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Early Chicago Fandom, In Pictures

We offer this post in tribute to Alistair Durie on his recent passing. Alistair was a remarkable fan, collector and historian, and a lovely human being. He collaborated generously in our research, providing insight and access to unique artifacts from his extensive archive of early fanzines.

The upcoming second volume of The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom will focus on 1940, a defining year for the movement. Much of the story centers around Chicago, site of the second World Science Fiction Convention — the first ChiCon.

To provide background and context, we felt it important to revisit the origins of fandom in Chicago. The two primary organizers of the 1940 ChiCon — Mark Reinsberg and Erle Korshak — were high school students at the time and represented a new generation of Chicago fans. But these young upstarts owed much of their success in pulling off the convention to older fans who established Chicago as a center of activity from the early 1930s. This post highlights one small part of the archeology behind the tale.

The first incarnation of a Chicago chapter of Hugo Gernsback’s Science Fiction League (SFL) was established in February 1935. Director William H. Dellenback was joined by established fans Jack Darrow (Clifford Kornoelje), Walter L. Dennis and Paul McDermott, as well as the budding writing duo Earl and Otto Binder. The group began publishing in November 1935 under the title The Fourteen Leaflet, a reference to the club’s designation as Chapter 14 of the SFL.

Click any image for a full-screen rendering.

The Fourteen Leaflet, v1n1, November 1935.
From Special Collections at the University of California Riverside

The fanzine survived for nine issues, the last appearing in late Spring 1937. While some individual club members remained active, others pursued diverse interests. The Binder brothers relocated to New York to promote their writing careers. Fortunately for history, the final Fourteen Leaflet gives us a rare pictorial glimpse of early fandom.

Prior to the wider availability of lithography, photographs in fanzines required the inclusion of actual photo prints. This was beyond the capability and budget of most amateur publishers. In the rare instances where this was undertaken, it was common for the prints to be glued to a page. If the page managed to survive, very often the glue did not. This decreased the likelihood that the photo continued to travel with the page.

In their fanzine’s 1937 swansong, Dellenback and his cohort undertook to publish nineteen separate photographs, all tiny prints attached to a single page. I first encountered this page in a copy that I acquired in 2015.

Given the extreme scarcity of any issues of this early zine, I despaired of ever finding the missing photos. But FFE has been supremely fortunate to collaborate with collectors and historians with astonishing abilities to fill key gaps in our stories. To the rescue came Doug Ellis, holder of much of Jack Darrow’s early material, and Alistair Durie, early fanzine collector non-pareil. Each shared scans of their copies of this page.

None of the three pages was complete, but between them we’re able to assemble the full rogue’s gallery. Alistair’s version was by far the most intact — not surprising, given the remarkable quality of his collection. Close examination of the various copies reveals that these weren’t all prints of the same photo — in at least some cases, each copy includes a unique snapshot.

The roster was provided by the publisher.

The Fourteen Leaflet, v1n9, November 1937

Sadly, the promised next issue with “shots of 1937 sessions in action” never appeared.

We’re eternally grateful to the many contributors who support our efforts to bring to life the history and impact of science fiction fandom.

Revisionist History: Early Auction Untangled

The upcoming Volume Two of The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom will focus entirely on 1940. It was an intense and pivotal year for science fiction and for fandom. We currently project the book to come in at about 400 pages.

In our research, we’ve naturally focused a great deal on the 1940 Chicago World Science Fiction Convention — hereinafter “ChiCon.” (There have been other ChiCons, but this one is ours, for now.)

We’ve had the privilege of several discussions with one of the organizers of ChiCon, Erle M. Korshak. Erle served as the auctioneer at the first fifteen WorldCons. He pitched in at the 1939 New York event, took up the gavel full time in Chicago and thence became the go-to huckster. We’re delighted to have access to an iconic photo from this early period. It appeared in the 2009 volume From the Pen of Paul: Fantastic Images of Frank R. Paul, published by Erle via his company (Shasta-Phoenix Publishers) and edited by his son, Stephen D. Korshak. The photo as it appeared in that book with accompanying caption is shown below.

