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A True Horror of Fine Press

Halloween can be traced back to the 2,000-year-old Celtic festival of Samhain.The Celts believed that the line between the spiritual and physical worlds was blurred on Samhain, and they celebrated the holiday by dressing up in costumes, telling fortunes, and building bonfires. Today we associate Halloween with monsters, ghosts, and other horrors. But at Charnel House, the horrific and strange aren't reserved for one day a year. This fine press specializes in horror and weird fiction.

Founded in 1989 by former rock drummer Joe Stefko, Charnel House produces state of the art limited edition books. Over the next decade, the market for collector's edition books in the literary horror genre exploded. But most weren't publishing fine editions. Charnel House differentiated itself with editions that were nothing like the trade editions.


Every step of the way, Stefko showed his appreciation for the art and craft of book design and binding. He knew nothing about fine press when he began, so he strived to work with the best in the industry. For instance, her worked with Claudia Cohen (now of Heavenly Monkey) for the 1996 edition of The Regulators, which Stephen King wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.

What inspired Stefko to try his hand at publishing? He told Rollin Milroy, "I got into publishing because my appreciation for the art of book design and production was so great that I wasn't appreciating the books I was collecting….I felt that if I was going to collect certain authors, then I should design and publish them myself." He particularly loved the Phantasia Press lettered edition of Stephen King's Firestarter. 

At the beginning, Charnel House books often featured art from popular genre artists like Phil Parks and Steve Gervais. Newer editions focus more on typography. Over half of the imprint's titles are by Dean Koontz, with whom Stefko enjoys an excellent working relationship. One of Stefko's personal favorites is his edition of Tim Powers' Last Cell. The end papers are made from untrimmed sheets of American dollar bills, and the title page is printed on uncut sheets of $2 bills.

Most Charnel House editions are limited to between 300 and 500 copies. They include an issue of 26 lettered editions. These are usually totally different from the numbered editions and presented in true design bindings. The majority of titles are out of print within a year. Stefko notes that book design comes naturally to him, and he enjoys the ingenuity required to execute his designs. He's bleached denim in his bathtub and figured out how to secure metal gears to book boards.

Stefko's dedication has certainly raised expectations among rare book collectors who used to be satisfied with signed editions. He used to try to publish his editions before the trade editions were released, but now takes his time with the process to maintain his uncompromising standards. Upcoming titles include Odd Interlude and Deeply Odd, both by Dean Koontz.

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Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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