As a book collector in the eighties I was far from impressed with the quality of the modern limited editions that were being produced so I decided to put my money where my mouth was. My initial intention was to do one book, a book that would mean a lot to me to see done properly, and then split. But that isn’t what happened. My reaction to what was being passed off as “deluxe limited editions” was so strong that I shot for the moon with Charnel House. I also wanted to stop William Morris from spinning in his grave, or at least slow him down some.
My background is not of books or publishing. I have always been a musician, a drummer. In 1976 I toured with John Cale from The Velvet Underground which through some bizarre events involving a chicken led me to Meat Loaf who I played with on the original Bat Out Of Hell tours. Very strange gigs for a vegetarian. I toured with a multitude of acts but the best times I ever had were with two guys named Flo & Eddie. Flo & Eddie––Mark Volman & Howard Kaylan––are the two singers from The Turtles, the band from the sixties who’s #1 hit was Happy Together and later sang with Frank Zappa in The Mothers of Invention. In 1980 we put The Turtles back on the road. The tour rolled on for thirty-five years.
There is a lot of travel and down time when you’re on the road and we were big readers. As a matter of fact, we had just started collecting modern first and limited editions and would ferret out the specialty stores in every city. Most bands had drug dealers coming to their dressing room—we had book dealers coming to ours. Okay, we had drug dealers too—but we had book dealers, and that was damn weird.
We kept the Halloween weekend in 1986 open as we swung around the Northeast so the band could attend The World Fantasy Convention in Providence, Rhode Island. We even performed in the ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel. It was worth it just to see Peter Straub dance.
This is where I met Tim Powers. He and his wife Serena were extremely nice people and we kept in touch. The following year when the band came around Southern California I invited them to our show as my guests, and again they were great to be with. Over dinner Tim was telling me about the book he was writing called The Stress of Her Regard, a historical novel dealing with Byron, Shelley, Keats, and a lamia.
I thought about that book throughout the show. It had all the elements I loved, and if some moron was going to mess it up, that moron was going to be me. After the show I asked Tim if he would trust me with the production of the limited edition and after some discussion he said yes and even agreed to illustrate the book. I told him that I would do it right, that I wouldn’t let him down. Tim got his friends involved as well. Dean Koontz wrote the introduction and Jim Blaylock the afterword.
I started Charnel House in 1988 for the sole purpose of publishing The Stress of Her Regard. I did a lot of research and asked a lot of questions of people in the trade and found that most did not want to part with their knowledge. One publisher told me that I would be competition and for me to find out on my own. So I did. The name Charnel House came to me as a play on Random House and I thought it was funny so I went with it. A charnel house was where dead bodies were stored during plagues. Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, once said to me at a convention, “Well, I’m glad somebody around here has a sense of humor.” He thought it was a great name for a press and couldn’t believe how long it took to be used. It was then, and has remained a small press, a very small press. One person small. I design, proof and see the books through production. I number, wrap, pack your book and ship it to you. If something goes wrong I’m the one who takes the hit, but I do what I want and my authors trust me.
After I stumbled through the production of my first book I stumbled in to a guy named Jerry Kelly who would take the designs I had in my head and get them into print. Jerry was a very talented designer who was properly schooled. I wasn’t, I had absolutely no training of type or design which made our sessions a bit like a Martin & Lewis skit (Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis). I was Lewis. We worked in a small office downtown in Greenwich Village. I would want a certain look and not knowing how to get it I would explain in my Neanderthal way and he would yell, “You can’t do that!”
I would scream back, “Why?” He would explain the technicalities and the rules that I was breaking, and my reply would always be, “I don’t care, it looks good. Do it!”
Jerry would roll his eyes and do it because, after all, it was my dime. I really frustrated him and he me but we got along very well and we respected each other. After a couple of books with Jerry I went out on my own feeling fairly confident that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
Designing the binding of the books has always been my favorite part of the process because I can go as crazy as I want, there are no limits except for what you set. I don’t set any. I incorporate key elements of the story into the design no matter how ridiculous: Bullets protruding through the cover, bullet holes through books, shaping the book like a church and putting a stained glass window through the cover, using uncut money for endleaves (illegally), lizard skin, diamond quilted stainless steel diner back-splashes, elevator gears, morgue toe tags, coins, mirrors, sterling silver inlays, circus tent canvas with grommets, lace stockings & garter clips, gold wedding rings, poker chips, tarot cards, wasps, roses, fingernail impressions, and a carpenter’s level that glows in the dark (more on that later).
I read a manuscript and see the book in my head, then try to create it in the real world. If it all comes together and works properly then an osmosis occurs from story to physical book and the result is tactile art intertwined with the written word. Designing the text is like playing the drums, at first you throw everything in because you can. Then you start to know when to play and when to lay out. I got to know fonts and I learned how to play with a page. To me title pages are the key to a book. They are the palace doors whose grandeur is most often accomplished with less rather than more.
One evening over dinner with Dean Koontz, I told him that I was thinking about taking some courses to learn just what it is I do—that I didn’t even know what a pica (a measurement of type) was, and he looked at me very seriously and said, “Please don’t. Your sensibilities come from not knowing the rules. You don’t know when you’re doing something ‘wrong’ because it isn’t wrong to you. I would hate for you to lose that.” I thought that profound and I was touched. Besides, I didn’t want to go to school!
It has been thirty years since that first publication and I have designed over ninety books counting both numbered and lettered editions for Charnel House as well as the designs that were contracted for by other companies. I have the privilege of publishing Dean Koontz, Tim Powers, Harlan Ellison, Keith Reid, and on a few occasions created books I would have killed for as a collector, books that would not have existed had I not made them. Those are the books that make me feel like a publisher. Yet I’m still not going to admit that I know what I’m doing. As a matter of fact, if you look at the Charnel House collection in chronological order it shows the growth––or regression, depending on how you see it—of my craft. I have garnered a reputation for making extremely over the top books, but of late I seem to be making more traditional fine hand bindings. That said, the lettered edition of The Silent Corner has an FBI badge mounted on the front board.
I never expected to do any of these books except for The Stress of Her Regard. Meanwhile, back at the ranch I look at four long shelves full of really cool books and wonder who the hell made them. And what have I been doing for the past thirty years?
This excerpt is from the introduction to CHARNEL HOUSE, A Small Press Journal. I will be posting pieces of chapters as I get it ready for publication. I felt that the people who have been collecting my books would like to know what was really going on backstage.
Welcome to Charnel House, nice to finally meet you—
Joe Stefko, Publisher