Dead Men Do Tell Tales!

In which the misdeeds of the long dead are finally uncovered.

In Peon #19, a fanzine published by Charles Lee Riddle in June 1951, Riddle reprints a most heartfelt article by Anthony Boucher in which Boucher details his experiences as an editor. In 1949 Boucher and J. Francis McComas assumed the role of co-editors of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. In the Peon article article Boucher covers some of the pitfalls he discovered upon becoming an editor.

Anthony Boucher includes the bald-face dishonesty displayed by some individuals who sent in manuscripts for consideration among his gripes. According to him these characters would send in stories which had already been published, and which were all too often well known stories, rather than make use of their own blood, sweat, and inspiration. In other words, plagiarism plain and simple. What’s worse some of these individuals would resent their manuscripts being rejection because of their attempted deception. To quote from Anthony Boucher’s article:

‘This vehemently injured reaction is particularly typical in cases of plagiarism – which is another of your headaches. We have so far had submitted to us, in slightly rewritten form, Robert Chambers’ The Yellow Sign, Cleveland Moffett’s The Mysterious Card, W.F. Harvey’s August Heat, the Gibson’s Justice, and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. The typist of Chamber’s story even entered an extensive brief establishing that his practise was not only legitimate, but SOP in the writing profession.’

Of course it could be argued that a publication like F&SF was particularly open to to these sort of attempts, especially back in the 1950s when Boucher & McComas were fond of publishing old-fashioned ghost and fantasy stories. This is a point I’ll concede as there have always been those people who want all the glory but not at the expense of actually working for it. I can easily imagine such an individual convincing themselves that the editors of F&SF could be fooled by retyping an old story the plagiarist must surely have been hoping nobody would remember. If so then they were in for a rude shock. As can be seem from the quote above Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas were connoisseurs of the sort of fiction they were publishing. Of course they were, why else would they be editors of a magazine like F&SF? It strikes me as extremely hopeful for anybody to think these two wouldn’t spot a plagiarism for what it was.

On the other hand it’s not impossible that some devious individual did manage to slip something past their watchful eyes. Nobody can be familiar with every story so copying some relatively obscure piece by one of the lesser known fantasy authors just might work. It probably never happened, but nonetheless such a deception is not beyond the realm of possibility. Slight as it is, this the sort of thing which keeps dedicated bibliographers awake at night.

Now, you might be wondering why I chose to make so much of the possibility that an undiscovered plagiarism might yet lurk in the pages of F&SF. Surely to do so is churlish in the extreme, malicious even?

Well not exactly as cases of plagiarism have occasionally been discovered in the science fiction magazines, if not specifically in F&SF. According to my long-time friend, Denny Lien, somebody who has a great interest in this topic, Anthony Boucher himself fell victim to this dishonest practise. In 1951 his short story, Nine-Finger Jack, was published in the May issue of Esquire. This was story was later reprinted in the August 1952 issue of F&SF (being editor has it’s privileges after all). That should be the end of the story, except that in the October 1971 issue of Worlds of IF appeared a short story by one Irwin Ross called To Kill a Venusian. The opening lines of that story are as follows:

‘John Smith is an unexciting name to possess, and there was of course no way for him to know until the end of his career that he would be forever famous among connoisseurs of murder as Nine-finger Jack.

John Smith’s marriage to his ninth bride, Marcia Runyon, took place on the morning of May the thirty-first. On the evening of May the thirty-first John Smith, having spent much of the afternoon pointing out to friends how much the wedding had excited Marcia and how much he feared the effect on her notoriously weak heart, entered the bathroom and, with the careless ease of the practiced professional, employed five of his fingers to seize Marcia’s ankles and jerk her legs out of the tub while with the other five fingers he gently pressed her face just below water level.

So far all had proceeded in the conventional manner of any other wedding night; but the ensuing departure from ritual was such as to upset even John Smith’s professional bathside manner. The moment Marcia’s face and neck were submerged below water, she opened her gills.

Now let’s compare that with the opening lines from Anthony Boucher’s Nine-Finger Jack as published in the August 1952 issue of F&SF:

‘John Smith is an unexciting name to possess, and there was of course no way for him to know until the end of his career that he would be forever famous among connoisseurs of murder as Nine-finger Jack. But he did not mind the drabness of Smith; he felt that what was good enough for the great George Joseph was good enough for him.

Not only did John Smith happily share his surname with George Joseph; he was proud to follow the celebrated G.J. in profession and even in method. For an attractive and plausible man of a certain age, there are few more satisfactory sources of income than frequent and systematic widowerhood; and of all the practitioners who have acted upon this practical principle, none have improved upon George Joseph Smith’s sensible and unpatented Brides-in-the-Bath method.

