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Howard and De Camp?
Dave Wants to Know Which Edition of Conan Tales Our Sons Should Read
© 2017 James LaFond
I've been meaning to ask you a question. If you've already covered it, simply point me to the correct blog post. I was wondering how you felt about the Howard/DeCamp and the Lovecraft/Derleth controversies? I ask because some of their beliefs were out of sync to say the least with modern sensibilities but I'm not certain how much of that was edited out of their works that we have now. With Conan, I bought the recent editions that removed most of DeCamp's added material and I actually found I enjoyed them less than the ACE versions with the Frazetta covers that I grew up with. I actually enjoyed DeCamp's progression of Conan into a king instead of the apparent randomness of Howard's Conan stories. Both DeCamp and Derleth seemed to be serious scholars of Howard and Lovecraft from what I can tell, and in Lovecraft's case, it isn't clear to me that we would even know who Lovecraft is without Derleth's involvement. With all that said, which version of these two gentlemen's works do you recommend we buy for our sons?
Dave, this is a tough one. To begin with I’m not qualified to even ask the Lovecraft/Derleth question. Hopefully some of our readers will have an opinion. Also, Tex and Deuce know more about Howard bibliography, by a long shot, than I do, so they may have useful suggestions.
As for Howard and the Ace Conon series, we have to understand that Howard wrote, and was published in, the Shadow of the Great Edgar Rice Burroughs. So it was only natural that his work would be packaged in kind, receive attention from the same artists and look good on the book store racks next to the seductive Mars, Pellucidar and Venus series and the 24 Tarzan novels of Burroughs.
I have no surviving Ace editions. If I recall correctly, DeCamp worked along with Lin Carter and they also had help on the background essays from a man with a Norse name, Nigel Bjornson or something like that. I thought DeCamp and Lin Carter were excellent choices for pastiche stories and posthumous collaborations.
DeCamp was a solid science-fiction author who was an excellent bibliophile and a historian and skeptical writer of great ability, who did a book on debunking the very Atlantis myths that Howard based his work on. As an author of serialized magazine stories he was much better adapted to shadowing Howard than any modern writers who have attempted, like Robert Jordan, who was good, but was a novelist, wedded to the Tolkien approach to fantasy, though appropriately dark to do Howard, just too verbose.
Lin Carter was a ‘science fantasy’ writer in the vein of Burroughs and wrote such novellas as Renegade of Callisto [he would have been a great choice for expanding Almuric into a trilogy, as he did interplanetary fiction well—yes, I heard you cringe from here, Deuce!] and a trilogy of novels about an ancient warrior in pre-Atlantean times, named Thongor, who was a very Howardian hero, along the lines of Cormac MacArt and Howard’s other Dark Age heroes. I particularly enjoyed Thongor Against the Gods.
The first Conan book I picked up was Conan the Wanderer. I did not buy them in order, but in the order that I liked the covers. Conan fighting The Devil in Iron on the cover sold me. Interestingly, two stories which I think held up to Howard’s work and which were my among my favorites in that book, was the short about Conan being chased by lions, right out of a Tarzan novel, a linkage piece, and Black Tears, a desert adventure, which I think brings the reader to Shadows in Zamboula.
Next I bought Conan the Barbarian, because I liked the art and found my favorite story, at that age, to be an insert by either DeCamp or Carter, in which Conan is chased by a pack of wolves, a story that John Milus chose to put in the Conan the Barbarian movie. These primal lead stories, with Conan in Tarzan situations, appealed to me as a crossover Tarzan reader, meaning this was brilliant editorial marketing work.
Next, I bought Conan the Cimmerian, with the cover of Conan fighting the frost giants, and ironically liked the short insert about the ice worm, where Conan is travelling through the Border Kingdoms and rescues a girl from the sub humans that killed her escort. The girl is then lured to her death and Conan avenges her. This is a story that I think Howard would have objected to, because the girl dies without first imposing her will—this was more of a Kane vengeance story. In Conan, since that character pushed himself sexually, Howard only let women with agency die. With Kane, a Puritanical character, an innocent woman might die as a reason for Kane to plunge into hell, but not in a Conan story. Since Conan seduced women he was honor bound to save them. The authors who followed Howard were less sentimental where women were concerned and more prudish where race was concerned [I doubt if they grasped Howard's understanding of race and heroism, because, until the cultural calamity of our time, Howard's subtext would seem too absurd.], tending to edit out some of Conan’s dialogue about blacks. However, I believe the notes in between the stories reflect Conan’s realistic prejudices even as one of the editorials apologized for the barbarian’s racism. I thought it was great to read in DeCamp’s chronology notes that Conan migrated for white pussy [as I read his disdain for black women].
Dave, I’m 53, almost 54. When I reread Conan in the restored versions then available in the 90s I felt as if I was missing a little spark. I picked the Ace versions back up and read them, liking them more, until I got to the material by DeCamp and Carter, and that no longer had the spark.
Finally, after beginning to write fiction, I found myself preferring the restored versions, so I think this is a matter of operant perspective.
I believe your sons will wildly enjoy either version, compared to Harry Potter and other such shit currently available. With Carter and DeCamp you do get Howard’s high energy pacing [which is crucial to his appeal to boys], with less horrific atmosphere and also more callous regard for female characters. In any case, they should enjoy the Ace series slightly more due to its chronological organization [which, as a boy who had read history books before fiction, I greatly enjoyed], when they are young, but when they are old they might enjoy the restored versions when reflecting on a certain story they want to reread.
Let me put it to you this way, if they read Tarzan, or John Carter of Mars first, then introduce them to the Ace presentation. If they don’t have that Burroughs background and would like to read something heavier than what is otherwise out there, I’d start them on the restored collections.
In any case, if they read whichever version of Conan you decide on, and like it, get the latest editions of Solomon Kane, Kull and Bran Mak Morn [in that order]. In the end, as they hit adulthood, you want to be able to hand them Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which will be more accessible in terms of pace, reflection and atmospherics, to someone who has read Howard’s more bitter heroes. I must tell you that Howard brought me to Wolfe, and reading Wolfe in my thirties did a lot to blunt the edges of the trials we men face at half-life, just as reading Howard in my teens helped me through that identity-check period.
Dave, thanks for the hard question and consider the Berkley Medallion series of paperbacks from the mid-Seventies. The artwork is outstanding, especially the color plates for Red Nails and People of the Black Circle.
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