Gothic, Chiaroscuro, and Hauntings:
An Interview with M. Grant Kellermeyer
of Oldstyle Tales Press
Illustrations for Frankenstein and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by M. Grant Kellermeyer
Michael Grant Kellermeyer, MA, a former English professor, owns and runs the splendiferous Oldstyle Tales Press, where he dons a variety of hats: bibliographer, illustrator, editor, critic, blogger, proof-reader, and barker (the old-fashioned word for "publicist"), amongst others. The Press provides high quality, annotated and illustrated print and e-books that don't cost the earth. I’m delighted that he was able to take time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions.
What inspired you to become a publisher, especially of vintage supernatural writers?
When I graduated college, my parents’ graduation present consisted of buying my wish-list of fifty novels and short story anthologies by British and American writers from John Milton to Graham Greene, and while I was in grad school I started reading my way through them. I always loved classic horror (especially Poe and Bierce), but – much like the academy – I considered it an escapist indulgence, not serious fiction. In grad school I had a fantastic class on Romanticism which revitalized my fascination with the likes of Mary Shelley, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Washington Irving. During my last semester in grad school (and I graduated in December, so this was during the Halloween season), I started reading the spookiest books in the collection my parents bought me: Bierce, Le Fanu (both from Dover), and Lovecraft (Delrey).
Unfortunately, I noticed that the books left me wanting: their introductions were essentially author biographies with very little discussion of analysis, themes, or interpretations of the fiction itself, and they had no notes or illustrations, leaving both my imagination and intellect wanting more. I thought back to the analysis-heavy Oxford Annotated editions of literary novels which were required reading for my grad school classes, and I wished that these horror anthologies had some kind of a gloss or guide to assist in interpreting and understanding their highly-symbolic, often tantalizing stories.
The final straw came while I was re-reading my all-time favorite ghost story anthology – Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural, (ed., Henry Mazzeo, illus. Edward Gorey) – which included illustrations as well as contextual introductions and closing analyses for each story. It reminded me of a college course where a professor would introduce a work, let us read it, then guide us through some of the themes or contexts that we might have missed. We would need to come up with the ultimate interpretation, but at least it offered us some guideposts.
I decided to create something similar to fill the gap I perceived in classic horror, and while I waited to start my first semester as an adjunct professor, I put together an anthology of my favorite Victorian ghost stories: one with footnotes like the Oxford Annotated books, and with illustrations, and story introductions and analyses like Hauntings. I initially wanted to do five books in a series of classic horror anthologies. Since then it has grown to nearly thirty titles and going.
Considering the huge amount of work that goes into creating a book, that is some achievement (Hauntings is one of my favourite anthologies, too, though the real horror of it was, my copy came with library stamps all over Gorey's illos).
I know we can read your blogs to discover all the writers you publish, but out of those, who are your favourites?
I won’t dodge this and say “all of them,” because I do have some definite favorites. Washington Irving is my favorite author, for his cheeky prose and humor as well as his supernatural tales, and M. R. James is my favorite writer of horror-for-horror’s-sake. I also adore Algernon Blackwood, J. S. Le Fanu, F. Marion Crawford, Arthur Machen, Edith Nesbit, Ambrose Bierce, and Henry James, in particular. Other favorites include W. W. Jacobs, Margaret Oliphant, Rhoda Broughton, and – of course – the three S’s: Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker. Fortunately, though, I’ve never felt a need to publish an author whose work I detest or outright dislike: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each of the nearly thirty authors I’ve worked on.
How long does it take you to create a book, from concept to publication?
Usually three to four months. The writing (introduction, footnotes, and individual story analyses) takes ten weeks, usually, although I only work about 8-12 hours a week, and the illustrations take about a month. The final formatting and the publishing process takes one week.
When writing, do you use pen and paper, computer, laptop, typewriter? Do you work alone or in coffee shops? Music or silence?
What a fabulous question! I have a 1960s Remington Rand Quiet-Riter typewriter, but the nature of my business requires a laptop. I do my best work either in one of the cozy corners in my house (I like putting my feet up, have a view out a window, and have a spot for coffee to sit), although I do sometimes get work done at The Firefly, my local coffee shop (on my same street, even) in Fort Wayne. I absolutely love music, and usually play it while I’m working. Some books I’ve done even had a “soundtrack” that I listened to while I worked on them: I listened to Philip Glass’ The Hours score on repeat while doing Henry James; James Newton Howard’s The Village while working on Algernon Blackwood and others (it’s my favorite spooky soundtrack); Rachmaninoff for F. Marion Crawford, and Atrium Carceri with M. R. James.
What do you think are the key skills necessary to be a successful publisher?