In this photo, Erle holds an iconic painting by Frank R. Paul titled “Glass City of Europa,” one a series of works depicting “life on other worlds.” Paul rendered these for Raymond A. Palmer, who used them on the back covers of issues of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures from 1939 through 1942. Palmer and other editors routinely donated original art from their magazines to support auctions at fan conventions.

In the background behind Korshak is an even more significant artwork — Hubert Rogers’ original illustration for E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “Gray Lensman.” It appeared on the cover of the October 1939 issue of Astounding Stories, and was given to Smith by Rogers as a gift.

We intended to include a scan of the original photo in our coverage of ChiCon, along with the notable fact that the Korshak family later re-acquired the Paul painting — at a much higher price than it realized when originally auctioned.

Stephen D. Korshak with Frank R. Paul’s “Glass City of Europa,” 2008. Photo by John L. Coker III

When we dug a little deeper, we were faced with a conundrum. “Glass City of Europa” was published as the back cover of Amazing Stories in January 1942 — fully sixteen months after ChiCon. This seemed possible — perhaps Palmer had photos taken of the entire series from Paul and therefore didn’t need the originals anymore.

Far be it from us to question the origins of the auction photo, given the family’s very clear attribution to Chicago in 1940. That said, we couldn’t just leave it alone.

We’re fortunate to have other photos from the period that allow us to stitch together the record. Below we see E.E. Smith, E. Everett Evans and Erle Korshak. This photo was originally also placed at ChiCon. A third photo shows Bob Tucker and Al Ashley and was included in a batch of photos from the 1941 WorldCon in Denver — and so was assumed to be from that event.

L-R: E.E. Smith, E.E. Evans, Erle Korshak. From the collection of John L. Coker III
Wilson “Bob” Tucker and Al Ashley. From the collection of John L. Coker III

As we looked more closely, we came to the conclusion that all three of these photos must be from the same fan event. Note the exact match of the chair back style between the auction photo and the Tucker-Ashley photo. Now pick out the tie and badge worn by the person sitting behind Korshak in the auction photo. Compare that to the tie and badge worn by E.E. Evans in the group photo. Seemingly identical.

If all of these pictures are from the same event, are they from ChiCon? It didn’t add up.

  • The aforementioned time lag between ChiCon and the publication of “Glass City of Europa” — possible, but puzzling.
  • More notably, the corner of the fanzine visible on the far left of the auction photo, standing up on the table. The airbrush art is distinctive. It’s Nova (IV), v1n1 by Al Ashley, dated November-December 1941.
  • Perhaps most notably, the badge worn by E.E. Evans reads “Galactic Roamers.” We know for certain that the Roamers were formed and chose the name of the club on January 10, 1941.

At this point it became clear that the photos weren’t from ChiCon. The next logical guess was the 1941 WorldCon in Denver — but we know quite certainly that E.E. Smith wasn’t there.

Major head-scratching ensued. What hadn’t occurred to us was that there were other fan gatherings at that time where an auction might have occurred. FFE Principle Historian Sam McDonald thought of this, and thereafter quickly nailed the clear answer: all three photos are from the first-ever Michicon, held on November 16 1941.

Additional photos from that event bear this out. The chairs… the badge… the tie… Korshak clowning…

Bob Tucker’s account of the gathering tells us that “Glass City of Europa” sold for not more than $5.

Bob Tucker in Le Zombie, n44, November-December 1941

We’ll tell this story as part of Volume Three of The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom. That book will cover 1941 in depth, including the original Boskone, the Denvention and the first Michicon. Stay tuned!

P.S. Where are the movies of the costume ball at Denvention? Where are the hundreds of photos taken at 1940 fan events? Sadly, it seems that a very small sampling of these artifacts have survived.)

