Four Haunting Halloween Reads

Halloween is not the first, nor the last, holiday to be derailed by the pandemic this year. Kids won’t plague the streets in search of sugary treats, and festivities might only involve a party of one, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to revel in a devilish spirit. Grab yourself a cup of hot cider, some fun-size candies, and a cozy blanket to settle in with these spooky reads for an evening of fun and fear.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Prepare yourself for a dive into psychological horror. This collection of short stories is a fantastical, mind-bending journey. “Especially Heinous” will disturb you and have you questioning every episode of Law & Order: SVU you have ever watched. “The Inventory” chills you with its human intimacy at the end of the world. In all of her stories, Machado haunts the mind with realism and myths. They will make you feel powerful. They will make you feel lost.

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Perhaps the most unsettling books on this list, The Merry Spinster will keep you up at night, and not for the reasons you expect. Ortberg’s short stories are dark retellings of children’s stories, fairy tales, and folk tales. While the horror in each story is overwhelmingly present, the dissection of gender roles and the feminist twists on classics are what keep your brain churning at night. A princess is someone’s male daughter. A character is given the option to be the husband or the wife. The stories within the collection leave you with more questions than answers. Some people are put off by the lack of concrete concepts, but I believe that the vagueness of it all is entirely the point. The Merry Spinster is an exploration of identities, not a declaration of one.

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Hauntingly dreamy, Claire Legrand’s latest standalone novel is a ferocious, femme-forward horror story. Everything about the island of Sawkill Rock is perfect: rolling pastures are punctuated with sleek horses, the dark sea crashes up to meet picturesque cliffs, rich people populate the island in their opulent houses. Everything is great except for the legends of an insidious monster roaming the land—oh, and the decades of missing girls. Three girls are tangled together on a journey to transform their fears into power as they unravel the mystery of what exactly haunts Sawkill Rock and what happened to all of those missing girls. What pleases me most, in addition to the lesbian romantic representation, is the asexual romance. Ace-rep is not something commonly found in popular novels. I was delighted for people to have a chance to feel seen and represented in mainstream young adult fiction.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Let me just sum it up for you: lesbian necromancers in space. This book is my personal favorite on the list. I don’t know how Tamsyn Muir did it, but she has crafted a masterpiece of skeletons, swordplay, and mystique. Harrowhark (Harrow) Nonagesimus, heir to the Ninth House, is invited to the First House of the Emperor to participate in a series of tests of wit and skill. If she and the other heirs survive, they will have a chance to become powerful immortal servants of the Resurrection. None of this will be possible for Harrow without her reluctant cavalier, Gideon. Determined to escape the Ninth House forever and leave Harrow to rot underground with her skeletons, Gideon is roped into Harrow’s trials with the promise of eventual freedom. As the two of them explore the haunted gothic mansion of the First House, deadly secrets spill out and a mystery unfolds. The great news is that if you pick this book up today you don’t even need to wait for the sequel, which arrived on shelves August 2020.

Elements of a Good Horror Cover

Ask any avid reader, and they will be able to recall a moment when they simply had to choose a book because of its compelling cover design. I remember, at age eleven, seeing a copy of Lois Duncan’s 1976 young adult horror novel Summer of Fear featuring its original cover art at the Multnomah County Library and knowing immediately that I had to read it. And it wasn’t because I enjoyed the cover design; it was because I could barely look at it. The image of a teen girl with a ghoulish face superimposed over her own had frightened me so profoundly that knowing more about the contents of that book was a compulsion. Good book covers do a lot of work to visually represent the tone, themes, style, and content of the material within. A good horror cover must do this work and inspire fear. When designing a cover for a horror novel, there are a few key stylistic and visual elements that raise hairs and help get books off of shelves.

Imagery is the first thing to consider in the design of a horror book cover. This is the most direct reflection of what the book itself is about. What is the most frightening element of the story? Is it a monster? A location? A moment of action? A visual representation of any of those aspects conveys an idea of the book’s narrative. The best images give the least away while still inspiring fear and interest in a casual book browser.

