‘THE IMPATIENT DREAMERS’
The first real Science Fiction magazine to be produced
in the UK was ‘Tales Of Wonder’. It survived for
sixteen big pulp issues before it became a casualty –
WHEN WILL BRITAIN HAVE
ITS OWN FANTASY MAGAZINE?
It all begins an unbelievably long time ago, in a strangely different barely recognizable England. This is the story, and these are the tales of ‘Tales Of Wonder’, Britain’s first-ever proper grown-up Science Fiction magazine. We, who routinely accept the fantastic envisioned for us by digital technologies unimaginable at the time, can have little real conception of what that means.
Terry Jeeves, long-term SF-artist and activist remembers ‘I came across the first issue of ‘Tales Of Wonder’ when, as a teenager on holiday, I passed the newsagent’s window where the copy was displayed, I passed the window several times before deciding this might be the same stuff as my beloved copies of ‘Astounding’, ‘Amazing’ and ‘Wonder Stories’. That was July 1937, the mag cost me a shilling…’ (in his ‘Erg’ fanzine). At that time, newsagents displays were awash with thick text-heavy magazines. There were story-papers for boys and girls. Glossy movie fan-mags with news and pin-up photo-spreads. Fiction magazines aimed at women. Fiction adventure-magazines for men embracing western exploits, war stories, crime detection, and the heroic derring-do of explorers. They also occasionally include supernatural or fantastic elements. But no specific title devoted to Science Fiction, and an impression – first, that SF was already a thing of the past. Hadn’t HG Wells exhausted all available themes barely thirty years earlier? And the contrasting impression gained from imported American pulps that SF was a tasteless juvenile ‘Buck Rogers’ fad, compounded by a passing familiarity with Edgar Rice Burroughs outlandish planetary fantasies. SF was something not worthy of a publisher’s serious consideration.
In America things were different. With the launch of ‘Amazing Stories’ in April 1926, Hugo Gernsback invented the Science Fiction magazine as we recognize the species. It, and the titles that followed – the ‘Astounding’ and ‘Wonder Stories’ beloved of Terry Jeeves, irregularly filtered across the Atlantic, where they were hunted down by enthusiasts in Woolworths dump-bins. But Britain was slow to respond with a title of its own. There was a halfhearted shot from Pearsons – called ‘Scoops’, which miscalculated by targeting a juvenile readership, and survived for twenty issues from February 1934. Its perceived failure made publishers even more wary of repeating the mistake.
In those beginning days, the SF community had a homely family feel to it. It was small enough that everybody knew, and influenced everyone else. There were two gravitational centres exerting a force sufficient to gather accretion discs of fans, the ‘British Science Fiction Association’ launched in 1937, which allowed fans to discover one another, and before it, the ‘British Interplanetary Society’. Through a small-ad placed in the ‘Ilford Recorder’ Gillings had set up the pioneering ‘Ilford Science Literary Circle’ fan-group, which held meetings from October 1930. Shortly afterwards, the founding of the ‘British Interplanetary Society (BIS)’ in Liverpool 18 October 1933 introduced Eric Frank Russell to Leslie Johnson, and would provide a launch-pad for young Arthur C Clarke’s spectacular trajectory.
It also brought Gillings into contact with Philip Cleator and William F Temple, while enabling him to became the man who furnished that same Arthur C Clarke with his first typewriter. At the time, Clarke not only wrote for ‘Amateur Science Stories’ fanzine, but helped cut the duplicator-stencils too. The fanzine’s first issue includes Temple’s “Mr Craddock’s Lifeline” under his Temple Williams alias. Gillings also produced a sixteen-page digest-size printed fanzine of his own – ‘Scientifiction: The British Fantasy Review’ which debuted January 1937 – ‘in an almost desperate attempt to evoke a response to its plaintive appeal ‘When Will Britain have Its Own Fantasy Magazine?’.’ A professional-looking journal of SF news and comment, ‘Scientifiction’ survived for six issues until March 1938 when it merged with Douglas Mayer’s ‘Tomorrow’. By then a journalist by profession, Gillings admits ‘I didn’t particularly want to write SF, although in those days I had no doubts about my capacities. Unaccountably, in one so callow, I had set my heart on becoming a magazine editor rather than a writer.’ It was a ‘hazy literary aspiration’ that distilled down into ‘a single burning ambition.’
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THE LURE OF SCIENCE FICTION
Complete with a home-stapled mock-up sample, he hawked proposals for a specialist pro SF magazine around various publishers, including Odhams – who prevaricated, until he approached World’s Work, a subsidiary of Heinemann’s book publishers. Their director, a large bewhiskered Henry Chalmers Roberts cautiously commissioned a trial-issue, as part of their Master Thriller series – which had already produced ‘Tales Of Mystery And Detection’ and ‘Tales Of Terror’. The company, who had their own press in Kingswood, Surrey, first specified an 80,000-word text-content, while imposing a low ten-shillings and sixpence per-thousand-word pay-scale limit. American magazines paid quadruple that rate – ‘yes, there were ‘new waves’ even then – at twenty-five cents a ripple!’, which may have discouraged some less-enthused local would-be writers.
The tentative launch issue – ‘and what a kick it gave me to see it on the newsstands!’, grabbed attention with a vivid cover depicting two armoured giants busily decimating London. The story it illustrates –“Superhuman”, tells of two babies mutated into giants by regular serum-injections. Their reign of terror finally brought to a halt when they’re transmuted into stone. The by-line ‘Geoffrey Armstrong’ is the first of John Russell Fearn’s multiple pseudonyms, a guise devised by Gillings from Fearn’s mother’s maiden name. It’s a subterfuge made necessary because later in the same issue “Seeds From Space” appears under Fearn’s own real name. It has Martian weed covering Earth and a weird scientist with a paralyzing ray. Things look grim until it’s discovered that the weed acts as a deflection against a terrible meteor storm, after which it dissolves into powder. The Martian scientist kindly un-paralyses everyone before returning home. Elsewhere in the issue, Halifax writer WP (Wilfred Philip) Cockcroft – his name misprinted as Cockroft, was known as a writer who’d previously appeared in ‘Scoops’ ‘when it tried to cater for its more mature readers.’ His “Revolt On Venus” saw adventurers set off for the Moon, only to miss it, and get almost to Mars before they’re captured by Venusian robots. Abducted to Venus, they smash the air machines, turn off the robots and escape home. Previously rejected by potential rival magazine ‘Fantasy’ – who didn’t much care for a girl volunteering for the space-trip, the story benefitted from a generous Gillings rewrite.