The Hole Story: Fake News and Parenting in Early Fandom

For collectors of early fan material, discovering that a recovered treasure is incomplete is more than disappointing. It leaves a gap in the record that spurs a quest to fill the void.

In at least two surviving copies of The MSA Bulletin from January 1940, there’s a conspicuous hole. Why would someone clip out a section of the generally mundane column “Items of General Interest?” These publications did not include coupons.

The MSA Bulletin, v2n1, January 1940

The origin of this mystery dates to June 1938 and an interaction between a young fan from Skowhegan, Maine and the powerful editor of a professional pulp.

James S. Avery appeared to be a rising star in early fandom. He was all of 17 when he excoriated John W. Campbell, Jr. and his publication in a letter to Astounding Science-Fiction. In November 1938, he assisted Harry Warner, Jr. with the launch of Spaceways, a prominent fanzine that ran for 30 issues through 1942. By September 1939 he was a founding member of the Maine Scientifiction Association (MSA) and editor of its club organ, The MSA Bulletin.

Astounding Science-Fiction, v21n4, June 1938

Meanwhile, on July 5 1939 the New York Daily News saw fit to print this brief item in the “Hollywood” gossip column by Danton Walker:

Street & Smith was the publisher behind Campbell’s Astounding. The company noticed – and took exception. But some science fiction fans also found time to read the newspaper. Donald A. Wollheim amplified the rumor in an article in Fantascience Digest penned in August 1939.

Fantascience Digest, v2n5, July-August-September 1939

Wollheim may have missed the terse, marginal retraction that appeared on July 7 in the Daily News.

Campbell also kept an eye on leading fanzines. Fantascience Digest received a threatening letter from Street & Smith and promptly printed a polite retraction.

Fantascience Digest, v3n2, January-February 1940

Campbell also contacted James V. Taurasi, editor of the weekly Fantasy News. Taurasi seized on the opportunity to attack his “notorious” enemy, Wollheim.

The response from Wollheim was inevitable and predictable.

Science Fiction Weekly, v1n2, February 25 1940

Taurasi had inserted a personal diatribe in the middle of a quote from Campbell, potentially confusing the reader. Campbell objected; Taurasi demurred.

Fantasy News, v4n10, February 25 1940

In their hysterical article, Fantasy News also revealed the explanation for The Hole:

“…in the January 1940 Maine Science Fiction Association Bulletin [sic], this same libellous [sic] statement appeared in exaggerated form, over the name of James S. Avery…”

Campbell’s revenge for Avery’s acerbic 1938 letter to Astounding, served cold? We suspect the ever-attentive editor hadn’t forgotten.

It appears that the MSA was in the midst of mailing issues of the January 1940 issue of the Bulletin when they became aware of the transgression. What to do with the fanzines they’d already printed? With an impoverished treasury, we believe the club elected to salvage the run by clipping out the offending article.

Fortunately for the obsessive historian, at least one intact copy escaped.

The MSA Bulletin, v2n1, January 1940.
From the collection of Sam McDonald

Unfortunately for Jim Avery, the consequences of his error were not limited to paper cuts.

Fantasy News, v4n12, March 10 1940. Perhaps our favorite fanzine headline of all time.
The MSA Bulletin, v2n2, March 1940

Under threat of legal action, Avery’s parents intervened, barring their son from all fannish activity.

“To them I must bow down…”

Science Fiction Weekly, v1n1, March 3 1940

The MSA Bulletin, v2n2, March 1940

But fortunately for Jim Avery, parents usually forgive. In short order he rejoined the MSA and retained his post as Associate Editor of Spaceways.

