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Starlight, Jelly and Shadows
Mike Ashley
interviewed by Andrew Hedgecock
 
"I only wish more people were reading Blackwood - he is unique."

"It's not the short stories per se that don't sell: it's the fact that
publishers generally can't be bothered to publish short stories"
Mike Ashley's boundless enthusiasm for a good tale dates back to a childhood mired in stories. He's read science fiction for as long as he can remember; and his father's retelling of published narratives on long walks and bus rides augmented his early exposure to the likes of H.G. Wells. These oral re-mixes were seldom accompanied by a tale's original title or the name of its author, so Ashley often dedicated considerable time to tracking down the published sources of the more compelling exemplars. If there's any mileage in Wordsworth's assertion that 'the child is father of the man,' this particular early experience may well be the key to the obsessive, meticulous and utterly tenacious research that underpins so much of Ashley's work as an editor, biographer and literary historian.
   Ashley's other notable characteristic is his limitless energy: a quick search on the internet points to around 90 titles written, edited or introduced by Mike Ashley. And Amazon has 60 of his books on sale including collections of historical (including royal) whodunits, locked-room mysteries, contemporary crime, sea stories, science fiction, fantasy, comic fantasy, new Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthurian tales, myths and legends, horror, fairy tales and knock-knock jokes...
   So many stories - so little time to talk about them. So we begin with a subject that has preoccupied Ashley for 30 years as a reader and 20 as a biographer - Algernon Blackwood. Ashley's biography of Blackwood, Starlight Man (2001), is a gripping, evocative and scholarly study of an enigmatic writer with a powerful resonance for those contemporary readers dogged enough to track down his books. And - as you'll soon discover - Starlight Man has been a labour of love. As soon as I mention Blackwood, Ashley issues a jeremiad.

I should warn you: I'm always keen to talk to people about Blackwood and once I start I can go on for hours!

Chasing Shadows: the search for Algernon Blackwood...
I begin by asking Ashley how he discovered the writer who was to become such an important force in his life.

I started reading his stories in the mid-1960s but it was quite some time before I really got into him. I've always been cursed in that when I start reading an author's work, I never manage to read their best stuff first. And sometimes I very easily get put off a writer. The very first Blackwood story I read was The Dance Of Death, not bad, but certainly not one of his best. And I thought, 'well that was so-so'. The next I read was The Old Man Of Visions - that was a difficult read: you need to know quite a bit about Blackwood to understand that story. And then, fortunately, I came across the 'John Silence' stories in the early 1970s: all of a sudden I thought, 'this writer really is capable of something'. The first Silence story I read was The Psychical Invasion - and it's just phenomenal. Then I dug out The Willows and The Wendigo and was completely bowled over by those. There is just nothing else like these stories in supernatural fiction. So that's when Blackwood started to take over.

Blackwood died in 1951 and Starlight Man is the first full biography: so why has it taken so long for someone to tackle his life?

People felt it might not be possible - and it took me 20 years! There are two main problems with researching Blackwood's life. First, he was a bit of a rolling stone and didn't keep any papers - there were very, very few primary documents among his papers. And then there was the fact that he just didn't talk about himself - it wasn't that he was secretive in the sense that he refused to divulge things to people; he just seems to have blended into the background.

The other problem Ashley faced was that the repository of memory about Blackwood's life was dwindling rapidly.