“Man Of The Future” by one-time policeman and sometime-clerk Festus Pragnell concerns an experiment with glands that creates intelligent animals and a superhuman, leaving the reader to imagine the outcome. Born in Stourport and bizarrely named after the Roman general who presided over the trial of St Paul, Pragnell was part of that first English invasion to infiltrate the American pulps. Initially it had been necessary to rely on experienced-author RF Starzl to extensively rewrite his “The Venus Germ” to bring it into line with the expectations of ‘Wonder Stories’ (November 1932), but once established he flew solo for subsequent sales. And he has a second story in that first ‘Tales Of Wonder’, “Monsters Of The Moon” as by ‘Francis Parnell’, which sees our hero set off to save his girlfriend from bounding Lunar creatures, as well as a giant snake. In the process, he discovers a lake of ice, which makes him wealthy enough to marry.
Later, Pragnell’s “The Essence Of Life” in no.4 uses the familiar device of the discovered-manuscript or diary, allowing that the story might just be the confabulation of an unstable mind. It relates how Joseph Hammond, a lecturer on economics and social organisation, is selected as test subject and spokesperson for his race by Planco and Kareem, giant red-headed Jovians. Again, the story closes open-ended, by posing the conundrum should Earth accept global peace and longevity, at the price of benign rule by alien ‘Masters’? Despite receiving the ultimate accolade from no less a Master than HG Wells, who wrote a letter to Pragnell praising his “Green Man Of Kilsona” which was serialized in issues of ‘Wonder Stories’ (July-September 1935), Pragnell nevertheless eventually became disenchanted with SF, and turned to writing more Earth-based adventure yarns. Today, he’s largely forgotten.
But it was John Beynon – the future literary superstar John Wyndham, who Gillings was most anxious to enlist. And finally there was his “The Perfect Creature”, which had already appeared as “The Female Of The Species” in ‘Argosy’… and would later reappear in ‘Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’ (January 1953). ‘I almost had to steal it from him’ recalls Gillings, ‘he was so reluctant to part with it, only because he considered it below standard.’
There’s a tangible sense of excitement permeating that first issue, supercharged by those ‘small step for a man’ anticipations of blazing new trails, opening up new possibilities, boldly going where British SF had never gone before. There’s tactile magic in running fingers over the rough-paper surface of these pages even now. And when the trial issue hit the sales bull’s-eye – ‘or came close enough to it to qualify in the contest,’ a quarterly publication schedule was green-lighted. The second issue leads off with something of a scoop. In ‘a charitable act’ Beynon offered the magazine the chance to premier “Sleepers Of Mars” – the sequel to his 1936 novel ‘Stowaway To Mars’. Illuminated by ‘Nick’ Nicholson’s brash cover-splash, it relates the adventures of a Russian spaceship’s crew, marooned on the dying Red Planet. Although this was a new tale, for future issues, earlier Wyndham tales that had appeared in Gernsback’s ‘Wonder Stories’ were so suited to the magazine’s purpose that they would be added to the reprint quota.
Benson Herbert, ‘who had been squeezed out of the first issue’, contributes “Invaders From Venus” which, despite its excessive verbiage, poses valid questions about contact between worlds. The suspect motives of the Venusians provoke terrorist retaliations, security crackdowns and a paranoid media storm, with Professor Murdock as its central ‘Quatermass’ figure. Even as previously-warring nations pool their resources to meet the supposed threat, and the aliens sink beneath the Irish Sea, the questions posed remain tantalizingly unresolved. Herbert was a scientist from Wallsend-on-Tyne, born 16 May 1912 (he died 21 April 1991). Gillings had already reviewed his novel ‘Crisis! – 1992’ (Richards Press, 1936) in the launch issue of his ‘Scientifiction’. With his own Paraphysical Laboratory and UFO Observatory in the heart of the New Forest, and a passion for Emily Bronte, he alone among Britain’s contributors to SF magazines could boast a degree in science, ‘but he never did’. And William F Temple, made his professional debut with “Lunar Lilliput”, in which he looks forward to the British Interplanetary Society financing the first trip to our companion world. ‘On Earth’s Satellite They Found A New-Born Race Of Tiny Creatures – Mankind In Miniature!’ There’s occasional silliness, it features Larn – the last Lunarian of the Gend race, his demise brought about by the arrival of Temple’s gender-mixed Interplanetarian crew into this ‘Alice In Wonderland gone crazy’ Moon. But it proved to be a well-received addition to that second issue.
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SEEKERS OF TOMORROW
Magazine stories provide a wonderful forum and apprenticeship for writers, a forcing-house to sharpen and develop new talent. Gillings had a clear focus on the type of story-fuel he planned to use to steer his magazine towards the stars. There had not been an SF magazine published on these isles before. It was a new face on the newsagent’s display. He guesstimated that people would be uncertain what to expect. So stories should be hardcore enough for the initiated, but accessible to a reading public as yet unused to some of the more extreme notions bounced around the American pulps. Responding to a letter from future-‘New Worlds’ editor Edward J Carnell he argues the magazine ‘is specially designed to appeal to the reader who is not accustomed to the more ‘advanced’ specimens of science fiction, as published by the American magazines, as well as to interest experienced readers… we hope to be able to satisfy the tastes of both types of reader.’ He was happy to sacrifice startling originality in favour of a readability sharp enough to catch the interest of a readership wide enough to underwrite survival.