The MSA Bulletin, v2n3, April 1940

In 1940, fans and professional editors enjoyed and distained a love-hate relationship. Editors depended on fans to drive subscriptions. To varying degrees, the pros listened to fans and supported their efforts. Following the trail blazed by Charles D. Hornig, Mort Weisinger and Raymond A. Palmer in the 1930s, more prominent fans were joining the professional ranks — including Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim and Robert W. Lowndes. These later crossovers often promoted fans quite directly by publishing their stories, covering their conferences and printing reviews of their fanzines. None of this stopped fans from raking the editors over the coals for the quality of the stories in their magazines — or spreading rumors regarding their commercial standing. “The Hole Story” represents this fraught co-dependency in microcosm.

This post is a preview of material in development for The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom, Volume Two: 1940. Stay tuned for more!

A Poetical Historical Puzzler

I’m listening to replays of the radio talk show “Car Talk” this morning. Beloved by many, annoying to some, this iconic series aired on National Public Radio in original form from 1977 to 2012. Hosted by two brothers who ran a car repair shop in Cambridge (“our fair city”) Massachusetts, the show featured callers with a variety of problems — some automotive, some marital. Tom and Ray Magliozzi found humor in everything and often filled half of an episode with their infectious and/or infuriating laughter. The brothers didn’t often speak of their actually impressive credentials — both were graduates of MIT, and Tom had an MBA. The show won a Peabody Award in 1992, and the hosts were the MIT commencement speakers in 1999.

Anyway — one regular feature of the program was “the Puzzler,” a logic or math problem to be solved by the listeners. Some were related to cars, but many were “non-automotive” or “quasi-automotive.”

In this spirit, we present the first of what might become several FFE Puzzlers. This one is quasi-science-fictional and decidedly historical-poetical. It is simply this:

When was the (very timely, we think) poem below written, and by whom? For extra credit, where was it first published? Extra EXTRA credit for answers achieved without the use of Google. Please send your responses to info@firstfandomexperience.org.

JVB 100

Listen: This post has come unstuck in time. Poo-tee-weet.

Since February 7, 1921… seems like it’s been a century.

From the first, at the last, who would have imagined?

From the beginning, would he have imagined?

First, he was a fan.

PSFS News, v2n1, January 1939. Click for larger image.

We see glimpses, perhaps a trajectory.

Art by John V. Baltadonis, 1937
A page from John V. Baltadonis’ high school notebook, 1937

As a fan, an editor and evolving artist.

After the war… a changed man. Art as a career.
By then, we might have guessed.

Protest meeting. Art by John V. Baltadonis, 1947
Still life by John V. Baltadonis, 1946

A man of faith.

John V. Baltadonis, c1946

A First Fan.

And ever a fan. Happy 100th, JVB!

Deep thanks to Steve Baltadonis for much of the material herein.

Two FFE Titles Selected to the 2020 Locus Recommended Reading List

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — February 1, 2021 — Cambridge, Massachusetts

First Fandom Experience, a collaborative publishing project based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is pleased to acknowledge the selection of two of its titles to the 2020 Locus Recommended Reading List.

According to Locus: “Published in Locus magazine’s February 2021 issue, the list is a consensus by the Locus editors, columnists, outside reviewers, and other professionals and critics of genre fiction and non-fiction… The final list comprises our best recommendations for your consideration.”

The First Fandom Experience titles selected are:

The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom, Volume One: The 1930s

The definitive history of fandom’s earliest days.  A remarkable book!
— Robert Silverberg

“…a sumptuous scrapbook of photographs, magazine covers, artwork and hundreds of articles, letters and typescripts, everything beautifully held together by the Ritters’ concise but enthralling text.”
— Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

The Earliest Bradbury

“This book is essential for any serious fan of Ray Bradbury. It casts light on the primordial stirrings of a career, giving a rare glimpse of Bradbury’s earliest writing and art as an erstwhile teenager. A true gift to Bradbury scholarship and fandom.”
— Sam Weller, author of The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury and Dark Black

“This is a wonderful paean to a wonderful person, an educational, informative, exciting, visually stimulating and page-turning adventure that will bring you far closer to its subject than most have ever been.
— Steve Davidson, Publisher, Amazing Stories

Both books were written and edited by David Ritter and Daniel Ritter, and supported by the essential work of Principle Historians John L. Coker III and Sam McDonald.

