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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

STARK REALITIES


STARK REALITIES
STARK HOUSE PRESS
PUBLISHER
GREG SHEPARD

Stark House Press is renowned for breathing new life into great books by great writers—writers who have slipped out of the mainstream into the murky depths of the noir and hardboiled underworld. United by their mesmerizing plotting, scorching prose, and flawed characters, every reprint from Stark House is beautifully packaged with incisive and informed introductions from some of the most knowledgeable noirmeisters and hardboiled mavens in the genre.

Books by writing giants such as Harry Whittington, Frank Kane, Carter Brown, Cleve Adams, Peter Rabe, Fletcher Flora, Malcolm Braly, W. R. Burnett, Arnold Hano, Dan J. Marlowe, and too many others to name, have been brought back from the edge of obscurity by the guiding hand of Stark House Press’ unassuming editor, Greg Shepard.

Operating in the shadows, Greg has been quietly feeding the desperate needs of mainlining noir, hardboiled, and even Western junkies for far too long without due recognition. Having been a regular reader of Stark House Press’ fantastic output, I’m  delighted Greg agreed to be interviewed and share his thoughts about the books and authors Stark House continues to feature.
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If a scheming femme fatale falsely accused you of murder and you were on the run, what information would the police’s APB contain?

Born in 1952 in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Grew up in Northern California. Spent childhood in the Sacramento area, Marin County and Pacifica. At various times, I’ve been a painter, graphic designer, rock music critic, clerk, book buyer, publisher’s sales rep, book distributor, tenant relations coordinator. Currently, publisher of Stark House Press in Eureka, California. I married Cindy Brown in 2013, have two sons—Justin and Cole— by previous marriages, and a house full of books, movies, music, animals and art.

What are your first memories of reading?

I was a sucker for Dr. Seuss when I was a kid—still am. Once a week, my mom would take us to the library so we could stock up. From Seuss, I graduated to animal stories in grade school, and then to science fiction, horror, and mysteries. In my very early teens, my grandmother (bless her) gave me a pile of Edgar Rice Burroughs books—the old Ace editions—and I was off and running into adventure-fantasy land. You might say I trace my reading arc from Cubby in Wonderland to Mysterious Island to Pellucidar to The Big Sleep. Something like that.

When did you first begin to read widely in the noir and hardboiled fields?

I read a lot of Phyllis A. Whitney’s young adult mysteries when I was entering my teens, but didn’t start reading Chandler, Hammett, or Cain until I was in my late teens and early 20s. Mostly, I read a lot of science fiction. Then in the mid-1980s, I discovered Maxim Jakubowski’s UK Black Box Thrillers, and read them all from beginning to end. From there, it was a just a matter of time before I started tracking down every single Gold Medal book I could find. Around this time Black Lizard started up, and I was able to read the Jim Thompson books I hadn’t been able to find. It was a good time to discover noir.

Can you tell us a little about the history of Stark House Press?

The publishing company came from a suggestion made by my dad, Bill Shepard. He had been a newspaper writer and magazine editor most of his life. He thought it would be interesting to start a publishing company. My brother Mark is a graphic design artist, my mom, Joanne, a proofreader, and my ex-wife handled the cover art. I was in charge of acquisitions. I started with Storm Constantine, but quickly moved to mysteries when the rest of the family dropped out.

Why did you decided to start Stark House Press?

I had always wanted to be a publisher myself, even as far back as high school. My fantasy then was to reprint everything by all my favorite authors. Which is sort of what I’m doing today. I can’t speak for my dad, who is no longer with us, but I imagine he wanted to start a new business just to see if we could succeed with it. He had quite the entrepreneurial spirit, no doubt about it. For me, it’s an outgrowth of being a book collector, and wanting to spread the gospel, one reprint at a time.

Is there a story behind the Stark House name?

I originally suggested Dark House, but when I looked into it, there were just too many publishers at the time with the word dark in their name. I thought stark sounded cool without being specific to any one genre, and suggested it to the group. It stuck. Many California book buyers knew me from the time when I was a sales rep for a fellow named J. Ben Stark, who imported British paperbacks. They thought I had named the business after him. But it was one of those weird coincidences. The family liked Stark House, and it became the name we settled on.

