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The de Camp Controversy: Part 14

Posted by morgan on 18th October 2008

L. Sprague de Camp’s career included almost as much non-fiction as fiction. If he was weak on writing sword and sorcery fiction including Conan, he made up for in commentary on Robert E. Howard and fantasy fiction in general. He was an enthusiastic contributor to George Schithers’ Amra (Vol II) over the lifetime of the small press magazine becoming the most prolific contributor. De Camp would later cut and past shorter works from Amra into larger increasingly unwieldy essays that threatened to spin out of control all the while maintaining a haughty tone.

Many of these non-fiction pieces are de Camp showing how wrong this writer or that writer was in a work of fiction. The problem is de Camp himself was often wrong in his statements. De Camp wrote a book about Atlantis, Mu, and Lemuria in Lost Continents in 1954 that is a shot at Donnelly, Spence, Elliott etc. One chapter entitled “The Creeping Continents” where de Camp gives Wegener’s continental drift theory a hard time. Turns out that tectonic plate science is proving Wegener right. De Camp came down on the wrong side. His Day of the Dinosaur (1968) is on the hoary side of paleontology even for the time with his slow, ponderous dinosaurs including the 1920s view of sauropods living in lakes and swamps to support their weight. It may seem harsh to criticize de Camp using science of the day for his non-fiction. That didn’t stop him from writing critical essays on H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard doing the very same thing.

There is a little hardback book from Borgo Press by de Camp called Blond Barbarians and Noble Savages that consists of three cut and paste jobs by de Camp. The purpose of “Lovecraft and the Aryans” appears to be to tell the reader how wrong H. P. Lovecraft was and how erudite L. Sprague de Camp is. The article itself meanders all over the place with little central focus as de Camp discusses the progenitors of Aryanism- Chamberlain and Goubineau. He takes time out for shots at Lovecraft’s attitudes toward gainful work. De Camp lectures on language and physical divisions of Europeans. There is a paragraph wherein de Camp lambasts Lovecraft for pontificating on “subjects of which he had the merest smattering.” Talk about a case of the kettle painting the pot black. The last paragraph has de Camp wrapping things up with a mention that Lovecraft “kept on learning better all his life.” This article was cut and paste into his Lovecraft biography.

A wide reading of de Camp will show he is uneasy discussing barbarians and in this case the Celts in “Howard and the Celts.” De Camp quickly sidetracks to discussion of Neanderthals and the Beaker “Folk.” It is actually the Beaker culture and de Camp got it wrong claiming there was an invasion of “Beaker Folk” into the British Isles. The ceramic beakers were locally made and did not originate from Spain as de Camp wrote. De Camp can’t keep on track as he goes off on a tangent discussing the evolution of ship building technology in Scandinavia. De Camp’s ironically anti-barbarian stand is for all to see in “The Heroic Barbarian.” You know de Camp’s attitude when he uses the phrase “Romantic Illusion” and then makes a dig at commune movements and 1960s counterculture that de Camp thoroughly hated.  De Camp goes on and on about Rousseau’s “noble savage” boring the hell out of the reader. A good portion is then taken up by de Camp describing “barbarians” he has known like the lumberjack in upstate New York. Give me a break!

The articles on writers of heroic fantasy were collected as the book Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers (Arkham House 1976). De Camp makes fun of William Morris’ barbarian novels- The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. “The German barbarians (in history a singularly dirty, treacherous, and bloody lot) are cleaned up, prettified, and imbued with noble motives almost to the point of burlesque.” Those two Morris novels remind me a lot of the appendices found in Tolkien’s The Return of the King, which would make sense as those two novels were influences on Tolkien. De Camp makes it known for his distaste for the Norse sagas. “After the umpteenth episode in which an Icelandic woman nags a make kinsman or a servant into going out to ambush a member of a rival clan, in revenge for a previous killing, the reader may decide that enough is enough.” I recently read Egil’s Saga and found it to be a good deal better than most sword and sorcery novels I have read. I have to part ways with Mr. de Camp’s opinions on the sagas. In “The Miscast Barbarian: Robert E. Howard,” de Camp inserts “anti-Roman” in front of Bran Mak Morn’s name, something he doesn’t do describing any other Howard character. Looking through the chapter on J. R. R. Tolkien is funny because de Camp takes Tolkien to task on the different names for the same character such as Aragorn who is also “Elessar, also Dunadan…All of which seems a bit much.”

De Camp did not like fantasy laid in historical times. He didn’t like Leslie Barringer setting the Neustrian books in a quasi-historical Middle Ages. I find it astounding that he accuses Norvell Page of “There is a certain pretentiousness about them, which makes their faults stand out. They drag for long stretches. There is much windy bombast; one tires of John’s inexhaustible braggodocio.” I like the two Prester John novels by Norvell Page. I thought the novels moved along at a frantic pace and didn’t think they dragged at all. De Camp gives Page a hard time for picking a place that in actual history was in the middle of a powerful Hunnish Empire. Wrong! If you read Empire of the Steppes; there were a number of independent city-states along the Silk Road in the Tarim Basin of Chinese Turkestan. De Camp quibbled with the military organization of the fictional “Tugars” in R. F. Tapsell’s The Year of the Horsetails saying the organization, discipline, and armament would not have occurred until Genghis Khan’s Mongols. This is ignoring the Avars almost took Constantinople in the mid 7th Century, the Khazars were fielding complex armies and holding off Muslim armies in the 8th Century, and that the Magyars were striking deep into Western Europe in the 10th Century. De Camp got himself into deep water consistently when he lectured about barbarians.

One time some readers responded to de Camp in Amra. He mentioned about there being no stirrups at the time of “Kings of the Night.” There were responses to de Camp on that issue that made a good case there could have been some stirrup wearing cavalry. Those responses were not collected into The Blade of Conan and The Spell of Conan. L. Sprague de Camp was actually a pretty fair book reviewer when he stuck to how well the author told the story. Going through his reviews in the pages of Amra, I found myself agreeing with his assessments more often than not. He really did enjoy heroic fantasy fiction even if he viewed it as guilty pleasure. On the other hand, his articles are pedantic and increasingly irritating if you are reading them one after another. There is a tone of superiority that here is the science fiction writer who also writes popular science books and articles and he is going to tell these fantasy fans how it really is. There is a glee in bursting bubbles such as his mini-article on “pirettes” and how most female pirate careers probably ended in pregnancy. In Dark Valley Destiny, de Camp’s infers that Howard got the idea of a python using its head as a battering ram, probably taken from Kipling. The giant snake in “The Scarlet Citadel” is a venomous snake with great fangs that drip poison. The snake “smote” the guard taunting Conan in the dungeon striking him with its fangs. What is de Camp trying to prove here? He deliberately distorts a scene in a Howard Conan story that anyone can fact check.

L. Sprague de Camp wrote a lot of short articles on science topics mostly for science fiction magazines. These were collected together in the book, The Fringe of the Unknown (Prometheus Books, 1983). The superior attitude is less noticeable though the didacticisms are still present. The articles themselves are pretty light-weight. Someone would be advised to go elsewhere if they wanted to research Roman aqueducts for example. Using de Camp’s “Appius Claudius Crassus” would not be advisable for a school paper.

Going through de Camp’s non-fiction recently has been illuminating. His anti-barbarian bias was not so apparent to me until I went through his articles and longer essays back to back. Isn’t it ironic that the man who tried to control the most famous fictional barbarian sided with the Romans?

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp |

The de Camp Controversy: Part 13

Posted by morgan on 13th October 2008

A reader picking up a copy of the Lancer or Ace edition of the paperback, Conan might have noticed L. Sprague de Camp’s description ofÂheroic fantasy: “William Morris pioneered the heroic fantasy in Great Britain in the 1880s. In the early years of this century, Lord Dunsany and Eric R. Eddison developed the genre further. In the 1930s, the appearance of the magazines Weird Tales and later, Unknown Worlds furnished outlets for stories of this type, and many memorable sword-and-sorcery narratives were written. These include Howard’s stories of Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane; Clark Ashton Smith’s macabre tales of Hyperborea; Henry Kuttner’s Atlantean stories; C. L. Mooress narratives of Jirel of Joiry; and Fritz Leiberss Gray Mouser stories. (I might also mention Fletcher Pratt’s and my tales of Harold Shea.)”

De Camp repeated this in an afterword to The Compleat Enchanter (Ballantine, 1975): “I will say that they were certainly heroic fantasy, or swordplay-and-sorcery fiction, long before these terms were invented;neither Pratt nor I, when we started the Shea stories, had even read a Conan story or ever heard enough about Howard to recognize his name.

Catherine Crook de Camp parroted her husband’s party line in the introduction to The Enchanter Compleated (Sphere Books, 1980): “L. Sprague de Camp (1907- ) and Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956) working in collaboration, became outstanding early creators of heroic fantasy in America.

L. Sprague de Camp’s fiction career started in the September, 1937 issue of Astounding Stories with the story “The Isolinguals.His next story wasn’t until April 1938 with “Hyperpilosity.” He had some good science fiction stories such as “Living Fossil” and “Employment” in Astounding in 1939. De Campss debut in Unknown was “Divide and Rule” (April-May, 1939) was science fiction. “Lest Darkness Fall” (Dec. 1939) was alternate history. There is nothing suggestive of blood & thunder fantasy lurking in the background.

The catalyst was Fletcher Pratt who did a little writing for science fiction magazines and translations of European stories. He also wrote quite a bit of non-fiction, usually history and military science. Pratt was more familiar with fantasy than de Camp at the time in the form of the Norse Eddas and E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ourobouros.

The Harold Shea stories were co-written by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp. According to de Camp, Pratt would come up with the idea and then de Camp would write the first draft. Then Pratt would go over the draft and make changes. De Camp would later have Lin Carter write the first draft of Congor stories and then make revisions. De Camp mentions that Pratt conceived the idea of a hero who projects himself into a series of mythical worlds. The hero that de Camp and Pratt created was Harold Shea, a psychologist. Imagine that– L. Sprague de Camp using a psychologist as main character.

