Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard: The True First Edition? (Science Fiction Adventures, Vol. 4, No. 24, January/February 1962)

After that Donald E. Westlake addendum yesterday, let's have a quick look at one last '60s science fiction magazine before we get back to the books. Although the lead story in this particular magazine would, within months, go on to become a book...


Science Fiction Adventures Vol. 4, No. 24 was published by Nova Publications in January/February of 1962. As you can see from the table of contents:


the line-up of stories is limited to just two novelettes and a short. Two of the writers of those stories – Australians David Rome (real name David William Boutland) and Lee Harding – probably won't be terribly well known to most folk. But the third author most definitely will – as will, more than likely, his story, which is the issue's (untitled) cover feature, as painted by Brian Lewis.


The Drowned World was J. G. Ballard's second novel. It's a post-apocalyptic tale set in a world where the polar ice-caps have melted, submerging the cities of Europe and North America in lagoons. It was published in hardback by Gollancz – under one of that publisher's famed yellow dustjackets, seen above – in 1962... but that wasn't the first appearance of the story. Because the truncated novelette version which appeared in the January/February 1962 issue of Science Fiction Adventures actually predates the expanded novel by some months. So this:


is, in effect, the true first edition of The Drowned World.

I bought my copy of Science Fiction Adventures from the aforementioned SoggyPee, and all I can say is eBay must have been collectively napping that day, because bidding on the magazine was minimal and I won it for a song. I've got no idea how much it's really worth – I can't find any listings for it on AbeBooks or Amazon – but it's certainly scarce. And since a first edition/first impression of the Gollancz hardback would set me back around £1,500, it'll do me fine – even if the story is abbreviated.

And that really is it for the magazines for a while, although the next post will still be on a science fiction tip. But it'll also be on a movie tip – as will subsequent posts, as I take a look at a bunch of books that all gave rise to rather famous film adaptations...

Monday, 30 May 2011

A Westlake Addendum: Donald E. Westlake Cameo in The Ax (Le couperet)

I hadn't planned on posting owt today, merely preparing tomorrow's post on that SF magazine I mentioned. But then the ever-vigilant Matthew Asprey popped up in the comments on this post from September of last year on Donald E. Westlake's 1997 novel The Ax. And since his comment was on a Westlake tip, and it's Westlake who I've been blogging about all week, I could hardly look a gift horse in the mouth. Matt, it seems, had been happily watching – and enjoying – Costa-Gravas's 2005 movie adaptation of The Ax – alias Le couperet, a film I wasn't even aware existed – when at the twenty-two minute mark he spied this literary reprobate hoving into view:


Yep, that's Donald E. Westlake himself, making a brief cameo in the French film adaptation of his novel. As Matt notes, "He just happened to be in France, I guess." Full marks to Matt for his eagle eye, and many thanks to him for allowing me to post the pic.

Right then. After that little Bank Holiday treat, it's on to that final science fiction magazine...

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Sci-Fi Magazine Stories: Meteor Strike! (Amazing Stories, Vol. 35, No. 11, November 1961); Alex Schomburg / Virgil Finlay Artwork

Let's round off this run of posts on cult crime fiction author Donald E. Westlake's early-'60s science fiction magazine short stories with a flourish: a tale from 1961 which is actually the cover story of the issue in which it appears:


Amazing Stories Vol. 35, No. 11 was published in the States by Ziff-Davis in November 1961. Westlake's story in this issue is longer than the others I've been blogging about this week; at over thirty pages it's identified as a novelet in the issue's table of contents:


And unlike most of Westlake's SF magazine stories from this period, it's afforded the rare honour of cover feature status, with the great Alex Schomburg painting a scene from it on the front. But Westlake's artistic good fortune with this issue doesn't end there. Virgil Finlay – whose beautiful, swishing, stippled drawing I blogged about in this post and this post (and one of whose illustrations for Charles Eric Maine's "Counter-Psych" novella from this very issue of Amazing can be seen on the back cover above) – provides the artwork for Westlake's tale in the interior – a tale that's one of the least whimsical of Westlake's SF efforts around this time, and one that has never been reprinted since.


"Meteor Strike!" is a third-person account of a mission to transport seven aluminum crates from Earth to a maintenance satellite orbiting the Moon, a trip that, according to the exacting detail Westlake includes in the story, takes well over a month in five stages. The cargo is being overseen by Glenn Blair, tough, big-boned, mid-thirties Chief Cargomaster for General Transits, Ltd. But Blair and his men only manage to get the crates as far as Station One, the space platform orbiting Earth, before the mission is derailed: a meteor crashes into Section Five of the station – and Section Five just happens to be where Blair's cargo is being stowed ahead of the next stage of its journey. Thus Blair and his co-workers volunteer to undertake a dangerous spacewalk in order to fix the hole in the station wall and save their precious cargo.


Whereas the preceding Westlake SF stories I've blogged about all foreshadowed the author's more comedic caper novels – to a greater or lesser degree – "Meteor Strike!" has more in common with the distinctly unfunny Parker novels Westlake would soon be writing as Richard Stark. It's not as grim, nor as violent, but in its prosaic approach to its subject matter and sober stabs at a feasible near-future, it strives for a factual depiction of space exploration that chimes with the Parker series' matter-of-fact presentation of crime. Certainly the way it describes in depth the process of shipping cargo, of men doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, presages Westlake/Stark's methodical detailing of the heists in the Parker novels, notably in The Man with the Getaway Face (1963). Mind you, he still can't resist rounding the story off with an ironic payoff, as we learn what exactly's contained in those crates that makes them so valuable. Although if you know anything about Westlake, those contents will bring a wry smile to your face.