The image alone isn’t enough. The style of art and color palette give context to why that visual is a strong representation of the horror book as a whole and help establish the cover as eerie and genre-specific. Many horror covers have similar color palettes, which generally include grays, blacks, whites, and browns shot through with bright red. Besides the obvious morbidity of red representing blood, the pop of color also immediately draws the viewer’s eye. While covers in other genres may benefit from bright hues or soft pastels, rarely do those palettes convey the sense of foreboding of a good horror cover.

The style of the cover is the design element that perhaps has the most influence on conveying the tone of the horror book. An abstract cover, or one in which the image is blurred or distorted, suggests a warped sense of reality or perception. This technique is best executed when the image is of the story’s monster or of a terrified reaction, such as a screaming face. The ideas of madness and manipulation are implied to the reader before they even read the back cover. If the cover imagery is realistic, depictions of the story’s creepy setting, an unexpected object that serves as a motif, or a small glimpse of the monster’s form are suggestive while revealing very little, and thus piquing a casual browser’s interest.

As with any creative endeavor, whether a horror book cover is effective or not can be highly subjective. There are, however, key thematic similarities explored through best-of compilations such as Emily Temple’s entry for Literary Hub. Above all, a good horror cover conveys a sense of foreboding that can only be quelled by consuming the contents of the book.

A Game of Genres

It was my first day of a graduate level course, and I found myself staring down at the same question that I’d seen since I was old enough to read, what is your favorite book? Immediately I felt my heart sink and my palms begin to sweat. The question was no less impossible at that moment than it had been when I was younger. It wasn’t just the issue of having too many favorites to choose from, but also it was the need to make a good impression. I felt pressure to write down a work of literature like Atlas Shrugged or Things Fall Apart or Grapes of Wrath. These were all books that I had enjoyed, but none of them were my favorites. Instead, I ultimately went with the truth and jotted down my favorite fantasy and science fiction novels.
Since the day I selected Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman as a book report topic and was told to choose something more serious, I realized that in the literary world, genre books fall on a lower rung than general fiction. People denounce genre as childish and therefore inconsequential. Despite fantasy having roots in some of the very first literary works, Matt Sanchez points out on his website that “high school and college English teachers dismiss it as a popular diversion that lacks substance.” Horror and science fiction get treated similarly, although to a lesser degree than fantasy. These stigmas tend to cling to books of genre, causing many to publish in other fields just to be taken seriously.
But there are just as many things to learn from books classified as genre as there are in literary fiction. The Two Towers made me laugh for the first time since my grandfather died and taught me that even in the midst of tragedy, there is always something to smile about. Allegiance, a book in the Star Wars series about stormtroopers who defect from the empire to help those they had wronged, made me revisit stories of the Holocaust and wonder what it was like to choose between obeying the law and standing up for what you believe in. Death Gate Cycle made me realize that everyone is the hero of their own story, but the villain of someone else’s. The only difference in how these lessons are taught is the creative approach they take. As Sanchez notes, “The situations and emotions would ring true for the reader, once he or she got past the strange and unimaginable.” More than anything, the genre books that I’ve read are studies in humanity. They look at how the choices we make in our lives define who we are both to others and ourselves.
These lessons are often the same ones we study in other, more “reputable,” areas. The only difference is the lens that genre uses to look at the world. But I would argue that this lens sometimes gives us the distance we need from an issue in order to see it more clearly, making genre an invaluable asset to the world of literature.

Interview with Publisher Chris Morey

Chris Morey is the owner and publisher of Dark Regions Press, a specialty horror publisher located in Portland, Oregon. Chris Morey has edited the works of Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale, Tom Piccirilli, and Jeff Strand, among many others. He participated in Write to Publish 2015 as a panelist, speaking on crowdfunding. Here, he touches on some subjects covered in the Write to Publish panel as well as describing how he got into the business and what happens behind the scenes of a small publishing house.

You took over Dark Regions from someone else, correct? Was the business already a success?

My dad, Joe Morey, founded Dark Regions Press in 1985. In the 1990s he started Dark Regions Magazine, which lasted for many years up until 2001. When I took over the business in August of 2012, I would call it a success in some respects. Financially it was struggling, but professionally and creatively it was thriving. Dark Regions Press is a well-respected name in the specialty publishing industry, and we have published some fantastic books by many talented authors. The problem is that specialty publishing has a huge amount of overhead, so when I first took over the business, things were challenging financially at first.

