Monday, January 16, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Black Stranger

If ever you wonder why the name of L. Sprague de Camp is so often held in contempt by fans of Robert E. Howard, you need look no further than "The Black Stranger," a Conan yarn that did not see print in its original form until 1987, making it one of the "most recent" Howard stories to see print. I don't believe that anyone knows precisely when "The Black Stranger" was written (more knowledgeable Howardists can correct me) or whether it was ever submitted to Weird Tales. We do know that REH rewrote the story for another character, the Caribbean pirate Black Vulmea, though that version of the story didn't see print until the 1970s. De Camp published a heavily altered version of the story in the March 1953 issue of Fantasy Magazine. Later, in the 1967 collection, Conan the Usurper, De Camp changed the title to "The Treasure of Tranicos" and it's probably under that title that a great many readers first encountered the story.

The 1987 version of "The Black Stranger" was published in anthology called Echoes of Valor, edited by Karl Edward Wagner. Wagner plays an important role in the history of Howard scholarship, because of his efforts to restore the texts of Howard (and several other pulp fantasy authors) to their original form. In doing so, "The Black Stranger" is freed from De Camp's imaginary chronology of Conan's exploits and allowed simply to be. There's no overarching significance to the events it describes. Indeed, "The Black Stranger" has a somewhat odd feeling to it, since it's essentially a pirate story rather than a swords-and-sorcery one, though the definition of the latter is of course broad enough to include tales such as this. Still, I think the story is better served by being presented in this fashion rather than, as De Camp would have it, as a significant step on the road to Conan's becoming king of Aquilonia. "The Black Stranger" is too slight a tale to bear such narrative weight and, more to the point, there's absolutely no evidence that Howard himself conceived of it as anything more than another episode in Conan's many, many adventures.


In its original form, "The Black Stranger" tells the tale of Conan's discovery, in the Pictish wilderness, of a hidden cave filled with the treasure of the pirate Tranicos. When he attempts to claim the treasure for himself, a demon of mist forms and attempts to kill him. Conan escapes the cave with his life and not long thereafter discovers that others seek the treasure he's just inadvertently discovered. These others consist of two feuding buccaneers, Black Zarona and Strombanni. When Conan meets them at the stronghold of an exiled Zingaran nobleman, he offers to join forces with them to loot the treasure and share its spoils equally. Of course, Conan's real plan is to use his erstwhile allies to draw out the demon while he makes off with the fabled treasure. Of course, the pirates themselves are far from trustworthy and have their own plans ...

As I said, "The Black Stranger" is a slight story, far from Howard's best. I like it well enough, but there's very little about it that screams "Conan!" to me. That may be why, when De Camp published it in the '50s, he felt the need to spice it up and give it some greater meaning beyond being another example where Conan outsmarts some fellow criminals to make himself (temporarily) rich. Unfortunately, I don't think "The Black Stranger" can bear that kind of narrative weight and De Camp's attempt to make it do so come across as hamfisted and tone-deaf -- like so much of what he did to Howard's corpus.

14 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this! You get at in an issue I'm kind of stirred by. Excuse the long-winded comment. But...

    I think folks give De Camp too hard of a time. Howard scholars spend too much time trying to buoy the dignity of Howard's work. Why? It's beautiful work. It's art, of course! But it's not the kind of art that needs to put on a marble pedestal and cordoned off with rope--its art that you engage with viscerally, and I think De Camp did that.

    I think a lot of the impulses to "purify" Howard's Conan stories of De Camp's editorial "freehandedness" are honest enough, but sometimes they border on "going against the spirit" of Howard's work, if you will. Here's my stance: pulp fiction is meant to be handled roughly, bent up, yellowed by smoke, stained with beer (allegorically, of course--if anyone did this to my copies of *Weird Tales,* which are safely stowed in plastic sleeves, I would split their skulls in twain).

    It's well intentioned, of course, this work of folks who really want readers to encounter the *real* Conan; and yet--and yet! I can't help but find something endearing about De Camp's enthusiastic "uptake" of Howard. Much of his work (not his biography of REH, of course, which is, I'm told, pervaded by inaccuracies) I file under the category of "homage".

