A Century of L. Sprague de Camp, 1907-2007


Over at the D for de Camp Yahoo! discussion group, November 27, 2007 was like any other day. A few posts griping about this or that, nothing much going on. Astoundingly, in that disturbing silence quietly passed the centennial of the man that the group was ostensibly created to honor. L. Sprague de Camp would have been a hundred years old today — and not a single one of his most ardent fans noticed. Contrast that with REH’s dynamic 2006 centennial chock full of a solid year’s worth of celebratory events, honors, and journalism, and one begins to perceive how empty the de Campian gas tank has become. There’s simply no excuse for such a collective, stinging slap applied to the face of a late science fiction grandmaster. Pathetic doesn’t begin to adequately describe it.

Well, just because the milch cows who serve as his modern admirers have nothing to say is no reason for The Cimmerian to remain mute. De Camp had a hand in Robert E. Howard publishing and fandom for decades, and even accepting the harsh critical judgments of history doesn’t preclude honoring him for the vast amount of indisputable good he accomplished in the field.

I can recommend de Camp’s autobiography Time and Chance, for it clears up a lot of questions about the man and his motivations. Years ago, the first thing I was struck by after wading through its 400+ often charming pages is how barren de Camp was of any inclination towards the pose of artist. As he rolls through his life, highlighting what he thinks is important, we get hundreds of facts, jokes, anecdotes — but not a single expression of writing as a passion or a high calling, of wanting to use his stories to express something important to him. Compare Time and Chance to the collected thoughts of writers like REH and HPL, men who obsessed agonizingly over What It All Meant and how they would be judged (or ignored) by posterity, whether they would ever make their mark as an artisan of real merit, especially judged by their own rigorous standards, the standards of fiercely literary and individualistic prophets of imagination.

To de Camp, writing was a fun and fulfilling job, playtime, and he wasn’t the least bit interested in agonizing about any aspect of the creative process. Indeed, he thought the very idea absurd. About the closest he came to fathoming a purpose greater than a paycheck was when researching and publishing The Great Monkey Trial, still a valuable entry in the debate over evolution versus divine creation — Time and Chance shows de Camp eager to sock it to people he perceived as ignorant fundamentalists. His disdain for Scientology also prompted him towards genuine caring for getting somewhat heartfelt ideas on paper and out to readers. But overwhelmingly writing was a paycheck and nothing more. Howard used to make the same sorts of claims, that he was only in the writing game for the money and the freedom — the insincerity of those protestations is still glaringly apparent today. Howard cared, and deeply. He hacked it out when tired or capitalizing on a hot character, but always he came back, was dragged back, to his passions and themes. In de Camp’s long and detailed biography there isn’t a single attempt by him at addressing his career on this level. It’s all contracts and deadlines and what characters were inspired by what real-life personages met on trips to Europe or the Middle East. This lack of the deeper creative impulse is central to any understanding of the man and his legacy.

De Camp often was amazed that Howard and Lovecraft fans were so enraged by his commentary when all he was doing was analyzing facts and telling the unvarnished truth, to his mind exactly what a good biographer should do. For those readers who are only familiar with Dark Valley Destiny, one comes away from Time and Chance seeing that de Camp’s constant backhanded belittlement of REH had its roots not so much in a anti-Howard vendetta but in the unalterable personality of the biographer. It’s illuminating to see how, throughout its pages, de Camp psychoanalyzes himself and his friends and family with all the pedantic zeal and superior airs that he brought to his studies of REH and HPL. Phobias, personality faults, insignificant mistakes and misunderstandings — are all dissected in the detached, psuedo-scientific, hypercritical fashion that readers of his REH writings are so familiar with.

In the end, one understands why de Camp was so mystified at the rage expressed by his critics: this mode was simply the way he thought and operated. The apparent scorn and disdain for Howard’s life and times was, aside from a general aversion to Texas and the gun-totin’ south it represented, merely the byproduct of de Camp’s intelligent but often myopic mind. I came away from Time and Chance thinking about the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, specifically the memorable statement that Ferris’ buddy Cameron, “is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.” Sprague did the best he could with the tools God granted him, and if we are to sympathize with and strive to understand Robert E. Howard’s many faults and foibles, we must grant de Camp the same courtesy.

