When Horace Walpole unleashed his novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764, he gave birth to a literary movement now known as Gothic fiction. The following decades saw a host of authors continue the tradition with their own iconic texts, including Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and M.G. Lewis’ The Monk (1796), but these are just two examples of thousands of Gothic texts released during the nineteenth-century. The Gothic trend continued into the next century as well, typified by seminal texts like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), to name a couple. To this day, these aforementioned novels are considered some of the best and most popular titles to ever emerge from the Gothic genre, and their influence on contemporary pop culture remains highly visible. However, not every Gothic classic has remained in the spotlight throughout the centuries, though thanks to publishers like Valancourt Books, many thought to have been relegated to the forgotten footnotes of history are enjoying a new lease of life.
Valancourt Books was founded in 2005 by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle, a pair of passionate aficionados of Gothic, Horror and other fiction who wanted to unearth forgotten works – classic and modern – and re-introduce them to the world for contemporary readers to discover. Although renowned for their Gothic Classics series and weird fiction fare, Valancourt is also dedicated to finding and restoring Gay Interest novels dating back to the 18th and 19th century. A look through their library reveals a diverse range of literature deserving of eternal appreciation, and because of the efforts of Jenkins and Cagle, works once deemed lost will live on – hopefully – for centuries to come.
Having received the seal of approval fromStephen King, Kim Newman, and other acclaimed writers, the efforts of Valancourt Books haven’t gone unnoticed – and with a host of upcoming releases on the way, the future is looking bright. Recently, Diabolique had the chance to interview James D. Jenkins about some of his favorite releases, as and his love of literature which inspired him to start the company in the first place.
Diabolique: When did you initially fall in love with weird fiction? What were some of the pivotal books that drew you to it in the first place?
Jenkins: I’ve been drawn to weird and horror fiction for as long as I’ve been reading. When I was nine or 10, I checked out from my grade school library – over and over – Nancy Garden’s YA nonfiction books on vampires, werewolves, and witches, and by the time I was 11 or 12 I’d graduated to stealing my stepmom’s Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels and reading them in secret, since I knew my parents wouldn’t approve. When I was 15 or 16, my dad wanted me to spend the summer vacation “reading the classics”; I came home from the library with Dracula, and he sort of grimaced and said it wasn’t what he’d had in mind. Over the years my taste has expanded and grown, from early horror novels like The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) to some of the really great new stuff that’s coming out now.
Diabolique: Can you tell us about the genesis of Valancourt Books?
Jenkins: It all started back in late 2004 when I was researching a writer named Francis Lathom, who wrote a couple dozen books between 1795 and 1830, including a number of Gothic horror novels with alluring titles like The Midnight Bell (1798), The Fatal Vow (1807), and The Unknown (1808). Despite his popularity during his lifetime, his books were completely unavailable – the only place in North America to access most of them was at the University of Nebraska, a 28-hour drive from where I was living in Seattle, and they were all on microfiche. After that insane drive, sitting there straining my eyes to look at these microfiches, I thought, ‘With the modern publishing technology that exists now, why isn’t someone republishing this stuff?’ and then I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t I do it?’ Valancourt Books grew from there – starting with 18th-century Gothic horror and over the past twelve years expanding first into the 19th century and Victorian literature, and then gradually into the early 20th century and on up to the present day.
Diabolique: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced giving these titles a new lease of life?
Jenkins: It’s especially hard with the older material; besides the drive to Lincoln, Nebraska, I also drove to Cleveland, Ohio, to access an 1808 novel called The Demon of Sicily, and there was a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, for another rare Gothic novel that only survived in two known copies on the continent. What might be surprising, though, is that it’s not only the really old stuff that’s hard to get. We regularly run into books from the 1970s and ‘80s that you either can’t find for sale online at all or else can only find at insane prices of hundreds of dollars, and then we have to try to get them through interlibrary loan, which is a pretty slow and hit-or-miss process.
Diabolique: How selective are you when it comes choosing books to release?
