Saturday, September 30, 2017

Charles H. King (1934-2017)

You meet a lot of people as you go through life, people who leave varying degrees of impressions. Every once in a while, the impression left is like a Jurassic leaf fallen on glistening wet mud, buried immediately, and eons hence reveals fossilized details that can be scrutinized and hidden wonders divulged.

I'm positively certain no one reading this has ever heard of Charles H. King. Mr. King was a patient of mine in my office, referred to me eight years ago by his physician, also a patient of mine. An affable man with a natural story-telling personality, Charles quickly became one of my favorite patients as his mile-a-minute manner of speaking regaled me with quips and jokes. I always looked forward to seeing him. 

In 2013, during one of his marathon explanations about something or other we were discussing, he dropped the name Benarr Macfadden, pausing to mention that he doubted I knew who he was talking about. In fact, I knew exactly who he was talking about, having spent the past two years buried in ancient Writer's Digests researching our book, The Secret History of Marvel Comics. I replied, "The Physical Culture publisher?" "That's the guy! I'm surprised you've heard of him!". I then explained that I was familiar with nearly all the names of the publishing world of a near century past, and that I was then in the process of writing a book on the early history of Marvel Comics' publisher, Martin Goodman

"Oh, I loved the comics!", Mr. King exclaimed. "I was a Captain Marvel fanatic when I was a kid. The Big Red Cheese! And I loved the science fiction comics in the 1950's."  Now we had a common meeting ground and were kindred souls. We proceeded to talk about the comic books of the 1940's and 1950's, pulps, animated cartoons, and generally had a grand old time doing so. This went on for several years and then I didn't see Mr. King for a while. When he returned, he came with an aide, having had a debilitating stroke that affected his right side. But he overcame the limitations of this disability, taking the affliction in stride, and was his usual garrulous, smiling self.  

On this particular day I noticed that he had found my office copy of our book and was poring through it intently, waving it at me from the waiting room, remarking, "This is your book? It finally got printed! Congratulations!" We then sat down and looked through it together. He had never seen Goodman's science fiction pulps in their first run but recalled the early 1950's digest version quite clearly, the ones edited by Daniel Keyes. The rest was all new to him as his only real interest was in science fiction and Goodman did not publish much of that at all, preferring to flood the newsstands with primarily westerns and crime pulps, as we all know.

He was in the middle of explaining something pulp-related and said in passing, "...Like I told Isaac Asimov one time, ..." I immediately stopped him in mid-sentence. "What do you mean, as you told Isaac Asimov one time? You knew Isaac Asimov?" He replied, "Oh yeah, we were members of the same science fiction clubs for years. We were members of The Trap Door Spiders." "You were a member of The Trap Door Spiders?", I blurted out. "Oh yes," he replied, "And I wrote for those science fiction pulps also." 

(*** A look at the Wikipedia listing for The Trap Door Spiders does includes Charles King's name along with icons of science fiction including Isaac Asimov, Lin Carter, L. Sprague deCamp, Lester del Rey and Theodore Sturgeon***)

Now I was stunned. Like falling dominoes, one of my favorite patients, in a quick series of revelations, had turned out to be not only a kindred comic book spirit, but an actual creative contributor to those very same moulding pulp magazines I spent years buried in research. 

"What did you write?", I had to know. "Just some short stories," was the reply. "Under your own name?" "No, under the name H. Charles Blair." I think he said Blair was his mother's maiden name.

Well it didn't take long to run that name through the myriad online science-fiction author's databases, coming up with a single hit, Future Science Fiction Vol 3, #1 (May/52), published by Louis Silberkleit's Columbia Publications, and edited by Robert Lowndes. Scouring Ebay, I located two copies and bought them. When they arrived, there on page 75 was his story, "The Rememberers," a short 7 page treatise on the loneliness of interstellar space travel. The byline was H. Charles Blair. And Mr. King was in good literary standing as both L. Sprague deCamp and Lester del Rey accompanied him in this issue with stories, fellow Trap Door Spider associates!

The next time he came into my office, I was ready. I presented Mr. King with a long lost copy of Future Science Fiction. I say long lost because he said he no longer had a copy of the pulp, and had not seen it for 50 years!

That day I gave Mr. King a copy of his pulp story he once again said something that stopped me in my tracks. He was holding and paging through a copy of my and Blake's book looking at the section on the men's adventure magazines, and completely out of the blue blurts out, "You know, I was hired by Bruce J. Friedman to work for Magazine Management." Just like that! Out of nowhere, he mentions Bruce J. Friedman and Magazine Management, which just happens to be the entirety of Martin Goodman's non-comic book publishing empire and the main subject of our book!

