If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that running a small press is not an easy job. It’s a precarious balancing act with limited resources on one side and an ever-shifting set of challenges on the other. This year was perhaps the most difficult I’ve experienced, due not only to the continuing pandemic, but also from the very real fallout caused by those twin bad decisions: Brexit and the Trump administration. We’ve been subjected to significant jumps in postage, reams of customs forms where there were none before, and supply chain issues that are likely to affect the entire publishing industry for the foreseeable future. And yet . . .
. . . despite all this, publishing remains a pleasure. Swan River Press generates a domineering amount of work—and it’s not even my day job. What it is, though, is an opportunity for me to engage with friends, colleagues and ideas, indulge in creativity, and put some truly wonderful literature into the world. I love designing books, the thrill of unboxing each new shipment, and getting them into the hands of readers. I take a lot of pride in what the Swan River team does, and I know we work hard to do it. Sure, I might grumble occasionally (and will continue to do so), but rest assured, I wouldn’t trade Swan River Press for anything.
As most of you already know, I’ve made it a tradition to take stock of our accomplishments over the past twelve months. I find it’s a good practice, even therapeutic, as it’s easy to lose sight of all the good work that’s being done. It seems all the more important to do so this year as the struggle to keep the barge on an even keel felt all the more difficult. But here we are. We made it. So let’s have a look at 2021.
Our first book of the year was in collaboration with our multi-talented friend to the north, Reggie Chamberlain-King: The Fatal Move and Other Stories by Conall Cearnach. Reggie first wrote about Cearnach for The Green Book 11, prompting me to track down a copy of the Irish writer’s sole collection. “Cearnach” was the pseudonym of the Belfast-born F. W. O’Connell, a peculiar Protestant divine, linguist and Irish language scholar, oddball essayist, and early national broadcaster. The Fatal Move is truly a strange and fascinating collection. It showcases a wide scope of modes: the conte cruel, the ghost story, the locked-room mystery, and the science-fictional satire. I published the Jamesian tale “The Fiend that Walks Behind” in The Green Book 15, and shortly thereafter decided to publish the whole damn book—which hadn’t seen an outing since its initial publication in 1924. Reggie provided a lengthy and erudite study of Cearnach’s fascinating life and works, and we added a selection of equally oddball essays to round out the volume. As Supernatural Tales’ David Longhorn observes, this book “illuminates some of the more obscure byways of Irish literature”. If you want to read more about The Fatal Move—and the fascinating story behind the book’s cover art, check our my previous blog post. You can also listen to Reggie discussing Cearnach on BBC Radio. (Also be sure to check out The Black Dreams: Strange Stories from Northern Ireland, a new anthology edited by Reggie Chamberlain-King.)
Next is the fifth instalment of our ongoing anthology series, Uncertainties, our showcase of new writing—this time featuring contributions from Ireland, Canada, America, and the United Kingdom—with each writer exploring the idea of increasingly fragmented senses of reality. I decided to take the reins this year and put together a line-up of stories from twelve contemporary writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Alan Moore, Aislínn Clarke, and Carly Holmes. The cover for this volume was provided by Ksenia Korniewska, whose work I had long admired on Instagram. With Uncertainties 5, I finally had an excuse to work with her. Along with The Fatal Move, Uncertainties 5 is the first of our books with printed buckram boards, a feature with which we will endeavour to continue. As with previous volumes, Uncertainties 5 has been well-received: Deirdre Sullivan’s “Little Lives” won the An Post Book Award for Short Story of the Year, while the Irish Times reviewed the anthology as, “Challenging and uncanny, these are exactly the kinds of stories we need to survive in a world that keeps getting stranger.” I’m also quite proud of the foreword I wrote, the culmination of an awful lot of ruminating about the horror genre and it’s many facets. You can read the essay online: “That Didn’t Scare Me”.
