Saturday, November 18, 2017

My Friend in the Desert

During the 80s and 90s I was quite active in the Small Press, a period I've written about previously in this blog. For those not in the know, Small Press was collectively all the little books, journals, magazines and newsletters that proliferated in the shadows cast by giants. Where Doubleday might consider a low press run as 100,000 a Small Press book publisher might consider 250 a very high press run; where general circulation magazines might aim for millions of subscribers, Small Press editors were happy to get fifty, not counting relatives.

I entered the Small Press first as a writer, then an editor/publisher. It was quite an exciting time. One of the things that made it so enjoyable was the ability to meet people who had similar interests and goals. Most of these acquaintances were epistolary, but a few did result in actual encounters. One of the most memorable was t. winter-damon, a writer of fantastic tales who lived in the midst of a vast desert. In Tucson, to be exact.

Me & Damon -- circa March, 1989

If you look up t. winter-damon, you'll be told that it's the pen name of Timothy Winter Damon, but he always had me call him Damon, and his wife resolutely called him Tim. After more than thirty years, it's difficult to the exact details of our first encounter or precisely how it came about, but it started with a letter about writing and publishing, then a random remark on my part about an upcoming journey, followed by an invitation by Damon.

In those days I was wont to take occasional journeys into the wastelands, as I always referred to the desert areas to the East. The trips were partly meditative, partly restorative. After dwelling among the swarms of humanity, there is something curative in solitude. The aesthetic hermits and monks of old knew the value of "getting away from it all." Besides, I liked to visit Indian ruins, ghost towns and odd places along the byways of the Southwest, whereas my family considered it a form of torture.

Damon lived in Tucson, in the midst of the Wastelands, and was a regular contributor to many of my Small Press projects. He was possessed of a soaring imagination, a flair for expressing himself, and a boundless zeal for self-promotion. When I attended the World Fantasy Convention as a panelist in the early 90s, I found myself sitting at a table with Damon and his wife during one of the get-togethers. Abruptly, we found ourselves sans Damon. Occasionally I glimpsed him as he zoomed around the room, seating himself at one table after another -- he made a busy, busy bee look very lazy. When I mentioned this to Diane she laughed and said: "Tim is a master of self-promotion. He'll come back with at least a dozen contracts or agreements. He sells himself better than a two-dollar-hooker at a Shriners convention."

Most writers who have to interact with editors have to step out of some kind of a comfort zone to do so. Speaking for myself, my comfort zone is about the size of an old-style phone booth...maybe a little smaller. Damon's comfort zone was, apparently, as far as the eye could see, and then some.

Damon's interests were likewise wide ranging, but a large percentage of his writing was in horror fiction, especially in the genre then known as splatterpunk. It was a very visceral form of writing, very blood and gore, and was very big in the 80s, not so much later on, and rarely referred to now. My interest in horror writing was less...squishy, more philosophical and idea-driven, though, of course, I was not above ripping out the occasional heart, as long as it was in as good cause.

Despite our different approaches, we collaborated on several stories. Our usual mode of writing was the "round robin" method. That's where one writer pens a section, then passes it to another for the next. We wrote each other into corners, then dared the other to break out. Since his strengths were atmosphere and insanity, and mine were action and dialogue, we ended up with some very strange and wonderful stories that sometimes he was able to sell to an editor, sometimes not. As Damon said to me: "When the Splatterpunk Elvis Dark Fairy story doesn't sell to the Splatterpunk Elvis Dark Fairy anthology, what are you going to do with it?"

I treasure my memories of Damon's friendship. Even when I stopped traveling about so much after my auto accident, we still traded letters and stories. When I think of him, I think of the stories we wrote -- castles made from human bones, zeppelin battles over the Mountains of Madness, civilization-destroying powers locked in the ancient vaults of a dead planet, sail-billowing ships on sapphire seas beneath strange constellations, or lost souls trying to survive in terror-ridden cities.

