Still Startled After All These Years (magazine review).

Having acquired a copy of the current revival of ‘Startling Stories’ some time back, I thought for a while on the best way to approach a review. It occurred to me that, not only had there been a prior attempt at a relaunch in 2007, but also a facsimile edition of the very first issue, from January 1939 is currently available from Pulp Tales Press. Since I have all three first issues, I am in a good position to compare them.

Startling Stories Vol. 1. No. 1’ proudly claims both on the spine and on the contents page that it contains ‘The Best In Scientifiction’. It was published with the cover date, January, 1939 by Better Publications, who were also responsible for ‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’, as well as a plethora of other pulp magazines. For the first couple of years, ‘Startling Stories’ was edited by Mort Weisinger, a man who is perhaps best known for his work creating and editing various DC Comics characters in the 50s and 60s.

The magazine opens with a tribute by Otto Binder to author, Stanley G. Weinbaum, who had died a few years prior. It’s interesting to note that Binder uses the term ‘science fiction’ here, as opposed to the more archaic ‘scientifiction’, which suggests this issue came out just as the older term was being superseded by the one we all know.

This is followed by an interesting guest editorial by Otis Adelbert Kline ‘well-known scientifiction novelist’, titled ‘Prophets Of Science’, in which he compares Science Fiction authors to the prophets of the past.

‘Startling Stories’ was always known for including a ‘complete novel’, with several short stories as back-up. The novel in this very first issue explains the reason for the tribute to Stanley G. Weinbaum, as it’s an unpublished work of his, titled ‘The Black Flame’. On checking further, it seems that he’d previously written another piece called ‘Dawn Of Flame’, which appeared as the title piece of a 1936 memorial story collection. The two were combined as a ‘fix-up’ to form the novel, ‘The Black Flame’, which was first published by Fantasy Press in 1948. It would be interesting to read that fix-up novel, as I found ‘The Black Flame’ as published in this issue, certainly worked well enough as a complete story.

Thomas Connor is executed for a crime he didn’t commit and by some deeply unlikely combination of factors, awakens in the far future, to find himself in a very different world. In many ways, he finds himself in a very similar situation to that experienced by several of the characters of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. It’s very dated. Of course it is and a touch sexist in places, particularly in one instance where Connor comments that he’d expect to be better at something than a woman, simply because he’s a man. There’s also some supremely dodgy science, especially the part where it’s explained that they exterminated all the house cats, which increased the bird population, which in turn got rid of all those pesky bugs. It’s clear that Weinbaum knew little of ecosystems back in the 1930s and probably wasn’t a cat lover.

All that aside, the strength of this short novel lies in the way Weinbaum manages to sneak in some very interesting discussion about the pros and cons of immortality. Connor finds himself in the care of a group of people he gets on well with and soon signs up to help them against the oppressive dictatorship they so vehemently oppose. It seems these immortals, under their master, keep the secret of immortality to themselves.

To complicate matters, he meets an immortal lady, Margaret of Urbs (changed to Margot in the later book version), the titular Black Flame, who he has complicated feelings for. She, herself, is a complex character, showing many signs that immortality can badly affect the attitudes of the extremely long-lived. Her brother, the Master, seems less damaged than Margaret, but he rules as a benevolent dictatorship, while genuinely believing he has the best interests of all the people at heart.

As the story progresses, Connor becomes less and less sure which side he’s on and the reader can easily sympathise with him. Despite the faults, it’s a rewarding read.

I’d known of Weinbaum for decades, but hadn’t realised quite what a pioneer in the field he was and have to wonder what he may have produced had he not died so tragically young. He was only 33!

The pulps always tended to feature some very nice illustrations and in this case they are by Hans ‘Wesso’ Wessolowski.

Next, we get a two-page non-fiction piece on Albert Einstein by Jack Binder, older brother of Earl and Otto (Eando) Binder. Jack Binder was a comicbook writer/artist of the Golden Age and the creator of the original comic book ‘Daredevil’ for Lev Gleason Publications. This piece certainly reflects that, as it’s in the form of a hand-lettered, heavily illustrated piece, which would have been very at home in one of the comicbooks of the day. It was especially fascinating to read a piece on Einstein published when he was not only still alive, but was actively seeking American citizenship just before the outbreak of World War Two.

