DES MOINES — When Lars Pearson was growing up in Story City, his mother banned science fiction from the house.
“She believed it was the portal to Satan,” he said.
Instead, it became for Pearson the portal to a writing, editing and publishing career that includes more than 20 books, uncounted magazine articles and a prestigious Hugo Award, which honors the year's best science fiction.
Pearson is owner of Mad Norwegian Press, which publishes a range of books and e-books, from original science fiction novels to guides to the histories and lore of sci-fi series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who and The X-Files.
Pearson employs freelance writers across the country and in the United Kingdom and Australia, but his publishing empire is headquartered in a two-bedroom house on the west side of Des Moines.
And it all began with a case of mistaken identity.
Pearson occasionally sneaked comic books into his parents’ Story City home, but his big breakthrough into the world of science fiction was watching Doctor Who in syndication on Iowa Public Television.
His parents allowed their son to watch the long-running British series about a time traveler who fights monsters because they believed it was a show about veterinarians. The actor who played the title role in Doctor Who when Pearson started watching was Peter Davison, the fifth man to embody the show’s hero.
Davison also played Tristan Farnon on the British series All Creatures Great and Small, a series about a family of vets, and a longtime staple of IPTV’s Sunday entertainment programming.
In the mid-1980s, IPTV ran Doctor Who on Friday nights as part of a collection of science fiction programming that included Red Dwarf, Blake’s 7 and other British offerings.
The first episode Pearson tried to watch was “Snakedance,” a story in which a malignant force in the shape of a giant snake takes over the mind of one of the Doctor's companions.
His mother turned off the TV because the snake was too scary for young Lars.
“But I think that it involved a snake cemented the idea that Doctor Who was about veterinarians,” Pearson said. “By the time they figured out it wasn’t, it was too late.”
Pearson graduated from high school in 1991 and Coe College in 1995. He began his career as a newspaper editor before landing a job at the new-defunct Wizard Magazine in New York City.
Wizard covered comic books and related movies, science fiction, toys and so on. The magazine sold about 225,000 copies per month when Pearson joined the staff, but it did not survive the transition into the digital age.
Pearson moved from New York to Los Angeles to work at an entertainment news website called Thirsty.
“We were sort of Gawker before Gawker,” Pearson said. “We lost $9 million. For the first three months, it was the best place in the world to work, and for the last three months, it was the worst, with people getting fired left and right.”
Pearson started Mad Norwegian Press in 1999 with a book about Doctor Who, follow by a series of novels based on a time-traveling voodoo cult.
Mad Norwegian’s big breakthrough came with the publication of Dusted: The Unauthorized Guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The book was timed to release just as the cult TV series concluded in 2003.
“It’s probably our biggest hit to date,” Pearson said.
From there, his empire grew. He co-wrote and edited a massive history of Doctor Who called A History, now in its third edition.
And massive is not an overstatement.
"It's 30,000 words longer than War and Peace," Pearson said. "When we did this edition, I called the printer and asked how wide a spine they could do on a book. They said we were about a half-inch away from the maximum. So if we do a fourth edition, it will have to be two volumes."
Pearson moved back to Iowa in 2005. He is a recognized expert in genre entertainment and collecting. He has been interviewed on the topic by by U.S. News and World Report. And few can match his prowess on Doctor Who knowledge.
"He’s like a Doctor Who scholar," said Ronnie Free, owner of Black Medicine Comics in Des Moines. "He could be a professor in this stuff."
And his work earned high accolades.
The Mad Norwegian-published book Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It won a Hugo Award for Best Related Work. The book is the first of a series about women in cult fandom.
Hugo Awards, given since 1953, are among the most prestigious honors in the science fiction community. Pearson's work joins historic honorees such as Ursula Le Guin, Issac Asimov, J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman.
Lars doesn’t share his sales data, but he said it is enough for him to pay writers and printers and still make a comfortable living.
He and his wife, Christa Dickson, a web producer at Meredith Corporation and contributor to Pearson's publications, paid off their 30-year mortgage in 10 years.
Pearson is 43 and makes his living writing about time travelers and vampire slayers, but his life itself is perhaps a greater flight of fantasy.
He was once a small-town Iowa boy who went off to the big cities, New York and Los Angeles, to seek fortune and glory as a writer and editor.
Yet he returned to Iowa and the easy living of Des Moines to become a science fiction publishing magnate.
A few years ago, when Chicks Dig Time Lords won the Hugo, Pearson's mother admitted she finally watched an episode of Doctor Who.
“The monsters were kind of scary,” Pearson remembers his mother telling him.
And while it definitely isn’t about veterinarians, for Lars Pearson, at least, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Follow Daniel P. Finney on Twitter: @newsmanone