Wednesday, September 19, 2007

In which I envy UChicago students their excitingly literate neighborhood.

Greetings, and special greetings to both new and returning University of Chicago students. You are, of course, always welcome here, but especially this Saturday: the 57th Street Association is having a promotional event, and many of the stores along the street will stay open till midnight, including us! (I wish I'd had local bookstores open till midnight when I was a student -- I'm jealous!)

Even better, throughout the day on Saturday, we here at O'Gara and Wilson will be offering a 15% discount on all merchandise to anyone with a current student ID. And, as a special treat in the evening, we'll be selling pages from a 1500s book for only a dollar apiece ($5.00 to those without student ID)! You see, Doug had a 1500s book with a very unhappy binding and some seriously damaged pages lying around ... so since it was falling apart, we decided to sell the pages for a pittance to those who would appreciate them. Have you ever even seen a page from a 1500s book? Well, on Saturday, you can own one.

This week, mateys*, we will be focusing on one of my special passions: weird old bits of science fiction and fantasy! Much of the science fiction and fantasy that was published during the early parts of the genre's "Golden Age" came from pulp magazines, whose lurid covers and sensational stories were printed on the cheapest possible paper. As a result, most 1920s-50s pulp magazines are in a terribly sad state, if they made it to our time at all. The ones that still look beautiful are Collector's Items:

And they do look beautiful. I don't know if the pictures do them justice. When Doug first saw the covers, he actually thought they were reproductions!

"Weird Tales" is the biggest name among these -- it launched H.P. Lovecraft and other greats (this October 1928 issue is $350.00). "Strange Tales" is in the same vein -- and that snakey cover there adorns the very first issue ($400.00)! "Oriental Stories" (the Summer 1932 issue is $300.00) seems like the odd one out. It supposedly isn't quite as fantastical as the others, but Edward Said would snort to see me write that. It was started by the same people who put out "Weird Tales", and its exoticism is pretty appalling.

Indeed, if you compare Tables of Contents, you'll see that nearly all the same people wrote stories for "Weird Tales" and "Oriental Stories"; basically, they took their preposterous stories of creepiness, mysticism, great passions, and two-dimensional villains, and then simply transferred them to the faraway East, where such things were presumably commonplace. My jaw must have dropped a mile the first time I read a sentence like, "Despite her slant-eyes, the Chinese girl was quite beautiful." I'm glad things have changed -- we may not be perfect, but at least America's racism no longer has popular magazines to support it.

"Weird Tales" is still around, though it had a break of many years, but neither "Oriental Stories" nor "Strange Tales" made it through the 1930s. Fortunately, you don't need to spend a fortune to own one of those antique fantastical treasures. We have a whole bunch that are both Interesting and Affordable:

They aren't in condition as great as the Collectors' Items; many are missing covers, or dull, or have small tears. But some don't look half bad -- and best of all, we just half-priced a whole bunch of them, so there's a few stacks going for as little as $3.00 and up. You can read all kinds of stories about demons, werewolves, vampires, or even the Centauresses of Alpha Centauri without breaking the bank ... and most were never republished, so that's the only way you'll ever get access to such tales as "What Became of Aladdin's Lamp" or "The Satellite of Doom".

And there's even some non-science-fictiony type pulps mixed in there:

Basically, you can rely on anything that appeals to boys getting its own 1920s pulp (or ten zillion pulps). So you end up with stuff like the above "Railroad Magazine" ($6.25), whose table of contents is stuffed with true railroad adventures and "this rail day in history".

Of course, there were fantastical books long before the 20s (who hasn't heard of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells)? One such is James de Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, and we have a copy from 1888 -- it's a Favorite of mine:

The novel was originally serialized in "Harper's" (which wouldn't touch anything like it today, I'm sure -- the genre's come a long way ...). This is the first edition in book form, featuring lots of interior etchings:

... and, on the spine, an adorable silver-gilt sea monster holding the eponymous copper cylinder in its jaws. As with much science fiction / fantasy of the late 1800s, this story has quite a lot of Victorian social commentary in it; and as is frequently the case with extremely nerdy things, it actually has an excellent Wikipedia writeup of its very own. From this, the following description cometh:

The main story of the novel is the narrative of the adventures of Adam More, a British sailor shipwrecked on the homeward voyage from Tasmania. After passing through a subterranean tunnel of volcanic origin, he finds himself in a "lost world" of prehistoric animals, plants and people sustained by volcanic heat despite the long Antarctic night. ... In his strange volcanic world, More also finds a highly developed human society which in the tradition of topsy-turvy worlds of folklore and satire (compare Sir Thomas More's Utopia, Erewhon by Samuel Butler, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland) has reversed the values of Victorian society: wealth is scorned and poverty is revered, death and darkness are preferred to life and light.

Stereotypical, you might say? Classic literature, I tell you! -- and you could own the first edition for $60.00.

But now then, don't rush in, mateys. I was so disappointed when our first edition of The King in Yellow sold within two weeks.

* I realized only after the fact that I should have been speaking in pirate cant, in honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day! I had noticed the holiday in passing in previous years, but this year I was notified of its sudden onrushing presence by Jill herself, who sent it along in response to my delirious rantings about Pretend to be a Time Traveler Day. So I went through this entry quick-like and replaced all the "gentle readers" with "mateys"; and I encourage you to go say "Arr!" to someone you love.

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