Author Archives: Nick Contor

About Nick Contor

Nick Contor lives in southwest New Mexico with his wife and two children. In his spare time, he writes lyrics, plays drums, and sings in a local band.

Come Together

Image created by Guy FrancisWe are all aware of the publishing sea change that has been occurring over the past several years. Through e-books and POD publishing, authors have been bypassing the traditional publishing houses in droves, even when the traditional publishers were willing to put their books out.

The logic is irrefutable. A self published book allows an author to make more money on less books sold while retaining all of the creative control. Provided the numbers are good (that puts the burden on the author to promote and distribute their own books, no easy task), why wouldn’t you go this route? It only makes sense, especially when book readers are abandoning the brick and mortar stores for the Internet. It’s leveled the playing field considerably.

The days of big-name writers looking down their collective noses at so-called “vanity presses” is essentially over. Those authors are self-publishing as well, if only to keep formerly out of print works available to their fans.

While this revolution is undoubtedly a good thing in many ways, it has its downside, most notably the lack of quality. When anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can publish their own books, the inevitable result is a market glutted with thousands of titles that are not worth reading at all. Poor layout, poor artwork, and just plain poor writing is abundant.

Like them or not, the traditional print publishers all had standards, whether low or high, and all of them used editors. Very few authors, no matter how talented, can put out a really good book in the absence of a good editor, a fact which almost every published author will attest to.

It’s even difficult to put complete faith in online reviews anymore, as the recent Todd Rutherford scandal illustrated. How do you know that those glowing five-star reviews were not bought, either in cash or in the nefarious review-trading parasitism that is all too common in the small press? I’ve read bad books that have a string of great reviews, and I’ll bet you have too. So how do we sort through the massive amounts of bad books and find the good ones?


The book you’re looking for is right THERE!

One possible solution is author collectives. These are loose organizations of authors and publishers who are all about maintaining standards of quality, not helping out friends. Ideally, if a book isn’t good, it doesn’t get the recommendation of the collective. Of course “good” is still a subjective term. That aforementioned parasitism can infect a collective as surely as an individual review. I’m wary of any organization where all that is required to get in is to pay a fee.

Even if you find a reliable collective, there is no guarantee that you will like all of the books it recommends, but it still sounds like a far more reliable method for choosing your next beach read than random chance or counting five star reviews.

But big-name writers are getting in on these. I was first made aware of this phenomenon through Killer Thrillers, an author collective that includes David Morrell, one of my all time favorite authors (and a fellow New Mexican). If you haven’t read him, you should. And although I’m not well read in the thriller genre, if Morrell recommends them, I can too.

Awesome Indies is another site I ran across that looks interesting, although I’m not familiar with any of the authors listed. It’s arranged by category, which is convenient, but sadly there is only one horror book listed. I checked out the preview of it, and while we haven’t stumbled upon a new Joe R. Lansdale, it’s pretty good. I’ve certainly read far worse.

I searched around some, but could not find a collective that is specifically horror oriented. If anyone knows of one, please point it out. If one does not exist, perhaps it’s time to start one, but I’m only interested if it’s going to reward good writing. We don’t need another parasitic clique of the sort that the small press is infamous for.

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Red River Blues

Quick, name a vicious fish from the Amazon River that kills humans.

Pffft! You said, “Piranha,” didn’t you? Don’t lie, you did.

Well, I don’t know if the piranha just has a poor press agent (or a good one, depending on the fishy creds we’re trying to establish), but under most circumstances, piranhas don’t kill.

That’s not to say that they aren’t dangerous. Those teeth certainly are sharp, and people occasionally lose fingers and toes to piranhas. Most attacks occur when there is a lot of other food such as fish entrails floating about, but their reputation as a fearless killer is a myth.

The piranha is a scavenger, mainly eating off of things that have already died. They only rarely attack live prey, and almost never kill.

