Guest-blog: SHOCK TOTEM MAGAZINE
Today, as it’s Independence Day, I’ve decided to run a guest-blog from the good folks at US magazine Shock Totem. It hasn’t been around for very long, the premiere issue having only come snarling into the light of day in July of last year, although the idea has been around since 2008. It’s well produced in a book-format, containing stories, interviews and non-fiction articles, with excellent production values and a keen eye for quality, and concentrates on good story-telling, albeit with horrific, dark twists. Here, publisher/editor KEN WOOD, assistant editors JOHN BODEN and NICK CONTOR, and non-fiction writer/editor MERCEDES M. YARDLEY discuss their reasons for what inspired them to start writing, the books and authors that influenced them and why they set up Shock Totem in the first place – take it away boys and girl!!
KEN: So, why do I write?
For the same reason I breathe, I guess—I have to. I’ve always written. I still have things I wrote in crayon! But it’s only been in the past few years that I truly realized how much writing meant to me.
I was under the impression that I wanted to be a musician when I grew up. Of course, at 32 years old, I’d already grown up—and my music career was about as active as a coma. My mind was into it, but my heart wasn’t. It took me a long time to realize that. Music was something I wanted to do. Writing was something I did, and I’ve been doing it for so long that I couldn’t step back and look at it objectively; it was so ingrained in me that I was blind to it. It had been there so long, I simply failed to see it.
It may seem strange that someone could write for so long and not truly grasp its significance, but I guess not having any parent or guardian or teacher in my young life that supported and encouraged my writing the meaning was sort of lost on me. When things went bad at home when I was a young kid, music was something new in my life, and I latched onto it. Through music and lyrics, I found an escape from issues at home. I still wrote, but again, I’d always done so. I thought music was my calling. But it proved to be a desert oasis, and I walked toward it for 20 years.
So I write because I have to. Not a very exciting answer, I guess, but it’s the only one. I imagine most writers will tell you something similar, but maybe not…
What about the rest of you?
MERCEDES: Writing is definitely a need. If I write then I’m happy, and if I don’t then I’m miserable. Writing’s a high and I constantly crave it. It took me a long time to work it into my schedule, though. I always felt like it was a reward or a luxury instead of a basic necessity. But now that I fit it in every day, life is much sweeter.
I bet my stories written in crayon could beat up your crayon stories, Ken.
KEN: My stories written in crayon have been trained at the legendary Diemon Dave’s Ninja School. You have no chance.
MERCEDES: My crayon stories will simply use their feminine wiles and your crayon stories won’t stand a chance.
NICK: I’d like to write, but I can’t.
JOHN: I started writing when I was…hmm, maybe 13. I mainly just mimicked what I was watching or reading…you know, Richard Ridyard-style plagiarized wrecks. But I learned a lot in doing that. As far as structure and building on and adding things that made it mine—as I wrote I became more secure in my own strange ideas. In fact I once wrote a short story called “Hoover from Hell”—about a vampire vacuum cleaner—that I felt so strongly about, I mailed a copy to Stephen King. I got a reply back, a little standardized reply card that had a notation in black ink on the back about keeping at it as I had unique ideas or something. Sadly that card—as well as a lot of my older writing samples—were lost when my mother moved.
I all but abandoned writing in my early twenties. I mean, I still wrote, but I never did anything with it…my style had grown so bizarre I feared letting anyone aside from close friends see it. I mainly churned out bizarre poetry that got me some spoken-word slots on a few CDs (Believer’s Gabriel being the most recent). It wasn’t until Ken asked me to come aboard at Shock Totem that I decided to return to writing and see what I could do…and I see that I still need a lot of work and polish…
I naturally drifted to writing through a love of reading…and authors that struck me so, I wanted to emulate them—King, Bradbury, Skipp, Burroughs. When I initially read Michael McDowell’s “Toplin,” it was nearly an epiphany. It was so strange in narrative and plot…so nonlinear and void of arc, that I knew there could be a place for me in this scene…someday.
