On Being a Collector

When I was a little kid, I had a string of trinkets. I must have been three, maybe four, and the trinkets probably cost me a penny each. That was the first thing I collected.

Somewhere along the same time, I have picture of myself with a little record player, and a bunch of 45s. My parents tell me that I ripped off the labels, but still knew what each record was called. I’d say, “This is ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’,” and sure enough, I’d be right. I had the rips and tears memorized. I don’t know that I collected 45s at this early age, but I had a bunch of them.

Next thing I remember collecting was rocks, then pennies, then stamps, and finally, when I was about ten, I started collecting baseball cards. Stamps and cards occupied my time until I discovered 45s again, and started buying them from the local record store in Woodland, Traynam’s, on Main Street. Traynam’s was a musical instrument shop that sold a few records on the side, and I quickly became one of their most fervent 45 customers.

Somewhere around age fourteen, I started collecting books. I only remember the age because I was in junior high, and that’s when they introduced us to Scholastic Books. I was hooked from that first brochure. We didn’t have a bookstore in town, so I started buying books via catalogs. I’d write to the publishers like Ballantine or Pyramid or Lancer, ask for a catalog; then pour over them for all the interesting books I could find. That’s when, thanks to the Ace Books catalog, I discovered Philip K. Dick.

Somewhere in my high school years, I discovered British imports. There was a head shop in Davis—our hip Mecca in the area—that sold a handful of British paperbacks: horror anthologies, Nevil Shute, Georgette Heyer, Dennis Wheatley, stuff like that. They intrigued me, and soon I had the name of a UK wholesaler who would ship me books from Falmouth, England. Now I felt like I had access to the world.

And, of course, there was Tower Books and Records over in Sacramento. I was living the collector’s dream.

Fast forward to 2016, and what have we got now: ebooks, music downloads, data streaming. What do collectors collect these days? I have no idea. All I know is that Stark House Press grew out of that young man’s collecting obsession—his desire to share the treasures of the book world—and that I remain dedicated to publishing BOOKS. Sure, we publish a few ebooks along the way. I understand that many readers appreciate the convenience of a kindle or a nook. But I just don’t get it.

To me, an ebook is as disposable as Kleenex. As efficient, certainly, but no more or less lasting as a tissue, to be used then thrown away.

My problem is, I’ve been a collector for about 60 years. I don’t get downloads and streaming. If I like a musician, I want all their albums. If I like an author, I want all their books. If I like a director, I want all their movies. Sure, it’s a disease. It’s a mania. It’s an obsession. But when someone tells me how their mom threw away their comic collection when they went off to college, I grow visibly pale. When someone tells me that they sold their vinyl collection when cds came along, I am filled with a nostalgic sadness. When I sold my baseball card collection recently, I felt like I was cutting out a chunk of childhood and throwing it away. But, hell, I’m in my 60s. I haven’t looked at these cards in over 40 years. It hurt, but I figured it had to be done.

The vinyl and the books? They’ll have to tear them out of my hands… Or in other words, my sons will get to deal with that when the time comes. I just hope by then that one of them becomes a collector.

—Greg Shepard


The Hardboiled Brit

James Hadley Chase is an interesting guy. His real name is René Brabazon Raymond, born in Ealing, London, back in 1906. Served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, though apparently not as a pilot. He did, however, edit the RAF journal and wrote several stories for it. Back in civilian life, he sold children’s encyclopedias and worked in a bookshop. I’m guessing that’s where he first encountered American authors like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Jonathan Latimer.

Chase certainly was a canny fellow. He turned his love of American hardboiled fiction into a lifetime career. His first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish—which we’re reprinting in March—is filled with gangster slang (“gumshoeing” as a verb is my favorite) and lots of violent action. Sure, there are a few “shan’ts” in there. That happens when you’re just starting out. You’ve got your American city maps and your dictionary of American slang handy, but you’re still English born and bred. Those occasional British phrases will slip through.

But for the most part, Chase wrote hardboiled American thrillers.

Interestingly enough, Chase is said to have visited the U.S. only twice in his life, once to visit Florida, and another time, New Orleans. You’d never know it. He started imitating that clipped, wisecracking American speech pattern right from the start, and only got better at it as he went along. I can imagine him watching American gangster films, and reading Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice or Latimer’s The Dead Don’t Care, or even Paul Cain’s Fast One, and saying to himself, I bet I could do that.

