...."This is really a slightly fictionalised account of an actual event and might be more appropriately under some other category than essays." --WAW, in a letter. So it might, but mainly it serves to describe some of the problems of the novice fan-historian in an encounter with the Mundane World.....
(from Fantastic Worlds #1, Summer, 1952)
ONE DAY, IN HIS ceaseless combing of the second-hand bookshops of Belfast, my friend and co-editor James White was rewarded by the discovery of a 1935 issue of Wonder Stories. Concealing his emotion as best he could, he bought it from the trusting dealer for merely six times its face value and hurried home in triumph, reading as he went. Like any true fan he turned first to the readers' departments, and there, in faded grey and yellow was the startling intelligence that a Chapter of the Science Fiction League had been formed in Belfast under one Hugh Carswell. His address was given, and with a thrill James realised it was no more than a short walk from where he now stood rooted to the pavement. Inspired by Moskowitz's Immortal Storm, James immediately decided to track down this hitherto unknown founder of Irish Fandom.
The address was one of a long row of identical houses in a working-class street. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman with a truculent expression.
"Mr. Carswell?" 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 and wears heavy round glasses which make him look like an electronic brain in its walking-out clothes. She contented herself with gradually reducing the width of the aperture until she was in danger of cutting her head off.
"Which Mr. Carswell?" she asked warily. "Hugh," said James.
She reddened, insulted.
"What do you mean, me?" she enquired angrily.
Her moustach bristled. She was hurt.
"Not you," said James hastily.
He gave her an aspirate to remove the pain.
"Hhhugh. Hugh Carswell."
Malevolently she siezed her opportunity for further obstruction.
"Which Hugh Carswell?"
Now, I have the 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 would have cased the joint first. I would have looked up the house in the street directory to make sure the Carswells were still there after 17 years. Then I would have looked up the Register of Electors to see the names of all the people in the house who were of voting age. Finally I would have walked past the house a few times and then had a pint in the nearest pub and seen what dirt I could dig up. Such intelligent preparation and brilliant detective work wouldn't have made the slightest difference, of course, but it would have been fun.
"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. Obviously, she was waiting for him to say something intelligible. She didn't seem to think there was much hope.
"Signs Fixin'?" she asked. "What signs?"
Faced with the task of giving a short definition of science fiction, James quailed. It was a pity he hadn't been studying his Campbell carefully enough, or he could have said: "You know -- fictional extrapolation from current or potential psychical or technological development." If he had, I venture to say he would have remained master of the situation.
As it was, James could only fall back on his copy of the 1935 Wonder Stories. He started to open his coat so that he could draw the magazine out of his large pocket from the inside rather than drag it through the smaller outer opening. Even in the direst of emergencies, James is very careful with magazines.
As he undid the buttons, the woman looked at him with the expression of a cover girl on True Detective I don't know whether she thought he was going to strangle her or what -- probably what -- but she had her mouth lined up for screaming when he produced the magazine.
This anti-climax took her breath away, and she waited while James opened the magazine and began to search hurridly for Hugh Cartwheel's name. Of course, he couldn't find it. James is very shortsighted. He is the only fan who leaves nosetracks between his eyetracks. After reading a fanzine he has enough mimeograph ink on his nose to run off another copy. And news about the SFL never hit the front pages of Wonder. As a matter of fact, it was usually concealed among the advertisements, and this was where James finally ran it to earth.
Now James is a very high-minded character, and not only in the sense that his head is usually surrounded by cirrus clouds; and he is very fond of science fiction. The result is that he has arrived at the stage where the advertisements in science fiction simply do not exist for him. He probably knows vaguely that there is something on the parts of the page that aren't devoted to the fan departments, but I don't believe he could for the life of him tell you what it is. So it was quite natural for him merely to pass her the magazine open at the correct page.
The woman started reading, speaking aloud.
"RUPTURED?" she read, "THROW AWAY THAT TRUSS!" "No, no" said James, Aghast. "Further down."
She gave him a peculiar look and started reading lower down.
"SEX FULFILMENT!" she read mechanically. "Love life ... normal sex relations ... frustrations ... anatomy ... problems ... full diagrams ... outspoken ... medical profession ... plain wrappers ..."
She stopped, horrified. Her worst suspicions were confirmed. She tried to back away and close the door. Since her head was still outside, she succeeded only in elongating her neck a full six inches. This was fortunate for James, because it delayed the delivery of her scream long enough for him to disclaim all responsibility for the advertisement, and to wave the cover in her face. It was a pleasant little painting, showing a few cubic miles of futuristic machinery and a couple of thousand terrified human beings being devoured by tentacled monstrosities. The idyllic charm seemed to have a quieting effect on her.
"Oh, you mean our Hughie," she said. "he used to read them books."
"Is he here?" asked James.
"Well, where is he?"
"He's away," she replied defensively.
"Where?" asked James, not noticing the warning signs.
She gave him a hostile look, this time more of hate than of fear.
It started at his head, and after some time arrived at his feet. James' feet are rather big. Suddenly James realised that this was Belfast, where there are other organisations besides the SFL -- the IRA for example -- and that some of them do not take kindly to strangers who ask questions about their members.
He looked down the street. A number of lean, hungry-looking men seemed suddenly to have manifested themselves, huddling against walls and obviously not looking at James. They had their hands in their jacket pockets, where they seemed to be holding something. They didn't look like pipe-smokers.
James quickly tried to explain that he was only interested in magazines. One of the men caught the word "magazines" and jerked his head toward another man down the street.
"Them books," said the woman, with all the scorn of a rabid non-fan. "Hughie doesn't read them things anymore."
Her tone implied that no grown man would, and that the police were adding insult to injury.
James took another look down the street. One of the lean men was lounging at the near corner, looking up and down the road. Another was walking quietly towards the other end. They seemed to draw closer, menacingly, like James Mason in spy movies. James decided he had better go. But the instinct of the true collector was still stronger than the will to survive.
"Did Hughie leave any of them ... those books?" he asked.
But he was already walking away. He knew what the answer would be. He'd been through this, many times. True enough, the ritual answer came, in the time-honored words with which collectors all over the world wake screaming:
"Oh, there were hundreds of them in the attic, but they were threw out last week. If you'd only come then......"
So James had hardly bothered waiting, and was already striding past the look-out man. He gained the safety of the main road with a second to spare, otherwise this account of our researches into the history of Irish Fandom would have been even shorter.
We often wonder -- did Moskowitz ever have trouble like this?
Data entry by Judy Bemis