L. Sprague de Camp is a polarizing figure today. Gone for eight years, his fiction is fading away rapidly. Recently, Mark Olson of NESFA asked one discussion group if there were any de Camp series worth reprinting. I suggested the Pusad cycle of stories. He asked if they were worth reprinting. My honest answer was they were de Camp stories and you know what means. He replied that de Camp generally seemed to lose interest in his series after a strong start. There are two L. Sprague de Camp collections from NESFA, a small press outfit. That is the last stop before oblivion. Ironic that de Camp kept up an interest in someone else’s creation.
I was once a big L. Sprague de Camp fan. In fact, there was a period of about six months or a year that I was probably a bigger de Camp fan than Robert E. Howard fan. Having exhausted all the Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and a portion of Robert E. Howard, I had moved into reading John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction golden age crew including de Camp. During that time I read too many de Camp novels and stories. Also, I read de Camp’s essays reprinted from Amra in books like The Spell of Conan and Blond Barbarians and Noble Savages. Then I became sentient. After while, de Camp was sounding to me like Cliff Clavin from the T.V. show Cheers. He was an expert on everything! There was that headmaster tone present all the time that really began to grate on me. My attitude changed. Over exposure to L. Sprague de Camp turned me off. Later on, learning things like the lawsuits against Glenn Lord, preventing a pure Howard Conan edition by Baen, all those bad Tor pastiches made me downright unappreciative of his actions.
De Camp was at his worst with his biographies. He had little empathy for his subjects and put them out like some sort of freak show while he is the expert giving congressional testimony. I recently read David Hadju’s The Ten Cent Plague which is about the hysteria about comic books in the 1950s and the supposed bad influence on America’s youth. The section on Dr. Frederic Wertham, the psychiatrist who lead the attack against comic books reminded me of de Camp. L. Sprague de Camp is the Frederic Wertham of sword and sorcery.
The guy wasn’t without his own idiosyncrasies. For example, when I was the official editor of REHupa, de Camp would have his secretary call me if he was late in getting his mailing. He wouldn’t talk on the phone. He also had an answering machine but hated it. David C. Smith told me this story recently: “This took place back in ’75 or ’76, when I used to visit Ed (Hamilton) and Leigh (Brackett) regularly in the summer and fall. My guess is that it probably was in ’75, about the time that de Camp’s HPL book came out and de Camp did all of that ‘pseudoanalyzing’ about Lovecraft. Ed Hamilton asked me, ‘Did you have a good childhood?’ and I told him I certainly thought so. I grew up out in the country, climbed trees, played outdoors, had great parents, and so on. He said that he, too, had had a great childhood. He said, Sprague de Camp had a theory that all writers must have had bad childhoods and that such childhoods figured somehow into their later creativity.”
Charles Saunders had a past memory jolted recently by this series: “Sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, I read a feature about the nascent push for Black Studies programs. In the next issue, there was a letter to the editor from de Camp, in which he called Black Studies ‘intellectual pablum’. Anyway, when I saw that letter, I thought: ‘Man, you need to stick to your fiction'” Somewhere along the line, de Camp must have irritated artist Wally Wood as he wrote a comic called Dragonella and the evil wizard is named L. Sprague de Freeb. Then there is a parody of de Camp from the 1970s called Blonde Negroes and Noble Cabbages which I have never seen. Donald Wandrei “despised” L. Sprague de Camp. The Lovecraft biography of course being viewed as character assassination. Tevis Clyde Smith had none too good to say about de Camp’s “The Miscast Barbarian.” So, there were non-admirers going back decades.
