Homer Eon Flint: A Legacy
By Vella Munn
19 March 2001
Forrest Ackerman called The Blind Spot by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint, first published in 1921, "a fabulous novel." Since then, The Blind Spot has been brought out at least seven times (even more in black market editions), and the fantasy novel about a portal between Earth and a parallel universe has taken on legendary status.
Of no less interest to fans of science fiction's earliest days is the mystique and mystery behind Flint's death in 1924, at the age of only thirty-two. If there is indeed something to the blind spot in the eye which fascinated Hall and Flint, perhaps Flint (or Flindt, as he was born) could speak from the parallel universe of his imagination about what really happened at the bottom of that lonely northern California canyon on March 27th, but I can only report on what is known of the author of science fiction, fantasy, and other stories as well as a number of movie scenarios.
Why have I chosen to report on this overweight, even-tempered shoe repairman and inventor, this failed journalist and draftsman who married a schoolteacher and fathered three children and died long before I was born? As a writer myself, I naturally feel a connection with his creative successes and frustrations, although I do not share his fascination with what exists beyond this earth. His stories about life on Mars and Venus, trips to Mercury, the deadly consequences of a shift in the moon's orbit, genetic engineering, and an alternative theory of Adam and Eve's origin demonstrated his prodigious imagination but are of course dated, and I haven't read them since I was a girl.
But read them I did, for one compelling reason: Homer was my grandfather, I his eldest grandchild.
When he died or was murdered, my mother was not yet six years old, and to this day she mourns the loss of that brilliant mind and warm lap. His oldest child and only son Max shared his fascination with things both scientific and beyond explanation, and has devoted much of his life to developing and publishing his theory of evolution. I can only imagine what that then nine-year old felt when he realized he'd never see his father, his hero, again. Vella (my namesake and aunt), who he often called "Baby Fint," was just three when her daddy died and went through life with no personal memory of him.
The greatest burden fell on his wife's shoulders. Not only did Mabel have to carry the responsibility for three small children in an era before social security, but the young widow lived with the whispered and not-so-whispered rumors that labeled her husband a robber and a thief. Born with a deformed right hand and a significant hearing loss, Mabel was a woman ahead of her time. Her parents, concerned about her marriage prospects, saw to it that she became a teacher, and she was teaching in a small, isolated northern California town when the man she called "my dearest one" was taken from her; four months later, she lost her widowed mother.
Mabel had already taught in Truckee, California, for three years when she married the shoe repairman and author of a monthly column for a shoemaker's magazine. It was she who noticed a newspaper article about the demand for movie scenarios by the fledgling film industry and persuaded her husband to send away for a set of instructions. His first published effort, "The Joke That Spread," sold to the Vitagraph Company in October 1912 for $10. One must assume the form suited him because he sold several more scenarios in 1913 before the demand dried up. Unfortunately, no copies of "When Chemistry Counted," "The Footprint Clue," "With the Crooks' Trick," "Fast Fright 3205," "A Six Shot Hero," "The Cipher Telegrams," or "To Save the Road" still exist.
At the time of his death, economic necessity had separated the family by 230 miles. Homer was living with relatives in San Jose and working at his brother's shoe shop, while Mabel and the three children had been in the small Sierra Mountain town of Washington, where she'd been hired to teach, since August of 1923. The many letters between husband and wife speak of a devoted, practical, and optimistic couple. As he once wrote her, "You bet it is wonderful that we can be apart all these days and so far apart at that without breaking down about it. But it just goes to show the power of intelligence and mutual confidence. A more elemental couple could never stand it."
The "apart" was about to end because at the time of his death he was set to move to Nevada City where he'd been hired to drive the daily stage. This employment, engineered equally by Homer and Mabel, would have made it possible for a father to see his family every day. Rather than bemoaning leaving bustling San Jose and his network of writing friends, he wrote in response to Mabel's description of Washington's surroundings, "Say -- I wish New York would come through quick. You make me long to get away from this 'world of trains and noises.' That's it exactly -- noise. I want to get out of it and get my nerves steady again. And the beauty of it -- the thing to do is to appreciate it to the full, that scenery. Our confounded automobiles rush through it and don't let us have any of it to keep." Homer referred to his family as: "Dear, dear, dear four" and "My own dear wife and three little ones" and signed his letters with copious Xs and Os.
I mention this because the sensational press of the day noted that Homer's work had been saturated with the occult and speculated he may have killed himself, "as a result of an overwhelming desire to visit the mystery world that lies beyond the pale." (Oakland Tribune, May 11, 1924). Homer himself credits his wife with channeling his imagination in a publishable direction, and one would expect his letters to touch on his interest in the occult if it indeed consumed him, but they do not. Rather, he concerned himself with making sure his family had a ready source of heat and hot water, dental issues, whether their dog was once again pregnant, and convincing his wife of their need for the 1916 Overland he'd bought.
