Death’s Garden Revisited, a new anthology edited by Morbid Curiosity’s Loren Rhoads, collects cemetery essays from genealogists and geocachers, tour guides and travelers, horror authors, ghost hunters, pagan priestesses, and more about why they visit cemeteries. Spanning the globe from Iceland to Argentina and from Portland to Prague, the new book explores the complex web of relationships between the living and those who have passed before.
In conversation with The Fabulist, Rhoads shares insights on her new book’s origins, her voyage as a writer and publisher, her history with Morbid Curiosity magazine, and much more.
You can pre-order your copy of Death’s Garden Revisited on Kickstarter through April 16.
The Fabulist: Your new cemetery book just launched on Kickstarter — congratulations!
Loren Rhoads: Thank you! It’s my first Kickstarter, so I’m really curious to see how it goes.
What prompted this new book, and how is it different from your first “Death’s Garden” anthology?
The first book, Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries, was published in 1995, which seems forever ago. It was the second book published by Automatism Press, the press my partner and I founded in the early 90s after working with RE/Search Books.
At its start, Automatism was a low-to-the-ground punk rock operation, true DIY. We’d never published a book with photos, so Death’s Garden gave us a steep learning curve. Despite our inexperience, we were really lucky that one of the contributors was Lydia Lunch, who had taken a series of really gorgeous cemetery photos.
The new book, Death’s Garden Revisited, will be the book that I’ve always wanted to publish. It’s an anthology of really powerful personal essays about visiting cemeteries around the world, illustrated with glorious 8×10 photographs. At the moment, the book is planned to be all black and white, but if the Kickstarter succeeds, we can upgrade the photos to full-color.
It’s all first-person testimonials, right? No fiction, folklore, etc.?
That’s right. I find first-person confessional essays to be the best way for authors to convey their truths. Believe it or not, there are a lot of straight nonfiction books about cemeteries, but they usually focus on history or monuments or famous people’s graves. I wanted to put together a book that explains the emotional importance of cemeteries from as many different angles as possible.
And art as well — all photographs? What locations? What’s being depicted?
Only photographs! They’ll include famous cemeteries, like Paris’s Pere Lachaise and Savannah’s Bonaventure — arguably the most beautiful cemetery in the US — alongside family graveyards, less-familiar landscapes, and world-famous statuary.
You’re not exactly a newbie when it comes to independent publishing with a darker bent. You put out Morbid Curiosity magazine for 10 years, as well as several collections and anthologies. Although the magazine is no more, it seems as if you’re keeping the spirit of it alive with this new project. How does Death’s Garden Revisited carry all that into the future?
Thank you for drawing that connection! The Death’s Garden project really bookends Morbid Curiosity. When I was putting together the first Death’s Garden book in 1994, I conceived of it as a showcase for my friend Blair’s photographs. Blair was the first person I’d met who traveled around to take photographs of cemeteries. But once I started assembling the book, everyone I spoke to told me a story about a cemetery they’d connected with, so the book expanded.
After the book was published, I started casting around for Automatism’s next project. I’d really enjoyed getting confessional essays from friends and strangers, so I created Morbid Curiosity magazine as a way to keep that flow of confessions coming. Strangely enough, I never considered any other title for it.
Publishing Morbid Curiosity was the honor of my life. I got to work with the most amazing contributors, telling their deepest, darkest, most frightening experiences. Only issue #10, the final issue, is still in print.
When Morbid Curiosity ended in 2006, I turned my attention to writing books. As a way to support my first cemetery memoir, Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, I began blogging at CemeteryTravel.com.
Seven years ago, I started publishing contributors’ first-person essays on Cemetery Travel. This January, I decided it was finally time to put that book together. About half of Death’s Garden Revisited is reprints from my blog and other venues. The rest are brand-new essays.
The best part is that some of the contributors to this new book are people I met through Morbid Curiosity — and two of them are people I published in the first Death’s Garden book.
Tell us about the types of fans you have for the work you publish. Who are they? How do they find you? What do they tell you about the work you’re putting out there?
My fans are absolutely the best. One woman in particular has bought everything I’ve ever published, back to the first Automatism book in 1994. Others are people who fell in love with Morbid Curiosity or 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die. They like their entertainment to acknowledge death. They feel, like I do, that every day aboveground is a good day.
Because independent publishing isn’t enough — you’re also an accomplished author, with novels and short fiction to your name. We published an “offshoot” tale, “Devil In Her Heart,” about one of your characters, Lorelei, the demonic temptress whose business seems to be collecting the souls of fame-seeking rockstars — in this case, the Beatles. Can you tell us more about Lorelei, how she came into being for you as a writer, her fictional origin story, some of her other escapades, and where we can read more about her?
Lorelei was conceived as a birthday present for Brian Thomas, back in the 90s. I wrote a short story about her for him and never expected it to go any farther than that, but Brian fell in love and continued her adventures. Together, Brian and I wrote two novels, Lost Angels and Angelus Rose, which detail Lorelei’s romantic adventures with the angel Azaziel, set against the war between Heaven and Hell in Los Angeles. The story is more or less Romeo and Juliet, with wings and a barbed tale.
I’ve written a couple of short stories about Lorelei since the novels were finished. “Never Bargained for You” appears in my story collection Unsafe Words. “The Devil’s Debt” will appear in an upcoming issue of Occult Detective. I’ve promised to write another rock’n’roll story about Lorelei for an anthology that will be out later this year, but I need to survive this Kickstarter first!
Unsafe Words explores horror tropes through the experiences of gender-diverse and LGBTQ characters, and increasingly in speculative and genre fiction we see the experiences of diverse individuals brought fully to life, in ways that are often out of reach in quotidian life. Can you tell us about the role of such extravagant escapist literature in a world so full of social conflict over who people can and should be?
The short answer is that David Bowie was a huge influence on my science fiction, sexuality, and life.
The longer answer is that the San Francisco of the late ’80s/early ’90s was full of wild and beautiful people, many of whom were killed by AIDS. I intend to die mad about that.
You’ve got plenty more fiction under your belt, and it leaps all over the various speculative genres. There’s the young witch Alondra, a “grimdark” space-opera The Dangerous Type kicks off another trilogy … where is your pen taking you and these, or any new, characters next?
Several Alondra stories will be published later this year in the anthologies Tales of Dread and Tales of Darkness being put out by Wily Writers Press. I’ve been working on a novel about Alondra that I hope to get back to later in the year. That will depend on how everything else comes together.
For the moment, my space opera stories are on hold. I’d love to write more in that universe.
You’ve run your own indie press, and have also been published by notable imprints such as Night Shade. What are the thorns and roses for each of these paths to publication? Any advice for those seeking to set out on either or both paths?
I’ve been really lucky to work with traditional New York publishers, small indie presses, and Automatism. The advantage of a big publisher is the reach of their Rolodex. They can get publicity that a smaller press could only dream of. The advantage of working with a small press is that they are able to publish riskier work and put fewer limitations on you. The advantage of self-publishing is not having to fight for the cover you want and to have the text exactly as you want it.
Of course, in return for that amount of freedom, you have to hustle extra hard to get attention for your books. As my friends in the band Gravitar said, “Freedom’s just another word for never getting paid.”
I suppose my advice for dealing with all three levels would be the same: know in advance what you’re willing to compromise on and let the rest slide. Be able to come up with a strong argument for your choices. Know when you are prepared to walk away. In the end, it’s your name on the cover. You have to be proud of the work.