Deciween: All Hail Shock Totem!

For those of us who prefer our Halloween more Samhain than All Saints’ Day it isn’t always easy to wade through the morass of dark culture in search of the elusive story/record/film that is both sinister and smart. Disappointments abound. So when Decibel caught wind of a discerning metalhead launching his own upscale horror publication, interest was piqued, hopes were raised—and, by Belial, we were not let down by these literary foot-soldiers of the metal militia! Shock Totem is a diverse, snazzy, quick-witted, expansively imaginative–not to mention, very creepy–journal of the macabre helmed by editors versed in the proper, comradely usage of the phase “Horns up!”, willing to employ The Birthday Party lyrics as epigraphs, and eager to give metal a bit of whatever space exists between the terrors.

Shock Totem founder/publisher K. Allen Wood was kind enough to not only rustle up a Halloween week Top Five list but also to share with Decibel some incisive/funny thoughts on upstart DIY horror publishing, the nexus of dark music and dark literature, Dean Koontz’ ridiculous toupee, and why the modern PG-13 horror boom is bound to wind up “the Mexican donkey show of fiction.”

Okay, first off, give us your Top Five Rock or Metal Jams for Horrific Writing/Publishing Inspiration.

Man, that’s not an easy question! I have about 7,500 albums (absurd, I know) and I’m supposed to name five songs? Ha! My writing soundtrack consists of bands/musicians like Dead Can Dance, Lisa Gerrard, Autumn Tears, The Hope Blister, Dark Sanctuary, Antimatter, stuff like that…the mellow, moody, ambient kind of music. I can’t write to anything heavier, because if I do, I get more air-drumming done than writing. But if I had to choose five rock/metal tunes…

1. “Diane,” by Therapy?: A cover of an old Hüsker Dü song, and very different from the brash, noisy original version. Therapy? made it slower, moodier, and darker; pretty much a cello- and vocal-only version. When Andy Cairns sings “But I think I’ll just rape you and kill you instead,” it’s all goose bumps.

2. “Scream of the Butterfly,” by Acid Bath: These guys were a brilliant band. Swampy southern sludge. While I love their heavy tunes, it’s on those somber, dismal dirges that they really shine. “Scream of the Butterfly,” from When the Kite String Pops, is one of those tunes.

3. “Into the Pentagram,” by Samael: Not the original version, the re-recording from the Rebellion EP, before they morphed into that industrial gothic band. Such a killer track. Looks like they re-recorded it again for their upcoming EP, Antigod. Not sure they can top the Rebellion version, though.

4. “Private Eye,” by Dog Fashion Disco: The whole Adultery concept album is the perfect soundtrack for something dark and perverse. Just don’t listen to “Private Eye” at work; the end sequence is really fucked up. Fantastic album, though.

5. “Days of Prayer,” by Solitude Aeturnus: In my opinion, they’re the best doom-metal band ever (yes, over Candlemass). Their entire discography is tailor-made for the horror fiction writer. If you’re looking for some dark inspiration, pick an album and dig in. You can’t go wrong. But the riff in “Days of Prayer” is just so goddamn heavy, rivaled only by the one in “The 9th Day: Awakening” from Through the Darkest Hour.

And there you have it, five songs, off the cuff, no way a top five. I could never do that. Though “Diane” does always pop into my head when someone poses this question, so I’m confident in saying at least that song is a top five creeper.

What empty niche in the world of small press horror does Shock Totem seek to fill?

From a reader’s standpoint, one of my biggest complaints about the small press, specifically with some magazines and webzines, is that the same authors are being published over and over again. At a certain point it becomes a bit of a drag, even if it’s an author I dig. I like variety. I want to read stuff from authors I’ve never read before. But names sell, you know. I get that; it’s good marketing. However, without intending to sound arrogant, I don’t think it’s honest publishing. So with Shock Totem, our goal has always been to publish quality fiction, regardless of the name behind it. And I think readers have appreciated that.