John Smith’s marriage to his ninth bride, Hester Pringle, took place on the morning of May 31. on; the evening of May 31 John Smith, having spent much of the afternoon pointing out to friends how much the wedding had excited Hester and how much he feared the effect on her notoriously weak heart, entered the bathroom and, with the careless ease of the practiced professional, employed five of his fingers to seize Hester’s ankles and jerk her legs out of the tub while with the other five fingers he gently pressed her face just below water level.’

So far all had proceeded in the conventional manner of any other wedding night; but the ensuing departure from ritual was such as to upset even John Smith’s professional bathside manner. The moment Hester’s face and neck were submerged below water, she opened her gills.’

I don’t think I need offer any more proof that the Irwin Ross story started life as Anthony Boucher’s Nine-Finger Jack. However, if you’re still not convinced then copies of both issues can be easily obtained. Feel free to do so and compare the two stories to your heart’s content. If you do you will have no choice but to admit I’m right.

Nine-Finger Jack is one of Anthony Boucher’s less well-known stories, which is why I assume Mr. Ross chose to plagiarise it rather than one of Boucher’s more famous stories such as The Compleat Werewolf, Snulbug, or They Bite. Anybody who intends to play this game needs to do so unobtrusively because the plagiarist who thinks they can get away with trying to claim a story as famous as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery as their own work is a fool to themselves and a burden to others. On the other hand Nine-Finger Jack is just obscure enough that I can excuse experienced editors such as Ejler Jakobsson and Lester del Rey for not recognising it. Besides, I’m sure they experienced their fair share of embarrassment once somebody wrote in to point out their oversight. This would also explain why the ISFDB website has no entries for Irwin Ross subsequent to To Kill a Venusian. I imagine Mr. Ross received some pretty stern letters loaded with enough threat from some very upset editors that he decided not to try again.

That an author who had prevented so much plagiarism should be plagiarised himself is ironic in the extreme. Mr. Boucher would definitely not have been amused if he hadn’t already passed away in 1968.

As far as I’m aware most cases of successful plagiarism that occurred in the magazines consisted of only one or two stories. This makes sense because it can be assumed that after a plagiarised story appears in print it will be read by thousands of readers, at least one of whom is sure to be familiar with the original story. These readers then write in with the news and the editor then informs the guilty party that they’ve been caught out before the plagiarist can submit a second or third manuscript. At which point they are either scared into good behaviour or choose a new field in which to exercise their dishonesty.

However, there are known cases of serial plagiarism in the SF magazines. Not surprisingly most of these have occurred in countries other than the USA, places where until recently knowledgeable SF editors were thin on the ground.

For example in the March 1990 issue of Science Fiction Studies Sam Moskowitz claimed that in 1941 no less than 6 plagiarised stories appeared in Canadian magazine, Uncanny Tales. The publication of Uncanny Tales was a result of the Canadian Government imposing import restrictions on US magazines. If Sam Moscowitz’s claim is indeed correct then the import restrictions were a two-edged sword because with no knowledge of what was being published in US magazines the editor of Uncanny Tales was in no position to spot plagiarisms.

Another case occurred in Australia back in the early 1950s when a number of plagiarised stories were sold to the editor of the Australian SF magazine, Thrills Incorporated, Mr. Alister Innes. To date it’s unclear to me whether this was the work of a single person or several. Some sources claim that most, if not all these, were the work of a Durham Keith Garton, but nothing seems conclusive. The one thing I can be sure of is that whoever was behind all this was very busy. In Fantasy Times #126, published by James Taurasi in March 1951, Australian fan, Vol Molesworth, listed no less than seven plagiarised stories which had appeared in Thrills Incorporated.

That whoever was behind this had been able to get away with so many sales makes sense in context. Clearly the staff of Transport Publications, the company which published Thrills Incorporated, knew little about science fiction. Which is not surprising as an embargo on the purchase of US magazines had been put in place by the Australian government at the beginning of WWII and this restriction wasn’t lifted until 1958. Consequently very few Australians had seen any of the US science fiction published since 1939. Transport Publications was a company which had been publishing westerns and detective fiction until somebody spotted a gap in the market and decided to fill it. Consider the following quote from Fantasy Times #132:

“When Thrills began we had no science-fiction writers,” Mr. Innes said. “We had only a team of western and detective writers, and so we had to create a formula. Not necessarily a good one, but at least a functional one, for the writing of science-fiction. This formula – the child of necessity – was to take any story and put it forward 2,000 years, adapting the plot plot and environment as the author went along.”

Given the above it’s easy to see what a target Mr. Innes was for some sharp operator. An editor who has to have his western and detective authors convert their usual stories is going to be too thrilled to be suspicious if somebody walks in the door with a bundle of manuscripts that don’t feel like converted westerns. The only difficulty such an operator would have is in obtaining some recent US magazines to plagiarise from. And that’s no problem at all for anybody with contacts in the US. The magazines weren’t banned, Australians were just not allowed to pay for them, so all the plagiarist had to do is ask a friend to mail them a bundle of magazines as a gift. They didn’t even need a wide selection either to judge by the seven stories listed by Vol Molesworth. All of those were taken from just five different issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Planet Stories, Marvel Science Stories, and Startling Stories.