    In 2012, after Howard has already been returned to the popular imagination and there are Del Rey copies of the "pure texts" with annotations and facsimiles of manuscripts, etc. etc., it's easy enough for us to criticize the man, who, I think--with those Ace editions we love to hate--brought Conan to the people.

    But what about me? My *first* encounter with Conan was a used Ace edition edited by De Camp. And it--little book--sits on my shelf right next to my Del Reys. And my Savage Swords. And my multiple action figures. And my replica of the Atlantean sword. And my...

    Thanks for the thought provoking post! I really, really enjoy your blog!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Howard scholars spend too much time trying to buoy the dignity of Howard's work. Why? It's beautiful work. It's art, of course! But it's not the kind of art that needs to put on a marble pedestal and cordoned off with rope--its art that you engage with viscerally, and I think De Camp did that.

      If by "engage with viscerally" you mean "liberally cut and snip until you're happy with it." The thing is, why are some works of art allowed to be messed about with, and some aren't, especially considering the original creator isn't around to have a say in what's done with it?

      Let's take Frazetta. He did a great painting of a monster carrying a girl off. By Frazetta standards, it was practically tame: the girl had a low-cut dress on. Some hack editor felt this was no good, and slapped some paint covering up the cleavage and legs. This is more or less what de Camp did with Howard's work: slopping paint over a far more talented author's work, and wondering why everyone's shocked - after all, he "improved" it!

      It's well intentioned, of course, this work of folks who really want readers to encounter the *real* Conan; and yet--and yet! I can't help but find something endearing about De Camp's enthusiastic "uptake" of Howard.

      Conan made De Camp a millionaire. He said in no uncertain terms that he didn't even want to write Sword-and-Sorcery, but that "Conan's where the money was." That explains his enthusiasm quite satisfactorily.

      Delete
  2. Jason: I really like your take on Howard's stories and de Camp. He did set himself up for the blackeyes he gets but he has become too much the whipping boy of late and deserves a little better for his enthusiasm and promotion.

    I recently reread "The Black Stranger" for the first time in ages and was surprised how "slight" it felt. I had just reread "Beyond the Black River" and perhaps it was the contrast that weakened my opinion of the story. The various events felt too haphazard and convenient. It would have been enough to hear about Conan being chased all the way across the Pictish Wilderness to the ocean but no, then there're treasures, and hiding nobles and pirates and the black stranger. It's overloaded and never quite pulls together as well as the best Howard stories do.
    I'm curious about reading "The Treasure of Tranicos" just for the sake of comparison and to examine de Camp's pastiche failings. I think de Camp's biggest problem in writing Howard pastiches was the latter's style (propulsive, emotional, dark, etc.) was so antithetical to his own (lighter, rationalizing, humorous). His efforts to emulate Howard's writing was hampered by his own attitudes and the result was indeed "hamfisted". I like lots of de Camp's own stories and novels but his Howard stuff is weak tea.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's the essential problem, I think: De Camp was good at what he wrote, which was fun semi-serious adventure with an intellectual twist. He was not remotely good at visceral, powerful blood-and-thunder. The mistake was De Camp thought he could busk it, and attributed any deficiencies not to his own creative limits (which every artist has), but because he just wasn't as "crazy" as Howard was.

      Delete
  3. I don't think it's De Camp's work at re-editing the conan stories that bring about the hate, though there are a few who do work up a good hate about it. His re-edited stores are not nearly as good as REH's stuff, but there have been a few De Camp's works that I have enjoyed, and it was how I was introduced to REH in the late 70's.

    Most of the vitriol comes from De Camp's attempt to wrest control of the Conan IP through some underhanded stuff. To inextricable link his name with Conan by refusing to allow pure REH stuff in print without including his own pastiches. Finally the awful, unfair and unbalanced bio he wrote of REH where he attempts to analyse the man.
    These are things that the REH scholars get pissed about and rightly so. If a quarter of the stuff written about him was true than De Camp was an ass of the first class.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I never even met the man, except through print. But De Camp was a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, he was a good raconteur at conventions, he'd traveled, he was both popular and respected by the field, he had a wife who was the envy of all, and in short, had everything that a fannish heart could desire, back in his day.

    But I think he wanted to be great, and he never made it. So he started worrying about being remembered. I suspect that's a lot of the trouble.