I decided to have a go at this biography in 1977. Blackwood's only surviving sister died a couple of years earlier - she was 104 - and his sister-in-law and nephew died at roughly the same time so I lost a huge opportunity there. Luckily for me I had a lot of help from Patsy Ainley, daughter of the actor Henry Ainley, who had known Blackwood back in the 1920s. She gave me a tremendous amount of information - she'd grown up with Blackwood pretty much always being around. So she knew all the people who knew him them so she was able to give me names, addresses and telephone numbers. I had a wonderful 'golden' period of research for about a year where I was contacting these people she'd put me in touch with. Thankfully I got to most of them before they died or - in one unfortunate case - lost their ability to remember anything. I got a lot of very useful memories.
   The pool of people I could talk to was restricted: I was talking to people who were children when they knew Blackwood and children don't look at people in the same way. Back in the 1920s children were seen but not heard! They had their childhood memories, but not personal memories of what Blackwood did. It was only around the 1940s - when they'd grown up - that they had more adult memories of him. The oldest memory I managed to reach came from Lady Vansittart, who was nearly 90 when I interviewed her. I asked her to picture now her first meeting with Blackwood. She went quiet for a while - her memory was going back to this first meeting over 60 years earlier. And as she tried to remember the years just fell away from her face: her expression and her eyes were no longer those of a women of 90. Suddenly she was 30 again. She was remembering Blackwood at an embassy ball in Hungary. He wasn't really one for embassy balls and I still don't know why he was there. She was the wife of the local cultural attaché - but that didn't stop Blackwood. He said, "let's go out onto the balcony and look at the stars." She doesn't really remember the rest of this ball, but she could remember the balcony, with Blackwood talking about the marvels of the night and the stars. He had a bit of a chat-up line with women. The furthest back I could get in terms of personal memories of Blackwood was a very brief fleeting memory of him from 1916. Anything earlier than that, I had to rely on any documentation that was around.

This, I suggest, must have been a richer seam of information for Ashley to mine. After all, Blackwood knew Hilaire Belloc, Wyndham Lewis, Arthur Machen, Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, May Sinclair, H.G. Wells and W.B. Yeats. Surely there was no shortage of useful references in biographical works about these illustrious figures?

There you've hit upon the most frustrating thing of all! Blackwood knew no end of people, but they hardly mention him at all. He knew Yeats very well, but all you'll find in books about Yeats is a footnote to say they were both in the Golden Dawn. I have several photos of him with groups of people and there he is in the background - always in the background.
   I gave a talk at the Irish Literary Society about Blackwood's connection with a number of Irish writers - particularly James Stephens, author of The Crock Of Gold. I had been trying to discover the extent to which Blackwood and Stephens corresponded and one of the people there pointed me towards a book, which I tracked down pretty quickly. It referred to the author having found Stephens' copy of Blackwood's The Centaur (1911). It's clear from the markings all through Stephens' copy how much Blackwood influenced him. I got a copy of the Stephens' biography: it has an index, but Blackwood isn't listed in it. The reference is hidden across a couple of pages. I'm sure there are things out there that I haven't been able to find yet, tucked away in various books. As you can imagine, I have spent years in libraries and second-hand bookshops wading through biographies trying to find references like this.

At several stages of Ashley's research it seemed every avenue he set out to explore turned out to be a dead end. He tells me about a particularly exasperating line of enquiry.

Among the few papers he left was an incomplete note about three old ladies: as he talks about the second old lady he refers to his work as an undercover intelligence agent in the First World War... My jaw dropped! I'd known nothing about it. He gives some background - thankfully because there are no records of this anywhere else - and then tells us his second old lady was an Englishwoman, living in Switzerland, who was married to a German officer. Her loyalties were torn: she'd come out of Germany and gone into neutral Switzerland and her loyalties were swaying back to England. Having met Blackwood she started to feed him information. But he never says who she was. He refers to her as 'Mrs J.' - which isn't very helpful. And it's been impossible to find more.

Ashley's quest for information about Blackwood's intelligence work, reminiscent of Arthur Clennam's dealings with the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, took him from Cambridge University to the Imperial War Museum; on to the Foreign Office and, finally, to the Public Records Office: all to no avail, and his attempts to learn more about Blackwood's investigative work for the Society for Psychical Research was similarly doomed.

I came across another of these infuriating short notes he left. It says that early on, even before he went to Canada in 1890, he had investigated haunted houses on behalf of the society. I spent a whole day going through the archives at Cambridge University Library, homing in on particular houses and research themes. And, once again, there was not a single reference to Blackwood in any of that! Even on a particular project I knew he'd contributed to, the report was in some else's writing. I suspect Blackwood was on this job - he talks about working on it in a letter - but there is no reference to him whatsoever.

