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Southwestern Discomfit: An Analysis of Gary Romeo’s Controversial Article on Robert E. Howard and Racism

Posted by Damon Sasser on 20th December 2011

by Mark Finn

Author’s Note: I am indebted to fellow scholars Jess Nevins, Rob Roehm, and Barbara Barrett for their comments and also in the sharing of their research with me in the rewriting of this paper. MF


REHupa #173 was a watershed mailing, way back in February 2002, for a number of reasons. Significantly, it was the mailing that featured Gary Romeo’s article, “Southern Discomfort.” As I read the article, I immediately noticed that Gary, in constructing his argument, was so interested in trawling the bottom that he willfully overlooked so much better stuff closer to the surface. It made me angry, and it made me instantly defensive. What I wanted to do was first ask Gary: what was your point in writing the article? Who is the target audience for it? And then I wanted to take it apart, piece by piece in my next mailing.

But I didn’t. I was new, and I didn’t want to rock the boat, or make any enemies right away. So I held my tongue. Besides, I wondered, I had no idea what my fellow REHupans thought about any of this. Maybe they agreed with Gary.

As it turned out, they did not. In the subsequent mailings, several of the older and more experienced REHupa members took Gary to task, and took a number of calculated swings at his essay, his methodology, and even his intent. I felt a lot better about my involvement in REHupa, but I regretted never having a chance to tee off on the topic.

When the REHupa website started up, it was determined that more recent, more approachable articles could also be listed on the site, if any member so wanted. Gary was one of the few people who stepped up to the plate and actually handed out articles to post. Along with his other Pro-de Camp essays was “Southern Discomfort.” I watched it go up, go live, and bit my tongue. After all, I thought, who was I to say that Gary could list all the rest of his articles, except that one? That’s when I got the idea of first doing a counterpoint article, just to balance out Gary’s essay, especially now that it was devoid of its context within the REHupa mailings and commentary structure. But at the time, I was working on what would become Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, and so, I thought, I had bigger fish to fry.

Now it’s 2011. I’ve been a member in REHupa for nearly ten years now. And it’s high time I took a whacking stick to “Southern Discomfort” publicly. It has needed it for a long time, particularly since it’s one of the most popular things accessed on the REHupa website. The number of links to it from external blogs, websites, and citations used to indicate that yes, Robert E. Howard was indeed a racist, because look, right here, this guy says so on the experts’ website, are too numerous to count. That’s the problem with Internet research: it’s grab and go, and no effort is made to fact-check it.

Well, you may consider this the official fact-check. This article assumes that someone has already read “Southern Discomfort” and want to know more about whether or not Robert E. Howard was a racist or not. If you would like the background to “Southern Discomfort,” you can go here [1] and read all about it. You can also read the initial reactions to Gary’s piece here.[2]

 Deconstructing “Southern Discomfort”

The single biggest problem with Gary’s article is that it’s unfocused and attempts to cover so much ground that his argument is spread rather thin. He uses letter quotes, biographical sources (both recounted private conversations and reminiscences), and quotes from Howard’s fiction to say that Howard was a racist, and then goes into a lengthy comparison of one of Howard’s horror stories—the most racially charged story Howard ever wrote—as if this was the sort of thing that Howard wrote all of the time. Moreover, he compares Howard’s short story, which first appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales (and was written with that audience in mind), with the fourth novel of a man known for his sympathetic views towards African-Americans in the forties and fifties.

It’s a set-up, from start to finish. Gary made no attempt to level the playing field by comparing Howard to other pulp authors. In his haste to make his argument that Howard was a racist, he ignored or downplayed all of the instances where Howard cast ethnic characters in a favorable or sympathetic light. The amount of material that Gary never talked about in his essay is astonishing. As a result, his argument is too narrowly framed to be of any real use to anyone, by virtue of his myriad of omissions.