I also recall the biography he wrote about me for Shoggoth, a Lovecraft-themed Small Press magazine published in Australia. I didn't understand at the time why he was asking so many questions about me, my life and my writing, but it all became clear when the magazine appeared in my mailbox and I read, with mounting dread, "Ralph E Vaughan: Visionary of the Dreamlands." It also contained Damon's review of my then-newest story, The Dreaming Detective, a tale of Sherlock Holmes in HPL's Dreamlands. It was as embarrassing as it was flattering.

Sadly, Damon is no longer with us. Our correspondence tapered off after the start of the millennium, There was no argument, no disagreement, no falling out of any kind, as so often happens in fannish friendships. It was just an evolution. If I had to pick some reason, I might look to the rise of e-publishing and the decline of the Small Press, which had always been a paper-based phenomena. Lacking a focus, we drifted It's like those high school friendships. You're BFFs, then infrequent lunch companions, and finally Christmas card exchangers; then, one day, you realize you forgot to send a card, and didn't get one either.

It was toward the beginning of 2009 that I learned of Damon's death a few months earlier. He passed on 28 November 2008, about six months shy of his sixtieth birthday. He left behind an enduring body of fiction that will probably never be completely catalogued -- a drawback of the Small Press, where issues often never made it outside its small circle of subscribers. I will always remember him, will ever miss his wit, intellect and humor. My friend -- the Wizard of the Wastelands, the Master Scribe of the Eastern Desert.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Looking Back on the Lords of the Starship

Back in 1967, while the rest of the world was lighting up, kicking back and enjoying the Summer of Love, I came across an Ace paperback titled Lords of the Starship (G-673) by Mark S. Geston. It had one of the most evocative covers I have ever seen on a book. After reading on the back: "The ship was to be seven miles long, a third of a mile in diameter and have a wingspan of three and a half miles. It would take two and a half centuries to construct" there was nothing else to do but plunk down two quarters and go off into a wonderful world of super-science, or so I thought.

At the time, I was a futurist. I did not really think I would see flying cars by the Year 2000 (though I hoped so), I did believe that the ills of the world would be solved through technology and science, that starving millions would be fed by scientific farming, that the world would embrace peace once everyone's standard of living had been raised by ubiquitous technology and that the the frontier of human experience would be expanded by colonization of the solar system and journeys to the stars beyond. Unfortunately, the future turned out not to be quite what I had envisioned. I'm no longer a futurist, not even much of an optimist anymore, and quite often I find myself thinking, Where are we going so fast, and what are we all doing in this hand basket? But back in '67, I still thought the future was going to be a great place. I dove into Lords of the Starship, thinking it might be something like what John W. Campbell and Doc Smith wrote back in the Thirties. However, instead of the bright future I expected I found a dark and dismal place, and a humanity sapped of hope and vitality, a race on a collision course with its own entropic demise. It not only depressed me, it confused me. Now, not so much.

Thousands of years from now, a despairing humanity is set to the task of building a massive starship for the purpose of abandoning Earth for a planet called Home. The project, however, is a sham. The ship will never be built. Its only purpose is to revitalize humanity. There are revolutions and wars, and when the People vanquish the duplicitous "Technos," the ship really is built and humanity prepares to escape to the stars. Except, the power of the starship is turned against both makers and foes before it and the millions aboard are destroyed. Surveying the devestation is the man who, in various guises, began the project and protected it over the centuries so he could ultimately destroy it, a man who real purpose was to vanquish the military might and social will of the nations involved so his own forces could take over.

Despite the dark tone of the book, I still enjoyed it, and when two sequels were written I enjoyed them as well. I read and re-read the original book and still have the book I traded two quarters for. In the Eighties, I edited a literary journal called Cerberus. For my second issue, I contacted Mark Geston, then a lawyer, and asked him about the book (his first!), written when he was still a student at Kenyon College. He said he had wanted to explore the theme of magic vs technology and did so by juxtaposing the tools of a technological culture upon a world descended into a sort of fantasy realm inhabited by mutants and menaced by "dark powers."

