Cut (v): make (a movie) into a coherent whole by removing parts or placing them in a different order.
Indie Publishing is the New B-Movies and Here’s Why That’s A Good Thing
The age of the B-movie is dead.
Well, it’s died twice, actually, but still the term persists.
First of all, we should probably get on the same page and define what we mean by a B-movie, before I start telling you why I think it’s dead. And what I think has replaced it.
In its original usage, “B-movie” meant a movie that accompanied an A-picture, it was something cheaper to produce to fill out a double bill. So this first label didn’t denote genre, it just meant economical matinee filler.
As the double-feature distribution model faded away, to fans the term B-movie became synonymous with “cheese” (or “schlock”, a label I find much preferable, cheese has more of that stink of irony on it). What’s important to note for this definition is that the charming shoddiness of a true B-movie is almost always unintentional. This intangible “B” quality is byproduct of a production without enough money, time, know-how, or some combination of the three.
With that second definition in mind, I would contend that the vast majority of today’s “B-movies” disqualify themselves from the title, because they are setting out to earn that B on purpose. Intent makes all the difference. I’ll allow that movies like Sharknado are exploitation films (a term sometimes used interchangeably with “B-picture”), but what they’re exploiting is your desire to watch a movie and tweet at the same time.
For the most part, the more sincere ancestors of the B-movie (Lifetime Originals, action flicks that exist for foreign pre-sales) lack the freedom, audaciousness, or genre specificity of yesteryear. We horror fans want to see horror movies, and as wonderful as a diamond in the rough like Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is, it’s not horror. So where have our B’s gone?
My own personal definition of what constitutes a B-movie—especially in the modern era—is a bit more fraught. Movies are expensive to produce. “Yeah, no duh.” I know I’m breaking new ground here.
But, since movies are expensive, it can be hard for outsiders, nuts, and legit-visionaries to get access to the money to make them. But, if you take an artist with something to say and stick them on a project that’s meant to be a blind money grab (“These monster flicks turn a profit no matter what, these rubes will pay for anything!”), they’re still going to find a way to smuggle that art into your irradiated rodent picture.
And that method of production was what Roger Corman* turned into his bread-and-butter, forming an impromptu film school out of biker flicks and saucer-men.
That’s what draws me to the term: I’m attracted to art that it’s easy for both dummies and snobs alike to scoff at, but actually carries a viral load of intelligence under that slimy surface layer of schlock.
But in today’s industry there’s a diminished need for that model, as today’s genre auteur—for the most part—find themselves working in the genre on purpose. Filmmakers no longer need to be assigned genre work as quick-and-dirty first jobs, they want to make horror films. With the way VOD has reshaped distribution and turned what would have normally been “film festival fare” (movies which, generally, have a way better quality-batting-average than the New World, Cannon, and the other B-farms of yore) into the same movies that fill up Redboxes and Netflix queues.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that the general “rising tide lifting all ships” increase in quality of genre film is a good thing, but it does leave me itching for what I love about B-movies: the idea of sifting through blatantly commercial work and trying to parse out where the art is hiding.
And that, after a 600 word preamble, is where books enter this article.
That headline above is a bit misleading. But that’s par for the course on internet headlines, right? Don’t be mad.
I don’t literally think indie publishing and indie books are the “new B-movies!” But I do think they’ve begun to function in a similar way, both through the amount of product flooding the market and how beholden (and in some cases remarkably un-beholden) the market has become to trends and subgenres.
Books are books and movies are movies. Of course. But I think the metaphor of “Indie publishing is making the new B-movies”* offers us a chance to examine how smaller publishers (and some self-publishers) have glommed onto—sometimes intentionally and sometimes not—that special alchemy of art and commerce that only the best B-movies reach. So yes, there’s way more bad stuff out there than good, but that’s why it’s such an apt metaphor.
Here are three of these pubs bringing quality to the indie publishing scene, and some of their filmic corollaries. I clearly haven’t read every book from all of these presses, but hey: I’ve never shied away from generalizations in the past when it’s helped me construct a listicle it’s all in good fun!***
Eraserhead Press: Along with Raw Dog Screaming Press, Eraserhead is one of the premier publishers of bizarro fiction, a difficult-to-define genre that plays well with horror and horror-folk.
Difficult-to-define but maybe the easiest fit for this article, because the bizarros make the comparison to films on in their own sales materials. The party line is that bizarro is a wider umbrella that’s the book-equivalent to “the ‘Cult’ section at the video store.” Which is a pretty good descriptor, if only we still had video stores.
More specifically, many of bizarro’s biggest breakout titles can be compared to the shock-baiting (and sometimes allegorical) B-pictures that Troma has built its name on. Who wouldn’t want to know what The Haunted Vagina is about? (A title from bizarro’s high priest, Carlton Mellick III). But since bizarro operates on a sliding scale of weirdness and crudity, some of the genre’s more high-minded titles are probably better compared to the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, or Don Coscarelli.
