Again, The Fantast
It always came in a plain brown wrapper, and when it was shoved by the mailman through the letterslot, it looked like a poor, bedraggled sparrow, beside the gaudy and alluring heavy envelopes or brightly coloured covers that contained other fanzines. But it was Third Fandom’s equivalent of Hyphen or Slant, its name was The Fantast, and it may quite possibly have been the most consistently, enduringly excellent fanzine ever published from the literary standpoint.
The Fantast began publication just before the outbreak of World War Two. C.S. Youd wasn’t ashamed to use his own name as its editor and publisher since he was publishing an honest fanzine; later, he began adopting all sorts of pen names for his appearances in rankly commercial publications like The Saturday Evening Post. Midway through its career, The Fantast passed into the hands of Douglas Webster, who never made a lot of money out of writing as Sam did later, but had equal talents. Until the vicissitudes of wartime publishing in England became too great, The Fantast was the best illustrated, most literate, funniest and deepest thinking publication to emerge from the British Isles. Willis publications have surpassed it in recent years in letterpress, in a different kind of humour, and in sheer bulk, but even WAW has been unable to unearth a stable of such uniformly gifted writers as those who surrounded the publishers of The Fantast.
In those days, Sam Youd could afford to write non-fiction, and that was one of the best things that ever happened to fandom. From the November, 1941, issue of The Fantast, here’s an example of his incomparable talents as an essayist, in the form of extracts from his pen portrait and semi-biography of John Frederick Burke:
“The perverseness of John is his salient feature (always excluding his Jaw), and the only point of similarity between him and Eric Russell. Both have reverted to Roman Catholic science, and constructed the universe about the Betelgeuse of their egos, both have grown so used to sneering at the face of authority that they dare no longer look in a mirror. But John, being younger, is more intolerant, more completely self-centred, more determined that he will answer only to the delphic oracle of his own conscience. And like a true Sybil his conscience is ambidextrous, proffering a right-hand answer with its left tightly closed on what is at least an alternative.
“No one without an interest in writing could survive John’s company for long. By this, I do not mean that his best friends have been too reticent, nor that he is himself boring. The reverse is the case. It is merely that although he can bring himself to discuss other things it is always from a writer’s standpoint, and the conversation always gets back to writing in the end. A mention of the Spanish War is an introduction for Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (which I agree with John, is possibly the best novel of the last ten years), and a mention of contemplation drags in Charles Morgan. Attack him on writing, or swing if you have enough guns, and he will smash you conclusively; attack him on politics, ethics, and especially his own shortcomings as a citizen, and he will wriggle feebly in a chair and smile inanely as you cut him to pieces. He is an example of specialised evolution: the crustacean writer.
“The sight of John and Joan together would wring the heartstrings of any Tin Pan Alley lyric writer. John tells the world to go to hell while he gets on with his writing, and Joan ignored it altogether while she looks after John. John says something particularly Johnesque and, if she is near enough, she will put up a tender hand and pat his face--just--like--that. If she isn’t near enough they exchange those glances so well-calculated to penetrate the ersatz armour of semi-hardened cynics like myself. This is young love par excellence. You feel that only a couple of Disney doves are needed to complete the effect.”
I might explain that Burke at this time had just recently given up most fannish pursuits in favour of writing, and the paragraphs I have quoted above are actually asides in a review of his first novel. His fanzine, The Satellite, was incorporated into The Fantast.
Evidence that the fanciful strain in the Belfast fandom of today is a direct descendant of the British Isles fandom of 15 years ago might be drawn from a little item in the September, 1939 issue. Youd quotes a letter from a “sturdy iconoclast” fan of the time, D.R. Smith:
“I think it would be possible to defend the tea-leaf method of fortune-telling as easily, or almost as easily, as palmistry. 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 and 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 the 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.
“I think this sort of thing would make a good game, one you might play in Fantast. You could nominate a series of ridiculous hypotheses, give each to some separate fan to defend as best he could, and let your readers vote on the winner. The Moon is made of green cheese – Clarke could do that one. Or you could. challenge the readers to produce anything that your staff of experts could not “prove” was correct.”
