Why I Am a Christian

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Fanthorpe's Fantasies

"Brinton couldn't believe the inscription when he read it in the cold white moonlight. He was looking at his own grave. He tried to read the date but the light wasn't strong enough to be certain. He returned to the graveyard by daylight . . . but the grave had gone.
He left the town in horror, but the grave followed him. He was drawn to burial grounds like iron to a magnet. It was always the same. By moonlight he saw the grave, but never the date. By day he saw nothing. One night he saw the month. Then the day; at least he saw the year. He knew he was due to die in one week. What could he do? Can a man forestall his fate? Can a mortal outwit the dark designs of destiny? Was it all in his mind? Perhaps Roger Brinton was mad? The asylum is warmer than the grave. The day before he was due to die he saw the grave again . . .  the earth was newly turned . . . it was waiting for him!"
    This was the blurb on the back of a paperback I found in a secondhand shop in the 1970s. It drew me in, but when I read it my immediate impression was that it was mediocre. Still, it took some sort of hold on me. I threw away novels by Robert Heinlein and Stephen Donaldson after I had read them, but never that worn paperback by Bron Fane. Also, there were indications inside that a couple of characters formed part of a series so, after a lapse of thirty years, I decided to ask the internet about the mysterious Mr Bron Fane. What I found was astounding.
      Bron Fane was one of fourteen names (including his own) used by R. Lionel Fanthorpe in the writing 180+ novels and anthologies for Badger Books in the period 1954 to 1966, including 89 during the period of 1961 to 1961, or one every 12 days. He thus counts as one of the most prolific of all science fiction and supernatural writers, and his distinctive style (we'll get to that later) has given him a cult status among some collectors.
     Now, there are some authors who can be categorized as writing machines, and just churn 'em out: Edgar Wallace, Georges Simenon, Barbara Cartland, Walter Gibson, Alan Yates (AKA Carter Brown), to name a few. But unlike these worthies, Fanthorpe had to do it in his spare time, for he had a day job.
     The more I learned about Lionel Fanthorpe, the more I warmed to him. For a start, it appeared from the above novel that he was a Christian, although he didn't push the issue. (And in another novel, he depicted the twenty-sixth century as a Christian utopia.) He had, in fact, been a Methodist lay preacher in his teens. Then, a turning point arrived when he was the head of a school in Cardiff, when one of his pupils died.
"As headmaster I felt I had to pay my respects to the family. . . I spent the whole day thinking about what I believed - if anything - and I came to the conclusion that the Christian I had been as a young man had been right and the middle-aged cynical agnostic that I turned into was wrong. " 
     As a result, in 1987 he was ordained as a non-stipendary (ie unpaid) Anglican priest, although I gather not a completely orthodox one.
     Also, like me, he acquired an interest in anomalies and the paranormal as a teenager. He belongs, or has belonged, to the Ghost Club, the British UFO Research Association, and the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, as well as appearing on TV at the The Fortean Times Unconventions to discuss the issues. He has been involved in exorcisms.
     He appears to have led a full and very interesting life. As a member of Mensa, the club for the ultra-intelligent, he has a phenomenal general knowledge. He is a biker and a martial arts instructor, and has written several scores of books since his Badger days, mostly on religion, the paranormal, and mysteries. He has appeared on radio and TV innumerable times - as well, of course, as doing his day jobs. At the age of 82 (he was born in 1935), he is still advertising his services in tutorials and proof-reading, and as a management consultant. And have a look at the topics he is prepared to broach as a paid after-dinner speaker.
     He education history appears to have somewhat unusual:
I left school at 15, without taking any exams. My aspiration was to qualify as an adult male. If you got a job and a girlfriend and a motorbike, you were a man. If you were at school taking exams, you weren't.  ...  I did my O-levels while helping my father with the family business - which was a corner shop - and I was married before taking my A-levels, when I worked as a journalist. My A-levels, in English and religious instruction, got me into teachers' training college at Keswick Hall near Norwich. This was full-time for three years but I did it in two, as what was laughingly called a "mature" student.
     This was the situation when he got into the science fiction business.