What this person or persons didn’t know that having contacts in the US was a two-edged sword. Australian SF fans had many US contacts of their own, stateside fans who spent the war supplying friends in both Britain and Australia with their favourite reading material. Consequently the Thrills Incorporated plagiarisms were soon spotted by local fans like Vol Molesworth and Graham Stone and these fellows were not shy about contacting the publishers to let them know they had been duped.

Unlike the Canadian and Australian described above most cases of successful plagiarism involving US magazines have been limited to one or two stories. Which makes sense because US editors weren’t labouring under the twin problems of inexperience and ignorance of the US magazines. They were well placed to smell a rat if the rat was so unwise as to offer them too many publishable manuscripts. An inexperienced author might hit the mark with one two, perhaps even two, but send in any more and the alarm bells are going to go off in any competent editorial cranium.

But it turns out that even the most experienced of US editors could be duped with just the right story. Recently I discovered a long forgotten case of plagiarism in which it appears multiple magazine editors of the most experienced sort were caught out by one sharp operator.

It all began while I was looking through my run of Julius Unger’s fanzine, Fantasy Fiction Field. I was giving each issue a thorough examination in the hopes of any juicy news stories that might serve as the basis of a future article. And so it was I discovered the following in Fantasy Fiction Field #137 (published 11 August, 1943):

Now I knew Chas. McNutt was a local Chicago SF fan at the time the above was published. Not only that but he had written about visiting the Ziff-Davis offices to see Palmer on occasion so it seemed reasonable to assume he had this story direct from the man himself. (What I didn’t realise, that is until Mike Ashley & Philip Harbottle kindly pointed it out to me, was that SF fan Chas. McNutt went on to become SF author Charles Beaumont.)

Ray Palmer was well known for being quite hospitable towards fans who visited the Ziff-Davis offices during his tenure there. Thus I can imagine RAP (as Palmer was commonly known) being quite happy to pass on all the latest gossip when McNutt dropped in. However, I always take any story which originated with Ray Palmer with a grain of salt as my impression is that he was more interested in having all eyes upon him than telling the unvarnished truth.

For example I find it very difficult to believe that two private detectives were hired. It seems unlikely that Mr. Davis and Mr. Ziff, the men who owned the company and paid the bills, would really agree to such an expenditure. After all, what would be gained by such an act? Perhaps it would be to put the frighteners on William De Lisle and convince him to return the money he had been paid? Possible, but given I doubt Palmer was paying his authors more than a cent a word paying not one, but two private detective to achieve such an end doesn’t make much financial sense to me. Surely a threatening letter from the publishers warning of legal action would do the job just as well at a fraction of the cost? Further more I very much doubt the police would be willing to lock William De Lisle up. I know nothing about the legal situation in Chicago at the time, but even so common sense tells me that the boys in blue would not like their cells cluttered up over a matter of plagiarism. Surely such a matter would be the province of whatever equivalent to a small claims court existed at the time. To me these are the sort of extravagant embellishments somebody who loved attention at any cost would indulge in.

Despite which claim which all this is based upon seemed possible. In particular because it didn’t show Ray Palmer in the best possible light. If he was willing to share an anecdote in which he was the one hoodwinked then it’s unlikely to be an outright fantasy. RAP certainly wasn’t the sort to invent stories which made him look stupid, he had far too much ego for that. I had to assume there was some truth to the story so I contacted Denny Lien to see what he thought of the Palmer/McNutt claims. This turned out to be exactly the right move because Denny has a special interest in cases of plagiarism and so was keen to see what he could find.

So Denny began comparing the two De Lisle stories published in Amazing Stories with his copies of the British magazine, Fantasy. Almost immediately he discovered that the The Degenerate Mr. Smith, which had appeared in the August 1943 issue of Amazing Stories, had indeed been previously published in the September 1938 of Fantasy. The story had originally appeared under the title Valley of Doom and had been written by one Halliday Sutherland.

Dr. Halliday Sutherland was a Scottish physician and opponent of eugenics who wrote more than a dozen books on medical matters during his lifetime. How he came to have a story published in a science fiction magazine I have no idea. According to a comment by Halliday Sutherland’s grandson, Mark Sutherland, Valley of Doom was his grandfather’s only foray into SF. In which case how unlucky do you have to be to have written just the one SF story only for it to be plagiarised? Still, I suppose Halliday Sutherland and his descendants can console themselves with the thought that his story was clearly good enough to be sold to not one, but two different professional editors.

