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Petaluma publisher discusses the fine ‘art’ of selling horror fiction


If writer-publisher Ross Lockhart knows anything, it’s how to get people’s attention.

Scaring people, at least a little, often helps.

“I’ve been doing these little Facebook Live videos — which I sometimes upload to YouTube — with me reading short stories from different authors I like,” says Lockhart, founder of Word Horde Books, a Petaluma-based “boutique” publishing company specializing in books of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Through the Word Horde Facebook page, which currently boasts over 1500 “likes,” Lockhart does routinely keep his fans engaged by posting video of himself reading aloud from scary stories — or any other written works that catch his fancy.

Recently, he treated watchers to a performance of “Against Granting the King a Trial,” a political speech given in 1792 by the French politician and orator Maximilien Francois Marie Isadore de Robespierre.

“Sometimes I get a little extra-enthusiastic about something I’m reading,” he admits, recalling the Robespierre performance in particular, “and I’ll hear myself saying, ‘This is fun! This is exciting! This is neat!’ Later, when I look back on it, I sometimes think, ‘Wow! I’ve been reading this bitter, messed-up, French decadence as ‘Fun,’ but it’s actually a pretty grotesque piece of work. Yes, I had fun reading it, but …”

Lockhart began his publishing career as a writer, though as the owner of his own book publishing label, he’s yet to publish any of his own horror fiction through Word Horde.

“Yeah, that would be cheesy,” he says.

Lockhart’s knowledge of publishing became heightened during his tenure as editor with an East Bay publishing house which also specialized in scary fiction. There, he edited two best-selling collections of stories inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft: “The Book of Cthulhu” and “The Book of Cthulhu 2.” Eventually, he struck off on his own, and soon afterwards founded Word Horde, the company’s name taken from the epic Norse poem “Beowulf.” His first release was “Tales of Jack the Ripper,” and anthology of eerie, unsettling, sometimes funny tales about history’s most famous and mysterious serial killer.

Fueled by the whole Jack/Ripper notoriety, the book caught the attention of reviewers, and garnered a surprising amount of attention for an inaugural release by a brand new company. Instantly, Word Horde was on the map, having earned a still-expanding reputation as a publisher with a strong knack for identifying up-and-coming horror and science fiction writers.

Lockhart works hard to balance his releases between work by male and female writers.

“Some of the best writing in this genre is being done by women,” Lockhart says. “It would be stupid to ignore that.”

Last year, the Word Horde release “The Fisherman,” by John Langan, received stellar reviews, and ultimately won the Bram Stoker prize, among the most esteemed awards going for horror fiction. Clearly, Lockhart is doing something right.

Asked what the appeal is in reading, writing and publishing scary stories, Lockhart can’t avoid using the metaphor of a theme park ride. Taking a spin on a rollercoaster is obviously fun, but technically, it really shouldn’t be. You are subjected to forces out bodies were not designed for, spun through the air in ways we spend the rest of our lives trying to avoid. If someone used a time machine to snatch a Puritan out of the 1600s, and strapped them into a ride at the Sonoma County fair, the poor person would probably be driven insane by the time ride was over.

“But as modern humans, we’ll line up for a rollercoaster anyway,” Lockhart says. “We face the fear, and we enjoy the experience. I like that about us. We’re drawn to darkness. We’re drawn to weirdness. We’re drawn to ‘over-the-topness,’ excitement, thrills, chills and adventure. We are drawn to it to the point where we actually recreate those feelings in little fun house experiences, in movies, and in books.”

Currently, Worde Horde is releasing five new books a year.

“Generally, I do two novels, two collections, and an anthology,” Lockhart says. “Right at this moment, I’m three books into a five-book year. I just put out Tony McMillen’s “An Augmented Fourth,” which is basically Black Sabbath meets “The Thing.’ Talk about rollercoasters. It’s a ton of fun. A wild ride, and I’m really happy to be putting this out into the world.”

Prior to that, Lockhart released Kristi DeMeester’s mystery-horror novel “Beneath,” about an Appalachian snake-handling cult. He started out the year with Kristine Morgan’s “The Raven’s Table,” a collection of stories about Vikings.

“All sorts of wildness and blood there,” laughs Lockhart. “Coming up I’ve got Nadia Bulkin’s “She Said Destroy,” which is an amazing collection of stories. She’s a fast-rising author in the weird fiction community, but I want people to read her from the science fiction and fantasy community too.”

In addition to the striking beauty of Bulkin’s writing, a strong part of the books’ appeal is the artwork on the cover, a striking illustration by renowned illustrator Kathrin Longhurst, an East German painter who escaped from behind the Berlin Wall, and now lives in Australia. The picture on the cover is one half of a woman’s face, a pair of aviator goggles immediately signaling that this is a book of stories about strong, self-determined women.

“It’s not the usual tropes of weird fiction that I’m putting on the cover there,” Lockhart says. “This is to get the attention of a wider audience. You see those eyes, and it’s us, the writer, the publisher, the artist, saying, ‘We see you. We’re looking into your soul and we really want you to pick up this book.’ ”

Lockhart puts as much attention into the design of his books, pairing them with the right cover-art illustrators, as he does in selecting the authors and stories he publishes. Over the years, he developed relations with some truly stellar artists, excited to work on projects that are often just a little bit different from the norm.

For example, this October, Word Horde will be releasing “Tales from a Talking Board,” an anthology of original short stories about the Ouija Board, the Tarot, the I Ching, and other forms of divination. The cover, by artist and game designer Yves Tourigny, will be striking — a detailed recreation of a very old “talking board” — they actually pre-date the Ouija, a patented novelty game first produced in the early 1900s.

“I’m going to do a horizontal cover,” Lockhart says. “You’ll be able to turn the book sideways, take your paper Planchette bookmark — which will come with every book — and play with the talking Board on the cover of the book — assuming you’re not sacred away by the stories in the anthology.”

Such visual elements are all part of the experimental sensibility Lockhart wants Word Horde books to carry.

“I want things that are going to catch people’s eye,” he says, “that are going to look a little different from everything else that’s out there. You see a lot of same-i-ness in books. A lot of publishers are basically creating bricks to sit on the shelf, ‘retail friendly’ units. That’s why so many books have the same sort of feel. They all feel like, you know, ‘different amusement park — but the same exact ride.’ I want to mix it up a little bit. I want to have fun with my covers, and give people something cool-looking they can display proudly on their shelves.”

That, he says, is how to sell a book of horror.

“You get their attention with something pretty,” he says, “then — once they’ve bought the book and entered the world of the stories — then you give them nightmares. There’s a definite art to it. And it’s a responsibility I take very seriously.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)