DAVID A. RILEY:
IN HIS OWN WORDS
Trevor Kennedy speaks with a man who has dedicated a large chunk of his life so far to the genre, especially within the UK weird fiction scene - author and publisher, David A. Riley.
Trevor Kennedy: Hello, David. I have nothing but the greatest respect for yourself, your body of work and your dedication to the British fantasy, horror and science fiction publishing scene over the last few decades. But where did it all begin for you? Have you always had an interest in weird fiction, since your earlier days at Accrington Grammar School, or possibly even before?
David A. Riley: It all started while I was a pupil at Accrington Grammar School, initially with a friend, who was keen on writing stories, and we decided to have a go. I was the only one to keep at it, though. Later, another friend introduced me to the works of H. P. Lovecraft. It was just after this I came across a battered paperback edition of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cry Horror! on a second-hand bookstall on the local market.
To start with, in my complete naivety, I started sending handwritten stories to van Thal’s Pan Book of Horror Stories, which seemed the easiest market to use. Of course, I got nowhere till I started to use a typewriter. It was in my final year at school, when I was seventeen, that I finally finished what would prove to be my first professional sale, The Lurkers in the Abyss. I received my acceptance letter one week after finishing school.
TK: You were one of the guys at the centre of the fresh, upcoming UK fantasy/horror scene in the early 1970s, which included the foundation of the much esteemed British Fantasy Society. It must have been quite an exciting time for various reasons, but what are your own memories of the period?
DR: Very vivid still. They were exciting times. Dave Sutton had just started his literary horror fanzine Shadow, to which I started to contribute reviews and the occasional article and even some artwork (I won’t mention the poems!) I first met Dave face to face after several years of correspondence at what was our very first convention, the notorious 1970 Eastercon in London. It was shortly after this that I was offered the job of art editor for Shadow, which was how I first met Jim Pitts and Nick Caffrey, both of whom who live in nearby Blackburn. They turned up one day out of the blue on my doorstep, Jim with a handful of illustrations he wanted to submit to Shadow.
Shadow really was a catalyst for a lot of developments at this time. It brought Dave into contact with Sphere Books, who hired him to edit the Sphere Books of Horror and the Supernatural, which ran to two volumes. It also brought together the main people who helped form the British Fantasy Society, the brainchild of Keith Walker. Originally named The British Weird Fantasy Society, I was member number four. We held our first AGM at the next SF Eastercon, where the name was changed to the British Fantasy Society. I did the covers for the first two issues of Dark Horizons, the society’s journal, then edited by Rosemary Pardoe. Some time later, along with Jim Pitts, I took over the editorship of The BFS Bulletin, for the first time having it printed using lithograph. The next step was the creation of Fantasycon, which of course is still going. The first was a one-day event held in The Imperial Hotel in Birmingham. We had no idea how many people would attend. In the end nearly twice as many turned up as we needed to make it a success. The following year saw our second, this time a more ambitious two-day convention. I was program organiser and it was my job to invite our first guest of honour, who happened to be Robert Aickman. Never having heard of us, he was a little hesitant at first, but in the end proved to be a great Guest of Honour.
TK: Looking at your personal work, which includes the collections His Own Mad Demons, The Lurkers in the Abyss and Other Tales of Terror and Their Cramped Dark World, and the novels The Return, Goblin Mire and Moloch’s Children, could you tell us a bit more about each of these please and which is your own favourite?
DR: It’s a difficult question. Of the short story collections, I suppose The Lurkers in the Abyss is my favourite, if only because it’s the most substantial at 277 pages as opposed to only 180 pages in the others. It was also the one that took the longest to get published, going through two publishers who both went bust before it could be brought out, until Dave Sutton took it on. By that stage, after waiting for quite a few years, I had even begun to wonder whether it would ever appear! Oddly enough, both the other collections were brought out by Hazardous Press, which has since also gone under, which is why I decided to republish them under my own imprint.
Of the novels I must admit to having an especial love for The Return, which was published by Blood Bound Books, who I found a great company to deal with. It is also my most Lovecraftian novel and is set in my favourite fictional place, Edgebottom, with its cursed area of Grudge End, a place I have used in quite a few stories. Someone described the book as Cthulhu meets Get Carter, and I did enjoy writing a Mythos novel in a crime noir style. Goblin Mire is my only fantasy novel – and one of my very few fantasy stories. In it I tried to make the goblins more heroic role, while not understating their dark, barbaric natures, like some kind of ugly Cimmerians. My other novel, Moloch’s Children, was an attempt at doing a sort of cross between Dennis Wheatley, H. P. Lovecraft and M. R. James. I leave it for others to decide just how successful that was!
There is a fourth novel, but this I decided to publish under the pseudonym of Andrew Jennings. It’s a bit of a crime thriller and a horror story, and has a serial killer, espionage, and vampirism. This one’s called Into the Dark.