A selection of stories by L. T. Meade was something I’d been considering since Bending to Earth came out in 2019. In that sense, Eyes of Terror and Other Dark Adventures is the next instalment in our unofficial “Strange Stories by Irish Women” series, which to-date includes titles by Dorothy Macardle, Rosa Mulholland, B. M. Croker, Katharine Tynan, and Clotilde Graves. For Eyes of Terror, I went to Meade scholar Janis Dawson, who had written an excellent author profile on Meade for The Green Book 16. Meade’s stories were widely published in popular fin de siècle magazines, and this selection showcases her macabre specialties: medical or scientific mysteries featuring doctors, scientists, occult detectives, criminal women with weird powers, unusual medical interventions, fantastic scientific devices, murder, mesmerism, and manifestations of insanity. Quoth Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, “[Meade’s] scariest, and hitherto scattered, short horror fiction is finally reassembled in Swan River Press’s Eyes of Terror and Other Dark Adventures, superbly edited by Janis Dawson. Highly recommended.”
Our fourth book this year has its roots in the Dublin Ghost Story Festival at which Joyce Carol Oates was our guest of honour in 2018. Surely working with Joyce would be a career highlight for any publisher: it certainly is for me. The Ruins of Contracoeur and Other Presences is a collection of Joyce’s trademark grotesqueries; check this out: “A group of resourceful young girls punish the men of a small town for unspeakable lusts by luring them to a derelict factory and into the toils of a bizarre contraption; a dead man tries to makes sense of a strange epiphany he experienced one day when out hiking amid gigantic ancient redwoods; and a state judge, fleeing disgrace, settles with his family on an isolated ruinous estate where some dread thing prowls in the night . . . ” Wow! So for this publication, I wanted to do something extra special. First, asking Lisa Tuttle to write the introduction was an obvious choice—folks, I’m still kicking myself for not recording the fascinating guest of honour interview she conducted with Joyce at the DGSF. For the cover, I went to Meggan Kehrli, who mainly serves as Swan River’s designer. I hope you’ll agree, she turned in something special (and just wait until you seen the boards). Finally, the entire edition is signed not only by Joyce, but also by Meggan and Lisa. And in atonement for my aforementioned sin, you can watch an online conversation between Lisa and Joyce that we recorded, with the help of Eric Karl Anderson, for the launch of The Ruins of Contracoeur. My sincere gratitude again to you, Joyce, for the opportunity to publish this book!
(Buy The Ruins of Contracoeur here.)
Our last hardback publication for the year is another entry in the “Strange Stories by Irish Women” series: A Vanished Hand and Other Stories by Clotilde Graves. Of course, you’ll always be familiar with Grave’s work from Bending to Earth. Graves is one of the most interesting and neglected writers I’ve come across, whose writing is as difficult to pin down as her personality. In her early years, she was known as the dramatist “Clo Graves”, but became better known under her fiction-writing persona, “Richard Dehan”. She transgressed contemporary gender norms by dressing in male attire, wearing her hair short, and smoking in public. This border crossing can be seen also in her work, which encompasses a wide variety of forms and modes. And while she wrote relatively few fantastical stories, she was devoted to tales of lingering revenants, mysterious cryptids, and grotesque sciences—often laced with her sardonic sense of humour. This volume seeks to recover this side of Graves’s writing by including stories from across her career, which challenge definition and range across the speculative genres. The selection of thirteen stories was made by Melissa Edmundson, who also provided an expert introduction on Graves and her work. You’ll also, no doubt, notice the exceptionally striking cover by Brian Coldrick, who also gave us the cover for Eyes of Terror earlier in the year (as well as the covers for our Mulholland and Tynan volumes). I had a lot of fun working on this book, another landmark of its kind. We’ll be working with both Brian and Melissa again for sure.