Another area fraught with difficulty was Blackwood's collaboration with Violet Pearn. They worked on a number of plays, most notably The Starlight Express - nothing to do with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name, but a play by Pearn, with music by Elgar, which was based on Blackwood's novel A Prisoner In Fairyland (1913).

All Pearn's papers were sold to a man in a pub 30 years ago who, it's said, and then sold on to an American University. The estate lost contact with the man in the pub - of course - so it's been impossible to find them. I rang no end of universities and, more recently, looked in their Internet archives. Some very helpful contacts in America have found some Violet Pearn stuff for me, but not the primary correspondence and papers from the collaboration on Starlight Express. These American universities have masses of stuff: there are people descending on the Kipling, Wells and Chesterton stuff all the time and there's no rush to deal with Violet Pearn. I reckon it's still out there somewhere.

Ashley's mining of the BBC's written archive - "a treasure trove of documentary information" - was far more encouraging. In the 1930s Blackwood became widely known as 'the Ghost Man' through his popular radio programmes and after the war he was given a slot of television. I ask Ashley what he learned about Blackwood the broadcaster.

During the war he had to have scripts because they censored everything - so the radio scripts were filed away, complete with notes. So I was able to see what he was going to say and what they let him say. By the time he got onto television the censorship restrictions had been dropped and they let him improvise: he did an outline of what he was going to say but no script. He liked the spontaneity of being able to sit there and tell a story. I managed to track the producers of these programmes down and they told me he could be infuriating: he tended to drift off into a world of his own, ignoring everything but the story. They used to put a huge clock in front of him to try and keep him to the schedule. There were no scripts and they didn't record programmes in those days, so there is no way of telling what stories he told on television. The only surviving tape is of Blackwood's very last broadcast. He was 82, he'd had a stroke and his memory was failing a bit. So the producer suggested they record and edit the talk. He tells the story ok, with the occasional hesitation. But that's the only record of Blackwood on television.

A glimpse of Blackwood the storyteller as tantalising and frustrating as Ashley's search for Blackwood the man - a man who remained utterly elusive in spite of 20 years sedulous and painstaking research. But, Ashley tells me, there came a time when he had to draw a line under the investigations and write the book - even if that meant skating over certain aspects of a complex life.

In the end I knew I had enough material and thought if I don't write this book now, I'll never write it. With Blackwood you are chasing shadows all the time. It is quite incredible how he constantly blended into the background - he hides himself behind other people in photographs, he hides his research behind other people's reports. The research was very frustrating but his elusiveness made him more fascinating.

But there's more to Blackwood's appeal than the mysteries surrounding his life. I ask Ashley what he thinks has inspired the cult following for his supernatural fiction.

I only wish more people were reading Blackwood - he is unique. He writes approaches to supernatural fiction from an angle that no one else did: everything he writes about is absolutely real. He believed that - over the centuries - our senses have been dulled by civilisation and that we need to close to nature to expand our consciousness and reawaken those dulled senses. This is why he travelled into the wild places of the world: the Caucasus Mountains, Northern Canada, deep into the Egyptian Desert. His inner soul attained an affinity with the world about him - and it's that affinity he tries to recreate in his stories. So when you read The Willows, you're certainly not reading a ghost story or a normal supernatural story in the way most people would understand it. You're reading a story about nature in the raw and its conflict with mankind. And a lot of his stuff deals with that theme: he was propounding the new age message a hundred years ago. Blackwood hated civilisation, he felt mankind's cities were destroying the world and that we had to recover our natural, inner happiness by getting away from civilisation and get back to the condition of the honest savage. Images of the incomprehensible powers around us - and demonstrations of what they are capable of achieving - are central to so many of Blackwood's most powerful stories. It's what Ancient Sorceries is about and it's there in Sand (in Pan's Garden) - an occult short story in which the spirit, or Ka, of Ancient Egypt is summoned from 4000 years ago. His rendition of the infinity of time conjured up in his mind by the Egyptian desert is dazzling. The sand in the desert rises to create a corridor of time and you see the spirit coming down this corridor. He creates that image in a paragraph or two, an image that still puts goosebumps down my spine. Nobody else has done that. Blackwood's images of the amazing distances of time and the phenomenal raw power of nature are unsurpassed in fiction.

