Robert Aickman is no stranger to us here at Weird Fiction Review. So when Valancourt Books published a collection of his strange tales last year called “The Late Breakfasters and Other Strange Stories,” we took note. Valancourt has been on our radar for a while, though, for not only publishing dark fiction — Gothic, horror, supernatural, and, of course, Weird — but additionally for the artwork that they feature on their covers. Moreover, Valancourt has helped to foster inclusivity in the community by also specializing in gay literature. We had the chance to interview James Jenkins and Ryan Cagle, the duo behind Valancourt Books, and asked them how they got their start, how they find titles to republish, what’s coming in 2017, and much more.
Weird Fiction Review: First off, can you tell us about how Valancourt Books came about?
Valancourt Books: We started Valancourt Books way back in late 2004. At the time I was researching a really fascinating, though obscure today, author named Francis Lathom, who wrote Gothic horror fiction in the 1790s and early 1800s and was rumored to have been gay. Unfortunately, most of his books were almost totally inaccessible in North America: I ended up having to drive twenty-eight hours from Seattle, where I was living at the time, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to print them off microfiche. That struck me as being totally absurd: we were in the 21st century, the technology existed to bring these rare books back into print in a cost-effective way, and I thought, “Why is no one doing it?” Then I thought, “Why don’t we do it?” Our first couple years, we focused almost exclusively on 18th & 19th-century Gothic fiction and over time we gradually expanded into the Victorian era — penny dreadfuls, the out-of-print works of authors like Richard Marsh and Bram Stoker — and then into early 20th-century fiction. In late 2012, after realizing that a vast amount of important, still-copyrighted fiction was virtually impossible to get except through interlibrary loan, we moved into more modern works, and those have been our primary focus over the past few years.
WFR: How do you find books to reprint? Are there criteria you feel a work must have or shouldn’t have in order to invest in resurrecting it?
VB: We find books in all kinds of ways. For one thing, we get a lot of emails, tweets and Facebook messages from our readers, suggesting books they’d like to see republished. One of our favorite releases from last year, Philip Ridley’s In the Eyes of Mr Fury, was recommended to us by someone who visited our table at the World Fantasy Convention. There are also a lot of blogs and websites focusing on neglected books, and we take a look at those. And sometimes we stumble upon something great just by chance while browsing a used bookstore or library.
As far as criteria a book should have, we have to be fairly selective, since there is so much more out-of-print material than a small operation like ours could ever hope to republish. First of all, of course, we’re looking for books that are great reads and that are still enjoyable and relevant, even if they’re many years old. We also try to focus on books that are hard to find; many books published in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s have hundreds of used copies for sale online for a penny each, and it’s pretty tough to compete with that. And we’re mainly looking for books that fit into one of the categories we publish — weird/horror/supernatural/etc. or gay interest fiction — though we occasionally make an exception for an outstanding lost classic that doesn’t really fit one of those labels.
VB: We’ve published so many we love that it’s hard to choose! By far our most popular author has been Michael McDowell, whom Stephen King once called the finest writer of paperback originals in America; if you haven’t yet read his The Elementals (1981), a very different sort of ‘haunted house’ novel that takes place under the glare of the sun on an Alabama beach, you’re missing out. Michael Blumlein’s World Fantasy Award-nominated collection The Brains of Rats (1989) is a brilliant book that blurs genre boundaries and features some of the most unsettling stories you’ll ever come across. A couple story collections that are a bit older but absolutely brilliant and filled with tales that are weird and sometimes horrific are The Hunger and Other Stories (1957) by Charles Beaumont (best known for his Twilight Zone scripts) and Gerald Kersh’s Nightshade and Damnations (1968). Some of our Victorian releases are wonderfully weird as well, particularly Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) and Ernest G. Henham’s Tenebrae (1898).
WFR: Last year, you published a collection of works by Robert Aickman, and you included many of his lesser known pieces. Can you tell us about this collection, including how you selected works for it?
VB: We’ve wanted to publish Aickman for a long time. Tartarus Press, of course, has done a fantastic job of republishing his works in collectors’ hardcover editions, but we wanted to make him available for readers with more modest budgets. Unfortunately for our efforts, it turned out that the British publisher Faber holds the rights to almost all of Aickman’s material, even though they haven’t chosen to make it available in the US except for ebook versions. Our omnibus collection contains Aickman’s sublime novel The Late Breakfasters, which had never previously been published in the US, and whose first edition copies cost many hundreds of dollars, along with all six remaining weird tales that were not available in one of Faber’s ebook editions.
WFR: Valancourt specializes in dark (Gothic/horror/supernatural) and LGBTQ fiction. I know Michael McDowell wrote Southern Gothic fiction and happened to be gay, but I don’t know if any of his books featured gay characters or themes. These are pretty disparate genres but are there any books or authors that lie at the intersection of these two?
