The Beast of Badger Books, or: the Prolific Profligacy of R. Lionel Fanthorpe, SF Author

RG Cameron May 16 Illo #1 'Space Fury'

He suddenly felt that he was the supreme destroyer, the remover, the iconoclast, the nihilist, and the anarchist. He was a wrecker, a destructionist, a spoiler, a saboteur, a defacer, an eraser, an assassin. Something of the wildness of the barbarian, the Hun, the Tartar and the Vandal raced through his veins. He was the personification of the moth, the worm, rust and erosion—except that he was an accelerated personification of those agents of destruction.” – THE ALIEN ONES (1963)

Writers don’t deserve their reputations.

For example, the above quote many would offer as proof that R. Lionel Fanthorpe is, indeed, the worst SF writer of all time, of any time by any measure, by any conceivable measure of time itself beyond the very concept of time as measured by the passage of time, or, the essence of measured time as currently conceived…

Oops! I forgot. Without a doubt Fanthorpe is the most influential writer of all time, in that any writer who reads him is inevitably, subliminally seduced into unconsciously imitating his relentlessly jackhammer-like driving style. Writers read him at their peril. Readers, on the other hand…

Many readers treasure his writings. That’s a fact. How can he be called “the worst”? Not since Rabelais and his ‘GARGANTUA AND PANTEGRUEL’ has an author been so enamored of lists and repetition.

Another superb example:

The things were odd, weird, grotesque. There was something horribly uncustomary and unwonted about them. They were completely unfamiliar. Their appearance was outlandish and extraordinary. There was something quite phenomenal about them. They were supernormal; they were unparalleled; they were unexampled. The shape of the aliens was singular in every sense. They were curious, odd, queer, peculiar and fantastic, and yet when every adjective had been used on them, when every preternatural epithet had been applied to their aberrant and freakish appearance, when everything that could be said about such eccentric, exceptional, anomalous creatures had been said, they still remained indescribable in any concrete terms.” – GALAXY 666 (1963)

Lovecraft would envy the above paragraph. It so perfectly encapsulates the Lovecraftian technique of evoking mood through description which fails to describe.

Rabelais. Lovecraft. Not names normally associated with Fanthorpe. Yet they were all three alike in a vividly vital, visceral manner. (oops… there I go again…)

Writers don’t deserve their reputations (good or bad) because the consensus of opinion among peers, critics and readers is nothing more than a ‘sound bite’ distilled, derived and devolved (gotta figure out how to stop this…) from the extraordinary complexity of the individual author’s life, techniques, thoughts, motives and so on and so on. To get closer to the ‘reality’ of an author you have to get a grip on exactly what he is attempting to accomplish and why.

Fortunately Fanthorpe wears his primary motivation on his sleeve (or to be more precise, stamped on every page).

Here is an example of Fanthorpe at his most abrupt and blunt:

Yes,” said the Professor. It was only a monosyllable but it was packed with meaning. It scarcely seemed possible that one tiny sound could have all that meaning jammed into it.” – FORMULA 29X (1963)

You have just experienced a ‘eureka!’ moment.

Padding. Exactly. Fanthorpe was trying to cram as many words as possible as fast as possible in order to meet his publisher-imposed deadline of 158 pages composed over a weekend.

Yes. A 158 page novel in one weekend. Or a 158 page anthology of short stories whose multiple authors were, in point of record, Fanthorpe.

So how many books did he produce by his method? 170 books give or take.

That’s a lot of weekends.

But not so many hours. Eight to twelve per book, usually.

Some of you, being authors, are busy at this moment picking your jaw off the floor. This guy sold 170 books to a publisher and it only took him eight to twelve hours to write each one? WHAT?

RG Cameron, May 16 Illo #2 'Orbit One'

Your average author is more like Douglas Adams (HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY) as described by Stephen Fry in his recent autobiography FRY CHRONICLES (itself leaning quite amusingly and self-consciously towards Fanthorpe’s style):

After an hour or so twiddling with the screensaver, the wallpaper, the title of the file, the placement on the desktop of the folder the file was stored in, the formatting, the font, the size, the colour, the margins and the style sheets, he might type a sentence. He would look at, change it to italics, swap the word order around, get up, stare at it some more. Hum, curse, growl and groan and then delete it…”

Not Fanthorpe.

Roget Thesaurus in hand, he dictated his stream-of-consciousness meanderings into a battery of tape recorders, sometimes with a blanket over his head to aid concentration. (How then, did he read the Thesaurus? With a flashlight?).

At his height, during the twelve years (1954—1966) he was associated with Badger books, beginning, at the age of nineteen, with his first novel MENACE FROM MARS, he utilized “a team of four or five audio typists” working off the tape reels as they were rushed to them hot off the recorder. Now and again they’d realize he was close to the page limit and send word he had only three or four pages to go. At which point he’d end the book abruptly. In his own words:

This accounted for more than a few of the infamous “With-a-single-bound-he-was-free” endings, including my own favourite: the Flazgaz Heat Ray…it had to be introduced, described, used effectively and replaced in its red box marked “Forbidden Weapon—Never to be Used” all in the space of 750 words.”

A key to understanding Fanthorpe’s method is his statement he was paid ten shillings (about 75 cents) per thousand words, or about $33.75 per novel. For that amount of money, would YOU bother rethinking anything you blurted out, let alone rewriting or proofreading? I think not.

So what kind of professional was Fanthorpe? The ultimate hack writer? Heck no!