Comparing Erskine Caldwell to Robert E. Howard as any kind of racial barometer is a ridiculously unfair juxtaposition. Gary says the comparison is apt, but he’s just wrong. Yes, they were both writers, and lived in the south (or southwest), but there the similarities end. Wayne Mixon, of Augusta State University, said about Caldwell’s writing, “Caldwell’s focus on the issues of class and race was more intense than that of any other white southern writer of his generation.” Those things were only of tangential and historical interest to Howard, thematically speaking. Caldwell made those the central focus in his work (and was pilloried by his community for decades because of it). Howard focused more on the elemental conflict between two warring factions, and most frequently members of different ethnic groups or “races.” Caldwell wrote novels and stories for high end magazines. Howard wrote mostly short stories for the pulps, and in a variety of genres. Excepting Howard’s own singular idea of “realism” in his fiction, he is known as the Father of Sword and Sorcery as we currently define it. There’s no real common ground between the two authors. By setting up criteria that inherently favors Caldwell, and not countering the argument with any positive race portrayals by Howard, Gary’s ringer automatically wins.

Gary begins his essay with a simplified explanation of the Hyborian Age and Conan’s world. This is followed by a couple of examples of racially-charged language, cited from an L. Sprague de Camp article on how he personally chose to edit the Conan stories. Finally, Gary begrudgingly states that the stereotyping language utilized in the Conan stories could be dismissed as standard conventions of the pulps and pulp writers in general. I would add that such stereotyping was, in fact, in wide practice throughout all of popular culture at this time—radio, the movies, magazines, newspapers, the theater…and it was universal, particularly for comedians and humor writers. When you consider that roughly one third of Howard’s professional work could be categorized as humorous, that fact is crucial. Gary then states: “But Howard has grown popular, and with increased popularity, comes increased scrutiny.” On this point, I do agree with Gary completely, and we have certainly seen increased scrutiny in Howard’s work over this past decade.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Howard's Writing, Influences, L. Sprague de Camp, Popular Culture, Pulps, Weird Tales |

A New REH Manifesto

Posted by indy on 18th October 2010

Mark Finn, familiar to Howard fans all over the world for his marvelous REH biography, Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, has a number of words for all the recent internet misinformation regarding Ol’ Two-Gun. If you would like to read the entire Manifesto, just click on the CRITICISM tab at the top of this page. What follows here is Mark’s opening salvo.

A New Robert E. Howard Manifesto

I am a fan of Robert E. Howard, the Texas author who created a multitude of unique characters, wrote original and inventive fiction, defined the genre of epic fantasy as we understand it, and inspired me to become a professional writer. There are tens of thousands of other fans just like myself. As fans of Robert E. Howard and his works, we are interested in reading more about our favorite author. We are interested in sharing and exchanging new ideas about his life and work, and we actively seek out these new ideas online, in print, and elsewhere.

What we do not want to see are semi-uninformed retreads of the same discussions that were in vogue circa 1984. The field of Howard Studies is alive and well, with new discoveries and voices appearing all the time.  Interest in the author is high and remains so. If you have a thought or an opinion, even a controversial or untested one, and want to share it with the world at large, we encourage that you do so.

We expect responsibility and accountability on your part. We are not interested in your grand pronouncement on a subject which has yet to be settled by people who have spent decades studying the issue at hand. We expect you to do your homework. There are a number of websites and literally stacks of new books that likely cover or answer most of your questions regarding Robert E. Howard. To not utilize those sources when doing your research smacks of willful ignorance and will not be tolerated by the fans of Robert E. Howard.

If you want to write a review about how much you didn’t like Kull: Exile of Atlantis, have at it. Take it apart for any and all textual reasons you choose to invoke. We may not agree because Howard’s work isn’t for everyone, and we understand that. But the minute you start bringing Robert E. Howard’s life story into your Kull review, it will garner a much more careful reading, and if you don’t have your facts straight, or your opinions backed up by same, then we will call you on it.

The online Robert E. Howard fanbase calls itself the “Shield Wall.” Some writers who have been on the business end of the Shield Wall’s attacks have accused us of being bullies and overly-obsessed for the protective stance we take. While it is not our intention to bully anyone, and while we may get a little carried away on occasion, let me be very clear here as to why this is so: Robert E. Howard has not had a voice for 75 years now. For four decades after his death, he had very few advocates who would defend him against the libel and slander of those who stood to profit from his work. He has been misunderstood and misrepresented for years. The Shield Wall’s goal has been to stop in its entirety the kind of character assassination employed by L. Sprague de Camp and others who would adopt his methodology.

Consider this a challenge to survey the amount of work that has been done in Howard Studies in the last ten years alone and then try to come up with your own take on a topic or angle of discussion that has not been beaten to death. Do not make the mistake that so many others have made; just because Robert E. Howard isn’t considered a “classic” author by the literary establishment that you can beat his literary reputation (or his personal life) like a rented mule and you will not get kicked for your efforts.

