The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
FANTASY IS HERE TO STAY
Science fiction didn't exist in the book world until after World War II. The "book world" comprised a culture of serious literature: the publishers who printed books in hardback, the critics and reviewers who commented on those titles, the bookstores and libraries who stocked them, and the collectors who pored over their details and histories.
Hardback publishing was the root from which the rest grew. No serious attention could be paid to material published in soft covers, even when that was in book form like the thousands of dime novels, softcover "libraries," and later massmarket "pocket books" that certainly outsold the serious book world. Magazines got some attention, especially after "little magazines" arose after World War I to publish modern, often experimental fiction, but the presumption was that any worthwhile, lasting fiction would quickly make it to hardcovers.
Individual titles that we now retroactively consider science fiction existed. Those by a few like Wells and Verne were famous, influential, and collectible, but not as part of the yet nonexistent science fiction genre. We now date the genre from the debut of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories and that took place as late as 1926, a full three decades into the pulp magazine era. The allied fields of fantasy and horror already had a niche magazine after Weird Tales emerged in 1923. Other specialty pulps followed but established writers preferred to sell to the general fiction pulps, more prestigious and better paying. When the rare hardback science fiction novel appeared, it almost always proved to be a reprint from one of these. When Worlds Collide (1933) and its sequel After Worlds Collide (1934), by Philip Wylie & Edwin Balmer, e.g. appeared in Blue Book rather than a science fiction pulp. F&sf remained a minor backwater of fiction.
A handful of science fiction fans tried to launch presses in the 1930s to get their favorite stories and authors into a form more lasting than the always ephemeral pulps. The print runs were tiny, the distribution spotty, the attention paid nonexistent. Only a few could afford to produce hardbacks, with the rest sticking to softcovers that looked amateurish. The only one that lasted was Arkham House. Champions of H. P. Lovecraft, as much a name as the field offered, founded it when no traditional publisher would publish his work and then went on to reprint more horror and fantasy.
After rockets and atomic bombs played huge, front-page roles in World War II, no publisher could resist exploiting the market to a certain extent. Murray Leinster, using his real name of Will F. Jenkins, saw his atomic war novel The Murder of the U.S.A. published by Crown a few months into peacetime. Scribner's put out Robert A. Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947, but as a juvenile, respectable but a level away from adult fiction.
Seeing a niche they knew far better than any mainstream publisher, several more groups of fans tried their hands at small presses, specifically to reprint the huge backlog of popular authors that had built up in the pulps. (They rarely took chances on new material. Product that already had a reputation made sense for businesses founded on shoestrings. Until the 1960s, the standard business plan steered authors toward selling novel-length material to the magazines for serialization, followed by a hardback edition, and then hopefully a paperback edition.) Fantasy Press, Hadley, Prime Press, and Shasta Publishers all started by early 1948, Shasta making a reputation by starting with the monumental Checklist of Fantasy Literature by Everett F. Bleiler. A compendium of over 5000 titles, the volume not merely gave the field an instant literary history but became a necessary resource for every antiquarian bookseller to own.
Book dealers, both new and used, were seeing a rise in the number of readers asking about these books, and most were entirely unprepared. Trade publications like Publishers' Weekly lent support, even though those concentrated on new books. It happened that the magazine had a column for used book sellers called Antiquarian Bookman and spun that off into a separate weekly magazine at the beginning of 1948, although it did not neglect new books when trends arose. That was a fantastic, no pun intended, opportunity to feature this booming new field and also make lots of money from ads by every publisher of f&sf in existence and by several of the top book dealers. It's a time capsule of what the field looked like at the very beginning of a new era.
T. E. (Ted) Dikty started Shasta with Melvin Korshak, both of them, as the article notes, Chicago book dealers. Shasta's publishing Bleiler's Checklist wasn't an accident. Bleiler put it together based on reference material that Dikty had amassed over the years. Their partnership didn't end there. In 1949 the two of them created The Best Science Fiction Stories, the first best-of-the-year anthology of the field, published by the mainstream Frederick Fell. They would do five more annual anthologies as well as three Year's Best Science Fiction Novels before Dikty continued on alone. He also helped in the founding of Carcosa House, which had an ad in this issue.
The Lovecraft volume mentioned at the beginning of the article was the same book that Arkham House started with. Ironically, it had sold at the time only 150 copies out of 1200 printed and Arkham almost didn't survive. Only a few years later it was already a pricey $50 collectible. Today you might expect to pay 100 times as much, and much more for a copy in fine condition.
Another book dealer, Williams was known in the field for being one of the co-founders of Prime Press.