The first story, “The Roaring Trumpet,” (Unknown, May 1940) appeared just as the Battle of France got underway and Hitler overwhelmed the Low Countries and broke into France. Harold Shea is too timid to travel to many worlds of myth and decides to go to Ireland of Cuchulain. In typical de Camp fashion, his character bumbles instead to Norse myth. You have that immortal de Camp dialogue such as “This here’s my daughter Aud. She’s a shield girl; can lick her weight in polar bears.” Or ” ‘What-a-at? No kiddin’ roared the giant.I heard of guys that eat bugs and drink cow’s mild, but I ain’t never heard of nobody what eats turnips.’”  I have to throw this one in to flog a dead horse: “Aw right, aw right, butcha don’t have to get snotty about it. I was just thinking there’s some relations of Hrungnir and Geirrod that was laying for Thor. They’d just love to have a chance to get even witcha for bumping off those giants.” And it goes on and one like this. Did I forget to mention there is almost no action in this story? There is a small fencing scene with a giant. And this is probably the best one because it is the shortest. Harold Shea is a passive bystander observing and getting shoved around and embarrassed.

“The Mathematics of Magic” (Unknown, Aug. 1940) came out when the Lufwaffe was beginning the Battle of Britain. You again have dialogue such as: “Fine toots. Or I will be when I surround some grub.” L. Sprague de Camp did not talk this way. It comes off as fake and not authentic. You are supposed to have a psychologist who talks like a faux blue-collar depression era worker. I don’t know who is to blame for this, de Camp or Pratt. I have read Pratt’s fantasy novels and there is no trace of this so guilt likely falls upon de Camp. Anyway, “The Mathematics of Magic” takes Shea to the world of Spenser’s Faerie Queen. Once in Spenser’s world, the dialogue changes to something that is mock medieval. My guess is Pratt took over and added to this portion. There is a little rough and tussle and a little fencing but very little blood- letting.

Hitler was on the move conquering Yugoslavia and Greece while Rommel shredded the British 8th Army in April 1941 when “he Castle of Iron” came out in Unknown. This story is actually a short novel and a repeat of the previous two stories with a little action and no real blood & thunder. Here is some politically incorrect prose: “Behind the file of Negroes another procession of butter-faced men emerged from the shadows of the colonnades.”

There were two later Harold Shea stories–”The Wall of Serpents” in Fantasy Fiction in 1953 and “The Green Magician” (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, 1954). Again there is that priceless dialogue: “These Hoosiers sure play it for the works. Look at them sconces!” from “The Wall of Serpents.” Or, “‘Jeepers!’ he said, in a tone which carried its own message. ‘Imagine holding heavy with a zinger like you!’” from “The Green Magician.” These are random snatches I found just opening to a random page in The Enchanter Compleated.

Harold Shea is a lame character that is part of a weak series that makes for painful reading. I do not recommend anyone for any reason venturing forth to read these stories. They are execrable. This was the first non–Conan L. Sprague de Camp fiction I ever read and it almost made me swear de Camp off permanently. What is more amazing are the reprints. I can see the point of the Pyramid reprint in 1964 when all sorts of “golden age” science fiction and fantasy were being reprinted in paperback. Publishers were finding out what sold. The Incomplete Enchanter got caught up in the sword and sorcery burst of the late 1960s with a nice Jeff Jones cover that had nothing to do with the book. Del Rey Books reprinted three of the stories as The Compleat Enchanter in 1976 with three printings. I guess Lester del Rey wanted to reprint fiction from his old Astounding Science Fiction/Unknown Worlds buddies. Baen Books later reprinted some Harold Shea in the 90s. Baen had published some L. Sprague de Camp during this time and trotting out these horrible stories was probably part of the package.

De Camp’s claim that these stories put him in the ranks of sword and sorcery pioneers doesn’t hold up under examination. They are not sword and sorcery fiction and don’t even fit within the broader vaguer term of heroic fantasy. Unknown did run some out and out sword and sorcery. The two Prester John novels by Norvell Page are modeled on Conan. Fritz Leiber had the first published stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser at this time. These early Leiber stories are notably darker and more violent than later ones. Jack Williamson’s “The Reign of Wizardry,” especially in its original, shorter magazine version is very blood and thunder. The de Camp & Pratt collaborations are very similar in tone to some short fantasy novels by L. Ron Hubbard such as “The Ultimate Adventure” and “The Slaves of Sleep.” Interesting that de Camp didn’t include Hubbard in the list of early sword and sorcery writers to the introduction of Conan. L. Sprague de Camp was too busy writing light fare that became synonymous with the magazine. Making a claim that the Harold Shea stories are part of the first wave of heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery is stretching it not a bit but by a lot.

The first real sword and sorcery fiction by L. Sprague de Camp is “The Eye of Tandyla,” (Fantastic Adventures, May 1951) and “The Tritonian Ring,” a novel that was in Two Complete Science-Adventure Books (Winter, 1951). He had read the Gnome Press edition of Conan the Conqueror and got the itch to try this sort of fiction for himself. He was probably familiar with E. R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany already before he discovered Howard. From there, he went on to check out C. L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith. De Camp’s discovery of sword and sorcery and subsequent writing in the field puts him in with a later wave of writers. Poul Anderson had written some sword and sorcery type stories for Planet Stories in the early 1950s and his classic The Broken Sword. E. E. “Doc” Smith had two stories about Tedric at this time. Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth dates from this time. De Camp gave up on Pusad within a short time. Mark Olson at NESFA Press has hypothesized that de Camp consistently lost interest in his series. My own theory is L. Sprague de Camp always found writing non-fiction to be easier than writing fiction.

The myth of de Camp as early writer of sword and sorcery had been implanted as early as May, 1956 when Poul Anderson started out the story, “The Barbarian”:

Since the Howard-de Camp system for deciphering preglacial inscriptions first appeared, much progress has been made in tracing the history, ethnology, and even daily life of the great cultures which flourished till the Pleistocene ice age wiped them out and forced man to start over.

De Camp probably included himself among the others he mentions in the introduction to Conan as a way getting street cred. He was not a pioneer of sword and sorcery though he was part of the second wave that included Vance and Anderson.The idea of legitimacy of controlling/editing and inserting new pastiches into the Conan cycle is increased by making the case of being at the beginning of the genre.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp |

The de Camp Controversy: Part 12

Posted by morgan on 4th October 2008

The late 1970s found L. Sprague de Camp in a favorable position.  Taking an aggressive stand with the formation of Conan Properties, Inc., he was able to throttle the infant pure Howard Conan book series from Berkley in its cradle and figuratively castrate rival editor/pasticheur, Karl Edward Wagner. The road was clear to inflict more pastiches upon the reading public.

In short order the collection, Conan the Swordsman, was on the shelves of your local B. Dalton Bookseller and Waldenbooks in August 1978. The book is a collection of flotsam and jetsam with attempts to fill in gaps of the “saga.” The first story, “The People of the Summit,” goes back nine years to the collection The Mighty Swordsmen. The original appearance was bylined Bjorn Nyberg, this time is was Nyberg & de Camp. The story itself is not that bad for a pastiche. Bjornan is in the Turanian army and his detachment is wiped out by a degenerate remnant of sorcerers. Richard Toogood did a textual comparison of the two versions of the stories and found that de Camp routinely softened the language in the story. Nyberg’s version has Bjornan casually dropping Shanya to the ground while de Camp’s has him gently laying her.  De Camp changes the “women, with white stringy hair” to “crones.” Shanya’s character is consistently haughty in Nyberg’s version while de Camp adds having her blush when she becomes aware she is nude. “Legions of the Dead” is both de Camp and Carter and I detect Catherine de Camp. Carter’s Witch-men of Hyperborea are back along with the oft used Carter device of reanimated corpses. Conan becomes Sir Galahad to rescue Rann Njordsdattir from the Hyperboreans. As the army of corpses closes in on the doomed band of Aesir warriors, Conan places Rann on a stallion and slapes his sword on the beast’s butt! “To Asgard and safety!” De Camp & Carter are the authors of “Shadows in the Dark,” a sequel to “Black Colossus.”  I see little Lin Carter present as Conan rescues the King of Khoraja from Ophir. When asked if he had become the lover of the king’s sister, Conan replies–”If I had, it would be ungentle of me to admit it. But tell me, would you accept me as a brother-in-law?” Bet you never heard Conan talk like that before. Reading this story was tedious. “The Star of Khorala” by Nyberg & de Camp is return of the Conan in King Arthur’s Court that we saw in the opening of Conan the Avenger. The story has the feel of a late 19th Century historical romance replete with knights in armor. Congor returns for one last time in “The Gem in the Tower.” If it’s pirates- it’s Lin Carter! This story is almost completely Carter as there is a Thongor version that appeared two years before in Fantastic (Nov. 1976) called “Black Moonlight.” Farewell Congor and Lin Carter. This was the end of the line for both. Carter was a means to de Camp’s ends and his permanent record suffered greatly for it.  “The Ivory Goddess” is listed as by de Camp & Carter but de Camp friend, Loay Hall, reported about four years ago at the rehinnercircle yahoo group that Catherine de Camp is the real co-writer and not Carter. The story is a direct sequel to “The Jewels of Gwahlur.” First we need a new name for the pastiche Conan character. Congor is gone but we will call him “Spraguenan” from here on out. Spragenan is in archaeology mode with “The modern Puntians could not have built this temple. This marble must have traveled a long way.” Mrs. de Camp’s presence is immediately revealed when the slave girl Muriela is literally turned into a godess and Spraguenan addresses her as “Your divinity.” Makes me think of Roseann Barr when I see that phrase. “Moon of Blood” is another story supposedly written by the de Camps instead of de Camp & Carter. This story is just plain boring.

A few months later “Do You Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart polluted the radio waves and you got to buy the book that killed Karl Edward Wagner’s Day of the LionConan the Liberator by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. This novel reads mostly as by de Camp. De Camp told Robert M. Price that they began writing the novel in early 1972 but Carter bowed out early. Catherine de Camp then wrote it with her husband. So you get a menage a trois here. Liberator is a pretty lifeless novel. A friend of mine who knew Lin Carter said Carter badmouthed the book when it came out. Poul Anderson’s introduction to The Best of L. Sprague de Camp mentions that de Camp’s characters are “limited, fallible, tragi-comic.” That includes Spraguenan. I always imagined Conan’s rise to kingship as one of those lightning fast campaigns with a bloody battle. Sort of like Roman civil wars when a commander of legions would decides to become emperor. Spraguenan’s battle plans are incompetently orchestrated and he is beaten in the first battle. He is saved by the arrival of the Argossean army and another contingent of Aquilonian rebels. De Camp is didactic as ever here. He has Conan wonder after seeing a mounted Bossonian archer. Shazam, “Suddenly, in his mind’s eye, Conan saw a host of mounted archers pursuing the fleeing foe until, coming within range, they dismounted to loose shaft after deadly shaft.” Isn’t Conan supposed to be a seasoned, victorious general in several countries by this point? This makes Spraguenan look very amateurish. De Camp would have been better having Spraguenan order the Bossonians mounted like the Turanian archers and ditch the lecture. There is no climactic battle, Conan sneaks into the palace using the uniforms of turncoats. The sorcerer Thulandra Thuu escapes to do evil elsewhere. The sorcerer is probably a Carter creation and being set up for future confrontations with Congor or Spraguenan. There was a sense of deja vu when I reread this novel. Then it hit me, de Camp pilfered the plot to The Well of the Unicorn by his friend Fletcher Pratt. Pratt’s novel is overrated but it came out at a time when hardly any fantasy came out. So later on during the fantasy revival of the 1960s, it was trotted out in paperback. Pratt has the same win by losing strategy that is found in Conan the Liberator.