Myth, spirituality and the para-rational are the central elements of Blackwood's stories. He had a strong religious upbringing that he rebelled against. In early life, he studied the range of Eastern wisdoms and their key texts, declaring himself to be a Buddhist. Later he became a Theosophist - joining the society founded by Blavatsky (fellow members included Yeats, Thomas Alva Edison and Rudolf Steiner). But his knowledge of the occult stemmed from his active membership of the Golden Dawn (to which Yeats introduced him). I ask Ashley to what extent these forms of spiritual discipline affected Blackwood's beliefs.

These societies opened spiritual doors for him. He was with a lot of like-minded people, but he was more interested in the spiritual, mystical side of things than he was in the occult, mythical side. He wasn't really all that interested in Black Magic - a term he didn't even accept - even though some of his stories draw on material associated with that. He was much less interested in the occult than in expanding our awareness of the world around us. He had a strong interest in Native American mythology and - at one time - seems to have believed himself to be the reincarnation of an American Indian. He came to the view that mythology - particularly in the case of the Greek myths - related to the spirit of Mother Earth. He picked up this idea - a precursor of James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis - from the philosopher Gustav Fechner (1801-1887): he actually believed there was a sentient power that generated the cycle of life on Earth; a power that humankind once had a closer affinity with. In very early times there were stronger manifestations of this that appeared in things like the gods and giants of old: a being that was regarded as a god was really something that had a closer attachment to the power of the Earth. These beliefs come through in The Centaur, a phenomenal piece of work, and The Bright Messenger (1921), a tale concerning an alternative form of evolution - spiritual evolution.

I ask Ashley to what extent Blackwood's own spiritual evolution was reflected in the evolution of his fiction.

It manifests itself in different ways. In The Willows there's a very clear message that you shouldn't tamper with the powers of nature - because nature will always win. Elsewhere, he suggests the more civilisation increases and ignores the power of nature, the more trouble that will mean for us: that idea comes through in a number of the stories up to The Centaur. Later, he decides it's impossible to spread the message of harmony with the Earth - a harmony civilisation has disrupted. He comes to the conclusion that it's human nature to ignore other people and do your own thing: that the harmony he's looking for can only be achieved through a spiritual approach. And that becomes the central idea his books set out to explore: A Prisoner In Fairyland, for all that it's a dull book, is about the idea of trying to spread love, beauty and harmony throughout the Earth by means of a spiritual approach.

So did Blackwood's fiction become more didactic in his later years?

He tried to avoid preaching. It does come across in one or two stories and it's at its worst in A Prisoner In Fairyland - he overdid it a bit there. You could say he overdoes it in The Bright Messenger, but it's done in a different way there: I've taken a new view on that book. Initially, I read Blackwood's books out of sequence and when I first read The Bright Messenger, about 20 years ago, I felt it was disappointing, a less powerful sequel to Julius La Vallon, lacking the power of his earlier books. But later, when I read everything he wrote in the order he wrote it, it all clicked into place and I came to see The Bright Messenger, his last proper novel, as the culmination of all his work.
   He did a few others after that, like Dudley And Gilderoy (1929), but they're more like quasi-philosophical children's novels. The Bright Messenger sums up what his writing is about. By 1921 he'd changed his views: the war had seriously affected him and the end of the book is quite downbeat. Essentially it's about a body that has a human spirit and a nature spirit trapped within it. The nature spirit chooses not to reveal itself but its very presence there inhibits the human spirit - so its key character, Julius La Vallon, is a rather withdrawn individual. He falls in love with a young girl and the spirit within him is gradually drawn out, resulting in conflict between the two separate sprits within him. He comes under the care of a psychiatrist whose research leads him to realise the true nature of this being. He comes to believe that he can release the nature spirit, bring it into harmony with the human spirit and create a being like one of the gods of old. So you have the ideal of a human being in harmony with a very powerful spirit of nature. The nature spirit doesn't say much until the final part of the book (there's one chapter from the spirit's viewpoint, the rest is from the viewpoint of the psychiatrist) but towards the end it turns to the psychiatrist and tells him that mankind isn't ready. If Blackwood had written it ten years earlier - before the war, he would have tackled it differently.

