Column from CD #64

NEWS AND VIEWS

“Of making books there is no end” says the Book of Ecclesiastes. My personal corollary would be: “of tracking and cataloging the genre small press, there is no end.” I say this based on roughly two decades of attempting to do just that, through the course of a couple different columns, countless reviews, and long-term maintenance of a personal database.

But I am far from the first to try and get my arms around the many-tentacled amorphous mass that is the genre small press. Several like-minded bibliophiles came before me, and it’s likely that the most notable in this arena was Jack Chalker (1944–2005), who I’d like to talk about briefly.

Chalker was more known for his associations with science fiction and fantasy—he founded the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, was an officer of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and authored more than 50 novels, with his most popular likely being his Well World series. Despite his strong SF ties, Chalker certainly had an appreciation for horror as well (in fact, some of his ashes wound up scattered on Lovecraft’s gravesite). His love for speculative fiction in general, and the small press in particular, led to his efforts to track the output of the field. Together with Mark Owings, Chalker co-authored The Science Fantasy Publishers, a landmark bibliography and guide to genre small press publishers.

The third edition (the most recent hardcover edition), clocking in at 744 pages, appeared in 1991 and was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1992. Annual paperback Supplements were issued through 2003. In later years, both the Supplements and the flagship volume were offered in PDF format. A quick web search shows that the 1991 hardcover edition is available from several book dealers, at prices ranging from $75 – $175.

In terms of format, the book is a bit of an odd duck, combining both reference material, in the form of bibliographic details, and analysis in the form of some highly opinionated entries on the publishers. In his Foreword, Chalker describes the goal of the book:

“Ben Franklin’s original printing press, in the Smithsonian, just looks like a piece of somewhat restored junk from someone’s cellar or attic until you know that it was Franklin who used it and it was on that press that everything from Poor Richard’s Almanac to broadsides on the cause of American revolution were produced on it. It was our intent to do the same with the SF specialty press books in your personal or institutional library or collection; to put faces, names, and histories on those volumes, so that you will never look at them again but to think of the history and hands and stories they represent as well.”

The Science Fantasy Publishers was a true labor of love and Chalker played a valuable role in genre small press cataloging and scholarship. His efforts should not be forgotten.

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An interesting recent development came in the form of an announcement from Shane Ryan Staley, founder of Delirium Books. The full posts — the initial one and a follow-up — can be found in the News section of Delirium Books’ website, but I’ll include a few excerpts below.

“Delirium’s trade paperback and book club will end this month with the final featured title: David Jack Bell’s The Girl In The Woods. My focus has shifted significantly over the past few years and digital editions will replace the trade paperback line in Delirium’s production schedule.

This will no doubt become a hot topic, but I’ve come to the conclusion over the past few years that the digital medium is a necessary step for the survival of not only the genre in literature, but the entire book industry.

The only thing I can say at this point is this: it’s no longer become a matter of whether you like or dislike the digital medium; it’s the point that the business of publishing needs to change in order for it to survive.”

In a subsequent post, Staley added the following:

“In 24 hours, rumors and debate have surfaced all over the web about my last post about the focus change.”

“All over the web” seems a little aggrandizing, given that only two customers bothered to comment on the post on Delirium’s own site, but Staley goes on to say:

“Delirium changed the way small press publishing was done in this genre. Low print runs gave newer authors a home to grow. Delirium launched many new careers.

 

Today, I’d like to officially thank those who supported me and those who doubted me back in 1999. It was because of both groups that I’ve succeeded today.

 

And today, we are once again divided, arguing amongst one another on message boards. Saying that my new focus will never work.

 

Debate is good, but let’s not lose our perspective. What I plan to do is good for the genre. Much like when Delirium started off and everyone doubted I could succeed, it took years of my life committing to the vision and I will now do the same with promoting digital. This won’t happen overnight, but the writing is on the wall that we NEED digital to thrive. Authors need digital and publishers do as well.”