Who were your inspirators?
MERCEDES: My inspiration comes more from childhood books than actual authors. I had a gigantic collection of fairy tales, mostly from books that my father would bring me. The first book that I ever remember reading by myself was called Unicorn Magic and it was a fairly dark tale, especially for a child. I think that’s where a lot of my whimsy comes from.
JOHN: I bet you liked the film The Last Unicorn, didn’t you?
MERCEDES: Schmendrick the Magician is one of my favorite characters of all time. The Last Unicorn is a story all about want, and I dig that. I bet it doesn’t surprise you any to know that I put the DVD in last night and cleaned while listening to it. You know me too well, Shiney J.
KEN: I grew up reading hand-me-down comics given to me by my uncle after he’d read them. But nothing really wowed me. They were fun. In school, I read Faulkner and Rand—and nearly died of boredom. Other mandatory classics did little for me. Then I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and that little tale just did it for me, you know. There was something special about it. It had heart, and I dug that. It remains a favorite. After that book, I found more and more books that I enjoyed. Guess I grew up at some point.
My main inspiration has always been Dean Koontz. But I’m more inspired by books rather than authors. Individual books are what made me want to be writer. Dean Koontz’s Lightning, Boris Starling’s Messiah, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, Cliver Barker’s Imagica, Weaveworld, The Great and Secret Show and Everville, Michael Crichton’s Timeline, and a few others. Not much horror, surprisingly.
JOHN: Of Mice and Men was one of the only classics that honked my hooter as well. It’s brilliant, and has been used as a template for other books I have enjoyed a lot…
I think it’s neat that you found inspiration in books…I think a lot of people do. I mean, I do as well, but there were just authors that blew my mind and I wanted to devour every word they ever put down. Starting with King and Bradbury, and then in my teens Skipp and McDowell…and then I read Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and my style was never the same. I find it neat because our influences (and I suspect the same is true of most writers) are evident in our styles…but not in a blatant manner, if that makes sense.
KEN: I am that way with Koontz. I’ll read anything he does; I have a photography book called Beautiful Death: The Art of the Cemetery, by David Robinson, which is just photos of cemeteries and headstones, and it’s wonderful, but I own it because Dean contributes and writes about mortality and gives personal insights about death and such. So I’ll read anything he writes, but I’m not blown away by it all. It’s those certain books that just kick my ass, you know.
Boris Starling’s debut novel, Messiah, for instance. I bought that book randomly, just picked it up at a glance because I was in a hurry. That one blew my mind! Totally unexpected brilliance. He has done some great books since, even a quasi-sequel to Messiah called Storm, but nothing has been so great as that debut. So while I am indirectly inspired by many authors, it’s those certain books that really make an impression and gets my blood flowing.
JOHN: What about your inspiration to launch Shock Totem? And why the hell have you chosen the cast of nasties you have chosen?
MERCEDES: Yes, Ken! Why did you choose the cast of nasties that you did? I’m dying to hear this one.
KEN: Well, when I was a teen, I put out a small music zine called Satan Stole My Devil Horns. Through the zine, I helped bands put together demos (cassettes—remember those?) and get some distribution with other zines overseas through the trade circuit. It helped my own bands as well. In the mid-90s, while in the Air Force, I started a small record label and did much of the same thing, helping my bands and local bands get their music out there. It was a DIY thing, and I loved it.
When I shifted gears from music to writing, I wanted to do something similar. There are a lot of similarities between the music industry and publishing, though I knew they were still vastly different on many levels. I can’t just up and quit my current job and try to find work in the publishing industry, so I created Shock Totem. With the magazine, I am able to help support new and established authors, which I love doing (and I definitely don’t mind reading great fiction and meeting fantastic people along the way), and I am also able to learn a good amount on the ins and outs of the publishing world.
It’s a love thing, as they say. But it’s also fun.