VB: There’s no gay content in McDowell’s horror fiction, though he did co-author a series of gay-themed detective novels that have been reprinted by Felony & Mayhem. But for whatever reason, gay authors and horror go hand-in-hand and have since the beginning of the genre. In addition to Francis Lathom, early Gothic novelists like Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1764), Matthew Gregory Lewis (The Monk, 1796) and William Beckford (Vathek, 1786) are widely believed to have been gay, and gay subtexts abound in Victorian horror like The Beetle and Dracula. We’ve published a number of gay horror authors, including Hugh Walpole and Forrest Reid, both early 20th-century masters of the supernatural, the fascinating bisexual writer Frank Baker, author of the avian apocalypse novel The Birds (1936) (which predated Du Maurier’s story), Michael McDowell, Michael Talbot, etc., and in 2017 we’ll be republishing a collection of weird tales by the well-known gay writer L.P. Hartley.
WFR: For your LGBTQ literature, do you feel that it’s necessary that sexuality plays an overt role in the work, or do you approach such works from the perspective that it’s part of your mission to ensure the publication of the author’s voice regardless of how prominent that component is in the work in question?
VB: Most of the gay fiction we republish is from the 1970s and earlier, so the sexual content, if any, is usually pretty tame compared to books being published today (keep in mind that Penguin was prosecuted in 1960 for obscenity for publishing D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and homosexuality was a criminal offense in Britain until 1967 and in much of the US until even later). Our republication of early gay literature is aimed at preserving that part of our history and culture, which was in some danger of vanishing, since virtually all those texts were out of print.
WFR: The quality of your books, including the cover art, is always superb. Who does your art for your books? To what degree would you say Valancourt values the integration of theme between the printed word and image/design?
VB: Thank you! We take great pride in trying to make the books as attractive as possible in terms both of cover art and typesetting. We think books should contain great stories but should also be beautiful objects in and of themselves. We’ve been extremely fortunate in having found some fantastic cover designers like M.S. Corley, who has done a lot of books for us (including the Aickman you mentioned, which made one list of 2016’s best book covers) and Henry Petrides, who has done absolutely brilliant work. We also had the chance to work with Mike Mignola on cover art for two of the Michael McDowell reissues, which was a really exciting experience.
WFR: What kinds of obstacles do you encounter — legal, archival, etc. — when attempting to bring obscure books back into publication? Are there any “white whale” projects that you’d like to be able to do but for any reason have been unable so far?
VB: There are a ton of obstacles! The most common one is that sometimes it’s difficult — or even impossible — to locate the rights holder. Copyright now lasts 70 years past an author’s death, and it’s quite common to come across an author who died in, say, 1965, and whose work would thus be in copyright until the end of 2035, but the author died unmarried and childless. Who controls the estate? The choice becomes either to forgo publishing important material or to publish and hope some distant great-grandnephew doesn’t come out of the woodwork someday to sue you, an unpleasant prospect, especially for a small press. Another problem we’ve been encountering more and more often is that the original publisher still owns the rights, even if the book has been out of print for decades. Most people don’t know this, but once a book goes out of print, the author (or his/her estate) has to demand the rights back from the publisher; if they don’t, the publisher can essentially hold onto them forever. In many cases, the book might have been originally published by an entity that no longer exists — the company was bought and sold, bought and sold again, and is now owned in some obscure way by a huge conglomerate like Penguin Random House. And getting those giant operations to respond to rights queries can be a very frustrating process.
As for ‘white whale’ projects, yes, there are a number of them, but I won’t mention any by name, as we’re still holding out hope that one day we can sort out the rights situations. Sometimes it can take years, but we’re very persistent!
VB: We’ve got some great stuff coming out in 2017. A paperback reissue of rare Richard Matheson stories that was originally published as a Subterranean Press hardcover and which will include an additional rare story not in their edition. A trio of horror novels by Ken Greenhall, who isn’t a household name, but connoisseurs of horror who have read his books Elizabeth (1976) and Hell Hound (1977) rate them as masterpieces of the genre. A reissue of L.P. Hartley’s The Travelling Grave and Other Stories, originally published by the legendary Arkham House and long out of print. Eltonsbrody (1960), a very weird horror novel by the Guyanese novelist Edgar Mittelholzer, who is best known for the ghost story My Bones and My Flute. We’ve gotten a tremendous response to our first volume of The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, which included seventeen stories by Valancourt authors, two of them previously unpublished, so we’ll be putting out a second volume in October. We also have a number of other exciting projects in the works, but contracts aren’t yet signed, so I can’t say much about them right now. But keep an eye on our website — we’ll have a lot of exciting horror and weird fiction coming out in 2017! And as I said, we’re always open to suggestions, so if there’s a book someone wishes were on our 2017 list, they should get in touch!