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The Robert E. Howard United Press Association.

The de Camp Controversy Part 6

Posted by morgan on August 10th, 2008

A big part of the de Camp controversy is the role of the paste up Conan stories he wrote, pastiches as they are known. These non-Robert E. Howard stories were entwined with the original material for decades. The stories themselves are polarizing but more so the concept of non-Howard fiction inserted as co-equal with the original Howard fiction. I know of some who hate all pastiches as a result of the original de Camp & Carter stories. Interestingly, pastiche defenders I have known generally evade discussing any merits or demerits of the de Camp & Carter stories. I have seen some who squeal like the proverbial stuck pig when a thread of pastiche bashing gets started. My own psychoanalysis is these people have thought of writing their own Conan story at some time and internalize any pastiche demolition as a personal attack on themselves.

L. Sprague de Camp is a strange case for moving into Howardian sword and sorcery. De Camp started in John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction in 1937 when the magazine was still Astounding Stories and Campbell was working under editor F. Orlin Tremaine. He had helped John D. Clark plot two stories that eventually ended up in Astounding. He decided to give it a try and became a regular. De Camp was writing almost as much non-fiction for the magazine as fiction from an early stage. Some of his science fiction holds up, “Living Fossil” and “Employment” remain favorites of mine. “Lest Darkness Fall” pretty much established the sub-genre of alternate history with “The Wheels of If” solidifying the field.  De Camp wrote some stories for Unknown with Fletcher Pratt about Harold Shea who travels to various fantasy worlds based on myth. De Camp would later use this series as reason for him being a pioneer of sword and sorcery with Howard, Kuttner, Leiber, Page, Moore etc. I have said in the past that de Camp was the master of the “Ribald Action Nerd Story.” Another term I have invented for Harold Shea is “Sword and Sliderule.” I personally hate these stories. They don’t hold up well, the humor is dated and I wonder if they were funny even for the time (early 1940s). More often than not, the stories are boring. Most of de Camp’s fantasy from Unknown lies unreprinted today. “Solomon’s Stone,” “The Undesired Princess,” “The Stolen Dormouse” have not been reprinted in close to 45 years. Guess no one is interested in reading them. Humor was the De Camp hallmark and the distinguishing feature of his fiction to this day. A word that pops up repeatedly to describe de Camp’s fiction is silly or “silliness to it all.”

De Camp himself stopped writing while serving in the Navy in Philadelphia in WWII.  He slowly began producing in 1946 after a three year absence from fiction writing. Perhaps an indication of the future was his creation of his Viagens/Krishna series. De Camp thought Brazil would be the dominant nation of the future (did he ever get that one wrong) and Portuguese would replace English as the lingua franca of Earth (wrong again). He created a planet called Krishna that was his attempt at writing sword and planet but without Burroughs’ “lapses of logic.” “A Queen of Zamba” (Astounding Science Fiction, 1949) was the first novel in this series. A typical Krishna story is an accountant has to go to Krishna to find somebody thought lost. Earthmen have to disguise themselves as a native who are at a pre-industrial level of technology.

It was right after the start of the Viagens/Krishna series that he discovered Conan. He liked the idea of sword and sorcery so much he created his own Hyborian Age called Pusad. Set in a prehistoric time with a portion of Atlantis still afloat (Pusad) with a panoply of various kingdoms, tribes, and nations. “The Eye of Tandyla” (Fantastic Adventures, May 1951) was the first. It is the typical humorous de Camp fantasy that you see throughout his career. De Camp used the skeleton of Hour of the Dragon for “The Tritonian Ring” (Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, Win. 1951). This could possibly be de Camp’s best novel. I remember when I read it I couldn’t put it down. Unfortunately, the rest of the Pusad stories just don’t hold up. “The Owl and the Ape” (Imagination, Nov. 1951), “The Stronger Spell” (Fantasy Fiction, Nov. 1953), “The Hungry Hercynian” (Universe, Dec. 1953), and “Ka the Appalling” (Fantastic Universe, Aug. 1958) all depend on a joke at the end of the story. Three of the stories feature Gezun of Lorsk who is an oaf and a boor. During this time de Camp was writing more non-fiction for magazines than fiction. The Pusad series petered out pretty quick showing de Camp couldn’t keep up any momentum of his own creation.

The next stage was converting some unpublished Robert E. Howard adventure stories into Conan stories for Tales of Conan (Gnome Press, 1955). In this case, de Camp was boxed in by having to follow Howard’s storyline and couldn’t change the stories too radically.  A close reading of them will reveal some problems. “Hawks Over Shem” has action taking place in a Shemite city-state. There is mention of a “square of Adonis” which jars the reader who is aware that Adonis is Greek and really doesn’t belong. Couldn’t a “square of Melkart” have sufficed which is of Semitic origin? In “The Road of the Eagles,” he has a Yuetshi exclaiming “Khosatrel Khel!” You can almost see the character slapping his knee and toothless gums flapping in the breeze. Talk about breaking the mounting tension in the original Howard cossack story.

De Camp moved out of science fiction and fantasy fiction completely by 1959 writing only some non-fiction sporadically for science fiction magazines during the late fifties and early 60s. De Camp had a fairly successful period of writing historical adventures, all set just before or during Hellenistic period. The discovery of sword and sorcery may have spurred de Camp into writing something in that he had a degree of competence. An Elephant for Aristotle (1958), The Bronze God of Rhodes (1960), The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate (1961), The Arrows of Hercules (1965), and The Golden Wind (1969) may be among the best things he ever wrote. Elephant and Dragon are my two personal favorites and also the two most heroic. This was the closest that L. Sprague de Camp ever got to writing straight sword and sorcery without a co-writer. Leon of Atrax (Elephant) and Bessas of Zariaspa (Dragon) are heroic characters. A characteristic of de Camp’s fiction is to poke fun at his heroes. This is almost not present in An Elephant for Aristotle but mildly present with The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate. These novels play to de Camp’s strengths as a writer with the ancient history, architecture, science, zoology, political machinations etc. De Camp’s style is straight forward, not poetic, but perfectly serviceable. His last two novels have increasing cynicism and lack the heroic element of the first three. I think de Camp felt comfortable writing about this period with its Greek adventurers discovering the first elements of science. You would never have him writing a novel set in Dark Ages Europe. These are the novels I send people to if they are looking to discover de Camp. If there is a literary reputation for posterity, these novels are at the core.

If someone had predicted in 1948 that L. Sprague de Camp would morph into the writer of the new adventures of Conan–no one would have believed him. There is nothing in de Camp’s fiction output up until “The Eye of Tandyla” and “The Tritonian Ring” to indicate this radical new direction. It would be like having Isaac Asimov all of a sudden deciding to write Elak of Atlantis stories after Henry Kuttner died. If someone familiar with the field would have been asked to produce a list of writers who could have taken up the mantle of Conan, I doubt de Camp would have been in it. Bryce Walton, Frederic Arnold Kummer, Jr., Norvell W. Page, Leigh Brackett all come to mind as being closer to Robert E. Howard in content and outlook. P. Schuyler Miller would have been higher up the list than de Camp. Miller had written the letter to Howard including a map of the Hyborian Age and chronology of Conan’s career in 1936. Miller himself was no slouch as a writer producing blood and thunder cave-man genocidal warfare in “People of the Arrow” (Amazing Stories). A few years later, Miller co-wrote “Genus Homo” with L. Sprague de Camp. It is unusual to have an established writer switch gears like this. I will leave it to others to speculate on the motive.

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