Interview: Simon Marshall-Jones

Simon Marshall-Jones recently founded Spectral Press, a small independent imprint publisher, issuing very-limited edition, signed-and-numbered, single-story chapbooks in a high-quality presentation, on a thrice-yearly or quarterly basis, and concentrating on the ghostly/supernatural end of the literary spectrum. He’s come to Innsmouth to discuss Spectral Press and talk horror.

IFP: Hi Simon. Welcome to Innsmouth. Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

SMJ: Hi there. I’m a 48-year-old publisher/editor/writer/reviewer/artist, hailing from the Midlands of the UK, distinguished perhaps by the fact that I am very heavily tattooed – including my head. I’ve been involved in the horror scene over here for a while now, originally having been a part of the music scene, running a small independent record label for a number of years. That ultimately proved unfulfilling, so I turned to something that I’d first dabbled in back in the early 80s – publishing. I issued an underground comic called ‘The Cosmic Bean‘ then, which only lasted the single issue, but, later, at the start of the 90s, I started a music ‘zine called ‘FRACtured‘, devoted to the then newly-burgeoning industrial music underground – that was more successful, but it fizzled out when I went back into higher education to get a degree. However, all I got was a stroke, instead.

IFP: How did you come up with the idea for Spectral Press?

SMJ: The idea hit me last September, after attending FantasyCon 2010, a major con over here in the UK. While there, I was given a couple of Nightjar Press chapbooks to review, and bringing them home and reading them, it just struck me what a wonderful format the chapbook was – a marvellously concise way of introducing an author’s work to readers without them necessarily having to shell out a lot of money. Plus, I’ve always loved books as beautiful objects in themselves. And so was sown the seed that eventually germinated into what became Spectral Press.

Then came the format: limited, high-quality, signed-and-numbered editions, combining the ideals of excellent storytelling with artwork to match, intended to appeal to those who just love books as little treasures in themselves, as well as to those who love great storytelling. Books that people would be proud to have on their shelves and to show off.

IFP: Do you do your own layout and design?

SMJ: No – I leave all that to a very good friend of mine, Neil Williams. I met him through Facebook and decided to ask him to contribute to the look of Spectral after he designed the absolutely wonderful logo. He was able to distil, in that single image, the essence of what I wanted the imprint to represent. After seeing that, I couldn’t really ask anyone else.

Having said that, I will be asking a few people to contribute cover images, which Neil will then fit into the visual Spectral template. The main aim right now is to get the name and imprint established, and I am hoping that as it grows, there’ll be a small pool of talented artists that I can call upon to produce an appropriate image for any particular story. My one criterion, though, in both artwork and tale, is high quality – I am very particular and fussy about that.

IFP: Would you ever release the chapbooks as ebooks, or are you strictly a paper person?

SMJ: The chapbooks are going to be print only, as they’re strictly limited (to 100 only) signed editions and I want to keep their exclusivity intact (considering that’s what people are actually paying for). Having said that, however, at some point, I am planning on doing two things with the chapbook stories: 1) I’d like to issue them in an audio-only format, which will be a way of keeping that exclusivity, and 2) put together a “Best of Spectral Press” anthology, in about five years or so, which will definitely be made available in e-book formats.

I also have plans to launch an ebook-only Spectral imprint in the future, which – while still a part of the Spectral Publishing ‘group’, if you like – will be entirely separate from it. It will still be devoted mostly to ghostly/supernatural fiction, and the same values in terms of high-quality stories and presentation will hold. This particular project is still at the planning stage, as I am concentrating mostly on seeing just how well the chapbooks are received first, so it’ll probably be a while before anything concrete materialises. It’s definitely in the cards, however, as well as a few other ideas brewing in the back of my mind.

IFP: What is the appeal of supernatural tales?

SMJ: I’ve been a horror fan for a very long time, ever since I was a child in the 60s and 70s. I like all styles of horror, but something always pulls me back to the classic ghostly, supernatural and otherworldly story, tales in the vein of M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Machen. It’s the notion of another realm existing side-by-side and intertwined with ours, a realm that exists in a different, yet contiguous, time and place where other existences have their being – some inimical to us, some friendly. On top of that, I prefer the kind of story that allows me to use my imagination to fill in the blanks, stories that don’t put everything down on the page. In many ways, I think we want everything presented to us – it’s a direct result of how we see (and get) our entertainment these days, I think. There’s nothing wrong per se with that – it’s simply that I prefer to let my imagination provide the horror and the nasties.

IFP: How do you pick the writers you want to work with?

SMJ: Being a reviewer definitely has its advantages – you get to read some amazing stuff. Also, you get to figure out which writers can tell a good story. In a scene as small as the horror scene, you quickly get to hear of emerging talents, names who are making waves and getting a good reputation. And, of course, there are the established writers whose work is well-known.

