Interview: Simon Marshall-Jones | SPECTRAL PRESS

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In late 2010 a new small publishing house launched in the UK, specialising in high quality, signed and numbered, limited edition chapbooks by a number of established and new British horror authors. A year and a half later, Spectral Press have established a growing reputation as one of the best new horror imprints on the market. Their chapbooks and novellas have received critical acclaim and a series of glowing reviews, with every copy selling out, often before release.

Recently we sat down with Simon Marshall-Jones, the owner and driving force behind Spectral Press to discuss why he thinks they have been so successful, and what to expect from Spectral in the future.

Starburst: So, how did you get started with Spectral? Is being a publisher something that you have always wanted to do, or did you decide to do this fairly recently?

Simon Marshall-Jones: I actually started publishing way back in 1990, when I launched a music ‘zine called FRÄCTürëd - yes, that’s how it was spelt - devoted to the then burgeoning industrial music scene. It’s easy to forget that, in the days when the internet was still some way in the future, promoting and making people aware of what you were doing was that much harder but, despite that, the magazine achieved sales all over the world, from San Francisco to Moscow. It ran for three sold-out issues however, only stopping due to something called life getting in the way - I went back to university. Since then, I’ve always harboured a faint suspicion that I should have continued in the publishing business in one form or another...

As for Spectral Press, the seed was planted at FantasyCon 2010, when Nicholas Royle of Nightjar Press handed me a couple of his recently published chapbooks to review. After reading them, it occurred to me that it was the perfect format for a) showcasing an author’s work and b) a great way of starting a small-press imprint without a massive outlay. Admittedly, there was more than a modicum of trepidation at this point: I’d run a record label between January 2008 and December 2009 which had turned out disastrously. However, it has to be said that, in spite of the sour turn the label took, I learnt a great deal from running it, which has helped enormously when it comes to running Spectral. Consequently, the success of the imprint has come as something of a major surprise.

What made you decide to work in limited edition chapbooks only? Are there any plans to release the chapbooks as e-books or in a more general release anthology in the future? What about other formats, or even novels?

Initially, it was just a question of economics – after the record label debacle money was in very short supply, so I needed to start small-scale which wouldn’t require an enormous financial outlay but which wouldn’t compromise on quality, either. That last aspect, in particular, was most important. Limited edition chapbooks fitted those requirements perfectly. In addition, I wanted to start very slowly, avoiding any stretching in terms of finances or workload so I wouldn’t end up shooting myself in the foot.

Originally, I’d planned to launch the first issue at FantasyCon 2011, reckoning that’s how long it would take me to raise the finance! However, I came up with the idea of subscriptions so that interested parties could make sure of getting each volume, and within a month of launching that idea I had enough money to pay for the first two issues. As my wife said at the time “I guess you have to go ahead and do it now...”

There are also the novellas now, and there are plans to put the chapbook stories into a collected edition along with new material in a year or two. There will be anthologies and single-author collections, along with stuff not yet decided. As for novels, I am currently undecided – I will be looking into it at some point, but I think it will be way in the future. And there are also ideas that haven’t yet occurred to me!

Spectral had a very impressive set of launch titles. How, as a new publisher, did you manage to convince the likes of Gary McMahon to come on board?

A lot of the writers I initially enlisted I already knew through Facebook and from going to conventions. I did think it was going to be difficult to persuade people to join an unknown quantity but Gary McMahon offered me a story (What They Hear in the Dark) very soon after I began touting the idea of Spectral Press. I couldn’t really say no to such a heavy hitter, plus it was the ideal way to start off a new imprint, setting my stall out as I meant to go on. After that, I just contacted authors whose work I knew and liked, asking them if they would like to contribute something. Once the first few volumes came out then people could see that I was very serious about what I was doing – there are more than a few new imprints starting up each year, many of which will necessarily fall by the wayside, so I had to offer something ‘extra’ that would, by itself, attract both writers and readers. I think I’ve succeeded in that respect with Spectral.

The tone of the stories in Spectral's releases to date has been very similar. Was it a deliberate decision to focus on more atmospheric stories, and do you see this expanding out into other kinds of horror in the future?

I grew up on ghost stories and horror films which relied more on suggestion and implication than describing or showing everything on page or screen. The modern predilection for depicting all in gory detail has left the part of imagination out of the equation – ‘imagining’ the nastiness is far more effective than actually seeing it. I remember watching black and white horror films as a child - when I shouldn’t have been - and having nightmares afterwards. Later, when I started watching the more ‘modern’ horrors as a teen, they never left me with as deep an impression. It’s the thought of what might have happened than what actually happened that did it for me.