But, as well as discovering and showcasing new British writing talent, ‘Tales Of Wonder’ would further serve to stimulate the imaginations and ambitions of younger fans who interact through the reader’s pages. An advertisement tucked away on page 39 invites readers to become acquainted with Gillings’ fanzine ‘Scientifiction’. While youthful readers, previously isolated in their enthusiasms, were discovering each other, using the magazine as a hub around which to link up, forming what was to become fandom with its own ‘internet’ of fanzines, its own codes and language. The editor also astutely ran reader’s contests for SF-related essays. Among the prizewinners was a young Kenneth Bulmer (in no.12)!
After supporting and contributing to Russell’s pre-war writing, Leslie Johnson himself wrote “Satellites Of Death” which appears in the third issue of ‘Tales Of Wonder’. Setting his tale rich in Wirral detail, inventor William Grant conceals murder by blasting his victim into orbit, then follows him, haunted by guilt and remorse. Like other fictional characters of his time, Grant has his own observatory, mansion and manservant. In the immediate post-war year Leslie Johnson went on to launch ‘Outlands’ – ‘The Magazine For Adventurous Minds’, dated Winter 1946, priced at just one-shilling and sixpence, published from his home address 16 Rockville Road Liverpool 14. There was only ever to be a single issue, despite its generously-filled forty-four pages of John Russell Fearn (“Pre-Natal”), the first appearance of Sydney J Bounds (“Strange Portrait”), veteran writer George C Wallis (“Rival Creators”), an HG Wells obituary (he’d died 13 August 1946), and a stirring editorial manifesto, ‘let us venture forth together into the Outlands of Thought, throwing off the shackles of pre-conceived notions and insidious propaganda, and see where we really stand. We will seek the Truth whatever it may be, and by these means find a way to a better Future.’ That future would have to wait, for a time, at least. And Leslie Johnson continued to work tirelessly promoting the genre through the British Interplanetary Society and its related fandom.
Russell is there again in no.12 where his “I, Spy!”, is ‘one of the best original tales I was privileged to publish.’ Even though the illustration by Manchester artist Harry Turner was printed upside-down! Russell successfully fuses vivid imagination with sly character-humour as Spiro The Spy, the Martian Mimic, becomes a rabbit, a truculent sheep, a sheepdog, then a shepherd! The baffled local police are dumbfounded by electrocution-deaths in ‘an oil-illuminated cottage a full seven miles from the nearest power lines,’ and follow the trail of murders, disappearances and duplicate-sightings all the way to a Greek chemist in Balham, the Battersea Power Station and a spectacular Music Hall illusionist show. Selected by Mike Ashley for his ‘The Best Of British SF1’ (1977, Futura), ultimately the shape-shifter is destroyed by a deluge of water as his opalescent space-egg prepares to return him to Mars. With his abilities, he could have flown free, but there are no birds of Mars!
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TERRORS OUT OF SPACE
Imagine… it’s the chilly autumn of 1938, and there crammed into the newsagents display there’s a striking cover-image of awe and horror as terrified people flee from a white city skyline as ‘a vast cloud of poison gas plunged towards Earth from out the depths of the universe.’ The first of two John Edwards contributions – “The Menace From Space”, takes the cover of no.4. Of course, SF had been here before, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger novel ‘The Poison Belt’ (1913), recently serialized in ‘Scoops’ for example. And the theme would return. At least in Fred Hoyle’s ‘The Black Cloud’ (1957). Much of the dialogue is exposition between two astronomers who first identify the cloud, working in a Northumbrian observatory with their loyal domestic staff, plus the fortunate incidence of biologist Dr Francis Bradbury, who is able to make informed speculation about seeds deposited into Earth’s atmosphere by missiles from Venus. With the trio observing from air-conditioned security, the world succumbs to a state of suspended animation induced by gas exhaled by red moss grown from the Venusian seeds, ensuring their survival, and incidentally enriching the world’s tired soil.
The fifth issue marks the first of a number of contributions – in ‘beautiful longhand’, by George C Wallis, and it was ‘not until then’ recalls Gillings, ‘did I discover that the author of “The World At Bay”, which I had read in ‘Amazing’s last issues for 1928 (and which was actually serialized in the ‘Daily Herald’ while I was still at school), was an English writer who had appeared even earlier in ‘Weird Tales’.’ A Sheffield cinema manager, he’d been contributing SF to juvenile magazines (‘Lot-O’-Fun’), to adult publications since the days before World War I, and to the American market with the assistance of a Canadian cousin. He returns in no.8 with “The Crystal Menace”, a convincing disaster scenario in which voracious icy-rings encroach from Antarctica, devouring ships and inundating New Zealand. Not quite JG Ballard’s ‘The Crystal World’, or even ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Crystal Entity, there’s an annoying Scots accent adopted for Angus Macfairson – ‘the noo’, whose hastily-contrived oscillator sets up a magnetic resonance shattering the cohesion on the menace’s controlling dome. As with Ballard, the real terror would be that there’s no such convenient solution…
The author of “When The World Tilted” in no.5, J Morgan ‘Jim’ Walsh, was another of Gillings long-time contacts, who returned for “After A Million Years” in no.8 – prefaced by an ‘author’s note’ detailing his doubts and qualifications about time-travel conundrums. Yet his Leela Zenken travels back a million years to meet a nuclear theorist who may be able to save her future-age from a freezing death due to a cloud blotting-out the sun. She mistakenly takes real-estate broker John Harling instead. The Earth freezes, but there’s a happy ending because the two fall in love. ‘His SF output was not great, compared to the long run of detective and spy thrillers which supplied his bread and butter, including such intriguing titles as “The Images Of Han” and “The Mystery Of The Green Caterpillars”. But his enthusiasm for science fiction was a great incentive to me in the days of the Ilford Circle, which he visited twice before it closed down in the summer of 1931.’ A former sheep and cattle-man in his native Australia, a sometime auctioneer and newsagent, Walsh’s sole contribution to ‘Amazing Stories’ was a four-part serial, “Terror Out Of Space” under the pen-name ‘H Haverstock Hill’, while his ‘Vandals Of The Void’ (1931) formed the subject of Gillings first published exercise in the art of book-reviewing. Such are the intriguing histories of these largely-forgotten contributors to Britain’s earliest SF ventures!