    And if that's a bad character analysis, I guess turnabout is fair play. Shrug.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can say that De Camp utterly succeeded in the fields he felt were important: in science writing, particularly, and his non-Conan fantasy and science fiction. He's been awarded a Hugo, a Nebula, a Gandalf (the third to receive it after Tolkien and Leiber!) and was made a Grandmaster of Science Fiction. He may not be counted alongside the likes of Asimov, Clark, Bester or Lem, but he had quite an illustrious career.

      Delete
  5. I have a soft spot for de Camp (and Lin Carter), because it was through their work, including their original stories, that I first encountered Conan and REH in the 70s. Having read the collected Conan as Howard wrote them in the three Del Rey volumes, I can appreciate Howard more easily for what he was -- a truly great adventure writer. This does make me, though, want to track down the de Camp and Carter stories to see how they hold up, versus my 40-year old memories.

    FWIW, I enjoyed "The Black Stranger," though it struck me as an odd story; Conan was almost a secondary character.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Arguably, most of the psychoanalyzing started not with de Camp but with E. Hoffman Price in his introduction to Skullface and others. As I understand it, most take the view that de Camp and others did REH a disservice by calling REH maladjusted, overly dependent on his mother, and leading with the suicide in most articles, books, bio, etc. Glenn Lord also mentioned REH’s devotion to his mother and reprinted the suicide couplet on the back page of every issue of The Howard Collector.

    My view is that this wasn’t much of a disservice since the Lancer Conan books sold in the millions and created the REH boom that earned the heirs, and all others associated with REH a bunch of money.

    A year or so ago, a few blogs/websites/etc. attacked REH, mostly making stuff up from whole cloth. Mark Finn issued a manifesto announcing REH fans’ decision to protect REH from blatant falsehoods. It isn’t a terrible idea. (I’m a shield wall for de Camp!) The harkening back to the past and mentioning L. Sprague de Camp seems incongruous to a forward perspective though. It prompted another blogger, Ben Peek (not a fan of REH) to post a response that a “Shield Wall and Finn’s excellent hate of L. Sprague de Camp really just add to that craziness, and help keep it going […].”

    Nowadays, all of the de Camp-edited Conan stories are available in their original form. Most of his changes to the stories published in Weird Tales were very slight. Sometimes it was just a comma or two. He also changed spelling inconsistencies like replacing Cush with Kush in different stories, or perceived internal inconsistencies like Tarantia instead of Tamar in “The Scarlet Citadel.” He also changed some racially divisive wording in “The Hour of the Dragon.” The non-published stories had slightly more changes. Like changing “long neck” to “long reach” in “The God in the Bowl.” “The Black Stranger” was the most severely edited.

    Yet still one can read comments on the Internet that state de Camp rewrote all the stories, edited the guts out of them, etc. Obviously incorrect, but heaven help you if you try to correct these canards so often repeated as dogma.

    De Camp, of course, was not the only author to rewrite or edit REH or to include REH stories interspersed in a series. Almuric was most likely edited by someone, Glenn Lord, Lin Carter, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Lupoff, August Derleth and others I’m forgetting all edited/rewrote/added to REH at one time or another. The Cormac Mac Art series by Andrew J. Offutt interspersed REH stories as volume 4 of the series. All of de Camp’s “tricks” were imitated by others, just with less success.

    It's evident that de Camp never fully understood the nature or extent of his detractors' hatred. He tried to get his mind around it in his autobiography without much success. He did fictionalize a similar situation in one of his Reginald Rivers stories, "The Honeymoon Dragon." An editor of a trade journal on time travel (an obvious stand-in for a SF fan editing a fanzine) developed an inexplicable hatred of Rivers, powerful enough to drive him to attempt to murder Rivers and his wife. Rivers (standing in for de Camp) basically put it down to the basic irrationality of man, but, interestingly, also speculated somewhat along the lines that his opponent, who could only dream of leading an adventurous life in other eras like Rivers, envied him that life. In real world terms, it's the envy of the fans for the writer.

    De Camp nurtured REH to lucrative success, did the research (still being used by new scholars) to support his biography of REH, and was the prime spokesman and promoter of REH for decades. During his lifetime he was mostly rewarded and, in the main, praised for doing so. Honest critics such as Michael Moorcock, in Conan the Phenomenon, repeated this truth just recently.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My view is that this wasn’t much of a disservice since the Lancer Conan books sold in the millions and created the REH boom that earned the heirs, and all others associated with REH a bunch of money.

