The de Camp Controversy: Part 10

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.