Happy Holidays!

As the year draws to a close, I know I should be reflecting on the past year. On all the books we published here at Stark House—first-timers like Lionel White, Bruno Fischer and Frank Kane; old favorites likes Peter Rabe, Gil Brewer, Douglas Sanderson and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding; and a few classics from Algernon Blackwood, Robert W. Chambers and Sax Rohmer. It was a chockful year.

But, really, I’m already hard at work on 2016. I’ve got new books by H. Vernor Dixon, Malcolm Braly and Fletcher Flora already formatted and ready for the printer. Charlie Stella’s new novel, Tommy Red, is ready for proofing. And I’ve just started scanning the John Trinian books for May release. I’m going to try not to make myself quite so crazy in 2016 and pull back a little on the number of releases. We’ll see how well I do with that.

I’m certainly thankful, at year’s end, to finally see Elisabeth Sanxay Holding getting some major press after all these years with her inclusion in Sarah Weinman’s Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s from Library of America. That’s gratifying. And another publisher has plans to bring all of Margaret Millar’s novels back into print as well. It’s about time!

We’re planning on reprinting Vin Packer’s The Girl on the Bestseller List and Helen Nielsen’s The Woman on the Roof as part of our Black Gat series next year, and have been looking at some other vintage women authors to add to our list as well. Up till now, Stark House has shown a very male-oriented slant. I’d like to tip that slant a bit, and will hopefully be able to create more of a balance in years to come.

The trouble is, the further away I get from the “name” authors, the more I head out into uncharted publishing waters. Will readers follow our billowing boat? I can only hope so. When I first started calling up bookstores to see if they wanted to stock our titles, I drew complete blanks on authors like Peter Rabe, Gil Brewer and Harry Whittington; even W. R. Burnett was a hard sell, and I thought everyone had heard of Asphalt Jungle and High Sierra. (I guess I dated myself with that one.)

So, now, as we attempt to resurrect some even-more-obscure authors like John Trinian, Fletcher Flora and Helen Nielsen, we do so strictly as an act of faith. Perhaps the result will be diminishing sales. Oh, well, at least I can still say I’m having fun with it.

Last week, I ditched writing my weekly blog in favor of going to see the new Star Wars movie. This week, I decided that the best thing I could do was to simply wish everyone a Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year. And, yes, even a very Merry Christmas, too! Thanks for all your support in 2015, and I hope I can keep you all entertained in 2016. See you there….

—Greg Shepard

Thanks, Dad

Stark House started with an idea from my dad. He had been in the publishing business most of his adult life—as a newspaper reporter and photographer, selling ads for the paper, writing his own column, editing and writing for various outdoor magazines; and finally editing and publishing his own magazines. He knew something about the world of publishing.

He came to me in 1998 and suggested the family pool its efforts and create our own publishing company. I forget how he phrased it. Knowing my dad, it was probably a gentle suggestion, just something he had been thinking about and wanted to get some feedback on. I thought it was a great idea.

And being the person that I am, I immediately set about suggesting all sorts of stuff we could publish, and possible names for the company. Which is how we arrived at Stark House Press, and our first book, a collection of stories by Storm Constantine. My ex-wife and I ran an import company called Firebird Distributing LLC during the 1990s, specializing in importing British books and selling them to U.S. dealers and collectors. One of the authors we imported—and quite successfully—was Storm Constantine.

I fell in love with Constantine’s baroque fantasies which mixed sex, religion and adventure with a dash of stylish pop culture to create a world all her own. My favorite book at the time was Burying the Shadow, a subtle vampire tale that never once mentions the word “vampire.” I felt that Storm was the Goth Queen, and I campaigned heavily for her with the Stark House family.

I contacted Storm, and she was agreeable. More than agreeable, she was a pleasure to work with. She hadn’t had any of her standalone books published in the U.S. at the time, and was only known for the Wraeththu Trilogy, a gender-bending science fiction series that started her career. Rather than reprinting one of her novels, I wanted to start with something totally original in a signed, numbered hardback edition. The result was The Oracle Lips: A Collection.

