A round-up of new horror small presses

The list that I maintain of active small presses whose output is predominantly horror, dark suspense, or dark fantasy continues to grow, with the count growing to a rather astonishing 138 publishers. Over the last few months, I’ve added no less than 27 presses and imprints to the list, and I’ll summarize each of those 27 below.

The following presses are recently launched, recently discovered by me, or recently re-evaluated and found worthy of inclusion.

  • Acid Grave Press – an ebook-only publisher with one title to their credit so far — the anthology Living After Midnight, which contains six stories inspired by hard-rock/heavy-metal songs, by authors such as Randy Chandler, L.L. Soares, and David T. Wilbanks.
  • Altar 13 – a new imprint from Delirium Books publisher Shane Ryan Staley, which seeks to take classic genre titles that have only been published in paperback and reprint them in hardcover for collectors.
  • Bandersnatch Books – debuted in 2010 and has published a chapbook by T.M. Wright, a novella by K.H. Koehler, and an anthology, Dead West, containing some familiar names. Their website is currently a bit of a mess, however — among other issues, the “Bookstore” page offers no way to actually purchase any of the titles.
  • Belfire Press – a mult-genre publisher with 13 titles to their credit, including horror titles such as Gregory L. Hall’s At the End of Church Street, Aaron Polson’s Loathsome, Dark and Deep, K.V. Taylor’s Scripped, and several anthologies.
  • Black Room Books and the Zombie Feed – two new imprints of Apex Publications. The former will publish both horror and science fiction, with their first title being a reprint of Tim Waggoner’s novel, Like Death, while the latter is yet another zombie-focused publisher, with three novels/novellas and an anthology published.
  • Blasphemous Books – an ebook-only imprint of Black Death Books, with a single title so far, a min-collection by John Everson.
  • Camelot Books – restored to the active publisher list after previously assumed to be moribund (probably my mistake). Recent titles include a collection by Ray Garton and an anthology of four novellas that includes Brian Keene and Nate Southard.
  • Crossroad Press – formerly appearing to be only a distributor of ebooks from other publishers, but now publishing both print and ebooks under their own imprint. CP has quickly become a prolific publisher of ebooks, with recent titles from Elizabeth Massie, Tom Piccirilli, and Chet Williamson, among many others.
  • Dark Prints Press – Australian press founded in 2010, with three anthologies and a collection by Martin Livings to their credit.
  • Dark Silo Press – published a novel by Brian Kaufman, but an anthology originally scheduled for March 2011 still hasn’t appeared, so viability of this press may already be in question.
  • Fungasm Press – a new imprint from bizarro publisher Eraserhead Press, “Fungasm Press grounds its weirdest ideas in contemporary realities, meeting at the freaky juncture where genre and mainstream collide with indescribable strangeness.” Fungasm will publish 2-3 titles per year, starting with Laura Lee Bahr’s debut novel, Haunts.
  • Harrow Press – longtime publisher of The Harrow magazine began publishing POD books in 2007 and has so far produced two anthologies, with a third in the works.
  • Hersham Horror Books – UK-based publishers of the Alt-Dead anthology, with two more anthologies announced.
  • House of Murky Depths – UK publisher of a namesake magazine, several graphics novels, and four novels by Sam Stone.
  • Innsmouth Free Press – Canadian publisher of a novel and three anthologies, most recently Future Lovecraft, which features authors such as Nick Mamatas, Jesse Bullington, and James S. Dorr.
  • LegumeMan Books – an Australian press “devoted to extreme and/or unusual fiction for extreme and/or unusual people,” with twelve titles already to their credit, including novels by Steve Gerlach and Brett McBean.
  • NECON E-Books – Leveraging the connections he’s made from running the eponymous convention for thirty years, publisher Bob Booth has assembled an impressive roster of writers, including Ramsey Campbell, Christopher Golden, Charles L. Grant, Tom Monteleone, and Tim Lebbon. Despite the press’ name, they do offer print editions of some titles.
  • Necro Publications –  moved from moribund back to the Active Publisher list after recently publishing the Jeffrey Thomas novel Blood Society and an ebook-only collection by Edward Lee, Grimoire Diabolique.
  • Panic Press – UK-based multi-genre publisher with 11 books published already, including titles such as Jason Whittle’s The Dead Shall Feed and Nate D. Burleigh’s Sustenance.
  • Rainstorm Press – another multi-genre publisher, with apparent vanity leanings, as all four announced titles are either written or edited by the owner of the press. If Rainstorm turns out to be strictly vanity, they’ll be removed from the list.
  • Rocket Ride Books – SF/horror publisher who made an interesting debut with a new edition of John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (basis for three movie versions of The Thing), available in print and audio versions. Their second title is William F. Nolan’s Kincaid: A Paranormal Casebook, “in the tradition of The X-Files and Kolchak.”
  • Sinister Grin Press – launched at KillerCon 2011 with a chapbook containing original stories by Ramsey Campbell, Ray Garton, and Bentley Little, and have announced two upcoming novels from Wrath James White, one solo and one co-written with J.F. Gonzalez.
  • Strange Publications – taking a buffet approach since their 2008 debut by publishing a chapbook, three anthologies, and a collection (by Cate Gardner). As of this writing, their website appears to have been hacked, so it’s unclear how active the press still is.
  • Swan River Press – Ireland-based publisher of 28 chapbooks and mini-hardcovers, some of which are dedicated to writers from decades past (there are multiple Bram Stoker and J. Sheridan La Fanu titles, for example), and some of which feature work from contemporary writers such Gary McMahon, Rosalie Parker and Mark Valentine.
  • Terradan Works – announced as a multi-genre publisher, but their four titles published to date have all been horror or suspense fiction, including books by Jeffrey & Scott Thomas, and Wilum H. Pugmire.
  • Ticonderoga Publications – this Australian multi-genre publisher has been around since 1996, but I only recently concluded that they produce a sufficient amount of horror to be included on the list. Published authors include Terry Dowling and Kaaron Warren, and Ticonderoga recently launched an annual Australian Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror series.
  • West Pigeon Press – Putting forth a prospectus that is, depending on how one looks at it, either extremely ambitious or off-puttingly arrogant, WPP has one title so far, the collection You Shall Never Know Security, by J.R. Hamantaschen, which certainly sounds intriguing.