Chase wrote fast. In his writing lifetime—spanning 46 years—he published over 90 novels, and at least one original play; that is, a play not based on No Orchids for Miss Blandish. No Orchids always remained his steady bestseller over the years. It was not only turned into a British stage production, but was made into two films as well. Probably the best known version here in the States is Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang with Kim Darby and Tony Musante. A lot of Chase books were made into films.

But No Orchids, the story of the brutal gangland kidnapping of a rich heiress, is the book also got him into trouble. For starters, Chase borrowed the basic plot of the kidnapping from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Some critics held that against him. Then the British authorities sued him and his publisher, Jarrolds, for excessive sadistic violence in this book and Miss Callaghan Comes to Grief, and forced him to tame the books down. Which, given the times, makes sense. There’s a knifing scene in No Orchids that is still hard to take.

So here we are in 2016, and I thought it was time to reprint No Orchids for Miss Blandish in its original, unexpurgated version, from that first British edition back in 1939 that so distressed the squeamish and caused all the stir—while still selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

And, naturally, if I was going to reprint No Orchids for Miss Blandish, I figured I might as well pair it with the also-edited Twelve Chinamen and a Woman, since both books feature the same hero detective, Dave Fenner. They both needed to be restored. At least, that was my thinking. But, really, any early books by James Hadley Chase are worth reprinting. They’re all brisk, inventive, filled with plot twists and interesting characters, and great fun to curl up with. Time goes by quickly when you’re reading a Chase thriller. And if you can read just one without wanting to pick up another one right after, you’re a better man than I.

—Greg Shepard
Stark House Press

A Message from the Missus

2016 is, as you may have noticed, an election year here in the United States. Now for those of our readers who live outside the United States, this means you wait and watch as the political process in the US changes the world financial markets and affects your local economy. Let me just apologize, right up front. I’m sorry that what we do in an internal process affects the whole world. It just works that way, I guess.
But what does an election year mean to the citizens of these United States? I’d like to believe that it means you will spend time in contemplation of the issues that are most important to you and educating yourself on where the candidates stand. I’d like to think we would all take the time to examine previous comments and voting records for our candidates and that we would take seriously our right and privilege to vote for whomever we think best suited for the job. But, deep down, I don’t really think that’s what an election year means to the general public.
It does mean choosing sides. Sometimes it means choosing a side you don’t agree with but that seems better than the other side that you REALLY don’t agree with. (This is the lesser-of-two-evils vote.) It means getting to know a bit more about your neighbors as campaign signs spring up on lawns like red, white, and blue daffodils. It may mean handing out leaflets, writing letters to the editor, or watching debates on TV. It means funny cartoons on Facebook and reading everyone’s opinions on the latest speech.
But it also means commercials. Lots of commercials. TV, radio, the movies, billboards, magazines, you name it. Wherever we look, we are hit by advertising. And in an election year, we are hit with political advertising. Now I understand the necessity of getting a politician’s name and viewpoint into the public eye. Obviously, if you’ve never heard of the person, you won’t elect them. And I understand and accept (albeit reluctantly) that this advertising needs to be broadcast as widely and as frequently as possible. OK, fine.
But there’s one thing I don’t understand and can’t accept.
Political campaigns never seem to be able to focus on the issues or on the candidates. Instead, they spend millions of our dollars (oh, yes, believe me, you are paying for those ads) to heap vitriol and hatred on their opponents. So and so is a fascist/socialist/communist! Thus and such is a liberal/radical/anarchist! Vote for them and you’ll drive the country to the brink of disaster!
Now everyone has a right to say what they want (you remember, that whole freedom-of-speech thing they taught you in High School?) and everyone has the right to believe what they want. That’s what this country was founded on. Freedom. Freedom from oppression, freedom of religion, freedom of speech. You have the same rights that I do. That’s what the United States is (or was intended to be) all about. Freedom.
But when did the United States become about hatred? When did “My opinion is more valid than your opinion” become the norm? When did it become acceptable, even admirable, to make other people feel small? When did we become a nation of bullies?
You hear a lot about bullying in schools, in workplaces, in the military, in police forces, but no one talks about bullying in the government. How can we expect our citizens to treat each other with dignity and respect when the candidates for our governmental offices can’t seem to rise above playground taunting and name-calling?
Yes, freedom is what America was founded on. It defines our country. But it’s not freedom that makes a great nation. Future civilizations may teach that we were a free nation, but I fear they will not think us a great nation. Greatness is not defined by freedom. It is defined by kindness. It is exemplified in helping others with compassion, tolerance and acceptance for those whose differences we may not understand, and disagreeing without resorting to vicious personal attacks.
Go out and vote this year. Vote for the candidates that you believe in. Be knowledgeable about their policies. Educate yourself. And feel free to have an opinion that differs from your neighbor. But don’t fall prey to the juvenile rhetoric that is tossed around so freely in an election year. Be better than that. Listen more than you speak. Try to understand another’s point of view. Be kind. Be part of a great nation.

