MERLIN 'MEL' BROWN
The nationwide group of individuals known as science fiction fandom today appears to be growing out of the fan stage. It no longer concerns itself primarily with the professional magazines. Fans have discovered through association with each other that they also think alike on a great many other things. Chief among these is their mutual interest in a better world of tomorrow.
In this I have not been unlike the rest. Although I did not enter actively into fandom until 1942, I have read science fiction since my grammar school days.
My first knowledge of fandom came through reading some old VOMs, SPACEWAYS, FANTSASITEs and various other fan mags which were supplied by one Sid Dean. The aforesaid Dean had an organization in Portland which, to say the least, was going around in circles (Cosmic, no doubt). After meeting this particular psychological case, I consented to join his group and so became a member of the Stardust Society, which included artists and would-be writers as well as mere fans. There was one, and only one, major difference between the SS and other fan clubs: we were interested in, and discussed, science fiction. Of course, like the elite societies, we also talked about sociology, music, eoonomics...and women. There were many long discussions on "Has Science Fiction Contributed Anything to the Progress of Civilization?" After several meetings, we abandoned the debates upon finding that we were no nearer a solution than we had been six weeks before.
It was not long after this that I decided to come to Los Angeles. Upon arriving I found myself riding in front of that transplanted avalanche better known as the LASFS. Here, to me, was an unending source of mystery. I knew from past reports that it was supposed to be a science fiction club6 - but where was the interest in science fiction? The only reasons for the presence of most members was either Bruce Yerke's hilarious minutes or the contents of the refreshment table. Science fiction was nowhere to be found. To be sure, there was photography, nudes, music, corn, and Walt Daugherty; but outside of that, there seemed to be little of interest.
Then, to my surprise, I found that nearly all were interested in the same things that I was: good books, good music, the social and physical sciences, and a host of other things. There were long discussions with such fellows as Walt, Phil, Bruce, Paul, and Forry. Here, I discovered, was the real purpose of a fan organization. Nearly all had progressed far beyond the stage of being more readers of stf. True, their viewpoints on most subjects differed, but most of them were good sound ideas, and not mere hackneyed panaceas on which little thought had been expended.
Suddenly the bug bit me; I too must publish a mag like all the rest....
- FAN SLANTS #1 (September 1943, ed. Brown)
T. Bruce Yerke (writing as Carlton J. Fassbeinder):
Merlin Brown, known with genial familiarity as “Mel”, came to Los Angeles and the Fantasy Society slightly less than a year ago, and since that time, established members have held the unanimous opinion that nothing quite like Merlin has ever been observed by anyone, anywhere, at any time.
The original Merlin, if you are familiar with your English literature, was a somewhat menacing character extant during the times of King Arthur. The Merlin is also a member of the falcon family of birds and is known as a sort of backhanded and overgrown blackbird. Our own Merlin seems to have maintained those various traits, components of a more subtle but ever-present facet of his personality.
Brown, now twenty-eight, hails from Portland, Ore., where he seems to have been a minor background figure in Portland transportation circles and in pseudo-political labor maneuvers. It is his boast that during the middle of the Depression he was “one of the three men in Portland who had jobs”. This fact led up to his marriage in late 1938; an event which might not have occurred had more persons in the city been employed at the time. At the moment Brown is going through involved and complicated legal proceedings which may end in a divorce.
While in Portland, Merlin made some headway in stirring Northwestern fandom into a semblance of activity. He was in touch with Ludowitz at one time, a contact he regrets extremely. The Columbia Science Fantasy Society which Brown’s sidekick Sid Dean created in Portland during 1941 and 1942 was an ephemeral affair, boasting sixteen members, but little heard of in other scientifictional circles. In any case, Portland seems to be quite defunct as a center at the present time, and for that matter, Francis Laney (soon to move to Los Angeles) appears to be the only native resident of the Pacific Northwest who is making a serious endeavour to keep the light burning. Thomas Daniels, currently in Washington state, may make a splash, but his original habitat is Pomona, California.
Merlin Brown’s personality, a personality most difficult to appraise and become used to, seems to be one of a unique wit, slightly blunted by an acute state of myopia. His often rapid comebacks and scathing sarcasms lose some of their effect due to the fact that this particular oracle emits its opinions from a denture missing the upper plate. These two misfortunes befell Brown when he was working in a burnt-out forest area in the Columbias during 1937. An accident with charred wood injured his eyes.
His visual acuity stands a chance of being improved by the Mayo Clinic after the war and a local dentist is undertaking to restore Brown’s masticative prowess in the near future. Meanwhile, he commands our respect much in the manner of a badly damaged man o’war which, though greatly handicapped, still manages to put up a tough battle when called upon.
