Childhood outlet became way of life NORTHWEST -- Taneytown * Union Bridge * New Windsor * Uniontown

FANTASY BEATS REALITY

February 04, 1993|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Staff Writer

Jack L. Chalker faced plenty of reality as he was growing up in northwest Baltimore's Howard Park.

So when he began writing stories, it was a natural diversion for him to create worlds in which horned demons and mystical Storm Princesses wielded immense powers.

"I lived in a tough neighborhood," said Mr. Chalker, an internationally known science fiction writer who lives on Jasontown Road just east of Uniontown. "School wasn't really encouraging, either."

He took out the first of three cigarettes he smoked during a 90-minute interview.

"Nasty habit, I know. Smoking is a habit I've got to kick," he said, noticing a reporter's stare at the cigarette dangling from his lips. "But if you didn't smoke in my neighborhood, you got beat up."

Yet few people who have read any of Mr. Chalker's stories would believe he scares easily.

Mr. Chalker, 48, seems like an ordinary husband and father, helping his 11-year-old son David with homework and spending time with his wife, Eva. But the creatures that fill his imaginary worlds show that, despite the full, salt-and-pepper beard and round belly that make him a double for Santa Claus, he obviously prefers demons to elves.

"I practically grew up in science fiction. I discovered this subculture as a boy of 13," said Mr. Chalker. "I began writing for amateur magazines that were distributed among fans and the like."

So far, he has written 43 books, two of them yet to be published.

Settling into a sofa in one of the many rooms in his maze-like home -- built into the side of a hill like the Hobbit dwellings of J. R. R. Tolkein's Middle Earth -- he discussed his relationship with science fiction as if he were recounting the exploits of an eccentric family member.

"In the science fiction world, the fan and the professional frequently mix," he said as he helped his 17-month-old son Steven retrieve a fallen toy. "It's like a big family. At these conventions, no one's a celebrity. You are a 13-year-old kid again, learning about the subculture."

Mr. Chalker's interest in science fiction was not encouraged or fostered by his teachers, but it was a seed planted in fertile

ground. His love for the genre took him out of town to science fiction conventions weekly until, in the dead of winter, the seed blossomed into a club to call his own.

"I was trapped in the snow on a bus as it was crossing the 41st Street bridge in Baltimore in 1961," Mr. Chalker said, smiling broadly as he remembered meeting fellow sci-fi enthusiast David Michael Ettlin, now a Sun writer.

With schoolmate Mark Owings, Mr. Ettlin and Mr. Chalker created the Baltimore Science Fiction Association, which still operates today.

"We just got to talking and discovered we were tired of traveling to Washington or Philadelphia for gatherings," Mr. Chalker said.

He didn't just want to talk about what he had read with other fans. He wanted to share ideas, so he created and edited Mirage, an amateur "fanzine" that catered to science fiction fans internationally.

"They were printed out on an old mimeograph machine and sent out," he said. "While my teachers in school were telling me I wasn't going to be anybody, I was editing and marketing my own magazine."

After that, things began to soar. Mr. Chalker turned his magazine into Mirage Press Inc. in 1971, and printed the only guide to Tolkein's Middle Earth that has been sanctioned by the author's family.

By then, Mr. Chalker was teaching history in the Baltimore public school system and was slowly realizing that he was in the wrong field.

"I was a lousy office politician. I just wanted to teach," said Mr. Chalker, who quit teaching in 1978. "The people who get ahead in education are usually the experts in schmoozing . . . no matter how they teach."

Mr. Chalker served a year in the Air Force in the early 1970s, where he was stationed "in such thrilling places as San Antonio and Amarillo, Texas."

After the transcontinental success of "Midnight at the Well of Souls," the world's introduction to his now famous "Well World" series, the boy from Howard Park had arrived somewhere beyond his wildest dreams.

"I don't know what happened," he said of his first success, which was released July 1976 and sold out the first 50,000-copy printing by October. "Maybe it was because of the female centaur carrying the man on her back that was on the book cover on the front of the book."

Many series and dollars later, Mr. Chalker can pretty much call the shots from his home in the side of a hill. He holds what he calls a "comfortable" position in the science fiction community, both financially and in the eyes of his colleagues.

Nothing interests him more than the science fiction writers, the stories and the people who read them.

"Science fiction fans are really into reading the books," he said. "The conventions are filled with people who read simply for pleasure. They don't read because they have to read, but because they want to read. I find that incredibly fascinating."

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