And that's it for Westlake science fiction stories for a while. I've got a bunch more SF magazines from 1962 and '63 which contain Westlake stories, so I'll be writing about those at some point, and I have a copy of Ed McBain's Mystery Book mag from 1961 which includes a non-SF Westlake piece – indeed a non-fiction Westlake piece. That's all for the future, but before we leave the magazines for a while and return to some books proper, as a kind of transitional post – and mirroring the post that began this particular SF run – I've got one last SF mag to show you: a 1962 issue of Science Fiction Adventures which boasts the first draft of perhaps J. G. Ballard's most famous science fiction novel.

First, though: this.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Sci-Fi Magazine Stories: The Spy in the Elevator (Galaxy, Vol. 20, No. 1, October 1961; British Edition)

Just a quick note before we get to the meat of this post: I've got another post up on the Ilex Press blog, tangentially related to this Existential Ennui series of posts on the early 1960s Donald E. Westlake science fiction magazine short stories. It's about Steve Holland's recently-published Sci-Fi Art: A Pocket History, so go have a read, why don'tcha. And while you're there, if you haven't already, take a gander at my first post, on Richard Stark's The Hunter, as featured in Ilex's 500 Essential Cult Books.

Plug out of the way, let's have a look at the penultimate Westlake SF short I have for you this week – and just for a change it's a story which has been reprinted since – in the 1989 collection Tomorrow's Crimes. So you can, if you feel so inclined, read the damn thing without having to hunt for a copy of this:


Galaxy Vol. 20, No. 1, published by Galaxy Publishing Corporation in October 1961. You'll note from the price in the top right corner of the cover that this is the British edition, but unlike some of the other SF mags around this period, Galaxy's UK and US monthly pub dates were exactly the same – possibly because the UK editions were printed and published by the American publisher – with only the cover price changed – and then shipped over to Britain. Once again the table of contents is stuffed with marquee names:


Frederick Pohl, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber... not bad at all. And as with that issue of Amazing Stories I blogged about on Sunday, there are some fine Virgil Finlay illustrations too, especially this one, decorating Cordwainer Smith's "A Planet Named Shayol":


Wow. The cover is by Finlay as well, but Westlake's story is illustrated by a "West" (no first name). "The Spy in the Elevator" posits a future where the remnants of humanity live in "Projects", 200-stories-high towers, each independent of the other, separated by irradiated wasteland. Our narrator is an ordinary Joe, Edmund Rice. Edmund is planning on proposing to his girlfriend on the 140th floor, Linda, to enter into Non-P marriage – "Non-Permanent, No Progeny". Rehearsing his lines as he waits for the elevator – "Darling, I can't live without you at the moment. Temporarily I'm in love with you. I want to share my life with you for a while. Will you be provisionally mine?" – he's disturbed to find the elevator doesn't seem to be working – something which is unheard of. Rushing back to his apartment, he calls a Transit Staff receptionist... and is told that there's a spy in the elevator.


Deciding to take the stairs instead – again, practically unheard of – Edmund is surprised when the spy emerges from an elevator shaft emergency entrance, brandishing a gun. The spy divulges that he is not, in fact, a spy, merely an inhabitant of another Project eighty miles north... and that he travelled to Edmund's Project on foot, across a landscape that was supposedly rendered untraversable after World War III. And what's more, the non-spy reckons that life is returning to the outside world...

In true science fiction fashion – think Soylent Green or Ray Bradbury's short stories – Westlake rounds the tale off with a payoff which neatly deflates any expectations we might have built up throughout preceding events. The notion of hermetically sealed habitations, cut off from each other and fed by fear, rumour and supposition, obviously takes its cue from the Cold War – as does the idea of a spy from a foreign "power". But Westlake does more with the scenario than one would expect, filtering in little details about the society that's developed within the tower block – a transient, mindless way of life, with the Project's population controlled by the Army, unquestioning and obedient.

That said, as with "Man of Action", there's a lightness of touch to the tale, again presaging the crime caper novels Westlake would soon be writing. But the final story I'll be looking at in this run of posts – which I'll have up over the weekend – opts for a rather different approach: an attempt at a realistic and at-the-time plausible vision of space exploration. And, unusually for Westlake's SF shorts, it's the featured story on the cover of the magazine in which it appears...

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Sci-Fi Magazine Stories: Man of Action (Analog, Vol. XVII, No. 4, April 1961; British Edition)

After that brief Richard Stark/Parker/500 Essential Cult Books interruption yesterday, let's continue this series of posts on the short stories cult crime fiction author Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake wrote for sundry science fiction magazines in the early '60s – introductory preamble here, first story from May 1960 here. And today I have for you another (never-reprinted) tale from 1960... or at least, in America it was published in 1960 – December, to be precise. Here in the UK, though, it didn't appear until the following year – neatly demonstrating how British publishers of US SF mags tended to lag behind their American counterparts by some months. Anyway, the magazine in which it appears is this:


Analog Vol. XVII, No. 4 was published in the UK by Atlas in April 1961, four months after the US edition. It boasts a sterling line-up of SF stalwarts: Poul Anderson and Harry Harrison both have novelets in it, and editor John W. Campbell clocks in with a feature on the Echo I communications satellite:


The illustrators are pretty strong too; the cover is by the amazing John Schoenherr – quite an early example of his cover art – and his chiaroscuro linework also graces Anderson's story. (Schoenherr is one of the featured artists in the aforementioned Sci-Fi Art: A Pocket History, which I edited.) I also rather like Leo Summers's work on Harrison's story; I've not come across him before, but his drawing is quite elegant.


