Thoughts on Small Press #1

Spines 8

Over the recent weeks there has been a lot of talk about the small press, so much of it negative: its failings with regard to paying authors, unfair/ridiculous contracts and terms, and all around dodgy business practices. Small press publishing, done correctly and honestly, is never easy. This is not an excuse. It’s also true that substandard practices flourish in this arena, and unfortunate that all too often these shortcomings burst to the fore. The indictments, and the frustrations they beget, are not without merit. However, it is also lamentable when the small press—which has a lot to offer—undergoes so much public maligning.

I have my own opinions, but I’ve largely avoided participation in recent discussions concerning, near as I can tell, the spectacular flaws on many levels of the small press community. Such conversations always make for difficult reading. But instead of weighing in, I thought I could learn more by listening and paying attention to what others were saying. Much of what I heard is not new—scandal embroiled small presses almost always echo each other in their manifestation: broadly speaking, bad and/or disingenuous management.

Logo2My own experience with running Swan River Press—working with authors, talking to readers, exploring old volumes, discovering new ideas, and having extraordinary experiences I otherwise might not have had—has been nothing short of pleasurable. It is hard work, always hard work, but for me it is immeasurably rewarding.

Instead of levelling accusations, naming names, and rehashing wrongs, I’d prefer now to have a discussion about how to run a small press successfully: what small presses get right, how to do it well, and the challenges that those running a small press might face. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and certainly each small press operates differently, but I’m confident that we also share commonalities, and can probably learn from one another too.

I’d like to start by opening up to questions on running a small press. What challenges do you face? What operational mysteries seem inscrutable? We can talk about the creative aspects, the financial elements—anything, really. I’d like to hear from writers, readers, editors, critics, other publishers, artists—anyone who has had any experience whatsoever with the small press.

2017-10-08 Octocon

Given that all small presses are different, maybe I should also give you a bit of background on my own. Swan River Press started casually enough in 2003 with hand-bound chapbooks—ghost stories mainly. By 2010 I had expanded into limited edition hardbacks with print runs between 300-400 copies. Again, I tend to stick to supernatural and fantastical fiction, mostly short stories, though occasionally novels. While I happily publish writers from around the world, being based in Ireland I place particular emphasis on Irish literature. I publish contemporary writers, such as in our Uncertainties anthology series, and bring back into print fine editions of overlooked or underappreciated works. I also run a twice-yearly non-fiction journal called The Green Book, which focuses on Irish genre writing. All of our books are printed traditionally, which is to say I’ve not yet ventured into print on demand or digital. If you want to know more, our website is a good place to start.

I’m employed in a full time day job unrelated to publishing, often working on Swan River during the evenings and weekends. My core team is a small one, consisting of a designer, a proofreader, and a typesetter, thought many others have contributed over the years. There’s no office or storage, apart what’s in my rented accommodation, and unless someone gives me a hand, I take care of the daily tasks myself. I’m not even certain I could say how many hours per week are devoted to the press, but sometimes it feels like every spare one. Even my lunchtime reading, though pleasurable, is usually a press-related investigation.

So where should we begin? I can be contacted by email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below. Please share this post where you think is appropriate. I’m looking forward to hear from you!

-Brian

Thoughts on Small Press #1

Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”: A Sesquicentennial of Fear

Green TeaOn this day, 23 October 1869, readers of All the Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens, may well have been unprepared for a chilling tale of paranoia and despair that commenced in Mr. Dickens’s weekly journal. That story was “Green Tea”, and though it was originally published anonymously, it was penned by the Dublin writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

While Le Fanu is probably now better known for his pre-Dracula vampire novella “Carmilla” (1871/2), for me “Green Tea” will always be his masterpiece. The story tells of the good natured Reverend Mr. Jennings, whose late night penchant for green tea brings on a curious malady—that of opening the interior eye. The Reverend Mr. Jennings finds out that, in opening the interior eye, genii of the infernal plane can also perceive the world of man, and soon he is plagued relentlessly by a demonic chattering simian. For the delight of hell is to do evil to man, and to hasten his eternal ruin.

20190502_180832.jpg“Green Tea” was collected (along with Carmilla”) in Le Fanu’s most famous volume, In a Glass Darkly (1872), one of the author’s final books before he died in February of 1873. “Green Tea” has since become a staple of horror anthologies, gaining admirers from Dorothy L. Sayers to V. S. Pritchett.

For the story’s 150th anniversary, I wanted to create an edition worthy of such a powerful tale. My first port of call was Matthew Holness, known to many for his horror send-up Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, but also as the writer/director of Possum, one of the most emotionally chilling horror films I’ve ever seen. Holness is a long-time admirer of Le Fanu, which is why it seemed natural to ask him to write an introduction for our new edition. We’d also previously worked together on a volume in 2014 for the bicentenary of Le Fanu’s birth: Reminiscences of a Bachelor.

71559572_1182617248613887_3454389733147279360_oThat same year I asked Reggie Chamberlain-King of Belfast’s Wireless Mystery Theatre if he would adapt “Green Tea” as a radio drama. He did this, and the piece debuted at Toner’s Pub that August. I’d been searching for an excuse to record this wonderful adaptation, and when work on the new edition began, an opportunity had finally manifested. Each copy of our new edition of Green Tea will be issued with a CD of this magnificent recording.

