Vintage Treasures: The Year’s Best SF 9, edited by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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I’ve been collecting Year’s Best Science Fiction volumes for years. Many fine editors have tried their hand at them, starting with The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949 from Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, and carried on for the next seven decades, almost without interruption, by Judith Merril, Donald Wollheim, Lester del Rey, Terry Carr, Arthur W. Saha, Gardner Dozois, David Hartwell, and all the way up to the current crop of annual Best of volumes from Neil Clarke, Rich Horton, Jonathan Strahan, John Joseph Adams, and Paula Guran.

I haven’t paid as much attention to the British editors however, and that’s an oversight. In particular, I only recently (like, six days ago) discovered that there were nine volumes in The Year’s Best SF series edited by Brian Aldiss and Harrison, which began in 1967. That’s because I rather foolishly based my count on the US reprint editions, published in paperback by Berkley Medallion with gorgeous covers by Paul Lehr.

But you know what? Turns out Berkley only reprinted the first seven volumes in the series. Who knew?? That meant there was a two-book hole in my proudly spotless Year’s Best collection that needed to be fixed, stat.

Fortunately. there’s really no such thing as an expensive science fiction paperback — not if you hunt long enough. Rare, sure. Overpriced, certainly. But I have tens of thousands of vintage SF paperbacks in my house, and I don’t think I’ve paid than ten bucks for more than a handful of them. And I sure didn’t in this case.

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From the Pen of a Great Pulpster: The Best of Robert Bloch

Monday, July 15th, 2019 | Posted by James McGlothlin

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The Best of Robert Bloch (Del Rey, 1977). Cover by Paul Alexander

The Best of Robert Bloch (1977) was the thirteenth installment in Lester Del Rey’s Classic Science Fiction Series. Lester Del Rey himself gives the introduction to this volume. Paul Alexander (1937–) does his first cover for the series, a very lively one based upon Bloch’s folktale “The Hell-bound Train.” The afterword was by Robert Bloch (1917–1994) himself.

When John O’Neill began first doing posts on some of these Del Rey editions a few years ago, the one that most intrigued me was his post on this Bloch volume. I was of course familiar with Bloch as the author of Psycho (1959), which was famously made into the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name in 1960. I also knew that Bloch was part of the vaunted “Lovecraft Circle,” having exchanged letters as a young author with famed weird author H. P. Lovecraft, even having the honor of becoming a protagonist/victim, named “Robert Blake,” in one of Lovecraft’s tales: “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936).

But I hadn’t really read that much of Bloch. But buying The Best of Robert Bloch soon fixed that.

Like most writers who cut their teeth on the early pulps, Bloch wrote widely and in various genres. Most pulp writers, in order to make anything close to approaching a living, had to be able to write everything from sci-fi to suspense thrillers. Bloch did as well. But given his association with Lovecraft, and his fame in connection with Psycho, I would’ve thought that The Best of Robert Bloch would tend to focus more on horror, or horror-related themes. And there was much here that fits with that genre.

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Vintage Treasures: The Demu Trilogy Omnibus by F.M. Busby

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover by Vincent di Fate

F.M. Busby was a well known science fiction fan who graduated to professional writer in the early 70s. He won a Hugo in 1960 for his fanzine Cry of the Nameless, and when he took early retirement in 1971 he became a full time science fiction writer at the age of 50. He was enormously productive for the next quarter century, publishing 19 novels and numerous short stories between 1973 and 1996.

He never broke out of midlist, and gave up writing after that, blaming the infamous Thor Power Tools ruling in an email to fan George Willick.

No, I haven’t been writing fiction for some time. Many if not most of us “midlist” writers have been frozen out like a third party on an Eskimo honeymoon. The IRS started it by getting the Thor Power Tools decision stretched to cover an inventory tax on books in publishers’ warehouses (so they don’t keep ’em in print no more), and the bookchains wrapped it up by setting one book’s GROSS order on that writer’s previous book’s NET sales. 4-5 books under those rules, and you’re road kill; a publisher can’t be expected to buy a book the chains won’t pay out on.

Busby (“Buz”) produced four novels in The Rebel Dynasty (Star Rebel, Rebel’s Quest, The Alien Debt, and Rebels’ Seed), three Rissa Kerguelen novels, and the Slow Freight trilogy. But his most popular series was probably The Demu Trilogy, which Pocket Books kept in print for nearly seven years in an omnibus collection.

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Vintage Treasures: After Midnight edited by Charles L. Grant

Sunday, July 7th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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The 80s were a very fertile ground for horror anthologies. Karl Edward Wagner kicked off the decade with the first volume of the seminal The Year’s Best Horror Stories in 1980, and he produced one volume per year until 1994. Dark Harvest published nine volumes of the superb Night Visions anthology series beginning in 1984; Stuart David Schiff edited six volumes of Whispers (1977-1987); J. N. Williamson produced three volumes of Masques; and there were many others.

