Tales from a Horror City: Creeping Hemlock Press, New Orleans’ Fear-Fiction Powerhouse

RJ and Julia Sevin, Creeping Hemlock Press

RJ and Julia Sevin, Creeping Hemlock Press I know some busy people, but there are few who could keep pace with Julia and RJ Sevin, the New Orleans husband-and-wife team who run the acclaimed independent genre press Creeping Hemlock… among many other projects. RJ and Julia sat down with me to discuss the origins of Creeping Hemlock, their newest project, Nightmare Magazine, their DVD release of cult classic The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus and the deeper meanings of zombies.

Y’all have so much going on. Can we start with how you met?

RJ Sevin: I met Julia on [immortal acclaimed zombie filmmaker] George Romero’s messageboard. I’m from here, born and raised; she’s from California. We had a nice fourteen-month long-distance courtship before we got together. Besides our love of Romero, we were both readers, both writers, both interested in publishing & design.

Did the love connection happen first, or did you begin by collaborating on projects?

Julia Sevin: We started by talking zombies, then love connection, then projects. RJ was writing, and in 2003, 2004 there weren’t many short story markets. Those that existed weren’t very appealing; they paid at most a couple cents a word or a free copy. We thought, why don’t we put our own anthology together? We started reading submissions in October of 2004, and because we were offering twice what anyone else was, we were able to get some big names like Ramsey Campbell and Bentley Little. We put Corpse Blossoms together just in time to be chased out by the hurricane… the first print run was delivered our FEMA trailer. Hundreds of copies and nowhere to put ’em.

Corpse Blossoms

RJS: The critics really liked Corpse Blossoms. It was nominated for the [The Horror Writers Association’s] Stoker Award.

JS: We did pretty well for our first time out. You know, when you’re creating an anthology, it’s often built around a theme. We didn’t have a specific theme we were going for, but looking back at it, we realized that while the various stories have ghosts, zombies, monsters, and weird fungus creatures, the unifying factor is that in every case, the story’s events hinge on human decisions. It’s the people who make everything fall apart.

RJS: We love horror, but feel the supernatural works best as commentary on a larger truth.

JS: The supernatural as a metaphor, or as a foil to create better fleshed-out characters.

RJS: Beyond Corpse Blossoms we explored multiple genres; Between ’05 and today we’ve published classic erotica, sci-fi, crime, edgy genre stuff in general.

I associate Creeping Hemlock Press with zombie fiction; I first became aware of y’all when Thin Them Out made a big splash.

RJS: That book marked a turning point. We were going to Zombiefest in 2008. It was in Monroeville PA, in the mall where Romero shot Dawn of the Dead.

JS: Two weeks before Zombiefest we were like, let’s throw something together for the occasion. Let’s do a book.

RJS: We collaborated with Kim Paffenroth, fleshed out a story– ten thousand words, written over three days. Julia designed it, the printer delivered it the next day. It was just intended as a chapbook for the fest, but the reception it got was beyond anything we’d expected. That’s when we decided to go zombie.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been amazed by the longevity of the zombie genre across all mediums. In film, in video games, general pop culture…

RJS: It’s peaked, at this point. It has to have.

I’d have thought it peaked years ago, but instead it’s kept getting more popular.

JS: Zombies are bigger now than vampires ever were.

RJS: George Romero threw that pebble in 1968, and the ripples swelled and swelled, and now Walking Dead is the biggest thing on TV.

JS: Romero invented zombies as they currently “exist.” Before that there was just the voodoo zombie, a possessed, enslaved person who worked the fields all night.

RJS: The conservative dream!

Zombies are different from a lot of monsters in that they’re aggressively anti-individual– they’re the masses. They’re the threatening “other.”

JS: Right– depending on your mindset, they could be the politically brainwashed hordes, or the immigrant hordes…

RJS: Zombies are whatever group you would feel comfortable mowing down with a machine gun. You can project anything onto them. Different people love zombie tales for entirely different reasons. There’s a broad stripe of zombie fiction that’s basically gun porn, geared towards the survivalist mentality: how the individual survives because he’s so awesome… nothing about the human condition. We wanted to do something different.

JS: When we started our zombie-specific imprint, Print is Dead, we thought of it as “Zombie books for smart people.”

RJS: We’re proud to have published the first books about straight-up George Romero zombies. Past novelists had always put their own twist on it, their own thumbprint. We felt George Romero got zombies right. For instance, we published Mason James Cole’s Pray to Stay Dead: set in 1974, with zombies that are brain-dead and slow-moving. Zombies as Romero invented them.

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JS: Now, we do have a “fast zombie” book, Scavengers, and it’s terrifying.

RJS: If a story’s good I don’t care whether the zombies are fast or slow, but I think a lot of the movies with fast zombies miss the point. The slow zombie is a pressure cooker. The slow zombies trap you in a building with a group of people, to give you a chance to go crazy. It’s like the blizzard in The Shining.

JS: With fast zombies you really have no chance to survive. The point of the slow zombies is that they’re totally surmountable, even a crowd of them. If you’re halfway smart and you pull together with those around you, you could survive. But can people, will people cooperate?

RJS: Or do we turn on each other, like in Lord of the Flies? That to me is what’s interesting. Zombie movies scared the shit out of me as a kid in a way that no other horror movies did. Dawn of the Dead gave me nightmares for years. I think we’re not afraid of actual zombies so much as we’re afraid of societal breakdown. That’s what the zombie scenario represents– collapse. You wake up, and there’s blood in the streets. The world we’ve lived in is turned upside down so badly that now you’re going to have to kill or die.