Then there are the illustrations of Alisdair Wood, with whom I worked on November Night Tales by Henry C. Mercer. As with Holness, working with Wood again seemed an obvious choice. His pen and ink style is reminiscent of magazine illustrations from the nineteenth century. For the book, Wood created twelve original illustrations, plus the book’s striking cover.

CHAPTER IX FINALRounding out the volume, Jim Rockhill and myself once again teamed up to write a pair of afterwords to explore the publication history and contemporary reception of “Green Tea”. We had previously done the same for Reminiscences of a Bachelor. Rockhill has long worked as a Le Fanu scholar, with perhaps his greatest achievement being a three-volume complete stories of Le Fanu, published by Ash Tree Press (2002-2005). It was great fun looking at “Green Tea” in depth. As always, we hope you find our scholarship illuminating, possibly even useful to your own explorations.

Other features found their way into the design. For example, the monogram on the full title page is from Le Fanu’s letterhead; and on the signing page, signed by all contributors, we’ve reprinted a facsimile of the author’s signature—I’m afraid the best we could do under the circumstances. The rest of us have signed the page ourselves. I did, however, take the opportunity to visit Le Fanu’s vault with the signing pages before they were bound into the books. There they rested while we enjoyed a freshly brewed cup of green tea (a pot of which I am drinking now. In moderation, of course).

ED8OBXEX4AAK8GeFurther instalments of “Green Tea” were published in All the Year Round over the subsequent three weeks in 1869: 30 October, 6 November, and 13 November. While you may have read this story before, we hope you’ll make time this season to return to its pages. For “Green Tea” Le Fanu holds no punches: exploring as he does the absolute limits of a man dogged by a fiend from hell, caught in the enormous machinery of a malignant universe. This is no cosy ghost story, no pleasing terror. The climax in “Green Tea” remains one of the bleakest in all of supernatural literature.


Swan River Press’s deluxe hardback edition of Green Tea, in celebration of the story’s 150th anniversary, is now available on our website www.swanriverpress.ie.

If you’d like to read more about Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, please see our previous post here.

And don’t forget to check out our journal The Green Book (Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature), past issues of which have featured J. S. Le Fanu and his work.

 

Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”: A Sesquicentennial of Fear

Our Haunted Year: 2018

2018 Christmas

Running Swan River Press can be a difficult job. The hours are long, usually after returning home from my day job (also weekends), and any financial risks are wholly my own. The victories are incremental, only often partly enjoyed with my attention fixed on what the next challenge might be. That’s why it’s nice to sit down with a cup of coffee, some homemade cranberry bread, and reflect on some of the successes of this past year. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how many there are.

IMG_2036The first book of the year was R. B. Russell’s Death Makes Strangers of Us All. I’ve known Ray for a good long time now, and where guidance is concerned, you can’t go wrong taking your cue from Tartarus Press. This is the third book Ray and I have done together. The first two were Ghosts (2012) and The Dark Return of Time (2014). Michael Dirda at the Washington Post seemed to like the book too, commenting that, “The disorienting title story of R. B. Russell’s superb Death Makes Strangers of Us All takes us into an ‘unreal city’ straight out of Kafka or Borges.” Not too shabby, huh? You can read more reviews here and an interview with Ray here.

IMG_2079The next book was a long-time in coming: William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. This title is one of the two of which I own excessive multiple editions: the Chapman & Hall, 1908; the Arkham House, 1946; plus innumerable paperbacks, etc. The situation really is ridiculous, folks. I figured the logical next step would be to publish my own edition. And this I did, with my dream line-up consisting of Alan Moore (introduction), Iain Sinclair (afterword), John Coulthart (illustrations), and Jon Mueller (soundtrack) — everyone who participated shares a deep admiration for Hodgson’s masterpiece, which is really the only way to do a project like this one. Apart from some production difficulties (ugh), we produced a beautiful signed edition just in time for the 100th anniversary of Hodgson’s death at Ypres in late April 1918. Alan declared it the finest edition of The House on the Borderland that had ever been published. Some reviews can be read here, a wonderful discussion between John Coulthart and Jon Mueller is here, and if you want to listen to Jon’s soundtrack (and even buy a digital copy), you can do that here.

IMG_2100Next was up may well be our most unsettling book of the year: Nicholas Royle’s The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories. Apart from his introduction to Joel Lane’s The Anniversary of Never (2015), this is the first time I’ve worked with Nick. I suffered a few sleepless nights due to him, but sure, it was worth it. The stories evoke the uncanny in the Freudian sense, and that cover by Bill Bulloch is most disturbing. Reviewer Mario Guslandi also liked the book: “Royle’s dark fiction is always worth reading . . . His storytelling is impeccable, his plots always interesting and his characters credible.” If you’re still not convinced, you can read an interview with Nick here. You need a copy if you don’t have one already.

IMG_20180620_162604_437Shortly after The Dummy, we published Rosalie Parker’s Sparks from the Fire. This book was special not only because I got to work with Rosalie again, but also because Rosalie’s collection The Old Knowledge (2010) was the very first hardback book we published, ushering Swan River into a new era. Publishers Weekly gave a favourable review to what is one of our most popular books of the year: “[Parker’s] treatment of the fantastic is often so light and ambiguous that stories in which it does manifest are of a piece with tales such as ‘Jetsam’ and ‘Job Start’, sensitive character sketches whose celebration of life’s unforeseen surprises will appeal to fantasy fans as much as the book’s more overtly uncanny tales. Parker proves herself a subtle and versatile writer.” Naturally, I think you should buy a copy. Here’s an interview with Rosalie conducted by Jason E. Rolfe and some more reviews.