The Badger Way
     There are a number of reasons why authors might adopt multiple noms-de-plume. One of them is to ward off reader fatigue. Suppose, for example, I were a very popular and very prolific author. (Well, I can fantasize, can't I?) It is easy to imagine a fan saying that, although Malcolm Smith is a very good writer, having read twenty of his novels, he feels he might like to turn to something else. At that point, a friend will suggest he try Michael Simpson and Mark Stephens, who are just as good - not knowing that they are all the same person.
    Another reason is brand recognition. If I had made my mark as a science fiction writer, people mightn't take me seriously when I start writing detective stories. Better to use another name. Thus, Eleanor Hibbert wrote narrative history as Jean Plaidy, gothic romances as Victoria Holt, and other genres under a plethora of other names.
     With Badger Books the reason was quite different. It was to disguise the fact that, apart from the occasional ring-in for a short story, they had only two authors. John Glasby took care of all the war stories, detective stories, hospital romances, and westerns, with the occasional sci-fi thrown in to boot, but by and large, the science fiction and supernatural genres were left to Lionel Fanthorpe. Typically, the supernatural issues would be an anthology described as "a superb collection of outstanding supernatural stories by a carefully selected cross-section of today's to authors." No! It would be collection of five stories by R. L. Fanthorpe under five different names.
    Since one science fiction and one supernatural issue came out every month, that meant he was a busy man - especially since he had a day job. Typically, he would sit down, late at night, and dictate the story into  a tape recorder, often with his head covered in a blanket to prevent distraction. The tapes would then be mailed out and transcribed by a team of typists. Edgar Wallace, another human writing machine (but without a day job to contend with), who once dictated a novel over a weekend, relied upon his secretary to ensure continuity eg by making sure the fourth floor window in an early chapter did not migrate to the third floor in a later chapter. Fanthorpe had no such assistance, and discontinuities have been known to creep in - but not as often as some people make out.
     Thirty years after the events, the author himself would describe it this way:
    Let the critic first try doing a full day's work (driving a truck or teaching a secondary school class with over fifty students in it) and then, with a two-day deadline to beat, let them hammer words into an unforgiving tape-recorder that moves as inexorably as the Hand that wrote on the wall at Belshazzar's Feast - and let them do all this at three in the morning, when the coffee-pot is dry, and the cerebral cortex in much the same abject state. (Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe, "Albatross Pie" in Down the Badger Hole, by Debbie Cross, 1995).
     For all this he was paid - wait for it! - 10 shillings [$1] per thousand words, or £22/10/- [$45] for a 45,000 word novel.
     The rampart inflation accepted as normal over the last two centuries at least, as well as the improvement in the standard of living, means we have lost all track of prices and wages quoted for even a few decades ago, so we shall try to put it into perspective. For most of the period, the paperbacks were sold for 2/6 [25c] each. In 1962 the average pay was £799 per annum. In Softly by Moonlight (1963) the cost of the average family car was cited as £600. Most of the lower classes would have difficulty affording one.  According to the purchasing power calculator, a pound in 1962 would buy as much as £19.24 in 2015, but as far as the amount of work required to earn that much (due to the lower standard of living at the time), it was worth more than twice as much. So you see, producing a £22/10/- novel twice a month would add a very substantial sum to a teacher's income. In 1962 he earned £700, with £461 left after expenses.
     Looked at another way, however, it was chicken feed. It was equivalent to royalties on just 1,800 copies - perhaps acceptable in a small country like Australia, but not for books to be distributed around the whole British Commonwealth, as well as being reprinted under licence in the US, and often translated into German. By one estimate, it came to less than one percent in royalties.
     In the 1930s and '40s Walter B. Gibson used to churn our novels of the same length about The Shadow at the same rate of turnover (but without a day job, of course). They were published in magazine form with short articles as fillers, and sold for 10c each. Yet he reported that he used to receive $600 to $750 for each novel, and once purchased a new car with the proceeds from two stories. And he complained he never got the maximum rate of two cents a word.

