TO THE STARS
12 April 1920 - 25 August 2012
If ever there was a Golden Age of British Science Fiction,
then former Skipton Postman ER JAMES was an integral
part of it. From 1947 to today his fiction has
been prominent in genre magazines
ANDREW DARLINGTON tracks
him down for an interview / retrospective
FROM NEW WORLDS TO NEW MOON
“Here was a story screaming to be written.
I began to dream of incidents in it.
My brain was on fire. The
typewriter drew me like a magnet ...”
(‘Too Perfect’ in ‘Science Fantasy’
no.19 - August 1956)
“I am rather ancient” ER James admits with sly humour, “tho’ not yet moribund.” To a seventy-seven years young ‘time-traveller like myself’, Science Fiction is a vital pulse that has carried him across not only hundreds of future centuries, but thousands of light years of interplanetary space too. All from the modest confines of his Postal Delivery route through Skipton, North Yorkshire.
But ER – or Ernest Rayer, is maddeningly self-deprecating. Tall, with short spiky silver hair, he sits opposite me now, rubbing his forehead or down-stroking his neatly disciplined moustache as he says “your praise leaves me shattered”. This, from the man who wrote as ‘Somerset Draco’ or ‘Edward Hannah’, whose science-based fantasies are reprinted in German and French magazines and anthologies, while there are over one hundred stunning fictions published under his own name spun out across the years from 1947, to the present day. If there was ever a Golden Age of British Science Fiction, then ER James is an integral part of it. He was there at its inception. His fast-paced action stories jostling for text-space with those of EC Tubb, John Brunner, and Ken Bulmer – often in consecutive issues of the same magazines. While open up a recent 1990’s title – ‘New Moon’, and he’s there too with a fine ecological story of the menaced rainforests.
“I don’t know that there has ever been a ‘Golden Age of British SF’” he argues. “Some of Hamilton’s and Carnell’s magazines of the 1950’s and sixties may have merited ‘gold’ – but it depends on the reader, as does all writing. I merely enjoy trying to write stories. I spent most of my life earning – rather than writing, just to survive. The stories helped me run a car...”
His right eye has a greenish iris, the legacy of World War II enemy shrapnel that ‘peppered him’ after five weeks in Normandy. “At the end of the war I was still in the Army – a Lance Corporal” he recalls, “when my cousin (SF writer Francis G Rayer, who died in 1981) wrote that he knew of an editor who wanted Science Fiction stories. This was Walter Gillings, a very helpful man who took three of my earliest tales.” The first of these, “Prefabrication”, appeared in the slender ‘Fantasy No.2’ – one of the original British weird fiction titles. A collector’s gem that now fetches an outlandish price-tag, it arrived in April 1947, during a time of post-war reconstruction – but his story concerns the prefabrication not of houses, but people! ‘IS SUCH A THING POSSIBLE – TO CREATE SYNTHETIC LIFE?’ probes the magazine blurb, ‘SCIENCE HAD FOUND A WAY TO MANUFACTURE HUMAN BEINGS... IN A WORLD IN WHICH MONOPOLY HAD THE LAW ON ITS SIDE. RESULT – CONFLICT!’
His next editor – John Carnell of Nova Publications, “asked me to meet him in London, and we had a lunch together. London was very different then, and I’m not sure – but I think I was still not demobilised at the time.” Carnell’s stable of magazines became a regular ER James market, with work subsequently appearing most frequently in ‘New Worlds’, ‘Science Fantasy’, and ‘Science Fiction Adventures’. He experienced little editorial interference, although James recalls Carnell as being a ‘very moral’ editor, “he once commented ‘is it really necessary to have the word ‘body’ in this story?’ I mean – ‘body’!”