But wait a minute, you say, didn’t Teddy Roosevelt witness an entire cow being devoured in “under a minute”? He did indeed, but that was a setup, with purposely starved fish. Despite their reputation from the movies, you don’t have much to fear from these sharp-toothed fish unless you are wading through chum.

But there is another fish in the Amazon River that poses a serious risk to humans, especially to guys.

Meet the pacu.


Chris, pictured here, is now known around the village as Christine

Now you might already be getting an uneasy feeling just from the sheer size of that thing. While the pacu are related to the piranha, they are much larger, reaching up to three feet in length and 55 pounds. You could feed a large family with just one of these monsters.

Teddy Roosevelt also wrote about the pacu in his book Through the Brazilian Wilderness, but only to pronounce them “delicious eating.” You would think he would have mentioned the teeth.


[ We’re the pacu! We’re the pacu! We’re the pacu! Chomp, chomp, chomp! ]

And as weird and disturbing as that mouth full of human-like molars looks, what they do with those teeth is even worse. Although the pacu is not native to Papua New Guinea, it was released there in the 90’s as a food source and has since been dubbed the “ball cutter,” which is every bit as bad as it sounds.

While the pacu mainly use their teeth for cracking seeds and nuts, it’s apparently not too selective about which nuts to crack.

At least two fishermen in Papua New Guinea have been castrated by the pacu since it’s introduction and subsequently bled to death.

There is even an unsubstantiated report that a 24-inch pacu actually jumped out of it’s aquarium in Fort Worth, Texas, in order to bite its owner on the testicles. These fish apparently zero in on the crotch like an ornery three-year-old. Losing a finger doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?

The pacu are sold by pet stores as a “vegetarian piranha,” but they can quickly outgrow a home aquarium. Some unprepared owners have been known to release their fish into lakes and streams when they grow too large for their tanks.

When the pacu recently made headlines after having been found in an Illinois lake, biologists were quick to point out that it is a tropical fish and could not possibly survive the winter.

More ominously, for US swimmers, pacus have been found in 19 states, including warmer states like Florida, Texas, and California, where it’s chances of establishing a large population would presumably be much better.

It sounds like shrinkage could actually be desirable if you’re swimming with a fish like that.

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The Gate 2: 13 Tales of Isolation and Despair

FULL DISCLOSURE: The editor and publisher of this anthology, Robert J. Duperre, occasionally writes reviews for Shock Totem. The book also features work from Duperre as well as stories from Shock Totem publisher K. Allen Wood and editor Mercedes M. Yardley.

While horror has traditionally been associated with gore and the supernatural, it often finds it’s most fertile soil in ordinary themes that we are truly frightened of.

We can all enjoy stories about vampires or zombies, but those things don’t scare us much because no matter how skilled the author is at creating what Coleridge referred to as the “suspension of disbelief” we know that we can put the book down and walk away from it knowing that those things are not real.

But we’ve all been lonely. Even the most misanthropic among us would find it difficult if not impossible to survive in a state of total isolation. It’s why of all the cruel and unusual punishments we inflict on criminals, one of the most feared is solitary confinement, which can often create symptoms of psychosis in otherwise normal inmates.

In The Gate 2: 13 Tales of Isolation and Despair, published by T.R.O. Publishing, editor Robert J. Duperre offers us a varied assortment of horror tales. Some of them have supernatural elements, others don’t. Some are grim, some are humorous, some are creepy. The common thread running through these stories is the theme of isolation. It tinges the humor with sadness and makes the supernatural more believable.

This is a great collection. Some stories I liked better than others, of course, but none were duds, a relative rarity among independent anthologies. I especially liked how each author approached the theme of isolation from such different angles. Each story is also accompanied by a full-page illustration by Jesse David Young.

In the first story, “Plastic,” author J.L. Bryan gives us a funny and poignant take on the post-apocalyptic man who finds himself alone theme that we’ve all seen before. Bryan’s version is a fresh spin on the common topic, and genuinely comical. Daniel Pyle’s “Night-Night” is a nifty little story that kept its twist well hidden.

