Return to story index

by Capt Kenneth F Slater

This article first appeared in the magazine "The Journal of Science Fiction", Issue Number 4, dated 1953.
Editors and Publishers: Charles Freudenthal and Edward Wood.
Country of first publication: USA (Chicago)
This work is Copyright. All rights are reserved.

portrait of kenneth slater 1951

British Fantasy Pocket Books

Capt Kenneth F Slater (1917-2008)

Manuscript received by publisher February 1952.

In my early days as an officer In the British Army I was informed (among other things) that the correct way to write a letter was, first: give a rough outline of the subject with references, second: make your "points" in order of importance, and third: summarise, draw conclusions, outline action re- quired, end etcetera.

As far as I am aware this should hold good for writing articles, but I never seem to accomplish anything so neat and tidy! Please bear with me then, while I hum and haw and haver on the subject of British Science-Fantasy books

A few generalities first. The standard of the British items varies from the "very poor" through "mediocre" to the "almost good", with an occasional "good" item, and a rare issue that I would label "excellent." You may judge my standards by the fact that I label Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction good to excellent; Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories mediocre to excellent; Amazing Stories very poor to mediocre. My statements do not include the odd items put out by Penguin and Pan books, such as the late George Orwell’s Animal Farm . Doyle's The Lost World , and Stapledon's epic Last and First Men . In the main I have as my target the "original" work from publishers who are making a "special line" of science-fantasy.

Next, it must be recalled that the British reading public doesn't have a history of twenty- plus years of wide-spread science-fantasy publication, and therefore has not yet been "educated" in the field. Consequently the type of story acceptable is simpler in form than that currently in use in the United States of America. There is, nevertheless, a good hard core of readers with an adult taste, and therefore progress to the "modern" type of story should take considerably less than the twenty-five years of development required from the days of the first Amazing to the current Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction story types.

Third, the reasons for the sudden influx of science-fantasy pocket books must be examined. These reasons are varied but fall into two broad classes.
One is that a number of publishers noted the quantity of reprint American science-fantasy magazines appearing on the British stands, and naturally jumped on the band wagon with original material.

Another is that the "blue nosed boys" became aware of a large amount of pornographic literature circulating, with some resultant confiscations, and a general tightening of censorship-even mildly "dirty" stuff was then frowned upon- and so certain publishers of paperbacks had to find new fields to exploit. ... These are, I think, the two main reasons which, combined, resulted in the flood of eight penny paperbacks dealing in science fantasy, which started in 1949 and still continues.

These remarks serve as the rough outline recommended by the Army, end now I will make some points. If for points you read "talk about some publishers" we will understand each other, as I intend to discuss the various publications in that fashion.

One of the most prolific publishers has been Curtis Warren, Ltd. with some thirty titles issued since late 1949. All these have been single complete stories, a fact that is common to almost all of these publishers. The first two titles issued were Earth Invasion Battalion and Murder by Telecopter credited to a gentleman named Denis Hughes. Neither of these two did I manage to read. I tried, oh yes, I tried..., but what little I read, I forgot as soon as possible.

Subsequently, Mr. Hughes has produced a few titles, but Curtis Warren’s mainstay author s have been Gill Hunt and King Lang, who have at this writing have been credited with nine and seven titles respectively. The tales, despite their often impressive titles, have been simply plotted, and written in a style more suited to westerns, detective stories and love romances than to science fiction. The pseudo-science has been unlimited, the science negligible.

I must say here that these comments are mainly formed from other people’s opinions, my own reading of the stories being in most cases a matter of a few odd pages here and there. However, I'm informed that the standard has improved, the pseudo- in front of the science, decreasing, and the style of writing becoming a little less unimpressive. So I recently read two or three of their works, and found them to be quite enjoyable, although capable of much more Improvement.

This is understandable. It is highly probable that few if any of the writers employed by Curtis Warren, or even most of the other publishers had heard of science-fiction before 1949. When called upon to produce such material one can imagine the authors feverishly studying the few reprint USA magazines available, and attempting to formulate stories. Naturally such material as they produced would be glossed with a few planets, ray guns substituted for automatics, spaceships for horses or other Terran means of transport and bems (Bug Eyed Monsters) for Indians, crooks or what have you. But ’basically it would remain the same.
As they became more acquainted with the field and its possibilities, their imaginations would be given wider rein. Let it be hoped that as they realise also the limitations of scientific "extrapolation", their stories keep more within the bounds of reason and logic.

Scion Publications Ltd. is the second publishing house with an immense stack of pseudo-scientific fiction to their credit or discredit, depending on your viewpoint.

