Friday, July 3, 2015

FFB: THE MEN FROM ARIEL by Donald A. Wollheim (NESFA Press 1982)

A collection of the more obscure short fiction by the writer, editor, publisher and man-about-fantastic fiction Donald A. Wollheim:

courtesy the Homeville/Locus indices, with corrections:
    The Men from Ariel Donald A. Wollheim (NESFA Press 0-915368-19-6, 1982, 116pp, hc) cover illustration by Michael Whelan; book design by D. Christine Benders
Wollheim has been one of the most important editors in the history of fantastic fiction, and one of the most durable. As he notes in the prefatory matter for this slim volume, published as a convention commemorative by the New England SF Association and their NESFA Press on the occasion of Wollheim's selection as Guest of Honor at their annual "con" Boskone, he was briefly, back in the 1930s when fandom was small and easy to poll, the most popular fannish personality, soon to lose that honor back to Forrest J Ackerman. Although Wollheim had participated in some proto-fannish International Scientific Association activities (most notably some mildly stunty experiments in model rocketry), he notes he first grew active in fandom as it was coalescing in 1934 because Wonder Stories publisher Hugo Gernsback was putting off paying him for his first published short story, "The Man from Ariel", and Wollheim wondered if he was the only writer so deprived. It turned out that he wasn't, and he and a number of other contributors to the Gernsback magazines sued and received a lump sum settlement.  This led fairly directly to Wollheim co-founding the fannish group the Futurians, which included a remarkable number of the budding writers, editors and artists in sf and fantasy in New York City at the time, and moving onto his early editorial achievements: editing and publishing the early major fanzine The Phantagraph, the early "semiprozine" Fanciful Tales and, in 1941, editing the no-budget pulp magazines Cosmic Stories and Stirring Science Stories (which along with Frederik Pohl's Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories and Robert Lowndes taking over at Columbia Publications' Science Fiction and its stablemates, were the first newsstand magazines dominated by and showcasing the work of the Futurians).  But even more important than this, Wollheim was able to publish, in 1943, The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction, and follow that with, for Viking Press, the Portable Novels of Science (1945--note that the term sf still at that point seemed an odd neologism to Viking and their editors at the Portable series)...two of the earliest widely-distributed volumes to package sf for an adult audience under that rubric; the Pocket volume was hugely popular. 
In 1947, he began editing for Avon Publications, while there publishing the first anthology of original fantastic fiction in mass-market paperback:
...and founding anthology series/all but magazines the Avon Fantasy Reader and the Avon Science Fiction Reader, and the more no-bones-about-it and less durable magazines Out of This World Adventures (the first pulp sf/fantasy magazine to have a full-color comics component bound into the middle of the two published issues) and 10 Story Fantasy (where the only issue famously included eleven of which was the first version of "The Sentinel", the seeds of what Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick would develop into their respective versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey). Wollheim would edit and/or publish, aside from the cited volumes and "magabooks" above, a large number of the earliest horror-fiction anthologies in mass-market paperback as well, beginning at Avon. 

In 1952, Wollheim left Avon to become the primary editor for Ace Books, where he would remain until 1971, when he left the failing Ace (mismanaged by its new owners) to establish DAW Books in partnership with the New American Library, which he would edit for and run till shortly before his death in 1990. At Ace and DAW, he did much of his most enduring and important editorial work, providing the most consistent program of sf, fantasy and to some extent horror publishing in those decades, often innovatively if not, while at Ace, necessarily with the most generous of budgets or payment to writers. (While at Ace in the mid 1960s, he also brought on Terry Carr as an assistant editor, who helped Ace go onto further important work, not least with the Ace Science Fiction Specials imprint).  Wollheim, as he notes in the book we soon return to, was also one of the, if not the, most prolific editor of western books in the U.S. for most of his time at Ace, as well as handling their contemporary mimetic fiction and nurse/romance lines; Carr would be the primary editor for Ace Gothics, which helped make that category a major force in paperback publishing in the latter 1960s and early 1970s.  At DAW, Wollheim continued and broadened his approach to providing a range of work in fantastic fiction, from straightforward adventure fiction through some rather literarily ambitious writing, and a continuing interest in international writers and their work. 