TK: Having read some of your work - which I very much enjoyed - I found that while the influences from the likes of Lovecraft and M.R. James are perhaps apparent, your own unique, grim style shines through. Do you think that is a fair point and which other works inspire your writing?
DR: When I first started writing I was heavily influenced by H. P. Lovecraft – which was by no means unique at the time! But I don’t think his style – which he himself used to perfection, I would add – really suited me and it was not long before I think a voice of my own started to come to the fore, though I do think influences like Lovecraft and James are still there, mainly in the background, but there are others too, possibly a bit of every writer I have ever read and admired. Which is again by no means unique. I think all writers are influenced by those they particularly admire. It’s inevitable. Writers I would like to think have influenced me for good or ill include Franz Kafka, Robert Bloch, Ian Rankin, Ramsey Campbell, John Connolly, Kingsley Amis, and far too many to name them all. I have probably forgotten a few I should have included anyway.
TK: In your opinion, what makes a good horror/fantasy story?
DR: Atmosphere, characters with whom the reader can empathise (though not necessarily because you like them), credibility, and a solid punch at the end in the case of horror and sometimes fantasy too, though I don’t think the punch is necessarily as important there, just a satisfactory ending. I am not a great fan of stories that are vague and leave you wondering what the hell just happened. Perhaps I’m old fashioned but I like a beginning, a middle, and an end that at least marginally makes sense. I don’t like stories that are pretentiously experimental and absolutely hate second person singular, especially in the present tense. Anything that gets in the way of the reader getting into the story makes it a poor story in my opinion.
TK: You have also edited the British Fantasy Society’s bulletin publication Prism, and your own Beyond magazine in the 1990s. Publishing these days is so much easier with the advent of the internet and self-publishing websites, but what were some of the difficulties you faced back then, especially with Beyond, despite the big genre names attached to it?
DR: Beyond was an overly ambitious project. I had just been made redundant by British Aerospace, where I had worked for twenty years, and given a generous redundancy payment. I used this to finance what I hoped would be a High Street magazine, available in W. H. Smiths, John Menzies, etc., and even in any newsagents that wished to stock it. I managed to get a major distributor to take it on, and both Smiths and Menzies agreed to distribute it through their warehouses. The initial print run was 12,000 copies, sent out sale or return. It was only by the time the third issue had already been printed and sent out that the returns figures showed far too few copies had been sold in order to keep the magazine going. The first issue sold about 6,000 copies but returns were still coming through. Some of the figures from Smiths and John Menzies were plainly ridiculous, with far too many of them sending in returns of 120 copies when they had only ever received 100, which on paper at least meant that I apparently owed them! Returns is a strange misnomer, since nothing is ever actually returned. What it means is that unsold copies are allegedly dumped in a skip and no proof of just how many were ever sold would be given, just a cursory glance at the shelves to estimate how many copies remained before destruction. This realisation came too late to save Beyond and the third issue was the final one, money all gone. It was a salutary lesson.
On the other hand, while it lasted, it was a great experience, and I got to know some really wonderful people. One of the most helpful was John Brunner who phoned me up after the first issue went out to tell me that what I needed was a big name in science fiction to lift the magazine. The big name, of course, was his. And he went on to send me a couple of stories, one of which I published. The second, unfortunately, would have been in the 4th issue. By then, though, John had already died. The last time I saw him was at a Preston SF meeting when he told me he had another story for me which he would hand over at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, which we were both attending at the end of the week. I arrived on Saturday, but John died the day before.
Beyond had a bit of a bad record for deaths. One of the writers I most strongly wanted for the first issue was Karl Edward Wagner. The story he sent me, Gremlin, was in that issue, illustrated by Dave Carson, though Karl himself was already dead by the time the magazine was published. In the second issue we featured a lengthy interview with Roger Zelazny. He too died before the magazine came out. I’m not sure we would have attracted many more well-known writers even if the magazine had continued if “the curse of Beyond” had leaked out!
Prism came a few years later. I really enjoyed doing this, especially as the print bill was paid for by the BFS! It was especially enjoyable at the beginning, when it was an individual publication and I had complete control over designing it for the printer. I did three issues before the BFS, as a cost-cutting exercise, decided to merge all the society’s publication into what would be known as The Journal. With this I lost any control over design and, to be honest, I didn’t really care for the way it was laid out. I hung on for another four issues, but the fun had gone by then and I resigned editorship of it.
TK: What is your view on the relatively new culture of self-publishing? Do you reckon it is becoming more respected and do you think one day it may even take over completely? On a personal level, like most things, I suppose, it has its ups and downs. I love the creative freedom and control it gives me, but it can be really hard work promoting your own stuff and dealing with the admin side of things.
DR: Self-publishing is a fascinating development. At one time it was heavily frowned upon, especially by organisations like the Horror Writers Association, of which I was a member for quite a few years. In fact, I was one of the trustees for it at one time. Nowadays, though, even the HWA has accepted it as legitimate and no longer looks on it as “vanity publishing”.