DnDQUqNX4AARHq8.jpg largeAnd then there’s Uncertainties 3. I edited the first two volumes in 2016. This year, to keep things fresh, I handed the reins over to Lynda E. Rucker, whose collection You’ll Know When You Get There (2016) I hope you’ve already enjoyed. Lynda did a superb job in selecting stories, showing the broad range of what supernatural literature in all its guises can do. Do take a peek at the line-up! In addition to some great reviews, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that, “Among the most memorable books I’ve read this year are [ . . . ] several slender, elegantly designed collections of short stories of the uncanny (Uncertainties Vol. 1, 2, 3) published by Swan River Press.” Okay, so she has a story in the anthology too, but still! In addition to all that, Robert Shearman’s “Bobbo”, Lisa Tuttle’s “Voices in the Night”, and Rosanne Rabinowitz’s “The Golden Hour” were chosen for Best British Horror 2019! I don’t know about you, but I’m very much looking forward to Timothy J. Jarvis’s turn as editor for Uncertainties 4 next year.

47575930_571374369993353_4001565216583188480_nThen there are issues 11 and 12 of The Green Book, the former of which was excessively late this year. I apologise. Anyway, issue 11 boasts cover art by none other than Mike Mignola. This marks the second time we’ve worked with Mike — anyone remember the first? Issue 11 features articles on Lord Dunsany, plus the first serialised entries from A Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Fiction, a long-term project I’m working on with Jim Rockhill. Issue 12 features more entries from the Guide, and our issues for 2019 will continue with these. The project has has proved an extremely enlightening one. I’m learning loads and my reading list has grown like you wouldn’t believe. Intrigued? Stay tuned.

dublin logo final copyThe reason The Green Book 11 was delayed for so long turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of the year for me. The second Dublin Ghost Story Festival took place in late June. As in 2016, the festival sold out long before this intimate event and proved to be just as enjoyble as its predecessor. The guest of honour was Joyce Carol Oates (!!), and the opening night’s entertainment was provided by the great Reggie Oliver, who is surely one of the finest writers of the supernatural tale. Other guests included Helen Grant, Andrew Michael Hurley, V. H. Leslie, Rosalie Parker, Nicholas Royle, R. B. Russell, and Lisa Tuttle, each of whom brought with them their passion for the genre. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better believe we indulged the entire weekend in all things ghostly and strange, with discussions, readings, signings, and a trade hall that could easily claim the entire contents of your bank account. There are some photos over on Facebook. So will there be another Dublin Ghost Story Festival? I’d love to know the answer to that too!

37710479_2143309032570526_903951175399768064_nSure, running Swan River Press isn’t always easy, but looking back over the year I can clearly see the late nights and hard work were worth it. Thank you again to those who have shown Swan River support through this past year. I raise my glass to everyone who read our books and shared them with friends, wrote reviews, attended the festival, supported us through patronage, or sent correspondence and kind words. And a special thanks as always to the Swan River team: Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, and Jim Rockhill. They put in loads of work, and it’s due to their expertise that our books always look their best.

Oh! Before I forget, because I completely missed it during the year, October was our fifteenth anniversary — our first publication, a chapbook entitled “The Old Tailor & the Gaunt Man”, first saw print in 2003. I’m working on a bibliography, Fifteen Years of Swan River Press, which I’ll try to issue as soon as I can.

I promise you I’ve got a full publishing schedule ready to go for next year. Some titles I’m particularly excited about, so make sure you’re on our mailing list. It’s the best way to get the jump on all things Swan River. You can also join us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I look forward to hearing from you all again soon.

 

 

Our Haunted Year: 2018

The Green Book 12

Green Book 12EDITOR’S NOTE by Brian J. Showers

“Ireland’s contributions to supernatural literature has been a major one and, like its contribution to literary endeavour generally, out of proportion to the country’s small size.”

– Peter Berresford Ellis, Supernatural Literature of the World

One of the occasional criticisms of The Green Book is that it’s far too niche. That the focus on Irish literature of the gothic, supernatural, and fantastic is too limiting a remit. I could never really understand this assertion, especially not now that the journal has survived twelve issues — and I’m already working on the next.

In fact, I’ve found quite the opposite to be true. The more I look at the island of Ireland’s wide-ranging and far-reaching contributions to fantastical literature, the more I learn and the more I feel excited about further exploration as both a reader and publisher; a sentiment I hope the audience of this publication shares.

So here is my reply to that occasional criticism:

The first point I’d like to make is that literature of the fantastic is incredibly broad and covers a staggering range of authors writing in myriad different modes. Lafcadio Hearn and John Connolly couldn’t be more different from each other as prose writers, and yet they are both welcome among these pages. The same can be said of Lord Dunsany and Elizabeth Bowen, or of Regina Maria Roche and Flann O’Brien — their themes, styles, and preoccupations are strikingly different. But they all belong here, each a writer who has contributed to the genres we explore in this publication.

