This book has been a long time coming . . . Several years ago Jim Rockhill suggested that we ought to collect the “Mr. Secrett” tales as either a Midnight House or Darkside Press title. I enthusiastically agreed and John Brunner’s widow, the charming Liyi Brunner was all in favor of the project. Sadly, the project was still in the queue when we went on hiatus a few years ago. Rather than wait until next year for the Darkside Press re-launch, I felt readers had waited plenty long enough for this book and that not only would the “Mr. Secrett” stories certainly merit the designation of “classic”, and thus fit perfectly in this series; but also that there are several other John Brunner projects that I have in mind . . . One or more of these may very well appear under the Darkside Press imprint.
After all, there are several volumes of Brunner stories either uncollected or preserved only in ephemeral paperbacks that I’d like to see in a more permanent (hardcover format) on my bookshelves, and I imagine that I am very far from alone in this regard . . . For that matter, while this may be difficult to believe, nearly twenty-five years have passed since the last John Brunner collection was published.
Twenty-five years is an awfully long time for the short fiction of such a major author to be out of print. Novelist, poet, essayist, and most certainly a master of the short form in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (Not that I am ignoring his mainstream work, which was equally impressive, but our focus here is on speculative fiction, be it fantasy, horror, or science fiction.) With such a varied range of strengths, the comparisons to authors such as Fritz Leiber and Brian Aldiss immediately comes to mind and the comparison is, I feel, an apt one. All three authors began their careers with fairly traditional work and quickly matured into three of the most dynamic and innovative figures that the field has ever produced.
John Brunner is remembered mainly for his New Wave dystopian visions epitomized by his Hugo Award-winning Stand on Zanzibar and the even bleaker The Sheep Look Up. While it’s likely true that if John Brunner had written nothing other than these two books his fame would have been assured, I would postulate that on the other hand, if he had written nothing other than The Traveler in Black cycle and the Mr. Secrett stories, he would be remembered as one of the great fantasists of his time. Then of course, there are the dozens of short novels, most of which originally saw print in the British magazines Science Fantasy, Nebula, New Worlds and Authentic Science Fiction and/or Donald Wollheim’s Ace Doubles (and singles), such as Listen! The Stars!, The Repairmen of Cyclops, The Martian Sphinx, Echo in the Skull and many others. Again, an impressive body of work, in a period of around ten years, John Brunner produced a volume of quality work that most authors can’t equal in forty years.
Then there are the novels that may not have enjoyed quite the popularity of Stand on Zanzibar, but are every bit as good: The Jagged Orbit, The Shockwave Rider, The Players at the Game of People, The Crucible of Time, and The Web of Everywhere, to name just a few. And the fantasies, from a brilliant tribute to Tolkien to his work on Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey’s Thieves World to stand-alone works such as “Real Messengers” and “The Drummer and the Skins”; a variety of work perhaps unequalled by any author other than Fritz Leiber. But I digress . . . The focus here is Mr. Secrett and the two bonus novelettes that we’ve included.
We first met Mr. Secrett and Scrivener (the narrator of the series, who seems all-too-familiar to those of us who write for our livelihood) back in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in the October, 1977 issue. An impressive debut that manages to mix in elements of voodoo, engineering, and perhaps more data on an extinct ancestor of the modern elephant than one would expect to find in any publication other than a journal of paleontology. From then until the appearance of “The Man Who Lost the Game of Life” in 1992, fifteen years later, a mere seven additional stories appeared. Not even close to one a year, but this infrequency had the benefit of making each installment something of an event.
As a (practically) life-long reader of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction I’ve always found each month’s arrival of the magazine in my mailbox to be a joy (and an excuse to put off whatever I’m working on to read the issue cover to cover), but there have been a few things over the years that brought a special sense of anticipation when noted on the contents page . . . Ever since I first started reading the magazine in the 1960s, the appearance of a new story by Jack Vance or Fritz Leiber was always cause for elation. In the 1980s and 1990s it was the appearance of a Bob Leman or Michael Reaves story or a new “Mr. Secrett” tale! None of these things happened nearly often enough as far as I was concerned, but when they did appear, my feeling was that they had certainly been worth the wait.
The Mr. Secrett tales incorporate themes ranging from science run amuck to the origins of major religions to predestination, and all are uniformly witty, literate and highly original. While generally presented with a light touch, there’s a very grim undercurrent to stories such as “The Man Who Saw the Glory” and even the very first tale with its implications as to one might obtain cheap labor . . .
Through the series, our narrator churns out more books without ever gaining his rightful due (something that can be sad to be true about 99% of the writers in the world, but is very sadly true of John Brunner), his meetings with the enigmatic Mr. Secrett invariably lead to the solving a current problem in his life, but tend to leave him feeling more uneasy than ever when he considers all the implications of what his acquaintance has just related to him.
The nine-story cycle comes to a very logical (and not wholly unexpected) ending, and while we might wish there were a few more of them, the series does come to a very satisfactory resolution. Indeed, the only hesitation that I had in publishing the series when we first considered it was that it fell considerably short of our average book with a word-count of 90,000-100,000 words. I still felt that way a decade later and decided that even though the series is perfectly self-contained, no readers would object to the inclusion of a couple of “bonus” stories.
Finding a couple of novelettes that would complement the tone of the major portion of the book was actually far easier than I first thought it would be. During the last fifteen years of his life, John Brunner turned more and more to the field of horror fiction. Certainly, this interest had always been there, (witness the classic tales “The Men in Black” and “Orpheus’ Brother”, the former dating all the way back to 1956 and the latter to 1965, but just as his contemporary Fritz Leiber had turned almost exclusively to horror fiction in his later years, so too had John Brunner, turning out an impressive amount of such work during the 1990s, so much so that he even had an entire issue of Weird Tales devoted to him.
Our two selections were “They Take”, from Stephen Jones’ outstanding continuation of the Pan Books of Horror, Dark Voices. In fact, of all the dozens of excellent tales that have appeared in that series under Jones’ editorship, no other story so perfectly captures the brutality and depiction of the banality of evil which characterized the best of the original series (without the graphic excesses) as well as does “They Take”. It is one of those rarities that can cause even such a jaded reader and writer of horror fiction as I to shudder.
The second story and the one I thought would provide a perfect finale to this collection comes from the Summer, 1990 issue of Weird Tales, Brunner’s first sale to the “Unique Magazine”, but far from his last. “The Pronounced Effect” is an example of the perfectly logical supernatural tale. When I speak of award-winning caliber stories, it’s stories such as this that I’m referring to. Despite missing out on an award, the story was selected by John Betancourt to be included in his Best of Weird Tales anthology in 1995.
My only worry about the Mr. Secrett project was that I felt that even though Mr. Brunner had wrapped up the series in fine form, the total wordage fell a good bit short of the 90,000 words that our readers have come to expect. Therefore the addition of these other two novelettes brings us up to our usual size and gives you a chance to examine yet another facet of John Brunner’s work.
We hope that you enjoy these two “bonus” stories as well as finally having the complete “Mr. Secrett” stories between two covers at long last . . .
Somewhere near Area 51