Throughout these years, Wollheim never considered writing his primary occupation, and (his daughter and successor at DAW, Betsy Wollheim, notes) he tended to be modest about his fiction. But, nonetheless, he was an engaging writer, often likely to write (in his adult work, rather than his YA novels) vignettes with an abiding sense of strangeness to them; "The Man from Ariel" (as in the moon of the planet Uranus), his first story as noted above, is certainly in this mode: the narrator encounters, on a misty night, a hapless astronaut from a humanoid civilization on the distant moon, who manages through a sort of telepathy to convey his (as Wollheim calls him) adventure in attempting to orbit Uranus, but through miscalculation slingshotting his craft in toward the Sun, and happening to crash-land on Earth...but at least somewhat triumphant that he was able to share his experience, as he dies of crash-related injury, with an intelligent alien on this blue planet. Not too shabby, even if it hadn't been written by a 19-year-old in 1934.  His most famous stories (included in his first collection), "Mimic" (the source of the film) and "The Rag Thing," are more explicitly sf-flavored horror (Wollheim was a great admirer of Lovecraft), but otherwise share a sense of atmosphere and an elegantly deliberate build of their strangeness, even as they improve on his early work.

"The Lost Poe" is a Lovecraftian approach to the tale of a cursed story, that compels self-destruction not only to originator Edgar Allan, but to anyone who reads it.  "Who's There?" is a nice horror vignette, with a different sort of "slingshot" ending; it seems odd that Wollheim had difficulty placing either of these stories, which saw first publication in this book, but he does take the opportunity to bemoan how sparse the market for fantasy and horror short fiction could be throughout the first two decades of his editorial career.  "The Hook" was inspired by the experience of an LA-based sf/fantasy fan, which Wollheim almost certainly correctly suspects also inspired Ray Bradbury's contemporaneously-published "The Long After Midnight Girl" Wollheim's story, he deals sensitively, if a bit tentatively, with the confusing transvestite desires that torment the insecure young male protagonist; Ed Wood and Eddie Izzard probably would approve. It's also notable that both the Wollheim and Bradbury were published originally in short-lived erotica magazines...despite being not so much erotic as about tragedy around sexual anxiety.  "Still Life" was a mild favorite of Wollheim's among the filler stories he wrote for his Avon colleagues' comic books (to get magazine postage rates for subscriptions, comic books at least through the 1950s needed to run all-text items, usually very trivial vignettes, as part of every issue's content; Patricia Highsmith and Mickey Spillane are among the most famous writers to have begun their professional careers doing this kind of writing in
half of an Ace Double, by
(Ms.) Lee Hoffman
bulk)...Wollheim wasn't sure which comic published it, and my quick and dirty search of Avon horror comics posted online, at least, didn't turn it up. "Colt Cash Cache" is a pleasant if unremarkable western story, which Wollheim placed with one of Robert Lowndes's Columbia western pulps, with a mostly guessable twist ending, but some nice detail. "Miss McWhortle's Weird" is, as Wollheim proclaims in his headnote, a bit of a poison-pen parody of Dorothy McIlwraith, the third editor of Weird Tales (and simultaneously editor of Short Stories magazine); Wollheim counts himself as among those who preferred WT as run by her predecessor, Farnsworth Wright (I vastly prefer McIlwraith's issues), but Wollheim's lampoon seems a little double-edged: "They [the writers favored by Wright's correspondent among the characters here] took such unbearably long times to get started, they were always long-winded, sometimes they would toil over the most trivial points, and they wrote nasty letters about any editing that had been done." This can be seen as both exemplary of the philistinism of the McIllwraith analog (and her model), and as an utterly accurate complaint about the general tenor of Wright's magazine.  Though perhaps it's notable that Wollheim placed this story with August Derleth, a veteran contributor of all three WT editors of the original magazine's run, and his magazine that was a bit of a legatee of the Weird Tales geist, if less so than Derleth's earlier, more elaborate The Arkham Sampler.

