Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, January 3, 2020


It was with the second issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (dated Winter-Spring 1950) that the astute and literate editors of that magazine -- Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas -- began a book review column.  (The first issue, dated Fall 1949, was born simply as The Magazine of Fantasy and was a trial flyer for the publication; it was a success and spawned the then-quarterly publication and expanding the title.)  The first book review column, "Recommended Reading," provided a look at what the editors felt were the best books of 1949:

  • Fredric Brown, What Mad Universe.  "Announced as the first of Dutton's science fiction list.  there could be no happier beginning than this blend of humor, logic, terror and satire..."  Also recommended is Jack Williamson's The Humanoids.
  • S. Fowler Wright, The World Below.  "The year's most notable science fiction reissue, and high time, too.  Proving the s-f adventure romance can also offer sociological criticism, spiritual stimulation and satire of high order."  The reissue of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall also received high praise.
  • Theodore Sturgeon, Without Sorcery.  "A striking volume of science fiction short stories (with a little of the supernatural thrown in) which combines ingenious concepts with humor, humanity and sheer good writing."  Two other collections were recommended:  Stanley G. Weinbaum's A Martian Odyssey and Others and Sprague de Camp's The Wheels of If and Other Science-Fiction.
  • Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty, editors, The Best Science Fiction Stories:  1949.  "The finest of the year's science fiction anthologies, including distinguished stories by Leinster, Bradbury and Shiras, and nine others nearly as good."  Other top anthologies were August Derleth's The Other Side of the Moon and Orson Welles' Invasion from Mars.
  • Chesley Bonestell & Willy Ley, The Conquest of Space.  "At once the most beautiful and most informative (and startlingly inexpensive) volume of factual material vital to the science fiction reader..."  H. Spencer Jones' Life on Other Worlds and J. W. Dunne's Experiment with Time also made the nonfiction cut.
  • Louis Golding, Honey for the Ghost.  "The year's only notable new supernatural novel, which begins with infinite leisure but builds to an incomparable climatic terror of devil-worship and possession."
  • James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.  "Re-issue of this forgotten classic by the eccentric protege of of Sir Walter Scott, originally published in 1824, is a major event of the publishing year.  This terrifying picture of the devil's subtle conquest of a self-righteous man  is a masterpiece of the supernatural."
  • Leon Edel, editor, The Ghostly Tales of Henry James.  "Eighteen magnificently conceived and executed episodes, admirably edited, establish James as one of America's foremost, if most neglected, masters of fantasy."  Also singled out are Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Sir Andrew Caldecott's Fires Burn Blue.
  • James Reynolds, Gallery of Ghosts.  "A lavishly illustrated and sumptuously produced volume of non-fiction ghost stories, wise in its choice of unfamiliar ghosts who were interesting even  before death."  Also recommended for those interested in "supposed facts":  Arthur Edward Waite's "argumentative" translation of Eliphas Levi's The History of Magic.
The Summer 1950 issue brought reviews of the editors' choices for the best of early 1950:
  • Robert A Heinlein, Sixth Column and Waldo and Magic, Inc.  "This revised and expanded version of "Sixth Column" is Heinlein at his best, an all-around model for writers of science fiction.  Reprinted in its original magazine version, "Waldo," while being his best concept, illustrates the basic weakness in most of Heinlein's work, a tendency to rush the ending and to shirk the final developments...The mad, merry mixture of black magics and politics, "Magic, Inc.," should have been expanded also.  Still, as is, is a better job of planning and execution, although not top fantasy."  Bernard Newman's "agreeable thriller," The Flying Saucer is "hardly realistic" in its political implications, while Isaac Asimov's Pebble in the Sky, while containing good ideas, disappoints in its heavy treatment and routine plot.
  • S. Fowler Wright, The Throne of Saturn.  The first American  of twelve superb stories of a future in which the new gods led man into strange scientific and sociological bypaths..."  Also of interest might be The Collected Tales of Walter de la Mare, although the editors frankly admit author's "self-conciously subtle wordiness unreadable."
  • Judith Merril, editor, Shot in the Dark.  "This widely ranging anthology, mostly of science fiction but with a few supernatural stories, is so deftly and tastefully chosen that we doubt that better value for money has ever been offered to enthusiasts..."  Groff Conklin's  The Science Fiction Galaxy "stresses scientific rather than literary values."