Padding
     From this you will have gathered that Badger was more concerned with quantity than quality, with the result that its poorly paid writers were subject to three stifling restrictions. The first was time, which has already been mentioned. The second was space. In an earlier essay (which I hope you will read), I explained that books are printed with several pages on a single sheet of paper, called a "signature", with the result that the number of pages is almost always a multiple of eight. For mass market paperbacks, signatures of 32 are most common. Badger Books always contained 160 pages. The first four pages contained titles and other guff, while the last two advertised other Badger Books. Somewhere in the middle would be three pages of trashy advertisements for bust enlargers, cures for baldness, psoriasis, and such, and a lucky charm called Joan the Wad (the Queen of the Lucky Cornish Piskies). That left 151 pages which the authors had to fill - no more, no less. The only leeway would be the amount of empty space at the end of a chapter, and whether a chapter started on a new page.
     So how do you fill up space "at three in the morning, when the coffee-pot is dry, and the cerebral cortex in much the same abject state"? Padding, that's how! One of the things that irritated me on my first reading of Softly By Moonlight was a completely extraneous five page discussion on why it would be best to expand the electrification of the railways in order to reduce automobile usage, followed by a three page theological discussion - both very valid discussions, but totally unnecessary to the plot. This, it turned out, was typical - such as a page describing someone brushing her teeth or, in one terrible, but fortunately not typical, incident, a nineteen page discussion on the formation of life given during a crisis meeting.
    A more common form of padding was to say the same thing again and again, with a variety of different descriptors or metaphors, eg
     "There you are," he announced. "It's a chimera. It's a sick fancy, a piece of delirium; a castle in the air, a make-believe. It's a day-dream, a piece of escapism. It's something that came from the fabled land of Erewhon. It's a bit of Shangri-La, a piece of Atlantis. It's come from fairyland, part of the kingdom of Prester John. It's not a pie in the sky, but a rocket ship in the sky. It's a Flying Dutchman of space. It's an idle fancy, a myth, a fable - call it what you like."
    "There's nothing much left to call it now that you've finished," commented Bronet prosaically.
     (That came from Galaxy 666, which Debbie Cross described as "probably the richest in humour." Another commentator called it "the worst science fiction novel ever written". He apparently thought it was meant to be taken seriously.)
     It is this quirky style that has made him a cult figure. There was even an "R. L. Fanthorpe Write-Alike Contest" (which meant, of course, parodying his style). Indeed, most of his fans would be quite disappointed if these peculiarities failed to appear. Just the same, I would like to make a personal observation that they mostly turn up in the full length novels. The short stories are usually (not always) tightly constructed. This does not mean that they do not feature clever phrases and similes etched with a dry sense of humour - something which is considered praiseworthy in other writers.
     Also, I gained a better appreciation of Softly By Moonlight on the second reading. Although it would never win a Hugo or Nebula award, it was very cleverly constructed around the increasing number of items in the song, "Green Grow the Rushes, O".

Winding It Up
     However, after a while the issue would have to change from: How can I fill up space? to How am I going to wind up the story in the space available? Indeed, apart from the number of reels of tape used, how does one estimate how far along in the story he is? Thus, the joint demands of space and time introduced a phenomenon the reverse of padding: truncated, even artificial endings. And thereby lies the tale of the Flazgaz heatray.
    According to the author himself, thirty years after the event, when he admitted his memory was slightly hazy, he received a call from the typing team to the effect that the last reel had brought them just three pages from the end. This should give you some idea of how the system worked. He must have delivered the reels to the typists in the morning, and they phoned him when he had returned from work, before he had got back to dictating. In any case, as he explained,
I had heroes on the far side of the galaxy in a crippled ship, surrounded by hideous, aggressive aliens ... and three pages to bring them home.
      In the final 750 words, therefore, he invented the Flazgaz heatray, had it pulled out of a box marked, "Forbidden Weapon - Never to be Used", and terminated both the aliens and the novel.
       This anecdote seems to have been taken up by later commentators and embellished till it has become mythical. Take, for example, the version by Nick Rowe:
Everyone knows, I imagine, the story of the Flaz Gaz Heat Ray, perhaps the most outrageous deus ex machina ending in all literature. There the heroes were, stranded deep in an enemy sector of space, surrounded by an entire enemy fleet with the guns trained on them, when the maestro realized all of a sudden he had only one page left to finish the book. Quick as a flash, the captain barks out: "It's no use, men. We'll have to use the Flaz Gaz Heat Ray." "Not – not the Flaz Gaz Heat Ray!" So they open up this cupboard, and there's this weapon that just blasts the entire fleet into interstellar dust. One almighty zap and the thousand remaining loose ends are quietly incinerated. Where, but in SF, could you do that?
     On the other hand, David Langford's version has promoted the putative enemy fleet to a force of ten million.
     As you can imagine, I was always hopeful, but never very optimistic, about eventually encountering this piece of legendary literary legerdemain. Much to my surprise, it turned up in the second full length novel I read. So, much as I hate to bring a good anecdote down to earth, here are the facts.
     The relevant novel was The Intruders. The heroes were desperately trying to get their downed space craft working while been threatened, not by an enemy fleet ten million strong, but hostile telepathic saurians, and their major problem was how to penetrate the enemy's force shield. Six pages are used up as they test five separate weapons before they get to the Flazgaz heatray, so although the process is a little artificial, it doesn't sound quite as artificial as has been made out. It is mentioned that the weapon is illegal, but there is none of the fanfare of "Not the Flazgaz heatray!" Also, it makes its appearance not three pages, or even one, from the end, but eight. More to the point, it does not destroy the enemy; it simply forces them to retreat. They quickly send their minions back into the offensive, and the protagonists manage to make their getaway in the last paragraph of the last page. Thus, although the Flazgaz heatray may well have been invented in response to a shortage of pages, it was not the outrageous deus ex machina it has been portrayed.
    What I find impressive, however, is the fact that he always managed to end the story right on page 158 - something which must have been rather difficult, especially with the supernatural issues containing several short stories. Abrupt and artificial endings do occur, but as Hamlet would have put it, it was a custom honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Just the same, it is true that in the novels, the action usually builds up speed as the climax approaches. This is normally considered a good feature when other writers do it.

