Before The Deluge
by J. Carter
Editor's Note: The United Amateur Press Association mailing of October 1911 contains this piece. Although we believe that we know well the history of our genre and the fandom it has inspired, obviously there is still research to be done.
The teeming streets of Lower Manhattan were notable primarily for the squalor exhibited there. Inhabited to a large degree by recent immigrants from the less cultivated outbacks of Europe, the Bowery may have seemed an odd choice as the place to hold The Third Annual Conference for Fanciers of Works of Scientific Romance, or LowEastCon as it was abbreviated (and by some wags, even more tersely put as LeastCon), but it may have been appropriate. The future, it appears, is being brought to us quickly at the bottom right of the Island of Manhattoes -- a future based on large scale movement of populations from their homes to other shores where a great commingling of such extremely diverse cultures as Italian and Greek, Bavarian and Tyrolean, even Russian and Jewish, will meld itself into something new and different sheerly by force of proximity. Still, as one looked about at this particular mass of wretched, teeming refuse, tired, poor, and hungry, it was difficult to see the Eloi amongst them and all too easy to see a future of Morlocks dominating the isle.
My presence at the conference was due to the fortuitous placement of a small advertisement in Adventure Magazine and the summer break from studies at Yale which afforded me a weekend free. "Admirers of Garrett P Serviss" read the advertisement in Adventure, "Munchhausen merry makers and readers of the works of Wells and Verne. Join together with fellow enthusiasts of these works of imagination for The Third Annual Conference for Fanciers of Works of Scientific Romance, August 11-13, 1911. Attending membership 35 cents." As I had just completed reading Mr. Serviss's excellent story The Second Deluge and Mr. Wells's The War In The Air, the ad caught my attention and I thought I must go. Now that I was seeing how less than salubrious the setting for the conference was, I was having second thoughts but the idea of meeting fellow enthusiasts overcame my nervousness. For years now. since first sending my subscription money in to Adventure, All Story Weekly, and Argosy, I had grown used to the derision of elders and contemporaries. A regular Mr. Polly, I was called, in reference to one of Wells's books that was looked upon with greater favor than my own choices of The War Of The Worlds and The Time Machine. Prior to leaving home in Boston for New Haven's rooming houses, I had amassed quite a collection of these works of imagination. Serviss's Edison's Conquest Of Mars and A Columbus Of Space, a Belgian edition of The War Of The Worlds illustrated by a mad Brazilian, a nearly complete series of New Golden Hours from March 30 to May 18, 1901 serializing J. Weldon Cobb's To Mars With Tesla (I lack the May 4 issue if anyone reading this has a spare copy), and a first English edition of Verne's Off On A Comet are among my most prized possessions. My interest in this type of fiction was first piqued at the age of eleven when I happened across an old copy of Boys of New York featuring the tale of Frank Reade, Jr. and the Electric Horse. While the story now seems preposterous, it caught my youthful fancy and in the eight years since I have sought out these tales of technology and space and time travel and unknown lands with an undiminished fervor. At last, I thought, I will meet with others who are similarly obsessed.
By contrast to the tenements seen on the blocks just to the north, the hotel was airy and pleasant. For 50 cents a night I acquired a small, but clean room with a bath just three doors down the hall. The room itself provided a washbasin, towel, and chamber pot. I could certainly understand now why the organizers had chosen this unprepossessing location -- a similar room uptown would have been at least 85 cents! A hand-lettered sign posted on the wall of the self-operating elevator indicated that registration was being done in the conference suite on the 8th floor of the hotel.
The conference suite was a large room filled with a large number of fanciers chatting up a storm. It was a very modern room which included a telephone and its own water closet. There was a large keg of beer available for the attendees and ample bakelight tumblers to hold the beverage. A small table was set up with a cash box and a sign saying "Registration" so I made my way across to it, paid my 35 cents, and received a card on which to print my name, John Carter, and a mimeographed conference schedule. For this Friday evening, the conference schedule consisted solely of "Conference Suite Open 6 p.m. till 1 a.m."
Being six feet two inches tall, I had little difficulty surveying the suite. The first order of business was to get a beer and I joined the short line to get to the pump. "John Carter, eh?" said a short, frizzy-haired, man of about thirty-three standing behind me in line. "Is this your first conference? I've been to all of them. Izzy Bergman, that's me. Number one fancier. The conference last year in Trenton was a bit of a let down. Glad they moved it back to New York this year. At least I can have a room I can call my own!" I was a bit non-plussed, I will admit, by this character's forwardness and by the implication that the hotel allowed Jews, but I pride myself on being broad-minded and certainly, other than his name and hair, there was little manifestation of a foreign faith in Bergman's appearance. I shook the hand he proffered and acknowledged that indeed this was my first conference and, in fact, I had not known that there were such things, but my interest in scientific romances was all-consuming. "A Frosh, yeah?" said Izzy. "Bet you're all Gee-willikers-boy-howdy-jumping-jehosophat! We all start out like that. Here let me pour you a beer."