I think creativity is the most important skill, but the very next one is business acumen: the ability to find a market, create a beautiful and useful product, connect with an audience, wisely manage your financials, and be open to improvement. Just like a writer, publishers must learn to “murder their darlings”: my website is nothing like the one I started, and my books look very little like the ones I first printed in 2013. It was often difficult for me to admit when something wasn’t working, but choosing to take critical advice from my wife, friends, customers, and critics led to a much better, much more profitable product. Taking insightful advice gracefully is a must.
What do you think is the most exciting thing that publishers can do?
They get to expose the world to new literary universes and life changing ideas and visions. In my specific instance, as a publisher of classics, I’m not ushering in a new voice, but I am introducing it to a new audience: one which may either never have heard of this author (especially the likes of Fitz-James O’Brien, F. Marion Crawford, Arthur Machen, or Edith Nesbit), or – even if they have – haven’t had access to the literary interpretations and historical contexts that I provide with my notes.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing independent publishers today?
I think being able to reach and keep an audience, especially in our noisy, busy, over-commercialized world makes it tough for independent publishers to make their business profitable. We don’t want to be materialistic, but profit is the difference between a hobby and a business. Mine was a hobby for the first two years, but as I spent more time on it I wanted to financially justify the hours I was working on it. It proved very hard to gain and retain customers in a very competitive, noisy marketplace, and fortunately I have.
Illustration for "Schalken the Painter", original pencil sketch (l.) and finished chiascuro (r.) M. Grant Kellermeyer (c.)
What do you think is the best part of publishing?
As a fully independent publisher, the best part of my work is having creative control over the works and writers I want to elevate and getting to craft it: from the cover art, to the introduction, from the illustrations to the footnotes – in exactly the way that I envision it. In short, being able to convert a vision to reality.
What do you think is the worst part of publishing?
Definitely the commercial side of it (marketing, sales, trying to get attention when you just might suffer from imposter syndrome, haha), especially for a person who is more creative than business-minded. I was lucky to be willing and able to educate myself on business and marketing, but it is hard work to convince the public to spend money to support your vision and your passion.
Everyone is living a busy, complex, stressful life, and it makes perfect sense that between paying rent, finding time to get a car repair, fielding miscommunications with family, dealing with loneliness, having medical bills, and managing the insane stress caused by social media, the news, politics, and alienation, that it is hard to make the decision to buy an annotated and illustrated edition of The Phantom of the Opera or the weird fiction of Arthur Machen. I completely understand why the battle for the public’s attention is so fraught – it’s tragic how clamorous life is today, and entering into that battle can be very stressful and dispiriting.
I have a special affinity, being one myself, with writer/illustrators such as Edward Gorey, Gahan Wilson, Clive Barker, and yourself, and of course Ireland's premier stained-glass artist, Harry Clarke. The illustrations you do for your books are incredible, can you tell me more about the process?
I love all the illustrators you mentioned (on my “About” page I specifically cite Gorey and Clarke as inspirations). Initially, I started illustrating with basic pencil sketches, but since so many of the best scenes were (of course) set at night, shading in the shadows proved tedious. I realized that I could economize my time by drawing the pictures in negative (the pencil strokes being the light areas), scanning them, and then inverting the image.
If your readers go to www.oldstyletales.com/art, they can see an example where I show a before/after illustration from “Schalken the Painter.” I do everything with a 6x9 sketchpad, a #2 mechanical pencil, and my finger for smudging the gentler effects. After scanning, I invert the color and touch it up with Pixlr Editor, giving it the gloomy, glowing, chiaroscuro effect on which people often comment. Other than Gorey and Clarke, my greatest influences are Barry Moser, Gustave Dore, Lynd Ward, Bernie Wrightson, Arthur Rackham, and W. Graham Robertson.
More wonders! (I have Rackham's illustration of Bellephron and Pegasus over my desk.) Can authors contact you about having cover illustrations for their books?
Absolutely. I like to work out commissions with clients, so instead of a set price, I try to find something manageable to them and fair to me. Anyone interested in commissioning art from me can contact me at www.oldstyletales.com/contact by putting the word “Commission” in the subject line.
Favourite movies/documentaries? TV shows?
I am obsessed with movies, especially classics. I especially love Bogart, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Lynch, and Miyazaki movies, and in the horror genre I prefer Roger Corman, Hammer, Vincent Price, and pre-code Universal movies. As far as TV shows, my weakness is for farcical comedies (Frasier, Fawlty Towers, 30 Rock, Scrubs, Blackadder, Arrested Development, and their ilk), although I also enjoy horror anthologies like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Twilight Zone, American Horror Story, Night Gallery, The X-Files, Tales from the Crypt, and Black Mirror.
If I can interject, if you like those you really ought to check out Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's Inside No. 9, the closest thing I've found to a modern Night Gallery/Twilight Zone. As the dynamic duo was also responsible for The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, the humour is pretty dark.
