Guest-blog: SUE PHILLIPS

Today, we get nostalgic with Sue Phillips, as she reminisces about the heyday of the fanzine… yes, those funny little magazines which were actually printed on real paper, that you physically held in your hand and, if you wanted a copy, you had to write a letter enclosing payment and wait for it to return through the post. These arenas were often where our favourite writers saw their first publication. Sue was the editor of Strix (along with Anna Franklin) and is the organiser of the Terror Scribes Gatherings (see yesterday’s blog) – but I’ll let Sue tell you the story in her own words.

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I’m feeling a bit retrospective today, thinking about the mid-nineties when ’zines had a bit of a heyday and I was running the fantasy and horror magazine Strix with Anna Franklin. We were on the cusp of the cyber age. The personal computer had been invented and was changing things in the world of print. If you wanted to become a publisher, the tools were there on your desk (or dining table) and a whole new field had sprung into being – desk top publishing. But I’m getting ahead of myself. When we began, we had two very old portable typewriters and a temperamental photocopier. Anna was already running a magazine of her own called Silver Wheel and I had been a regular contributor. In those days, cut and paste actually involved getting the scissors and glue pot out and collating meant setting out stacks of pages over the floor and picking up one from each pile before knocking them into shape – literally and inserting a couple of staples along the left hand side.

One day she suggested we attend a dark fantasy writing course being run at one of the universities in Leicester by some chap called Graham Joyce. He turned out to be a rather wonderful teacher and excellent author whose books have pride of place in my book case. I learned a lot and still use his advice in my writing today. That was around 1995. Graham suggested that a good way to get started was to submit stories to the ‘small press’, a rag tag of zines produced according to the resources of their creators. Some were on old mechanical duplicating machines, others had the luxury of photocopied pages and real staples. Anna, a perfectionist, flicked through one and said quietly: ‘I think we could do better than this.’

Before I’d had time to think, Strix was born and we were arguing about content. Anna liked horror, I preferred fantasy and humour. After some strenuous tea drinking it was decided that Strix would be a fantasy and horror magazine with a generous sprinkling of humour. Reviews and letters would be included, as well as adverts and free gifts whenever we could manage it. More tea drinking and we’d sent a promotional ad and exchange offer to every small press publication we could find. The first few issues were written almost entirely by Anna and me, with what few contributions we could wrench from the clenched and slightly emotional hands of local writers. I developed a split personality as my work began to appear under a rash of pen names. Taska Lambert was my favourite. She wrote the really dark stuff that could be read straight, or as comedy, depending on your sense of humour (or lack of same). As myself I wrote fantasy, usually with a bit of humour.

As Strix began to be noticed, submissions started to flow in and we settled into being editors, taking it in turns to write the editorial. Anna would generally produce an intelligent article for each issue and I’d write a story or two. This was a great learning time for me as the agreement was that Anna would look at the magazine when it was near completion and decide what kind of story was needed to balance the whole thing out. I would then write something suitable, so one issue I’d be writing full on horror, the next a light, fluffy piece. Anna wrote fiction as well, of course, but not to order. That was my job. She was the visionary and I was the vision maker. At the same time we were carving out our careers as freelance journalists in the mind body spirit field and a lot of my MBS research found its way into my fiction. Even today I feel very strongly about getting facts right when writing stories. When writers failed to do their homework, their work would not be accepted. I got very good at writing rejection letters (another one of my editorial jobs), but when the flow of submissions became a deluge, I had to hand this over to someone else.

We had some very talented contributors, including D. F. Lewis, Paul Finch, Paul Kane, John B. Ford, Joe Rattigan, David Price, Peter Tennant, Simon Bestwick, Paul Bradshaw … I found a couple of covers online here http://www.philsp.com/data/images/s/strix_n15.jpg and http://www.philsp.com/data/images/s/strix_1997_n5.jpg where you can read the by-lines for yourself. The art was an important component. As Anna was an artist, I generally left the selection of the cover to her. Very often Helen Field provided illustrations, but I don’t think either cover is by her. Maybe someone can help me out with names. Des Knight was one of our regular artists who brought the stories to life with his quirky illustrations. You may notice a big difference in the style of the covers. Issue 5 was created on the old photocopier and typewriters. The blue, numberless issue was produced on a p.c. and I think we’d even got a scanner by that time.