It's been fifty years now, and I've had a chance to reevaluate both the book and my own attitudes. When I watch the the news or read reports on the internet, I understand that Geston was right about the future and I was wrong. It did not, however, take thousands of years to reach the brink.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Beware Clubfoot

Several years ago at one of the Friends of the Library sale, I came across a book titled "The Mystery of the Gold Box" by Valentine Williams. It was published by Collier, had a gilt-impressed spine and a brown cover embossed SECRET SERVICE SERIES. At the time, the author was unknown to me and I knew nothing of the story, but since it was obviously part of a uniform edition I immediately began looking for the other volumes...such is the nature of obsession. And I found them:
  • The Man With the Clubfoot (1918)
  • The Return of Clubfoot (1923)
  • Clubfoot the Avenger (1924)
  • The Crouching Beast (1928)
  • The Mystery of the Gold Box [AKA The Gold Comfit Box] (1932)
  • The Spider's Touch (1936)
  • Courier to Marrakesh (1944)
Thus I was introduced to Valentine Williams (1883 - 1946), military hero, war correspondent and real life British spy, and to his greatest creation, a villain named Dr Adolph Grundt, a "repulsive crippled ape," also known as Clubfoot. When we first meet Clubfoot, in The Man With the Clubfoot, he is the Kaiser's most efficient and brutal spymaster, and he ends his nefarious career in Courier to Marrakesh as an agent of Adoph Hitler, a junior league psychopath compared to Grundt. And the period between the wars? Up to no good, believe you me.

Lt Valentine Williams...
...and his creation, Clubfoot

One of the most remarkable aspects of Williams' novels is his attitude toward Germans and Germany in his depiction of Grundt and his espionage activities. It was common at the time of his first book for English writers to insert any number of "nice" Germans into their fictions. They were emphatic that the German people had been led astray by a very few evil men. Not Williams. He was more in the camp of contemporary Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose depictions of Germans in the Tarzan books were so brutal that one has to wonder why they were so popular in Germany. But popular they were, and so were the books of Valentine Williams, at least until a fellow with a funny moustache took over Germany. Then not so much.

His books are not as easy to find nowadays, but a few have been brought back into print and into ebook format. They are well worth the effort to find for spy fiction fans as they faithfully depict the techniques and dangers of spycraft at the times in which they were written. He had a very lucid and straightforward writing style, possibly stemming from his journalistic work. His novels will, of course, jar some of the modern reader's sensibilities from time to time, but that's always a danger when reading something written in an era when people saw much more clearly than they do now.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

When Science Fiction Died

I rarely meet people I knew when I was a teenager, but when I do, they usually ask me, "Are you still reading science fiction?" When they knew me, I was usually engrossed in a novel by Asimov or van Vogt, or reading the latest issue of F&SF or Galaxy. I was also the kid who took off from school (with the principal's permission) to attend such events as a lecture by Rod Serling and a writing workshop with Ray Bradbury. I think they thought I was defined by what I read...and they were not far wrong.

Prior to the turn of the century, my answer was a forceful affirmative, which they found amazing. In their own lives, they had moved on from youthful pursuits, strayed from the paths that defined them. The musician became a dental assistant, the marine biologist a financial manager, and the math whiz a cashier at the local big-box store. Any hobbies they had as teens had also fallen by the wayside. And yet there I was, nearly four decades on, still reading science fiction, still being defined by cosmic literature.

Nowadays, however, my answer to the question is, "No, not much anymore." As the Twentieth Century began to unwind to the Year 2000, there came a sea change in my reading. The first rumblings of it took the form of a novel called Darwinia.

I read this book a year or two before the world moved into a new century. It came to me via the Science Fiction Book Club and was the last "new" science fiction book I read. In any fictional account, a "suspension of disbelief" is necessary, but it is absolutely vital in the science fiction genre. About three-quarters of the way through the book, during a particularly epic description of the galactic archive, I thought: This is just ridiculous. My disbelief in the book's universe was no longer suspended. In fact, it came crashing down.

I really can't entirely blame the book, and the writer not at all -- Robert Charles Wilson is a talented and imaginative author. No, the fault was, as Shakespeare might have said, not in the book but in myself. When I set aside the book (I did finish it) I thought about the SFBC bulletin from which I had ordered the book -- it had been the only book even remotely intriguing to me in amongst the graphic novels, fantasy trilogies, "message" books, and authors I'd never heard of. That set me to thinking about how all the science fiction writers I liked were either dead, had stopped writing, or were trying to write for a new, younger, more callow demographic. So, I stopped reading science fiction.