As you can see on the issue's cover, above, a science fiction convention was the notional excuse for this focus on f&sf. (Notional because the convention was scheduled for only a week after the cover date and anyone who hadn't already made plans wasn't likely to do so with that kind of advance notice.) Rothman touts the nascent dealer's room (huckster's room in early fan speech) that dealers soon made a gigantic annual commitment. Rothman was an exemplar of the early science fiction fan. He helped found the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society in 1935 at the age of 16. He sold a few stories starting in 1939 but was mostly known for fannish activities, publishing fanzines and chairing the 1947 Philadelphia World Science Fiction Convention, which apparently weren't yet referred to as Worldcons as they universally are today. One more thing. Rothman was also in the midst of getting a doctorate in physics from Penn. The degree might have been unusual but scientists and engineers were known to be heavy readers of f&sf. They were also enjoying a wave of sudden respect.
These breezy summaries set the context but for me the ads have far more fascination. As usual, what is missing is more telling than what is present. Even though the Antiquarian Bookman was the pinnacle of the establishment, not a single mainstream publisher bothered to take out an ad touting their books. It wouldn't have been worth their while. Collectively, all the genre titles released by mainstream presses from 1946 to 1948 wouldn't have filled a page. Most of the ones listed in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database are only tangentially genre, with a fantasy element. It seems bizarre in retrospect that the authors we think of as the major names in the field had almost no place to publish new work in book form as late as the 1940s. The ads that follow are footprints of the infancy of modern f&sf.
Shasta seemed to be the leader of the new presses. They had Bleiler and Ditky, they had a press capable of the finest color covers, and they had Hannes Bok to draw them. Bok's work is itself a collectible today and well worth the extra pricing. Shasta would publish three Heinlein collections but their limited annual output made it impossible to compete. After a burst of five books in 1953, only one other title ever appeared before they closed.
Arkham - founded to publish Lovecraft and named after his eldrich city - is the alpha and omega of genre small presses. Though not the first, it was the oldest important one and technically still exists today, albeit in a kind of limbo. Again something important has been left out. In 1946 Arkham published A. E. van Vogt's classic sf novel Slan, originally a four part serial in Astounding Science-Fiction. Fantasy had been, appropriately, king, but the audience clamored for something new. Slan quickly sold out a 4,000 copy edition. Contrast this to Witch House by the well-thought-of Evangeline Walton. That needed 20 years to sell out a 3,000 printing. No matter. Arkham's heart beat to fantasy. It stuck doggedly to fantasy and went through a long dry spell in the 1950s when fantasy seemed passe. Nor were they as visually appealing as Shasta, although Bok did do a couple of covers. Usually they were in black and white, with a one-cover overlay, which could be classy or dull.
William Crawford lived in Los Angeles when almost all the science fiction world lived in New York City or the Midwest. He kept trying to start things going from out there, including Visionary Press, the first press to publish Lovecraft, three full years before Arkham. Forrest J. Ackerman, who may have had the largest collection of science fiction in the world, helped him start Fantasy Publishing Company, Inc. (always known as FPCI) in 1947. They did publish their L.A. friends like A. E. van Vogt and his wife E. Mayne Hull and L. Ron Hubbard, but their lists mostly dredged up dreary superscience from the 1930s. Nothing ever seemed to sell out so they rebound printed pages as less expensive trade paperbacks, a true rarity in the small press world. FPCI lasted until 1953 but is mostly known to obsessive L. Ron Hubbard collectors.
Do people confuse Fantasy Press with Fantasy Publishing Company, Inc.? Yes, all the time. Fantasy Press was the real deal. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach understood all aspects of the publishing business, from printing to getting books into the hands of reviewers to building up a loyal base of return customers. He hit paydirt with his second book, E. E. Smith's Spacehounds of I.P.C., which you don't see in the ad because it sold out two printings totaling 5518 copies. The press stuck around through 1957, although a couple of books appeared later when it was essentially bankrupt. The entrance of the big mainstream publishers would kill off every science fiction small press in the 1950s -- Arkham, remember, was fantasy, and while Gnome Press, launched just too late in 1948 to be in this issue, stumbled on until 1962, it was essentially a corpse by then. Eshbach wound up sticking with older reprints long after a new generation of authors had made their marks. In addition, only the rarest, special volume had a hope of selling for more than $3.00 but the small presses couldn't print their books cheaply enough to make this profitable. All the early striking Fantasy Press covers were done by A. J. Donnell, mostly with a one color overlay.
Ted Hadley was another who kept trying and failing with small presses, this one with Don Grant who would later find great success without him. Hadley was done after the four books mentioned here. Yes, everybody really did start with Hubbard, van Vogt, Campbell, and Smith.
