A History of the BFS: the Early Years: 1970–1984

Back… back to your very beginning! This article by David Sutton was 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.

As a founder member I am in a rare position, having observed at close quarters the growth, trials and tribulations of the Society during all of its formative years. Back in late 1970 I was editing my then successful fanzine Shadow, and in issue twelve I mentioned that the British Science Fiction Association was about to incorporate a ‘special interest’ section for fantasy fans. Keith Walker (an active BSFA member at the time) was its proponent. The idea never got off the ground and so Keith, along with Phil Spencer and Rosemary (Ro) Pardoe, created the British Weird Fantasy Society (as it was then named) in 1971. The first BWFS publication, The Bulletin, was launched in May 1971 under Keith’s editorship.

The following thirty-four issues, however, were the work of myself – a duplicated, quarto sized, publication, of generally two to three sheets of text. During 1971, along with The Bulletin, Society members also saw the inauguration of a postal lending library (organiser Dave Riley), a Fanzine Newsletter (edited by Ro Pardoe) and the first issue of Dark Horizons (also Ro). Dark Horizons was mimeographed, and contained a mix of articles by BFS members, but no fiction.

1971 was also the year August Derleth died and Ramsey Campbell suggested that the BWFS should institute a memorial award to be given annually to the best literary work in the genre. An ambitious start for the Society that boasted a mere 34 members at the end of its first year.

During 1972 the BWFS began to establish itself with a regular publishing schedule. The August Derleth Award was administered by Ramsey Campbell and all nominated novels were listed in The Bulletin, allowing for a vote by the membership. Notice only the single category in those early days. The Award itself, a scroll designed by Jim Cawthorn, was presented at Chessmancon, the 1972 Easter Science Fiction Convention in Chester (see the Awards listing). During that convention the first BWFS AGM was held and proved to be a lively and informal affair, due mainly to the diversity of active fans then around, and that it was held in the cramped confines of a hotel bedroom! Dropping the ‘Weird’, the Society was renamed, and it was agreed that the President’s post should become an honorary one. Ken Bulmer became our first President. (Subsequently Ramsey Campbell was elected to that office and he has held it to this day).

There were twelve issues of The Bulletin during 1972 which, though not visually stimulating, nevertheless maintained its role of disseminating news of books and magazines, informing the members what the Society was doing and the services which were on offer. Ro Pardoe delivered issues 2, 3 and 4 of Dark Horizons in duplicated quarto format (on coloured paper) containing articles and reviews. Very much a fanzine, with little visual flair, but for a Society in its infancy it did demonstrate it was here to stay.

Early on Dark Horizons had a letters column, and it is interesting to read here the first glimmers of a problem that was to dog the Society for years to come. Complaints were aired that Dark Horizons contained either too much fantasy or too much about horror. Achieving this all-important balance is a virtual impossibility of course, but no one seemed to care about the difficulties, and the innuendoes began… Was the Society biased? If nothing else, at least for the moment, the letters column provided a stimulus for members and the committee.

By 1973 the BFS was still relying on the annual science fiction conventions to provide a forum for the announcement of its annual Awards, and as a venue for the annual general meeting. The expansion of the Awards categories and the outward signs of the BFS becoming more convention- orientated may have masked the fact that internal trouble was brewing. For a start, I began to receive and publish letters of comment in The Bulletin about the lack of sufficient news and reviews. But it was Steve Jones who tipped any complacency into a tub of turmoil with his fiery comment on the Society’s general apathy. This sparked a much needed debate, and a new flurry of further noises side-stage in the fantasy/horror ‘balance’ debate. There is little doubt that Steve’s letter had shaken up and changed the whole attitude of members and committee alike.

The latest editor of Dark Horizons (number 5, his only issue) was sacked almost immediately because of the poor quality of the publication: a very unbalanced item with too much poetry and hardly any artwork. Dark Horizons 6 was edited by Adrian Cole. This was a more even issue, if slightly crazed, full of artwork, fiction, poetry, reviews, plus a ‘pull out’ section send-up of Weird Tales. Some members may still possess the issue with bright magenta covers, or perhaps the black ink version? Good work, but Adrian was intent on his professional writing career and another stop-gap editor was found for the next issue – me! Dark Horizons 7 was the first litho printed edition, and I think pretty reasonable, but with three editors in as many issues, the magazine generally suffered.

1974/75 proved to be a turning point for the BFS in terms of numbers of members and quality in the Society’s publications, which provided a spur to the commitment of committee members and other active fans and professionals.