Westlake's story, "Man of Action", is also illustrated by Summers, the artist doing his best with a tale that's set almost entirely in one room. We barely leave the confines of the featureless, golden-walled apartment in which our protagonist, Roger, finds himself in a New York of the future (except to visit the next room along, which is exactly the same), having gone to sleep in his own house in 1960. As Roger awakes and wonders aloud why the calendar clock by the bed is showing August 14, 2138 instead of December 3, 1960 – "or was it December 4th?" – a disembodied mechanical voice replies: "December 3rd". Roger, it transpires, has been brought to the future to answer a question. Trouble is, he has to guess what that question might be. So begins a battle of wits between Roger and the voice, as Roger tries to get to the bottom of his mysterious time trip.


The answer, when it eventually comes, isn't terribly surprising, although it does make sense – certainly more so than the baffling "Travelers Far and Wee" – and there's a nice punchline involving Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. But what's most interesting about the story is the way the Q&A session between Roger and the voice – with its misunderstandings and logical cul-de-sacs – prefigures the elliptical conversations between Dortmunder and Kelp in Westlake's later series of crime caper novels beginning with 1970's The Hot Rock. The mechanical voice in "Man of Action" has a frustrating habit of taking everything Roger says literally, which is precisely the problem Dortmunder encounters with Kelp and others of his hapless associates. So again, it seems Westlake was trying out a stylistic approach which would play into his later books.

One thing I've noticed with these early Westlake SF stories is they often work up to some kind of payoff. That's common in science fiction shorts – Ray Bradbury famously deployed the tactic in his peerless short stories, although in his case the endings were much more powerful and gut-wrenching. Westlake usually opts for a more comedic punchline – although tinged with a dark irony – and the next story I'll be looking at, also from 1961, does the same thing again...

(And if you can't bear to wait until tomorrow for more of my searing science fiction insight, I've got another SF-themed post up over on the Ilex Press blog. Go have a look, why doncha?)

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A Donald E. Westlake Aside: Richard Stark's The Hunter in 500 Essential Cult Books by Gina McKinnon (Ilex Press)

Interrupting this run of posts on Donald E. Westlake's science fiction short stories, I mentioned on Monday that I'd likely have another Westlake-related post up elsewhere this week – and so I have.

Regular readers may or may not know that, when I'm not knocking out nonsense on this 'ere blog, I'm beavering away as Managing Editor at pop culture publisher Ilex Press. We've just revamped our website, and one of the brand spanking new features on it is... your guessed it: a blog. Obviously we'll be promoting our new books on the blog, but what we'll also be doing is looking back at some slightly older titles – many of which, funnily enough, intersect with the abiding preoccupations of Existential Ennui. I've just posted my first entry on the Ilex Press side of the blog (there's an Ilex Photo side as well, concentrating on the digital photography titles we publish), which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is on Donald E. Westlake – or rather, his Richard Stark alias, specifically 1962's Parker novel The Hunter, one of the titles featured in Ilex's rather fine 500 Essential Cult Books.

So, while you're waiting for the next post on Westlake's SF stories here, why not head over to this post on the Ilex blog, and wallow in some Westlake/Stark/Parker goodness. You know it makes sense...

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Sci-Fi Magazine Stories: Travelers Far and Wee (The Original Science Fiction Stories, Vol. 11, No. 2, May 1960)

So then. After yesterday's preamble on cult crime fiction author Donald E. Westlake and the science fiction short stories he wrote for various publications – with its attendant bibliography – it's time to take a look at some of the earliest examples I've managed to get my ever-grubby mitts on. And we'll start with this:


The is Volume 11, No. 2 of The Original Science Fiction Stories, published by Columbia Publications Inc. in May 1960 (cover art uncredited – nice hair loss advert on the back there; some things never change...). As you'll see from the table of contents:


the line-up of storytellers in this issue is pretty solid. The lead novelet is by Murray Leinster, alias William Fitgerald Jenkins, a mainstay of the pulpy SF mags who penned well over a thousand short stories, while bringing up the rear are well-regarded science fiction names like David Grinnell – alias Donald A. Wollheim – and Hannes Bok, a.k.a. Wayne Woodward (pseudonyms all the way, it seems), who is better known for his splendid artwork than his writing.

Westlake's story clocks in at just four pages, and it's a real curiosity. Indeed, I must profess a certain level of bewilderment at it. I've read it and re-read it in the vain hope that I might have missed something first time round, but I'm still baffled. Ordinarily I try and avoid too many spoilers when reviewing stuff on Existential Ennui – or at least throw in a spoiler alert – but with "Travelers Far and Wee" by necessity I'll be revealing the ending because it's so perplexing it bends the rest of the story completely out of shape.


Told in the third-person, the story follows Roger and Phil, two apparently successful executive types driving round New York in an Oldsmobile. They cruise round the streets, stopping at a drive-through bank, then a drive-in restaurant, where Roger orders a hamburger while Phil slumbers in the passenger seat, and then carry on their merry way. At around 5pm Phil wakes, and whilst stationary at a stop light the two swap positions, clambering over each other so that when the light turns green, it's Phil who's in the driving seat. As they continue driving round seemingly aimlessly, Roger mentions he cashed another check earlier. "How much do we have left?" asks Phil. "I don't know," replies Roger: "Millions."

A couple of times Roger and Phil discuss the situation on the roads. Waving at the traffic around them, Phil ponders, "I wonder how many of them are like us." Replies Roger with a shrug: "More every day I suppose." As the story meanders towards its conclusion, with a faint smile Phil muses, "Do you suppose we'll ever be able to get out of the car?" But Roger doesn't answer: he's fallen asleep.