What too often goes unmentioned these days is that de Camp’s best was often quite good indeed. Even if the Lancers are anathema to you, it’s nigh impossible not to admire de Camp’s many trips around Texas and indefatigable letter writing, all part of his quest to amass an invaluable collection of scholarship about REH, most of it stuff that would have been lost forever had he not made the effort. Thus, left to us are hundreds of pages of material containing priceless vignettes of Howard in his element and among his friends. A number of de Camp’s current detractors were (unlike me) adults and in the Howard fandom/scholarship arena during those years, yet none went as far as de Camp, who not only gained all of this knowledge but delivered it to fans in the form of a legitimate, full-length biography. In his own imperfect (and, admittedly, often infuriating) way, he helped drag Howard out of the mists of the forgotten past and into the heads and hearts of modern fantasy readers.

That so much of his work is in need of reinterpretation and rebuttal is unfortunate, granted. But again: de Camp did the best he could given his personality and mental makeup, and he left all of that raw data to later biographers so that they may use it to form their own evaluations. Everyone who writes about Robert E. Howard owes de Camp a major debt of gratitude for the Herculean efforts he undertook on behalf of REH scholarship. I don’t use the word “Herculean” here lightly — as someone who has traveled to Texas on Howard-related research expeditions numerous times, I know firsthand how expensive, exhausting, and difficult they can be. I also know how sad it is to barely miss out on getting an interview because of death cheating us out of it. Whenever I contemplate the cache of materials de Camp methodically collected, or sift through the small percentage that I’m lucky enough to have copies of, I am quietly impressed and forever thankful for the crosses he bore. For this alone, de Camp deserves a place of honor among Howardists.

But over the years de Camp did much more. He was instrumental in attracting a collective of Howard fans that centered around the magazine Amra, and that met at various cons and gatherings throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Over the years he lured all sorts of people, many of them revered professionals, into going on record about REH in various contexts. It’s hard to resist the notion that this helped firmly anchor REH at the center of the burgeoning fantasy market of the 1960s. The exact degrees and results of these ministrations are endlessly arguable, but the list of magazines, anthologies, book introductions, and fanzine articles that de Camp impregnated with a Howardian presence is formidable. I also appreciate that he was an honorary member of REHupa for so long, as during his lengthy tenure in that position he wrote many letters explicating his thoughts on a host of issues that continue to fascinate modern Two-Gun scholars. With his REHupan critics hammering him on a number of fronts throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, the old warhorse continued to slug it out, providing us with lots of information that would otherwise never have come to light.

Then of course there is his enormous non-Howard production in the science, historical, and science fiction fields. Like most authors, the majority of de Camp’s literary output is destined for obscurity. Few scriveners achieve what Howard has, where every scrap of writing — even the junk — is considered precious (at least on a thematic, scholarly level) and hence gets preserved in print in omne tempus. In de Camp’s case several of his non-fiction volumes, such as the ones about Atlantis and ancient history and mythology, will remain useful and exciting to lovers of real-life adventure and discovery. A few of his science fiction novels like Lest Darkness Fall will remain memorable (albeit dated) classics. His Incompleat Enchanter stories may yet achieve a sort of semi-immortality in various reprintings. Regardless of the publishing specifics, he’ll always be remembered as a standout member of the Campbellian pulp era, and no one can ever take the awarded title of sci-fi grandmaster away from him. All of that is far more than most of us will ever accomplish in the fantasy or sci-fi fields, and collectively it’s an achievement that demands no small amount of respect.

The feeble protestations of his partisans notwithstanding, de Camp’s grip on the Howard field is long gone. For well over a decade now Howard publishing has been dominated by what can loosely be referred to as an anti-de Camp faction. These are a group of guys who endured thirty years of his near-stranglehold on the perception of Howard in the broader fantasy marketplace, and who are now intent on methodically undoing the damage wrought over decades of judging REH by oftentimes reductive, frivolous, and catty standards. Whenever there is a call for someone to step up and say something about the creator of Conan, it is inevitably the new guard who now gets contacted, with de Camp’s old acolytes relegated to an embarrassing, impotent bystander status. But now that de Camp’s objectionable machinations have been put to the sword and buried in unmarked graves, it’s important to preserve the good he brought into the field and give it its proper place and measure.

