Interview: Perilous Press

Copping_squidToday we have dragged Adam Barnes and Cody Goodfellow away from their work at Perilous Press to chat with us about Lovecraft, what makes a good Mythos story, their first Mythos book Copping Squid, and chaining S.T. Joshi in the basement:

IFP: Can you briefly introduce yourselves to our readers?

AB: I am Adam Barnes, co-publisher of Perilous Press. I enjoy horror fiction, so I also practice law.

CG: I’m Cody Goodfellow, the other co-publisher of Perilous Press. I couldn’t hack practicing law or watching it on TV, so I write horror fiction.

IFP: Can you tell us a bit about Perilous Press and how it came to be?

CG: We became great friends in college out of a shared love of weird music, art and literature, so when five years on, I was having a rotten time trying to sell my fiction, Adam was the most sympathetic person I could complain to. Half the markets I submitted to were going out of business, and none of the responses I did receive were edifying at all, and the whole process was even more maddening, because neither of us could find anything in the horror small press that we enjoyed reading. Adam shrewdly figured that the best way to remedy the situation and shut the incessantly-flapping hole under my nose was to start a new publishing house. We both loved weird stuff and were extremely difficult to please…why not us?

I had been burned quite badly by the last publisher I worked with, so I was loathe to even submit my first novel, Radiant Dawn, to other publishers. I wanted to throw everything I had into one book and put it out on my own terms, just to see if I wasn’t wasting my life. The whole story promised to weigh in at over 900 pages, so Adam suggested we divide it into two volumes. Reviews for the first book were excellent, but there were only two of them, and maybe twice as many readers. But they forced us to go forward with the concluding volume in 2003.

As dedicated spelunkers of the weird who enjoyed hunting for extraordinary entertainment, we naively figured the readership for our books would come looking for us. The plan was always to use my books as a springboard from which to launch a publishing house dedicated to the best in new weird fiction. Sales were glacial for most of the last decade, but as the Lovecraftian subculture continues to metastasize into mainstream culture, there’s every indication that our crazy, stupid dream might finally come true.

AB: Most publishers would rather print the toilet paper of a recognized name or the rehashing of a stale trope than an original story by an unknown author. I don’t blame them for that. They need to make money and the costs of putting together a book, especially for a big company, force them to be conservative. But that means that our bookstores are filled with King and Koontz and ten thousand romance novels masquerading as horror by including vampires. That’s disastrous for the industry and it’s no wonder horror sections are disappearing.

God bless those independent horror publishers who struggled through the pre-Internet. Because of Amazon and direct sales, it’s a lot easier to take chances today. Independent publishers should be able to find niches to thrive in. But what do I know? Arkham House collapsed right when it should have paid off for them.

Perilous Press will continue to publish the type of stories we enjoy. We’d prefer to do this regularly instead of sporadically, but that all depends on how universal our tastes are. I think there are enough fans of literate Mythos fiction to keep the project running.

IFP: Your first Mythos book, Copping Squid, was edited by S.T. Joshi. Is Mr. Joshi going to be involved with other Mythos projects?

CG: Until he gnaws his leg off and escapes Adam’s basement…

AB: We are fortunate to have Mr. Joshi involved as editor of New Millennium Mythos. There isn’t much debate within the office about what makes a good or bad Mythos novel.

CG: Joshi was really the catalyst that got us back into publishing. His fierce advocacy for the literary value of cosmic horror has made it clear that Lovecraft wasn’t just an odd anachronism, but a pulp existentialist prophet whose materialistic pantheon serves as an artificial mythology for the modern age. In his Rise And Fall Of The Cthulhu Mythos, he set forth what we’d always believed, that cosmic horror did still have new revelations to unveil, and that, in the right hands, it could be the most vital weird fiction of our times.

So much of what’s given the subgenre a bad name strives to ape Lovecraft’s difficult style, or goes awry by diluting the unique nature of the Mythos. Joshi challenges the genre to find new, relevant ways of reaching that delicious thrill of discovering the world and the universe are not at all what you supposed, and we were fortunate to cross paths with him as he was looking for a venue to put his theories into practice.