And that's yer lot. It is, as I say, all rather puzzling. Now, there is one clue to Westlake's intent at the start of the tale. The Oldsmobile is described as this year's model "with the latest sanitary equipment", which suggests the vaguely futuristic notion that vehicles have been modified so that occupants no longer need to leave them. But that doesn't explain why Roger and Phil can't escape the car. Is it because they can't find a parking space? Possibly, although the issue of parking is never raised. Are they too overweight to get out? Westlake's portrayal of them would suggest not. Does the "millions" they mention denote some kind of Faustian pact? Who knows.

I guess the point is that Westlake is leaving it up to us to wonder why Roger and Phil are stuck in their car, but the trouble is he doesn't give us enough clues or furnish us with enough information to make that a satisfactory approach. Although, having said that, out of all the Westlake SF shorts I've read thus far, this is the one I've ruminated over the most. So maybe Westlake wins after all. Whatever the case, "Travelers Far and Wee" is told in that light, airy, whimsical manner that would become so familiar with, say, the Dortmunder stories – a style that wouldn't show itself in his novels until 1965's The Fugitive Pigeon. And in its matter-of-fact descriptions of New York's layout, it prefigures the Parker novels (written, of course, as Richard Stark), especially 1962's The Hunter.

"Travelers Far and Wee" has never been reprinted, so you'll have to track down a copy of The Original Science Fiction Stories to read it yourself. And neither, for that matter, has the next short story I'll be looking at, which also hails from 1960 – although the edition of the magazine in which it appears I have is the British one, which didn't make it onto the racks in the UK until April 1961. Before we get to that, though – there's this.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Donald E. Westlake: The Science Fiction Magazine Short Stories – An Introduction and Bibliography / Checklist

By this point Donald E. Westlake should need no introduction, but in case this is either your first visit to Existential Ennui or you're just setting off on your own classic American crime fiction voyage of discovery: Westlake, who died in 2008, remains one of America's most revered crime fiction writers. As Richard Stark he created the series of pared-back, lean-and-mean novels starring taciturn thief Parker, while under his own name he wrote numerous caper stories, some featuring hardluck heister John Dortmunder, others standalone works. I've blogged about him multiple times over the past year or so – just follow the "Westlake" or "Richard Stark" labels at the bottom of this post (still a work-in-progress, I'm afraid) for more on him.

But Westlake didn't just write crime (or comedy crime) stories; he also penned a good number of science fiction/fantasy/ghost stories too. Almost all of those were short stories, and some were gathered together for the 1989 collection Tomorrow's Crimes. The vast majority of the early ones, however, have never been seen since. Initially Westlake wrote his SF tales for the various SF magazines that used to be commonplace in the 1950s and '60s: Amazing Stories, Analog and the like. Later, once he'd become more successful, he wrote them for more mainstream titles like Playboy.

Indeed, it's decidedly not the case that he only wrote science fiction when he was just starting out as a writer, eagerly grasping any opportunity that came his way, irregardless of genre: he carried on penning SF right up until the late-1980s. Evidently, science fiction was something that continued to fascinate and inspire him, even when he no longer needed to write SF stories – or sleaze paperbacks, or any of the other things he wrote for a paycheck in those early days – just to make ends meet.*

Over the course of this week I'll be looking at some of those earliest SF tales. Thanks largely to eBay seller SoggyPee and the ever-helpful Simon at Fantastic Literature, I've managed to track down a decent selection of the early-1960s science fiction magazines Westlake wrote stories for (plus some other non-Westlake ones, too). I'll be splitting them into two runs of posts, going from earliest to latest – the second series of posts will likely be in a few weeks' time.

What's interesting about these early SF stories is the way they show Westlake trying out different approaches. Some of the stories are humorous; some are whimsical; some are attempts at Robert A. Heinlein-style hard, technological SF. The science fictional aspects of the stories aside – which in any case are fairly tenuous in one or two of the tales – this experimenting with different styles of storytelling would pay dividends in his later novels. For instance, Westlake didn't start writing comedy caper novels until The Fugitive Pigeon in 1965; reputedly at the time he himself was surprised by the tonal shift from his more hardboiled works like The Hunter (1962) and 361 (1963). But these nascent SF stories demonstrate that he was adopting a more lighthearted approach in his short-form writing even prior to The Fugitive Pigeon.

The stories I'll be reviewing this week all hail from 1960 and 1961. But before we sally forth and examine them in more detail, I thought a Westlake SF checklist might be in order. There are a number of sources online which catalogue Westlake's short stories; the main Westlake website has a pretty comprehensive bibliography of all of his work, while Thrilling Detective's checklist has a standalone shorts section, as does this seemingly exhaustive Russian website. I drew on that last one in particular in assembling my science fiction story list, as well as my own research (adding volume and issue numbers for one). Hopefully the list is comprehensive, but if anyone spots any mistakes or anything missing, feel free to leave a comment and I'll amend it. I've included not just the magazine stories but every science fiction tale I've identified, including Westlake's only SF novel, 1967's pseudonymous Anarchaos, and the stories which were reprinted in Tomorrow's Crimes.

All dates are for the most part original US publication, not UK; the British editions of the science fiction magazines tended to reprint stories from the American editions months down the line, something which will become apparent as we progress. A few of the stories apparently appeared in anthologies before they were reprinted in magazines, so in those instances I've listed the anthology first. Oh, and if all goes according to plan I'll have another Westlake post this week elsewhere on another blog; I'll let you know when that's up. Enjoy.

NB: Follow the links to my reviews of the stories.

*For more on why Westlake stopped writing for SF magazines, see this post and this post.