There will likely be no centennial celebration, aside from whatever sparsely attended rogue con panels get assembled by caponized de Camp cultists. But perhaps the more mature and less vindictive among us can see fit to raise a glass this cold November evening to a man who had one of the all-time longest careers in fantasy, a veteran now resting in Arlington, who made the most of a long fruitful life. He left us with a lot to lament, alas, but also a lot to admire and appreciate. Happy 100th birthday Sprague, you wily old pulpster.

Meanwhile, we still have the embarrassing spectacle of de Camp’s biggest fans forgetting to mark his centennial with anything greater than utter silence. This has put me in a somewhat uncharitably sour mood: not since I quit the board of The Dark Man in December of 2003 have I been so disgusted at the hapless, witless performance of a group of colleagues. I’m so thoroughly revolted, in fact, that I’ve come to an ad hoc decision, one that feels not only appropriate but strangely purifying, like a good flea bath or delousing: I’m going to remove the D for de Camp group from my list of links on TC‘s blogroll. I originally put it up as a tangential link to REH, mostly out of a sense of charity towards my good buddy and frequent Cimmerian contributor Gary Romeo. But damn — friendships aside, I see no reason to funnel Cimmerian readers towards a congregation that reeks of such bovine stupidity that it misses the most important de Camp milestone of this century. If they can’t even work up the energy to mention his centennial, what good is the forum at all? Maybe D is for dumbasses? For shame, halfwits, for shame.

AND: for a short but reasonable analysis of de Camp’s influence on Lovecraft fandom, visit this post at the Grim Reviews blog.

UPDATE: more de Camp opinions can be found at NRO’s The Corner, at Instapundit, at CoolSciFi, and at Light Seeking Light. I can’t disagree with Glenn Reynolds’ take: had I known anyone outside of Robert E. Howard fandom cared, I would have certainly skewed my post for a more general audience. But in the end that’s the point: none of the people out there who claim longstanding fondness for de Camp’s writing bothered to remember his centennial, not even the fans who populate the lone discussion forum dedicated to his work. It took a Robert E. Howard scholar — still nursing wounds from de Camp’s shoddy editing and risible biographical treatment of the Texan — to step up and give him a shout out. Pretty sad.

The Lion In His 75th Winter


(With profuse apologies to Robert E. Howard)

Still carven with the heraldry of a dynasty decades gone, the door closed behind his well-wishers, and all at once the walls, ceiling, and floor of the chamber were only a more well-appointed version of the dungeons into which his many captors had flung him. They crowded in upon the king, tightening their grip in much the same fashion, it seemed to him, as would the old age he had held at bay for so long. He listened to the retreating footsteps, footsteps which to his irritation tripped lightly, almost mincingly. The footsteps of men too young to have been at Valkia and Tanasul, too young for the siege of Khorshemish or the foray that caught thirty war-chiefs bickering over Zogar Sag’s old ostrich feathers at Gwawela. The footsteps of those born too late even for the great eastern campaign that had ended with Hyrkanian horsemen gazing in awe across the Vilayet as the night sky was lit by what had been Aghrapur and was now the funeral pyre of Yezdigerd’s ambitions. The footsteps of courtiers and dissemblers.

His stormy nature mutinied against the notion of celebrating his 75th birthday. The feigned merriment of the interlude just past fell away from him like a mask, and his face was suddenly even older than the occasion implied, his eyes clouded. For weeks the inherent melancholy of his ancestral hills had been dampening the dynamism he had always taken for granted, paralyzing him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavor and the meaninglessness of life — of his life as it would be told and retold in the far future. His kingship, his pleasures, his fears, his hopes, and all earthly things were revealed to him suddenly as dust and broken toys. He now knew that the borders of the life he had lived would be transgressed, flouted. Dozens of spurious episodes, devoid of either veracity or invention, would diminish him, as if jesters from an alien, frivolous court had been vouchsafed the power to dress him in fool’s motley. Dropping his snow-lion head in his formerly mighty hands, he groaned aloud.