Stock author of this series has been Vargo Statten. A rumor of high probability has it that this name is a pseudonym for John Russell Fearn, and from what few of these pocket books I have read, this rumor has my agreement. ... These stories contain references to every conceivable bit of equipment from the kitchen sink upwards- and downwards.


Not always has Mr Fearn's identity been hidden from view, however. Under his own name four titles have appeared. Warrior of Mars. Emperor of Mars . Red Men of Mars . and Goddess of Mars . In this series the hero is kidnapped by a Flying Saucer.. ... They have been searching Earth for a man with an "aureal vibratory-rate" of some fabulous figure and lo and behold, our hero is the man. I only managed to read two of them, by which time I would happily have seen either side blow themselves and their opponents out of existence. These were published by Hamilton and Co (Stafford) Ltd., who have subsequently improved their standards. You will read more of them later.

A somewhat higher standard was set by World Fantasy Classics (Messrs. John Pemberton and World Distributors) with a series of reprints and ori- ginals. .First of these was a good old Edmond (World Saver) Hamilton with Lord of the Unknown better known as "The Prisoner of Mars" May 1939.
Two items reprinted from the Australian paperback fiction, The Metal Monster and Master Mind Menace . both by Belli Luigi, would have done better never to have been printed at all, at least as science-fiction, being of the pseudo-scientific detective type. The poor man's Sax Rohmer. Last title in the series to date (Editorial Note: This article was received in February 1952 ) was When the Earth Died by Karl Mannheim, a yarn which appealed to my peculiar sense of humor, but which was not designed to be humorous but rather tragic. This is not recommended reading. To the best of my knowledge it isn't a reprint.

As you will have noted, World Fantasy Classics have not been prolific publishers, nor can they, with but one 'original' story under their imprint be considered representative of the British publisher who is taking a serious (?) interest in science fiction. Nevertheless they must receive special mention on one point. The format of their publications has been undoubtedly the best. A glossy semi-stiff cover with quite good art work plus a high grade of paper, almost of book quality, coupled with clear and careful printing add up to make this short range of pocket books an outstanding effort by themselves. When one also considers that instead of the common wire stitches, they are 'bound' book fashion with thread, they make a very good value for eighteen pence (1s 6d) which is the rough equivalent of twenty-five cents American.

Of the more productive publishers, but slight mention has been made of one for which I have something in the way of a tender regard. Messrs. Hamilton (Stafford) Ltd. Commencing with the title Mushroom Men From Mars, they have by the end of 1952 issued twenty-eight pocket books in their Authentic Science Fiction Fortnightly series. A paper shortage forced a change in both title and frequency to Science Fiction Monthly . It is now titled Authentic Science Fiction . In my opinion the first four or five titles were not too good, but an honest endeavor has been made by the publishers and editors to improve the standard, with the result that many of the tales subsequently used, have been of a much higher standard.

However, this is not the main reason for my tender regard. Of all the publishers in Britain, Hamiltons have been the only ones to recognise the existence of a 'reader following' i. e. fantasy fandom. Despite the fact they use but one long story in each issue (now changed), they print readers' letters, have an editorial department end invite criticism, use a small number of book reviews, and are willing to give publicity to amateur efforts in the field.

Not only this, but the editorial staff are willing and glad to find new authors, and give manuscripts serious consideration. Unsuitable yarns are returned with quite a bit more than the usual rejection slip. If the author shows any promise at all, he gets a lengthy letter explaining the faults of his masterpiece and offering suggestions for improvement. How do 1 know? I have three such letters already!

Mr. L. G. Holmes, the first, editor of Authentic Science Fiction, was, I gather, a little uncertain of his ground when the series commenced and enlisted the practical aid of H. J. Campbell who became Technical Editor and is now the editor even though retaining the word technical before the editor.

In addition to the Authentic Science Fiction series, other occasional pocket books on science fiction themes appear from this house. Hamilton’s material is of constantly increasing caliber. Authentic Science Fiction is definitely here to stay and I for one am glad to see it- which is more than I can say for the next batch of science fiction (?) "literature" to be mentioned.

Gaywood Press have some of the advantages of World Fantasy Classics in format. Having said that, I’ve covered them. ... Operation Venus did bear the name of John Russell Fearn, and is notable only for the fact that it was in most parts of the British Isles the first sign of this science-fiction rash.
About the same time Worlds at War appeared, from Tempest Publishing Co. This title is notable on two counts: first, it contained short stories, the only pocketbook in this crop with them (except the John Spencer magazines, of which more later) and second, because of the surprisingly high standard of these yarns. At least one author's name will be familiar to a few American readers- F. G. Rayer. His story "Fearful Banner" was the lead story of the five published in this one hundred and twenty-eight page pocket book/magazine and was an excellent short piece. Other material Included: "masque" by 'Somerset Draco; "Dodie Slammed the Door" by E. R, James; "Scapegoat" by Edward Hannah plus "The Cleverjacks and the Moon stalks. " [2018 NOTE: All apart from Fearful Barrier were by E R James!]