—Cindy Shepard

Take Your Time

I’ve been listening to my old David Bowie cds this week, and watching Bowie videos on YouTube thanks to an endless supply of links via Facebook and Rolling Stone online. Weeks later, and I still miss him. And though never an Eagles fan, I was sorry to hear about the passing of Glenn Frey, too. And Natalie Cole. And Alan Rickman. And Abe Vigoda…

And now, Paul Kantner. What the hell is going on here? I mean, these folks were so young. (Well, okay, maybe not Abe, but he always seemed old even when he was young.) And as I write these words, I realize that only someone of my generation or so would make the observation that these actors and musicians were still young. To a 20-year-old, they must seem ancient. But they’re young to me, and that’s the point. Because the 70s were just yesterday…the 80s only just happened…the 90s a blink away…the 00s…

What is this marvelous creation that we constructed for ourselves called Time? And how is it that a guy in his Sixties considers Paul Kantner at 74 to be young when there was a time when it was hard to imagine being 30, much less twice that. I don’t see a 63-year-old in the mirror. Who is this grey-haired guy who gets an automatic senior discount at all the restaurants? Can’t be me. Because I’ve still got a head full of Ziggy Stardust, the Mothers of Invention, T. Rex, Captain Beefheart, Iron Butterfly, the Sons of Champlin, the Beach Boys, the Suburbs, Kraftwerk and the Residents still ringing in my ears. And they’re all so young up there on the stage, dancing, playing, transforming, making grand and glorious music.

Those days just happened. In my head, they’re still fresh. And I still get a chill thinking about the first time David Bowie takes the stage…or the first time I see all the Beach Boys, my teenage heroes, all lined up on a stage, faces filled with dark beards that were never part of the surfing image … or the first time the Mothers come to San Rafael, to a black-lighted palace called Pepperland, where Frank Zappa makes his way through the crowd (yeah, walks right in front of us) and up to the stage, steps to the mike, and says, “It’s fucking hot in here,” in that droll drawl of us that I had heard so often on his albums.

Magic times.

And it’s hard to admit that all my rock & roll heroes are, well…old. Sure, the Rolling Stones are still touring like there’s no tomorrow. But for most of the bands and musicians I’ve followed over the years, their touring days are drawing to a close. I just read that Brian Wilson is taking “Pet Sounds” on its last world tour. I’m impressed that at Brian’s age, he still wants to get up on a stage and perform it. (Considering his psychological issues, I’m impressed that he wants to get on stage period, but that’s another story, and more power to him.)

But as we all wind down, locked in our shared nostalgia for a wonderful music-filled youth, I still resent the loss of all my heroes. It may seem weird, considering that I never met the man, but when Frank Zappa passed away back in 1993, I felt like I had lost a dear friend. And then, two years later, Jerry Garcia. As I blogged a few weeks ago, I felt the same way at losing Bowie. And now Paul Kantner, guiding light of the Jefferson Airplane, the guy who brought us all those acidy guitar and vocal harmonies. He and Grace Slick created the Jefferson Starship with their Blows Against the Empire album, and even though I was never a big fan of the Starship, I was glad that he kept the spirit of the times alive. And held it together all these years.

And wherever they are, alive in spirit, they’re one with the music of the spheres now. As we all will be. Jim Morrison reminded us all a long time ago—or not so long ago, depending on how you look at it—that no one here gets out alive. But I still miss them. My shiny-faced, sweet-voiced, long-haired heroes.

—Greg Shepard

Playing Favorites

I don’t have one favorite author. And at any given moment, I might give a different answer if pushed to pick one. In the world of film and popular music, I have no problem playing favorites. Casablanca has been my favorite film since I first saw it 55+ or so years ago. I never get tired of watching anything with Humphrey Bogart in it. Same with music. Brian Wilson has been #1 for me since I first heard the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” come blasting out of my radio back in 1963. The Beatles come a close second, right up there with Frank Zappa. They all took music in a different direction, and I was happy to follow.

