H. Beam Piper: The writer Williamsport forgot

December 10, 2006
Rick Walker
Williamsport Sun-Gazette Staff

Williamsport has all but forgotten a writer who killed himself here in 1964, and after death developed a cult following among science fiction readers.

H. Beam Piper, a native of Altoona who spent his last years in this city, is considered by many one of the pioneers in the science fiction and fantasy genre but is almost unknown locally.

Piper was an eccentric man who, before taking his life, took precautions so he wouldn't leave behind too big a mess.

When he shot himself in November 1964, Beam already was in his 60s and dealing with financial problems despite enjoying success as a writer for several decades.

He published several books and wrote short stories that appeared in publications like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales.

Today, many of those books and stories still are available on the Internet and several Web sites are devoted to his life and work. A book-length biography also is being prepared.

The James V. Brown Library retains several copies of Piper books, including the novel "Junkyard Planet" and a single-volume paperback collection of three of the "Fuzzy" series of novels about a species of furry but human-like beings.

Most of the information about Piper's life suggests he was a proud man who abhorred the idea of having to receive charity as financial difficulties closed in on him.

He killed himself with a handgun from his collection of antique weapons, and spread out painter's cloth to protect his apartment and possessions from the inevitable spatter. He also left a written apology for any inconvenience his suicide would cause.

According to the biography published in Wikipedia, a free Internet encyclopedia, the note was beautifully simple: "I don't like to leave messes when I go away, but if I could have cleaned up any of this mess, I wouldn't be going away."

Information on Wikipedia and from other Web sites attribute his suicide to financial difficulties. He was unaware that his agent had just sold several of his works and money was soon to arrive.

The Wikipedia biography also reports that one of Piper's editors claimed the writer may have chosen suicide "to spite the ex-wife he despised" and prevent her from eventually collecting anything from his life insurance.

Every town has its people who are unique enough to have lasting value, but for whatever reason are brushed aside and forgotten. Piper is one.

He may or may not have cared about fame and fortune, but he could have had an interesting time if he had chosen to live. Instead, he chose to die early and missed the future success of his books and the chance to write [more] of them.

The lumber barons and politicians fill the local histories, but the many artists and writers who have come and gone through the city's two centuries get nowhere near the same attention.

There are, of course, exceptions like Severin Roesen, the German-born still-life artist who spent time here collecting commissions in the late 1850s and was resurrected from oblivion a century later when Jacqueline Kennedy sprinkled holy water over his reputation by picking two of his paintings to hang in the White House.

Another 19th Century talent, James Milton Black, who spent most of his adult life in the city, is more obscure but was a celebrity of sorts in his day as the author or co-author of numerous popular hymns, including "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder." If Black is remembered by name at all today, it's because he frequently gets credit for penning the music of "When the Saints Go Marching In," when in actuality the hymn he contributed to was called "When the Saints Are Marching In."

The drink-loving painter and the devote hymnist pretty much sums up the high points of the city's cultural heritage.

Piper should be recognized as one of the city's creative treasures of the 20th Century, but he usually draws a blank stare when longtime locals hear his name.

The 20th and 21st centuries have seen several local people find success in the film world: an award-winning screenwriter and an Academy Award-winning and special effects artist; but they found success after packing their bags and heading into the outside world. H. Beam Piper's downfall may have been the decision to limit his horizons and escape Altoona for Williamsport.

A bigger world awaited a train-ride way, but when Piper arrived here he had already spent his youth, young adulthood and half his middle age in Altoona, most of the time working on stories in his off hours and earning a living from the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The Web site "Zarthani.net" bills itself as "dedicated to the works" of Piper and offers details about his life, death and career.

Years after his death, Piper still has a reputation outside the area but is virtually unknown locally.

According to the Zarthani site, Piper's fiction was purchased after his death by Ace Books. Popular science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle and others have been given permission to publish stories set in the fictional worlds created by Piper.

Piper's first published book was a mystery: "Murder in the Gunroom" that now is out of print. He wrote for more than 20 years without making any major sales and supported himself by working for the railroad as a watchman in Altoona.

For roughly 20 years he was published regularly in magazines and began writing book-length fiction. The rights to his non-fiction Civil War article were purchased by the Walt Disney studio and the resulting movie "The Great Locomotive Chase" appeared as both a segment on its weekly television show and a feature film in the 1950s.