We expect you to accord Robert E. Howard the same respect as any other 20th century American author with continued and perennial popularity. No more back handed compliments. No more snide insinuations. No more rampant and irresponsible speculation with no basis of fact or evidence to bolster it. And for God’s Sake, no more “oedipal complex” crap, either. Those theories are thirty years out of date, and we are sick and tired of seeing it. Give us something new, or keep your parochial and backwards thinking to yourself.

Mark Finn

Author of Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard

And Commander of the Texas Shield Wall

Posted in Biography, Howard's Writing, Influences, L. Sprague de Camp, news |

Remembering a Fantasy Giant

Posted by Damon Sasser on 13th October 2010

It is hard to believe that Karl Edward Wagner has been dead for sixteen years. He died alone in his home from complications related to cancer and liver disease on October 13, 1994. Halloween was Karl’s favorite holiday – too bad he did not make it for one last scary night of celebration.

Karl was a generous, giving man and a master of fantasy and horror who has yet to be fully recognized for the genius he was. I corresponded with Karl back in the heyday of his success and found him to be always positive and willing to give advice and support to my projects. He was indeed a gentle giant.

He was also the first person to take on the de Camp Conan machine. Karl gave Howard fandom its first true editions of Conan stories, with three wonderful volumes before his effort was cut short by the machinations of de Camp and his allies. The Red Nails, The People of the Black Circle and The Hour of the Dragon paperbacks published by Berkeley are today true classics that are cherished by Howard fans and collectors.

A group of Karl’s fans have been working to organize an annual celebration, much like Howard Days, in his home town of Knoxville, Tennessee, with his good friend and artist John Mayer spearheading the effort.  Like Howard, few folks today in his hometown know who he is.  Perhaps someday soon such a celebration will come to fruition so that his many fans will have a place to congregate to remember him and his writings

We should hoist high our flagons today in his honor, read a favorite Kane story and remember a true giant among fantasy writers.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp, People |

In Defense of Gary Romeo

Posted by indy on 16th December 2009

All right, let’s everyone take a pill. I said I wasn’t going to get into this, but I can’t help myself.

The Howard Community at large has recently been thrown into blazing-pistolas-brandishing-Bowie mode by some minor-league blogging by some woman who doesn’t have one freaking clue what she’s writing about:

Maggie Van Ostrand wrote her Crazy Bob article based on what she read in L. Sprague de Camp’s REH Biography, Dark Valley Destiny. She read the opinions and conjecture and general b.s. Sprague brought forth in his book, further  extrapolated her own opinions and conjecture, and then went looking for support for her “facts”on the internet. Well, the article she found to prop up her hack job is right here (under CRITICISM) on the REHupa Website: Revisiting Dark Valley Destiny by Gary Romeo.

I’m not going to get into the merits or demerits of Gary’s article. Gary is well-known as a de Camp apologist/supporter – I’ve always admired him for that, and I’ve said so before - our Texas friend sticks to his guns, by gawd, and stands up to ALL the heavy-hitters in Howard Fandom! And he & I are in agreement when I say that the Lancer Conan the Adventurer is probably the book that has had the most impact in the last 43 years for the career of REH. L.Sprague de Camp and Frank Frazetta notwithstanding.

But thanks to Ms. Van Ostrand’s article, Gary Romeo is now taking an unfair whupping around the Howard internet community. So, all of you who are: get off his back. Leave him alone. Gary Romeo is NOT the problem, and he is taking unfair shit for his long-standing opinions. Get Off Gary! I’ve got news for you: Gary standing up for his opinions is Howardian Behavior that we should all admire!

So, direct your ire towards Maggie Van Ostrand and her stupid hack-job article – a number of us already have in the “comments” section there – and blame HER. It’s her fault for her crappy article. Besides, she writes just like L. Sprague de Camp did while writing DVD: make your conclusions first, then only use the “information” (opinions, conjecture, 3rd party accounts) that supports your conclusions. And don’t forget to make stuff up, too. Who’s gonna check your facts, anyway? Whoa – guess she didn’t know about Howard Fandom! Duck yer haid, Maggie!

