Friday, August 17, 2012

FFB: Franz Kafka, Robert E. Howard, Ayn Rand, Ray Bradbury & Henry Hasse, et al.: last FAMOUS FANTASTIC MYSTERIES (6/53) edited by Mary Gnaedinger

The entire contents of this issue are visible online here, at

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka...Anthem by Ayn Rand...a Bran Mak Morn story by Robert E. Howard, from just before he began writing about the not altogether dissimilar Conan the Barbarian...and an early collaboration between Ray Bradbury and Henry Hasse (the latter probably most famous these decades for his first story, "He Who Shrank")...what do they have in common?

They were the reprint fiction in the last issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, a magazine begun as a stablemate to Argosy and All-Story in 1939, as a means of repackaging some of the most popular fantasy and science fiction that had been published in the eclectic Munsey Publications fiction magazines. Edited throughout its run by Mary Gnaedinger, it found its audience rather quickly, spun off two companion titles (the durable Fantastic Novels and the shortlived A. Merritt's Fantasy Magazine). In 1943, Popular Publications bought the Munsey fiction titles, and by the time of this, it's last issue, Popular was shutting down its fiction-magazine arm, on the way to remaking Argosy as a primarily non-fiction men's magazine and refocusing resources to other products and services. But Gnaedinger had managed a very respectable run with her magazines, which had from early on carried some original fiction, some of it impressive (for example, Robert Bloch's "The Man Who Collected Poe" and Catherine L. Moore's "Daemon"), along with the reprints...which, as is demonstrated by this issue's contents, had a remit that was by no means any longer restricted to All-Story reprints.

This last issue also had new poetry and short fiction packed in, and an editorial in which Gnaedinger gives no warning that this would be the last issue, so the folding was probably a very late decision on the part of Popular honcho Harry Steeger...Gnaedinger is also very proud to be able to offer the Rand novella, not least as it was on the heels of the commercial success of The Fountainhead; Anthem, before 1953 barely published in the US, is the piece of fiction and propaganda that has, more than anything else, put me off Rand every since first attempting to read it when I was in eighth grade...a clumsily-written and goofily dogmatic piece that, as everyone notes, echoes (whether it means to or not) the novel We by Rand's fellow Russian dissident, Yevgeny Zamaitin, a book which certainly deeply influenced George Orwell when writing his major dystopian works, as well; Rand apologists and scholars suggest that she probably never read We, but I can't imagine that she could've been unaware of most of its content, even if only through discussion with fellow dissidents, and expatriates after her emigration to the U.S.
The Wikipedia article on the novella quotes Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas's book-review column, in their The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (October, 1953), reviewing presumably the 1953 Cassell Pocket Library edition: "Rand implies that a sinister conspiracy of purveyors of brotherhood has prevented its American publication until now[...]One can only regret that the conspiracy finally broke down."

The Kafka is, of course, the least obscure bit of fiction in the issue, and one of the least obscure and most influential fantasies of the last century (even more influential than the entire body of work of Howard, also no slouch in the degree he inspired others), the story of a transformation of a very unhappy man into a beetle, with Vladimir Mabokov, student of insects as well as literature, suggesting that the oversized insect in question is not meant to be a dung beetle specifically, but simply a beetle (Wikipedia thus provides another interesting tidbit) (though, of course, the popular take among those who haven't read the book is that the bug is a cockroach). Gnaedinger is careful to note that the long novelet, first published in German in 1918 and here given in the 1952 Schocken Books translation, is another classic of fantasy...and I'll certainly argue less in this case. Seeing a Wildroot Cream Oil ad in the midst of the text is certainly One Thing...but Lawrence Stevens's fine illustration halfway through is quite another...

The Bran Mak Morn story, "Worms of the Earth," is fairly typical of Robert Howard's fever-dream approach to fiction, this one being a good example of his narrative drive, his tendency toward redundancy (whether because he was being paid by the word or to further the emphatic tone he strikes, or both, is up to the reader to judge), his highly questionable (even for the time) devotion to eugenics (he even seems to suggest the Black Irish were the original inhabitants there), and his remarkably mixed emotions about sexuality (at one point Bran Mak Morn is essentially blackmailed into a tryst with woman of Mixed Blood, that mixture including something literally not quite human). This one has been collected in Howard horror and best-of collections as well as Bran Mak Morn volumes over the years. And that this was a 1932 reprint from Weird Tales was, again, indicative of Popular's willingness to purchase reprint rights for work published by its competitors, versus the early vision of a Munsey-based reprint vehicle.

