Monday, August 28, 2017

That Which Is Not Dead... Part 2

Deathrealm #5, Spring 1988


Deathrealm might have originated as a showcase for H. P. Lovecraft-inspired fiction by a small stable of writers, but that changed the moment the call for submissions went out via Janet Fox's Scavenger's Newsletter. A few days after the first Deathrealm market listing appeared in its pages, my (now ex-) wife called me at the office to tell me our mail carrier had to come upstairs to our apartment door to drop off the mail because it wouldn't fit in our mailbox. Sure enough, when I got home, the sheer number of manila envelopes just about floored me.

And that's how it was for the next decade, except during those occasions when reading periods were limited, mostly in the last three or four years of the magazine's run. Early on, regardless of the number of submissions, I made a point to read each one to the end and offer some constructive comments on those I didn't accept. Out of necessity, that practice didn't last long. Anyone who's ever read slush for a publication with more than one reader will certainly understand the situation.

The upside of this was that, off the bat, Deathrealm attracted scads of established and/or highly accomplished writers. Many of the authors whose names now regularly appear on bona fide best-seller lists, prestigious awards, and in the mass media cut their teeth with Deathrealm. Before long, I started going to conventions, such as World Fantasy Con, World Horror Con, Necon, and any number of local and regional conventions, where I got to know many of the most prominent writers, artists, editors, and publishers in the field. Perhaps the most valuable fact I discovered from putting so many faces to the familiar names was that these creative folks belonged to a fairly close-knit community, built not only on shared interests but on mutual respect and personal integrity. I still consider a great number of the friends I made my best friends—even if I don't see them as often as I used to, as traveling to conventions these days rarely fits into my personal budget.

November, 1987
By this time, the advertising typography business, at least as it existed in those days of yore, was convulsing in its final death throes, and so, after having worked at Alphatype Corporation in Chicago for nearly five years, I jumped ship and went south with Mrs. Deathrealm and the young'un—to Greensboro, NC, where I still live. Thankfully, the small company where I went to work willingly offered the perfect facilities to continue producing the magazine. Because I've always been a proponent of "buying local," I decided to check out the printing facilities in Greensboro to see if they could match the deal I was getting from my original printer (K. K. Stevens Printing in Astoria, IL), and after much searching, I found one that offered a near-comparable rate, so I opted to give it a try with issue #5 (Spring 1988). Unfortunately, the print quality was noticeably inferior to Stevens', and the local printer would not drop-ship copies to Deathrealm's various distributors, so after this ill-fated experiment, Deathrealm returned to K. K. Stevens, and that is where it was printed for the rest of its ten-year run.

Deathrealm #15, Fall/Winter 1991
Super-size Me and the Big Bust
Up through issue #14 (Spring 1991), Deathrealm remained digest-sized, which I personally—as did many readers—always preferred, as it made for clean, comfortable, convenient reading. However, comic and specialty shops were dropping black & white comics and fantasy digests by the score, and newsstands wouldn't touch anything other than a standard-sized magazine. So, with issue #15, Deathrealm made the change to full-size, which gave its circulation a considerable boost, enough to insure its continued existence for the foreseeable future.

For my employer, however, whose business was still tied to the now all-but-extinct high-end typography industry, the writing was on the wall. In March 1992, the business shut down, leaving me without employment and the means/finances to continue producing the magazine. Issue #17 (Fall/Winter 1992), was the last issue I produced independently. It was a sad time, as Deathrealm had begun to fare better than it ever had in the commercial market, reviews were consistently good, and more and more writers and artists of exceptional caliber had come on board. Names such as Gary Braunbeck, Fred Chappell, Charlee Jacob, Joe R. Lansdale, Elizabeth Massie, Jeffrey Thomas, and countless others that insured a solid readership regularly adorned the magazine's contents pages. For the next year, Deathrealm languished in limbo, and as time went on, the possibility of a resurgence seemed less and less likely.
Deathrealm #18, Summer 1993

The Tal Years
In early 1993, a gentleman named Stan Tal, who had edited and published a monster of a magazine called Bizarre Bazaar (which featured some of my own fiction), contacted me and indicated he was looking to start up a new horror magazine, but he had the idea that resurrecting one of such solid standing as Deathrealm would make good business sense. Over several months, we hashed out a plan that would put him in charge of publishing, financing, and marketing—in other words, most of the grunt work that had always made actually editing and creating individual issues in timely fashion more than a little problematic. Tal decided that adding a few pages to the overall page count, upping the pay scale, and adding color to the covers would make the magazine all the more attractive to both readers and contributors. I would remain as managing editor and in charge of the physical production of the magazine. We approached noted author and Year's Best Horror editor Karl Edward Wagner to see if he'd be interested in contributing a regular editorial column, which he eagerly agreed to. With these terms firmed up, we set to work on the next issue—#18—which came out under the Tal branding, in summer 1993.

Tal went to town getting newsstand distributors on board and increasing subscription orders. I had my hands full hacking through slush piles of mammoth proportions and tackling the production of the magazine on a home PC for the first time. It was around the end of 1993 that I made the acquaintance of Danielle d'Attilio, a local aspiring writer and aficionado of all things horrific. While she had never had anything published, she showed a sharper eye for prose that fit the Deathrealm "mode" than I sometimes had myself. She offered her services as a slush reader, and I happily took her up on the deal. About the same time, writer James Robert Smith, whose work was appearing regularly in both small and big presses, and who was one of Deathrealm's regular reviewers, also volunteered as a reader. Between the three of us, we began cranking out rejection slips—and the occasional acceptance letter—at a record pace. Our little well-oiled machine functioned most efficiently, and the next several issues came out right on schedule. Subscriptions and distributor orders remained consistently healthy.
Deathrealm #21, Spring 1994

However, not everything was peachy and rosy behind the scenes. While Tal's editorial input was minimal, from time to time, his decisions regarding the magazine's features and mine conflicted, and since he was financing the project, he rightfully had the final word. Any number of writers and artists who had contributed to Tal's earlier publications began submitting to Deathrealm, and as a whole, their styles tended to be more extreme—louder—than the more subtle, thoughtful horror that had traditionally appeared in Deathrealm's pages. Make no mistake, I was quite taken with much of it, and without any direct input from Tal, I began including some of these authors in the magazine.

Despite the broader circulation the magazine enjoyed, over the years Deathrealm had developed a distinct style, a character, that began to shift and evolve during Tal's tenure as publisher, and readers were beginning to take notice—sometimes quite vocally and oftentimes disapprovingly. Overall, reviews remained positive, but there was a general consensus in the field that Deathrealm had become a rather different animal under its new publisher, and for some, that fact never set well.
Deathrealm #22, Summer 1994

After just over a year of our Deathrealm partnership, Stan Tal and I came to realization that our respective visions for the magazine were too divergent to continue comfortably, and we agreed that it would be in everyone's best interest to close to submissions, publish all the material we had already purchased, and phase out the magazine on a high note. Issue #22 (Summer 1994) was the last issue produced under the Tal brand, featuring some superb fiction by Don Webb, Rick Hautala, Christopher Golden, and Brian McNaughton, with editorial columns by Karl Edward Wagner and Wayne Allen Sallee. At this point, once again, the magazine tumbled into limbo, its future uncertain, but its reputation still strong, its name remaining respected in the horror/dark fantasy field. The first time around this block, I'd had no expectation of an interested party stepping in to take over as publisher, and frankly, I was surprised—and grateful—that Tal had given the magazine another good year. I certainly didn't think it might happen again, especially since I had little interest in actively shopping the property around.

It happened again.


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