The Books Of S. Fowler Wright
by Brian Stableford
Magazine And Book Collector
Sydney Fowler Wright is one of the few notable writers to have launched his literary career by self-publication and to have attained great - if temporary - success by that means. Film rights to his novel 'Deluge' (1927), which he printed himself some seven years after writing it, were sold to Hollywood, and the US edition of the novel then became a bestseller. In the years which followed Fowler Wright enjoyed considerable celebrity, being named in a Daily Express feature as one of 'the ten best brains in Britain'. He brought his highly successful career as an accountant to a slightly premature end (he was already in his fifties, having been born in 1874) and settled down to be a man of letters, spending a further quarter of a century producing considerable numbers of books. The best of them are scientific romances, which played an important part in the evolution of British science fiction, but he also wrote numerous crime novels (which were signed 'Sydney Fowler' in their UK editions), and several historical novels as well as pursuing various less commercial projects with determined idiosyncrasy.
Fowler Wright's fame proved short-lived, partly because the projects dearest to his heart were not of a kind likely to attract large numbers of readers. The works which he produced in his late sixties and seventies are, for the most part, understandably lackluster. He remains, however, one of the great individuals of twentieth century English fiction, and his best works still have a company of loyal admirers. He is a collectible author both here and in the USA, and the recent rediscovery of the film version of 'Deluge' - which had been thought lost save for the often used special effects footage of the inundation of New York - may help to re-ignite interest in his work. (The film was screened in some USA cinemas last year, but has not yet been shown in the UK.)
'Deluge' was by no means Fowler Wright's first book; he had been active as a poet for many years, and in 1917 he was one of the founding fathers of the Empire Poetry League, whose leading members included G. K. Chesterton and H. E. Bates. He became the prime mover of many of the league's projects, editing its journal Poetry (later Poetry and the Play) and various anthologies, all issued by the league's Merton Press. His first books were volumes of poetry: 'Scenes from the Morte d'Arthur' (1919), initially published under the pseudonym Alan Seymour; 'Some Songs of Bilitis' (1921) and 'The Song of Songs and Other Poems' (1925). During the early '20s he worked on new translations of Dante's 'Inferno' and 'Purgatorio', which were published in serial form between 1924 and 1927. A remarkable spin-off from this work was a short novel called 'The Amphibians: A Romance of 500,000 Years Hence' (1925), the first of a projected three volumes which were intended to constitute a modern 'Divine Comedy', cast as a Wellsian scientific romance.
The first edition of 'The Amphibians', printed by the Swan Press, must have been very small - it was probably intended for private circulation only - and is very rare indeed, but a second edition with a new preface quickly followed from the Merton Press, which became defunct not long thereafter. The response was heartening enough to encourage Fowler Wright to form his own company in order to issue 'Deluge' (1927) and his translation of the 'Inferno' (1928). The former received very enthusiastic reviews in the UK (it was, of course, well placed to do so by virtue of the esteem in which Fowler Wright was held in the literary community) and its success helped pave the way for the renaissance of scientific romance - which had been in the doldrums since 1918 - in the '30s.
'Deluge' is an archetypal disaster story in which a geographical upheaval causes the greater part of Britain to sink beneath he sea, turning the Chilterns into an archipelago of tiny islands. The hero plays a key role in helping to restore some semblance of social order out of the violent anarchy which follows. The book is a direct ancestor of the similarly structured novels which John Wyndham and John Christopher wrote in the 1950s. The story was continued in a sequel, 'Dawn' (1929 in the US; 1930 in the UK), but a projected third volume was never written. Because so many copies were printed, the US edition of 'Deluge', published by Cosmopolitan, is much more common than the relatively scarce Fowler Wright edition, while Cosmpolitan's edition of 'Dawn' is also easier to find than the later UK edition.