The titles are available in hardcover from the First Fandom Experience website. Kindle versions are also available at amazon.com.

The editors wish to thank and congratulate the core team and other contributors who made these unique and compelling visual histories possible:

  • John L. Coker III, Principal Historian
  • Sam McDonald, Principal Historian
  • Doug Ellis, Contributing Historian
  • Jeff DiPerna and Wendy Gonick, tabula rasa graphic design
  • Mark Wheatley, Illustrator
  • Eric Brock, Illustrator
  • Sara Light-Waller, Illustrator
  • Jonathan R. Eller and the team at The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University
  • Joe Siclari and Edie Stern at Fanac.org
  • Peter Balestrieri and the Special Collections team at the University of Iowa Libraries
  • Alistair Durie
  • Drew Morse
  • Kate Baxter
  • …and many others who offered advice, assistance and content

Please contact us at info@firstfandomexperience.org for more information.

Via Freight Train, A Travelogue Tragically Truncated

Olon F. Wiggins was at the center of early science fiction fandom in Denver. By August 1940, his seminal amateur publication The Science Fiction Fan (TSFF) had sustained an amazing run of 49 consecutive monthly issues since its founding in July 1936.

Born in 1911, Wiggins was a First Fan of the old guard — but at the turn of the decade, science fiction was also spawning a next-generation of new fans. Lew Martin was thirteen years Wiggins’ junior, and was a high school senior when the second World Science Fiction Convention convened in Chicago.

For Wiggins and Martin, attendance at the Chicago gathering was essential, for they had already hatched a plan to propose that the following WorldCon in 1941 be held in Denver. So — how to get to Chicago?

According to Martin:

“It all began one meeting of the Denver Science Fictioneers when I asked Chairman Wiggins if he planned to attend the Chicago 1940 World’s Science-Fiction Convention. He replied that he was and I told him of my desire and determination to go. He planned to go via bus and I had planned to hitch-hike, picking up Al McKeel at Jefferson City, Missouri. Several meetings elapsed before we had compromised on accompanying each other via freight train.”

From “Via Freight Train” by Lew Martin, TSFF, v5n7, April 1941

Martin provided no further explanation of this odd ‘compromise,’ only adding, “After all, we could have paid our way if we wanted, we chose romance and adventure, and despite the hardships we would gladly do it again.” (Emphasis his.)

This ‘romance and adventure’ is well-known in fan history. In our research for Volume Two of The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom, we came across a contemporaneous reference.

Wilson “Bob” Tucker in Spaceways, v2n8, October 1940, recounting arrivals of fans in Chicago for the WorldCon

Harry Warner also mentions this trip in All Our Yesterdays:

“Among the first to arrive were Olon Wiggins and Lew Martin, who made the trip from Denver in thirty hours by courtesy of several boxcars. A fellow traveler failed to complete his journey in a bloody manner, but he wasn’t a fan.”

Ted Dikty provided the most graphic anecdote of the fatal mishap:

From “Expedition to Chicago,” IFA Review, v1n2, September-October 1940

Naturally we assumed that one or both of the bold sojourners must have documented this extraordinary expedition. But finding a full, detailed account has been something of an adventure as well — one that’s sadly incomplete.

Indeed, Martin captured the journey in depth. His essay, “Via Freight Train,” began appearing as a serial in TSFF beginning with v5n7, dated February 1941. Additional installments were published in v5n8 (March 1941), v5n9 (April 1941), and v5n10 (April 15 1941).

Martin’s account is rich and engaging, It captures a remarkable experience and paints a picture of life at that time that we found unique and compelling. Though a bit repetitive and uneven, the narrative represents some of the best writing we’ve encountered in early fanzines.

