The de Camp Controversy: Part 8

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.