170 books was something he produced in his spare time to acquire some pocket change. He ultimately evolved into Reverend Fanthorpe, a Priest of the Church of Wales, noted for a dozen thoughtful books on religious topics and quite a few others on intriguing mysteries like the Oak Island Money Pit.

The Badger books were just a lark, or as he described it, “often hilarious fun.”

He considered each book an exciting challenge:

“…just how many Roget synonyms can be squeezed into a paragraph… with experience came fascinating new ways to pad things out: long monosyllabic conversations with one word on each new line; didactic technical or philosophical passages when I couldn’t think of anything else to do with two characters except have them talk to each other…”

What I think Fanthorpe and Rabelais and Lovecraft had in common was the joy of throwing words together in a kind of ecstatic delirium, reveling in the richness and texture of the language itself without worrying too much, or at all, about contemporary literary conventions. All three achieved a poetry centred on ‘appearance’ and ‘sound’ more than meaning. A more effective cure for ‘writers block’ would be hard to imagine.

I think the young Fanthorpe churned these books out because he enjoyed doing it, had developed it into a habit, had in fact become addicted to the process.

He never knew the tumult and excitement of critical acclaim, of fans lining up to get his autograph, of seeing his name on best seller lists, or even the minor satisfaction of receiving royalties (I suspect… I don’t actually know).

Instead, he performed a personal, bard-like theatre, extemporizing mini-epics like a modern Homer, utilizing their traditional methods of stock themes and phrases, erecting intoxicating pyramids of exotic, seldom-used words, no doubt (once he got going) uttered in a trance-like state feeding on itself (and coffee… lots of coffee…).

Or maybe not. But I can’t see how he could accomplish what he did unless he was ‘in’ to it in a manner that bordered on creative frenzy. Heck of a hobby.

The above quotes and information are taken from DOWN THE BADGER HOLE, R. LIONEL FANTHORPE: THE BADGER YEARS by Debbie Cross, Wrigley-Cross Books, 1995, with introductions by Lionel & Patricia Fanthorpe, and David Langford, a most respected British fan. I highly recommend this book. It will bring tears to your eyes. Tears of laughter.

RG Cameron May 16 Illo #3 'Down The Badger Hole'

Debbie was instrumental in inviting the Fanthorpes to attend numerous Orycon conventions in Oregon. It turned out that not only was Lionel highly intelligent and an excellent panelist and speaker, he was fully aware of the ‘notoriety’ of his ‘Badger period’ and quite pleased it brought so much pleasure to so many readers. At Orycon he met many a fan whose life’s ambition was to acquire a complete set of his ‘Badgers,’ fans who were willing to line up to see him, to meet with him, to talk with him, listen to him, and get his autograph.

Once past his ‘Badger period’ he must have put it all behind him. How delightful, then, for his twelve year lark to catch up with him in so rewarding a fashion. Many a long-time career author must be envious. Doesn’t happen to many.

To cap it off, Vancouver fan Steve Forty once introduced Lionel Fanthorpe to John Norman, author of the Gor series. Talk about a meeting of masterminds, a collision of Titans! I presented Steve with an Elron award for this vital service to humanity. If only it had produced a collusion of Titans… I get collywobbles just thinking about it…

Now, you may ask yourself, among many things you’ve been asking yourself while reading this (Such as “Why am I reading this?”), with so many books churning out on a regular basis, did not the loyal followers of Badger Books suspect R. Lionel Fanthorpe was a house name standing in for a battery of anonymous authors?

Rather the opposite. Fanthorpe was published under a host of pseudonyms, including but not limited to: Leo Brett, Karl Zeigfried, Marston John, Lionel Roberts, Bron Fane, and, my favourite, Pel Torro.

I myself own but two of his books: SPACE FURY (1962) as Fanthorpe, and ORBIT ONE (1962) under the name John E. Muller.

I figured, for the sake of this article, I should glance at least one of them again. I chose ORBIT ONE.

I didn’t note anything as sprightly as the above examples, but here’s a selection chosen to illustrate his typical train of thought as it raced pell-mell down the track at faster-than-light speed:

Come on,” said Walcott, we’ve got work to do.” The Police Chief nodded.

That’s my boy!” he said. Rank, formality, these things meant nothing in an emergency. The situation was stripped down to the basic fact, and the basic fact was that two, capable, dedicated men were doing a tough job, and doing it damned well!

That was the fact of the situation. Whether one was the I.P.F. Chief and the other one was the Administrator made little difference. They were different edges of the same axe.

They were the complimentary halves of the steel curves that made up the point of the dagger that was penetrating the problem that confronted them.”

Can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something highly original and exceedingly distinctive in the above quote. Must be true, cause my brain hurts just thinking about it.

Let the final word, as an illustration of his endearing humour, be a ‘lightbulb joke’ Fanthorpe sprung on delighted fans at Orycon 11 in Portland (1989):

How many Fanthorpe pseudonyms does it take to change a lightbulb, to replace it, to reinstate it, to substitute for it, to swap it, to exchange it, to renew it, to supersede or supplant it, to provide a proxy, to put another in its stead, to…?”

Note: David Langford commented on this article as follows: “I should add that the Fanthorpe lightbulb joke, although modestly not credited in my introduction to that book (http://ansible.co.uk/writing/rlfintro.html), was improvised by me rather than Lionel at Orycon 11; he wasn’t at that Orycon. Walter Jon Williams was, though, and offered a good answer: “Strange, because they were several; and several, because they were strange.”

 

RG Cameron May 16 Illo #4 'Multiple Covers'

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