Interview with Matt Blairstone, Founder of Tenebrous Press

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Matt Blairstone, founder of new independent horror publisher Tenebrous Press. Matt and I chat about horror films, his journey into making comics, publishing ethics, Tenebrous’ new gothic horror collection, novella submissions and more! This was a genuinely amazing interview. Matt is a gem and Tenebrous is one of the most exciting small horror presses out there right now. Hope you enjoy.

Hi Matt, it’s great to have you here! Before we dive into the book stuff, we’re in the middle of Spooky Season right now and I’ve watched a couple of great horror films recently on the back of recommendations from the Tenebrous crew. As a devotee of the grim and macabre, are you a big horror film watcher and do you have any other recs for those of us looking for a good Halloween scare?

In the COVID era, my Horror viewing has become filtered almost exclusively through Shudder and streaming the Portland Horror Film Festival and the Lovecraft Film Festival. I’m not great at keeping up on new releases; I finally watched the 2018 Halloween last week. 70s giallo and Hammer Horror films have been my COVID comfort food, though I have seen some more recent gems:

If you’ve never ventured down the whacked-out pipe of Indonesian Horror, I suggest a triple feature of Queen of Black Magic, Impetigore, and Satan’s Slaves. My grasp of the intricacies of Indonesian culture and history are lacking, but each of these films has a madcap individualism that eddies within a stew of folk horror, cultist lunacy and ghosts. Bonkers in the best way.

And against all odds, I saw a handful of new-ish vampire films this year that managed to interest me in a way the genre hasn’t in years:

I won’t do a Midnight Mass spieleveryone’s already said their piece—other than to say that I loved it early on and less as it progressed, but overall I thought it was a great story with something to say.

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive does Vampires-as-Jarmusch-types which, I mean, I can’t believe it took him this long to go this route. The sound design and score are amazing, too. This came out eight years ago, which for me counts as a new release.

Finally and best of them all, Jakob’s Wife puts stellar acting front-and-center with Larry Fessenden and (especially) Barbara Crampton as sixty-something religious types confronting a plague of Vampirism in their community. It’s far more than the sum of its parts: some truly funny bits, genuine scares, a plot that swerves but doesn’t strain to be over-clever, and an ending that’s just the right amount of sweet and ambiguous. I loved it.

Oh wow, that’s a lot more stuff that’s just jumped onto my Halloween film list! Before Tenebrous Press got going you were also making comics right? How did you get into that and what were some of the things you were creating?

This is a super long and windy answer, so I apologize beforehand.  

 “Comics saved my life” sounds melodramatic, but it’s accurate; at the very least, comics dramatically shifted the trajectory of my life. I have a problem with addiction. For most of my adult life, that addiction was alcohol and general self-destructive behavior. I let some bad breaks that were out of my hands become the excuse for my artistic failures—as a musician, as a writer. Drinking was way easier; I could live the whole “tortured artist” life without the hassle of actually, y’know, producing the art. 

Just over seven years ago, my now-wife Kate and I were on the eve of our wedding; she basically threw down the gauntlet that we both needed to get our shit together. Her gauntlet came in the form of a gift to me: a set of sketching pencils and grayscale markers. Now, Kate already had legit artistic bona fides; her talent is off the charts, but she lacked motivation and focus. So I quit drinking and we became each other’s biggest cheerleaders. The path she forged is pretty epic. Mine has been a bit more erratic, but a helluva lot more rewarding than being drunk every day.

The “Why comics?” part of it is simple: comics were my first great love. I don’t give Bloomington IL, where I was born and raised, enough credit, but they have a pretty decent library system. The  bookmobile and the comics spinner rack at Kroger were my altars. My parents were big on encouraging me to read whatever kept me reading. 70s and 80s Marvel comics were my lifesblood. The bookmobile also had a stack of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing that I was too young to glean the subtext of, but they sure planted deep seeds. 