Donald E. Westlake's Science Fiction Stories

"Or Give Me Death", Universe Science Fiction, No. 8, November 1954

"Fluorocarbons Are Here to Stay", The Original Science Fiction Stories, Vol. 8, No. 5, March 1958

"And Then He Went Away", Future Science Fiction, No. 43, June 1959

"Birth of a Monster" (as by Richard Stark), Super Science Stories, Vol. 3, No. 5, August 1959

"Travelers Far and Wee", The Original Science Fiction Stories, Vol. 11, No. 2, May 1960

"Man of Action", Analog Science Fact & Fiction, Vol. LXVI, No. 4, December 1960

"The Risk Profession", Amazing Stories, Vol. 35, No. 3, March 1961

"They Also Serve", Analog Science Fact & Fiction, Vol. 68, No. 1, September 1961

"Call Him Nemesis", Worlds of If Science Fiction, Volume 11, No. 4, September 1961

"The Spy in the Elevator", Galaxy, Vol. 20, No. 1, October 1961

"Meteor Strike!", Amazing Stories, Vol. 35, No. 11, November 1961

"Look Before You Leap", Analog Science Fact & Fiction, Vol. LXLX, No. 3, May 1962

"The Earthman's Burden", Galaxy, Vol. 21, No. 1, October 1962

"The Question", The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3, March 1963

"Nackles" (as by Richard Stark), The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 1, January 1964

Anarchaos (as by Curt Clark), Ace Books, 1967 (paperback novel)

"The Winner", Nova #1, 1970 (paperback anthology)

"The Ultimate Caper: The Purloined Letter", New York Times, May 11, 1975

"In at the Death", The 13th Ghost Book, 1977 (anthology, ghost story); possibly alias "This is Death", Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Vol. 72, No. 5, November 1978

"The Girl of My Dreams", The Midnight Ghost Book, 1978 (anthology, ghost story); also Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Vol. 73, No. 4, April 1979

"The Mulligan Stew", Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Vol. 73, No. 1, January 1979 (possibly ghost story)

"Interstellar Pigeon", Playboy, Vol. 29, No. 5, May 1982

"Dream a Dream", Cosmopolitan, August 1982

"Heaven Help Us", Playboy, Vol. 30, No. 7, July 1983

"Don't You Know There's a War On?", Playboy, Vol. 30, No. 12 December 1983

"Hydra", The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 66, No. 3, March 1984

"The World's a Stage", Playboy, Vol. 31, No. 7, July 1984

"Hitch Your Spaceship to a Star", Playboy, Vol. 32, No. 12, December 1985

"Here's Looking at You", Playboy, Vol. 36, No. 5, May 1989

Tomorrow's Crimes, Mysterious Press, 1989; contains "The Girl of My Dreams", "Nackles", "The Ultimate Caper: The Purloined Letter", "The Spy in the Elevator", "The Risk Profession", "The Winner", "Dream a Dream", "In at the Death", "Hydra", "Anarchaos"

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista (Vermilion Sands) by J. G. Ballard (Virgil Finlay Artwork); Amazing Stories Vol. 36, No. 3, March 1962

I mentioned on Friday that I might be able to squeeze in a weekend post on one of those 1960s science fiction magazines I've been hoovering up recently – ahead of the ones with the Donald E. Westlake stories in that I'll be blogging about next week – and so I am. Doing. Have. Done. Whatever.


This is Vol. 36, No. 3 of Amazing Stories, published in the US in March 1962 by Ziff-Davis, with a front cover by Lloyd Birmingham. I spotted this copy whilst lurking on eBay keeping an eye on the aforementioned Mick SoggyPee's various Westlake-story-containing SF mags; this issue of Amazing was one of the other SF mags he had on offer, and I was struck by the quality of the contributors in the table of contents. (Mick always includes a scan of the contents of an issue in his listings, which is particularly handy for British editions of genre magazines, where the contents tend to lag behind the American editions by a few months.) Take a look-see, as you Americans might say:


You've got one novelet (or, to use the more familiar spelling, novelette – basically a story that's longer than a short but shorter than a novella) each from Frank Herbert and Brian W. Aldiss, plus a guest editorial by Robert Bloch, and a generous helping of drawings from one of the finest artists ever to contribute to SF magazines, Virgil Finlay. I've come across Finlay's work before – a few years back I edited a book in which he featured (Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History – now available as a rather splendid book-and-magnet set, retitled Sci-Fi Art: A Pocket History) – but his elegant illustrations on the back cover and inside this issue of Amazing are... well... quite simply, amazing:


The real prize in this issue, though, is a story which doesn't even get a mention on the cover – and which again boasts a couple of beautiful Virgil Finlay illos:


J. G. Ballard's "The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista" is perhaps the best-known of his stories set in the futuristic resort of Vermilion Sands (all of which were gathered together in 1971 in the Vermilion Sands collection). It's narrated by Howard Talbot, a lawyer who has come to Vermilion Sands with his wife, Fay, while he opens an office in nearby Red Beach. Howard and Fay move into a house on Stellavista, one of the resort's PT, or psychotropic, domains, which are made of a bioplastic which shifts and reforms according to the residents' mood. But they aren't the first inhabitants of the house... and the former occupants, movie star Gloria Tremayne and her husband, architect Miles Vanden Starr – who was murdered by Tremayne while he slept – have left something of an impression on the place. And Howard was one of the lawyers for the defence at Tremayne's trial...

The notion of a home that alters its design according to the occupant's mood is an intriguing idea; Ballard uses it to explore concerns such as how technology impacts and reshapes humanity, and how a bored, well-fed middle class increasingly turns to novelty. And, as with Concrete Island, at the close of the story the narrator even comes to embrace his strange surroundings, finding a kind of peace there, despite – or perhaps because of – the trauma experienced within it.

I'll be featuring another Ballard science fiction story from an even more scarce SF magazine fairly soon – a longer tale which is in effect the first edition of what would become one of his most famous novels. But next on Existential Ennui, it's those Westlake SF stories...