Another thing we do is branch out beyond the horror fiction community, specifically in terms of music. There are countless musicians and bands out there doing non-musical things in the horror field. Obviously many musicians have done horror flicks, but others are doing the fiction thing. Nick Cave has two oddly twisted novels out. Alan Robert (Life of Agony; interviewed in Shock Totem issue #1) and IDW just published the fourth issue in his horror comic series, Wire Hangers, and the complete graphic novel drops in November. Jeremy Wagner (Broken Hope, Lupara) is, like many of us, working his way up through the small press. Michal Towber, a fantastic female singer/songwriter, is working on a dark fantasy novel called Paperwhite Narcissus. And then, of course, there are those authors, like John Skipp—who was briefly the singer of Damn the Machine before they morphed into Mumbo’s Brain—that stretch their tentacles over to the music side of things. With most of the Shock Totem team being serious—and obsessive—music fans, it’s only natural for us to bring the two together. And I think that’s something a little unique to our publication.

So, is this all happenstance, or do you believe there’s some sort of primal convergence (kinship?) between these two transgressive art forms?

Oh, there’s definitely a strong connection between the two. I’m not suggesting horror fiction and music haven’t combined forces before—a few years ago Greg Lamberson took his Johnny Gruesome novels to another level by creating, with help from others, a mini-movie, a free online comic, and an album under the name Johnny Gruesome—but I think the mixing of the two mediums is a relatively untraveled road. Music has entire sub-genres—death metal, black metal, doom metal, horrorcore, etc.—tapping away at the same dark veins that horror writers mine. Hell, I see some bands labeling themselves “Lovecraftian Metal!” So yeah, primal convergence, indeed.

One of the most striking elements of Shock Totem is the upscale design and presentation, more along the lines of what is expected from a literary journal, and it sets the tone nicely for the fiction you publish. Does that aesthetic commitment help to shape the magazine’s evolution or its growing audience?

I think so. We set the bar very high with our first issue, and our readers expect that sort of quality from now on. We can’t slack now! Early on we were told that artwork isn’t that important; the quality of the work inside is what matters. On a certain level I agree. Slap a turd between two slices of crusty San Franciscan sourdough and you might trick some people into taking a bite, but at the end of the day you’re selling a crusty shit sandwich and you won’t fool people for long. On the flipside, if that chocodile is on the outside…well, good luck selling it.

Artwork is very important—arguably more important when it comes to marketing. It’s the first thing any potential buyer sees, and if the artwork is striking then you’re more likely to get that person to see what lies between the covers and, hopefully, dish out his or her hard-earned cash. If the artwork looks like a 5-year-old did it with colored pencils and markers running out of ink, then what does that say about the quality within? Maybe nothing at all, but how many won’t look beyond the bad artwork to find out? I know I’ve picked up and purchased countless books—and albums—because I was first drawn to the great artwork, and I know this has been the case with numerous Shock Totem sales. Hell, a Taiwanese man got the artwork for issue #1 tattooed on his back. (Ed. Note: It’s true.)

Obviously the popularity of horror schematics and emblems, especially vampires, in popular culture has exploded over the last several years. Do you see this as a potential boon for darker and more off-kilter publications such as yours? Can Twilight be turned into a gateway drug for more nuanced, more extreme tales of terror?

I don’t know about a boon, but it’s definitely better for any horror publication during those times when it’s “cool” to like some of the darker mediums out there. But that’s the unfortunate thing, really. Some of those younger fans of Twilight will move on to less glittery horror pastures, but most won’t. Once the mainstream dope dealers stop peddling “horror” most Twilight fans will turn up their noses and pretend they were never there. For them, horror will once again become the Mexican donkey show of fiction.

What are the essential elements of a successful horror story?

Well, a talented writer behind the wheel, obviously. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing. I’d say honesty is. Talent helps, but sincerity in the words is the key. Because even something that is pure fantasy—a possessed industrial laundry press, for example—can be real, if written honestly.

I understand from previous interviews, you work a day job in IT? Do you think your coworkers would be surprised by your spare time pursuits?

Probably. Some of my coworkers have bought an issue of Shock Totem, and others have bought both. But I tend to keep my personal life separate from work, so if they don’t ask what I do outside of the office, I don’t tell them. When issue #2 came out, though, I did set both by the entrance to our office, on sale for $5. But I think the magazines being there confused most people. So yeah, I imagine some would be surprised by what I do.

