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
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.