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Golden Brick by P. M. Hubbard; Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Vol. IV, No. 6, May 1963 (British Edition)

It's the final post in this run on British suspense fiction writer P. M. Hubbard – although not, I should point out, the final Hubbard post altogether; I'll have more on him at a future date. For the latecomers among us, this week I've been blogging about books from either end of Hubbard's sixteen-year career; I began with an introduction to his work here, then posted a review of his 1965 intense crazed-collector novel, A Hive of Glass, here, followed that up with a look at his final novel, 1979's Kill Claudio, here, and then blogged about what might just be his debut novel, 1963's Anna Highbury, here.

For our grand finale, we stay in the year 1963 for a review of one of the author's short stories. Hubbard didn't have that many short stories published in his lifetime – just fourteen have been identified, nearly half of which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1950s and '60s. And it's from F&SF that this story comes, nestling alongside tales from L. Sprague de Camp and Fritz Leiber.


This is the Vol. IV, No. 6, May 1963 British edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, published by Atlas Publishing. As you can see from the contents page, Hubbard's story, "The Golden Brick", was the lead tale in that issue. Now, if you were to check the most authoritative Hubbard source on the internet, Mystery*File's compilation of pieces by Tom Jenkins and Wyatt James, you would note that in their bibliography at the bottom of that post, "The Golden Brick" – which was Hubbard's fourth published short – is listed as being in the January 1963 issue of F&SF rather than the May issue. But their information isn't incorrect. Y'see, British editions of the US genre mags around this time tended to reprint stories a few months after their debuts in the American editions. Which means that, for those of us in the UK attempting to tracks down particular stories from SF magazines (which I have been doing recently – more on that in a moment), it's never as straightforward a task as that might seem, as the numbers and dates don't correspond to whatever online sources there are.

Anyway, I did, obviously, manage to get hold of this issue, and Hubbard's story is an unsettling piece of short fiction. An unnamed narrator is holidaying with his family in the Cornish fishing village of Penharrow. While his brood are off exploring inland, our protagonist decides to take a dinghy out "to potter round into a neighboring cove and, if the sun was hot enough, risk a quick swim". But as he heads out of the harbour, a ketch – a medium-size sailing boat with two masts – hoves into view and pulls alongside. Its captain is a curiously colourless man dressed in black, who enquires, "Do you want to buy a golden brick?" At first our hero is disbelieving, but then the man goes down below and reappears holding a gold bar, which he suggests could be taken ashore and sold, and the profits split between them.

After asking why the man can't simply go ashore and sell it himself – "Can't leave the ship, not just at present" – the two agree to meet on Monday to split the proceeds, and go their separate ways. Once the golden brick is sold, our narrator returns to the agreed meeting point out at sea... and there events take a nightmarish turn, as it becomes clear the man in black is keeping something hideous in his hold...


Although there's more of a supernatural element to the ten-page story than in Hubbard's long-form fare, "The Golden Brick" is still recognizably the work of the same writer responsible for A Hive of Glass. Its narrator is on the surface an average family man, but there are hints of Hubbard's standard self-centred antihero within him; at one point he dispenses this pearl of wisdom to us: "in my experience marriage, like other restrictive practices, is a great breeding-ground of untruth". Even so, our unnamed narrator pales in comparison to what lurks in the hold of the ketch, an ancient, dry, scuttling horror which finally escapes as the doomed black-clad captain and his boat meet their fate. It's a ghoulish ending to an effective little chiller that lingers long in the memory.

As it happens, there's something of a tale behind my acquisition of this copy of F&SF too. Over the past month or so I've been hoovering up '60s science fiction magazines off eBay (and elsewhere), many of them from the same seller – one SoggyPee, alias Mick, whose eBay shop can be found here. I'd had this May issue of F&SF on my watch list, but then completely forgot to bid on it before the auction ended. Buggeration. Luckily no one else had bid on it either, and having bought a fair few other items from Mick, I emailed him and asked if he might be relisting it at some point. I heard nothing back, but a couple of days later a package turned up in the post, inside which was the magazine, along with a note saying "please accept this magazine with my compliments". Which was a thoroughly decent thing to do. So thank you, Mick. You're a scholar and a gent.

Anyway, that's all from P. M. Hubbard for the moment... but what were the other SF mags I mentioned I'd bought? Ah, well some of those will form the basis of the next run of posts, because I'll be staying with the '60s SF mags for a wee while yet. Hopefully over the weekend I'll be posting something on a 1962 issue of Amazing Fact and Science Fiction, which boasts stories by three towering names in the SF field. (If the Lewes Book Fair, which takes place on Saturday, turns up anything vitally interesting, that may change. But I'll be writing about that for local magazine Viva Lewes anyway, so probably not.) And then after that I'll be reviewing stories from a range of early-'60s SF periodicals, all of them written by that firm favourite of Existential Ennui's, Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake, many of which have never been reprinted since. Oh, and if all goes according to plan, there'll be at least one other post from me next week on a blog other than this one, again on Westlake/Stark. Should be an interesting week...

