If you visited the Quirk Books booth at BEA earlier this year, you may have noticed the two-by-three-foot blowup of the lenticular cover for Professor Gargoyle, which shows a suit-wearing science teacher transforming into a red-faced, horned demon as you walk by. The book is the first installment in the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series, which Quirk associate publisher and creative director Jason Rekulak both conceptualized and authored, under the pseudonym Charles Gilman. Gargoyle is the first middle-grade novel from the indie house, which is best known for its offbeat bestsellers like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the YA hit Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, both of which Rekulak also created.
A longtime fan of H.P. Lovecraft, Rekulak says the new series was originally inspired not by the early-20th-century author’s otherworldly horror stories, but by a visit to Disney World about two years ago. “My son and I were looking at all these cool portraits at the Haunted Mansion,” which appear to morph from staid to spooky, he explains. “I found out that instead of projectors or all the crazy things I was imagining, they were using a very fancy version of old-fashioned lenticular technology. The lenticulars we had when we were growing up, like in a Cracker Jack box, were two-frame animations; they now can have 16 frames in a single image. I started thinking about how it would be really cool on a series of books, and I figured the sweet spot for that is 10-year-old boys, so you’re talking about a middle-grade series.”
He pictured a succession of covers, each with a different person transforming into a different kind of monster. “So that’s not a series about vampires or a series about werewolves. It’s a series about a bunch of different kinds of monsters, which brought me around to Lovecraft,” he says of his series namesake, who created a lengthy roster of terrifying creatures and deities for his stories.
Initially, Rekulak had planned to hire a writer to flesh out the series, as he did with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Miss Peregrine. “I started outlining what the books should be,” he says. “But then I found myself outlining and writing more and more of it. The idea really got its hooks in me and I didn’t want to give it up.” Writing under a pseudonym, he says, and not revealing himself as the author to his sales team until right before the book went to press, allowed for more honest in-house feedback.
Professor Gargoyle opens with the main character, Robert Arthur, beginning seventh grade at a new school, where in addition to the usual junior-high horrors he also encounters tentacled creatures, ancient monsters, and gateways to a parallel universe. “I tried to appropriate all the things that are fun about Lovecraft and age appropriate to middle schoolers,” Rekulak says. Gargoyle ends with a teaser for book two, The Slither Sisters, which is due out in January. “We have three in the pipeline, and we’re about to add the fourth,” he explains. “If no one buys the first four, it won’t go on much longer. But if they work, I think we’ll try to get to an even dozen.”
Though Lovecraft Middle School represents Quirk’s first foray into middle-grade fiction, the publisher has found success in the children’s arena before, with Miss Peregrine, which has sold more than 350,000 copies through the outlets tracked by Nielsen BookScan. “When we were working on it, nobody had high expectations for it,” says Rekulak. “The same was true for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Nobody thought, wow, these books are really going to be huge. They were like, well, that’s weird.” A follow-up to Miss Peregrine is scheduled for June 2013; the publisher has also begun to reach out to even younger readers, beginning with Monkeyfarts!: Wacky Jokes Every Kid Should Know (September 2012; ages 6 to 10), by Quirk founder David Borgenicht.
“We keep finding ourselves backing into categories when we have a good idea,” Rekulak says. “Miss Peregrine was our first YA novel; we didn’t have a YA line. We’ve never committed to categories the way other publishers do. While they may say, ‘we do mystery,’ we’ll only do a mystery if we think it’s a beautiful, unconventional, innovative mystery. We take the same approach to middle grade and YA. We’re not going to be just pumping out YA fantasy novels about kids who discover magical amulets.”
A small house like Quirk, he adds, which publishes just 25 books a year, can take risks on the unconventional. “That’s what people want more than anything – something new. As tough as it is to achieve, I think it’s what everybody thinks publishers should be doing.”
Professor Gargoyle by Charles Gilman, illus. by Eugene Smith. Quirk, $13.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-59474-591-1