Fame enabled Fowler Wright to sell his next few novels to major commercial publishers, and he seized the opportunity gladly. 'The Island of Captain Sparrow' (1928) was the first of his several 'lost race' fantasies, in which a castaway encounters an exotic heroine menaced by the descendants of pirates on an island whose strange fauna includes humanoid 'satyrs'. It was followed by 'The World Below' 1929), which reprinted 'The Amphibians' along with the second part of the projected trilogy (the third part was never written, and the final chapters of the second are synoptic in form); this phantasmagoric and rather unsettling vision of the far future remains Fowler Wright's most famous work, and came to be considered a classic of science fiction when it was reprinted by the US specialty press Shasta in 1949.
The remarkable originality of Fowler Wright's world view was more fully revealed by the short stories which began to appear in various magazines at this time, notably the dystopian fantasy of an ultraregimented society 'P. N. 40 and Love' (1929); 'The Choice: A Bitter Allegory of Love and Tears' (1929), whose central characters reject Heaven because they believe that strife and the vicissitudes of chance are what make life worth living; and 'The Rat' (1929), which argues that the discovery of an immortality serum would be a terrible disaster. These and other grim futuristic fantasies were collected in 'The New Gods Lead' (1932), giving strident voice to the claim that modern society was heading for disaster in pursuit of the 'new gods': Comfort and Cowardice.
In 1930 Fowler Wright published his first historical novel, 'Elfwin', and the first of his Sydney Fowler crime novels, 'The King Against Anne Bickerton'. Four more crime novels followed in 1931, one of them first published in the US as 'Crime & Co' (1931; reprinted in the UK in 1932 as 'The Hand-Print Mystery'. The other three were the seriously-intended 'The Hanging of Constance Hillier' and the hack mystery stories 'By Saturday' and 'The Bell Street Murders'. The last-named of these is also of some interest to science fiction collectors - although two sequels featuring the same villain, 'The Secret of the Screen' (1933) and 'Who Murdered Reynard?' (1947), are not - and it also introduced (here in a minor role) the modest solicitor Mr Jellipot, who was later to be the hero of many other Sydney Fowler novels. Also published in 1931 were Fowler Wright's extraordinarily grim and downbeat contemporary novel, 'Seven Thousand in Israel', and 'Dream': or, 'The Simian Maid', a lyrical prehistoric fantasy with a female protagonist. The latter was apparently intended for publication as a romance under the name 'Ruth Falconer', but the publisher reverted to the author's real name at the last minute.
Fowler Wright was ahead of his time in planning to extend many of his more satisfying enterprises in trilogies, but he rarely managed to carry through such plans to completion. In the case of 'Dream' he actually did manage to write two sequels, in which the time-slipping central characters are allowed to replay their drama in other temporally remote settings, but the publisher of 'Dream' rejected the sequel. This appeared (shorn of the connecting material) as 'Vengeance of Gwa' (1935 under the pseudonym Anthony Wingrave, although it was later reprinted under the author's real name. The third volume was not published until 1954 - and then only in the USA - as 'Spiders' War', although it had presumably been written much earlier.
Following the publication of his second lost race story 'Beyond the Rim' (1932) Fowler Wright's work began to lose impetus, although he remained very prolific, issuing between 2 and 4 books a year until 1939, after which he slowed down to an average of one a year until his career petered out in the early '50s. He lived for a further decade, but by the time of his death in 1965 he was almost forgotten - to the extent that no obituary appeared anywhere, although 'The Times' continued to include him in their birthday listings until he would have been well over a hundred had he still been alive.
Fowler Wright's most notable crime novels from the mid-thirties include the comedy 'Arresting Delia' (1933), the near-future world-blackmail story 'Power' (1933), and the earnest mystery 'Three Witnesses' (1935), which was filmed. The best of his later historical novels is the Biblical romance 'David' (1934). His most interesting project of the period, though, emerged from a commission which he was given by a daily newspaper to visit Hitler's Germany and report on its prospects. He became quickly convinced that Hitler was a major threat to world peace, and alongside his articles he serialised a graphic future war novel which was subsequently reprinted in the UK as 'Prelude in Prague': A Story of the War of 1938 (1935) and in the US as 'The War of 1938' (1936). This describes how World War II begins with Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia.