By December, 1941, John Burke was writing for The Fantast a pen portrait of C.S. Youd. Some of it is rather embarrassing as a prediction, but sections of it are quite interesting as description:
“I cannot see that square pegs should take running jumps at round holes, and Sam’s terrific efforts to like his fellow human beings are all wrong. He should accept his character and not try to twist it to suit the world.... (His) fluency in verse is equalled only by fluency as a letter-writer; unfortunately, this ease and grace does not appear in such fiction as Sam has tackled, and although he has toyed with the idea of becoming a professional writer, his dissatisfaction with his efforts to date and his present mood of intolerance towards intellectual pastimes tend to turn him away from the path of literature. His dislike of “intellectuals” – a class which includes a surprisingly varied assortment of people – has led him to become an inverted highbrow, praising the tastes of the general public and treating the less popular forms of art and entertainment with scorn. He experiences great difficulty in reconciling this attitude with a liking for good music, in which he is beginning to take an interest. “I dislike emotion,” he says, and tries to explain away the fact that he cannot resist Wagner.
“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 tastes and few talents, but more determination.
“He is well-built, having filled out surprisingly in two years. He accuses me of not taking enough exercise, but complains that I walk too much. He has a cherubic countenance, spectacles, and once had wavy hair. As I write this he is in hospital, minus the hair. His voice is mellow, ideal for reading melancholy poetry. He affects a cynical smile which deceives nobody....While he was in Liverpool, we saw him change his mind – a process that has much in common with an earthquake.”
One of the finest things about Fantast was its poetry. Occasionally, when a filler was needed, it quoted such non-fans as the unknown lance corporal in Sutton who wrote:
I wish I was a woolly worm and had a woolly tummy—
I’d jump into a pot of glue and make my tummy, gummy.
But most of the time, The Fantast published extremely serious, romanticised poetry that stands up quite well today. Youd, J.P. Rathbone, William Harris, and many others of the day contributed much the same sort of writing, and even Americans got into the act. I quote “Conclusion” by Louis Russell Chauvenet, which had also appeared in two American fanzines of the day:
If, in imaginary visions, you
Have come in secret through the shadow’s grey
To where the tower’s battlemented view
Etches a fragment of the nascent day,
And if at moments I have heard you say,
As though you were no phantom, you could see
In that bright etching one transcendent way
Bridging the chasms of eternity,
Forgive the vain delusion. I have known
At heart how much it angered you that I
Built one strong tower in your sweep of sky
And I will build no more. When viewed alone
The tower seems less strong. Let stone on stone
Dissolve, and let the bright illusion die.
I noticed a recent review of a volume by August Derleth, whose contents are allegedly a sort of collaboration between Lovecraft and him. It is, more probably, a case of flaying a dead horse, a sacrilegious prodding of story material which Lovecraft abandoned as not worth the completion and forgot to destroy. Because as long ago as the very first issue of The Fantast, published in April 1939, a full two decades ago, intelligent people were getting fed up with the practice of capitalising on Lovecraft’s reputation by publishers who were trying to make money out of his bad stories. Here’s John Burke again:
“Howard Phillips Lovecraft was, to my mind, the peer of fantasy authors; yet when I see a Lovecraft story in Weird Tales these days I feel disgusted, and reading the story only confirms my belief that it is worthless. Stories that Lovecraft never submitted – or stories that were rejected when he was alive – have suddenly been rooted out and printed, regardless of merit. Odd fragments of his youth, experiments, are given to the public as though they were high class material of the sort only HPL could write. “The Shunned House” was twice rejected by Weird – and rightly so – but upon Lovecraft’s death they printed it. Hardly a fitting memorial to the memory of a great man.
“And those dreadful short stories we have been getting lately are beyond endurance. True, every now and then something good turns up – “The Quest of Iranon” for example – but on the whole, stories such as “The Nameless City”, “The Truce”, and so on, should never be printed — and would never have been printed but for his death.”