The ER James novel-length “Robots Never Weep” took the cover of the launch issue of ‘Nebula’ in 1952. Oddly, editor Peter Hamilton Jrn liked the story because it was significantly different to what Carnell was publishing. To further emphasise the ‘clear blue water’ between titles – as James was a recognised ‘New Worlds’ writer, Hamilton initially wanted to publish the story under a pseudonym. James wasn’t keen, and the ensuing dialogue resulted not only in his name being retained, but at an improved word-rate too. ‘HE AWOKE. FINDING HIMSELF IN A METAL WORLD, PEOPLED MOSTLY BY MACHINES, HE STRUGGLED FOR THE RIGHT TO LIVE – AND GRADUALLY THE NIGHTMARISH TRUTH CAME HOME TO HIM...’ ran the blurb. The wide sweep and breath-catching speed of its two-fisted action has many purely Gernsbackian elements, leaving little space for reflection, motivation or characterisation. There are metal raiders with pre-Asimovian tendencies rampaging from a fantastic Space Island built on an orbital ‘volcanic asteroid’. Their leader, the deranged Ursula, is a brain in a metal shell, ‘a woman shut up in a sphere, with lenses for eyes. Human, yet inhuman’. Agent Johnny Found comes to awareness as he’s about to be pitched into an ‘atomic furnace’ by a noxious dwarf and his robotic cohorts, only to be rescued from certain death by the lovely Sacha (‘his stunned soul warmed to her exotic beauty’). He’s had his memory erased and replaced with an artificial identity enabling him to infiltrate the raider’s base, where he finds himself torn between his conflicting loyalties to the ravaged and besieged Earth he’s left behind, and his new allegiances to the evil cybernetic dystopia planned by Ursula. Meanwhile, the armies of manic mechanoids attack, ‘from the sky, between lofty pinnacles of tall buildings, down past upper-level roads, huge rockets soared tail-foremost. Robots moved towards this second wave, even while the roads still glowed red hot’.
Johnny Found’s adventures in the robotic future came with a dramatic cover painting by long-time SF artist Alan Hunter (who died 1 August 2012). James was just thirty-two when he wrote “Robots Never Weep”. But by then he’d already sold over forty articles and stories, some half of which were SF-based. According to Hamilton’s editorial comment he also had a novel placed with an agent – although ‘this (is) by no means sure of publication...’ Well, that novel has yet to appear, but as the 1950’s picked up momentum ER James’ magazine adventures were unstoppable – the powerfully tense “Blaze Of Glory” has three people trapped in an asteroid as it spirals in towards the sun, “Ride The Twilight Rail” – often cited as his greatest tale, is a cover story for ‘New Worlds’ set on the hostile planet Mercury with its silent inhabitants ‘utterly alien beings, outwardly featureless, huge; inwardly a complexity of crystalline structures with a silicon base’, and then, notably, there’s “World Destroyer” for which ‘New Worlds’ set aside its ‘strongest editorial taboo – that of current world politics coupled with the threat of atomic war’.
Beyond the solar system – in “The Moving Hills”, he created the deserted Siemens Planet, a world of dead cities and apparently empty deserts in which two stranded Earthmen become assimilated into the automated self-replicating pseudo-living landscape. There was also “Made On Mars”, “Galactic Year”, “Advent Of The Entities”, “Forty Years On” (a retro-Detective theme as Dormer – as in ‘Sleeper’, attempts to reconstruct events leading up to the explosion off Ceres which cost him four decades of life) and so very many more. His prose is often functional, his protagonists have Euro-friendly names like Johnny, Ricky or Ann, while his female characters are little more than plot confections, and although there’s an unmistakable sophistication as the work evolves, James remains an exponent of basic story-telling skills. The elements he excels in are conflict, hardship, and action, all set against the eerie poetry of the solar system where ‘on one side of the thread of life was the burning heat of killing, on the other the utter chill of death’.
In the 1957 fanzine ‘The New Futurian no.6’, he contributes a rare article touching on his methods of writing. “With me, the idea is the peg for a story” he expands to me now. They were originally written directly onto the typewriter, “but it was already worked out in my head, everything that was going to happen through every stage. Perhaps the ending wasn’t clear yet, but everything else was.” A pause. “In the past I used to have an idea, sit at my new Imperial Companion, and change hardly anything. But now I write and re-write before turning to an electronic machine...”
He gets up. Leaves the room for a moment to return with an original ‘Nova Publications’ share certificate, dated 1st January 1949 and signed by John Beynon Harris (John Wyndham). He passes this rare artefact of SF history across to me dismissively. “You might as well take this. As a souvenir of Skipton!”
