A Halloween Conversation with Tom English of Dead Letter Press


David G. Mitchell

About a month ago, I received a package in the mail. That is not all that unusual because I receive a lot of packages. This particular package, however, brought with it some excitement. As soon as I picked it up off the ground by my front door, I saw that it was from Tom English at Dead Letter Press. Tom is an all-around fine fellow and Dead Letter Press is his publishing house that offers fine limited edition books of new and classic fantasy and horror fiction. I knew that whatever was in my box just had to be good.

As I opened it, my enthusiasm and excitement increased because the box was quite heavy. Those of us who remember childhood will recall, the heavier the box, the more totally awesome the contents! In this case, that proved to be entirely true. Tom had sent me a copy of Bound for Evil, a 2008 Shirley Jackson Award nominee for best anthology and a beautifully bound volume that I thought had been out of print. I was wrong. The title is to very much in print, as I learned when I took advantage of Tom’s good nature to interview him.

David G. Mitchell: So how does an environmental chemist working for a U.S. defense contractor find himself publishing both classic and contemporary horror fiction?

Tom English: I love books! And I love collecting books! I've suffered from the collecting bug in one form or another since I was a kid. I started out collecting comics and, despite a conscious effort to thin my comic book collection, I still have about 500 issues, most from the sixties, boxed up and gathering dust bunnies under the bed. I used to make these elaborate catalogs of what I had and what I needed, and I was extremely neurotic about keeping my comics in “mint” condition. But I eventually got over all this; I graduated to collecting paperbacks and, later on, hardcovers.

Around 1998 I started collecting old volumes of literary ghost stories, which are my first love, and for the next few years my wife and I would joke about my bibliomania. But in 2004 I realized my collecting bug had become a serious and extremely expensive addiction, and I reluctantly put the brakes on. I told myself, no more books! Well, maybe one or two every now and then—when I could find a really good bargain! For the most part, though, I went cold turkey. The catalogs would arrive in the mail and I would drool over them. But I was good. Usually. So, what do you do when you want books—high quality limited-edition books—but you’ve made a decision not to buy any? As crazy as it sounds, you publish your own. This is, of course, really just another aspect of bibliomania; but it’s exactly what I did.

I came up with the name Dead Letter Press and started publishing saddle-stapled chapbooks that were limited to twenty-six lettered copies each. The first thing I did was Dr. John Polidori’s The Vampyre. I had wanted to find and reprint something that had fallen into relative obscurity. Although Polidori’s novel was not “lost,” it was nevertheless unfamiliar to many readers at the time. So I researched Polidori’s life (a remarkable story in itself), wrote a long introductory essay, laid out the book, and had it printed up. And the thing actually sold! So I decided to try and do a series—we collectors absolutely love series—of vampire classics. I think I’m now on volume 24 of the Literary Vampire Series. At any rate, I fell into this whole vampire thing quite by accident. And after a couple years I wanted to diversify. I did two hardcover editions and published some new material by several exceptional writers. The horror genre is pretty encompassing, but I think most of what I’ve published, especially the classic material, is best described as dark fantasy or supernatural fantasy. That’s what I enjoy reading the most and it’s also the type of stories I tend to write.

DGM: I know from experience that The Literary Vampire Series is captivating and I hope that someday you will prepare a bound version of the entire series for those of us who have not been fortunate enough to get our hands on the entire set. Nineteenth-century horror fiction seems to have endured the test of time better than most other genres and it has certainly shaped our popular perceptions of the supernatural. Why do you think that is the case?

TE: Thanks for the kind words about the series. I would enjoy editing a hardcover edition that would reprint all the chapbooks, plus some extra material I’ve dug up, in chronological order. That would give us a complete volume of every story in the long, winding evolution of the vampire genre. I mean a truly complete volume, because I’ve yet to see one. Of course, such a book would be very expensive to produce in a short print run. And I’m still recovering from doing Bound for Evil. Perhaps someday I’ll find a mass market publisher for the Literary Vampire.

Regarding nineteenth-century horror fiction, you’re quite right, it has endured well. I think we can thank the curiosity, devotion and diverse tastes of its readers for this. I’ve never researched what goes on among readers of other genres, but I believe that the “weird tale,” which can encompass SF, Fantasy, and Horror, attracts a large number of scholars and collectors: researchers who aren’t happy until they can track down every single “lost” story by even the most obscure writers; dedicated small press publishers who then reprint them; and the completists who want every last word of it in their libraries. I may be wrong but I’ve never heard of that degree of devotion for, say, romance novels, or westerns. But there are hundreds of bibliographies and studies devoted to the weird tale, and most are work of extensive research and serious scholarship. So no one who’s ever written a single piece of weird fiction is ever truly forgotten. Somewhere, someday, the story will be resurrected, or the writer’s name will pop up in a footnote. There’s a sort of strange literary immortality through weird fiction.

