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Bobby Bermea: The dark and gloomy glories of Tenebrous Press

The Portland-based purveyors of "new weird horror" are building a mini-empire of shock and shivers, including the novelette double feature "Split Scream" released on Halloween.

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“Your Body Is Not Your Body,” Tenebrous Press. Cover art by Mx Morgan G Robles.
tenebrous

[ tenuh-bruhs ]

adjective

  1. dark, gloomy, obscure

Tenebrous Press, fittingly enough, was born in the heart of a maelstrom of madness: a worldwide pandemic, police brutality, social upheaval, political convulsions, wildfires, and a host of other seemingly endless trials and tribulations. It seems completely natural that a publisher should come along that openly embraces the imminent destruction of humanity and the fragile societal structures we have grown to depend on.

That publisher was Portland’s Tenebrous Press, its founder was Matt Blairstone, and that initial foray into a new brand of horror fiction was Green Inferno: The World Celebrates Your Demise, a two-hundred-page collection of comics and short fiction centered on what Blairstone dubbed “terrestrial horror” — that is, horror that focuses on the Earth basically kicking our collective asses for being bad stewards. 

Despite its bleak outlook on the fate of the human condition, Green Inferno was more the genesis of something new than even Blairstone had anticipated. The compendium was remarkable in a number of ways: for its unusual format and mix of content, for bringing authors and artists together from all over the world, and for the love and care Blairstone brought to the physical object of the book itself. It was a passion project put together by a unique sensibility and aesthetic, with singular attention to the sensual experience of the readers, and they responded. 

Green Inferno garnered enough momentum that Blairstone knew he wanted to do still more with Tenebrous, and now he had the social and financial capital to do it. He had an idea that he thought was good for his next project, but he needed help: “I knew I wanted to do something that accentuated women and femme-identifying people/writers but I didn’t know that I was the right person to spearhead a project like that.”

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Enter: Alex Woodroe

Woodroe is a native Romanian who lives and works in a farming community outside of Clus, one of the biggest cities in Transylvania. She’s on a mission to preserve Romanian history and culture, which she fears is being lost. “My grandparents are still alive right now,” she says, “but with their generation passing away that is the end of a lot of stuff.”

She had spent most of her adult life traveling and working around Europe in a variety of different situations. “I probably went through twenty different jobs,” she says today. “I was writing projects for the European Union, I taught in prisons, I trained dogs, I was a translator, then a literary translator, I did ads for perfume and kitty litter, so basically, any little thing that I could do, I did. I ended up writing fiction because all of the nonfiction writing I was doing to pay the rent was soul-sucking and depressing.”

In 2020-21, Woodroe was still a nascent fiction writer and Green Inferno almost never happened for her. A plethora of rejections had taken a toll on her spirit, and she had given up writing as a career pursuit. “I had just gotten the worst rejection of my life like the week before,” she says. “I was so green I didn’t know that I needed to just let that stuff slide right off me.”

Woodroe had decided to step away from the field and never actually saw the call for artists and writers for Green Inferno: “I had actually quit. But I had a small writing group at the time, and when I decided I couldn’t do it anymore, they grabbed a couple of my stories that I hadn’t sold – which at that point was all of my stories – and they submitted them around on my behalf. So, it was somebody else that saw Matt’s announcement and sent that story in and I had no idea what was happening until that person said, ‘Hey, you just got accepted.’

The story, “Depth of the Water,” was Woodroe’s first published fiction. Since then she’s had her first novel, Whisperwood, published, has two more on the way, has appeared in myriad anthologies and magazines, and has two audio versions of her stories that you can listen to on the NoSleep podcast, as well as various interviews on various other podcasts. Woodroe is about that life. 

Tenebrous Press’s brain trust: Alex Woodroe (left) and founder Matt Blairstone.

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So it’s probably lucky that Blairstone met her when he did. Being aware of her editing background, Blairstone proposed the possibility of her working on the Tenebrous followup to Green Inferno and his idea for it being femme-focused. “She came back with a bushel of short stories that was an updating of gothic tropes that she collectively called In Somnio,” he says.

She edited it down to the shortlist, gave the shortlist to Blairstone, and a working relationship was born. “We clicked immediately,” says Blairstone. “Her enthusiasm and passion for doing what we do – we hit it off very quickly.”

In Somnio did even better than Green Inferno and earned Tenebrous some seed money. Their next project, Your Body Is Not Your Body, was initiated to “raise money for trans-youth who were threatened to be criminalized in Texas,” says Blairstone.

It had the added effect of cementing Blairstone and Woodroe as a creative partnership. “I think it was around then that we realized how in it forever we both were,” says Blairstone. “Somewhere along the line it became, it can’t be it without me and it can’t be it without her. This is what we do.”

The breakdown of their individual responsibilities within Tenebrous is simple but fluid. “She takes more of the creative lead, says Blairstone, “and I keep the trains running on time.” 

