The Planet Murderer
Space porn, ghostwriters, postcards of refusal, and a fancy luncheon at a Holiday Inn in Norman, Oklahoma
By Chris Offutt
Reading time 22 Minutes
In 1953 Hammer Films produced Spaceways
In 1953 Hammer Films produced Spaceways, a negligible movie quickly relegated to drive-in theaters. Howard Duff was the star, an American actor known as much for his personal life as his work. He had a notoriously turbulent relationship with Ava Gardner, then married the great Ida Lupino. The movie Spaceways did poorly; critics referred to it dismissively as “a lukewarm murder mystery in a science fiction setting.”
What’s significant to me is the one-sheet. The title “Spaceways” is in block letters, the capital “S” slightly bigger than the rest. The word runs at a diagonal across the poster, left to right, at a slight downward slant. This very same font was used twenty-nine years later for a series my father, Andrew Offutt, wrote and edited called Spaceways. The only difference was the angle of the slant. Playboy Enterprises released the books. Playboy wanted a softcore porn science fiction series, and contacted my father. They didn’t want Dad per se; they wanted his alter-ego, John Cleve, writer of porn.
At that time, Dad had published twenty novels in the genre of fantasy and science fiction. Under various pseudonyms he’d also published eighty-five porn novels. The editors at Playboy deemed him the ideal candidate to write the series. I was a senior in college, still going home occasionally, and I well recall my father’s glee at the contract. He’d begun his adult life as a businessman in sales – first for Procter & Gamble, then later health and life insurance. Steeped in the post-war mindset of acquisition – a house, a convertible, a wife, and kids – Dad viewed writing books strictly from the standpoint of commerce.
My father was remarkably optimistic, having taught himself self-confidence via pamphlets and flash cards from Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale. He believed in himself more fully than anyone I’ve ever known. Naturally he took the Playboy offer. It was his chance to make “fat money,” as he put it, the culmination of his writing career at age forty-eight. The first thing he did was to box in a side porch for storage, including his push lawnmower. Dad was also thrifty – too thrifty in most ways – and he stipulated that the carpenter cut expenses by building a cement ramp that was exceedingly steep. As it turned out, the angle of the ramp was too sharp to maneuver the lawnmower into storage. The metal edge of the deck dragged the ground, chewing up the grass, and creating its own obstacle. This didn’t matter to Dad. The important thing to him was the top of the ramp. He’d written SPACEWAYS in the wet cement – with “my own finger!” Nearby, beneath a forsythia bush, was the slowly rusting lawnmower.
Spaceways allowed my father to blend pornography with his favorite kind of science fiction – old time space opera reminiscent of the 1930s pulps. Dad’s contemporary twist included an alien who possessed the genitalia of both genders. Spacecraft captains welcomed the species as crew since they were unencumbered with the sexual repression of humanity, and could service men and women with ease. Each book told a story of intergalactic adventure with characters that reappeared in multiple books.
Diligent and prolific, my father wrote the first six novels prior to publication: Of Alien Bondage, Corundum’s Woman, Escape from Macho, Master of Misfit, Purrfect Plunder, and Satana Enslaved. After turning in the manuscripts for the fat money, Dad ran into a problem. The editors had decided to publish a book a month for the first couple of years, a pace that my father couldn’t maintain. He didn’t want to lose such a lucrative contract and cast about for a solution.
Dad decided to find collaborators
Dad decided to find collaborators who’d agree to write a book published under Dad’s pseudonym of John Cleve. He would pay a few thousand dollars in advance money, edit their manuscripts, and take full copyrights. By this time I’d left Kentucky for the third time and was waiting tables in Salem, Massachusetts. I’d also begun writing seriously, mainly stories set in the hills of home. Dad sent me a letter asking if I’d write a Spaceways novel. His offer pleased me with its implied recognition of my skills as a writer. Dad thought I was good! I spent a lot of time composing my response because I couldn’t tell him the truth – I absolutely did not want to begin my literary career as a ghostwriter for my father’s porn.
Dad interpreted it as a personal rejection – in his eyes he was offering to help his son the wanna-be writer. My refusal led to a conflict that lasted until his death from alcohol-induced cirrhosis. After he died I found dozens of postcards from writers refusing his offer and wondered if he’d they’d hurt his feelings, as well. Doubtful. He reserved his greatest sensitivity for people he could safely hurt back in retaliation. The postcards of refusal were in a metal box on a bookshelf. I was surprised that he’d saved them, but even more surprised that the box itself had any contents at all. His office held many small chests of wood, leather, tin and cardboard – most of them empty. In fact the entire house was jammed with containers – all of them exotic and sturdy. My favorites were the boxes that contained smaller boxes, like Russian nesting dolls. Perhaps my father felt a vacancy within himself that he fulfilled by placing boxes inside boxes. Then again, maybe he just liked boxes. Perhaps everyone likes boxes!