[2018 NOTE: This 1953 article referred to "Fearful Banner", an error repeated often, due to the scarcity of the original, which I have! The correct title was Fearful Barrier].

At a very much earlier date, 1946 in fact, when New Worlds was published under the imprint of Pendulum Publications, and the fan-financed Nova Publications was not even a dream, two science-fiction and one fantasy-fiction pocket books were issued by Pendulum. The science-fiction yarns were Wings Across Time and Other Eyes Watching . The fantasy item contained a selection of short unknown type stories of good quality. When Pendulum failed, this series ceased, and for three years the field was empty, except for such items as Penguin and similar publishers might put out. I mention these purely in passing. Pendulum's efforts had no connection with the present crop, and from Penguin I have letters on file stating that there is no public interest in science-fiction, and they therefore don't consider publishing any -this despite their printing of Stapledon’s Last and First Men . Orwell's Animal Farm, and several similar items!

To return to the main issue- the issue of science fiction by people who do claim to be publishing it. John Spencer and Co. entered the field fairly early with Futuristic Science Stories and Worlds of Fantasy . Both of these contained short stories. Crude stuff, very definitely of the "Cowboy and Indian school." All planets, and they are countless, have the same gravity, the same atmosphere, and pretty much the same inhabitants. Mutants appear- usually disguised as moronic individuals with hulking brute bodies. Robots clank onto the scene, fire a burst or two from their inexhaustible six-sorry-ray guns, and clank off. Vegetation sucks blood, androids with warped brains enslave innocent "Earthian" maids. Rustlers-apologies-space pirates swoop down and pillage the cattle-excuse me-valuable umpterlon ore. In the face of all these devastating dangers, and through some three or four thousand words, the heroes survive, to achieve a brilliant coup d'etat or something in the last two hundred words.

So successful was this amazing literature, that John Spencer and Co. have added to their string of titles Tales of Tomorrow.

Early in 1951, after a combined total of eleven issues, they faded out, and I thought they had gone forever. But no! Miracles do happen. As I was writing the original draft of this article, Futuristic Science Stories #5 and Worlds of Fantasy #4 were sent to me by John Spencer and Co. More important, they were vastly improved in content. I was able to read all the yarns, and actually enjoyed three, in both publications! I was reliably informed that the titles would continue to appear at roughly bimonthly intervals.

Aside from this, when I was attempting to point out to John Spencer and Co. that far better material was available than that which they were printing, I sent them a yarn by Terry Jeeves. This yarn was intended for publication in my magazine Operation Fantast, and a copy was sent to them purely to demonstrate what a fan could write for me, without payment. This was carefully explained in my letter, and I offered to get fans to send manuscripts for possible publication, pointing out that most of the fans would be glad of a purely modest payment, plus the egoboost.

A letter accepting story, accompanied by a check, was the reply I received. Was I shaken! Terry received the payment, of course, and he received the credit in the book also. But yarn was in my opinion the best published in those eleven issues. What did upset me, was trying to find another yarn to print in Operation Fantast -but at least one manuscript sent to Operation Fantast has earned a cash payment!

[2018 note- John Spencer & Co went on to publish many books about 45,000 words, under the name Badger Books, and paid their authors GBP 22.50 per book in 1965]

After John Spencer and Co., I have only three publishers to mention. Messrs. Edwin Self has only two titles although others are scheduled. George Sheldon Brown is credited with Destination Mars (familiar sounding title, isn't it?) and Conquerors of Venus appears under the name of Edgar Rees Kennedy. For comments see Curtis Warren remarks.

The most recent of all. Cherry Tree Pocket Books (Kemsley Press) has entered with a series of five titles, all USA reprints. These have been Kid From Mars by Oscar J. Friend; the Wollhelm anthology Flight Into Space : John Carstairs . Space Detective by F. B. Long; The Sunken World by Stanton A. Coblentz; The Last Spaceship by Murray Leinster.

There is another reprint series by W. H. Allen of Edgar Rice Burroughs' material. Mainly Tarzan tales, but of the eighteen titles so far listed do include Princess of Mars and Carson of Venus . Starting level in price with the other publishers, Allen raised the rate to 2/- (approximately thirty cents) with #11 in the series. However, an improvement in format made the additional cost worth it, and reprints of the earlier titles are also two shillings now.