When his letters touched on writing issues, the focus was on practical matters: how far he'd progressed in a given story, nibbles and rejections, the experiences of writer friends, and, to their shared excitement, the sale of "The Money-Miler" shortly before his death (published in Flynn's as a three-part serial October 4-18, 1924), which netted the family $400. His observations, although mundane, give insight into the place writing held in his life. On August 31, 1923, he wrote, "This morning I made a good start on the second chapter of the new yarn. Thinking it over today I see where I'll have to make a small change or so in the first chapter, such as will simply it and make the incident less of a 'just so' affair; in fact, as the story is unfolded, it is going to have a more everyday flavor than anything else to date. Austin [Hall]'s big story, 'The People of the Comet,' starts in the current issue of Weird Tales. Also, on the stands right now, a story in Popular and one in Blue Book! Some luck. He is bemoaning his luck, however, that he hasn't got about fifteen or twenty under consideration right now. Anyway, it's going to help him a lot. No word yet from Holt. Nor from anyone else, except a registry receipt card from McClure's for 'Steal Me If You Can!'"
In studying Homer's pioneering science fiction writing and his personal letters, two separate intellects emerge. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction credits him with describing the corruption and collapse of a socialistic world under the propaganda attacks of a reactionary, capitalist society in "The King of Conserve Island," and the Dr. Kinney stories ("The Lord Of Death," "The Queen Of Life," "The Devolutionist," and "The Emancipatrix") examine the implications of various political ideas such as survival of the fittest, preservation of life for its own sake, the ambivalences of an efficient, more or less benevolent dictatorship, and primitive humans. The observation was made that "HEF's writing style and pulp-magazine habits did not always adequately express his deep interest in the emergence of behavioral and historical patterns from various political and social philosophies."
In Modern American Literature, the point is made that "His stories . . . speculate on the success of political ideologies in imagined galactic settings." In his 1996 Fantasy Commentator article, the researcher, bibliographer, and fantasy historian Mike Ashley author called Homer "creative and inventive" and noted that "The Planeteer" (All-Story Weekly Oct. 12, 1918) was "a remarkable story, especially for a first fiction sale outside of movie scenarios, and shows the depth of Flint's unbridled imagination. . . . The novel teems with super-scientific concepts, and is one of the earliest examples of cosmic science fiction."
On the day-to-day front, Homer's life appeared bound in practicality. While working on his final story, he wrote his wife, "I started to write yesterday on the new automobile story; then went to the telephone and talked to Austin for a while, told him the idea -- and learned that he had read a novelette using that idea some time ago in Ace-High. So I tore up that one page, sat down, and for two hours deliberately worked the old thinker. Result, something entirely new; at least, it sounds absolutely different from anything else. It isn't likely that anybody else ever thought of this combination before." The intellectual power of a man with a high school education didn't often come across in letters devoted to buying his wife a corset because none were available for her in Washington, or gossip about the parents of her students, but there are flashes of it.
Although his first two stories, "The Coupling" and "The Planeteer," sold within days of each other and the proceeds paid for an earlier emergency appendectomy, Homer didn't quit his day job. Ashley believes that had Homer lived into the days of Amazing Stories, he would have become one of its main contributors. Homer, however, once wrote a friend that, "I am more and more convinced that a man should follow fiction as an avocation rather than a vocation. It isn't in human nature to do your best at something which you've got to do. The world's finest work has always been done by someone who was simply riding a hobby."
A hobby or a compulsion? Homer had been a omnivorous reader of H.G. Wells' early books and those of H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle. When interviewed for the History of Santa Clara County, California in 1922 he said that his purpose in his fiction writing was always to educate. "Sometimes it is only a very little point that can be brought out, but it all helps to make folks willing to change their minds, and in that way pave the way for the new order of things. Meanwhile, however, we must not fail to hold fast to that which is good."
His longtime editor at All-Story and later his agent, the legendary Bob Davis, is considered by Ashley to be "the single most influential editor in the developing field of scientific romance." Davis' encouragement and honesty comes through in the correspondence between him and Homer. It was Davis' role to guide Homer's imagination in publishable directions, and Homer's openness to suggestions is evident. Some five months before his death, his last story was returned from McClure's with the note: "If this were a novelette and all as good as the first five chapters, it would be a corker. The motive is very unusual, automobile thievery on a grand scale and a device for prevention of same. Squeezed up, only the gems left in."