 

 

“You may have doubts with the new direction I’m taking Delirium. But before you close off your mind, please note that you’ll only be standing in the shadows of those who doubted my vision back in 1999.”

I’ll ignore the bombast in order to focus on a more interesting topic —an examination of Staley’s basic business decision. Personally, I think he’s too far ahead of the curve. The point that he’s talking about will indeed come (no huge shock there), but I don’t think we’ve reached that milestone yet. That said, I’ll be perfectly willing to admit I was wrong in a couple years if Delirium is doing bang-up e-book business—but it would be useful to define, now, just what “bang-up” constitutes. Delirium’s history has largely been one of producing what I like to call “micro-editions” —very small prints runs, sometimes as few as 150 or 250. Delirium added a trade paperback line a few years ago, but the fact that Staley is now discontinuing that line would seem to speak to a lack of success. If Staley defines success for his digital editions as selling in the same numbers as his micro-editions, that unfortunately won’t match my definition.

The other interesting topic is that of formats. Staley is choosing to publish his digital editions in three formats: pdf, mobi (for the Kindle and mobipocket), and epub (which is viewable on a variety of devices, including the iPhone and the Sony Reader). That’s a good selection. There are a number of other hardware devices out there, but it’s obviously best to see which acquire a sizable user base before investing any time in converting to those formats. Microsoft’s .lit format, which is viewable on PCs with a free downloadable reader, perhaps should have been considered, but it’s definitely borderline.

Some respected industry-watchers believe that e-books won’t really take off until the hardware price for handheld readers sinks to under $100 and the digital books cost less than a mass-market paperback. I’m on board with those beliefs. We’ll see how things actually shake out.

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In my next column, you can look for reviews of Darren Speegle’s A Rhapsody for the Eternal, and A.R. Morlan’s Smothered Dolls (an overlooked collection from waaay back in 2007), as well as several other new titles. And be sure to check out www.twilightridge.net, the online home of Spotlight on Publishing, for additional small press coverage, as well as my constantly-updated list of genre small press publishers. Publishers recently added to the list include DarkHouse Publishing, Library of the Living Dead Press, and Pill Hill Press.

 

REVIEWS

As mentioned in my last column, Telos Books has been expanding their footprint in the area of media-related non-fiction titles, and one of their most recent efforts is It Lives Again!: Horror Movies in the New Millenium, by Axelle Carolyn, an oversized (8 1/2 x 11 inches) and lavishly illustrated overview of horror films since the turn of the century.

It would be easy to dismiss It Lives Again! as a coffee table book that wouldn’t exist if not for the author’s connections (she’s the wife of Neil Marshall, director of Dog Soldiers, The Descent, and Doomsday). To do so, however, would be grossly unfair, because Carolyn clearly knows her horror and she shows her chops throughout. In his Foreword, Marshall talks about his wife’s passion for horror, saying “she’s probably forgotten more about this genre than I’ll ever know,” and over the course of the book it becomes apparent that he’s not just spouting hollow praise out of matrimonial obligation.

More than just a collection of reviews, the book takes a big-picture view and examines over-arching trends, with the linchpin of her argument summarized here: “the phoenix-like genre always had a way of coming back to life during post-mortem examinations, and it returned from the grave in a big way after 11 September 2001.” Carolyn draws other parallels between horror’s resurgence and other events of the last decade, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the London and Madrid bombings, the Columbine shootings, and the busting of the dot-com bubble, but 9/11 is clearly at the heart of her thesis.

Not surprisingly, there’s a strong focus on the US and UK here, but there’s also excellent coverage, with supporting cultural analysis, of films from Asia and Europe. For example, in discussing the proliferation of a sub-genre of horror films focusing on phones, the Internet, and other technological advances, Carolyn makes the following observation: “Scientific progress is usually antithetical to supernatural beliefs, but in the case of Japan, and to a lower degree, the Western world, the evolution happened so fast that it created new unknowns.”