The following story is a reprint. ‘The Eternal Man’ by D.D. Sharp originally appeared in ‘Science Wonder Stories, Vol. 1, No. 3’ (August 1929). Apparently, it had been decided to run classic reprints due to repeated requests from readers, presumably of the publisher’s other titles. We believe them. Thousands wouldn’t!

The fact that we have a posthumous novel, that the author had failed to sell, followed by a reprint is odd enough. This is exacerbated by the fact that this reprint also involves the concept of eternal life. Accompanied by a nice illustration by Frank R. Paul, It’s actually a very good story, which had a, never reprinted, as far as I’m aware, sequel, ‘The Eternal Man Revives’, published in the summer 1930 issue of ‘Wonder Stories Quarterly’.

Another factual piece follows, under the heading, ‘Thrills In Science: The Life-Secret Of Mice And Men’ by the editor, Mort Weisinger. This is a quartet of short pieces told in the style of short stories, about Joseph Priestly: discoverer of oxygen, Professor Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen: discoverer of X-rays, Robert Koch: discoverer of microbes and Jeremiah Horrocks, the first man to predict and observe the passage of Venus across the Sun.

I confess that the prospect of yet another non-fiction piece at this point was getting a little tiresome and I skipped ‘Science Question Box’, which was a letter column, specifically for scientific questions. I had wondered how they managed this, it being the first issue, but then I noticed the names of the questioners: L.E. Princeton, J.R. Stanford, E.O.B. Berkeley and a D.W. from Elida, New Mexico. Hmm.

Up to this point, I had been pretty impressed with this magazine. Yes, it suffered from outdated attitudes and scientific knowledge as one would expect, but there was more substance to the stories that I’d expected.

Sadly, this did not carry over to the final short story in this issue. ‘Science Island’ by Eando Binder is a mad scientist story involving an attempt to ‘take over the world’ that would have astonished Pinky and the Brain in it’s sheer idiocy.

A group of five scientists, all evidently of the mad persuasion, have transplanted their brains into giant robot bodies. There’s a particularly silly situation in that the ostensible hero thinks he and his girlfriend have been shrunk in size because the robot bodies and all the equipment they use are so big. Apparently, they had to be that large, as miniaturisation wasn’t one of their combined scientific skills. The fact that their clothes and his gun had shrunk with them didn’t challenge this assumption. When I described him as ‘the ostensible hero’, I meant that he doesn’t actually do anything of any import. The denouement of the story relies on one of the evil scientists being somewhat less competent than his CV suggested. I have to say that I’ve read much better work from the Binders.

Finally, we have an actual letters page, ‘The Ether Vibrates’, which boasts missives of encouragement from assorted well-known authors, including Manly Wade Wellman, Edmond Hamilton and Isaac Asimov.

The website for original first issue facsimile is:-

http://www.pulptalespress.com/

ISBN: 978-1-64720-507-2

All in all, it’s not at all bad. The concept of including a full-length novel in every issue, as opposed to endless serials, is one that really appealed to me and I was pleased to see that format continued in the latest revival. Before we get to that, however.

‘Startling Stories No. 1’ (Wild Cat Books 2007) at just 66 pages, including the covers, is half the size of that 1939 pulp. It does copy the original logo, but the reduced page count obviously put paid to any chance of the publisher continuing the original novel, plus a couple of short stories format.

The other major difference is that they decided to introduce a series of shared worlds, in which multiple authors are invited to contribute stories to. Each story is preceded by a description of the characters and the worlds in which they operate. I confess this didn’t really fill me with much hope.

The late Tom Johnson was perhaps best known as a highly respected pulp historian. He edited the pulp fanzine, ‘Echoes’, which ran for one hundred issues. Frankly, his fiction was a touch less impressive. It has to be said that he was an unashamed writer of pulp pastiches and he can’t be criticised too strongly for that but I remember one writer of my acquaintance commenting that Johnson’s pulp hero fiction was derivative to the point of plagiarism.

The introduction to the world of Captain Danger includes a description of various alien races, so clichéd that I began to despair. We have races evolved from cats, insects, lizards and the inevitable androids.