Although it’s tempting to give Eraserhead’s subsidiaries and associated acts Deadite Press and Lazy Fascist their own entries in this list, we probably shouldn’t for time (how’m I doing, editor? Will I break 2,000 words? Will you disown me if I do?). Deadite functions in a similar way to EH while focusing on extreme horror (Edward Lee, Shane McKenzie, Brian Keene, Monica O’Rourke), and Lazy Fascist skews more literary, but sometimes delivers high-minded B-applicable-goodness like Brian Allen Carr’s Motherfucking Sharks.
Severed Press: Probably the publisher that operates the closest to the classic AIP production structure, the Austrailia-based Severed Press finds the niches that Kindle readers are craving and then exploits them. They publish all kinds of horror, but they find their greatest success in the Kaiju, aquatic horror, and zombie/post-apocalypse genres, thus they encourage their stable of authors to write in those sub-genres.
If those three categories sound oddly specific: they are, but not if you’re one of Severed’s THOUSANDS of dedicated readers, apparently. Chasing trends is nothing new, but what does surprise is how many established authors are game to throw on their waders and attempt to make aquatic horror their own. In a real Boxcar Bertha preceding Mean Streets move, barrio-noir wonderboy Gabino Iglesias wrote one.
Another such author is Hunter Shea. A former mainstay of Samhain Publishing and current old-school mass market paperback writer with Kensington/Pinnacle, Shea is of interest to this article because there is probably no novelist working right now who’s as dedicated (pathological?) a monster maker. Guy loves it, and what I like about his work is that it’s never ironic and never a retread. His monsters need an internal consistency or biology or, it seems, that he won’t write them. He’s a natural fit for Severed, because tasked with aquatic horror (the genre-makeup of which seems to be 75% big shark, 20% big octopod, and 5% other) he chose to go with chimera fish as his antagonist in They Rise. Which is a kind of poisonous pseudo-shark that I didn’t even know existed. Points for creativity, at the very least.
Word Horde: The odd-man-out of these three presses I’m profiling, Word Horde’s releases come at a slower clip and are generally more genre-diverse, but editor Ross Lockhart strikes me as a real Corman-type in his eye for talent (and not to mention his obsession with the classics of the genre). Word Horde may be more of a prestige press, but I see Lockhart is a facilitator of nerd talent who’s very savvy of his fellow publisher’s B-tendencies.
A good example might be Nicole Cushing’s Mr. Suicide. It’s a book that WH gave the royal treatment—sandwiched between releases of “literary horror” collections—but any other “classy” publisher would have been too scared to publish. And I think Lockhart knows that, could envision a “less classy” publisher marketing Cushing’s book as abject extreme horror, giving it a blood ’n guts photoshop cover, and dumping it on Amazon to compete with books that—let’s face it—should probably get you listed on some kind of government watchlist.
Yes, that’s only three and there are a bunch more publishers on that B-movie frontline that I lack the word count to expand on: Sinister Grin Press, StrangeHouse Books, Perpetual Motion Machine, Bizarro Pulp Press, DarkFuse, Dynatox Ministires, to name a few.
But I’ve got to leave you with one last note. Much like B-movies and their bodacious movie posters, the variance in quality among similar looking-books on Amazon makes blind-buys a complete game of Russian roulette. I can vouch for the books mentioned above, but reader beware: I fully advocate supporting the indie press, but I also advocate using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to sample a book before buying. Yeah, read widely and adventurously, but make sure that the author has at least a tenuous grip on the English language.
And that may sound condescending, but I’m really not trying to be. I’m sure an author would much rather you skip their book entirely than have you buy without trying and then torpedoing them with a one-star review after deciding the writing’s not for you, a few pages in.
Until next time: happy reading, film freaks and book geeks.
* imagine I said “hot pink is the new black!” You’d understand what I was implying. And you also may be gifted with the mental image of a bunch of goths in hot pink.
** we mentioned him last time, remember? It’s like I’m weaving somekinda rambling metanarrative outta these things or somethin’.
***And I guess here’s where we put the big bias disclaimer. I’ve worked with these three presses, they’ve put out my work. But it’s work that maybe subscribes to that ethos of “commercial art with a creamy caramel center of personal art.” So yeah, I’m biased, but so are we all. And I didn’t try to pitch you on any of my own books. If anything I should be applauded for my restraint. Have you met other authors on the internet?
Adam Cesare is a New Yorker who lives in Philadelphia. He studied English and film at Boston University. His books include Mercy House, Video Night, The Summer Job, and Tribesmen. He has an oft-neglected website and tweets as @Adam_Cesare.