The Clubhouse; Fanzine Reviews: “When fandom was happier …”

Fanzine reviewed: Willis Discovers America 1952

Willis Discovers America 1952 (May 1955)

Faned: Walt Willis

Walt Willis is perhaps most famous (along with fellow Belfast fan Bob Shaw who went on to become a professional SF&F novelist) as the co-author of THE ENCHANTED DUPLICATOR which is to fandom what THE ILIAD by Homer was to the Greeks and Romans.

He was legendary for his keen eyes and ears in noting the absurd in every situation and writing it up in a wry and witty manner. He was tremendously, unbelievably popular in his day. He helped create fandom, helped define it. Though he passed away in 1998, he is still fondly remembered. Anyone who has a chance to read any of his writings is in for a treat.

In 1952 Walt was the recipient of the first Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund (TAFF) which paid his way to attend the Chicon II Worldcon in Chicago that year. To give you an idea of his inventiveness, he immediately wrote WILLIS DISCOVERS AMERICA (OR WHY MAGELLAN SAILED COMPLETELY AROUND IT), a report on his TAFF trip, BEFORE he made the trip. He crammed into its pages his impressions of America derived from all the American fanzines and correspondence he’d read to date.

Segments of this “spoof” trip report were published in various fanzines such as QUANDRY, CONFUSION, OOPSLA, and FANTASIAS. In May of 1955 Walt published the entire report as a oneshot for OMPA #4 and FAPA #72. He explains why in his preface:

“This is a fannish-fiction serial I wrote in the summer of 1952 while Shelby Vick was raising the Fund which brought me to the Chicon that autumn. I’m reprinting it now partly because I’m rather fond of it myself—it has happy associations and in some ways I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done—and partly as a sort of monument to the era which is now known as Sixth Fandom … Here, like a fly preserved in amber (or ointment) is fandom as it was in 1952.”

The saga begins:

As the Queen Elizabeth edges the last few inches towards the quayside the excitement of the waiting crowd approaches hysteria … Acknowledging the cheers with a courtly bow, the great man walks slowly down the gangway, to be swallowed up in a throng of admirers and reporters …”

“Meanwhile, the raft on which Shelby Vick is rowing Walt Willis across the Atlantic is nearing the Statue of Liberty, some miles from the scene of General Eisenhower’s arrival. Willis looks up from the typewriter on which he has written his passage across the Atlantic and examines the huge stone figure with awe. ‘Begorra,’ he exclaims (he is practicing saying ‘Begorra’ because he knows it is expected of him). ‘I knew sf had caught on over here, but I didn’t realise it had gone so far that they were making statues of ASF covers. February 1941, isn’t it?”

In footnotes Walt explains that it was about this time that “General Eisenhower was preparing to return to the States to accept the Presidential nomination,” hence the description of the arrival of “the great man.” He also explained that the Astounding SF cover for the issue he thought inspired the Statue of Liberty “illustrated Bond’s short story MAGIC CITY.” Curious that Willis thought the statue was made of stone.

Next, a customs launch approaches the raft.

An Immigration Officer demands “Which one of you is Willis?”

“Shure and I am to be shure, begorra,’ says Willis. He consults his notebook. ‘Bedad, bejabers and faith, you spalpeen,’ he adds for good measure.

“Hmm,” says the Immigration Officer. “Nationality?”

“Well, says Willis, “Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but as a native of Erin, that emerald gem set in a silver sea, I claim jewel nationality.”

Willis is hastily overpowered and searched for further concealed puns.

“Allegations have been made,” says the Immigration Officer sternly, “that you are a Fifth Columnist, and guilty of Un-American fan activities.”

“It’s a lie!” shouts Willis. “I never had more than three columns going at once. I’ll bet it was that dirty redd Boggs who put you up to this.” He draws a copy of SPACEWARP from his pocket, raises it in his right hand, and declaims passionately, “I swear by the sacred writings of Roscoe that I am not now and never have been a member of the Columnist Party. I swear that I have no intention of overthrowing the National Fantasy Fan Federation by force of arms. I— ”

“A Roscoeite!” exclaims the Chief Immigration Officer in horror. “By Ghu, this is a purple-letter day for us. We’ll show you how we treat vile infidels here. Men! Seize Ellis and transport him to Willis Island. His confederate too.”

“The South shall rise!” shouts Shelby defiantly as the Ghuist hordes close in on him. “Yeast is Yeast and …”

The above section is a good play on the American politics of the day. As well, fannish lore is included. Ghu and Roscoe are familiar to most fans, but “The South shall rise!” is truly obscure, as Walt explains: “Slogan popular in QUANDRY, the only fmz sold for Confederate money. Richard Enay sent (Editor) Lee Hoffman a Confederate $100 bill, and was thereafter listed as ‘Financial Editor.”

