Shock Totem #2
edited by K. Allen Wood
Shock Totem Publications (2010)
Shock Totem released their fifth edition not too long ago, which reminded me that I still had a couple more editions on my to-be-read pile, including this one. It's one of the short fiction markets that is right up my alley with a clear affinity for horror and dark fantasy. This second issue featured a few familiar names for me, and introduced me to many more whose work I hadn't read yet.
Right off the bat, there was Richard Bare's "The Rat Burner," a grim bit of back alley brooding, about a guy who either spends him time in a rat-infested apartment or standing on a street corner getting paid to guide desperate people to a black door in a labyrinth of alleyways. Look up bleak in the dictionary and you'll probably find a quote from this story. Something like: "the girls say they get less customers when there's too many rats."
Leslianne Wilder had a sad and creepy story called "Sweepers," set in a Manhattan that's been submerged by rising waters and overrun by the corpses that haven't quite figured out how to be dead yet. Vincent Pendergast's "The Rainbow Serpeant," which I actually listened to a couple week prior on Pseudopod, is a really fun mix of weird and wicked with a man on a bus trying to get to his girlfriend, only to find himself in the company of strange passengers and an even stranger driver, on a bus that isn't quite what it seems. And the staggering imagery from Cate Gardner's brain makes an appearance with the story of a prisoner with a catastrophic gift in "Pretty Little Ghouls."
The most hard-hitting bit of storytelling comes in the form of a nonfiction piece by Mercedes M. Yardley called "Hide the Sickness," in which she recounts her time working at a home for juvenile sex offenders. The oppressive sense of constantly being looked at by kids as a potential target and victim was enough to make my skin crawl. There's a level of empathy that comes with the idea of kids being so cruelly abused that they themselves become abusers, but it's the kind of situation where my resolve and endurance pale compared to Mercedes.
I've give a nod to "Leave Me the Way I Was Found" by Christian A. Dumais for offering a story that felt like a cross between The Ring and that short story by Stephen King where Alzheimer's becomes an epidemic of his brother's design. Imagine a video on the internet, one of those banal clips you see on YouTube, only this one makes viewers sick in a myriad of ways, some going psychotic, and more becoming suicidal. Would you watch it? Maybe just to see if it was real, and if so, if you were one of the apparent few who can watch it and not wind up dead?
Shock Totem #2 is definitely a different mix from the other issues I've read. This issue had a much starker vibe coming from it, thanks in large part to the stand-out stories I mentioned. The stories, as you read them, kind of spill out like brackish water with very nasty treasures writhing beneath the surface. I still like Shock Totem #4 the best, but this is a close second, and I still have issues #3 and #5 left to read.