Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

In a forthcoming issue of Nebula there will be a story by James White, who is known as one of the best of the new generation of British sf authors. What is not so well known is that James once nearly gave his life for science fiction.

One day in his ceaseless combing of the second-hand bookshops of Belfast James was rewarded by the discovery of a 1935 issue of wonder stories. Concealing his emotion, he bought it from the trusting dealer for a mere six times its face value and, like a true fan, opened it at the fan department. There, in faded grey and brown, was the startling intelligence that a Chapter of the Science Fiction League had been founded in Belfast by one Hugh O'Hara. The address was a mere twenty minutes walk from where James was now rooted to the pavement and he decided to track down this hitherto unknown founder of Irish fandom.

The address was one of a long row of working class houses in a narrow street. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman with a truculent expression.

"Mr. O'Hara?" asked James politely.

She gave him a suspicious look and would probably have slammed the door in his face if it hadn't been for the fact that James is roughly a mile high. She contented herself by gradually reducing the width of the aperture until she seemed in danger of cutting her head off.

"Which Mr. O'Hara?" she asked warily.

"Hugh," said James.

"Me?" she protested angrily. Her moustache bristled.

"Not you," said James. He gave her an aspirate to relieve her pain. "Hhh-ugh. Hugh O'Hara."

Malevolently, the woman seized her opportunity for further obstruction. "Which Hugh O'Hara?"

Now I have the sober type of mind that mentally falls off every bridge before I come to it. If I had been going to make this call of James's I'd have cased the joint first.

"Er . . . the one who's interested in science fiction," said James at last.

The woman looked at him blankly. It seemed to come naturally to her. "Signs?" she asked. "Fixing what signs?"

Faced so suddenly with the task of explaining what science fiction was, I am afraid that James quailed. It was a pity he hadn't been studying his John W. Campbell or he could have said: "Oh, you know, fictional extrapolation from current or potential technological or psychical development." If he had, I venture to suggest that he would have remained master of the situation.

As it was, all he could do was fall back on the copy of Wonder Stories. He started to undo his overcoat to withdraw the magazine. The woman assumed the expression of a cover girl on True Detective, and her apprehensions were not allayed when James finally produced his magazine, opened it at the page and showed it to her. She screamed.

Raised as you have been in the pure clean air of Nebula, it will be difficult for you younger readers to realise what some of the advertisements in the back pages of old time pulp magazines were like. As for James, he is a very high-minded character . . . not only in the sense that his head is occasionally surrounded by cirrus clouds . . . and devoted to science fiction, so the advertisements in pulps simply did not exist for him He probably knew vaguely that there was something on the page other than the fan department but I am sure he did not know what it was, far less suspect that it might cause him to be regarded as some kind of maniac.

Fortunately for James, Mrs. O'Hara attempted to withdraw her head without remembering to open the door again and the volume of her alarm was throttled down by several decibels. It also gave James time to disavow responsibility for the advertisement, hastily closing the magazine and showing the cover. It was an innocuous painting, merely showing several thousand human beings being eaten alive by multi-tentacled monstrosities, and its idyllic charm quietened her immediately.

"Our Hughie used to read them magazines," she vouchsafed, reflectively.

"Where is he?" asked James.

"He's away," she replied defensively and with renewed alarm.

"Where?" asked James, so hot on the trail that he failed to notice the warning signs. The hunted expression, the furtive glance up the street.

She gave him a hostile look, this time more of hate than fear. It lingered at his feet, which are rather big. Suddenly James realised that this was Belfast, where there are more desperate minority organisations than the Science Fiction League. He looked round in alarm. A number of lean hungry-looking men had materialised, with their hands in their jacket pockets. James quickly tried to explain that he was only interested in magazines. One of them caught the word and nodded to the others. They moved forward slowly. James knew it was time to go, but the instinct of the true collector is strong.

"Did Hughie leave any of them?" he asked. But he was already walking away, because he knew what the answer would be. Sure enough it came, the ritual reply known to collectors the world over: "Oh, there were hundreds of them in the attic but they were threw away last week."

So James hadn't bothered to wait, and gained the safety of the main road with milliseconds to spare. Otherwise there might have been a dozen blank pages in a forthcoming issue of Nebula.

from Nebula No. 37, December 1958

Last revised: 1 October, 2006

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