Why does this type of fiction affect our perceptions of the supernatural? My guess is that fiction and pop culture have always helped shape our attitudes about life and the world. This has always been the case, and a good example is Dante Alighieri’s Inferno: it was never intended to be a work of theology, and yet it significantly embellished the Biblical depiction of Hell; Dante’s Inferno is essentially an early fourteenth-century weird tale that shaped how even the Church itself views Hell. But like the supernatural, Hell is still pretty much uncharted territory—you can’t program your GPS to find it, and I haven’t talked to anyone who’s been there—so where do we turn to get some sense of familiarity with these things? Ancient mythology was used for thousands of years to explain the unexplainable and, in the case of the supernatural, the weird tale has acted in much the same capacity. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a “fiction thing.”

It’s interesting to note, though—since the idea of a supernatural realm is obviously something that has to be taken on faith, and faith is key to any religious belief—how many of the best and most influential writers of the supernatural tale had an intense interest in spiritual matters. Most of them were well versed in religious texts, some had formal training in the Church and a few were actually clerics: M.R. James, Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, E.F. Benson (along with his brothers, A.C. and R.H.), Algernon Blackwood, Henry S. Whitehead, H.R. Wakefield, Walter De La Mare, Rev. Noel Boston, H.F. Heard, Arthur Gray, Frederick Cowles, E.G. Swain, R.H. Malden, Rev. Montague Summers, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers; I could go on, but I’ll stop. Oh, but I will mention Russell Kirk, who wrote some of my favorite ghost stories, including “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-winding,” which won the World Fantasy Award in 1977.

DGM: You certainly know quite a lot of the history of the genre and you have rediscovered and published a lot of obscure works that are now in the public domain. How do you find the stories that you publish?

TE: Truthfully, I’ve merely followed a trail blazed by those who went before me: E. F. Bleiler, Mike Ashley, and others, gentlemen just as passionate about the weird tale. Nothing I’ve reprinted thus far was unknown. There are so many reference works, guides, checklists, bibliographies, etc., such as Ashley and Contento’s Supernatural Index, and most of the stories are listed in one or more of these. More than anything, I’m simply introducing these works to a new audience and, I hope, providing some insight into the evolution the genre. The hard part is tracking down a text of the work; locating a copy of the magazine or book in which the item originally appeared. For instance, Robert Eighteen-Bisang put me on the scent of an old vampire novel, In the Dwellings of the Wilderness, but it was over two years before I could find a copy of the 1904 edition. When I published my new edition there were no other reprints of the book available anywhere. Now there are at least two being offered as “print on demand” books. But getting back to your question, I've also uncovered a few of the stories in some of the older anthologies I've collected. Being an avid reader and rabid collector of dusty volumes helps!

DGM: I enjoy digging into old volumes as well but I have also noticed that there seem to be a lot of contemporary publishers focusing on tales of the weird and supernatural. In addition to Dead Letter Press, I have also recently discovered Tartarus Press and Dark Regions Press. Among your peers, which small publishers do you follow most closely?

TE: Tartarus Press, run by Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker, does indeed publish some excellent material in beautifully bound books. I own several of their volumes. I also collect and greatly enjoy the books produced by Ash-Tree Press, which is run by Christopher and Barbara Roden. I haven't been able to sample the output of Dark Regions yet, but I hope to pick up a few of their books soon. Sarob Press has also produced some wonderful books. Sarob dropped off the radar for a few years but now seems to be back, which is a cause for celebration. But, again, Ash-Tree and Tartarus offer wonderful material from the past as well as some of the best new material. Each of these companies produces almost annual anthologies of weird tales that show up on various awards ballots.

DGM: Speaking of anthologies, Bound for Evil really is a special collection. The selection of stories, each of which is tied to weird tales connected to books, is wonderful. Would you mind taking us through the process that you followed as you compiled the anthology?

TE: There was an open submission period of about half a year—with very specific guidelines. I wanted stories that captured the mystique of old books. I also wanted stories in which the book was not simply a prop. The plot needed to turn on the presence and the powers of the book depicted in each tale. In a sense, the book needed to be one of the characters. In Bound for Evil the books often have the ability to do strange things; they affect the characters, alter reality, etc.

