Some years ago, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, F. Paul Wilson, and many more had a very special dream.
You see, there was this science fiction/fantasy writer named Henry Kuttner—he was a secret superstar. He wrote so many popular and successful stories . . . every reader of fantasy and science fiction knew who Henry Kuttner was. In this dream, five of Henry Kuttner’s most admired stories will be yours, collected, together, all in one place for the first time. This collection is called The Hogben Chronicles and it is being funded right now via Kickstarter.
Below, Wilson and Gaiman talk about Kuttner’s influence on their work and why a new generation of science fiction/fantasy writers should experience the strange worlds of Henry Kuttner.
GAIMAN: When did you read your first Hogbens story? And which one was it?
WILSON: Never forget it: “Pile of Trouble” in Henry Kuttner’s AHEAD OF TIME collection. My first reaction was, What the hell? It wasn’t like anything else in the collection. I mean, it was told in hillbilly dialect and the first line was something like, We called him “Gimpy” on account of he had three legs, and it was funny. As a kid I was something of a purist about SF—never called it sci-fi—and SF wasn’t supposed to be funny. But this was hilarious. And I loved it. How about you?
GAIMAN: Same story—“Pile of Trouble,” and same collection. I was about 8 years old, and someone left it on a shelf in the bathroom. I read everything I could lay my hands on, so I read that. I don’t think I knew it was meant to be funny—all I know is that I loved it completely and utterly, that it became part of my personal mythology, and that the book vanished shortly after. It wasn’t until I was reading THE BEST OF HENRY KUTTNER as a teenager that I came across two more stories—“See You Later” and “Cold War” and realised with excitement that there were more of these things.
I had no idea how many more there were, of course. Nor how delightfully inconsistent the stories actually were when you read them all together.
WILSON: So…“Pile of Trouble” for both of us. Synchronicity or… fate?
GAIMAN: Not sure. But it is a quintessential Hogben story, and I understand why it hooked us both.
WILSON: I’m glad you brought up the inconsistencies. A hazard of the times. No Xerox machines back in the 1940s, and a lot of the pulp writers didn’t bother with carbons. They dashed off the story and sent it out with return postage. If the editor wanted a sequel the writer often had to go from memory. The inventor in Kuttner’s first robot story was named Gallegher, but became Galloway in the second. He resolved the error in number three by calling him Galloway Gallegher.
GAIMAN: It’s one of the thing I like best about the computer age. No carbons. No risk that losing the manuscript means you’ve lost the story forever. No risk of someone’s housekeeper using your book to light a fire. No risk that you won’t be able to remember Gallegher’s name. (For those who haven’t read him, Galloway Gallegher is an inventor who can only invent while drunk, and when sober cannot remember what the inventions were meant to do.)
WILSON: You ever think about how the writing mindset has changed since Kuttner’s day? I don’t think it was conscious, but guys like Kuttner must have viewed their work as ephemera. They had no secondary market. No one was gathering pulp authors’ stories into collections and recycling them as books. It simply didn’t happen—at least not until Ian and Betty Ballantine came along in the 1950s. “Pile of Trouble” was destined to appear in Thrilling Wonder Stories and that was it. Unsold copies would be returned and pulped into clean paper for subsequent issues. Sic transit gloria and all that. A writer’s got to take a completely different approach these days, what with digital publishing and all.
GAIMAN: Weirdly, that’s absolutely familiar to me. When I started writing comics the only place you found the old stories was in the back issue bins. These days everything’s collected in graphic novels. A whole ’nother world. I loved the freeing nature of feeling like you were writing ephemera. It was really liberating.
WILSON: That day is gone. Nothing published in the digital age is ephemeral. I remember my early stories being rejected by every single magazine with Pavlovian regularity. I couldn’t understand why because they were obviously brilliant. (Revisiting them later I realized they were—surprise!—crap.) If that wannabe writer were operating today, he’d probably self-publish those stories, and their fecal odor would follow him the rest of his career. Because ebooks are forever.
GAIMAN: I’m enormously relieved that my first novel is in the attic, in a box, and not out there on the web as well. Be really embarrassing. There are a few short stories and many articles that are well lost. But should the wishes of the author be paramount?
I suspect that Kuttner might have thought it was a good thing that no-one was ever going to read “The Old Army Game”. Not ever again…
WILSON: Well, that’s been the case for decades. Forgotten. Reminds me of a signing where a reader asked me what was in the pipeline. I mentioned writing the intro to a collection of Kuttner’s robot stories. This guy could probably name all the species in the Mos Eisley cantina, but I could see by his expression he had no idea who or what I was talking about. Hardly anybody out there has read a Hogben story. Do you fear a lot of the good old stuff being forgotten except by scholars and fan-boys like us?
GAIMAN: I don’t. I think digital is bringing things back into print or into the world, and that good stuff will find an audience, always. It just has to have its champions—I found James Branch Cabell when I was 11 or 12 because James Blish championed him, and I liked Blish. I would be quite happy if people found Kuttner (and explored the rest of his work, and the Lewis Padgett stuff he wrote with C.L. Moore) because you, or I, or Alan Moore, or someone said it was good, and they listened.
When we grew up, it was hard to find the stuff. Soon it will be easy to find it, but harder and harder to know what you want to find.
WILSON: But first someone’s got to decide to the job’s worth doing. After the Gallegher collection, I told Pierce Waters (who edited it) that the Hogbens had to be next. He agreed but no one had a copy of the first story—not even Kuttner’s estate. “The Old Army Game” appeared in an obscure 1941 pulp called Thrilling Adventures that no collector I contacted had ever seen. Took me two years to track it down. Along the way I was delighted to learn you were a fan as well.
GAIMAN: I loved “The Old Army Game”—loved it as much as anything for what it showed us about the roots of the Hogbens. Our glorious mutant hillbilly family here is reduced to one moonshining joke, and Saunk, our narrator, seems to be some kind of a bigfoot. When, postwar, Kuttner goes back to the Hogbens they’ve transmuted, like something in one of their piles, from laughing at the hillbillies to allowing the hillbillies to laugh at us: they are the Slans, they are the evolved futuristic posthuman dream, and they really like keeping to themselves up in the hills…
WILSON: Well, we’re doing our damnedest to bring them out of those hills, aren’t we? “The Hogben Chronicles” will gather all five Hogben stories for the first time. No hunting around like we had to do. The Kickstarter was initiated to pre-sell the collection and see if it was a viable project.