OK, that’s all I got right now – don’t make me come out there.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp, People, Popular Culture, REHupa history |

The Hairless Ones Come

Posted by morgan on 10th June 2009

One of my purchases at Windy City Pulp & Paperback Show was a replica of the pulp, Golden Fleece, January 1939. For years I had wanted to read Ralph Milne Farley’s “Eric of Aztalan” (Norsemen on the Great Lakes find far flung Mayan colony in Wisconsin). The story is about a B- grade. I worked my way through the replica which includes REH’s “Gates of Empire” when I came across an L. Sprague de Camp story I had never read. I knew of it from an article by Doug Ellis on Golden Fleece in an old issue of Pulp Vault (Hey Doug–how about getting Pulp Vault back up and running?). De Camp himself mentioned, probably in Time and Chance, having a minor cave man story early on in an adventure pulp but didn’t mention story name nor magazine title. There is a reason he kept this story hidden. It is the worst L. Sprague de Camp story I have ever read. It is a Neanderthal vs. Cro-Magnon cave man story. There is not much plot, a Neanderthal (Otter) discovers the hairless ones (Cro-Magnons) are close by and the Neanderthals are in great danger as a result. A good portion of the story is taken up by Cro-Magnons engaged in banter. The Neanderthals are discovered, attempt to flee, are hunted down, and eaten by the Cro-Magnons. End of story. The writing style is not the usual light hearted de Campian action nerd story. There are a few details such as the Cro-Magnons using throwing sticks or Neanderthal young digging for grubs but the overall effect is very un-de Campian from what you would expect. I have read my share of cave man stories over the years. For some reason, that is a subgenre that never quite jelled in pulp times. Robert E. Howard realized that a storyteller could do much more with barbarians and civilization than with cave men. Jean Auel has made a successful career out of prehistoric fiction decades later. All that wonderful Pleistocene megafauna is just waiting to be used for prehistoric fiction not to mention new genetic analysis in relation to mankind’s hell bent for leather wandering. Robert E. Howard’s “Spear and Fang” is Shakespear compared to “The Hairless Ones Come” if you want to use an apples to apples comparison. I do have a fondness for P. Schuyler Miller’s “People of the Arrow” (Amazing Stories, 1935) which is another Cro-Magnon vs. Neanderthal story. Then there are Manly Wade Wellman’s Hok storie that Karl Edward Wagner was so enthusiastic about.  I have to say that “The Hairless Ones Come” is probably the worst cave man story I have ever read next to “Oogie Finds Love” (Amazing Stories in the 1940s).

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp |

L. Sprague de Camp Fiction Manifesto

Posted by morgan on 11th January 2009

L. Sprague de Camp wrote an introduction to his story “The Hibited Man” in the anthology My Best Science Fiction Story (edited by Leo Margulies and Oscar J. Friend, Merlin Press, 1949). The introduction to the story is interesting in that it provides a short manifesto on what L. Sprague de Camp thought on fiction.

“Although authors’ opinions of their own writings are notoriously unreliable, I like this tale for two reasons: First, it embodies my idea that the proper function of a story is to entertain, not to teach, persuade, or incite; and that the more scrupulously the writer avoids social consciousness, drawing a moral, or dragging in information for its own sake, the more successfully he will entertain. You know the historical novel wherein a character of 1850 suddenly cries to another character: ‘Egad, Rodney, d’you realize that this new foodstuff we’ve invented will one day be knowna as peanut butter? And that millions (for the population of our fair land will reach 150,000,000 a century hence) will every day eat peanut-butter sandwiches for their lunch?’ Or the science fiction story designed to show that military officers are cruel, stupid tyrants whose main amusement is thwarting noble young civilian scientists, or conversely that the officers are stainlesss heroes ever hampered by dishonest, stupid, bureaucratic politicians. Or the tale that tells us how the world will end if we don’t follow this, that, or the other course about the Atom.  Well, it’s a free country, and I suppose these stories sometimes serve a useful purpose. (Yes, I know about UNCLE TOM’S CABIN and THE JUNGLE.) However, it’s not my line. If I want an expose of conditions in the brake-band industry I’ll wade though a factual report on the subject, but not through the same report thinly disguised as fiction.  Second, I ‘ve been trying lately to focus attention in my stories, on human character and its interaction with scientific developements or assumptions, as have several of my colleagues. As I have said, the pure gadget-story is pretty well worn out; stories henceforth must be primarily about people. And while I hope to do still better some day, this is the most character centered story I’ve managed to produce so far.”