So Blackwood became more pessimistic after the war. I ask Ashley if he died a disappointed man.

That pessimism never completely left him. He turned to writing children's stories because they hadn't lost their innocence and he felt he could convey the wonder of the world through children's literature better than by writing more books for adults. People who knew him never felt he was bitter but he does seem to have become more jaded. He tried to hide his disappointment, but it does come through in some of his later stories and - funnily enough - in Dudley And Gilderoy, even though it's often dismissed as a children's book. It certainly starts that way, but turns into something quite deeply philosophical. At the end it's almost as though Blackwood is releasing himself, saying: 'that's it, I've had enough of trying to bind myself to the Earth. I'll just live the life I want to live now.'
Starlight Man The Mammoth Book Of Science Fiction The Mammoth Book Of Fantasy The Mammoth Book Of Awesome Comic Fantasy
Wrestling With Jelly
There's more to Mike Ashley than his painstaking work on Blackwood. These days he's one of the most popular and respected editors in the world of genre fiction. It's a career that has its roots in dedicated collecting of magazines and was catalysed by the kind of break that the majority of writers can only dream about.

I wrote an article about John Wyndam shortly after he died, in 1969, in Stardock: the publisher Angus Wells, of Fear Books, wrote and asked if I'd be interested in putting together some collections of the stuff Wyndham was writing in American science fiction magazines in the 1930s. There were problems with the estate and I never did do that project. But it had given me the contact with a publisher. So I plucked up the courage to approach New English Library with a proposal for a history of the science fiction magazine. An editor at NEL got enthused about the series and it all took off from there!

In a recent review of a collection of J.G. Ballard's short fiction, Philip Hensher claimed the culture that had enabled the likes of Ballard to create short, cutting edge, genre pieces had been swept away. I ask Ashley if he share's Hensher's pessimism - is his experience of compiling short fiction anthologies over the past 30 years one of decline?

Many critics tend to ignore genre fiction, so it's easy for them to claim it's dying out. If it is, it's because people like them aren't looking for it. Publishers have this view that short stories don't sell, but they will in the right climate: if J.K. Rowling did a Harry Potter short story it would sell by the trolley load. It's not the short stories per se that don't sell: it's the fact that publishers generally can't be bothered to publish short stories because it's easier to do novels. And I think authors, by and large, prefer writing them. There are fewer markets for short stories and as a consequence the short story is finding it harder to keep its head above water - largely because TV has taken that side over. People are satisfied with a one-hour programme rather than taking an hour to read a short story: there are only so many hours in a day and if you're watching telly you're not going to be reading. But people will read a novel - they'll keep it by the bed and read it several nights in a row but they're not going to read a short story. So the market is getting harder. But that doesn't mean people still don't like a good short story. And I think some of the responses I get to my anthologies support that. Certainly the short story markets are still there. There are women's magazines around still and more and more surfacing on the Internet. Unfortunately - and the Internet doesn't help in this respect - the real problem is that 90 percent of the stuff that's out there is crap and it's hard to find the 10 percent of good short fiction.
   The other gripe I've got is against the WH Smiths of this world: if it wasn't for them we might have a more flourishing magazine market. They almost single-handedly wiped out magazine fiction publishing in this country because they couldn't be bothered to stock it. Mike Moorock had no end of arguments with them years ago when he was trying to get New Worlds onto their shelves. Smiths got it into their heads that fiction magazines didn't sell, took them of their shelves and so, of course, they don't sell. They started to believe their own myth. And trying to get past that barrier is almost impossible. I've had my own arguments with Smiths: they will not stock magazines. For most of my collecting life I've got them from specialist dealers but I'd much rather they were displayed on the shelves so that other people could buy them. In the early 1960s you could get Analog, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's, Fantasy And Science Fiction - all imported from the States - and the old New Worlds. They'd all vanished by the end of the 1960s! They stopped stocking them without bothering to tell anyone. After that very few magazines could get off the ground - little wonder that people say there's very little genre fiction around. They can't find it because WH Smiths won't stock it.