TO BOLDLY GO... TO SKIPTON?
Critics were not uniformly supportive. ‘You could go to the bookstalls and there they were on time, the same shaggy old writers in there’ recalls Brian Aldiss (in ‘Crucified Toad no.4’), ‘all those frantic people, ER James and Francis G Rayer, couldn’t put two words together in the right order.’ James’ success throughout this period proves that others thought differently. Lacking the intellectual vigour and experimental energies that Aldiss was to bring to the genre, James’ stories are never less than solidly inventive and often wildly enjoyable, ideally suited to the demands of the magazine market of the period. Born 12th April 1920, Science Fiction was always a part of his life. The influences that shaped his style began when, “as a boy, I read some of the Gernsback ‘pulps’ and the first three volumes of the Martian romances of the Old Master Edgar Rice Burroughs which held me spellbound (but not so much his Venus books)”, while HG Wells “still reads as well now as when I first read them. Then there were boys mags such as ‘Adventure’ and ‘Wizard’”. ‘I began reading Science Fiction stories before leaving school’ he told a ‘Nebula’ ‘KNOW YOUR AUTHOR’ column, ‘and can remember the plots of quite a few stories out of the American ‘pulps’ of Gernsback and his contemporaries. Wondered why these and other such stories were not more popular, and began to write manuscripts with a science flavour myself – and enjoyed doing so, though no-one wanted them’. He continues, “I wrote a little, but submitted none of it. The war altered everything, however”.
The years 1945 to 1950 were an experimental period, testing out markets, trying different genres. He wrote a ‘psychological thriller’ “The Hynotised Murderer” (1946), another titled “Pabulum Of Death” (1946) rejected by ‘Strand’, ‘Chambers’ and John Carnell. “The Circus Thief” (April 1950) was begun – and abandoned, a juvenile Western “King Shadow, Wild Horse” went to Gerald Swan. “The Subconscious Mind Of Luke Frazer” – ‘all rights sold’ to Gerald Swan for £3 (1945), and “The Power Of Speech” for £2 (August 1945). He tried ‘Argosy’ and ‘Tit-Bits’, even sold a series of ‘helpful DIY-features’ to ‘Hobbies Weekly’. Intriguingly he completed 25,000-words of “Twenty-Five Billion Miles Up” during July 1950, before it was rejected by Tempest, and abandoned. But the steady and increasing success-rate of his SF resulted in a growing confidence that determined the direction he’d concentrate on.
As the first stories appeared he “made plans with a friend, also writing and selling, to live together. But instead married Margaret, and altered my address from Somerset to North Yorkshire”. In common with many of his contemporaries he took a ‘bread and butter’ job, with the GPO – perhaps delivering his own royalty cheques, and the occasional rejection slip too. Skipton is a beautiful town for such activity. On the way here today I pass Menwith Hill – a surreal formation of huge Quatermass-like white spheres that house a US radar installation (don’t look for it on the map, it’s not there!), and a Greenham Common-style Peace Camp beyond its periphery. Then I pass through the looming shadow of Skipton Castle. Two very different zones of fantasy. ‘I found that postal work fits in with a career of part-time writing very well’ he told a ‘New Worlds’ author profile. ‘In fact, I declined an offer of an indoor clerical appointment in the Post Office because I felt that the outdoor work left my mind less exhausted and more eager for thinking up stories.’
He was a guest speaker at the Harrogate SF Convention alongside Aldiss, Kingsley Amis, and James White (who was ‘even quieter than I am!’). Organiser Ron Bennett, now a Harrogate-based book-dealer specialising in ERB-iana “had me give a sort of opening speech, at the beginning of which I stood on my head Yoga-fashion to get attention”.