Charles Grant, who died in 2006, was one of the most prolific horror anthologists of the 80s. His well respected Shadows began in 1978 and ran for 11 volumes before ending in 1991. He edited four volumes of the shared world horror series Greystone Bay (1985-1993), and numerous standalone anthologies, including Night Visions 2 (1985), Horrors (1981), Terrors (1982), Gallery of Horror (1983), Fears (1983), and Midnight (1985).

After Midnight was published by Tor in 1986, and it’s fairly typical of Grant’s anthologies from this period. It’s a mix of new and reprint fiction, including reprints from Ramsey Campbell, Reginald Bretnor, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, and David Langford, and original stories by Alan Ryan, Joe R. Lansdale, Ellen Kushner, Ardath Mayhar, Joseph Payne Brennan, and even fellow Ottawa local Galad Elflandsson, who used to moonlight at The House of Speculative Fiction and recommend horror books to me.

After Midnight never kicked off a new horror anthology series, although to my speculative young eyes I thought for sure it would have. Maybe it didn’t sell well enough; maybe Grant just had too many other series on the go. Whatever the case, it’s a fine book, and still deserves a look today. Here’s the Table of Contents.

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The Early John Wyndham: Sleepers of Mars and Wanderers of Time

Friday, July 5th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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Sleepers of Mars, Coronet 1973, cover by Chris Foss

Last month I wrote a Vintage Treasure piece about John Wyndham’s 1953 novel Out of the Deeps, and while I was researching it I was reminded that Wyndham — one of the 20th Century’s most successful science fiction writers — got his start in the American pulp magazine Wonder Stories, edited by Hugo Gernsback, and Walter H. Gillings’ British pulp Tales of Wonder. Someone with authentic pulp roots like that deserves a lot more attention than he’s received here at Black Gate over the years.

Much of Wyndham’s early pulp fiction was collected by Coronet in two slender paperback anthologies in 1973, Sleepers of Mars and Wanderers of Time, and they look like a great place to start. Neither were reprinted in the US, so I was unaware of them until recently (like, two weeks ago). But thanks to the wonders of eBay, I was able to locate the copy of Sleepers above for a reasonable price ($11.33). That’s more than I like to pay for a vintage paperback…. but it was almost as old as me, and definitely in better shape, so I made an exception.

Both books had introductions by Gillings. Though it’s short (2 pages), I found his intro to Sleepers of Mars entertaining and informative, especially since it shows how the first story in the collection relates to Stowaway to Mars, one of Wyndham’s pulp-era novels (and perhaps not coincidentally, also re-released in paperback by Coronet in 1972). Here’s the relevant snippet.

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The Stark House Algernon Blackwood, edited by Mike Ashley

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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I’ve been enjoying the attractive and affordable Stark House reprints of the work of Algernon Blackwood, much of which has been out of print for many decades. If I’ve counted correctly (and no guarantee of that) there have been ten volumes so far, collecting some dozen novels and six collections, all released under their Supernatural Classics banner in handsome trade paperbacks. Two more have arrived recently(ish), a slender collection titled The Face of the Earth and Other Imaginings, and an omnibus of two lesser-known novels, The Promise of Air/The Garden of Survival, both edited with fascinating introductions by Mike Ashley. Here’s a snippet from Mike’s intro to the latter.

Unfortunately for Blackwood, no sooner had he completed The Promise of Air, than tragedy struck. His brother, Stevie, who had long been in poor health, died on 16 June 1917 aged only forty-nine. There were deaths of other close friends, along with Blackwood’s every day witness of death working as an Intelligence Agent in Switzerland and as a Searcher for the Red Cross. Blackwood needed to express his innermost feelings and those emerged in a highly personal document later called The Garden of Survival. Blackwood had no intention of publishing it until others who read his manuscript implored him to do so.

The Garden of Survival is more a novella (taking up a mere 52 pages in this edition), but it made an impact. The Bookman called it “A remarkable psychological study,” and the Boston Herald said, “Mr. Blackwood makes the occult seem part and parcel of daily life.”

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Vintage Treasures: Pilgrims through Space and Time: A History and Analysis of Scientific Fiction by J. O. Bailey

Thursday, June 27th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover by Ronald Clyne

You never know what strange wonders you’ll find at the Windy City Pulp and Paper Show. This year, among many other treasures on the $1 table, I found a coverless copy of J. O. Bailey’s 1947 nonfiction tome Pilgrims through Space and Time, which grew out of his 1934 Ph.D. thesis at the University of North Carolina.

You’d think a dissertation would be too dry to become a classic of genre (and in most cases you’d be right), but this was one popular enough to inspire the Pilgrim Award, given annually by the Science Fiction Research Association for contributions to the study of SF. It was first given to Bailey in 1970, and is still awarded today. Recipients have included Jack Williamson, Damon Knight, James E. Gunn, Brian W. Aldiss, Sam Moskowitz, Gary K. Wolfe, Joanna Russ, John Clute, L. Sprague de Camp, Brian Stableford, Mike Ashley, Gary Westfahl, Gérard Klein, Algis Budrys, and Pamela Sargent.