Merlin’s chief occupation seems to be getting himself into verbal duels with various members of the society through a tendency to open his mouth and plunge bodily in after it. After a few badly managed salvoes, Brown will occasionally snap back with a devastating broadside which throws his opponent off his foundations. These rapid comebacks are recognised as often excellent samples of high caliber wit, equalled and matchable by few. Nevertheless, Merlin often takes a terrific beating, but in good graces. An encounter with the Yerkian war machine still remains epochal.
“Well,” he stated one evening, “I’m getting a divorce!”
“That shouldn’t be hard,” Yerke snapped back from his usual prone position in the corner of the room.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Brown began, warming up to the subject, “I’ve got a date for Wednesday night.”
“And Buns tells me it’s a blind date arrangement,” his tormenter snarled again.
The rest of the discussion followed this line and is happily lost to memory.
Merlin’s attitude toward the fan world, an environment with which he was only vicariously familiar until his arrival in Los Angeles, seems to be epitomised by the expression “thud and blunder”. Brown simply landed without a motor and with his air brakes stuck, smack dab in the midst of the society, much in the manner of Tweel of Mars* and his beak-dives into the middle of Jenkins’ diagrams. Having thus arrived, and not being able to see far because of his myopia, he simply struck out in all directions at once. As in any case of this nature, he began to encounter unforeseen obstacles.
* See Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (July 1934 Wonder Stories) – DRL
After observing Bronson at work on Fantasite, Merlin set about publishing a magazine of his own. Not knowing at the time which end of a stencil went into the typewriter first, it was necessary for him to enlist the assistance of others in the clubroom. “I want material!” he demanded of his associates, looking at them intently out of the corner of his eyes.
“What kind of material?” Bronson would demand.
“Anything!” Brown would shriek in desperation.
Eventually items began flowing in. “This stinks,” Brown would declare. Or: “I wouldn’t publish that in the Downtown Shopping News,” Furthermore, after Brown began to learn which way to turn the handle of the mimeograph, he instantly became an authority on all phases of the mimeograph and its ailments. “Let me fix it, stoop!” he would rage when Mike Fern, another recent arrival, who seems to be everybody’s right hand man in the hat, offered his opinions. Bending over the roller – for his eyes focus at six inches – Brown would proceed to “fix” the machine. Inevitably it would be necessary for one or another of the bystanders to reach down into the inking drum and pull out a fighting mad Merlin, wash it off with wood alcohol and set it down in a chair.
“Oh, it’s those damned stencils,” he would explain, while Morojo or Mike endeavored to put the machine back together again. The next night it would be: “Oh, it’s that cheap ink we use,” or “Why can’t we get the right kind of paper?”
It was during the initial stages of Fan Slants, originally to have been called Fantasque, that another of Merlin’s more agonising habits, but one to which any habitue of the clubroom must eventually accustom himself, came to light. That is his continual use of such endearing vocatives as “stoop”, “drip”, “dope”, “goon”, etc. There are six or seven of these which are used in rotation during the week.
The idea of this system is doubtlessly stolen from the Kaywoodie pipe ads, which advocate the use of six or seven pipes, one each day, thus, relieving the monotony occasioned by using the same pipe at all times. The Kaywoodie Company gives no clue as to the procedure to be followed when the whole shebang wears out, and as Mr Brown also has had no further inspirations along this line, the members of the society simply have to swallow their egos and resign themselves to the fate of being addressed thusly, “Sit down, stoop.” “Are you coming to dinner, dope?” “Bring that crud over here, goon.” And other remarks of a similar vein.
Goon seems to be most in evidence on Thursdays, while more informal occasions like Saturday afternoons are favored with “drip”. A brief sense of propriety seems to motivate Merlin to limit the more drastic expletives to mere “stoop” on Thursday nights. “Dope” is employed on Sundays, but they all are more or less loosely scattered throughout the week.
Fan Slants’ activities were the cause of Brown’s running afoul of the Cleanup Committee which, incidentally, was in the throes of a sanity crusade at the time. This was especially true some weeks ago, during the time when the clubroom was assuming the appearance of a small town editors sanctum sanctorum. Much of the afore mentioned cluttering was the result of Mr. Brown’s aforementioned encounters with the LASFS mimeograph. Material erupting from this graphic Vesuvius would be deposited by Merlin, erupting a matching stream of crabwise curses, in endless piles all over the room, much after the fashion of the pyramid builders of Mars.