Not entirely, of course, for I do find novels in the sub-genres of Alternate History and Steampunk that interest me. But the names are unknown to me. Sometimes, I'll pick up a magazine from back then and compare it with a current issue of Asimov's or Analog (the market has gone from dozens of magazines to three) -- in the older magazine, I'll recognize 90+% of the names, maybe one name in the new magazine. Same with anthologies. When I go to a bookstore, a trip through the science fiction section is an exercise in frustration and confusion, and an urge for nostalgia.

Nowadays, my usual reading fare in fiction are mysteries. I especially like novels from the Golden Age, but there are many current novelists who entertain me -- Michael Connelly, Christopher Fowler, and Stephen Puleston. Occasionally, I revisit science fiction, but the author is usually long dead or forgotten by the brash young savages of today. Even science fiction fandom has outpaced me, becoming mired in activism, political agendas, revisionism and literary tyranny of all kinds.

The world changes and the people in it. Even the Pole Star changes every 26,000 years as the Earth orbits the Milky Way Galaxy. But not me, I think.

Friday, May 5, 2017

This...Not This

Recently, I read and reviewed a book titled Uncommon Clay. I had looked forward to it, because I had read and enjoyed books about the author's other series character. Unfortunately, everything I liked about the other character and the author's storytelling were not in this new book. It's not a unique situation, liking one book from an author, while avoiding another. Usually, for me at least, it's not a matter of an author writing a bad book as much as it's just not my cup of tea.

For example, there's Agatha Christie...


I'm an avid reader of both the Hercule Poirot mysteries and the Miss Marple mysteries. In my younger days I gravitated more toward Poirot than Marple, but as I've aged I find a much greater appreciation for Miss Marple and her ability to view the world through the lens of a village. On the other hand, Christie's tales of the mysterious Mr Quinn don't appeal to me at all. They are well written and cleverly plotted, and yet they leave me meh.

Not This

And Ellery Queen...

Not This

Early on in my mystery reading life, I discovered the Ellery Queen novels, though it took me awhile to figure out that the detective and the writer were two different people, then a little longer to discover that the writer was indeed two separate people writing under one name. I devoured the Ellery Queen/Ellery Queen novels, yet when it came to the Ellery Queen/Drury Lane mysteries I was not enthused. The same hand was at work, the same cleverness in plotting, and the same snappy turns of phrase, and yet...meh.

And Rex Stout...

To tell the truth, when I was much younger Rex Stout's tales of corpulent detective and orchid fancier Nero Wolfe did not appeal to me. I generally gave them a pass. Eventually, I came to my senses, and now my affection for him rivals that of what I feel toward Sherlock Holmes. Yet even when I came to admire Stout's writing skills, his superb characterization and clever plotting, I found myself cool toward his other series characters, female PI Dol Bonner and rustic Tecumseh Fox. Once again, the same hand and yet no enthusiasm on my part.

Not This...
...Or This

And even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is not exempt...

Definitely This
Possibly This

My enthusiasm for the Sherlock Holmes tales was an early development and started when I saw the Basil Rathbone films from Fox (Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) in the late Fifties or early Sixties. Almost immediately, I discovered the books in the library and read them all. And re-read them. And continue to re-read them. As to Conan Doyle's other non-Sherlock Holmes books...well, I am not alone in this one. It regularly arises in Sherlock Holmes societies around the world, the question of just how much attention should be paid to the writings that lie outside the Canon. There is some consensus that his spiritualist scribblings are not worth pursuing, but what about his Professor Challenger books and historical novels? The answer runs the gamut, of course, but, for me, I've read and mostly liked the Challenger books (no re-reading though), but the historical novels don't hold any attraction for me. They just don't.

Sorry, Sir Arthur...

