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A short history of the chapbook (and why every horror reader should own at least one)

The beginnings of the chapbookWhat they hear in the dark by Gary McMahon

There’s been an interesting development over the last few years in the horror world in the shape of the chapbook. Whilst many of you are no doubt asking what on earth a chapbook is, you may be surprised to learn that they have been in circulation since the 16th Century. Admittedly they nose-dived in the mid-19th Century thanks to cheap newspapers and religion deeming them ‘ungodly’, which is perhaps a reason in itself why horror fans should embrace the form. After all, horror has always been about celebrating the dark side of life and going against the grain.

So, what the hell is a chapbook?

A chapbook is a self-contained short story typically weighing in at anything from twenty to forty pages. They are typically sold as limited editions with small print runs of 100 – 500 copies and have a high quality finish. These are luxury, collectable items.

Today’s key players in the chapbook world

Let me start with a disclaimer to any readers who don’t ordinarily read This Is Horror. We recently released the This Is Horror Premium Chapbook series, so naturally I’m a champion of the form.

With that out the way, here are some of the big shots in the horror chapbook world.

Spectral Press

Headed up by Simon Marshall-Jones, formerly of Fractured Spaces Records, it is virtually impossible to say the word ‘chapbook’ in genre fiction circles without thinking of Spectral Press. Formed in January 2011, in just a year and a half Spectral have picked up a horror award, had stories selected for ‘best of’ anthologies and most recently were shortlisted for a British Fantasy Society award. Spectral Press exclusively deal in ghost stories and have a solid author line-up including the likes of Gary McMahon, Paul Kane and Alison Littlewood. At just £15.50 for a year’s subscription they provide excellent value for money, not least of all because the stories are, thus far, consistently excellent.

Nightjar Press

Established in 2009, editor, publisher, author and much more, Nicholas Royle produces limited, signature edition chapbooks to disquiet and haunt the reader. The stories typically weigh in at twelve to sixteen pages making them about half the length of Spectral’s offerings, but the chapbooks do not skimp on quality. And that is why you should be buying these self-contained stories – for a hard shot of fear-laced enjoyment, which is exactly what Nightjar Press offer. Authors include Tom Fletcher, Michael Marshall Smith and Joel Lane. Single editions can be purchased for £3.50 plus postage and packaging.

Pendragon Press

Christopher Teague’s Pendragon Press are small press veterans, having been in the publishing game for over a decade since their formation in 2000. Pendragon cover stories within horror, fantasy and science fiction, so you can guarantee there’s a story for all tastes. Pendragon Press books have a sturdy finish and are more robust than their glossy Spectral counterparts. Stories are around 40 pages and at just £3 including postage and packaging offer excellent value for money. Amongst Pendragon authors are the likes of Simon Bestwick, David J Thacker and Roy Gray.

TTA Press

TTA Press go way back, 1994 to be precise, when they unleashed genre mag, The Third Alternative on the world. Since then they have released numerous magazines, novellas, novels, anthologies and collections. Whilst there’s an argument that their range of books crosses the line from chapbook to novella – Gary McMahon’s The Harm weighs in at 64 pages – their products remain true to the spirit of the chapbook with high production values, content and affordability. TTA Press are one of the best horror publishers within the UK and should be treated as such. Don’t expect TTA to take their position lightly, however, as they have announced a brand new novella series starting with Eyepennies by Mike O’Driscoll.

For the sake of completeness the This Is Horror Premium Chapbooks are priced at £5 each for a 40-page glossy covered signature edition. Authors include David Moody, Joseph D’Lacey and Conrad Williams.

Why should I buy a chapbook?

And now we get to the real meat of the matter. Why one should invest into the horror chapbook revolution. Fortunately there are many reasons – so many, in fact, that it may not be long until some of the big publishers stand up, take notice and join in.

The best of a novel and short story

The chapbook is portable and quick to read, yet it can offer the richness of a novel. In an age where convenience is everything, the slim-line chapbooks are perfect for taking on commutes or for lunch hour reading without weighing you down. At 20 – 40 pages they can easily be consumed whilst travelling to and from work. And whilst they may be comparatively short in length, the characterisation, exploration and depth can be as rich as any novel.

It’s a collector’s piece

Chapbooks are not printed in vast quantities like the mass market paperbacks that typically adorn the shelves of Waterstones. This means once they are gone, they really are gone – there is no second edition. Yet it’s not just their limited availability that makes them collectable – it’s the care that is taken in their finish. Whether glossy or matte it’s clear that these artefacts are a labour of love. And make no mistake, they are artefacts. Often they are individually numbered and signed by the author.

A great way to discover new authors quickly

There are a lot of brilliant authors within the genre – that is not up for debate. However, to read a vast quantity quickly, takes an awfully long time. One only needs to look at the novels – that double up as doorstops – by modern day greats of the genre like Adam Nevill and Dan Simmons to know that you’re going to need a decent number of nights, weeks, maybe even months, to get through just one novel. Undeniably, Simmons’ The Terror and Nevill’s Last Days are worth that investment but sometimes you want to discover a spectrum of horror – and fast. That’s where the chapbook comes into play, you can comfortably read one in forty-five minutes which virtually guarantees the reader a new author every day.

Chapbooks are part of a rich literary heritage

Not only have the chapbooks as a concept existed since the 16th Century but short stories are part of what it is to be a horror fan. Not convinced? Think back to the creepy stories you would tell one another late at night as a child, trying to come up with the most terrifying tale possible. Think about Poe, Lovecraft, MR James – all of these legends of horror produced masterful short stories.

Support the small presses

Take a chance with a chapbook today, all of you. In donating your £3 – £5 you will be making a genuine difference to keep the small presses alive. These small presses are ran, often by just one person working their arse off for the reward of creating art and enriching lives. So whether it’s TTA, Spectral, Nightjar or Pendragon you’ll not only be keeping the independent scene alive, but you’ll be keeping horror alive.



If you would like to purchase one of the This Is Horror Chapbooks then click here to buy Joe & Me by David Moody or click here to subscribe to the This Is Horror Premium Chapbooks.

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1 comment

  1. I can certainly vouch for the pleasures of chapbooks. I’ve enjoyed all of those I’ve read from Spectral Press (gutted to have missed the first two, but I’ve been reading them ever since) and I recently enjoyed a Tom Fletcher’s ‘The Field’ from Nightjar. I’ve heard Roy Gray read from his Pendragon chapbook, ‘The Joy of Technology’ and thoroughly enjoyable it was too, whilst ‘The Harm’ from TTA was a heavy-hitting dark experience that has me looking forward to the others that are coming. Last night ‘Joe & Me’ replaced the television and was a far more fulfilling experience. Here’s to hoping the chapbook enjoys a long and prosperous revival.

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