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp |

Concerning Consonantal Conformity

Posted by Rusty Burke on 7th January 2009

I was reading Steve Tompkins’ latest enthusings about JRR Tolkien over at The Cimmerian and went on high alert when I ran across this sentence:  “My own most cherished version of this material is likely to remain Rhinegold, because of Stephan Grundy’s fleshing-out of the fates of Sigmund, Signy, her hateful husband Siggeir, and the comparatively underexposed Sinfjotli — the strangest and cruelest part of the whole Volsunga saga, reeking of gore and the hot breath of the warg.”  This surfeit of sibilance (from the Story of Sigurd, no less) immediately called to mind one of the more infamous criticisms of REH’s names, L. Sprague de Camp’s derisive remarks on Almuric: “These Yagas take their captives to the black citadel of Yugga, on the rock Yuthla, by the river of Yogh, in the land of Yagg. Here they meet the wicked queen Yasmeena. As one critic exclaimed: “Yumping Yiminy!” [Dark Valley Destiny, p 343; the “critic” was Robert Coulson, Amra 36, 1965]

Others have echoed this criticism of Howard’s use of the same consonantal sounds for his characters’ names: now we see that he was merely carrying on a tradition from the old sagas to which his stories are not infrequently compared.  I’ll add that when I checked out William Morris’s version of the Sigurd story on Project Gutenberg (as linked from Steve’s post), I found another “overworked” consonant: the tale features Greyfell, Gripir, Gudrun, Giuki, Grimhild, and Gunnar (and those are just names from the table of contents).  Goodness Gracious!

Posted in Howard's Writing, L. Sprague de Camp |

The de Camp Controversy: Part 16- Conclusion

Posted by morgan on 12th November 2008

L. Sprague de Camp is a polarizing figure today. Gone for eight years, his fiction is fading away rapidly. Recently, Mark Olson of NESFA asked one discussion group if there were any de Camp series worth reprinting. I suggested the Pusad cycle of stories. He asked if they were worth reprinting. My honest answer was they were de Camp stories and you know what means. He replied that de Camp generally seemed to lose interest in his series after a strong start. There are two L. Sprague de Camp collections from NESFA, a small press outfit. That is the last stop before oblivion. Ironic that de Camp kept up an interest in someone else’s creation.

I was once a big L. Sprague de Camp fan. In fact, there was a period of about six months or a year that I was probably a bigger de Camp fan than Robert E. Howard fan. Having exhausted all the Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and a portion of Robert E. Howard, I had moved into reading John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction golden age crew including de Camp. During that time I read too many de Camp novels and stories. Also, I read de Camp’s essays reprinted from Amra in books like The Spell of Conan and Blond Barbarians and Noble Savages. Then I became sentient. After while, de Camp was sounding to me like Cliff Clavin from the T.V. show Cheers. He was an expert on everything! There was that headmaster tone present all the time that really began to grate on me. My attitude changed. Over exposure to L. Sprague de Camp turned me off. Later on, learning things like the lawsuits against Glenn Lord, preventing a pure Howard Conan edition by Baen, all those bad Tor pastiches made me downright unappreciative of his actions.

De Camp was at his worst with his biographies. He had little empathy for his subjects and put them out like some sort of freak show while he is the expert giving congressional testimony. I recently read David Hadju’s The Ten Cent Plague which is about the hysteria about comic books in the 1950s and the supposed bad influence on America’s youth. The section on Dr. Frederic Wertham, the psychiatrist who lead the attack against comic books reminded me of de Camp. L. Sprague de Camp is the Frederic Wertham of sword and sorcery.

The guy wasn’t without his own idiosyncrasies. For example, when I was the official editor of REHupa, de Camp would have his secretary call me if he was late in getting his mailing. He wouldn’t talk on the phone. He also had an answering machine but hated it. David C. Smith told me this story recently: “This took place back in ’75 or ’76, when I used to visit Ed (Hamilton) and Leigh (Brackett) regularly in the summer and fall. My guess is that it probably was in ’75, about the time that de Camp’s HPL book came out and de Camp did all of that ‘pseudoanalyzing’ about Lovecraft. Ed Hamilton asked me, ‘Did you have a good childhood?’ and I told him I certainly thought so. I grew up out in the country, climbed trees, played outdoors, had great parents, and so on. He said that he, too, had had a great childhood. He said, Sprague de Camp had a theory that all writers must have had bad childhoods and that such childhoods figured somehow into their later creativity.”