Future war stories formed the hard core of scientific romance in the 1930s, just as they had in the 1890s, and many such novels displayed apocalyptic anxieties about the capacity of fleets of bombers to devastate cities with high explosives, incendiary bombs and poison gas. In extending his account of the coming war into a trilogy Fowler Wright produced one of the most horrifically vivid of all these accounts; although the plots of 'Four Days War' (1936) and 'Megiddo's Ridge' (1937) are woefully weak the clinical descriptions of destructive bombing raids on English cities are highly effective. Although 'Prelude in Prague' is an easy book to find, having been printed in a large edition because of the publicity provided by the serial version, the two sequels are rare, and 'Megiddo's Ridge' is an extremely hard book to find in any condition. Given that the same is true of several similar works - including Philip George Chadwick's 'The Death Guard'. recently resurrected by Penguin - one is tempted to speculate that they might have been assisted to disappear because they were considered a threat to morale once the war they had prophesied actually began. (In the end, of course, blitzkrieg proved less effective as a destroyer of civilisation than had been feared, partly because the Geneva Convention forbidding the use of poison gas was - unexpectedly - honoured by both sides, presumably because of anxieties about retaliation in kind.)
Apart from 'Spiders' War', the one notably original novel which Fowler Wright published in the later years of his career was 'The Adventure Of Wyndham Smith' (1938), another striking dystopian fantasy in which the tedium of a comfortable existence leads mankind to vote for universal suicide, and a handful of renegades must then fight for survival against mechanical killers sent out to track them down. A short story version, 'Original Sin', might have been written earlier but did not appear until it was included in 'The Witchfinder' (1946), one of a number of his own books which Fowler Wright issued under Hatchard's 'Books of Today' imprint while he was editing a trade journal of that name for the book selling chain (the remainder were all reprints). 'Original Sin' and one other science fiction story from 'The Witchfinder' were added to the stories in 'The New Gods Lead' to make up the Arkham House collection 'The Throne of Saturn' (1949), which was reprinted in the UK in 1951.
Like all early 'Arkham House' volumes, 'The Throne of Saturn' tends to retail at a high price, but is not particularly difficult to obtain in fine condition because most of its initial purchasers were serious collectors. This situation contrasts strongly with that of the various Fowler Wright books published in the late '30s by 'Robert Hale', which are mostly only to be found in poor condition because the vast majority of copies were sold to lending libraries; as well as the two sequels to 'Prelude in Prague', these include two lost race novels, 'The Screaming Lake' (1937) and 'The Hidden Tribe '(1938).
Fowler Wright's most interesting publication of the '40s was 'The Siege of Malta' (2 vols. 1942), a completion of an unfinished novel by Sir Walter Scott (a biography of whom Fowler Wright had published ten years earlier) but this was probably not new work. Fowler Wright did, however, continue to write even after British publishers had mostly lost interest in his work. His morale was buoyed up by the interest taken in his scientific romances by American science fiction fans, and most of his final works were aimed at this market. Unfortunately, he spent his last few years moving around between the homes of several of his children (he had ten in all, from two marriages) and the majority of the manuscripts were lost. More seriously, from his own point of view, he never managed to publish the two books which he considered his master works.
One was a long historical novel, 'For God and Spain', about the conquest of Mexico by Cortes; the other was a rendering of the entire cycle of Arthurian legend into verse - 'Song Of Arthur' - a few extracts of which had appeared in various places (including, of course, his very first book). The latter had been completed before the outbreak of World War II but the only manuscript was destroyed in a bombing raid, and Fowler Wright had to rewrite the greater part of it from scratch.
It is unfortunately ironic that a writer who so often found it necessary to resort to self-publication should have been forced to leave the works of which he was proudest unpublished, in spite of having once attained best-seller status, but he never did get on well with any of his publishers and no one was prepared to take a chance on his behalf when it seemed that the passing wave of fashionability had left him high and dry. This adds emphasis to the observation that Fowler Wright was never, by any stretch of the imagination, a conventional figure but if he had been more willing to compromise with public demand he would not have been half as interesting a writer as he was.