A Further History of the BFS: the Later Years: 1985–1996

Here’s a look back at times past, in an article by Peter Coleborn originally published in Silver Rhapsody (BFS Booklet No. 23 (1996), edited by John Carter & Jan Edwards, and produced by Jan Edwards & Peter Coleborn). Reprinted with the author’s permission.

The British Fantasy Society is an organisation of like‑minded fantasy fans and its history should be that of its members. Yet the story of the BFS will, of necessity, concentrate on publications and events.

The last Steve Jones/Jo Fletcher Newsletter was published in the winter of 1984/85. Theirs was a difficult legacy to follow – this issue was, after all, a massive 80-pager! The new editor, it seemed, vanished into obscurity and The Newsletter was threatened with extinction. So someone else had to take control of The Newsletter – but who? OK, I’ll own up: it was me. I volunteered for this role on a temporary (and on a quarterly) basis, until a new full‑time editor could be appointed. In the end I stayed on until the 1989/90 issue, although I was unable to maintain the regularity I had intended.

The volume 12 number 1 issue of The Newsletter (Summer 1985, my first), continued very much in the style of Jones & Fletcher, headlined the death of Ted Sturgeon, a rather sad start to my reign. I managed three issues in 1985. Looking through back copies, I note that a certain Stephen Laws of Tyne & Wear won a Gremlins competition run in an earlier issue; and reviewers included Kim Newman and Neil Gaiman. The Newsletter was accompanied by Dark Horizons 28 and 29 edited by Dave Sutton, and Gothique: 20th Anniversary issue.

Also in 1985, we held a couple of Open Nights in the “ever popular” (it said) Royal Connaught pub in Holborn. Karl Edward Wagner flew in specially to guest at the July Open Night. Dave Sutton won an award for one of his short stories in an international competition organised by the European Post and Telecommunication Recreation Council. But of course, the high point of ‘85 was Fantasycon X with guests Robert Holdstock, Charles L Grant and Diana Wynne Jones. The Society’s President, re‑elected at Fantasycon X, was Ramsey Campbell, and Mike and Di Wathen continued as co‑Vice‑Presidents.

The first Newsletter of 1986 announced the deaths of Frank Herbert, Manly Wade Wellman and L Ron Hubbard – more grim news. I produced a second Newsletter in ‘86 and then alternated editorial duties on the magazine with Paul (Carl) Hiles. But the stress of producing the magazine was telling and only three issues of The Newsletter appeared. The only other BFS publication in 1986 was Dark Horizons 30 (Dave Sutton’s final issue). A poor year for the Society.

The main guests at Fantasycon XI were Dennis Etchison, Samantha Lee and Jody Scott. Ramsey Campbell (President) and the Wathens (Vice‑Presidents) were re‑elected to the committee. By the way, 1986 saw the 15th anniversary of both Birmingham’s Andromeda Bookshop and Novacon.

Again, only three issues of The Newsletter were produced in 1987, edited by either Coleborn or Hiles. The first issue of 1987 at least offered some good news: Headline Book Publishing was announced, a venture involving the BFS’s very own Jo Fletcher. The front cover of The Newsletter changed from a newspaper‑style to one showcasing some excellent fantasy artwork by Allen Koszowski, Dave Carson, Alan Hunter and Jeffrey Salmon; it also boasted a new logo designed by Paul Hiles. The Society’s other publications in ‘87 were Winter Chills issues 1 and 2, Masters of Fantasy 3 and the Fantasy Fanzine Index. (Note the absence of Dark Horizons; for various reasons the appointed editor failed to produce an issue and was eventually replaced by a new editor, Phil Williams. Winter Chills was created by me partly as an attempt to ensure that the BFS continued to produce a magazine with a fiction content, and partly because it seemed a good idea at the time.)