Jenkins: We’re increasingly selective these days. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of good out-of-print books out there, and being a small publisher, we don’t really have the resources to republish every one of them. We try to focus on the best books, the ones that have stood the test of time and are still enjoyable to read today, but we’re particularly interested in books that are hard to find. A lot of fiction from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s was published in such enormous editions of hundreds of thousands of copies that you can find tons of used copies online for a penny, and we usually pass on republishing those.
Diabolique: The Valancourt library is impressive, but what would be some your personal favorites and what is it about them that resonates with you?
Jenkins: We’ve published around 400 great books now, so it’s hard to pick! George W.M. Reynolds’s 2400-page penny dreadful The Mysteries of London (1845), which sold a million copies in its day and was the best-selling novel of Victorian times, is a favorite. Among the more modern stuff, Claude Houghton’s I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930) is a weird thriller that I found impossible to put down. Philip Ridley’s LGBT magical realist epic In the Eyes of Mr. Fury (1989), Michael McDowell’s southern Gothic haunted house story The Elementals (1981), and Michael Blumlein’s horrific and genre-defying story collection The Brains of Rats (1989) are all also ones I’m particularly fond of. Oh, and of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our Valancourt Book of Horror Stories (2016), a collection we put together in October that I think is a lot of fun and to which we’ve gotten a great response.
Diabolique: You’ve published the works of famous authors like Bram Stoker, but you also strive to celebrate and remember forgotten and unknown names as well. Who are some of the best you feel have yet to receive the recognition they deserve?
Jenkins: I’d definitely have to single out Forrest Reid, an Irish writer of fine supernatural-themed novels, who was widely praised by critics during his lifetime (and is still well regarded today) but whose books for some reason have never caught on with the reading public. Then there’s David Case, author of Fengriffen (1971) and The Cell (1969), who writes beautifully and is equally at home in elegantly crafted Gothic chillers or bloody monster stories, but whose name is unknown to most modern-day horror readers. And it’d be hard to find a writer more forgotten than Dennis Parry, who died in a car accident at age 42 in 1955 and immediately sank into oblivion; we’ve published two of his books, The Survivor (1940), a horror story of possession from beyond the grave, and Sea of Glass (1955), a unique blend of thriller, fantasy and comedy, which are among my favorite Valancourt titles.
Diabolique: Stephen King, Kim Newman, Ramsey Campbell and other famous figures have endorsed you and even penned introductions to your releases. Did any of them make you feel star struck?
Jenkins: Yes! It’s a bit surreal sometimes, even now, when we get to work with someone like that. And all three of them were extremely generous and supportive of the work we do. We were also hugely excited to work with the comics artist and writer Mike Mignola, who did the covers for two of our Michael McDowell reissues.
Are there any planned releases in the pipeline you can tell us about?
We have a ton of amazing releases in the pipeline for the rest of 2017. The biggest is probably the book we get the most requests for Blackwater (1983), a Southern Gothic novel by Michael McDowell, writer of Beetlejuice (1988) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), whom Stephen King once called “the finest writer of paperback originals in America”. We have a new collection of brilliant short fiction coming from Michael Blumlein, entitled All I Ever Dreamed – if you’re not familiar with Blumlein, you should really check him out: he’s one of the most unusual and interesting writers today in any genre. Some reissues we’re excited about include L.P. Hartley’s volume of macabre fiction The Travelling Grave and Other Stories (1946), John Keir Cross’s rare collection of weird tales The Other Passenger (1944), which Mike Ashley has called “one of the most sought after volumes in the annals of weird fiction,” and Eric C. Higgs’s The Happy Man: A Tale of Horror (1985), a novel that reminds me a bit of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) but which I liked better.
We’re also excited that our two most popular books from last year, The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories and our volume of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories (2016), will both be getting sequels this year. We can’t announce the story lineups just yet, but we think both might end up being better than last year’s volumes. Finally, we’ve been getting a huge response to our audiobook releases (one of them, The Elementals, is a finalist for the Audie Award), so we’re continuing to produce audio versions of many of our best titles, with another 10-12 more on the way over the course of the year.