The Horror Show: Michael Kelly branches out with a throwback to the pulp periodicals of yore

“If I want this sort of pulpy magazine, I’m going to have to do it myself”

Lovers of classic pulp horror publishing can rejoice this year with the appearance of a new magazine modelled on the great genre periodicals of the mid-20th century. Weird Horror, which debuted its inaugural issue this month, is the brainchild of Michael Kelly, the publisher of the small-press genre house Undertow Publications.

The magazine originated out of a longing for the days of EC Comics and Weird Tales, those iconic pulp periodicals of the 1950s. “Nostalgia plays a big part in a lot of things a lot of us do,” Kelly says. “I used to write for small-press magazines all the time that had lurid covers and schlocky stories. And I sort of miss those days.”

Around the same time in 2019 Kelly was feeling the pangs of nostalgia for the pulp horror of yore, Weird Tales announced it was restarting under the editorial direction of Jonathan Mayberry. It published one issue in spring 2019 – #363, billed as ”The return of the magazine that never dies” – and then nothing more. “To be frank, I was disappointed in it,” Kelly says. “There was one very good story by Victor LaValle, and I thought the rest of it was … it just wasn’t what I was expecting.”

Kelly was willing to give the new iteration another chance, but after a year went by and nothing more appeared, he realized that the periodical would not be adhering to anything resembling a regular publication schedule. “If I want this pulpy sort of magazine,” Kelly concluded, ”I’m going to have to do it myself.”

Writers featured in Weird Horror’s inaugural issue include John Langan, Ian Rogers, Simon Strantzas, and Naben Ruthnum. Kelly had read a Halloween story by Ruthnum and reached out, thinking the writer would be a good fit for Weird Horror. “He turned a story around within two weeks, which was amazing,” Kelly says. ”It was delightfully Bradburyesque and macabre.”

Weird Horror is something of a departure for Kelly as a publisher; his book publishing endeavour, Undertow Publications, is known for a more subtle, literary brand of horror. “[The magazine] is more of a different tone, so I have to wear a different editorial hat.”

The inaugural issue of Weird Horror magazine features cover art by Sam Heimer

Though the material for the first issue was solicited – mostly in order to keep to a schedule that would see the magazine appear in October 2020 – all future issues will contain unsolicited material. “I’m reading these next two months for the two issues I have planned for next year,” Kelly says.

The biannual publication schedule feels doable for Kelly in the short term, though he says plans may change as things go forward. “It seems to be doing quite well. I just mailed out like 400 copies last week and I’m getting orders from bookstores,” Kelly says. “It seems to be taking off a bit. So maybe we can even increase [the frequency of publication] a bit. But I’ll take it slow, like I do everything.”

The “go slow” mentality has served Kelly well in his publishing endeavours to this point. “I’ve seen so many presses take on so many projects all at once and they just can’t do it,” Kelly says. “I try not to stretch myself too much.”

Undertow Publications, the press that Kelly launched in 2009, has benefited from this steady-as-you-go approach, publishing a handful of new titles each year and slowly garnering acclaim from figures in the horror and dark fantasy communities for its editorial quality and production values. To date, Kelly has signed books by established figures such as Strantzas, Conrad Williams, and Laura Mauro, alongside newcomers like Georgina Bruce and Kay Chronister.

The editorial principle behind Undertow arises out of the kind of writing Kelly himself does and admires, writing that tends to fall outside traditional categories or classifications. “It is too literary for horror and too horrific for literary genres,” he says.

Kelly publishes in Canada, but he finds the country to be a hard market for weird fiction. He estimates that 80% of his sales come through the U.S., with another 15% from overseas orders. Only about 5% of sales originate in Canada. “I have seen an uptick in Canadian sales for Weird Horror,” Kelly says. “But I think there is more of a hunger for that in Europe and the U.S. I have no idea why.”

For Weird Horror, Kelly has received more than 300 submissions in just two weeks, but very few are from Canadian authors. ”I think I’ve seen maybe ten submissions out of all the 300,” he says. “It’s mostly middle-aged, white American men.”

Kelly’s call for submissions to Weird Horror emphasizes that he is looking for material from diverse and underrepresented voices, but he acknowledges that part of the challenge is figuring out ways to let those communities know that the magazine exists. As for Canadian horror, Kelly is resigned to the fact that it might not ever be as robust as he’d like. “The CanLit market is a weird market anyway,” Kelly says. ”I’ve never really felt at home in it.”

If the CanLit market is not ready for the kind of publishing Kelly is doing, it’s a shame, because he has found some of the most interesting and unique fictional voices of the last few years to add to his roster. This should come as no surprise, given Kelly’s first principle for what attracts him as a reader. “The first thing I look for in any writer is voice. Because that’s the only original thing that they have,” Kelly says. “You read one story after another and they all read like the same story because the voice is the same. It’s either been edited to death in a workshop or it’s just quite mediocre.”

As far as Weird Horror is concerned, the voices and strong storytelling are there and the early experience with sales interest makes Kelly optimistic for future issues. There’s only one thing that he’s disappointed with where the first instalment is concerned. ”No one sent me a Halloween story,” he says. “I thought for sure I would get a couple of those, but I didn’t.”

The Horror Show: Michael Kelly branches out with a throwback to the pulp periodicals of yore