Speaking of fannish lore, while in prison “Shelby walks around the cell reading the cracks in the walls.” All are slogans popular with fans in 1952, many of which are still familiar today, such as “Yngvi is a louse” and “I have a cosmic mind.” A number are exceedingly obscure and require Walt’s footnotes to be explicable today. For example:

“My all pro issue” = “Much heralded edition of crudzine UTOPIAN.”

“Ul-Ul” = “BEM (Bug Eyed Monster) symbol plugged by Ralph Raeburn Phillips.”

“NWT in 53” = “Slogan popularized by Bill Morse while stationed in the North West Territories of Canada.”

“The rooster that wore red pants” = Slogan in CHANTICLEER (Walt Liebscher).”

Walt gets on with spoofing well-known fans of the day. He describes a scene where Sam Moskowitz, David Sykora, and James Taurasi, famous New York fen, are “resting from one of Fandom House’s riotous one-shot publishing sessions.” They learn of Shelby and Walt’s incarceration, and immediately decide to inform fandom with a special publication.

“Within an hour a special edition of FANTASY TIMES is on the streets.”

“You know,” frets Taurasi, “I just can’t help thinking we should put some in the mailbox too. People are just kicking them into the gutter.”

“Well, at least Keasler will get one,” says Sykora. “But keep quiet for a moment. Moscowitz is calling Wollheim.”

“Hello? Hello?” says Moskowitz. “Wollheim? We’re going down to rescue Willis and Vick. Can I give you a lift?”

He listens for a moment and then turns sadly to the others. “He still refuses to have any truck with me.”

“Gosh, Sam,” says Taurasi, taking his fingers out of his ears. “I wish you had used the phone.”

“What, on a local call?” sneers Moskowitz. “But for long distance I open the window.”

It helps to know that Donald Wollheim (later the founder of DAW books) was a mortal enemy of Moskowitz in assorted fannish feuds of the day, that Moskowitz then earned a living as a truck driver, and that Moskowitz was noted for his incredibly loud speaking voice.

Moskowitz, Sykoura and Taurasi drive to Moskowitz’s house in Newark to load his huge collection of books and magazines into his truck. They then drive to prison where Shelby and Willis are held, and begin to pile Moskowitz’s collection against the outer wall under their cell. The pile is almost, but not quite high enough.

Moskowitz stands still for a long moment and then grits his teeth and walks slowly back to the truck. He emerges with a white face and a roll of black velvet. Unrolling the latter he produces a book, at which the others gaze with reverent awe …

Up above Shelby turns to Willis. “He is making the supreme sacrifice,” he says in hushed tones.

Even Willis is impressed. “Not……not THE OUTSIDER AND OTHERS?” he gasps.

As Moskowitz continues his perilous ascent other fans begin to arrive in ones and twos and watch in perilous silence. There is a gasp of relief as he nears the top of the pile and places THE OUTSIDER AND OTHERS on the summit. Then, very carefully, he climbs the remaining few feet and stands on the sacred volume. He is now only a short distance below the cell wall.

Balancing himself precariously on the narrow peak he reaches into his pocket and produces a small saw.

Willis and Vick both stretch out their hands but try as they will they cannot quite reach the saw.

“Another hundredth of an inch would have done it,” says Shelby, falling back in despair. “Ricky Slavin has a lot to answer for.”

Overcome with disappointment and emotion at the recollection of his lost dust jacket, Moskowitz has to rest for a moment before making his descent. He is just pulling himself together when there is a frantic cry from below and a wild figure dashes toward the pile, muttering incoherently to himself and drawing a fountain pen from his pocket. It is Clark Ashton Smith.

“For Ghod’s sake stop him, Mike,” shouts Alan Pesetsky. “He’s caught sight of one of his published poems with uncorrected typos!” But Michael de Angelis is unable to bring himself to restrain his hero. “No human power could stop him anyway,” says Ken Beale in horror. “That was a Keasler zine he saw. Run for your lives!”

But it is too late. Smith has already reached the pile of books and magazines. With maniacal strength he grabs a duplicated fanzine near the bottom of the mountain and pulls savagely. For a long moment the vast edifice shakes and quivers: then, with an earsplitting crash, it falls to the ground, burying Taurasi, Sykora, Gibson, Pesetsky, de Angelis, Beale, Clancy, Smith, Glick, Quinn, Krueger, Crane, Wesson, Serxner, Friedman, Hoskins, and Kers.

“Well,” says Willis callously, “That’s the first time all New York Fandom has been in Moskowitz’s good books.”

During an argument with Moskowitz, fellow New York fan Ricky Slavin had torn up the dust cover of Sam’s beloved copy of the Lovecraft anthology THE OUTSIDER AND OTHERS, a fannish “event” notorious in the day when virtually every fan was a collector and could identify with Moskowitz’s loss. Clever of Willis to use this bit of fannish lore to justify the failure of the rescue attempt.

As for Clark Ashton’s “assault” on the pile, “Smith was said to have the habit of correcting by hand any typos he found in his published works.”

