Interview with Simon Marshall-Jones editor/owner of Spectral Press by JD’L

January 4th, 2011

The rise of independent genre presses is meat and drink to Horror Reanimated and we’re keen to spread the word. Today we’re chatting with Simon Marshall-Jones who recently launched Spectral Press.

Because Simon enjoys a bit of body art, we’ve hired The Harrow from Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ for the afternoon and set it up on Doom’s Hump, a windswept hill not far from HR HQ. The sentence we’ve programmed into it is:

‘I got a good old poking at Horror Reanimated’

Hope he likes it…

Joseph D’Lacey: Hi, Simon. Thanks for joining us on this rather foggy afternoon at the crest of Doom’s Hump. I’m sure you’re familiar with The Harrow. To the prisoners in Kafka’s Penal Colony, it was a machine of punishment but in your case it should bring only pleasure and an occasional tingle.

While we get you settled into the optimum position, why don’t you tell us about the moment the idea of running a small press first struck you?

Simon Marshall-Jones: I’ve been involved in publishing a few times before, first in 1983-84 when I self-published an underground comic called The Cosmic Bean, a mad drug-fuelled trip with a sentient, outer-space surfing bean. Then, at the beginning of the nineties, I ran a small music ‘zine called FRACtured (which incidentally, was where a certain Mathew F. Riley was first published), entirely devoted to the newly emerging industrial music scene. That was quite well-respected, despite it running to only three issues – I know of at least one person who still owns all three issues.

Spectral Press was one of those ideas that took time to germinate, and when it flowered into the full light of consciousness it took me by surprise. The direct inspiration came from getting copies of some Nightjar Press chapbooks at FantasyCon 2010, and it just hit me that it was an absolutely brilliant little format to present stories in. It never really occurred to me until about a month later that it was exactly the kind of thing that I could do, so, at the start of October I started mooting the idea that I was going to get into publishing again, after an absence of nearly two decades. Within weeks, it went from an abstraction to a reality – and now, here at the very start of 2011 it’s now moved on from there to the books actually being in my possession.

JD’L: You’ve had other incarnations, though, haven’t you? Involvement in the music industry and some experience with fine art – not to mention blogging, right? Is horror publishing the natural progression from all this?

SMJ: I originally had ambitions of becoming a full-time artist when I left school back in early 80s, and I managed to get into art college, which ended me getting into all that bohemian lifestyle malarkey, as well as drink and drugs. I was completely in love with HR Giger’s nightmarish, surreal and otherworldly work, and it was he who inspired me to take up the airbrush in the first place. The practicalities of studying in an art school environment never really suited my somewhat rebellious temperament, so I left before I could get thrown out. I still paint occasionally, and in fact I have been commissioned to do two book covers and a portrait this year.

Then, in 2008, after wandering aimlessly for a few years, then going back to university and having a stroke, I launched a record label called FracturedSpacesRecords, specialising in releasing avant-garde/industrial/noise type stuff. I ran that until the beginning of last year, after realising that I wasn’t really cut out for the music industry. I enjoyed it while I was involved with it, at least initially, but towards the end I have to admit it I started getting a bit tired of it all, and the spark had gone. And maybe, just maybe, there was also a feeling that I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew – it wasn’t all hopeless, though, as it taught me a few things that I can use in running Spectral Press.
And of course, the blogging has helped greatly in getting both my name and that of Spectral Press’ out there into people’s consciousnesses. Already there appears to be quite a buzz about the imprint, and I am very confident, not to say very excited, about its prospects.

JD’L: If the universe were to tip the scales of fortune entirely in your favour and nothing could stand in your way, what are the highest hopes you’d have for Spectral’s future?

SMJ: I have a lot of plans for the imprint, should it all turn my way. The most important hope, of course, is that Spectral becomes a highly respected imprint, by readers and writers alike, and that people will appreciate the chapbooks for both the quality of the stories published and the high-quality presentation and attention to detail.  In fact, I’d like it to become one of those imprints that authors would love to get published by and that readers are eager to get their hands on. In other words, it’s all or nothing for me.

Other future plans, more substantial ones, are that I will be looking to publish very limited edition hardback novellas, à la Chizine Publications, another imprint I have been mightily impressed by. Then, I would like to expand the lines available from Spectral – first, in line with my love of old ghost stories, there’ll be Spectral Old Masters, which will reprint out-of-print and out-of-copyright stories from the late Victorian/Edwardian/early 20th century eras. Following that will be another line which will be a homage to the Golden Age of pulp fiction, the 1950s and 60s, to go under the name of Spectral Pulp. That idea seems to be surprisingly popular when I’ve mentioned it to people – in all likelihood that’ll be the first of the expansion plans to be realised.