For several years I moved my wife and kids often in pursuit of short-term teaching positions as a visiting writer. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, I could not secure a permanent job. Early on I lacked experience. In later years I was told that my work had garnered too much attention for an entry-level job. Still, I considered myself fortunate – my children were young enough to travel without difficulty, and I was supporting them. My wife and I had moved so many times that we had an ideal collection of boxes, all pre-marked as to contents. We saved them for several years. It was a stressful and unpleasant way to live, chafing my wife more than I realized. One year we lived in four states, which was the end of our marriage. I filled half the boxes and moved three blocks away. If I’d ghost-written a Spaceways novel, maybe the trajectory of my career and marriage would have been different. These are the late night thoughts everyone participates in: the relentless woulda-coulda-shoulda of regret.
Dad eventually found several writers affiliated with the science fiction world who needed the money badly enough to write a novel for him. I’d like to stress that one thousand dollars for a novel is not much money, even in the early 1980s. Still, writers are perpetually broke, with time on their hands. Part of what made it appealing is that the draft they wrote didn’t have to be all that good – unrevised and unpolished was fine. First draft was fine. Dad edited their manuscripts to fit the John Cleve style – satiric and tongue-in-cheek, with plenty of sex, drama, and action.
The secret Spaceways collaborators were George Proctor, G.C. Edmonson, Jack Haldeman, Victor Koman, Roland J. Green, and Robin Kindcaid. For book #16, The Planet Murderer, Dad hired an older man whose work he’d read in the pulp magazines of the 1940s and ’50s. Dwight V. Swain was born in 1915 and began publishing at age twenty-six. In the early 1960s, he wrote a screenplay for the movie Stark Fear, directed by Ned Hockman. Interestingly, it was the only movie Hockman directed and the only movie Swain wrote. They weren’t cut out for the glittering cesspool of Hollywood. Many years later it turned out that neither was I.
Broke and needing money to finance my sons’ college educations at age forty-five, I’d turned to screenwriting. Hollywood was a machine fueled by story, and writers were in high demand. After my sons graduated from college, I left that world and moved to rural Mississippi. Hollywood was like middle-school with stratospheric stakes – money, status, and power. At best, the people I met were insufferable. I can only imagine that Dwight V. Swain disliked his brief experience in the world of the movies as much as I did.
Swain was a professor at Oklahoma State University in its nascent program in Professional Writing. The year before he died at age 77, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame. According to its website, being inducted into this Hall is “Oklahoma’s highest honor.” Swain was celebrated as the first Grandmaster of the Hall at a fancy luncheon in Norman, Oklahoma that took place at the Holiday Inn off Interstate 35.
Dwight V. Swain wrote mostly short fiction and novellas. His one novel, written on his own, was Monster, a horror novel published in 1991. Not to split hairs, but his 1955 The Transposed Man and Terror Station are novellas published in the Ace Double series. Unlike mainstream publishing, the form of novellas are fully accepted in the SF world; every year the Hugo and Nebula committees give awards for the best novella. In addition, the SF world more or less invented the term “novelette,” meaning a long short story or a short novella, and also grants awards for Best Novelette. All these distinctions are based on word count. For the scholarly historian, I need to mention “novelina,” which unfortunately is a line of cosmetics known as “Your skin’s best friend.”
Nowadays, Dwight V. Swain is mostly known for his nonfiction books about writing such as Creating Characters: How to Build Story People and Techniques of the Selling Writer. Clearly, he lived up to that book by writing The Planet Murderer for my father. As a title, The Planet Murderer is slightly less than subtle. It concerns Gelor, the “bad guy” who is an ecstatic killer with many notches on his space gun. In fact, his current goal is to murder an entire planet! Despite his homicidal prowess, he can’t quite pull off the job alone and kidnaps two female scientists to assist. The “good guy” is Jesh, who steals a space craft, sets up a jailbreak to get a crew, and also kidnaps a woman. He then chases Gelor about the galaxy.
The Spaceways series eventually ran to 19 books, ending abruptly due to the widespread availability of consumer VCRs. Men no longer needed “left-handed books” for stimulation when they could view sex in the privacy of their homes. The passive entertainment of watching sex on a VHS tape was easier that using one’s imagination. Why waste time reading when you can watch!
Chris Offutt is the author of Country Dark, Kentucky Straight, Out of the Woods, The Same River Twice, No Heroes, The Good Brother, and My Father the Pornographer (which is all about his relationship with his father). His books have been translated into ten languages. To finance his sons’ college education, he worked in Hollywood for seven years, writing screenplays for True Blood, Weeds, Treme, and four pilots. He grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky and currently lives in rural Lafayette County near Oxford, Mississippi. He raises chickens and vegetables, studies photography, and plays World of Warcraft every day.
Thank you to Chris Offutt and Jodie Offutt for granting us permission to use these family photos of Andrew Offutt. Thank you to Christopher Maffei of Well-Stacked Books in Parkville, Maryland for the high quality scan of The Planet Murderer cover, as well as several other Cleve titles. Thanks also to Kevin Royal Johnson and Royal Books in Baltimore, Maryland for allowing us to use images of several Cleve titles. For all your Cleve needs, please visit Well-Stacked Books and Royal Books online; many of the copies you see here are for sale, and many of them are from Andrew Offutt’s estate.