Thursday, 19 May 2011

P. M. Hubbard's First Novel? Anna Highbury (Cassell First Edition, 1963); Illustrations by Graham Byfield

Continuing this week's worth of posts on crime/suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard – during which I've been looking at books from either end of his sixteen-year career – we move on from his final novel, 1979's Kill Claudio, to his first. Now, if you know your Hubbard – and if you read that previous post on Kill Claudio, with its sly pun at the end – you might have been thinking this post would be on 1963's Flush as May, which is widely regarded as the author's debut novel. But Hubbard actually had two novels published that year – and I have reason to believe this might in fact be his true debut:


Anna Highbury was published in hardback in the UK in 1963 by Cassell, and it's the first of Hubbard's two novels for younger readers (the second being 1964's Rat Trap Island). It's the story of the eponymous heroine, the oldest of three children, all of whom live with their parents in the small southern English town of Moulton. Anna's father is a local solicitor whose clients include the owner of Spillikins, a deserted old house just outside the village. One day Mr. Highbury's offices are burgled, and papers related to Spillikins are stolen. Soon after, a mysterious visitor from New Zealand arrives, and a tale of missing rubies, believed buried somewhere in the grounds of Spillikins, begins to unfold...


If all of that sounds like your typical period children's story, then that's because, essentially, it is. There's little in the novel along the lines of Hubbard's more unnerving and psychologically tortured suspense works, although in the kids' adventures in and around the overgrown grounds of Spillikins there are hints of the author's abiding concern with environment, and in the search-for-an-elusive-treasure plot there are parallels with others of Hubbard's storylines. But Hubbard displays a sureness of touch with the characters, especially the kids, who come across well as individuals (especially the youngest, James, forever getting distracted by shiny things), and though the tone is light, there are moments of tension, as Anna and Bill Maynard, the owner of Spillikins (and the visiting New Zealander) attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery.


The dustjacket and interior illustrations – some of which you can see throughout this post – are by Graham Byfield, who, like Barbara Lofthouse, the painter responsible for the cover of yesterday's first edition of Kill Claudio, is represented by illustration agency Artist Partners (about whom I've blogged before, in relation to photographer Adrian Flowers in this post on Len Deighton). Byfield is probably best known for his various Sketchbook titles – Oxford Sketchbook, London Sketchbook, etc. – but his distinctive and delightfully scratchy and scruffy illustrations have also appeared on some classic Penguin editions of famous novels, including Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.


Anna Highbury is a real rarity, quite possibly P. M. Hubbard's scarcest novel – in any edition. At time of writing there are only two copies available on AbeBooks worldwide, and none on Amazon Marketplace UK. (The cheaper of those AbeBooks listings is repeated on Amazon Marketplace US, so for any American readers, if you're quick, you can nab one of the two copies for sale online at a bargain price.) Seemingly – and unlike Hubbard's other kids' title, Rat Trap Island – there was only ever this one Cassell edition. But the question I posed at the start of this post still remains – namely: is Anna Highbury, rather than Flush as May, Hubbard's debut novel?

There's a clue inside the book which suggests it might be. Copyright pages in books – which can usually be found just after the title page – vary from publisher to publisher, but some publishers include codes in their indicia which denote which month a book was published in addition to the more prominent year. Around the time Anna Highbury was published Cassell were apparently one of those publishers, and right at the bottom of the copyright page there's a code: "F.763". That stands for "first published July 1963". I don't have a first edition of Flush as May to check against, but it's reasonable to suppose that Anna Highbury was published, if not before, then at least concurrently with Flush as May – publishers tending to plump for latter-half of the year/autumn release dates (for that all-important sales run-up to Christmas).

My guess is that Anna Highbury sneaked in just ahead of Flush as May, but if anyone reading this happens to own a first edition of the latter, perhaps they can check their copy and see if it has a similar code anywhere in the indicia...

Anyway, on to the final post in this series on P. M. Hubbard (although there will be much more on him down the line, don't you worry). And we're staying in 1963, for a look at another of Hubbard's stories from that year – an unnerving little tale of a boat trip that takes a turn for the horrific...

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

P. M. Hubbard's Final Novel: Kill Claudio (Macmillan First Edition, 1979)

If you've just joined us, this week's posts are all on largely overlooked British suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard, whose intense, psychological mysteries and crime stories draw on an unusual feel for the rural and feature deeply flawed antiheroes as their protagonists. In this run of posts I'm focussing on stories from either end of his career; yesterday I reviewed one of his earliest and very best novels, 1965's A Hive of Glass, and today I'm looking at a UK first edition of his eighteenth and final novel:


Kill Claudio was published in hardback by Macmillan in 1979, seven months prior to Hubbard's death in March 1980. It's the first-person account of one Ben Selby, who, whilst out shooting one day discovers the body of a man in the heather. The corpse is identified by the police as a Mr. Mowbray, but on reflection Selby realises it is, in fact, Peter Gaston, a former colleague of his from the Establishment, an informal network of spies-cum-thieves. Visiting Mowbray/Gaston's widow, Lisa, Selby determines the intended victim may actually have been he himself. After asking Selby to kill Gaston's murderer – whom Selby names Claudio, alluding to a similar request in Much Ado About Nothing – Lisa hands him a letter from the dead man, concerning his and Ben's and a "C.T."'s final mission with the Establishment twenty years ago – a job which ended with a shipwreck and the burying by Gaston of a box containing something very valuable indeed...

It's curious that both Hubbard's final novel and his first (or at least, what's reckoned to be his first – more on that in a bit), 1963's Flush as May, seemingly both begin with the discovery of a body during a walk – an unintended symmetry there. And though there were no more books to come from Hubbard, at least he ended on a high: critic and Hubbard aficionado Wyatt James described Kill Claudio as "a fine example of the British hunter-and-hunted-theme", while in 2000 H. R. F. Keating and Mike Ripley picked the novel as one of their 101 crime novels of the twentieth century – Hubbard's only entry on that list.

In common with all of Hubbard's books, there isn't a plentiful supply of good condition UK first editions of Kill Claudio online, despite it being his most recent novel; at time of writing AbeBooks has just three listed from British booksellers, all of which are ex-library, and only eleven copies worldwide. Mine was a lucky eBay find, and is in fine condition. The splendid illustration of crashing waves on a rugged coastline (very Hubbard) on the front of the dustjacket is by Barbara Lofthouse, whose painterly work can generally be seen on and in children's and fantasy titles; she created the covers for the second and third volumes of Chaz Brenchley's The Books of Outremer, for example.