I'm sure I'm not alone in this odd bias. For me, I think the reason is to be found in the characters themselves rather than in the authors' writing. They become friends to me, companions of a sort as I journey through a literary landscape. In a sense, they almost become real. Just as it happens in our day-to-day lives, we meet numerous people, some we like, some we don't and some who leave no impression upon us at all, and they, too, are all products of the same imitating life

Friday, March 17, 2017

Stay Out of the Woods

If there is anything I've learned from a lifetime of watching films, it's that very few good things take place in the woods. From being stalked by the Blair Witch to attacked by blood-drinking Druids to running into the Jersey Devil, bad things happen in forests. The deeper you venture into those dark woods, the worse the dangers become, till the very trees themselves turn against you and try to suck your life force from you...that was a British film. The point is, you don't have to be named Hansel or Gretel to come to no good end when ancient/forbidden/cursed/haunted woods are involved. And it's not merely a modern motif. Storytellers have been warning us to stay out of the woods for at least four thousand years...obviously we are slow learners. In Beast of Robbers Wood, third book in the DCI Arthur Ravyn Mysteries, I add my own voice to those warning of dangers lurking among those seemingly peaceful sylvan settings.

Just outside Midriven village, in myth-haunted Hammershire County, is the vast, mostly unexplored tract known as Robbers Wood. The forest acquired that name through the depredations of notorious highwayman Ned Bly, who made his living by taking purses and heads along the Old Road. Even though his neck got stretched by Jack Ketch in 1837, his spirit still gallops the road. As if that were not reason enough to stay out of the woods (not to mention avoiding the lane that skirts the woods), there is an even older legend going back at least to the time of the Druids. A nameless Beast occasionally awakens from its slumber ("when the stars are right" of course) and takes victims back to its lair in the heart of the woods. Personally, I'd move to another village. When a girl vanishes from Midriven (only the first of several) it falls to DCI Arthur Ravyn and DS Leo Stark to investigate. None of the village old timers are betting on the detectives to survive, much less solve the baffling mystery -- what chance do two country coppers stand against the Old Gods?

If you're interested in a preview of the book, please click below:

Although Midriven and its legends are central to the mystery, it's really the characters that propel the story. We learn a bit more about Ravyn's past, as well as the crisis that has assailed Stark's life since we met him in Murder in the Goblins' Playground, but each person we meet in Midriven has a story to tell, and perhaps a destiny to meet. I hope you enjoy this and the other books as much as I enjoy writing them. Currently, I am working on the fourth in the series, Murderer in Shadow, which will center around the theme of solitude and loneliness...and, of course, murder.
To be taken to the series page on Amazon, please click here

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

We Were Hunting a Monster

There were three of us crammed into an old yellow VW Beetle hurtling at breakneck speed through black woods. It was the early Seventies, and we were being chased by monsters.

I've written elsewhere in this blog about being a UFO investigator for the UFO Research Bureau (UFORB), but I don't think I mentioned that we worked out of office space leased by an organization called the World Truth Institute (WTI). It was quasi-religious but mostly philosophical, the sort of thing that's called New Age nowadays. It's founder, Warren B. Knox, had written a book called Moroni's Message, a kind of adventure novel with religious overtones, the sort of thing that would become popular years later when Raiders of the Lost Ark was a box office hit.

Like us (me, Steve & Gary), Warren was a Chula Vista guy. When his book was published, it got a nice write up in the 26 April 1973 issue of the Chula Vista Star-News, for which I was at the time still writing book reviews. I did not, however, review Warren's book. Mine was an actual book review column, called Etc, and the publisher, Lowell Blankfort, wanted Warren's book to be reviewed and him interviewed by the Religion editor because of the religious and metaphysical aspects of the book.

