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.

 

 

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Our Haunted Year: 2018

Death Makes Strangers: An Interview with R. B. Russell

Death Makes Strangers of Us AllConducted by Michael Dirda, © February 2018

R.B. Russell is the author of three short story collections, three novellas, and a novel, She Sleeps. With his partner, Rosalie Parker, he publishes classic works of curious and macabre fiction under the Tartarus Press imprint.


Michael Dirda: Death Makes Strangers of Us All must be your sixth or seventh published book. Is that right? What is this book’s place in your oeuvre? How does it differ from your three previous short-story collections? Is there a common theme to the stories?

R.B. Russell: This will be my eighth book, which means that anybody who has read more than one will probably have noticed recurring themes that I am unaware of myself. I know that different interpretations of reality and of memories are preoccupations of mine, and this appears in several of the stories in the new book. This collection mainly offers recent work, although the title story is a re-telling of something that I first tried to write more than thirty years ago.

I did my best not to set too many stories in bookshops, but yet another one has crept in.

MD: Is your fiction inspired by any previous writer or writers? More generally, do you think there’s a recognisable English — or should I say British — tradition in the ghost story and weird tale? What defines it? Do you feel part of that tradition?

RBR: An old friend of mine, a gifted songwriter, says that it is easier to come up with original work than try to sound like somebody else, and I find the same with writing. However, I know that I am indebted to just about every writer I have ever read. I go out of my way not to write like the authors I most admire because the results would be hollow imitations.

I’m not sure that in the West there are any true national literary traditions in the gothic/ghostly/weird genres — since Horace Walpole we have all been influenced by writers overseas. The British have obviously assimilated writing from America and Europe, just as Americans have been influenced by Britain and Europe, etc, etc. And, of course, we have all taken on board ideas from non-literary disciplines, such as scientific and philosophical thinking, from wherever it has emerged. Individual writers reflect their own regional background, naturally, which enriches the whole tradition.

As for being a part of a tradition myself, I’m just another writer who has been inexorably drawn towards The Weird.

outside oscar'sMD: I think all readers are interested in the writing and reading habits of favourite authors. Are you a quick study either as reader or writer? Your prose is remarkably clear, eerily effective, but seldom flamboyant. Does it come easily to you or is it the result of determined polishing and buffing. For instance, can you tell us about the gestation and development of the new collection’s first story, “Night Porter”? Aspects of it reminded me of L. P. Hartley’s classic, “A Visitor from Down Under”, while its ending is almost as enigmatic as one of Aickman’s stories.

RBR: I tend to write quick first drafts, enjoying where a story is taking me, trying to get down ideas and atmospheres as they occur to me. And then I edit and re-work stories a great deal. I have heard it said that no piece of fiction is ever “finished”, it is merely abandoned when it is published. I could probably edit forever, which is why I never re-read any of my published writing — I would notice alterations I would want to make.

I am wary of being over-descriptive or lyrical — a simple adjective is often enough to give complexity to a scene. And there is the danger with over-description, of coming into conflict with the images that a reader has already conjured for themselves.

The set-up of the “Night Porter” was inspired by a contemporary film, the title of which I cannot remember. Changing the background and creating my own central character gave me a completely different story with its own impetus. I didn’t know how it would end until I arrived there myself, and the denouement seemed to me to be the most frightening I could imagine. It wasn’t meant to be enigmatic — it ought to mean that the central character has to re-think everything that has happened in a fundamentally different light.

MD: Speaking of Aickman: You recently told me that you had sold a number of books from your library in order to fill out your Robert Aickman collection. I gather that you now own most of his books in dust jacket and several of them signed. A couple of years back you also made a short documentary about Aickman. And, as all readers of supernatural fiction know, Tartarus has long been a champion of that writer’s “strange stories”. What is it about Aickman that draws you to him? How do you compare him to, say, Arthur Machen, the other supernatural fiction writer you have published in extenso?

