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The good stuff is rarely on the shelves at the front of the store

February 19, 2012 4 comments

Occasionally in my book-hunting adventures, I come across a cache of old copies of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. If they’re in decent shape, I almost always sift through them for a copy or two that might be worth taking home and holding on to. Used, they typically go for three or four dollars, sometimes less.

The format is appealing — roughly the same as Reader’s Digest, but with a lower grade of paper, both for the cover and inside pages. It’s basically a flimsy cardboard for the cover and slightly better than newsprint inside. Also, the text is divided into two columns on each page, for ease of reading. Art and graphics are minimal. It’s a tidy little package, easy to handle, cart around, store, etc.

Looking through the old copies, it’s interesting to find all the prominent authors from the fantasy and science fiction genres. Nobody, it seemed, was too good to appear in F&SF or one of the other very similar magazines with the same format that were so popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Even the top writers couldn’t have gotten much money for their contributions, but they wrote for the magazine anyway. It was the place to see and be seen.

Today, in an antiques mall, I picked up the October 1968 issue, which contains writings by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Gahan Wilson, Larry Niven, D.F. Jones and Ron Goulart. These were/are prominent names in fantasy and science fiction. I was especially drawn to the Ellison short story, “Try a Dull Knife.” Besides being a longtime fan of Ellison, I was fascinated by the fact that he submitted this piece to the magazine at a time when he was at or near the peak of his career. In fact, the editor’s note introducing the story indicates how busy Ellison was at that time:

“Harlan Ellison’s current projects include the following: scripting an sf film, Esper, for Universal Pictures (it is projected as a film-for-TV and later a series); putting together a second volume of Dangerous Visions; completing two novels, Demon with a Glass Hand (based on his award-winning ‘Outer Limits’ television script, and Dial 9 to Get Out, a contemporary novel ‘more than slightly autobiographical.’ Ellison is presently crossing the country making TV and radio appearances to promote his new collection Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled. . . .”

I checked my shelf of Ellison books, and the story in the magazine later appeared in his collection The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. I just read the story, and it’s pretty good, an allegory about the vampiric codependence between celebrities and their fans. Classic Ellison, in that he no doubt was thinking autobiographically as he conceived this story.

Another fun piece is a column called “The Dark Corner” by the cartoonist Gahan Wilson in which he reviews new horror releases. He has an interesting take on a new edition of an Arthur Machen novel, arguing that the young people experimenting with psychedelic drugs would be wise to read the old British horror master.

“The more naive among the psychedelic set and the pot lot appear to believe that they have stumbled on a New Thing,” Wilson writes. “They style themselves Columbuses, treading an undiscovered continent, making first contact with the angels and demons which dwell therein. They are, of course, quite wrong. Those lands have been explored by previous voyagers, and we have the maps and logs of their journeys. Some of these bold cartographers left encouraging reports, others did not. Among those with less happy news stood — we can say towered — the figure of Arthur Machen. His cautionary essays on what may happen to those who meddle with that which we laughingly call reality should be required reading for those who are tempted to dip their toe into the acid pool or go out with Mary Jane.”

I haven’t read Machen, but my interest surely is piqued now. (Taking a quick look at the Wikipedia entry for Machen, I note that Stephen King, no slouch in the horror field, believes Machen’s novella The Great God Pan may be the best horror story ever.)

The October 1968 issue also includes Clarke’s response to a nonfiction piece by Asimov from a previous issue. Clarke and Asimov apparently were old friends, or at least very respectful colleagues, but the Clarke piece offers a strong disagreement with Asimov about an arcane aspect of science: whether anything is impossible. The dialogue between Asimov and Clarke happened many moons before the advent of the Internet, but F&SF at times had the feel of being an interactive experience within the tight-knit community of writers who contributed to it. It was something like a blog in which a handful of people are contributing and playing off one another’s posts.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is still publishing, bimonthly these days, in roughly the same format. I haven’t been inclined to pick up the more recent issues, in part because I don’t recognize most of the contributors. But I think I’ll get a new one sometime soon and see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. The compact and unpretentious format is hard to resist.

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