Warren was a smart fellow, but his concerns were so esoteric that we at times hardly knew what he was talking about. As UFO investigators, we were mostly concerned with lights in the sky whereas Warren was looking quite a ways beyond. We really didn't get involved with WTI or its work. What we appreciated was that WTI sub-leased back office space from a realtor in a set of old stucco buildings (built circa 1930) at the southwest corner of Third and H Street, and that we got to use that space to store our files and to have our meetings on Wednesday evenings. As I wrote, we were investigating the UFO Phenomena, each of us coming at it from our own particular points of view, but that didn't stop us from going off on a tangent now and then, especially if we could tie it, even tenuously, to Flying Saucers. One such tangent was Bigfoot. While Steve held firmly to Donald Keyhoe's machines-from-outer-space theory and that the Ufonauts were likely gray, green or blond-haired Nordic aliens, Gary thought it was more than possible that the Flying Saucer pilots, at least some of them, were Bigfoot (Sasquatch) creatures and that sightings of the hirsute monsters were actually UFO sightings misinterpreted.

Gary was not alone in this idea and one of its proponents was writer John A. Keel (author of, among others, The Mothman Prophecies and Our Haunted Planet), whom all three of us idolized. If Keel thought a Bigfoot alien was a possibility, we really couldn't mock Gary for believing it...well, we mocked him a little. As I wrote, we usually did not involve ourselves with WTI affairs, but Warren was always on the lookout for things that might interest us lads, and he had contacts with people in San Diego County that we, being mere callow youths, did not have.

One Wednesday evening, Warren showed up for one of our meetings, not unheard of, but unusual. He told us about a man he knew who lived in the East County, which back then was mostly undeveloped. The man, Dr John Bador, had written Warren a letter (he gave us a photostat for our files) that told a very strange story. Dr Bador, a retired medical man, owned a ranch up in the mountains that was fenced in around his ranch house, a step he took because of the large packs of coyotes that roamed the area at the time. On several nights, he observed a tall (7-8 ft) creature approach his fence and observe his house. He described it as being covered with thick fur except on its hands, feet and face...and, yes, the feet were big. Monsters, whether they were aliens or Missing Links, really did not fit into Warren's world view, but he thought we might be interested, especially since the East County had long been a UFO hot spot. We were interested, some more than others. That was how we came to be careening wildly through the dark in Gary's yellow VW Bug hunting for monsters. or being hunted by them.

I should point out that none of us were strangers to monster lore. As long-time Chula Vista residents we had heard about the Proctor Valley Monster all our lives. Just what was the Proctor Valley Monster? Nobody really knows. Some claim it was goatish or like a bull, others more humanoid, but there was no dissension about its reality. Well, maybe a little from some quarters, who unwisely mocked the PVM.  Proctor Valley was due east of Chula Vista. It has since been conquered and annexed by Chula Vista, part of the extensive Eastlake Development, but at the time it was wild and undeveloped. A drive along Proctor Valley Road was a journey into mystery and danger, especially at night...and, yes, we had made the trip at night in Gary's VW Bug. No monsters though. Having hunted for it, we thought ourselves well qualified to tackle this new monster. We were determined to find Dr Bador's monster (or Gary's UFO pilot). The only thing we did not consider in our impetuousness was what we would do if we actually caught the creature. Yes, we had much in common with dogs who chase cars.

Late one Saturday afternoon we set out for the East County, planning to enter the brush not far from Dr. Bador's ranch. The good doctor had been warned by Warren we would be in the area, just so he would know not to call the Sheriff or to shoot us. We had everything needed for a successful monster hunt -- tape recorder, camera, map, flashlights, sodas, candy bars and beef jerky. We entered the brush following a barely passable track. When we reckoned we had reached a good spot from where we could hike down to within view of Dr. Bador's place and still keep the car hidden, we waited quietly as darkness gathered around us.

Slightly after midnight, we heard something (maybe a lot of somethings) moving through the woods. They were not approaching the fence, but rather were closing in on Gary's car. Nervously, we made our way back to the Bug, rolled down the windows and listened to the movements of things we never saw. I should point out here that all three of us were City boys. I had been a Boy Scout, but sleeping in a tent at a Boy Scout camp, surrounded by the amenities of modern camping, is much different than sitting in a car, surrounded by totally dark woods with monsters closing in. We were so concerned about keeping quiet that none of us even bit down on a Hershey Bar, lest the snap of the chocolate give us away. The sounds in the woods grew fainter. Then something massive and dark crashed through the brush and landed very close to the car. There may have been some growling involved.