JD’L: Have you spent a lot of time working out how running a small publishing house works or did you dive in without worrying about it too much?

SMJ: Having been involved in publishing before, albeit the last time being before the computer revolution, I had a vague inkling of what I wanted and how to go about getting it, plus having run the record label as a proper business, I wasn’t too worried about setting it all up and getting it off the ground. I also knew what I didn’t want, which was something that looked as if it had been hurriedly put together in someone’s back room. FracturedSpaces had all been about a quality product and simultaneously being a beautiful object. I carried those ideas over into Spectral, wanting to create a complete and seamless package with every publication. I honestly think that all my ideas have been beautifully realised.

JD’L: How much work is involved? Does anyone help you?

SMJ: With Gary McMahon’s story, What They Hear in the Dark (the very first chapbook to be published), there was actually very little work involved, but I think that was entirely due to everyone’s extremely professional approach. It all flowed together so nicely, Gary’s a great guy to deal with as well as a great writer, so there were absolutely no issues there. We worked very closely together on getting his chapbook ready. Then, the man who designed the amazing logo, Neil Williams, also designed the wonderful cover and did the layout. It’d be true to say that Spectral Volume I is a true collaborative effort between writer, editor and designer.

JD’L: Spectral’s interest appears to lie with lovingly crafted ghost stories rather than balls-out horror. When it comes to choosing work for the imprint, what key elements will you always look for in a writer’s work?

SMJ: I am primarily looking for atmosphere and creepiness rather than gore and violence, and whether the imagery they paint projects real spine-chilling shivers. I prefer psychological chills, although all that in-your-face stuff also has its place in the horror spectrum, and I wouldn’t necessarily reject a story on the grounds that there were elements of them in there. I cut my teeth on ghost stories and a Pan Book of Horror Stories (#8) that I’d found on one of the bookshelves when I was about 10 or 11, I think. The big thing for me with those tales was the genuinely frightening and oppressive atmospheres evoked, and the implied horrific consequences. Imagination played a greater role in both horror stories and films then, I think – it was a two-way thing, a truly interactive experience, without the aid of expensive equipment.

JD’L: Is the line dividing editor from writer very fine in your opinion? How many editors are frustrated writers and how many cheesed-off editors go on to write?

SMJ: In my case, it most certainly is – I’m definitely a frustrated writer. I have the ideas, but my writing tends to lack focus and wanders around a lot. I know I’m doing it too; the number of times I’ve deleted whole sections of stories and started to rewrite them only to have to do the same thing again is legion. It takes me awhile to get to the heart of a story, by which time I’ve already written about 5000 words and nothing has happened. However, being an editor is something of an educational process – you can discern the mechanics of the whole process, how the writer has told his story with compactness and brevity, whilst still delineating atmosphere and delivering chills. I just wish I could apply it to my own writing.

JD’L: Is the horror genre just a bit of fun for thrill-seekers and those obsessed with the macabre or is there more to it than that?

SMJ: There are certainly elements of that in horror readership, as well as horror film-buffs, too, and there always will be – those people who want to push themselves to watch the most horrific movie or read the sickest story. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. For my part I believe that horror/supernatural/ghost stories have a lot to teach us about ourselves. As a good example of this, you just need to read Gary’s story – people come to terms with grief in very different ways, and what we take from our experiences affects our view of events leading up to tragedy, for instance. Some people respond by looking inward for answers, other look to something Other and ask it the same questions. And those answers need not necessarily be mutually exclusive despite the difference of approach. Good horror writing takes the deepest puzzles of life and examines them through the lens of an emotional primacy that some other types of fiction lack. Again, it’s a difference of approach, just on another level. No one method is either right or wrong – it’s just what works for the individual.

JD’L: What’s the most disturbing piece of fiction you’ve ever read?

SMJ: That’s a difficult one, because the most disturbing piece of writing wasn’t marketed as fiction at all, but, by its very nature, could be construed as such. Someone lent me Whitley Streiber’s Communion many years ago, and there’s a scene in it where the purported aliens were outside his bedroom at night and speaking directly to him, and on the point of abducting him. I read this bit just before I went to bed, which wasn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep, as you can imagine. It wasn’t just that, however, that unnerved me; it was also the doubt engendered by the story itself – did this really happen, or was this fiction cynically marketed as ‘truth’? Both of those thoughts are disturbing in themselves, I think. (Editor’s note: this book scared the shit out of me, too.)

JD’L: Spectral Press is making high-quality supernatural fiction available outside the mainstream. Do you think this small-scale approach is the only way to bring the best writers in the genre to the reading public?

