Wednesday, September 8, 2021

stories by Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Avram Davidson, Rosel George Brown, Fredric Brown, Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth, Eric Frank Russell, et al; columns by Asimov, Bester, Moskowitz: FANTASTIC August 1960, edited by Cele Goldsmith Lalli; THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION October 1961, edited by Robert P. Mills: Short Story Wednesday

Off the shelf--from six decades ago, and featuring some of the more-admired stories of Vonnegut and Bloch, and "rare" stories by similarly notable writers...

Fantastic [v9 #8, August 1960] (35¢, 132pp, digest, cover by Albert Nuetzelledited by Cele Goldsmith

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction [v21 #4, No. 125, October 1961] (40¢, 132pp, digest, cover by Chesley Bonestell)  edited by Robert P. Mills

As is utterly, perhaps tiresomely obvious to those who've been reading my blog entries over the years, that along with loving such magazines as Lewis Lapham's Harper's, particularly after its revamp and re-energization in 1983 (and how much The Atlantic had been on a downward slide since I first picked it up in 1978, one it hasn't ever reversed--for that matter, it was a better magazine in the '60s...), and Our Generation, the Montreal-based anarchist and libertarian socialist journal (even if I ended up contributing to Social Anarchism out of Baltimore instead--OG already had Noam Chomsky and Janet Biehl and George Woodcock and Murray Bookchin--as well as The Progressive in my early writing career, before both OG and SA folded), and loving fiction magazines and slightly more eclectic literary magazines (was even very briefly editor-in-chief of Hawai'i Review at the dawn of my arguably pro writing and editorial efforts, in 1983), particularly the likes of Ontario Review and The Paris Review and Short Story International, the crime fiction magazines (particularly The New Black Mask but also the veterans), the sf magazines, and the odd western or other specialized title that might come my way...with all of that, the fantasy and horror fiction magazines have had a special place in my heart, and in 1977 I voraciously fell upon The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1949-date) and Fantastic (1952-1980, incorporated to a notable degree into its older stablemate Amazing Stories, at that time, and briefly revived since). I had learned of their existence in the previous-publication credits in various anthologies I'd read since about age 9, though even earlier I was beginning to seek out horror anthologies and the eclectic anthologies attributed to Alfred Hitchcock. New issues off the stands of both F&SF and Fantastic were a joy, along with such others as the little magazine Whispers and the companion Doubleday anthology series it spawned (or the companion Doubleday series Shadows) and such annuals as Gerald Page's The Year's Best Horror Fiction or Terry Carr's new Year's Finest Fantasy, and all the back issues I could dig up (not too tough even then, though not as easy as in these days of web marketing). With the folding of Fantastic, one magazine or another would tend to "take its spot" on newsstands and otherwise, whether it was Twilight Zone Magazine (and its short-lived companion Night Cry), the reasonably hardy late 1980s revival of Weird Tales (still rumored to be a going concern, though the recent death of the most recent editor and publisher, Marvin Kaye, probably means this revival has ceased completely) or the slick if rather busy-looking Realms of Fantasy, while F&SF has soldiered on.

So, for today's consideration, two relatively random, reasonably contemporaneous back issues I happened to be moving from one spot to being the first publication site for Kurt Vonnegut's most popular single short story, and notable that it didn't find a home with The Saturday Evening Post or Esquire (or Esquire's offspring, Playboy and its imitators), but apparently it wasn't stroking their fur quite the right way. Shirley Jackson had placed four stories with F&SF and one with Fantastic in the 1950s, stories that likewise should've been snapped up by Redbook or The New Yorker, but apparently were the Wrong kind of strange for the less-adventurous post-Harold Ross TNY or even the more literary women's magazines (though Redbook was pitching itself at young married couples for most of the '50s)...the fantasy magazines, and their founding editors Anthony Boucher and Howard Browne, took the stories even if they weren't quite fantasy. Not the only time they would make that exception for their fantasy/sf titles.  (Boucher and his co-founding editor J. Francis McComas would both take her first story for the magazine, "Bulletin" in 1954, but from her next and most famous F&SF offer "One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts" [1955] her appearances in the magazine were in Boucher solo issues. That Boucher and Browne were also notable crime-fiction writers among other interests, not least seeking prestige for their magazines, might also have made it more attractive than solely commercial good sense to pick up the Jacksons.)