I don't want to say that any of us panicked. I know I was not panicked. Even though more than four decades have passed since that night, I'm pretty sure I was calm and cool during the entirety of the startling intrusion. But I can't really speak for the others. There were screams, but I'm pretty sure mine was not among them. Let us merely agree that there were screams and that some level of panic was involved. I don't want to point fingers, of course, but I will mention that Gary was driving and that 1.5 seconds after the advent of whatever-it-was we were in motion, jouncing at perilous speeds along trails we could not see, After maybe ten minutes of blind flight (we were certain we heard sounds of pursuit) we burst into the midst of a ranch. Unfortunately, it was not Dr Bador's place and this rancher had not been warned to refrain from firing his shotgun. With the boom loud in our ears, we zoomed up the ranch's access road, hit the main county road, and didn't slow down till we reached the familiar streets of Chula Vista.

Our report, which we shared with WTI, indicated that after extensive research, including an on-site inspection, we did not find any conclusive evidence of either Bigfoot or UFO visitation. We came to the conclusion Dr Bador was either the victim of a hoax or had misinterpreted natural phenomena, something we often came across in our investigations. We marked the case CLOSED. That was our story, and we stuck to it.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Winston SF

Graduating from Lauderbach Elementary and moving on to Castle Park Junior High, now, alas, known as Castle Park Middle School, was a time of changes for me. I went from being the shortest kid in my class to being one of the tallest...the bullies went in search of littler fellows though I was still fair game for taunts from skinny classmates. The sudden summer growth spurt was accompanied by not-unexpected awkwardness, though it also turned out I needed glasses. I went from spending the whole day in one classroom to switching rooms for every subject, trading one teacher for seven...I also learned that not all teachers were older married women. Let's not even consider what I was exposed to in Gym class for the first time. Ugh!

One of the few bright spots in junior high was the library. I was getting deeper into science fiction at that point, thanks to magazines of the time, but Lauderbach's selections in the genre were limited mostly to series such as Tom Swift Jr, Brains Benton and Digg Allen, and kid's books like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron and Mr Twigg's Mistake by Robert Lawson. While they were great books upon which I look back with fondness, they were not as demanding as I wanted my books to be. At the time, I was reading more complex mysteries by John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and others, so I suppose it was only natural to look for the same sort of sophistication from science fiction books. It was during that search in the new school's library that I came across a series of books called the Winston Science Fiction Library. It come into being in 1952 and was starting to wind down as I discovered it, but it was all new and exciting to me. I knew I was in for something different when I opened the first book and saw the endpaper art by Alex Schomburg.

Kids looking at them now might think the images a little hokey, and certainly the art style has been superseded by more photorealistic paintings. Still, as I look at it now, through a prism of more than a half century, the painting retains the ability to stir memories in me. The illustration (which was used for the endpapers in every book) promised a story different from the ones I was used to. The most sophisticated stories I'd read up to that time was Heinlein's 1947 book, Rocket Ship Galileo. These new books seemed to offer even more.

The first book I read in the series was The Year When Stardust Fell. Of all the books in the series, this book had the most effect on me and is the one I remember most. It concerns a worldwide catastrophe, the end of mechanization and the struggle between superstition and science. Recently, I had the opportunity to re-read the book. Often, when we go back to the items of our youth, we find things not the same, that older eyes see differently than younger short, you can't go home again. Happily, though, it was a pleasant experience and again I found myself caught up in the story. It was a little dated, perhaps, mostly in the mid-century mindset of the characters, but not terribly so.

Another influential book for me from that period was The Secret of the Ninth Planet by Donald A Wollheim, who went on to be an editor at Ace Books, then to found his own publishing company, DAW Books. It's a great adventure novel that takes the reader from an archaeological dig at an ancient Incan city in the Andes, to a city on Mars, to Venus, to a space battle with forces from the planet Pluto. Well, things have changed quite a bit since the novel was written -- neither Mars nor Venus are abodes for life, intelligent or otherwise, and some people claim Pluto is not a planet (I still believe!). Re-reading this one fifty years later, I was surprised how easily I was able to set aside modern astronomy and accept all the old planetary descriptions. Of course, that may have been because of Wollheim's writing skill, but there's also the possibility that I accepted them because they were more desirable to me than today's harsh scientific realities...I suppose the scientific ones are not the only harsh realities people have to deal with these days.Whatever the reason, I was glad that the book had not lost its charm for me.

