The de Camp Controversy: Part 15

The 1980s was the decade that L. Sprague de Camp’s de-Howardization of Conan got into full gear.  Ace continued to publish the Lancer Conans to diminishing returns. I had written to Susan Allison, editor of Ace Books urging a collection of Henry Kuttner’s sword and sorcery. She replied that sword and sorcery fiction was not doing so well. People were not interested in Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser and even Conan sales were declining. Ballantine Books had reshaped fantasy publishing with Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey had discovered there was a large audience who wanted to read bastardized Tolkien over and over. The formula was find an unknown author writing derivative fantasy, put the money into packaging and promotion and sell more fantasy books. The fantasy reading audience shifted and by 1985 sword and sorcery was going extinct. It didn’t help that there were two bad Conan movies. John Milius hijacked Conan as a vehicle to make his Akira Kurosawa homage for the first movie. Mako dialogue at the beginning and end of the movie? You gotta be kidding me! The second movie was so bad it was the final nail in the coffin. Charles Saunders has blamed the Conan movies for killing sword and sorcery. The lure of movie money is what forced the formation of Conan Properties, Inc and the movies proved to be an albatross for the genre. The Ace editions went out of print one by one in the mid and late 1980s to general indifference.

The Robert Jordan counterfeit Conan novels proved successful enough for Tor to enlarge the operation and publish a large number of Conan pastiches. L. Sprague de Camp kept a degree of control over the series having veto power. The books had little to no mention of Robert E. Howard. In hindsight, this might be a good thing as most of the books were mediocre to poor.  John Maddox Roberts has mentioned he tried to include some dangerous elements in the stories but it was a constant battle against dumbing down, homogenizing, and making kiddie safe. This was the process of de-Howardization– overwhelm the original Howard cycle with a tsunami of Conantics novels so new readers wouldn’t know the difference. De Camp himself got back into writing his own fiction with The Unbeheaded King and The Hostage of Zir among others. De Camp wrote a timeline of Conan called “Conan the Indestructible” for the Tor pastiches. It was Clark and Miller’s timeline expanded–except there was no mention of P. Schuyler Miller and John D. Clark. De Camp removed them as efficiently as Stalin erasing Trotsky out of Party photos. And Miller and Clark had been friends of de Camp.

The 1990s brought two execrable Conan cartoons (remember the theme song?). Marvel comics finally killed off first Conan the Barbarian and then Savage Sword of Conan. Baen Books was interested in publishing the Robert E. Howard Conan stories in paperback with no pastiches. De Camp vetoed the idea. Conan was dying due to de Camp’s actions. About the same time, the Tor pastiches petered out with a wimper. John C. Hocking wrote Conan and the Emerald Lotus which was the pulpiest of the lot and perhaps the best but it was too little, too late. If you wanted Conan, you had to haunt the used bookstores.

De Camp made a move against Glenn Lord in the 1990s. Lord had been removed as agent for the Howard copyright holder in 1993 while in the process of doing his job.  De Camp petitioned the court demanding arbitration on Glenn Lord’s 5% commission on CPI’s gross as agent. The Supreme Court of New York decision stayed arbitration as the claim fell outside of the arbitration clause and “de Camp is not the proper party to raise the claim.” The court decision included that de Camp became “emboldened” with Glenn Lord’s dismissal. The original demand for arbitration mentions “disputes have proven to an unwarranted distraction and appear to have impaired the ability of CPI to exploit Conan.” Hell yeah, a series of lame movies, toys, and cartoons that ultimately damage the character are going to cause problems.

It was during this time that de Camp turned publicly against his deceased former collaborator, Lin Carter. In letters to REHupa, de Camp bemoaned that he didn’t ask Leigh Brackett to co-write Conan stories with him. Lin Carter was a derivative and sloppy writer. Most of his writing is crud, but–he enabled L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp would have never been able to write those Lancer pastiche stories if it had not been for Lin Carter.  Within REHupa, there was increasing criticism of the pastiches and de Camp attempted to deflect those charges by using Lin Carter’s corpse as the target.