I have to be brutally honest here that if I hadn’t decided to include the first issues of all three iterations of ‘Startling Stories’ in one all-encompassing review/comparison, I would not have even finished ‘Calling Captain Danger’! It faithfully encompasses all the faults that we attribute to the times the stories in that original 1939 issue were written and actually goes further.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the least bit thought-provoking to balance that archaic wrong-headedness out. From the insane concept of an air show, involving 1500 spaceships flying at incredible speeds, yet coming within yards of the planet’s surface, let alone of each other, to the rather silly situation of assorted females of various alien races fawning all over Captain Steve Danger, there’s nothing to recommend here at all.

Even the character name, Captain Danger, is lifted from an actual pulp character. The original Captain Danger was one of many air ace characters who appeared around the beginning of World War Two. Created by ‘Lt. Scott Morgan’, the house name for F.E. Reichnitzer and Robert S. Brown, he appeared in a dozen or so issues of ‘Air War’ beginning in February 1940.

He was an air ace and ‘air spy’ who, in the words of one critic, ‘travelled far and wide, taking whatever assignments and missions came his way much to the regret of the Axis powers’. If nothing else, this made me quite thankful that this run of ‘Startling Stories’ didn’t boast a big enough page-count to allow the inclusion of a novel-length cover story.

The second, and final story in this issue, ‘On Omega Station: The Ballad Of Malik Blayne’ is another introduction to a proposed shared world. This time the hero is actually a criminal. It’s rife with clichés again, but author K.G. McAbee handles it all rather better than Johnson. This one shows its influences from the old radio/movie serials of the past by ending in a cliff-hanger. It definitely engaged me more than the first story, but not enough to convince me to seek out the follow-up.

The magazine closes with just the introduction/bible for a third shared world series, ‘The Space-Hawk Squadron’ by Wayne Wheeler. This is another team of space-cops, this time with winged suits that enable them to fly as fast as some spaceships. The author describes the feel he was going for as Lensmen meet the Green Lantern Corps, albeit it seemed obvious to me that DCs Thangorian Hawkmen were also an influence. It could be fun, albeit it does sound more suited to a comicbook series, an opinion held up by an excellent character sketch by Keith Howell.

In conclusion, this version of ‘Startling Stories’ didn’t feel like it really tried to capture the feel of the original, focusing as it does on just one type of Science Fiction adventure series. Later issues featured stories by a couple of rather good authors of my acquaintance, which they told me were not part of any shared universe, so that aspect may have been discontinued quite quickly. Also, volume two saw editor Ron Hanna, replaced by William Carney Jr., an increased page count and the reprinting of classic pulp SF tales, this actually began in the sixth and final issue of volume one. Of the authors involved with the magazine’s launch, only K.G. McAbee seems to be around for most of the second volume, which ran for a total of eight issues, ending in summer 2012.

Should anyone wish to read this issue, it can be found for free download at https://ia800502.us.archive.org/15/items/Startling_Stories_001_2007-01.Wild_Cat/Startling_Stories_001_2007-01.Wild_Cat.pdf

The latest ‘Startling Stories’ is published by Wildside Press and edited by Douglas Draa, the same man responsible for the successful revival of ‘Weirdbook’. Where the Wild Cat Books first issue was much slimmer than the original 132 page pulp magazine, this new issue is much bigger! At 252 pages, it contains the traditional full-length novel and quite a lot more.

As with ‘Weirdbook’, Draa & Wildside Press continued the numbering from the original run. Hence this is Vol. 34, No. 1. It doesn’t take into account the two volumes published by Wild Cat Books, simply because Draa was unaware of their existence at the time of publication.

I have to say that the sheer size of this magazine made it a little unwieldy for me to read comfortably and I was grateful to have also received an advance copy in .pdf format.

Taking its cue from the original pulps, we get a short novel, backed up with shorter stories and even a poem. Like that original first issue, we get a classic reprint. On this occasion, it’s a tale that author Robert Silverberg had hoped to sell to ‘Startling Stories’, but he’d left it a little too late, the magazine had folded and he sold it elsewhere.

There are so many stories in this issue that I really can’t mention them all. Instead, I’ll cherry pick the most notable.

The magazine opens on very safe ground for me, in that ‘Cradle Of The Deep’ is a new adventure for Mike Chinn’s popular Damian Paladin character. Having had the great pleasure of editing a couple of collections of Damian Paladin stories for Pro Se Productions, I knew I was going to enjoy this. I had some concerns that Paladin and his partner Leigh Oswin might not really be a fit for this particular venue, but this story leans towards Science Fiction, rather than the supernatural involving, as it does, an encounter with a monstrous, but evidently natural entity living on the seabed.