The books in the series are a little difficult to find now in good condition and in the original dustjackets, but they can be tracked down at the usual suspects...EBay, ABEbooks, some third-party sellers on Amazon, and in the backs of dusty used book stores...if you still have any around you. Lately, some of the titles have also appeared in e-formats. For those who want to join the hunt, here's a check list of titles, authors, artists and years to help you out. I've highlighted my favorites.

  1. Earthbound by Milton Lesser, cover by Peter Poulton (1952)
  2. Find the Feathered Serpent, Evan Hunter, cover Henry Sharp (1952)
  3. Five Against Venus, Philip Latham (Robert S. Richardson), cover Virgil Finlay (1952)
  4. Islands in the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke, cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
  5. Marooned on Mars, Lester del Rey, cover Paul Orban (1952)
  6. Mists of Dawn, Chad Oliver, cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
  7. Rocket Jockey, Philip St. John (Lester del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1952)
  8. Son of the Stars, Raymond F. Jones, cover Alex Schomburg (1952) – Clonar, book 1
  9. Sons of the Ocean Deeps, Bryce Walton, cover Paul Orban (1952)
  10. Vault of the Ages, Poul Anderson, cover Paul Orban (1952)
  11. Attack from Atlantis, Lester del Rey, cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
  12. Battle on Mercury, Erik Van Lhin (Lester del Rey), cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
  13. Danger: Dinosaurs!, Richard Marsten (Evan Hunter), cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  14. Missing Men of Saturn, Philip Latham, cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  15. The Mysterious Planet, Kenneth Wright (Lester del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  16. Mystery of the Third Mine, Robert W. Lowndes, cover Kenneth S. Fagg (1953)
  17. Planet of Light, Raymond F. Jones, cover Alex Schomburg (1953) – Clonar, book 2
  18. Rocket to Luna, Richard Marsten (Evan Hunter), cover by Alex Schomburg (1953)
  19. The Star Seekers, Milton Lesser, cover Paul Calle (1953)
  20. Vandals of the Void, Jack Vance, cover Alex Schomburg (1953)
  21. Rockets to Nowhere, Philip St. John (Lester Del Rey), cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  22. The Secret of Saturn's Rings, Donald A. Wollheim, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  23. Step to the Stars, Lester del Rey, cover Alex Schomburg (1954) – Jim Stanley, book 1
  24. Trouble on Titan, Alan E. Nourse, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  25. The World at Bay, Paul Capon, cover Alex Schomburg (1954)
  26. The Year After Tomorrow, eds. Lester del Rey, Cecile Matschat, and Carl Carmer, cover and interior illus. Mel Hunter (1954) – anthology of nine short stories
  27. The Ant Men, Eric North, cover Paul Blaisdell (1955)
  28. The Secret of the Martian Moons, Donald A. Wollheim, cover Alex Schomburg (1955)
  29. The Lost Planet, Paul Dallas, cover Alex Schomburg (1956)
  30. Mission to the Moon, Lester del Rey, cover Alex Schomburg (1956) – Jim Stanley, book 2
  31. Rockets Through Space, Lester del Rey, cover and interior illus. James Heugh (1957) – Special Companion Book (nonfiction)
  32. The Year When Stardust Fell, Raymond F. Jones, cover James Heugh (1958)
  33. The Secret of the Ninth Planet, Donald A. Wollheim, cover James Heugh (1959)
  34. The Star Conquerors, Ben Bova, cover Mel Hunter (1959)
  35. Stadium Beyond the Stars, Milton Lesser, cover Mel Hunter (1960)
  36. Moon of Mutiny, Lester del Rey, cover Ed Emshwiller (1961) – Jim Stanley, book 3
  37. Spacemen, Go Home, Milton Lesser, cover Ed Emshwiller (1961)