Firstly, proposals were presented in The Bulletin for a future one day mini-convention, to be held in Birmingham. The first three issues of The Bulletin in 1975 were under the aegis of David Riley and Jim Pitts, and their successful work in up-grading the publication was continued by Gordon Larkin, who produced the other two issues of the year. The lay-out was not always predictable, but given the time schedule and the tools to hand (no DTP back then, just typewriters and cow gum!) no one was going to complain about what were significant improvements.

Issue 8 of Dark Horizons was edited by Darroll Pardoe, which was a good effort, but yet again was a stop gap measure until a more permanent editor could be hired. Enter Steve Jones, who, as one of the Society’s loudest – although constructive – critics, was putting his money where his mouth was. Hired as Dark Horizons editor, he took the magazine to unprecedented levels of professionalism for issues 9 and 10. The first standardised logo was introduced, and the contents were a measured balance of articles, artwork, fiction and poetry, setting the trend for the format that lasted for a considerable time. The Bulletin through this period was edited by the Dave Riley/Jim Pitts combo, and the Fanzine Newsletter was still ably tended by Ro Pardoe.

1975’s notable event was Fantasycon I held at the Imperial hotel, Birmingham on Saturday 22nd February. The one day event was organised for forty-one pre-registered members. However, the room hired to cater for that was overflowing when around sixty members turned up! Fantasycon was small and unambitious, reticence dictated by the lack of a precedent, but great oaks… as they say!

As ever the Society’s success was linked closely to its two main publications, but now there was also Fantasycon. Dark Horizons retained its high production standards. Most members must have believed it could not continue for more than two issues with a single editor, but the jinx was cracked with Steve Jones at the helm. The BFS was lifting off, but would the rocket booster explode in mid-flight?

1976 saw the first appearance of our ‘double-headed dragon’ logo to replace the earlier ‘sword-wielding hobbit’. We were treated to 6 issues of The Bulletin from Gordon Larkin, packed with news, reviews and comment, plus Dark Horizons 13, 14 and 15 (this last with a colour covers, a special all-fiction issue) from Stephen Jones. The year proved to be a high for BFS publications, and things were going well. Too well…

1977… Added to the regular publications, the BFS now branched into publishing special booklets, beginning with a send-up of John Norman’s Gor books: Bodoman of Sor by ‘Norma N Johns’, and William Hope Hodgson: A Centenary Tribute, edited by David Sutton. Thus began a long tradition in BFS Booklets, of which this 25th anniversary publication is the latest. However, other publications during 1977 were not so successful. Dark Horizons 16 and 17 (under a new editor), began to veer away from the quality we had come to expect, with second rate covers. Its contents generated complaints of too much poetry, and the low quality artwork was further diminished by poor printing, failing even the small press standards of the time.

The editor stepped down in 1978, and Dark Horizons 18 was to sail under the helm of John Heron. This was an ambitious opening, but was sadly his only publication for the Society. The main problem was lack of illustrations (it can only be wondered if illustrators were then holding back after news that the Dark Horizons file had been lost). Dark Horizons 18 was a thick 42-page issue, but poorly printed, with some pages so pale you could barely read them. The Bulletin saw but a single issue, which was thin and uninspired. Dave Reeder took over and tried various layouts for four issues in 1978, but he did not seem to have his driving spirit in full control. A pretty dismal year for the both of the BFS flagships, relieved somewhat by two Booklets, Longbore The Inexhaustible by Adrian Cole and Epic Pooh by Michael Moorcock.

But if there was a problem with the publications, the other face of the BFS – Fantasycon – was completely different. Fantasycons III and IV were both held in Birmingham. Splendid Programme Booklets accompanied them both, the former produced by Jon Harvey, Fantasycon IV’s by Stephen Jones.

In 1979 Fantasycon V moved from Birmingham to Coventry, and an unsatisfactory hotel (The DeVere) reflected a convention slightly less ambitious than those of the previous two years. However, variety was on order, with emphasis given to female speakers, and we saw Louise Cooper, Pat McIntosh, Jessica Yates and Terri Beckett included in the programme. The guest of honour was the late Karl Edward Wagner.

Dave Reeder continued producing The Bulletin, and had now hit on a distinctive style as he struggled valiantly to provide value-for-money issues. They were fair on the whole, though a ‘special’ art issue was not too good.

A new editor took over in 1980 and the leap upwards in quality was immediate. Carl Hiles did wonders to an ailing title, with help from a solid back-up team, including Jo Fletcher and Steve Jones. The four issues of 1980 were a real credit to the Society, boasting a new logo and cover design. It had become a fully fledged news magazine rather than a fan item.