Charles Saunders had a past memory jolted recently by this series: “Sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, I read a feature about the nascent push for Black Studies programs. In the next issue, there was a letter to the editor from de Camp, in which he called Black Studies ‘intellectual pablum’. Anyway, when I saw that letter, I thought: ‘Man, you need to stick to your fiction’” Somewhere along the line, de Camp must have irritated artist Wally Wood as he wrote a comic called Dragonella and the evil wizard is named L. Sprague de Freeb. Then there is a parody of de Camp from the 1970s called Blonde Negroes and Noble Cabbages which I have never seen. Donald Wandrei “despised” L. Sprague de Camp. The Lovecraft biography of course being viewed as character assassination. Tevis Clyde Smith had none too good to say about de Camp’s “The Miscast Barbarian.” So, there were non-admirers going back decades.

The main defense of de Camp today is the belief he saved Conan from oblivion. This is based on ignorance. Martin Greenberg of Gnome Press made a deal with Bantam Books in 1962 for paperback versions of the Gnome Press books. Why didn’t this happen? De Camp was hurriedly shopping around for a Conan deal when Oscar J. Friend died. Did the threat of lawsuit scare off Bantam? Instead of Frazetta, there might have been paperbacks with James Bama painting Conan. The early 1960s saw an Edgar Rice Burroughs boom starting in 1962 when it was discovered a fair amount of Burroughs was public domain. That is turn helped spark an interest in sword and planet fiction with reprints by Otis Adelbert Kline, Ralph Milne Farley, and Ray Cummings. There were new books by Michael Moorcock (as Edward P. Bradbury), Gardner Fox, and even Lin Carter. The Magazine of Horror started in 1963, there were those Roger Corman film adaptions of Poe starring Vincent Price, Zacherly etc. The whole sword and sandle genre of film was going on at this time. Then you had the Tolkien mass market paperbacks which took it to the next level. All sorts of old fantasy was getting reprinted. You think Fletcher Pratt’s Well of the Unicorn was getting reprinted but Conan was going to languish? What planet do you live on? Someone would have published Conan. Donald A. Wollheim at Ace Books would have been on Conan immediately the minute he heard the stories were in public domain. You would have had Emsh, Jack Gaughan, or Gray Morrow doing covers if Ace had published Conan. My own contention is Don Benson at Pyramid Books shied away from Conan because de Camp’s agenting was not on the up and up. Conan is what brought L. Sprague de Camp back, not the other way around. He had left science fiction and fantasy until the Conan paperbacks. The idea that only L. Sprague de Camp could have rescued Conan is silly.

There has been accusations that de Camp was only interested in Conan. We have seen he was interested in getting something started with Solomon Kane with his agent that went nowhere. Remember- there were only two Kull stories known at the time and another two Bran Mak Morn stories. You can’t build books around characters with only two stories. It was only after Glenn Lord tracked down the trunk that further stories came to light, and Glenn Lord was agent for the Howard copyright holders by that time. De Camp’s intrusions were blocked. De Camp had Conan and that’s it. I think this was a good thing in hindsight. I have chronicled how the exploitation of Conan became all bolluxed up when de Camp had his way at CPI. People lost interest in the character.

There were grumblings about de Camp in the 1970s with articles in the small press such as Byron Roarke’s “Vultures Over Cross Plains” and Don Herron’s “Conan vs. Conantics.”  He got permanent ill will from Karl Edward Wagner for insisting on killing the Berkley Conan series. De Camp could have won back all sorts of good will if he had allowed Baen Books to publish pure Howard Conan. De Camp wanted it both ways– on one hand he used to act that he was the professional writer. On the other hand, he knew the Carter & de Camp Conan stories were not very good or even bad but he wouldn’t allow any Conan to be published without them. Contrast that to someone like E. Hoffmann Price who used to say that he wrote grade A manure for the Spicy pulps. A true pro knows when his work is bad and should not see the light of day one too many times.