The second point I’d like to address is — to borrow an academic word — the “problematic” notion of Irish and Irishness. Who gets to be Irish? What does it mean to be Irish? And who do we suspect — gasp! — is merely an interloper? This aspect of The Green Book is, I admit, in some sense almost arbitrary. While writers are free to choose their mode of literary expression, the exact location on the surface of this planet where they are born is nothing more than a geographical lottery. I write this as a Wisconsinite who now identifies as a Dubliner — more so than as Irish or even as American — and, believe me, I’ve been informed many times over the two decades that I have lived here that I cannot possibly be Irish. That I am a mere interloper. And yet here I sit, apparently quite inexplicably, editing this journal. (Would you believe that a Dublin-based artist, in a conversation about Francis Bacon, once told me “Bacon wasn’t really Irish, was he?” This, despite Bacon having been born in Dublin. How does one even begin responding to something like that?)

So where does that leave us?

My own approach to this dilemma — who does and who does not count as “Irish” — is simply to be as inclusive as possible, which is still no easy task, especially given the extent of Ireland’s diaspora. But I always try to fill these pages with as much interesting writing as possible.

A couple years ago Jim Rockhill (who hails from Michigan) and I decided to put together what we’re tentatively calling the Guide to Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. In Issue 11, I started publishing the fruits of this on-going project, and the present issue is filled cover-to-cover with more fascinating results.

Peter Berresford Ellis also writes in Supernatural Literature of the World, “Practically every Irish writer has, at some time, explored the genre for the supernatural is part of Irish culture”. And so I figured, if the Guide is to be of any use, and lest we include unwieldy swathes of the literary canon, it is probably best to set a few limitations, keeping in mind that these limitations might sometimes be ignored . . .

First and foremost, the Irish author in question must have contributed either substantially or uniquely to literature of the gothic, supernatural or fantastic. For example, B. M. Croker wrote enough ghost stories over her career to fill a slim volume and therefore merits inclusion for that reason; Hilton Edwards wrote and directed a single, highly notable ghostly short film: Return to Glenascaul, a strong enough achievement to merit his inclusion for at least a short entry.

Furthermore, to be considered for the Guide — and this is where things get stickier — authors should be either born in Ireland (e.g. Caitlin R. Kiernan), raised/schooled in Ireland (e.g. Lafcadio Hearn), lived a substantial or formative portion of their life in Ireland (e.g. Maria Edgeworth), or have a strong connection with Ireland through their writing (e.g. Peter Berresford Ellis).

I should probably add, with no prejudice, that mythology, folklore, and science fiction, despite the occasional overlap, not only fall slightly outside our expertise, but are already well-served in different corners by those better informed.

Even with these limitations, I estimate our Guide will clock in at a staggering 180k words. Possibly more.

Of course not everyone will agree with our definitions, nor are we asking you to. Instead, I’d like to invite you to make suggestions, naturally backed up with considered reasoning (as opposed to indignantly spitting out a name), regarding authors falling within our scope that we might have missed. Better yet, let me know if you’d like to write the entry too.

Ireland is a small island, simultaneously divided and unified, as it is, to different degrees in its various guises. But I’m constantly amazed, even if only looking at literature of the gothic, supernatural and fantastic, at the broad range of writing and the far-reaching influence that our speck of land has had on world literature. And that’s worth exploring.

You can buy The Green Book 12 here.

Contents

“Editor’s Note”
Brian J. Showers

“Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)”
Albert Power

“Charles Maturin (1782-1824)”
Albert Power

“Brinsley Le Fanu (1854-1929)”
Gavin Selerie

“Robert Cromie (1855-1907)”
Reggie Chamberlain-King

“Clotilde Graves (1863-1932)”
Mike Ashley

“H. de Vere Stacpoole (1863-1951)”
Mark Valentine

“Arabella Kenealy (1864-1938)”
Mike Ashley

“Vere Shortt (1874-1915)”
Mark Valentine

“Lord Dunsany (1878-1957)”
Martin Andersson

“James Stephens (1880/2-1950)”
Derek John

“Herbert Moore Pim (1883-1950)”
Reggie Chamberlain-King

“Mervyn Wall (1908-1997)”
Darrell Schweitzer

“Notes on Contributors”

The Green Book 12

Things Less Certain: An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

© Brian J. Showers, August 2018

Uncertainties 3Lynda E. Rucker has sold more than three dozen short stories to various magazines and anthologies, won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story, and is a regular columnist for UK horror magazine Black Static. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was released in 2013 from Karoshi Books; and her second, You’ll Know When You Get There, was published by Swan River Press in 2016.


Brian J. Showers: This is the first anthology you’ve edited, isn’t it? Given that there are already two instalments in the Uncertainties series, what were your initial thoughts as to how you wanted to approach this project?

Lynda E. Rucker: I’ve always wanted to edit an anthology, but yes, this is the first one I’ve ever done. Initially, I was really unsure whether I wanted to do one that was invitation only or whether I wanted to open it to submissions. I talked with a few other people and editors about it, and in particular had a couple of long conversations with Joe S. Pulver. Talking with Joe convinced me that editing an anthology for the first time was a big enough project without also drowning myself in a slush pile, so in the end I decided to go the invite route.

The idea behind the series was already in place, and I’d read both the previous books and had a sense of the shape I wanted mine to take — although what was interesting was that I ended up with something somewhat different from what I had envisioned. That’s the human element of assembling an anthology. Even when it comes to work by writers you’re familiar with, you can end up being surprised — that’s the mark of a good writer! So there were several instances in which I asked a writer to send me something and I expected a certain type of story and what I got was quite a bit different. I think that was one of the most exciting elements of the process.