I practically screeched, "What did you do?? When?? How...??" He cut me off, answering, "Oh, I was hired but I never worked for them. My wife wanted me to get a real job so I immediately landed a job with (an agency I don't recall) and quit before my first day!" "How did you end up at Magazine Management?", I asked. The answer was, he had written stories for a ton of men's magazines at the time and felt a staff position with one of the biggest publishers might be good idea. Asked what he wrote for the men's magazines, the answer was, "fiction," but didn't provide any details.

Going back to online fiction magazine author databases, I turned up 3 stories under the byline Charles H. King. All were in Playboy-type knock-off magazines of the early 1960's. It looks like Mr. King would have been a natural fit right in with Bruce J. Friedman and Mario Puzo at the Magazine Management of the 1960's......

The first story, "Room at the Bottom", is a piece of satire in the Vol 5, #5, June 1961 issue of THE GENT.

The second story, "Road Runner", is in the Vol 6, #11, November, 1961 issue of ROGUE. Included is a photo of Charles H. King in the "Rogue Notes" column. (The image I've used at the top of this article). The issue also contains a story by Robert Bloch

The end of the story is cropped from the top of the page it appears. The full page 80 is included also.

The third story I found, "This is Your Wife!", is satire from the Vol 7, #2, November 1962 issue of DUDE.

These three are the only ones I was able to turn up and the likely scenario is that there may be a score of additional short fiction stories buried in back-issue early 1960's men's magazines.

But this is not the end of Mr. Charles King's literary career. There's one more very important item, the existence of which he'd been mentioning for a while and I just didn't catch on. Let me explain what I mean. From the first time I met Mr. King, I've related about how enthusiastically garrulous he was. He would speak fast and in spurts, mentioning so many things in a row that it was often a bit hard to keep up. And of course out of courtesy, I would not stop him over and over to explain a point or a reference more clearly. One thing I realized (well after the fact) was that he often made a reference using the phrase "mama's boy." I didn't really know what he meant, he didn't offer any context, just kept on with whatever he was talking about. He mentioned it often enough for me to wonder if perhaps he had a tendency to use the expression colloquially for whatever reason he had. While I was researching his early fiction I was startled to find that Mr. Charles King had actually written a novel by that name, "Mama's Boy!" Now it all made sense! He was repeatedly referring to his novel, without actually having ever told me that he had written a novel!

And what a novel it was! Published by Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books in 1992, this crime-suspense thriller got rave reviews including a back cover acclaim by noted horror author Peter Straub. But what really was interesting was the bio on the dust jacket, a bio that gave background on Mr. King's life that I knew nothing about, and Mr. King being one not  to talk about himself (Mama's Boy excepted, which he was obviously proud of).

From the dust jacket flap (including another updated photo):

"Charles King has been a mathematician at the Harvard Computation Laboratory, a performer and writer for network radio, and a creative director at a large New York advertising agency. (He was the ad man "John Fortune" in Studs Terkel's Working.) He has published some twenty short stories in national magazines; this is his first novel. He lives with his wife Katherine in New York."

Who knew? I certainly didn't. I packed all these men's magazines up with a copy of Mama's Boy, and brought them all in for him to see the next time his appointment came around. He laughed at the men's magazines, recalling that they paid poorly and were the impetus for his wife's urging to get a "real" job, a job that landed him ultimately at the top of the Advertising business. A real-life Mad Man at the exact same time!

In the last 2 years or so, his wife's health took a turn for the worse and Mr. King's own health was a battle. I last saw him in June, and he was his usual outgoing, happy self, refusing to let obstacles stop him from enjoying life.

In early September, several weeks ago, I received a phone call from Mr. King's brother. Mr. King had been in a car accident, and was pretty darn banged up. I offered my good wishes be passed along and my help in any way I could offer. He was in need of a particular medical referral, which I eagerly gave. The feeling I had from that phone call was that although he was an elderly man, and battling his own medical concerns, he was going to be ok. Within a week we received the sad news that Mr. King had passed away on September 15th.

And just like that, he was gone, causing me to think about what a wonderful life he had and how much he'd seen and done that intersected with my own interests and passions. It made me realize that I should have interviewed him formally and gotten his entire story for posterity. I really knew nothing at all about his Advertising career, nor his personal life. But then again I also realize that it was only by the chance mentioning of a now obscure physical culture publisher of the 1920's, that I even uncovered our allied interests. In any manner, I will miss Mr. Charles H. King and welcome anyone who reads this who may have known him in a professional (or non-professional) manner to add to his story.