That Smith was reaching for a zine by Keasler made sense because “Keasler’s fanzines were of course notorious for their typos.”

Next, Willis and Sleby concoct a fiendish plan. They overpower a guard and a nurse, intending to put on their uniforms and walk out the door.

“Now,” says Shelby to the nurse.

“No, no,” she cries, blushing.

“Yes, yes,” says Shelby. “We are desperate fen, and we don’t care what we do. We correspond with Max Keasler and everything. I tell you, we stop at nothing.”

“Don’t be shy,” says Willis. “I’ll cover you with my gun.”

The nurse takes off her blouse and skirt. “You know,” says Willis, “this is the most interesting thing I’ve seen in America yet. I think when I go out I’ll go on a lecher tour of the United States.”

“Careful,” warns Shelby. “Don’t forget Russ Watkins has subbed to this issue.”

Important to note that the big controversy of 1951, still fresh in the minds of fen in 1952, was Russell Watkins “Clean Up Fandom Crusade.” In those days postal authorities routinely read mail. A number of fanzine editors ran into trouble for alleged obscene content in their fanzines. Max Keasler, for instance, who was forced to go across the State line to mail his FAN VARIETY, thus enabling him to proclaim it the only “border-run fanzine” in Fandom. In DAWN, his own zine, Russ had advocated “all heretical material about religion and sex” be kept out of fanzines. Fat chance.

Willis and Shelby prepare to escape, but the unexpected happens.

“Now,” says Willis, “All we have to do is walk quietly out.”

He unlocks the door with the guard’s keys and is opening it slowly and noiselessly when there is the sound of rushing feet in the corridor and several men in prison guard uniform burst into the cell. Before Vick and Willis can utter a word they are gagged and bound by six of the strangers while the rest carry out the unconscious guard and nurse. The leader pauses dramatically on the threshold. “If anyone asks you who rescued Willis and Vick,” he says proudly, “tell them it was Harlan Ellison and the Cleveland Science Fantasy League. That’ll show Ken Beale. It’s not every fan group who would have thought of overpowering some of the guards and taking their uniforms.”

But every fan group does. Six in all, in fact, in sequence. Each offering Willis an opportunity to poke fun at them. Needless to say, no one escapes.

Ken Beale was a fierce critic of Harlan and his crowd because they were the founders of the “artificial” Seventh Fandom.

At one point Wilson Tucker (another very famous fan) demands Willis sign his signature to prove his identity. This harks back to the 1951 Worldcon in New Orleans when Lee Hoffman of QUANDRY showed up and turned out to be a girl. Wilson famously demanded she give him her autograph as proof of her identity, as he was used to seeing Hoffman’s signature at the bottom of her correspondence. Tucker was very wary of fannish hoaxes.

In the final chapter Willis and Vick are put on trial. Things do not go smoothly.

“Baby talk!” sneers Willis. “I refuse to swear by the name of the false ghod Ghu. Furthermore,” he goes on recklessly, “I refuse to recognize the jurisdiction of this court or any other run on Ghuist principles. Roscoe is the only true ghod.”

“You realise the consequences of this?” says the judge gravely.

“Yes,” says Willis proudly, “Ghu is a creature of Oscar the Malevolent Muskrat.”

Oscar was the evil deity in Roscoe theology. This is something I didn’t know until I read Willis’ footnote. Huge gaps in my fannish knowledge, apparently.

Willis and Vick are found guilty, then exonerated and let go when Willis produces his “Honorary Swamp Critter Certificate” sent to him in December 1951 by Lee Hoffman and signed “by all the Georgia fans who were like most fans of the time keen admirers of POGO … with 7th fandom and MAD (the comic that is) Pogo lost his exclusive hold on fandom’s affections.”

I hope the selections I’ve quoted convey how deftly Willis wove the contemporary fannish scene into his fictional account of his TAFF trip. To anyone familiar with Sixth fandom, the tale is full of nostalgic recognition of the “glory days,” or as Willis put it in his preface “To us survivors that has sometimes seemed a sort of Golden Age, when fandom was happier, brighter and more intimate than it is today.” He was contrasting 1955 with 1952! One wonders how he would have compared 2017 to 1952? However, it is not necessary to know anything about the past to enjoy WILLIS GOES TO AMERICA. Much of his humour stands on its own. This classic faan fiction is still great fun to read. Besides, the footnotes explain plenty of the context. Educational to boot. What more could one ask?

(Art by Bosh = Robert Shaw)

BY THE WAY:

You can find a fantastic collection of zines at: Efanzines

You can find yet more zines at: Fanac Fan History Project

You can find a quite good selection of Canadian zines at: Canadian SF Fanzine Archive

And check out my brand new website devoted to my OBIR Magazine, which is entirely devoted to reviews of Canadian Speculative Fiction. Found at OBIR Magazine

And then check out my newest new website, devoted to my paying market SF&F fiction semi-pro zine Polar Borealis, at Polar Borealis Magazine

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