Luckily for those of us who love short stories in general - and short genre fiction in particular - there's the option of picking up one of Mike Ashley's many anthologies. I tell Ashley I was amazed to come across his collection of sea stories - how did he persuade Robinson to let him do the book?

My publisher Nick Robinson takes the line that if there's a core of readers who are interested in a particular subject he can shift a sufficient number of those books. He liked Patrick O'Brien - and Hornblower, which was coming back on telly at the time - and knew he had a strong readership. There's a clear appeal for the Napoleonic stuff. We did a war story one too, because he was interested in Sharpe and that kind of stuff. And that's how I did the historical whodunits - I'd been on at Nick for two or three years to do one of those and it dawned on him that with the Ellis Peters market there was a sufficient readership there. It was very worth doing: my first historical whodunit collection sold more than all my other anthologies put together. There was a similar effect with the Arthurian stuff, there's a big enough clique of readers to make it worthwhile in shifting a few thousand copies of the book. You can overdo it, I think we went back to the Arthurian well a bit too often. You can call these stories genre if you like, but I prefer not to think of books in those terms.

Ashley is responsible for a number of highly successful Arthurian collections and his Mammoth Book Of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures was a triumph: an anthology without a single dud story which brought a 1990s sensibility to the world of the great detective without ever descending into crude parody. Michael Moorcock's contribution, The Adventure Of The Dorset Street Lodger, could pass for a lost tale from the era of The Return Of Sherlock Holmes and simultaneously thread itself seamlessly into Moorcock's fictional multiverse. I ask Ashley why Holmes and King Arthur have been such a durable and fecund source of fictional ideas.

The Arthurian stuff draws on the myth of King Arthur, not the Romano-Briton of the dark ages fighting off the Picts and the Saxon invaders. He was nothing like the heroic, chivalric figure that we've fallen in love with. Sherlock Holmes has ceased to be Holmes the literary character and become Holmes the superhero. You'd attract a similar size of audience for a James Bond anthology - not that I'd be particularly interested in doing one. Many people are more fascinated by the Holmes they think exists than the one that was really there in the books. We've fallen in love with a mythic transformation of Conan Doyle's original character. I wanted to tap into the myth: I did it as if I was researching a biography of a real Holmes and then looked at which stories fitted into his life and which could be dismissed as fabrications. And in the process, of course, I was adding to the myth.
   There are a few myth figures like this: Alice In Wonderland, Tarzan - icons that tap into the public consciousness and represent something idyllic. Tarzan the intelligent savage fighting to save his environment - oops, I almost went back to Blackwood there! We're also fascinated by the super-macho strong image. You get the same sort of thing with Superman. We latch onto these ideal heroes who do things we can't - they solve our problems. Holmes didn't always solve the case, but our image is of the man who resolves the all but impossible case. To some extent these mythic heroes continue to be popular because we're living in an increasingly complex and nasty world.

I ask Ashley if he put the Holmes anthology together with a list of authors in mind - writers who could play with the Holmes myth template in an interesting way? Or did you just put out feelers and discover the stories through a process of serendipity?