In the second issue of his fanzine, Youd was the dedicatee of an article by David McIlwain, “How To Write Weird Poetry” Some samples:
“Now the easiest kind of poetry to write is the modern style — “Vers Libre”. It may best be described as prose-poetry, since there is no intricate meter to be adhered to, and no rhymes to be painfully sought or concocted. Instead one just writes down whatever comes into one’s head, always remembering to vary the length of the lines a little in order to make it seem as though there is some subtle purpose in them. Be as vague as possible – circumlocution is highly to be commended – as this will gain you fame as a philosopher and thinker. Thus, instead of saying “The sun set”, you would say:
Far in the west,
Embedded in a sky of deepening purple
And fanned by fleecy clouds,
Sank the sun in crimson glory
Towards the beckoning ebony
Of Timbuktu.............or words to that effect.
“Notice “sank the sun” is used instead of “the sun sank” because such inversions often make critics raise their hats and henceforth link your name with Shakespeare.
“You must be familiar with mythology...and be able to spout strange and unusual names like an over-energetic drain-pipe. E.g.,
Down in the forest something stirred. He
Listened in pain to the hurdy-gurdy.
sorry, wrong poem, but you get what I mean, don’t you? Names such as “Shoggoth”, “Naiad”, “Baalam”, “Wollheim” – horrible though they may be at first sight, have been the fortune of their respective sponsors. If you can write a line of poetry like this —
The evil Palooka, son of Kaeva-kaeva, the rat,
Came up from Spraagnor’s fiery pit, the brat!
then your fortune is practically made. Always use a double A in weird names, as this is a custom which it is faataal – sorry – fatal to ignore.”
A little later, in the May, 1940 issue, Julian F. Parr published an analogous article on “Hints on How To Write Science Fiction”. Under the topic of wording, he said:
“This is very important. If a system of circumloction is used to such an extent that readers are forced to produce dictionaries to understand one, one will inevitably be proclaimed an anachronistic genius. Such authors as Smith and Williamson, verbose as they are, could go still further. For instance, the following passage is taken from a mediocre and very short serial printed in the Dark Ages of science fiction:
‘“Ten minutes should be enough,” he remarked, “but we are in no hurry. It would be just as well to keep them under observation, however, as I want to note the reaction of our scarlet foes to our ministrations.” And he signed to the labourer to make another hole about five feet from the ground.’
“You can see from the above how naive the stories of the Dark Days were, as the narrator only used one word of any intricasy in his narration of the event, viz., ministrations. But see the amended passage:
‘“Fourteen durogs and two feques should be sufficient,” he observed, utilising the duration-meter of the Graks, wherein a curtig is the length of time taken...etc... “But we are not excessively precipitant. It would be extremely espediate to subject them to a critical scrutiny as I require the experience of watching their reactory process to our torvously lethal ministrations.” And he motioned to the attendant laborer to construct another perforation approximately five feet above the level of the passageway.’
“This kind of thing not only makes your manuscript look scientific but also dazes the reader and, since writers are paid at the disgustingly commercial rate of so much (and how little it is!) per word, brings in more cash.”
I don’t want to give the impression that this set of excerpts Tell All the excellencies of The Fantast. I haven’t quoted a word of Doug Webster’s own wonderful writings, for example. The letter section, Fantast’s Follies, was always lengthy, lively, and densely packed with ideas, but it doesn’t lend itself to excerpting out of the context. Harry Turner was the cover artist, most of the time, creating mimeographed drawings that look as much like printed linocuts as you’re likely to find anywhere. Then there were the several series of satirical nature that went on and on. One of them was reprinted several years ago, intact, “The Road to Fame”, and distributed via FAPA. I think that any ambitious fan of 1958 who wants to make people very happy and himself very popular could do worse than to take his mimeograph in hand, borrow a typical issue of The Fantast, and proceed to reprint the whole shebang intact.