So there I was in the terrifyingly upmarket Ulysses bookshop in Museum Street, London, taking snapshots of each page in a unique, hand-made fantasy story too fragile to be photocopied ... The freelance writing life can land you in peculiar situations.
It was all the late John Sladek's fault. When I airily suggested that the SF world needed a book of previously uncollected Sladek fiction, I'd expected other people to do all the work, but somehow got signed up as editor. Which meant seeking out some fantastically obscure items from the 1960s, the rarest of all being "The Lost Nose: A Programmed Novel".
This interactive multiple-choice storybook was created by Sladek for his future wife, in a hand-illustrated edition of one, with collages and glued-in weirdness including real watch cogs. Its hero Fred seeks his lost nose through surreal adventures: "He called for it to come down, but it merely wrinkled itself with disgust and thumbed itself defiantly at him ..."
To capture this rarity for the new Sladek collection, I ended up buying a digital camera to photograph the whole thing (with permission). It was lots cheaper than actually acquiring "The Lost Nose" at the asking price of, oh argh, £550.
Still, that's not much compared to the £3,000+ recently paid for a mere fanzine – a copy of Jerry Siegel's imaginatively titled Science Fiction from the 1930s, with illustrations by his pal Joe Shuster. Supposedly this tatty fanzine featured the germ of their better known creation Superman.
Of course lots of books come in deliberately expensive packages, like HarperCollins's latest boxed, leather-bound, gold-edged presentation of Tolkien's History of Middle Earth at a hundred quid for volume one. Who knows what inflation will do to the price of volume two? I prefer – but still can't afford – the more eccentric and silly editions.
One example that used to turn up at conventions and in posh dealers' lists was Ray Bradbury's book-burning epic Fahrenheit 451, protectively bound in asbestos. Probably not a healthy thing to have around unless you're good at speed-reading while holding your breath. I kept having visions of a special edition of H.P. Lovecraft's oozing, ichorous horror stories with a binding fashioned from Limburger cheese.
Then there was the super-de-luxe edition of Stephen King's short story "My Pretty Pony" – not bound in horsehide as you might expect, but in brushed stainless steel covers with, mounted on the front, a small and cheap-looking digital clock. The catalogue listing this $2,200 white elephant admitted that the copy was in the usual state. That is, the clock had stopped.
(Another joke on fanatical King collectors was that despite "special limited first editions" of Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne in the USA, the true world first editions of both turned out to be the cheapo British book-club versions.)
One SF dealer who's particularly imaginative at thinking up reasons to charge fantastic sums is Barry R. Levin of California. His prices for dreadful 1940s story typescripts by L. Ron Hubbard, like "Man Eats Monster" and "He Found G-d", ranged from $35,000 to $50,000. Once upon a time Levin offered an unusually inscribed copy of The Satanic Verses – with the autographs of not only Salman Rushdie but also, on a gummed-in slip of paper, the Ayatollah Khomeini. I'm surprised it wasn't bound in asbestos for fear of spontaneous combustion.
Levin-watchers thought our hero would be hard put to outdo this pinnacle of good taste, but they underestimated him. In 1994 his catalogue asked a trifling $600 for "THE MOST HORRIFYING COPY OF ANY VAMPIRE NOVEL". This was Poppy Z. Brite's Drawing Blood in a very, very rare state. Thanks to the helpful chap who'd committed suicide by setting fire to himself with a Molotov cocktail right next to a US mailbox containing copies of the limited edition, the book was lovingly catalogued as: "Odor of burning human flesh otherwise fine in slipcase."
The author herself commented: "It would be a wonderful experience to read the book cover-to-cover with the odor of burned human flesh rising from it. I'm a pretty fast reader, so the smell wouldn't have time to dissipate."
I have been totally unsuccessful in marketing my patent Barry R. Levin Horror Novel Price Enhancement Kit, comprising a jar of petrol and a pork chop.
David Langford would also have mentioned the "ultra rare" Buffy/Angel SFX special noticed on eBay, but it wasn't exciting enough at only sixteen quid.