Phil High - Literary Craftsman
interview and profile by
Philip Empson High lives in Canterbury, Kent,
almost within touching distance of the historic Cathedral. Although
of Norfolk origin, his parents moved to Kent when he was seven. Apart
from war service in the
Royal Navy, he has lived in Kent ever since. Now a widower, he is the
proud father of two daughters, Beverly and Jacqueline.
I recently asked Phil about his early years.
Could he recall the background events that shaped his writing career,
and in particular his own approach to the craft? He told me:
I went through my school years top in English and bottom (very) in
Maths. During the war, my parents started a debating society with several
local friends, and joining was a revelation because I was soon cut down
to size. A friend once said to me: 'The man who condemns without prior
examination is not fit to be batman to a fool.' This is supposed to
have been said by Samuel Johnson, but I have never confirmed it. It
is, however, completely true.
It is no good saying such and such an idea is a lot of rot just because
you've read an article in the paper. Within a minute some who really
knows the subject will cut one's arguments to nothing. I learned
a valuable lesson then to which I have always adhered ever since --
never air opinions on something you know nothing about. If such occurs
I always admit I know nothing about the subject.
On the other hand, there were many subjects which I was determined
to know a lot about -- not from the outside looking in, but going in
at the deep end and getting to know one's subject. I read up theology
extensively, orthodox and otherwise, and also the alleged mystics. In
this I was not only learning, but being quite relentless in extracting
anything that might later be used in my writing. For example, I "mined"
a Swedish mystic for backgrounds to my stories "Fallen Angel" (1961)
and more recently "One Hour To Darkness" (2000). Although unable to
share his beliefs, I cannot pick a hole in his psychology, a subject
never heard of in his day. He lived in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries (1688-1772) and his name was Emanuel Swedenborg. He was a
Swedish scientist and theologian, whose work anticipated many later
inventions and discoveries. Although he never tried to found a Church,
after his death a sect, the Swedenborgians, founded. I like to think
he would have approved of my fictional efforts!
Like many another sf writer, High was exposed to
the science fiction virus at an early age -- with the inevitable result.
After reading his first sf story at the age of thirteen, he became irretrievably
"hooked." I asked him if there were any particular stories or authors
that stood out in shaping his enthusiasm for the genre, and who may
have been an influence on his own later writing:
No, I cannot pick out any particular author in my early sf reading
period. In any case, I was simply lost in a sense of wonder: these inspired
writers had opened up the universe for me -- I owe them all!
I was a prodigious reader of all types of fiction (and non-fiction)
but now that I think on it, there was one writer whose style
always impressed me. Not an sf man, but an Australian writer named Nevil
Shute. His style, his approach, was the one I most admired and I hoped,
and am still hoping to write as well as he did. Perhaps he was not all
that brilliant, but his style suited me, and the way I wanted to write
my own stories.
High's own writing ambitions surfaced when
he was sixteen, but strangely, his early attempts at fiction were not
science fiction or fantasy. Although he read the genre avidly, it never
occurred to him then that he should write it as well. For years he wrote
all kinds of fiction, but it stubbornly refused to sell.
But these early failures were invaluable as
practice, and gradually, he honed his skills. High always saw himself
as a storyteller, and his style was not encumbered with any high-flown
literary pretensions. His approach to fiction writing was to try and
imagine himself as a reporter, or on-the-spot participant in the events
he was describing.
Before the war, High had avidly read such British
sf as he could find -- mostly in the juvenile boys' weeklies, especially
Scoops, and the imported American sf pulp magazines, usually
to be found in Woolworth stores and sold as remainders. He vividly recalls
one summer's day during his last year at school, when he and his classmates
were relaxing outdoors in the school playing field. Whilst his classmates
occupied themselves with playing cards or experimenting with cigarettes,
he chose to immerse himself in a Clayton Astounding Stories,
and so escaped the influence of the pernicious weed that blighted
the health of many of his contemporaries!
Whilst on active service during the war, he
still contrived to obtain copies of the sf pulp magazines as best he
could, and remembers following Tales of Wonder until wartime
paper shortages forced its early demise. After the war, he read all
of the new British sf magazines that began to emerge, including New
Worlds, edited by John Carnell, and Fantasy, edited by Walter
Gillings (who had also edited Tales of Wonder). By then, Astounding
(published by Street & Smith and edited by John W. Campbell)
had an established British reprint edition, published by Atlas, and
High continued to monitor its progress.