A little bit of both - that anthology was one of the hardest I've compiled in terms of how complex it became. What I originally wanted to do was to reprint some very good Sherlock Holmes stories that hadn't previously been reprinted. But I also wanted to commission some new stories that fitted into the old framework - in other words, all of the cases that Watson refers to but never wrote up. I wanted authors to write some of those stories and also build in these stories I was going to reprint. But I opened it up too big in the end. I got a lot of authors who were interested, some followed up on the original idea and some didn't, but they were still good stories. Mike Moorcock came in with his story: I didn't know he'd written it but I thought I'm not going to turn Moorcock down, and it was a damn good story anyway. So the anthology started to grow like topsy - way beyond what I'd originally intended it to be. I ended up with a book that was far too long - something like 260,000 words worth of stories and a budget that ran to 180,000 if I pushed it to the limit. In the end I managed to push it a bit further than that! In the end I had to compromise - and I never really like compromising! I ended up with an anthology that was a mixture of stories that fitted my framework and ones that stood alone: I tried to build in some continuity with the narrative thread I wrote throughout the book, but it became harder and harder to do it. It got very complex in the end. Having completed the book, I thought, 'I'm not going to another of those': the writing, commissioning the stories and dealing with the estate just became too much.

At present Ashley is working on a long-term project covering the history of the science fiction magazine. I ask him why his career as a editor has turned full circle.

I hadn't intended to go back to the science fiction magazine. My abiding interest has always been the short story magazine. I collect them all: science fiction, crime fiction, and general fiction magazines - the whole lot. Early on, I was very interested in the whole story of the science fiction magazine: the magazines under Gernsback generated science fiction, as we know it. I wanted to trace that history form the beginning to the mid-1970s: that was when I started compiling the history. I wrote five volumes but only four got published the fifth was finished but NEL was merged with Hodder & Stoughton and with the takeover the it fell into a limbo and lay around for a number of umpteen years. In the meantime I worked on a huge reference book in the States and by the early 1980s I'd written all I really wanted to write about the subject. I didn't really have anything new to say. But then I got interested in doing a much more detailed book about Hugo Gernsback. In the early 1980s I researched and wrote this book called The Gernsback Days that - unfortunately - still hasn't been published. I'm hoping it will be out in the near future with Wildside Press.
   My original idea had been to concentrate on several of the major editors and publishers and to write about them. I did the Gernsback book and had planned to do one on Campbell, one on Ray Palmer one on Tony Boucher and a few others - Horace Gold and so on. The Gernsback book dragged on and by then I'd got back into doing Blackwood again. I didn't bother to pursue the others but a Japanese publisher came along and wanted to publish the introductions of my four NEL books. So I wrote back and asked if they'd like to publish the fifth as well - which covered the years up to 1975. By then it was 1995, another 20 years had passed, so I offered to bring it up to date. I got round to starting that and - as is the way with me - ended up doing far more than I set out to do. When I began revising the introductions I realised there was far more I wanted to say - instead of doing a book on each editor, I reinvested that content into the book for the Japanese publisher. But I wanted these to be available in English so I also sold it to Liverpool University Press and that's how we ended with the three volumes I'm now doing. There are now going to be three books, the first one, The Time Machines, covering the years up to 1950 is out. The second, taking us up to the 1960s is written and forthcoming. That one ended up being much bigger than I'd planned, but it's such an exciting period: the death of the pulps in the early 1950s, the growth of the digest magazines throughout that decade. And then of course the New Wave and the growth of fantasy in the 1960s, the interest in Tolkein, Conan and Anne McCaffrey's dragons. Then you've got the growth and considerable influence of Star Trek - an incredible period of transition. The third volume is going to be much harder to write because it won't just concentrate on the traditional science fiction magazines as we know and love them, but all those other magazine formats: all the webzines will need to be covered, the audio-zines, the Sci-Fi channel on cable TV, which is really just an extension of the old magazine format. It's a bit like wrestling with jelly!

In addition to getting back to his editorial roots, Ashley is working with David Pringle - for the British Library - on a guide to popular fiction magazines. This will cover the period from 1890 to the Second World War and will provide a magazine-by-magazine survey. I exhibit an embarrassing lack of knowledge of magazine history and ask if the early sections will cover the 'Penny Dreadfuls'?