However, as 1941 progressed, the attention of the leading Denver fans was increasingly dominated by preparations for the 1941 WorldCon — the first “Denvention.” The issues of TSFF dated from the Spring of that year weren’t actually published on their cover dates. Material was accumulated, but the issues were produced after the July convention and back-dated. Ardent historians will note that v5n7 is the last issue cited in the Pavlat-Evans Fanzine Index.

Tracking down the trailing issues of TSFF required significant archeology. The February issue was excavated from the Ackerman archives held by Jim Halperin. It wasn’t clear that the March issue existed at all until John L. Coker III was able to surface a copy. The April issue is on file with the Hevelin collection at the University of Iowa, but Alistair Durie was able to provide us with an excellent scan of this very scarce artifact. We were fortunate to acquire the April 15 issue from another collector.

This gave us four installments of Martin’s epic. But on inspection, we were distraught to discover this at the end of Installment Four:

Lew Martin in The Science Fiction Fan, v5n10, April 15 1941

We have no evidence to suggest that a “Next Issue” was ever produced. Nor have we seen any trace of this essay anywhere else, in part or in whole. Equally frustrating, none of the four installments we’ve found contain the account of “one of those horrible accidents so common to boxcar transportation.” Lacking the conclusion, we also don’t have the happy ending of the pair’s arrival in Chicago.

We’re pleased to present Martin’s narrative in its incomplete fullness, likely the first opportunity for contemporary fans to share the ride.

Further, we appeal to any interested parties: Does the missing conclusion exist somewhere? Did Martin ever publish the essay separately? Does anyone who knew Wiggins or Martin recall conversations where they related additional details?

And and all insight will be greatly appreciated!

Click the crossed-arrows icon for a full-screen view.

V is for Vincent, Vernon, Vytautas

In our never-ending quest to capture and preserve the history of fandom, we encounter mysteries that stick in our brains like splinters from old barn wood. We can’t stop picking at them. Unless dug out, they fester. Herein lies the tale of Three Vs that got under our skin until the precision tweezers of research extracted the root of the inflammation. (I pronounce this metaphor bled dry.)

V is for Vincent

Below is one of early fandom’s most iconic images. On Independence Day, 1939, this carload of irascible youth from states far and wide ventured forth from the World Science Fiction Convention in New York to Coney Island. It’s a who’s-who of prominent First Fans: Madle and Agnew from Philadelphia, Korshak and Reinsberg from Chicago, Rocklynne from Ohio, and one very tanned Ray Bradbury from Los Angeles.

SF Fans at Coney Island, NY (July 4, 1939), on a side expedition from the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention.
Rear – V. Kidwell, Robert A. Madle, Erle M. Korshak, Ray Bradbury.
Front – Mark Reinsberg, Jack Agnew, Ross Rocklynne.
Collection of Robert A. Madle, courtesy of John L. Coker III

But among the who’s-who, there’s a “who’s that?” V. Kidwell. Upper left, looking awkward and perhaps slightly embarrassed — though warmly embraced by the adjacent Robert A. Madle.

What do we know about V. Kidwell? An exploration of contemporaneous accounts of the WorldCon yields but one tidbit — Kidwell manned center field for the PSFS Panthers, the Philadelphia team in the fan-v-fan softball game of July 4.

Rosters for the first-ever fan softball game. New Fandom, v1n6, January 1940

Fortunately, the person who could shed the brightest light on the obscure V. Kidwell is still with us. In a conversation with John L. Coker III, Bob Madle provided the answer:

“V. Kidwell is Vincent Kidwell — my uncle, even though he was three months younger than me.  He was not an sf fan.  Jack Agnew and I stayed at my grandmother’s house (Vincent lived there too) in New York.  Vincent played in the softball game and then went to Coney Island with us and was included in the photograph.”  

As the only non-fan, it’s understandable that Vincent felt somewhat out-of-place.

V is for Vernon

FFE’s current project is a retrospective of fan-artist Roy V. Hunt. An introduction to Hunt and his work can be read here. We expect to publish a richly-illustrated ~160-page volume in January 2021.

