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

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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.

Here’s a recent catechism recitation to that effect, from a thoughtful thinker of thoughts who made a name for himself by calling Novalyne Price a “bitch” and a “gold-digger” several years back:

And if there would have been no Lancers, there would have been no Marvel Conan. No Marvel Conan would have meant no Conan movie. So what we would have had is something akin to what Brak the Barbarian or Thongor is now; a few books and a memory.

For me personally there’s much to be said for an alternate timestream in which Conan does not become synonymous with loincloths and manscaping. But leaving aside the Uchronian issue of whether a scrupulously-edited set of the Howard, the whole Howard, and nothing but the Howard paperbacks would not have sufficed to invite heavy breathing on the part of comic book and movie adaptors by 1975 or so, let’s zoom in on the astonishing semi-dismissiveness of “a few books and a memory.” A few brilliant, genre-galvanizing books and multitudinous memories is more like it — rather like, oh, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in that respect. The implication that, absent de Camp’s marketing savantry, stories like “The Tower of the Elephant,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” “The People of the Black Circle” and “Red Nails” would have been essentially interchangeable with the efforts of Lin Carter and John Jakes is beyond gobsmacking.

The most unforgettable crucifixion scene outside the four Gospels, the rubies “like clots of frozen blood” that suspend a pirate queen from her own yardarm, a novel in which a master-mage is on the verge of making three thousand years of history vanish to resurrect the nightmare empire he calls home, all doomed to languish in Brakdom or Thongoritude! ‘Cause let’s face it, there’s no discernible difference between the puissance of Howard’s imagination and the work of John Jakes, the creator of Doomdog and Fangfish.

At the risk of being unkind, sometimes I wonder if a few of the Lancer loyalists have ever really read the Howard stories more or less available in their precioussss paperbacks. If they did, how to explain their from-my-cold-dead-hands insistence that potboilers belong with pot-melters?