In Praise of Small Presses

The books they publish would enliven any library—but you likely won’t find them at your average big box



Books don’t only furnish a room, they also make the best holiday gifts. Note that I said “books.” Kindles and Nooks and iPads may offer texts, but word-pixels on a screen aren’t books. Come Christmas morning, what do you tell your significant other? “Darling, I can’t thank you enough for this download of The Hobbit for my e-Reader.” I don’t think so. Somehow, this isn’t quite the same as unwrapping a signed first printing of The Hobbit in a fine dust jacket (many bucks), or Douglas Anderson’s information-packed annotated edition (invaluable), or any of the handsome versions illustrated by Michael Hague or Alan Lee or Tolkien himself.

No, a Christmas present should be, well, something present, right there in your hands after you’ve read the gift card and ripped aside the ribbons and bows and red-and-green paper decorated with snowmen and Santas.

So hie thee to your nearest bookstore, be it an independent like Washington’s Politics and Prose or a big-box Barnes & Noble. What could be a better way to shop for the holidays than to spend an hour or two, alone or with your family, looking at books? In my own case, of course, I try to make it Christmas every day—or at least once a week.

All of which said, I want to make a pitch for some works you aren’t likely to find in your local bookstore, no matter how extensive its holdings: small-press titles. In recent years, as trade houses increasingly gravitate to wholly commercial “product,” specialty publishers and independent presses have risen up to make available wonderful books, real books, of all kinds. Let me stress that I’m not talking about those generic print-on-demand titles, most of which are bare-bones ugly and little better than photocopies bound in bland paper wraps. Nor am I talking about self-published work, so much in the news these days. No, I’m thinking of legitimate small publishers with a mission to bring neglected authors back into print and to produce the kind of books that dreams are made of.

My own tastes are fairly eclectic, but in recent years I’ve grown intensely interested in science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and adventure stories written between roughly 1865 and 1935. This “golden age” of storytelling is being served by a number of presses, all of which host websites where you can purchase their books. I’m going to list, in alphabetical order, some of my favorites. Just type their names into your search engine, and you will soon be daydreaming over their offerings.

Ash-Tree Press specializes in classic English-language ghost stories and weird tales, with a subsidiary imprint, Calabash Press, that publishes material relating to Sherlock Holmes. Recently, much of their backlist has been made available for e-books, but I still recommend the original editions. Some are out of print, but many are still available. Here you can buy the complete supernatural fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, Vernon Lee and Sheridan Le Fanu or John Meade Falkner’s eerie novel The Nebuly Coat or M. R. James’s memoir Eton and King’s.

Centipede Press brings out several kinds of books—oversized portfolios, such as the complete art work of Lee Brown Coye, collections of commentary on influential horror movies such as Carrie, handsome editions, often illustrated, of classic titles (most recently Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and the major works of important genre authors. For example, this fall Centipede is offering five volumes devoted to the great noir writer Cornell Woolrich. The edition of Phantom Lady comes with a haunting dust jacket by Matt Mahurin, an introduction by Barry N. Malzberg (who was, for a short time, Woolrich’s agent), and a gallery of the covers and film posters for the book and the movie based on it.

Crippen & Landru takes its name from two of the most famous real-life murderers of England and France. The press only publishes story collections, usually gathering together for the first time the best of an author’s scattered short fiction. In their “Lost Classics” series you can acquire perfect holiday entertainment from John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, T. S. Stribling (Dr. Poggioli), Michael Gilbert, and Vera Caspary. Crippen & Landru doesn’t just focus on the dead, however: here are collections by S. J. Rozan, Lawrence Block, and—this fall—Melodie Johnson Howe, whose “Diana Poole” stories are set in Hollywood.

Gasogene Books/Wessex Press is the major purveyor of books by Arthur Conan Doyle or about Sherlock Holmes. Any fan of Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, or Jonny Lee Miller should explore the greater world of Sherlockian works and scholarship, and this is where to start. Gasogene/Wessex has reissued Vincent Starrett’s Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, an edition of the 1910 stage production of The Speckled Band, a 10-volume collection of the entire Holmes canon (annotated by Leslie S. Klinger), Sherlockian pastiches, CDs, and much else.

Hippocampus Press is to H. P. Lovecraft what Gasogene is to Sherlock Holmes. For Hippocampus, the great scholar of the weird tale, S. T. Joshi, has edited HPL’s letters, occasional writings, and fiction. The press has also brought out Joshi’s massive, and massively enjoyable, biography of Lovecraft, as well as the horror and science fiction of other important authors, notably Clark Ashton Smith, M. P. Shiel, and Barry Pain. But Hippocampus casts a wide net, and its list also includes weird poetry, several journals, and outstanding younger talents like Richard Gavin, author of At Fear’s Altar.