In one of the most literary stories, Steven Pirie offers us a gut-wrenching insight into the casual cruelties that many people inflict on people who are isolated within themselves by severe injuries. All of the stories here are well written, but Steve’s “Does Laura Like Elephants?” stands out as a real gem.

K. Allen Wood’s “The Candle Eaters” is a classic and very effective look at a Halloween tradition with an unusual spin. And in one of the creepiest stories of the volume, Mercedes M. Yardley offers us “Black Mary,” a very effective story that I really can’t summarize without giving it away. You’ll just have to get a hold of this volume and read it along with all the rest for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

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Tales of Grand Illusion

Recently, a writer friend on Facebook posted about how he hated the “who you know” model for advancing his writing career, but he acknowledged that most of his opportunities came from people he knew. I can relate.

It’s not just in writing, the whole world revolves on a “who you know” axis. Every job I’ve ever gotten has been because of who I knew, whether directly or indirectly. Friends and contacts are an invaluable resource that you can and should be using to further your writing.

There is social media, like Facebook and Twitter, but there are other methods as well. We here at Shock Totem have a variety of ways that we try to aid writers in developing their talent on our message board. There are two very popular flash contests that we host regularly, as well as the underused Writer’s Workshop section for critiques, submission calls, etc. And we are happy to provide them.

We want to see writers improve and succeed, particularly horror writers, since that’s what we’re all about. There are a whole lot of fantastic writers slogging away in the trenches, and we’re doing what we can to lift up those whose work we deem to be noteworthy.

But as I replied to my friend, “who you know” has a darker side as well.

While we can and should be promoting our writer friends, there is a fine line between encouragement and enabling. If your friend has written and published a great book, buy it, and encourage others to do so. But if your friend has written and published a book that is rife with spelling and grammatical errors or just poor writing, you’re not helping them by promoting it as a “must read”. In fact, you’re harming them.

The whole idea of promotion is to widen your circle, so that not only your friends and family buy your books out of a sense of obligation, but also their friends and so on, until people who have no clue who you are are tweeting about how much they enjoyed your book. But if people buy a book because someone hyped it on Amazon or Facebook, only to discover that the book is bad, how likely are they to buy another book based on that person’s recommendation?

In these days of self-publishing, when anyone can write a short story one day and offer it for sale the next, a lot of sub-par writing is being published, promoted and praised. Writing is a difficult and laborious process, you don’t go from joker to genius overnight. Take your time; get a real, honest critique from someone who not only knows good writing from bad, but also isn’t afraid to tell you which camp you’re in.

Even literary giants started by writing poorly. But in the days when getting a book published was difficult, they had knowledgeable editors who were not afraid to tell them that their story needed work. Nowadays, if your only editors are your friends, how can you be sure that they are giving you an honest and educated opinion?

If you’re a writer, seek out someone who isn’t afraid to tell you that your story stinks, and can offer helpful suggestions to make it better. And if you’re an enabler, promoting or endorsing sub-par writing because the writer is a “nice person” or you want them to promote your book, knock it off. You’re operating on the dark side.

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The Lake

The Lake, by R. Karl Largent, is one of those 90’s-era ecological disaster novels that slipped under the radar (at least, it did for me). The Lake is written as a personal memoir of Elliott Wages, a novelist who is ensconced in the sleepy lakeside resort town of Jericho to finish an overdue novel. Instead of writing, Elliot spends his days carousing with the booze-soaked locals, including local hottie Heiress, Cynthia Wallace, with whom he is sleeping with temporarily.

While gin would be a perfectly acceptable distraction from his literary deadline, what Elliott gets instead is a front-row seat for an ecological nightmare. A recently-built toy manufacturing plant is more than it seems to be. The owners, the evil Bartel Corporation, are really Department of Defense contractors who are painting dead grass green and dumping chemicals into the local lake. Why they are doing this is not quite clear, it’s enough that they are a corporation and a DOD contractor.