Lynda Rucker 01BJS: The thing I love about, broadly speaking, the horror genre, is that there are so many nuances in the approach, each eliciting different sensations: the strange, the grotesque, the weird, the numinous . . . What sort of dark corners does Volume 3 explore? Anything unexpected or surprising?

LER: One recurring theme that emerged in about half of the stories is that of fraught sexual or romantic relationships. That’s a preoccupation in my own work, but it sort of surprised me that it ended up being a dominant theme in the stories writers sent to me. Within the broader remit of the Uncertainties series, which (as I interpreted it!) is to sort of show the world askew, I tried to include a variety of voices and styles and approaches to the uncanny, and I think the anthology really reflects that.

Just to give a few examples without giving away too much — the Matthew M. Bartlett story has a kind of lush decadent feel to it that I think situates it firmly in the realm of the weird; Ralph Robert Moore’s story is a mix of magical realism and a hardboiled American style of writing; and the S. P. Miskowski story starts off somewhere in the territory of mimetic lit-fic and veers off into something much more unsettling — actually it occurs to me just at this moment that there are elements of it that are almost Ballardian. So in all, I think it’s a book that really showcases the scope of the genre.

BJS: I believe you grew up, like so many of us, reading classic anthologies — tales of terror, stories to tingle the spine. Hitchcock and Karloff, Haining and Dalby. Which of those old anthologies (and their editors) were important to you as a reader?

kaddish copyLER: Yes, my grounding and my first encounters with horror fiction is absolutely in those old, classic stories. As for who was specifically important to me, in those days — pre-internet — it was largely a matter of access. I grew up in a small town with the nearest bookstore an hour away, and it was a fairly uninspiring Walden Books in a mall. So I sort of had to make do.

Fortunately, I also grew up in a house full of books and with a mother who liked horror stories, although sadly Haining and Dalby didn’t cross my path. Of the ones you mentioned — absolutely Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery is probably the first horror anthology I ever read. I still remember that F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth” and A. M. Burrage’s “The Waxwork” in particular terrified me. I also had an anthology called Shudders, which is where I first encountered “The Monkey’s Paw” along with stories by William Hope Hodgson and Frank Belknap Long, among others. There were a few more — I can’t remember the titles or editors but I think they were all sort of generic packaged anthologies that reprinted classics. It was with that foundation that I went on to read more contemporary stuff — I almost said “moved on”, but that makes it sound like I left those old classics behind and nothing could be further from the truth.

Speaking of “more contemporary”, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some later editors, from the 1980s, who were hugely important in shaping my conception of short horror fiction, its scope, and what it can do — David Hartwell with The Dark Descent, Charles L. Grant’s Shadows, and Stuart Gordon Schiff’s Whispers anthologies along with “Year’s Bests” edited by Karl Edward Wagner, Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, and Stephen Jones & Ramsey Campbell. And of course, those two modern classics, Douglas Winter’s Prime Evil and Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces.

BJS: It’s funny how anthologies seem to be the gateway for so many! You mention your “conception of short horror fiction, its scope, and what it can do.” What are the limits to horror as a genre — if it has any?

REFLECTION+copyLER: My inclination is to say “there are no limits!” but that’s a bit disingenuous on my part — if we’re being very literal, obviously there are certain types of stories that can’t be told even within the broadest parameters of the horror genre. But I do resent narrow definitions of horror fiction, more so because they are nearly always formulaic and insulting. Most often, this comes in the belief that horror movies are movies where killers stalk people and kill them in explicit and inventive ways, or they are cheaply made junk with lots of jump scares, and that in literature, it’s adolescent, poorly-written, predictable tripe for the barely literate.

My view of horror is that it is a very broad church. It encompasses everything from the subtlest and most enigmatic of tales to the full-on Grand Guignol. It’s Halloween and Martyrs and The Hills Have Eyes, but it’s also Picnic at Hanging Rock and I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and The Innocents. It’s Gothic literature, it’s ghost stories, it’s supernatural tales.

I think arguments about labelling literature are incredibly tedious, but it does bother me when people try to insist that something isn’t horror basically on the grounds that it is well-written or well-made, that it has depth and resonance and fine prose or is character-driven or has a political consciousness or whatever. And I loathe the fact that people keep throwing decades of amazing horror films and stories under the bus by coining new phrases like “post-horror” and “elevated genre”, and maybe the worst of all, “horror-adjacent” (what does that even mean?) What that says to me, quite simply, is that the person doesn’t know anything about the genre or its history. I also lean toward the idea that horror is really less a genre than it is a mode of literature, “an emotion” as Doug Winter once famously and controversially said.

Trilogy
Clearly, I could go on about this for a while but I probably should just go and write an essay instead. Nina Allan — a fine writer anyone with preconceived notions about the inferiority of the horror genre should check out — has written about this on her blog, and I’d urge anyone who wants to read further on the subject and get some great recommendations to check it out here and here and here.

BJS: I’m sure we could go on about the nuances of horror ad nauseum, and I know there have been a few late nights in the pub where we have — but this wonderfully illuminating exploration of nuance is really what the Uncertainties anthology series is about, isn’t it? So what else have you got in the pipeline these days?

