The Gothic, the fantastic, the strange and the supernatural. These are our hunting grounds, and so it’s a pleasure to be interviewing Brian J Showers of Swan River Press today. An Irish publishing house, Swan River Press was founded by Brian in 2003, and boasts a wonderful range of classic and contemporary works in these fields.
Before we go over to our guest, we were browsing the Swan River Press list and noticed mention of Dorothy Macardle (a fascinating woman in her own right and an Irish author). This interested us because in 1941 she wrote a novel called Uneasy Freehold which was later adapted into a film called The Uninvited (1944) starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey.
Not only is this a great classic ghost film, but it was nominated for an Academy Award, and a few years ago it was chosen by Guillermo del Toro as one of his six favourite ‘fright flicks’. Here’s the trailer:
To add one of our regular trivia offerings, did you know that the lead screenplay writer for The Uninvited was none other than Dodie Smith – the author of I Capture the Castle and 101 Dalmatians? Bet you didn’t.
Swan River Press are planning an edition of stories by Macardle which have supernatural or mythic elements, reprinting her collection Earth-bound for the first time in many years, along with four additional tales, still under the Earth-bound title.
We quite fancy having a look at that, which should be out soon. For now we must crack on with our interview and stop getting diverted. Let’s hear from Brian J Showers…
greydog: Brian, many thanks for joining us. As a bit of scene setting, we should point out that you’re from Wisconsin originally, and yet you seem to have immersed yourself in Dublin and in Irish literature. What is it about the Irish and their literary tradition which drew you in so deep?
brian: There’s no doubt about it: Ireland’s contributions to genre and world literature are myriad and substantial, but I’m not certain there’s a “tradition” per se, at least where genre is concerned, as one would be hard pressed to find literary pedigrees between Stoker and Dunsany, or Maturin and Mervyn Wall; they all took inspiration from different sources, and in turn influenced disparate strands of literature (as opposed to being links in a chain). Of course I’m probably completely overthinking the question. I suppose I’m drawn to Irish literature simply because I landed in Ireland all those years back, and I was lucky enough that a big pile of books by Irish authors broke my fall. There are a lot of resources available to me here in Dublin—in the archives and libraries and even walking the city’s streets—and much I can explore first hand, so why not?
greydog: Although you yourself write (about which more later), let’s talk about Swan River Press, which you founded. You made a deliberate decision to produce high-quality limited editions, finely bound—we believe that you even tried your hand at bookbinding yourself. Does this stem from a love of old-style volumes which have that tactile and visual appeal all of their own?
brian: I decided to publish high-quality hardbacks because that’s what I like reading. Apart from enjoying a good story, the haptic experience of reading is something I deeply appreciate. The weight of a book, the thickness and texture of its pages, even the volume’s dimensions and width of its margins—it all informs the reading experience. I buy a lot of small press books as well, like Tartarus Press and Egaeus Press. Anyone who has read their books will have familiarity with this experience. Since starting Swan River I’ve become very sensitive to book production values, and that contemporary mass market paper rankles my fingertips!
Perhaps this is all just a personal preference, but I will say this: I’ve read M.R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious” numerous times in modern paperback editions, but I once had the pleasure of reading this familiar tale in a first edition copy, and not far from Aldeburgh where the story is set. The experience was profound. Like I’d never read it before. It was the same story, yes, the same words, but somehow reading it that time and in that edition was . . . well, it was unique. The font, the ragged-cut pages, the typesetting—it made the story fresh again. I hope some day someone will pick up a Swan River Press edition and experience a similar sort of excitement.
greydog: Your authors range from those long gone to contemporary writers. Was that the intention right from the start, or did the idea of showcasing contemporary authors such as Reggie Oliver, John Reppion and Rosalie Parker come later?
brian: When I first started publishing, I think it was mainly because I wanted to work with other authors—which would kind of imply they’re still alive, right? It’s important to showcase contemporary writers and it’s something I’d like to do more of. If it’s to be of any value, then genre literature must continue to evolve and develop, authors must be allowed to showcase the fruits of their imaginative labours, and it’s the duty of publishers to ensure that’s possible.
The other side of that coin is seeking out and reprinting the lost and forgotten, which has its own challenges. Being an Irish publisher—and the only publisher in Ireland to specialise in literature of the fantastic—I also feel it’s my job to represent Irish writers, both living and dead, as best I can. So I’ve got these three impulses influencing my publishing choices. Given that I only publish five or six books per year, it can be a struggle to get a good mix each year. But I try.
greydog: And of the classic writers, whose works were you most pleased about being able to offer?
brian: Of course I’m proud of them all for various reasons. When I choose to publish a book, classic or otherwise, it’s because I’ve a genuine passion for it and would like to share it with others. I got a lot of good feedback on Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey, which was a real treat to publish. It’s a novel that had been in print on-and-off over the decades and already commanded a dedicated cult readership, so it was a privilege to connect a few more people with Wall’s masterpiece of satirical fantasy.
