The Shirley Jackson Award is one of the most prestigious prizes in horror, with recipients ranging from genre legends Stephen King and Neil Gaiman to literary crossover writers such as Emma Cline. In 2018, a Canadian publisher of horror fiction claimed their second Jackson. But you may never have heard of Undertow Publications, which is based in the small Ontario city of Pickering.
There are as many types of horror fiction as there are ways to be scared. The particular subgenre of horror that Undertow specializes in is “weird fiction”: a style that tends toward the high literary, enfolding the supernatural, tales of malaise in urban, rural and wild settings, and a sense of discomfort and eeriness that has more to do with atmosphere than reddened fangs.
While Undertow isn’t purely a one-man show, publisher Michael Kelly is the guiding acquiring and editorial eye on all books. “I always liked the literary sort of horror, weird fiction, and I wasn’t seeing it published.” As his inspirations, he cites the writers he was reading in 2009, around the time he started the press, "things like Arthur Machen, Oliver Onions, Walter De la Mare, Violet Paget.” Kelly was also reading Britain-based magazines such as Black Static and Supernatural Tales, pages that would introduce him to the authors he would eventually publish.
The press’s business operations began in his basement, and remain there, although the initial one-book-a-year output has grown to seven scheduled for 2020 and six planned for 2021. The prestigious small publishers of supernatural fiction that dot Britain and Ireland quickly recognized a peer in Kelly. Brian J. Showers, who runs Dublin’s Swan River Press, points to Kelly’s specific vision as a defining strength: “Michael Kelly guides Undertow with both taste and style, and with a dedication characteristic of only the very best small presses.”
Kelly, who is now focusing on Undertow full-time after his recent retirement from a 30-year career at the Toronto Star that ranged from the darkroom to syndicated sales, knew that keeping an eye on scale would be a crucial part of Undertow’s continued existence.
“I was reading stuff that really intrigued me in the small press, niche stuff, but there were only a couple of venues. I did my first anthology in 2009, and it was called Apparitions. Really – copies of the book were terrible. It was on very white, photocopy paper, done at one of those Espresso Book Machines – I knew a guy at McMaster who ran one. It was a bound book, but poorly bound.”
Despite the humble appearance of this first offering from a press that would soon be known for their beautifully designed and printed trade paperbacks, overseen by art director Vince Haig, Apparitions was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. The prestigious American award is well known to genre fans, and Undertow was quickly noticed by both readers and writers eager for a new venue for their weird fiction interests. But Kelly continued to grow the press slowly, guided by his own tastes and reading. Short-story collections – anthologies or single-author collections – form almost the entirety of Undertow’s output. One anthology series, Shadows and Tall Trees, has been going since the second year of the press’s existence, with the latest edition garnering awards recognition and the eighth volume appearing as Undertow’s first 2020 publication.
For years, Kelly has been finding authors in small magazines, online and in print – and while Undertow is a Canadian small-press success story, Kelly isn’t willing to let borders dictate what he’s going to publish. “I have published Canadian authors – Simon Strantzas, and Helen Marshall, and this year I’m publishing Richard Gavin. But I don’t do enough to get grant money, and I sort of want to publish what I want to publish.” Strantzas is a Canadian weird-fiction fixture, and his contribution to Shadows and Tall Trees 8 is definitively weird: “The Somnambulists” is the story of a hotel constructed from collaborative dreams. It’s a fantastical concept anchored by banality – a Ministry hotel inspector is being taken on a tour of the hotel – but even the dullness of the inspector’s official function doesn’t protect him from the creeping atmosphere of the place, and the possibility that his own family may be deeply involved in the dream that he is touring.
In selecting individual stories and collections, Kelly lets excitement guide him, as it did in the case of Kay Chronister, a young American writer whose first collection emerges from Undertow in March.
“Kay published a story I read online in a magazine called Shimmer that’s not around anymore. It was called ‘The Fifth Gable,’ and it knocked me flat. Last year, she had a story appear in Black Static, called ‘Roiling and Without Form.’ So I reached out to her, and asked her if she had any others, and she did.” Chronister’s stories, wide-ranging as they are, often seat horror in patriarchal traps of marriage and domestic expectations, while other elements in the same stories draw on horror mainstays such as witchcraft and or hereditary curses. As with other Undertow books, it’s the prose – in Chronister’s case, rich, descriptive, clean and never-purple prose – that melds horror elements that could work in a Hammer film with thematic content that would be at home in a New Yorker short story.
Kelly’s patience in growing his publishing list from year to year has also helped him wait on authors he particularly wanted. Priya Sharma, a UK-based writer who also works as a doctor, had been publishing stories for almost a decade before Undertow Press put out her first collection, All the Fabulous Beasts. “I was bugging her for years, then I gave up,” Kelly says. “Then, eventually, she emailed me. That book did very well.” Sharma’s collection won both the British Fantasy Award and Shirley Jackson Award, and the book is Undertow’s best-selling single-author collection.
Unable to offer the large advances of a trade publisher, Kelly is also emphatic about leaving all ancillary rights with his authors. “We don’t take any audio rights, film rights – some of these presses grab everything they can.” In an era where industries from podcasts to film are hungry for intellectual property, keeping these rights author-exclusive matters, and Undertow’s books have attracted the interest of scouts from Netflix, among other companies.
“I’ve never put any commercial thinking into the press. I don’t look at a writer and think I want to publish them because they’ll sell a lot of books. I publish books that I want to read.” In addition to Haig, the Undertow team is rounded out by two family members – Courtney Kelly, Michael’s publishing-program graduate daughter, who works on typesetting, interior layout and design, and Carolyn Macdonell-Kelly, Michael’s wife, who takes on proofreading and bookkeeping duties, in addition to joining him in the ever-important sales efforts of the press. Kelly is currently trying to buck the enforced reliance that many small presses have on a particular online behemoth.
“I have to sort of play ball with Amazon, which drives me crazy, but otherwise the books don’t get any distribution. As a small press, I’m sending out stuff to independent bookstores all the time, trying to get them to stock the books … percentage-wise, probably about 70 per cent of my sales are Amazon. I do have quite a few loyal customers – my e-mail list is close to 1,000 – and I have loyal readers who will buy all of my stuff directly.”
Kelly is excited to expand the range of horror subgenres Undertow publishes, moving beyond the subtle, literary weird that they are known for. Kelly describes a forthcoming collection by Steve Toase as “visceral, straight-out horror. Not really what I usually publish, but he does it so well. The writing is so descriptive, I liked it.” And Undertow is contributing to a longstanding horror subgenre with a coming collection of ghost stories from A.C. Wise, a Canadian who lives in the United States. Wise was excited at the chance to have a book with a press she’d long admired. “Simply put, Undertow publishes gorgeous books. When Michael approached me about doing a collection, I jumped at the chance, knowing the care that goes into everything he produces.”
Coinciding with Kelly’s full-time commitment to Undertow is a change in how the press sources its publications: They recently opened to submissions for the first time, and received hundreds of manuscripts. But Kelly’s efforts to move toward publishing novels instead of the short fiction that the press established itself with have not been altogether successful, yet. “We got hundreds of submissions, and only three of them were novels. We’re known for our short-story collections [and our anthologies], so that’s what we got. We were surprised, because we specifically asked for novels and novellas. Three novels, two novellas … and the rest were short-story collections.”
What hasn’t changed is Undertow’s selection process, as Kelly admits. “We ended up taking one novella and three short-story collections. We didn’t like any of the novels … and by ‘we,’ I mean me.”
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