We also published two issues of our journal The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and the Fantastic. It’s hard to believe that the journal will read its ten-year anniversary next year. Based on the popularity of Issue 15, The Green Book 17 featured a selection of rare fiction and poetry by the likes of H. de Vere Stacpoole, Herbert Moore Pim, Katharine Tynan, Dora Sigerson Shorter, and L. T. Meade. We also reprinted in this volume Althea Gyles’s “weirdly powerful and beautiful” illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s poem “The Harlot’s House”. Issue 18 featured eleven entries from our (still tentatively titled) Guide to Irish Gothic and Supernatural Fiction Writers project, including profiles of George Croly, Anna Maria Hall, Fitz-James O’Brien, Jane Barlow, Harry Clarke, Iris Murdoch, and more. Our issues for 2022 are already coming together nicely—the next will be loosely themed on Dublin’s theosophical scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Anyone who is unsure where to jump in on this journal, we’ve a special offer running too. It’s a secret.)
You also might have noticed that we substantially added to our paperback catalogue this year. In 2020 we published three paperback titles. In 2021, we increased that to a total of nineteen. Among them you’ll find Curfew & Other Eerie Tales by Lucy M. Boston, Strange Epiphanies by Peter Bell, and The Anniversary of Never by Joel Lane. We’ve got another six titles waiting to be reprinted in early 2022, including The Pale Brown Thing by Fritz Leiber and The Sea Change by Helen Grant. Rest assured, hardbacks will remain our primary focus—not to mention still the best way to support the press’s ongoing work. Please also be aware that our anthologies featuring contemporary writers will not be reprinted as paperbacks. Once those are out of print, they will truly be gone! If you want to see what books we have available in paperback, have a look here (scroll down to “Paperback”). And if your next question contains the word “When” in it, do be sure to join our mailing list.
Now if anyone is interested in the figures, we published 7 new titles this year, totalling 1,288 pages, 2,481 copies, and 363,460 words. I have a nifty spreadsheet that keeps track of all of this stuff for me. I love literature, but these numbers help put our achievements into perspective too.
We had a bit of change up this year as well. Ken Mackenzie left the team having worked with us since 2013. His first book with us was Seventeen Stories by Mark Valentine and he’d typeset every publication through Uncertainties 5 earlier this year. Ken brought a polish to our pages and helped make our books all the better for it. I’m grateful to Ken for all his work over the years and wish him the best in all his future endeavours. Quickly stepping up as our new typesetter and team member is Steve J. Shaw, who many followers of independent press will know from his own Black Shuck Books imprint. Steve proved himself invaluable from the outset, not only as our new typesetter, but with his insight into the workings of independent publishing. Welcome, Steve—and thanks for your help! (And if you get a chance, do check out his books. I recently enjoyed Only the Broken Remain by Dan Coxon.)
No summation of the year would be complete without acknowledging the rest of the Swan River team: Meggan Kehrli, who does all our design work; and Jim Rockhill and Timothy J. Jarvis, both of whom help with the editorial and proofreading duties, not to mention general advice and support. I’d also like to thank John Howard, Joe Mitchen, Alison Lyons of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, and John Connolly (check out his new anthology Shadow Voices: 300 Years of Irish Genre Fiction), all of whom continue to give their support, encouragement, and enthusiasm for our work.
This year has been difficult for many, and I’ve had a lot of books and media to keep me company lately. I’d like to give a shout out to the creatives that I’ve been enjoying lately. Maybe you’ll find something new and interesting: Tartarus Press, Zagava, Ritual Limited, Egaeus Press, Sarob Press, Side Real Press, Black Shuck Books, Supernatural Tales, Hellebore, Nunkie Productions, Eibonvale Press, Undertow Publications, Nightjar Press, Friends of Arthur Machen—all of these people are doing the sort of things that I love, so be sure to give them your support if you find something new and exciting. Not to mention the many booksellers out there who stock our books—and even if they don’t, be sure to support your favourite local, independent bookseller. Choose to put your money into their pockets instead of Am*zon’s, because it really does make a difference.
Lastly, thank you to everyone who supported Swan River Press this year: with kind words, by buying books, donating through our patron programme, or simply spreading the word—I’m grateful for it all! If you’d like to keep in touch, do join our mailing list, find us on Facebook, follow on Twitter and Instagram. We’ve got some exciting projects for next year that I’m looking forward to sharing with you all. Until then, please stay healthy; take care of each other and your communities. I’d like to wish you all a restful holiday season, and hope to hear from you in the New Year!