SMJ: One has only to witness the whole bowdlerising and dumbing-down of music through TV shows like X-Factor and American Idol to realise that the mainstream (in a cultural sense) aren’t that interested in quality and discernment – they just want what’s deemed to be popular and they want it fed to them and to be told what to like. On top of that you get the MTV-style horror-lite of Twilight and similar paranormal romance garbage. I’ve never been a big fan of the vampire, but even I recognise that the power invested in the creature in folklore and fiction has been sanitised and made acceptable to those who wouldn’t normally like horror – in other words, it’s horror for non-horror fans. The vampire as a monster of myth was amoral and a nasty piece of work, a being who had no qualms about killing anyone. To have emasculated him really in the way that Twilight appears to have done flies in the face of everything I love about the horror genre.

Spectral Press unashamedly aims for those people who love the written word and the ghostly/supernatural genres, as well as those who appreciate books as beautiful objects in themselves. I do think that the small, independent press approach is just one way of promoting good writing and possibly reaching out to the odd random soul who might otherwise be put off by the category ‘horror’. I can but hope, anyway.

JD’L: Being a Horror Reanimated interviewee – apart from earning you some free public torture – confers upon you a brief moment of extreme power. You may award The Sword of the Ultimate Darkness to the work of horror in any medium which you judge to be a timeless classic. By contrast, but with no less potency attached to the ability, you may banish to the Plague Pits the most…well…crap example of the genre ever created.

Please exercise your godlike gift now.

SMJ: Another difficult one, this, as it’s a tie between two films from the same creative mind, Clive Barker: Hellraiser vs Nightbreed. Both are unique visions, one of which has given us what is possibly the most instantly recognisable monster of the late 20th Century in the form of Pinhead, and the film also epitomises the darkness and filth that lies in hearts of humanity. However, I am going to plump for Nightbreed as the winner of The Sword of Ultimate Darkness, for several reasons. Superficially it shows enormous breadth of invention and imagination, but that’s mere surface gloss. Look deeper, and you’ll find that it’s a neat summation of mankind’s nasty habit of persecuting those who are different, in other words, the perpetual fear of the other. Having been a member of various musical subcultures over the years, I have witnessed the wilful ignorance displayed by those who refuse to understand that not everyone is the same, nor has the desire to be. The film ends on a note of hope, however: when the tribe disperses, you know that difference will always survive and thrive, no matter how much it’s persecuted or despised.

As for what I would choose to consign to the deepest Plague Pit, well, I will award the honour to Twilight – I have actually seen the first film and I hated what it’s done to the vampire in particular and horror in general.

JD’L: Simon, it’s been wonderful having you and I hope you like your new, soul-deep tattoo. I think The Harrow’s going to need a bit of a wash before we give it back to Franz – he’s such a stickler for hygiene!

Before you go, all of us at Horror Reanimated (that’s me, Mathew, Sgt Fetish the dungeon moggy and a few demons we never bothered to name) wish you every success with Spectral Press and, indeed, anything you turn your good hand to. I hope you’ll come back and visit again.

SMJ: Thanks very much for giving me the opportunity to talk and thanks for hosting me – I’ll be sure to drop by again very soon! (BTW, do you have the number of the landscape gardener who designed the grounds of this place? He has a great eye for capturing the essence of doom, I think…)…

Simon Marshall-Jones, writer, editor/publisher Spectral Press, artist, book reviewer and blogger,: born in Wales in the early sixties, to parents who absolutely loved and cherished books – needless to say, MY love of books was instilled by such a positive influence. I attended art college, where I nurtured dreams of being the next HR Giger. After a space of seven years, mostly spent travelling, I then went back to university in Plymouth, to study computer multimedia, the only reward for which was managing to have a stroke. Since then, I have had a much better time of it: I now have one wife, one stepson, seven cats, a dog, two rabbits and two guinea-pigs, live in the East Midlands and don’t have enough tattoos. I also ran a small independent record label for a couple of years, FracturedSpacesRecords.

Favourite authors include Clive Barker, China Mieville, Umberto Eco, Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg, Philip K. Dick. For non-fiction thrills, you’ll find me reading books on the cultural and social attitudes towards death and dying since the Middle Ages, or Medieval Religious History – one day I would like to study for a degree in either anthropology or medieval history at some point.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. News: new interview onlin…  |  January 4th, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    [...] been posted at Horror Reanimated, conducted by the ever-lovely Joseph D’Lacey – click here to read what I have to say… go on, you know you want [...]

  • 2. News: interview now onlin…  |  January 4th, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    [...] just been posted at Horror Reanimated, conducted by the ever-lovely Joseph D’Lacey – click here to read what I have to say… go on, you know you want [...]

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