Small Press Profile: Burning Effigy’s Dark Tomes

Small Press Profile: Burning Effigy’s Dark Tomes

(In the first of an ongoing series of profiles of local small [and micro] presses, Books@Torontoist’s Claire Horsnell speaks with Monica Kuebler, founder of Burning Effigy, a very niche publisher of horror, dark fantasy, and poetry chapbooks and special editions. Fans of all things horror may recognize Kuebler’s name from the pages of Toronto’s Rue Morgue magazine, where she is the managing editor.)

In the darker realms of horror literature, where monsters roam, blood flows freely, and unspeakable things go bump in the night, no small press shines more brightly in Canada than Burning Effigy, the brainchild of spoken-word poet, writer, and horror journalist and editor Monica S. Kuebler.

The press began publishing poetry and edgy literary fiction in 1999, and in 2006 began specializing in genre fiction—especially horror, but also some speculative fiction and dark fantasy. The way that Kuebler runs the press is a direct response to her first experience of publication as a writer. “I didn’t know the business at all,” says, “not what I should expect or what I should demand. As a result, the whole thing was a disaster and very traumatizing.”

Kuebler was so discouraged by these early efforts at publication in pre-existing publications that she actually stopped writing and seeking publication for almost two years. “The creation of Burning Effigy was a way for me to turn that terrible experience into a good one,” she says. “I wanted to start a small press that was run by writers for writers and would give young talent a positive and nurturing first publishing experience, in which the writers and their work were treated with equal respect. I also wanted the writers to be involved in every step of the publishing process— meaning nothing goes to print without being signed off on by everyone.”

The fact that Kuebler and her co-editor Jeff Cottrill are both writers as well as editors and have insight into both sides of the publishing process gives them unique insight into the needs of their authors. “I think as writers ourselves, we inherently respect our authors’ work. I think we bring that respect into the editing process with us,” Kuebler insists. “We try to keep it friendly and collaborative and we invite our authors to challenge us when they disagree with something.” She cites the example of Burning Effigy’s cover design process, which differs from that of most publishers, who don’t involve the authors in cover choice at all. “We make every effort to bring our authors into the cover selection/design process if they want to be involved in it,” she says. “And no cover ever goes to print without author sign-off.”

It hasn’t been an easy road for the micro-press, however. In the summer of 2006, Kuebler was seriously considering shutting up shop, partly due to what she describes as “strange politics going on in the Toronto poetry scene.” She reconsidered, however, after a conversation with horror author Brian Keene. “I’ve loved horror fiction even longer than I’ve loved poetry, but I honestly never thought I could publish it the way I wanted to,” she says. “We don’t have a large budget to buy stories or hire cover artists, so I just never thought I could afford the authors I wanted to print, and, worse, I was afraid that they would laugh at me when I told them what I could offer them for their work. [Brian Keene] dropped a huge bombshell in my lap: I could get the authors I wanted for what we could afford. It blew my mind—seriously, totally, completely. It was like learning everything you thought you knew was totally inaccurate.”

She spent the rest of the year working on an operating strategy for the new line, and it launched in 2007 with Nicholas Kaufmann’s novella General Slocum’s Gold—a book that ended up winning a nomination for a Bram Stoker Award, the horror literature equivalent of an Oscar nomination. The line has since picked up another Stoker nomination for Weston Ochse’s Redemption Roadshow, in 2009. And Kuebler is very positive about the way that small presses and micro-presses—including Burning Effigy—are recognized by the awards. “I think the Bram Stoker Awards have great representation of both small and large presses, probably because the nominations and voting is done by HWA (Horror Writers Association) members, who typically have their work published in a variety of markets, both large and small. They are very aware of us little guys.”

Kuebler is probably better placed than anybody to detect the flow of the dark undercurrents in horror fiction: her day job is at acclaimed horror magazine Rue Morgue, where she’s managing editor. “I think [being the long-time books editor at Rue Morgue] gives me an edge when curating the genre line,” she says. “I am always on the look out for stories that feel fresh to me—and considering how much I read, that can be a real challenge. But I think having such a solid understanding of what’s out there allows me to select stuff that’ll be different and exciting for our readers.”

But Burning Effigy still faces an uphill struggle for acceptance from the mainstream literary community. Kuebler points out that the number-one obstacle in running a press focused on genre fiction is getting people to take the press seriously.  “A lot of people still turn their noses up at genre fiction,” she says. “While it’s awesome that we get to vend at horror [and] sci-fi conventions, we still seem to get locked out of certain literary events, which always strikes me as hilarious considering the pedigree of our poetry line. But some people hear ‘horror’ and it doesn’t matter what else you’re doing.”

With recent Burning Effigy offerings including such diverse titles as Lee Thomas’s occult crime thriller The Black Sun Set and Nate Southard’s soon-to-be-released This Little Light of Mine, which Kuebler describes as “a truly fantastic and chilling monster tale,” the press continues its solid record of high-quality genre fiction. And Kuebler notes that  it’s precisely that quality that guarantees the press’s strength. “Our only real genre mandate,” she says,  “is that the stories have to be good—so good that we’re ready to stand behind them 110%.”

—Claire Horsnell