LER: I have a few short stories on the go and a novella, and I’m working on a monograph for the PS Publishing imprint Electric Dreamhouse. I’ve also got a novel on the back burner that I hope to be able to move to the front burner once I get a couple of other projects out of the way. And beyond that, I’ve got a few more distant projects in mind — including an idea for another anthology, actually. Uncertainties 3 was a real pleasure to put together, and I hope readers enjoy it as much as I did.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties 3 here.


Brian J. Showers has written short stories, articles, interviews, and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, Supernatural Tales, Ghosts & Scholars, and Wormwood. His collection The Bleeding Horse won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin; and, with Gary W. Crawford and Jim Rockhill, he co-edited the Stoker Award-nominated Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu. The anthology Dreams of Shadow and Smoke, co-edited with Jim Rockhill, won the Ghost Story Award for best book in 2014. He also edits The Green Book, a journal devoted to Irish writers of the fantastic.

Things Less Certain: An Interview with Lynda E. Rucker

Sparks from the Fire: An Interview with Rosalie Parker

Sparks from the FireConducted by Jason E. Rolfe, © July 2018

Rosalie Parker was born and grew up on a farm in Buckinghamshire, but has lived subsequently in Stockholm, Oxford, Dorset, Somerset, Sheffield and Sussex. She took degrees in English Literature and History, and Archaeology, working first as an archaeologist before returning to her first love of books. Rosalie is co-proprietor and editor of the independent publishing house, Tartarus Press, and lives in the Yorkshire Dales with her partner, the writer and publisher Ray Russell, their son and two cats. Her most recent book is Sparks from the Fire.


Jason E. Rolfe: There is a phenomenology of place in your stories, a link between setting and experience that is extremely appealing to me as a reader. “View from a Window”, in particular, captures this almost perfectly. How is your work influenced by the places around you?

Rosalie Parker: The starting point for many of my stories is a real place, or spirit of a place, always tempered by the vagaries and necessities of invention. I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of distilling descriptions down to the minimum, leaving readers to flesh out the bones. Hence the landscape in “View from the Window” is a sketch book version of western Scotland, and “The Fell Race” takes place in some unspecified, undescribed village in North Yorkshire. I grew up on a farm in the south of England and I live now in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the British countryside is a constant inspiration, but I’ve also travelled a fair bit and in my last collection, Damage (2016), I set stories in several cities and countries. The beginning of “The Attempt”, in Sparks from the Fire, was influenced by a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

JER: My own personal hell would be a place in which all our questions are answered, all the mysteries of life are solved. The stories in Sparks from the Fire often walk the line between the known and the unknown. In “The Fell Race” for example, we’re presented with a mystery that, in the end, remains exactly that. Like Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, you provide us with a mystery that invites conjecture yet remains unanswered. What do you think it is about the unknown that people find so appealing?

Parker-PhotoRP: We encounter the unknown – new experiences, new people, new places – every day. I suppose that strange fiction dispenses, at some point, with the notion that life can be lived on autopilot, and helps you see the world with rejuvenated eyes. Novelty is always appealing, isn’t it? Psychologically, I think we’re essentially nomads. Unanswered questions, like new places, can be pondered and left behind. I worked as an archaeologist before coming to publishing and writing, and I’m fascinated by different cultures, from the past or present or future. That led to the writing of the story “Sparks from the Fire”. Ghosts are a good way into, or out of, another culture, as in “War Games”.

JER: “View from a Window” and “Messages” are wonderful examples of the slow reveal. You place us (never quite firmly) in the ordinary, and through often subtle revelations, guide us toward an unsettling end. Your pacing is excellent. How do you, as a writer, decide what to reveal to your audience, and when to reveal it?

RP: I very rarely plan ahead, so I’m revealing the story to myself, as well as the reader! It’s a sort of organic process of discovery that happens pseudo-naturally. The two stories you mention are essentially about information being drip-fed. If the pacing works then I’m doing my job properly.

JER: I use the term “unsettling” to describe your writing. The things you do to disquiet us as readers are often very understated – the sudden ringing of a telephone, a knock at the door – little things that jar us from our focus. What do you find unsettling? What leaves you feeling ill-at-ease?

RP: Just about everything! I “came out” a few years ago as suffering from Bipolar Disorder, and as part of that I experience periods of anxiety. I find I can take nothing, including good mental health, for granted. On a personal level this is uncomfortable, painful, but creatively it’s sometimes a useful state to be in, and particularly so for writing strange fiction. What can be more unsettling than being unable to trust your own brain? I suppose quite a lot of my characters are learning to distrust or relearn their assumptions or perceptions.

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JER: You’re an editor as well as an author, with an extensive list of editor credits to your name. You’ve also worked on a number of films. I’m curious if and how film and editing have influenced you as a writer.

RP: I enjoy the editing process and working with other writers has helped when I come to revise my own stories. I’ve learnt that I am not always the best judge of my own work, and I welcome editorial input and advice. It can be strange being at the other end of the process, though. Film is a different thing entirely – the visual image is of prime importance, although learning to write dialogue is essential for both film and short story writers.

JER: While your work has a classic feel to it, it strikes me as very contemporary and makes me wonder about your literary influences. Who are the writers, classic and/or contemporary, who have influenced you the most?