If any readers are curious about Doctor Halliday Sutherland, and he does seem to be a pretty interesting character, I suggest you go to hallidaysutherland.com, the website Mark Sutherland created in honour of his grandfather.

Now before we move on here are the opening paragraphs to William De Lisle’s The Degenerate Mr. Smith:

‘Mr. Smith, better known in State records as H.99/Flatbush—that being also the address of the house in which he lived—entered the breakfast-room at 4 a.m., punctual to the second. With its white painted walls, tiled floor and windows wide open to the fresh morning breeze, the room was in perfect state hygienically. It was furnished with a table and four chairs fashioned out of angle-iron enameled white, and the only attempt at mural decorative art was a photogravure of Mr. Huey P. Long.

On the wall between the windows was a time-recorder, and as Smith pressed the button bearing his number a white light, then a red light appeared for a second. By those signs Smith knew that the time of his arrival was duly recorded at the Bureau of Industry. His comrade, on festive occasions called Mrs. Smith, and their two children—Henry, aged twenty-one, and Jane, aged seventeen—were already standing around the table. Without further ado Smith took his place at head of the table, and in a loud voice lead the Act of Congress for the day.’

And for comparison here’s the opening paragraphs of Halliday Sutherland’s Valley of Doom, as it was reprinted in the February 1951 issue of Worlds Beyond (used because I currently don’t have access to a copy of Fantasy#2, where it originally appeared. You do get the Fantasy cover though, on the basis that I like it much more than the artwork used on Worlds Beyond:

‘Mr. Smith, better known in State records as H/99 Hampstead—this being also the address of the house in which he lived—entered the breakfast-room at 4 a.m., punctual to a second. With its white-painted walls, rounded cornices, tiled floor, and windows wide open to the fresh but cold morning breeze, the room was in perfect taste hygienically. It was furnished with a table and four chairs, fashioned out of angle-iron enameled white, and the only attempt at mural decorative art was a genuine photogravure of Karl Marx.

On the wall beside the door was a time-recorder, and as Smith pressed the button bearing his number a bell rang and a red light, then a white light, appeared for a second. By these signs Smith knew that the time of his arrival was duly recorded at the Bureau of Industry. His comrade, on festive occasions called Mrs. Smith, and their two children—Henry, aged 21, and Jane, aged 17—were already standing round the table. Without more ado Smith took his place at the end of the table and in a loud, clear voice read the Act of Parliament for the day.’

What struck me most when comparing the above openings was how few alterations William De Lisle made to Halliday Sutherland’s original. On one hand I suppose this makes sense given the whole point of plagiarism is maximum reward for minimal effort. On the other hand surely a cunning plagiarist should make some attempt to alter the rhythm of the story they’re copying.

Compare De Lisle’s work to that of Irwin Ross. When the latter copied out Anthony Boucher’s Nine-Finger Jack you can see from the opening that he trimmed the Boucher story here and there. Partly this made the story leaner and punchier, more appropriate to the market he wanted to sell it to. It also changed the rhythm of the story which in turn reduced the likelihood of a reader being reminded of the Boucher story. Why Irwin Ross didn’t also change the name of the protagonist and the origin of the alien to further disguise his theft I have no idea. Was he really so lazy that thinking up a couple of different names was too much trouble?

William De Lisle on the other hand seems to have been content to limit his alterations of Valley of Doom to deleting or changing anything which comes across as particularly British. At first glance this seems a lazy approach, even for a plagiarist, but I suspect there was a method to his madness. Britain had been at war for some years by the time he tried to sell this story and as far as William De Lisle was aware the export of US pulps to the the United Kingdom had long since been put on hold in favour of materials more relevant to the war effort. (I doubt he knew that various members of US fandom was posting parcels containing the current SF magazines to various members of UK fandom.) Consequently he had no reason to believe whichever issue of Amazing Stories ended up containing his story would be made available in that country where Halliday Sutherland’s original would be best known. Given this I can see how he would be confident that no extra disguise of the original would be necessary. It also proves that William De Lisle knew very little about the habits of SF fans if he thought none of Amazing’ Stories US readership would recognise his plagiarism for what it was.

With the origins of The Degenerate Mr. Smith revealed that left When the Darkness Came, William De Lisle’s other appearance in Amazing Stories. Initially Denny was unable to discover a match for this one despite searching through all three pre-war issues of Fantasy that T. Stanhope Sprigg edited, and a number of other possible magazines. Having exhausted what seemed to be the most obvious options Denny then tried a key word search for When the Darkness Came at the HathiTrust website and struck pay dirt. This rather unexpected match turned out to be a story called Peace, Be Still by Francis H. Sibson, published in the May 1939 issue of Chambers’s Journal (an issue which various websites claim doesn’t exist despite my having a photocopy of the story in question).

According to the Encyclopedia of SF Francis H. Sibson was a:

‘UK-born journalist and author, in South Africa from 1914 or earlier; most of his work, most of which appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, consisted of technically proficient tales involving aeroplanes or the sea and ships.’

Looking at the incomplete list of Francis H. Sibson stories on the fictionmags website it appears that while Francis Sibson wrote a lot (including a story for T. Stanhope Sprigg that appeared in Fantasy #1) his sales were confined to British magazines. Which, whether De Lisle knew it or not, made him perfect plagiarist fodder as US editors would have no reason to be familiar with Sibson’s output. Given William De Lisle’s propensities Francis H. Sibson is lucky that De Lisle doesn’t appear to have had a copy of Fantasy #1, or he might have nicked that story too and offered it to Palmer.

As for Peace, Be Still, according to Denny De Lisle had gone to a little more effort with this one:

‘At a cursory look, De Lisle changed the character names, did some light Americanization (changing “petrol” to “high test gasoline” etc.) and did some abridgements of long descriptions and such, but plot and situations and such are exactly the same, and wording is maybe 80 per cent or so word for word swipes.

Sibson of course has form for other SF publications, notably his 1933 novel, Unthinkable which Famous Fantastic Mysteries reprinted, but this story seems never to have been reprinted (except in the form of De Lisle’s swipe).’

Say what you will about De Lisle, and I can think of a few choice words, he knew where to steal from. This would explain why Ray Palmer was so enthusiastic about De Lisle’s manuscripts. To quote from his September, 1943 editorial:

‘This issue was all made up when William De Lisle walked in with his manuscript for “When the Darkness Came”. And yet, you’ll find it the lead-off story on the contents page. Why? Read it for yourself and find out!’

So yes, how about you do as RAP suggests and read the opening paragraphs of De Lisle’s story as they appeared in Amazing Stories:

‘The Mad Years were reaching their climax — the logically inevitable culmination of the fantastic century that had gone before. It was if some mystic Spider of cosmic malignance had bitten the Earth; its poisoned, helpless peoples made to dance an ever quickening, ever more convulsive tarantella. Most of them had forgotten how to be still; some had never known. The last tremendous convulsion, and the coma and death beyond, could not have been far away.

How the Darkness came to the world and its civilizations, its rulers and parliaments, its cults and propagandas, its armies and navies and air fleets, its cities and its crowds: of these things I do not write in detail. In such crammed canvasses of the great mass-human forest, the individual human trees are almost lost to sight. I write of just three people, a woman and two men: Margery Doran, Alan Rogers, and Noel Sterling.

Now let’s compare that opening to Peace, be Still by Francis H. Sibson as it appeared in Chambers’s Journal (sorry, no cover for this issue, not that a cover would add much as the people publishing Chambers’s Journal were far too respectable to put anything interesting on the front of their magazine):

‘Themselves the logically inevitable culmination of the century that had gone before, the Mad Years had got very near their climax. It was as if some mystic Spider of cosmic malignance had bitten the Earth: its poisoned and helpless peoples danced an ever quickening, ever more convulsively involuntary tarantelle. Most of them had forgotten how to be still: some had never known. The last tremendous convulsion, and the coma and death beyond, could not have been far ahead.

Somehow that awful dance had to be halted, the spider-venom neutralised. God knows, the antidote was drastic. It had to be. It was kill or cure.

Some it killed, brain, body, or both: they could not bear the shock of the antidote itself. Others died in the jammed confusion of the maddened whirligig’s arrest. But the rest were saved, to struggle on and upwards with a new and clearer vision of the goal. Whether we shall ever reach it — but only God knows that. Perhaps he hopes and strives as we do.

How the Darkness came to the world and its civilisation, its rulers and parliaments, its cults and propagandas, its armies and navies and air-fleets, its cities and their crowds: of these things I do not write in detail. In such crammed canvasses of the great mass-human wood, the individual human trees are almost lost to sight. I write of just three people, a woman and two men: Margaret Egan, John Hunslet, and Robert Brand.

I can see why De Lisle tampered more here than he did with Halliday Sutherland’s story. By this point De Lisle had sold enough to know pulp editors rarely cared for the sort of flowery language Sibson indulged in. This was especially true of Ray Palmer. To quote from The Man From Mars by Fred Nadis:

‘The sort of writing that Palmer liked was, in his own words, “hack” – without poetic phrasing. That all had to be “hacked” away. He told one writer, Robert Moore Williams, “Your stories all are a lot of ‘pretty’ writing. . .If you’ll take your next manuscript, blue-pencil every phrase that you consider to be good writing, I’ll buy it.”‘

I trust you all noticed I previously specified that William De Lisle had sold to other editors before he visited the offices of Ziff-Davis? Below is a more complete bibliography for our plagiarist than what’s listed on the ISFDB website (this is due to most of his sales not being science fiction or fantasy):

