Tom English is a man of many talents. Alongside working his full time job as a chemist, he’s also an editor, writes his own uncanny tales, and is the publisher of Dead Letter Press (where he published my first short story, “The Collective of Blaque Reach”). He also shares my love of classic horror fiction, although my knowledge on the subject pales in comparison to his. I often think about how terrific it would be to assemble a group of horror literature experts around a table beside a crackling fire discussing the subject. Tom is one of the people I envision holding a prime seat at this table, aside Ramsey Campbell, David T. Wilbanks and a few others. Recently I’ve had the honor of working with Tom again, as he’s chosen me to pen a movie review column for his newest endeavor Dark Infinity, a journal of weird science fiction which is avaible now here: http://a.co/dPn6bLU. I recently had the chance to pick Tom’s brain on a variety of subjects, including Black Infinity, his favorite horror and science fiction stories, Halloween, editorial tips for writers and much more.
1. H.D. : You’re a big fan of classic horror literature. With Halloween rapidly approaching, please tell us about some of your all time favorite spine-chillers?
Tom: “That’s a tough question. Seems like the more I read, the more I like. And it gets harder each year to single out individual books and stories. I’m a big fan of Algernon Blackwood, Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s “The Black Cat” was one of the first horror stories I read (in high school, if memory serves) and it really creeped me out. So I’ll recommend that one along with the classics “The Wendigo” and “The Turn of the Screw”. And Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Wall” — just for the atmosphere of it! I think a story’s “creep quotient” is partly dependent on when and where you read it, and perhaps what you’re going through at the time. But these are some of the classics that really stayed with me.
Jumping forward, I’m a huge fan of Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness and Conjure Wife, Richard Matheson’s Hell House, I Am Legend, and The Shrinking Man. Oh yeah, and A Stir of Echoes. Can’t go wrong with Matheson.”
2. H.D. : Are there any traditions you keep for Halloween?
Tom: “Yeah, cutting off the porch light to discourage late trick-or-treaters who might interrupt a good movie. This year I’ll probably watch Vincent Price (my favorite horror film star) in William Castle’s The Tingler. Or Universal’s scary SF movie It Came From Outer Space. Or maybe Hammer’s Professor Quatermass movie 5 Million Years to Earth. Or … well, I should stop. (Yeah, I don’t go for gore, by the way. I like the old stuff, which is more atmosphere and suggestion, and this shows in what I write and edit.)”
3. H.D: What initially drew you to both horror and science fiction?
Tom: “I think Hollywood is to blame. I love a good haunted house story, whether in print or on the screen. I also love good pulpy SF novels and movies about space exploration. It didn’t take me long to realize that Hammer Films was spicing up their SF with a hearty dash of horror, and Universal Studios was injecting sci-fi into their monster movies. The two genres mix incredibly well on the screen, and in novels when you can find them. For instance, Jack Finney’s alien invasion novel The Body Snatchers, which chills and fascinates, both the 1954 book and the 1955 movie adaptation.
Bottom line: I like my aliens and astronauts — but I prefer them with a side order of chills. And apparently I’m not alone. I remember reading somewhere that director J.J. Abrams, prior to rebooting the Star Trek film franchise, had watched The Original Series and felt it worked best when it was scary. I agree. Cute tribbles aside, most of my favorite Trek episodes are from the darker, more serious first season. “The Devil in the Dark” or “Miri” for example. And “The Man Trap” (the first show aired in 1966) would have worked beautifully as an episode of The Outer Limits. But don’t get me started on The Outer Limits, another cool example of creepy Sci-fi and one of my fondest childhood memories.”
4. H.D. : What horror creature or element in literature or films consistently gives you the chills?
Tom: “The ones you know are there — lurking about in the shadowy corners of an old dark house or the claustrophobic corridors of a spaceship — but can’t see until they jump out and scare the stuffing out of you.”
5. H.D. : What inspired you to create Dead Letter Press?
Tom: “Dead stuff. I wanted to help resurrect the past: restore the memory of dead writers, bring back dead stories, revisit dead places, relive dead times. But more than anything, I love books — I mean, I really love books — reading them, owning them, and creating them. The whole process just brings me joy. But to truly answer your question, I’m like a wino thirsting for another rare vintage, and what self-respecting wino wouldn’t thrill to see his own vineyard listed on the label?”
6. H.D. : How do you go about choosing which stories to include in one of your anthologies?
Tom: “I’m very narrow-minded when it comes to picking stories. I only publish the stuff I like! That seems to work okay, because I like a little of everything. But my main criteria? If the story is entertaining, well-written, and fairly original, I’m in. Simple, right?”
