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The Lovecraft Circle at the First World Fantasy Convention

Monday, September 23rd, 2013 | Posted by James McGlothlin

H.P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long (Brooklyn, 1931)

H.P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long (Brooklyn, 1931)

In a recent Silver Lodge podcast I listened to, British horror writer Ramsey Campbell mentioned that there was an online recording of panels at the first World Fantasy Convention held in Providence, Rhode Island in 1975 that included some members of the original “Lovecraft Circle” — those writers who were first influenced by, and in contact with, horror pulp writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) before he died.

I was immediately intrigued and attempted to track down this recording. In the Community Audio section of the Internet Archive, I found there were actually three separate MP3 tracks, composing two different panel discussions recorded at this inaugural World Fantasy Convention held in Lovecraft’s honor.

The first was with some well-known fantasy & horror authors, concerning how they came to write fantasy and supernatural fiction. Moderated by cartoonist and editor Gahan Wilson, these authors included Joseph Payne Brennan, Manly Wade Wellman, and Lovecraft Circle members Robert Bloch and Frank Belknap Long. (As far as I know, Brennan and Wellman were not in contact with Lovecraft before he died.) One common thread was that Arkham House published all four of these authors.

The second and third files are from another panel discussion at the convention, this time about fantasy and supernatural horror publishing. Again moderated by Gahan Wilson, the speakers include publisher Donald A. Wollheim and author Robert Bloch.

According to the webpage,

The audio was recorded in October 1975 by and for Myrddin Press, which published the fanzine Myrddin. The recordings were made with a Sony monophonic cassette recorder, and parts of it appeared on a paper-thin flexible vinyl disc that came with the third issue of Myrddin. The three files uploaded here contain the clearest and most interesting portions from the tapes.

If you’re interested in any of these individuals or their works, I highly recommend that you give these recordings a listen (total audio time just under 90 minutes). I’ll mention a few tidbits from the panel discussions that I found very interesting and which I hope will peak your interest to attempt a listen yourself.

Concerning panel one (the first recording), I noted that the organization of convention panel discussions have not improved all that much in over 30 years: Wilson remarks that he was called upon at the last minute to moderate and more than one author comments how they hadn’t really thought about the topic of the panel before coming to it. This is not to say that nothing interesting was said though!

Avon Science Fiction Reader #3, with "The Robot Empire" by Frank Belknap Long

Donald A. Wollheim’s Avon Science Fiction Reader #3, with “The Robot Empire” by Frank Belknap Long. Click for bigger version.

I found it incredibly fascinating that Brennan, Bloch and Long all commented that at least one reason they were fantasy writers, as opposed to science fiction writers, was that they did not have the technical background to write science fiction. Personally, my SF&F reading tends much more to the F than the SF; but I wasn’t really under the impression that — at least today — one had to have a lot of technical know-how in order to write SF, that is, at least SF that sells. I may be mistaken about that. But it was clear that in the mid-1970s, these authors believed that one must have this sort of knowledge or background in order to competitively write in the SF market.

Robert Bloch’s personality really shined on this panel. He was incredibly funny! One sample, in reference to his growing up in the United States in the 1930s:

“I was faced by a choice that everyone in the Great Depression faced: you either worked or starved. I decided to combine the two by becoming a writer.” (laughter and applause)

Also, there’s a rather heated exchange later during the Q&A between two members of the audience: a fan and a publisher. In the second or third recording, I think we’re told the publisher was Lester del Rey. If so, he doesn’t sound like the kind of guy you wanted to get into a kerfuffle with!

The second and third recordings are from another panel. This one focused upon the financial or business end of fantasy and horror publishing. This may sound boring to some. But if you’re familiar with contemporary discussions on this subject (which are usually somewhat bleak), this panel will sound incredibly run-of-the mill. There was a lot of comment about poor sales, too many writers, lack of viable markets, worries about whether the genre would survive into the future — sound familiar?

There was also a somewhat (now) laughable discussion as to why paperbacks were then currently going up to $1.25 to $1.75 each. Oh the humanity!

I found Donald Wollheim to be a very level-headed guy, who seemed to know the genre book business inside and out. In addition, his love for the genre was also apparent. His wife, Elsie Wollheim, who is never introduced, makes a few comments from the audience that were very heartfelt about the industry.

Unfortunately, there are some “old boy club” sort of things that come out a few times in these recordings. For instance, at the very end of the third recording, after Mrs. Wollheim makes a comment praising her husband and DAW books, somebody says to Donald Wollheim (I think it may be Bloch) “That’s a good wife there.” I’m sure it was meant as a compliment; but to our modern ears it sounds condescending.

Anyways, if you’re interested in a bit of the history of SF&F, I highly recommend you give these old recordings a listen.  They are found at:

archive.org/details/FirstWorldFantasyConvention1975

5 Comments »

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  3. I understand that it’s been a year or more since James McGlothlin posted the above about the First World Fantasy Convention audio tapes, but I felt like I just had to comment.

    My brother and I were the ones who made the recording, and published the fanzine known as Myrddin.

    It’s very gratifying to read that Ramsey Campbell found the audio recordings which I uploaded to the Internet Archive. Frankly I don’t know how he found those, as Google doesn’t seem to index them as prominently as they used to.