S.T. has brought us into contact with authors we love to read, and given us a chance to bring out works other publishers might balk at, which was our original mission, anyway.

IFP: What are your next releases and when can we expect to see them?

AB: We are putting together Brian Stableford’s Womb of Time, which will also include the novella, “The Legacy Of Erich Zann”, right now.

CG: We’re working very cautiously for now, going one book at a time, but we are casting a wide net to find the best undiscovered weird works. After Stableford, we’re hoping to secure a new novel by Richard Lupoff. With his past works like Circumpolar and Lovecraft’s Book, he’s showed he’s a genre-bending daredevil, and the one he’s working on now sounds like a miraculous gift: a gnarly science fiction adventure that will scare the shit out of you. We can say no more.

At the same time, we’re eager to work with new, unknown authors who are ready to break out with a daring new contribution to the Mythos. Aspiring submitters who know the genre and are familiar with what we’ve done in the past, who can deliver a polished, solid manuscript, are more likely to win us over than an indifferent effort from a known quantity.

AB: The genesis of Perilous Press was a reaction to business models that appeared to destroy the industry. Like publishers being rewarded for investing fortunes in mere adequacy. We’d be hypocrites if we shunned unpublished or lesser-known writers simply because they’re unpublished. A great story is a great story and we’ll be proud to publish it, regardless of the source.

IFP: Do you do your own cover design and layout?

CG: I arrange for the artwork and do the jacket design, while Adam does the interior layouts. We’ve been lucky to work with incredible visual talents like Steve Gilberts, Cyril Van Der Haegen and Mike Dubisch, which has been one of the most rewarding parts of the job. The gravitational pull that the Mythos exerts on these guys couldn’t be stronger if the Big C was out there transmitting it directly to their fiendish brains, and the results, to me, are nothing less than sorcery.

Desktop publishing has made it so easy to produce books that scream for attention, but have little else to communicate. We try to bring a more thoughtful approach to the faces we give our books, so the jacket shows you something you’ve never seen before, and gives a real sense of the special kind of stories they contain.

For each release, we do a colourful, artwork-intensive trade edition that’s complimentary to other small press releases, but also a more designed, textured limited edition jacket, that evokes the classic Arkham House style.

AB: Books aren’t immune from the movement towards digitization of our entertainment media. While I’ll always believe that reading from an actual book is superior to reading off a computer screen, there’s no doubt that convenience, immediacy and efficiency force us to read off a computer. The book itself should therefore have some intrinsic value.

The last few compact discs I’ve bought have been in limited edition wooden boxes or heavy, oversized cardboard cases that include original, unique art. They’re marketing the package as a whole: the music, the art, the experience. In our own way, with both our limited and trade editions, we’re trying to do the same.

We’re releasing vinyl records, not iTunes downloads. If you’re just looking for the words and don’t care if you’re reading online or a mass market paperback, then you’re probably paying too much for a Perilous Press book. But if you appreciate the tactile experience of reading and enjoy the visual elements of a book, you should find yourself rewarded.

IFP: What kind of marketing or promotion are you doing for your books?

AB: This interview may be the longest sustained marketing effort of Perilous Press to date.

CG: True enough. Until we put out Copping Squid, we had been in deep promotional hibernation for almost seven years. Mistrustful of advertising, doubtful of any real impact from shouting on message board amen corners. I’ve tirelessly promoted my own books for ages, but it’s infinitely more satisfying to champion the work of a certified genius like Michael Shea. We’ve been inspired to take out ads, work the convention scene and even keep our website updated.

Steve Gilberts was kind enough to set us up with framed original sketches for his Copping Squid illustrations, and we’ve held a couple of drawings.

IFP: You say you are not interested in “stereotyped pastiches of tentacled monsters or Necronomicons or such, but treatments of Lovecraft’s basic themes and motifs.” What are some stories or writers who you think handle Lovecraftian themes and motifs in an interesting way, without falling into the realm of the cliché?

CG: We’re not looking to ditch tentacles and forbidden tomes per se…those tropes resonate with the subconscious in multiple layers that bear further exploration. They were fresh and frightening and exhilarating to behold once, and can be again, if they are approached as if for the first time, and not through the filter of all we’ve seen before.

