Ken Bulmer

Writer of swashbuckling stories under many names and in many genres - notably science fiction


Henry Kenneth Bulmer, novelist: born London 14 January 1921; married 1953 Pamela Buckmaster (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1981); died Tunbridge Wells, Kent 16 December 2005.

Ken Bulmer was a phenomenally prolific storyteller in a number of genres, although chiefly science fiction, of which he was a fiercely partisan promoter in its early days in the UK. In a career which lasted over 40 years he produced countless short stories and novelettes (a peculiarly "pulp magazine" story-length of anything between 10,000 and 30,000 words) as well as over 160 novels.

He was not one of the truly great SF writers, but he was certainly one of the definers of yesterday's tomorrow. And some of his guesses weren't bad. He wrote in the main swashbuckling fiction about swashbuckling characters - whether careering through the voids of space, galloping across the high chaparral, sailing the 10th-century seas in a berserker frenzy or the 19th- banging off cannonades at Boney's fleet. He was, in short, a great entertainer.

Like many of the early British SF writers, Bulmer started out as a fan, and then found he had a natural gift for communicating unconventional and often bizarre concepts in an entertaining and highly readable manner. He had become fascinated by American science fiction as a teenager before the Second World War, devouring pulps such as Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories and Astounding Science Fiction, old copies of which were sent over to England as ballast in the big cargo ships and sold off in Woolworth's.

He soon got to know other fans of this strange new fiction genre and contributed to the roneoed, tiny-circulation SF and fantasy fan-mags of the 1940s, rubbing shoulders in their columns and at pub gatherings with such embryonic writing talents as "John Wyndham" (then known by his real name John Beynon Harris), "John Christopher" (C.S. Youd), Ted Tubb and Arthur C. Clarke (who once came second in a fan writers' contest to Bulmer's first, a fact which hugely amused both writers in later years).

In the early 1950s Bulmer wrote for a number of small paperback publishers, for years the sole market for serious SF in Britain, including Hamilton (Stafford) Ltd (which confusingly had its headquarters in Goldhawk Road, Shepherd's Bush, and later metamorphosed into the famous "Panther Books" line), Curtis Warren and Digit. Although it was a precarious business - SF paperback houses having a habit of going belly-up at the slightest provocation, on occasion with their directors only a step or two in front of the bumbailiffs. Even so, Bulmer's name began to be recognised and he began to sell direct to the United States, to the flourishing SF publisher Ace Books, in New York.

To keep the wolf from the door he found that writing comic-strip scripts for the old Amalgamated Press (still, then, the biggest fiction factory in the world) went a good deal of the way towards paying the bills, and during the late 1950s and early 1960s he pounded out "novel-length" war stories for War Picture Library as well as serials for weekly comics such as Lion and Valiant (at one stage he was writing the famous "The Steel Claw" for the latter paper). He was certainly in good company: other SF writers who bifurcated their talents, producing adventure-strip scripts for boys' papers one day and getting on with the current novel for adults the next, included Michael Moorcock, Mike Butterworth and his old friends Ted Tubb and Sid Bounds (who both found time to pen "Sexton Blake" thrillers, something Bulmer never quite managed - "Too much back-story in the character," he once told me: "if you got some minor detail wrong you'd get letters").

Though known in the trade as an SF-writer, during the 1970s he dramatically increased his output (not to mention his earnings) by the simple expedient of expanding his "special interests". A lover of C.S. Forester's Hornblower saga, he sold a series of Napoleonic era sea yarns, as "Adam Hardy", to New English Library (or "New English Lavatory" as all contributors and staff knew it, on account of the rank atmosphere in the firm's poky offices off Holborn), then began, as "Bruno Krauss", a series featuring a hard-bitten German U-Boat kapitan (which ran to eight volumes) for the same publisher, at a time when action-adventure yarns about the German side of the war were hugely popular. Bulmer was nothing if not trade-savvy: in 1984 he resurrected "Adam Hardy" for half a dozen "Strike Force" Falklands thrillers.

He also wrote most of the "Wolf's Head" medieval outlaw series as "Arthur Frazier", most of "The Professionals" television novelisations (with Robert Holdstock) as "Ken Blake", and contributed to "The Gladiator" series as "Andrew Quiller", "The Vikings" series as "Neil Langholm", and the tough "Jubal Cade" western series as "Charles R. Pike".

At the same time, as "Alan Burt Akers", he started his long-running "Dray Prescot" SF series for Don Wollheim's DAW books in the US, which eventually ran to over 50 volumes, began to hammer out the odd "Sword and Sorcery" epic for America (such as the excellent Kander, 1969), and still found time to write several stand-alone SF novels to keep Ace Books in New York happy. In 1975 alone he turned out a dozen paperbacks, and throughout the 1970s averaged roughly seven novels a year.

Ken Bulmer was born in London in 1921 and grew up around Catford, attending primary and secondary schools in the area. Largely self-taught, after he left school he took a job in the paper business before war broke out. During the 1939-45 conflict he served in the Royal Corps of Signals in Africa, Sicily and Italy, editing the corps' irregularly issued magazine when things were quiet.

It was during this period that, by letter, he built up an enormous fan-base with friends who were, like him, devoted to science fiction. This paid off after the war when he became a prolific contributor to the SF fan-mags run mainly by his wartime pen-pals, as well as writing his first novels, in 1952, with a close friend, Vince Clarke: Space Treason and Cybernetic Controller. Around this time he became friendly with Ted Carnell, editor of the seminal British professional SF outlet New Worlds, who became his agent and began to push his stuff Stateside.

He was also, in a years-long collaboration with his friend the industrial research chemist John Newman (as "Kenneth Johns"), writing science- fact articles for Astounding, Unesco Courier and Scientific American.

In 1953 he married Pamela Buckmaster, a fellow SF fan who, though they divorced in 1981, remained close, taking over the Cornell Agency in the 1960s, becoming his sole agent, and selling him to Germany and Japan, where his books were highly popular (when Don Wollheim of DAW Books died and Bulmer was left without an American publisher, it was Buckmaster who finagled deals with the German publisher Heyne so that both his "Dray Prescot" and "Hook" series kept going to the end of the 1980s).

Bulmer was a gregarious man who liked nothing better than meeting old friends and yarning at the various SF Conventions held in both the UK and the US (which he had first visited as the official British delegate to the World SF Convention held in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1955).

He was often to be found at four in the morning beating all comers at his own peculiar brand of poker - 15-card stud, low hand wins, face cards wild.

Jack Adrian

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