Efforts made by the Cleanup Committee to induce Merlin to eliminate this sanitary hazard would result, if successful, in the moving of one pile from one chair to another. After several modest attempts had failed, the committee took a heroic step one Wednesday evening, and deposited every scrap of paper in evidence in the apartment house incinerator.
Despite all this, the high caliber of Fan Slants, Brown’s first publishing, surprised many of the members. Brown himself is probably as surprised as anyone. His scientifiction activities, after a very erratic start, seem to point toward a very successful future, especially as his bombastic exterior is being seen through by his more intimate associates.
To be a popular member of a more frivolous group within the club, it is essential that the newcomer be able to dish out that particular brand of coin at a rapid rate, especially when the group becomes what it itself terms “carbonic acid happy”, a degree of ludicrous silliness brought on after a meeting by the consumption of soft drinks. Merlin started out in this field of specialized lunacy in his typical thud and blunder manner. His first trial balloons sent up in the crowd regarded as on the time-worn “Who was that woman I saw you with last night?” Subsequent attempts worked up through “Why did the chicken cross the road?” “Why... because Degler was coming”, to an individual style that at times is tops, and at others ....well...horrendous.
Merlin’s specialization is sort of a misplaced pause technique, first started by Prof. Collona, on the Pepsident program. While having done to death an unnecessary number of times such expressions as “pass the coffee, pot”, Brown has a few good stout ones that are worthy of preservation. His “how about a light, fantastic” is a fine contribution to Americana, but this perversion reached an all time prostitution at the drug store lunch counter when Brown popped up with “how about a men – u.”
Merlin’s existing interest in Music was aroused further by his association with the classic-loving clique of the society. Along this line he had many a shattering experience. When questioned by an enthusiast about a number with which he was unfamiliar, he will become vehement in his condemnation of it. “Oh, it stinks”, he will say with great finality. Everything stinks until Brown has heard it at least twice or more. While he would probably, if confronted with the musical score, think it some sort of a Phoenician bank ledger (you can bank on that, Phoney), Brown nevertheless maintains standards of music criticism that would leave Deems Taylor far behind as a slovenly bohemian. There are few pieces with which there is not something wrong.
Though Brown does own a fairly large collection, by weight, it is scattered with most incongruous indifference. There are numbers which he was at first hearing most critical of. His criticisms are fascinating to the followers of classical music. They are blunt and to the point. “So and so couldn’t conduct a player piano” and, “Oh, that band couldn’t play at a barn dance.”
On one occasion, when several of the Society’s members attended a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, there was much secret satisfaction that at last Brown would have to admit that everything was pretty much all right. The program was an all Tschaikowsky, conducted by Bruno Walter, virtually a command performance of his favorites. Scarce had the concert begun, however, when Brown began grumbling to those next to him.
“What is the matter now?” he was asked.
“Oh,” he growled, curling up in his seat, “Those big black things.”
He was referring to the scaffolding erected along side the shell, for the spotlight supports in the forthcoming ballet engagement.
Aside from these endearing characteristics which make up this impeccable personality, there is one more noticeable item. That is assumption that the listener should know what he (Brown) is talking about when he doesn’t himself.
When questioned in desperation as to the name of the personage that he is discussing, he will snort with dignity, “Well, you know, whatchamacallit”, meanwhile looking at you with piercing disapproval out of the corner of his eyes. A choice muff of this nature occurred not long ago when he was discussing the popularly of John Payne the movie star with whatchamacallit.
“Who in the hell is whatchmacallit?” his audience demanded.
“Oh you know,” Merlin exclaimed in exasperation, “that English actor that was over here for awhile.”
“What English actor?”
“The one that got the divorce,” Brown shouted, losing all patience with the imbeciles consisting his audience, “the one that married, you know, whatchmacallit.”
Bedlam ensued at this point. We never did learn the bounder’s, name.
Brown, at this writing, is working in a cannery as some sort of a supervisor or something, intends to remain in Los Angeles indefinitely, at least until after the war. As librarian of the LASFS he has done a good job in bringing order out of chaos; his publishing, if it remains on the same high level as the first issue of Fan Slants, will certainly be a credit to the society (it won’t. I’m printing too much material by that jerk Fassbeinder – the ed.), and to the field as a whole. Brown is a staunch party man, who sees eye to eye with the more vigorous members of the society and in his own vernacular, “he is a good egg”, though like all eggs, he is subject to occasional glutinous spells, on the whole, however, what is glutinous for us is glutinous for him.
Fan Slants #2 (February 1944, ed. Mel Brown)( Given that it refers to Laney's imminent arrival in LA, this would have been written in Oct/Nov 1943 - Rob)