Things That Go Bump on the Shelf: Books of the Dead Press

Things That Go Bump on the Shelf: Books of the Dead Press

—Claire Horsnell

As Halloween approaches, that moaning, rustling sound you hear in the bookstores could well be copies of Best New Zombie Tales, Volume One and Volume Two—a pair of top-notch anthologies of zombie yarns—shuffling off the dark and unholy presses of Toronto’s Books of the Dead Press. The zombie anthologies are sure to cause mayhem on your bookshelf and, more importantly, in your mind.

Books of the Dead is the brrrraaaain-child of writer James Roy Daley, author of The Dead Parade (released in limited edition hardcover this week). “After achieving a modest level of success I began thinking about starting up a little publishing company,” he says. “Nothing major , just something to fool around with. I didn’t follow through with the idea because the temptation to publish myself was too strong. But then I wrote a couple more books and I signed a few more book deals and my thinking began to change. I knew that I didn’t need to publish myself, and that other companies would be willing to do it for me. But I still wanted a little company; you know, for something to fool around with.”

Daley felt a connection with horror from a young age; he describes the genre as “that thing I grew up on, that friend mom says is a bad influence.” He recalls that some of his earliest memories include enjoying Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in the living room while his parents discussed whether he was old enough to be watching it. He also remembers the movie adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot as a formative genre experience. “I remember being absolutely captivated by ‘Salem’s Lot late one evening, alone in my brother’s bedroom, the feeling of terror consuming me as Ben Mears and Mark Petrie made their into the basement of the Marsten house, weapons in hand, danger all around them. I could hear my family in the room below me—safe, secure, acting as if everything was normal in the world. For me, it wasn’t,” he says. “I had a pillow covering half my face, my knees were curled up to my chest, and my heart pounding clean out of my body as the goosebumps on my arms tried to crawl from my skin and hide in the corner; I couldn’t believe the images on television could be so intolerably wrong. And I loved it. Oh boy, did I ever.”

It seems fitting, then, that, when he came to develop his press, Daley decided to focus on horror—and the project grew as quickly as any army of the living dead. “After I came up with the idea for the Best New Zombie Tales anthology, I put together another proposal and sent it off to one of the publishers that I had been working with,” he says. “Before they had a chance to respond, I realized that I wanted to release the book myself. Within a few weeks I had hundreds of submissions rolling in. And with that, Books of the Dead Press was born.”

What does he think makes a good zombie tale—or any story, for that matter? “As an editor I look for well-written stories that have a clean narrative,” says Daley. “I don’t enjoy stories that are bogged down in pointless description, nor do I take pleasure in an overly ‘literary’ story that fails to engage me as a reader. I sure don’t mind a clever phrase or an interesting string of words, but when I read a page or two and it’s an absolute chore to read, I know the story is not for me. Literary gymnastics in place of a solid story is like having an ear-splitting guitar solo plunked on top of what would otherwise be an okay song.”

The lineup of talent showcased in Best New Zombie Tales is impressive, including a number of Bram Stoker Award winners such as Kim Paffenroth, David Niall Wilson, and Kealan Patrick Burke, along with British Fantasy Award nominee Rio Youers. How did Daley get so many diverse and solid writers on board? “This might seem strange,” he admits, “but after my submission period ended I simply sent out an invitation to some of my friends and writing peers, asking if they’d like to be involved in my company. The fact that I’d been paying my dues as a writer for the last few years helped a great deal.”

The zombie genre has shifted a fair amount over the past decade or so, with the rise in popularity of both the Zombie Walk and the zombie comedy, but Daley sees the greatest shift in terms of zombie literature. “Ten years ago there wasn’t any,” he says. “Sure, you can argue that Frankenstein is a zombie novel, Pet Semetery, too. And yes, there was the odd book that came along like Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis, and John Russo’s Night of the Living Dead, but zombie literature, for the most part, just started taking off recently.”

Another big shift of the last ten years, of course, is the increasingly rapid movement of traditional print media into the digital world. Given the way things are going, why did Daley choose to start up a small press at this time? “Right now we are at a crossroads,” he concludes. “Ninety-nine percent of the tech-savvy people that have joined the digital revolution will never go back to spending money on a paperback book. However, there’s a large percentage of the book-reading community that is yet to embrace the new technology. I suspect that most of them will embrace it when they feel the time is right, but until then, they’re sticking with old faithful. For this reason I’ve been releasing my books both digitally, and in the paperback format.”

And Daley has a lot on his plate in both media: “I’m currently editing Best New Zombie Tales Volume Three, Best New Vampire Tales Volume One, and a collection of my own stories,” he says. “The working title is 13 Drops of Blood. I’ve also been talking with a few different people, trying to work out contracts. Pretty soon I’ll be opening my doors to novel submissions, but I haven’t done so yet.”

Finally, with two zombie anthologies under his belt, where does he stand on the issue of slow zombies versus running zombies? “I like them fast,” he says. “And slow. No…I guess I don’t have a preference.”