As for the team…well, they’re just some of the coolest cats I’ve ever met. I’d met John and Nick through a music forum about four or five years ago. They’re intelligent, kindhearted people, family men, respectable and respectful, and I really dig that. We share a love of music but also writing, horror in particular. Kindred e-spirits, so to speak. So it was on that forum that I first brought up the idea of starting a magazine, and they were the obvious choices when looking for partners. It’s been the three of us since day one, and Shock Totem is just as much theirs as it is mine.
We had two other solid team members at one point, but for different reasons they chose to move on. Early on I had tried some of my “real-life” friends, and while they were enthusiastic and made a lot of promises, that’s about all they did. And then came Mercedes, baring cookies and claws. She was in issue #1, with her quirky and darkly hilarious “Murder for Beginners.” I think we hit it off from the point I sent a goofball acceptance e-mail (it seemed to be the right kind of approach). From there, we all just clicked. She fits into our weird little family quite nicely. She’s like our mother—whom we all find uncomfortably sexy (spankings have never been so cool.) Like John and Nick, she’s a kind soul, caring, smart, and a perfect fit.
I consider them all great friends. And because of them, and all the readers and writers that support us, Shock Totem has become much more than a magazine. Rock!
JOHN: And I was more than happy to help get it going. I grew up on a diet of horror…old mags like Eerie, Creepy and Famous Monsters…and as soon as Ken started with his “I wanna do a magazine that is like this…” my eyes glazed over and my nipples hardened and I felt that waggling finger of destiny tapping my big forehead. I was flattered and happy…but it also felt like coming home.
Ken and Nick are like brothers I have yet to meet in the flesh…but we love, learn and respect one another above all else, and I even count Merc in that. We all support one another as writers and friends…and family. And the bottom line is, THAT is what humanity is all about. (Somewhere Skipp is smiling and shouting, “Amen!”)
Actually because of Shock Totem, I began to write again…after a self-imposed hiatus from it for like 15 years…so it has been a huge inspiration. And Ken is right about all the cool folks we have met and befriended along the way. We have had our detractors, but the good guys outnumber them…by a lot.
MERCEDES: John said it best once when he said that we’re like a wolf pack but without the shedding.
KEN: Hell yeah. Team Jacob!
Um…did I say that out loud?
NICK: When Ken started to bring up his writing on the music forum, I was encouraging, but skeptical. I’ve had other people online say they wanted to be writers, but when it actually got down to taking a look at the quality of their writing, it often was very amateurish. Ken’s was not…in fact, it was really good. He had a few rough edges of course, but from the perspective of a lifelong reader of fiction, I felt that he was already well on his way to being a really good writer. I’ve certainly read published authors whose prose was far worse than those early efforts. Plus, he was writing horror, which has always been my first love.
So I gave him some very sincere praise and maybe a few suggestions here and there. Not being a writer myself, I don’t know how much help I was, but I suppose that’s why Ken approached me about starting up Shock Totem along with him and John. Speaking as a fan, true horror has always seemed tougher to come by in a magazine. There are usually some scattered stories among the fantasy and sci-fi, but relatively few mags devoted exclusively to horror. That focus appealed to me.
JOHN: Holy Hell! Nick chimed in!
NICK: I had not chimed in because I just didn’t feel like I had anything to say…you know, ’cause I’m not a writer.
JOHN: Nick, if I hear you say you aren’t a writer one more time, I am stapling your nut sack to your inner thigh in August. You write and it’s good.
NICK: I’m not a writer, I’m not a writer, I’m not a writer, I’m not a writer, I’m not a writer, I’m not a writer, I’m not a writer…
KEN: I have a question for Mercedes.
We asked you to come on board and write some non-fiction, but you’ve also jumped in and read submissions, even against your initial worry that some stuff would be far too dark even for you. You’re without a doubt—in my mind, anyway—a part of this just as much as the rest of us. You’re obviously the more successful writer among us, being in a John Skipp anthology [the upcoming Werewolves and Shapeshifters: Encounters with the Beast Within] and all, so I’m curious to know why you got on board and what makes you stay. I’m also interested to know how it’s changed you as a writer.