Then, in no.7, there is Frank Edward Arnold’s “City Of Machines” in which murdering embezzler Robert Henlow escapes justice through his brother’s Time-Beam into an automated future-London of a thousand years hence, self-sustaining through tidal-powered electrical-generation. He discovers that all humans have been killed off by a meteoric cloud of poison gas, as the relentless constabulary pursue him through time until their final shoot-out accidentally sets the city to self-destruct in a cataclysmic wrecking orgy. Flicking further through the pages, Geo C Wallis “Across The Abyss” utilizes the same mode of astral travel as ER Burroughs used to send John Carter to Barsoom, a deep trance-state that projects his character through ‘the Fifth Dimension – the Thought or Psychic Dimension’ to the Andromeda Spiral Sun No.6X300 where highly-evolved planet Superia is locked in a war of extermination with their brutal rivals of Materia. Despite the character’s name, John Honesty’s account is not believed, even by close friend Frank Kemlo – who shares his name with EC Elliot’s juvenile space-hero of the 1950s!
|WALTER GILLINGS, AC CLARKE, AND TED CARNELL|
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CAN WE CONQUER SPACE?
Strange to relate, despite his best intentions, Walter Gillings had problems drawing together contributors sufficiently proficient with the genre, and suitable new material continued to be at a premium. Despite encouraging such new writers as Frank Edward Arnold (one-time chair of the London Science Fiction Association) and Charles F Hall ‘who contributed a couple of tales that might almost have been written by Wells.’ Similarly, DJ Foster – his dashing exploit “The Island In The Air” in no.8, recalls the ‘Modern Boy’ juvenile derring-do of ‘Captain Justice’, about air-piracy from a hovering stratospheric base, but his promise was cut short by early death. ‘None of these writers, for one reason or another, succeeded in following up his initial advantage.’ So Gillings tends to fall back on the small but reliable pool who’d proved their credentials by selling to the more-established American pulp market. ‘A handful of British writers’ would ‘supply such new material as I could wheedle out of them… out of sheer enthusiasm for our cause, gave me first option on their work, and even tailored their stories specifically to the requirements I laid down.’
Born 9 March 1914 in Woolwich, it was William Frederick Temple’s early discovery of HG Wells that sparked his SF-involvement. An equally keen student of the cinema, around 1938-1939 he shared a flat with Arthur C Clarke and Maurice K Hanson (who had formed the Nuneaton Chapter of ‘Hugo Gernsback’s ‘Science Fiction League’ in 1934), three SF-obsessives who between them duplicated issues of their ‘Nova Terrae’ fanzine, the prequel to ‘New Worlds’! High in the mythology of early-UK fandom, the crowded flat at 88 Grays Inn Road became a centre for SF activity and for the struggling British Interplanetary Society – the butt of cheap ‘Daily Express’ jibes, yet with a regular visitor-stream, the likes of John Wyndham, Sydney Bounds and John Christopher all called around.
Before being ‘press-ganged’ into military service in the Eighth Army Temple sold his short story “Four-Sided Triangle” to ‘Amazing Stories’ (November 1939), expanding it to novel-length, despite losing draft-versions in the Tunisian desert and on the Anzio Beachhead. Once published, it was filmed by Terence Fisher for the Hammer Studios, and launched to considerable success in 1953, leading Temple to crime thrillers, a space travel book, many SF shorts, novelettes and novels, including the juvenile ‘Martin Magnus’ series.
Mike Ashley notes that ‘by the summer 1938 issue the magazine was featuring science articles with IO Evans’ “Can We Conquer Space?” By then ‘Tales Of Wonder’ was proving extremely popular.’ Professor AM Low was there too, a tangible link as expert-on-call back to ‘Scoops’ and forward to ‘Authentic SF’ in the 1950s. When the ‘BIS’ switched its base from Liverpool to London following an October 1936 vote – which Cleator opposed, and subsequently stepped down as President, he was making way for AM Low to assume the presidency. In his highly speculative “Life On Mars” (in no.8) Low seems to approve of his theoretical Martian’s attitude to eugenics, but – in his defence, there was an intellectual thread going back to Wells of ‘perfecting the race’ by weeding out the genetically weak, and this was before Auschwitz proved the grotesque absurdity of the concept. A ‘Do You Think There Is Life On Mars?’ panel invites readers to contribute their own views, with a generous ten-shilling prize for the best.
Arthur C Clarke made his debut professional sale to ‘Tales Of Wonder’ with “Man’s Empire Of Tomorrow”, (no.5) an article anticipating solar system exploration within ‘the next few generations’ – wisely unspecific about exact dates. He follows it in no.7 with “We Can Rocket To The Moon – Now!” adding the fictional scenario of the first spaceship leaving Earth – ‘a good spot for this purpose seems to be Lake Titicaca in Peru’, then ‘the first expedition to Mars’ leaving the Moon-base. He was already a visible presence in the SF community although his own attempts at fiction were impeded by his passion for poetry, and for Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic influence. Subsequently conscripted into the RAF in 1941 Clarke was thrust into trial radar experiments, from which he concocted his ‘Extra-Terrestrial Relays’ feature for ‘Wireless World’ that famously predicts the viability of TV-satellites, incidentally leading the way for everything from Telstar to Sky-TV! While fiction he contributed to Gillings in expectation of a future magazine appearance, at Gillings suggestion, were redirected across the Atlantic to John W Campbell at ‘Astounding’, where “Loophole” (April 1946) and “Rescue Party” (May 1946) began to establish his enduring reputation. But all that still lay in the future.
Into the mix Gillings began blending selected reprints of favourite but elusive tales that had already appeared in American magazines. Simply because he’d started to run short of ammunition, at least of the right calibre. ‘It was simply that there was not enough original material of the kind needed forthcoming, even from the new writers I was able to encourage,’ he recalls, so ‘I soon started to use reprints of American stories which had appeared several years before… reprints of tales by established authors like John Beynon Harris, Dr David H Keller MD, the ‘dexterous worker in words’ Stanton A Coblentz and Clark Ashton Smith were such that they helped immensely in developing the magazine along what I considered the right lines’ (from “The Impossible Dreamers”).