Fantasycon XII had four main guests: M John Harrison, George RR Martin, JK Potter and Douglas E Winter, and again was staged at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham. Despite the hotel’s draw‑backs (only one, too‑small, lift; a particular conference room too small and difficult to get to), the Midland was becoming a home for Fantasycon (perhaps the extremely affable Alf and his fellow bar staff had something to do with this). Again, Campbell and the Wathens remained at the BFS’s helm. And Steve Jones and Dave Sutton’s Fantasy Tales celebrated ten years of publication.

1988 was a very bad year: only one issue of The Newsletter appeared, edited by Hiles. It now seemed that the pitiful three issues a year of ‘86 and ‘87 were a luxury. Why was this happening? Sorry, I can’t recall all the reasons in detail; it came down to real life interrupting our hobbies plus an unwillingness for new editors to come forward. (At least, in 1989, The Newsletter picked‑up momentum again – just: two issues appeared, including the last edited by Hiles). The BFS’s only other publication in 1988 was The Devil’s Graveyard.

The high point of the fantasy calendar in 1988 was undoubtedly the World Fantasy Convention, held in London and staged for the first time outside the USA (the WFC also included Fantasycon XIII). The chief guests were James Herbert, Michael Foreman, Diana Wynne Jones and Clive Barker. And once more the BFS’s leading lights remained Campbell and the Wathens. Fear magazine edited by John Gilbert was announced, a news‑stand publication that some of us feared would steal membership away from the BFS as it promised to do all The Newsletter did and more (of course, Fear is no more; the BFS soldiers on.)

1989 must have seemed like an anticlimax, following on from the Worldcon. The two Newsletters were published along with Winter Chills 3 and Mike Chinn’s Mystique issue 1 and 2. But Fantasycon, yet again, proved to be the focal point, holding us all together for another year. Fantasycon XIV had Thomas F Monteleone, Stephen Laws and Brian Lumley as the main guests.

A new organisation was launched in 1989 by one of the BFS’s founder members, Ro Pardoe: The Ghost Story Society, catering for fans of supernatural fiction and ghost stories in a more traditional mould. Fantasy Tales was re-launched as a proper paperback from Robinson Books, and although an evolution for Jones and Sutton, the magazine lost its intimacy; and it seemed that the BFS lost an unofficial voice.

Two Newsletters appeared in 1990, including my last issue (volume 15 number 3) in January – it was supposed to be the Christmas 1989 issue! Graham Evans, editor of the small press magazine The Edge was to take the reins, and volume 16 number 1 was dated Summer/Autumn 1990 (you’ll note, perhaps, the idiosyncratic numbering system The Newsletter adopted over the past few years). The editorial stated that “publication will now be more frequent” but the curse struck and Evans had to relinquish his post after only one issue. At least Evans’s Newsletter possessed professional type‑set text (it was also expensive to produce). Other 1990 publications were Dark Horizons 31, the first edited by Phil Williams, Winter Chills 4, Mystique 3 and Stirring Within.

Without Fantasycon, the BFS would’ve been totally, rather than partially, moribund. Fantasycon XV featured guests Joe R Lansdale, Stephen Gallagher and Stephen Laws. The BFS Committee was headed by President Campbell but with only one Vice‑President: Di Wathen (Mike having stepped down).

Two Newsletters under a new editor appeared in 1991 – and they were pretty dismal affairs, with little thought to design and content. BFS members were getting a bum deal. Editing such a magazine was not easy and volunteers were non‑existent. Fortunately, a saviour was at hand (more later). 1991’s other BFS publications were Dark Horizons 32, Chills 5 (Winter Chills’s new title), Mystique 4 and The Legends of Fogrophol.

Fantasycon moved to London in 1991, and the featured guests at Fantasycon XVI were Dan Simmons, Brian Lumley, Jonathan Carroll and Andrew Porter. Meanwhile, Savoy, publishers of Lord Horror and Meng and Ecker, were found guilty under Section Three of the Obscene Publications Act.

