A "Mysteries that have me mystified" column...
Bryan Berry was a well known name amongst science fiction fans back in the early 1950s. He appeared at science fiction conventions and even contributed to fanzines. More than this, he was a writer of great potential. Editor H. J. Campbell, who published the bulk of his work, wrote of Berry’s novel Born in Captivity, "Bryan Berry inevitably attempts to get away from the traditional gadgetry in order to present the more human and emotional side of life in whatever nature of space and time he is describing … it has never been quite so much in evidence as in this present novel, which is essentially a human story and not an elaborate scientific essay so often found masquerading under the title of Science Fiction."
Berry was a better than average author learning his craft in the paperback market yet already capable of selling to the American pulps of the time, where a number of his novels were reprinted; in fact, Berry was so annoyed by this (since he received no extra money) he approached the editor of 2 Complete Science-Adventure Novels, Jerome Bixby, who promptly accepted three stories which were all published in the same issue of Planet Stories. Had he lived, one imagines he would have followed in the footsteps of E. C. Tubb and Kenneth Bulmer, although his literary ambitions also ran to poetry, factual articles and criticism. By 1952, Berry was also collaborating with one of the editors of Nature on a series of educational film-strips devoted to such diverse subjects as mythology, paleontology, zoology, general science, history and anthropology.
Berry’s career was cut tragically short... and therein lies the mystery as there is no trace of his death in official records. For some years there was no trace of his birth, either, but that I managed to resolve when I discovered that his full name was Roderick Bryan Berry.
He was born in Ealing, Middlesex, on 26 January 1930, the son of Harold Hamilton Berry (a distiller) and Annie May Berry (née Kelley), and educated at Dulwich College. Berry worked as an advertising copywriter, staff writer for an agency, and sub-editor for an international literary monthly. His literary career began at 16, while he was still at school, when he began drawing comic strips for the independent children's comic publishers that sprang up soon after the war, following in the footsteps of two of his older school friends, Denis Gifford and Bob Monkhouse. His earliest known strips appeared in Comical Pranks (1947), published by Liverpool-based Ensign Comics, and Smasher Comics (1947) from Tongard Publishing, edited by Monkhouse. Never as prolific as either of his friends, Berry’s only memorable work was to take over (for one issue) the adventures of superhero Streamline (Streamline Comics 4, 1948). His drawing style was vigorous but that's the best that can be said of it. It was as a filler in one such comic that his first published SF story appeared: ‘Monster from Space’ (Merry-Go-Round 14) in 1949, although he had earlier contributed to Laughs with SEAC, the army newspaper.
At 17, Berry began his two years of National Service, later writing: "It was not until 1950, when I finished my period in the forces, that I discovered how much the field [of science fiction] had developed. This discovery, in turn, led to the thought that I might start trying to write the stuff myself. And the purchase of an antique typewriter and some paper made me convert these later thoughts into actions."
Berry quickly established himself as a writer of some note, his first novel (Return to Earth) appearing in 1951. Many of his novels take place after an atomic war or use atomic war as part of the climax – a stock device for 1950s SF but perhaps more significant to Berry who had grown up in a world at war; the plots often revolve around individuals who hope to rebuild a better society (or quash a mutant society), often using lost science. In Return to Earth it is Mike Woolf, who wishes to use long-forgotten science to take mankind from Venus back to Earth; a similar plot threads through the Venus trilogy (as by Rolf Garner) where Lord Kennet of Gryllaar takes over the society mankind has developed after centuries on Venus and uses old Earth science to create a golden age; The Venom-Seekers also involves a long-forgotten piece of technology which could spell life or death for the Earth.
Berry penned 10 novels published over a period of 27 months, the last appearing in February 1954. Only three more short stories were to appear after that date, one in the American pulp Planet Stories.
So what happened to Bryan Berry?
It is usually stated that he died in 1955, although no record of his death has been traced. Living in Petts Wood, Kent, Berry was an irregular visitor to the White Horse, the fan meeting point in London, although he was often only there to meet with his editors, and his disappearance was not noticed for a few weeks. How it was confirmed that he had died is unknown – perhaps somebody contacted his mother – but rumours of his death soon circulated. Most commonly it is thought he died in a motorcycle accident, although drugs, cancer (he smoked small black cheroots) and suicide (a rumour possibly inspired by the title of his last published story, 'Strange Suicide') also circulated. Nobody has been able to come up with a definitive date or cause.
Alternatively, and this I now believe to be the truth, is that he didn't die in 1955. He died in 1966, his death registered in Hampstead, London, in the third quarter of that year. He was 36.
Whatever the reason, it certainly cut short the life of a writer who, potentially, could have made a great name for himself.
Return to Earth. London, Hamilton & Co., Nov 1951.
And the Stars Remain. London, Hamilton & Co. (Panther nn), Jun 1952.
Aftermath. London, Hamilton & Co. (Authentic SF 24), Aug 1952; as (Mission to Marakee, in Two Complete Science Adventure Books, Sum 1953).
Dread Visitor. London, Hamilton & Co. (Panther 28), Nov 1952.
Born in Captivity. London, Hamilton & Co., Nov 1952; (as World Held Captive, in Two Complete Science Adventure Books, Spr 1954).
From What Far Star?. London, Hamilton & Co. (Panther 40), Feb 1953.
The Venom-Seekers. London, Hamilton & Co. (Panther 57), May 1953.
Novels as Rolf Garner (series: Venus, in all)
Resurgent Dust. London, Hamilton & Co. (Panther 68), Jul 1953.
The Immortals. London, Hamilton & Co. (Panther 78), Sep 1953.
The Indestructible. London, Hamilton & Co. (Panther 104), Feb 1954.