Aside from needing to find a particular angle and aesthetic for Spectral, I also wanted to bring back that role for imagination to play when reading ghost stories. For instance, when walking down a darkened corridor in an old house, it’s what might be out there that’s the chilling thing – once it’s been revealed we can categorise it and deal with it, so leaving an element of ambiguity is a great deal more effective in my book.

With the introduction of the range of novellas, Spectral is expanding its remit, and is now venturing into other areas of horror – Lovecraftian, social horror and even glorious Hammer Films-style horror. The main principle here is to remind people that horror isn’t just about vampires and zombies – there are so many facets to the genre that, in an age where every second books appears to be one of those two subgenres, I think it’s good to emphasise the fact that there are alternatives out there, and that horror as a literary style is still very much living and breathing, and is in very robust health.

How would you describe the sort of stories that Spectral are producing? Do you go to the author with a brief as to the sort of thing you want, or do they come to you with an outline of what they want to do first?

 I would describe the stories as ghostly/supernatural tales, in the style of, or homage, to the late 19th/early 20th century masters – think MR James, Charles Dickens, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft. Generally speaking, I invite an author to contribute and then give them a very brief idea of what I want, along with some references to the names above and then go from there. None of the authors I’ve received stories from so far have failed to hit that nail squarely on the head, mostly because those were the kinds of tales they grew up on.

Which authors would you say have been the biggest influence on you, and why?

My primary influence genre-wise has to be Clive Barker. Prior to me reading his Books of Blood the kind of horror fiction I was reading was the usual haunted house/vampire/monster/serial killer type fare. Barker was both a breath of fresh air and a revelation, completely shattering my perceptions of what horror was capable of: in fact, here was horror like no other. Perhaps the one story of his that always sticks in my mind is ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ – I distinctly remember thinking, after finishing reading it, that this was as far away from ‘classic’ horror as one could get and yet it was horror nonetheless, albeit mixed with elements of the fantastic. After that, I just couldn’t get enough of Barker’s material, with Weaveworld and Imajica being my all-time favourite novels of his.

China Miéville did the same for me when it came to fantasy when I read his Perdido Street Station – he completely shattered the received wisdom of what fantasy should and could be, bringing with it a startling mix of horror and science fiction in combination with fantasy. Also, Umberto Eco helped me form a definition of what constitutes actual horror – his Name of the Rose is claustrophobic and horrific in a way that people wouldn’t necessarily associate with those terms. For me, the horror lay in the claustrophobia of the medieval monastic existence, plus the ever-ominous presence of the Inquisition and the very real feeling that medieval life was constantly surrounded by the supernatural and malign. It was so oppressively palpable that one could almost reach out and touch it, more so when the people of the time implicitly believed in its reality. Imagine living every day of your life bowed down by the idea that devils and demons inhabited every sphere of daily life and that you could never escape their presence? THAT is true horror, in my book.

So, what can we expect to see from Spectral Press in the future?

I have all kinds of plans for Spectral, but I still have to be careful of not going too fast, too soon. In the immediate future, however, expect more chapbooks from the likes of Mark West, David Tallerman, Paul Kane, and Simon Bestwick, in addition to the second novella in the Spectral Visions series of longer works in September, The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine by John Llewellyn Probert (an affectionately gruesome, blackly humorous and outrageous tribute to the films of Vincent Price). Sometime this year there will also be a series of audio-CDs of Lovecraft and Lovecraft-style stories set to music, Musicks & Mythos, to be released in collaboration with Temple ov Azathoth Records. That will be followed in December by Spectral’s first anthology, the first Christmas Ghost Story Annual, echoing the sort of annual that the Victorians and Edwardians loved at that time of year. Next year will see more novellas, including one from Stephen Volk (Ghostwatch, Afterlife and The Awakening), more chapbooks and the first single-author collection from World Fantasy Award-nominee Simon Kurt Unsworth.

I have some other ideas currently in the planning stages, including the possibility of Spectral Roadshows, a compilation album of ambient/industrial music inspired by Spectral’s output and also things like posters and what have you. I am also looking to expand into other media, including film perhaps. I’m especially looking forward to this year’s FantasyCon, where Spectral is up for two awards, in the PS Publishing Independent Press category and Short Fiction (for Paul Finch’s King Death). Based just on what has happened over the last year and a half, I think Spectral has a great future ahead of it.

For more information on Spectral Press and its forthcoming products, visit their official website HERE.

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