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Phil High - Literary Craftsman

interview and profile by Philip Harbottle

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 The Best of Philip E High 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.

High recalls:

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 twice!

"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 original plotting.

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 me:

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 time.

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 that:

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 Invader on my Back by Philip E Highfor 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, in 1979.

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 job.

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 Fantasy Quarterly!

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 A Step to the Stars by Philip E High1979. 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 he endures.

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 and new.

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 by Philip E High
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.

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