Richard Toogood has already deconstructed Conan and the Spider God in detail. I really can’t add anything to it that he hasn’t already said outside of de Camp couldn’t write a Spraguenan story without a co-writer. It was disingenous to list the writer as “L. Sprague de Camp” but I guess he thought the little kiddies wouldn’t buy a Spraguenan novel with a woman listed as co-author.

De Camp had control over the pastiches being written for Bantam at this time. Poul Anderson’s Conan the Rebel was a big disappointment for me. Anderson had written some blood & thunder historicals such as Rogue Sword and The Golden Slave. He also wrote one especially Howardesque story that was in Planet Stories in the early 1950s–”The Virgin of Valkarion.” I don’t know if de Camp forced Anderson to cut the guts out of his novel or if the book is the product of a middle-aged man. “Conan the Chronicled” in Amra #70 by Anderson mentions his wife’s help. Looks like we have another Conan pastiche co-written by the wife. That explains it. Anderson originally has Belit’s enslaved brother a gelding. “An editor” (I think we know who that is) “declared that, since the average reader of a Conan book is a young male and many such have unexpected castration anxieties, this might make them dislike the story without knowing exactly why.” The dangerous aspects inherent in the original Robert E. Howard stories are methodically removed and the concept dumbed down in the pastiches. John Maddox Roberts later complained that the hard edges he wrote were toned down.

The novelization for the 1982 Conan movie is interesting in that L. Sprague de Camp used to complain that Lin Carter got paid but did no work. He claimed his wife was the collaborator. Carter told Robert M. Price that Catherine de Camp wrote the draft and then Carter went in and “break up its long sentences into something more Howardesque.” Lin Carter must have done something in order to get paid.

This was the end of the de Camp pastiches. The work was farmed out from here on out with de Camp making money on Conan licensing. Historical romance writer Robert Jordan was brought in to write a new set of pastiches for Tor Books from 1982-1986. The books were successful enough to repair the brand name and spawn the huge wave of Tor pastiches by other authors from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. De Camp would be involved reading submitted novels and make suggested changes.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp, Pastiches |

The de Camp Controversy: Part 11

Posted by morgan on 2nd October 2008

L. Sprague de Camp’s star fell during the middle 1970s with the bankruptcy of Lancer Books. A Robert E. Howard revival took place at this time largely engineered by Glenn Lord’s ceaseless work. There was an explosion of small press magazines that were Howard oriented, small press book publications by Fax and Donald Grant, and mass market paperbacks from Zebra. This in turn helped spark another wave of sword and sorcery fiction (much of it bad) in the late 1970s. Every other paperback had “In the Tradition of Conan” splashed on the cover including the Zebra editions of Talbot Mundy’s Tros of Samothrace (which predated Conan). One thing that was missing was Conan. Then in late summer of 1977, The Hour of the Dragon restored to its Weird Tales text came out from Berkley Medallion. Karl Edward Wagner was to edit the Conan stories in a new package of six volumes. The books had the best covers that Ken Kelly ever did. Wagner produced fact filled forewords and afterwords with no psychoanalysis, character assassination, and back handed comments. Just so there was no confusion, the covers said “The Authorized Edition edited by Karl Edward Wagner.” Then the series was killed. Hollywood was interested in making a Conan movie but wanted to deal with one entity. The end result was the formation of Conan Properties Incorporated. Kirby McCauley is probably the one who talked Glenn Lord into going along with L. Sprague de Camp.  Henry Kissinger once said that NATO’s purpose was to keep the U.S. in, the Russians out, and the Germans down. CPI did the same thing in keeping de Camp in, Robert E. Howard down, and Glenn Lord out. A board that included de Camp, Lord, and a de Camp ally ensured that Congor would be inflicted upons future generations of unsuspecting readers. Glenn Lord would be overruled in voting.

Kirby McCauley had brokered a deal with Bantam Books for Karl Edward Wagner to write three Conan pastiche novels. One de Camp’s first acts was to kill the Karl Wagner book chronicling Conan’s rise to king of Aquilonia. Wagner had already written a Bran Mak Morn pastiche entitled Legion From the Shadows which was turned in late. He was supposed to write a sequel called Queen of the Night which he never wrote. Zebra had to scramble and David C. Smith & Richard L. Tierney were brought in to write a Bran novel (For the Witch of the Mist). I am one who is sceptical that Wagner would have ever written The Day of the Lion. If you read “The Truth Insofar as I Know It” by David Drake from Exorcisms and Ecstacies, it paints a picture of someone who consistently had problems delivering the promised goods. Wagner did write a detailed outline/synopsis for Day of the Lion that appeared in Simba (September 1978).

One version I have heard is Wagner salvaged some parts of Day of the Lion that were incorporated into what would become The Road of Kings. The Wagner Conan pastiche is an interesting book. Rick McCollum describes it as Conan as Che Guevara.  It reads like a Kane story to me. Some people hate the novel, others really like it.  Wagner used the Chinese terra cotta soldiers as the idea for the novel. Wagner turned in two–thirds of the novel in 1978 claiming the remaining portion has been accidently left out of the envelope. He then pulled an all nighter to finish the last chapter. L. Sprague de Camp would later complain that the Wagner novel did not fit in with his Conan chronology. There are stories that de Camp constantly harped on Wagner while he was working on the novel to make it fit in with de Camp’s ideas.

If you go over to David Drake’s website and go to his comments regarding the writing of Killer, there is a repetition of problems. He later never delivered on a medical thriller novel for Bantam. Later on, there were problems with Wagner when he worked on a comic script called “Tell Me Dark.” Either Wagner had incredibly bad luck with who he did business with or there was a problem with him delivering.

A Wagner version of Conan becoming king is intriguing and would have been preferable to what was delivered by de Camp. L. Sprague de Camp eliminated a rival editor and pastiche writer with extreme prejudice. No one was going to stand in his way.

Rusty adds:

Karl tells his side of the Killer and Tell Me, Dark stories in the last interview he did, posted at the Karl Edward Wagner: East of Eden website.  Karl was and Dave is a friend, and I take no position one way or the other here, just note that Karl’s version of what happened is available.

With regard to the tale of Conan’s rise to kingship, after the formation of Conan Properties de Camp killed Karl’s proposal for Day of the Lion because he had already decided that it would be he (along with Lin Carter) who would tell the story.  The result, of course, was the lame Conan the Liberator.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp |

Hester Howard

Posted by Rusty Burke on 2nd October 2008

Don’t stop here. Get yourself over to The Cimmerian Blog right this instant and read Leo Grin’s superb essay, “In Defense of Hester Jane Ervin Howard.” Then you can come on back over here and check out my few paltry comments.

No, really, I mean it. Go over there and read that first. Right now.

Okay, presumably you have now read Leo’s clearly heartfelt and genuinely affecting tribute to Robert E Howard’s mother, Hester, which includes some concomitant remarks on his father, Isaac, and their familial relations.

That is an essay that, as I have just told Leo, I very much wish that I had written, though I greatly doubt that I could have brought the same passion to bear, nor written it so well. Hester Howard has indeed taken a savage beating at the hands of Howard’s fans and biographers for altogether too long, for no good reason. Mostly it has been because people felt like they had to find something that would explain Howard’s suicide, and latched onto the fact that it came just as he learned that his dying mother would not regain consciousness. Aha!, they thought, that must be it, he simply couldn’t face life without her, she must have had some strange psychological hold on him. L. Sprague de Camp, Howard’s first actual “biographer,” famously latched onto the Freudian “Oedipal complex.” He then reasoned backward, and interpreted everything about Hester — and I mean everything — in the light of that prejudgment: everything had to be seen in such a way that it would support the conclusion that there was some kind of extreme dependency relationship between Hester and her son. I’ll not bother giving any examples here, Leo did a great job of that. If you take his examples to heart, you can readily see the same thing occurring again and again throughout de Camp’s “biographical” treatments.

I have for some time now been convinced that the reason it has been so easy to misinterpret Hester Howard is that so little is really known about her, particularly about her later years. Isaac Howard was known by nearly everyone within a few hundred square miles of Cross Plains, and liked by most of them. He was a big, hearty, larger-than-life figure, and his wife and son lived very much in his shadow, so far as most people were concerned. In the last few years of her life, due to her illness, she didn’t get out of the house much, so very few people in Cross Plains got to know her all that well. As Leo notes, though, most people who did know her seem to have liked her: you don’t name your children after people you don’t care about. And Bob, of course, didn’t get out a lot either, since he was at home writing stories. As I have been saying for a long time, Bob had friends, very good ones, but he was the sort who preferred a few close friends over a wide circle of acquaintances. Over and over again, people I’ve interviewed through the years could tell story after story after story about Doc Howard, stories that seemed to them as clear as yesterday. But ask about Hester, and I got responses like “I didn’t really know her too well,” “She didn’t get around very much,” and the like. Next to nothing. Ask about Bob, and it was, “I never did know him very well, he was just Dr. Howard’s crazy son.” Well, when two family members are so overwhelmed in memory by a third, they become background figures, almost tabulae rasa onto which pretty much anything can be projected.

Leo has done a splendid job of pulling together what is actually known about Hester and showing that, if we base our view of her on those facts, what emerges is a very different picture than the one we have been sold for far, far too long: a picture of a loving, devoted family woman, one who sacrificed much of her early life, and as it turned out, much of her health, to caring for members of her family; one who doted on her younger half-siblings and kept in touch with them, even when separated by hundreds of miles; one who loved her only child and shared with him her love of poetry; one who did all in her power to ease the lives and the workloads of her husband and her son. It is really a masterful effort, and I heartily applaud Leo for posting it for all to read.