When de Camp threatened Oscar J. Friend that he would just go off and write Conan stories anyway, Friend should have dared him because de Camp couldn’t. L. Sprague de Camp couldn’t write straight sword and sorcery at least not solo. He once said in a letter to REHupa that had he been more confident in his sword and sorcery writing ability, he wouldn’t have brought Lin Carter on board. Deep down, L. Sprague de Camp knew he couldn’t write sword and sorcery. He had to mock it if left to his own devices. Maybe he could have created an alter ego or pseudonym, take some masculine Anglo-Saxon sounding name like Erik Stone and ditch the French name and write some straight sword and sorcery. Probably even then he wouldn’t have been able.

L. Sprague de Camp was a descendant of Norman French Huguenots. The Normans were an aggressive piratical people always sniffing out places for new conquests. That trait was certainly present in him the way he pushed what originally was a work for hire deal and turned it into an equal ownership of an iconic character that he did not create. Looking at his actions, he was always waiting for weakness or an opening whether it was Oscar J. Friend, forming CPI, dealing with Glenn Lord, or getting money out of the Kull movie deal. De Camp is gone, the money he made is gone, only the legacy of his actions remain and the judgment of people aware of his actions.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp |

Mamajambo’s Blues

Posted by morgan on 11th November 2008

Glenn Lord has quite a sense of humor. For the August 1996 mailing of REHupa (#140), he sent in a review of Conan of Aquilonia by Adrian Cole. Adrian Cole is a writer from Solomon Kane country, Devon in Britain. He is one of the better writers of sword and sorcery fiction to come out of the small press in the 1970s. He may be best known for the Omaran Saga which I once described to him as reading as if Tolkien had written for Weird Tales (a description he liked by the way). He wrote a parody of Lin Carter called “Longbore the Inexhaustible” for the small press way back when. Here are some choice parts from his review of Conan of Aquilonia:

“Just what is it that makes Conan of Aquilonia so much of a disappointment–a veritable act of dishonesty? Primarily because it falls down because it lacks Howard’s two driving forces, plot and action… Where Howard threaded intrigue and strands of sub-plot throughout his Conan episodes, Carter and de Camp have made no real attempt to do so–each of these stories are very simple, straightfoward thrust towards brief confrontation between Goody and Baddy (at that sort of banal level) and Conan either clobbers them good or his son Conn leaps in and delivers a useful hack or two to save Dad’s bacon.  As for the action, well, it’s stereotyped in the fullest sense –again no attempt has been made to imbue it with any flair. Everything is so predictable, in fact inevitable. Totally contrived, it spotlights all the worst faults of the sword and sorcery genre, a major retrogression. Conan cracks heads with an almost detached boredom. There is no spirit, no dynamism; Conan is like a Grand Master playing chess with a rank beginner.  Howard was no great shakes at character portrayal — but at least his brooding menacing players added to the sombre atmosphere of his scenery. De Camp in particular is fond of a vaguely medieval touch in dialogue, putting an emphasis on wit that does little more than border on flippancy, suggesting to me at least he finds all this a trifle silly. Indeed, the dialogue of these latest Conan works has become more inane than ever — a classic example of its self-ridicule is

‘By Mamajambo’s War Club!’

If that sounds like some huge jazz/blues singer to you, it hardly surprises me. Another irritating aspect of the dialogue is the frequent lapse into anachronistic colloquialism: I would not have been surprised to hear Conan say “Good Lord, is it really?” or “Gracious me, steady on, old chap.” You think exaggerate? Read the book carefully and see just how close he gets! Although the overall style is not poor, it is notable only for its simplicity and flatness.  Granted de Camp gets his ‘historical’ facts right (with numerous references to the appropriate arms and armour and so forth) but long gone is the blazing, almost paranoid vivacity of Howard, to be replaced by the unoriginal, repetitive cliches of Carter and the tongue-in-cheek banter of de Camp. Some of the basic descriptions and settings are good– the groundwork is here, but the finishing has been slapped on with no finesse. Pure hack work. The imagery is tired-exhausted , in fact. Thus I level a charge of vampirism against the authors- they may well plead mitigation on grounds of adoration for Howard’s hero. But the most damning piece of evidence against such a plea is the cold-blooded, slap-happy manner in which they have thrown Conan of Aquilonia together. For loot, no more. Better to have changed Conan’s name and called it something else, for this is not the real thing. Let the buyer beware!

‘Mamjambo’ indeed!”