And it’s so easy to go wrong with a Mythos story, because the horror is utterly impersonal, yet it must cut through our lives in a way that reduces all our rational thought to meaningless noise. The temptation to make Cthulhu into the Devil – a scheming, moustache-twiddling villain – or simply to shoehorn the hoary conventions of the classic weird tale into a modern setting, is very strong, but they miss the point if they portray the Great Old Ones as outsiders threatening our sunlit world. One must find a way to make zesty and compelling a yarn in which the world is theirs, and always was.

Nobody does pure cosmic horror better than Ligotti. He can make you feel trapped in his worlds, and never certain who or what is in charge. Laird Barron is a phenomenal stylist who knows how to work both sides of the “less is more” debate. John Shirley and Mark Laidlaw both did incredible post-Cthulhu books about astral parasites (Wetbones and The 37th Mandala) that take totally different routes to show real, recognizable human characters engulfed by something that knows their weaknesses, yet has no recognizable sense of self.

A well-told cosmic tale should change the nature of your reality after you put it down. It should sow seeds of unease and populate the empty spaces in your life with insane monstrosities that somehow perfectly mirror the ones you hide inside you.

AB: If I didn’t think that Cody’s Radiant Dawn didn’t revolutionize the genre I wouldn’t have asked him to publish it.

I enjoy William Browning Spencer’s treatment of Lovecraft’s themes and characters. His hallucinatory, surreal landscape is a great backdrop for his characters’ despair and confusion. He doesn’t bother trying to scare the reader; he’s more humorous than scary. Instead, he disorients the reader, creating a sympathetic sense of confusion. It’s Lovecraft Plus.

But giving examples of “original” works encourages writers to track those stories down and copy them. It’s like a creative multi-level marketing scam: the closer you are to the source, the more credit you get for being original. Look, Lovecraft wrote 80 years ago. Unless you’re exploring new territory, you’re the tail-end chump on this pyramid scheme. The writers listed above prove that there is much to explore in Mythos.

IFP: On the other end of the spectrum, what completely turns you off in a Lovecraftian story?

AB: As with any genre fiction, the superficial pastiche. You need to be a gifted author to be able to copy another’s work without exploring the underlying themes. There’s a place for a ripping yarn, but very few can pull it off.

Also, when authors trip over themselves trying to describe the indescribable. I can follow it up to a point but when the adjectives and metaphors start flying like sparkling golden bullets from a crimson red smoking carbine, I start skipping paragraphs. I skipped quite a bit of “The House on the Borderland”.

CG: My least favourite thing ever is when authors put Lovecraft himself and his works into his universe, especially as a heroic investigator. I dread the inevitable lecture one character gives another to establish what the Mythos is, before they all get eaten, and bonus points if it’s delivered in a cheesy, Zadok Allen dialect. In Bloch’s Strange Eons, the obligatory crash course in Cthulhu consists of a stack of Lovecraft’s paperbacks.

I’m in the radical anti-Derleth camp. While I enjoy a lot of his fiction and will always revere him for his stewardship of Lovecraft’s canon, he went overboard in systematizing the Mythos and almost ruined it with the notion of the Elder Gods as a trans-cosmic police force. Putting these outmoded concepts of good and evil does away with much that makes the Mythos so powerful, and reduces the Old Ones to another set of chumps and foils for cleft-chinned, invincible champs like Lumley’s Titus Crowe to clobber. Much as I loved the Call Of Cthulhu role-playing game, I think it introduced too much of a notion that the Great Old Ones could be resisted or defeated by human agents or, even worse, by benevolent Elder Gods.

The indescribable can’t be satisfyingly portrayed with repeated use of the word ‘indescribable’, nor is it frightening to be simply denied any satisfactory glimpse of the evil. We must be made to feel we’ve seen too much, and yet unsettled by the realization of how much more still lies just out of our sight…

IFP: Are there any specific themes and motifs you enjoy over others? For example, Paula R. Stiles, our editor, likes the idea of insanity and protagonists coping with it. I am more concerned with body horror and the loss of identity in Lovecraftian fiction.