But writers, now, they’re a slippery breed. You can have a favorite author at one point, and then a few years later, you realize you’ve lost all interest in them. You’ve got all their books, but can’t imagine reading one of them. Fond memories prompt you to mention them when someone asks, but you are plucking the strings of auld lang syne more than being honest about your feelings when you call them a favorite.

I feel that way about a lot of my teenage favorites: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard both come to mind. I love those guys….but when did I last read one of their books? Way too long ago. I also read a lot of Jules Verne when I was a kid, too. And I’m sure I’d find joy in all three of these authors if I read them now. But favorites? Maybe not so much anymore….

You might think that my favorite writers would all be Stark House books. But, in fact, my three favorites are Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick and Jonathan Carroll. Hemingway for the precision of his writing, the way he could create an emotion with dialogue alone, the leanness of his prose. I love Phil Dick for his crazy-ass ideas. His books always take me somewhere new, and get me to look at the world in a different way. And Carroll, well, I love his books just for the pure magic of them.

Throughout my life, I’ve latched on to a lot of favorite authors whom I’ve read and collected with a fervor like that of a junkie searching for his fix. Authors like Robert Silverberg, Barry N. Malzberg, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Margaret Millar, Emile Zola, F. Scott Fitzgerald, W. Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, Stephen King, Robert McCammon, Michael Moorcock, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula K. LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, Dashiell Hammett, H. Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, Sinclair Lewis, Algernon Blackwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, Graham Joyce, H. G. Wells, Storm Constantine, L. Frank Baum….

The list could go on and on. How do you pick a favorite among such heady company? And this is the short list. It’s rather slanted toward male authors, most of them American or European. I admit it, I need to branch out more. I read a lot of Russian literature in college—Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy come to mind—but that was years ago. I have yet to read many of the Indian, Japanese, Caribbean or Latin authors. There aren’t a lot of modern authors on the list either.

And, really, I don’t know what any of this has to do with Stark House except to give you an idea of where I’m coming from as a publisher. Nobody asked me who my favorite authors are. But, hell, nobody asked me to start a publishing company either, and I didn’t let that stop me….

—Greg Shepard
Stark House Press

David Bowie

I was one of the lucky ones. I got to experience David Bowie live and on stage when he first came to the U.S. to promote Ziggy Stardust back in 1972. There was a small group of us. We dolled up for the event. I painted my index fingernails black for the occasion. I think someone else had eyeliner. The event took place at Winterland in San Francisco, an ex-ice skating rink turned music hall under the auspices of Bill Graham Productions.

If memory serves me correctly, Sylvester, formerly of the Cockettes, opened the show. Flo & Eddie came on second, making several comments about the weirdness of the headliner during their show (which, considering they had just left The Mother of Invention, seemed a little presumptuous). The crowd thinned after each act left the stage. It was hard to believe. Here we were, the chosen few, ready to receive David Bowie on stage for the first time, and the crowd was actually thinning!

Winterland didn’t have seats. It was one vast open area—the rink. All the tall people, of course, stood in front. The seats were in the balcony overlooking the rink. We were on the floor. Behind the tall people. As always. However, by the time that Bowie was ready to hit the stage, the crowd had thinned enough that for once, I actually had a great view of the stage.

And there he was! David Bowie. And the Spiders from Mars—Woody, Trevor and Mick. The ultimate glamstar power trio!

Bowie was dressed in a black leather jacket. He looked like he was trying to cop a little of the Lou Reed/Velvet Underground vibe. He looked nervous. And I wish I could remember all the songs he performed, but I don’t. Lots of Ziggy Stardust. “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvets, of course. I was in rock’n’roll heaven, so who remembers the details?

One year later, he came back to the West Coast, but didn’t get any closer than Los Angeles. I flew down, stayed with friends, and we caught the show at the Palladium. It was packed! No thinning of the crowd this time. Bowie was in supreme form, total confidence. He owned the stage. I don’t even remember who opened the show, if anyone. Opening acts were insignificant. By the time Bowie and band hit the stage, the crowd surged to the front. I was packed with the rest of the ecstatic sardines in the event of the decade. Bowie didn’t have a black leather jacket this time. He was in full Ziggy regalia—tight, colorful outfit, full makeup, shiny forehead disc—climaxing the show with “Rock’n’roll Suicide”… “give me your hands!… you’re wonderful!…give me your hands!” He we gave him our hands.

What a show. That was, what? 1973? A lifetime ago.