What do you look for when deciding on a new Stark House Press title?

I started by tracking down the rights to all my favorite authors, like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Peter Rabe, Gil Brewer, W. R. Burnett and Harry Whittington. At this point, I keep myself open to new authors who submit something I get caught up in myself; or classics on my fantasy wish list; or authors who are offered to me, like Carter Brown.

Are there any authors who you would like to publish, but for haven’t been able to pin down?

I’d love to reprint David Goodis’ Somebody’s Done For. The lawyers who control the estate shot down my offer. I tried to work a deal to reprint Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes, but the family wanted more than I could spend. There are some books for which I haven’t been able to track down the estate, such as A. H. Z. Carr’s Finding Maubee, and other authors, like Davis Karp, I simply haven’t succeeded in tracking down yet. Ed Gorman tried to put me together with the Robert Bloch estate, but they never got back to us. It was a pet project of Ed’s, and I’m sorry we couldn’t make it happen before he passed away. 

Do you have any personal favorites among your Stark House Press titles?

The Box by Peter Rabe prompted me to read the rest of his books, so it was the first book of his I reprinted. I love that book! Such a treasure. Same with Pure Sweet Hell by Douglas Sanderson, and Something in the Shadows by Vin Packer. I love A. S. Fleischman’s Far East thrillers, and almost anything by Holding and Brewer—even the weird late-period books.

Any particular acquisition coups among the books you have published?

Considering the netherworld of small press publishing—and the even more confining world of retro noir reprinting—my coups have been small, personal ones. Like finding Peter Rabe’s agent via Ed Gorman; or tracking down Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s grandson, who controls her estate. Probably the trickiest two estates to locate, though, turned out to be James McKimmey’s and Lionel White’s. A lot of online investigative work went into those two.

How do you match the writer of an introduction to a particular book?

For awhile, it seemed like Rick Ollerman and David Wilson were writing most of our introductions. They have their favorites, and I would always go to them first when the author was someone like Peter Rabe, W. R. Burnett, Harry Whittington or Charles Williams. But lately, I have been searching out new voices, or authors I know to be fans. For example, Bill Crider was generous enough to provide the intro for the upcoming Richard Wormser book. The suggestion to approach Bill actually came from the owner of the literary agency that controls the Wormser estate. He knew Bill was a fan. When I was trying to find someone to introduce our recent Basil Heatter book, I was up against it. No one I knew had read him. Finally, Steve Lewis, the man behind Mystery*File, was kind enough to provide some thoughts after I sent him the books to read. There really isn’t a formula for matching introduction to book. Sometimes it’s a case of finding out a modern author is a fan of someone we’re reprinting, then asking them if they’d like to contribute.

Why do you feel it is important to keep these writers and their books available?

Good question. I could come up with all sorts of intellectualized reasons, but the fact is, I think books by these authors are as readable today as they were when they were written. The trappings of a story may have changed—in the 50s, everyone, it seemed, drank a lot, smoked a lot, and only paid two bits for a decent diner meal—but the essential conflicts remain the same. Particularly as regards characters who chase after money and sex and come to a bad end. That story is timeless. And when you think of authors like Rabe or Brewer, you ask yourself, why shouldn’t they still be in print? They’re so damn good.

How have advances in the technical side of publishing been advantageous to Stark House Press?

Personal computers made desktop publishing possible in the first place. The Internet made it possible to connect easily with the rest of the world. Print on demand certainly made it a whole lot cheaper to keep books in print, to reprint them cheaply and quickly. Honestly, if I had wanted to get into the publishing industry even 30 years ago, I probably would have had to move to New York. Now, I get to live on the California coast in the redwoods, and publish books as well. Practically any technical advance you can think of in the world of publishing has been advantageous to Stark House.

How has Stark House adjusted to the ebook market and is there an average split between the ebook sales and the sales of a trade paperback for individual titles?

