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From THE BASIL WELLS OMNIBUS
A WORKING CLASS HERO
We sometimes look back at the late 1940s and 1950s as a golden age of science fiction. I suppose people have always looked back through time and seen—or thought they’d seen—golden ages. But that brief period, circa 1950, would be hard to match.
Most science fiction appeared in magazine form in that era, and by 1950s the classic pulps were enjoying their last hurrah while the digest revolution burgeoned just over the horizon. Astounding Science Fiction had moved to the smaller format as early as 1943. In 1949 The Magazine of Fantasy made its debut, morphing into The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction with its second issue. And Galaxy Science Fiction and the Galaxy Science Fiction Novels commenced publication in 1950.
This was an era when the very idea of a full-time science fiction writer was virtually unknown. Even the leading figures in the field were expected to have day jobs and to write science fiction in stolen moments, chiefly as a labor of love. Let me give just a handful of examples:
Isaac Asimov was a chemistry professor at Boston College.
James Blish was a public relations man.
A. Bertram Chandler was a ship’s captain.
Hal Clement was a high school teacher.
Joseph L. Hensley was a state assemblyman and circuit court judge.
Fox B. Holden was a newspaper reporter.
Malcolm Jameson was a Navy officer and ordnance expert.
Keith Laumer was an Air Force officer and then a member of the Diplomatic Corps.
S. P. Meek was a career Army officer.
Alan E. Nourse was a medical doctor.
Rog Phillips was a night watchman at a warehouse.
H. Beam Piper was a trackwalker for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Clifford Simak was a newspaper editor.
. . . and that’s not counting successful practitioners of other professions who chose to dip their quills into the ink of science fiction on occasion, including scientists like Fred Hoyle or (in later years) politicians like Newt Gingrich.
It’s a fascinating topic and I could go on, but it’s about time I started talking about Basil Wells.
Born in 1912 to a family of modest means, Wells was never a major headliner in the science fiction field. He made his debut as a professional writer in Super Science Stories with a short story, “Rebirth of Man,” in the issue dated September, 1940. His last appearance in a recognized, commercial science fiction magazine came in Venture Science Fiction for August, 1970, with a story titled “Prosthete.” But even the disappearance of his markets—every magazine that Wells wrote for eventually went out of business—didn’t stop him. He switched to semi-professional magazines like Weirdbook, Other Worlds (not the Ray Palmer version but Gary Lovisi’s admirable albeit short-lived attempt to revive that magazine), Space & Time, Expanse, and Fantastic Collectibles.
His last published story, as far as I have been able to determine, was “Starkol,” in Fantastic Collectibles Magazine in 1998. Wells died in 2003.
Over a span of fifty-eight years Basil Wells published no fewer than 71 science fiction stories, but that was only one aspect of his work. Basil Wells fan Richard Simms has compiled an extensive Wells bibliography, listing stories published in non-science-fiction magazines including Crack Detective Stories, Ten Detective Aces, Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, Double-Action Western, Thrilling Western, and even one called Blazing Armadillo Stories. I have not seen most of these magazines, and I shudder to think of a publication called Blazing Armadillo Stories. The mind, as they say, boggles.
In an essay about Wells, Richard Simms states that Wells made his first sale during a period of unemployment. And here’s where the “working class hero” reference applies.
Basil Wells was a man of modest means and limited education. He completed high school and enrolled in college but dropped out without receiving a degree. He lived on a fifty-acre farm in western Pennsylvania with his wife, Margaret, and their two sons. For many years he worked for the Talon Zipper Company as a machine operator.
He managed somehow to work his farm, raise his family, hold a full-time, distinctly blue-collar job—and write and sell science fiction, fantasy, detective, and western pulp stories. I have an image of him—a photo on his 1949 shows him sporting a neatly-trimmed moustache and wearing a heavy plaid jacket—coming home from the zipper factory, tending to an array of farm chores, and sitting down to dinner with his wife and children. Then, after the meal, at a time when his co-workers at the factory were perhaps playing poker at a lodge hall or bowling or quaffing beverages at the local tavern, Basil Wells would have more important things to do. His wife, Margaret, would clear the kitchen table of the dinner dishes. Basil would place his Underwood portable typewriter on the battered surface and battle his way through the evening’s quota of adventure prose.