And speaking of dark, do you find a lot of readers returning to the old masters and mistresses because today's horror leaves nothing to the imagination?
Do I think that people are returning to the classics due to over-stimulation? Absolutely. Classic horror isn’t for everyone (sometimes it’s just too genteel and euphemistic for those with truly macabre tastes), but I do think that many readers are tired of having everything spelled out, and they appreciate the finesse and suggestiveness of truly creepy, old-school writers like M. R. James, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Henry James, F. Marion Crawford, Edith Nesbit, and Oliver Onions.
What advice would you give others considering whether or not they might become an editor/publisher?
I would recommend educating yourself in business and finances before starting, and I would probably recommend either beginning it as a side hustle or having a reliable part-time job on the side to help with cashflow (I worked as an adjunct professor, and later as a full-time lecturer, for six years before I switched to doing this full-time).
I would also recommend making contacts (and eventually friends) in the indie publishing community to bounce ideas off of. People often try to do this on their own, and they really shouldn’t start a venture like this without wise council. If you are creative, love books, and have a vision; are patient, flexible, and humble; and have an entrepreneurial spirit, publishing could be a phenomenal career for you.
Finally, do you have any words of encouragement for those either just starting out, or who haven't yet been able to sell their work either to a publisher or as an indie author?
Absolutely! It took me six years to develop Oldstyle Tales from a fun hobby (that generated just enough income to cover my costs) into a side gig that could cover our mortgage payment and groceries each month, and it was another couple years before it became enough for me to leave my full-time day job. Progress takes years, but it does happen, and when you are patient and flexible -- and if you have the creativity to generate a good product -- you will see progress. It might feel slow at times, and there will be set-backs from time to time, but I truly believe that as long as you write/edit/publish something that will engage people's imaginations, then you will experience incremental growth and success over time. The key is to not give up, to be open to gentle criticism, and to be flexible and open-minded about making changes as they are needed. But ultimately, my message to budding writers and publishers is to keep working at your craft, keep reaching out to more experienced colleagues, and keep your chin up. You are providing the world a service, and your literary vision is valuable to us all. Go for it!
Michael, thank you very much for your time and insights; a fascinating read. All continued health and prosperity to you and yours as the Oldstyle Tales Press catalogue continues to flourish and grow.
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Michael Grant Kellermeyer
(b. 1987) is a former English professor and current bibliographer, illustrator, editor, critic, blogger, and author based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in English from Anderson University (2010) and his Master of Arts in Literature from Ball State University (2012). He taught college writing and literature in Indiana for nine years at, variously, Ball State University, Ivy Tech Community College, and the Indiana Institute of Technology. He retired from higher education in 2019 to publish and write full time.
In his free time, Michael plays violin, watches old movies, and spends time walking in nature, or swinging on his front porch with his wife Kierstin and daughter Charlotte. Michael finds joy in straight razors, sandalwood shaving cream, briarwood pipes, and air-dried sheets. He loves listening to Classical music, jazz standards, sea shanties, watching the films of Vincent Price, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick, and nursing Hendricks gin tonics, stovetop coffee, and mint tea.
List of Publications
The Best Victorian Ghost Stories
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Annotated & Illustrated
The Annotated & Illustrated Edgar Allan Poe
The Horla & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of Guy de Maupassant
What Was It? & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of Fitz-James O’Brien
The Willows, the Wendigo, & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood
The Red Room & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of H. G. Wells
The Monkey’s Paw & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of W. W. Jacobs
Man-Size in Marble & Others: The Best Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction of E. Nesbit
Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Annotated & Illustrated
A Christmas Carol, The Signalman, & Others: The Best Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson
The Turn of the Screw & Others: The Best Ghost Stories of Henry James
The Captain of the Polestar, Lot No. 249, & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Upper Berth, For the Blood is the Life, & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of F. Marion Crawford
The Judge’s House, Dracula’s Guest, & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of Bram Stoker
The Great God Pan, The White People, & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of Arthur Machen
Carmilla, Green Tea, & Others: The Best Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction of J. Sheridan Le Fanu
The King in Yellow & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of Robert W. Chambers
The Voice in the Night, Carnacki the Ghost-finder, & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of William Hope Hodgson
Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera: Annotated & Illustrated
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle, & Others: The Best Ghost Stories & Folk Horror of Washington Irving
Oscar Wilde’s The Dorian Gray: Annotated & Illustrated
H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man: Annotated & Illustrated
The Sandman, The Nutcracker, & Others: The Best Weird Tales & Fantasies of E. T. A. Hoffmann
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles: Annotated & Illustrated
The Damned Thing & Others: The Best Weird Fiction & Ghost Stories of Ambrose Bierce
A Warning to the Curious, Count Magnus, & Others: The Best Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction of M. R. James