Some general notes on format, covers, etc., and then I'll try to draw some conclusions. Average size of all these publications is 5" x 7" with a variance of not more than half an inch. Pages number from 114 to 160. Covers have been lurid in the main.

Scion, until recently favored a cover picture which is best described as "kaleidoscopic", vari-colored triangles, rectangles, and other geometrical forms combined to form a very inferior picture, but still eye-catching.

Curtis Warren's covers are brightly colored daubs, reds, greens, yellows, and blues. Usually a human figure or two, and some kind of mechanism, taking up all the cover space. No detail, no background, and some- what "smeary." Others have been more varied in type, but in none of them would any accurate depiction of the story be disclosed, with the exception of Authentic Science Fiction . For binding, wire staples are the normal method. Paper is a thinnish pulp, but fairly tough. Most of the items are liable to lose their covers before they become unreadable. So much for that.

Now for those conclusions -but just what conclusions can be drawn, puzzles me.

One, however, sticks out. That is that the British market has been flooded with puerile trash, paper wasting, which is more inclined to frighten the intelligent reader away from, than attract him to science fiction.

A second is that an awful lot of paper has been wasted; but that is not unusual, and hardly worthy of comment. A third, perhaps not so apparent, is that there has been a slight improvement in the standards over the past two years, and that some publishers are steadily continuing this improvement. They have perhaps realised that the appeal of "startling" literature exists in other than the "lower adolescent" and "moronic" groups of readers. (Note, the fact that "lower adolescent" and "moronic" have been used together does not mean that I consider the terms synonymous. I don't. Some publishers appear to, that is all.)

It may also be concluded that British publishers, so long with their heads buried beneath a pile of mixed "detective, western, and romance" fiction, have at last realised that another form does exist.

Then again, the fact that so much unadulterated tripe can be produced, and sold, would tend to prove that it is what the general reading public of the British Isles want. If that is true. Lord help we few enlightened enthusiasts who subscribe to Astounding and Galaxy and read Heinlein with joy. That is not strictly true, I hope. The growth of science fiction in America took most of the thirty years to reach its present high level, and quite a bit of very low level stuff was and is still sold. I think we are making comparatively rapid progress, and feel that although we are starting at the bottom, and the publications are aimed at the lower levels, it may be safely assumed that the contagion of science-fiction will spread quickly to the upper levels of more discerning readers.

1952 Addenda (See editorial note below)

Hamilton is still improving, and about five months ago started a series of Panther titles, dropping their old pocket book series which had no specific title. The format, as with Authentic Science Fiction was improved, and the standard of the pocket books, in so far as the story content was concerned. greatly improved over the average British science-fiction pocket book.

John Spencer, in addition to their short story pocket books have now started one-long-yarn-only series with only one out so far. There is some slight improvement in format, although the quality of the writing is still strictly for the Juvenile market.

Curtis-Warren is now using "Curtis Books" as a house name for their fantasy and science-fiction pocket books. There has been a vast improvement in format and some of the cover pictures now used are really excellent, the binding is better, and the printing is legible in almost every copy I have seen. They have improved the story content, although still making the most outrageous claims as to the ancestry and writing qualifications of their writers. They have, or will have by the end of 1952, issued forty-two science-fiction titles and twenty fantasy titles during the year, and have a minimum of thirty scheduled for 1953.

Scion still continues, still printing titles by Vargo Statten. I understand that the contract with John Bussell Fearn expires next (?) October, and so the introduction of new authors is probable.

The Kemsley Newspapers (Cherry Tree pocket books) with twelve titles out are by far the best. latest reprints includes Who Goes There? , the John W. Campbell collection under the title of The Thing. Although they have many titles up their sleeves, only Nelson Bond's Lancelot Bigg s : Spaceman has been announced.

Gaywood Press, Ralph L. Finn and Astron del Martia titles, have not issued anything in the last six months, and although some one or two other houses have put out one or two titles, it would appear that in the main, the above mentioned publishers are the only ones firmly established in the wholesalers eyes, and therefore the major, and most-likely- to- succeed publishers.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Captain Slater's article was received by JSF in February of 1952, due to the long lapse of time, it was felt that Captain Slater should send some addenda for 1952 to bring the article up to date. Captain Slater holds a central position in the fandom of Great Britain. Few science fiction enthusiasts in the world can measure up to his record of achievements.

[To read about Ken see wikipedia and also a brief autobiography at Nebulasf].

Return to story index

The text of this article was sourced from