Perhaps It Was the Humidity (humour) – Esquire, May 1935
Death at the Eighteenth Hole (short story) – Dime Sport Magazine, July 1935
Three Minutes to Twelve (short story) – Grit Story Section, December 27 1936
Frozen Gold (short story) – Thrilling Adventures, June 1937
The Weather-Glass (poem) – Short Stories, April 25 1940
White Magic Sales (poem) – Short Stories, July 25 1940
Blue Peter (poem) – Short Stories, January 25 1941
At the Bushman’s Water Hole (short story) – Thrilling Adventures, January 1941
The Ship’s Cat (poem) – Short Stories, March 10 1941
Suicide Pattern (short story) – Detective Tales, March 1941
Indian Boy (short story) – Thrilling Adventures, June 1941
A Lion for a Princess (short story) – Thrilling Adventures, August 1941
What Price Loyalty (short story) – Detective Tales, September 1941
Nightmare (short story) – Thrilling Adventures, November 1941
The Pale Man (short story) – Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, November 1941
A Mangrove Swamp (poem) – Weird Tales, July 1942
Bush-Mad Bwana (short story) – Jungle Stories, Fall 1942
Danse Macabre (short story) – Mammoth Detective, May 1943
Murder, Haircut and Shave (short story) – Mammoth Detective, May 1943
The Degenerate Mr. Smith (short story) – Amazing Stories, August 1943
Murder by Proxy (short story) – Mammoth Detective, August 1943
When the Darkness Came (novelette) – Amazing Stories, September 1943
The Witch (poem) – Weird Tales, May 1945

This is impressive list, containing as it does 16 stories, 6 poems, and a humour piece. In other words William De Lisle managed to sell 23 items over nearly a decade before he was caught out. I’m assuming that nothing on the above list was actually written by William De Lisle himself. Well okay, perhaps I’m being too harsh but the fact remains that every item underlined above is listed on the ISFDB website and has been confirmed by Denny as being written by somebody else. I think 5 confirmed cases of plagiarism are enough to put the other 18 under a cloud.

I’m also assuming none of the editors De Lile sold to prior to Ray Palmer discovered the stories they had bought weren’t actually written by De Lisle given that he continued to make sales. I doubt there have ever been many editors or publishers who upon discovering a case of plagiarism would keep quiet about it. No, it’s much more likely that word would get out after which no editor worth their salt is going to trust a submission from a known plagiarist.

So what’s the story behind the other three ISFDB listings I’ve labelled as plagiarisms? Well, for starters Denny managed to obtain an Adventure House replica edition of the Fall 1942 issue of Jungle Stories (which is a good thing because every copy of the original magazine I found for sale was far too expensive for my liking). He read the story and concluded that it was far too polished to be by De Lisle and so conducted a search which eventually proved Bush-Mad Bwana to previously be a story called Strong Measures by Anthony Parsons. This story had been reprinted from an unnamed 1927 source in an anthology called Stories Of Africa, edited by an E.C. Parnwell in 1930. I suspect that De Lisle lifted the story from this anthology as Stories Of Africa seems like the sort of hardcover most libraries prefer to put on their shelves.

According to the fictionmags website Anthony Parsons began publishing fiction in 1927. The website lists various stories which appeared in The Strand Magazine, 20-Story Magazine, and Pearson’s Magazine but makes no mention of Strong Measures. According to Denny Pearson’s Magazine for 1927 is ony partially indexed so most likely Strong Measures first appeared there.

In regards to the two poems that had appeared in Weird Tales I have to admit to my everlasting shame that I was certain they were both De Lisle’s own work. I thought both poems too awful to believe anybody else wrote them. Apparently Denny has a better feel for poetry that I ever will because he disagreed and soon enough proved his point. A Mangrove Swamp was actually composed by Australian poet, Frederick Spencer Burnell. It was published in The Lone Hand (1 December 1910), and in The Bulletin (7 August 1913), and also in his 1912 collection Before Dawn & Other Poems, which I assume is where De Lisle found it.

A Mangrove Swamp

Look how the slow fat bubble break in rings
As though a man were stifling underneath
The black stagnating water by no breath
Is stirred, a mirror for all evil things.
The long roots writhing upward from the mud.
Like fingers crooked in lust or pain or greed.
Have pendent tresses of putrescent weed.
Like dead men’s hair dogged stiff with their own blood.

No light of flowers nor songs of birds dispel
The silent, stealthy horror of the place.
Only a ripple o’erspreads the water’s face
At times, like soundless, dreadful mirth in hell.

Only the gray mists come and go beneath
The pallid shadows of the sickly moon;
Only dead voices in the night breeze croon
A drear and melancholy masque of death.

Then there is The Witch, a poem I consider to be even worse that A Mangrove Swamp. While Frederick Spencer Burnell describes a location that is nothing like any mangrove swamp I’ve ever encountered and he did use what strikes me as a hackneyed series of descriptive terms, I have to admit that in its predictable way it’s a competently structured piece.