No, they were more mid-Victorian. As part of the development they'll be covered in the introduction, but it really starts with The Strand, English Illustrated and Cassell's. Following that, all the popular magazines like Pearson's, Pall Mall Magazine � on into The Storyteller and Novel - magazines that published popular fiction through the war years and into the 1920s and 1930s. They merged all the genres: take P.G. Wodehouse; is his humorous stuff a genre in its own right? You can certainly argue it is: Wodehouse is as select in his way as Forrester is with the Hornblower stories. This survey will look at all of the genres that emerged as a consequence of the popular fiction magazine. In a sense they created genre. The moment The Strand published Sherlock Holmes the detective genre began to emerge from the wave of imitators. They also published sea adventure stories and historical stories. And that's what David Pringle and I are interested in looking at. Showing the contribution these magazines made to the popular fiction we now know. Everything we enjoy came from those magazines.

Ashley is also compiling The Mammoth Encyclopaedia Of Modern Crime Fiction, an anthology consisting mainly of stories from the 1960s onwards. He is particularly attracted to crime as he sees crime writers as the vanguard of those trying to break down the artificial, market-driven labels with which fiction has become burdened.

What fascinates me is how these invented borders are beginning to blur. And the more that happens, the happier I am. I'll read a good hard SF story - and be well aware that's what it is - but I also enjoy mystery stories with science fiction and historical settings. I just like good stories. The more inventive and creative people can be in breaking down these barriers the better. But crime fiction has demonstrated that more effectively than any other genre in the last 20 years. We use utterly useless words like thriller, suspense, mystery and - worst of all - horror. What the hell does that mean? Something that frightens you! But a lot of crime fiction frightens you - Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed frightening people. A lot of early crime fiction was sanitised and concentrated on the detection but a murder really ought to frighten you. I don't like it when people try to shoehorn books into categories. You get a few brilliant writers - like Joyce Carol Oates - who break the categories down, only for people to come along with new labels. They call it anything but crime - psychological dramas for example. Critics are the worst at doing that but we're all guilty to some extent. If we love a genre we put everything into it: therefore 1984 is science fiction. But it could just be good literary fiction. We end up with these horrible little categories that confine work to a ghetto - which is what Harlan Ellison and Bob Silverberg used to moan about. Science fiction got itself into a ghetto because of the way people treated it. Once a number of talented writers created perfectly good science fiction and didn't call it science fiction, the mainstream critics began to accept it quite happily. Labels just get in the way. The more writers write what they want and don't label it, the better the stories we get.

Books by Mike Ashley (A-Z selected titles):
The Camelot Chronicles (editor, 1992),  Chronicles Of The Holy Grail (ed. 1996),  Chronicles Of The Round Table (ed. 1997),  The Enchantresses (with Vera Chapman, 1998),  Fantasy Stories (ed. 1996),  The Giant Book Of Myths And Legends (ed. 2002),  Heroic Adventures (1998),  The Mammoth Book Of Arthurian Legends (ed. 1998),  The Mammoth Book Of Awesome Comic Fantasy (ed. 2001),  The Mammoth Book Of Comic Fantasy (ed. 1998),  The Mammoth Book Of Comic Fantasy II (ed. 1999),  The Mammoth Book Of Fairy Tales (ed. 1997),  The Mammoth Book Of Locked-Room Mysteries And Impossible Crimes (ed. 2000),  The Mammoth Book Of Science Fiction (ed. 2002),  The Mammoth Book Of Seriously Comic Fantasy (ed. 1999),  The Mammoth Book Of Short Horror Novels (ed. 1988),  The Merlin Chronicles (ed. 1991),  Phantom Perfumes And Other Shades: Memories of Ghost Stories Magazine (ed. 2000),  The Random House Book Of Fantasy Stories (ed. 1997),  Science Fiction, Fantasy, And Weird Fiction Magazines (nonfiction, 1985),  Shakespearean Detectives: Murders And Mysteries Based On Shakespeare's Life And Plays (ed. 1998),  Shakespearean Whodunnits (ed. 1997),  Space Stories (ed. 1996),  Starlight Man: The Extraordinary Life Of Algernon Blackwood (2001),  The Time Machines: History Of The SF Magazines, vol.1 (nonfiction, 2000)
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