Did you hire the current staff? Are they all full time, part time, freelance? How were they found: online ad, friend of a friend? What sort of rates do they get paid?

Yes, I hired just about everyone except for F. J. Bergmann, who does a lot of our proofreading and some design work. Some are full­ time, part ­time, and freelance. Most everyone works virtually, except for Scott, who I pay $11.00 per hour to pack and ship orders in the shipping office. Nicole works as my financial advisor and bookkeeper, and she works at an extremely reasonable rate of $12.50 per hour (it helps that she’s my girlfriend). Others get paid on a per­-project basis, and it varies greatly, but I try to pay everyone a reasonable rate and pay in a timely manner. I found Scott through a Craigslist ad for the shipping position, but other than that it’s all through networking or people I already knew.

When you took over the company, did Dark Regions already have money to invest in new books? Did you use your own money? Bank loans?

My dad gave me the balance of the business accounts when I took the business from California to Oregon. With books already in production and bills coming soon, it wasn’t much money, and it basically gave me the chance to survive for a month or two until I started generating sales. For the first six months there were a lot of ups and downs, but I didn’t take any loans . . . and we survived.

Has crowdfunding helped Dark Regions defray the costs of publishing? Has it paid for all printing costs, or do new books—even after a successful crowdfunding—still require an investment?

Each time I’ve underestimated the costs of each crowdfunding project. As you add up the shipping costs, the costs for all of the extra add­-ons, to get everything manufactured . . . things tend to add up quickly. Still, I consider crowdfunding the preorder 2.0. You take a preorder, you give it a professional sales page presentation, you instill a sense of urgency and a new level of interactivity with your customers, and as it turns out it’s a more successful e­commerce model to generate conversions. People become invested emotionally in the projects because they realize that they have a direct impact on it becoming expanded for everyone. It’s a great experience.

Do you plan to crowdfund all of Dark Regions’s books eventually?

No, well, it depends. Here’s the thing: Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns are loud. If we started pushing a campaign every month, it might very well fatigue our customer base. However, I have seen publishers successfully implement a crowdfunding platform into their own websites as a means of preordering the books, which I think is very interesting. We might adapt something like this in the future, but for now we’re going to stick to mostly old-fashioned preorders.

You use Kickstarter, correct? Why Kickstarter? Have you thought about hosting crowdfunding on a publisher-focused site such as Pubslush?

We use both Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Actually, as of writing this we are running our third Indiegogo campaign for our new anthology Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror. Indiegogo is nice because it offers an option called “Flexible Funding,” which means that if you don’t hit your goal you can still keep the funds, whereas on Kickstarter you could be $1,000 short and lose everything. Granted, we’ve never had a problem reaching our goal amounts . . . but it’s a comfort. Also, Indiegogo accepts PayPal as payments in the campaigns, and those payments come through immediately instead of after the campaign’s completion. This allows you to use funds generated by the preorder of the product to pay for creative costs and other costs during the campaign, which can be a big relief. I’ve looked at Pubslush and certainly like the platform. However, the truth is that when it comes to sheer numbers, Kickstarter and Indiegogo get a lot more traffic than Pubslush, and a decent chunk of our funds come from people who discover our campaign through the crowdfunding platforms themselves. Still, Pubslush is a great platform, and I hope it continues to grow.

Do you have a distributor for Dark Regions? Do you buy ISBNs for your books?

Yes and yes. We are now distributing our titles through Ingram Content Group. We are new to their catalog, so we’re still in the process of adding all of our currently available titles. However, if interested bookstores search for Dark Regions Press in the Ingram catalog, our titles should pop up. Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale and illustrated by Santiago Caruso has been selling particularly well through Ingram. Absolutely it’s a must to buy ISBNs. The price breaks from Bowker for these ISBNs are ridiculous, though, so we just jumped at 1,000 of them for $1,000. Otherwise you’re paying as much as $25.00 for an ISBN.