I was also proud to republish a lost Le Fanu novella, “The Fatal Bride”, in Reminiscences of a Bachelor, which hadn’t seen the light of day since 1848. We revived it just in time for his 200th birth anniversary in 2014. And then in issue six of The Green Book I ran a short story by Bram Stoker that I’d discovered while mucking about in the archives—it turned out to be his second ever published story, a ghost story no less, and had been previously unknown to scholars. Moments like that make everything worth it.
greydog: Your journal, The Green Book, is produced twice a year and was praised by editor Ellen Datlow. It contains articles on Irish Gothic, supernatural and fantastic literature. Would you describe it as an easily accessible journal, or is it more for those with scholarly inclinations?
brian: The Green Book is meant to be smart, but accessible; scholarly, but readable. It’s very much modelled on Tartarus Press’s excellent journal Wormwood, edited by Mark Valentine. I suppose I started The Green Book so as to have a venue in which to print those bits and pieces I’ve come across over the years that I couldn’t otherwise incorporate into a book, but felt deserved exposure anyway. Like that lost Bram Stoker ghost story I mentioned above or playwright Christine Longford’s long out-of-print introduction to the Penguin edition of Uncle Silas. I also wanted a place in which to publish thoughts and explorations by others, like Steve Gronert Ellerhof’s essay on Ray Bradbury’s sojourn in Ireland and Nicola Gordon Bowe’s portrait of Lord Dunsany as a collector. Although The Green Book might come off as a fairly niche sounding publication, I’m happy at the variety we’ve accomplished over the years, and I hope it continues for many more.
greydog: You’re currently collaborating with Liberties Press to publish Uncertainties: Twenty-Two Strange Tales. How did this come about? Is it your first collaborative venture with another publisher?
brian: I’ve worked with other publishers as a writer before, but, yeah, on this level I believe it’s the first time I have collaborated with another publisher in this way; as an editor, but with quite a bit of freedom to shape the project how I’d like it. Essentially Liberties are the publisher here, and I commissioned stories from authors who have worked with Swan River in the past—and some who haven’t, but who I’ve been wanting to work with anyway. Uncertainties presented a marvellous excuse to do that.
The goal is to maybe find a new audience for Swan River authors, while Liberties can deliver to their readers the types of stories you don’t normally find on the shelves here in Ireland. John Connolly wrote the introduction (which was very good of him) and he makes the astute observation that Ireland was once a powerhouse contributor to the canon of the literary uncanny—we’re talking Melmoth, Dracula, Uncle Silas, Dorian Gray—but for one reason or another we’ve not done a whole lot since the early twentieth century. Certainly the scene here pales to the thriving small press communities in the UK or Canada. Anyway, I’m excited to see how the book is received—I hope people like it.
greydog: Swan River has also announced the Dublin Ghost Story Festival, which is to take place on 19-21 August 2016. Adam Nevill is Guest of Honour and John Connolly is Master of Ceremonies. What can attendees look forward to there?
brian: They can look forward to a great time! I feel like we’re hosting a party or something. Mainly I found I really enjoyed going to the UK to attend conventions like World Horror or Fantasycon. I meet such great people there, I come home with a pile of wonderful books, brimming with ideas. I’d always wanted an excuse to lure all those people to Dublin, which is a great city to visit. I mean, it makes a lot of sense to host a ghost story festival here too, especially given the city’s connection to genre literature. But what can attendees look forward to? We’re hoping to keep the emphasis on the social—we want to give people the time to talk about and celebrate the literature that brings us together. We’ll have panel discussions, a dealers’ room, a performance of M.R. James’s ghost stories by Robert Lloyd Parry, a good few pints of Guinness, and I’ll be giving tours of the city’s darker corners. What could go wrong? You should come along!
greydog: We’d love to – but writing is a harsh mistress when it comes to time. We should move on to Brian J. Showers the writer next, but first we’ll mention that a big chunk of greydogtales has been in honour of William Hope Hodgson, who influenced our own fiction. Hodgson of course set The House on the Borderland in a remote part of western Ireland. Are we right that you’re an enthusiast of his work?
brian: I love The House on the Borderland. Absolutely love it. I collect editions of it as well. Although Hope Hodgson was English, and wrote the novel in Wales, I like to think of it as the great Irish novel. Tongue in cheek, of course. I suspect Hodgson just needed an exotic setting, like Transylvania, though unlike Stoker he’d actually visited the location where he was to set his most famous fiction. I know some people don’t like the second half of the narrative, where the Recluse has that fabulous cosmic vision that would give Stanley Kubrick a run for his money, but I think it’s a remarkable imaginative achievement. And the attack of the swine-things—why hadn’t someone turned this into a mind-bending cult film long ago? The book holds a real magic for me, and I give it a re-read on occasion. One of these days Swan River Press will publish an edition too. It’ll be a real indulgence, an extravagant affair, one of these days . . .
greydog: Your books The Bleeding Horse and Old Albert are both set in Rathmines, a part of old Dublin and one not known to us. Maybe you could say something about the fascination of the area, and why you chose it as a setting.