The result of such dire environmental pillaging is mutant fish that tear swimmers in half and a toxic cloud that follows the locals around with what appears to be malevolent intent. Add a trigger-happy mayor who goes on an illogical rampage, and you have the makings of a dreary, plodding novel that you just can’t wait to finish, if you can finish it at all.

It’s not that The Lake is poorly written—Largent is a capable author, with a good sense of pacing and dialogue—I just never felt any connection to his characters, and often had to refer back to remind myself who they were. The Lake also suffers from the lack of a definable foe for our erstwhile hero to fight against. Is it killer gars? Evil corporations? Murderous mayors? Toxic clouds? Each is offered up, but none stand out.

The ending is kind of tacked on. There is an explosion that is supposed to be of Hiroshima proportions, yet our intrepid heroes survive it in the courthouse basement, and emerge to find that Everything Is Okay. It’s a bit too deus ex machina for me.

Then there are the little details that bug a discerning reader. A toxic gas cloud that hovers over the lake seemingly strikes at random, producing instantaneous and gruesome death, yet our protagonist, Mr Wages, can smell it coming and inch his way below it if need be. Really? Another character limps along for a mile or better before we discover that he has a shattered ankle with a compound fracture. He wouldn’t have made it two steps.

While The Lake is not really a bad book, it’s not really a good one, either. Perhaps it should have stayed under the radar.

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Frank ‘N’ Con Report – First Strike

Living in the middle of nowhere, you get used to the idea that you’ll have to travel if you want to see much of anything, particularly when that something is a specialized interest, like a horror convention. Cons are on the list of things we just don’t get around here, along with fresh seafood and people who know how to use turn signals. So I was thrilled to hear about the first annual Frank ‘N’ Con, a horror convention that was held Halloween weekend in El Paso, Texas, which is “only” a three hour drive for me. That’s as local as it gets when you’re homesteading out here in the badlands.

The guest list was impressive. A fairly comprehensive reunion for the cast of the 1985 classic Return of the Living Dead, including a live performance by legendary punk band 45 Grave, was the big draw for me; but they also had Ernie Hudson, Margo Kidder, Dee Wallace, Belinda Balaski, and a slew of other stars.

So I got up early on Saturday morning and made the trek down with my sister Julie, who knows a whole lot more about horror films than I do. Being a novice at the con scene, I’m a poor judge of the success of such an event, but it seemed like a decent turnout to me, especially for the first year. It was pretty busy both days, but not so packed that you couldn’t get around. Lines for each table were rarely more than two or three people deep and frequently there was no wait at all, so there was a lot of opportunity to interact with the booth operators.


[ we also got the chance to meet chicks! ]

The Return of the Living Dead cast was set up in their own special side room, which is a good idea in theory. In actual practice, I think it segregated them a little and led to a lower turnout for the actors. That was good for us, as we got to hang out with them a bit more, but I hope they did well with their merch sales. We spent a lot of time talking to Linnea Quigley, and also interacted quite a bit with Miguel Núñez, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Don Calfa, Brian Peck, Thom Matthews, Allan Trautman, William Stout, and Michael Perez who is the executive producer for the new Return of the Living Dead documentary, More Brains.

It was a fun, relaxed atmosphere. Miguel Núñez in particular was hilarious. At one point he freaked out Linnea Quigley by swiping her money pouch and sending a fan over to tell her that someone had made off with it. He let her sweat a little before coming over and handing it back. Michael Perez encouraged us to try to prank Beverly Randolph, but she was just too nice for me to go through with it. It was also the first time that Dinah Cancer from 45 Grave had met Linnea Quigley, so we had a lot of fun watching the stars have their own fan moments. The only sad note was the absence of Jewel Shepard, who was scheduled to appear but is undergoing treatment for breast cancer and had to bow out on the advice of her doctors. There is an opportunity to donate to her medical expenses on the Frank ‘N’ Con homepage.

