Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fanciful Tales of Time and Space: Fan Fire [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Reading a scanned copy of the original Fanciful Tales #1 (Fall 1936) fills me with so many conflicting emotions. Most of them good. On the one hand, just looking at the contents pages delights me with names of authors I love. We have HP Lovecraft, Donald A Wolheim, Robert E Howard, David H Keller and August Derleth. All we need is Clark Ashton Smith and it would be perfect. With the exception of some like William S Sykora, Duane W Rimel and Kenneth B Pritchard, these names are weird fiction royalty. More importantly, I can glean the fannish zeal with which the project was done. I know that "fan fire," that desire to place words and images in a new way that will thrill (hopefully thousands of) readers (more likely less than a dozen). Fanciful Tales' single issue is a perfect example of a "fanzine," created in a flash of inspiration (that doesn't necessarily include a lot of proofing). I have created not a few similar works of my own.

Looking at the contents of Fanciful Tales #1, I see DAW (as Don Wolheim was known) had some great connections with published writers and active fans, filling his zine accordingly. All are quite short, little longer than flash fiction. Let's take a look at each one and consider them individually:

"The Nameless City" by HP Lovecraft is a fan reprint from 1921. HPL was a professional, but this story appeared before his rise in Weird Tales, in the amateur press magazine The Wolverine, November 1921. The story was later rejected twice by Farnsworth Wright but appeared in November 1938 after HPL's death. The story is considered the first of the Cthulhu Mythos tales.

"Umbriel" by Donald A Wolheim is a short science fiction tale that DAW never reprinted. It's not surprising why. The story is a supposed report on why space travelers don't go to the moon Umbriel. Short on plot, the idea is good - a moon as worm-riddled corpse - but undeveloped. It's the kind of idea Clark Ashton Smith wrote to 11,000 words for Gernsback's Amazing Stories.

"The Forbidden Room" by Duane W Rimel is a traditional ghost story about a pirate and his treasure that haunt a room in his house after his death. A typical Weird Tales-style filler, it is a little too thin for the pulps. The author also contributed his art to the issue. Rimel was largely forgotten until ST Joshi uncovered his work with HP Lovecraft in this century.

"Solomon Kane's Homecoming" by Robert E Howard is a poem that recaps Kane's career outside of England, his sea battles along with Richard Grenville, his combats against sorcery in Africa. This was the first appearance of the poem that would be included in all Solomon Kane collections in the future, even adapted by Marvel Comics. It is likely Howard sent in the piece before his suicide or it was submitted by his executor, Robert H Barlow.

"The Typewriter" by David H Keller MD is about a writer who mysteriously buys a typewriter and uses it to pen a bestseller. His wife becomes jealous of the imaginary woman in the novel and destroys the machine in an attempt to get her husband back. This tale is similar to many he wrote for Weird Tales, based on the psychosis he saw in his day job as psychiatrist.

"The Man From Dark Valley" by August W Derleth is a typical Derleth ghost story. He wrote literally dozens of these for Farnsworth Wright (this one using astral projection), but he would resell this one to Wright's competition, Strange Stories, four year later. The American setting is a little different as many of his ghost stories are set in England.

"The Globe" by William S Sykora is the only story this active fan ever published. It's referred to as a "midgetale," 1936-speak for flash fiction. The brief plot involves a globe that sucks people's souls out and feeds them to the globe's owner. Sykora was one of the charter subscribers to Amazing Stories in 1926, a member of the Greater New York Science Fiction League along with Wolheim and Sam Moskowitz, and was involved with SF in many ways, including publishing and filmmaking.

"The Electric World" by Kenneth B Pritchard is the longest story in the issue and is described as "scientific words as long as your arm plus humor..." Accurate, a tale within a tale, but the electrical version of reality is confusing and really not funny, so I guess we shouldn't be sad it was Pritchard's last. He had published a few pieces in another famous fanzine, The Fantasy Fan in 1934-5. After Fanciful Tales he disappeared into the mists of fandom.

The fact that no Fanciful Tales of Time and Space #2 (featuring "Judgement of Netheris" by J Harvey Haggard, "The Psycho Traveler" by Ralph Milne Farley, and "The Escape" by Robert Bloch) appeared is not a surprise. In the world of fan publishing, a run of six issues is a grand achievement. Published on a shoe-string, with no distribution, little advertising, and a proscriptive price (twenty cents was a lot in 1936), the story is the same to this day. It's hard to compete.

Looking at this attempt at becoming (I have little doubt) another Weird Tales - a painfully disappointing task many of us have tried to accomplish and failed - I am not filled with smugness or derision. I tip my hat at the attempt. Of course, in 2015 we know that the names of Lovecraft, Howard, and Derleth live on. Back in 1936, there was no reason to assume any of these writers would endure. Howard was dead by suicide, Lovecraft had less than a year left, while Derleth's Arkham House was still seven years in the future. In fact, all that possesses me when I read these old bleary pages is the desire to start another magazine, another (not my first) try to create a meeting place for future Lovecrafts and Howards, Bok and Finlays, a place that is made of well-printed text matched with intriguing artwork, a solid, beautiful gem locked in time.

But I resist. Not because the chances of success are so narrow. They were in 1936. They still are in 2015. But because the days of print are gone. I could do the same in a digital format but... it's not the same. Not for me. I need to see those pages printed and saddle-stapled. I need to smell the photocopy ink, the envelopes, that list of buyers (always too few). The agonizing process of collation, folding, stapling, etc. is life's blood to the editor of a fanzine. It is the wellspring from which Donald A Wolheim began, before he became the editor of the Avon Fantasy Reader, the Ace paperback series, and eventually CEO and head editor of DAW paperbacks, a line that continues to this day run by his children. I can imagine the "fan fire" that burned for DAW as he held each of these projects in their final form. Robert Silverberg has said DAW was the most important individual in 20th Century science fiction publishing. It started with Fanciful Tales #1, Fall 1936, a tiny spark of "fan fire".

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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