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
THE STRESS OF HER REGARD 1989
Denim. I don’t know why, but I was hell bent on binding this book in denim. I could have saved myself and the bindery a lot of grief if I used thin denim but—for me— it had to be the thickness of jeans. After the book was bound the bindery told me not to come back. Not a bad start. The printer would tell me not to come back after the following book. It would become a trend.
I bought a huge bolt of fourteen ounce denim and had it delivered to my house where, with the help of a friend, it was cut into strips, knotted up, and dumped into the tub with bleach to soak. I brought them to the laundromat in garbage bags, throwing my back out in the process, and washed and dried them twice while flinging bleach all over the place and onto people’s clothes. They told me not to come back.
The end-result was a beautiful tie-dyed, acid-washed look that varied from strip to strip making each book and slipcase unique. There was absolutely no tie-in between the cloth and the story, although the swirling blue and white patterns always made me think of Shelley’s death by drowning. It still does. I liked the look of the denim so much that I decided not to put any text on the spine, it looked like a huge chunk of stone washed denim when it was in the slipcase which was also bound in the same cloth. It looked great but I got my share of complaints about the spine––”How am going to know what book it is on the shelf”? I would ask, “Do you have another book that looks like that?”
I bought the limited edition rights from the good people at Ace Books. And when I say good people, I mean it. I used a Palatino font and an old fashioned traditional text block, as the story took place in the early eighteen hundreds. The paper used was 80lb. Mohawk Superfine, which is a high grade paper with a lot of texture, a paper that I have used on a lot of books.
I talked Tim in to illustrating the book himself, which I believe was what got me the book in the first place because Tim was so disgusted with his prior limiteds that he wasn’t going to have one for this book. After a big dinner Tim not only agreed to let me publish the book but said that he would draw twelve full page illustrations which were to be printed in the book and another fourteen so that each lettered copy was issued with an original illustration. I left excited with a headful of ideas.
Tim, as well as James Blaylock wrote afterwords and an introduction was written by his friend, Dean Koontz. All three authors agreed to sign the limitation sheet, which was a thin slice of African maple wood veneer which surprisingly took the printing as well as the signatures. The wood veneer represented, to me, the boat that Shelley went down in. Tim and I would discover something else that went down with Shelley’s boat which would inspire another book that Tim would write and I would publish twenty years later.
There was another author who had contributed an afterword to the book but it was not used. Tim and I felt it was a bit angst heavy and best left off. Well, I guess it was funny, and I can certainly understand it better now than I could then, but we couldn’t use it. I should go find it, you know, now that I think about it––it was hilarious.
The 26 copy lettered edition was handbound in full Moroccan leather with skins I hand picked. There were so many colors to chose from, and not enough in any one color to do all 26 books, so I took one of every color. There were 20 colors so I did 6 in black which went to the help. I lifted a drawing of Percy Shelley and his dead daughter Clara from a larger piece Tim had drawn and foil stamped it in silver on the lower right portion of the front board and a hit of silver foil on the spine in the shape of Tim’s 4 / 2 / 3 symbol which plays heavily throughout the story. Each lettered copy included an original drawing of Tim’s which was wrapped in a thin white sheet of handmade lace paper from China. The 500 copy denim bound numbered edition sold for $125.00 and the 26 copy lettered edition sold for $400.00. Top prices for the time.
An interesting fact about this book is that it had to be printed twice. I didn’t even know it at the time. After the book was printed, Carl Bennitt, who was the president of Pace Lithographers in Los Angeles, told me when I went to see the books, that the first printing run was slightly off. The facing pages did not quite line up by a small fraction. Now I figured that that was my fault, that it should have been seen on the proof. I had three people proofing the book and nobody noticed it. It was minute but Carl decided it wasn’t good enough so he pulped them and reprinted the 570 page novel. Talk about quality control! I was very impressed. He saved one copy that we used as a dummy for the denim binding. The dummy slipcase in denim with cut-out finger notches in the sides to grab didn’t work with the thick denim so I went with straight edges.
A great beginning but I really didn’t know if I would continue. I didn’t have any plans beyond this book. The author liked the book and everyone involved gave me a thumbs up. Both editions sold out prior to publication giving me a false sense of security in regard to future books.
Howard Kaylan, the singer in The Turtles has written his take on this publication in his introduction for The Collected Stories of Tim Powers as it all took place while touring. He was my band-buddy as well as my book-buddy through-out this time.
After shipping the edition I went back on tour feeling like I did something good. Something worthwhile. And I knew that I should just drop it after having done it successfully once. But the bug had burrowed deep and gone to sleep until Ray Garton’s agent called to talk to me about doing a biography about Ann Rice. I passed on the Rice book but asked if there was anything Ray had that was fit for Charnel House. Ray had yet to be published in hardcover never mind limited edition.
THE NEW NEIGHBOR 1991
Ray Garton received some pretty good attention for his novel Live Girls which was about vampiric prostitutes. Erotic horror was coming into vogue which would soon stretch the boundaries of taste and, unfortunately, good writing. Like everything else, it was good when it started.