I’m retro enough I still prefer printed books, so was very late to get into the ebook game. And I still don’t have all our books available in electronic format. Most of our books sell more than twice as much in paperback as a result. There are occasional titles like Red Hot Typewriter, our John D. MacDonald bio, which sells a lot better in ebook, and some of the new authors we’ve published have also done very well in the medium. Getting more ebooks out is a work in progress for me.

How important is your website and mailing list to the success of Stark House Press?

I get very little feedback on the website. We don’t get a lot of orders directly from it. However, I like to think the hits we get are from customers who then look for the book elsewhere. The folks on the mailing list get a physical catalog, but it’s not the best way of scaring up business—not anymore. I’m just a holdover to the good-old-days when publishers put out paper catalogs to promote their books. I still have a stack of old Ace Books catalogs I kept from the 60s and 70s, more for the sake of nostalgia than anything else. But lately, since making all our books available through Ingram [*a book distribution service], we have started to reach more bookstores, which has made a far bigger difference than the website. Also the Stark House Crime Club, which guarantees its members will receive each new book we publish. That’s worked very well.

How important are Amazon reviews for Stark House Press titles?

I tend to think they’re very important. I know I buy stuff based on Amazon reviews. I’ve even started quoting Amazon and GoodReads reviews on the back of our books. There are a lot of intelligent and articulate readers out there writing some very discerning comments on the books they read and the music they listen to. I don’t have any numbers to justify my view that Amazon reviews sell books, but I figure if it works for me, it probably works for a lot of other readers. And, for better or worse, Amazon still accounts for a big chunk of our sales.

Black Gat Books is a relatively new imprint for Stark House Press. What makes a book qualify for the Black Gat imprint as opposed to a traditional Stark House publication?

Sometimes you have a single book by an author you love and want to reprint. Or you want to try out an author to see if there is any interest. Or you want to single out a book on its own because it deserves it. I happen to love the 4.25” x 7” mass market book size. I’m also a big fan of standalone novels—not much of a series reader—so I like to find books that stand on their own. I’m reminded again of the Black Lizard books. Cool little books that speak for themselves. There should be more of them on the market today. Black Gat fills that need.

What can we look for in the next few months from Stark House Press and Black Gat Books?

Some authors new to the list like Floyd Mahannah, Richard Wormser and Bill S. Ballinger. Some old favorites like Holding, Rabe and Brewer. Rick and I are working on a Stark House Anthology, which may see the light of day next year. We’ve got another collection of classic supernatural stories edited by Jonathan E. Lewis called Strange Island Stories coming in the Spring. Another Carter Brown 3-fer, the next three Al Wheeler novels. A new mystery by Michael Scott Cain called Damon Runyon’s Boys. Another new thriller from Rick Ollerman, which has yet to be titled. Lots of stuff.

What are your future goals for Stark House Press and Black Gat books?

Personally, I would love to add classic science fiction reprints to Stark House, and diversify a bit more. We’ve started adding some noir westerns to the list. I’d like to add more adventure, fantasy and turn-of-the-century material as well. There’s only one of me, so it remains to be seen what I can accomplish. The noir and hardboiled books are the main focus, though, and will remain so for the time being. There’s still plenty of great material crying out for reprint. 
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Thx to Greg Shepard for taking time to answer so many questions. CLICK HERE to check out the latest Stark House Press publications, and both upcoming and backlist titles...

Saturday, September 30, 2017

GAME, SET, MATCH

GAME, SET, MATCH

The Battle of the Sexes is a well written, well-acted, well directed film with few surprises and, consequently, less impact than it should. The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is well documented—not only as a touchstone moment in sports history, but in the evolution of Western society. Specifically, it became the face of the burgeoning sexual revolution, and a rebel yell in the fight for women’s equality. It was also a defining moment in the lives of two disparate, flawed, very human individuals played out in the glare of the media spotlight.