Carolyn’s opinions are thoughtful and well-reasoned, but at times I had to question whether the reactions she describes truly occurred—after all, how long does it typically take for a film with a decent-sized budget to be written, cast, produced, promoted, and distributed? At certain points, it seems as though she’s suggesting that films reflecting fears associated with particular real-life events appear in the marketplace faster than would appear practical.

In addition to big-picture analyses, Carolyn offers both critical and commercial analyses of most of the individual films mentioned. Her reviews are generally in line with those of knowledgeable genre critics. From a purely personal perspective, I was happy to see her give props to a favorite of mine, Session Nine (“a great example of psychological horror”), but somewhat dismayed that she gushes over the execrable Cabin Fever.

Along the way, Carolyn frequently offers fascinating background information on the development and production of titles. Take, for example, the story of the creation of Fantastic Factory in Spain, or dealmaker Roy Lee’s role in the influx of J-horror films into the US, or her discussion of the perceived vs. real effects of PG and R ratings from the MPAA.

Rich in both visuals and analysis, It Lives Again! offers something for virtually any horror film fan.

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Also mentioned last issue was Cargo Cult Press (www.cargocultpress.com), a new publisher specializing in finely-produced books in very small editions. I’ve since received a review copy of CCP’s edition of Michael McBride’s Remains and I have to say that it is indeed a beautiful book, featuring quality cloth and binding (sans dustjacket), gorgeous endpapers, and crisp, bright, high-quality paper stock. As for McBride’s novella…although I bought a story from the author for CD #57, this is the first of his longer works that I’ve read, and I’m happy to report that the quality of the fiction here matches that of the physical product.

The story centers on the mystery surrounding a group of seven University of Colorado grad students in Religious Studies, who ventured into the wilds of Colorado, “in search of God,” using clues they’d gleaned from the Bible to try and determine the locations where God cast down the fallen Angels. A few short weeks after embarking on their quest, the students vanished completely, and nothing more was heard from them…until two years later, when a leg bone belonging to one of the students is found.

A group of various family relatives, led by University instructor Gabriel Hartnell and Boulder Police Detective Brent Cavenaugh, both of whom lost sisters when the group went missing, travels to the area where the group disappeared in the hopes of finding more evidence, just as the winter’s first storm is descending upon the mountains with a vengeance. Although the setup of isolating a group of semi-hapless individuals in the wilderness may be decidedly well-used, it’s the execution that matters most, and McBride definitely delivers in that regard. The author displays pitch-perfect pacing and creates interesting, believable characters, resulting in a tale that’s gripping and yet at times also philosophical. The ending is unexpected without being unreasonable, a fitting finale to an engaging journey. Only 176 copies of this book were produced, so those who hesitate are likely to be just as lost as the seven missing students.

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George Zebrowski is a highly renowned science fiction author who makes a rare foray into the horror genre with his short novel, Empties (www.goldengryphon.com). My SF reading is relatively limited, so this was my first exposure to Zebrowski, and I have to admit that I was a trifle disappointed, as this short novel is exceedingly long on internal monologs and expository sections. I was fairly perplexed by the deliberately slow pacing until I read the author’s Afterword, which sheds a great deal of light. Entitled “Fritz Leiber, A Remembrance,” it details Zebrowski’s admiration for Leiber, and his desire to emulate that author’s style in this tale—once Zebrowski laid it out so clearly, I was certainly able to see the similarities. I don’t think Zebrowski interweaves his philosophical musings as smoothly as Leiber typically did, but his juxtaposition of insights and plot points is definitely reminiscent.

The primary characters are the bemused and depressed Detective Bill Benek and Deirdre, an enigmatic Apartment Manager who he meets in the course of his investigations…and who we eventually discover, has the ability (for reasons unexplained) to rip others’ brains right out of their skulls using only the power of her mind. Or, as she refers to it, to “core” them.