While my new found friend, for such I was sure he was, manned the pump, I surveyed the room. There were about 40 people crowded in, mostly men between late teens and early middle-age, with a few women who, I assumed, were wives of some of the men. Izzy handed me a tumbler full of ale and guided me away from the crowd near the keg and toward an intense looking young man in a woolen Navy jacket. "John," said Izzy, "good to see you again. John Carter, meet John Griffith." I'm afraid I goggled at this introduction for here before me was the author of Before Adam and The Iron Heel. "Gosh, Mr. London," I stammered feeling somewhat embarrassed by being so tongue-tied, "I'm a huge fancier of your work." He looked at me with a fierceness hard to describe. "I do not care about being fancied," he declared. "My work is there for the sole purpose of promoting international socialism and solidarity among workers of all nations. I do not seek to entertain." Sometimes it is hard to meet those one admires so assiduously. "Nevertheless," I told him, even as I flushed
from my boldness, "the work is entertaining and its message
may be more easily digested by its sweet wrapping." Izzy
smiled at this and so, I am glad to report, did Griffith. In a
short time we were three old chums fervently discussing
Griffith's idea for a new novel, or series of connected stories,
about a man able to achieve interstellar travel through a trance
induced by torture. "I plan to call it Straitjacket To Space!"
said Griffith and I, happy now with my fourth beer in hand,
said with a laugh, "But that's an awful title! Why not something
like The Star Rover?"
As the evening wore on I met others and ended up, how
I don't quite recall, seated in the corner of the room with a young
woman named Minnie in my lap tracing figures with her delight-
ful fingers on my shirt. As the time came for the suite to close
Minnie asked what I thought of Emma Goldman and her theories
of free love. "I'm all in favor of them," she purred into my ear.
Now I had, of course, had some experience of sex before this
(although never with another person, I must admit), but I was
certainly game for more and so we returned to my room for an
episode on which the door will be discretely closed.
Saturday morning dawned for me a bit after noon. I was
alone in the room and my head pounded like an old kettle drum
while the interior of my mouth felt like it had grown a large covering
of moss which had dried out and died overnight. I lurched over to
the washbasin, poured water from the pitcher, and doused my face.
After about ten minutes of ablutions and a few swallows of water, I felt capable of getting dressed and heading back to the conference, The schedule showed the panel "The Twentieth Century -- Is Utopia At Hand" was just starting and I made my way down to it.
The panelists were all agreed that the future looked promising. War was not going to be possible as workers of all nations joined in solidarity and refused to fight their brothers. Wells' The War In The Air was an obvious impossibility as, even if there were a war, nobody, certainly no government, would be so insane and reckless as to drop bombs from aeroplanes. The war in South Africa had shown that the future would consist of several large empires bringing the benefits of civilization to the most benighted areas of the globe, even as it had been brought to the American West over the past half century. One questioner wondered if the empires might be as tenuous as Bolivar's had been, but these qualms were easily dismissed by the panel, who thought that technical progress was now giving way to social progress and indeed a new age was upon us. I left feeling good about the world I would be living in once my studies at Yale were complete. Especially about the amazing energy independence that was about to become a reality thanks to Mr. Tesla. It seems that he has discovered a way in which to beam unlimited amounts of electrical power through the air itself and which can be tapped into using a small device. Undoubtedly this invention will be the locomotive force for all trains and airships and ships at sea by the end of the decade.
After the panel I found Izzy and Minnie and we went for a bite to eat. Izzy knew the neighborhood well and took us to a restaurant featuring foods I had never encountered before with odd names like "blintzes" and "knishes" and "lox". It was good, though a trifle well-seasoned for my taste. As we walked back we spotted a nickelodeon and Minnie insisted we should go. They showed a reel of Little Egypt taken at the Chicago fair which had all of the men in the audience (and Minnie too) whistling and clapping. Personally, I preferred Edison's Frankenstein with its compelling story line of life, artifice, and chemistry. Disappointing, however, was A Trip To Mars from the same company. This short fable entirely failed to grasp the wonder of travel through the aether.
Back at the hotel I took the opportunity to browse through the dealer's room. It's a pity that my finances precluded me from purchasing everything available. Back issues of Argosy and All Story were plentiful but prices began at 15 cents and the best issues could reach as high as 75 cents! One table had a fair backlog of Boys of New York but not that elusive May 4 issue. At one table a young émigré from Luxembourg named Hugo was touting his new magazine, Modern Electrics, and an organization called the Wireless Association of America. He also had a book with a title I can't remember save that it had a lot of numbers in it. I had the distinct impression that this man was somebody we would hear more about in the future. One table featured large hardcover books reprinting, in full color, The Yellow Kid and The Katzenjammer Kids. I couldn't . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"Many many years ago, before the invention of eruptions,
molten lava had to be carried down the mountainside,
bucket by bucket, and poured over the sleeping villagers.