While Emma Stone and Steve Carell inhabit their characters, the film plays so safe with the events, it is impossible to get lost in the portrayals. We never forget we are watching two actors doing a fantastic impression of two historic figures moving relentlessly toward an intersecting destiny. The problem can be traced to directors Valerie Faris’ and Jonathan Dayton’s choice to limit the film by turning two-thirds of the narrative into a personal story in which King anguishes over her bisexuality.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s this might have been a revolutionary story deserving of being made the focus. However, as awareness of the LGTB community has made strides in the intervening years, the more interesting story relevant to today becomes Billy Jean King’s singular focus and dedication to her sport. Her sexual orientation is part of her story, but to make it the only part is to belittle Billy Jean King’s major accomplishment—the exposure and beginning deconstruction of a male dominated society.

In real life, the actual tennis match between King and Riggs transcended the individuals involved. So too, The Battle of the Sexes, is finally allowed to roar with the first serve of the fantastically recreated tennis match. Despite knowing the historic outcome, everything that had gone before—King’s lifestyle choices, Riggs’ gambling addiction (which gets short shrift, being played more for laughs than pain)—fades away as the pock, pock, pock sound unique to tennis rivets and grabs your whole attention. Finally, the film eclipses its faults and double-faults and begins to soar.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

TAMIL PULP—SARIS AND DAGGERS!

TAMIL PULPSARIS AND DAGGERS!

In a previous column, I wrote about the wonderful explosion of Indian Hindi Pulp and its rare but engaging English translations. Tamil Pulp is another strong tradition to come out of India, with several collections also being translated into English. Spoken in four south Indian states, Tamil is the official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore. 

Always considered the language of high culture in India, Tamil has today become the choice of mass market Indian fiction authors, whose stories and style of writing mimic the American pulp magazines, whose heyday ran from the1930s thru the 1950s. In a uniquely Indian twist, these action packed Tamil Pulp stories are often filled with kings, ghosts, and mythological serpents. 

Similar to when the American pulp magazines once boomed, Tamil Pulp novels are currently flourishing in India. They can be spotted on every newsstand and book stall, recognized by their lurid covers—often featuring mustachioed men menacing women in tight nurse's uniforms, knives dripping blood, and lots of cleavage. Clearly, another strong connection to their American forerunners.

In 2008, California born Rakesh Khanna had returned to India and was living in Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, near the Bay of Bengal. Seeing the barrage of Indian pulp novels exploding around him, Khanna became fascinated by the stories. Inspired, Khanna and translator Pritham Chakravarthy co-founded Blaft, an alternative publishing company dedicated to English language versions of Tamil Pulp. 

Blaft has since published three translated anthologies of Tamil Pulp. The books themselves are works of art. The luridly brilliant cover of the first volume features the intriguing figure of a busty, gun-toting, Tamil rose with a knowing look. The following volumes sport similar images. Inside there are striking color reproductions of many Tamil Pulp covers, as well as professionally executed line drawings used to illustrate the stores. Everything is in perfect balanced from the quality of the paper to the binding. Pulp has never looked so good.

The collected stories themselves are riveting and well worthy of their place between the covers. There are mad scientists, hardboiled detectives, robot murderers, desperate housewives, scandalous starlets, sordid, drug-fueled love affairs, vengeful goddesses, and enough racy material to make any mother despair if she caught you reading about them. With titles like, Hold On A Minute I'm In The Middle of A Murder; Sweetheart, Please Die; and Eat Pray Love Kill, any pulp fan is going to be all in.

GOLDEN RULES FOR TAMIL PULP FICTION

In 1933, Tamil author Sudhandhira Sangu wrote an article called The Secret of Commercial Novel Writing. He laid out the three golden rules:

1. The title of the book should carry a woman's name—and it should be a sexy one like Miss Leela Mohini.

2. Your story must absolutely include a minimum half-dozen lovers and prostitutes, preferably ten or a dozen murders, and few sundry thieves and detectives.

3. You can make money only if you are able to titillate. If you try to bring in any social message, forget it. Beware! You are not going to lure your women readers.

Anyone want to argue with the rules? Didn’t think so... 

THE BLAFT ANTHOLOGY OF TAMIL PULP FICTION VOL. 1

This anthology features seventeen stories by ten best-selling authors of Tamil crime, romance, science fiction, and detective stories, none of them ever before translated into English, along with reproductions of wacky cover art and question-and-answer sessions with some of the authors. Grab a masala vadai, sit back and enjoy!