Anticipating his post-war mainstream literary celebrity as John Wyndham (about whom I’ve written extensively elsewhere), Beynon Harris was already a star within the restricted pool of British SF. And his “Sowing New Thoughts” Authors Corner contribution to no.7, betrays something of that level of ambition. ‘Behind the greatest scientific romances there is a purpose. Whether they show a Utopia, a desolation, or a world still muddling along, they are sowing new thoughts in the reader’s mind; the products which go to build an individual’s convictions, and his only defence against being fair game for any meretricious, nonsensical or deliberately retrograde doctrine which may be fed to him.’ The reader – for Harris, is always male. But the ambition is unlimited. To Gillings, writing in 1972, ‘John Wyndham was a keen observer of the first tentative experiments in rocket propulsion. While others scoffed at the prophecies of those who pioneered the science of astronautics, he lent a sympathetic ear to their aspirations – and found in them inspiration for his tales.’ Even such tales as “The Last Lunarian” show how well he researched his material, long before the idea of interplanetary travel had become commonplace. His pioneering ship ‘The Scintilla’ even sets down – as would Neil Armstrong in 1969, on the lunar Sea Of Tranquility.
He has no less than two stories in issue no.10, including “Worlds To Barter”, which includes this dubious exchange:
‘You’ll smoke?’ inquired Lestrange, as we retired to his comfortable study.
‘Tobacco?’ asked Jon.
‘Of course,’ replied the Professor, with a touch of surprise. ‘What else?’
‘There are many things to smoke where I come from – one has to be careful.’
David H Keller’s “Stenographer’s Hands” as early as no.2 was part of a ‘deliberate design to reprint at least one American piece each time’ as a kind of object lesson to readers and potential writers of the human, as well as mechanistic potential of the genre. One of the most popular and revered names from the early pages of ‘Amazing Stories’ – born in 1880, Keller started out as a New Jersey country doctor who carried out original work in the treatment of WW1 shell-shock victims, waiting until he was almost fifty before expanding his part-time writing hobby into fiction submissions. Then using a policy of concentrating on the social implications of science, rather than the invention itself. His “Stenographer’s Hands” anticipates the problems of what we’d now call voice-recognition software as Doctor Billings initiates an intensive breeding programme designed to produce ‘errorless stenographers’ who ‘take dictation and write perfect letters’ to satisfy ruthless capitalist Jerome Smith of Universal Utilities. By the time his enlightened daughter Mirabella Smith assumes control of the company, the system has collapsed due to defective inbreeding. Despite its light and playful style, it unmasks the chilling implications behind eugenics long before Nazi racial supremacists made it inescapable.
Keller’s “The Eternal Professors” in no.4 is a slight throwaway in which the university of New York ensures supremacy over rival Chicago by keeping its professor’s heads alive after body-death ‘by means of artificial circulation and synthetic blood.’ For no.7 there’s a reprint of Keller’s “The Yeast Men” which had been a Gillings favourite since reading it in his issue of ‘Amazing Stories’ (April 1928) during his first ‘Ilford Science Literary Circle’ days. It’s an off-the-wall oddity, in which small mountain Kingdom Moronia – threatened with extermination by Premier Plautz of encircling Eupenia, develops a ray-barrier to disrupt air-attack, then grows a mindless army of Yeast entities for a liberating preemptive strike. Even as a metaphor – the triumph of bread over totalitarianism?, it’s virtually beyond definition.
Philip Harbottle and Stephen Holland point out that such ‘reprints undoubtedly helped immensely in the development of the magazine, introducing the adventuresome elements that would make the magazine more accessible to new readers not so well versed in the general subject matter of SF, although it may have annoyed authors trying to break into the new market’ (writing in ‘Vultures Of The Void’, Borgo Press, 1992).
The second American writer Gillings introduces, and the first to ‘cop a cover’, was Edmond Hamilton. With a world-destroying writing career as old as SF magazines themselves, he was already a regular contributor to ‘Weird Tales’ even before the advent of ‘Amazing Stories’. His “The Horror In The Telescope” eye-catchingly illustrates the front of the third ‘Tales Of Wonder’ issue. We now think of the Hubble orbital telescope, or the New Mexico Very Large Array probing the outer limits of the cosmos. In the summer of 1938 Hamilton thought in terms of size, his ‘The Colossus In The Canyon’ with its ten-thousand-inch lens sees through the relativistic space-time curve so that when they observe, in remarkable pin-sharp detail, what they assume to be planets of the Capella system, they’re really seeing primeval Earth of five-hundred-million years ago, when humans were domestic slave-animals to reptilian masters. In Gillings words, it was ‘a short story which proved the only acceptable offering in a pile of original manuscripts that came my way after having gone the rounds of the American magazines without finding a billet,’ and it was followed by “The Sea Terror” in no.4. In Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo tradition, a new K-type breed of submarine investigates the Atlantic Nelsen Deep, discovering a vast ancient city of globes on the ocean-bed two miles down. Its slug-like inhabitants are in the process of generating seawater to raise the ocean-levels, flooding coastal cities around the doomed world. The story climaxes in a titanic submarine battle in which the slug’s control-spire is smashed, ‘heaving, breaking and crashing, as the city was annihilated by a tremendous uprush of dazzling fires from beneath.’ Noticeably, the slug-beings have been there for tens of thousands of years, had they put their nefarious world-inundation scheme into practice five, ten or even fifteen years earlier, before the K-type deep subs, everything would have been very different…
Edmond Hamilton was in no.8 too with “The Comet Doom”, a skillfully written fantasy in which comet-people are ‘undying brains cased in bodies of metal’ who plan to steal the Earth by ‘drawing it into the comet and carrying it out into space with them,’ until their green comet is moving out of the solar system ‘plunging across the universe for all time, with its stolen captive world!’ Hamilton’s assured feel for character and his descriptions of the Lake Ontario island on which the confrontation occurs add a sense of realism to the ludicrous premise, although the stolen-Earth idea would be recycled by Frederik Pohl & CM Kornbluth in ‘Wolfbane’ which first appeared as a two-part serial in ‘Galaxy Science Fiction’ (October 1957, Vol.14 no.6).