Were you prepared for taking over the press? Anything that surprised you after taking over the business? How did you come to take over the business? Were you already working for the company at the time?

I thought I was prepared, but honestly I had a lot to learn. Many things that I never dealt with I had to learn on my own, so I definitely made my fair share of mistakes. What surprised me was the sheer number of delays. It seems like everything takes longer than it should. For a while it drove me insane . . . but now it’s just . . . life. My dad was getting too stressed out by the business; I wanted to grow it, and he wanted to keep it smaller, so he handed it to me and, I went off. Like I said before, it was rough at the start, but I’m feeling really good about how far we’ve come. In 2014 the business more than doubled its revenue from what we made in 2013, and it showed a profit. 2015 should be even better.

Thanks, Brandon, for the questions, and I hope everyone keeps a look out for the new publications coming from Dark Regions Press. We have some exciting projects coming out this year, including titles from Richard Laymon, Brian Keene, Clive Barker, and more. Pay us a visit at DarkRegions.com.

Writing Excuses: notes on a podcast

Despite the fact that I’ve improved my tendency to procrastinate over the years, those tendencies can still lurk in the background and rear their ugly head. I recently discovered a Hugo Award-winning podcast relating to procrastination and writing. The podcast is titled, “Writing Excuses” (an instant attention grabber for me). It turns out that a group of four well-known writers (Brandon Sanderson, “Mistborn,” Mary Robinette Kowal, “Shades of Milk and Honest,” Howard Taylor, “Schlock Mercenary,” and Dan Wells, “I Am Not a Serial Killer,”) get together once a week to record their experiences in the publishing world. They also often respond to commonly asked questions from listeners. They begin each episode with the cheeky tagline, “15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” For a busy bee like myself, this is a definite bonus; not all podcasts need to be an hour long, thank you.
The last episode of “Writing Excuses” featured a guest appearance by Bill Schafer. He is the co-publisher of Subterranean Press, a Michigan-based small press. They publish around 55 horror, fantasy, and science-fiction books a year; both original trade paperback, and limited edition reprints of well-known authors. Subterranean Press has capitalized on a small niche of readers who want high quality books. They publish many different projects in a year, but keep the print run size small to minimize their costs.

Subterranean Press Grab-Bag

“The deal is we try to strike a balance because we can’t survive 40, 50, 60% returns on a regular basis…So we keep a very careful eye on print runs. I’d rather slightly underprint a book. Especially now that a lot of titles have further life as e-books.”

Bill spoke about creative approaches to the publishing industry and how his small press has actually benefited from some of the changes taking place. In his opinion, small presses are more agile and able to offer authors more creative ideas to get their work noticed. They are also able to satisfy fans more so than the larger houses can. Larger publishers are not able to adjust their business practices quickly enough to accommodate the digital age. Bill said, “One way Subterranean tries to make the physical book a more attractive purchase is to include ‘bonus’ features that wouldn’t be available in the digital form, or highlight that the book is sewn, not glued.” This reminded me of Penguin and both their Couture and Clothbound Classics. They also seek to make the physical book a more unique, and therefore, a more worthwhile purchase. I know it worked on me.

Something else I enjoyed from his interview was his commentary on the ethics of bookselling. Bill asked, “If you have access to a backlist of books by an author who already has an established fanbase, is it ok to jack the price up and sell them for more?” Collectors are willing to pay higher prices to get signed copies of their favorite authors, and eBay sellers take advantage of this by buying low from the press and selling high to consumers (sometimes in the $500 range). Bill Schafer provides one answer to this issue; he sells the higher demand books from his stock at an elevated price based on the current market price of the book, but then donates the money to charity. The consumer still pays a higher price than the book was originally marketed at, but the proceeds aren’t for the benefit of the press: a happy medium or too conscientious?

Next week’s episode takes questions from aspiring writers who have enrolled in an “Out of Excuses” writing retreat. For anyone interested in how small presses work (especially if you have any fanboy or girl knowledge of the science fiction, fantasy, or horror genres) this is a great insider look at that world, and for those who are generally interested in a writer’s perspective on the publishing world, these guys are definitely worth a listen.