With Williams writing an article, it was inevitable that his Prime Press - co-founded with Oswald Train and Alfred Prime - would have an ad. Prime started with an ambitious program that included some historical rarities and even a few new novels but almost nothing sold. Like most of these amateurs, the founders misspent what little money came in. By 1951 Prime was dead. Prime had several cover-related disasters and even when they got them straight the dull L. Robert Tschirky wound up producing most of the early ones. L. Sprague de Camp is not a big name now, but he was huge then, so much so that Lest Darkness Fall, a serial in John W. Campbell's fantasy magazine Unknown Worlds in 1939, had first seen hardback publication in 1941 by the mainstream house Henry Holt. Holt also did The Incomplete Enchanter and The Land of Unreason, both co-authored with Fletcher Platt. (Their The Carnelian Cube, an original novel, was being issued as the first book from Gnome Press around this time in 1948.) Holt also published Campbell's nonfiction book, The Atomic Story, in 1947. For whatever reason they did not continue an active f&sf line after that. All that's certain is that everybody was experimenting to connect with a public noticing their world had suddenly changed.
Carcosa House was a one-book wonder, flickeringly appearing in Los Angeles and distributed by FPCI. From the look of that one release, the first book edition of an 1898 classic serialized in newspapers as a response to Wells' War of the Worlds, it's hard to believe it was intended as a professional publication.
If you thought it was impossible to get more obscure than Carcosa House, let me introduce you to Cosmos. Not a genre small press, it's been invisible to the obsessive researching of the science fiction insiders. It existed solely to publish these two novels by Jerry Walker, who doesn't have another credit in the field. Any fiction dealing with atomic war is by courtesy science fiction, and that seems to justify the ad in this issue. Nothing else in known. Even the name is uncertain. Mission Accomplished had Cosmos Publications as its imprint. The Fabulous Impersonation, which wasn't released until 1949 as A Date with Destiny, carried the Cosmos Publishing Co. label.
My guess would have been that Cosmos was Walker's vanity press, but vanity presses seldom got reviewed in mainstream newspapers. Both books did.
I found two other mentions of Cosmos in newspapers and they just muddy the waters. An ad in the Los Angeles Times trolled for manuscripts, usually a sign of a writer's mill, one that charged money to look at work without having any intentions of publishing it. Six months later, however, an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer sought a salesman just about when A Date with Destiny appeared, suggesting Cosmos was making a real effort to sell its wares.
Cosmos seems to be mentioned nowhere else on the Internet, which is why I'm posting all these tag ends here. Maybe somebody will see this and be able to supply the missing information.
In a lot of ways, this bookseller ad is even more interesting than the individual small press ads because it gives an overview on virtually everything published in the field from the end of the war on, from an astounding variety of publishers.
Stanley Mullen's book, properly titled Moonfoam & Sorceries, was the only volume produced by his own Gorgon Press, although it was distributed by Shasta. Mainstream giant Simon & Schuster surprisingly published the very core sf The World of Ā by A. E. van Vogt. Many of the titles came from British presses, traditionally more accepting of fantasy as mainstream. Examples include Nicholas Vane, publisher of Back to the Future (you didn't really think that the movie came up with that title first), a dystopia set in 2047 and the only title in the field by Meaburn Staniland, one of a line of British MPs of that name. Gerald G. Swan bafflingly released Ray Cumming's The Shadow Girl, the moldiest of oldies originally serialized in Argosy All-Star Weekly in 1929. Hutchinson went even further afield for A Meeting Over Tuscarora and Other Adventure Tales, translations of Russian stories by I. Efremov. Evidence Before Gabriel, by Conrad Frost, is tagged as British. Erle Cox's Out of the Silence should be added to his The Missing Angel as Australian.
A. Merritt's The Fox Woman and Other Stories was one of a number of Merritt reprints issued in digest paperback form by Avon, the only f&sf author to rate such treatment. The People of the Comet, by early writer Austin Hall, was one of two books by the otherwise mysterious Griffin Publishing Co. Heard was Gerald Heard writing as H. F. Heard, and The Lost Cavern came from mainstream publisher Vanguard, which would have been an even better name for a genre press.
The National Fan Federation actually published Dr. David H. Keller The Sign of the Burning Hart and this is the first moment that I've ever known that the N3F - literally what its name said, a fan organization - published a hardback novel. Llana of Gathol not only was by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., a company he set up to republish all of his work, releasing an incredible 22 titles on March 26, 1948 (and, inexplicably, one on March 27). Most of the rest can be found in the small press ads elsewhere in the issue, except for the authorless The End, a book I can find no trace of.
How could any ordinary fan have tracked down a collection of books from these disparate sources? A specialty dealer like Warren Wright was indispensable. Many also placed ads in the genre magazines, where they'd have a much better chance of being seen by readers.
Wright's barkeristic puffing stood out in the staid pages of Antiquarian Bookman, but he was not without competition. Several smaller dealers took out quarter-page ads and Dikty's partner Korshak had half a page for himself.
The issue came with everything including the equivalent of the kitchen sink. Why a list of fan clubs and fanzines? Possibly just to show that fandom was large, organized, and capable of writing reviews and spreading the word about the books that were being published. Those familiar with fan history will find many recognizable names on this page. A time capsule indeed.