Saturday, December 17, 2011

Shock Totem: Holiday Tales of the Macabre and Twisted

Edited by K. Allen Wood
Published by Shock Totem Publications

Culturally, we tend to adopt a dualist approach to the holiday season, bookending our naughty/nice deliberations between those representative yin-yang extremes of the color spectrum, Black Friday and White Christmas. Perhaps this is the kind of simplicity we need to get through the Exodus-rivaling travel, wallet-flogging, and family intrigue, not to mention all the trite, overdone bitching over department store Christmas muzak casually rattled off ad nauseam—as if buying toilet paper to the strains of Kelly Clarkson’s latest breakup anthem back in October had been some kind of transcendental, edifying experience! Which is to say, amidst yuletide chaos tradition is employed as a small oasis, and we seize upon it for whatever serenity it can offer us.

Now imagine you’re standing next to the tinsel-festooned tree in your mother’s living room, nursing a second eggnog and wondering how long you can resist those Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sugar cookies. The Burl Ives is on repeat and you’re smiling and nodding even though you haven’t picked up a goddamned word Uncle Ralph has been laying down lo these last forty-five minutes.

Screw it, you say to yourself, Rudolph can light the way down my esophagus for him and his whole gang.

Ralphie finally pauses to take a breath and you make an escape speedy enough to rival those epicene teenage vampires that are all the rage these days. You’ve almost reached the dessert spread when the sound of breaking glass stops you in your tracks. A fat man in a crimson suit lined with white fur waves jollily through a shattered windowpane then thrusts an industrial sized nozzle into the room. The intermittent, multihued illumination of the outdoor Christmas lights reveals a hose snaking across the backyard to a tank soldered onto the back of his souped-up sleigh. You are tempted to utter some of the same obscenities dad did while staple-gunning those blinking faux icicles and glowing plastic evergreens to the eaves, but before the vituperation finds its way to the tip of your tongue an elf hits a switch on the sleigh, the hose engorges, and soon the room is awash in bloody gore—plasma and fat and bits that could probably be put together in the form of an organ by Auntie Ester, the family’s jigsaw master.

Ho, ho, ho! Never sounded so sinister.

The preceding scenario is something of an allegory for what Holiday Tales of the Macabre and Twisted achieves. This excellent volume of sublime malevolence from the provocateurs at Shock Totem magazine dispenses with the goodwill toward men fairly early on and sets about planting sticks of dynamite around that aforementioned oasis. Fair warning: The humor is black, the twists are twisted indeed, and before you stick a finger in the splatters of red stuff coagulating everywhere, please be aware chances are it is not cherry pie filling.

It would be a shame, really, to degrade shock value with a detailed review. But in the interest of whetting appetites let’s just say that in the skewed Shock Totem reality bad clowns occasionally become even worse Santas, some elves are not nearly as gregarious as Dudley Moore and Will Ferrell, getting exactly the gift you ask for can be more curse than blessing, and not all kids take Santa’s “naughty” verdict lying down.

Oh yes, K. Allen Wood and crew go there…and then some. Remember when Siskel and Ebert threw a tantrum back in ’84 over Silent Night, Deadly Night? Those scolds had no idea. The stories in Holiday Tales of the Macabre and Twisted make Silent Night, Deadly Night look approximately as gritty as The Muppets Take Manhattan.

As an added bonus Shock Totem peppers the volume with holiday recollections of several horror fiction luminaries—brief respites from dark otherworldly visions, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes heartrending.

Christ, what more could a fan of horror fiction ask for, really, than a poem by Jack Ketchum about decorating a Christmas tree stoned out of his gourd in 1969?

Buy it here.

Reviewed by Shawn Macomber

Shawn Macomber is a Miami based writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Reason, Radar, Yankee, The Weekly Standard,the Los Angeles Times, National Review, and Decibel, among many other fine and middling publications. He has reported from five continents covering everything from combat in Iraq, riots in the Baltics, and two presidential elections to designer cat shows at Madison Square Garden, the cross Carrot Top bears, and the Carcass “Exhumed to Consume” reunion tour. His story "Demon Envy" will appear in Shroud #12. More info at

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