The Witch on the other hand is not merely an exercise in description but is an attempt to tell a tale, which it proceeds to do so very badly. It starts with a wealthy priest instead of a baron or abbot, positions that would make more sense in terms of wealth. Neither is the reader given a more detailed reason why a farmer who can throw around gold loathed this wealthy priest. However the greatest sin of this poem is that after the witch has proved her murderous ability the farmer decides to not pay her because nothing bad has ever come of doing that, right? The Witch is in fact a poorly done retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, which adds nothing to the original folktale. This is why I was nonplussed to learn that it had originally appeared in the September 1930 issue of Fortnightly Review and is credited to one J.A.H. Ogdon. Now I don’t know what the achievements of Mr. Ogdon might be but according to sundry online sources the Fortnightly Review was a very prestigious publication, having been founded in 1865 by no less a figure than Anthony Trollope (among others admittedly). Why then did the editor of what was suppose to be such a publication think this poem worthy of inclusion in his magazine is beyond me!

The Witch

The farmer loathed the priest for all his wealth
and begged that I should take him off by stealth.

He promised gold to work such deadly harm;
he called him snouting Paul and shaveling monk
and other names. Trembling with hate he slunk
out of my hut. And I began the charm.

I called for Meg to bring the mandrake weed
that shrieks when it is dragged;
for Rennie Stump who lives by Hangman’s Common
to croon an incantation for the deed;
we gathered in the cunning herbal woman
to stew the simples: when the night was fit
a dozen gib-cats round the throat we slit.

Then sat we all beneath a westering star.
We glared with malice on his window pane;
and when we howled together for his bane
the rectory casement gently swung ajar.
He got him slowly, slowly, from his bed:
the charm went blasting home—he fell down dead.

Giles leapt for glee on his fresh-heapen mold
but when I pleaded, cringing, for the gold,
he spat and swore, and spurned me in a ditch.
Out and away—he snarled—thou noisome witch.

Staggers and glanders took his colts away;
foot-rot destroyed his ewes and lambs: one day
insane he gave his farmstead to the fire
and hanged him from a rafter in his byre.

So what have we learned so far, other than that crime does not pay? The length of this list makes clear that the William De Lisle spree was unusual. He wasn’t selling to clueless outsiders as in the Thrills Incorporated or Uncanny Tales cases, but to a whole string of experienced editors, most of whom had been in the magazine business for many years. So what gives? Well as it happens I’m beginning to see a pattern.

My current theory is that William De Lisle had realised three things; editors and readers of the pulp magazines didn’t read the British literary magazines and visa-versa, despite their superior reputation magazines such as Fortnightly Review and Chambers’s Journal often published stories and poems that could be easily made suitable for sale to the pulps, and finally, the better US libraries, Chicago’s Harold Washington and T.B. Blackstone Memorial libraries come to mind, held many British books and magazines.

Given these three points I can easily imagine De Lisle sifting through books and magazines on his day off and copying out any likely prospects. In effect I believe he managed the reverse of the serial plagiarism that occurred overseas. In Australia the editor of Thrills Incorporated and in Canada the editor of Uncanny Tales were duped because they had little or no access to US magazines and thus no way of knowing what they were paying for. What De Lisle discovered was this lack of knowledge worked both ways and thus he could sell work not his own to even knowledgeable and experienced editors. In a way his system is one of evil genius and you have to wonder if he managed to hatch any other cunning scams after he apparently ceased to be an author.

That would explain why he has a number of poems to his name. It is, after all, much less effort to copy out a poem than it is some thousands of words of prose. I also suspect that poems were an easy sale to magazines such as Short Stories and Weird Tales as the editors of these magazines found poems to be excellent space-filler. This might explain why the last item on De Lisle”s list of sales was a poem in Weird Tales. The then editor of that magazine, Dorothy McILwraith, most probably accepted the poems in 1942 or earlier and left them in a drawer in anticipation that one day she would find the issue she was assembling had a hole which needed filling. Even if she was told about De Lisle’s exposure as a plagiarist what are the odds that she would still remember that by 1945?

The fact De Lisle chose to bother with poetry also suggests to me that he was more interested in the ego stroke of seeing his name in print rather than the money earned. I suppose it’s possible he saw this as a source of pocket money that didn’t require physical labour. If this was the case then he made a bad choice because the majority of pulp magazines were not known for fast payment or high word rates. I think it more likely that De Lisle was one of those people who wanted to be a published author but didn’t want the bother of actually writing. So long as he had some published stories to show friends and family he probably didn’t care that his career was a fantasy. He certainly wouldn’t be the only example I’ve encountered of somebody who was willing to take credit for other people’s work. They even have a term for such behaviour over on Reddit.com, karma harvesting.

