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Thursday, May 7, 2020

WESTERN FANZINES—OWLHOOT

WESTERN FANZINES
OWLHOOT
A few of months ago, I reconnected with the last remaining (as far as I know) old school APA, a western genre version known as OWLHOOT. There are just over a dozen die hard participants, all of us old enough to need extra light when we read and close captioning on the TV...and at least a half dozen of us still around from the pages if DAPA-Em...

If you have no idea what an APA is, or OWLHOOT, or DAPA-Em, settle down here by the campfire and let me tell you the legend of the (almost) lost fandom.

Back in the prehistoric times before the Internet—when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the West was wild and the East was still the mysterious Orient—mystery fandom wasn’t a simple matter of keeping abreast of daily blog updates or Facebook group news feeds…it had to be earned.

I’m not kidding…

One of old school fandom's most deeply rooted sources existed in monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly collections of individual newsletters gathered together and mailed to the members of amateur press associations known as APAs.

In 1973, the only APA devoted to mystery fandom began publication under the title DAPA-Em, which if I remember correctly stood for Elementary My Dear APA. The name was a bit nonsensical and the lettering was out of order enough to set off my OCD—or CDO, which is OCD in the right order—but but question me no further as I don’t know how the name originated. I guess that was part of the mystery.

APAs were limited membership publishing co-ops whose members produced copies of their amateur fanzines, which were then sent to an official editor. The official editor collated the newsletter style fanzines, mailed them to the members, kept track of the APA’s finances (dues to cover mailing expenses), maintained a waiting list of contributors, and made sure current contributors met the requirements for minimum activity—which in the case of DAPA-Em was four pages of mystery related information or research (three of which had to be original material) every four months. Since issues were gathered and sent out every two months, a contributor could miss only one issue before facing an inactivity deadline.

This was hardcore, chisel and stone, tape and paste, mimeograph machine, surreptitious Xeroxing at work, seat of the pants desktop publishing…and it was probably the most fun I've ever had in the mystery genre.

DAPA-Em was originally founded with six contributors. By the time I joined in the late 70’s, it was filled to its limit of thirty five members with a half-dozen names on the waiting list.  For a number of years, I published my own contribution to the cause, which was originally titled The Thieftaker Journals before being re-christened Brass Knuckles. It was full of reviews and explorations of—mostly—hardboiled detective fiction. In my November 1983 issue, I even had the honor of publishing a controversial story, The Oldest Killer, by Edgar Award winning author Dennis Lynds, which went on to much acclaim and cemented a friendship of many years.

But the absolute best thing about DAPA-Em was when a new issue (consisting of a combined 35 newsletter/fanzines) dropped with a satisfying thump in my mailbox. When that happen, life came to an immediate screeching halt for a couple of hours while I sat back and read the current issue from cover to cover.

Critical appreciation of the mystery genre was in its infancy during the early days of DAPA-Em. Several mystery newsletters, including Marv Lachman's The Mystery Lover's Newsletter and Al Hubin's The Armchair Detective had laid the groundwork for DAPA-Em, but the pivotal works of the genre were still on the horizon. The first of these mystery reference books to have lasting impact was The Encyclopedia of Mystery & Detection by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler. Al Hubin’s ambitious Bibliography of Crime Fiction followed in 1978, and John M. Reilly’s epic Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers came two years later in 1980. All of these continue to maintain a place of honor on my bookshelves, but before any of them appeared there was the collaboration that was DAPA-Em. 

And what a collaboration it was. Members of DAPA-Em spanned America with submissions also coming from Canada, Australia, and England. At the height of DAPA-Em’s existence, it was not unusual for two-thirds of the membership to show up, live and in person at the yearly Bouchercon world mystery convention—except for George Kelley (which is an inside joke only members of DAPA-Em will understand).

There is no longer a wild DAPA-Em party room set aside in the Bouchercon hotel (we still can’t talk about some of the scandals), but last year, I attended the 49th incarnation of Bouchercon in Dallas, Texas, where I crossed paths with several long time friends from the days of DAPA-Em.

While the reviews and articles, which made up the bulk of most DAPA-Em entries, were interesting, it was the exchanges in the letter pages where gold and friendship was to be found. Here tales of book buying/collecting experiences, convention antics, personal travels, and personal lives abounded—much in the same way the connections made in the Campfire section of the revered pulp Adventure raised that magazine to a level of reader connection above all others.

DAPA-Em contributors were a family and, like any such grouping, there were dysfunctions and arguments—both personal and literary. Sometimes, it could get ugly, and once or twice the heat from the pages could be felt through the mailing envelope. Rabid Mets fans and had nothing on the contributors of DAPA-Em and the mystery genre.

Those upsets, however, were minor glitches now lost to the winds of time. More importantly, through the pages of DAPA-Em, I established cherished friendships, acquaintances, and contacts, which have continued across the decades and are still viable today. A number of DAPA-Em contributors are no longer with us, and while I may only hear occasionally—usually through the wonders of Facebook—from my buddies Cap’n Bob Napier, Art Scott, and others still on this side of the sod, those early days of writing, publishing, and sharing of our love for the mystery genre still bind us together.

Every two months when my copies of the magazines bound into DAPA-Em arrived in my mailbox—usually after a frantic rush to get my own entry finished, collated, and submitted—I knew I was in for hours of enjoyment, spending time learning about new books and writers in the genre I loved, and catching up with thirty four of my best friends in the world of mystery—many of whom went on to successful writing careers.

Work and commitment are needed to keep up with a semi-monthly publishing schedule of even a small publication. Original research and writing had to be done aside from the dexterity needed with glue sticks and those old fashioned things called typewriters. DAPA-Em not only represented the best of the mystery genre, it also represented a massive collective effort on the part of its contributors.

In February 2011, after 216 issues, DAPA-Em gave up the ghost—murdered in cold blood by the siren call of blogs and social networking. I love physical books, but I shifted to e-books (mostly) with ease. However, I still miss DAPA-Em, the work it entailed, and the never to be had again rewards it provided. I recently read through some old issues and marveled and the breadth of knowledge still contained there.

Yesterday, when the latest throwback issue of the OWLHOOT APA (#70) hit my mailbox, I dropped tools faster than Fred Flintstone responding to the end of the workday whistle at the rock quarry, straddled my antique mechanical horse (rustle from where it was plugged in outside a long gone grocery store), slapped in a quarter, and settled back in the saddle for a cover to cover reading session. An absolute blast from the past and I loved every page. Roll on Owlhoots...

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