Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Anti-Decamp Camp

Over in the Robert E. Howard Yahoo Group, we're once again experiencing the cyclical "L. Sprague de Camp is wicked" series of posts. As usual, I read a few of these, get fed up with the same arguments coming up again and again, and drift away from the forum until the hotheads move on to another topic.

But for some reason, the attacks on de Camp seem very personal this time, and that bothers me. I knew L. Sprague de Camp, and was impressed with the man; I also read L. Sprague de Camp the author, and was impressed with him as well. And de Camp deserves a great deal of credit for making Conan accessible to readers in the 1960s; without him, the Robert E. Howard renaissance may have never occurred, nor the rise of Conan to the status of popular culture icon.

Unlike Robert E. Howard, who achieved no success in the book market during his lifetime, de Camp was an author who could sell pretty much any book he wrote--science fiction, alternate history, fantasy, science and history-based nonfiction, biographies, he wrote 'em all. De Camp's first major work, Lest Darkness Fall, has achieved classic status in the SF/alternate history field; his and Fletcher Pratt's Harold Shea stories were a distinctively different sort of fantasy, adventurous but not at all like Howard's heroic fantasy. His Tritonian Ring is a fantasy masterpiece. The Dragon of Ishtar Gate is a historical tour de force that clicked with fantasy fans because of the richness of the cultural insights and the adventurous elements.

Had Howard lived to know de Camp, he would have undoubtedly admired and envied the man's literary golden touch--everything he wrote in every genre found a pubisher and an audience, it seemed. It was that success, along with an abiding admiration for the strength of Howard's prose, that brought de Camp to Conan to begin with. In the 1950s, when Gnome Press collected Howard's Conan stories in a series of limited-print-run hardcovers, de Camp stepped in to fill the gap between Howard's plans for Conan and his surviving ouevre of Conan tales.

De Camp recognized the strength of Howard's storytelling; since there were no new Conan tales to be had (at least none that anyone knew of at the time), he did the next best thing: he took non-Conan short stories--mostly historical fiction--and lovingly reworked them into Conan stories. They were compiled in the Gnome volume Tales of Conan; all but one of them also saw publication in science fiction/fantasy magazines. Was it Robert E. Howard's name that sold those stories? No, it was L. Sprague de Camp's; his posthumous collaboration introduced Howard's character and concept to a new generation of readers, and it did so with stories that inlcuded a heaping helping of Howard prose.

De Camp's appreciation for Howard and Conan was sincere; I spoke to him once about the subject at a convention, and even though de Camp was a staid, reserved, somewhat formal man with a seemingly stern demeanor, it was obvious that he was first and foremost a fan of the writer and of the character. He didn't come to Conan to overshadow Howard, or to remold the hero into something Howard never intended. Instead, he came to Conan to fill in gaps in the body of work of an author he enjoyed--and at the same time, he brought a literary credibility to Howard.

Sometimes an author's success is determined by the company he keeps--the authors with whom he associates during his lifetime, the celebrities who read his works, and the authors or editors who act as his advocates after his death, pushing his work back into the public eye lest they be forgotten. Some may remember that Ian Fleming's James Bond was virtually unknown in the US until it became common knowledge that President Kennedy enjoyed them; suddenly Fleming was an American success, and that Kennedy association helped to make the James Bond juggernaut possible.

While L. Sprague de Camp was no Kennedy, he was a big literary fish in the small pond of science fiction and fantasy; his admiration for Howard, and his willingness to rework that material so that it had elements of both Howard and de Camp made the stories saleable to editors in the 1950's and the 1960's. Without de Camp and his eager and talented collaborator Lin Carter, there would have been no Lancer Books Conan line in the 1960s.

In science fiction of the time, there were A list authors and B list authors. A list authors were published in hardcover; companies bid for the rights to publish their books in paperback; their backlist titles rotated back into print regularly; and they appeared under more reputable literary imprints like Ballantine Books, where Ian and Betty Ballantine brought added respectability to science fiction. B list authors wrote two or three books a year for the SF equivalent of scale; their works rarely went back into print; and they often saw their names on one side of an Ace Double, with another author's novel on the flip side--the paperback equivalent of a two-story SF magazine, meant to be read and forgotten. L. Sprague de Camp was, in the 1960s, an A list author. Lin Carter was, at the same time, a B list author. But when the two of them collaborated to fill out the Conan saga, they found unprecedented success. Their names helped to sell the books to the editors at Lancer; their finishing of the stories, their editing and reworking of Howard's prose, convinced the publisher that these stories could sell... and they did.

I've heard some in the Howard group credit the Frazetta covers for the success of Conan. Certainly, they were a part of the gestalt--but if the Frazetta covers were the sole cause of the book's success, then why had Ace never been able to leverage their Frazetta covers on Edgar Rice Burroughs books into the same sort of mega-success (and why did the books ultimately end up with Ballantine, who went for a totally non-Frazetta look with their editions and found greater success)? Why, too, did all the other SF and fantasy books featuring Frazetta covers not become best-sellers?

I love Frazetta's work, and I can never picture the mature Conan without seeing his imagery--but to most of the world, Frazetta was an artist best known for his work on books from the B list publishers, especially Ace. When Ace made an attempt to move into the A list field with their Ace Science Fiction Specials just a couple of years after Frazetta's covers appeared on those Lancer Conans, they made a conscious decision to avoid the Frazetta style of art, going for the more modern, expressionistic work of Leo and Diane Dillon. And when Ian and Betty Ballantine drafted Lin Carter to oversee the publication of one of the most impressive collections of fantasy novels ever assembled, they didn't ask Frazetta to do the covers; instead, they went in a totally different artistic direction for their Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. And even Lancer was willing to publish some Conan novels without Frazetta covers; while his work enhanced the books, it wasn't the crucial key to the Conan novels' success.

So what was? At the core, it was the strength of Robert E. Howard's storytelling, the indomitable vitality of his character, and the elements of an epic saga that existed in his overarcing story. But he died before that overarcing story was complete; without the loving but professional guidance of L. Sprague de Camp, who brought a respectability and credibility to the works of a man then thought of as just another dead pulp writer, those stories might have never seen print, and most surely would not have seen mass market success. De Camp filled in the missing pieces, massaged the prose and reworked existing stories to bring them into the Conan fold, and gave a sense of completion to the work. These books were part of a Conan saga, and de Camp (along with Carter) recognized the value of the word saga. They made it happen.

And every time I read some pissant deride de Camp as a leech or a polluter of the work of Howard, I realize how little these people know of the history--and how little they comprehend the alternate history of a forgotten author known only to pulp enthusiasts and those who hunted out obscure magazines. L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall may be his most famous alternate history, but the alternate historical path he blazed for Howard and Conan is his most long-lasting.

1 comment:

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Well said, Cliff. Your knowledge of not only Decamp's career, but of the history of science fiction/fantasy publishing gives you an understanding far beyond what most of Decamp's detractors are capable of. And as usual it's the people who know the least who are the most strident. Thanks for standing up for Decamp and for doing it in such a well informed and well thought out way.