And from Hubbard's final novel, we turn to his first – or rather, what may be his first – pun intended...

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Curse of the Collector: A Hive of Glass (1965) by P. M. Hubbard – Novel Review

This week I'm blogging about British novelist P. M. Hubbard, whose strange, evocative suspense novels – almost all of which are out of print – draw on a very particular sense of place – chiefly an unnerving, oppressive and remote rural Britain. Yesterday I posted a brief overview of his oeuvre and a bibliography, and for the rest of the week I'll be focussing on books and stories from either end of his sixteen-year career – although not necessarily the books and stories a Hubbard fan might expect. Today it's the turn of his fifth novel (counting his two children's novels): A Hive of Glass.


A Hive of Glass was first published in Britain by Michael Joseph in 1965 (1966 Panther paperback edition seen on the right there – unfortunately I wasn't able to find a first edition), when Hubbard was, I believe, fifty-four (he came to novel-writing quite late). The narrator is Johnnie Slade, a collector of fine glass who gets wind of a Verzelini Tazza, a sixteenth-century glass dish standing on a central stem, crafted by the Venetian Giacomo Verzelini. This priceless piece is featured in an article by noted glass scholar Levinson in the latest issue of Old Glass, a quarterly periodical edited and financed by Peter Sarrett, but Sarrett is unable to furnish Slade with either the name of the owner of the tazza or its location. Desperate to discover more about it, Slade visits Levinson, only to find him dead of a heart attack. But there is one clue in Levinson's desk diary – a single word: "Dunstreet".

Determining that the Dunstreet in question is a (fictional) country town 150 miles outside of London, near the south coast of England, Slade sets off in pursuit of the tazza. As he explores the town's verdant surroundings, there's an early hint of the environment as an entity in and of itself – something which is common in Hubbard's work: 

The whole countryside was dark and green and crouched a bit... the trees filled all the valley bottoms as if they had been poured into them – as indeed, in embryo, they probably had – and the valleys ran together in a network always pointing southwards to the place where their combined streams met salt water almost between the oak roots. The air was so soft and wet you could squeeze it out. It smelt of dead wood and land-locked brine.


This sense of an enveloping, decaying, stifling landscape intensifies throughout the novel, until the rural environs become almost an active participant in events (quite violently in one scene where a stag and a hellish hound cause a car accident). As Slade inveigles himself into Dunstreet's affairs and becomes involved with a young woman, Claudia, he learns of Claudia's Aunt Elizabeth, who lives in a remote house on an outcrop of densely wooded land near the sea, which becomes cut off at high tide. It's a gloomy, forbidding, eerie terrain, all loamy ground and tangled roots and deep creeks, heavy with foreboding and symbolizing the isolated existence of the blind Aunt Elizabeth and her deaf servant, Coster. Claudia is at the beck and call of her aunt: it transpires that when Elizabeth eventually dies, Claudia stands to inherit her aunt's possessions – which might just include the tazza...

The environmental aspects of Hubbard's novels have been much remarked upon, but it was another aspect of A Hive of Glass which particularly struck me, one which Book Glutton identified in his original comment drawing my attention to the author. This strand manifests itself right at the outset, when Johnnie visits an antique shop in the Midlands and spies an eighteenth-century glass at the back of a cabinet. Knowing what it's worth, and knowing the proprietor doesn't, he manages to buy the glass at a knock-down price; realising his mistake, the dealer relents, but sees something in Slade's eyes that causes him to back off. What he glimpses is the madness of the collector.

This unhinged zeal is one I'm more than familiar with (as regular readers of this blog might have noticed). It's a compulsion to possess objects – glass, antiques, books, whatever – a need which clearly speaks to an absence elsewhere in one's life (although I hesitate to explore what exactly that might be). The collecting impulse is, for the most part, fairly benign – Johnnie's evident delight at his newly bought glass as he gingerly washes it in a nearby stream is a joyous moment. But it does have its dark side, and that unpleasant facet of collecting rears its head throughout the novel.

The first instance comes in a Dunstreet auction room, where Johnnie pinpoints the dealers in the room and remarks upon the way they bid up pieces so that regular punters don't buy them for less than the market price. But the impulse becomes more personal as the novel progresses: Slade begins to suspect someone else is on the trail of the tazza, and in time events conspire to bring him to a place where it becomes unlikely he will be able to secure it for himself. It's at this point that Slade verbalizes the dark side of collecting: "So long as nobody else gets it."

This is the collector's curse: the desire to own, but also the desire to ensure that no one else is able to own that which one desires. Here, then, we reach the crux of the novel: Johnnie's romantic entanglement with Claudia proves an agreeable distraction (as does a brief liaison with a friend's wife – Slade is a randy bugger), but it's only a diversion; the hunt for the elusive tazza is all. It's never far from Slade's mind, even when he maintains it is; his statement at the close of one chapter – "I had not given the tazza a thought since six" – only serves to make a lie of his professed disinterest. The glass is the thing, and the pursuit of it takes Slade to ever murkier climes, ever greater extremes, eventually leading to a dark denouement at the bottom of an old mineshaft.

A Hive of Glass is a terrific book, perhaps Hubbard's first out-and-out classic (there's another recent and glowing review of it on the Pretty Sinister Books blog). But he was to write many more over the next fourteen years – and it's to his final novel that we turn next, a fine example of the hunter-and-hunted subgenre that weaves through British fiction: 1979's Kill Claudio.