I was told that Ray had a novel that nobody would touch because of the erotic content and pre-teen incest. I thought that it would be perfect for Charnel House and asked to read it. It was good for its time and was way over the line of decency, which suited me nicely. The manuscript was 95 percent finished, it just needed an ending. I bought it and hired JK Potter, the best erotic horror artist of our time, to illustrate it. J. K. or “Jake”, as I call him, works with photography and airbrushing, and could give Hans Belmer a run for his money. I knew how to get the best out of Jake—I handed him the manuscript and told him that no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t gross me out. The only direction I gave was––no hard-ons, please. All but the final scene, which had yet to be written, was illustrated with horrendous hardcore eroticism. I loved everything he did except for one piece, which I bounced and told him to do another. To be fair, and Jake admitted it, the piece didn’t fit with the others. It looked like a reject from another book. And sure enough––it was. The piece he replaced it with was tremendous, and despite the huge full page hard-on (his way of getting back for bouncing a piece of art on him) it worked so well that I thanked him and bought two of the pieces for myself. No, not that one.
All I needed was an ending—which wasn’t coming, but the following year had come, and eventually I told Ray that we had an ending. He said, “We do!” And I said yeah, all the villagers go to the succubus’ house with torches and burn it down with her in it. The End. He said, “Yeah, that’ll work.” I said, “Good. Write it, it’s already been illustrated. It was; Jake did a reverse negative of a girl in flames, beautiful yet horrible.
When the author was done, I didn’t just get the ending, I got a whole new manuscript which was “Tweaked”. I don’t know what happened to Ray within the year but he had softened all the hard eroticism and made the pre-teen kids older. I didn’t like it. This was my second book and didn’t know how far I could push. Whatever I did didn’t work and I was told that this is the book and I wasn’t allowed to publish the first draft. I went with it despite the fact that I paid for the contents of the first draft. That wouldn’t happen today. I still have that first draft.
I designed the text and took it to be typeset by a company in New York City who was very proud of their new computer system, but their computers were not working correctly and I got a lot of numbers and percent signs instead of text. There were also parts of the book where the font changed by an act of God. It took forever to get the typesetting right but I did. Then I went to the printer I used on my first book and printed the text, but they wouldn’t touch the art. After they printed the text they read some of it and told me that had they known what they were printing they never would have done it. I asked them what they thought that art was illustrating, and how dare they censor a novel that comes in to be printed. I told them they would have loved the first draft. They told me not to come back.
I took the art to A. Colish, a respected printer, who was closing down his business. And with all the palaver of closing, I snuck it in with Jerry Kelly at the helm and printed six illustrations as full page duo-tones for the book in two days.
The text paper was printed on Mohawk Velum and the art on Lustro Gloss. The signature sheet was printed on gray Curtis Flannel, a soft flannel-like finish paper. I would get paper savvy in time.
When it came time to do an ad for the book I brought everything in for my lawyer to see and he advised me to make all customers state that they were over twenty-one years of age. He said if little Billy’s parents find the book and little Billy isn’t of age, well you don’t need the grief. And, if little Billy goes into little Debbie’s room one night to do chapter thirteen you really don’t want to be responsible in the eyes of the court. I thought it would help sales anyway, since everyone wants what they’re not supposed to have, so everybody had to state that they were over twenty-one years of age when ordering the book. In those days flyers were sent out and checks were sent in. I had no web sight.
I bound the book in a three piece binding (the spine and both boards as separate pieces) of black (spine) and red (boards) Iris cloth, which is a finely woven cloth from Germany, with a silver stamping of a girl with wings, drawn by J K Potter, on the front board and the book was slipcased in black Iris. I proportioned the two cloths differently than a normal three piece binding, giving it an original look. A trait I would not break. The price was $150.00.
The lettered edition was bound in Crimson Morocco leather with a strip of black lace stocking down the front board over a white piece of paper to make the lace stocking pop. The book sold for $500.00. I gave it a black silk book ribbon with a black garter clip on the end.
I didn’t know where to get a bunch of garter clips so a girl was recommended. I called her and told how many I needed and she told me to come to her loft on Eighth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. I rang the bell and this beautiful girl opened the door and handed me a brown paper bag and I gave her cash. Now that didn’t look so good, and the cop that walked by didn’t think so either. She closed and locked the door and left me holding the bag. But officer, it’s not what you think! I showed him and he told me not to come back to his beat.
Problems? A dummy copy was handbound with the correct number of pages of the actual paper being used in the book and bound in the same fabric, so that slipcases of the correct dimensions could be manufactured and be ready when the books were done. I will get to this problem later, but the end result was that the slipcases were too tight for the books. The machine bound copies bulked out just a touch more then the hand bound dummy did, making the slipcase too snug.
I called a friend to complain and I said that pulling the book out of the slipcase was going to roll back the fabric on the boards that overlapped the cloth of the spine. She told me about a liquid hardener for material called Fraycheck. What I ended up doing was to slit the cloth on the inside corners of each slipcase to give the book a fraction more room, and I put a drop of Fraycheck where the two cloths overlapped. It really helped and I never heard about it from anyone, but the process of fixing the problem on top of the normal process of checking the books, numbering them, bagging and boxing them took forever.
The book took about a year to sell out but it did. I never met the author or even spoke to him again. Ray was very nice with me on the phone and it would be great to run in to him these days. There was no trade edition of this title, just my limited. No one would publish it—even after it was cleaned up a bit. It was the first time I had an original publication and it won The Small Press Award, whatever that is, I never received it. I read about winning it in a magazine. JK Potter won the World Fantasy Best In Show Award for the art I printed on the endsheets, a half bat/half girl pinned down as a specimen titled Bat of The Month.
A decade or so later a trade and limited edition was done by another publisher. A second limited edition is dubious at best and a smack in the head to the collectors who bought the original. It was, in fact, the trade edition with a signed sheet tipped in the front of the book. The antithesis of what I had done. As Harlan Ellison has said over and over again, “It is the amateurs who make it difficult for the professionals.”