“It doesn’t always break down that way, though,” says Woodroe. “We each pick up absolutely anything and everything that needs picking up. When we needed extra art we divided it between the two of us. When it’s time to do extra proofreading, whoever can, does it. We select stories together. There are times when he’s reading more of the queries. There are times when I am. It’s hard to say that we have separate tasks aside from saying that mostly I develop stories with authors and mostly he handles the administrative part.”

“We have an inherent trust in each other,” says Blairstone. “ It has to be unspoken; it has to be almost psychic.” Woodroe adds, without reticence: “What works for us is that we are both willing to do the impossible for this to unhealthy degrees.” 

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Two years after Green Inferno hit the stands, Tenebrous Press is the proud publisher of more than a dozen books. The press has just published its ambitious Posthaste Manor, with another novel, Lumberjack, on the way in December. At least two more books planned for the spring of 2024, and a magazine is upcoming in November 2023: Thank You for Joining the Algorithm, which will be issue #0 of an ongoing Tenebrous magazine.  

Fom the Tenebrous catalog: “Thank You for Joining the Algorithm,” a magazine debuting in November 2024; and “In Somnio: A Collection of Modern Gothic Horror.”

If all that weren’t enough, on Halloween Tenebrous will be publishing Split Scream, “a horror novelette double feature.” Split Scream came about when Blairstone and Woodroe, who was visiting from Romania, were at the literary horror convention Stokercon in Pittsburgh and met Dread Stone Press founder Alex Ebenstein. “He had been doing a series for the last couple of years of split novelettes,” says Blairstone, “which we’re both big fans of.”

But for Ebenstein, being an accomplished author in his own right, a new father, and publishing horror on his own was proving to be a heavy load. Blairstone and Woodroe thought they might have a solution that would benefit all parties. “We wanted to have more books out without having to take the time to select and edit them,” says Woodroe. “[Ebenstein] wanted to have a bit of break on the admin stuff. All of the backstage stuff of publishing is going to happen through Tenebrous, because we already have the systems in place.” 

Stokercon was eventful for Tenebrous for a number of reasons. It was there that Blairstone and Woodroe found out that Tenebrous had been nominated three times for the prestigious Shirley Jackson Awards. And here’s where I let them tell the story: 

Woodroe: “Yeah, we were selling merch at our table, and Matt shows me this email that we’ve been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Awards and we had three nominations. One was for us as editors for Your Body Is Not Your Body, one was for the novella Lure (by Tim McGregor), and one was for an individual story in Your Body Is Not Your Body (“Brothers Maternitas,” by Viktor Athelstan). We were jumping and screaming and telling everybody. We made a little note that said ‘Shirley Jackson Award-nominated’ and put it on top of the books that were relevant —”

Blairstone: “– Tim [McGregor], the author of Lure, was there so we went and told him. Couple of the writers on Your Body Is Not Your Body were there, Hailey Piper and M. Lopes da Silva, and we went and found them and told them – and then we read the back half of the email that said —”

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Woodroe: “‘– Don’t tell anybody.’ So, we immediately went back to Tim who had already put a note out where he was signing books. We made him put the note away and we went back to our table and hid our notes in our jackets and then we were just whispering it to select people. Nobody knows. Nobody found out. I think.”

The Tenebrous Press brand of fiction is something they have dubbed  “new weird horror,” and although they offer a definition on their website, it is not a fixed point with a precise definition. “We like strange things,” says Woodroe. “We like things we haven’t experienced before. Whenever we’re looking through the slush pile that is the number one consideration.” 

“What makes it a Tenebrous book,” says Blairstone, “is that a lot of times you find authors reign themselves in to make something more appealing or commercially marketable. Invariably, our editor’s notes will be, take the weirdest notes you can find in this story and fucking floor those. The things that are alienating, the things that make you cross your eyes and give you those uncomfortable feelings, we want those amplified as much as possible, so feel free to operate without seat belts.”

Two years and fifteen books later, with innumerable projects on the uncanny horizon, Tenebrous feels like it is building something solid. With Woodroe, Blairstone, Ebenstein and Cameron Howard (who will be the primary editorial force behind Thank You for Joining the Algorithm and the ensuing issues of their magazine), Tenebrous is beginning to have something resembling a staff. They have a substantial body of work. They have a burgeoning stable of authors. Their ambition, hunger and sense of purpose are palpable; their enthusiasm is intoxicating. Blairstone, who is also a musician, says, “I like to call Tenebrous the first band I’ve been in that made it past the garage.” 

Woodroe concurs: “The Press is doing well. People seem to like what we’re doing. People seem to care. It would be silly to stop now, especially because now it means a lot to many people other than us. I don’t think we have that option anymore. We’re going to have to be buried in our Tenebrous T-shirts.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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