RP: Because of my work for Tartarus Press I’ve read widely in the genre, and I’m sure I’ve been influenced by many writers, especially those we’ve published. I most admire the brave, emotionally or psychologically; Robert Aickman comes particularly to mind, but also Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote more fearlessly than I could ever hope to. As a child, Alan Garner was a favourite, and I enjoyed Agatha Christie. I read English at university initially, so I have a good grounding in general literature, including Thomas Hardy, the Brontes and Dickens, and I read a lot of contemporary mainstream literature.

JER: When I read an original collection I’m always curious about the underlying ties that bind the stories together. Stylistically the stories collected here blend together nicely, and there is certainly an undercurrent that runs through them all – “a shadow world that haunts, disturbs, and threatens”. Can you share some thoughts on that world?

RP: I find it quite hard to tie the stories together, but I suppose “Unease” might be the best description of the effect I’m seeking in Sparks from the Fire. This is not necessarily wholly malevolent. In the shadow world hopes and desires can be explored, as well as fears and dread. In “House Party”, for example, Jamie is poised to start a new relationship, albeit one fraught with difficulty and even danger. In “Voluntary Work”, Carol’s special powers may be vindicated. The poltergeist in “The Birdcage” might ultimately prove beneficial. And perhaps the young people of “The Fell Race” are seeking a better world. There is room for love in the shadow world, and that is the biggest mystery of all.

Buy a copy of Sparks from the Fire here.


Jason E. Rolfe is an author of Absurdist fiction. His recent books include An Archive of Human Nonsense (Snuggly Books, 2017), and Clocks (Black Scat Books, 2018). A native of Southwestern Ontario, he currently lives in Chatham-Kent with his wife, his daughter, his dog and his rabbit.

Sparks from the Fire: An Interview with Rosalie Parker

The Dummy: An Interview with Nicholas Royle

The DummyConducted by James Pardey, © May 2018

Nicholas Royle is the author of two previous collections, Mortality and Ornithology, as well as In Camera (with David Gledhill). His seven novels include The Director’s Cut, Antwerp, and First Novel. Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he is head judge of the annual Manchester Fiction Prize and series editor of Best British Short Stories. He also runs Nightjar Press, publishing original short stories in chapbook format.


James Pardey: Hi Nicholas. First of all I want to say that I really enjoyed The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories, which are scarier than I’d expected, though not like horror stories, so perhaps unsettling is a better word. You’ve called them uncanny stories, which is an interesting word to use. Can you explain what you mean by uncanny?

Nicholas Royle: Thank you. My friend Conrad Williams has asked me a similar question. He asks why I don’t call them horror stories and adds that I’m using “uncanny” as a “fig leaf”. I’ve been writing horror stories for over thirty years. Sometimes they’re described as such, sometimes they’re not. It’s interesting that you wouldn’t describe these stories as horror, and yet you find them scary, which makes me happy. They make use of, or are influenced by, certain elements that we associate with the Uncanny, and with Freud’s essay on the Uncanny, in particular. Elements such as doppelgängers, and other aspects of doubling, blindness, dummies, dolls and mannequins, masks, ghosts, hauntings, invisibility, etc. At the heart of what makes the Uncanny so appealing to me is that these disparate elements all seem to create a particular mood, one of unease, or, as you say, unsettlement. It’s the feeling you get from encountering something familiar in an unfamiliar context, or, perhaps more to the point, vice versa. There’s a German word for it – unheimlich, which translates, a little uneasily, as unhomely. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Uncanny. That’s the territory of my namesake, author of The Uncanny and many other works.

JP: This is your third collection of stories, though you’ve had numerous other short stories published and you’ve edited over twenty anthologies, so what is it about the short story that appeals to you?

Royle-PhotoNR: It’s the perfect form. It’s short. They are likely to be read in one sitting. Just the author and the reader. I love the intimacy of that. Or, in the context of a public reading, the author and any numbers of “readers” all experiencing the story together, and experiencing the whole of it, in one go, assuming it’s not too long. I’m not very interested in long short stories, which I think kind of miss the point, or most so-called flash fiction, because I think most of them aren’t very good. There are some notable exceptions to this rule. David Gaffney has published lots of excellent stories that are just 150 words long (and longer), but his secret is he writes them longer and then works at them like a sculptor or topiarist. Also, I recently read some excellent stories judging the Weaver Words Flash Fiction Competition.

JP: Two of these stories are written in the second person and one alternates between the first and second person. The effect is surprisingly powerful and yet very little fiction is in the second person. Why do you think that is, and what are your reasons for using it?

NR: I first encountered it in Ron Butlin’s first novel, The Sound of My Voice (1987), where it had a powerful effect on me. I used it myself in my 2004 novel Antwerp. I had a particular reason for using it on that occasion, to do with the plot. Sometimes you use the second person in the way I’ve just used it there, to mean “one”, and sometimes you use it to engage your listener, or reader, maybe directly asking them a question, as I do at the start of “The Family Room”, and then, having engaged them, you effectively cast them as the protagonist of the story. In another story, “The Blind Man”, one of two, actually, I think, in which first and second person are interchanged, although in different ways, I use first person to tell the story but the narrator is addressing a particular individual and so addresses them as “you”. In the other story, “The Dummy”, in which first person alternates with second person, I chose to do that specifically to create an atmosphere of unease or, if you like, uncanniness.

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JP: The doppelgänger has become a recurring theme in your fiction, from your first novel, Counterparts, in 1993 to several stories in this collection. You use it to explore questions of identity and existential uncertainty, through mirror images, body doubles, simulacra, and in one story a tailor’s dummy. It is evidently a subject which fascinates you, so how did this interest come about, and what keeps bringing you back to it?

