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.

Posted in Blog, Essays, Humor, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Guest Post: Love of the End Product

Batten down the hatches, buckle your wigs, Lee Thompson is in the house!

If you’re unfamiliar with Lee or his work, I predict that will change in the near future. Steadily making his way up the small-press ladder, 2011 is shaping up to be Lee’s breakout year. Let’s do a quick rundown of the year thus far…

His debut novel, Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children, and the novella Iron Butterflies Rust were released through Delirium Books; a second novella, As I Embrace My Jagged Edges, will be available through Sideshow Press in the weeks ahead; his short fiction was published in The Zombie Feed, Vol. 1 (“This Final December Day”), Dark Discoveries #18 (“Crawl”), Shock Totem #4 (“Beneath the Weeping Willow”), and is forthcoming in the anthology Hacked-up Holiday Massacre (“We Run Races with Goblin Troopers”). Breakout year or not, Lee Thompson is making a hell of a noise.

Enigmatic, charismatic, and a genuinely good dude, Lee is hopefully destined for big things. Call me a fan.

As part of his 2011 Blog Crawl, he’s stopped by Shock Totem HQ to discuss his journey from dreamer to professional writer. Dig!


by Lee Thompson

I’ve hungered to make a career of writing. To get past my inadequacies and lay it all out there, the good and bad.

I was a horrible student. I think I’d have been deep into a writing career if I had cared about all of this when I was younger. But I didn’t even care about myself then. And I’m glad I didn’t find this passion until so late, because I got to live, I absorbed so much, and there are multitudes of emotions, hard-won lessons, regrets and shame, pride and rebellion that I went through and now get to draw from.

I remember being so poor (my own fault) those first five years before I’d published a single thing that I always had to use other people’s computers to write on. I was an inconvenience and they didn’t have to let me do that, but they did. I submitted a lot of stories on library computers and got a lot of rejections because I really wasn’t very good. But I was hungry to improve.

Then something happened last year where I turned a corner. It was like everything finally fell into place. I think it was that I learned so much from my buddies Shaun Ryan and Kevin Wallis, and I started studying novels I loved, hand copying them—in notebooks, on old printer paper, in legal pads—to learn more even though it was time-consuming, and I realize now that I stopped writing the first ideas that popped in my head. I started writing for me.

When I began this blog tour my first Division novel wasn’t even released yet and here we are with Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children out, as well as my second book Iron Butterflies Rust.

I think I’m very fortunate. I sold my first two books to Delirium Books, a publisher I love, one who has discovered rising stars and cares about the stories and a writer’s career. A publisher who has put out a lot of great material that first took shape in the minds of my heroes (Tom Piccirilli, Greg Gifune, Douglas Clegg, etc.) Not a bad way to lose my virginity. My publisher believes in me. He’s honest about what works for him and what doesn’t, but still asks questions that matter, and wants my input.

How awesome is that?

Very fucking awesome.

So, how does it feel to see your dreams coming true?

It’s wonderful. And it’s a little scary. And it’s very surreal. It’s still sinking in that I’m a professional now. I pour my heart and soul into my work. I use a lot of stuff from real life, from when I was stupid, when I was a kid, moments when I possessed that elusive quality called commonsense, when I was a drunk, dreams I’ve had, and memories and questions that torment me.

And I have friends like Shaun, Kevin, Jassen, Susan, Cate, Mark, Sam, Bec, Peter, Mike, Mercedes, Wanda, John, Nick, Doug, Ken, Neal, Glen, Jennifer, Kate, and so many others who support me, not because I have to beg them or bullshit like that, but because they care.

Any success I have is the result of all those people, and editors like Shane Staley, James Beach, Steve Clark, Adam Bradley, Tom Moran, Ken Wood and lots of others who encouraged me, and earned my respect because of their kindness, honesty, heart and passion.

I could fill pages with people who have helped me along the way these past few years. But that’s kinda frightening too. More and more people I feel I owe something: for putting down their hard-earned money, for spreading the word, for giving feedback, and most of all for their faith and their time. I’m more grateful than you might ever realize. So a huge thanks to all of you.

I never realized how much it would thrill me to get comments from people I don’t know telling me they loved this book or that short story. What an eye opener. It means a lot. It means, in some small way, I’ve connected with another soul (sometimes without ever sharing a conversation). I adore that beyond words.

Thanks to all those who have read and commented and spent time with me.

And a huge thanks to those kind souls who let me blog on their pages.

So much has happened in a short time, but hell, I’m just getting started.

For anyone who missed earlier guest blogs on this tour see them here.

Rock on, you bad mofos.

Lee Thompson

Posted in Alumni News, Blog, Guest Blog, Nonfiction, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dance the Night Away

I’m by no means an expert on 16th century France, but I’d imagine it would involve an unhygienic population, rampant disease, chickens running everywhere, cheese and wine. Now that I think about it, it’s probably not that different from modern day France, only with less chickens and more antibiotics.

What I wouldn’t have thought of was Martha and the Vandellas. I’ll bet you didn’t either. But in 1518 in Strasbourg, a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the streets. Not for just a few hours, either. According to reports, she danced for four to six days, stopping only when she collapsed from exhaustion. That’s one serious case of boogie fever.

Worse yet, others began to join her. After a week there were thirty three other dancers and after a month, an unbelievable four hundred people had joined in the involuntary rave. Don’t think of it as college night at the pub, these people were writhing and foaming at the mouth, screaming or making animal noises and rolling in the dirt. Most of the people who were afflicted died of exhaustion, starvation or stroke.

Disturbingly, this was not an isolated incident. Outbreaks of dancing mania were reported throughout Europe as early as the 7th century and continued through the 17th century. That’s over a thousand years of sporadic outbreaks of dancing leading to death. Let that sink in for a moment.

A German account from 1278 featured 200 people dancing on a bridge so frenetically that it collapsed, killing many participants. Survivors were treated at a nearly chapel dedicated to St. Vitus, giving rise to the name St. Vitus’ Dance for the strange phenomenon. Other theories regarding the origin of dancing mania include epilepsy, pagan rituals, ergot poisoning and collective mass hysteria, although all of these explanations are problematic.

An Italian variant was known as tarantism, as victims were supposed to have been bitten by a tarantula wolf spider. Tarantism is also unique in that those afflicted were not out of control. They usually followed a pattern of dancing throughout the day, but stopped at midday to rest and bathe, only to resume dancing until sunset. They then stopped again to eat a light meal and sleep until sunrise, a pattern that could go on for weeks. Cases of tarantism in southern Italy have been reported up through 1959, although tests on spiders in the region have virtually disproved the theory that spiders were responsible.

The bottom line is, no one quite knows what caused the dancing plagues or why they stopped. If you’ve ever been to a rave, you might be tempted to say they are still with us, they just result in fewer deaths.

Posted in Blog, Essays, Miscellaneous, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Butterflies and Battleaxes

Hey, it’s my YouTube debut, and it doesn’t involve any singing or dancing! Check out this reading of my essay “Butterflies and Battleaxes,” a chapter from my Williams Syndrome memoir.

Thanks to Mason Bundschuh of Atlas Takes Aim for the uber cool music and JBund for the very striking video.

Posted in Blog, Free Fiction, Nonfiction, Staff News, Video | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment