Matthew Louis is a desperate man.

Matthew Louis is a desperate man.

In that way he is much like the thugs, killers and prostitutes who populate "Out of the Gutter," the pulp fiction journal he spawned more than two years ago.

Louis, 36, publishes the journal out of his Medford home, and as the deadline looms for each issue, Louis spends 80 hours a week stitching "Out of the Gutter" together, sifting through hundreds of submissions, grappling with writers over editing concerns and piecing together art.

The idea for a journal of anti-social fiction was born out of Louis' growing frustration over getting his own writing published.

"I hoped people would read 'Out of the Gutter' for the stories, but it was also so I could get my own name out there," Louis says.

It turns out, for all its hardcore imagery and consciously un-PC humor, people are reading the journal. Print runs have increased with each issue — Louis is about to begin planning the sixth — and established crime writers have taken notice.

Charlie Stella, author of six acclaimed novels set in the world of New York City organized crime, geeks on seeing his stories printed in a venue reminiscent of the pulp magazine glory days of "Black Mask" and "Weird Tales," which thrived from the 1920s to the 1950s.

"The things you find in 'Out of the Gutter' you won't find in mainstream markets," Stella says in an phone interview from his home in New Jersey. "It's ballsy."

Out of the Past

Louis grew up near Salinas, Calif. — Steinbeck country.

After his father lost his construction job when Louis was in junior high, the family settled into a trailer that lacked hot water, but was flush with books.

"My parents were readers," he says. "That's the one thing I could take away from a mostly dysfunctional experience."

Among his first reading memories is "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck. He never looked back.

"When I got a book I found I wasn't bored for hours on end," he says. "I read most of Steinbeck and moved on from there."

He hated school, describing himself as a loner who usually had a girlfriend but few close friends. In his late teens he clamped onto the California punk music scene, which would later inform many of his choices for "Out of the Gutter," he says.

He admired the way bands such as the Dead Kennedys and Fear eschewed mainstream acceptance and the fat paychecks thereof. He also was exposed to zines, often crude, do-it-yourself publications passed around by musicians, artists and assorted outsiders connected to the punk scene.

"The whole point of the zines was get people to pick them up to see what some maniac was thinking," Louis says. "The surprise came when people found some intelligent writing inside them."

Louis did poorly in high school and shrugged off college to play guitar in a rockabilly band. All the while, he continued reading and learning from the likes of Jack London, Graham Greene and John D. MacDonald, all masters of a deceptively simple prose style that was built for movement and strong enough to support meaningful ideas.

He eventually landed a job buying and selling the contents of delinquent storage lockers at auction. It was about that time he began working on his first novel.

"Writing was an outgrowth of my own desperation," he says. "I needed to do it, but I had to teach myself grammar because I never got beyond bonehead English in public school."

He beat out the novel in a few weeks — working in an unheated garage — the story of violent, California white-trash punks shooting, raping and killing each other.

"Sometimes it was so cold the computer wouldn't work," he says. "I had to wait two hours for it to warm up before I could use it."

The book didn't sell. He knew he had to do something to make a name for himself in the literary world before an agent would look at an unsolicited manuscript.

And from that desperation "Out of the Gutter" was forged.

Out of the Gutter

"Out of the Gutter" is not "The Paris Review." That much becomes clear when you're confronted by the lurid cover art, often depicting blood-crazed individuals attempting to stab, shoot or beat each other to death.

The journal is cut into sections based on reading time. Stories are lumped into 10-minute reads, 15-to-20-minute reads and so forth. There is a non-fiction section and plenty of fake ads for products such as a "Life-like Dog Suit" ("Crap anywhere, have sex in public!") and "Cat Meth" ("Give your cat an edge in the neighborhood").

The stories are raw and bloody, harkening back to the most brutal work of pulp legends Jim Thompson and David Goodis. "Out of the Gutter" does not know happy endings. Toughness and cunning are celebrated within its gaudy pages, as are exploitation, revenge and cowardice.

"I'm interested in the pulp tradition," says writer Joe McKinney. "I would read it even if I wasn't published in it."

McKinney, who solves homicides as a detective with the San Antonio Police Department when he isn't writing horror and crime novels, says "Out of the Gutter" provides a much-needed market for writers of the short-fiction genre.

"It looks professional," he adds. "It has that distressed look of the old pulps. You're not ashamed to have a story in it."

The one drawback, according to writers interviewed for this story, is that Louis does not have the cash to pay writers. As circulation increases, that might change, he says.

Tough love

As an editor, Louis is tough and unforgiving. He will send stories back several times for rewrites. Some writers, such as Stella and McKinney, handle criticism with aplomb. Others do not take to Louis' heavy-handed style, the publisher admits.

"I had one guy who refused to take my suggestions, so I published the story after I rewrote a large part of it," Louis says. "I sent him his copy and he (urinated) on it and mailed it back to me."

With the fifth issue, Louis saw an increase in publishers willing to advertise in his gory pages. Copies of the first issue sold out and have been traded on eBay for $50. The sixth issue will be available on Amazon.com, something Louis hopes will kick up sales.

Death by deadline

The book has evolved into a monster Louis is forced to tame twice a year. In addition to sifting through hundreds of submissions — 80 percent of them are cast aside after the first read — also he illustrates much of the book himself.

Louis started by publishing four issues a year, but the pace, on top of work and family and bills, was killing him, so he scaled back. He created "Out of the Gutter" to make a name for himself and draw attention to his own writing, but now — between prepping the journal and his job hawking event T-shirts at West Coast rodeos — he finds little time to work on his own novels.

The irony is that new writers are benefitting from "Out of the Gutter's" existence, Stella says.

"Guys are getting in there and the book looks so good they can take it to an agent and say, 'Look, see, I'm in print,' " Stella says.

The schedule has been wearying, but Louis is nearly ready to begin accepting submissions for the sixth issue. The theme: Sexploitation.

"I don't limit subject matter," he says. "That's the exploration that's going on. Anything goes, just as long as it's well-executed."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.