I’ve never previously come across the work of Stephen Persing but, warning, I’m going to gush here, this is quite possibly the best first contact story I’ve ever read. The lead protagonist is a latter day female, space-faring David Attenborough-type, who is making a documentary on some huge creatures that appear to be able to live and travel in the vacuum of space unaided. For a change, no shots are fired in this amazing feel-good story of humankind’s first encounter with a truly different race of beings. There are no bipeds with funny head adornments here and no universal translators. This one stirred genuine emotion in me and, at least for a short while, it rekindled my hope for the future of the human race. If this doesn’t win an award or at least get included in a best of the year anthology, I will be devastated.

M. Stern’s ‘Payload’ concerns a scientist on the verge of a breakthrough in using nanotech to prolong human life, who realises that he won’t live long enough to benefit from his own research. He conceives a very original method of ensuring he continues to exist in some way. I liked this one quite a lot.

Draa stated in his introduction that this issue had the first and final contribution to ‘Startling Stories’ from Franklyn Searight, a mainstay of ‘Weirdbook’ who sadly passed away in December 2020 at the age of 83. It is, indeed, a very worthy contribution, albeit it did again make me question the remit for submitting stories to this magazine as I felt it may have been a better fit for ‘Weirdbook’. I have only read the very first issue of the original run, so I don’t know if it originally strayed this far from Science Fiction in the contents, but I certainly had no objection to this neat little dark urban fantasy tale. It’s a great story with a nice twist ending, unexpected if only by the protagonist. Searight is, I agree, a sad loss to the genre of speculative fiction.

Ahmed A. Khan’s ‘T. Gipps And The Time flies’ is mainly notable for being what seemed at first to be an interesting story about a space travelling problem-solver, but panned out to be just two pages leading to the punchline of a very bad joke. Be prepared to groan!

If you’re looking for a pastiche of that classic early Science Fiction style, then you couldn’t find a better example than ‘The Angry Planet’ by D.J. Tyrer. Vinn Mazell of Z Patrol answers a distress call from the human colony on planet XC-23 ‘Red Eden’. Tyrer effortlessly captures the dated style, while managing to avoid most of the issues that can cause. It’s the sort of story that would have worked quite well as a classic ‘Star Trek’ adventure, involving as it does the need to reach an understanding with a startlingly different life-form.

On a dystopian Earth in 2384, there’s a single world government. Flannery Quinn is a government assassin, sent to eliminate an official who dared to share subversive opinions. It’s a bleak tale of a character who is not happy in his work, who does have lines he will not cross, which will have repercussions. Rie Sheridan Rose’s ‘The Heart Of A Hitman’ certainly captured my interest, but then it simply ended. It read very much like the opening chapter of a novel.

I wasn’t that keen on Steve Dilks’ ‘The Vaults Of Van Erach’. This is down to personal taste, I think. It seemed quite apparent that Dilks’ was attempting to capture the style of the sword and sorcery novels that came out in the late 60s or early 70s by such authors as Gardner Fox, and Lin Carter. In this, he’s very successful but, while I do enjoy the books of those authors, I find the purple prose style a little harder to take in a more modern era. I could absolutely understand why someone else would really like it, though.

I really liked Andre E. Harewood’s ‘Totality’. It’s a very well thought out and original take on time travel, albeit, much like ‘The Heart Of A Hitman’, it ended just when things were getting really interesting. I have no idea if a follow-up story is planned and I could certainly see how such a thing might be a challenge to write, but I so want to know what happened next, if such a linear concept even applies in this case.

‘The Blood Red Sky Of Mars’ by Adrian Cole caused me some frustration, through no fault of the author. It’s a new story in his ‘Dream Lords’ series, of which the original trilogy was published in 1975-76, which was when I last read them! The ‘Dream Lords’ trilogy was very much influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett not, as the original Zebra Books cover blurbs claimed: ‘In the Tradition of Tolkien and Lovecraft!

