Monday, August 31, 2015

On Conan and DeCamp

This is the one that started it all.

I'm fairly certain that any fans of Robert E. Howard, and I mean the real fans, like those who frequent the forums, will probably want to put me to the sword for this, but I'm just going to say it:

I don't mind what L. Sprague DeCamp did to Conan in the 60's (with the help of Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyberg).

Let me first be perfectly clear that this is NOT meant as any kind of defense of DeCamp’s attacks on the character of Robert E. Howard as a person.  DeCamp said some pretty deplorable things about Bob, and played armchair psychologist way too much.  Subsequently, his off-color views of the man left an indelible stain on his legacy.  There are, unfortunately, way too many people who only know REH from the introductions in the Lancer/Ace editions of Conan, and are ignorant of what he was really like.

This is not about that.  This is about DeCamp as a writer and editor, and his efforts to create a continuous and cohesive narrative out of Conan’s life.

I should start at the beginning here (and some who have been following my blog for a while might already know this).  I came into Conan through the 1982 film.  I had never really heard of the character prior to that, and certainly had never heard of Robert E. Howard.  After one viewing, though, I was hooked.  To date, I have probably seen that movie at least a hundred times. 

(It should also be noted that those who want to vilify John Milius for his “butchering” of the character on film need to remember that DeCamp was the technical advisor on the film, and his Ace editions were the only references Milius had beyond some of the comic books.)

A few months later, when I was a freshman in high school, I took a Fantasy and Science Fiction class (how cool is that???), where I was supposed to read a fantasy book of my choosing.  While perusing the used book shelf at the library I saw a white paperback entitled simply “Conan.”  I thought that it must be the book the movie was based on, so I snatched it up.  Imagine my surprise to learn that it was an anthology of short stories about the character.  And imagine my further surprise when I found out it was the first of a series of twelve books (at the time).  Short of it; I soon had all twelve volumes and was steadily working my way through all of them.

The important thing to note is that, during these formative reading years (I was only just then starting to choose my own books to read), I could not differentiate between what was REH and what was LSDC (or Lin, or Bjorn).  All I knew was that I liked every story I read.  True, I liked some better than others, but none of them were “bad” to me.  And when I first read them, I skipped the introductions, and went straight to the stories.  Consequently, I didn’t even know about the editing and conversions.

So, what does that mean?  It means that, in my opinion, DeCamp handled the character well.  He spun interesting and exciting tales, and kept the spirit of the character mostly intact.  The hybrid stories, those that started as non-Conan stories or fragments, were just as fun to read for me as the (mostly) pure Howard ones.  And even the offerings written solely by DeCamp were good, especially the last two volumes (Conan of Aquilonia and Conan of the Isles).  In fact, I’m inclined to read those again some time.

All of that being said, as I have grown as a reader, I've learned to see the differences, and I’m pretty sure that the stories I liked best out of those twelve volumes were the ones written by Howard.  I can recognize now that Howard was a greater talent than any of the others.  But, I still hold those pastiches in high regard for their entertainment value, and I commend DeCamp for pulling off the feat he did, and giving readers a complete narrative of Conan’s life.  Canon or not, the details he filled in make sense to me, and in my mind they reflect what Bob might have done if he had been given more time, and the inclination to do the thing himself.

So, burn me for a heretic if you will, but I still have my old Ace editions (with the black covers, since they looked much better than the white ones) right alongside my Del Rey volumes.  And I will always cherish them for the part they played in the history of my favorite literary character ever.


Keith West said...

Now where did I put my torches and pitchforks...

Keith West said...

When I first read them, I didn't distinguish between the authors much either. I tend to now, but I still treasure the Lancer editions.

Charles Gramlich said...

Keith, I'm bringing some torches if you'll get the pitchforks.

The Ace editions with the de Camp and Carter material in them were the first Conans I read. I thought that was Conan until I got hold of the Berkley stuff later. To me, the difference was pretty dramatic. I liked the mixed stuff. It still had power. But the original material. Wow! The power was trebled. Or so it seemed to me. A big difference I saw was that the Conan that De Camp developed stories around was a lot more of a civilized sort of fellow while. Howard's Conan is so much more of a barbarian.

Keith West said...

I've tended to stay away from the pastiches since reading the de Camp and Carter work. I just haven't found anyone who can write the way Howard did. Although I've been wanting to try Karl Edward Wagner's The Road of Kings.