Grinning Skull Press has published over fifty original horror novels, novellas and anthologies since its inception, including their annual Deathlehem series of Christmas horror anthologies. I’ve personally been lucky enough to have stories of my own make appearances in three of them. My experiences working with both Michael and his co-editor Harrison Graves have always been excellent. The editorial changes they’ve requested have been spot-on and have improved each of the stories. With the latest edition of Deathlehem having just been released shortly before Christmas, I thought this would be a great time to talk with associate editor Michael Evans about editing, creating Grinning Skull Press, and much more. Michael is a huge fan of the horror genre and is someone with whom I always enjoy conversing, so I was glad he agreed to answer these questions for us today.
1. H.D.: Tell us what inspired the creation of Grinning Skull Press?
M.E.: I’ve been involved in the publishing industry for the past 20 some odd years, mostly in the STM (scientific, technical, and medical) arena, but I always wanted to get into publishing fiction, so the idea had been in my head for a while, but I kept putting it to the back burner for one reason or another. But it wasn’t until I sat down with Bob Booth that I decided to seriously invest the time and energy into getting GSP off the ground. Bob was one of the founders of NECON, an annual gathering of horror/dark fantasy/urban fantasy authors that’s celebrating its 40th year in 2020, and he told me if it was something I really wanted to do, do it, otherwise it would constantly be eating at me.
2. H.D.: What criteria do you look at when choosing a book to publish?
M.E.: That’s a tough one because reading is such a personal experience, but I guess I would have to say we’re drawn to literary horror, or what I sometimes call “smart” horror. Real people caught in horrific situations and reacting believably within the confines of the universe the author has created. And while we are well aware that we are reading fiction, we’re always asking, “Would the character respond this way when faced with…?” If we get too many No’s, or there are too many eye roll situations, chances are the manuscript is going to be rejected.
3. H.D.: Are there any particular themes or ideas you feel drawn to when reading submissions?
M.E.: It would be easier to ask if there are themes or ideas that repel us or cause us to shy away from a submission, and that would be zombies. We feel the market is oversaturated with zombies, and if you are going to send us a zombie apocalypse manuscript, it had better be something that’s never been done before. And the zombies have to be shamblers. The minute we read about fast zombies/talking zombies/zombies smart enough to use tools, it’s an automatic rejection UNLESS we’re talking Haitian zombies. When Harrison and I talked about what direction we wanted to go in, we originally said we wanted to stay away from the human monsters and focus on the creature features. But as you can see from our catalog, it didn’t work out that way. Sure, there are some creatures running around, but we’ve also published the works we originally wanted to avoid. That comes from going into a manuscript with no preconceived expectations. If the manuscript grabs us, then it’s in, creatures or no creatures.
4. H.D.: Tell us about some of the recent Grinning Skull Press offerings?
M.E.: Our most recent release is A Tree Lighting in Deathlehem, the 6th volume in the Deathlehem collection, a Christmas-themed horror anthology series for charity. Earlier in the year we released a couple of werewolf tales, a novella by Dave Jeffery entitled Tooth & Claw and a horror comedy from Stuart R. West, Corporate Wolf. Back in April we released Lucifer Sam by Leo Darke, a heavy metal horror tale with an ending you won’t soon forget. I know it’s not nice to favor one work over another, but Lucifer Sam is one of my favorites. We also released the last of the Grave Markers (for the time being), which are novelettes that are available individually in digital format and as three-in-one print compilations. We also published a reprint from Vincent Courtney, What’s Wrong with the Baby?, which older folks might remember as Goblin from the 90s. And another one that we’re proud of is INFERNAL by Cheryl Low, island horror, with an ending that catches many folks off guard. We were recently commended by one reviewer for the taking a risk with the ending, as most publishers would more than likely shy away from it.
5. H.D.: What initially inspired you and Harrison Graves to launch the Deathlehem series of anthologies which focuses on Christmas horror stories?
M.E.: Deathlehem was my brainchild. I hate Christmas. Didn’t always, but I grew to. A lot of it has to do with the commercialism, and the fact that they’re trying to squeeze out Halloween by bringing the Christmas stuff into stores earlier and earlier every year. But on a more personal level, there’s a black cloud that hangs over the end of the year… I lost my sister on New Year’s Eve, my oldest brother just before Thanksgiving, and my mother took ill right before Halloween and every day was a struggle to survive until she finally lost the battle in January. As a result, I more or less stopped celebrating, stopped decorating, and it became just another day. Everybody was telling me I needed to celebrate the holidays if only as a way of honoring and remembering them, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. But folks just wouldn’t give up, so I tried to figure out a way I could honor them at the holidays without having to go through all the hoopla of the holidays. Deathlehem was the answer. It combines the holiday they loved with the holiday I loved (Halloween). And in the spirit of the holiday, we decided to make it a charity anthology.