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Conan the Phenomenon gets the NRO audio treatment


What angelic deed did we Howard fans do to deserve John J. Miller? Here he is making REH news again, this time treating us to a talk with Conan the Phenomenon author Paul M. Sammon. This is a part of Miller’s ambitious new National Review Online feature, “Between the Covers,” wherein he podcasts ten-minute audio interviews with various writers about their latest releases. Check out Miller’s archives to sample some of the other books Conan the Phenomenon now joins in the lineup. Fantasy scriveners are set to be well represented — yesterday’s discussion was with George R. R. Martin.

The audio files are in MP3 format, playable via the Windows Media Player plugin (available for Firefox users here) or downloadable with your favorite download accelerator. The Cimmerian says Check It Out.

Progress Retort

The scene: A discussion group earlier this month, one that thanks to its membership and mission-creep often glances REH-ward. A writer with decades as a critic/contributor or player/coach in the fantasy and horror genres behind him, as well as exposure to Howard fandom at its most dynamic and forward-thinking but also at its most churlish and distempered, posts thusly:

My feeling is that real, serious criticism of REH is going to be seriously hampered for another generation. REH needs to get out of the control of his “fans.”

Well, that’s one not uninformed opinion, and there’s no gainsaying that it’s devoutly to be desired that “real, serious criticism of REH” will continue to evolve, with those fans perceptive and motivated enough to assay such criticism evolving right along with it. I might not even have blogged here in response, were it not for the fact that at about the time of the just-quoted post I’d been rummaging around in Peter Cannon’s 1990 Necronomicon Press collection “Sunset Terrace Imagery in Lovecraft” and Other Essays, only to be struck by how applicable his “H. P. Lovecraft: Problems in Critical Recognition” continues to be to our own field.

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Beowulf the Movie is here


And as usual, John J. Miller is all over it. Read his first impressions here, and then head over to the Movie Review Query Engine for a selection of other opinions. The reviews are largely encouraging — Rotten Tomatoes shows the positive consensus at 73% — and yet even some of the ones who liked the film share John’s main gripe about disrespect. Roger Ebert, for example:

In the name of the mighty Odin, what this movie needs is an audience that knows how to laugh. Laugh, I tell you, laugh! Has the spirit of irony been lost in the land? By all the gods, if it were not for this blasted infirmity that the Fates have dealt me, you would have heard from me such thunderous roars as to shake the very Navy Pier itself down to its pillars in the clay.

To be sure, when I saw “Beowulf” in 3-D at the giant-screen IMAX theater, there were eruptions of snickers here and there, but for the most part, the audience sat and watched the movie, not cheering, booing, hooting, recoiling, erupting or doing anything else unmannerly. You expect complete silence and rapt attention when a nude Angelina Jolie emerges from the waters of an underground lagoon. But am I the only one who suspects that the intention of director Robert Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary was satirical?

He then goes on to compare the bulk of the film to Monty Python and Austin Powers. Ouch — shades of Karl Edward Wagner’s referring to Universal’s Conan the Barbarian as “Li’l Abner versus the Moonies.” Still, the film is shaping up to be a hit, which when filtered through crude logic may translate into more big budget fantasy fare in multiplexes.

TC‘s previous Beowulf coverage:

An Irish Bard at King Hrothgar’s Court

More Beowulf

TC V4n5 debuts


Just about ready to start shipping these out, so I thought I’d announce it. Check out all the details here. It’s a pretty text-heavy issue, with lots of Deep Thinking about REH and Sword-and-Sorcery in general.

Coming soon: a slam-bang December issue featuring a first-look at a rare-as-hell Christmas-themed Howard collectible that to my knowledge has never been published before. I’m also putting the finishing touches on the V3 Index, and hope to have at least the V4 Awards ish finished in time for a December release, and perhaps the V4 Index and/or a Cimmerian Library booklet as well. Lots to do, but until then you can look forward to digging into the latest issue during your Thanksgiving break.

REH Word of the Week: strand



1. The land bordering the sea, a lake, or a river; shore; beach. Strictly, the part of a shore that lies between the tide-marks. Formerly also used of river banks, hence the London street name (1246).