This took time"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
for the life of me see why anyone would want to waste
their money on mere funny papers but I guess there is a
market for everything. Disappointingly, there was not
an overwhelming number of scientific romances (or
STFR as I learned the fanciers preferred to call them) --
they were there in plenty to be sure, but in many tables
they were drowned out by the volume of adventure tales
by the likes of H. Rider Haggard. One dealer persistently
tried to sell me a copy of Mark Twain's A Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court which, of course, is mere
fantasy with nothing in the way of scientific background
in it at all. Still, I did come out three dollars poorer with
a bag full of Wells and Verne that I did not already have
The costume show that evening was one of the
highlights of the convention. One audacious group re-
enacted the opening of the first canister in The War Of
The Worlds and the Martian that peered out was so
convincing that it drew a loud gasp from the audience
which arose in a spontaneous standing ovation as the heat
ray was raised and a brilliant light flashed out momentarily blinding us all and allowing the actors who were approaching the infernal device to quickly enshroud themselves in sheets that looked amazingly like ash. Minnie, too, got a standing ovation for her interpretation of Little Egypt's dance. Well, it's not STFR but I liked it too.
That evening I was introduced to Garrett P Serviss in the conference suite. Mr. Serviss does not consider himself an STFR writer but he id still a favorite of the fanciers thanks to his forays into the field which are all top-notch. I think I had too much to drink at the party this night for Sunday dawned and I found myself in a strange room lying next to a stranger and Minnie. I don't recall getting there but my friends must have helped me.
As I stood, a bit wobbly, and stretched, the other fellow on the bed looked up. He was in his mid thirties with a well-groomed appearance and the ineffable sad eyes of a man who feels himself a failure. "Good morning," he said, "I'm Ed. From Chicago." He looked me over. "My," he breathed, "you're a fine specimen of manhood, aren't you? Those regular features and closely cropped black hair, the broad shoulders and narrow hips, but most of all the steel gray eyes reflecting a strong and loyal character, all combine to make you a great pulp adventure hero, John Carter."
"I prefer scientific romances," I replied, embarrassed by his effusiveness and the piercing gaze sent in my direction, "and the company of Minnie."
As I spoke her name, Minnie stirred and stretched and stood. She leaned over and gave Ed a passionate kiss on the lips. Then she came over and gave me the same. Next she clapped her hands, whirled around, grabbed Ed by the hand and pulled him to his feet, clapped again, and squealed "William Tell". With that she stepped over to the wall, produced an apple, and balanced it on her pretty little head. Meanwhile, Ed stepped over to the far side of the room and produced a large Colt Peacemaker with a twelve inch barrel. I twitched, aghast, as Ed raised the weapon, took his sighting and squeezed the trigger. A deafening "Barsoom!" echoed from the room and Millie collapsed to the floor. "Minnie!" I cried, and suddenly was beside her. "Oh, Minnie, what has he done?" She began to giggle. "Ed's a crack shot, John. He never misses." She showed me the shattered remains of the apple scattered about the carpet. I thought it a scary stunt, though, and wondered how Ed would explain the bullet hole in the plaster of the wall.
The rest of Sunday was a quiet day. I was hungover and had to catch the train back to New Haven at 3:00. I fell into conversation with a long faced fellow named Howard, a fellow New Englander, who convinced me that the Amateur Press Association was the best way to keep in touch with like-minded people. The near instantaneous feedback, he claimed, would be both gratifying and lead to improved writing ability quickly and near effortlessly. Hence this report for UAPA. I lunched with Howard who was full of strange stories of what the universe was like before man and how there were undoubtedly other races in the stars whose appurtenance we would find appalling and who cared little for the human race and our ambitions, as little as a man can care about an anthill he disturbs. Following the optimism of the previous day's panel, I found Howard to be gloomy and disturbing, but more than a little compelling. He gave me a small volume of his poems to read on the train ride home; I can't help but feel, though, that his real medium should be the story, not the poem.
The time came to head to the train station. I looked in vain for Izzy and Minnie to bid them farewell. A shame that I missed them but I am sure I will see them next year in Philadelphia.
Editors' Note -- It is not known if the Fourth Conference in Philadelphia was ever held. Like the first in Brooklyn and the second in Trenton, no record has been found of the conference. Indeed, except for the foregoing, found serendipitously tucked into a first edition of The Second Deluge obtained on eBay, no other record of this third conference is known. Perusal of all available issues of Adventure Magazine from 1911 have not revealed the small ad that Carter refers to; presumably it was another magazine that the author read.
John Carter himself disappears from records shortly after this dispatch. Hid first two years at Yale showed a promising student earning primarily As and Bs in his chosen subject of Chemistry. The third year transcripts, the 1911-1912 school year, shows a dramatic decline in grades with only a few Cs offsetting the majority of Ds received. Notes in the Yale Journal from 1913 seem to imply that Carter had started passing himself off as a Virginian and was intent on heading west to Arizona where he believed a huge treasure was waiting to be found. No trace of him can be found beyond that.
Data entry by Judy Bemis
Hard copy provided by Geri Sullivan
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