We discovered right away that we had to print quite a lot of them to get a decent price break, so we pooled our monies and jumped in with a thousand-copy print run … all gamely signed by Storm and numbered by us. If we had any idea of what we were doing, we would have published about five hundred copies. The book got a few tentatively good reviews (as I recalled, the Locus critic felt it was a bit uneven, and perhaps it was considering that none of us novices wanted to reject any of Storm’s submissions), and it sold fairly well initially.

But I still have several boxes of the book. Until his death in 2012, my dad always kept five boxes in his garage as well. I never knew whether he kept the boxes a reminder of our hubris, or in pride of accomplishment. He was too tactful to say.

However, after The Oracle Lips was published and didn’t sell like the hotcakes we expected—ie, after we all failed to make our investment back—my parents backed off the project. I suggested more books, but my dad could always think of a reason why he didn’t feel that investing more money in a project that wasn’t likely to make any money was a good idea. A noble endeavor, but no thank you, my son.

The Oracle Lips was published in early 1999. It took me two years to publish another book. I suggested to the family that if they didn’t mind I would simply borrow the company for a quick side project, and I went back to Storm to reprint two of her standalone novels, and another collection of stories. You can’t keep a good man down. Or perhaps you simply can’t stop stubborn. At any rate, I continued Stark House as a side project, adding some Algernon Blackwood books to my list. As long as I wanted to invest my own money in the project, the family didn’t mind.

My brother, the art director, took another approach. He stayed on board, but he asked to be paid for each book. Smart man. I couldn’t have continued the company without him.

Once I decided to start reprinting older books, I initially hired someone to scan those Blackwood books for me—until I realized that I had to learn how to do that myself if I was going to make this company work. The family finally decided to give me their share of Stark House, and off I went, looking for more new projects.

Which is how I came to publish mysteries. Just as I had done with Storm Constantine, I simply went with what I enjoyed. I don’t tend to read a lot of new fiction, so reprinting older books suits me fine. You will notice that each year, more new authors appear on the list. This isn’t a carefully considered plan on my part to gradually change the face of Stark House back to its humble origins. No, I simply publish the books I enjoy reading. It’s just as simple as that. And I owe it all to my dad: Bill Shepard, the man with the plan, and editor supreme.

—Greg Shepard

Stop That Complaining

It’s that busy time of the year. Last week, on Black Friday, I decided to forgo the usual weekly blog. No, I didn’t spend the day shopping (“oh, the horror! the horror!”). I spent the post-turkey time relaxing. I don’t do that very often. Relaxation has never been a natural state for me. But I like to give it a try every now and then. It feels weird at first, but then I pick up a book, zone out, and I’m okay with it.

However, in the midst of my reverie, what should arrive from Fed-Ex but boxes filled with our new title, Marilyn K./The House Next Door by Lionel White. Naturally, I felt obliged to start getting them ready to ship out. Then, on Monday, more boxes arrived, this time filled with our new Black Gat book, Only the Wicked by Gary Phillips. Naturally, I had to get those orders out as well.

And after I got all those books boxed up and off to the post office and UPS….just as I was ready to kick back again… I received a plethora of orders from the Baker & Taylor warehouses, one of which wanted one copy each of almost every book in stock. Yowza.

I only mention this because right before Thanksgiving I had emailed a fellow bookseller, bemoaning the fact that November orders were way down. Which they were. But December has started with a bang, so I’m officially going to stop complaining.

In fact, today Booklist sent me a new review of Gil Brewer’s The Erotics/Gun the Dame Down/Angry Arnold which concludes with these words: “Plenty of writers wrote better, but Brewer’s fever-dream Florida always makes an unforgettable detour.” Reviewer Keir Graff suggests that our collection offers “a more complete picture of an author who never really fit in,” and his enthusiasm for Brewer is obvious. Love these Booklist reviews.

Last month they reviewed our Lionel White two-fer with these words: “The two tales in this double-decker come at us from a time—1960 and 1956, respectively—when crime novels were shorter and more focused than now. No padding, no sagging middle, everything pointing to the grim finale… The ending is as surprising as it is satisfactory.” We couldn’t agree more.

