June 29, 2012

Better than a Ghost of a Chance: an interview with Spectral Press' Simon Marshall-Jones

I recently had the good fortune of interviewing Simon Marshall-Jones, the man at the helm of Spectral Press. The small independent publisher has flourished over the course of the last year and it looks to be on track to even bigger and better things. But let's hear it all in Simon's words.

What was the impetus behind establishing Spectral Press?

It’s interesting because, before I was handed a couple of chapbooks published by Nightjar Press (run by Nicholas Royle) at FantasyCon 2010 in Nottingham, UK, I’d never even heard of the format. I’ve subsequently discovered that they have a long and venerable history, and that they’re especially popular in the poetry scene, as they’re an easy way disseminating this form of literature as well as being inexpensive to produce. I was a book reviewer back then, and I realised that it was a perfect form for showcasing the writing of some of the best talents working today. Aside from that, it was also a good way of starting up a small-press without having access to much working capital. Over and above that, however, is the fact that I just love the genre and its myriad possibilities, and this is my way of giving back what I have taken out of it.

I also wanted to steer away from the whole vampire/zombie/werewolf/apocalyptic scenario thing which appears to have taken over much of horror publishing in the last few years, and offer something a mite different. Which is why I decided to concentrate on the ghost story, a form of literature that I feel deserves to be more in the spotlight. Additionally, in these days of easy access to digital publishing technology and e-books, I wanted to remind people that physical books are objects of beauty themselves, and small objects of desire.

There's a pretty open adoration for the classic horror of the early 20th century and even late 19th century. What is it about that time that draws you in?

For me, it’s all about effect and atmosphere, as well as reliance on the reader’s imagination to fill in the blank spots, so to speak. I feel that with a lot of modern horror, imagination and reader participation are being squeezed out of the equation, which is why I have chosen to keep the spirit of late 19th/early 20th century ghost story literature alive with Spectral. Their appeal for me, though, is very simple: there’s no reliance on gore and excessive on-page violence, instead those are suggested artfully through carefully crafted prose. I feel the same about film – these days, a lot of it is fed to the viewer on-screen in all its gory technicolour glory, with nothing left to suggestion. In many ways, then, I see Victorian/Edwardian ghost literature in the same way as those old black & white films that used to be shown on late-night TV. Take a film like Carl Dreier’s classic Vampyr (1932): it’s frightening because it’s in monochrome, uses disturbing imagery and has an unsettling soundtrack. Despite its superficially nonsensical and surreal native, it’s made even more unsettling by the fact that it still has an internal logic which only makes sense within its own context, almost making this world seem out of kilter by comparison. Mostly, you have to work at constructing your own narrative out of the disjointed scenes presented, an aspect of both filmmaking and literature that seems to fallen by the wayside in the mainstream. When it comes to the written word, reintroducing those elements is one of the principal aims of Spectral.

Spectral Press focuses on shorter works with its chapbooks, rather than novel length fiction. Are chapbooks better suited to the more classical style of horror, or is there another reason behind highlighting those works?

One of the reasons why I chose chapbooks as my initial foray into the world of small-press is that I consider them to be perfect little arenas in which to showcase the work of some of the best writing talents out there. In any case, in terms of the ghost story, short stories and novellas seem to work far more effectively in the shorter form than in anything longer, in my opinion. Sustaining tension and atmosphere is best achieved by containing the narrative within a short burst, although this doesn’t mean that longer works can’t achieve the same effect. I just find that, when it comes to this form of literature, short stories work better in terms of impact for me – other people will find their approach to such things very different. 
Having said all that, the novellas that I have recently launched have a broader remit within what I would call ‘traditional’ definitions of horror, but simultaneously trying not to tread over ground already covered. I’ve always liked stories which look at ideas and themes from new angles, or ones which introduce original facets to familiar stories. But the bedrock upon which it’s all based is high quality – not just in terms of story, but presentation and all the other aspects of publishing as well.

Each story Spectral Press releases as a limited edition appears to sell out quite handily. How pleased have you been with the reception of each publication? And do you intend to stay focused on the limited editions or can readers expect wider releases in the future?

I’ve been more than pleased with the critical and reader reception, in fact, I would say it has exceeded my wildest expectations. After having run a record label (FracturedSpecesRecords) for two years, where sales were sluggish at best, the runaway success of Spectral has come as a bit of a surprise and has taken me completely aback. I learnt a lot of things from the record label, however, which I’ve applied to the running of Spectral. One of the worst things I did with FSR was to rush things – I’ve been a lot more cautious and have been releasing things slowly and very deliberately, without overstretching myself at any point. That has definitely worked to my advantage this time.

