The Art of Science Fiction

It’s common knowledge that Science Fiction (or Scientific Romance as it was originally called) was very much a product of its time.  A combination of Victorian adventure story, the influence of war and Empire, the speed and revelations of the industrial revolution (and the associated scientific advances), and, in the hands of the best writers, a literary critique of the times.  There are earlier traces of the speculative and the fantastic, but it was the Victorians that firmly set the template of what we now know as Science Fiction.

Title-pageEven early explorations of this new form of writing were associated with striking visual art, which is wholly appropriate for the nature of the genre.

A good example are the illustrations for the 1905 French edition of H.G. Well’s ‘The War of The Worlds’ (first published in 1897).  Henrique Alvim Corrêa (1876–1910) was a Brazilian artist working in Belgium who created wonderfully atmospheric images, full of darkness, light and menace, an example of which can be seen to the left.

As was common at the time, many of the stories we now know as novels began life as serialised stories in popular magazines like The Strand Magazine, Pearson’s Magazine, and The Idler.  It’s wasn’t until the 1920’s though that specialist Science Fiction magazines began to appear.Amazing Stories

Beginning with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories in 1926 – these highly illustrated magazines soon proliferated and spread the graphic iconography of the genre as much, if not more, than the words from which they originated.

In a strange way the magazines, which were there to spread the ‘word’ of Science Fiction were superseded by the images they used to illustrate the text.  When the cinematic Science Fiction boom of the 1950’s took hold it would only be a short time before the age of the magazine was over (apart from a few survivors).

Although I love early Science Fiction stories (I’d read all of H.G Well’s short stories before I’d left school), I did not feel as much of a fondness for the mid-20th century stuff (and the space operas were just a drag!).  I was far more attached to the films of the 1950’s Science Fiction craze (many of which were based on novels) and even now I would rather see a Science Fiction film than read a Science Fiction book (probably because Science Fiction is such a fantastically visual genre).  I think this is part of the reason why I have migrated to the relative of Science Fiction in the speculative fiction genre that is The Weird.

Village Of The DamnedSince the magazines lost their near-monopoly on Science Fiction stories and the eventual decline in such movies (The Village of The Damned being one of the last original stories of the era), the graphic or illustrative element of the genre flourished on the covers of paperback books.

I remember in the 80’s and 90’s seeing loads of classic Science Fiction paperbacks with cover art from the 1960’s and 70’s in charity shops – but of course, like so many other things, I did not appreciate them at the time!  It is now rare to see the striking and strange book covers at all, and particularly the first editions (paperback or otherwise) anywhere at all.

Fortunately I recently came across a collection of these speculative stories from another age and I decided to buy the lot!  They look stunning and on the whole are in fantastic condition; but my mind is skewed towards the Weird and that is where my heart is, so reluctantly I have decided to pass them on.  Just looking at the covers makes you wonder what imaginative wonders the pages contain and I would love to have the time to read them all but it’s just not possible.

I currently have them for sale very cheaply on eBay, here, but be quick, the first lot end this Sunday evening (25th Oct.) – why not try a few, you never know what astounding stories await!

Here are just a few of the books available:-


The Tarn by Hugh Walpole

Hugh WalpoleSo, who was Hugh Walpole?

Well, apparently he was a hugely successful, well regarded and extremely popular author in the 1920’s and 30’s!  Never heard of him?  Nor had I until I was browsing the shelves in Waterstones a couple of months ago – I came across a collection of his supernatural tales (published by Tartarus Press).  Being a huge fan the uncanny tale I was interested to find out more about him.

Of course my first recourse (and the usual lazy one) was to refer to Wikipedia, which actually sums him up quite nicely in the first paragraph:-

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE (13 March 1884 – 1 June 1941) was a New Zealand-born English novelist. A prolific writer, he published thirty-six novels, five volumes of short stories, two plays and three volumes of memoirs. His skill at scene-setting, his vivid plots, his high-profile as a lecturer and his driving ambition brought him a large readership in the United Kingdom and North America. He was a best-selling author in the 1920s and 1930s, but his works have been neglected since his death.

I’m fascinated by forgotten authors and a champion of the unjustly maligned – why should Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf (all who recognised Walpole’s scope and ability) be remembered, but not Hugh Walpole?

It was while I was making my way through ‘The Weird(which I highly recommend, by the way – it also includes ‘The Willows’ by Algernon Blackwood, which I reviewed a while back) when I came across the very short story ‘The Tarn’.

The story involves two characters of quite different temperament, who used to be friends – well, one of them still thinks they are friends, the other one hates him but keeps it very well hidden.  This suppressed tension is wonderfully realised and the writhing hatred in one of the men is so perfectly described that it almost made me laugh with appreciation.  It is the way Walpole expresses how someone can, from very little idiosyncrasies, build them into an all-consuming hatred.

The story ends badly for both men (I won’t tell you how, I don’t want to spoil it!), but it is the way the last death happens which makes this a suitably weird story – was it something inexplicable, or was it simply a thing of the mind.

Apart from the writing, it is the ambiguity of the ending which makes this story stand out and I’m hoping to find similar inventiveness when I read more of Hugh Walpole’s supernatural short stories.