Another interesting booth was a local El Paso group called Guerilla Graphics. They were promoting artwork for a planned animated horror project called the Zygomatics. Good stuff! I was impressed with their artwork, and intend to keep up with what they are doing.

The main area was open until six. Then it was time for a night of horror set to music. I think blog posts are best if they are only so long, though, so I’ll leave that story for another day. Stay tuned…

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The Books of Mortals: Forbidden

Forbidden is the first in a planned trilogy for authors Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee called The Books of Mortals. I got this book having already read and enjoyed a number of Dekker’s novels, so I was excited. With solid works like Blink, Obsession, and Three in mind, I cracked open this collaboration with Lee, a name new to me, eagerly.

Set in a future dystopia controlled by an oligarchy known as The Order, Forbidden centers around Rom Elias, a common artisan living in the world’s capital of Byzantium. All human emotions save fear have been genetically suppressed, and dire warnings abound about the time of Chaos, where lust and greed and hatred ruled humanity and led to all sorts of atrocities. Murder and war have been eradicated, but in the process, we have also lost our capacity for love and aspiration to create. Is the tranquility of a passionless society really worth the loss of all of our finer emotions? This is the question that Forbidden sets out to explore.

The book starts off with trademark Dekker action. Rom receives from a mysterious stranger an ancient scroll of vellum and a vial of blood that will restore emotions to whomever drinks it. The man reveals that Rom’s father was murdered for these things, and that he was a member of a secret society known as the Order of Keepers. This messenger is in turn murdered before Rom’s eyes, forcing Rom to take these items and run for his life just moments ahead of the assassins that are not supposed to exist at all in this ostensibly violence free world.

Rom and his friends are charged with deciphering the scroll and using the information it contains along with the vial of blood to overthrow the Order and try to bring passion and love back to a world that has been robbed of all feeling. In the process, Rom falls in love—twice!—and has to work to save the woman he loves as well as all of humanity. It’s a solid and believable combination.

The story line is intriguing, and the book moves at the fast pace that I have come to expect from Dekker. The setting is a unique blend of the ancient world with enough residual technology to set it firmly in the future. I especially enjoyed the political machinations of the Order’s leaders and while I’m not certain I understand the mechanism of choosing the world’s sovereign, I give the authors props for an original concept.

But right out of the gate, a glaring flaw tripped me up. How is a five hundred-year-old vial of blood still in a liquid form and thin enough to drink, and how does it counteract a change to one’s DNA? It was tough for me to get past, to be honest. I’m surprised this sort of glaring error made it past the editors.

Ah, but after all is said, do we read a work of fiction for a biology lesson or for the story? The story here is compelling, and not easy to predict. I like it when a book can surprise as well as entertain, and there are several surprises here.

While a sufficient amount of the story lines are resolved to make it a nice stand alone read, enough is left open to keep me anticipating the two volumes to come, Mortal and Sovereign. I also intend to catch up on Tosca Lee.

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Pig-Man Born in Guatamala…

OK, I’ll admit…I’m a child of television.

No, I don’t subscribe to cable or satellite TV and haven’t for many years now. I have never seen your favorite show. That’s right, not a single episode of Lost or Breaking Bad. I’ve never seen Jersey Shore or 16 and Pregnant, or whatever passes for entertainment on television these days… While I hear about them and am peripherally aware of them, I am seriously and happily out of touch with what is New and Hip on television.

But I’m a child of the TV Age, no doubt.

So when I see something that is a real-life horror, that rips apart the boundaries of normal, sane life and opens the maw of Yog-Sogoth himself for a gaze into that toothy, gelid grin, I immediately try to relate it to something I’ve seen already. Something on TV.

I have had such an experience this evening, my friends.

Witness the recent birth in beautiful Guatemala, a Central American paradise, of a creature so vile, so hideous, it can only be the work of some cheap Hollywood special effects wizard. A pig with a human face. A Pig-Man, if you will.

