Shock Totem 10 - Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted (Cover)Details

First Appeared: Shock Totem, Issue #10
Published: March 6, 2016
Byline: Paul A. Hamilton
Edited by: K. Allen Wood
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Cost: Free (Kindle Unlimited), $2.99 (Kindle), $7.99 (Paperback)
Content: Rated R, Harsh Language, Strong Themes, Triggers

Behind The Story

I walked into a grocery store on a summer evening. The store had some fans, mounted just inside the doorway, blowing air more or less straight down. As I entered, the fans rustled the hair on my arms. I didn’t guess the purpose of the fans (I’ve since learned they keep out flies), so I thought, “That’s weird.” Immediately followed by the related thought, “And it would be even weirder if I had purple fur.”

These are the kind of lunatic thoughts that occur to me, usually without context or precedent. Maybe other people do this, too, I don’t know. The vast majority of the time these thoughts are nonsensical; useless, instantly discarded mind fluff. I barely even notice how weird I am behind the filter (some might suggest I’m pretty weird in front of the filter, too). But occasionally one or two of these screwball musings will warrant additional consideration.

In this case, “purple fur” led to some free-association lunacy and pretty soon muppets sprang to mind. I imagined someone walking into a supermarket with a muppet on their hand, the brightly-colored fur agitated in the breeze of a doorway fan. It all kind of crystalized with the question, “why would someone bring a puppet into a store?”

The answer: “because they couldn’t take it off.” The mechanism behind that answer became the core of a story idea. When I sat down to write later that evening, the rest of the draft came from a long sequence of asking myself what a world looks like with a sudden and possibly mystical new tragic minority.

That draft became the first story whose execution managed to match the quality of the idea in my head. It is, if you’ll forgive the excessive narcissism for a moment, the one that made me a fan of my own writing. I am fiercely proud of this story.

Unlike some of my other publications—in which I aimed high initially and then eased back and targeted some markets that maybe pay less or maybe have a higher acceptance rate—I never gave up on this one. When the rejections began stacking up, I went back to my writing group, got even more feedback, and re-wrote the whole thing from scratch. Apparently, it worked.


I owe a lot of people a debt of gratitude for the formulation of this story. Minor spoilers may appear in this section.

I am not all that into puppetry. I admire the work of puppeteers, it just didn’t ever seem like a thing I saw myself pursuing. But a couple of friends of mine, Sean Johnson and Patrick Johnson, are professional puppeteers (their names appear in the credits for the most recent Muppet revival movies, even) and they have been sort of my window into that relatively small world. I know them to be incredibly bright, creative individuals—nothing like my protagonist, Zack. In a way, I don’t think without knowing them it would have even occurred to me to have my protagonist be a puppeteer. A very early thought-line on the person—not even a character at that point, just a blank slate—entering the grocery store was that the puppet was some kind of dare or coercion. As soon as I remembered I knew people who put on puppets for a living, that seemed the only way to go with the character.

The other occasional insight I have into puppetry as an occupation is through my fandom of the Writing Excuses podcast, which features Mary Robinette Kowal. Mary is a gifted author and probably the principal reason why I like the podcast as much as I do, but she’s also a professional puppeteer. Her enthusiasm for puppetry leaks through on the show, as well as on her blog and social media outlets. Some of her insights on how puppetry and writing overlap informed a lot of the layers I tried to give to Zack’s somewhat cynical view of his profession, particularly the ones where I turned the lens back on myself as a (and I’m being as inclusive as possible here) creator. Connecting this character with a parallel to creative people as a whole gave me a thematic handle to pull on and let me say some things about the act of creation in general. I don’t think that would have occurred to me without having listened to Mary compare and contrast the two things every week for the last few years.

I solicited the help of LB Gale to read through my first pass and she had some very helpful insights into what was working and what needed to be cleaned up.

Elizabeth Archer implored me to not get hung up on my arbitrary and self-imposed length range. The initial version had a long stretch in the middle where all the backstory was basically just laid out in a big infodump. Or, as she put it, “a very large story is compressed into a small frame.” Elizabeth sagely advised me to expand it, to show that stuff happening more. It was her input in particular that led directly to the courtroom scenes, which I think really helped nail the final draft.

Heather Boyd and I had a conversation about how to most effectively utilize the metaphor the Awakened puppet, which led directly to the idea of the stages of grief framing device and the out-of-order chronology.

Alexis A. Hunter and Jared Cooper both helped polish it up; JP Flarity and Anna Mondeteguy contributed heavily along the way.

And I have to make a special mention of Tory Hoke, who helped in numerous ways but also applied her wonderfully demented mind to the problem of the amputation and recommended a tool change from the original hand axe to a far more practical (and disturbing) chop saw.

But no one is more deserving of praise in the creation of this thing than my wife, Nik. She loved this story from the outset. It was the discussion about Junjun after she read the very first draft that helped create the Holly character and really allowed the life of the puppet to come through. Then, once the story was in submissions, she fought for me to stick with it, and made sure I kept believing in it even when it was racking up the rejection slips. The notion of a full rewrite didn’t sit well with her—fan as she was of the original—but she carefully weighed both versions and agreed the changes did improve it. In so many ways, this story is hers as much as mine.

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