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Blindfolds & Cigarettes: Preaching to the Converted
© Peggy Hailey

Early on in my tenure with RevolutionSF, I wrote an article decrying the criminal lack of availability of the works of some of my favorite authors. Bob Chase wrote a response reminding me of all of the good work being done by small presses, and he was absolutely right, up to a point.

Bob made some excellent points in his response to my original call to arms. There are a lot of small presses doing some excellent reprints out there, and I don't mean to denigrate them in any way. However, the fact remains that you'll only run across these great reprints of wonderful authors if you already know where to look for them. You have to know that C.L. Moore existed before you can search for a collection of her stuff.

It was certainly never my intention to overlook the value of small presses. They are, indeed, working hard at keeping some of the very authors I mentioned in print, and you can find them online or at any SF convention. But what about more casual fans who don't go to conventions? How are they supposed to track down these older, more obscure authors online if they've never even heard of them? Small presses are a wonderful resource, and they deserve our whole-hearted support, but they are also, in essence, preaching to the converted. If someone can't walk into their local bookstore and find an author, then that author is, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. The great job that these small presses are doing shouldn't let the larger publishers off the hook where great older authors are concerned.

Take, for example, Manly Wade Wellman. Night Shade Books has put out 2 volumes of the collected works of Manly Wade Wellman, with 3 more volumes to come. The books are hardcover, $35.00, and will have as much Manly Wade Wellman fiction as any fan could want. But what if you've never heard of Manly Wade Wellman? Is it too much to ask that a larger publishing house reprint, say, the wonderful collection Who Fears the Devil?, so that a larger audience might be introduced to this under-appreciated author?

Who Fears the Devil? is a collection of stories featuring John, a wandering balladeer in the Appalachian mountains who carries a guitar strung with silver. There's a definite "folklore" feel to the tales of the strange encounters John has. The stories are told in first person, and John's gentle voice somehow lends credence to his strange encounters:

Plain as paint I knew that if I tried to back up, to turn round even, my legs would fail and I'd fall down. With fingers like sleety twigs I dragged forward my guitar to touch the silver strings, for silver is protection against evil.

But I never did. For out of some bushes near me the Bammat stuck its broad wooly head and shook it at me once, for silence. It looked me betwixt the eyes, steadier than a beast should ought to look at a man, and shook its head again. I wasn't to make any noise, and I didn't. Then the Bammat paid me no more mind, and I saw I wasn't to be included in what would happen then.

Given the recent resurgence in roots music via the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and movies like Songcatcher, the time is right to introduce Silver John to a whole new audience, but there's no affordable, readily-available edition to point them to. It's a pure-dee frustration to enjoy a book as much as I enjoyed this one and know most of the people you tell about it will give up on reading it because they can't find a copy anywhere.

And sadly, Wellman's not the only one. Has anyone out there read any Fredric Brown? He wrote novels and short stories in both the fields of mystery and SF, some of which are absolute classics, like 1944's Arena, the basis for the Star Trek episode of the same name, or 1955's Martians Go Home. All of Brown's books from the big publishers are either out of print or out of stock with no reprint due. The only available Fredric Brown book currently is From the Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown by the New England Science Fiction Association Press (mentioned in Bob Chase's article). It's a beautiful book, a phenomenal collection, and I covet it greatly (I almost had a copy until Mark Finn snaked me at last year's World Fantasy Convention—you'll get yours, Mr. Finn). But it's also a $29.00 hardcover from a small press not found on many general bookstore's shelves. I'll pay the money gladly—I know who Fredric Brown is, and I know how cool the NESFA collection is. But someone who's not already familiar with Brown is unlikely to pony up that much cash for a hardcover book, even if they do happen to see it in a bookstore. I've got nothing on my shelves that is small and affordable and can serve as an introduction to the wonder that is Fredric Brown, and that's incredibly frustrating.

And it leaves me right back where I started from. The small presses are doing some phenomenal books-reprints of classic SF as well as the discovery and promotion of new talents. By all means look around online and at conventions and see the wealth of good stuff that these folks are putting out. But let's not let the bigger publishers off the hook just yet. The big publishers are the ones who can afford to put out cheaper versions of books by classic authors, and we need to let them know that we're interested in how SF got to be what it is today. Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner, Robert Bloch, Fritz Lieber, C.M. Kornbluth, Philip Jose Farmer, M. John Harrison (the list is getting bigger every day)—if you don't know these folks, you should, and you shouldn't have to scour every used bookstore, library, or dealer room in a tri-state area to meet 'em.


Peggy Hailey is Revolution SF's books editor and has the biggest, shiniest soapbox in these here parts.

 
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