7. H.D. : You’re a writer as well as being an editor, publisher and a full time chemist. Do you have a favorite among your own tales?
Tom: “Writers are frequently asked this. I used to read some of their responses, and most would answer “the one I’m working on right now” — and I would think that’s crazy. How can you not have a favorite. But now I get it. My fiction output is small compared to the other stuff I write, but of what I’ve had published, I can’t really say I like one story more than another. They are ALL my literary children, and like a good parent I don’t favor one over the other. That said, I realize I’m missing an opportunity here … to do a little self-promotion. So I will say I’m very pleased with my latest story, “A Handful of Dust” which appears in the recent issue of Weirdbook (May 2017 issue), published by Wildside Press. Please pick up a copy and support “the weird” in fiction.”
8. H.D. : Can you share what brought about the genesis of your newest endeavor, Black Infinity?
Tom: “Several things. What we’ve been discussing, my love of creepy science fiction stories and movies, and also the EC Comics Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. But the catalyst was that I was really missing all those cool SF digests that proliferated during the fifties and sixties. Now, I’m not that old, but I used to collect these when I was growing up in the 70s. I loved reading yellowed copies of IF and Galaxy, and the more obscure digests such as Fantastic Universe and Imagination. I wanted to pay homage to these old magazines, which offered hundreds of great but now forgotten glimpses into other worlds. And I’ve formatted Black Infinity to capture the approach and feel of these. This is a project I’ve wanted to pursue for years, an idea I had shortly after editing Bound for Evil — which paid homage to another passion: books!”
9. H.D. : What will readers of Black Infinity have to look forward to in each issue?
Tom: “With Black Infinity, my desire is primarily to provide an escape. Good, entertaining SF stories, both classic and contemporary, by well-known writers along with some newer voices; also a nod to the movies, comics and magazines of the past; a journey down memory lane that leads to the future and other worlds; really just a self-contained little world of fun stuff to help us forget all the problems we’re facing today.”
10. H.D. : You did an open call for some of the stories. How happy were you with the results?
Tom: “Writers have it hard. They pour their hearts into a story and then face a tough time finding the proper market for it. So lots of writers tend to broadly interpret the guidelines, in hopes they can find a home for their story. I get it. I’ve been there. But the guidelines are there for a purpose. I asked for creepy SF with a minimum of gore. I received so many stories that were straight horror, with absolutely no claim to being SF — no spaceships, no alien planets, no time travel, no mutant monsters, none of the typical SF tropes. Now I’m not expecting hard SF, that’s heavy on physics and filled with heady mathematical concepts. I actually don’t want that type of story for Black Infinity. But how does a guy with a knife, lurking in a dark alley, constitute SF? Oh, and about limiting the gore? I received lots of stories that were pretty graphic. On the other hand, I also received dozens of straight SF with no creepy atmosphere, no sense of dread. Again, well-written for the most part, but not what the guidelines described as acceptable. I think a lot of writers just don’t understand what creepy means. Or how to write fiction that’s creepy. Creepy fiction produces “a nervous shivery apprehension.”
11. H.D. : Do you have any editorial tips for future prospective contributors?
Tom: “Read the guidelines, be sure you understand the guidelines (if not, ask) and then stick to the guidelines. And don’t be like this one writer who contacted me, stating “I know this isn’t what you asked for, but I think you’ll like it anyway”! Yeah?”
12. H.D. : What are some of your favorite sci-fi stories?
Tom: “Again, too many and too hard to single out a few. Okay, a few have really stayed with me: John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There”; Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”; Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall”; Harlan Ellison’s “Paladin of the Lost Hour”; gotta stop again!”
13. H.D. : Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to share?
Tom: “This makes thirteen questions — and I like the number 13. So my answer: Yes, I want to thank you for this interview. And for agreeing to write the retro movie review column in Black Infinity. (For those reading this, I actually had to nicely twist Matt’s arm — just a bit. Once he got his shoulder relocated, he turned in the first installment within a couple weeks and totally blew me away with his creative approach.)”
BLACK INFINITY ON AMAZON: http://a.co/dPn6bLU
DEAD LETTER PRESS WEBSITE: http://deadletterpress.com/Site/Home-1.html
DIET FOR DREAMERS ON AMAZON: https://www.amazon.com/Diet-Dreamers-Inspiration-Encouragement-Creativity/dp/0979633575
Interview and Article by Matt Cowan