And a week ago we finally got word of a late October review in Publishers Weekly for Fell the Angels by Catherine Butzen. The reviewer said: “Butzen keeps the action moving quickly, with plenty of fights distracting Abby and John from their search for the killer, but also tosses in some delightfully grim humor.” Thank you, PW.

So, not only am I going to stop complaining, but I’m going to be officially thankful for all the great reviews and the book orders, and all the continued support we get from the Stark House Crime Club members as well. It’s turning out to be a pretty good end of the year after all. Now, if we could only get a little peace in the real world….

—Greg Shepard

Fell the Angels

Chicago, Illinois. Present day.

The man grinned as he ran. He skipped lightly over a patch of ice, overbalanced, and turned his stumble into a theatrical flip that landed him squarely on the steel fire escape. He was a selkie and his name, when he bothered to answer to one, was Luka.
Abby Marquise hitched her purse higher onto her shoulder as she dodged around the ice Luka had jumped. Sweat trickled down her forehead and clung to loose strands of dark-blonde hair. Shapeshifters were never easy to handle, but this one had more energy than most. The shoulder holster under her parka was rubbing her side raw.
“Get back here!” she panted, but the selkie just thumbed his nose at Abby and galloped down the fire escape. She reached the top just as he reached bottom. As she clung to the metal railing, trying to find steady footing for the descent, he smiled up at her and tapped one foot.
Abby tried not to swear, but it was a near thing. She clambered awkwardly down the fire escape as Luka took off again.
At least he was doing her the courtesy of letting her keep up. Most fairies could easily outdistance a human, but Luka had already killed two women in his personal quest for fun, so perhaps he was enjoying this variation on his usual game. He might have a plan, or he might not. Whatever happened in the next few minutes, Abby would have to catch him.
She didn’t want to. There were other agents better-equipped to handle a takedown, but unless her luck changed they wouldn’t be there in time. Of course this had to happen today of all days.
Luka cut left and bolted across the street, ignoring the honking car horns and shouts of passersby. Another patch of ice sent him skidding, giving Abby a few precious seconds to close the gap, but her hand barely brushed his sleeve before he twisted neatly out of the way and bolted. “No touching!” he sang out.
They streaked past the adobe-colored structure of the local clinic, following the straight line of Western Avenue. Abby’s lungs burned with the cold air and her heart felt ready to burst. Luka just laughed and somehow accelerated.
There was a definite course to his run now. He veered off the central course of Western Avenue and streaked across the snow of an empty lot, heading towards the park across the street. He was about a hundred feet ahead, but Abby could see him stoop low and snatch something out of a snowdrift. Then he was off, but more slowly this time, struggling to unwrap heavy PVC sheeting from a small package as he ran.
Abby slowed a little as well and fumbled her cell phone out of her pocket. “He’s got something,” she panted. “Think it’s his skin. Off Addison, heading down to the river.”
“Hang on,” said the voice of Adam Starczynski. “John and Dummy are three blocks behind you. If you grab the skin you can control him, but if he hits the water—”
“I know,” she said and ended the call. Sucking in as deep a breath as she could manage, she swiped sweat out of her eyes and pushed forward.
The park sloped gently for the length of a soccer field before making an abrupt plunge into the gravel-edged shallows of the Chicago River. It was one of the best places for foot access to the river: the banks for miles around were steep and lined with trees, condos, concrete barriers and private docks. A small service offered canoe and kayak rentals for an hourly fee, but it was closed for the season.
The selkie plunged into the shallows and pulled his white sealskin over his head. A moment later, a snowy seal with golden eyes was thrashing its way into deeper water. It raised its flipper in a jaunty salute as Abby stumbled to a halt on the bank.
She had to do something. She should draw her pistol, shoot him dead in the water, but her hands were trembling with exhaustion and she could hardly see through the haze blurring her vision. She could only bend over, panting for air.
But something seemed to be wrong with Luka’s getaway plan. The seal flopped backwards in the water and wrinkled its nose. It sneezed. Spluttered. Its eyes instinctively squeezed shut, and its whole body convulsed as it tried to clap its flippers over its face. Its alarmed bark turned into bubbles in the greasy water and startled a seagull perched on a nearby chunk of ice.
With a wounded yelp, the seal thrashed its tail and sped towards the shore as fast as it could. When it crawled up onto the bank, some twenty yards downstream from where it had started, the water ran in oily gray rivulets from its fur.
Gasping, the selkie ripped off his enchanted skin and began to cough in a deep phlegmy rattle. “Is that supposed to be a river?” he demanded as Abby came stumbling through the trees. “How can you do that to me?”
Abby shucked off her parka and drew the Beretta Tomcat from its holster. “Luka,” she began as steadily as she could, “you are hereby charged with the murders of Alicia Gonzalez and Rebecca Cartwright. If you have any information that would be of use to the human authorities, please disclose it now and I might be able to help you. Hand over the skin and—”
Fairies preferred magic, but they knew what guns were. Luka grabbed his skin and bolted for the water’s edge.
Abby fired twice. The first bullet zinged over the selkie’s head, but the second hit home between his shoulder blades. He gasped and hit the surface face-first, his sealskin still in his arms. Blood bubbled out into the icy water.
Taking a shallow breath, Abby shook her head and holstered the weapon. The body was already sinking. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed Adam again.
“He’s dead,” she said. “But he’s in the water, and there’s no way I can fish him out myself.”
“Roger,” Adam responded. “Any witnesses? Dummy’s right behind you, and he’s got the jar …”
“Nobody saw the last part, but there might be some people who were curious about the chase.” The slow current of the river was spreading the blood around, creating a reddish-brown patch in the water. “We should probably listen to the police band for a while, just in case.”
“I figured. You gonna write up the case report?”
“I… no, I don’t think so.” It would be completely dark soon, and she had an appointment to keep. “Tomorrow okay?”
Adam’s voice wasn’t exactly sympathetic, but it had softened. “No prob. Go home and get cleaned up.”
Heavy footsteps were coming up behind her. Abby turned. A seven-foot-tall man, pale as chalk, was making his way down the riverbank with a green glass jar under one arm. When he saw her, he waved one hand and smiled. The hand hopped down from his wrist and scuttled across the snow towards Abby, where it made itself comfortable on her shoe.
“Hi, Dummy,” she said. “I hope you brought rope.”