Among the work produced through this, his most prolific period, was “Refrigerator Ship”, delineating the murderous equation necessary when a ship full of deep-frozen colonists emerge from star-drive to find their potential colony-world vaporised by nova, and they have insufficient reserves to return them all to Earth. “Hospital Ship”, which vividly illustrates the horror and absurdity of a ‘strange and remote war of annihilation’ fought 12,000,000,000,000 miles from the solar system’ in the thirteen-planet Alpha Centauri system. Here, James deliberately ignores the usual SF warp-drive conventions in favour of fully involving the logistical difficulties of conducting warfare when ‘the long haul’ involved takes four-and-a-third years! The first punitive expedition is launched twenty-seven years after the initial incident, and ‘each commander, isolated by time and space, was on his own’. Unrelentingly bleak, the action is set on a derelict Biological Study Ship crewed by the victims of ‘Island Of Dr Moreau’-style miscegenation, and the powerfully repellent horror is vividly realised as Cliff Heron is experimentally transplanted into an alien body. Elsewhere, “Friction” is set on Betelguese IV where poor miners are lured away by the fabulous wealth and technological richness of Earth.
There were also a number of collaborations with cousin ‘Frank’ Rayer, beginning with “The Lava Seas Tunnel” for ‘Authentic SF’, predicting the eco-energy crisis when an expedition beneath the Earth’s crust in a boring machine seek an alternative to the exhausted oil and coal fossil fuels. Built up largely by passing manuscripts back and forth, making alterations and additions to each other’s work, he admits to being “never completely satisfied” by such joint efforts. Although they were snapped up by the magazines. He does, however, admit to a certain retrospective satisfaction with his fictional portrayal of Venus as a super-heated desert world, “more as it is, or more as the planet has proved to be” than the lush tropical jungles envisaged there by some of his contemporaries. Among my own favourites is the hauntingly atmospheric “The Truth” from the December 1958 edition of ‘Nebula’. Four survivors of a Space-Time Liner from the 22nd Century are marooned in the ‘endless ooze’ of a world that may, or may not be primeval Earth. The corpses of two other crew members are buried there with the foreknowledge that ‘the atoms of their bodies don’t belong in this time and place’, and inexorably their viral presence infects and alters the biosphere. Meticulously worked out, and forsaking his more usual speed of narrative pacing for a slow claustrophobic intensity, it’s a beautifully worked out story.
“Then TV came along, and the old magazines all suffered. Not just SF titles but all printed-word publications clear down to the text-based boys comics. I transferred to working on the Post Office counter and did less writing.” He did, however, resume with a vengeance following his retirement, selling a number of extremely well-received stories to a new generation of magazines – beginning with “Second Century Koma” in ‘Dream’, and then “The Tree” in ‘New Moon’. His current writing method involves “two large bulldog clips on a sheet of plywood about 12”x18”, or another sheet of plywood about 12”x30” with an adjustable lamp on one end and a slot into which the smaller board will fit. These are excellent when sitting in an armchair. One clip holds notes and the other the narrative on old A4 paper (torn in two and written on the back).” He half-jokingly toys with the idea of writing and submitting a story to one of the current crop of Women’s magazines, ‘Best’ or ‘Bella’, while adding “the necessity of earning a crust, a lack of scientific background and various other circumstances and failings, and competing personal inclinations all held me back from making a real effort to be a success. And now I have advancing years to contend with. But I’m halfway through a novel (‘The Lure Of Far Centauri’) of which I have high hopes – who can have more?”, so perhaps Peter Hamilton’s 1952 prediction will yet be fulfilled?
“I still enjoy other people’s stories. I admire, and subscribe to ‘Interzone’ – but I rarely enjoy the stories in it, many of them seem to me so very depressing. I suppose it must be what most readers like. And I belong to a postal book-chain through which I get issues of ‘Analog’. But I look in the Science Fiction section of W.H. Smith, and there’s no SF there! It’s all Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery. I still wonder why the British public generally takes so little interest in science, and more particularly in the wonderful, if frighteningly vast and terrible vistas which seem only just around the corner of the future in these inspiring times.” And on a more personal note “I just keep trying, somewhat fitfully, but hopefully, to become a little famous” he concedes modestly.