"Harrison Bergeron" isn't the most subtle of Vonnegut's stories, which probably helps to explain its relative popularity, but it is rather funny while pounding its point into the ground with more urgency than slyness. As you might know, it's the allegory of a rebel in a society that hopes to make all persons equal in every manner by, for example, constantly piping a cacophony of noises into the ears of the musically talented, and hobbling the good dancers. More, apparently, a mockery of anti-intellectualism and rigidly-imposed conformity than of egalitarianism, it can also stroke those who feel their greatness (however actually limited) stymied by the jealousy and backstabbing of the ants around them. And it leads off this, the 17th Anniversary issue, part of a trend for the year-marking F&SF issues to be "All-Star" affairs (also, in later years, issues with which the cover price needed to be raised would also be All-Star issues). And, like a number of the stories in these two issues, it is rather short, almost a vignette.

Robert P. Mills was at least as much a sophisticate in his editorial tastes as Boucher, or, rather, didn't feel he needed to obviously cater to a relative lack of sophistication in the fantasy/sf magazine readership (Boucher would, in his book review columns for F&SF itself, make reference to how the likes of Mark Van Doren's fantasies might well go over the heads of the magazine's readership, unlike those of, say, Ray Bradbury.) Mills was also not the writer that Boucher was, nor quite the artistic polymath (Boucher was also expert in at least one musical field, opera, in which he conducted a weekly program for Pacifica Radio from the station/network's foundation till his death), but if he was quite as willing to limit his magazines' horizons as Boucher was, he wouldn't advertise the fact so baldly. The story Mills would publish in his F&SF that was even more famous than the Vonnegut would be Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon", the first published form of what Keyes would expand into a novel, famously adapted for television and film and discussed in George Kelley's Friday Books entry this past week. Before taking over F&SF from the retiring Boucher, Mills had edited the companion magazine Venture Science Fiction, which had picked up the banner from the slightly fading Galaxy magazine and Damon Knight's short term as editor of If: World of Science Fiction as the US sf magazine most likely to feature what Harlan Ellison would later tag "dangerous visions", and stories that dealt relatively frankly for the time in sexual matters and other taboo topics, albeit its leaning toward sometimes grim adventure fiction also saw it get some light mockery for being a magazine about manful suffering, in the post-Hemingway, Maileresque mode. While editing Venture, he continued to assist Boucher at F&SF, and Frederic Dannay as managing editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (even through the transition in early 1958 due to EQMM's sale to B. G. Davis. leaving Ziff-Davis to found Davis Publications, for which EQMM would be a bedrock title), and apparently served as the uncredited editor of the last two other crime fiction magazines published by Mercury Press, Mercury Mystery Book-Magazine (merged with Bestseller in 1959) and Bestseller Mystery Magazine (folded 1962), both officially edited by publisher Joseph Ferman (Ferman would also, apparently for appearances' sake, take the "official" editorial title at F&SF for the first several months after his college-aged son Edward Ferman succeeded  Avram Davidson as the editor of F&SF, after Davidson would succeed Mills; Mills went on to be primarily a literary agent, and apparently a bit more than that for James Baldwin in terms of taking care of practical matters for the writer, for the rest of Mills's professional life.)

Leading off this issue of Fantastic, after a typically chatty and not terribly deep (if more self-revealing than usual, describing his own personal utopia, yacht-based) editorial by "editorial director" Norman Lobsenz (tasked, apparently, with making sure the young and not too experienced editor Cele Goldsmith, later to marry and sign herself, eventually, as Cele Goldsmith Lalli, didn't make any serious mistakes at her legacy--and mostly Just legacy--Ziff-Davis magazines), Robert Bloch's "The World Timer" is a novelet with Bloch in jokey mode, generally amiable even when the jokes don't land, in which he would frequently (though not always) write in the work published by the Ziff-Davis magazines going back to the late '30s (most famously, his "Lefty Feep" series of stories)...Isaac Asimov, in reading the Ray Palmer-edited issue of Amazing Stories that featured Asimov's first published story, noted that the only story he thought better than his own modest effort was Bloch's "The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton" (as Asimov noted in the course of introducing the Bloch story's inclusion in Asimov et al.'s retro best-of-the-year anthology devoted to fiction first published in 1939). But Bloch at the heart of this story is getting at some serious points about psychiatry, which he'd been studying to a great degree throughout the '50s while writing some of the most famous crime-fiction work of his career (including, unsurprisingly, 1959's Psycho); beyond the comedy of humors naming of his psychiatrist protagonist "Morton Placebo", and the pharmaceutical time-travel/psychedelics as warping objective reality plot used in the story, Bloch shares his concerns with the seedier and less responsible behavior in the profession, and considered this as a result one of his best stories for the purposes of his sf- and fantasy-heavy volume The Best of Robert Bloch (Ballantine 1976)(a couple of years later, he published with Ballantine/Del Rey a companion best-of devoted to his horror and suspense fiction).