During the process of finding new stories that fit the bill, I waded through tons of material that wasn’t right, in which the presence of the book was simply a plot appendage. I was looking for traditional storytelling, as well. I think horror can be done tastefully, and I wanted stories that were controversial without being offensive. I had read and enjoyed such vintage tales as Montague Summers’s “The Grimoire” and M.R. James’s “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” as well as a few contemporary stories, including Fred Chappell’s “The Adder”—all of which are reprinted in the anthology—so I really knew what I wanted.

At first, I was reading every line of everything submitted, but that wasn’t possible after the first couple of months when my inbox received a deluge of stories. So my wonderful wife volunteered to help with the reading. (Readers and wives are indispensible!) Being a bibliophile, I’ve always liked reading about lost books and mysterious libraries, and knew that in weird fiction there’s a long tradition of featuring dangerous tomes of arcane knowledge. What I couldn’t understand was why no one had ever collected the best examples of this tradition. Anyway, my original idea was to do a chapbook reprinting half a dozen tales, but I kept coming across more and more stories I liked and wanted to include. I soon realized the book would be too fat to be a chapbook, and since I had always wanted to do a hardcover edition, Bound for Evil ended up as a 800-page leather-bound book with a sewn binding. The text is printed using plates and ink, as opposed to the laser printing process currently being used by most companies. But the stories make the book, and the theme I chose sparked some great tales by some great writers. The book was a 2008 Shirley Jackson Award finalist for Best Anthology, something I never could have imagined. So I’m very proud of what I achieved.

DGM: You are fortunate to have such a supportive wife! Is she also a fan of weird fiction or is her involvement with, and I imagine, her tolerance for, your hobby purely a labor of love?

TE: I am indeed blessed. Wilma is one in a billion, and we have a wonderful marriage. She loved the idea behind Bound for Evil and was extremely supportive of the project. And she certainly enjoys sharing a good ghost story with me. But any interest she has in the weird tale probably stems more from a desire to enter into my world. So, yes, her support was mainly out of love and a desire to see me fulfill that particular dream. I think we’re two very compatible people with different—and yet similar—interests. We both read and write a great deal, although I’m more into fiction while Wilma is more into nonfiction. We both love to add books to the library, but while I’m frowning over the condition of an old fantasy novel, she’s hovering over well-thumbed books on history and philosophy! I know these probably sound like trivial differences, but we’ve known couples who, after years of pursuing their own interests, drifted apart. So Wilma and I have always made a conscious effort to try and enter into each other’s world, to share in each other’s dreams and desires. In fact, we’re currently working together on a series of nonfiction books which combine our interests and talents—a project neither of us could pull off alone.

DGM: That is very cool and it does sound like you and your wife have found the perfect balance. My wife and I also share a love of reading but our tastes are rarely similar. Interestingly enough, what we do share is an appreciation for gothic tales. She's already claimed Bound for Evil after I have finished reading it! One of the stories that brought us together was Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I have always loved that story and believe it is the finest ghost story ever written. I try to read it aloud with my wife every December. It is definitely one of my “desert island” books. If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one book with you, what would it be?

TE: Just one? In that case, I guess it had better be Desert Island Survival for Dummies!

But regarding A Christmas Carol, my wife and I love that story, too! It certainly is a fine ghost story—with a wonderful message. It’s incredible you should mention the work as an interest you share with your wife, and as a Christmas tradition in your home. It is in our home, as well. And I often read from that and other traditional pieces on Christmas Eve. Were you aware that there was already a long tradition of reading ghost stories at Christmas? Dickens reinforced the tradition with A Christmas Carol ensuring that it would endure to today. Several volumes of Yuletide ghost stories were published a few years ago, edited by Richard Dalby, among others. Wilma and I are also fond of two of the film adaptations of the story, one with Alistair Sim, from the early 1950s, and one produced around 1984, with George C. Scott. The Scott version has some genuinely creepy scenes. Maybe we should have you folks over for a “Christmas bowl of smoking bishop”—whatever that was! Then again, we’d actually prefer a glass of virgin eggnog (we like it straight).

DGM: Just name the date and we’ll be there to share a bowl of nog! That would be a lot of fun. I've seen several staged versions of A Christmas Carol. In every instance, however, A Christmas Carol has always been more of a Christmas story than a ghost story. I always think that makes a horror tale more frightening—when the horror is incidental to real life. You mentioned a couple of film versions of the Dickens classic. Obviously, there are a lot of horror tales that have not yet been made into films and many more that have not been remade well. What horror tales would you like to see presented, or presented again, on the big screen?

TE: I totally agree, the horror (or fantasy) story is most effective when it depicts the supernatural unexpectedly intruding on everyday life. That strikes a responsive chord with most of us: the idea that while we're simply going about our own business, in broad daylight, something extraordinary can befall us. That's the basis of the Twilight Zone-type of story. And that’s really how life is. I think that's the appeal of the classic ghost story.