Night Shade Books struck gold a couple of years ago by publishing Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl, one of the best and most-honored science fiction novels of recent times. While the press brings out work from many new science fiction and fantasy authors, I’ve long particularly admired Night Shade’s single author collections. Here one can find the complete works of William Hope Hodgson (best known for The Night Land and The House on the Borderland), all the short fiction of Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote a lushly poetic prose of almost hypnotic beauty, and my own favorite, Lord Dunsany’s brilliant “club stories” told by Joseph Jorkens, three delicious volumes of tall tales about mermaids and ancient curses, unicorns and trips to Mars.

Tachyon Publications covers the full spectrum of fantasy and science fiction. Interested in steampunk? Here are basic anthologies by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Like the work of Kage Baker, author of “The Company” novels? Here are her essays on silent film. A fan of Peter Beagle, Michael Swanwick, James Morrow, Joe R. Lansdale, Tim Powers? Here are some of their best works. Indeed, Tachyon’s edition of Powers’s The Bible Repairman and Other Stories just won this year’s World Fantasy Award for best short-story collection.

Tartarus Press books are immediately recognizable: Most of the volumes have the same muted, mustard colored jackets: only the authors and titles vary. The books themselves stand out for their elegant design, thick paper, good printing, and comfortable heft in the hand. If you buy one Tartarus Book, it’s safe to say you’ll want to buy them all. And why not? As with Ash-Tree and Centipede titles, the books tend to go up in value, sometimes dramatically, when they go out of print. Tartarus has recently been bringing out the complete works of Robert Aickman, the premier English author of “strange stories” of the past half-century (with Ramsey Campbell a close second). But they have also issued the major works of Arthur Machen, Lafcadio Hearn, Sarban, and Edith Wharton, among others. Tartarus, like the other presses, also publishes several outstanding contemporary masters of the eerie tale, including the incomparable Reggie Oliver, Mark Samuels, Rosalie Parker, and Michael Reynier.

Valancourt Books makes available in attractive paperback editions fairly rare books from the late 18th century to the present. Here one can find the gothic classics that frightened the heroines of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the works of Bram Stoker other than Dracula, many of Richard Marsh’s novels, starting with The Beetle, and some of THE stranger weird or decadent literature of the 1890s. How can you possibly go wrong with Florence Marryat’s 1897 The Blood of the Vampire, in which the heroine is the daughter of a mad scientist and a voodoo priestess?

The above are just a few of the more important small presses. But there are many others. This year Black Dog Books brought out With the Hunted, a magnificent collection of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s scattered nonfiction. Sirius Fiction published Gate of Horn, Book of Silk: A Guide to Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun, by Michael Andre-Driussi—and since Gene Wolfe is our greatest living writer of science fiction, and one of our greatest living writers period, this is an important study. Sundial Press has produced an exceptionally attractive edition of Phyllis Paul’s A Cage for the Nightingale, likened to James’s The Turn of the Screw in its power and artistry. One of our best writers of unsettling fiction, R. B. Russell, can be sampled in collections from Swan River Press (Ghosts) and PS Publishing (Leave Your Sleep). The stories of the writer-scholar Mark Valentine (some written with another fine fantasist, John Howard) can be enjoyed in collections from Swan River and Tartarus, while Exposition Internationale has produced an exquisite volume of his prose poems titled At Dusk.

Sigh. This Browsings column has gone on rather longer than I expected, but all these publishers—and authors!—deserve your attention and support. I know my own life has been deeply enhanced by the work of these devoted bookmen and women.

P.S. Despite that obvious close, I just realized I haven’t mentioned my favorite small press publisher for kids: Bobbledy Books. Matthew Swanson writes the words, and his wife Robbi Behr creates the pictures, and together they are silly, poetic, surreal, and incredibly cool. Their latest title is Bobby and the Robots, which ends by giving instructions on how to build a robot. Wise parents are advised to check out, then join the Bobbledy Books club. Some readers may recall that Swanson and Behr, under their Idiots’ Books imprint, produced that timeless, modern classic The Baby Is Disappointing.

P.P.S. And how could I overlook Ramble House? Yes, its books are print-on-demands, but where else can you acquire the complete works of Harry Stephen Keeler, author of The Man with the Magic Eardrums, The Skull of the Waltzing Clown, and many, many others? Keeler is either the worst or the most original detective-story writer of all time. Ramble House is, in fact, pulp heaven, with reprints of Weird Tales authors and numerous oddities, such as Adams Farr’s unique World War II novel, The Fangs of Suet Pudding. They certainly don’t write ’em like that anymore.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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