The Bradbury and Hasse is a reprint, in this form, from another Popular magazine, a 1941 issue of Super Science Stories, where (unless this story, "Pendulum," is utterly unrelated to the earlier "The Pendulum," which it might well be) Hasse apparently revised a story Bradbury had, in earlier form, self-published in his fanzine Futuria Fantasia, and helped make Bradbury's first professional sale. The new content in this issue features literary work by folks who haven't had much of a sustained reputation, and certainly "Find the Happy Children" by Benjamin Ferris gives at least an initial indication why, in his case...his story is as inept as Rand's as a work of fiction, and amusingly takes almost the direct opposite tack ideologically. In the Rand, of course, freedom in the striking out against the ridiculously oppressive government and society is the great reward; in this story, where apparently alien artifacts inspire a trance-like stupor and overwhelming sence of well-being in almost all the humans who come near them, the heroes are the overarching bureaucrats of an unnecessarily futurish government...the few bits of "advanced" technology they make us of, and their elaborate job titles, could pretty easily have been reset in 1952 American with little change to the story...and in the story, the great reward is the utilization of happy little children, who are by their general good vibes capable of incapacitating the alien artifacts, previously demonstrated to be impervious to even a super-gun (which incidentally kills a number of citizens in trance around it, but, you know, collateral damage pip pip). The kind of story that might well've been sitting in inventory at FFM waiting for a hole to fill. The two poems are likewise unimpressive...Weird Tales could publish some bad verse, particularly when by Lovecraft, but these bits of doggerel are very shy of their intended effects. At least Arthur Dekker Savage's short over-the-top fantasy strives, if not altogether successfully, for a humorous approach (another writer with a a rather brief career, at least in fantastic fiction). The letters column includes Donald Day's announcement of his Perri Press Index to the Science Fiction Magazines, the first to become a standard reference in the field.

However, the illustrations in the issue, much like the both appropriate and inappropriate cover, by Lawrence Sterne Stevens and Virgil Finlay are interesting at worst, solid examples of the talent of their creators at best.

Courtesy ISFDb:

Famous Fantastic Mysteries (Combined with Fantastic Novels Magazine), June 1953
Editor: Mary Gnaedinger
Year: 1953-06-00
Publisher: Popular Publications, Inc.
Price: $0.25
Pages: 116 Binding: Pulp Type: MAGAZINE
Vol. 14, No. 4.
"Famous Fantastic Mysteries Combined with Fantastic Novels Magazine" at the top of the table of contents - "Famous Fantastic Mysteries" on the cover and spine.
Lawrence and Finlay are credited as the interior artists on the table of contents. Finlay signs his work and Lawrence is presumed to be responsible for the other work.

6 • The Reader's' Viewpoint (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, June 1953) • [The Readers' Viewpoint] • essay by Mary Gnaedinger
8 • Letter (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, June 1953): The New Index • essay by Donald B. Day
12 • Anthem • (1938) • novella by Ayn Rand
12 • Anthem • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay
23 • Anthem [2] • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay
34 • Dirge (Aztec) • poem by Louis M. Hobbs
35 • Dirge (Aztec) • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay
36 • The Metamorphosis • (1951) • novelette by Franz Kafka (aka Die Verwandlung 1915 )
36 • The Metamorphosis • interior artwork by Lawrence
53 • The Metamorphosis [2] • interior artwork by Lawrence
62 • Haunted Hostel • poem by Emma L'Hommedieu Frost
62 • Haunted Hostel • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay
64 • Worms of the Earth • [Bran Mak Morn] • (1932) • novelette by Robert E. Howard
64 • Worms of the Earth • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay
78 • Find the Happy Children • short story by Benjamin Ferris
79 • Find the Happy Children • interior artwork by Lawrence
86 • Pendulum • (1941) • short story by Ray Bradbury and Henry Hasse
86 • Pendulum • interior artwork by Lawrence
92 • Bernie Goes to Hell • short story by Arthur Dekker Savage
93 • Bernie Goes to Hell • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

Related posts:
Women editors in sf and fantasy at mid-century

Dorothy McIlwraith, editor: Weird Tales 25th anniversary issue


Walker Martin said...

FAMOUS FANTASTIC MYSTERIES along with FANTASTIC NOVELS, are two of my favorite pulp titles. Both are in the running for the title of best looking pulp or as a long time collecting friend once told me, "the prettiest pulps". The artwork, both covers and interior illustrations, was often of very high quality. It is still possible to collect these magazine and pay reasonable prices for issues. I saw many copies recently at PulpFest in Columbus, Ohio.

Todd Mason said...

Odd, though, that for this last issue they reverted to the the title logo they'd abandoned over the last year or so, after the previous issue's rather half-hearted attempt to synthesize the handsomer new logo they'd switched to and the older one on this issue...

George said...

Like Walker, I'm a fan of FAMOUS FANTASTIC MYSTERIES and FANTASTIC NOVELS. Great stories and great Virgil Finlay artwork!

Todd Mason said...

And Lawrence Stevens Sterne, who was as much tied in with FFM as Finlay. The more I think about his METAMORPHOSIS illo, the better I like it...and hardly that one alone.