Now ancient – but not yet moribund, he’s not always at ease with current trends, or with all of the stories he shares magazine space with. “I live reasonably well. I survive and write an occasional short story that does more for postal profits than it does for me. ‘Interzone’ seems out of my reach, my ideas don’t suit them (he writes that Ed Gorman’s “Cages” in ‘Interzone no.109’ ‘would have so disgusted EJ Carnell of the old ‘New Worlds’ that he would have lost faith in humanity’*). Perhaps I’m too old, but I find some of their kind of writing very disturbing. There’s so much sex-for-sex sake and sarcasm these days that I try to promote a little romance and sincerity whenever I can. But of course”, the slyly self-deprecating humour again, “it could be said that, as I am no longer so fired-up with youthful ways, some of this is sour grapes – and the rest is a senile tendency to think the best of people…!
--- 0 ---
Margaret James died on the 25th August 2012. After sixty-six years together, Ernest Rayer survived her by just ten weeks. He died 2nd November, aged ninety-two, leaving a daughter, Hazel, and two grandsons. His funeral was on the 16th November 2012 at 1pm at Skipton Crematorium.
ER JAMES: THE
PREFABRICATION in FANTASY no.2 (April 1947)
THE REBELS in NEW WORLDS no.4 (1949)
‘WORLDS AT WAR’ by FG Rayer (1949, paperback anthology from Tempest Publ, Bolton, Lancs) with “Scapegoat” (as Edward Hannah), “Masque” (as Somerset Draco), “The Cleverjacks And The Moonstalk” (as ER James) plus “Dodie Slammed The Door” (by ‘Malcolm Ruy Wade’?), and long story ‘Fearful Barrier’ by FG Rayer
ADVENT OF THE ENTITIES in SCIENCE FANTASY no.1 (Summer 1950)
THE MOVING HILLS in SCIENCE FANTASY no.3 (Winter 1951/’52)
ASTEROID CITY in NEW WORLDS no.14 (March 1952)
THE WISDOM OF THE HYPRIANS in PHANTASMAGORIA no.4 (Spring 1952) fanzine edited by Derek Pickles
EMERGENCY WORKING in NEW WORLDS no.17 (Sept 1952), reprinted in anthology GATEWAY TO TOMORROW (1953) edited by John Carnell
NOT AS WE ARE in SCIENCE FANTASY no.5 (Autumn 1952)
ROBOTS NEVER WEEP in NEBULA no.1 (Autumn 1952), also includes brief ‘Know Your Author’ biog
WHERE NO MAN WALKS in NEW WORLDS no.18 (Nov 1952)
UNDER ATOMIC COVER in SLANT no.6 (Winter 1951/2) fanzine edited by Walter Willis, art by Bob Shaw
RIDE THE TWILIGHT RAIL in NEW WORLDS no.21 (June 1953)
THE LAVA SEAS TUNNEL (with F.G. Rayer) in AUTHENTIC SF no.43 (March 1954)
BLAZE OF GLORY in NEBULA no.8 (April 1954)
SPACE CAPSULE in NEW WORLDS no.23 (May 1954)
MAN ON THE CEILING in NEW WORLDS no.25 (July 1954)
THE MINUS MEN in NEW WORLDS no.26 (August 1954)
ROCKFALL in NEW WORLDS no.29 (Nov 1954)
REPORT ON ADAM in NEBULA no.12 (April 1955)
SMOOTHIES ARE WANTED in SCIENCE FANTASY no.13 (April 1955)
HIGHWAYMAN GREEN in NEW WORLDS no.36 (June 1955)
WORLD DESTROYER in NEW WORLDS no.37 (July 1955)
HOT WATER in NEBULA no.16 (March 1956)
PERIOD OF QUARANTINE (with FG Rayer) in NEW WORLDS no.48 (June 1956)
TOO PERFECT in SCIENCE FANTASY no.19 (Aug 1956)
CREEP in NEW WORLDS no.51 (Sept 1956) reprinted in German ‘UTOPIA’ magazine as ‘Maschinenschaden im Weltraum’
BEAUTIFUL WEED in NEW WORLDS no.57 (March 1957)
‘THE NEW FUTURIAN no.6’ ER James article on his method of writing (fanzine edited by Ron Bennett & Mike Rosenblum from 7 Grosvenor Park, Leeds)