Homer wrote his wife that the letter came on a Saturday and he spent all of the next day cutting the 65,000 word story down to 50,000. "I took out bodily one of the three unsuccessful attempts to steal Del's car, and removed tier after tier of dead wood; usually only a couple of words here and a sentence there; rarely a whole paragraph. Left all the repartee intact, of course; in general, I tried to cull out everything that might ever have been written before by anyone else in any kind of a story. Result, the yarn reads like a whirlwind; it is full of meat and nothing else. If there were not such a predisposition in its favor at McClure's I'd send it to the Post." McClure's didn't buy the revised version, but Flynn's did.
Ashley called Homer "one of the most creative talents in fantastic fiction" and noted that in Everett Bleiler's Science Fiction: The Early Years Homer was called "in many ways the outstanding writer of s-f in the Munsey pulp magazines" because, although his writing was at times variable, it was always exciting and "teemed with ideas way ahead of their time."
Unfortunately, my grandfather's own time was too short, and although I would prefer not to revisit his death, the story of his life would be incomplete without it. As a child, I accepted that my grandfather had died in a violent manner and that a gun and robbery were part of the tale. The budding writer in me saw the mystery as something romantic and exciting. It wasn't until I became an adult that I understood how profoundly that mystery and loss affected his family. My mother doesn't remember the circumstances by which they learned of Homer's death. My grandmother and uncle attended the funeral while the small girls remained in town with relatives. As my mother says of her mother, "she rolled up her sleeves and went to work. She never remarried. She taught a total of thirty years, always walking to her school except for four years."
Nowhere in my grandmother's belongings were newspaper articles about Homer's death, and I assume that the distance between where she was living and where he died isolated and insulated her from much of the media attention. However, as the only teacher in a small community, she stood out. Homer's brother who owned the shoe store where he worked too felt the impact of being associated with a sibling who had been accused of stealing a vehicle at gunpoint from one E.L. Handley with the intention of using the vehicle to commit a robbery if he hadn't crashed the car, killing himself.
While working on his article, Ashley carried out a correspondence with my mother and uncle and they, along with several of the grandchildren, tried to convince him not to address the matter of Homer's death because they worried that his work might "reignite the seemingly endless sensationalism and speculation about his death" and "could be seriously damaged by a repeat of the speculation that has hurt us so badly in the past." Ashley's article is demonstrative of his sensitivity in that regard. Several years ago my mother and I ventured into a number of newspaper archives for articles about Homer's death, but learned little. Earlier this year, I asked my nephew who is a San Jose detective to look into police records. To our disappointment, he was told that nothing exists from 1924.
What is "known" about the last night of my grandfather's life is based on E.L. Handley's testimony. The validity of his report is in question because he was a known gangster and shortly after was convicted of a crime and died in prison. Handley reported to the police that he was in Oakland standing beside the car he used as a taxi when Homer asked him to take him into Dublin Canyon near Castro Valley so he could visit a friend. Once in the canyon, Homer ordered Handley to turn onto a dirt road, then pulled his gun and ordered Handley to get out.
One of the last people to see Homer was his friend and fellow writer Ralph Parker Anderson who, upon hearing that possibility said, "I do not accept the common view that he was a robber. If he had committed a crime, it would have been a superbly clever one, not the ordinary thievery. Flint was a man of great intellectual powers."
According to the Oakland Tribune, "Flint's body, his spine crushed, was found under Handley's wrecked machine 75 feet down an embankment at the sharp curve in a lonely dirt road near Sunol. His revolver, loaded and cocked, and presumably laid on the seat beside him after the holdup, was found where the car first turned over. In the machine was found a black suitcase containing the things previously mentioned." [Nails and cord which may have been connected to a bank robbery in Fresno county six weeks earlier that netted the crooks $25,000.] Later articles noted that no evidence had been uncovered to link Homer to the suitcase and its contents, and although he owned several handguns, had filed for patents on several modifications, and one of his own guns was later found to be missing, it wasn't the one in the car.
None of that mattered to his widow and three children, and Mabel's last letter to him, written two days before Homer's death, stands as testimony of what was lost. "Well, I hope we see you on the stage Saturday and anyway we'll be listening to the phone Friday. No school in the afternoon. Maybe a letter that comes tomorrow will tell me when you'll start from San Jose. Love in big armfuls and kisses from your dreaming family and from her who soon will be. It has snowed a lot this evening, but it isn't snowing now. XXX XXX XXX XXX, Mabel."
The author of over 40 fiction books (including Spirit of the Eagle and Blackfeet Season) and one non-fiction, Vella Munn maintains she was born writing and is now too old to learn anything else. She plies her trade from southern Oregon, is married, and has two grown sons and the most intelligent grandson on the planet.