It wasn't until 1950 that science fiction really
began to take a hold in England, spearheaded by the astonishingly successful
paperback novels of John Russell Fearn, written for Scion Ltd under
the contractual pen name of "Vargo Statten." Seeing their success, the
other small paperback houses strove to imitate them. Within a year,
rival publishers such as Hamilton & Co. (Panther Books) and Curtis
Warren Ltd, had joined Scion in publishing a branded line of science
fiction novels. High was a regular reader of these novels -- good, bad,
and indifferent -- but it was not until the sf "boom" also began to
embrace British sf magazines that he suddenly realized the literary
opportunities that were opening up. Here was he, a frustrated writer,
and the country was awash with sf books and magazines ...
He had been writing fiction for years (unsuccessfully),
and he had also been soaking up science fiction lore and ideas like
a sponge. Suddenly -- albeit belatedly -- the penny had dropped: why
not try writing sf himself?
On his next visit to his local newsagent, the
first magazine that caught his eye was Authentic Science Fiction,
edited by H.J. Campbell. His first serious attempt at science fiction,
"The Statics," was quickly despatched to the editor. To his great delight,
it was accepted -- though not without some editorial misgivings regarding
its presentation. High had not yet mastered the art of laying out his
typescript in a professional manner, and no previous editor had taken
the trouble to point out his unconscious depredations. Never one to
pass up a good story -- the supply of which was far from plentiful --
Campbell himself "subbed" the ms. It appeared in the September 1955
issue of Authentic, alongside stories by E.C. Tubb and Ken Bulmer.
I received six guineas for it. It was one of the biggest thrills of
my life. I am quite certain I walked up the wall and across the ceiling
"The Statics" described a future "controlled"
society, and was told from the viewpoint of a police department, investigating
an apparent murder -- something completely unprecedented in their "static"
society, where serious crime had supposedly been eliminated. The story
stood out and marked High as a writer with a facility for unusual and
Thus encouraged, High submitted a steady stream
of new stories to the other leading British magazines, in addition to
Authentic. He did not try and "slant" his stories at any perceived
editorial policies or preferences, but simply wrote for himself, working
around whatever ideas were intriguing him at the time. Having read both
British and American sf for years, he was completely au fait with sf
tropes and traditions, and his stories followed the conventions of the
day in their general framework -- interstellar exploration, interplanetary
colonies, alien invasions, and the like. However, where they were entirely
unconventional was in the way these elements were observed from a totally
fresh angle. His own wide background reading, and in particular his
knowledge of psychology, gave his stories a depth of intelligence and
thought that transcended their apparently linear plotting.
His second story, "Wrath of the Gods," was
submitted to Nebula Science edited by Peter Hamilton, but was
held for some time before it appeared in the July 1956. Now encouraged
and enthused, High stepped up his production of stories, and decided
to see if he could incorporate John Carnell's New Worlds into
his orbit, as well as seeing if he could repeat his success at Authentic
and Nebula. By this time, however, there was a new man in the
Authentic editorial chair -- E.C. Tubb, himself an established
professional sf writer.
Tubb had soon discovered that his new job was
rather more demanding than he'd imagined. The general quality of submitted
mss was appallingly low, and his maximum budget for each issue (apart
from artwork, which the publisher commissioned separately) was only
100 guineas. By adopting a sliding scale of payment (maximum of two
guineas a thousand, payable on publication) Tubb managed to obtain a
few reprints from such top-line American authors as Isaac Asimov, H.L.
Gold, and A.E. van Vogt. He also published early work by rising future
stars, such as Robert Silverberg and Brian Aldiss. Even so, the paucity
of good submissions meant that Tubb often had to write much of the magazine
himself, using pseudonyms. He did this reluctantly, because to do so
was to deny himself the chance to sell stories under his own name to
higher-paying and more prestigious markets. His career had just begun
to take off in America, and appearing "incognito" in Authentic did
nothing to raise his profile as an author. He was desperately on the
lookout for usable material.
He recognised in High a writer with brilliant
ideas who still had not quite mastered the basics -- paragraphing, punctuation,
etc. Like Campbell before him, Tubb did not hesitate to "sub" material
in order to bring it up to a standard suitable for publication. He told
I felt that it was better to accept and revise them than to return
for rewrites. For one thing, it saved time, and being a writer myself,
I knew how it felt to be asked to do more work for the rewards offered.
Revisions were always minor and consisted of tightening beginnings,
cutting out a line or two of narrative and repetitive dialog, altering
scientific discrepancies where they occurred ... Always, when doing
this, I was careful not to impress my own ideas on those of the author
or to add material of my own.
