Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

The JungleThe Book of the Week is the first edition of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This book was published exactly 100 years ago by Sinclair's own Jungle Publishing Company. The Jungle was by far the most successful and important of Upton Sinclair's 90+ books. While the socialist state Sinclair tried to promote in The Jungle did not come to pass, the book's nauseating depiction of meat packing plants was instrumental in prompting the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act, important precedents for government oversight of the economy. (Ironically, it was the major meat packers who lobbied for these acts, hoping to counteract the huge drop-off in sales they experienced after The Jungle came out. Sinclair opposed the legislation.)

The Jungle was at first turned down by several publishers put off by its harsh tone ("One feels that what is at the bottom of his fierceness is not nearly so much desire to help the poor as hatred of the rich," said one internal memo at Macmillan), so Sinclair decided to publish it himself. Sinclair received some 5,000 prepaid orders, which allowed him to cover the costs of printing The Jungle himself and also prompted it to be picked up by Doubleday, for whom it quickly became a runaway bestseller. The initial print run by the Jungle Publishing Company included the copies sent to those who made the prepaid orders, with a sticker thanking them for making it possible to publish the book. The Book of the Week does not have this "Sustainer's Edition" label, but has all other points of the first state of the first edition rather than the Doubleday second state: Jungle Publishing and not Doubleday is listed as the publisher on the spine; the cover shows the clasped hands socialist emblem, which was removed from the Doubleday edition; and there is no printer's error on the copyright page as there is in the second state.

First state first editions of The Jungle in fine condition regularly sell for several hundred dollars. The Book of the Week is nowhere near fine condition, with frayed boards, loose hinges and a badly faded cover (you can barely make out the cover image of a smoky factory); still, it is worth plenty more than the two dollars I paid for it. I found this book at a recent sale by a local used bookshop (Books Unlimited on Colorado Boulevard in Denver), which took advantage of a vacancy next door to clear out the books wasting away in boxes in its warehouse. They had two large rooms filled with utter crap, with a couple gems hiding underneath the crap, including this first edition of The Jungle. (The other gem I found will be next week's Book of the Week.)

Such needle-in-a-haystack finds are what bibliophiles like me live for. This is more than a little irrational. I will never read this copy of The Jungle, and if I did, I would find it has all the same words as the copies sitting on the shelves of the Barnes & Noble across the street. This copy is certainly more valuable than those, but since I will never sell it, so what? The best explanation I can give is, if you have a passion for books, dusty old used book stores are sort of like an endless Easter Egg hunt for adults.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Weird Tales September 1937

Weird Tales September 1937The Magazine of the Week is the September 1937 issue of Weird Tales, with cover art by legendary pulp illustrator Margaret Brundage. Margaret Brundage was a Chicago housewife who delighted in pushing the limits of the time with her racy covers for Weird Tales. This particular cover illustrates the story "Satan's Palimpsest" by Seabury Quinn. Seabury Quinn was by no means the best of the Weird Tales authors (although his Jules de Grandin supernatural mystery stories were popular at the time), yet he consistently managed to get his stories on the cover. His secret? He made sure each of his stories had at least one nude scene.

During the 1930's, Weird Tales boasted a tremendous array of talented authors, including in particular Robert E. Howard, discussed last week, and hugely influential horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The September 1937 issue is a good example of the wealth of talent writing for Weird Tales in the 1930's. In addition to Howard and Lovecraft, the issue includes work by such excellent authors as August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, Edmond Hamilton, Manly Wade Wellman, and Henry Kuttner.

But from its peak in the mid- to late 1930's, Weird Tales suddenly went into a tailspin. The magazine remained in print through 1954 (and there have been several attempts to resurrect it since then), but Weird Tales never regained its form after the 1930's. The cause of the magazine's sudden decline was the untimely deaths of its editor and its two best writers. In 1936, depressed by his mother's illness, Robert E. Howard committed suicide at the age of only 30. H.P. Lovecraft died of cancer at 46 the next year, and Farnsworth Wright succumbed to Parkinson's disease in 1940. After their deaths, science fiction became the dominant form of fantastic literature, and fantasy and horror largely went into hibernation until J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen King came along to resurrect the fields decades later. But how differently things might have gone if Howard and Lovecraft and Wright had lived.

Having surveyed the earliest science fiction and fantasy pulps, we will continue our history of the pulp magazines with some pulps outside of the SF/F genre. But first we'll take a break so I can boast of a couple recent book acquisitions.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Weird Tales December 1935

Weird Tales December 1931The Magazine of the Week is the December 1935 issue of Weird Tales, with cover art by Margaret Brundage.

