Thursday, October 1, 2015

Playboy Fiction Anthologies of the 1960s and 1970s

-Here's a look at the high quality short fiction anthologies from the pages of Playboy in the 1960's and 1970's. Many of The Twilight Zone show writers were featured as were writers that influenced the look and feel of the show. 

Beginning in 1966, with The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Playboy Press, the magazine's book publishing arm, began publishing a series of book anthologies which would mine the magazine's accumulated collection of short-form horror, crime, and science fiction. The fiction editor at the time was Ray Russell, himself a noted writer of modern Gothics (Sardonicus and Other Stories; The Case Against Satan) and feature films (Premature Burial; X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes), who had, since the beginning of the 1960's, bought fiction from the finest genre (and non-genre) writers of the time.
Playboy was a high paying fiction market which allowed its writers to produce works free of the restraining components of genre magazines and of a more violent and sexually exploratory nature than was acceptable to the standards of mainstream "slick" magazines, who were largely ignoring genre fiction anyway, with the exception of an occasional Ray Bradbury or Jack Finney offering. The result was the accumulation in a single market some of the most outstanding horror, crime, and science fiction of the middle portion of the 20th century. In a relatively short number of years the magazine had assembled a wealth of high quality genre material with first book publication rights held on nearly all of it. Once Playboy Press was created to enter the book publishing market, it became obvious how to use that store of quality fiction. Though much genre material landed in Playboy's "mainstream" anthologies (such as The Bedside Playboy), our focus here is on dedicated genre anthologies. 

The production of genre anthologies from Playboy Press began slowly. 1966 saw the release of The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy and The Playboy Book of Crime and Suspense in hardcover. It was followed the next year with the hardcover The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural. 1968 saw all three books reprinted in paperback editions. Playboy's Stories of the Sinister & Strange, a paperback, followed in 1969. These titles, especially The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernaturalare still highly sought after items, noted among fans for the quality of the fiction. It became apparent that the anthologies were popular and also that the magazine held the publishing rights to a number of other extraordinary stories. They prepared to commit to book form nearly every science fiction, fantasy, horror, and crime story in the young magazine's considerable possession.

After a quiet 1970 in which Playboy Press published no genre anthologies, nine paperback anthologies appeared in 1971, most of them under the banner title Playboy Science Fiction (or variant: Playboy Press Science Fiction), a banner under which additional science fiction novels and single author collections appeared. Most of the stories contained within the anthologies seamlessly blended variations of the established elements of science fiction and horror, a type of genre mash-up that was particularly popular at the time. Stories of psychological alienation and of man's diminishing importance in the face of an infinite universe proliferated. A self-conscious, modern form of the horror story matured in the pages of the magazine and were later reprinted in the anthologies. These horror stories were set in a recognizable middle class milieu, where monstrosity, murder, and mutation were as likely as after dinner cocktails. The single editorial demand imposed upon the writers was for high quality fiction.

The anthologies were occasionally themed ("10 Stories of Space Flight," etc.) and usually took the book title (The Dead Astronaut, The Fiend, etc.) from the title of the lead story within. A list of notable authors represented in the anthologies are too many to completely list here, but include such luminaries as J.G. Ballard, Arthur C. Clarke, Charles Beaumont, Frederik Pohl, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Robert Sheckley, Robert Bloch, Algis Budrys, Gerald Kersh, Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, Dennis Etchison, Anthony Boucher, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, Henry Slesar, Richard Matheson, Fredric Brown, Avram Davidson, William Tenn, Damon Knight, Italo Calvino, Arthur Porges, and the list goes on and on.

After that fruitful year of 1971, the production of that type of book from Playboy Press abruptly slowed down, likely due to the depletion of available genre material in the magazine's possession. 1974 saw an anthology of crime stories, Murder, My Love, but Playboy Press had begun to concentrate their efforts on works of original fiction and on non-fiction books consisting of reprint material, such as Beyond Reason: Playboy's Book of Psychic Phenomena. 

There was, however, an all-too-brief resurgence of the horror anthology from Playboy Press beginning in 1979 with Nightmares, an anthology compiled by noted horror writer Charles L. Grant. This anthology, and those which quickly followed, were unlike the preceding anthologies in that the stories were not first published by the magazine. The anthologies were assembled in a more traditional manner. Grant's work with Playboy Press continued with the paperback edition of the first volume of his celebrated Shadows series of anthologies in 1980, followed by Horrors in 1981, and Terrors in 1982. Stuart David Schiff, creator of the marvelous but long discontinued Whispers magazine, delivered the horror anthology Death in 1982. The contents of these anthologies were a combination of established masters (Saki, Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, William F. Nolan, Joseph Payne Brennan) and younger writers, some of whom were on the verge (with the considerable best-selling help of writers such as Ira Levin, William Peter Blatty, and Stephen King) of implementing the horror publishing "boom" of the emerging 1980's. With the benefit of hindsight it is unquestionable that these horror anthologies from Playboy Press, along with the excellent horror anthologies compiled by literary agent Kirby McCauley between 1975-1980 (Night Chills, Beyond Midnight, Frights, Dark Forces), were a significant part of the foundation upon which a short-lived but fiercely marketed publishing campaign was built, that which pushed horror into the mainstream of the market. This publishing movement allowed a genre once relegated solely to genre magazines and small press publishing houses to proliferate and be found at every checkout counter in America. 

It is interesting to note two further related events. In 1980, Playboy Press published the retrospective volume Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction in hardcover. It is a celebration of the best of Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine with stories from the magazine's archives and memoirs from the writers that contributed to the magazine. It was also a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club.

Ray Russell was succeeded by the venerable Alice K. Turner as Playboy fiction editor in 1976. Fortunately for fans of the genre, Turner, too, had a taste for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She compiled a hardcover volume in 1998 titled The Playboy Book of Science Fiction, about half of which is from her tenure as fiction editor of the magazine. It is a fine volume of stories and an excellent companion to the Ray Russell-edited volume from 1966.

Most of the volumes discussed are highly affordable to purchase either online or at quality used bookstores. I highly suggest the original trilogy of paperbacks as a foundation for a collection: The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Playboy Book of Crime and Suspense, and The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural. Complete lists of contents can be accessed at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, which also provided the cover images on this page.


-Most of the anthologies were compiled by regular Playboy fiction editor Ray Russell and credited as by "The Editors of Playboy." It is noted below where Russell was not the editor. Paperback publication for books which originally appeared in hardcover are noted. 

The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy (paperback, 1968)
The Playboy Book of Crime and Suspense (paperback, 1968)


The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural (paperback, 1968)

Playboy's Stories of the Sinister & Strange


Transit of Earth
Last Train to Limbo
From the "S" File
The Dead Astronaut
The Fiend
The Fully Automated Love Life of Henry Keanridge
Weird Show
The Future is Now (edited by William F. Nolan; originally appeared in hardcover in 1970 from Sherbourne Press)


Murder, My Love (edited by Eric Corder)


Nightmares (edited by Charles L. Grant)


Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction (edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander; paperback, 2 vols, 1981)
Shadows (edited by Charles L. Grant)


Horrors (edited by Charles L. Grant)

Death (edited by Stuart David Schiff)
Terrors (edited by Charles L. Grant)


The Playboy Book of Science Fiction (edited by Alice K. Turner; paperback, 1999)

--Jordan Prejean

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back! Looking forward to the next episode review!