It also seems to me that De Lisle was shifting from target to target, selling one batch of manuscripts to Short Stories, and the next to Thrilling Adventures before moving on yet again. Which is cunning because it ensures no one editor sees enough of his work to wonder about any inconsistencies of style or how he was turning out so muchgood work so quickly. If these speculations are correct then De Lisle was running a very cunning con job and his only mistake was to not know anything about SF fans. If he had he would know that there would be those among the Amazing Stories readership who would recognise The Degenerate Mr. Smith for what it was. As Bobby Vee once sang, the night has a thousand eyes, and so does science fiction fandom.

The only mystery then posed by the above is where De Lisle obtained a copy of Fantasy #2 from as I don’t believe it was ever for sale on US news-stands and I can’t imagine any US library of that period holding pulps, even exotic foreign pulps. None-the-less he clearly found a copy somewhere and made the fateful decision to copy out Halliday Sutherland’s story. Yes, some copies were imported into the country by US fans but I imagine most of those copies were confined to the libraries of serious science fiction collectors and there is no evidence that William De Lisle was a serious collector or had any contact with science fiction fandom.

The above list also explains the discrepancy between Chas. McNutt’s claim of five stories sold and there only being two De Lisle stories in Amazing Stories. I assume that either Palmer decided to tweak the story because he thought it would sound better to a science fiction fan or McNutt misremembered certain details when he wrote to Julius Unger because the other three stories appeared in Mammoth Detective rather than Fantastic Adventures. (Mammoth Detective was named sot because the early issues were a mammoth 322 pages long.) I wish I had realised this fact a little earlier because initially I assumed the three missing stories had been published under a pseudonym in either Amazing or Fantastic. That assumption resulted in me skimming through every issue of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures published in 1943. I ended up reading a lot of terrible fiction as a result of that mistake.

That final poem in Weird Tales not withstanding it would appear certain that William De Lisle’s career, such as it was, came to a screeching halt with his sales to Ray Palmer. We now know there was only one story copied from Fantasy rather than the five which McNutt’s story implied, but I’m sure that even a single, solitary example of plagiarism was enough for Ray Palmer. That single, solitary story taints everything he was sold, in which case the only sensible conclusion was to assume every apple is bad and act accordingly.

It’s a pity there is no record of what happened next because I for one would love to know what sort of communication RAP had with De Lisle and what the latter had to say for himself, if anything. It’s possible De Lisle had convinced himself that what he was doing wasn’t really wrong. I’ve certainly encountered people who seem to think that so long as the victim doesn’t know, then they are doing no harm (not unlike the person Anthony Boucher mentioned who argued that copying stories was accepted practise).

What I do think we can safely assume is that Ray Palmer upon discovering what had happened didn’t hire any private detectives. I think it far more likely that Palmer simply wrote to De Lisle to tell him he had been rumbled. Regardless of what other action he took I assume RAP also told his bosses, Mr. Davis and Mr. Ziff, about what had happened as any competent editor would. Publishers don’t look too kindly on being conned out of money and I’ve no doubt they had somebody send out warning letters to the other magazine publishing houses. That is after arranging for a stern and threatening missive to be sent to De Lisle himself. This makes for a more likely conclusion as Palmer strikes me as the sort to send out letters to half the editors he knew, get distracted, and then forget about the matter entirely. This seems especially possible given it was 1943 and Palmer was just about to kick-off the great Shaver brouhaha in a few months, an event that would prove to be a massive distraction in so many ways.

I checked but found no further mention of this matter in later issues of Fantasy Fiction Field. Which suggests to me that RAP only told this juicy story to a handful of people before realising his willingness to trust an author he didn’t know by purchasing so many manuscripts all at once didn’t reflect too well on his judgement. He may have also realised he shouldn’t be publicising what was a potentially easy way to dupe editors. His fellow professionals would not thank him if his story gave other unscrupulous characters any ideas. Nor was this story ever mentioned in either Amazing Stories or Fantastic Adventures, but that hardly surprising as no editor is going to willingly give his subscribers such an excellent excuse to demand some of their money back. Under the circumstances it’s hardly surprising the story became buried until now.

Not that the story is done with yet. Denny Lien did sterling work in uncovering the origins of those five stories and poems but that leaves no less than 18 unexamined sales, all of which must be considered suspicious given what has already come to light. Most of the magazines William De Lisle sold to are relatively easy to obtain so anybody who enjoys a bit of detective work might like to see what they can find. For example I’ve managed to obtain copies of two of the De Lisle stories published in Mammoth Detective, Danse Macabre and Murder, Haircut and Shave. When I have the time I plan to see if I can determine if these too are plagiarisms.

In the meantime never forget, no crime is perfect, even dead men do tell tales.

P.S. I really do want to thank Denny for all the hard work he put into the research. Without his efforts none of this would be possible.

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