Conversely, the only publishers removed from the publisher list since my last column are Snuff Books and Twisted Publishing, both of which seem to have sunk without a trace. With 27 presses added to the list vs. just two removed, either the horror small press field is faring better than the overall economy, or the genre has a knack for converting overly-optimistic fans into would-be publishers.

While I’m talking numbers, the other thing I took the time to total up is how many of the 138 presses on the list are publishing at least some of their titles in ebook format. The result?  No fewer than 56 presses (40%) have jumped on the ebook train, strong evidence of the growing adoption of ebook formats.

Curran Events – Reviews of Tim Curran’s THE SPAWNING, BONE MARROW STEW, and FEAR ME

I’ve been on quite a reviewing roll lately —  I’ve found at least something to like about every single book I’ve read for the past three months or more, and in several of them I’ve found quite a lot to like. My streak mostly continues with this post, which examines not one, not two, but three titles by Tim Curran, an impressively prolific writer who fortunately doesn’t sacrifice quality to achieve quantity.

First up is The Spawning, a meaty novel from Elder Signs Press that effectively combines eldritch Lovecraftian horrors with shape-shifting aliens a la The Thing, all in a harsh, foreboding Antarctic winter setting of nearly perpetual night.

The novel kicks off with a bang-bang prologue that seems like it will be impossible to follow, but Curran keeps the action flowing through the course of 125 short, punchy chapters. The plot initially bounces frequently between several Antarctic locales — The Polar Clime Station, NOAA Field Lab Polaris, and the Emperor Ice Cave — making the action a little hard to follow at times, especially given the large palette of characters used, but fortunately none of those characters seem cliched or stereotypical, and the identities of the primary figures are soon well-established.

Chief among them is Nick Coyle, the camp cook and confidante at Polar Clime Station and a veteran of 12 Antarctic winters. His good friend Frye and friend-with-benefits Gwen are also frequently on stage, and its eventually the plight of these three that the reader comes to most strongly identify with.