Fans at the Third World Science Fiction Convention, Denver, July 1941
L-R: Olon F. Wiggins, Lew Martin, Roy V. Hunt
Hunt holds a copy of the Convention’s Program Book which bears his cover art.
From the collection of John L. Coker III

Like many early fans who engaged in publishing, Hunt’s citations often included his middle initial. But in all of our reading, we never saw his full middle name. Shame on us if we hoped to provide a definitive look at a personage we couldn’t fully identify.

In this case, Ancestry.com came to the rescue. Among other artifacts, Hunt’s definitive identity can be found on his draft card from 1940.

V is for Vytautas

Among early fans, John V. Baltadonis stood tall. Literally, as he towered well over six feet — and figuratively, as one of the most prolific editors, authors and artists among his peers.

John V. Baltadonis, c1938. From the collection of Steve Baltadonis.

Although “JVB” almost always included his middle initial when stating his name or signing his work, his middle name has remained a mystery. He’s known to have stated that — for reasons he refused to provide — he would never reveal his mysterious V.

Letter from John V. Baltadonis to Daniel McPhail, November 17 1936.
From the McPhail Collection at the University of Iowa

Again we’re fortunate to have a primary source for the answer. According to JVB’s son Steve:

“So, the middle name. I was told it had to do with an ancestor.  Great grandparents and previous family maintained inherited land — maybe from black plague days, 13th century — through 1910 or 1915. When the Bolsheviks took over?  Anyway, my dad said an ancestor’s ‘giant sword’ was over the fireplace mantle, and that he used it to fight off invaders in the 13th, 14th century.  Lithuania was apparently much larger then. So, thus the name Vytautas.  In some records on the internet it is spelled Vytold.”

From Wikipedia, it seems Vytautas was a pretty big deal:

Vytautas (c. 1350 – October 27, 1430), also known as Vytautas the Great, was a ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which chiefly encompassed the Lithuanians and Ruthenians. He was also the Prince of Grodno (1370–1382), Prince of Lutsk (1387–1389), and the postulated king of the Hussites.

In modern Lithuania, Vytautas is revered as a national hero and was an important figure in the national rebirth in the 19th century. Vytautas is a popular male given name in Lithuania. In commemoration of the 500-year anniversary of his death, Vytautas Magnus University was named after him. Monuments in his honour were built in many towns in the independent Lithuania during the interwar period from 1918 to 1939.

For our part, we’d be bragging about such an august ancestor.

Lovecraft, Finlay, Hunt: An Eldritch Cosmic Braid

Our work on early fan history has often focused on “crossovers” — fans who first published in amateur journals but later achieved success as professional authors, editors and publishers. The Earliest Bradbury is a deep exploration of one notable example. We’ve now begun to turn our attention to artists who rose from the ranks of fandom in the 1930s and 1940s. Our first subject: Roy V. Hunt.

The Cthulhu Mythos wrought by H.P. Lovecraft coalesced from earlier hints into his seminal story, “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales, February 1928). Unlike traditional monsters, Lovecraft’s terror manifests through beings fully other. Vampires and werewolves are people, transformed. Ghosts, mummies and zombies — dead people reanimated. Frankenstein’s monster — assembled from parts of people. But Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep — even the names make clear that these trespassers from other dimensions have little to do with Homo Sapiens.

It’s not surprising that tales evoking these unthinkable, uncaring bringers of chaos would unlock new avenues in the imaginations of readers and artists, some of whom found inspiration to capture Lovecraft’s vision on canvas.

Lovecraft himself made attempts to sketch his horrors.

From a letter from H.P. Lovecraft to R.H. Barlow, May 11 1934. The cited sculpture was never produced or has since been lost. Image from the Lovecraft archive at Brown University.
Lovecraft’s notes for “At the Mountains of Madness.” Image from the Lovecraft archive at Brown University.