JS: Zombies have stepped up into mythic status, especially for people under thirty. Zombies have become like vampires and ghosts are. There are people we meet, mostly in their twenties who basically believe– who are preparing for zombie apocalypse.

Well, there have been plenty of people in New Orleans who take vampires seriously, who will tell you they’ve met real vampires.

JS: The mainstream heritage of the occult & superstition is more present here than anywhere else. It’s realer here, people here believe. People live it. It’s not an embarrassment. You love it because you grew up here, or you come here because you love it. You get inspiration here.

RJS: It’s in my opinion the greatest city in America for a horror writer to live in. Why do I like this shit? Because I was born in New Orleans. This is a horror city. We here have experienced so much real horror; that’s part of it. But I grew up in the most ridiculously superstitious family– they believed in werewolves. It’s part of why Morgus did so well here. We’re a ghoulish city and we love ghoulish things.

This brings us to the Morgus movie. For those who may not be familiar, Dr. Morgus the Magnificent had a three-decade run as a horror/comedy TV show host here in New Orleans, starting in 1959. He and his hapless assistant Chopsley presented horror movies, and in between pieces of the movie Morgus would carry out mad science experiments, many ending badly for Chopsley.

RJS: Here in town, everybody knows Morgus. My Mom knew about him, my Grammaw knew about him, everybody’s Mom’n’em knew about Morgus. In 1998 I discovered the official Morgus.com website. It was run by a man in Detroit– turns out Morgus went to Detroit for one year in the ‘60s and created a whole generation of fans there in just one year before coming back here! I ended up meeting Sid Noel, the guy who portrays Morgus. All the old 1960s TV episodes are gone, but he made a movie in 1962, The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus, that I think just screened briefly on the Gulf Coast– Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama– and then disappeared. It resurfaced briefly in 1987, on a limited VHS release, which is how I saw it.

Wacky World of Dr. Morgus

JS: It’s very fun, very “swinging.” Whether or not it’s a great movie, it’s a great piece of film history.

RJS: It was shot on 35mm, one of the first New Orleans indie movies. It’s full of great New Orleans stuff– he gets chased down 1962 Canal St. in a hearse. It’s a real slice of the city as it was.

JS: There are scenes in Pirate’s Alley, Chris Owens is in it…

Oh my god. I’m a huge Chris Owens freak.

JS: To see her 50 years ago is incredible. She was a knockout.

Um, she’s still a knockout, thank you very much.

RJS: Back when saw the movie as a kid, I noticed a familiar name in the credits: Sevin. One of the producers, Jules Sevin, had the same last name I did. In 1999, I sought out Jules Sevin and found his son Jay Sevin, who ran Crazy Johnnie’s in Fat City. We may or may not be related– still haven’t figured that out– but he and his family own the rights to the movie, and we started discussing getting a Morgus project off the ground… then Katrina happened. The 35mm print I’d acquired was lost in the flood, Jay’s VHS master got destroyed, the few other prints we knew of were destroyed. That was it until 2008, when we discovered a master print in Washington DC, in a Library of Congress vault. Jules Sevin had taken a print of the film there, for the purpose of preserving it. So, thank you Morgus gods, we got an HD transfer from that, which is where we transferred our DVD from. It looks great!

Is this what the Chalmette Movies [theatre] screened for Halloween?

RJS: Yeah, our print is what the Chalmette theatre uses; we let them run it for the past three years before the DVD was out. St Bernard Parish goes nuts for Morgus. You know, Chopsley was from Chalmette.

JS: At conventions we always get so many Morgus stories– “He used to mow my lawn, he scared the crap out of me.”

RJS: “Morgus was my landlord.”

JS:  To really have done all the things people say he’s done, to have been all those places and held all those jobs, he would have to have lived many lifetimes.

Like Marie Laveau?

JS: I think of it like the “True Splinters of Jesus’ Cross”… If you gathered every splinter, you’d have a whole lumberyard.

Let’s talk about Nightmare Magazine, your latest venture.

RJS: It’s an online publication edited by John Joseph Adams, a New York Times best-selling editor we met at Zombiefest. It comes out the first of each month: an e-magazine with 4 short stories. The idea is that you can buy the whole thing for $2.99 when it comes out, or get one of the stories free each week. The for-sale version also has an original interview– people like Mike Mignola and Peter Straub– columns, and an artist’s spotlight.

JS: Nightmare Magazine is taking shape to be the biggest thing we’ve ever done. We just cut a check to Neil Gaiman!

RJS: And at the end of the year we’re going to gather it all into an anthology, Nightmare: Year One.

So is your focus shifting towards online publication?

RJS: I look at the sales figures, and our digital editions outsell our paper editions twenty to one. I think the e-book or print-on-demand is today’s version of the old paperback spin rack; it’s the impulse buy.

JS: Part of it is the price point– a lot of our digital editions are 99 cents a book, or at the most five bucks.

RJS: There will always be printed-book aficionados, as there are vinyl aficionados, but I think the printed book is going back to what it used to be: a desirable, collectible object for people with money.

I want to wrap this up, but I know beyond all the projects we discussed, you both work full-time and have a grade-school kid. I have to ask– how do you do so much?

JS: Terribly. Lots of caffeine.

RJS: [Laughs] I was going to say “poorly,” but I didn’t want to make you angry.

JS: We have way too much going on. On the other hand, we’re never bored…

You can purchase Corpse Blossoms and other Creeping Hemlock books at creepinghemlock.com, buy intelligently written zombie fiction at printisdead.com, check out Nightmare Magazine at Nightmare-Magazine.com, and get The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus DVD– as well as t-shirts, greeting cards & other goodies related to the movie– at MorgusMovie.com

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