Didn’t I see this before somewhere? Perhaps on Seinfeld?

No, that’s too comedic. Too flippant. Was it on the X-Files?

Maybe. That’s closer, at least. The reality is much more disturbing.

Is that…? No, it couldn’t be. I don’t speak Spanish, so maybe it’s…

OHHH…GREAT GOOGLY MOOGLY! DID IT MOVE THERE AT THE END? IT DID!

I need a drink.

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Along Came a Spider

When the first stuffed specimens of the duck-billed platypus arrived in Europe, many biologists were certain that those wacky Australians had to be hoaxing them, the nineteenth-century version of a rick roll. The English zoologist George Shaw was so skeptical he even cut one apart looking for stitches.

And can you blame them? This thing looks like something Warner Brothers cartoonists might have cooked up after a night of speedballs and hookers.

In the age of Facebook, e-mail and Photoshop, hoaxes are even easier to pull off and are foisted on us at a dizzying pace. From black-market kidney thieves to a check from Bill Gates to photos of the latest celebrity death, we are confronted with a daily fecolith that even Arthur C Clarke could not have predicted.

So I was more than a little skeptical the first time I saw a picture of a spider with the scientific name Theridion grallator, popularly known as the happy face spider. “C’mon…really Internet? I’m not falling for that,” I said in my best bored/jaded voice. No online prankster would get the best of me.

But it is true. Found only on four of the Hawaiian Islands, the spider is about five millimeters long on average and looks like every “Have a Nice Day” t-shirt you’ve ever seen. Long before Harvey Ball created the iconic black-on-yellow smiley face, nature had beaten him to the punch. Is God just messing with us? Of course. How else do you explain a Sixties insurance marketing gimmick on the back of a freakin’ spider?

Then again, with the often undeserved bad reputation that arachnids have, maybe they do need their own goodwill ambassador.

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Silas

I’m not a dog person. I don’t exactly dislike dogs, they are sometimes cute or endearing, but mostly I just tolerate them. They are dirty, slobbering, noisy, needy creatures who add little to my life. I just don’t get the attraction of dog ownership.

Robert J. Duperre is a dog person. It’s obvious from the outset that Silas, Duperre’s third novel, is a story about a man and his dog told from the perspective of someone who genuinely loves dogs. On this level, Silas succeeds magnificently.

But Silas is much more than that. It is also the story of a man who has lost control of his life, and is desperately careening down a path he did not map out in advance. Ken Lowrey is frustrated in his stalled career as a writer and soon finds himself in the emasculating position of managing his wife’s successful business as her employee. Even the most ardent egalitarian would find this a tough pill to swallow.

Ken lashes out, often irrationally, against his wife, other employees, and even his own image before finding himself on the brink of a total meltdown. He is quite literally at the end of himself when his wife, seeking a surrogate for the children Ken does not want, brings home a black lab. Silas.

Despite his initial misgivings about the dog, Ken quietly develops a bond with Silas that goes beyond simple companionship. The relationship progresses from owner and dog to master and companion to father and son, and all of it is set against a background of missing children, alternate realities and a difficult journey of self discovery. What starts out as a mundane recount of an unexceptional life turns into a thrilling adventure that is as classic as any in literature.

Ken and Silas set out to solve the mystery of disappearing neighborhood children, and get caught up in a fantasy epic that involves a race against time and multiple dangers, climaxing in a chase scene that was a terrific page-turning thriller.

Was this book without flaws? No. The narrative was sometimes choppy and episodic, mostly early on while we are finding out what sort of a man Ken Lowrey is. Some passages are stilted, although overall the writing is very competent. But in the final analysis of any tale, a great story can overcome quite a bit of mechanical flaws. Duperre has written a very fine story here that features several unique takes on old tropes and an energy that is undeniable. He had this non-dog person in tears by the end. Generating that kind of emotion with your prose is what every author should aspire to. Robert J. Duperre has accomplished it.

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