He was a personally modest man. I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife only once. The occasion was a miniature pulp convention that took place in July, 1990, in Keystone Heights, Florida, where Mr. and Mrs. Wells were living in retirement. The other guests included pulp writer and naval historian Theodore Roscoe and his spouse, and scholar-bibliographer Audrey Parente. Roscoe was a cheerful, outgoing individual; Basil Wells was more retiring. He never claimed to be a great writer. As far as I know, he was never Guest of Honor at any science fiction convention, never won a Hugo or Nebula Award. He just cared for his family and wrote his stories.
Dozens of his stories were collected in two books published by William and Margaret Crawford’s Fantasy Publishing Company, Incorporated. FPCI was located in Los Angeles. In an era when mainline book publishers turned up their noses at science fiction, the Crawfords’ company issued a series of books that are sought after and treasured by collectors today.
FPCI’s authors included Raymond F. Jones, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Stanton A. Coblentz, Ralph Milne Farley, Murray Leinster, Ed Earl Repp, Olaf Stapledon, L. Ron Hubbard, John Taine, Austin Hall, A. Reynolds Morse, A. E. van Vogt and E. Maybe Hull. Cover prices were either $2.50 or $3.00. Imagine a shelf of those books today—what a delight they would be, and what they would cost!
Wells’ first FPCI collection, Planets of Adventure, was published in 1949 with a striking dust jacket designed by Jack Gaughan, who would go on to become one of the leading science fiction cover illustrators of the 1960s and ’70s. Several of the stories in the book had been previously published in Planet Stories, Future Science Fiction, and Fantasy Book, the latter another FPCI production. Others were original to the book.
Wells’ second FPCI collection, Doorways to Space, published in 1951, comprises all original material. Its spectacular dust jacket is credited to William Benulis, a talented artist who abandoned a career in the comic book industry in order to earn a steady salary from the Post Office Department.
FPCI was distinctly a low-budget operation. I don’t know how much Basil Wells or any other Crawford author was paid, but Jack Gaughan did tell me, in a reminiscent moment many years after the fact, that his alleged fee for a dust jacket was $25. That was the theory. Collecting the money was another matter.
“Crawford tried to pay me in books,” Gaughan said. “But I was really poor then. I needed the money, so I insisted on cash. Crawford finally paid me in the form of a United States Saving Bond. Its face value was $25, but I had to wait ten years to cash it in. Crawford bought it from Uncle Sam for $18.75.”
Wells continued to produce quirky, individualistic fiction for the rest of his life. While most of his work appears to be fairly conventional, the reader will occasionally be brought up short by a startling image or device. Wells said that he was influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft. This is entirely believable. His images of Venus (“Rebellion on Venus”) embody the then-standard version of a hot, swampy planet populated by giant amphibians. This of course was the imagery employed by many writers of the era including Burroughs. And the bizarre plant life of “The Sudden Forest” is reminiscent of that in Lovecraft’s “The Color out of Space.”
But then what of his talking taxicab (in “Automar”) decades before Philip K. Dick used that device? Or Wells’ extraterrestrial imagery that could have straight out of the film Avatar sixty years before James Cameron made his film? That one is in “The Lurker of Burm.”
In a brief memoir published in Gary Lovisi’s Other Worlds in 1988, Wells lavished praise on editors who had encouraged and guided him throughout his career. He singled out Malcolm Reiss, Wilbur Scott Peacock, Chester Whitehorn, and Paul L. Payne of Planet Stories, as well as Leo Margulies of the Thrilling pulp group (and later of Fantastic Universe and Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine) and Robert A. Lowndes of Future Science Fiction and Famous Detective Stories.
A number of Wells’ stories were anthologized, most notably in The Best of Planet Stories, edited by Wells’ friend and fellow contributor to Planet, Leigh Brackett.
Wells eventually self-published two further small collections, but Planets of Adventure and Doorways to Space remain the definitive Basil Wells collections.
A total of thirty stories filled the two FPCI books; they are all included in the present volume.
One would hope that Basil Wells’ other stories, especially the westerns and mysteries, might yet be unearthed and collected. If some avid pulp collector would undertake this task, Surinam Turtle Press would be honored to publish the book. I’d love to read it myself!
Richard A. Lupoff
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