As I grew older, my comics tastes broadened. Marshal Law and 2000AD and the DC/Vertigo revolution blew my mind open to the lunatic world of Brit and Euro comics creators; I also started obsessing over Pre-Code Horror comics from the 40s and 50s. My parents’ basement is still filled with my longboxes; and my own garage is catching up. 

Anyway, as I struggled to get back onto some kind of artistic path—something to occupy the hours that whiskey had owned for so long—I decided to just dive into comics whole hog. Not just writing, but pencilling, inking, coloring, lettering, self-publishing. I wanted to inject my entire brain into a completely new avenue of exploration. 

I couldn’t draw—hadn’t drawn since high school—but why let something silly like that stop me? I had a practical education in comics reading to guide me. I wasn’t worried about my technical talent, just the mantra to produce the pages, do the work, keep the story moving forward

Mad Doctors started as a storytelling, world-building experiment for myself, just to see if I could do it. It was a bit of a surprise when a tiny—but devoted!—audience began to actually turn up at comic conventions and pester me for the next issue. It’s the distillation of every comic I’ve ever read, in a way. A psychedelic mash-up of every Pulp genre—Sci-Fi, fantasy, slapstick, Horror, romance…with a legitimate narrative throughline where, thanks to the utterly absurd world it takes place in, just about anything can happen in-story. It’s just a goddamn disaster, really, but it makes me cackle and there are many days where I wish I could do nothing but work on pages of Mad Doctors. It’s me just learning as I go, and oh boy can you see it happening on the pages. There are just…some…ghastly creative decisions in the first issue. The whole series—four-plus issues at this point—is really raw and clunky in places and stuffed with in-jokes to myself that no one will ever get, and the art is serviceable at best in spots, but I occasionally go back and reread it and…I mean, I dig it, but I would. It’s a comics series written primarily for myself…and I think I have pretty damn good taste. I also have better comic timing than younger me would ever have thought.

Mad Doctors has collage pages and style changes and weird psychedelic spreads and different inking styles and techniques popping up…because every excursion is a first for me. That world is my playpen for whatever I feel like trying. Keeping it attached to a narrative framework is the real trick. I don’t consider myself a legitimate illustrator by any stretch, but I worship comics artists like Jack Kirby and Gene Day and Jim Steranko and I tried to do right by their lessons.

Calling Mad Doctors autobiographical would be a stretch, but if anyone ever pieced together my genetic makeup from the pop culture I’ve obsessed over throughout my life, this is what it would look like. Punk rock, Moorcock’s multiverse, Hammer Horror, Frazetta black light posters, Harryhausen stop-motion monsters, any sci-fi story about landing on the moon before we had actually landed on the moon…all tossed into a blender. That’s Mad Doctors.

Anyway—you can tell I don’t do a lot of Q&A’s, can’t you? I’m all over the damn road—along the way I also befriended some other great indie creators who are doing their own thing, people like Alex Delaney and Clayton Hollifield and Kristofor Harris, and I learned a lot from those guys. 

As my storytelling chops grew, I felt confident in pursuing other comics opportunities with creators who actually know what they’re doing in their respective duties! I’ve got a few collaborations underway in various stages of development. 

Mad Doctors and comics in general will always be a part of my creative process, even now that operating and evolving Tenebrous Press has become the priority.

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Man, that is quite the journey you’ve been on. So Tenebrous is a fairly new venture for you. What made you want to set up your own press and why a horror press specifically?

It’s more nuanced than this, but: COVID = unemployment = stimulus check = Tenebrous Press. My day job and my son’s preschool both shut down at the same time. My new gig became Home Dad-in-Chief. Kate already works from home, so some aspects of our life were easier to adapt to; we’re pretty much homebodies. In my free time I was working on Mad Doctors, pitching a comics series, looking over the contract on another with an indie publisher, and at various stages in other writing projects. Y’know, as one does when they’re not actually getting paid for any of them!