What I look for mostly are atmospheric and subtly terrifying tales, that achieve their chills through nuance and implication, rather than outright, in-your-face horror. I’m also interested in that idea that ghost stories, for want of a better term, need not necessarily have any ghosts in them, but still be ghostly in feel and execution. For instance, Robert Aickman asserted that none of his stories were supernatural and yet, there is that distinctly uneasy feeling that there is something otherworldly operating beneath the surface, nonetheless. That’s the sort of material I am looking for, but, having said that, if I think that a writer has come at something from a new angle, I will also give them due consideration. Essentially, what I want is for a story to speak to me – if it does, then it stands a better chance of being published than someone sending me a rehash of an over-familiar trope.

IFP: What are your upcoming titles?

SMJ: After Gary McMahon’s What They Hear in the Dark, in May, we have Abolisher of Roses by another Gary – Gary Fry. He’s an established writer in his own right, runs a small-press imprint (Gray Friar Press), and is lucky enough to live where Bram Stoker set his novel Dracula – a place called ‘Whitby’, in northern England. His tale underlines the notion that, even being married to someone for thirty years, they can still have the capacity to surprise you.

Then, following that in September, comes Cate Gardner’s Nowhere Hall – a quirky tale of a man haunted by someone else’s ghosts when he visits a derelict hotel. Cate’s an up-and-coming writer who has already been widely-published – her latest collection, Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things, was recently published by Strange Publications and has attracted glowing reviews. Cate will definitely be one to watch out for.

Then, either at the end of this year or the beginning of 2012, comes Paul Finch’s King Death, a very atmospheric and eerie tale of the consequences of misplaced hubris, set in the times of Europe’s Black Death. Paul has written for film (his latest novel, Stronghold, has just been optioned for adaptation to film), has also written audio books for Doctor Who and provided scripts for some popular TV series in the UK.

So, as you can see, a very varied menu, with something for everyone. And there will be even more delights in store next year, I can promise.

IFP: What are some of your favourite horror stories?

SMJ: There are numerous stories that I would consider particular highlights of mine – however, I’ll mention just a few here:

One of my favourite writers is Clive Barker and one of my favourite short stories by him is In the Hills, the Cities. It’s an astounding feat of imagination, about the citizens of two towns creating giants out of their own combined bodies, in a ritual held once every ten years. It’s one of the stories that marked him out as a huge talent back in the 80s.

More recently, there’s Tim Lebbon’s utterly brilliant, utterly mesmerising novella Nothing Heavenly, published as part of his recent collection from Cemetery Dance, Last Exit for the Lost. Essentially, it’s an update on the eternal war between Heaven and Hell, except, at times, you’re not even sure which are the angels and which are the demons. Caught between two factions are us, the very unfortunate humans. Just magnificent.

One more – Tantara, by Steve Duffy, from the Tragic Life Stories collection from Ash-Tree Press. A couple from the city, holidaying in the Welsh countryside, soon come to realise that there’s a vast cultural chasm between those who inhabit the rural and those who are suburbanite – and that those differences can mean either life or death, if you’re not careful.

IFP: What is the horror scene like in the UK?

SMJ: It’s a small, but extremely active and vibrant, scene, and also very supportive. In contrast to the music business, which I often found very closed and unreceptive (but with a few very honourable exceptions), the horror scene has been open and very welcoming, and has also been sterling in encouraging me in my publishing efforts. It would be fair to say that the buzz from having attended FantasyCon last year was enough to inspire me to get involved in some capacity. And the reception that Spectral Press has received thus far has been mightily encouraging, and it more than confirms that I am definitely on the right track.

IFP: Do you believe in the supernatural?

SMJ:I have certainly never encountered anything that would lead me to believe in the existence of supernatural entities, and I must admit that I’m the sort of person who would seek more prosaic explanations first, before turning to other, less plausible (in my opinion) reasons. However, I am fairly open-minded about such things, and just because I’ve never seen a ghost or a UFO, for instance, doesn’t mean to say that they don’t exist, but, on the balance of probabilities, I tend to lean toward their non-existence. I remember going through a phase when I was much younger of buying books on ‘real-life’ ghosts and haunting, but ultimately I became frustrated by the lack of evidence one way or the other. It could be that we haven’t yet developed the necessary instrumentation to detect these spectres, but it could also simply be that they don’t exist.

I guess the romantic in me would like to think there is something in all of it, in the idea that there are physical manifestations of a survival of the substance of a person after death. I think, as a species, that we are fascinated by ghosts and other things that go bump in the night because they form a part of our collective cultural heritage, right from the very beginning when we banded together to form tribes and proto-societies, when we gathered around campfires and tribal elders told us stories. And, despite our apparent sophistication, we’re still thrilled by those kinds of tales – a primitive instinct, perhaps, but nevertheless one that, paradoxically, shows us that we’re still alive and still responsive to the unseen world around us, that no matter how divorced we are from the world of our ancestors, we still hold a part of it within us.

IFP: How can readers purchase your chapbooks?

SMJ: Chapbooks can be purchased, either singly or as part of a subscription, directly from me – simply go to http://spectralpress.wordpress.com, where you’ll find information on how to order copies, as well as everything you need to know about the imprint. Or you could just contact me, Simon Marshall-Jones, via email on [email protected] if there’s anything else.

IFP

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IFPInterview: Simon Marshall-Jones