I can think of dozens of ghost stories that could be filmed effectively. And yet I have mixed feelings about big screen treatments of supernatural material. In some of the best examples of the ghost story a significant part of the tale takes place “off stage.” The narrator is recounting something that he or she heard second hand, a legend, some gossip, etc., and the rest of the story is built up around feelings of dread of what may or may not happen. The supernatural story is often about things the characters FEEL. Things sensed but seldom seen. None of this films very well. So directors often try to fill up the big screen by adding a lot of things that were never there. They bring on the monsters and any attempt at subtlety is jettisoned. I can think of several films that are truly effective at creeping out the audience—until near the end, the place where the director felt it necessary to “show us” the thing we fear. Once the horror is trotted out before the camera it almost always fails to live up to what each of us was personally dreading—or is so over the top that we snicker. But again, that’s like life: there’s beauty in the delicate wings of an insect, but those wings won’t stand up to being pried apart for close inspection under a microscope. They’ll disintegrate under too much handling.

The good weird tale is like that. It’s a bit of sleight of hand that works because of misdirection and proper lighting—and because the writer performs the trick on the stages of our imagination. Often, the magic gets lost on the big screen. But there are some fantastic examples of good supernatural tales translating to the big screen. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (the 60s version) is one, a bit of perfection that I would never even THINK of remaking. But then, what do I know? It was remade a few years ago, and the remake pales in comparison to the original. As a side note, I think ghost stories have translated well to television. They seem to fit the small screen better, in my opinion. The budgets for TV productions are lower, so the script and the director are more likely to stick to merely suggesting the horror.

Going back to A Christmas Carol, I think the film versions work so well because, as you mentioned, the story has a purpose far greater than trying to creep us out! The ghostly visitations are secondary to the message they impart to Scrooge.

DGM: What plans do you have for Dead Letter Press in the coming months and what are your long-term goals? Five years from now, what will you need to see, as you look back, to feel that you have achieved everything that you want to achieve?

TE: I plan to publish the next couple of volumes in the Literary Vampire Series, the first of these being A Morbid Fascination, sometime during the next few months. Regarding long-term plans, a lot will depend on the economy and my ability to finance future projects. I’ve wanted to do a “sequel” to Bound for Evil almost since the day the book hit the street. I have enough classic material to fill another volume, and several established writers are interested in doing new stories for the second book. But Bound for Evil was an expensive book to produce, so I doubt if its sequel could ever be as massive.

My next really big project, though, the one I’m most anxious to start, is a dark fantasy anthology featuring a theme I’m very passionate about—in fact, I’m even more passionate about this project than I was for Bound for Evil. It’s another idea that, like BfE, hasn’t been done before. I’m not comfortable sharing the theme yet, but this new anthology would be a combination of classic and new tales, and probably illustrated, structured in much the same way as BfE. But projects like this one take an enormous amount of time, effort, and money. So nothing is definite yet; however, I do hope to be able to start work on this new anthology by the summer of 2011.

My goal with Dead Letter Press has always been to create books I can take pride in, books I’d want to read and keep on my own shelves, and I think I’ve accomplished that. Five years from now, I’d be content just to see Dead Letter Press (the company) still producing quality books—and maybe turning a small profit. At the same time, I’d also like to see some of my projects reaching a greater audience. Dead Letter Press is simply an expression of my own personal tastes and my abilities as an editor. So any goals I have for the press are bound together with my goals as an editor (and fiction writer). And as an editor, I’d love to see Bound for Evil and similar projects being picked up by a mass market publisher. That’s something that would make me very happy!

DGM: BiblioBuffet’s contributors have been talking a lot about the pros and cons of e-books of late. What do you think of the trend toward electronic publishing? In my view, a book is not a book unless it is a book of print, paper and binding. As a publisher and a collector, what are your thoughts?

TE: I got into publishing because I love and collect books—printed books—and I wanted to produce what I love. So, speaking as a publisher, I personally will never offer e-books for sale. If a time comes when I can no longer produce a printed edition of a book, then I’ll simply close up shop—because the joy of creating that physical object will be gone. And once that’s gone I’m gone! Please understand, this is not a slam against e-book publishing. It’s simply not something I want to do.

Speaking as a book collector, I think e-books take the fun out of collecting. After all, what is there to collect? How do you display your copy? How do you identify a first edition? Collectors have been lamenting this for a few years now. I’ve chosen to avoid the whole issue: I don’t buy e-books. And on the rare occasion when I download a free story or article, I usually print it out. In fact, if there’s a free story I really like at a webzine, I’ll copy it, format it into a booklet and print it. I know that sounds like a lot of work, but I can format a short story into a folded and stapled booklet in less than five minutes. I guess my years of publishing chapbooks have paid off in strange ways. I have some one-of-a-kind booklets on my shelves.