…And that is the first couple of pages from Catherine Butzen’s new book, Fell the Angels, which Stark House just published in October. I mailed out lots of review copies, talked the book up, tried to encourage Crime Club members into taking a copy. Got no reviews, a few conservative orders. Which is a shame, because it’s a great read. It moves fast, has a host of interesting characters—including a group of rogue selkies—and reminded me of the early urban fantasies of Charles DeLint. It’s got a mystery for the mystery fans, but it deals with the peripheral world of faerie for fantasy aficionados. I was charmed by Butzen’s first book, Thief of Midnight, and equally charmed by Fell the Angels.

So why am I making a blog out of the first chapter of Butzen’s book? Because I refuse to give up. There are readers out there for this book, and I’m determined to flush them out!

—Greg Shepard

Saddle Up

Critic and blogger Cullen Gallagher knows how easy it is to get hooked on reading westerns. They’re rather like crime novels except that the characters get around on horses instead of cars, and it takes longer to get somewhere to shoot it out with somebody. But the characters still evidence that same sense of existential aloneness, sometimes burning with a fire of revenge or injustice, sometimes just trying to find a patch of Heaven where they can get away from it all.

I mention Gallagher because he’s written a lot of pieces on western writers like Clifton Adams, Jonas Ward, Will Cook, Lewis B. Patten, Ed Gorman, Richard Telfair, Dudley Dean, Donald Hamilton, T. V. Olsen and Harry Whittington. If you haven’t checked out his blog, Pulp Serenade, you really should. It’s filled with well-thought-out essays on crime and western writers, plus reviews of some great B-movies as well.

Of course, you can also find a lot of great western reviews at James Reasoner’s blog, Rough Edges, as well as Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine and Ed Gorman’s Blog. These are some of my personal favorite blogs for reading about the kind of books I enjoy publishing here at Stark House. There’s definitely a shared taste here. We’re all on a vintage wavelength, whether it be westerns, crime fiction, science fiction, pulp or whatever.

I’ve been collecting westerns myself for a few years. I recently went on a Harry Whittington jag, and the results of that marathon will be published by Stark House next year—a trio of his westerns. I can only hope that the crime fans can handle a little saddle action. They won’t be disappointed. Harry cranked out some pretty mean, lean westerns in his day.

So did Clifton Adams, whether writing as Adams or “Clay Randall.” I recently ripped through two of his early Gold Medals, The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado, which Gallagher had recommended—hardboiled westerns at their best. The Desperado books could just as easily have been the story of the rise and fall of a crime lord of the streets of New York. Instead, we get a very rough picture of a young man who, through the lack of emotional control, becomes a gunfighter, ready to shoot anyone who either wrongs him, or just gets in his way. It’s not a pretty picture, but Adam’s visceral writing makes it feel very real. Thanks to Cullen for pointing the way to these two noir classics.

In fact, I hope Stark House can reprint a few more of these forgotten treasures of the Old West. I picked Harry Whittington to test the waters because I had been wanting to reprint another batch of his books anyway. David Wilson and I had been discussing what major theme of Harry’s we had tackled yet, and his westerns seemed the most obvious choice. So expect not only a great collection next year, but a new essay from David as well. No one knows Whittington like Wilson does.

There are other crime/mystery writers who wrote westerns. Besides some of the authors I mentioned earlier, there are Stark House authors like A. S. Fleischman, W. R. Burnett, Day Keene and Arnold Hano. I already reprinted one Fleischman western, Yellowleg (paired with The Sun Worshippers), plus Hano’s Flint (in the three-in-one called 3 Steps to Hell), as well as a couple of Ed Gorman’s “historical mysteries” earlier this year. There are so many great vintage western novels out there, someone could make a career—just as Stark House has done with crime fiction—out of reprinting them. Sure, it’s a limited market, but it’d be a crime not to give it a try…

—Greg Shepard

Mixing it Up

This week has been real interesting. I’ve been jumping back and forth between the mystic realms of Algernon Blackwood, editing down the scan of The Human Chord for next Spring; and working with Rick Ollerman on his introduction to Malcolm Braly’s prison biography, False Starts, for February. Oh, yeah, and for fun, I’m reading William Patrick Maynard’s The Terror of Fu Manchu, following Dr. Petrie on his mad chase over London. My head’s all over the place.

I’m also shaking my head wondering why our two October books aren’t flying out the door. Stark House just released The Babysitter by Andrew Coburn and Fell the Angels by Catherine Butzen, but since they didn’t get any major reviews, none of the bookstore and library buyers know they’re here. Some months, you just can’t win.

Granted, the Coburn book isn’t new. It was Coburn’s second published novel. But it’s such a clever mystery, snaking around all over the place as first the police, and then the parents, try to find out who killed the babysitter and kidnapped their small child. I’ve read it a couple times, and I get caught up in the story and characters each time. Everything hinges on finding out the real identity of the babysitter. I thought it was a very clever book, as Coburn’s books generally are, puzzle pieces of interlocking stories that slowly come together to form one large pattern of character and place. If you haven’t read a book by Andrew Coburn, do. You’re in for a treat.

And the Catherine Butzen book is a real page turner, too, though in a completely different way. With Fell the Angels, she goes back to the characters in her first book, Thief of Midnight, as they continue to battle the forces of magical maliciousness in the world. Abby Marquis is part of the Society for the Security of Reality, fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness—the bogeymen, the ancient myths, the werewolves, ghouls and faeries—but she also has a neglected and rebellious teenage son to raise. This torturous balancing act on the part of Abby is what gives the book its tension because soon enough, her son becomes involved in her pursuit of a group of rogue selkies, too—to his detriment.

There’s a mystery here as Abby tries to find out who the selkies are and who is controlling them. But there’s also a lot of gritty urban dark fantasy here as well. Personally, I love Butzen’s series, and I’m hoping it finds its readers. I waited five years for Butzen to finish this second book, and she has promised a much shorter wait for the third. You should check it out, trust me. Like the Fu Manchu book I’m reading, it’s also a lot of fun.

And isn’t that the reason we spend so much time reading. If it isn’t fun, we just put it down, and find another book. Of course, there are times when what you really want to do is finally read James Joyce’s Ulysses or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, just so you can say you did it. But most of the time, we read for pleasure. I wish a few reviewers had found our October books, but hopefully the authors themselves will stir up a little activity. I took a break from our usual 1950s hardboiled action this month, because sometimes you just have to mix things up a bit to keep it interesting.

Now, back to that Fu Manchu book. As I recall, Dr. Petrie had just met Gaston Max in Paris, and they were about to take on the most sinister villain the world has ever known….

—Greg Shepard

The Boys of Summer

When I was a kid growing up near Sacramento, California, all the boys played baseball. We played baseball during recess at school, we played in the park, and we played baseball in our backyards. Every kid had a mitt and a ball, and most had a bat as well. We’d go the park, and if there were enough of us, we’d break into teams and play the rest of the afternoon. Or all afternoon on weekends. Whenever there was some spare time—or our moms kicked us out of the house–we’d hop on our bikes and head to the park.

There was a tennis court near our little diamond, and the goal was always to hit the ball over the monstrously high chain-link fence and into the tennis court. That was an automatic homerun. I don’t remember hitting many homeruns, but it was a noble goal.

Around this time, we all started following the major league teams, too.

This was when I was nine or ten, the early 1960s. At about this time, Post started printing baseball player cards on the backs of their cereal boxes. These were easy to collect. All we had to do was talk our moms into buying box after box of breakfast cereal, then quickly eat the stuff so we could cut out the cards on the back. It was easy collecting the boxes that had sugar in them (which was most of them). Like little humming birds, we lived on sugar in those days. If the box had some cards we wanted and it was a corn flake or shredded wheat box, well, that was problematic. Somebody would have to eat that stuff, and it usually fell to a younger brother or sister to do the deed—or suffer the consequences!

But the cereal got eaten, so Mom was satisfied, and the boxes were cut up and sorted by team into nice little piles, to be traded, hoarded, sorted and if you had too many of one player, drawn on and discarded. It was fun in an obsessional kind of way. Not all the kids went after collecting baseball cereal cards with the dedication that I did. I had a best friend named Bobby who had a better collection, but not many other kids could say that. Besides, Bobby hole-punched all his cards so he could ring them together, and even then, that didn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Around the same time that I discovered cereal cards, I also discovered chewing gum cards. Packaged with a pink tongue of gum–sometimes fresh, often times dry and crumbly—these cards always smelled like the powdered sugar that covered the gum. But dry or fresh, I would chew that gum with as much dedication as I would collect those cards. Every allowance, I was hoofing it over to Nellie’s to buy another pack or two. Nellie’s is what we called the corner market because the owner’s wife was named Nellie and she was always the one to help us pick out our sweet treats. She had the patience of a saint. Even now, I have no idea what the real name of the place was.

Anyway, Nellie’s sold me most of the cards I collected at this time—1961 and 1962—and what a lot of fun that was, trying to get all the cards for a team. My favorites at the time were the San Francisco Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Why the Pirates and not the Dodgers or the Angels, our other West Coast teams? I have no idea. Maybe I just liked the black and gold color scheme of their uniforms. But I followed the Pirates with a fervor.

And then I turned twelve, and the Beatles happened. Almost overnight, I stopped collecting baseball cards, and started collecting 45s and Beatle cards instead. I only had a limited income after all: an allowance—which I could save, and sometimes borrow against if I wheedled long enough—and yard work money. During the Spring and Summer, I’d mow the lawn like crazy. During the Fall, I’d rake till I had blisters. During the Winter…. nothing. It was a hard life during the Winter.

After the Beatles and 45s came book collecting, and eventually, record albums, so by the time I was fourteen, baseball card collecting had become a part of my past. I put the cards in shoe boxes and kept them in my closet. Eventually, I collected all the shoe boxes and put them in a larger box. And over the years, I carted that box with me everywhere I moved. Over the years, I would occasionally look through the top layer, reminisce a bit about the ten-year-old who even then had to have ‘em all, even as I now collect a particular author or recording artist. The baseball cards had become like an old friend, or a totem of my youth, a touchstone for young and innocent days.

And today I sold them.

It was great being ten. Time to let someone else enjoy my childhood.

–Greg Shepard