Gillings went on to acquire such remarkable stories as Stanton A Coblentz satirical tale “The Planet Of Youth” which, although pessimistic in tone was ‘apposite at the time and had distinct literary merit.’ It sets the tone for the cover of no.5, as a finned spaceship rips a rocket-trail of flame across the blue sky, framed by the dark bulk of another ship already on the surface surrounded by a mob of anxious people. Then Murray Leinster’s famous “The Mad Planet” provides excellent cover-art by WJ Roberts for no.6 – a lone human in a mushroom forest armed with only a crude spear to face giant flying insects, as well as its sequel “The Red Dust” for no.9 (from ‘Argosy’ 12 June 1920 and 2 April 1921), ‘relating the further adventures of Burl in the fantastic world of thirty-thousand years hence.’ His “Missionaries Of Mars” in no.10 poses a moral question when five-limbed Martians offer to instigate a world utopia – ‘but a utopia without freedom.’ ‘Would the gain exceed the loss?’ asks Doctor Ira Rand who invents the Televisor enabling dialogue between the planets. In the end he smashes his communication-device. Humans must learn by their own mistakes.
Clark Ashton Smith takes the cover of no.10 with his beguiling enchanting fantasy “City Of Singing Flame” – presented with its sequel as a single story, bridged by Gillings linking-text. Born in 1893 he was already a ‘Weird Tales’ veteran, praised by HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard and L Sprague de Camp, with his exotic fictions of Zothique and Hyperborea collected into Arkham House editions by August Derleth. In this story within a story, narrator Hastane receives a small leather-bound notebook from fantasy-writer Giles Angarth who vanished with illustrator Felix Ebbonly in the Nevada Sierras. Angarth’s journal tells how he walked the bare desolate Crater Ridge, by a fathomless tarn, where scoriac remains resemble ‘slag and refuse of Cyclopean furnaces, poured out in pre-human years, to cool and harden into shapes of limitless grotesquerie.’ Stepping between two time-eroded greenish-grey columns ‘human language is naturally wanting in words that are adequate for the delineation of events and sensations beyond the normal scope of human experience.’ In elegantly florid prose, slow-paced with a vocabulary rich in arcane terminology – an ‘irrefragable lure’, an ‘illimitable’ emptiness into which he was ‘disequilibrated’, a ‘fulgration’ of cloud and a ‘lancinating’ discord, he crosses a ‘spatial flaw’ into a landscape of beautifully strange broken images. He sees the looming city Ydmos of massive towers and mountainous ramparts of red stone, where ‘weird music lured pilgrims from far-away worlds who entered that hidden dimension, giving access to realms beyond.’ He returns again and again, venturing further, drawn by ‘an obscure but profound allurement, the cryptic emanation of some enslaving spell.’ By the green flame shown in the beguiling cover-art, with all the mystique of vintage ‘Weird Tales’.
Less a story, never mind SF, it’s the romantically decadent addiction metaphor he’d used in “The Plutonian Drug” (‘Amazing Stories’, September 1934), and the dark macabre fascinations of “Planet Of The Dead” (‘Weird Tales’, March 1932). A master of the outré, Baudelaire could teach Clark Ashton Smith nothing about the flowers of evil, ‘a pernicious chimera, a mere poetic dream or a sort of opium paradise.’ In the second sequence, Hastane himself follows directions indicated in the manuscript to reach the city – which is now besieged by a mobile rival city from the Outer Lands, and is carried by two lapidopters through the fatally alluring flame into transcendentally stranger realms where he encounters Angarth and Ebbonly in prose and vistas of beautiful strangeness. Its impossible splendours leave an emptiness, ‘anything that I can imagine or frame in language, seems flat and puerile beside (that) world of unsearchable mystery.’
He’d been there in no.8, with the marginally more conventional “World Of Horror”, although – this being Clark Ashton Smith, it means that engineer Richard Harmon, menaced by a giant blobby protoplasmic monster while crossing the Hell Planet hemisphere of a gravitationally-locked Venus, is anything but predictable. In a fictional 1979, the second ether-ship expedition led by Admiral Carfax lands in the Purple Mountains, only to discover that ‘Venus was not designed for human nerves or human brains.’
Francis Flagg – a pseudonym used by George Henry Weiss, was in no.12 with “The Machine Man Of Ardathia”, betraying an editorial bias for reprints from vintage ‘Amazing Stories’. Flagg’s warm personal style adds a sliver of credibility to the sudden appearance of the oddly-evolved sexless being from twenty-eight-thousand years hence in the writer-narrator’s front room, displacing his rocking chair. Not so much a story as a conversation with the 570-year-old ‘synthetically-conceived and machine-made’ Ardathian, in which he tells how the new young generation forged ahead, ‘proposed radical changes’ and ‘entertained new ideas’ while the old die taking their ‘conservative methods with them.’ Ideas designed to inspire progressive young readers. Yet the encounter is dismissed as the work of ‘an imagination equal to that of an HG Wells’ when he tells a local newspaperman, and the unfortunate Matthews ends up confined to an asylum. Following this debut sale, Flagg drifted to ‘Weird Tales’ – from which his “The Chemical Brain” had already been lifted for no.5. ‘There is every possibility that these were stories that Gernsback rejected, since their elements of bizarrerie lent themselves more to the editorial policy of ‘Weird Tales’’ as Michael Ashley speculates. Following “The Distortion Out Of Space” in ‘Weird Tales’ August 1934 Flagg dropped out of the writing scene, and died in 1946, aged just 48.
