocalypse reads like fiction. Good fiction. A gripping piece about his father, it is poignant, grim and redemptive. I've read it several times now, and it still holds my attention.
My favorite section is Howling through the Keyhole, in which the writers featured in the issue present "The stories behind the stories". As a writer, it is both fascinating and educational to read what writer thinks about their work, to hear the inspiration for an individual piece. The fact that several columns are lovely to read, or outright funny doesn't hurt.
Overall, I am well pleased with Shock Totem #4, and will be saving my pennies for the both the next issue and the three previous.