2. 1621, “to drive aground on a shore,” [sense of “leave helpless” is first recorded 1837.]

[Origin: bef. 1000; ME (n.), OE; strond, akin to strew]


The axe flashed silver in the sun
a red arch slashed the sand;
A voice called out as the head fell clear,
and the watchers flinched in sudden fear,
Though ’twas but a sea-bird wheeling near
above the lonely strand.

[from “The One Black Stain”]

Frazetta & Howard, Moorcock & Howard


Bear with me for this first paragraph. Most people who are fascinated by Alexander the Great know that Mary Renault wrote an Alexandriad, a trilogy of novels about the conqueror’s life and the succession wars that raged after his death: Fire From Heaven (1969), The Persian Boy (1972), and Funeral Games (1981). But some might not be aware that Alexander first appeared in the final chapter of a fourth book, The Mask of Apollo (1966). Renault’s narrator, Nikeratos, a Greek actor who has watched, and narrowly escaped with his life from, Plato’s doomed attempt to bring an ideal city-state into being in Sicily, meets the young prince at the Macedonian court in Pella, and they discuss whether Achilles should have killed Agamemnon and what an alliance between the Achaeans and Trojans for the purpose of eastward expansion might have achieved. Once back in Athens, Nikeratos muses “He will wander through the world like a flame, like a lion, seeking, never finding, never knowing (for he will look always forward, never back) that while he was still a child the thing he seeks slipped from the world, worn out and spent.” What Renault is getting at is that time and chance have denied Alexander exposure to Plato’s poetry, leaving him only the far more prosaic Aristotle. The Mask of Apollo ends this way:

All tragedies deal with fated meetings; how else could there be a play? Fate deals its stroke; sorrow is purged, or turned to rejoicing; there is death, or triumph; there has been a meeting, and a change. No one will ever make a tragedy — and that is as well, for one could not bear it — whose grief is that the principals never met.

On page 57 of Paul M. Sammon’s Conan: The Phenomenon, Frank Frazetta is quoted (by way of frankfrazetta.com) as saying “I feel a certain sense of loss that Howard isn’t alive to appreciate what I’ve done with Conan.” A certain sense of loss; for me that loss is quite similar to Mary Renault’s even-more-unbearable form of tragedy in which the principals are divided by circumstance or chronology.

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More Beowulf


As a companion-piece to Steve Tompkins’ thoughts on the manuscript that Sir Robert Cotton saved from oblivion those many centuries ago, Cimmerian readers should check out John J. Miller’s new article in the Wall Street Journal on the enduring significance of Beowulf, and on the fortuity of its reaching our time in (more or less) one piece.

For those who have never read the poem, there are lots of online resources to get you started. You could do worse than begin here at the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries page, which offers a lot of information and links.


For couch potatoes, I can especially recommend Benjamin Bagby’s DVD. Bagby is a performance artist in the mode of Cimmerian contributor Donald Sidney-Fryer, and his specialty is performing Beowulf on a stage alone, accompanied by an Anglo-Saxon harp and reciting the poem in the original Old English, much as it must have sounded a thousand years ago. (see an excerpt here, and check out some of the rapturous press reaction here.) It’s grand listening to him chant and sing and emote each line with gusto, occasionally hearing a word that sears across time and still makes perfect sense to modern ears. As his website puts it:

This is a performance which will speak to many: lovers of Beowulf and oral epic, early music enthusiasts, Tolkien fans, medievalists, and anyone searching for virtuoso storytelling, great theater, or a glimpse into the fascinating beginnings of the English language.

If and when you get tired of not knowing exactly what he is saying, you can turn on the subtitles. And there are bonus features, including a nice interview between Bagby and a group of learned Beowulf scholars. The DVD only covers the first thousand lines or so of the poem, so it is to be hoped that Bagby completes an entire oration in two more video installments. Well worth the money.

The Collector’s Corner: Solomon Kane Stabilizing?