NR: The 1968 Huckleberry Hound Annual had a picture story, “The Frightful Night”, with regular characters Pixie, Dixie and Mr. Jinks, who were two mice and a cat. Mr. Jinks dressed up as a monster to frighten the cats, but the cats, one step ahead, made their own monster, using a dressmaker’s dummy, to frighten Mr. Jinks. They also frightened me, aged five. It’s one of my earliest memories. I’ve had a thing for tailor’s dummies ever since. I started collecting them – and shop-window mannequins and other dummies – in the 1980s. Going back a decade, there was a man my sisters and I used to see around sometimes when we were children who looked so much like our Uncle Fred, we used to call him the Uncle Fred Man. This was probably my first encounter with a doppelgänger. I’m strongly drawn to things that are the same but different. They appear the same but are subtly different. Books in uniform covers with different titles. Definitive postage stamps with the same image but a different value. Jackets that are the same cut but a different colour or fabric. People who look the same but have different names and personalities. The earliest story in The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories is “Moving Out”, written in the late 1980s and first published in 1991; that’s the story you’re referring to that features a tailor’s dummy. Then there’s “The Dummy” (2008), “The Reunion” (2009) and “The Other Man” (2012). I do keep coming back to these motifs; I find them innately fascinating.

JP: Another doppelgänger story in this collection, “Jayne Anne Phillips”, features you and your real-life counterpart whose name is also Nicholas Royle. He is a writer and lecturer, like you, and the author of a book called The Uncanny. Then last year you both published books that are ostensibly about birds. Reviewers, critics, conference organisers, even publishers, frequently mix the two of you up and I’ve been confused more than once in the past. The Nicholas Royle on Wikipedia and Twitter is you, which is, I think, quite canny, but the similarities are uncanny. I’m not sure if this is life imitating art or a strange case of nominative determinism, so what is your take on it?

NR: Ah, I mentioned him in an earlier response. I suppose the weirdest aspect to it is not simply that we are both writers and lecturers, but that we are both drawn to the Uncanny. Nick published his non-fiction study, The Uncanny, in 2003, but it was not until 2008, when Ra Page invited me to contribute a story to The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease, an anthology he was editing with Sarah Eyre for Comma Press, that I started using the word “uncanny” occasionally to describe my work. That story was “The Dummy”. I’d always been scared by and consequently attracted to features associated with the Uncanny, but it was Ra’s invitation that got me reading Freud on the subject. Nick and I have done readings together and collaborated on a couple of pieces for Neil Coombs’ Patricide journal, which surely would never had happened had we been two writers with different names and some interests in common, but it remains a fact and a weird coincidence that we do share a name. I say “share a name”. Of course, we don’t actually share a name. We each have our own name, but it happens to be the same one (middle names excluded).

JP: The hallway in your home is lined with bookcases housing what is probably the largest private collection in the world of white-spined Picador paperbacks. To say it’s impressive is an understatement, but why Picador? When did you start collecting them, how many do you have, and the all-important question, which is your favourite?

PPC CopyNR: I have about 800. The first one I owned was Black Water: The Anthology of Fantastic Literature (1983) edited by Alberto Manguel, which was given to me by my parents for Christmas the year it was published. Some time after that I bought Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967), basically for the cover on the 1973 Picador edition – a painting by Paul Delvaux. Then I was off. Why Picador? They were distinctive. That white spine seemed like a badge of quality. I feel that I could take any one of those 800 books down off the shelf and it would be worth reading. My favourite is probably Black Water but I’m also very fond of two anthologies edited by Frederick R. Karl and Leo Hamalian, The Naked I and The Existential Imagination, published by Picador in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The Naked I was one of the first eight titles published by Picador when they launched in 1972 (and it contains a story by James Purdy, only two characters away from your name). I know you know this, because I know you have your own collection of Picadors. There’s something about them. They spawned many imitators, with Paladin, King Penguin, Sceptre, Abacus and Black Swan all copying the look – B format paperbacks, white spines. Retired publisher Patrick Janson-Smith suggested to me recently that Paladin came first, but they had a different format (same height as B format, but narrower) and their list was exclusively non-fiction. They only started doing fiction (in B format) some time later, after Picador had shown the way.

JP: Okay, I thought we might finish with some quick-fire questions, so here goes: London or Manchester?

NR: Both. Sorry. I mean please. If that’s okay.

JP: Pint glass or champagne saucer?

NR: Neither. Belgian beer glass.

JP: Five-a-side or eleven-a-side?

NR: Five-a-side (playing).

JP: Star Trek or The Twilight Zone?

NR: Twin Peaks.

JP: Lark or owl?

NR: Owl turning into lark.

JP: Canny or uncanny?

NR: 🙂

JP: Thank you, Nicholas, for taking the time to talk to me.

NR: My pleasure.

Nicholas Royle The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories is available here.

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James Pardey is a freelance coder based in London. He has a PhD from Bristol University and was a postdoctoral sleep researcher at Oxford University. He has written for art, graphic design, and poetry magazines, Ballardian, and academic journals. He edits the Fontana Modern Masters and Art of Penguin Science Fiction websites, and his interests include London urbex and the tidal Thames, psychogeography, and collecting white-spined Picadors.

The Dummy: An Interview with Nicholas Royle