CG: My own Mythos work has been largely body horror, where the insane paradoxes and unreconciled conflicts of modern human nature externalize themselves in our bodies and our world.

As a reader, I hunt for and treasure secrets, particularly the kind I later wish I didn’t know. In Pynchon’s The Crying Of Lot 49, once the protagonist discovers the secret of Trystero, the cryptic symbols of the secret, previously hidden in plain sight, leap forth to drown out every other aspect of the world. That’s the kind of gnosis I hope to find in a cosmic horror story.

AB: I watched the movie Deep Water the other day, a documentary about Donald Crowhurst’s 1968 attempt to win a single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. Long story short, he got a late start and had an unseaworthy craft, so he decided to wait out the race in the middle of the ocean and sneak in behind the other racers as they returned to the start. In the months and months of waiting, he lost his mind. He ended up killing himself and his remarkable journals were later found on his adrift boat, documenting not only his deception but his descent into madness.

This, to me, seems to reflect the themes Lovecraft explored in his writing. With the ocean standing in as some monolithic god with whom our protagonist desperately wrangled, but which itself had no sentient recognition of the battle or the player. In Crowhurst’s increasingly-deranged writings, he attempts to think like a god in order to understand his situation. I find this exploration to be the most compelling of Lovecraft’s themes and indeed the purpose of cosmic horror.

IFP: How did you discover Lovecraft?

AB: I picked up a three-volume complete collection of Lovecraft when I was around 15 and spending a summer in the country. One night, after reading several stories, I awoke to the sound outside my window of the laboured breathing of what could only be one of Lovecraft’s cyclopean beasts. But how could such a thing exist in the middle of these cropfields without someone discovering it? No matter! If I could avoid the monster’s attentions, I may escape with my life.

It may also have been the sound of a hot air balloon opening the blast valve to heat the air. But who the hell takes a balloon flight in the middle of the night?

CG: I bought a Scholastic collection of stories at a book fair in the sixth grade, and devoured it in a day while home sick with a 103-degree fever. I never recovered.

IFP: What is your favourite Lovecraftian story?

CG: “At The Mountains Of Madness”.

AB: At different times it has been “The Rats in the Walls”, “At the Mountains of Madness” and even “The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath”. I hate myself for it, but I’ll give you my lawyer answer of “it depends.”

IFP: If you could be a Lovecraftian character or creature, who would you be and why?

AB: Who can argue with Tsathoggua, a lazy toad who wakes only to eat people? He’s a cross between Buddha and a mulcher. Tsathoggua makes me question my atheism.

CG: Yog-Sothoth. Goes everywhere, knows everything, and made of soap bubbles, so presumably always smells fresh.

IFP: Aside from Lovecraft, are there any other writers you greatly enjoy?

CG: Hmmmm, no…wait, yes.

Briefly as I can, I grew up on the Other Weird Tales guys – Howard, Smith, Hodgson – the New Wave science fiction authors – Dick, Ellison, Silverberg, Ballard – the cyberpunks – Gibson, Sterling, Rucker, Stephenson, Shirley – the splatterpunks – Schow, Barker, Lansdale, Skipp and Spector, RC Matheson – and hardboiled crime – Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, Vachss and Ellroy. I’m a huge fan of China Mieville, Norm Partridge, Charles Stross, James P. Blaylock and Tim Powers.

AB: Another vote for Ballard…and Dick, certainly…and Howard…and Hammett. Never heard of those other guys.

I like Anthony Burgess and his versatility. There’s got to be a Burgess book out there for everyone and I like them all. Except his children’s story, A Long Trip to Teatime. “Trip” indeed. Jorge Luis Borges is great. I started reading him expecting some stuffy academic and got drunken knife fights and fantastic monsters. Hesse and Kafka. Maybe it’s just the themes, but I love the Dying Earth books of Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe and Matthew Hughes. Fritz Leiber. Thorne Smith. Tom Holt, particularly his Greek historical novels. Twain and Stevenson. Cody turned me on to Jeff Long and I’m reading Year Zero now.

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IFPInterview: Perilous Press