RBR: First and foremost Aickman is a great storyteller, but at his best he wrong-foots me as a reader, and shocks me. Just when I think I might understand him, and perhaps sympathise with his characters, he reminds me that we are fundamentally very different. The fact that the stories, and the author, are so open to (mis)interpretation makes me go back to him, time and time again. I want to understand him, although it is probably best that I don’t.

The Dark Return of TimeMachen is very different. He is a magician with words. His love of the countryside and his fascination for the city both resonated with me when I left rural Sussex aged eighteen for the city of Sheffield, and his work still moves me profoundly. He has his faults as a writer (characterisation, mainly), but this is more than made up for by the depth of his vision and the power of his lyricism. There is an inherent humanity in Machen that I don’t find in Aickman.

MD: With Rosalie Parker, you share the publishing work demanded by the highly active Tartarus Press. You also compose music, produce artwork for books (your own and those of others), devote time to the Friends of Arthur Machen, produce wonderful short films, and I don’t know what else. How did you manage to get so good at all these activities, while also keeping up an active literary career as well? Would you rather be writing fiction full-time? Or is it somehow beneficial to switch back and forth among all these enterprises? Do they somehow enrich your imagination or keep you fresh?

RBR: There never seem to be enough hours in the day! I tend to have enthusiasms for my various (non-Tartarus) interests, and when I am not inspired to write, for example, I will have been itching to compose music and I can immediately move on to that. By the time I get stuck with the music, then something else has been demanding my attention.

My various interests feed into each other, as with my fascination for shortwave radio numbers stations. As I was researching them I was starting to write some new music, and was thinking of the individual compositions as soundtracks to stories that might lie behind some of the transmissions. At the same time I was putting together videos to accompany the music. And then, half way through this process, I realised that I wanted to write an extended piece of fiction about the broadcasts, and I now have a draft of a novel inspired by the strange world of these strings of numbers that bounce endlessly around the ionosphere.

MD: Speaking as both a writer and a publisher, what led you to Swan River Press for Death Makes Strangers of Us All? What is it you like about the books that Brian J. Showers has been bringing out? They are quite handsome but quite different from Tartarus publications in their appearance. What is gratifying about being published by a small press such as Swan River or Tartarus?

RBR: I share many of Brian’s tastes in literature, and, like Tartarus, Swan River mixes classic authors with contemporary writers, based on the publisher’s own enthusiasms. It also helps that I like the aesthetics of his book production. With his designer, Meggan Kehrli, and typesetter, Ken Mackenzie, they publish very handsome, well-made books.

MD: In the title story, “Death Makes Strangers of Us All”, you seem to be almost Kafkaesque, as Katherine wanders through a mysteriously empty city covered with fine dust, tries to retrieve her disjointed memories, and is confronted by threatening policemen. But the story takes an unexpected turn near its end and the ending itself comes a short, sharp shock. Can you comment a little on “Death Makes Strangers of Us All”? Is there a reason you chose to name the collection after it?

RBR: I am not sure I can comment without offering spoilers! There is an idea that underpins the story, but I am afraid that it would diminish the tale if it was spelt out. What I will say is that the idea was first expressed in an attempt to write a novel in the late 1980s. It did not succeed then because it should really have been a short story. And in the novel version I made it very clear exactly what was happening, which undermined it. The original was written at the same time that I was reading European authors in the Penguin Modern Classics series, and reading Lovecraft, Hodgson, and Machen.

MD: What are your current projects?

RBR: I am working on what I fervently hope is the final draft of a second novel. If it is not published then I will probably continue to rewrite it ad infinitum. A third novel, inspired by shortwave radio numbers stations, is in an early draft, but requires a great deal more work. I have been writing a great deal lately, and I am starting to feel the need to compose music soon . . .

MD: Thank you, Ray, for taking the time to answer these questions.


Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post. His own books include Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, the Edgar Award-winning On Conan Doyle, and several collections of essays. He is currently at work on a book about late 19th and early 20th-century popular fiction in Britain. He holds a Ph.D in comparative literature from Cornell University and received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.

Order Death Makes Stranger of Us All here.

Death Makes Strangers: An Interview with R. B. Russell