The last time I saw David live was in Mountain View at one of those monstrous outdoor events in the early 1990s when they first started using the giant screens for the folks on the hillside. It was supposed to be his last live greatest hits tour. It wasn’t his last tour, of course, but it felt like the climax of a career. So many great songs, so many hits, so much love pouring from the audience to the stage. Even if it wasn’t to be his last tour, it felt like a climactic event. Every time David Bowie hit the stage, it was a major event. He owned the crowd. Has there ever been such an androgynous rock star commanding so much unconditional love and adoration?…

I can’t believe David Bowie is gone. I kept buying his albums as they came out. I’ve played his 1970s and early 80s albums to death. But gradually I realized that David Bowie was moving on to new paths, and leaving me behind. Tin Machine left me completely cold. Then came Black Tie White Noise, which perked my interest a bit, but not much. Though I appreciated it, I began to fade out on Bowie’s career with Outside. I don’t even remember Earthling or Hours. Need to listen to them again. Then, after a long absence, came The Next Day. Another masterpiece! Bowie was back! And just when I was ready to hail Blackstar as the dawn of a new Bowie era….I find that it is his last and parting gift to his fans. His swan song. His final album. His farewell.

It’s been a long time since I first listened to The Man Who Sold the World back in 1970. That was when I discovered David Bowie. Found the album in a promo bin, loved the cover and took a chance on it. It was love at first listen. Forty-five years later, I must bid adieu to an old friend, and it hurts. Was David Bowie the best musician of his generation? “Best” is a term that has no bearing here. Simply put, there was no one else like him. David Bowie was the most original musician rock has ever seen. He kept the changes coming. I consider myself lucky that I got to share the planet with him.

And hey, I’ll always have Winterland….

—Greg Shepard

More Deadly Than the Male

I just finished reading More Deadly Than the Male by James Hadley Chase, the story of a lonely guy in London who tries to impress the people around him with stories of being in the mob in America, stories he’s read about but has as much chance of having experienced as bedding Veronica Lake. And therein lies his problem. The poor chap has never been with a woman. So when he falls in with a con man and a dark-haired woman introduced as his sister, he’s ripe to be taken for a serious ride. And that’s just what they do.

Cora is just about the baddest femme fatale you are likely to meet between two book covers. She leads our hero, George Fraser, by the nose and other extremities until he’s fit to be tied, always promising him something she has no intention of delivering, badgering him, taunting him, denying him. Until he commits murder.

I only mention all this because More Deadly Than the Male such a fascinating book for Chase to have written. George Fraser is constantly reading about American gangsters, imagining himself doing the things that he can only read about. And Chase himself, an Englishman in love with all things American, became a writer who wrote almost exclusively about American criminals, setting most of his books in a fictionalized Florida.

It’s as if Chase took a good, hard look in the mirror, decided he didn’t like everything he saw, and decided to write a book about a poor schmo who has all his obsessions, but none of Chase’s talent and drive. George Fraser has no idea how to be a success. James Hadley Chase was a monstrous success with his very first book, No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Fraser lacks confidence and, where Cora is concerned, all common sense. Chase, on the other hand, parlayed his storytelling skills over 90 books, flipping off his critics whenever he got the chance.

I’m a sucker for Chase. I don’t mind admitting it. Chase is my guilty pleasure. He’s no Hemingway. He’s no Goodis. But I find it damn impossible to pick up one of his books and not get hooked within the first couple pages.

More Deadly Than the Male was actually a bit of a pace change from the usual Chase thriller. The momentum is built more leisurely, the plot sneaking up on you rather than announcing itself in the first chapter. You might even call it a bit depressing considering that you’re following the story of a grown man who makes a total fool of himself over an uncaring woman—until he finally finds himself becoming the very hardguy he’s been reading about.

This was the only book Chase published under the name “Ambrose Grant,” so he was playing a bit of hard-to-get right off with this one. It was only his twelfth published novel, coming out in 1946, and not published under the Chase name until 1960. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was ever published in the U.S. Closest we ever got over here to this one was a Canadian paperback back in ’48.

It’s an interesting little treasure. Stark House might pick it up some time, but there are no plans for it. In fact, outside of recommending James Hadley Chase’s thrillers in general, this isn’t the first book I’d suggest if you’ve never read him. But having said all that, I loved it. And it made me jump right into another Chase book, Tiger by the Tail, so maybe there will be more Chase at Stark House at some point. From my guilty pleasure to you.

—Greg Shepard
Publisher, Stark House Press