But as I watched my artist and writer friends losing work as quarantine settled in, my instinct was to start building the tent, y’know? Let’s all band together and…make an anthology! Build a shared universe! Do something ridiculous and incoherent that will fly off the rails in seconds flat and explode in mighty flames because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing but I’ll rant without thinking about it all day long! And of course, it wasn’t a unique idea, and lots of people with lots more clout than me had ideas like this too and a lot of awesome collaborative art and stories came out of COVID because artists fucking rule so…hooray storytellers!

But the idea of the community lingered. I wanted to find more like-minded people, all the badass creators who are trudging away on the sidelines, who do the work; folks with something to say but no megaphone to say it into. And honestly, playing the submissions game is wearying. I’m guessing well over half of the people reading this are writers themselves. You get it. I was feeling frisky; I figured, why can’t I use my old trusty stick all my fingers in all the sockets at the same time and see what happens-ed-ness? So I just…did, I guess. And Green Inferno and Tenebrous Press came out of it.

As to why Horror: I love fantasy and sci-fi and Pulp crime. But I’m a Monster Kid at heart. My childhood heroes were the Universal Horror ghouls. The first music that truly spoke to me was the Misfits and Ramones. I saw Nightmare on Elm Street and Psycho 2 at way too young of an age and read Firestarter in the fourth grade when I lifted the paperback off my dad’s desk; I never went back to age-appropriate fare after that. Truthfully, it never could have been anything but Horror.

You’ve got one eco-horror anthology out already, called Green Inferno and a second, modern gothic horror collection called In Somnio, coming out very soon. What’s the premise of Green Inferno first of all, and do you see eco-horror becoming more prevalent in the near future, given the crisis humanity is facing right now?

Practically speaking, Green Inferno serves as a buffet of what I hope to do with Tenebrous Press over the years. A mix of sleek pop thrills and greasier indie Horror, fiction and comics, traditional and experimental. As a singular volume of Eco-Horror, I’m really proud of the flow of it.

Green Inferno was born of the events of 2020, both on the COVID macro level as well as the record forest fires that smothered the Pacific Northwest last year, which we had mezzanine seats for. The World Celebrates Your Demise is the sub-title of the book, and that works as its mission statement as well. I can’t wrap my mind around the severity of the existential crisis our planet is facing. The government bickers about, or flat-out refuses to acknowledge, threats to our environment that are already twenty years past their due date, and the evidence keeps burning, freezing and flooding right in front of us. No corner of the planet is being spared; this isn’t a political issue, it is the textbook definition of an existential crisis, and we can’t even be bothered to put a band-aid over a limb that’s already showing gangrene. All of my anxieties in life really boil down to one central fear: I don’t know what kind of world my kid is going to have to deal with when he’s my age. 

So the answer is yes. I think Cli-Fi Horror is here to stay and growing more relevant every day, and we’re gonna have richer material to mine in the years to come, and that’s not a good thing.

That’s a very sobering thought. Regular P&P readers will have seen me banging the drum for In Somnio since the Kickstarter, and I was lucky enough to nab an advance copy (which I adored by the way). I’m champing at the bit to ask about some specifics, but first can you tell us a bit about what In Somnio is and why you wanted to publish it?

I don’t make a lot of deep friends; not that I’m not friendly, I’m just pretty soft-spoken in person and tend to keep a small circle. It’s rare that someone becomes “ride or die” with me, especially quickly, but that’s what Alex Woodroe and I have become. We met through Green Inferno and bonded hard. We have a similar enthusiasm, work ethic and reckless insanity, and I knew I wanted to work with her on a more committed level. 