Alas, the saga of the vanishing Newsletter continued. It took a year before a new editor was brave enough to step forward. David Howe, at Fantasycon XVII, suggested a way that The Newsletter could be saved and his very modest first issue (volume 17 number 1) appeared in November 1992. But as they say, from small lizards grow mighty dragons. Amazingly, some people complained at its mere three pages – forgetting that for a year there had been zilch! Other BFS publications in 1992 were Dark Horizons 33, Chills 6 and Birthday.

Fantasycon XVII was once again back at the Midland Hotel (and Alf – where is he now? He should be a prerequisite for any convention!). The chief guests were David Schow (who didn’t – show up, that is), Lisa Tuttle and Adrian Cole. Ramsey Campbell and Di Wathen were re‑elected as President and Vice‑President. 1992 was also the centenary of JRR Tolkien’s birth.

Doubting Thomases were keeping a low profile in 1993 as David Howe’s Newsletter saw six issues, and it was now a regular 12–page magazine that contained an amazing amount of news. Other mags this year: Dark Horizons 34, Chills 7, Mystique 5 and Tanith Lee: Mistress of Delirium.

Fantasycon XVIII’s guests were Peter James, Tad Williams, Les Edwards and Dennis Etchison. Ramsey Campbell was re‑elected President and Mike Chinn followed in Di Wathen’s steps to become Vice‑President. BFS columnist Nick Royle’s first novel, Counterparts was published at Fantasycon; Fantasy Tales, launched in 1988, ceased publication; and the BFS’s friendly New Yorker Andrew Porter won the Hugo for Science Fiction Chronicle.

There were another six issues of The Newsletter (volume 18) in 1994. By now the editorial team had expanded to include several contributors, all helping to make the production of the title less onerous for one individual – and with the steadily increasing page‑count, all hands were needed. BFS’s other magazines continued apace with Dark Horizons 35, Chills 8, and the “proper paperback” Clive Barker: Mythmaker for the Millennium. This last title marked a massive step forward in the quality of the Society’s publications and has proved to be one of its best sellers.

Fantasycon XIX, in 1994, was to be the last organised by Mike Chinn and Peter Coleborn – they needed a rest and a chance to “do their own things”. A balanced guest list included Brian Lumley, Katherine Kurtz (who came over from Ireland) and Graham Joyce. The same pair of Campbell and Chinn retained their posts on the Committee. Raven, an imprint of Robinson Books, was launched in August under the editorship of Steve Jones. A short story collection by Joel Lane, The Earthwire, was launched at the convention and went on to win next year’s British Fantasy Award. And the Grim Reaper struck, taking Peter Cushing, Robert Bloch and our dear friend Karl Edward Wagner.

1995 was a strange year: for a second time the BFS went without a Fantasycon. Thankfully The Newsletter continued to bind the disparate limbs of the Society. Six issues of volume 19 saw publication, and by the end of the year was being co‑produced by David Howe and Debbie Bennett (who will be a mother by the time you read these words). The Newsletter was rapidly evolving into an essential read, with regular columnists appearing, including Ramsey Campbell, Tom Holt and Nick Royle. Other titles: Dark Horizons 36, Mystique 6, Colonel Halifax’s Ghost Story and Annabelle Says, which again was a wonderfully produced publication, put together by David Howe.

There were only two BFS organised events in ‘95: a couple of Open Nights that were a shadow of former evenings. Fortunately the horror convention Welcome To My Nightmare, in Swansea, gave us a welcome alternative to the missing Fantasycon – and a rest from organising hassles for Chinn and Coleborn (but inevitably, C&C are co‑chairmen of Fantasycon XX, to be held in October 1996). Ramsey Campbell remained as President and Jan Edwards was elected Chairperson. Pan Books and Dark Voices (edited by Jones and Sutton) parted company; the Creed imprint from Penguin was launched; and Interzone won the Hugo for us Brits.

As I type these words (Summer 1996), three issues of The Newsletter have been published, along with the ninth and tenth, the final, issues of Chills. Later in the year expect to see a revamped Dark Horizons co‑edited by Chinn, Coleborn and Phil Williams, plus of course this 25th anniversary booklet.