Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Spinner Rack Memories

The most magical place I've ever visited was the Middle River Public Library in suburban Baltimore, Maryland. As a child, I must have gone to the library every couple of days, looking for new books on dinosaurs and planets and frogs, three subjects very near and dear to my heart. I learned to write my name – no mean feat! – specifically so that I could get my very own library card. Though small, the Middle River Library had a surprisingly good collection of books that appealed to me. It was here, for example, that I first came across EC Comics and H.P. Lovecraft and these early experiences left me with a lifelong love of horror in all its forms.

Because the library was small and thus had limited space for shelves, there were spinner racks all over the place. Generally, the racks were used for small and light volumes, like magazines, comics, and paperback books. In the 1970s, when I was a child, fantasy and science fiction were much more likely to be published as paperbacks than as hardcovers. Consequently, these spinner racks abounded in books of this sort, a significant portion of which were originally printed in the 1960s, during the explosion in interest in these genres. I spent a great deal of time at those spinner racks, turning them slowly to admire their covers and sometimes grabbing a few books to take home with me.

Even now, more than four decades later, I can remember vividly the covers of some of the books I saw there, so long ago. Perhaps the most memorable were the Lancer/Ace Conan collections edited by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. With one exception, these collections were all published between 1967 and 1971 and contained a mix of Robert E. Howard's original stories – mostly in altered form, unfortunately – and pastiches by other authors intended to fill in the "gaps" in the chronology of Conan's life. Frank Frazetta provided the cover illustrations for most of these collections, some of which are forever burned into my memory.

I know I grabbed a few of them, like Conan of Cimmeria and Conan the Adventurer, solely on the strength of their covers alone. I have only dim recollections of the actual contents of these collections; I must confess that it took me several more years before I developed a fondness for Conan or REH. Even so, it was a beginning, a first foray into the world of sword-and-sorcery, and it probably contributed to my eventual deep dive into the genre during my teen years. There's a lot to criticize about the Lancer collections on the editorial side – my feelings about De Camp in particular are not positive – but there's no denying that, along with Marvel's comics, they introduced a lot of people, myself included, to the Hyborian Age. I'm very grateful for that introduction

13 comments:

  1. My first encounter with Conan paperbacks was also on a spinner rack the only such rack in a small bookstore about a block away from where I lived in Venice Beach. I was maybe around 14 or 15 and my memory has me thinking these were fairly new editions. I don’t think it was a used bookstore it was more of a glorified newsstand really. But these paperbacks were fairly cheap which was a good thing for a young teenager.

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  2. For whatever reason, the bookstores and gift shops in my small town in the 70s stocked the black cover Sphere versions of these books from the UK. The have a superb paperback binding that holds like a hardback. These were my first REH books.

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  3. I was 12ish or so and saw them on the shelf at a used book store. I remember some of the stories vividly. Others not so much. They've disappeared over the decades and I'd like to get good copies again so I could refresh my memory.

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  4. Great post. In my early teens I was a weekly visitor to the town's library outpost, a side room in the Institute Hall (a common product of worker education movement in the late 1800's). There were the spinners, there were the Conan books, and there was I. My love of REH and those same covers came about then. I found out later that the volunteer librarian, old Emmy Voss, was in her late eighties at the time and the only reason she kept the show going was to cater to me. She stopped and the library closed when I left for the big smoke. I thank her whenever I remember this part of my origin tale.

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  5. I found the Lancer paperbacks in my hometown used bookstore in Idaho, ca. 1984. Their covers shocked, repelled, and allured me all at once. I bought a couple and read them. I still like some of the stories to this day: “The Tower of the Elephant“ stands out as a really good one.

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    1. "Shocked, repelled, and allured" is very well put. That's exactly what I felt too. Thanks for this comment.

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  6. Great post. I'm from suburban Maryland too, and I can relate. As a kid, it's all about what you happen to encounter.

    I've never read the "edited" versions of Conan as an adult. Why does DeCamp particularly stand out for you? I have a strong sense of Lin Carter being full of himself and generally full of crap -- somewhere he criticizes REH for the sound of his names, and of "Conan" in particular, even though his own barbarian is named "Thongor."

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    1. My issue with De Camp is twofold: first, his rewriting of Howard's stories to suit his own preferences; second, his biography of REH, which paints him in an unflattering light.

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  7. I know everyone likes to trash the lancer Conans, and with them LSDC and Lin Carter, but without them, no Conan. other than the frightfully rare Gnome Press from the 50s, also pastiches.

    Those Lancers set off the "Conan Boom" which, in many ways, led to D&D. and they were cheap enough to be widespread. everyone read them.

    and, they were early enough that people still had the old weird tales to compare them to. Without them, not only no original REH prose, but no conan at all. he would be forgotten, like so many other old literature.
    Rick

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    1. It's certainly true that the Lancers contributed to a wider appreciation of Howard and Conan at the time, though I'm not sure that a "Conan boom" would never have happened without De Camp and Carter. Glen Lord and Karl Edward Wagner, among others, were doing a lot to bring Howard to the public eye once more and I suspect their efforts would have borne fruit in time.

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    2. like what? (no sarcasm, I cannot think of anything GL was doing, really, but would love to see it.)

      this makes me want to dig out my Hardcover from BlackBart

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    3. Lord's biggest contribution was, as I understand it, locating REH's storage trunk, in which he had kept thousands of pages of notes, drafts, and unpublished material. This discovery led to a better understanding of Howard's development as a writer and his original intent for many of his stories, which in turn led to new published versions of many tales, free of the changes De Camp and Carter had made.

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  8. The "Conan Boom" which, in many ways, led to D&D
    I started D&D in 1977 or 1978, of the group of 10 or so of use, only 2 had read Conan; and they had read a ton of other stuff. None of us were brought to fantasy generally or D&D specifically by Conan. I don't think the hobbies founders were either.

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