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New Press Feature: Nepenthe Press

Eli John - Press Owner and Illustrator



Eli John is no stranger to the small press world, as his illustrations have been featured in numerous works from different presses over the past few years. With Nepenthe Press, he is putting on a new hat and not only illustrating, but also heading up production and running the entire operation. His first two works will be an anthology of folk horror short stories called Unquiet Slumbers (available for preorder currently) and POE: The Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe, generously illustrated by Eli. His passion is evident to anyone who has the pleasure of discussing the book arts with him and he is becoming a go-to illustrator in the world of weird fiction and horror. Most recently, he has worked with PS Publishing, Centipede Press, and Zagava to name a few. We are grateful to consider him a friend and that he made time in his busy schedule to talk about his new venture with us.


Q: First let me say it is an honor to get to talk to you more specifically about your prior work and especially the launch of your new press. I believe we originally connected through our love of Zagava, the work of Mark Samuels and the wonderful press owner Jonas Ploeger of Zagava, who you have illustrated for and I have interviewed and become friends with. You are first and foremost an illustrator. Can you tell us about your journey from young artist to rare bookseller and eventually to full-time illustrator?  

 


I was twelve years old and I went on work experience for a company that made merchandise for heavy metal bands. It was 1990, early stages of photoshop but mainly there was amazing artwork up on drawing boards, and art books everywhere. I picked up a copy of Giger ARH+ published by Taschen and was never the same again, that was the moment I knew what I wanted to do. I did fine art at university which I hated as it was all about conceptual art. My dad was a book dealer so I ended up dropping out and following him into that business, eventually specialising in horror and supernatural rarities. One day I thought, "I have to follow my dream and illustrate books myself." I posted some images of M R James prints I’d made on Instagram, someone brought them to the attention of Jerad at Centipede, and he give me my first gig, that was four years ago. I was very lucky. 


Q: You have mentioned Dave McKean as a huge influence on your life and work and he is one of my favorite illustrators of all time, so I can see why. I can see small influences of his work in yours, but your work is extremely unique and recognizable to those of us who have followed your small press work over the last couple years. What was it about Dave and his work that inspired you and how did you seek to find your own distinctive style amidst a myriad of influences?  

 

Illustration from Different Season by PS Publishing

Thank you for your kind words! I first came to Dave McKean’s work when my dad bought me a copy of Arkham Asylum, early 90s again. It absolutely blew me away, it was the most beautiful artwork I’d ever seen in a comic, I didn’t know they could look like that. I then obsessively sought out everything Dave had done, and I’m still in awe of what he puts out there.  I actually appreciate you saying I have my own distinctive style, as the notion of this has always driven me crazy. An obsession with getting my own style down. I blame Instagram for this, as many people now kind of create a brand for themselves and stick to it forever, it looks great on Instagram but there is no real progression or journey? It’s safe, and would bore me. Dave has produced a vast array of work in many styles, but each is recognisably him, so if I’m doing something similar then that’s good. Each project suggests a different approach and medium, I’d hate to just do digital or just do watercolour. I am hugely influenced by German expressionism and the symbolists, Munch, Kubin, Rops, Klinger, etc.  


Q: As an artist, there are so many options on the medium you can use to create your work and I know that you have used a combination of hand-drawn elements and digital aspects throughout your work. The illustrations from your work in the M.R. James entry with Centipede Press and your more recent work with PS Publishing on Different Seasons both feel like something that came from you, yet also do feel distinct in certain ways. What drives the medium you use for a particular project and how you approach it artistically? 

 

Usually, a publisher is approaching you from something they have seen of your work. Some prefer slick digital pieces, others more traditional, so it’s guided often by that alone. If you are given freedom, I read the text and respond emotionally to that. It is this that suggests a medium, although I always start the same way, with quick thumbnail sketches. There is always a lot in those early sketches, it’s instinctual. I go through a process every time of making loads of notes about how I want them to look and this that and the other, and it’s wholly pointless. When I eventually stop procrastinating and get the ‘new project fear’ out of the way, and pick up a pencil, or pen, it starts. Those drawings lead you on in terms of style, medium etc. I often think they are the best thing I do, those early sketches.  