High's second Authentic submission was accepted
by Tubb with a request for more. Campbell and Tubb's editing had shown
the tyro author the areas that needed "tightening." High assimilated
their examples, and quickly mastered the new medium. By the time his
third story was published, his work was becoming slick and polished,
and was as good as that of any of his contemporaries -- and better than
most. He quickly sold Tubb another six stories, all of them thoroughly
accomplished and enjoyable. Had it not been for the untimely demise
of Authentic -- killed by the publisher even though it was profitable
and selling well -- he would have appeared there many more times.
John Carnell also recognized High as an emerging
talent, and lost no time in publishing the first submission he received,
"Guess Who?" in the February1957 issue of New Worlds. By this
time, Nebula had already published a further story, and High
found himself "in demand" from all three editors. He supplied stories
to all of them on a rota basis, and in August 1957 he achieved the not
inconsiderable feat of appearing in all three magazines!
Unlike Carnell, who knew that authors would
submit to him eventually, and was content to await their pleasure, Peter
Hamilton was an "aggressive" editor, who tried to acquire "first look"
at new material by offering both encouragement and slightly higher rates
of pay than the other magazines. But he was also a friendly editor,
who wrote to his authors and offered encouragement and constructive
criticism. Consequently, most of High's stories throughout 1958 and
the first half of 1959 appeared in Nebula, until it succumbed
to the difficult market conditions facing all small magazines at that
The one exception to High's U.K. appearances
was when he appeared with "Fallen Angel" in the June 1961 issue of Analog
Science Fact and Fiction, edited by John W. Campbell. High knew
that he had written something special when he completed this story,
and so he decided to try it with the American magazine, where he knew
that its profound psychological background might well interest Campbell.
This was a direction in which Astounding/Analog had been drifting
for some time, moving further away from pulp-style action stories. Campbell
accepted it, and High had the satisfaction of knowing that he had cracked
the field's most exacting market, first time out. But, having done so,
he apparently had no desire to seek further recognition in the U.S.A.,
and so he never submitted another story to an overseas market!
After the demise of both Authentic and
Nebula, John Carnell virtually had the British field to himself.
By sheer dedication he had succeeded in establishing another two sister
magazines to New Worlds -- Science Fantasy and Science
Fiction Adventures, all published by Nova Publications. Over the
next three years -- with the one above-noted exception -- High appeared
exclusively in the Nova magazines.
All of his stories were of a consistently good
standard, and what is even more remarkable about them is that ninety
per cent of his writing took place in the works canteen of the bus company
for whom High was employed as a driver! High wrote his stories in longhand
during his spare time. He always carried a notebook in his pocket (a
hangover from his earlier days as a reporter) and wrote during his stand-by
periods, typing it out when he got home. High recently recalled to me
My friends and workmates used to play cards under a huge notice proclaiming
'GAMBLING STRICTLY PROHIBITED,' but there were no restrictions on my
writing science fiction!
After Nova ceased to publish magazines, and
Carnell left for
new pastures, High virtually ceased writing short fiction. He found
himself out of sympathy with the direction of the "new sf" taken by
Michael Moorcock's revived version of New Worlds. The magazine
was changing fast at that time, but High saw no reason why he should
change along with it, contenting himself with a single sale (just to
show that he could do it) in 1966. Instead, encouraged by John Carnell,
who had offered to agent his work, High decided to concentrate on novels.
Here, in a book-length story, High felt free to write the kind of science
fiction he was most comfortable with -- dark, sometimes dystopian visions,
in a framework of bizarre adventure. His style eschewed pretension and
flamboyance, reflecting his earlier training as a newspaper reporter.
Carnell had sold High's first novel, The Prodigal Sun, to Ace
Books in 1963, and whilst continuing to work full time, High averaged
a book a year throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1969, I found myself appointed as editor
of a new British sf magazine, Vision of Tomorrow. I soon discovered
that obtaining suitable stories was going to be something of a problem.
Since the demise of Carnell's magazines, and the swinging of New
Worlds into different areas of "speculative fiction," nearly all
of the professional writers in the U.K. had completely stopped writing
science fiction short stories. Their efforts were confined to novels
aimed at the American market. I found that I had to work hard to coax
them back out of "retirement." John Carnell, in his capacity as a literary
agent, became an invaluable ally. Through him, I was able to appeal
to a number of formerly prolific authors to return to the short story
medium. Amongst the authors who rallied to my aid was Philip E. High,
and I was delighted to be favoured with four new short stories by him,
all of which I was pleased to feature.