Shortly following Lovecraft’s untimely death on March 15 1937, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei organized the publication of the first anthology of his writing. After its appearance in 1939, The Outsider and Others struggled to find buyers willing to pay its $5 cover price. In the first issue of the fanzine The Alchemist, February 1940, Derleth issued an appeal in support of the book.

The Alchemist, v1n1, February 1940

But The Outsider was embraced enthusiastically by the fantasy fan community. An early review was penned by one R.V. Hunt, also in the premier issue of The Alchemist.

The Alchemist, v1n1, February 1940

Hunt describes being “swept completely into the outer realms by Lovecraft’s vivid word pictures.” Hunt, already a long-time fan and an aspiring artist, had drawn the front cover for this very fanzine.

[An image of Hunt’s cover for The Alchemist v1n1 should appear here. However, the editors of this zine (by their own admission) were not experienced with hectography and all copies we’ve seen to date have a cover which appears utterly blank. This is especially saddening, since fellow fan-artist Tom Wright wrote to the magazine describing the cover as “one of the best s-f drawings (fan or pro) that I have ever seen.” If anyone has a legible copy, we’d be more than keen to see it.]

Hunt also effuses over the “beautifully drawn jacket by Virgil Finlay.” This iconic imagery is well known to Lovecraft fans, and recently made its television debut in the HBO series “Lovecraft Country.”

Virgil Finlay’s rendering for the jacket of “The Outsider and Others.”
“The Outsider and Others” as it appears in Episode 1 of HBO’s 2020 series “Lovecraft Country”

When viewing the bestial cacophony of this illustration, I can’t escape the term “psychedelic.” It’s not clear that either the author or artist were under the influence of anything but unfettered imagination, but still.

From early writings, we know that Finlay and Lovecraft influenced each other. In 1937, Lovecraft wrote an ode to the artist that appeared in Weird Tales (February 1937). The poem was inspired by another outre image from Finlay — his illustration for Robert Bloch’s “The Faceless God,” published in the May 1936 issue of Weird Tales.

Roy Hunt’s fascination with Lovecraft’s book and Finlay’s cover didn’t stop with his review. Following Hunt’s work over the following months brings us to several stunning examples of the impression made on the young artist.

“Necropolis,” poem and illustration by Roy V. Hunt, “The Alchemist,” v1n1, December 1940 (digitally restored from original)
“Star Spawn” by Roy V. Hunt, from “The Alchemist,” v1n4, December 1940

Hunt’s work is both derivative and original, taking us even further down the path of psychedelia. Fortunately for Hunt (and for us), fanzines of this period had just begun to reproduce images using lithography. The detail and clarity seen in “Star Spawn” wouldn’t have been possible without this technology.

Hunt’s illustration for “The Abyss” by Robert W. Lowndes (another fan crossover), Stirring Science Stories, February 1941
Roy Hunt’s rendering of Cthulhu in “Starlight,” v1n1, Spring 1941. This zine was published by Hunt’s “first fan,” Tom Wright.
Hunt’s cover illustration for “Voice of the Imagi-Nation,” n32, May 1944

We believe the web of influence and inspiration among early fans and fan artists warrants further exploration. Roy Hunt’s artistic career continued for several decades but never fully blossomed. FFE is considering the development of a robust retrospective to give this talented illustrator his due consideration. Other artists on our radar for similar treatment include Morris Scott Dollens, John V. Baltadonis, Nils Frome and John Giunta. Stay tuned!

In 1940, Ray Bradbury Asked, “Are You Ad Conditioned?”

The latest video from First Fandom Experience brings to life a three-page screed by a young Ray Bradbury addressing the issue of the incongruous and annoying ads in pulp magazines.

The piece appeared in the Spring 1940 issue of Sweetness and Light, an edgy, satirical fanzine from a faction of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. A full reading of the piece is presented along with historical context and a selection of the offending advertisements. Enjoy!