John B. Ford was an enthusiastic correspondent and the letters page usually had a hilarious little missive from him, even he was then fundamentally a horror writer in the style of Lovecraft and a wonderful, serious poet. John invited us to what he called a Terror Scribes Gathering in a Sheffield pub. We went along and met up with several current and future contributors to Strix and struck up friendships I value to this day. Other Gatherings occurred whenever somebody fancied hosting one and were very simple affairs. People would get together in a pub near to a train station and would chat over a drink. Socialising, networking and selling of the latest publications were the main order of business and people stayed until they left. John B. Ford started a magazine he called Terror Tales, which published work from various scribes. He liked competitions and contributing authors voted anonymously for their favourite story. The winner received a cheque from John and a certificate naming them the Supreme Terror Scribe. Paul Finch was the first winner. I was honoured to be the Supreme Scribe of issue 3 and later won a similar, but anonymous contest John ran from his Terror Tales website. Both meant a lot because the accolade came from my fellow writers. I had also become ill by this time and the print story had been written in bed, a few words at a time when I feared I might never write again. Sometimes it’s good to be wrong.

We hosted a couple of gatherings in Leicester, by which time the evening curry had become traditional. We decided to run a charity raffle with prizes of original works donated by Gatherers. This became a regular feature of Gathering from then on and has raised money for several good causes. Later readings were included and the Terror Scribes Gathering as we know it had come of age.

Strix, Terror Tales and most other ’zines of the era are gone now, but the Terror Scribes still gather from time to time, the next on Saturday 17th July 2010. There will be another innovation when Simon Marshall-Jones hosts a discussion on writing. The company will be good, the programme will be enjoyable and, since Leicester’s curry houses are famous for their quality, we can pretty much guarantee the food as well.

Sue Phillips.

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Many thanks to Sue for taking the time to contribute – in this Age of the Internet it’s good to be reminded that the writers we know and love had it very different back then, and that in some ways they had to work a lot harder to become published authors. And we, as the aspiring writers of today, should be inspired by this to work just as hard in our own way to realise our own authorial ambitions.


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15 Responses to “Guest-blog: SUE PHILLIPS”

  1. Great essay, Sue and I’m really pleased to have been part of that ‘golden age’ (though I arrived too late to get anything into Strix). In fact, it was through your magazine that I heard about the gatherings and went to my first, in 2000, in Sheffield, where I met Simon Bestwick, David Price, Paul Kane, John B, Des Knight, Joe Rattigan, Paul Lockey, Simon Clark and others for the first time – most of whom, I’m very pleased to say, are friends to this day.

    I remember you winning at the gathering in Brum, I remember those early Leicester meets (and wrote about them, on my site) and I remember saying to you about the raffle, thinking it was a terrible idea to get ‘cheap’ prizes but you embraced it wholeheartedly and made me feel like I’m made a genuine contribution. I also remember the Hinckley gathering, where “The Waldorf Street Paradox” was launched and Alison & I had to leave early as we were off on holiday.

    Good times, great people, fantastic memories – looking forward to seeing you on Saturday!

  2. Thanks Mark, I recall you were the first to bring a digital camera to a Terror Scribes meeting – heralding the techno age we’re now in.

  3. A truly great horror magazine of the Nineties.

    • Unfortunately I missed Strix, but I was a big fan of Dagon, which was where I first came across your work, Des. I am actually comsidering tracking down some of those old fanzines and reliving the late eighties/mid-nineties…

  4. I miss those days horribly, Strix was a lovely zine, Sue. Was the first cover by Gerald Gaubert?

  5. Gerald Gaubert! He did a fantastic illustration for my story “Empty Souls, Drowning” in Enigmatic Tales and when I wrote to him to say thank you, he sent me a print of it. Marvellous – is he still drawing/illustrating do you know?

  6. Appreciate the kind remarks 🙂

    Yes Paul, it was Gaubert and sorry Mark, I don’t know if he’s still drawing. We were really lucky with our illustrators and they were the reason Anna insisted Strix was kept to A4, which it was for all but one issue when she was ill and finally gave in to my arguments for a format I considered more professional. I worked mainly solo on that issue. Anna had a day bed in the Strix office so she managed to keep up a steady stream of criticism as I worked, but it came out ok and I use the centre stapled layout for all my chap books nowadays.

  7. I miss those days, and those print-zine’s with their often rough and ready appearance. Modern anthologies look great, but they lack the informal charm of those old tomes. I remember that Sheffield meeting back in ’98, when I met you and Anna for the first time (I also met Paul Kane and Tim Lebbon for the first time on that day, as well). If it’s not too grand an expression, that really was the small press golden age.

  8. But Simon, we’re now in a new golden dawn and you’re right in there. Celebrate what is.

  9. Dave, I remember that day very well – so many great people there that day. I seem to remember you had an endless stream of jokes and witticisms. Happy times. When you’re a bit better, we’ll have to have a gathering near you so you can attend without travelling too far.

  10. He’s definitely worth travelling for 🙂 a Welsh national treasure.

  11. Then we willget one very well, I feel… I, too, am Wesh…. 🙂

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