The de Camp Controversy: Part 7

L. Sprague de Camp had his paperback deal and he had books to flesh out. De Camp had already converted four Robert E. Howard stories into Conan stories a decade earlier. He drifted out of science fiction instead writing popular science books and articles and a handful of historical novels. Now he had to get back into the fantasy fiction writing game. His Pusad series had sputtered out probably due to a lack of ideas. Most of those stories were dependent on a joke at the end. There was a bit of luck when Glenn Lord tracked down a box of unpublished Robert E. Howard stories in 1966. Included were four  incomplete stories with synopses, a synopsis for another story, and one fragment.  De Camp was able to create the stories “The Drums of Tombalku,”The Snout in the Dark,” “Wolves Beyond the Border,” and “The Hall of the Dead” from these incomplete stories.

The publication of the incomplete stories, synopses, and fragment in the Del Rey editions allows any reader to contrast the old Lancer/Ace stories to the Howard source material. I can remember reading “The Drums of Tombalku” in Conan the Adventurer and thinking it was not up to par. Yet, I just read the Howard synopsis for the story in The Bloody Crown of Conan and was getting enthused. The old magic was back. Also, the synopsis for “The Drums of Tombalku” is longer than the synopsis for “The Hour of the Dragon.” That means Howard had meant for the story to be a novel. There is certainly enough going on in the synopsis for a novel in skilled hands. De Camp rushed through the story in his usual five mini-chapters. He didn’t even fully explore  the story that Howard had laid out. This could have been a complete novel, another paperback in the series but de Camp could not do it.

The original Howard synopsis for what became “The Hall of the Dead” describes Conan encountering a “monstrous being.” Reading the synopsis, I was thinking of Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” which is a scary story. I imagine Howard had something along similar lines in mind. L. Sprague de Camp turned the “monstrous being” into a GIANT SLUG!!! Slugs are not scary unless they are eating your tomatoes. They are not carnivorous-they eat vegetables and they love burdock. This coming from someone who lectured readers on how snakes can’t ram with their snout. I used to kill big slugs in Texas with a dash of salt. Was de Camp trying to slip in some sort of joke on unsuspecting readers? Instead of getting a shoggoth or Tsothuggua, we get a mollusc that is regularly eaten in some countries. The Howard synopsis has Conan hacking apart the “monstrous being” after throwing blocks of stone on it. In the de Camp version: “A sword, Conan thought, would be of little use against such a monstrosity.” You also get de Camp’s stopping of the story to engage in a lecture. Ever the engineer, he describes the gate as having “two valves.” In another passage you get: “So meticulous had been the construction of this building, however, that close inspection was needed to show that it was not an ordinary composite stucture.” The sliderule is never far away with de Camp. This story was actually published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for the February 1967 issue. The magazine has a long history of being one of the most literate science fiction and fantasy magazines. Edward L. Ferman had become the editor the year before and started to publish some sword and sorcery. Anthony Boucher would have never allowed Robert E. Howard into his magazine. Ferman first published Jack Vance’s stories that became The Eyes of the Overworld and then Howard’s “For the Love of Barbara Allen” for the August 1966 issue. He would publish scattered sword and sorcery including Tanith Lee’s Cyrion during his tenure as editor. Ferman must have wanted a Robert E. Howard sword and sorcery story or a Conan story.

“Wolves Beyond the Border” has a very typical de Campian touch when he takes over. The Wizard has swamp demons in a bag that is stolen by Gault Hagar’s son. When released the demons will attack only those who are upright. The Howard synopsis has “turn their magic against them, and rout them.” Again de Camp is having fun at the expense of the story. It reminds me of his The Clocks of Iraz in which an enemy uses a tower with a clock on each wall to coordinate attacks. They are  foiled by having each clock showing a different time. Clever but not the stuff of great sword and sorcery.

The fragment that became “The Hand of Nergal” had originally been in de Camp’s hands. In the end he couldn’t write a story without a Howard synopsis to guide him. It was turned over to Lin Carter who created a story out of the fragment. The story is very typical Lin Carter with the deus ex machina climax that he was so fond of using. Conan becomes a bystander while two magic talismans battle it out. Carter claimed to have written “The Hand of Nergal” after carefully studying Robert E. Howard’s style and storytelling but the result of all that study was very Carteresque. Had the name been changed from Conan to Thongor and inserted into a Lin Carter book, no one would have noticed.

“The Snout in the Dark” is longer than “The Drums of Tombalku” even though there is less story. It also has a horrible title. There is a reason for its length. First you have a Howard draft for the first four chapters in addition to a synopsis for what would become a seven chapter novelette. Secondly, Lin Carter was brought in as an indespensible third wheel. De Camp made changes to Howard’s story. The Howard story has Diana to be presented to the King. Diana is kidnapped by Tananda. De Camp changed this in having Diana presented to Tananda. De Camp just removed an element of tension from the story. Who wrote the line “Not every shaft hits the butt?” Was it de Camp or Carter? My guess is it was Carter. “Spells and spooks” is another term in the de Camp & Carter Hall of Shame. Another line of gruesome prose is: “You cannot do anything with these people; they are as hide-bound and as thick-headed as the barbarians of my own north country–the Cimmerians and Aesir and Vanir.” Robert E. Howard would have never written a line like that. You hear of  Hollywood screenplays that get rewritten by someone other than the original author. Then that version gets rewritten by yet another all the while as it gets worse with each change. “The Snout in the Dark” reminds me of those Hollywood screenplay disaster stories.

De Camp’s efforts in fleshing out these stories are perfunctory to say the least. These stories are routine and superficial. He removed elements from Howard’s plots that weakened the stories. The end result was boring in comparison to the original Howard source material. He managed to screw up Robert E. Howard story lines. De Camp just was not cut out to be a writer of sword and sorcery. He needed a co-writer and worse was to follow.