I do intend to publish more widely in the future – for instance, there will be a collection of all the chapbooks (along with new material, hopefully) either next year or 2014. The novellas I have started publishing are available as unlimited paperbacks as well as the limited signed hardbacks and there are still plans to release them as e-books at some point. Signed limited editions, however, will remain the mainstay of Spectral for the foreseeable future, but who knows what the future will bring?

You've published works from very accomplished authors like Gary Fry and Cate Gardner. But go back in time for a moment and name an author who you think would have been an exemplary choice to be published under the Spectral Press banner.

Gosh – that’s a difficult one. I can think of at least two, if not three, writers I would like to pluck from the past and ask to produce a chapbook story for me: they would be Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and Robert Aickman. If we’re talking someone from the recent past, especially one who completely changed my perceptions of the possibilities of horror as a genre, then it would be Clive Barker.

The last year has seen five volumes released in your chapbook series, plus the longer novella from Gary Fry. Is that a pace you hope to maintain in the ensuing years or is there a change-up in the works?

The current plan is to keep releasing the quarterly chapbooks until the end of 2013, after which the frequency will change to one every two months. As for novellas, I plan to publish two every year. That will be in addition to the annual Christmas Ghost Story anthology every December and the Spectral Signature Editions single-author collections (which will come out once a year, in all likelihood).

What has been the biggest preconception shattered or overall revelation you've discovered with Spectral Press?

Probably amongst the biggest revelations for me is just how much of a juggernaut Spectral has become in such a short time. From conception to the present is a mere twenty months, if that. But that isn’t down to just luck – it’s also down to sheer hard work and also knowing what makes a good story. On top of that is ensuring that each title is carefully edited so that no typo ever reaches print, as well as ensuring that the story is the best it can be. Plus there’s the delicate balancing act of keeping Spectral in the public eye without being over-bearing about it. If there’s one pet-hate I have, it’s the constant spam of people essentially urging us to ‘BUY MY BOOK!’ – the main purpose of my promotion is to make people aware of the imprint, the kind of material it publishes, where it can be obtained and to explore if they so wish.

However, if we’re talking about shocks, then the biggest would have to be Spectral Press gaining not one, but TWO, nominations in this year’s British Fantasy Awards – King Death by Paul Finch in the Short Fiction category and Spectral Press itself in the PS Publishing Independent Press Award. The Awards will be presented at FantasyCon2012 in September, to be held in Brighton in the UK

Can you offer a glimpse of what readers can expect from Spectral Press through the second half of 2012 and beyond?

Just about to be released is Volume VI in the series of chapbooks, The Eyes of Water by the bestselling author Alison Littlewood, to be followed in September by Mark West’s What Gets Left Behind and then in December David Tallerman’s The Way of the Leaves, the story which recently won the Spectral/This Is Horror short story writing competition. Also in September will be the second in the Spectral Visions line of longer works, John Llewellyn Probert’s The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine, an affectionate and blackly humorous (if somewhat gruesome) homage to the films of Vincent Price. And, of course, there’ll be the first Christmas Ghost Story Annual in December.

Looking further afield, there are chapbooks coming from the likes of Paul Kane, Simon Bestwick, Terry Grimwood and Angela Slatter in 2013, as well as a novella by Stephen Volk (screenwriter of UK ghost film The Awakening and creator of the infamous Ghostwatch television hoax documentary). In the summer of that year will be the first of the Spectral Signature Editions single-author collections, this one being by World Fantasy Award nominee Simon Kurt Unsworth. The chapbooks’ print run will also be increased to 125 per issue from Volume IX (March 2013). More exciting still will be a chapbook story forthcoming from the pen of Peter Atkins, screenwriter of Hellraiser II, III & IV. Publication date has yet to be set on that one.

There are exciting times ahead for Spectral Press – please visit http://spectralpress.wordpress.com/ and sign up to be kept abreast of the latest developments with the imprint. You can also purchase 1, 3, and 5 year subscriptions to the chapbook line, ensuring that you never miss one, considering they sell out quite fast. You’ll also be able to catch up with the latest news and reviews, and read about the occasional exciting competition. Hope to see you there!

Thanks again to Simon for taking part in this interview. As for the rest of you, I encourage you to keep an eye on Spectral Press if you're not already--especially if you have an affinity for ghost stories like I do.


  1. Ahh, noticed a slight error, which is my bad - in the answer to which author I would like to have appeared in Spectral it should read Robert Aickman NOT Robert Aiken!

    Apologies all round...

  2. Duly noted, Simon. I'll fix that right now.