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A TRIO OF TREMENDOUS TOMES
by Paula Guran

FANTASY OF THE 20TH CENTURY: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY
by Randy Broecker
10 x 13 / 256 Pages /450 Full-color images
Hardcover w/embossed jacket / US $60.00
ISBN: 1-888054-52-2

THE HISTORY OF MYSTERY
by Max Allan Collins 11 x 12 / 196 Pages / 375 Full-color images
Hardcover w/die-cut jacket / US $45.00
ISBN: 1-888054-53-0

THE GREAT AMERICAN PAPERBACK: AN ILLUSTRATED TRIBUTE TO LEGENDS OF THE BOOK
by Richard A. Lupoff
9" x 12" / 320 Pages / 600 full-color images
Hardcover w/jacket /US $60.00
ISBN: 1-888054-50-6

Before you faint from a bibliophile's version of "sticker shock" over the prices on these three books, realize that they aren't just your average "coffee table" books. They are big enough (and heavy enough) to serve as coffee tables themselves. Not that you'd even think about such a thing. Setting a mug down on any of them would be like using a Rembrandt for a place mat. Moreover, the prices (especially that of The History of Mystery) are actually bargains considering what you get for your investment.

Publisher Collectors Press claims its mission to be "to create stimulating nostalgic journeys through innovative design features and quality production standards." Whether exploring the pulchritude of the pin-up girl or the history of comic books, science fiction, horror and fantasy, it lives up to its goal and then some. Opening any of these books is like buying a ticket to a museum of wonders. They combine fascinating history and superb works of art drawn from the unappreciated realms of popular culture and genre literature. Just looking at the full-color reproductions (mostly of book covers with the occasional movie poster or "other media" box) will occupy days, but don't forget to read the well-written, informative text as well.

coverFantasy of the 20th Century: An Illustrated History completes the Collectors Press trilogy of "art theme" books that includes Science Fiction of the 20th Century by Frank M. Robinson and Horror of the 20th Century by Robert Weinberg. This series does not intend any deep analysis of the meaning and significance of the fields. Aficionados may approve, but the books provide overviews intended for anyone with an interest in sf/f/h art and literature or as an introduction to them. Bravo for that approach! These books are splendidly seductive traps for the unwary wanderer. Once ensnared in their pages it is difficult not to escape without a hunger for more or at least an interest in what they survey. In a world where there are plenty of distractions from the printed page, that's a remarkable achievement.

The sf volume has not been seen by this reviewer, but Horror of the 20th Century combined highly readable, entertaining and accurate text by a long-time pro in practically all facets of the field with breath-taking images. Fantasy of the 20th Century is not quite as good a synthesis -- but it's still a wonder of a book. Author Broecker naturally covers some of the same dark turf as Weinberg, but also manages to bring some sense of order to the teeming world of the fantastic without getting bogged down in any one area. He touches on the most important writers and artists of the last century -- a more difficult task than many might imagine -- and provides an occasional tidbit of trivia treasure. (Victorian artist Richard Dadd was committed to an asylum after killing his father. he spent nine years there creating "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke," a bizarre and detailed rendition of the world of faerie.... Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian was very close to his mother. When he learned she had slipped into a terminal coma, he killed himself with a bullet through his brain. He was 30 years old....)

Ah, that every twelve-year-old Harry Potter fan or new-found Tolkien addict would see this book!

coverThe History Of Mystery also provides magnificent full-color illustrations of dust jackets and paperback covers. Mere words are usually no match for these wonderfully sleazy covers of barely clad babes and tough dicks, but mystery writer Max Alan Collins' text more than meets the challenge. Like the authors of the "art theme" series, Collins is limited to just skimming the surface of a vastly deep subject, but he does a superior job. Both well-written and erudite, the book covers all the top luminaries of the field and many of the lesser lights as well.

Collins traces the mystery story's beginning to the real-life 18th-century French detective Vidocq, founder of the Sûreté, whose Memoirs (more fiction than fact) inspired Edgar Allan Poe. Then goes on to inventor of the private investigation agency Allan Pinkerton -- who had cases from his files ghostwritten into stirring (none-too-factual) adventures -- and through the early dime novels to the more familiar names of the genre. He touches on everything -- pulps, slicks, comics, paperbacks, radio, television, movies -- briefly but knowledgeably. The author's obvious love and respect for the genre, his understanding of our fascination with it ("Sex and violence, after all, are love and death. And what subjects are of more interest to any of us?") add dimension to what is a truly delightful investigation.

One suspects even a few experts will find food for thought in this spectacular smorgasbord of sleuthing. As for the rest of us -- we’ll be copying down various lists composed by those experts for Collins ("Twenty-Five great Amateur Detective Novels," "Twenty-Five Classic Private Eye Novels," etc.) to make sure we’ve read them all and even looking for nonfiction books he recommends in his bibliography.

coverThe Great American Paperback: An Illustrated Tribute to Legends of the Book is intended for a different audience than the first two books: that of collectors. More emphasis is placed on the value of rare covers than what lies between them. Still, it provides a solid history of paperback publication, something that is difficult to come by. (It is a subject this reviewer finds of great interest as the introduction of the cheap paperback in 1938 had a far-reaching effect on literacy and culture that is often overlooked.) Printed in vast quantity, paperbacks were intended to be thrown away and most were. Therein lies the irony of a huge high-quality hardcover book about small cheap pocket-sized paperbacks: they now rare and collectible because originally nobody thought of them as rare or collectible.

The truly fabulous number of covers -- around 600 -- are each given provenance, a brief (and often lively) caption and rating as to value. The book becomes a mini-museum of cultural taste, taboo, and attitude for each era. (A brief chapter on "The Changing Face of America" even acknowledges the uglier aspects of history -- racism, bigotry, sexism --were shown through paperbacks as

Lupoff provides plenty of little known detail:

  • Published in 1953, Ace D-15 (a "double" with two novels) consisted of Junkie by William Lee and Narcotic Agent by Maurice Helbrant, both unknown authors. William Lee turned put to be a pseudonym for William Burroughs.
  • One aspect responsible for the popularity (6 million copies sold) of Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury (1948) was that the "good parts" were set in italics and thus easy to find.
  • A sizeable number of "Lesbian novels" of the 50s and 60s were written under pseudonyms by later-to-be-successful novelists such as Donald E Westlake, Lawrence Block, Robert Silverberg, Patricia Highsmith, and Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • Star Science Fiction Stories (1953), edited by Frederick Pohl, was a pioneering anthology: instead of reprinting previously published stories it commissioned new original stories from the best sf authors of the day. (It lead to a series of five more anthologies and other spin-offs.)
  • Readers will come away from The Great American Paperback with a new appreciation of it's subject. It might also send you scrambling through your mother's attic in hopes of finding a 25 paperback that may now be worth $250.

    * * *

    Any of the Collectors Press books are probably worth looking at and most may be as worth reading as these.

    -- Paula Guran --Originally published in The Spook.

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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.