Pilgrims is a little dry for light reading, but I did find Bailey’s discussions of Lovecraft (“splendid”), and the pulp stories of Stanton Coblentz, Ray Cummings, A. Hyatt Verrill, John Taine, and others, to be entertaining enough to make me want to pick up some of my favorite pulp anthologies again — and maybe look at them in a new light.

Thomas Clareson, in his 1972 foreword to the Greenwood Press reprint edition, did a fine job summarizing the importance of this book to early SF scholarship. Here’s what he said.

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Vintage Treasures: Perilous Planets, edited by Brian Aldiss

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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Cover by Alex Ebel

In the days when I was first discovering science fiction, there were a number of seminal books that helped lead me along the path to becoming a collector. These were the tantalizing artifacts that taught me that SF and fantasy tended to come in a series, just like the comics I collected in my youth. And this — in the days when completing a series meant questing through bookstores, instead of simply ordering online — added a delicious element of uncertainty and desire to my new hobby.

I knew that my favorite books as a kid, like Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators and Perry Rhodan, were packaged as a series, and I was comfortable with the concept. When it gradually dawned on me that adult SF books, like Asimov’s Foundation series, Herbert’s Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and others, were series as well, I took to science fiction like a fish to water.

SF publishers understood this simple reading mentality of course, and frequently took advantage of it, packaging books that often had only nebulous connections into virtual series. Some were more successful than others. One of my favorite examples is the late 70s SF anthology series from Avon Books, all published with gorgeous wraparound covers by Alex Ebel. Avon found four Brian Aldiss anthologies published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK, and repackaged them with similar covers across the pond: Galactic Empires Volume One (1979), Galactic Empires: Volume Two (1979), Evil Earths (1979), and Perilous Planets (1980).

Read More » on Robert E. Howard’s First (and Best?) Barbarian

Friday, June 21st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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Kull the Fabulous Warrior King (Bantam, 1978). Art by Lou Feck

Rogue Blades Entertainment mastermind Jason M Waltz tipped me off to this article at this morning, saying,

A decent article, even well-argued, but I disagree Kull is the better barbarian. Kull is the precursor to the culmination that is Conan; without Kull, Conan would be a lesser creation. Yet I enjoyed the article.

The piece itself, by Alan Brown, is a thoughtful look at one of Robert E. Howard’s early creations, and a great intro to a fascinating character, especially for those chiefly familiar with Howard through his later Conan tales.

The Kull stories marked the first time that Howard created an entire quasi-medieval world from whole cloth. While the various races and tribes bear some resemblance to peoples who inhabit the world today, he portrayed a time before the great cataclysm that caused Atlantis to sink, when even the shape of the land was different, a time when pre-human races still walked the Earth. Kull is an Atlantean barbarian who from his earliest days harbored an ambition that set him apart from his fellow tribesmen. A large, quick man, often compared to a tiger, he is powerful yet lithe, with dark hair and grey eyes, and a complexion bronzed from a life in the sun. He had been a warrior, galley slave, pirate, mercenary, and general before seizing the throne of Valusia from the corrupt King Borna. While a mighty warrior, Kull also has a whimsical and inquisitive side. He could be kind and sensitive, and is fascinated by the metaphysical.

Read the entire piece here.

IMHO: A Personal Look at Dystopian Fiction — Part Two: J.G. Ballard

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

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For the sake of this article, and not wanting to rely on memory alone, I’ve used a brief synopsis of each novel mentioned here, courtesy of Wikipedia.

If you read Part 1 of this article you’ll know about some of the older novels of dystopian fiction upon which I grew up, novels that surely inspired many other writers… novels I’d hate to see get tossed in a pile or in a corner to collect dust with all the other forgotten novels. Today I’m going to talk about one writer in particular: J. G. Ballard.

Ballard’s memoirs of being a kid during WWII were made into a fairly good film by Steven Spielberg, starring Christian Bale when he was just a kid: Empire of the Sun. Film director David Cronenberg turned Ballard’s strange, erotic and haunting novel Crash into a strange, erotic and haunting film. I’ve read most of Ballard’s short stories, and a number of his other novels, but my personal favorites are his Quartet of Elemental Apocalypse, as one critic dubbed the series. To me, they truly depict dystopian futures. Ballard had a great talent for creating interesting, believable characters, making his stories more character-driven than plot- or action-driven. He excelled at pitting ordinary people against extraordinary odds, and his plots contained many an unexpected twist and turn.

The Wind from Nowhere is Ballard’s debut novel published in 1961; he had previously published only short stories, which I also highly recommend. This is the novel that launched his apocalyptic quartet — his “series” dealing with scenarios of natural disasters. In this novel, civilization is reduced to ruins by prolonged worldwide hurricane force winds. As an added dimension, Ballard explores how disaster and tragedy can bond people together in ways that no normal experiences ever could.

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