When a helicopter from the clandestine, military-controlled Colony Station crashes, a Polar Clime rescue team is first to arrive on scene and sees in the wreckage the body of something alien…and terrifying. Meanwhile, the research crew stationed at the Emperor Ice Cave make the ill-advised decision to thaw out their own alien discovery. The awakening creatures initially manifest their presence in the thoughts and nightmares of nearby humans, but then later in a more physical fashion. For those trapped in the station, all hell literally begins to break loose.

Curran leverages his setting well, juxtaposing the vast, foreboding Antarctic ice fields with the claustrophobic confines of polar shelters. Finally, Curran’s depiction of the shoggoths and shapeshifters are vivid and well realized, and his descriptions of the Old Ones’ master plans are likewise chilling, as here:

“Its kind waited it all out, sleeping away down here in their frozen tombs in black cellars of dead cities while men rose from ape-like ancestors and skittered across hillsides like white ants, self-important, brimming with conceit over their mastery of nature and their rising rudimentary intellect, never knowing, never guessing in their supreme arrogance that they had been engineered, created to fulfill a purpose and that purpose was to be harvested, wheat to the scythe as the Old Ones had engineered, modified, and harvested so many life forms.”

The Spawning is 384 pages of tiny print, easily 500 pages in a more standard font size and layout, and despite the onslaught of action, it does drag a little at times, usually when Curran gets a little overly fixated on providing a thorough description, and winds up saying essentially the same thing two or three different ways. That’s minor criticism, however, for a book that features generally stalwart pacing, admirable character development and — notably — strong, believable dialog.

The Spawning is sub-titled “Book Two of the Hive series,”  and on the plus side, I didn’t feel like I missed anything by not having read Book 1, but the ending of this novel does seem more like a pause than a conclusion, which is not unusual for the 2nd book in a trilogy. Hopefully there won’t be a five-year gap between books 2 and 3, as there was between books 1 and 2.

Bone Marrow Stew, a collection of Curran’s short fiction from Tasmaniac Publications, is another large volume, coming in at 455 pages, although the typeface is of a more standard size here. The book gathers 17 stories, with publication dates ranging from 1995 to 2007, plus two originals. It’s likely no coincidence that my favorite stories were consistently the longer ones, wherein Curran has more opportunity to develop his characters and his plotlines.

A case in point is the science fiction/horror tale “Migration,” which — like The Spawning — focuses on a group trapped inside an outpost under siege from outside forces — in the case, the group are part of a mining operation on the planet Cygni-5, and suddenly find themselves in the migrational path of a previously-unknown species of deadly arthropod. Although “The Chattering of Tiny Teeth” and “Long in the Tooth” feature vastly different settings, with the former taking place on the battlefields of World War I and the latter in the contemporary English marsh country, both build creepy atmosphere and feature similar creatures — small, childlike, but hungry and lethal. “The Legend of Black Betty” is a voodoo western, with a high Priestess cum bordello madame transplanted from New Orleans to Nevada, where she is angered by the local settlers and takes out her vengeance via a zombie uprising.  In “The Wreck of the Ghost,” a 19th-century whaling vessel encounters Cthulhu on the high seas, while in “One Dark September Night…” what starts out as an innocent coming-of-age story takes a very nasty turn when three boys find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, spying upon a man burying a body. As you can see from the wide variety of locales and subject matter, Curran is no one-trick pony — he writes on a variety of subjects, employing diverse styles, and the result is almost always entertaining.  There are only a small handful of stories here that I didn’t care all that much for.  The author does still at times display a tendency to become verbose and repetitive in his descriptive passages, but for the most part this doesn’t detract significantly from the stories’ impact.

The collection is rounded out with an Afterword from Curran, wherein he explains the genesis of each story. As an aside, I had wondered, given that Curran is American, why he had two titles appear recently from Australian publishers — this collection as well as Zombie Pulp from Severed Press. Curran’s Afterword offers a likely explanation, as he mentions that he appeared in all 10 issues of the Australian magazine Dark Animus, a fact that no doubt helped introduce his work to Australian readers and publishers.

Providing a fine overview of Curran’s shorter fiction, Bone Marrow Stew is limited to 250 signed, numbered copies, and also includes signatures from Intro-writer Simon Clark and artist Keith Minnion. It’s sub-titled Collected Works – Volume One, so perhaps Tasmaniac has plans for more Curran.

