Reflections Upon Karl Edward Wagner, Fifteen Years Gone



  Karl Edward Wagner (1945 -1994) died fifteen years ago today. I never knew Karl. Nevertheless, his work as an author, essayist, editor and REH scholar has affected my views regarding the entire field of weird literature since I was barely a teenager. I believe that he should be remembered and due attention paid.

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Green Hell, Golden Civilization?


Were someone to press a Kampfpistole against my head and demand to know which de Camp and Carter Conan novel I deemed the least feloniously FUBAR, I’d have to go with Conan of the Isles, mostly because of two paragraphs on the second-to-last page:

Even farther west, at the very rim of the world, the old thief had confided, lay a vast new continent, Mayapan, the Atlanteans and their Antillian descendants had called it. They raided its coasts for gold, emeralds, and virgin copper, for red-skinned slaves and curious birds with gorgeous plumage; for tiger-like cats whose pelts were marked with black rosettes on tawny gold. Here, too, were barbarian states founded by renegades from Atlantis and Antillia, where the cults of the Great Serpent and of the Saber-toothed Tiger carried on their ferocious rivalry in a welter of human sacrifice and abominable worship.

A new world, he thought; a world of trackless jungles and spacious plains, of towering mountains and hidden lakes, where immense rivers writhed like serpents of molten silver through depths of emerald jungle, where unknown peoples worshiped strange and fearsome gods…

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They Found Howard’s Snake


I hate snakes; they are possessed of a cold, utterly merciless cynicism and sophistication, and sense of super-ego that puts them outside the pale of warm-blooded creatures.

— Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, ca. February 1931

“The visionary explorer, Col. P. H. Fawcett, claimed to have seen a 48-foot anaconda, but I don’t believe it.”

— L.Sprague de Camp, REHupa #57

Novalyne: Well, I haven’t seen any giant snakes, or big-busted naked women frolicking through the West Texas hills lately.

Robert: Oh, but I have.

— The Whole Wide World

From recent science news:

It was the mother of all snakes, a nightmarish behemoth as long as a school bus and as heavy as a Volkswagen Beetle that ruled the ancient Amazonian rain forest for 2 million years before slithering into nonexistence. Now this monster, which weighed in at 2,500 pounds, has resurfaced in fossils taken from an open-pit coal mine in Colombia, a startling example of growth gone wild.

“This is amazing. It challenges everything we know about how big a snake can be.””This thing weighs more than a bison and is longer than a city bus,” enthused snake expert Jack Conrad of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was familiar with the find.

“It could easily eat something the size of a cow. A human would just be toast immediately.””If it tried to enter my office to eat me, it would have a hard time squeezing through the door,” reckoned paleontologist Jason Head of the University of Toronto Missisauga.


To give de Camp due credit, he was aware of the Gigantophis, a prehistoric python that was the previous record holder at 30-33 feet. And while boas get very large, they do not have the optimal climate for growth that Titanoboa apparently did — really hot, steaming jungles such as Howard assured us was Satha’s natural habitat.

Thongor. Brak. Conan. One of These Things Is Not Like the Others…

The three inevitables: Death, taxes, and grappling with the shade of L. Sprague de Camp. I never cease to be concussed by the adamantine certainty of de Camp’s Final Guard that he and only he could ever have been Conan’s salvager and salvation, the Last Best Hope of Howardkind. That REH’s stories, the dark and bloody American frontier of modern heroic fantasy, could never have cut it on their own. That unless bulked-up and buttressed by hardcases like Conan the Buccaneer, the authentic tales would have been shunned by the scads of anthologist claim-stakers and repackaging-prospectors who flocked to the Klondike that pulp fiction became in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

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This, That, T’Other

Haterade drinkers insofar as “The Black Stranger” is concerned often target the character of Tina for special opprobrium, condemning in particular the punishment Valenso frantically administers to her as a distasteful piece of Brundage-bait, Howard blatantly angling for another Weird Tales cover or at least catering to a one-handed segment of his readership. Paying attention to the way the scene is constructed and described should be enough to disprove such allegations, but turning to “The Black Stranger: Synopsis A” in The Conquering Sword of Conan is also useful in that the synopsis is of course Howard selling Howard on his latest idea, telling the story to himself, engaging in the equivalent of a filmmaker’s “pre-viz” (previsualization). Here he refers to Tina as “a flaxen-haired Ophirean waif,” “the little Ophirean girl,” and “the child,” and Valenso loses the self-control that should be a Zingaran grandee’s watchword as follows:

The nobleman instantly seemed seized with madness, and had the girl cruelly whipped, until he saw she was telling the truth.

Nary a hint of a prurient agenda. I sometimes wonder whether Esteban Maroto contributed to the muddying of the waters here; his illustrations for the 1980 Ace standalone The Treasure of Tranicos leer at Tina through a vaseline-smeared lens as a pillowy, pouty houri on the brink of several Sapphic interludes with Belesa:

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More D for de Camp fallout


Here’s another blog lamenting the failure of the D for de Camp group to remember Big D’s centennial. I especially like the comment someone posted below the main post. Yep, Darrell’s excuses were L for Lame, no question.