The Covers                                                                   
    Now, here's a novel which tends to catch the attention of fans. It's a tale about how a radioactive sludge produces beavers twenty feet high with telepathic and teleportation powers. Apart from the fact that it is biologically impossible, why would anyone want to write such a story? Well, it turns out he didn't really have much choice in the matter.
     Every normal publisher commissions the cover after the novel has been accepted. Not Badger. They ordered the cover first. The most frequent contributor was an artist called Henry Fox, but others were involved, and covers were even taken (borrowed? rented? stolen?) from other publishers' novels. Heaven only knows the reason. Perhaps they thought requiring an artist to read a book before setting brush to paper might stretch the deadline too much (though it never interfered with The Shadow novels, which were churned out at the same rate.) In any case, once the cover was produced, it was sent to the author, who had just a few days to think of a plot, then submit a summary to act as a blurb for the back cover, plus three alternate titles and three alternate by-lines, such as you see at the top of the picture at right. Once he'd received the tick of approval, it was back to the tape recorder. If an underpaid artist with no other responsibility had the whimsy to draw gigantic beavers, then a novel on gigantic beavers it had to be.
    Now you can see the full range of Fanthorpe's genius. I have no desire to belittle the abilities of John Glasby, the other Badger writer. After all, it would be no easy task to author more than a hundred novels on the Second World War when there were still available hundreds of thousands of potential readers who had been there, done that, and could pick up on any technical or historical error. But - let's face it - the covers of war novels are pretty generic: either soldiers, tanks, ships, or planes, while illustrations for detective novels are similarly generic. As for westerns, it is said that there are only seven basic western plots, and romance novels have only one! It would be simple enough to concoct a plot for any illustration, or even develop a plot beforehand and wait for an illustration to arrive.
     But genereic illustrations are of no value to science fiction or the supernatural; it goes without saying that they will end up being completely different. Now have a good look at these covers, particularly those of the supernatural series. (You can click on the individual picture for a close-up.) Now, imagine you are an author. Forget about whether or not you have any writing skill. Just ask yourself how long it would take you to even think of a story line to go with the picture.
    Under these circumstances, the fact that some of the novels are good and most are mediocre should be a matter of some surprise. The wonder is that any of them are readable at all!

The Walking Encyclopedia
     On my own profile, I listed myself as an "amateur polymath". To my mind it sounded classier than "well read collector of useless information". But I have to tip my hat to the Rev. Fanthorpe. He was attending meetings of Mensa even while undertaking the time consuming schedule of a full time job, churning out novels, wrestling for relaxation, and starting a family. Judging from the references scattered through his books, he seems to have an encyclopedic memory. For example, I thought I was au fait with the European fairy mythology, but I'd forgotten what a vodyanoi was until I read one of his short stories.
    To cite another example: in Unknown Destiny, some archaeologists in Iraq discover an ancient tablet bearing a depiction of an "utukku", whereupon they debate whether the utukku is an "edimmu" or an "arallu", but without explaining the terms. (They are all spirits in ancient Middle Eastern mythology.) Then, in chapter 2, there is a discussion of scientific hoaxes: the Piltdown skull, Kensington Stone, and the midwife toad. Now, I shall give myself some credit and claim that I could do the same thing if pressed. However, I have had 40 extra years to build up my store of knowledge, and I would also have the time to research it at the library, or on the internet. But Fanthorpe was doing all this in his twenties, without any time to to check his facts. With regard to his style, commentators always picture him with a thesaurus by his side. However, this would only have slowed him down. One must therefore assume that he kept most of those synonyms in his head. He was really bright.
    One could cite examples endlessly. Ironically, you can actually broaden your mind by reading Fanthorpe.

Where Do You Get Them?
     Well. there is a book, edited by Debbie Cross in 1995 entitled Down the Badger Hole, which features some of the quirkiest excerpts from his writings. It is very funny and, if my copy is typical, it may be autographed by the great man himself. Apart from that, one of his leading fans, Brian Hunt has kindly (and I gather, with the author's approval) published a number of short stories and novels on his website, where you can read them for free and see what you think. Many of the original paperbacks are still available from secondhand online sellers at reasonable prices. You might, however, wish to search under the pseudonym, because keying in "R. L. Fanthorpe" will normally get his most recent, non-sci-fi works. Also, if you are into Kindle, the SF Gateway has published 108 of the Badger novels in that format to date, as well as a host of other science fiction writers, so you will be like a child in a lolly shop.