THE BLAFT ANTHOLOGY OF TAMIL PULP FICTION VOL. 2

Selected and translated from the Tamil by Pritham Chakravarthy. Edited by Rakesh Khanna. The follow-up to 2008's successful first collection featuring stories by Indra Soundar Rajan, Medhavi, Jeyaraj, Pushpa Thangadorai, Rajesh Kumar, Indumathi, M.K.Narayanan, and Resakee. A young woman's fascination with blue films leads to a bizarre murder! A bloodline of debauched maharajas falls prey to an evil curse! A beautiful girl uses karate to retrieve a stolen idol! Seven thrilling tales from seven Indian and Singaporean masters of action, suspense, and horror!

THE BLAFT ANTHOLOGY OF TAMIL PULP FICTION VOL. 3

From the sewers of small-town Tamil Nadu to the drug dens of Khajuraho...From the dance bars of Hyderabad to the exoplanets of Gliese 581...The doyens of Tamil Pulp Fiction bring you six short novels of love...crime...and interstellar terror!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

WIND RIVER—NOTHING IS HARDER TO TRACK THAN THE TRUTH

WIND RIVER
NOTHING IS HARDER
TO TRACK THAN THE TRUTH
 
I’m not sure if I can express how much this film affected me on a level as deep and icy as the Wind River reservation it depicts. Directing from his own script, Taylor Sheridan—last year’s Best Screenplay Oscar winner for the riveting Hell Or High Water—turns Wind River into an unnerving slow burn punctuated by powerful jolts of violence. This mixture gains it’s emotional volatility from the inner core of the journey each character is following. Because of this, it all rings true, as the film’s violence is driven by the characters, not dictated by structured clichés, which demand a visceral kick for false and manipulative validation.

The story in Wind River is disarmingly straightforward. Grizzled U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert is forced to confront his past when he agrees to collaborate with rookie FBI agent, Jane Banner, to solve the harrowing circumstances behind the murder of a young woman on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Expectations raised by these circumstances are negligible—we’ve seen this all before. But in Wind River, the surface murder mystery, and it’s relatively mundane solution, are a smoke and mirrors distraction to allow the true underlying plot to slowly surface like a blade of spring grass piercing hard—packed snow.

Wind River spins its simple premise on its head, chipping away at what we think we know, to reveal a haunting, metaphor about fatherhood, male bonding, race, poverty, isolation, surviving the unsurvivable, and determination. The final effect comes full circle when a sentence appears on the screen, seconds before fade out, carrying an emotional punch far more visceral than all the prior scenes of violence.

Jeremy Renner is terrific as Fish And Wildlife officer, Cory Lambert. He is the keystone of the film, his face and demeanor displaying a constant emotional, internal, concentration. He is never out of step with the elements of either story or the harsh setting. He is always the relentless hunter of predators—in all their forms—who target the weak. There is never a moment where it is unclear what his motivations are or why he takes the actions he intuitively understands are required.

Renner is well matched by Elizabeth Olson as Jane Banner. Her diminutive stature should have been a casting fail, but she doggedly follows the lead of Emily Blunt, an actress who has honed overcoming her physical size into an art form. Portraying an FBI agent dropped into an alien world, Olson also benefits from a script which doesn’t treat her character with distain. Jane Banner is well aware she is out of her element, but sharp enough, and tough enough, to make the necessary adjustments to her situation without hesitation or consternation.

With help from the Tribal Police Chief—another character given a solid anchoring in reality—determining who sent young Natalie running barefoot through the snow to an icy grave, puts Lambert and Banner on a path to truths as chilly and as barren as the desolate environment surrounding them.

As the director, Sheridan stages his climax magnificently. Smoothly blending in a key flashback at exactly the right moment, he reveals the chilling extent of what Natalie endured before she escaped into the frozen wasteland, a warrior alone and without hope. What follows is a bravura sequence, the intensity almost too much to take after the deliberate pacing of what has gone before.