Issues of Dark Horizons were less triumphant with a mere two issues. Mike Chinn and John Merritt produced a magazine that concentrated on fiction and poetry. The backdrop of the two previous years’ poor output made things hard for them, with a lack of material to fall back on, but they did not allow this to overcome them, and did well under the circumstances.

Fantasycon VI in 1980 may have from suffered organisational problems had it not been put back to a new date in October. The event turned out to be a high-standard affair in the tried and tested format. The BFS Awards presentation provided the highlight, with the addition of a packed weekend of films, panels and readings.

The new Award statue designed by Dave Carson was a leering Lovecraftian figurine, but disaster! It was misappropriated shortly prior to the event, and Dave Carson had to burn the midnight oil to re-create the figure in time for the mould to be made and casts taken. A satisfyingly experienced committee, headed by Steve Jones, Jo Fletcher and Peter Coleborn, introduced us to the most professional list of guests ever persuaded to attend a UK fantasy convention.

1981 saw four more Bulletins under Carl Hiles’s excellent stewardship and Dark Horizons, issue 22, was the last from John Merritt and Mike Chinn, with a superb Fabian cover and a much improved content. Issues 23 and 24 were brought out by myself. My policy was to standardise the look of DH, and to curb the fiction element to two stories per issue, concentrating instead on essays which evaluated various aspects of the genre. I succeeded ( I hope) in my aim. The BFS seemed to be back on course, with no major hiccups. The year also included the publication of BFS Booklet number 5, Through the Walls by Ramsey Campbell.

But in 1982 disaster came close. Fantasycon VIII was promoted as usual, with Tanith Lee as guest of honour, Eddie Jones artist guest and Anne McCaffrey the MC. However it was soon apparent that serious financial disagreements existed between the BFS and Fantasycon committees. In the March issue of The Bulletin it was announced that Fantasycon VIII was no longer a BFS sponsored event. This decision could have seriously debilitated the BFS financially, and for a time during the early months of 1982 the future of conventions was an open question. It was resolved however and the BFS was able to pull out of the event (finally called Mythcon) in all respects, including its funding.

The summer of 1982 was a lean one: no convention of our own and the sudden disappearance of The Bulletin for much of the year would have appeared ominous to the membership, but the BFS newspaper was to have a new editor. However, for a while it looked like the Society was about to creak to a halt – not the first time it had been in the doldrums!

Summer passed and in October things began to move once more. The Bulletin was resurrected under the editorship of Steve Jones and Jo Fletcher, and the effort they put into the new product was considerable. Now called The British Fantasy Newsletter, it displayed a new look and concept. More news than ever before, with front page headlines, plus reviews and artwork, all tastefully and neatly presented.

In 1983 the dynamic duo turned in seven Newsletters, some of them very thick double or triple issues. The sheer weight of news, reviews and information was staggering. The BFS Newsletter had come into its own. Dark Horizons was kept afloat with issue 26, edited by myself. Fantasycon VIII was announced and proved to be a memorable and exciting occasion with guest of honour Gene Wolfe, MC Ken Bulmer and special guest Robert Silverberg.

Dark Horizons 27, an all fiction/poetry special, was the only issue produced during 1984 (editor David Sutton). But The British Fantasy Newsletter appeared regularly, four thick issues from Steve Jones and Jo Fletcher, the last one of them some eighty pages! Delayed from the previous year, Masters of Fantasy 1: Peter Tremayne was one of the year’s two special booklet, edited by Jo Fletcher and produced by Carl Hiles. The other, edited by Nic Howard and produced by Peter Coleborn, was Masters of Fantasy 2: August Derleth.

By 1984 The British Fantasy Society was a thriving organisation and if nothing else, Fantasycon IX, held in the autumn, showed how far the Society had progressed in achieving a near-professional status. During the first dozen or so years there were many problems, most caused by inexperience, lack of commitment, and lack of time from volunteers who otherwise were holding down full-time jobs and managing family life. Given this backdrop, and reviewing the publications overall, I believe the BFS has done a remarkable job (through the agency of some very remarkable people).

Now, in 1996 I do believe there should be changes to the Society’s publishing structure. I think the Society is moving inexorably in that direction. As regular publishers shy away from publishing genre material, I believe the BFS is in a very good position to begin life anew as a publishing house for books. It needs strong direction and people experienced in the field to make it successful. It would be a difficult route to go down, but one that I believe holds the Society’s future.