I’m going to head back over and read it again, and then again, until I have memorized it. I hope a few of you will do the same. I sincerely hope that it will prove to be the beginning of the end of the unfair mischaracterizations of a good woman.

Posted in Biography, L. Sprague de Camp |

Conan the Clueless

Posted by morgan on 13th September 2008

I had asked former member of REHupa, Richard Toogood, to provide me with some information on L. Sprague de Camp’s Conan and the Spider God. He did one better, he wrote this essay on the novel and risked his health and mental sanity rereading the novel I may add.

Or A Cimmerian Idiot in the De Camps’ Court

In the wake of reading CONAN AND THE SPIDER GOD precious few words now seem qualified to convey just how atrocious this utterly wretched excuse for a novel really is. But words are what you’ve asked me for and so words are what I must somehow endeavour to supply you. But I fear no commentary of mine will be half so successful in furnishing the rope to hang it by than the book’s own turgid prose.

The whole miserable enterprise gets under way with Conan soldiering in the army of Turan. Before anyone gets the idea though that this is some sort of career move engineered to provide Conan with the sort of dangerous daring do in which he excels, de Camp is quick to set us straight on this score. The limit of this Conan’s ambition, his “heart’s desire” indeed, is “duty with the palace guard” where he might “have aught to do but swagger about in well-polished armour and ogle the ladies”. Gosh, what a barbarian. Anyway, eventually even this arduous activity begins to pale for him and so he strikes up a dalliance with a woman called Narkia, the mistress of his commanding officer. He does this not out of any sense of lustful abandon you understand, goodness me no, but simply for the “boyish thrill of stealing his commander’s girl”. In the course of one illicit liaison though the said commander, a Captain Orkhan, bursts in on them, at which Narkia immediately cries “rape” in that hoary old ploy of self-preservation; this despite the fact that Conan is lounging in a chair at the time with his hands behind his head in an altogether unpredatory manner. Orkhan dutifully attacks him nevertheless; though we’re not given time to appreciate whether this is out of gullibility or wounded pride. Conan’s actions in the ensuing fight are even harder to fathom. He enters into it urging Orkhan to stop owing to the fact that he and Narkia haven’t done anything – and true to his customary puritanical primness de Camp ensures that they actually haven’t-  but when he wounds the man and has a chance to end the fight peaceably he elects to polish him off instead. For her part, Narkia receives only a playful slap on the rump for her duplicity rather than the dunking in the cesspit that is the real Conan’s usual revenge on faithless women.

Orkhan though had powerful family connections, his father Tughril is a high priest of Erlik no less, and so Conan finds it prudent to desert and flee the city. He strikes north through the dreary Marshes of Mehar which border the Vilayet Sea. This, we are obligingly advised, is the habitat of the Swamp Cat, a most dangerous predator although “Conan had never met anyone who claimed to have seen such a creature”. Blow me down then if this rarest of beasts doesn’t only go and turn up one page later. This is but the first in a whole catalogue of plot developments which couldn’t be any more obviously prefigured even if de Camp had strung a line of telegraph poles across Hyboria.

Conan encounters the beast just as it has a group of Zamorians trapped upon a hillock. The scene is set for a savage primordial battle, a crimson clash of iron and talon, and if this was a Howard story then that is doubtless what we would get. But this is DeCampland, a far more tepid literary habitat and one, moreover, with its environmentalist credentials all present and accounted for.

So after Conan does a comedy pratfall from his saddle, thereby demonstrating his uselessness as a horseman to set by his failures both as a soldier and a lothario, he sends the Swamp Cat on its way by singeing its whiskers with a flaming faggot. But don’t worry children, it’s not really hurt.

The Zamorians are suitably grateful for this awesome display of barbarian vigour and so they invite Conan to share their camp where he further wows them by doing a musical routine in the language of the Aesir:

“Forsooth,” he said,”this thing is not unlike the harps of my native land.” In a deep bass, he launched into a song: “We’re born with sword and axe in hand, For men of the North are we. . .”‘

But it isn’t all choruses and conservation though; de Camp’s Conan might have the intellect of a mollusc but even he can see that there’s something fishy about these Zamorians. Amongst their number is a woman, and although she spends much of the evening closeted in her tent she does make one brief appearance from which our Cimmerian Sherlock is able to deduce that she is high born, being clad in “garments more suitable for a lordly Hyrkanian’s harem than for travel in the wilderness”, to say nothing of having a jewel the size of a duck’s egg slung about her neck. It is evident also that she appears to be labouring under some sort of malign influence. The source of this becomes readily apparent when Harpagus, the leader of the Zamorians, dispatches her back to her tent with a nifty exhibition of hypnotism. The significance of this though is completely lost on our gormless hero who subsequently allows himself to be hypnotised also and then robbed of both his gold and his horse.

As luck would have it though, Conan just happens to know a half blind seer called Kushad who’s up on all this eastern mummery and, wouldn’t you know it, he only lives a mere four days walk away in Sultanapur. Kushad, a wise even tempered and erudite scholar with a white beard (goodness, who on earth could he be modelled on?), is naturally only too happy to provide a sanctuary for his old friend. Especially as he entertains hopes of Conan providing a husband for his nubile daughter Tahmina, provided he first “gave up his wild, headstrong ways, got on the right side of the law, and settled down in Sultanapur to wait for the child to reach a marriageable age” of course.

It is from Kushad that Conan learns that Jamilah, the favourite wife of King Yildiz of Turan, has been abducted and I‘m gratified to be able to report that this is one equation that even our mathematically challenged hero can get his head around. To his credit though de Camp’s Conan does profess to being more concerned with getting his horse back or, failing that,  wreaking revenge but he doesn’t dismiss the idea of rescuing Jamilah out of hand. Although he’s so timid about the risks involved that one can almost imagine him demanding a health and safety assessment first.

Anyway, after undergoing a crash course in mental discipline to help him withstand any further attempt at hypnotism, and with a fresh horse conveniently supplied by Kushad’s gold Conan sets off on his quest.

Courtesy of a handy demonstration of remote viewing by Kushad, Conan now knows that the men he seeks are heading for their native Zamora and so that’s where he heads also. But, unfortunately, even crossing a sparsely guarded border undetected proves quite beyond the capabilities of our intrepid hero. No sooner has he bedded himself down for the night than he is taken unawares by a squad of Turanian soldiers who have managed to sneak up on him undetected, horses and all, and who overpower him with very little effort. This is just one in a whole series of slanders that the book perpetrates on Conan’s superior senses. The Turanians take Conan to a nearby border post but once there they can’t actually bring themselves to believe that the man they’ve caught really is the renegade Captain Conan that they’re after and so they simply release him. As one of them puts it;

“Conan is said to have such keen senses and mighty strength that he could not so easily have been taken alive.”‘

On the evidence dished up so far any Howard fan will find their incredulity all too easy to sympathise with.

Back on his way again Conan subsequently arrives in Shadizar the Wicked, although why he comes here of all places isn’t readily apparent. Certainly it is something which seems designed to serve the arbitrary demands of the plot rather than any sense of logic or credibility. Be that as it may, in an old haunt from his thieving days he gets chatting with a despondent migrant from Yezud, the city of the priests of Zath the spider god. It seems that strange doings are afoot in Yezud with the priests now hiring only foreigners as temple guards. When Conan also learns that a Turanian agent called Parvez is in Shadizar making enquiries after him, all thoughts of rescues and vengeances are conveniently jettisoned and he scarpers sharpish like a frightened jackrabbit. And with the entire Hyborian world to choose from, where do you think he makes for? Blimey, how did you work that out?

But before he gets to Yezud though he does interrupt his journey just long enough to save a witch called Nyssa from being burnt at the stake. Again no readily plausible explanation is forthcoming about why he should choose to do this apart from the rather limp contention that “the protection of women, regardless of age, form, or station, was one of the few imperatives of his barbarian code”. The most risible aspect of this sorry episode comes though when Conan struggles to outdistance the pursuing pack of pitchfork wielding yokels and has to be saved by the witch casting a glamour spell of illusion. Memories of “The Black Stranger” and of a limping Conan outrunning a Pictish war-party can seldom have seemed more remote. Anyway, having served the onerous demands of de Camp’s plot by supplying Conan with a powder of forgetfulness in gratitude for his help, Nyssa obligingly dies leaving our hero free to continue his journey.

When he eventually gets to Yezud though, he is disconcerted to discover that he is too late and that all the temple guard vacancies have been filled by a free company of Brythunians under the command of one Captain Catigern. Undeterred he arranges a job interview with the vicar of the temple of Zath and- strike me down with a feather- this only turns out to be that old rascal Harpagus, doesn’t it. Conan might have done his utmost to escape the demands of the plot for the last couple of chapters but authorial artifice and a contrived narrative have worked to ensure that it has well and truly caught up with him again. Amazingly however, even though he had stared into his face whilst hypnotising him Harpagus fails to recognise Conan, apparently this is because Conan had been wearing a turban the last time they met. Yes, really. By this stage such lamentable instances of lazy slip-shod storytelling fail to surprise one much and recording them begins to assume a sort of perverse pleasure instead.

With there being no jobs for guards Harpagus offers Conan the post of an accounts clerk of all things. Sadly Conan has to decline this hilariously bourgeois conceit of de Camp’s on account of the fact that he “cannot add a column of numbers twice and arrive at the same sum”. Fortunately there is also a need for a blacksmith and this is something that Conan can do. So after pausing to discuss wages, which might have made for an amusing conversation in light of Conan’s tactless admission, the Cimmerian settles down to good honest toil at his forge.

Yezud is something of a curious creation. On the one hand it satisfies all the worst criteria of de Camp’s po-faced Puritanism: “for those who dwell in holy Yezud, there shall be no drinking of fermented liquors, no gambling, and no fornication”. But on the other the rites of the cult of Zath come across like a spiteful parody of the Catholic Mass with the priests lampooned as sanctimonious hypocrites. Neither has any place in a Conan story and their presence here only serves to cast de Camp’s prissy sanctimony in a contemptible light.

In reading about the rites of Zath also it is hard not to be reminded of the Cult of Doom from the first movie. Like most people, I guess, I’ve always regarded such as Stone’s bitter commentary on the Vietnam stay-at-homes and the flower power movement, but it’s possible to argue a certain cribbing of the idea from here too.

