Zoe Kaplan, The Edwin Project
Editors, Anthony Boucher & J. Francis McComas
Bells on His Toes • short story by Cleve Cartmill ♥♥
Thurnley Abbey • reprint short story by Perceval Landon ♥♥
Private—Keep Out! • short story by Philip MacDonald ♥♥
The Lost Room • reprint short story by Fitz-James O’Brien ♥♥
The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast • short story by Theodore Sturgeon♥
Review Copy • short story by Anthony Boucher [as by H. H. Holmes ] ♥♥
Men of Iron • reprint short story by Guy Endore ♥
A Bride for the Devil • short story by Stuart Palmer ♥
Rooum • reprint short story by Oliver Onions ♥
Perseus Had a Helmet • reprint short story by Richard Sale ♥♥
In the Days of Our Fathers • short story by Winona McClintic ♥
Introduction • essay by Lawrence E. Spivak
“On the way home from school…” • reprint cartoon by David Pascal
If I had to pick a favourite SF magazine it would probably be The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). Part of it probably goes back to it being one of the first two American digest magazines I picked up;1 part of it is probably the mix of fiction (SF, fantasy and horror all appear). There is also the fact that it has probably been the most consistent magazine to ever appear in the field: over nearly seventy years it has looked and ‘felt’ the same,2 and apart from one very early title change (this first issue was actually The Magazine of Fantasy) has called itself by the same name.3
So, because of its place in my heart, I always wanted to go back to the very first issue and read through the entire run (or at least until the early seventies). Here is the first instalment of that project.
For all the magazine’s elegance through the years this first front cover by Bill Stone is ghastly: it is a photo of some starlet with a monster sitting on her shoulders. The latter, presumably painted onto the photo, looks like it has escaped from a children’s book, and emphatically does not set the tone for a more literary SF magazine. Inside this digest-sized magazine the title page looks recognisable to any long time reader. Following this there is a general purpose introduction by the publisher Lawrence E. Spivak, in which he states there is ‘no formula’. There are also short introductions to the stories themselves by the editors Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas—a F&SF hallmark—but some of these are of the rather irritating ‘this is one of the best three horror stories ever’ type, which usually sets up a story to underwhelm.
Moving smartly on to the fiction, this comprises eleven stories and they can be broadly broken down into three groups.
First, there are those that can be loosely collected as modern fantasy. Cleve Cartmill’s Bells on His Toes4 has a police sergeant from the Bunco (fraud) squad investigate a strange cult and subsequently music plays around him. The music is appropriate to the situation, e.g. ‘Happy Days Are Here Again!’, and matters develop romantically from there. Pleasant enough light fantasy but the music referenced will now be largely unknown to most readers and the ending isn’t the strongest.
Phillip MacDonald’s Private—Keep Out! takes some time to get going with its story of a man investigating another who has ‘unbecome’. Predictable ending but notable for the volume of drinking done by the characters. I would wager this one was written shortly before Happy Hour. Review Copy by H. H. Holmes (Anthony Boucher) has a promising start to its story of a badly reviewed writer using blood witchcraft to wreak his revenge on the reviewer but has a weak ending.
A Bride for the Devil by Stuart Palmer is a well told but terminally straightforward story about a rich woman and acquaintances summoning the devil.
Finally, Perseus Had a Helmet (Argosy, February 5th, 1938) by Richard Sale is a readable pulp whodunit about a man who finds he has a helmet of invisibility, like Persus in the Greek myth, and who decides to settle a score in an affair of the heart. This last is one of five reprints, the start of a rewarding tradition for F&SF that would print much good work in the future.
The second group are a number of older reprints, mostly horror. Perceval Landon’s Thurnley Abbey (McClure’s Magazine, 1907) is a tale of an apparition in a country house. The structure is one where the first few pages are used to set up the story as a tale told to the narrator, and then the supernatural encounter happens. This structure has always struck me as rather too straightforward and this is no exception.
Fitz-James O’Brien’s The Lost Room (Harper’s, September 1858) starts off with a man describing his rented room at some length, only to go down to the garden where he has a strange encounter with a guest. On returning he finds a fantastic feast in progress. Best read for the atmosphere and writing.
Guy Endore’s Men of Iron (The Black and White Press, 1940) is a rather unconvincing short tale about a man being replaced with new, efficient machine. It ends with the death of the former and the latter uprooting itself and going to his home.
Lastly, Oliver Onions’ Rooum (The Fortnightly Review, December 1910) is a well told tale of a man who appears to have a man from another reality who periodically ‘runs’ through him, but it has a confusing last half page that I did not understand.
The final group comprises two SF stories. Theodore Sturgeon contributes The Hurkle is a Happy Beast wherein an alien gets transported to Earth by a matter transmitter. No particular plot complications and a rather cutesy tone work against it.
Winona McClintic’s In the Days of Our Fathers is the first in a handful of F&SF stories by this writer/poet and a perplexing one about a young girl in the future discovering a strange manuscript authored by her uncle. I have no idea what this is about, even after a second reading. It vaguely reminded me of some of the more incomprehensible stories that could be found in Orbit or the late-sixties New Worlds, so ahead of its time at least. Joking apart, I have had people say to me that they liked the story when it first appeared because nothing was made clear but perhaps only hinted at—quite a change from the considerably more straightforward work appearing at that time.
Overall, a decidedly average bunch of stories and a disappointing start. The best thing is probably the reprint cartoon (another great F&SF tradition) on p.122.
- The first SF mag I bought was Science Fiction Monthly (November, 1975), the large-size poster mag. The first digests I bought—picked up regularly from a newsagent between the bus stop I got off at and my school—were the July 1976 issues of F&SF and Analog, both wearing lovely Rick Sternbach covers. Eventually I came to prefer F&SF, although Analog ran it a close second for the first few issues with its Robert Silverberg serial Shadrach in the Furnace. Galaxy appeared from the local distributors, after a second request, in April ’77 by which time I’d missed Pohl’s Gateway and a lot of John Varley.
- As the new editor C. C. Finlay noted, in his first editorial in 2015, F&SF has always looked pretty much the same through all its redesigns. At the very least you can spot the DNA.
- Unlike Astounding (Analog), unlike Science Fantasy (Impulse/SF Impulse), unlike… you get the idea. The history of F&SF’s title change, the decision to include SF and much else about the gestation of the magazine can be found in The Eureka Years: Boucher and McComas’s Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 1949 to 1954 by Annette Peltz McComas p.6-26
- Will Murray’s article The Unknown Unknown shows Cartmill’s story had been accepted by John Campbell for Unknown some years earlier but did not appear before that magazine folded.