The great Jack Williamson – who died in November 2006, was a luminous fixture clear across the long evolution of what he terms ‘the folklore of the new world of science’. Despite being born in 1908, as part of a family that trekked by covered wagon to a poor sandhill New Mexico homestead, his star-sweeping fiction takes Cometeers across the galaxy and his Legion Of Time through centuries. ‘Behind that John Wayne face is a fast and thoughtful brain’ Frederik Pohl observes (in his introduction to ‘The Best Of Jack Williamson’, 1978). His first published story, the vigorous and confident fantasy-adventure “The Metal Man” (in ‘Amazing Stories’ December 1928), written as a twenty-year-old ‘half-educated kid… bubbling with baffled vague ambitions, just recently struck with the dazzling wonders of science fiction’ (‘Afterword’ to above) was reprinted in no.8. In the form of a letter from the Metal Man in the Tyburn Museum, and drawing on the model of A Merritt’s “The People Of The Pit”, Professor Thomas Kelvin is prospecting for radium in the S American Cordilleras using a small monoplane when he descends into ‘a great pool of green fire’ in a volcanic crater. Forced to land in swirling mist he discovers birds transmuted into metal, even a pterosaur. There’s no real explanation for his own slow metamorphosis, or for the glowing crystalline entities he flees from, except for a separate evolutionary process adapting to the alien conditions within the radioactive crater.
Later, there’s something of Clark Ashton Smith’s poetic strangeness about Williamson’s second reprint classic “The Moon Era” (no.15, from ‘Wonder Stories’ February 1932). A telegram summons Stephen to the opulent Long Island mansion of an uncle he’s not previously met, Enfield Conway, who offers him the opportunity of becoming his heir, on condition that he puts a machine of his own invention through tests. With an obvious debt to HG Wells the Moon-ship constructed in the hangar of his grounds achieves degravitation, not through Cavorite, but by passing electrical currents through copper discs. Although he’s warned that the ‘Conway Effect’ may involve movement through the fourth dimension too, Stephen is caught up in ‘the madness of glorious adventure… to tread the world that has always been the symbol of the unattainable.’ But as he speeds away from Earth he’s also plunging back through time, arriving at an era when the young Moon still has atmosphere. Like ER Burroughs ‘John Carter’ on Mars, he uses the Moon’s lesser gravity to leap impossible cliffs and lift unfeasible burdens. After a terrifying encounter with a balloon-like predator buoyed up on a muscular gas-filled sac, and attacked by tentacled blood-sucking red spheres, he’s soothed back to health by a beautifully delicate being known as the Mother.
The last of her race she carries the seeds of her species’ future within her, but is in turn pursued by vindictive machine-mutants called the Eternal Ones, ‘horrible travesties of life’ with beam-me-up-technology. A living brain housed in a metal body of clattering many-jointed levers, pistons, rusted cogs, rods, coils and lenses – a variety of early-industrial Dalek, they nevertheless indicate the persistence of ideas through the SF-decades. Stephen rips a lever free and uses it as a mace to retaliate. Stanley Weinbaum’s Tweel is usually seen as SF’s first loveable alien, but Williamson creates a uniquely tender interspecies connection between the two, making the poignant death and parting genuinely moving. As an impressionable young Isaac Asimov recalls, he was emotionally moved by this relationship, although ‘it is perhaps inevitable that the woman involved wasn’t really a woman’ (in ‘Before The Golden Age: Volume 1’ Doubleday 1974).
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TOWARDS NEW WORLDS
As Mike Ashley writes ‘each issue contained reprints from the States, and these increased as issues went by.’ Gillings concurs, ‘as we progressed… I had to rely on far more reprint material than I ever intended, or even thought possible’ – hardly surprising considering that by then many of Britain’s potential writers had been conscripted into the forces. Of the twenty-three US writers who responded to his appeals, he was only able to feature thirteen. For while he was laying plans for more frequent publication, and maybe a tie-in series of SF novels, global forces were conspiring against him.
Paper rationing, occasioned by the outbreak of war, was introduced 30 April 1940, whittling page-count slowly but relentlessly down from 128 to seventy-two. ‘Perhaps you are having difficulty in obtaining your copy of this magazine’ enquires the inner cover of no.10, ‘printing numbers have been greatly reduced owing to war conditions and the shortage of paper, and you will probably find that it is impossible to buy copies haphazardly as was customary in ordinary times.’ The answer, it suggests, is for readers both to place a standing order at the newsagent, and to order copies on behalf of ‘your Soldier, Sailor Or Airman Friend wherever he is stationed – whether at home or abroad, on land or at sea.’
The final ‘Tales Of Wonder’, before it became a war casualty in 1942, nevertheless features a new Benson Herbert novelette, “The Earth Shall Die!”, and introduces new Glasgow writer Marion F Eadie. She happened to be married to artist Harry Turner who supplied interior illustrations ‘at fees which today would not cover the cost of his materials.’ Promoted to cover-art he envisioned a one-off ‘The World Of Tomorrow’ for no.10, and would go on to illuminate both fannish and pro SF magazines with increasing confidence across the years to come.
At one time Britain’s only full-time SF-writer, John Russell Fearn died of a heart-attack in September 1960, having achieved an immense output of work under a spread of pseudonyms across his fifty years. Gillings writes of ‘the phenomenal success which was to attend his later (and, to my mind, often inferior) efforts’, in creating the ‘Golden Amazon’ and guiding the ‘Vargo Statten Science Fiction Magazine’ through nineteen issues 1954-1956. ‘He was too impetuous, too full of his own schemes, which never had time to develop before another possessed his agile mind. But as a fount of story ideas none could surpass him’ (in “The Impatient Dreamers”). Fearn’s reputation was kept alive by the diligent promotion of his agent Philip Harbottle.