    I have to say that while I’m very happy that James McGlothlin gave a shout out to the tapes, I have to take issue with his condemnation re: “somebody says to Donald Wollheim (I think it may be Bloch) ‘That’s a good wife there.’ I’m sure it was meant as a compliment; but to our modern ears it sounds condescending.”

    Robert Bloch was tremendously thoughtful and considerate, and if he was the one who made the statement, it was not meant to be condescending. Yes, in hindsight, such statements were and are indeed condescending, and no one today would say such a thing. Sadly it was more accepted back then, but that is no excuse. However, I do find it more than a bit ironic that, on the Black Gate website, just a few inches to the left of that diatribe about sexism in the 1970s, there’s a depiction of a scantily clad woman kneeling to an overlord robot. And sprinkled all through the website are similarly demeaning depictions of women. Shows how little has changed over forty years, doesn’t it?

    OK, sorry for sounding like a fuddy-duddy nit picker. In fact I’m glad to have found Black Gates’ website and James McGlothlin’s mention of Myrrdin. He found a number of things in the tapes that I never noticed, or had forgotten about.

    I still have a couple more hours of tapes, but the quality of the audio is just unbearable. The recording quality is definitely not as clear as it was directly after the convention. Somewhere I read that the earth’s magnetism can slowly erase magnetic recordings, and that might be the cause. After all, it has been more than 40 years. But more realistically, I think the tiny felt pad in the cassette mechanism is to blame. Some day when I feel courageous, I might try to reassemble the cassettes to see if I can improve the sound quality, and then I’ll upload the rest to the same resource –Internet Archive.

    About the convention itself, I remember that when we queued up to register, we were right behind Forry Ackerman. We were in awe, but not ones to gawk, we pretended like we didn’t know how he was. Maybe this egged him on, because he chatted us up and was as friendly as could be. I think at that point he was having a lot of fun going from convention to convention. What a great life!

    And we ran into one of our fanzine contributors, Darrell Schweitzer, who had come straight from Villanova, and to save money, had a dinner roll stashed away in his briefcase — we assumed it was lifted from his dorm cafeteria.

    Our fanzine, Myrddin, lived on for a couple more issues, but college and work intervened, and we soon were on to other endeavors.

    One benefit of the fanzine that I’ll never forget is that in May 1977 we received in the mail two tickets to an advance press screening of a new film called “Star Wars.” Evidently Lucasfilm or 20th Century Fox’s press agent Charles Lippincott had seen our tiny classified ad for Myrddin in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and thought that our publication could be influential in spreading the buzz about Star Wars. Little did they know that we only had about 400 to 500 readers, if that. Seeing Star Wars a few days before the crowd was a thrill (which dissipated as more and more Star Wars films were made).

    Comment by Lance Hill - February 7, 2015 2:24 am

  4. Lance,

    First, thanks to you (and to your brother as well) for making these recordings, and then making them available on the internet–they are really priceless!

    Second, thanks for commenting and giving some more insight to that event. Personally, I’d love to hear more of these stories. If you’re interested, I can get you in touch with the editor of Black Gate, John O’Neill. He might be interested in publishing some here at Black Gate. If not, I’m sure there are places on the internet to do that.

    Third, I’m actually very sympathetic with your assessment of irony here. I’ve only been messing around in SF&F online fandom for a couple of years or so now and I’ve found, at best, a very schizophrenic, or at worst, an outright hypocrisy in its approach to women and sexual issues.

    In fandom today there is a lot of emphasis upon tolerance and inclusiveness, including women, and I believe rightly so. Like so many things in the past, it has been something of an “old boys'” club that needed to be shaken up a bit.

    However, when it comes to art or photography or cosplay, there seems to be a stress on women being able to be displayed in whatever provocative way one chooses. I find these attitudes in conflict. However, whenever I’ve asked questions about this on forums such as Black Gate, I get immediately attacked.

    A perfect example of this is the following post. Check it out, especially the comments at the end.

    http://www.blackgate.com/2014/12/12/nine-mostly-distinct-almost-positive-traits-of-chainmail-bikinis/

    Make of that what you will!

    Again, thanks Lance for commenting. If you’d like to share some more of your stories, let me know.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - February 7, 2015 11:04 am

  5. Lance,

    Thanks for the comments! And let me re-iterate what James said… you and your brother did an immense service to the field by making those recordings, and by making them publicly available. On behalf of the entire field, I thank you both!

    > I do find it more than a bit ironic that, on the Black Gate website, just a few inches to the left of that
    > diatribe about sexism in the 1970s, there’s a depiction of a scantily clad woman kneeling to an overlord robot.

    You’re absolutely right, of course. But as the editor, it was me who formmated the article and selected the images – not James. If anyone’s guilty of sexism, it’s me, not him.

    And if you’re at all familiar with Don Wollheim’s AVON SCIENCE FICTION READER, you’ll also know I selected one of the more harmless covers. The magazine had a (well deserved) rep for portraying female characters dressed up like Vegas show girls (when they were wearing anything at all.)

    Comment by John ONeill - February 7, 2015 11:54 am


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