As I said at his funeral Rex had more fiction in him than could ever come out, no matter how long he’d lived. A superb raconteur, he produced stories in every form, from dry, funny narrative verse to self-dramatising social lies. Novels, plays, short stories, comic strips, operas, movies, RPGs: throughout his career he was never stuck for a narrative. In that respect we were pretty much alike and shared a kind of discomfort at our own facility. We both identified with Balzac, sharing a fascination for Jacques Collin, his sinister and ubiquitous many-named master villain who set out to ruin La Torpille in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. Rex discovered that most people prefer a good story and a bit of conventional prejudice to honest ambiguity; they made their most profound life decisions based on tales they saw in the tabloids or on reality TV. That didn’t stop Rex telling the truth when it frequently occurred to him. Truth was always in there somewhere, even when he thought he was lying. For all his later right-wing posturing, he had, like Balzac, a way of tapping into poor peoples’ dreams and understanding what they wanted most in the world. I envied him his empathy, if not his ambition. There was one story he couldn’t write. I think it was what we were all waiting for and which might have brought him the literary recognition he longed for. But he believed Paris Review editors could “smell the pulp writer on you,” while as an editor I rejected stories because I could smell Paris Review on them. I believed we were too good for the reviews even when we appeared in them. The conventions of genre were staler in literary writing than Harlequin romances: exactly why Rex turned out to be the writer we most needed on Mysterious.
We were both six-two and shared the same colouring and humour, though Rex was already balding. I guess our differences came from our backgrounds. I was a Londoner. Rex had been born and raised in Wrigley, Texas, pop. 1,204, about forty miles from Waco. He’d believed everything they told him until he went to Austin where he found out how to doubt his small-town certainties, trading them for the snobberies of the UT literary enclave. Dumping his provincialism a little late, he never lost his reverence for academia. Furiously cynical, he was determined to tell readers what fools they were to believe his stories. Despite this, he seemed oddly innocent when he turned up in London fresh from the UT campus via Spain, with the remnants of his jaundice, an uncompleted creative-writing degree and a few sales to the American crime and sci-fi digests, to be disgusted by our rates, even lower than the U.S., but delighted when we bought whatever he wrote, at whatever length he did it. When we met we were both twenty-five. Literary powers like Julie Mistral had already called him the James M. Cain of his generation. Angus Wilson had compared me to Gerald Kersh and Arnold Bennett.
The “digests” were the pulps’ attempts to look more sophisticated, with abstract expressionist covers and cooler titles, but I had grown up reading the real pulps with their powerful pictures and raving shout lines (Donna was a dame who dared to be different—Kelly was a cop who craved to kill!). The quality of the fiction didn’t alter, just the presentation.
I found it hard to come in at the end of that era, working on the Falcon and Sexton Blake Library, but it had proved one thing to me. There were no such things as pulp writers. Bad writers like Carroll John Daly and brilliant ones like Dashiell Hammett just happened to write for the pulps. Mostly their reputation had to do with context. Jack Trevor Story would write a novel for Sexton Blake then, with minor modifications, turn it into a novel for Secker and Warburg.
By the time I took it over, Hank Janson’s Mystery Magazine was about the last of the UK thriller digests and I had some crackbrained notion to lift it away from genre altogether and make it into something addressing the widest possible readership. By 1964 there were few short story mags left and most of those were generic. They ran romances, military adventures, mysteries and sci-fi. To get published and paid you had to adapt your work, usually by inserting a clunky rationalised plot. That way you earned a bit as you learned a bit. We didn’t want to write what we called Englit-fic: the styles and themes of which came out of universities in sad imitation of the great modernists. We wanted to write something that had the vitality of good commercial fiction and the subtle ambition of good literary fiction, reflecting the sensibilities and events of our times: stuff that would get us high with the sense of enthusiasm and engagement of Proust or Faulkner but with the disciplined vitality of genre fiction pulsing from every page.
A few of us talked about a “two-way street” to reunite junk, middle-brow and highbrow fiction. Some people out there had to be as frustrated as us, dissatisfied by pretty much everything on offer, literary or commercial. For ages people had discussed the “two cultures.” We might just be the guys to unite them: writing for a reader who knew a bit about poetry, painting and physics, enjoyed Gerald Kersh, Elizabeth Bowen and Mervyn Peake, merging realism with grotesquerie and doing it elegantly, eloquently. By 1963 we were publishing a few examples in the digests and with Billy Allard and Harry Hayley, my two closest writer friends; we made plans for a “slick” quarto magazine bringing together designers, artists, scientists, poets, but of course the cost of the art paper alone made publishers shake their heads.
Then Len Haynes, the decent old drunk who ran it forever, proposed that I take over Janson’s when he retired to live with his daughter in Majorca.
Married less than a year, Helena Denham and I lived in Colville Terrace, still Rackman’s Notting Hill fiefdom. We’d had our first daughter, Sara, and Helena, beautiful as ever with her pageboy chestnut hair framing a heart-shaped face, was furiously pregnant with Cass, our second. I’d been fired from Liberal Topics, the party magazine whose wages I’d taken in spite of promising Winston Churchill, when I was eleven, never to become a Liberal. So I needed Janson’s money. More important, it would be a chance to do what we’d been saying we should do for so long. I talked it over with Helena and the others.
When I went back to Dave and Howard Vasserman, the publishers, I made only three conditions: that I decide policy, that they let me change the title gradually and if our circulation went up they give me the paper and size I wanted. I would help them get mainstream distribution with their more upmarket titles. I convinced them I could make their imprint respectable enough to be taken on by the high-street retailers. Then I got my friends busy. We lacked a decent designer but I did my best. Our first issue would not merely offer a manifesto, we would attempt to demonstrate policy—and we’d have a lot of illustrations, one of the secrets, in my experience, of a successful periodical. They were Jack Hawthorn’s job.