Despite de Camp persisting in the impression that he’d really much rather be writing about Solomon Kane (and it remains a mystery to me why he never tried) Conan just isn’t a character that you can pen for any length of time in such a sterile environment, and so before long de Camp grudgingly despatches him to the woefully tame bawdy house outside the city. There he quickly gets in a fight with the drunken Captain Catigern over the resident whore, or as de Camp prissily describes her “public woman”. This Conan though is such an incompetent swordsman that it’s all he can do to hold his own against the almost paralytic Brythunian. But after one of de Camp’s customary lectures on the virtues and shortfalls of the broadsword as opposed to the scimitar, Fate intervenes when a shadowy figure suddenly tries to knife Catigern in the back. Conan however harbours unbarbaric scruples about winning fights in such a manner (even though on the evidence provided so far it’s difficult to imagine how he could ever hope to win one any other way) and so he shouts a warning to Catigern who despatches the would be assassin with the sort of alacrity one wishes Conan would begin to demonstrate at some point.

Fortunately, for the purposes of exposition, the dead assailant thoughtfully provides a scroll explaining his action which a handy Stygian scholar called Psamitek is present to interpret. It turns out that Tughril, the high priest of Erlik and father of the dead Orkhan (remember him? One should really as we’re eighty pages in at this point and so far he is the only person Conan has succeeded in killing) has put a price of ten thousand pieces of gold on Conan’s head. Which seems just a tad excessive to me and would surely have succeeded in putting every cut-throat from Zingara to Vendhya on Conan’s trail if true and not just a single rat-faced Zamorian? But as Conan is now cunningly going under the name of Nial this information seems to shed no light on the incident, at least insofar as the rather dim company of characters present are concerned. Conan though does come out of it all with a new best friend in the form of the grateful Catigern.

Soon afterwards he’s bagged himself a girlfriend too in the curvy shape of the temple dancer Rudabeh. Rudabeh is de Camp’s rather quaint ideal of respectable young womanhood, virginal naturally but also “clean, healthy, and regular-featured”. As well as being a sum of statistics though she’s also a mine of information on the workings of the temple. Before you can say “Yara had an elephant” she’s blathering on and on about reservoirs of bitumen and treasure crypts and all sorts. In actual fact their first date is such an info dump that the sharper reader must just cotton on to the possibility of this all proving pertinent at some point.

For the time being though the smitten Conan is far more concerned with impressing his girl with his credentials as a wine connoisseur.

“Conan endeavoured to pursue the civilized custom of sniffing the aroma and delicately savouring each sip.”

Hook Howard’s grave up to a generator and I reckon the dynamo revolutions produced by this particular passage could power a city block.

As it happens though Conan isn’t able to enjoy his new epicurean pursuits for very long before he is accosted by Parvez who has followed him from Shadizar. Parvez has been charged by Yildiz with recovering his beloved Jamilah who, as Conan has already ascertained from Rudabeh, is being held prisoner in the temple. It seems that Jamilah is a hostage against Yildiz interfering in some plot or other that the priests of Zath are planning to launch against the king of Zamora. Parvez persuades Conan to rescue Jamilah and to this end furnishes him with something called the Clavis of Gazrik, a magic arrow, don’t you know, which can open any door. For someone supposedly averse to the supernatural Conan is now beginning to accrue talismans with all the assiduousness of a collector.

Of course, even with the aid of such magical accoutrements, getting Jamilah out of the temple is going to prove no easy matter; not when a quick trip there and an encounter with a solitary Brythunian is enough to convince our impressionable hero that the temple is far too well guarded to infiltrate. No, he decides heroically, he will have to break in.

His preparations for doing this though aren’t made any easier by the fact that he has now taken to mooning over the priggish Rudabeh like a soppy lovesick schoolboy. Rudabeh though, true to her de Campian mores, wont dream of putting out unless Conan first changes his ways and settles down “as a proper householder and husband”.  Add to this the wish he has developed also to steal the jewelled eyes of the statue of Zath from the temple and one has a barbarian beset by the sort of conflicts that are usually reserved for the teenage stars of daytime soap operas:

“if he took the eyes, he would have to flee from Yezud as fast as a horse could carry him. If Rudabeh would flee with him – but suppose she refused? Would he give up his quest for the Eyes to settle permanently in Yezud. If he did, would either he or the girl survive Feridun’s doom?”

And here I was thinking a barbarian’s life was all pillage and plunder. Who would ever have guessed that they laboured under such mental pressures.

Matters aren’t helped any by the fact that someone has, all of a sudden, taken to having pot shots at him with a bow and arrow. To say nothing of a suspicious Harpagus attempting to hypnotise him again. This time though Conan is able to thwart his efforts by the employment of Kushad’s schooling in mental discipline. When the frustrated Harpagus then tries to turn the screw on Conan’s beloved Rudabeh instead, her use of Nyssa’s powder of forgetfulness, which Conan has supplied her with, has the effect of wiping the vicar’s mind as clean as a scrubbed blackboard.

With time becoming of the essence Conan finally undertakes his rescue of Jamilah. With Rudabeh having supplied him with the woman’s location an initial recce over the temple walls discloses the fact that Jamilah’s chamber is situated directly above a pen containing a tiger. Fortunately, the ever obliging Parvez is on hand to help out here with the convenient supply of a handy sleeping draught, which he just happens to have about him, and which Conan uses to lace a joint of beef which he then feeds to the tiger.

This contrivance aside, the rescue of Jamilah constitutes the only adequate sequence in the entire book. A rope and grapnel quickly takes Conan up the marble walls to Jamilah’s room. Predictably though the woman herself proves to be just another in de Camp’s stable of haughty prudes and refuses to get out of bed unless Conan first turns his back.

“Women!” grunted Conan disgustedly. “With our lives hanging on one thread, this is no time for your civilized niceties.”‘

And while one wishes that de Camp will take his character’s advice here it’s telling that Conan eventually ends up doing as he’s told just like the overgrown boy scout that he is.

By the time Conan has joined Jamilah in the tiger’s pen the beast has succeeded in shrugging off the effects of the drug and has lurched to its feet:

“As the giant cat, fangs bared and talons unsheathed, hurtled toward him, Conan whipped his scimitar up over his head and, with legs braced and both powerful hands gripping the hilt, brought the heavy curved blade whistling down between the glowing emerald eyes. The tiger’s body slammed into him and hurled him back against the wall, so that man and tiger fell in a tangled heap at the foot of the enclosure.”

Ok, so it’s not exactly on a par with the battle with Thak but it is an improvement on the risible Swamp Cat sequence, even if the mood is spoiled somewhat by Jamilah’s utterly inane query “Are you dead, Nial?”

Although it might just come as a shock to some, he isn’t actually; and shortly afterwards Conan delivers Jamilah into the care of Parvez; at which point all the Turanians exit stage left. All that is except for a fellow called Chagor, one of Parvez’s retainers whom Conan had earlier humiliated in a tavern squabble. The suggestion of a grudge of some kind couldn’t be any more laboriously delivered if it turned up in a skip.

With the Turanians out of the picture Conan is able to devote all his time to wetly simpering over the increasingly irritating Rudabeh:

“fierce desire, like a tornado whirling along its serpentine path of destruction, surged up within him, to give up his rootless, adventurous life, to wed Rudabeh according to the laws of Zamora, and to become, as best he might, a solid citizen who cherished his growing family, joined the municipal watch, worshipped at the temple, and paid his tithes.”

What comment could I possibly make here that would supplement one jot the utterly clueless preposterousness of the above passage?

Sunk in a pubescent mope, you can imagine Conan’s delight when he is lured out of the tavern one night by the sight of the girl dressed in nothing but her dancer’s beads. Imagine his consternation too when this alluring sight changes into one of the vengeful Chagor with a drawn bow. Then imagine my derision when the dependable Catigern conveniently turns up just in time to distract Chagor and spoil his aim and so give Conan the chance to kill him. Catigern is also able to help Conan apprehend the Stygian Psamitek who is the architect of the deception. Although the fact that Conan needs any help to subdue one scrawny Stygian is a pretty miserable indictment of his feeble physical powers.

Anyway, Psamitek knows all about the price on Conan’s head of course because of the scroll that he had earlier translated while Chagor had succeeded in uncovering Conan’s real identity owing to a chance remark of Parvez’s that he had overheard. The two of them had put their heads together in an attempt to claim the reward. With Chagor dead and Psamitek caught this particular conspiracy seems to have come to an abrupt end, but Psamitek just happens to possess powers of illusion and so, after heaping further humiliation on Conan’s feeble strength by slipping out of his grasp, the Stygian uses them to turn himself invisible and escape.

A few days pass and Conan at long last makes his play for the jewelled eyes of the statue of Zath. The Clavis of Gazrik, just about as lazy a narrative prop as it is possible to imagine and one far more in keeping with Sinbad than Cimmeria anyway, makes his covert entry to the temple tediously easy. But before he can secure the gems he is yet again taken by surprise, this time by Rudabeh who has come to tend the temple’s sacred flame. Then the unexpected arrival of a visiting party of priests compels him to take refuge in the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the temple.

This climactic sequence should form the set-piece highlight of the book. It’s unquestionably a promising scenario and in the hands of even a half competent wordsmith offers the potential to resonate with tension and atmosphere. Sadly both these qualities are entirely absent from the treatment it is given here. All we get instead is a tedious tour of passageways and intersections with all the while Conan quaking like a girl:

“Although no stranger to the stink of corpses and cadavers, the soft squelch of a patch of rotting entrails, on which he stepped, so revolted him that for an instant he almost vomited and fought down a panicky urge to run screaming.”

The tunnel floor boasts more backbone than this Conan does.

When the giant spider, which all but the gormless Conan will have deduced is kept in the tunnels, finally appears its nothing more than a mediocre monster. Despite harping on about how much it eclipses in size Howard’s spider from “The Tower of the Elephant” de Camp’s monster doesn’t convey a fraction of that creature’s repulsive threat. The book goes through the motions of the obligatory chase sequence but there’s pitifully little drama in it. Not even when the Clavis of Gazrik predictably melts at the strain of trying to unlock a heavy door, the suggestion is one of artifice rather than any suspenseful skill. In due course Rudabeh predictably arrives to distract the creature and to dutifully get herself killed in the process. At which point, believe it or not, the spider simply runs away having served the author’s heavy handed requirements. We’re then left with a dollop of slop besides which the putrefying entrails in the tunnels pale into insignificance:

“Hot tears ran down Conan’s rugged countenance – the first he had shed in many years. He angrily wiped them away, but still they flowed. Those who knew Conan as a man of iron, hard, merciless, and self-seeking, would have been astonished to see him weeping. . .”

You can say that again. Not exactly the death of Belit though is it?

