Richard E. Geis (1927 – 2013)

I have just learned of the death of Richard E. Geis back in February of this year.

REG GeisRichard001Richard E. Geis in happier, hippier times

I am saddened to learn it, though not surprised, and certainly not surprised to have taken this long to become aware of it.

Dick was a loner, a recluse, a person more at home behind the keys of his typewriter than in face to face conversation.

I never met him, but we were friends for over 40 years.

Most of you probably don’t know who he is, and as such you have absolutely no idea how great an impact he made on the science fiction field, or how he (and others) contributed to the acceptance sci-fi has today.

More than any other genre, style, or movement, sci-fi has always been drastically influenced by the editors in the field -- and not just professional editors, but semi-pro and amateur editors like Dick Geis.  They (which is to say, the good ones as opposed to the hacks) shaped the growth and direction of the genre by their selection of stories, their recruitment and cultivating of writers.

Sci-fi fans tended to be more literate and more eager to engage with their favorite writers and editors than fans of other genres.  As a result fanzines (i.e., what we had in the day back before the InterWebs) became a nexus of feverish activity, much of it fanboyish in nature (indeed, originating that term) but some displaying penetrating insight into the field.

In the beginning, there was Psychotic, Geis’ original fanzine that he launched in 1953 (the same year I was getting launched, as it were).  Though originally more fannish in nature than his later publications, Psychotic served as a soap box for Geis to start exploring his own ideas on writing in general and science fiction in particular.

REG Psychotic22-webEHe changed the title to Science Fiction Review in the late fifties, then fafiated[1] to write novels.[2]

REG sfr38Let us be honest:  His oeuvre is pretty conclusive proof his talents lay elsewhere. 

REG like-crazy-man-richard-geisAs a fiction writer, Geis was competent; thirty years later and he would have doubtlessly been the go-to guy for Skinemax producers needing a quick script.

As Geis was publishing fanzines and writing filth mature entertainment in the 1950s and early 1960s, other things were happening in the world at large and in the field of sci-fi.

One was the rise of the beat generation, which in turn lead to the self-parody of the beatniks, which in turn lead to the counter-culture associated with the hippie movement (though the hippies were only the most flamboyant and hence most visible element of that culture).  As the beat writers and poets began stretching and flexing the limits of the possible in mainstream literature, a similar yet more subtle change was occurring in science fiction.[3]

Writers like Philip Jose’ Farmer and Alfred Bester were shaking up the field by writing dazzling stories outside the comfort zones of many readers; editors H.L. Gold of Galaxy and Anthony Boucher of Fantasy & Science Fiction both began actively seeking and publishing stories outside the traditional purview of the genre.

By the early 1960s, as mainstream publishing began embracing new cultural guidelines, the nameless parallel movement in sci-fi finally got a name -- New Wave -- and the culture war was on.  The debate (referred to as the New Wave vs Old Thing feud at the time) was widespread and vociferous with virtually every publication and publisher in the field taking a swing at the topic.

And because of the unique nature of sci-fi fandom, the fanzines shared an equal (indeed, sometimes greater) influence on the debate as the established digests.

It was at that point that Geis relaunched Science Fiction Review and almost immediately became Ground Zero for the epic feud that followed.[4]

Why Richard E. Geis? Why not some other editor, some other fanzine?

Well, truth be told, it’s probably because Geis told the truth:  Plain, simple, unvarnished.  About himself, about his life, and about his opinions.  And he genuinely welcomed debate, giving anyone and everyone room to argue their positions (though he would argue against you if he thought you were wrong).

Geis was probably more naked than any other person in publishing at that time.  It’s hard to imagine in today’s media saturated environment, but back then nobody would report warts and all on themselves, their shortcomings, their bias.

Geis did, and in no small reason because of that he not only attracted readers but gained their trust.

He might not always be right, but he was always honest.

Over the next several decades Geis and Science Fiction Review (and it’s mutant offspring The Alien Critic and Richard E. Geis and Taboo as well as brief revivals of Psychotic) were nominated for every fan and semi-pro sci-fi award available, and often won.  The mag was like Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca -- everybody went there -- and Geis was its Bogey (though he would probably argue he was more like Peter Lorre).

As I mentioned, he was quite the recluse, so how did we end up friends?  Well, due to my father’s job situation, when I was growing up my family moved quite a lot.[5]  When I discovered sci-fi fandom, I discovered a multitude of friends who were never further away than my mailbox.  I was what was called a letterhack, and I would write lengthy multi-page letters to every prozine and fanzine I read.