The “relationship” that develops between Benek and Deirdre, if it can even be called that, is dysfunctional at best and homicidal at worst. When they’re not trying to kill each other, both spend a lot of time vacillating on their feelings toward the other. Other characters, such as Benek’s boss Captain Reddy and his newfound friend, coroner Frank Gibney, are introduced, but by and large this is Benek and Deirdre’s story to carry.

Interestingly, when Benek tries to rationalize Deirdre’s abilities, his thoughts seem to reflect Zebrowski’s SF background: “There had to be a physical explanation for what she did, some simple topological snap, nothing supernatural but enough to do the deed. It has always been there, billowing in the quantum substructure’s chaos…”

After finishing writing Empties, Zebrowski notes that he was led to reflect on “…the ‘separateness’ between human minds, and how necessary it seems.” Indeed, the unavoidable “distance” between people, seemingly unfortunate but at the same time necessary, is a powerful theme here. As Zebrowski says in his Afterword “Empties plays out between two people who can’t truly encompass what is being offered to them, or what to do about it…”

Besides its pacing, Empties is weighed down somewhat by the generally unlikable nature of its primary characters and its decidedly downbeat ending (although, at the same time, Zebrowski deserves some credit for being unafraid to take his plot in that direction).

Still and all…it’s impossible to not have a certain level of appreciation for a tale that includes dark ruminations such as this: “He got up and undressed for sleep. It was always a surrender, a wiping away of the world from his eyes, wished for and feared but always putting hum under too early, just when it seemed he might guess what it was all about.”

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Lisa Morton has been irregularly crafting stellar dark fiction for several years now, including the Bram Stoker Award-winning story “Tested,” which appeared in issue #55 of Cemetery Dance. Happily enough, she’s lately been trying her hand more at longer forms, specifically The Castle of Los Angeles, which I hope to review next issue, and The Lucid Dreaming, a novella from Bad Moon Books (www.badmoonbooks.com) which I’m going to examine here and now.

Clocking in at a brisk 86 pages, The Lucid Dreaming is another entry in the recently crowded field of post-apocalyptic works, but it’s certainly not “standard fare.” The protagonist is Ashley, a brash twenty-something California girl who’s hyper-self-aware, at least when she’s not skipping her Prolixin meds and deteriorating into a violent paranoid schizophrenic state. Ashley, or Spike as she prefers to be called, chooses to stay on her meds for the course of this novel and comes across as a perfectly lucid narrator. The story effectively begins when Spike discovers her incarceration at a state mental facility has suddenly come to an end, what with the doors unlocked and the staff wandering around in a vacuous state usually reserved for their patients.

As Spike ventures beyond the walls of the facility, she quickly discovers that this is no local phenomenon. Via a (somewhat conveniently placed) stack of recent newspapers and the occasional Emergency Broadcasting announcement, Spike comes to understand that the world at large has fallen victim to a “dreaming sickness” that causes the afflicted to go a step beyond sleep-walking and essentially dream-walk—acting out their dreams while awake. For a while it seems that, ironically, she might be the sole remaining sane person on the planet.

Spike had the foresight to gather together a good supply of Prolixin and it’s a good thing she did, because she eventually discovers that it’s the drug that’s keeping her from falling victim to the dream-sickness. Along the way, she collects a wandering boy-toy, Teddy, and gives him some Prolixin to bring him out of his fugue state. A bit later, in a sublimely unsettling passage, Teddy asks her if it’s OK if he stops taking the drug—he’d rather go back to dreamland, even though that way will surely lead to his death, should Spike cease to feed and care for him. Spike’s journey soon leads her to cross paths with a cultish group that captures her and brings her to their compound, and the plot proceeds apace.

There may not be anything groundbreaking about The Lucid Dreaming, but there’s much to appreciate. As Spike says near the finale, “seems my ‘delusions of grandeur’ aren’t delusions anymore.” Indeed, there are moments of grandeur to be found in these pages.