As noted elsewhere on this blog, Cele Goldsmith, who had been initially hired at Ziff-Davis as a secretary and quickly handed the task of editing a short-lived magazine for finding Pen Pals, had also been tasked with helping Howard Browne and then Paul Fairman with traffic around the fiction magazines Ziff-Davis was still publishing, though with less enthusiasm than they had previously, expensive-hobby magazines (stereo equipment, boating, electronics, photography) becoming the publisher's bread and butter (leading to cofounder B. G. Davis leaving the company to strike out on his own with Davis Publications); Browne eventually and Fairman throughout his (rather dire) editorship took a factory approach to filling Fantastic and Amazing Stories, Fairman relying on a quintet of young writers (Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Randall Garrett, Milton Lesser before legally changing his name to Stephen Marlowe, and Henry Slesar) for most of what he published in the magazines (including a brief run of wish-fulfillment fantasy magazine Dream World)--get it in Wednesday and make sure it Won't Cause Trouble, and you get a paycheck--if it's good, all the better, but that was secondary (Fairman famously didn't bother to read what he bought from his quintet). Goldsmith at this point was combing through the unsolicited manuscripts, the "slush pile", which is how, among other rather good work, Kate Wilhelm's first published story was in Fantastic in 1956. So, when Fairman resigned in '58 (and oddly enough was soon working as Assistant Editor at the Davis Publications Ellery Queen's), William Ziff and company offered young Goldsmith actual editorship of Fantastic and Amazing, with a penny/word budget for the fiction and other content, gave Lobsenz the task of keeping an eye on her and writing the "editorials" and usually conducting the letter column, and blurbing the contents, while Goldsmith tried to learn as fast as she could about fantasy and sf, and how to properly edit a magazine. One of her self-assigned projects was to lure Fritz Leiber out of one of his periodic bouts of crippling alcoholism and get him back to writing, squeezing her budget for at least 2c/word for his contributions and those of a few others, and publishing the first stories of  a remarkable number of new talents; she never won the Hugo Award for best magazine (her two magazines would compete with each other, splitting vote totals), but she did get a special award at one World Convention, for her work at improving the Ziff-Davis magazines.  When ZD found a buyer for Fantastic (the brief period of it being titled Fantastic Science Fiction, with the notion that sf sold better in magazines than fantasy did, was followed [beginning two issues after the August issue discussed here] by a longer run as Fantastic: Stories of Imagination, a rather more accurate title), and Amazing Stories (or, in the same Goldsmith/Lalli years, Amazing Stories: Fact and Science Fiction), they sold the magazines out from under her rather abruptly, and she was redeployed to ZD's bridal magazines, where she soon became the dominant and most admired editor in that specialized fashion/planning field for the rest of a lengthy career. (While ZD's Popular Electronics and Electronics World magazines ended up being the most obvious progenitors of Ziff-Davis's ultimate fate as a brand of computer information publisher and web/cable tv producer.)

But Leiber wasn't the only veteran writer Goldsmith/Lalli was interested in taking work from, even if the Leiber story, "Rats of Limbo" (not yet reprinted anywhere, as far as I know) reads like the transcript of a surreal nightmare for its brief run, with its protagonist in Limbo but tormented, in a fashion reminiscent of Sisyphus's punishment, by among others the specter of Robert E. Lee and a bevy of rats. Fredric Brown also has a similar vignette in the issue, "The House", which Brown scholar Jack Seabrook reminds me was included in Brown's most widely distributed collection, Nightmares and Geezenstacks (Bantam 1961), and two other Brown retrospectives since; it's an enigmatic and highly symbolic account of a traversal of a house that might symbolize a metaphor or psychodrama of a life coming to its end, but resists easy interpretation. It definitely reads as if it resonates more deeply with Brown than Leiber's, which can be seen as a kind of jest in comparison, does with him (look to the plays for voices by Leiber such as "The Secret Songs" and  "247 Talking Statues, Etc." for similarly obviously deeply-felt work). The kind of enigmatic fiction that Goldsmith Lalli was more open to than more seasoned editors, less receptive to non-linear narratives than old hands...though Mills and particularly his F&SF successor Davidson would be more open than many of their colleagues to this kind of story as well, with the result their magazines helped spark "the New Wave" along with the British magazines New Worlds and Science Fantasy, and such anthology series as Damon Knight's Orbit and Samuel Delany and Marilyn Hacker's Quark in later years. 

More to come...

For more (and, at the moment, more complete!) Wednesday Short Story entries, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


Jack Seabrook said...

"The House" was collected in 1961's Nightmares and Geezenstacks.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Jack--I needed to doublecheck that! It's been about 40 years since I read hat collection..