(Get ready for an ego boost, guys!)
MERCEDES: Oh sheesh, you guys needed me. This place looked lousy without curtains.
I believe in the whole “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares into you” thing, so yes, I was pretty worried about immersing myself in some of the darker submissions. I was also afraid of the time commitment because I didn’t want my own writing to suffer. But Shock Totem has only helped my writing. Reading so many submissions is helping me see what works in a story and what doesn’t. I’ve met people through ST that I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and that’s been very cool. This has also taken away a lot of my fear. Now that I see how things work on the other side of the desk, it isn’t as scary as it used to be. I used to think that the submission process meant jettisoning my work out into a big black hole. Now I realize there are actually scary monsters on the other end that eat my subs.
I love reading the work that comes in, I love seeing how a magazine comes together, but the main reason that I stick around is because I totally enjoy the staff.
(Now it’s time for that ego boost! Lap it up, fellas!)
It genuinely is an amazing group. We get along swimmingly. There’s irreverence, of course, but we really have each other’s backs. The ST boys are thoughtful, talented, and intelligent. It’s important to surround yourself with people who “get” the writing experience and support you through it. If only they weren’t all so old. And beardy.
JOHN: I’ve got some fierce muttonchops a-brewin’…but no beard.
KEN: I can’t grow a real beard.
MERCEDES: I wax rhapsodic about how awesome you all are and you go straight for the beardy thing. That’s gratitude for ya!
NICK: It was a direct shot at me…don’t even try to deny it, girly-girl.
MERCEDES: It wasn’t a direct shot at you, Nick! Ken is beardy. I assumed Shiney J is beardy. Even your forum avatar is beardy.
But the “old” shot…yeah, that was you.
KEN: Great. Nick is crying.
JOHN: You’ve done wonders for our egos as well…a girl who has not run screaming from all of our juvenile humor and whatnot.
MERCEDES: I am too well-bred to run screaming. I just cover my face and weep in silence.
I have a question for you music nerds. Explain why so many writers are also musicians. But more importantly, Shock Totem forms a band. Describe it.
KEN: It’s not just writers; musicians are a dime a dozen. Everyone is a fucking musician! Honestly, that’s one of the main reasons why I gave up pursuing a future in music. Imagine, as a writer, having to collaborate with all the half-assed or downright terrible writers out there, having to try out for groups, or form a writing band, in order to create stories. What a pain!
But are these writers musicians? Does the act of writing make one a writer? Of course not. We all know that. So while millions of people play an instrument, most are not musicians.
What a snarky answer, huh? I’m bitter. The last band I tried out for was looking for a second singer. So I traveled 45 minutes to give it a go. These cats were TERRIBLE! Calling it noise would have been a compliment. After they violently raped their instruments for a painfully long period of time, the singer and I start talking. At one point he goes, “Can you harmonize with people?” I answered that I could. That’s why I was there, right? He replies, “Cool. I wish I could. Never been able to do it. “ Say WHAT?
And sadly, that sort of thing was common. So many flakes out there. So yeah, I’m bitter. (Laughs)
As for a Shock Totem band…well, I’d like it to be a jazz-rap-hardcore-fusion band with a paraplegic midget go-go dance crew. And no cowbell.
NICK: No cowbell?
MERCEDES: Your bitterness wounds me, Ken. Maybe you need to eat something.
KEN: Pffft! Shall we end it?
MERCEDES: I don’t think we have anything “of importance” to add. It was fun!
JOHN: And sexy…
NICK: And beardy…
KEN: Sort of.
Many thanks to everyone for taking the time to put this together!!
The latest issue of Shock Totem (#2 – see cover photo above), as well as copies of #1, should be available now, and can be purchased from the ST website, which can be found here.