Look, I do have a pretty precise vision for what Tenebrous is; it’s my baby. But Alex is a superior editor, prose writer and “people person”, and she also thinks of angles to this whole publishing entity that never cross my mind. She brings an entirely different set of life and work experience to the table. And she gets where I’m coming from. I was still editing Green Inferno when I asked her if she wanted to get more involved with the next project. Ridiculously she said yes, and we bandied some broad ideas about before landing on an anthology of Modern Gothic Horror

I trust Alex’s judgment implicitly, so she dealt with the submissions call and sculpting In Somnio’s Table of Contents to fit her vision. I got to faux-flex my publisher muscle on a few “this or that” decisions to winnow down the list, but I think at least 80% of the final stories were her gut calls. I don’t know why the wider world hasn’t swooped her up into some better publishing deal by now, but that’s their problem and my gain. She’s officially Tenebrous Cult family for as long as she wants to be.

I second that opinion of Alex, she’s a treasure. Just to stick on In Somnio for a sec, I loved the collection as a whole, but my stand out favourite was The Blight of Black Creek by Mary Rajotte. That story made we weep. What were your thoughts and feelings when you read that story for the first time in the slush?

…Black Creek was a no-brainer, and definitely stands out as one of the more tentpole Gothic stories in the collection. It oozes with atmosphere. Black Creek was already a YES in Alex’s opinion before I ever saw it and it didn’t need any greasing from me. 

That story also arrived in close-to-final form, if I remember correctly. Mary is a badass; I can’t wait to work with her again down the road. She’s a pro’s pro; she’s helped me navigate a bunch of promotional flimflam as we attempt to shill for attention with awards season underway.

Tenebrous recently put out a call for novella submissions too! I’m so excited about this. How’s the experience been so far and what kind of stories are you on the lookout for to publish as your first novellas?

We’ve got a summary of what we’re looking for here, but our aim is to stake Tenebrous’ identity to the broad notion of New Weird Horror. We’re influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard and that old white man’s club…minus the shitbaggery that comes with them. Lovecraft’s influence is hard-wired into Horror at large. But Alex and I have discussed at length how our love of the Weird was rejuvenated by China Mieville, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Jeff VanderMeer and others in the 90s and 00s. We’re quite keen to exhume that genre-bent niche and find newer unsung voices to preach it…with an emphasis on capital-H Horror. 

And obviously, New Weird Horror can hold a lot of sub-genres within its leathery wings; we’re suckers for Folk horror, cults, Sci-Fi angles (not Hard Sci-Fi though; you’ll glaze me over in 10 seconds flat) and any kind of Horror that dives into Big Philosophical Questions. Morality. Theology. And, maybe perversely for Horror: possibility. Alex has coined it as “optimistic nihilism”, and I can get behind that.

At the same time, we want shit that hits hard out of the gate and holds our attention. It’s not too big an ask to combine the immediacy of classic Pulp Horror adventure with a deeper dive into the human condition and a dose of surrealism to boot. There’s an insatiable audience for it, myself included.

Our submissions window is open this time until November 30th, and we’ve already read some great stuff! If your readership has something that fits with the vibe of New Weird Horror—whatever that means to them—we hope they’ll put it in front of our eyeballs.

For sure and I’d encourage everyone to do so. I’ve actually got some tentative long term plans to set up a small press of my own at some point in the future; what advice would you give to someone interested in starting a new press? Do you have any personal high points and challenges that stand out?

Setting up a press is a fucking breeze; if you don’t believe me, just look at the approximately six million micro-Horror presses on Twitter alone. Very few of us are PhD candidates, so it can’t be that hard. 

Establishing a press that doesn’t screw over or take advantage of creators, however, is a dicier proposition. I have to be really careful not to get on some self-righteous pedestal here, because it’s not like Tenebrous is gonna make anybody rich, but we are intentional in our goals of compensating creators on a pro level. Writers—all creatives, really—want their work seen, and far too many of them will give away months’ or years’ worth of labor for a song, just for the chance to find an audience. 

I want every book we release to be on par or superior to what the top publishers do in quality and look, with interior illustrations, gorgeous cover art, meticulous design. And every creator needs to get paid fairly—as fairly as we can within our means—for their labors. Seems simple, right? 