Conversely, do you think the average person who comes across Shock Totem might be surprised by the normalcy of your personal life? This presupposes, of course, that your life is normal…

There’s a longstanding stigma attached to horror, so it wouldn’t surprise me. Yeah, I write horror, I publish a horror magazine, but I also never dress in all black, I listen to Ani Difranco and dig the movie Dirty Dancing.

Wait. Is that normal?

Perhaps a better question would be what is the biggest misconception about horror writers and what, if any, common characteristics have you seen in working with them?

Probably that in order to write the horrific we must partake in the horrific. You know, I have a story called “Bye-bye, Little Doggies” that’s about killing puppies—sort of. I’ve never killed a puppy, I don’t intend on doing so any time soon, and I don’t condone or encourage the killing of puppies. But I wrote about it. Some people can’t reconcile that, which is a horror in and of itself. And of those horror writers I’ve met—which are too numerous to count—none have struck me as the embodiment of the horrors they write about. They’re everyday people, living everyday lives. They just write about the darker things in life, the things most people would rather pretend don’t exist.

This is a pretty stock question for people involved in horror and metal, but the answers can be intriguing, so what would you say to the uninitiated boy or girl who asks incredulously, “Why do people like that sort of thing?”

I’m not sure there’s any correct answer for this question. Why does anyone like anything? I think with horror there’s the fear factor. That’s part of it. People like to be scared. It’s a high. The rush of adrenaline, the “fight or flight” scenarios, it gets the blood pumping, the heart racing. It’s all part of the tasty drug that is controlled terror. Whether you’re riding the world’s biggest roller coaster, partaking in extreme sports, watching horror flicks, or reading horror fiction, it’s all part of the primal lust for danger. It’s human nature. Horror is just much safer.

What does the future hold for Shock Totem?

Issue #3 comes out on January 1, 2011. We’ve got another great lineup of writers in this one. We’ll have some new features, including the first installment of a currently untitled series that will focus on the roots of horror in music through the decades. That should be killer! And issue #4 is already in the works; we’ve got two stories set aside for that issue. It’ll be out next July. Between issue #3 and #4, though, we’re going to have a go at our first non-magazine release. It’ll be an anthology of sorts. So far it’s six stories from five authors, one being a four-way collaboration. We’ll announce more details soon. Beyond that, we’re just looking to continue publishing great fiction and supporting those fantastic authors that have so few outlets for their work. And hopefully we can inspire some people along the way.

For those Decibel readers so inclined, what stories/novels would you recommend as scary seminal for this Halloween season?

Seminal, eh? Have you read Bukkakeworld? Kidding! Don’t go there. Or do. If you can read the sample chapter without puking, you’re awesome. And fucked up. No offense, Mike! Anyway, seriously now…I just re-read Dean Koontz’s Strange Highways, and “The Black Pumpkin” is always a fun Halloween read. I’m currently reading Draculas on my super-trendy Kindle. It’s a collaboration between F. Paul Wilson, Jeff Strand, Jack Kilborn (aka J.A. Konrath), and Blake Crouch, and so far it’s good bloody fun. And I highly recommend Scorch Atlas, by Blake Butler. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. I happened upon it in a little indie shop while vacationing on Cape Cod a few months back. It’s a novel of sorts, told in a series of bleak short stories, each depicting a twisted post-apocalyptic snapshot. It’s a brilliant thing, and criminally overlooked by horror fans.

If there is one question you always wish interviewers (including this one) would ask, but never do, go ahead ask it of yourself and answer it now.

Well, I haven’t done many interviews on the publishing side of things, so I’m not sure. How about…What’s scarier, A) Dean Koontz’s ridiculous toupée, or B) using Dean Koontz’s ridiculous toupée as therapeutic body scrubber, which—because you’re in a warm and bubbly hot tub—gets wet and multiplies, spawning hundreds of other ridiculous toupées with sharp teeth and claws that rampage across town murdering innocent Amish prostitutes?

Hmmm. Tough question, Mr. Interviewer, but I’m going to have to go with A, Dean Koontz’s ridiculous toupée. That thing is really scary.

Purchase Shock Totem now!