 

Q: There is a dark and macabre feel to much of your body of work, not only the general color palette, but the subject matter as well. You seem to tend to favor works in horror and weird fiction primarily. What drew you to these particular genres and when did you realize that you wanted your illustrations to be featured alongside these kinds of works?  


Cover art from Grotesqueries from Zagava

This happened very early on, Giger, Arkham Asylum, I’ve already mentioned. From a young age I was into all that goth, dark stuff, I identified as the outsider, weirdo, loner type. The Crow came out in the 90s as did IT with Tim Currey. I loved The Cure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Tim Burton’s early films.  

 

My parents introduced me to loads of old movies, especially the Hammer films and the M R James Ghost Stories for Christmas on UK TV. This developed when I then started reading M R James, and discovered Machen, Blackwood, Benson and all the ghost story writers of the Victorian and Edwardian period.  

 

Q: What are some of your favorite small press works you have contributed to and why were the particularly exciting or interesting to you? What about some of your favorites you didn’t work on? Is there a particular piece of literature or press that you would love to illustrate/collaborate with? 

 

I’m proud of the M R James work for Centipede as it was my first big job (and is yet to be published, Jerad works years ahead I think!) Hopefully later this year. His stories resonate so deeply with me, I respond to them on a different level. I wanted to capture that earthy, mouldy, textural feel of old linen and slime I’ve not seen in previous James illustrations. I’ve just finished a project I’m very proud of but I can’t talk about unfortunately, but it will be out this year.  I am a mad collector of illustrated books, so small press titles I love would be anything illustrated by Santiago Caruso, particularly love his Lovecraft work and the Centipede edition of Robert W Chambers. Seed and Brother by Ania Ahlborn from Suntup, are beautifully illustrated and beautifully bound. I love the Sub Press Full Throttle from Joe Hill, illustrated by McKean, the lettered edition is sublime. Zagava’s Stephen J Clark titles are gorgeous, there is also a Ron Weighell volume in the works which looks incredible, bound in copper. There are so many. 

 

M R James Dust Jacket Art from Centipede Press

Q: I have followed your work for a couple years now and I’m really excited about the prospect of you starting your own press and having full control over productions from start to finish. It seems your career has been a progression toward having more creative control over your own work, so I can imagine this must have been a dream of yours for some time. When was the first time you thought of starting Nepenthe Press and what were some of the pivotal moments that brought it closer to reality? 

 

Well, I basically wanted to make the books I’ve always dreamed of. As an illustrator, my main focus is the art. In my previous life as a book dealer and as a collector now, I know what I love, in terms of the look and feel of a book, and I’m lucky to have handled many of the best horror titles from the small presses. I’m very happy to be in full control of the layouts and design of the book, and to obsess in my own time about the details, as it takes up a lot of time! Nepenthe was born out of a very strong desire to create sublime, illustrated editions of classic and contemporary works of horror and weird fiction.  


Illustration from A Gentleman From Mexico by Mark Samuels

Q: In the past, we have discussed our love for the poem “The Raven” and clearly you are a Poe fan judging by your first major production. Is the name of your press “Nepenthe” a specific nod to the reference in that poem or related to the more general idea, or maybe something even completely different? 

 

It is a very specific reference to the poem, and I love the idea of a book being like a drug, or tonic, or draught you can take, to escape into, to slow down and to alleviate for a moment the rush and madness of the modern world, and forget all personal woes and suffering for even just a moment.  

 

Q: There have been many new fine and small presses that have started up in the last five years and I’m curious what drove you to start this at this moment in time? What unique aspect do you think that Nepenthe will offer to greater small press world and do you see this becoming your main pursuit or simply another facet of your artistic expression among many? 

 

I need to constantly be creating. It was when the Stephen King job ended after a year solid of work that I decided now was the time to start my own press. Nepenthe’s books will focus on illustration, we want to produce beautiful books which are also affordable to most people. I am continuing to illustrate full time, so Nepenthe is simply another creative expression. 

 

Q: Your first two productions at the press will be an anthology of folk horror tales named Unquiet Slumber and your second production will be POE, a part of your monograph series. Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of these projects and what you are most excited about with these first two releases?


