Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Philip Jose Farmer, R.I.P. Gorman-Mason

The following appeared, in a slightly different version, in the most recent edition of The Farmerphile.

Phil Farmer

When I was fourteen I called up the editor the science fiction magazine Other Worlds. I was nervous about this of course but I was on a sacred mission.

The latest issue of the magazine had included a letter from no less a master than Philip Jose Farmer. Phil wanted Raymond A. Palmer (better known to fans as RAP) to know that he’d better not be kidding about his forthcoming “discovery,” which he claimed was a novel as good as early Edgar Rice Burroughs. Phil was not to be taken lightly.

Couple things. As we all know Phil holds ERB in the highest esteem so he didn’t want RAP trifling with the man’s name or legend. And as for RAP himself…he was the one who’d fished the first story in the Shaver Mystery out of the wastebasket in his office after his assistant editor, the excellent writer Howard Browne, pitched it there, grumbling that it was trash. Well, while it was trash indeed, RAP revised it and turned it into saga that would take Amazing Stories, where he then worked, to nearly a quarter million in circulation. Unheard for an sf magazine.

In case you’re not aware of it the Shaver Mystery, so named for its writer Richard Shaver, consisted of exploits of an ancient civilization that lived in the bowels (an appropriate region given the story itself) of the earth and intended Real Bad Things for Earth. As I recall Shaver even visited those bowels a few times.

I didn’t mention Shaver during my phone call. I was so nervous I just kept muttering about Phil Farmer. “What about Farmer?” I recall RAP saying as if I was a prankster. RAP had fallen on hard times. He’d left Amazing Stories and now published his own magazine Other Worlds. The magazine was done on the cheap and filled with his carnival-barker boasting about upcoming issues and how great they would b. The magazine’s publishing schedule was at best irregular. I admired RAP then and I admire him still. He’d been run over by a truck at a young age and was forever after stooped and small. But he’d become a popular pulp writer and then editor. I can imagine him that day trying to make sense of some hayseed kid calling him and being so scared he couldn’t get to the point. But he was courteous and patient and I think maybe just a bit amused.

“Ask Philip Jose Farmer to write a story for you.”

I got the words out but not much else. RAP said he’d do just that but that he was busy now and needed to go. I spent the rest of the day in my sf-packed room wanting to vomit because I’d made such a fool of myself.

My admiration for Phil and his work goes back many decades. I believe I bought just about every book he published, including the very cool Essex House novels which I treasured especially because I had to drive some distance to get them. He’s always been style and substance, from his immersion in the world of pulp figures to the wry detachment of Lord Tyger, a fantastic (in all senses) adventure and a serious treatment of religious myth.

And then of course we have Riverworld. For me there’s never been a concept as compelling and beautiful as Phil’s masterful novel set on the great river. Alltime Allhistory Allhumanity. In its own way it’s another examination of religious myth—the great religion of the universe, its essence. I’ve read the books and stories many, many times. In my stoner days I’m told that I read from them out loud. Leslie Fiedler certainly shared my enthusiasm. It was through his essays that Phil was brought to the attention of the serious lit people.

I have my Phil Farmer shelf along with my Raymond Chandler shelf, my John O’Hara shelf, my Dashiell Hammett shelf, my Ray Bradbury shelf, my Graham Greene shelf, my Richard Matheson shelf, my F. Scott Fitzgerald shelf, my Fritz Leiber shelf, my Robert Bloch shelf, my Algis Budrys shelf, my Philip K. Dick shelf—seventeen shelves reserved for the best of the best. They form a kind of church for me and I go there often for pleasure and wisdom. In my mind they’re all co-equal, parts of a vast whole that helps me to understand what do about what one philospher called “the dilemma of existence.”

I don’t know what Phil would think about his work being likened to a kind of scripture—my kind of scripture, anyway—but in its way it is. His imagination has long helped me escape the shackles of realism. Whether it be The World of Tiers, Herald Childe, Doc Caliban and Lord Grandrith or Opar—or the alternate universes of such fine standalones as Night of Light, The Stone God Awakens, The Unreasoning Mask—his worlds are lucid, exciting and meaningful. And memorable. If pressed I could probably recite whole paragraphs from various pieces of his work.

All of which is to say that I was really flattered when I was asked to contribute a story to Tales of The Riverworld. But as thrilled as I was I was also anxious about it. I’ve written for a pretty good number of anthologies but I’d never written for the approval of one of my true literary gods before. Don’t forget I was championing him when I was only fourteen. And in those days long distance calls didn’t come cheap. And here I was writing for a book he was editing.

Phil accepted my story so I assume it was at least adequate. And a spiffy book it was, too. Top of the line in design and typeset. As was only fitting, given the prominence of the theme and its creator.

I’m no less pleased and thrilled to be writing this for Phil. He is one of my favorite writers and favorite people. His work will read and revered for many ages to come.

--Ed Gorman

Update: Over the years I talked to Phil several times and we exchanged a number of letters. Our mutual friend the writer Tracy Knight had introduced us and kept us informed of how the other was doing. We exchanged books, too. I was particularly pleased that he liked three of the books I sent him. I felt his enthusiasm was honest because he sure didn’t like the fourth book. We discussed at some length the private eye novel he’d always wanted to write. But his health worsened and he never got to it. He’s on the River now and I hope to meet up with him again someday.

----From Todd Mason

Philip Jose Farmer, a writer who was shaking up fantastic fiction right out of the gate with his novella “The Lovers” (STARTLING STORIES, 1952, and the single biggest marker that STARTLING was ready to challenge all the other sf magazines as a source of first-rate fiction, and briefly led to STARTLING apparently being the best-selling magazine in the sf field), has died at age 81, family members report.

“The Lovers” was a borderline horror sf story, involving the affair between a human man and a humanoid alien woman, where things, it can be said, don’t quite work out the way he expected. A lot closer to William Burroughs than Edgar Rice, a comparison that Farmer would explore in later work (such as his WB’s version of Tarzan story, “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod.”). Farmer would go on to write further major work dealing with sexual themes, playful notions of the interface between fiction and reality (notably TO YOUR SCATTERED BODIES GO), and some relatively straightforward, if sometimes pornographic, horror fiction. He also wrote fiction as if by the characters in Kurt Vonnegut’s books, “Kilgore Trout”’s VENUS ON THE HALF SHELL and more, mostly for THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION in the 1970s.

A restless innovator, by no means always achieving what he set out to do, but I think he mostly had fun doing it. He’d been suffering from a long illness.

Todd Mason

3 comments:

Steve Blotner said...

Correct, actually Farmer was age 91this past month (Jan. 2009)

Very sad news - some collaborators reported they are just devastated.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, I stand corrected...he was 91...and it is sad news, indeed.

Stephen B. said...

I think Farmer had the NOTHING BURNS IN HELL hardcover and paperback which is style of a mystery or private eye tale [maybe it's a very different private eye book that that mentioned by Mr. Gorman in the post above.]
SB - 1/2011