  • Anthony West, The Vintage.  "...A brilliantly terrifying exploration of the theme that each age creates its own peculiar species of hell and Devil."  Eric Hatch's The Beautiful Bequest is a fantasy "with the zestful appeal of a good novel from the lamented Unknown."
  • E. M. Butler, Ritual Magic.  'this inexhaustible treasurehouse of necromantic and nigromantic fact is richer in plot ideas than any dozen supernatural anthologies..."  Also of interest are Edward Rowe Snow's Strange Tales from Nova Scotia to Hatteras and Harry R. Warfel's Charles Brockden Brown:  American Gothic Novelist.
In the Fall 1950 issue, the editor's laud Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles as "the oustanding event of the publishing season to date."  Other books covered:
  • Fritz Leiber, Gather, Darkness!  "One of the most imaginative and compelling magazine serials seems even better on re-reading in book form."   Valentine Davies' It Happens Every Spring is as "delightfully absurd" as the movie on which it was based, and Frank Norris' Nutro 29 is "a perceptive and penetrating satire -- if drawn out to almost unbearable length."
  • Andre Maurois' The Maurois Reader and Robert Graves' Occupation:  Writer are "so equal in merit , it is difficult to determine an absolute top-notcher."  Each of these assemblages contain sample of excellent fantasy and science fiction.
  • August Derleth, editor,  Beyond Time and Space.  The editor "has succeeded admirably in his attempt to 'glance backward over the stream of science fiction."  Less literary but highly recommended is Martin Greenberg's anthology Men Against the Stars.
  • Three books vie evenly for best fantasy of the period covered.  Eric Linklater's A Spell for Old Bones is a "satiric epic of First Century Scotland complete with giants, battles, sex, humor and an Elizabethan amplitude or wording and color."  Helen McCloy's Through a Glass, Darkly, while "nominally a detective an eerie study in the phenomenon of the Doppleganger, fetch, or phantom double."  Charles Williams' The Greater Trumps is "one of the most stirring and vivid works of the late mystical melodramatist, rich in triumphs..."  A fourth book is nearly as good; Sylvia Dee's Dear Guest and Ghost, a charmingly absurd picture of a pleasant ghost's relations with a Staten Island family."
  • Delia Goetz & Sylvanus G. Morley's translation of the anonymously written Popul Vum (circa 1555), describing Mayan traditions, "proves to be one of the most fascinating and skillfully told fantasy narratives in all folk literature."  Boucher and McComas want nothing to do with "the extremes of facile gullibility and and scientific dogmatism that have characterized the two sides of the controversy raging around" Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision.
  • Talbot Mundy, The Devil's Guard.  "Mundy mated high adventure with a sincere and deeply understood occultism and rich, slightly larger than life characterizations in a manner matched by no one since Rider Haggard."  Also reissued are Mundy's posthumous Old Ugly-Face and his "non-fiction essay on mysticism thought and practice, Sunrise.
  • Donald Keyhoe, The Flying Saucers are Real.  "Cogent, intelligent and persuasive...deserving more serious attention than most four-dollar hardcovers.  This is your must of the month."
The December 1950 "Recommended Reading" begins with a plea to publishers not publish books that do not meet at least the lowest possible magazine standards.  Also, as part of their complaint, publishers should indicate that volumes of short stories are such and no disguised as novels.  With that gripe over, we move on to recommendations:
  • Judith Merril, Shadow on the Hearth.  "A sensitively human novel, terrifying in its small-scale reflection of a grand-scale catastrophe."  Willliam Gray Beyer's Minions of the Moon is conventional, "but told with a fine blend of high romantic adventure and lively absurdity."
  • Donald A. Wollheim, editor, Flight Into Space. "An anthology so neatly constructed and well annotated...that one wishes the writing, story after story, were up to the overall editing."  
  • L. Sprague de Camp, The Incomplete Enchanter and The Castle of Iron.  "The last is in plot the much weakest of the two; but the whole series marks a high-point in the application of sternest intellectual logic to screwball fantasy."
  • Mary Griffith, Three Hundred Years Hence.  "The second in a notable series of reprints of early American Utopian novels -- and an odd and delightful item of 1836 dealing  with a strongly feminist future, and even more valuable to the collector and connoisseur than Prime's earlier edition of the anonymous 1802 Equality.
The 1950 columns offer a wide range of options for the science fiction and fantasy fan, some of which have gained a classic reputation in the field, while others, perhaps, should have.  Looking back, I see I have read twenty of these titles from seventy years ago.  I really should get caught up on some of the others.

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