Wollheim continues in the double-edged mode for the balance of the stories here; his parody of Lovecraft, the most enduring star of Wright's issues, rather hilariously has every other character as well as the narrator endlessly, imprecisely referring to sinister things they cannot, Dare Not go into nor describe at this time; this one went to another 1960s heir to WT, Lowndes's Magazine of Horror.  "Ishkabab" and "The Rules of the Game" are both rather acute, if slightly belabored, critiques of imperialism that seem to have rather casual bits of seemingly unconscious racism built in...until one recalls that the narrative voice in both cases is that of an observer less sophisticated than he seems to think himself.  The North American reporter in Guyana in the latter story, particularly, is keen to pat himself on the back to a remarkable degree; he fumbles the relation between tides and seismic shifting rather completely, while otherwise proving to be a bit of a dolt, so one is inclined to suspect that Wollheim is trying to demonstrate just what a dolt he is. This story was originally slated for The Last Dangerous Visions, and the dangerous part might well be not just the mockery of the imperialist mindset
but the embrace of Immanuel Velikovsky's doubletalk as legitimate theory about Biblical and other old accounts of improbable events. Wollheim suggests that this might be his last short story, as he hadn't written any more by 1982 in the eleven years since Harlan Ellison demanded revisions, so Wollheim, happy with it in the current form, placed it with New Writings in SF instead; and the evidence of ISFDb's list of publications (showing only the trunk stories published in this volume, and collaborations probably also dating back some decades with Ackerman and the long since late C. M. Kornbluth appearing after "Rules") suggests that Wollheim's prediction was correct...thus this book includes both his first and last stories.
That Joan Aiken...and a gothic with
a review blurb...

I've been posting this In Progress as I've been writing it over the course of the morning, and George Kelley commented on perhaps the first half, that Wollheim might have been the most influential single editor in sf (and, as I've suggested above, he wasn't altogether uninfluential in the fields of horror, fantasy and even western fiction, as well as a collaborator in the explosion of neo-Gothic romance a quarter-century ago. He was a sustained and eclectic editor (tempered by pragmatism), having been a major market for Philip K. Dick, John Brunner, Ursula K. Le Guin and others. Backhandedly, the Ace edition of The Lord of the Rings (taking advantage of the fact it hadn't been properly copyrighted in the U.S.) helped draw attention  to the trilogy and to J. R. R. Tolkien at the beginning of the steep uptick in his popularity. And, as I mentioned in my response to George, the Futurians (a fan group which was breaking up as they moved into their professional roles at the cusp of the 1940s and particularly World War II) provided a relatively sophisticated, if relatively inexperienced and often underfunded, challenge to John Campbell's artistic vision of sf and fantasy (in his other magazine, Unknown, later Unknown Worlds) in that period, as well as to Dorothy McIlwraith's new broom at Weird Tales, starting in 1940.  At that point, the other sf and fantasy magazines on the stands had their audiences, but (with the exception of F. Orlin Tremaine's shortlived Comet and, to an ever-increasing extent over the decade, Mary Gnaedinger at Famous Fantastic Mysteries), Ray
Palmer's Amazing and Fantastic Adventures, the new Planet Stories, Mort Weisinger's Thrilling Wonder Stories and its stablemates (with the weak exception of Strange Stories, which was WT watered down) were all aimed at relatively undiscriminating audiences, largely juvenile; the attempt at a "spicy" sf magazine in Marvel Tales and its stablemates, which were essentially "shudder pulps" with slightly less pseudo-horror flourish, might not've been as juvenile but were pretty sophomoric. The Futurian magazines, Pohl's, Wollheim's and Lowndes's, all were seeking to replicate the best of what they found in Campbell's magazines, but also brought a slightly broader artistic sensibility to the effort...if Campbell was an engineer by training and otherwise an autodidact and rather instinctive in his artistic choices, the Futurians were striving to become worldly intellectuals, and some degree succeeding. Their example, and the new post-War sobriety of the latter 1940s, probably also helped the sudden increase of sophistication of the Thrilling Group magazines, as editorial control was turned over to Samuel Merwin, Jr.; Howard Browne found it difficult to sustain interest in Amazing and FA, but did, with Fantastic and fitfully with the others, move in a more sophisticated direction with the Ziff-Davis magazines. Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury were joined by other artists of note as Jerome Bixby began editing at Planet Stories...and all this before or just as we saw the introduction of the clangorous new approaches with The Magazine of Fantasy (and Science Fiction, as it expanded with the second issue) and Galaxy in 1949-1950.  I'll probably have some more to say about these developments next week.

Please see Patti Abbott's blog, for the list of this week's links to reviews.

The two front covers of an early Ace cover on each side of the book, and the
texts upside down in relation to each other


George Kelley said...

Wollheim is one of the most influential figures in Science Fiction. I think Wollheim's impact on SF is greater than John Campbell's. Wollheim was willing to try new writers and take risks. Campbell was much more restrictive.

Todd Mason said...

And, at very least, while Campbell became increasingly bored with editing sf and ANALOG, when or if Wollheim was bored he could delegate to his junior editors, whom he usually chose very well indeed.

And, as I'm posting this as I go along, I hope o get into how Wollheim and the Futurian publications were among the more sophisticated first challenges to Campbell's innovations.