Speaking as a reader, I think that e-books (and online magazines), for better or worse, are here to stay. Publishers will continue to produce books on paper for many years to come, but as production costs continue to increase, and the demand for printed books continues to drop, fewer and fewer will be produced. And I believe demand will drop, as most people grow more accustomed to reading on Kindles and Nooks—or their laptops and Blackberrys. It’s inevitable. Most of us already spend more time in front of a screen reading stuff than we care to admit. We read our letters online, check our e-statements, browse electronic catalogs, and access more information than was ever available to us before the Internet. So a part of me shrugs and asks, “Why not books?” There definitely are pros and cons to  e-books. On the pro side: I’m all for saving some trees, although I wonder if e-books will actually result in a significant reduction in paper usage. I know from personal experience (and from observing my co-workers in action) that when we really like something or want to save it for future reference, we tend to print it out. People often print out email messages, or pages of Wikipedia research, or that memo from their boss. And many of the e-magazines provide printer friendly copies of all their articles and stories. Evidently we like the feel of paper in our hands. Or perhaps we’re still not completely confident with the technology. Software formats do change. And sometimes pages get removed from the Internet, etc. And nothing comes in handier than a printed book during a power outage.

By the way, speaking as a writer, I much prefer to be published in a printed book or magazine. So do most of my friends who are writers. We like to say to our family and friends, “Look, my new story is in the latest issue of Incredibly Amazing Fantasy Stories,” opening up the magazine to exhibit the truth of our statement—clearly printed there for the whole world to see. Somehow it’s just not the same when we direct someone to a website. There’s a perception that anyone can publish stuff on the Internet, backed up by the tens of thousands of blog pages. Unfortunately, there are fewer print magazines today, and writers have to embrace the electronic versions of magazines. Still, there’s nothing quite like a good book. There’s a feeling of permanence about the printed page. A book rests on the shelf until you need it. It opens at your touch. It breathes the same air you breathe. It has the same . . . uh, please forgive me. I think I’ve already covered this ground in Bound for Evil.

DGM: It is comforting to know that you will keep the presses running for a while yet to come! Although I could ask you so many more questions, I should probably leave a few for a later conversation. Since we are so close to Halloween, I will ask you to close by sharing your Halloween plans. Will there be a Dead Letter Press Halloween Party? Can I come?

TE: I love costume parties but . . . I’m afraid our plans for the 31st aren’t nearly as exciting as that. That Sunday night we’ll be watching the second episode of a new, modernized version of Sherlock Holmes on PBS at 9:00 pm. That may sound like a yawner to some, but Wilma and I are big fans of the world’s greatest consulting detective. By the way, my short story “The Deadly Sin of Sherlock Holmes” was recently accepted for the anthology Gaslight Arcanum, to be published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2011. The anthology will be the third in a series of books featuring supernatural Sherlock Holmes tales.

Of course, since it will be Halloween, and I’ve had a tradition of watching something spooky on that day ever since I was about ten, later that night Wilma and I will be popping some Kettle Corn and settling in with a suitably atmospheric movie: probably a Val Lewton film, such as Isle of the Dead, with Boris Karloff in one of his better roles. That’s an interesting film, and if you’ve never seen it you should check it out. I also recommend Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher. Don’t be fooled by the titles; these are very good movies. Trust me on this one.

I really don’t care for blood and gore. I guess that’s why I’m so fond of supernatural stories, in both books and film. I enjoy the atmosphere and the suspense—the terror of what may or may not be lurking in the shadows. Anyway, them’s the plans for the night. I would say we’d be handing out candy, except that we don’t get trick-or-treaters at our house. We live, and I mean literally, in the woods. The nearest neighbors are five minutes away, and they keep their kids safely inside after sunset; because in the woods (heh!) no one can hear you scream! Okay, enough of that. However, there are plenty of creepy noises coming from our attic—no doubt the family of flying squirrels seeking out winter digs.

Books mentioned in this column:
Bound for Evil, edited by Tom English (Dead Letter Press, 2008)
The Vampyre by Dr. John Polidori (Dodo Press, 2009)
Inferno by Dante Alighieri
In the Dwellings of the Wilderness by C. Bryson Taylor (Kessinger Publishing, 2010)
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Penguin, 1984)
A Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Penguin Classics, 2006)
Gaslight Arcanum (forthcoming from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2011)  

David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.



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