WHAT’S HOT: Wandering Star’s Solomon Kane, as envisioned by Gary Gianni. After reaching top prices of over $1000 in some instances for the Limited Edition (forget about the ultra-rare leather edition), prices for this have dropped steadily since the Del Rey trade paperback appeared. This latest copy sold on eBay for $380.00 (another copy was bid up to $427.22, but the reserve was not met). Add to this the fact that a Gianni-inspired Kane statue sold around the same time for $325.00 in furious bidding, and it’s a pretty good showing for the now somewhat venerable presentation of the Puritan.

My guess is that prices on the Wandering Star books are beginning to stabilize, and that $300-$400 is what you can expect to shell out for a copy of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane for the foreseeable future. That’s only about double the price it cost to buy it new, but not too bad for a collectible and fully-illustrated volume. Presumably, as time passes and more copies get lost or destroyed or damaged, the remaining fine copies will inch up in price. If Howard fandom experiences any serious growth as a result of the coming onslaught of films and books, that might spike it up, too. Certainly Solomon Kane remains the best illustrated of the Wandering Star volumes to my mind, the one where artist and subject were most perfectly matched (it also seems as if there are more illos in this book than the others). The other books all have their champions and detractors art-wise, but few have argued that Gianni failed to nail Kane.

Other Wandering Star titles may be stabilizing as well. The Ultimate Triumph, for example, recently sold in the Limited state for a flat $100.00. Frazetta is Frazetta, so on the one hand you might expect this title to go for a bit more than a single Benjamin. Then again, much of the art is mere sketchwork, and while it’s been linked to the stories often quite cleverly, it just doesn’t have that cohesive, made-to-order feel of Gianni’s Kane drawings and paintings. My biggest problem with the WS books has always been that they are a lot more fun to have on the shelf than to read, as the text is quite small and you are always worried about spilling something on them. But the stories in this volume are all top rate, and Frazetta even in minimalist form is, as I said, F-R-A-Z-E-T-T-A.


WHAT’S COLD: Wildside Howard hardcovers. Just about everything they’ve put out remains in constant circulation on eBay at list price without getting sold. It’s understandable: for much of that material, this series represents the umpteenth time they’ve been reprinted, and who is about to give up their Grant, Arkham, Bison, and Wandering Star editions in favor of what basically amount to public domain, print-on-demand versions. Wildside’s books are also a bit garish for my tastes, with in many cases bright yellow titles and generally poor artwork on the cover and poor sans-serif fonts in the interiors. I think of all of them my favorite has been Treasures of Tartary, as it seemed a bit better designed than most. But one can easily see newer editions supplanting these in the future, dooming these to the eBay doldrums normally reserved for the cheap paperbacks of the 70s.


WHAT TO WATCH: Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard. James Van Hise (editor of the equally cold Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard) is trying to sell the infamous Conan’s World at a starting price of $14.99, with a BUY IT NOW price of $20.00, AND an astronomical $10 priority shipping charge for a book so small and thin it would have zero problem fitting comfortably in a $4.60 USPS priority flat rate envelope (even flat-rate boxes are only $8.95). This for a book which everybody — even the author himself — calls the single worst book on Robert E. Howard ever written, ever. Add to that the fact that never-read copies of the same book (after thirty years, it’s still hasn’t sold out it’s original run) are available from Wildside Press for only $10, and you have to conclude that Van Hise is hoping that one of you is a complete idiot. The auction even has the gall to post a picture of a noticeably browned copy and call it “mint.”

If you really feel you need to shell out money for this book, I suggest contacting Darrell yourself, as last I heard he still has a stack of them that he sells at conventions for $3 or so (although perhaps the Wildside website is not only selling the old Borgo stash at $10 a pop, but Darrell’s excess copies as well). Every time I think I’ve seen it all….

Speaking of what’s cold, it seems I lasted about a week of posting REHupas on eBay before running out of steam. I’ll have to start that again soon. Each one has sold for almost $50, which as I’ve said is the new average price for a REHupa (a few years ago, which may as well be a million at this point, it was $20). Once guys like me have exhausted our store of old ‘zines and a new generation of collectors has snapped them up, REHupa mailings are going to become mighty scarce, held long-term and seldom coming to market. The universe of extant copies is so small, and the contents frequently so valuable, that in the coming years collecting REHupas is going to get brutal.