But high production values and paying creators also slows our roll waaay down. Our approach has to be deliberate, pragmatic…and frustrating sometimes, because Alex and I dream big too, y’know? We see other presses dropping releases left and right, garnering heat and acclaim, and we want to draw that kind of attention too! We’re human, we’re petty and envious like everyone else. But the only aspect of the business we can control is how we choose to do business with others, and how we would want to be treated ourselves. I am confident that being ethical will pay off for Tenebrous in the long run.

I don’t mean this as a knock on other indie presses either; aside from a handful of comics publishers with some sketchy-ass business practices, Horror publishing is by and large a labor of love, on all levels. You tend to find like-minded allies pretty quickly, and there are at least half a dozen other publishers that I feel a strong kinship with. It’s that community thing I harp on all over again. Horror ain’t a zero sum game; there’s room for all of us. 

To writers and artists at large: I would just ask you to hold your own artistic work to the standard it deserves to be held. Know your worth. Only creators can change a legacy of artistic exploitation. Don’t just settle for a shitty contract. “Settling” is how we wind up in a world as fucked up as it already is. Hell, just self-publish rather than give your work away for “exposure”! Exposure is bullshit. I want to build Tenebrous bigger and put other folks’ work out into the world under our banner, but I am first and foremost a proponent for just doing it your own damn self. 

But you asked for specific advice: well, I can tell you my learning curve has jumped exponentially between Green Inferno and In Somnio six months later. I wish I’d spent a lot more time promoting GI upon completion; once the shiny new thing is no longer shiny and new, the world at large moves on, and it’s really hard to play catch up and grab people’s collective attention a second time. Such is the nature of a world with countless entertainment options. 

On the flip side of the coin: each individual creator is their own best salesperson. A press like Tenebrous has a big fat goose egg for a marketing budget, so rallying the individual creators to champion the anthology is essential; Alex crafted a fucking army out of the In Somnio team and it paid off. Every writer and illustrator was on social media with a bullhorn annoying the piss out of the general public about this “collection of Modern Gothic Horror” and I loved it. I was less successful in rallying the troops for Green Inferno; I wasn’t sweating how necessary that angle is. Now I’m trying to make up for lost time with that book. No one is going to champion a thing they haven’t heard of.

Alex and I are still new at this, too; we’re trying to ramp up to the point where we’re scheduling things out a year from now, two years, but right now I’m still cracking the whip to get these novellas into production by early 2022. That’s no way to survive long term; I’m gonna burn us both the fuck out if I’m not careful. So it’s a constant learning and refining process.

Obviously I always love to get some reading recommendations when I sit down with other book nerds, so what books have you been reading recently and would you recommend any of them?

My favorite thing I’ve read this year is The Wingspan of Severed Hands by Joanna Koch. I stan Joe so damn hard, I hope we get to publish some of their work in the future.

I also really dug Helena by Claire L. Smith, if you’re into traditional supernatural Gothic. Claire is another multi-faceted wonder—she did some of the illustrations for In Somnio—and her prose is really lush and vibrant and readable. And Death’s Head Press is killing it with their Splatter Western line; Shadow of the Vulture is probably my favorite of those.

As for mainstream fiction, I don’t know that I’ve read much that came out this year. I can’t wait to dive into Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, though; the first one was a left-field joy for me. Gideon the Ninth and A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs were probably my top reads from the big presses this year.

Thanks so much Matt, this has been a pleasure and I’m so excited to see where Tenebrous Press goes in the future.

Thank you for letting me take entirely too much of your time. You can stay abreast of our comings and goings @TenebrousPress on Twitter and I don’t blather this much at either one of those.

Green Inferno is out now and In Somnio releases on November 1st 2021, so do make sure you follow Tenebrous on Twitter and put your orders in on the website. I’ve read an advance copy and it was just a creepy, atmospheric and at times a goddam emotional read. I highly recommend it.

Matt TOMBstone is Tenebrous Press (@MattBlairstone) | Twitter

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