Numbered Edition of Unquiet Slumbers from Nepenthe Press

Folk Horror has a strong tradition in the UK particularly, and the US, which seems to just keep growing, and it is probably the sub-genre of horror I love the most. I love The Wicker Man, Satan’s Claw, M R James and Arthur Machen as much as everyone else, but I thought, there are so many great horror writers working today, I’d love to curate a collection of stories by contemporary writers I really admire, so I started approaching them and was amazed by the response. We now have a very strong collection of stories, at least ten of which will be published for the first time. We also put out an open call which we were overwhelmed by, with almost 500 submissions in the end for a couple of spaces in the anthology, which goes to show the interest in this particular vein of horror! We are now in the midst of preorders and we are so excited! 

 

The POE book is another beast. I’ve always wanted to illustrate Poe, and his stories have been part of my life since I was pretty young. The greatest illustrated editions of Poe are all around a hundred years old, Clarke, Dore, Rackham, etc, so I wanted to create something akin to what was produced during the golden age of book illustration. It is quite a challenge, but I am working with some wonderful people on this book to produce something special. We are in the early stages, but will be sharing more soon via the newsletter and blog.  

 

Q: In the past, you have collaborated with many different small presses on the art side, but obviously being a press owner puts a whole new list of responsibilities in front of you. Have you enjoyed the other aspects of production as you have begun working on these first two projects and has there been anything that has really surprised you about being in this new role? 


Upcoming Poe project from Nepenthe Press

Yes, it’s a huge challenge, and an enormous amount of work, but I am enjoying the creative control I have, especially when it comes to the book design and interior layouts. What is wonderful too is if you have a pretty strong idea of how you want the book to look and you show a mock-up to a printer or binder they understand your language completely, and start to suggest the papers and materials to make the project come alive, it starts to feel very real and exciting. I’ve also received really generous help and guidance from people I know in the small press world, they’ve been so incredibly helpful and transparent in a realm I imagined would be very guarded, and offered invaluable advice and encouragement, which you need! Number crunching and the business side of things is all new to me, but I have someone help with that.  

 

Q: If there was one word or phrase that you hope comes to people’s minds when they think of Nepenthe Press, what would you hope that it would be? 

 

Such beautiful books for the money.

 

Q: We know what to expect for 2024 from your press and it is all really exciting. If you are sitting in your flat at the end of this year and reflecting back on the launch of Nepenthe, what would need to happen this year for you to consider it a success in your eyes? Is there anything coming in 2025 and beyond that you can tell us about for you as an artist or as a press owner? 


An enormous amount of passion and love goes into the production of these books, on every level.  I would like people to be sat in a comfy armchair this coming Christmas with a warm drink and a copy of one of our books, tweeting about losing themselves in them, and taking some time out. I have numerous illustration commissions on the go but unfortunately can’t say much about those right now, also I’ve always wanted to do my own graphic novel, German expressionist style, but when!  

 

For Nepenthe, we will be considering a second anthology, and who to follow Poe up with in the monograph series. One thing is for sure, we want to journey further into letterpress and printmaking in 2025, little chapbooks perhaps, penny dreadfuls maybe, ahhh so much to do, so little time! 


Lettered Prototype for Unquiet Slumbers to be bound by Roger Grech

This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth with Eli. If you want to order a copy of Unquiet Slumbers or see what else is upcoming you can see what Nepenthe Press has to offer at https://www.nepenthepress.co.uk/. For updates on current projects check him out on Facebook or Instagram to stay up to date on what's coming up in the future for Nepenthe Press!


Interview by: Zach Harney of the Collectible Book Vault

 

*Since there are often different spellings in American English and British English of the same words, we have chosen to adhere to the spelling of the person who is speaking rather than conform to one convention for the whole interview.


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Thank you everyone for entering, and the winners are:


@brutishlibrary

Tim Rasmussen


Thanks everyone for joining in, we really appreciate all the love and support!

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Great interview and what a gorgeous-looking book!

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Great interview. Looking forward to the future of Nepenthe Press

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Excellent interview! Thank you for bringing Nepenthe Press to my attention!

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Great interview, some beautiful books! Looking forward to seeing more.

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