Most of the time I was ignored[6] but a few published me and, more importantly for 14 year old Buzz-nee-Buzzy, they treated me and my opinions seriously.[7]  Dick Geis, stuck alone in his apartment, with nothing but a typewriter to connect him to the outside world,[8] always found time to say something encouraging to neo fanboy Buzz Dixon.

My good, conservative Southern Baptist parents, who were so diligent in making sure I wasn’t looking at any dirty pictures that might taint my 14 year old mind, had no idea what Geis and his gang of hot-tempered iconoclasts were writing about.  I’ve posted elsewhere on the debt I and so many other pros owe to Forry Ackerman and his magazine Famous Monsters Of Filmland for getting us interested in a field that would provide exciting careers for us[9]; well, if Forry was the kind but sorta odd uncle in the family who could be trusted to look after the kids as long as the adults were in the next room, Dick Geis was the sleazy guy in a raincoat that would cause parents to grab their kids and yank them away asking, “Did he touch you?  Where did he touch you?

God bless Dick Geis for that. Without him I might very well have grown up normal.

And lest anyone thinks Geis was a creep trolling for little boys:  Don’t go there.  That wasn’t his speed, wasn’t his style at all.  Above all else Geis loved and respected honesty.  He would pull no punches, tame no thought, curb no tongue when picking topics to discuss.  Stand your ground, play the game, and he was an honest and dependable exemplar.

I went from letterhacking to writing brief reviews for Geis’ various fanzines.[10]  It helped me sharpen my writing, my critical faculties, my wit.[11]  Through all its various incarnations I stayed in touch with him via mail:  From Appalachia to the Piedmont, from basic training at Ft. Dix to Korea to Arizona to Los Angeles.

The New Wave vs Old Thing feud finally died out; New Wave itself faded and was subsumed into the mass sci-fi market, but their mission was accomplished:  They yanked sci-fi kicking and screaming from its ghetto and made it possible to be treated as a serious genre by mainstream audiences, not just devoted fanboys.

As he grew older his medical problems grew, too.  Life was turning into a series of cumbersome doctor visits and painful surgeries.  His publications grew thinner, further apart.

We continued writing, and for a while when he was e-mailing we kept in touch that way.

But the connections frayed, broke, not from desire but neglect.  I tried contacting him a few years ago via his old e-mail address:  No longer valid.  I checked the obituaries in Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle whenever I was in a Borders or Barnes & Noble, but bookstores are harder and harder to find these days.

Earlier this year, perhaps before he died, perhaps shortly after he had but before news got out, I asked a few people who I knew had been contributors to Science Fiction Review if they had heard from him recently.

Nobody had any news more than a few years old.

Then, entirely by accident, I stumbled across Andy Porter’s obituary on eFanzines, and while it wasn’t unexpected, it was a shock, and it was sad.

I wish you well, Dick, wherever you are. And I hope you found some peace and freedom from pain in your last years.

And I hope you stayed delightfully undignified to the very end…

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[1]  Forced Away From It All, i.e., had a hiatus imposed on his fannish activities, as opposed to gafiated:  Got Away From It All, or a voluntarity sabbatical.  If you’re gonna read a post on sci-fi fans, expect some old school fannish lingo.

[2]  Hoo boy, did he ever write novels!  114 by the official count, of which only 4 weren’t smut soft-core porn erotic wish-fulfillment adult realism.

[3]  Indeed, William S. Burroughs Jr. managed to enjoy a peculiar success straddling both groups…

[4]  Feuds were like flamewars on the InterWebs, only they had to be conducted mostly through mail and letter publications in pro and fanzines.  As a result feuders took time to really and eloquently hone their barbs and diatribes, and the result would hang around for literally months or years rather than vanish with a few extra postings.  The result was a higher -- and nastier -- discourse than one typically finds online today.

[5]  But I still found them…

[6]  As any sane person would do to me today…

[7]  With naked, open contempt in many cases, but seriously nonetheless…

[8]  Geis wrote on occasion of what he referred to as a medical condition or ailment or deformity that led him to follow a sheltered life.  In the few pictures I’ve seen of him there is nothing to indicate any obvious problem.  Was it real?  Or was is psychosomatic?  Or was he for once not honest enough to admit to some psychological problem that made contact with the outside world embarrassing and / or difficult for him?

[9]  There’s even a name for us:  Monster Kids

[10]  But they were actually all one and the same fanzine; and there’s almost no difference between his earliest Psychotics or his latter Taboo fanzines in terms of layout or content.

[11] Or what passes for it…

I Luvz Me Sum BLAME IT ON FIDEL

Stan Lynde (1931 – 2013)