Vision of Tomorrow ceased publication
in 1970, after twelve issues. Once again High stopped writing short
stories, and concentrated on his novels -- initially, with considerable
success. But following the death of his first agent John Carnell (whom
High had come to regard as a personal friend) and later his main publisher
in the U.S., Don Wollheim, High became discouraged, and slipped into
literary retirement, coinciding with his own retirement as a bus driver,
For more than a quarter of a century, no new
High short stories appeared. During all that time, many new sf magazines
came and went in the U.K., but none of their editors had the good sense
to invite High to write for them -- a situation I for one consider to
be an absolute disgrace. In a recent letter High told me:
Most of the gaps in my writing life were due to misinformation. For
instance, immediately following my retirement in 1979, and throughout
the whole of the following decade, I was assured by many who should
have known better that the popularity of sf was well and truly finished.
Magazines, I was told, were folding left, right and centre. I was given
no encouragement to continue with my writing. All the gaps in my writing
years may be referred to the same cause -- the belief that there was
no publishing market.
Rather than be idle, I took a job delivering flowers in a small van
for a few years. All over Kent, funerals, weddings, birthdays and what-have-you.
Interestingly, I found there was a lot to be learned even in this small
I am sure that there are many readers who will
agree with me that both they and the author have been ill-served during
these many years past. But there has recently been an exciting and positive
new development ...
In 1997, fed up with what we perceived as a
discriminatory and restricted British sf short story market, Sean Wallace
and myself decided to publish our own magazine, Fantasy Annual.
I contacted a number of former Vision authors for material, including
Phil High. We were delighted to learn that he was willing to try writing
short stories again. He felt that he still had things to say, and I
had no hesitation in buying the first story he sent me, "The Kiss."
Since then, I have been favoured with a steady flow of new stories,
and High's old skill and inventiveness is still on display. In a recent
letter to me, author Eric Williams commented how much he was enjoying
High's latest work, with its "care of characterization and style." He
was finding that High's stories contained "a wider scope of philosophy
than other writers." Indeed, such has been the number and quality of
High's submissions, that Fantasy Annual has now been joined by
Readers can once again look forward to some
truly original High short stories, many of them based on the lessons
of his long and varied life, and his own enthusiasms. Outstanding examples
will be found in his connected pair of stories, "Production Model" and
"The Elementals" published in Fantasy Annual # 5. The stories
describe the bizarre fate that befalls two men who set out for a drive
in a new car. High writes:
I love cars and driving with almost passionate intensity. After a time
the road holds you like the sea holds a true sailor. I held down the
job as a bus driver just to drive. Oddly, if I was tired from driving,
it used to relax me to write and vice versa.
In 2002, Cosmos Books published The Best
of Philip E High, which includes examples from before High's 'retirement'
In addition to this, Cosmos have been reprinting the very best of his
novels, and High has also written a book of all-new stories, A Step
to the Stars. Its genesis was quite simple -- when I asked High
to write new stories for my magazines, he began to deliver acceptable
stories faster than I could publish them! On being apprised of this,
Wildside publisher John Betancourt promptly commissioned a new book
by High, consisting of all-new stories!
A Step to the Stars is the result. It
has been two years in the making, and is the first new book by
High to appear for nearly a quarter of a century. But, I fancy, it will
not be the last!
Given a free editorial rein, High has been
producing stories that reflect many of his own personal beliefs, hopes
and fears -- the product of a long and varied life, and a ceaselessly
inventive and enquiring mind. And whilst these stories contain all the
usual fanciful science fiction tropes that one might expect of a writer
who cut his teeth on Astounding Stories in the 1930s -- contact
with aliens, time travel, parallel worlds, and so on -- they are also
concerned with the real world, of human nature, of Good and Evil,
and the place of humanity in the universe.
Reading for this collection over the last two
years, I have noticed a consistent pattern emerging, and something of
a change from High's early dystopian novels. He is an author who believes
in the future of man, and that his destiny lies in the stars. In many
stories, mankind often needs a helping hand from alien intelligences,
with many a cosmic shock or two to jolt him to his senses, but still
Some of the stories overlapped with each other,
and might even have been revised to form a novel, or a thematic anthology.
Where this has occurred I have taken some of the stories out of my inventory
for A Step to the Stars, and used them as stand-alone stories
in Fantasy Annual, Fantasy Quarterly, or Fantasy Adventures,
to present greater variety. The ten stories in A Step to the Stars
have been winnowed from more than twice that number, and will, I trust,
make interesting and varied reading for fans of the author, both old
High can be justly proud of his long and distinguished
writing career, the wider recognition of which is long overdue.
© Philip Harbottle 2004.
Parts of this feature were first published in the introductions to The
Best of Philip E High and A Step to the Stars.
A Step to the Stars is published by Cosmos
(2004, ISBN: 0809500272); Tune
Out of Time, a story from this collection, is available elsewhere
on this site.
Order online using these
links and infinity plus will benefit:
...A Step to the Stars, paperback, from Amazon.com