6. H.D.: All the proceeds from the Deathlehem anthologies go to The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. What led your to choosing them to benefit?
M.E.: It was a charity my sister believed strongly in. She was a school psychologist who worked with a lot of students with severe emotional problems. Without revealing any personal details, there were several students who were HIV positive who were more or less ostracized by the school and other students because of their condition, and my sister always went the extra mile for them, to the point of devoting some of her personal time to helping them.
7. H.D.: Do you have any unique Christmas traditions you observe?
M.E.: I used to, but not anymore. I let the others around me celebrate and decorate as they please, and I just kind of ignore it. I do have to admire their attempts to get me into the spirit, though. A few years ago, when I finally relented and let them decorate the living room, I came home to find five trees of varying sizes in the living room. One of them was white and decorated with black spider webs. They said that one was mine. Last year, it was just the white tree with a dismantled skeleton adorning the branches, and this year, same skeleton, only the tree is black.
8. H.D.: Setting aside those you’ve published, who are some of your favorite authors to read?
M.E.: I love love love Hunter Shea’s cryptid novels, and Jonathan Janz hasn’t disappointed me yet. Robert Deveraux is another one. His novel, Santa Steps Out, is probably my favorite novel of all time, and it’s the only book I re-read every year.
9. H.D.: When putting together an anthology, how do decide in what order you want to place the stories?
M.E.: The two strongest pieces open and close the anthology, and there are times certain stories feel like they were written for those positions. Like this year’s Deathlehem… I wouldn’t dream of ending it with any other story than Carlson’s “The Vices and Virtues of Gideon Thomas.” If we never do another Deathlehem anthology, I couldn’t think of a more perfect story to wrap up the series. Other than that, we try to create a smooth flow where one story leads into another.
10. H.D.: What are some of your pet peeves when reading a story submission?
M.E.: Other than bad or careless writing, I don’t know that I have any pet peeves. Oh… I take that back. Zombies. See question #3 above.
11. H.D.: You write stories of your own as well. What are you working on at the moment?
M.E.: GSP takes up so much of my time, I don’t feel like I’ve written much of anything lately. If I get 1k words a week, I’m lucky. I do have a few novellas (they started out as short stories, but the characters told me their story wouldn’t be confined to 10k words or less) that I’m working on, the second draft of a novel manuscript that deals with witchcraft, revenge, and shapeshifters.
12. H.D.: When did you first realize you had a love for the horror genre?
M.E.: I was a late bloomer. I was traumatized as a child when I saw Trilogy of Terror and the original Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. That Zuni fetish doll and those creatures living in the walls teamed up and haunted my dreams for months (see “Benjamin,” a short story available for Kindle for the dream that caused my mother to have many sleepless nights). That dream also caused an irrational fear of dark doorways for the longest time. So I have to say my love for horror didn’t kick in until I was in college. I had no money and had run out of stuff to read, so my mother told me to go check out her book shelves (just stay away from the bottom shelf, and no, you pervs, it was nothing like that. That’s where she kept all her books on witchcraft. And no, she wasn’t a practicing witch; it was just something that fascinated her). The book I chose was Koontz’s Darkfall. That started me on the highway to hell. Prior to that it was epic/high fantasy. From Koontz, I moved on to King and McCammon, VC Andrews, some of the names at the time.
13. H.D.: Which horror element or creature in literature or films consistently gives you the chills (example: for me it’s faceless creatures/specters)?
M.E.: Werewolves in movies. A good transformation scene always gives me the chills, but not in the scary, creepy way. For that, I would have to say body thieves, body snatchers, and I don’t mean grave robbers. Doppelgängers. The idea of some person or thing taking over or impersonating somebody close to me is chilling.
A Tree Lighting in Deathlehem Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Tree-Lighting-Deathlehem-Anthology-Holiday-ebook/dp/B082ZB7RZM/ref=nodl_
Grinning Skull Press Books Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/grinning-skull-press-Books/s?k=grinning+skull+press&rh=n%3A283155
Grinning Skull Press Website: https://grinningskullpress.wordpress.com
Interview Conducted by Matt Cowan