FOURTH SPECIES in NEW WORLDS no.59 (May 1957)
GALACTIC YEAR in SCIENCE FANTASY no.23 (June 1957)
POMPEY’S PLANET in NEBULA no.22 (July 1957)
MADE ON MARS in NEW WORLDS no.63 (Sept 1957)
TRAINING AREA in NEBULA no.30 (March 1958)
ROUTINE OBSERVATIONS in NEW WORLDS no.71 (May 1958)
FRICTION in NEBULA no.34 (Sept 1958)
THE TRUTH in NEBULA no.37 (Dec 1958)
HOSPITAL SHIP in NEBULA no.38 (Jan 1959)
SPRINKLER SYSTEM in NEW WORLDS no.85 (July 1959) reprinted in French ‘FICTION Special no.3’ as ‘Dispostif d’Arrosage’
BEYOND REALISM in NEW WORLDS no.86 (Aug/Sept 1959)
REFRIGERATOR SHIP in SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURES no.11 (Nov 1959)
SIX-FINGERED JACKS in NEW WORLDS no.119 (June 1962), anthologised by BLACKIE & SON PUBL
THE THOUSAND DEEP in NEW WORLDS no.121 (Aug 1962)
FORTY YEARS ON in NEW WORLDS no.135 (Oct 1963)
SECOND CENTURY KOMA in DREAM MAGAZINE no.13 (Sept 1987), reprinted in A BOOK OF DREAMS anthology (1990) edited by Trevor Jones and George P Townsend
THE ABREACTION in DREAM SF no.20 (Summer 1989)
THE SUGGESTION FORM in DREAM SF no.21 (Autumn 1989)
SURVIVING THE NIGHT in DREAM SF no.28 (April 1991)
THE TREE in NEW MOON no.2 (January 1992)
FATAL UNITY in FANTASY ANNUAL no.2 (Spring 1998)
BODY AUCTION in GRYPHON SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY READER no.1 (January 1999, Gryphon Books, USA ISBN: 1-58250-011-8) edited by Philip Harbottle
Other Published Work:
‘HOBBIES WEEKLY’ ER James made a number of anonymously published contributions to this 3d twelve-page magazine from Balding & Mansell Ltd (vol.107 no.2780, 9 February 1949). (no.2781, 16 February 1949). (no.2782, 23 February 1949). (no.2785, 16 March 1949). (vol.108 no.2807, 17 August 1949, ‘Workshop Cupboard’). (vol.109 no.2814, 5 October 1949, ‘Table Extension’). (No.2832, 8 February 1950, ‘Renew Small Windows’). (No.2834, 22 February 1950). (vol.110 no.2861, 30 August 1950, ‘A Practical Dog Kennel’)
‘AFFINITY no.23’ (August/September 1949) 1/- romance magazine published by Gerald G Swan, includes ER James story “The Suspicious Lady”
‘SCRAMBLE ANNUAL’ (1948) 2/6, published by Gerald G Swan, includes ER James text-story “The Twenty-Four Hours Global’
‘BOYS’ FUN no.2’ (December 1952) Monthly comic published by Gerald G Swan, includes ER James text-story “We Answer Everything”
‘CUTE FUN ANNUAL’ (1953, Gerald G Swan Juvenile Hardcover) with “Champion Robot”, lead story
‘SCHOOLBOYS ALBUM’ (1954, Gerald G Swan Juvenile Hardcover) 4/-, with “The Qualtimers”
‘VECTOR no.44’ (May 1967) BSFA-magazine, includes ER James review of ‘The Wonder Effect’ by CM Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl
There were other stories sold ‘all rights’ to various small publishers under various pseudonyms, of which “I now have no record beyond small cash entries”, there’s a letter published in ‘VECTOR no.139’ (1987), another in ‘INTERZONE no.111’* (Sept 1996), as well as the following:
MURDER IN REVERSE – a “time-travel story, if I remember correctly”, accepted by Peter Hamilton for NEBULA, but never used due of premature cessation of the title.
My thanks to ER James for invaluable assistance
and co-operation in compiling this feature
Original version of this feature published in: ‘VECTOR no.209: Jan/Feb’ (UK – February 2000)