The small presses or independent presses are also an important development, especially as major publishers are fewer in number than they used to be, and horror especially is not particularly popular amongst them, probably because, other than a very small handful of names, like Stephen King, it doesn’t make enough money for them. If not for the independent presses very little horror would be published today. On the other hand, there are so many of them, and so many writers working in the genre today, that readers are swamped. And there is an awful lot of bad stuff out there, poorly edited, sloppily proofread and just as shoddily typeset and designed. So, along with the pluses, there are a lot of negatives to go along with this development. Hopefully quality will eventually shine through, but it is a tough business. And promoting the books you publish is equally hard. If you’re not heard of, you’re ignored, and no one will buy your books. A lot these days depends on the writers themselves, who must strive to help promote their books and not leave it to the publishers to do all the work for them. That’s sometimes a hard thing to get across. But even the big publishers expect this from their authors today. It’s not something isolated to the small press.
TK: These days, along with your wife Linden, you run Parallel Universe Publications. How are things going with that and what have been some of the highlights so far?
DR: Parallel Universe Publications originally saw light when we published Beyond. After that died, so did the imprint until a friend of mine, Craig Herbertson told me he had been let down by a publisher over his collection The Heaven Maker and Other Gruesome Tales, for which he had already booked a launch in Scotland. This came not long after I had done Prism and I was still enthusiastic about doing something new, so I, maybe crazily, offered to do the book for him. His brother was footing the bill and wanted 100 copies in about two months’ time. Even though I had never done anything like this before – a two-hundred-and-fifty-page hardcover book - I made a stab at it. Incredibly, I managed to get it done and delivered to him with a few day’s grace. It wasn’t perfect – I have revised the book since – but it served its purpose at the time – and gave me the incentive a few years later to embark on publishing more books, mainly in paperback. The first of these was a collection of stories by Charles Black, who had already made a name for himself with his wonderful Black Books of Horror. The book in question was Black Ceremonies, with an incredible cover by the Scottish artist Paul Alexander Mudie, who did all the covers for the eleven volumes of Black Books. Since then I have brought out thirty books, mainly in paperback and as ebooks, but also a small handful of hardbacks as well, including our most ambitious project, The Fantastical Art of Jim Pitts, which took quite a while to put together and for which I had to invest pretty heavily in some new software for my computer – in fact, I had to invest in a new, much more powerful computer too to handle the graphics.
TK: What are Parallel Universe Publications currently working on and what does the company have planned for the future?
DR: After an initial flurry of bringing out about ten books per year, we have slowed down a bit. This year so far we just have two projects. The first is a charity anthology for the homeless, Kitchen Sink Gothic 2. The second is to reprint in paperback and ebook format Johnny Mains’ debut novel, A Distasteful Horror Story, which he published under his own Noose & Gibbet imprint a short while ago as a limited-edition hardback. This is an amazing book, full of some very dark, very violent satire on the horror genre, its writers and fans and is something I think only Johnny Mains could have written.
TK: Have Parallel Universe ever crossed outside of weird fiction and if not, would they ever?
DR: We did do the Jim Pitts art book, though of course that was mainly fantasy and horror. We also published a collection of poetry by the New Zealand poet Benjamin Blake, again sticking to the weird genre. I haven’t thought about venturing out into any other genres, though I would like to see more science fiction. So far we only have one out-and-out fantasy novel, my own Goblin Mire, and I wouldn’t mind doing more in that vein.
TK: I believe you have also done a spot of acting over the years, with the Oswaldtwistle Players and the St. Mary’s Pantomime Group. Did you enjoy treading the boards and do you still do it from time-to-time?
DR: Not with the St. Mary’s Pantomime Group. I was just the secretary (and later chairman as well). I got into that through our daughter, Cassandra, taking part in some of the pantomimes as a youngster (all the actors in them have to be eighteen or younger). My wife, Linden, was in charge of costumes. With the Oswaldtwistle Players I did a couple of productions. I appeared as a drunken millionaire in Macbeth Did It and I had a couple of parts in Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. I enjoyed both productions but haven’t been tempted much since. Our daughter created her own acting academy for youngsters after graduating at Mountview in London and regularly stages shows at the local theatre. For the past few years she’s been doing two each summer, one for her younger pupils and one for her seniors, including Les Miserables, West Side Story and Rent. My wife helps out with the costumes and we both help during the productions front of house, so that pretty much caters for any time spent in the theatrical side of things. The local theatre is only across the road from us and I must admit that over the years we’ve spent a lot of time there. It’s almost a second home.
TK: Returning to your own personal writing career, what do you have planned for the future?
DR: I haven’t done much writing recently, having concentrated most of my time on publishing, et cetera, but I do have a number of writing projects I want to finish, including a couple of novels I have done substantial amounts of work on and several short stories. I’m working on a story at the moment about some demoniacal clog dancers, one of the toughest stories I have ever tried to complete to my satisfaction, but I’ll get there in the end!
TK: David, as always, it has been a great pleasure speaking with you and I personally will be keeping an eye out for your future works.