Following on from this pinnacle of melodrama we get some more aimless traipsing about in the tunnels before Conan finally comes across a vast chamber full of spider’s eggs. And blow me if they don’t all hatch simultaneously and at the very moment that Conan stumbles upon them. Finally displaying the sort of presence of mind that had entirely escaped him earlier, Conan now runs back to the trapdoor in the temple floor by which he had entered the tunnels in the first place. There, by virtue of the sort of contrivance which has been the governing feature of the entire book, the bitumen that feeds the temple’s sacred flame is directed into the tunnels and ignited by Conan’s torch. As the whole temple goes up in flames the giant spider takes its cue and lumbers out of the temple only to be perfunctorily polished off by the redoubtable Captain Catigern with his sword. Although, for appearances sake, Conan does chip in too with a swipe from a halberd.

And on this farcical note the entire execrable enterprise limps to a close. All that remains is one last indignity which it is the privilege of the persistent Psamitek to inflict when he, literally, appears out of thin air in the middle of nowhere and attempts to strangle Conan with a rope of sorcerous smoke. Conan is such an incapable incompetent idiot that it will surely surprise no one to learn that, with no one else in attendance to do it, it is now left to his horse to save him, which it does by smashing in the Stygian’s skull.

As is all too painfully apparent from the above, this is a quite appalling book. Literally jaw droppingly abject in actual fact. I’m quite at a loss to recall the last time I came across a novel anywhere near as incompetently conceived and executed as this one. The whole sloppy narrative is entirely driven by contrivance and coincidence from start to finish. It is utterly impoverished in imagination and displays not even the most meagre sense of any sort of enthusiasm whatsoever on the part of the author. All of its dialogue is excruciatingly stilted, and its characters are so thin that to describe them as cardboard would be to invest them with much greater substance than they actually possess.

Perhaps even faults and failings as crippling as these could be overlooked though were it not for the quite unconscionable crime perpetrated against the character of Conan himself. It’s really small wonder that de Camp hides him under an alias for the majority of the book because the character he’s written here bears not even the remotest resemblance to Howard’s creation. The character in this book is an utterly inept gullible gormless buffoon who fails miserably at pretty much everything he attempts. He’s physically feeble, cretinously stupid and completely reliant on others to save him from the scrapes which his own idiocy gets him into in the first place.

I’ll admit I was at an utter loss to explain how even de Camp could ever have come up with something quite so misguided as this. I mean, it’s no secret that he never had even the slightest empathy with Howard’s ideas but he had been involved with Conan, in one form or another, for thirty years by the time this book came out. So how on earth is it then that was he able to display such complete cluelessness about both the character and the concept?

And then you ventured your suggestion that the book was actually written by de Camp’s wife, and in an instant the reason for every one of the novel’s abundance of faults became blindingly clear. Simply put, this is a woman’s book and its Conan is a woman’s concept of what makes an acceptable hero.

Every single macho attribute and quality that epitomizes Howard’s character is methodically lampooned and denigrated here. This Conan is a useless warrior for a start – he kills just two men in the whole book – but he’s also a failure both as a soldier and as a thief; he’s a poor horseman too, and the superior barbarian faculties that Howard so prided the character with are mercilessly and systematically ridiculed.

On the other hand the things that he is allowed to excel in are every bit as suggestive as the things that he isn’t. He follows an honest trade of blacksmithing for most of the book; he sings and he even cooks, believe it or not. Moreover he is unfailingly chivalrous and studiously polite and always respectful to his elders. He also displays a quite unbelievable sexual propriety. In one of the book’s more bizarre episodes, a chance to take advantage of an insensible Rudabeh is forestalled by a chastening “vision of his aged mother, back in her Cimmerian village”. Can’t recall such scruples bothering him while he chased Atali across the wastes of Vanaheim, can you? This Conan is also cringingly servile, he’s continually being belittled and insulted and he takes it all stoically. He’s labelled “a boor” on the third page which pretty much sets the trend for all that follows.

This then is a character few women would balk at taking home to meet their mother. Indeed one of the book’s recurring themes is the urging of marriage and respectability upon him. The virtues of civilized domesticity are relentlessly chorused at him by such a succession of characters that in the end he even begins to seriously consider it. This is the complete antithesis of Howard’s reckless freedom. One must wonder if this was all intended as some sort of grave social guidance aimed at the sort of adolescent male that the author imagined made up the main audience for the work.

Of course, what Mrs de Camp has really achieved here is the metaphorical castration of the character. What perverse gratification she might have got from this crass act of literary vandalism I wouldn’t presume to guess. Though it’s hard not to imagine that it might just have constituted some sort of spiteful revenge against her husband’s detractors. Whatever the reason, the book is a heartless travesty of its source material. It is also stupefyingly well-mannered with few characters even succeeding in losing their tempers. A tell-tale female trait but one hardly compatible with plausibility in the telling of a Conan story.

At the risk of appearing irreparably chauvinist, I would also suggest that the use of a spider as a central feature indicates the governing hand of a woman in the creation of the book. Spiders are far more of a female fear than a male one, as a thousand cartoons and sit-com cliches will testify to.

It isn’t particularly unusual to come across a book that one dislikes every now and then. It isn’t even uncommon to find a book that one hates every so often. But, in my experience, it is rare indeed to discover a book that one actively despises. That is the lasting achievement of this book for me. I can’t say it one to be particularly proud of.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp, Pastiches |

The de Camp Controversy: Part 10

Posted by morgan on 1st September 2008

A couple days ago, I chronicled the shorter Carter & de Camp Congor stories that were in the first batch of Lancer paperbacks. L. Sprague de Camp couldn’t create a novel out of “The Drums of Tombalku” but he was able to use converted Thongor adventures for his purposes. Conan of the Isles (1968) was first of the of the Carter & de Camp novels. It is a novel that elicits stong opinions. One former REHupan absolutely hates the novel and has said that de Camp should have taken more care editing the Carter story instead of meddling with “The Black Stranger” and “The Frost Giant’s Daughter.” On the other hand, Richard L. Tierney said to me that he thought de Camp was more comfortable writing about an aging less powerful Conan. The novel itself is the last chronologically in Conan’s life. Carter & de Camp used the comment by Robert E. Howard to P. Schuyler Miller that Conan had “visited” an unnamed continent in the Western hemisphere, and roamed among the islands adjacent to it.”Howard never specifically said whether Conan was there before or after he was king. All Howard says is he traveled widely before and after he was king. The prophet Epimetrius comes to Conan in a dream and bids him give up his throne and travel west to battle evil. To those who have read Lin Carter’s Thongor, none of this sort of thing is new. Another Carterism is the son of the monarch called Conn. Carter did it with Thongor’s son called Thar. Lin Carter is responsible for the most obnoxious character ever in a Congor or Conan story- Sigurd of Vanaheim. Sigurd of Vanaheim is the Jar Jar Binks of Congor pastiches.  “By the breasts of Badb and the claw of Nergal, broil my guts if it don’t warm an old seaman’s heart to clap eyes on you.” Congor doesn’t escape unscathed from Carterian dialogue: “Sigurd of Vanaheim, you fat old walrus! By the scarlet bowels of Hell–Sigurd Redbeard!” Scarlet bowels? I don’t want to go there.

Lin Carter disregards Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyborian Age,” which should be a writer’s bible for pastiches. He has evil sorcerous colonies of Atlantis on the large island of Antillea ignoring Howard’s background that the Atlanteans were barbarians before the Cataclysm and not city builders. The use of the Barachan pirates is classic Carter as he liked pirates. There is a sea battle that is de Camp. The Antilleans make an attack using glass helmets and breathing apparati to allow them to travel underwater. De Camp recycled that from “The Virgin of Zesh,” one of his Krishna stories. The Aztec style weaponry such as the saw tooth blades is de Camp. Conan uses the glass helmet and breathing apparatus to travel under the sea. This is all de Camp describing marine life. My guess is the 10 pound rat assault is also de Camp as I have never seen that in any Lin Carter fiction. The attack of the 50 foot iguanas is also probably de Camp. In fact, the novel seems to shift from being almost all Lin Carter to much more L. Sprague de Camp as it proceeds. Sigurd’s character is reined in a little at the end. “By Crom and Mitra and all the gods, we thought you dead!” So there you have it, a strange collaboration that is to some degree oil and water and not ultimately successful. Just goes to show, you can’t catch Howardian lightning and put it in a bottle.

Conan the Buccaneer (1971) is a case of deja vu all over again. The year before Lin Carter had Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus. Anyone who read that book and Conan of the Isles previously would recognize another retelling of the sorceror conspiracy-pirate novel. This novel goes back to Conan as a Zingaran privateer.  The Carterisms are less in evidence and I think de Camp took a stronger hand with this novel. The end result are dull spots in the book. Conan of the Isles has problems but it moves better than Buccaneer. Congor knows his medical specialties when he orders: “A private room and a chirurgeon.” Sigurd of Vanaheim makes his first chronological appearance and obnoxious as ever.  “Well, broil me for a lubber, I’d as soon spit the dog as look at him; but by Heimdal’s horn and Mitra’s sword, you’re safe now.” Or “by Lir’s fish-tail and Thor’s hammer!” This stuff is fingernails on chalkboard. One of Lin Carter’s reanimated statues inevitably shows up, this time a rampaging big toad idol. This sentence is a classic example on why the Carter & de Camp Congor just doesn’t work–”Although the Cimmerian treated women with a rough chivarly…” Robert E. Howard to the best of my knowledge, never used the words chivalry or code of honor or anything on those lines. Howard’s Conan could be a manipulative bastard who was determined to win.  De Camp inserts himself with a description of an African village with the banana beer and millet cakes and also describing some weaponry used by Juma’s warriors. Lin Carter makes a comeback getting finally to use his “Devil Tree” as the devouring tree. Overall, Conan the Buccaneer is a disaster of a novel. It is just simply put–bad sword and sorcery. L. Sprague de Camp complained about Robert E. Howard’s repetitive tendencies but couldn’t recognize the same with Lin Carter. A supposed fault with Robert E. Howard is overlooked with Lin Carter.

The four stories that make up Conan of Aquilonia did not see book publication until 1977. Lancer Books had gone out of business forestalling the next Lancer Congor book. De Camp & Carter were able to sell the stories to Fantastic Stories. Ted White, a friend of Carter, was editor for both Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories during the 1970s. Despite having almost no budget to work with, he pulled off a near miracle and made Fantastic Stories a great magazine. He caught some flack for running Congor stories but admitted that having Congor on the cover boosted sales of the magazine helping to keep it alive. White had a good sense for the visual and the Congor stories had the fortune in having Jeff Jones and Steve Fabian covers gracing some of the issues.