As with Hell Or High Water, Sheridan ends his story not with violence. Instead, he captures us with an emotional elasticity, which goes way beyond the solving of a murder mystery or the catching of a killer. The impact of the raw emotion, which leaves you sitting in your seat until the final credit rolls, comes not from the physical violence, but from the agonizing sincerity of the characters—a dynamic cutting across the fences of race, gender, and societal class as if they were non-existent.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

STARK HOUSE PRESS NEWSLETTER

STARK HOUSE PRESS
NEWSLETTER, VOLUME 6, NUMBER 7
SEPT. 2017

September belongs to Peter Rabe. This September, we are reprinting the entire Manny deWitt series, which includes Girl in a Big Brass Bed, The Spy Who Was 3 Feet Tall, and Code Name Gadget. Next year at this time, we will be reprinting his two Mafia novels, War of the Dons and Black Mafia. And in 2019, also in September, we will finish up with New Man in the House and Her High School Lover, the two obscure novels Rabe published under the Marco Malaponte pseudonym back in 1963. Something to look forward to.

But for now, we’ve got the deWitt novels, which are in a class by themselves. For these books, Rabe decided to try something new, adding an offbeat humor to his stories, and creating a series around an industrial lawyer who is sent on frustrating missions by his capricious boss, Hans Lobbe. Sometimes the humor works, sometimes it doesn’t. As Rick Ollerman points out in his introduction:

Crimes abound in all three but the books are not really about a crime per se...While Rabe said he admired the work of LeCarré and Deighton, who wrote spy thrillers, deWitt is not a spy. He’s just a lawyer, trying to carry out whatever instructions Lobbe has given him…On the other hand, there are spies in all three of the books, working against deWitt. It takes a master plotter to pull something like this...

So, what we have here are spy satires, sort of, with Rabe putting his main character through the paces while giving us a bit of a wink from the margins. For my taste, Code Name Gadget is the best, with most of the arch humor ditched in favor of a more traditionally gritty spy thriller. As Rick points out, Peter Rabe was anything but conventional and these three novels were a bit of an experiment. Kristofer Upjohn, writing in the Noir Journal, calls the book swift and fun. See if you agree.

Also this month, we are reprinting two more Algernon Blackwood supernatural classics: John Silence—Physician Extraordinary and The Wave: An Egyptian Aftermath. John Silence collects all the tales of the psychic investigator that were originally published in the 1908 hardback, plus a final story that appeared in Day and Night Stories in 1917 called A Victim of Higher Space.

John Silence was something of a supernatural Sherlock Holmes, aiding his clients by tracking down the origins of their various hauntings and weird manifestations, then dispelling them.

Earlier this year, critic Michael Dirda wrote a long article on Blackwood for The New York Review of Books. You have to subscribe to view NYRB articles online, but here is what he had to say about the John Silence stories: Whatever the background—ghostly invasion, devil-worship, a were-wolf, the depredations of an ancient Egyptian mummy—Blackwood expertly builds up an atmosphere of the otherworldly coupled with the spiritually threatening.

John Silence definitely presents Blackwood at his timeless best. The Wave, originally published in 1916, is an expansive story of love and reincarnation played out across the sands of Egypt. Critics at the time were profuse in their praise for this one: “The glory of words, the grandeur that was Egypt, the splendor of a brave and loving human soul—these are the very substance of this fascinating volume.”—New York Times. “A strange and unusual book, full of insight and imagination...the work of a very delicate literary craftsman.”—The Saturday Review

Anthologist and critic Stefan Dziemianowicz provides an excellent introduction to this mammoth volume. No one wrote like Blackwood, and the power of his visions still captivates today. If you’ve never read him, this probably isn’t the best volume to start with, but if you are already familiar with his metaphysical explorations, this is just what you need for a cold winter night. 

Stark House Crime Club members will automatically receive the Peter Rabe book. If you would like to receive the Algernon Blackwood book as well, let me know via email.

In the meantime, we’ve added a few more ebooks to the ever-growing list: The Goldseekers by W. R. Burnett, Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals by Rick Ollerman and Virgin Cay/A Night Out by Basil Heatter. Available now on Kindle!

To visit the Stark House Press website CLICK HERE