All Our Yesterdays 9
by Harry Warner Jr.

The Fantast

Occasionally a fanzine appears which attracts much favourable comment but doesn’t make a sensation. It bobs up for issue after issue, vanishes after a couple of years, and only then, its true worth is recognised. Something like this happened in the case of The Fantast. It was the most literate fanzine of its day but it had the misfortune to exist at a time when American fanzines were big, splashy, controversial, and noisy. Soon after C. S. Youd finally decided that he was taking time for The Fantast which could be applied better to more serious things, the finest serious fanzine before Langley Searles’ went out of existence.

The Fantast was published in England during the first couple of years of World War Two. Youd was a young fellow who combined a quiet sense of humour with the intelligence and vast stores of information about everything which so many upper middle class Britishers possess. The Fantast appealed to me in particular because of its staid format. Pictures were scarce, margins were narrow, white space was almost non existent, in defiance of all the rules of eye-temptation. This austere format not only conserved the priceless mimeograph paper that was so scarce in war-time England; it also fitted ideally the subject matter of The Fantast. The magazine wasn’t stuffy, and it didn’t require specialised knowledge in any field to enjoy its contents, but you were forced to pay attention while you read, and distracting pictures or fancy headings would have been unsuitable. I know that I kept wishing I had the courage to make Spaceways a little more bare in this fashion.

I find a dozen issues of The Fantast in a large manila envelope in my attic, and there were probably a few more that I didn’t sort into this file. They look very much alike. They all arrived in the same shade of brown wrappers, folded once, usually stamped by the Baltimore customs house. A person who had never known the personality and delights of The Fantast would never have the heart to look through such a file. Fortunately, there are still some people around who remember its merits; witness the reprinting of “The Road to Fame” in the FAPA at the present time.

Superficially, much of the material seemed at first glance to be as dull as the wrappers. Witness the first sentence of D. R. Smith’s little story, “It’s a Devil”, from the sixth issue: “The two men plodded over the moor towards the rocky hills might, from their ancient and tattered garments, have been tramps, but the rope slung from the shoulders of the first, and the rucksack on the back of the second, proclaimed their true status as rock-climbers.” That reads like a murky, 19th century opening of a novel. But Smith managed to retain that style, and yet complete his story in a single page – a sardonic account of how the dead souls who used to leave slippery things lying around on mountainsides are forced to spend their time in hell making mountains steeper and rougher for the living. Smith was one of Fantast’s most prolific contributors. He usually turned out just about one page of concentrated fact or fiction. From the third issue, here are some of his thoughts on the use of words in science fiction stories:

“Words are crude tools for the writer of fantasy to work with because words are so essentially common-place. Most of them have been invented to describe the more-or-less ordinary article or action, and words that in themselves appeal to the imagination are limited. In fact the films and the sensational press have so woefully misused our stock of rich, flamboyant adjectives that they have become almost meaningless. Some writers surmount this difficulty by digging out abstruse and half-obsolete words, with fatal results in the hands of the poorly skilled. The fair way out is to use common-place words skilfully, which is called style. Style consists of the meticulous selection of the right words to fit accurately and with the right rhythm the scene, action or emotion described... Magazine a sort of soporific for the eyes, which might otherwise be unacceptable while eating or travelling or listening to the wireless. It must not make any demands on the mind, since this is otherwise engaged and must not be distracted, and so the style adopted is that of a ten-year old child describing the last film it saw. At the moment editors are hampered by the lack of authors capable of writing down to this standard, and so even Amazing occasionally features a collection of words that approximates to a story.”

Don’t get the impression that Fantast was so literate that it was stuffy. It had the sense of proportion and humour that is essential for any fan publication. Even the mighty-minded Smith occasionally descended to the level of idle speculation, dropping for brief intervals his weighty pronouncements. Witness, from the sixth issue, his defence of tea-leaf fortune-telling:

“The untouched tea-leaves in the bottom of a person’s cup obviously owe their arrangement to the manner in which he has drained the cup, which in turn depends on the character of the man, the size of his mouth, and other variables. From his character and his position in life — which later will also influence the disposition of the tea-leaves, as, for example, a person of the lower class will try to eat them, a person of my class will leave them well-placed for throwing in the fire, and a well-brought-up gentleman will leave them carelessly-placed ready for the slop basin – from these two influences his probable future is determined. The rules used in fortune telling by this means naturally give the fortune straight away, the process of inductive reasoning being incorporated in those rules so that the most unintelligent person can apply them.”

The Fantast is the only fanzine in my memory to review a book that treats of the Life of Christ in a worlds-of-if fashion. This is Bernard Newman’s “Hosanna.” Charles Rowlands reviewed this little-known book, which shows what might have happened if Christ had taken the wrong course and turned his powers to military and political purposes. In “Hosanna”, Christ’s personality leads the Jews to drive the Romans from the land for a time, but the Romans re-conquer Jerusalem, Christ is crucified – and centuries later, the world has been converted to the Mohammedan religion.

The Fantast also contained some of the best poetry published in fanzines around this time. Not great poetry; most of it was experimental stuff by people like John Michel and Eric Hopkins, who were imitating other experimental stuff, or glowingly romantic lyrics by Youd himself, which had nothing to say in a pleasant sort of way. Typical of the quality of Fantast’s poetry might be this short one by Harold Gottliffe:

No more we’ll sing—
                        for who could fill with praise
Or joy, or gladness the resounding air?
All this belongs to the unselfish days
Of savage hearts and nights untouched by care.
Those days are gone, and in their place we find
Selfish and civilised and racked with pain —
The Era of the Ruled and Ordered Mind;
And long within her grave has Saki lain,
A long succession of uneasy days,
Mechanical and Useful, form a ring
Round which we march in timeless prison way
The rhythm of our steps? No more we’ll sing.

Now a very odd thing happened, about two-thirds of the way through Fantast’s existence. It changed editors, and no one would have realised it, without the information that was put down in black and white in the publication. Douglas Webster took over, when Youd went into the armed forces. Youd proceeded to produce some of the best writing about the war that I’ve seen anywhere, and Webster continued to grind out fascinatingly plain-looking Fantasts, just as Youd had done. The magazine had taken on such a personality of its own that it maintained its circle of writers and readers under the older, less enthusiastic Webster’s direction.

Youd has had a few stories published in the prozines since the war, and won a prize for a novel. I don’t know where he is now or what ha is doing. John Burke’s biographical notes in the 12th issue of The Fantast might sum him up: “With a great deal of talent, Mr Youd may never become the writer he deserves to be because of his lack of application and his inability to make up his mind as to what to do with his life; he is less likely to succeed than many of his acquaintances with inferior taste and few talents, but more determination....When Sam decides what the purpose of living is, he will bring to bear an acute mind and a wide general knowledge acquired through his manifold activities that will insure his success.”

Last revised: 1 March, 2006

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