brian: Both The Bleeding Horse and Old Albert are comprised of a series of linked supernatural tales, all set in the same south Dublin neighbourhood. The stories—all fiction, mind—combine history, geography, folklore, and the uncanny; I’m always pleased to hear that people enjoy them. The Bleeding Horse won the Children of the Night Award in 2008, which is pretty cool too. My interest in Rathmines is pretty simple—it’s where I live. Naturally I wrote about it. It’s where I landed when I first came to Dublin, and it’s where I still live today. I was drawn to the history of the neighbourhood, the long stretch of brooding Georgian terraces along the main road, the back mews, the decaying flats—all presided over by the giant green dome of St. Mary’s Church and further down the road the red-brick clock tower of the Rathmines Town Hall clock. To be honest, my official response to your question was to write those two books. I’ve a few more stories about Rathmines I’d like to tell. I’ll get to them eventually.
greydog: You’ve also edited a collection of essays on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. What in particular interests you about Le Fanu?
brian: That would be Reflections in a Glass Darkly published by Hippocampus Press in 2012, which I co-edited with Gary Crawford and Jim Rockhill. I’m proud to say the book was nominated for a Stoker award too; our intent was to assemble the definitive Le Fanu sourcebook, compiling all the primary sources we tend to refer to ourselves time and again—now all in one place. Le Fanu, for me, is like a neighbour. He lives down the block from me. He’s an author who has grown increasingly familiar to me over the years—hell, I live down the road from where he’s buried and on certain Sundays clear his grave of weeds.
As a writer, I’m drawn to that sense of melancholy and inexorable doom found in so many of his stories. “Green Tea” drew me in, but there’s plenty more to explore, and even re-reads prove fresh. I’ve heard commented frequently enough how absolutely modern some of his stories feel, and I think that’s true. It’s a pity he’s not taken more seriously as even a minor Irish author. The Irish Arts Council are now resident in his house on Merrion Square, but I get the impression they’re not too bothered about him. Anyone who visits Dublin should really make the effort to visit Chapelizod. Find yourself a nice place in the Phoenix Park just near the churchyard wall and read “The Village Bully”. The geographical details described in the story are still there, and you can watch the climax of Le Fanu’s tale unfold before your eyes.
greydog: Dublin’s actually on our touring list – our editor-in-chief is very fond of Ireland, having been a number of times. While you’re here, feel free to share anything coming from Swan River Press this year – or do you have more fiction of your own in the pipeline?
brian: I’m sat here answering these questions in a pub in Rathmines, just across the road from St. Mary’s College, where Old Albert is set. Were the music quieter, I’m sure I could hear the clock tower tolling away the hours. Sadly, I’m not moved to write any more of my own stories—at least not just yet. In another window I’m copy-editing Fritz Leiber’s The Pale Brown Thing, which I’ve had planned for publication for a while now—I’m happy to announce here that it’ll be our next book after Dorothy Macardle’s Earth-Bound.
For those who don’t know, The Pale Brown Thing is an early version of Leiber’s classic and World Fantasy Award-winning novel Our Lady of Darkness. Leiber apparently regarded both versions as “the same story told at different times”, the way one might recollect memories with variation—and in his afterword, John Howard explains why he thinks the two texts should happily exist side by side, each worthy of exploration. The Swan River Press edition is notable not only because it will be the first time The Pale Brown Thing has been reprinted since 1977, but also for the foreword by the Californian poet Donald Sidney-Fryer.
Donald knew Fritz when the latter had moved to San Francisco and was writing Pale Brown Thing/Our Lady. Why is that so exciting? Those already familiar with various aspects of Leiber lore will know that not only is The Pale Brown Thing semi-autobiographical, but Leiber also worked into the narrative thinly disguised versions of his friends. Donald Sidney-Fryer, who is now in his eighties, appears as one of the novel’s most memorable characters: the flamboyant decadent Jaimie Donaldus Byers.
greydog: Strange that you should mention Donald Sidney-Fryer. Only a few days ago we posted a piece about plans for a biographic film on Clark Ashton Smith, and he has apparently been a key source for that project (see the emperor of dreams).
brian: It’s a real privilege to correspond with Sidney-Fryer (who signs his letters to me “Donaldo”) while preparing this book. It’s been worth it for that experience alone. It’ll be a great book for sure.
greydog: Being serious Leiber fans, we look forward to it – we’ve never actually read The Pale Brown Thing. But for now we must thank you for sparing so much time, and let you get back to work.
brian: Right, that’s me. I’m going to close the lid on my computer and have another pint before they toss me out. Wish me safe home. I’m fairly certain the Blackberry Man is still lurking somewhere out there.
Nervous listeners may be reassured to know that Brian returned safely, and his endeavours continue. You can find out lots more about Swan River Press at their own website. Indulge yourselves – and don’t forget to look out for the Uncertainties collection, due out in June.
We return in two or three days with, um, something. But we have no idea what at the moment. Don’t you just love surprises?