Last up in Tim’s trio is the novel Fear Me
from Delirium Books. So, does this book complete a top-notch trifecta for Curran?  Well, not quite.  Fear Me is certainly not a bad book, but the repetitive passages that occasionally detract from the two titles discussed earlier are much more painfully apparent here in a story which, at 202 pages, is stretched well beyond what would seem to be the comfortable limits of the rather bare-bones plot.

Protagonist Romero is a hard-ass convict who’s a long-term resident of maximum-security Shaddock Valley prison. When he gets a rather wimpy-looking new cellmate, one Danny Palmquist, Romero figures it’s only a matter of time before Danny is forced to become a Daniela, made to perform sexual acts and stripped of all dignity and self-respect. Sure enough, Palmquist is not even in-house for 24 hours before the brutalization begins. But what Romero and the other cons don’t realize is that Palmquist is more than he appears. Far more.

At his last stop in the penal system, Brickhaven, multiple unexplained killings were left in his wake, resulting in his transfer to Shaddock Valley. And just like clockwork, Palmquist’s initial attacker at his latest correctional facility is soon found murdered, while locked in his cell. And not just murdered, as Curran describes:

“Weems looked like a pillow that had its stuffing scattered in every conceivable direction. His insides were on the floor, smeared on the walls, dripping from the ceiling.”

Despite the grisly fate that meets Palmquist’s attacker, there’s no shortage of others looking to do him harm, starting with an assassin seeking payback for the deaths that previously occurred at Brickhaven. Even though he knows better, Romero inexplicably begins to feel bad for his new cellie, and starts looking out for him… not that Palmquist really needs the help, given the seemingly supernatural presence that extracts revenge on anyone looking to do him harm.

Events proceed pretty much predictably, culminating in a bloody riot. None of the characters ever manage to rise above stereotypes, not even Romero, who at least does the unexpected at times, but he’s never given a backstory to make him more than two-dimensional. All in all, Fear Me isn’t a bad way to spend a few hours, but it’s far from Curran’s best work.

Nightmares from Screaming Dreams — the enigmatic Herbert van Thal

The Pan Book of Horror series ran for 30 volumes, between 1959 and 1989, with the first 25 installments edited by Herbert van Thal.  The series was notable both for its emphasis on contes cruels (and some would say too strong of a reliance upon tales of outright sadism) and for its strong sales numbers, at least for the early part of the series. In the biography/tribute Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares (Screaming Dreams Press, 2011), author Johnny Mains turns the spotlight on the somewhat mysterious and reclusive van Thal, who died in 1983, and delivers a a fascinating glimpse into the life of an eccentric but influential (at least in the horror field) man.

A slim 89 pages, the book is divided into five sections: a biography; a checklist of published works; facsimile reprints of some of van Thal’s correspondence with Pan authors; author interviews and comments; and a reprint of an article Mains wrote on van Thal for SFX magazine. The biography section is less than 40 pages, and leaves one wanting for quite a bit more, but it was obviously difficult for Mains to find many folks who actually knew van Thal, and were willing to talk about him. As Mains says:

“It took over a year to try and find a photograph of him and everywhere I turned I hit wall after wall. When trying to delve into his dealings as a literary agent at London Management nobody from those days who worked in the same building as HvT was willing to speak to me…”

Although the book’s smorgasbord approach to its subject matter feels a little disjointed at times, it makes for what is overall a compelling and insightful read. I should note, however, that I was never completely won over by Mains’ argument regarding the importance of his subject — “I believe that Herbert van Thal is one of the most overlooked yet important anthologists that this country has ever seen.” Given the critical disdain for much of the series, and the (admirably) blunt comments that Mains himself makes about many of the stories, it’s difficult to agree that van Thal deserves such accolades based on the quality of his output, although the quantity (i.e., sales figures) was indeed distinguished.

Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares is a very attractive book, featuring a striking cover portrait of van Thal by Les Edwards, and is limited to just 100 numbered copies, signed by Mains and Edwards. It may be necessary to be a horror geek like me to truly appreciate this labor of love (and it probably wouldn’t hurt to be British, either, in order to appreciate some of the local flavor), but for those with an abiding interest in the history of horror, there’s much to like here.