Undaunted by a nation preoccupied with gasmasks, air-raid shelters, ration cards, call-up papers, Dunkirk and ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, Gillings began stockpiling stories for a projected new post-war magazine, as soon as paper-restrictions were sufficiently eased. With remarkable focus, he considered global conflict ‘was only a temporary setback – the war could not last for ever.’ Yet quota-based paper rationing would persist far longer than even the most pessimistic expected. Gillings continued to promote his coterie of writers as British fixer for Frederik Pohl’s Dirk Wylie Lit agency. With VE Day in May 1945, he was seduced away by Temple Bar Publishing, where he was able to launch ‘Fantasy’ which survived for three beautiful action-packed issues. While many of his subsequent editorial genre ventures proved equally short-lived. Only his highly professional-looking bi-monthly fanzine ‘Fantasy Review’ achieved lasting critical renown. He edited it from February 1947, it went quarterly from no.15 (Summer 1949), and the following autumn reappeared as ‘Science Fantasy Review’ for two further numbers.
In his final guest editorial to ‘Science Fantasy’ (no.3, Winter 1951/1952) Gillings writes with both poignancy and bitterness of ‘magazines which have started off with a flourish of trumpets in the past few years have suddenly stopped amid whisperings of crippling production costs, changing reading tastes and, now, the soaring cost of living.’ Yet ‘Tales Of Wonder’ was ‘the first British magazine to specialize in science fiction, which’ – with pride, ‘ I was able to initiate in 1937.’ Terry Jeeves adds that ‘the yarns are totally pedestrian by modern standards, scientists build spaceships, create monsters and save worlds, all from the safety of their backyard laboratories. Nevertheless, in those SF-starved pre-war days, ‘Tales Of Wonder’ was a wonderful shot in the arm…’
We, who routinely accept the fantastic envisioned for us by digital technologies unimaginable at the time, can have little real conception of what that means.
TALES OF WONDER
‘TALES OF WONDER no.1’ (June, Winter 1937) ‘Amazing Science Fiction’, 128pp, priced 1/- (one shilling), published by The Worlds Work (1913 Ltd, Kingswood, Surrey), edited by Walter H Gillings, cover-art by John ‘Nick’ Nicholson with ‘Superhuman’ by John Russell Fearn (as Geoffrey Armstrong), ‘Seeds From Space’ novelette also by John Russell Fearn, ‘Revolt On Venus’ by WP Cockcroft (misprinted as Cockroft), ‘Man Of The Future’ by Festus Pragnell. ‘Monsters Of The Moon’ also by Festus Pragnell (as by Francis Parnell), ‘The Prr-r-eet’ by Eric Frank Russell, ‘Invaders From The Atom’ novelette by Maurice G(aspard) Hugi (who had earlier appeared in ‘Scoops’), ‘The Perfect Creature’ by John Wyndham (as John Beynon)
|'TALES OF WONDER no.2' (New Zealand EDITION)|
‘TALES OF WONDER AND SUPER-SCIENCE no.8’ (September/ Autumn 1939) 1/- interior art by Harry E Turner, with Edmond Hamilton (‘The Comet Doom’), Jack Williamson (‘The Metal Man’), JM Walsh (‘After A Million Years’), John Russell Fearn (‘The Man Who Stopped The Dust’), Clark Ashton Smith (‘World Of Horror’ reprint of ‘The Immeasurable Horror’ from ‘Weird Tales’ September 1931), George C Wallis (‘The Crystal Menace’), DJ Foster (‘The Island In The Air’) plus essay by Professor AM Low (‘Life On Mars’), Walter H Gillings editorial invites ‘Use Your Imagination: Search For Ideas’ from readers, letters from Arthur C Clarke and John F Burke, plus Author’s Corner profiles of Jack Williamson (‘The Folk-Lore Of Science’) and John Russell Fearn (‘To-morrow’s Adventure’)
‘TALES OF WONDER no.13’ (Winter 1940/1941), first format cover art by J Nicholson with centre-panel announcing star stories, inner art by Turner, editorial ‘Lucky Thirteen’, with ‘Wanderers Of Time’ by John Beynon (John Wyndham, from ‘Wonder Stories’ March 1933), ‘The Book Of Worlds’ by Miles J Breuer MD (from ‘Amazing Stories’ July 1929), ‘The Power Supreme’ by George C Wallis, ‘The Law Of The Universe’ by Coutts Brisbane, ‘Dimension Of Chance’ by Clark Ashton Smith (from ‘Wonder Stories’ November 1932), plus ‘Search For Ideas: The Future Of Man’ and Reader’s Reactions
‘TALES OF WONDER no.14’ (Spring 1941), reduced to 72pp, cover art by J Nicolson, inner art by Turner, with ‘Death From The Skies’ by A Hyatt Verrill (from ‘Amazing Stories’ October 1929), ‘Murder In The Fourth Dimension’ by Clark Ashton Smith (from ‘Amazing Detective Tales’ October 1930), ‘The Red Sphere’ by George C Wallis, ‘Child Of Neptune’ by Miles J Breuer MD with Clare Winger Harris (variant title of ‘A Baby On Neptune’ in ‘Amazing Stories’ December 1929), plus ‘Search For Ideas: The Conquest Of Time’ and ‘Reader’s Reactions’
‘TALES OF WONDER AND SUPER-SCIENCE no.16’ (Spring, March 1942), 72pp, cover art by J Nicolson, all inner art by Harry E Turner, editorial ‘And Still We Go On’, with ‘The Earth Shall Die’ novelette by Benson Herbert MSc, ‘Flight Through Time’ novelette by Clark Ashton Smith, ‘Breath Of Utopia (aka ‘The Perfect Planet’ from ‘Amazing Stories’ May 1932)’ by Miles J Breuer MD, ‘Beast Of The Crater’ by Marion F Eadie (the only fiction sale by this Glasgow writer), ‘And Still We Go On’ essay by Walter H Gillings, ‘Science-Fantasy Forum: Is The Universe Alive?’ by the readers
‘TALES OF WONDER AND SUPER-SCIENCE no.17’ (Unpublished) scheduled to include ‘Exiles Of Asperus’ by John Beynon, subsequently published in the John Wyndham collection ‘Exiles On Asperus’ (Coronet Paperback, 1979)
with thanks to ER James and to ‘Vultures Of The Void’
(Borgo Press, 1992) by Philip Harbottle and Stephen Holland