“The Witch of the Mists” (August 1972) has the Congor stories going on a bad downhill slide, not that they were real good to begin with. Congor’s whelp, Prince Conn, is kidnapped by the Witchmen of Hyperborea. Carter turned the Hyperboreans into another group of bad druids like in his Thongor novels and de Camp went along. Howard intimated that the Hyperboreans were sons-a-bitches but there was no mention of sorcery. Robert M. Price asked Carter about these stories:

“They were (genuine collaborations), except that in the early collaborations, if Sprague decided to change something, I was too intimidated by his prestige to speak up, even though I thought he might be watering one of my ideas down. So in these, which were about the last thing we did, I spoke up a little more strongly, and he would go along with me.”

Thoth-Amon is used as a recurring villain like Fu Manchu as Congor’s arch nemesis. “Black Sphinx of Nebthu” has Congor taking his Aquilonian army south to battle the Stygians. Another one of Lin Carter’s irritating characters is added, this time Diviatix the druid. The humorous wizard is another Lin Carter staple just like the pirate story and animated statue. The titanic good versus evil battle is brought in again. “Pray tell your king Conan that I am come from the great Grove with a message. The Lords of Light have given me a command for their servant, Conan, and I bear his destiny in my hand.”

Conan- servant of the “Lords of Light!” WTF!!! Robert E. Howard’s Conan was nobody’s servent whether man or god. Now you have him turned into a tool of the angels. Neither de Camp nor Lin Carter got it, did they? Oh- so we don’t forget, the chapter is entitled “Destiny in White.” Sounds like a romance novel title. L. Sprague de Camp comes roaring in with his description of Princess Chabela of Zingara who was in Conan the Buccaneer. She is now described as having put on weight. “She was still a handsome woman but in a plump, matronly fashion.” De Camp is always poised to strip any glamor away. De Camp is also present when the levies from Koth and Ophir desert the army. You have yet another animated statue!

“Red Moon of Zembabwei” (Fantastic, July 1974) is more of the same, this time in Zembabwei. You have de Camp’s African descriptions, Carter mounting the Zembabweians on Pterodactyls (like in Thongor). Not much more to be said about this story.

The final showdown with Thoth-Amon happens in “Shadows in the SKull” (Fantastic, Feb. 1975). Lin Carter also resurrected the serpent men of Kull’s time for this story. It is probably mostly Carter, though Congor telling his son to go retrieve his sword is de Camp at his realistic best. Reading these stories you are aware of the lack of true fear and menace present in the Robert E. Howard stories. The better of the Carter & de Camp stories are average sword and sorcery fiction but not good Conan, not really Conan at all. Lin Carter would have been better off writing his Thongor stories. He certainly today would have less ill will towards his memory by some Howard fans. Examining these stories exposes L. Sprague de Camp’s faults as an editor. Carter’s repetitions such as the animated statue, ridiculous dialogue, and burlesque characters should have been excised. The execution was mediocre at best and too often incompetent.  There are also conceptual problems with what they did with the character adding the whole battle of good vs. evil. The same problem happened when August Derleth thought he was pastiching H. P. Lovecraft.  The de Camp/Carter collaboration appear to have ground to a halt about this time. That will be dealt with next time. I have been told that Sigurd of Vanaheim was given a particularly gruesome death in one of the Marvel Conan comic books in the early 1990s. Roy Thomas adapted a Clark Ashton Smith Zothique story and used it as vehicle of revenge, striking a blow for all the long suffering readers out there who hated Sigurd of Vanaheim.

I dare any of you to defend the Congor stories by Carter & de Camp.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp, Pastiches |

Conan the Avenger

Posted by morgan on 31st August 2008

The first counterfeit Conan novel out in paperback wasn’t by Carter & de Camp but by Bjorn Nyberg & L. Sprague de Camp. The history of this novel went back a decade when Nyberg had written a Conan novel. L. Sprague de Camp edited it including correcting any English errors. Nyberg was a Swede and English was a second language for him. De Camp was able to sell an excerpt to Fantastic Universe magazine for September 1957 issue under the name, “Conan the Victorious.”

Gnome Press then published the whole novel as The Return of Conan in 1957. The Gnome Press edition has a cover by Wally Wood. There is something unique about Wally Wood’s art. A shame he did not illustrate more Robert E. Howard though I could have done without the fur jockstrap.

I did not have hostile memories of Conan the Avenger that I had with other pastiches–but I had read it over 26 years ago. Steve Tompkins had warned me that the novel does not hold up well under scrutiny and he was right. The opening scene reminds me more of a costume romance novel than sword and sorcery.

“Fair were the ladies, and a judge would be sorely put to decide a contest for beauty-at least, if he were choosing among the guests. For, in truth, the queen was more beautiful than anyone. The perfection of her form was outlined by the clinging, low-necked gown she wore, with only a silver circlet to confine the foamy mass of her wavy black hair. Moreover, her perfectly-molded face radiated such innate nobility and kindliness as were seldom seen in those times. However, if the king was counted fortunate by his fellow men, no less was Queen Zenobia envied by the ladies. Conan cut an imposing figure in his simple black tunic, with legs clothed in black hose and feet booted in soft, black leather…The ball began. King Conan opened it with his queen in the first complicated steps of the Aquilonian minuet.”

There is more but I can’t take it. Did I accidently fall into a Harlequin Romance novel? This sort of passage would be perfectly fine for any other fantasy novel but not for Conan. I can’t for the life of me remember Howard ever using the word minuet. The abduction of Zenobia by a wizard from across the breadth of the continent is the excuse for the story. Conan has to travel to Khitai and there is all sorts of travelogue and incidents to fill up the novel. Conan is turned into a champion of the world against sorcery. To do this is a misunderstanding of the Conan stories. There is an anarchistic quality to the original Conan stories. Turning him into a champion in a good vs. evil battle in the pastiches smacks of shoehorning the character into de Camp’s precious “saga.” The scene of Conan saying his bedtime prayer to Crom starting out as “Oh Father Crom…” is embarrasing. The lecture by Pelias stating: “We are entering a new era. Enlightenment and reason are spreading among the peoples of the West…The bonds of black magic are strained and broken by new factors brought in by the changed conditions.” is also non-Howardian.

The novel then revisits various phases in Conan’s past career. Steve Tompkins has dubbed it a “reunion tour” which is about as good a way to describe it as any. You get Conan the Zuagir chief, Conan the Vilayet pirate, Conan the Afghuli tribal leader. Nyberg even raided “Red Nails” with another reanimated dragon. This time Conan quickly dispatches the dragon with a long piece of sharp bamboo. Gone is the stark terror present in the first third of “Red Nails” when the dragon was an engine of death and more than Conan could handle. Only with the poison fruit was Conan able to dispatch the dragon. The climax of the novel is undercut by the divine intervention of Crom helping Conan to kill Yah Chieng. How about when Conan took on the Black Seers of Yimsha without divine help? A final quibble is in the last chapter. Zenobia has all of a sudden become an expert archer with a double curved Khitan bow in the past year she left the seraglio of Tarascus. It took years of practice to create the famous English long bowmen who pincushioned more than one French army during the Hundred Years War. Any bow hunter (calling Ted Nugent) will tell you a novice archer is not going to pick off cavalrymen at 200 yards at a gallop. De Camp should have caught this.

At times, the action is not bad. The episodic nature of the novel and the way it strip-mines past Howard stories diminishes action scene competency. This was the first fan Conan novel.

Posted in History, L. Sprague de Camp, Popular Culture |

The de Camp Controversy: Part 9

Posted by morgan on 30th August 2008

L. Sprague de Camp got his cowriter in the form of Lin Carter to create new stories of Conan for the Lancer paperback series. Lin Carter had already been involved in making stories out of fragments for King Kull in 1967 and creating “The Hand of Nergal” out of an untitled Howard fragment. The first of the Carter & de Camp Conan pastiches would appear in Conan in 1968. The best analysis ever written exploring the Carter & de Camp pastiches is in Robert M. Price’s Lin Carter: A Look Behind His Imaginary Worlds (Starmont Press, 1991) in the chapter entitled “Amra the Lion Has Returned!” I followed Price’s method of analysis by reading de Camp’s historicals and The Tritonian Ring and a whole host of Lin Carter books to get an idea of what is Lin Carter and what is L. Sprague de Camp.

It was Price who divulged that Lin Carter had planned on a collection of Thongor stories to be entitled Swordsman of Lemuria after Thongor of Lemuria. Three of the story plots would be converted into Conan stories. I am unique in that going back to the Carter & de Camp Conan pastiches, I keep seeing Thongor instead of Conan. Steve Tompkins might be the only other. These stories are not quite like Thongor though. I had to devise a name for this counterfeit Conan. If you splice Conan and Thongor, you get two appropriate names. The first is Congor, which works very well. The other is Thongnan with the emphasis on the “Thong.” Brings up an image of a Carter & de Camp pastiche hero prancing around in a leather thong flaunting his butt cheeks.

The very first Carter & de Camp Congor story is “The Thing in the Crypt” which originally was to be a Thongor story. First– some gripes about the Lancer/Ace editions. What was the idea of splitting up Robert E. Howard’s essay “The Hyborian Age?” The first half is in Conan, the second half at the end of Conan the Avenger. There is no justification for this. Second–the author’s names are not listed on the first page of each story with the title. The effect is just “Conan,” not Robert E. Howard.  Was this a deliberate attempt to de-emphasize the authors and emphasis the character? Probably. Again, it goes back to inserting non-Robert E. Howard material into the books and presenting it as co-equal.  “The Thing in the Crypt” is really a short story but broken up into six min-chapters that Lin Carter was fond of doing with his shorter Thongor works. Congor is introduced to new readers running for his life from a pack of wolves. He just escaped from the Hyperboreans. Could the story have been improved by having Conan pursued by Hyperboreans and having him turn on them and spill some blood? Yes, but Carter & de Camp didn’t think of that. Conan is referred to as a stripling. REH would have never used that word. Also mentioned that Conan “had no clear ambition or plan of action.” I detect some de Campian phrasing here with “plan of action.” De Camp is also evident with an archaeological description of the tomb that Congor entered. The battle with the liche has a line, “How can you kill a thing that is already dead?” that Carter reused word for word in “Keeper of the Emerald Flame,” a Thongor story.  The whole story is based around getting this ancient sword that transforms Congor from a runaway youth into a confident warrior. Thongor carries a sword that he inherits of ancient lineage that is essential to fulfilling prophecies in Lemuria. Carter & de Camp fail to recognize that Howardian characters are badasses and that some special weapon is not what makes the character. Then after going to all this trouble, the ancient sword is never mentioned again!