First published in 1923, Weird Tales consisted mostly of fantasy and horror, along with a smattering of science fiction. By my reckoning, Weird Tales was thus the very first magazine of fantastic literature. Weird Tales struggled for its first two years, and was on the verge of collapse in 1924 when it printed a story called "The Loved Dead," involving necrophilia. Some outraged readers tried to get the magazine banned and ironically, this controversy is said to have boosted circulation enough to allow the magazine to survive its initial financial trouble. Farnsworth Wright then took over as editor in November 1924, and under his direction the magazine became a great success, printing remarkably high quality fiction. Tennessee Williams made his first sale to Weird Tales, and the magazine started the careers of many other authors who remain widely read to this day.

Among those authors was Robert E. Howard, one of the most successful of all the pulp writers and the creator of many popular characters, including Conan the Barbarian. The cover story of the Magazine of the Week is the first installment of The Hour of the Dragon, a novel-length Conan story (later retitled Conan the Conqueror). If you're thinking that this wimpy guy on the cover doesn't look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is a rare instance where Hollywood's rendition is more faithful to the author's intentions -- the Governor is much closer to Howard's description of Conan as a swaggering muscleman. But then, as you can see from this cover, artist Margaret Brundage was always better with sexy women than men. Indeed, one of the secrets to the success of Weird Tales was Brundage's covers featuring half-naked women, or sometimes even fully naked women, as you will see in next week's Magazine of the Week.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Miracle Science and Fantasy Stories June-July 1931

Miracle Science and Fantasy Stories 1931The Magazine of the Week is the June-July 1931 issue of Miracle Science and Fantasy Stories. This was the second and last issue of this magazine. I would tell you about the great significance of Miracle to pulp fiction and to the field of science fiction, but it had none. Indeed, because Miracle was so short-lived, had low circulation, and never printed any stories by any important authors, many collectors have forgotten that it ever existed. But it did, and the proof is sitting in my office.

You have now seen all of the science fiction pulp magazines from the decade after Amazing Stories first appeared in 1926: Amazing, Wonder, Astounding, and Miracle (well, not really, because there were some hero pulps with significant SF elements like Doc Savage and The Secret 6, and there was a British SF magazine called Scoops, but we have to stop somewhere). However, while Amazing Stories was the first science fiction magazine, it was not the first magazine of fantastic literature, which encompasses fantasy and horror in addition to science fiction. Some argue that the first magazine of fantastic literature was Black Cat, which started way back in 1895, or Thrill Book, a short-lived pulp magazine from 1919, but I don't believe either was sufficiently focused on fantasy to qualify. You will see an issue of the first real magazine of fantastic literature next week.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Aaron's Magazine of the Week :: Astounding Science Fiction July 1939

Astounding Science Fiction July 1939The Magazine of the Week is the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Created in 1930, Astounding was the third magazine to enter the science fiction market, and eventually proved the most successful and important. Retitled Analog in 1960, it continues to be the best-selling magazine of science fiction. Wander over to the magazine rack of any major bookstore and you will see the latest issue of Analog magazine, 76 years old and still going strong.

Astounding / Analog became the most important magazine in the field thanks to editor John W. Campbell, Jr., who single-handedly reshaped the genre of science fiction. The quality of writing in the early science fiction pulps was very poor. Like the other SF pulps of the time, between 1930 and 1938, Astounding was largely filled with amateurish work, virtually unreadable to anyone but adolescent boys. That changed after Campbell became Astounding's editor in 1938. (Before that, Campbell had been one of the few competent authors in the genre, best remembered for his classic "Who Goes There?", twice filmed as The Thing.) Campbell insisted on competent writing and believable science. Finding few writers in the field who could meet his standards, he set about molding a generation of new writers who could. Campbell discovered and/or heavily influenced nearly every important science fiction writer of the 1940's and 50's, including in particular Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and A.E. van Vogt. The era that Campbell ushered in is to this day referred to as the "Golden Age" of science fiction.

The Golden Age of science fiction unofficially began with the July 1939 issue of Astounding, our Magazine of the Week. This issue featured the first published story by A.E. van Vogt and the first story in Astounding by Isaac Asimov. The August issue then printed the first published story by Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age was off and running. The van Vogt cover story for the July 1939 issue, "Black Destroyer," was the first of his tales of the crew of the starship Space Beagle, an important inspiration for Gene Roddenberry's creation of Star Trek, as well as the movie Alien (whose producers van Vogt sued for plagiarism). The July 1939 issue also included a story by C.L. Moore, an underappreciated Golden Age author and another of the earliest women to write science fiction.

Beginning in 1939, the Golden Age of science fiction saw dozens of new science fiction magazines come to press. It is sometimes said that before then, between 1926 and 1938, Amazing, Wonder, and Astounding were the only professional science fiction magazines in existence. This is untrue, as you will see next week.