I’d have rather liked to re-read the series, plus a previous new story, which appeared in ‘Cirsova magazine No. 8’, before reading this one. As it turns out, Cole had recently put together new, revised and expanded editions of the original trilogy, the first of which was published in 2021 by Pulp Hero Press, under the new title, ‘Rebellion’.

Sadly Pulp Hero Press then decided not to publish any more fiction titles, which leaves books 2 and 3 looking for a new home. To be honest, I really didn’t have the time to re-read the entire series before submitting this review in any case, so I bit the bullet and jumped in to ‘The Blood Red Sky Of Mars’ cold. I am also assured that the new, revised versions of the original trilogy will come out from another publisher at some point in the future.

Thankfully, Adrian Cole is a pro who knows how to make a new story in a series accessible to new readers. There’s a brief paragraph at the beginning, which sets up all we need to know about the history. This new story is set a century after the original series and we follow new recruit, Voruum, in training on Mars as he learns that the problems the protagonists had to face in that original trilogy might not be quite as over as they were assumed to be and he can’t rely on his people’s leaders to help him. It’s up to Cole’s usual high standard, which I have to say is rather higher now than it was back in the mid-70s, when I first became a fan of his work.

The longer form story for this issue is ‘Horizon’, by John Gregory Betancourt. At over 30,000 words, it’s easily as long as many of the ‘short novels’ included in the original run of ‘Startling Stories’. I have to say that I’m most familiar with Betancourt as an editor and publisher, albeit I am aware of his contributions to Philip José Farmer’s ‘Riverworld’ series and Roger Zelazny’s ‘Amber’ series, both of which are on my skyscraper high to-be-read heap.

In some ways, this one reminded me of the current TV adaptation of Asimov’s ‘Foundation’, in that it involves a family ruled empire, spanning many generations and those who oppose them. There are, of course, many series, both in fantasy and Science Fiction, which cover this ground, but most of them are written from the perspective of the oppressed, against the evil empire. ‘Horizon’ is far more nuanced than I’m accustomed to in works of this sort.

Frankly, it’s really good and makes for a very strong finish, as far as the new material in this issue goes. Told from the perspective of one of the young twin sons of the emperor, as he remembers the events long since passed, the author leaves us with enough hints of what is to come, so that it will be less of a disappointment if there’s never any follow-up, but leaves me rather hoping that there will be.

The final item in this issue is the reprint. ‘Sunrise On Mercury’, Robert Silverberg explains in his introduction, is a story that might have been in ‘Startling Stories’ had the magazine not folded just as his writing career was really starting to take off. In fact, it was published in the May 1957 issue of ‘Science Fiction Stories’.

It’s another fascinating first contact story of sorts, that tells the story of an ill-fated manned mission to Mercury’s ‘Twilight Belt, that narrow area of not-cold and not-heat where Sunside and Darkside met to provide a thin band of barely tolerable territory, a ring nine thousand miles in 
circumference and ten or twenty miles wide.’ Present day scientific knowledge might make this concept somewhat unconvincing now but, if one can ignore that minor issue, this is an excellent story and well worth our time.

It had occurred to me that there were two possible ways of approaching a revival of this classic pulp title. They could have decided to go for a purely nostalgic approach, and simply feature stories that harked back to the style of the classic scientifiction of the 30s and 40s or they could attempt to create a more up-to-date magazine that followed the original concept, but in a more modern style. Draa appears to be embracing both approaches, which certainly makes for an interesting publication, which I definitely intend to keep reading.

If I had to be critical, I would have to say that there are a few more typos in some of the stories than I would have liked to see, but I’m sure this will be ironed out in future issues.

‘Startling Stories Vol. 34 No. 2’ is also now available to buy. Now stated to be an annual publication, the magazine has slimmed down to 200 pages, making it slightly less unwieldy to hold. The most welcome change is the inclusion of a good number of very nice internal illustrations.

The website addy for the current series is:-

https://emea01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwildsidepress.com%2Fstartling-stories-2021-issue-edited-by-doug-draa-paper%2F&data=05%7C01%7C%7C4fc36d6515ed46a528ed08dafa24c1cb%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C638097333011619175%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000%7C%7C%7C&sdata=pOeV96R35MYenwwGY7IA6WIkOIvYYhhcWVmNa9js2Zw%3D&reserved=0 

ISBN for Vol 34, No. 1 is 978-1-4794575-64

Dave Brzeski

January 2023

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