Today I indulged myself by cataloging some old science-fiction pulps of which we have a few. I am by no means a hardcore sci-fi fan (Dr. Who excluded), but old pulps never cease to capture my attention, particularly those with wonderfully outlandish covers. Today I worked through a run of Wonder Stories published by Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo Award is named. While typically the biggest attraction would be the eye-popping covers by Frank R. Paul, what gave me pause was an original letter from superfan Jack Darrow dated 1931 that was laid in to a copy of the Wonder Stories in which it appeared in print.
Jack Darrow is virtually unknown today, but during the 1930s he was a fixture of pulp letter pages and friends with writers and fellow fans, such as Raymond A. Palmer, later the influential editor of Amazing Stories. Two copies of Wonder Stories from our run – November and December of 1931 – were owned by Darrow. In both issues he has noted on the title pages his ranking of the best stories that month. The letter published in the December issue directly corresponds with content in the November issue. We can only presume that the letter was returned to Darrow by the publisher along with a complimentary copy as a thank you for his flattering comments.
While the idea of a fan letter to a magazine may not seem particularly compelling, at the time it was something revolutionary. Such feedback by fans is undertaken today on a daily basis online in chat groups, forum postings, and blogs the world over, connecting people instantly. But back in the early days of science-fiction fandom there was no way to meet other fans of the nascent genre unless you literally bumped into one at your local newsstand or bookseller. And even then they might not be happy to talk openly about what some considered a childish hobby.
Gernsback’s magazine changed all that by not just running reader letters but also their addresses. For the first time readers could directly contact other fans with a passion for science-fiction. This simple detail created a chain reaction that allowed fans to form local sci-fi clubs, produce amateur fanzines, and later organize nationally. The first large-scale convention was held in New York in 1939, made possible entirely because of fan letters. Among the attendees to that initial event were two young fanzine writers, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury; Forrest J Ackerman, publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland and the person who popularized the term “sci-fi”; Julius Schwartz, the literary agent for H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and later editor of DC Comics; and, of course, the letter writing superfan, Jack Darrow.