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.

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 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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Ze, Mozadrim, Vachama Vongh Razan*


The Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith has long since figured in a first-rate post by Leo, but acquisitions for my weird fiction library sometimes require me to pinch the first and best Republican president right off the face of every penny, and it wasn’t until last month that I lucked into an affordable copy at The book really is a garden of unearthly, flower demon-type delights, so many thanks to editors Scott Connors and David E. Schultz. CAS shows that the baleful late Thirties zeitgeist is not lost on him with this fine Howardian sentiment near the end of a September 9, 1937 letter to Robert Barlow: “Incidentally, the word ‘civilization’ would make a jackal vomit in view of the general situation.” And another aside to Barlow in the same letter is as amusing as Howard’s sly suggestion that Lovecraft should fictionalize one of his own “sex adventures” in order to crack the spicies:

HPL, however, should have written [a story about the Last Sabbat] himself. I can’t hope to compete with him when it comes to New England setting and atmosphere; though perhaps the actual orgies of the Sabbat would be a little more in my line.

But what really caught my eye were several letters that may well have been discussed to death in Esoteric and Dagonian precincts; S. T. Joshi certainly cites one on page 639 of his Lovecraft biography. Still, it seems to me that the cumulative impact of the letters in question and a possible extra resonance for Howardists just might justify a blog-post. I’m referring to nothing less than an early attempt by CAS to save Derleth from himself — and more importantly, save Lovecraft from distortion and dilution.

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Let That Be Their Last Battlefield — Until The Next One

Last weekend, hours before learning of the simultaneous Herron and Burke Black Circle inductions, I had occasion to look something up in the second zine I ever contributed to a REHupa Mailing: #135, back in October 1995. My offering shared Section One of the Mailing with not only a letter from L. Sprague de Camp (wherein he directed “Mr. Tompkins” to his “Barbarians I Have Known” article) but also Rusty Burke’s Seanchai #76, in which he returned from an absentee phase to find that “the state of his beloved REHupa” was “NOT GOOD” (The fall of 1995 was a Time of Troubles — no staplers went missing, but a good deal of perspective did — that almost culminated in a breakaway APA; imagine the Seventies absorption of the Hyperborian League, only in reverse).

Seanchai #76 makes for interesting reading in 2007. While de Camp is nowhere accused of pontiff-buggering, Rusty does have this to say in his Mailing comments to the Tritonian Ringbearer: “The only explanation I can think of for the quite substantial changes you made to [“The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” “The Black Stranger,” and “The God in the Bowl”] is that you thought they weren’t very well written and you could do better.” There’s an endearing outburst about Milius’ Wheel of Pain — “An utterly stupid conception. What the hell was the damned thing for? It didn’t appear to do anything” — and another about the Marvel Conan’s being “largely responsible for the popular misconception of Conan as a fur-clad hulk, and for making pimply-faced, snot-nosed, greasy-haired, whale-bellied subliterate adolescents think they’re Conan and/or REH fans.” Rusty didn’t know the half of it; as we’re now aware, Marvel’s non-Roy Thomas stories even made some of them into staunch supporters of the unsinkable armada that is the Nemedian navy, ready to burst into “Anchors Away” every time the state-of-the-art shipyards of Belverus and Numalia turn out another dreadnaught.

Most striking of all was this, after a denunciation of the incorporation of the post-Howardian bridging paragraph from the 1967 King Kull in the actual text of the 1978 Bantam and 1995 Baen versions of “Exile of Atlantis”: “Until some enterprising publisher decides to make me the editor of the definitive REH editions, such mistakes will continue to be propagated, no doubt.” Marcelo Anciano didn’t become a member of REHupa until months later, so Rusty can’t have already been in secret talks with the Wandering Star bibliomancer…Another comment that jumped out at my 2007 self was this, to James Van Hise: “I really don’t know why it’s so hard to get literate REH fans to write about his work. The comments I get from guys like Don Herron, Dick Tierney, etc., is that they’ve pretty much said what they have to say about REH and unless they were to suddenly get inspired, well, they’ve moved on.” One Barbaric Triumph, multiple articles, and one Doom of Hyboria later, it is clear that inspiration took its own sweet time, but did show up eventually.

Burke and Herron (Sequenced thusly the names sound too close to Burke and Hare for comfort, don’t they?) are now right where they belong. With Glenn Lord enjoying the emeritus lifestyle (and perhaps reflecting on how living longer is the best revenge where grande dames and their dismissive references to “truck drivers” are concerned), the two junior Black Circlers can get to work on stationery, T-shirts, podcasts, and maybe even a microbrewery. This was definitely the preferable outcome — had their rivalry continued vote after vote, they might have become the Howard Studies equivalent of the black/white guy and the white/black guy in the third season Classic Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” locked in unending combat on an otherwise dead world.

Congratulations to Don and Rusty. But why was it spelled “Hyperborian” instead of “Hyperborean” back when the League and its REH/CAS agenda were around?