The next Congor story is “The City of Skulls,” which Robert M. Price thinks is almost all Lin Carter who probably gave the title of “Chains of Shamballah.” Congor and his Kushite friend, Juma, are taken prisoner and put on a slave galley. Congor takes a beating from an overseer on the ship. Remember how long it took Conan to lead a ship revolt in “Hour of the Dragon?” Juma and Congor escape from the galley to rescue the captured Hyrkanian princess they were originally escorting and end up fighting an animated statue, which is a standard Lin Carter device. There are bits of de Camp in the story such as weapon terminology such as tulwar, Meruvian marines on the galley, and a lecture on the importance of learning other languages. The story is essentially written by Lin Carter and edited by L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp should have chucked the last sentence: “Well, I will, never, never underestimate a Cimmerian again!”

The same year brought Conan the Wanderer which included “Black Tears.” The bad prose begins early such as “leaving one as dry as the withered tongue of a Stygian mummy” but is rarer than other Carter & de Camp stories. Overall, this story may the best of the bunch and there is a reason. Lin Carter used the plot taken from Donald Wandrei’s classic “The Tree Men of M’Bwa” (Weird Tales, Feb. 1932) and adapted it for Congor. De Camp’s editing is better in general though again he should have scrubbed the last sentence: “It does a man good, once in a while to be virtuous. Even a Cimmerian!” Jeeezzz! Makes me think of the endings of the Scooby Doo cartoon.

Conan of Cimmeria brought the next batch of Congor stories in 1969. “The Curse of the Monolith” had appeared in the magazine, Worlds of Fantasy the year before as “Conan and the Cenotaph.” Like the previous stories, the plot is Lin Carter with some L. Sprague de Camp editing. Some clunker prose in this story include: “On the other hand, he secretly envied the Khitan his exquisitely cultivated manners and easy charm. This fact led Conan to resent the duke even more; for, although his Turanian service had given Conan some slight polish, he was still at heart the blunt, boorish young barbarian.” That sentence is definitely de Camp. Carter may have modelled his Duke Feng on Ernest Bramah’s Kai-Lung who Carter reprinted in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

“The Lair of the Ice Worm” was supposed to be a Thongor story for The Swordsman of Lemuria set in the north. Price’s book on Carter includes a synopsis for the Congor story that is set in tropic climes instead of the far north. The original title was supposed to be “The Devil Tree” and set right after “The Snout in the Dark.” Carter includes “They have been cromping for two weeks, making violent passionate love every night, etc…she must smell delicious narcotic pooh of the odd tree…never mind if waxen pale blossoms are slowly sinking to press kisses against her flushing crimson as they drink her warm blood…Conan comes completely awake all at once, as barbarians do…his nice blond nookie is gone…in embrace of eerie smelly tree…goddam vampire tree, sets fire to jungle underbrush to kill perfume.” Nookie, goddam vampire smelly tree, narcotic pooh? Looks like Carter was not taking writing Congor stories too seriously. In the published version, who wrote “Then he grunted a course expletive?” The story has the girl being eaten by the ice worm but ends on a happy note: “But with a high heart, turning to the golden South, where shining cities lifted tall towers to a balmy sun, and where a stong man with courage and luck could win gold, wine, and soft, full-breasted women.” You could have a nuclear holocaust and a Lin Carter story would end this way.

“The Castle of Terror” is possibly the single worst Carter & de Camp story. I detect de Camp in the first two “chapters” with the descriptions of African terrain and information on how a pride of lions hunt. The story switches to Lin Carter with the serpent men castle and the hundred headed creature which is downright laughable in its description. I think Carter was shooting for having a Lovecraftian shoggoth but got there by way of August Derleth. Congor is a bystander for the most part in this story which is not Conanesque at all. This was the last of the first batch of shorter Congor stories. The same year of Conan of Cimmeria brought us the first of the Carter & de Camp Congor novels.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp |

The de Camp Controversy: Part 8

Posted by morgan on 23rd August 2008

While the deal with Lancer Books was in limbo due to litigation with Martin Greenberg of Gnome Press, L. Sprague de Camp’s attorney advised he write new Conan stories in order to make a better claim to the series. There was a problem– de Camp had failed to resurrect sword and sorcery fiction in the 1950s with his aborted Pusad series nor had he written any new Conan stories. As already pointed out, he was incapable of turning the synopsis of “The Drums of Tombalku” into a novel. He had other weaknesses as a writer. Brian M. Stableford wrote the entry on L. Sprague de Camp for Science Fiction Writers (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982) edited by E. F. Bleiler:

“Converting his excellent ideas into workable stories and constructing plots in such a way as to make good use of his erudition were things that continued to cause de Camp problems throughout his career. A great many of his novels are merely episodic accounts of journeys whose protagonists encounter a series of strange situations. This weakness of plot structure and design sometimes results in a lack of dramatic tension.”

He was going to have to get a collaborator to provide story ideas. In the 1990s, de Camp mentioned in several of his letters to REHupa that he should have asked Leigh Brackett to come on board. This probably would not have worked as Brackett would not have played second fiddle to de Camp nor submit easily to his editorial dictates. She was making better money writing movie screen plays for Howard Hawks than for some bottom tier paperback house. If she was to write Conan stories, she didn’t need de Camp. De Camp was going to have to find someone more pliable. John Jakes had started writing the Brak stories in 1963 for Fantastic Stories. Jakes started in the last years of the pulp magazines and a professional writer in his own right long before this.

I had asked De Camp about Gardner Fox who had some background in sword and sorcery fiction in the 1940s in the pages of Planet Stories. He didn’t even know about Fox at the time. Enter Linwood Vrooman Carter, a fan who had written several novels before he was finally published. Carter was younger than de Camp and at heart a fan-boy. Carter got his big break during the Burroughs boom of the early and mid-60s. Donald A. Wollheim, editor at Ace Books was reprinting Otis Adelbert Kline, Ralph Milne Farley, and Ray Cummings in order to satisfy the new demand for sword and planet fiction. He also had some new novels by Gardner Fox (Warrior of Llarn), Andre Norton (Witch World), and Lin Carter. Carter’s first novel, The Wizard of Lemuria was in 1965. Carter’s main hero, Thongor, was an imitation barbarian modeled on Conan. The setting is the lost continent of Lemuria 100,000 years ago. The book has been described as a head on collision of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. There is little Robert E. Howard influence outside of the antediluvian setting and barbarian hero. Carter’s novel is pure Barsoom to the point of having flying boats present. Thongor is also more passive than Conan ever was tagging along with the elderly good wizard (a Carter staple) to defeat the ancient nefarious Dragon Kings. If you have read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, the story in The Wizard of Lemuria will be familiar to you. The novel must have done well enough to warrant a follow up in 1966–Thongor of Lemuria.

Not everyone was impressed with Thongor. Harry Harrison had this to say about The Wizard of Lemuria in a book review for Amra #36 (September 1965):

“Take a Conan-type hero. Set him down on Barsoom; calling it, however, Lemuria. Season thickly with elements reminiscent of Amtor and other heroic locations, including a very watered-down ‘Law versus Chaos’ struggle going on behind the scenes. Strain the whole through a sieve fine enough to remove virtually all elements of (a) characterization and (b) originality….The only distinguishing feature that I am able to discern in THE WIZARD OF LEMURIA is that it is entirely derivative of other works in the genre, with no obvious originality whatsoever. Add to this the absolute lifelessness of the characters–even at his very worse (which could, admittedly, be pretty abysmal at time), Edgar Rice Burroughs never created anybody quite this wooden….He has done such an incompetent job that for a few moments there I thought he was writing a parody of swordplay-and-sorcery….Why does this book offend me? Because there is not an ounce of originality in it. The people, machines, animals, names–everything has been assembled out of an old box of Burroughs and Howard fragments….You and I have read it all before and can exact no pleasure from having the various pieces stirred together–usually at random–and served up as new stuff. Nor has it been written well. Ghu knows we have learned not to expect too much of our authors, but we do expect them to rise above cliche once in awhile. Carter never does….Since Carter doesn’t read his own copy with any attention–why should we?….There is more. There is the awful poetry that alwys seems to adorn bad fantasy. There are the ludicrous similes (Our dreaded dwark has ‘slimy saliva, reeking like an open grave.’) I suppose if there were an idiot in the story he would have a needle-pointed head….Am I being cruel? Perhaps. But Lin Carter was cruel to me. He promised me an ‘action-packed novel’ with ‘vivid sword-and-sorcery impact’ and he did not deliver. I read his book and I was not satisfied. I wish he would go away and think about what I have said, then sit down and try to write a more consistent and interesting book of his own. It will take work, but that is what he is being paid for. I enjoy reading good sword-&-sorcery, therefore I will not accept the ersatz stuff.”

Lin Carter for most of his professional career was most adept at imitating Edgar Rice Burroughs. There are sword & planet fiction fans who consider his Callisto and Green Star series as his best series. I personally don’t like them for reasons that Harrison already mentioned in that review. Another problem that would manifest itself is L. Sprague de Camp was devoid of any ability to write horror, gothic, or weird passages. Neither could Carter; the nearest you got were pastiches of August Derleth pastiching H. P. Lovecraft and thinking mentioning all sorts of doomed families, forbidden books, and elder gods was scary in of itself. Darrell Schweitzer has described Lin Carter as an insincere writer. Carter would attempt to imitate Leigh Brackett, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, Derleth as Lovecraft, Lester Dent. In some of his writings, you got the impression he wanted to belong to the “imaginary worlds” sort of fantasy of E. R. Eddison and William Morris. He never got the Robert E. Howard vibe going in his own fiction. In one interview he thought the Elak of Atlantis stories of Henry Kuttner were superior to Robert E. Howard. He had a fatal attraction towards humor that would further mar a significant portion of his fiction. I have always found this passage from Imaginary Worlds (Ballantine Books, 1973) to be both telling and damning when discussing Norvell Page’s Prester John/Wan Tengri: “Wan Tengri, as Hurricane John is known to his Asiatic friends and foes, differs from Conan in being a more rounded and believable character, possessed of a surprising sense of humor.” This was the man that L. Sprague de Camp had pinned his hopes and efforts on.

Posted in L. Sprague de Camp |