I was almost on the floor laughing with the mention of Mamajambo. For the next few years, Steve Tompkins and I attempted to gratuitously throw in Mamajambo’s name into the conversation.  I had forgotten about Mamajambo. Time to resurrect him and insert the name whenever possible. Mamajambo is most definitely a creation of L. Sprague de Camp and not Lin Carter.

Hey Adrian- if you read this, send me an e mail. It has been a while.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp |

The de Camp Controversy: Part 15

Posted by morgan on 10th November 2008

The 1980s was the decade that L. Sprague de Camp’s de-Howardization of Conan got into full gear.  Ace continued to publish the Lancer Conans to diminishing returns. I had written to Susan Allison, editor of Ace Books urging a collection of Henry Kuttner’s sword and sorcery. She replied that sword and sorcery fiction was not doing so well. People were not interested in Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser and even Conan sales were declining. Ballantine Books had reshaped fantasy publishing with Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey had discovered there was a large audience who wanted to read bastardized Tolkien over and over. The formula was find an unknown author writing derivative fantasy, put the money into packaging and promotion and sell more fantasy books. The fantasy reading audience shifted and by 1985 sword and sorcery was going extinct. It didn’t help that there were two bad Conan movies. John Milius hijacked Conan as a vehicle to make his Akira Kurosawa homage for the first movie. Mako dialogue at the beginning and end of the movie? You gotta be kidding me! The second movie was so bad it was the final nail in the coffin. Charles Saunders has blamed the Conan movies for killing sword and sorcery. The lure of movie money is what forced the formation of Conan Properties, Inc and the movies proved to be an albatross for the genre. The Ace editions went out of print one by one in the mid and late 1980s to general indifference.

The Robert Jordan counterfeit Conan novels proved successful enough for Tor to enlarge the operation and publish a large number of Conan pastiches. L. Sprague de Camp kept a degree of control over the series having veto power. The books had little to no mention of Robert E. Howard. In hindsight, this might be a good thing as most of the books were mediocre to poor.  John Maddox Roberts has mentioned he tried to include some dangerous elements in the stories but it was a constant battle against dumbing down, homogenizing, and making kiddie safe. This was the process of de-Howardization– overwhelm the original Howard cycle with a tsunami of Conantics novels so new readers wouldn’t know the difference. De Camp himself got back into writing his own fiction with The Unbeheaded King and The Hostage of Zir among others. De Camp wrote a timeline of Conan called “Conan the Indestructible” for the Tor pastiches. It was Clark and Miller’s timeline expanded–except there was no mention of P. Schuyler Miller and John D. Clark. De Camp removed them as efficiently as Stalin erasing Trotsky out of Party photos. And Miller and Clark had been friends of de Camp.

The 1990s brought two execrable Conan cartoons (remember the theme song?). Marvel comics finally killed off first Conan the Barbarian and then Savage Sword of Conan. Baen Books was interested in publishing the Robert E. Howard Conan stories in paperback with no pastiches. De Camp vetoed the idea. Conan was dying due to de Camp’s actions. About the same time, the Tor pastiches petered out with a wimper. John C. Hocking wrote Conan and the Emerald Lotus which was the pulpiest of the lot and perhaps the best but it was too little, too late. If you wanted Conan, you had to haunt the used bookstores.

De Camp made a move against Glenn Lord in the 1990s. Lord had been removed as agent for the Howard copyright holder in 1993 while in the process of doing his job.  De Camp petitioned the court demanding arbitration on Glenn Lord’s 5% commission on CPI’s gross as agent. The Supreme Court of New York decision stayed arbitration as the claim fell outside of the arbitration clause and “de Camp is not the proper party to raise the claim.” The court decision included that de Camp became “emboldened” with Glenn Lord’s dismissal. The original demand for arbitration mentions “disputes have proven to an unwarranted distraction and appear to have impaired the ability of CPI to exploit Conan.” Hell yeah, a series of lame movies, toys, and cartoons that ultimately damage the character are going to cause problems.

It was during this time that de Camp turned publicly against his deceased former collaborator, Lin Carter. In letters to REHupa, de Camp bemoaned that he didn’t ask Leigh Brackett to co-write Conan stories with him. Lin Carter was a derivative and sloppy writer. Most of his writing is crud, but–he enabled L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp would have never been able to write those Lancer pastiche stories if it had not been for Lin Carter.  Within REHupa, there was increasing criticism of the pastiches and de Camp attempted to deflect those charges by using Lin Carter’s corpse as the target.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp |