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

Rock On

I wrote my first review for the College of Marin Times back in 1971. I had read an excerpt from Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book in Rolling Stone—or maybe Creem; one of those counter-culture rock magazines—that said if you want the record companies to send you free records, just write in and claim to be a reviewer. I thought, this is too good to be true. The record companies couldn’t be that gullible. I hadn’t written a thing so far. Why would they believe me?

So, I wrote a letter to about three or four record companies, claiming to be a rock critic…and they sent me free records! This is great! Abbie was right! But then, I had this crazy thought—prompted as much by guilt at having tricked them as anything else—that maybe I should actually review the albums. So, with no more knowledge of musical structure than any kid who had taken a year or two of piano and cornet lessons in junior high, I wrote some adjectival reviews.

And since I was enrolled at College of Marin, I figured, what better place to submit them than to the college newspaper, right? They must have been starved for material, because they printed them. Pretty soon, I’d be driving over to Winterland in San Francisco on the weekend, writing about the bands after I got back home, and a few days later, seeing the review in print. Free passes started to come my way. And that only made me bolder and more reckless, so I wrote to more record companies, got about four or five of them to send me stuff on a regular basis, and started submitting reviews outside the college circuit—all the way to the big time. Turned out, the big time (ie, Rolling Stone) didn’t want me. But Phonograph Record Magazine from Los Angeles and Zoo World down in Florida (two other music newspapers that just happened to look a lot like RS) did.

And thus was my career as rock critic for the second tier born. Eventually I got a job working at the local weekly Marin paper, the Pacific Sun, and parlayed this dubious talent into a bi-weekly music column. And after I did this for awhile, I turned to writing reviews of science fiction books, and got those companies to send me free stuff as well. Oh yeah, I had hit the mother lode, for sure.

I didn’t get a lot of fan letters, but after going to a Stevie Wonder concert I made the mistake of saying he rocked harder than the Rolling Stones, and got my first and only piece of hate mail. I learned a valuable lesson: if you want to get feedback, you need to piss people off. I generally reviewed bands and books that I liked. Negative reviews always seemed like a waste of time, and way too easy to write. Much more challenging to come up with new ways to praise something. And the more obscure, the better.

I started reviewing all the Euro rock bands for the Pacific Sun, groups that no one had heard of like the New Trolls and Achim Reichel & Machines. And wrote about lesser-known sf writers like George Alec Effinger and M. A. Foster.

By now I was deluged with freebies. Albums and books kept pouring in, and now the Pacific Sun gave me first pick of all the review copies that were coming into the office as well. I soon found myself mentally reviewing everything as I experienced it. I couldn’t go to a concert without creating an opening paragraph after the first 15 minutes of the show. I’d sit down at home to listen to a new band, and instead of being in the moment and just enjoying the music, I would start writing a review as I listened. It became obsessive.

So after doing this for about 15 years, I just stopped. Cold turkey. No more reviews. The free stuff gradually stopped coming. I had found that I tended to value the books and records I paid for more than the gratis copies anyway. The promo copies would pile up, and I’d be listening to Faust or Frank Zappa instead. The publishers would be sending me space operas, but I’d be curled up with a Barry Malzberg or a Robert Silverberg book.

It was around this time that I jumped ship from science fiction entirely, and started reading and collecting old mystery paperbacks. I didn’t review them. I just read them. Voraciously. Just for the pure hell of it. Which, in a roundabout way, leads me up to the present.

I’m still reading old mystery paperbacks. But I’ve turned those reviewing skills into tools I can use for publishing. Instead of mentally writing a review of every book I read, I ask myself…could this be the next Stark House book….should it? Does the book make me excited? Is it worth reprinting? If so, it goes onto the wish list of future Stark House books. I’m still playing favorites. It’s just that now I have the luxury of being able to pick and choose my favorites to share with you, the readers. Or in other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

—Greg Shepard

A Science Fiction Odyssey

From about the age of 13 to 33, I read a lot of science fiction. Somewhere along the way, the local newspaper, where I worked in the production department, gave me a bi-monthly column to review science fiction. At that point, I became inundated with science fiction books—more than I could keep up with. Probably because I mailed in copies of my reviews to the publishers, all the sf companies sent me their books. I even got quoted on the cover of a DAW Book: The Gameplayers of Zan by M. A. Foster. Oh, fleeting fame.

Still, I had my favorites. Oh, sure, I loved Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula K. LeGuin, Harlan Ellison, Cordwainer Smith, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Sheckley, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Elizabeth Lynn, John Brunner (and the list goes on).

But the big three for me were Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg and Barry N. Malzberg. Dick for his surreal, mind-expanding plots, Silverberg for his humanity, and Malzberg for his angst. I really related to the angst. Tumbling from college into the real world—dealing with a disheartening first marriage and struggling through those early years—I could really relate to tortured fictional characters. Certainly Barry and I came from different backgrounds, but there was something about the pain in his fiction that I really related to.

I think I started with The Falling Astronauts, that early Ace Science Fiction Special. Other Malzberg books which made a big impression at the time were Herovit’s World, Beyond Apollo, Galaxies, Confessions of Westchester County, and the book I want to write about here, Underlay. Underlay, of course, isn’t science fiction. It probably has more in common with Damon Runyon than Isaac Asimov. It’s the story of a nameless guy who is called upon by the Mob to dig up his friend, Harry the Flat, who died suddenly at the Aquaduct Raceway and was buried in the back stretch as a tribute. However, said burial is now causing the Mob much stress because the body is throwing off their percentages. Profits are down, and Chaos lurks around the corner. And our hero has one day to perform his task, or the bomb implanted in his leg to emphasize the urgency of the request will go off.

At its heart, Underlay is probably as weird a story as anything from the pages of Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I mean, horse racing is a rather surreal world to begin with to those of us who don’t understand the nuances of gambling on galloping quadrupeds. But like the characters in other Malzberg classics, digging up a body is only a small part of the story. As he makes his way around the track, our hero has much time to reflect on his life—his loves and lusts, success and failures—as well as the dubious betting system of Harry the Flat. And herein lies the real story, told with a deadpan zeal.

Enough said about the plot of Underlay. You get to discover the pleasures of Malzberg’s comic masterpiece yourself because Stark House has just reprinted it. And there’s something very full circle about this. Because just as Barry inspired me all those many years ago, I get to pay back the favor by reprinting his favorite novel. And how perfect is that! But this time, getting past the pain of his characters, I discovered the humor that underpins Malzberg’s fiction. I had a great time reading and re-reading Underlay. Maybe it’s time to go back to some of those old science fiction favorites, and read beyond the angst.

–Greg Shepard