The main defense of de Camp today is the belief he saved Conan from oblivion. This is based on ignorance. Martin Greenberg of Gnome Press made a deal with Bantam Books in 1962 for paperback versions of the Gnome Press books. Why didn’t this happen? De Camp was hurriedly shopping around for a Conan deal when Oscar J. Friend died. Did the threat of lawsuit scare off Bantam? Instead of Frazetta, there might have been paperbacks with James Bama painting Conan. The early 1960s saw an Edgar Rice Burroughs boom starting in 1962 when it was discovered a fair amount of Burroughs was public domain. That is turn helped spark an interest in sword and planet fiction with reprints by Otis Adelbert Kline, Ralph Milne Farley, and Ray Cummings. There were new books by Michael Moorcock (as Edward P. Bradbury), Gardner Fox, and even Lin Carter. The Magazine of Horror started in 1963, there were those Roger Corman film adaptions of Poe starring Vincent Price, Zacherly etc. The whole sword and sandle genre of film was going on at this time. Then you had the Tolkien mass market paperbacks which took it to the next level. All sorts of old fantasy was getting reprinted. You think Fletcher Pratt’s Well of the Unicorn was getting reprinted but Conan was going to languish? What planet do you live on? Someone would have published Conan. Donald A. Wollheim at Ace Books would have been on Conan immediately the minute he heard the stories were in public domain. You would have had Emsh, Jack Gaughan, or Gray Morrow doing covers if Ace had published Conan. My own contention is Don Benson at Pyramid Books shied away from Conan because de Camp’s agenting was not on the up and up. Conan is what brought L. Sprague de Camp back, not the other way around. He had left science fiction and fantasy until the Conan paperbacks. The idea that only L. Sprague de Camp could have rescued Conan is silly.
There has been accusations that de Camp was only interested in Conan. We have seen he was interested in getting something started with Solomon Kane with his agent that went nowhere. Remember- there were only two Kull stories known at the time and another two Bran Mak Morn stories. You can’t build books around characters with only two stories. It was only after Glenn Lord tracked down the trunk that further stories came to light, and Glenn Lord was agent for the Howard copyright holders by that time. De Camp’s intrusions were blocked. De Camp had Conan and that’s it. I think this was a good thing in hindsight. I have chronicled how the exploitation of Conan became all bolluxed up when de Camp had his way at CPI. People lost interest in the character.
There were grumblings about de Camp in the 1970s with articles in the small press such as Byron Roarke’s “Vultures Over Cross Plains” and Don Herron’s “Conan vs. Conantics.” He got permanent ill will from Karl Edward Wagner for insisting on killing the Berkley Conan series. De Camp could have won back all sorts of good will if he had allowed Baen Books to publish pure Howard Conan. De Camp wanted it both ways– on one hand he used to act that he was the professional writer. On the other hand, he knew the Carter & de Camp Conan stories were not very good or even bad but he wouldn’t allow any Conan to be published without them. Contrast that to someone like E. Hoffmann Price who used to say that he wrote grade A manure for the Spicy pulps. A true pro knows when his work is bad and should not see the light of day one too many times.
When de Camp threatened Oscar J. Friend that he would just go off and write Conan stories anyway, Friend should have dared him because de Camp couldn’t. L. Sprague de Camp couldn’t write straight sword and sorcery at least not solo. He once said in a letter to REHupa that had he been more confident in his sword and sorcery writing ability, he wouldn’t have brought Lin Carter on board. Deep down, L. Sprague de Camp knew he couldn’t write sword and sorcery. He had to mock it if left to his own devices. Maybe he could have created an alter ego or pseudonym, take some masculine Anglo-Saxon sounding name like Erik Stone and ditch the French name and write some straight sword and sorcery. Probably even then he wouldn’t have been able.
L. Sprague de Camp was a descendant of Norman French Huguenots. The Normans were an aggressive piratical people always sniffing out places for new conquests. That trait was certainly present in him the way he pushed what originally was a work for hire deal and turned it into an equal ownership of an iconic character that he did not create. Looking at his actions, he was always waiting for weakness or an opening whether it was Oscar J. Friend, forming CPI, dealing with Glenn Lord, or getting money out of the Kull movie deal. De Camp is gone, the money he made is gone, only the legacy of his actions remain and the judgment of people aware of his actions.