      That's kinda like saying Joan Crawford's family shouldn't consider Mommie Dearest a disservice since it was a phenomenally successful book that led to a classic film, despite it colouring her as a psychotic nutcase and an abusive mother - which is bad enough before you consider that many have challenged Christina Crawford's claims.

      The Lancer books sold in their millions despite De Camp's psychoanalysing garbage, not because of it.

      Yet still one can read comments on the Internet that state de Camp rewrote all the stories, edited the guts out of them, etc. Obviously incorrect, but heaven help you if you try to correct these canards so often repeated as dogma.

      Most of these comments are from more casual fans rather than dedicated ones, but I agree that presenting mistruths does no-one any favours.

      De Camp, of course, was not the only author to rewrite or edit REH or to include REH stories interspersed in a series. Almuric was most likely edited by someone, Glenn Lord, Lin Carter, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Lupoff, August Derleth and others I’m forgetting all edited/rewrote/added to REH at one time or another. The Cormac Mac Art series by Andrew J. Offutt interspersed REH stories as volume 4 of the series. All of de Camp’s “tricks” were imitated by others, just with less success.

      No-one's denying that, but aside from a few really heinous exceptions like Byron Roark's mangling of "Sword Woman" and "Three-Bladed Doom," few went to quite the lengths De Camp did in his more extreme phases.

      It's evident that de Camp never fully understood the nature or extent of his detractors' hatred.

      Mostly because he never fully understood why the things he did were so objectionable.

      De Camp nurtured REH to lucrative success

      Correction, he nurtured (in his own mind) CONAN to lucrative success. All of REH's other work was either converted into Conan, or abandoned for not being financially viable.

      did the research (still being used by new scholars) to support his biography of REH

      While also ignoring and burying research that contradicted the story he was trying to tell, to the point that one of the co-authors specifically wanted her name taken off the biography.

      and was the prime spokesman and promoter of REH for decades.

      No. Glenn Lord was the prime spokesman and promoter of REH. He was until the day of his death. De Camp was the prime spokesman and promoter of Conan, or rather, the Conan franchise.

      Delete
  7. Morgan Holmes' essay "The De Camp Controversy" is essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about the history of the situation, and I highly recommend it:

    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3
    Part 4
    Part 5
    Part 6
    Part 7
    Part 8
    Part 9
    Part 10
    Part 11
    Part 12
    Part 13
    Part 14
    Part 15
    Part 16

    ReplyDelete
  8. I recently read this version of the tale in coomic book form via Savage Sword of Conan (Volume 4). It is definitely nowhere near as good as the REH version, but passable entertainment.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Much thanks to Taranaich for posting links to that excellent series of articles, which also provides a source for some of my personal problems with De Camp... namely his constant slagging of Howards writing ability (as well as his tendency to talk crap about all sorts of people such as HPL, Lin Carter, Karl Edward Wagner, and Tolkein).

    Here we have a person who was never as successful as Howard, critically or popularly, who said things like:

    “Howard was an almost-very-good writer who might have overcome certain limiting quirks had he not killed himself at an early age…His main fault was a tendency carelessly to throw his imaginary world together anyhow, so that the poor carpentry shows.”

    and one that is just shocking in its calousness...

    “Sometimes I think Howard died at just the right time to keep this repititious tendency from becoming intolerable.”

    This in addition to the character assassination of his life in all of the 'biographical' material he wrote, seems to be a really dishonorable and sleazy way to treat someone who's work is providing you with a lot of money... for decades.

    If one has such disdain for the work and person of an author then focus on putting out your best fiction... DON'T gain corporate control of it, exploit it as much as you can, all the while denigrating the actual author and his life.

    And anyone who feels that De Camp 'saved' REH from obscurity should read the above articles as they provide evidence that shows that wouldn't have been the case.

    ReplyDelete
  10. In the version of The Black Stranger that I read, there wasn't a demon in the cave; the cave was filled with poison gas. There WAS a demon in the story, but it was the one hunting Valenso, and didn't have anything to do with Tranicos. Wasn't the demon in the cave one of De Camp's changes?

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.