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The premiere title in Dark Regions’ New Voices of Horror series (www.darkregions.com), David Dunwoody’s Dark Entities, is a book of big ideas but unfortunately not always big execution. This collection is my first exposure to Dunwoody’s work, although he did have a novel published by Permuted Press last year, and the common element found in most of the 11 stories here is the employment of unusual, ambitious, and sometimes outright outlandish ideas. Or, as the back-cover copy describes them, “strange and chilling tales in which there is no escape to be found—only confrontation with the dark entities of the author’s imagination.”

Several stories are loosely linked and strangely these are the weakest offerings, as the underlying mythology is not sufficiently realized to support the stories; to smooth over the stories’ implausible moments and patch the fractures in the suspension of disbelief. Closing story “The Run” is somewhat emblematic of the recurring issue with “inconsistent plausibility” (to try and put a name to it), as this tale of a foot race in Greece suddenly switches gears to become a tale of rampaging monsters chewing through shallow characters, until they’re all dead.

More successful are some of the unlinked stories here, such as the captivating “Sunset,” in which a family of four on an extended boating vacation in the South Pacific, with the parents’ marital relationship foundering on the rocks, discovers an island with a high wall built around its entire perimeter. When they peek over the wall, they ultimately find much more than they bargained for. “The Abbot and the Dragon,” meanwhile, is a truly inventive take on the ever-popular theme of the living dead, set in a future where technologically-revived dragons roam the Earth again, diseased but still dangerous, and the remnants of mankind struggle for existence while the virus- based zombification plague rages still.

* * *

Cruel, illiterate, alcoholic parents and grandparents. Damaged children bearing the brunt of physical and emotional abuse, taking out their anger on others in various disturbing ways. Backwoods communities full to bursting with ignorance and prejudice. And the occasional ghost or monster.

Stir vigorously, and you have the recipe for Scott Nicholson’s collection Scattered Ashes, also from Dark Regions. Nicholson, who’s built an avid readership through the course of six novels, including The Harvest and The Farm, here offers his second collection, gathering 21 stories. Three originals are included and the reprints’ first appearances range from 1998 to 2007, with some from fairly obscure sources, so there’s likely to be a substantial amount of previously unseen material here for even a devoted Nicholson fan.

Highlights include “Murdermouth,” which features a different angle on the zombie tale, successfully eliciting sympathy for the imprisoned creature featured. “The Night is an Ally” is a dark, immersive tale of ordinary people assimilated into the German war machine, and their part in a massacre at a WWII concentration camp. “The Endless Bivouac” is almost a companion-piece for the preceding, featuring a Civil War setting at the Andersonville Prison Camp and told from the perspective of a camp guard.

“She Climbs a Winding Stair” benefits from its unusual and isolated locale—deserted Portsmouth Island, off the coast of North Carolina, visited by a solo travel writer in search of a story. In “The Hounds of Love” an abused child, seemingly on the path towards eventual serial killer status, finds that the animals he tortures and kills insist on…forgiving him, in a sense. “The Sewing Circle” is a demented piece about a reporter on the downside of his career, writing for a small rag of a newspaper, who finds that a seemingly innocent mistake made in writing a trivial “local color” story has dire repercussions.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the collection includes two stories that originally appeared here in CD—“Watermelon,” a tale of domestic anti-bliss that appeared in issue #51, and “Dog Person,” a similarly relationship-focused tale with a sharp twist, which appeared in issue #56 and was later reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.

With so many stories collected, including some from very early in the author’s career, it should be no surprise that there are a few tales that are not so successful—such as “Timing Chains of the Heart,” which features a narrative voice that’s a bit overbearing—but even these lesser works serve to illustrate Nicholson’s career progression.

The book closes with a collection of interesting and illuminating story notes, the perfect cap to an engaging snapshot of the first decade of Nicholson’s career. Here’s hoping that there’s much more to come from the author.

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INTERVIEW

I had planned to interview Dark Regions Press this time around, but publisher Joe Morey was unable to respond to my questions before our editorial deadline. We’ll return with a publisher interview in the next issue.

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