Monday, November 28, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Jandar of Callisto

It's been the tedious refrain of this blog over the last nearly four years that originality is overrated. Given that, it's probably no surprise that, despite his complicity in L. Sprague de Camp's crimes against the Hyborian Age, I still have a fondness for Lin Carter's fiction. Some might surmise that this fondness is in fact a carryover from my appreciation of Carter's editorship of the influential Ballantine Adult Fantasy series launched in May 1969. There may be some truth to that surmise, but the simple fact is I do enjoy Carter's fiction. I make no claim that it's timeless or insightful, never mind original, but it is fun -- fun in the way that only shameless pastiche can be.

And Jandar of Callisto is pretty shameless. Published in 1972, this novel tells the story of Jonathan Dark, who, while exploring the ruined city of Arangkhôr in Cambodia, is transported to Callisto, the moon of Jupiter, known to its inhabitants as Thanator. If this sounds familiar, it should and not just because it mimics Edgar Rice Burroughs's stories of Barsoom. Also in 1972, Carter wrote another novel, Under the Green Star, which tells the story of a different Westerner who travels to the Far East and uncovers the means to travel to another world. Like both Burroughs and Under the Green Star, Jandar of Callisto is told in the first person by its protagonist, supposedly by means of a manuscript that came into Carter's hands and that he has dutifully transcribed and published so that the world may learn of Dark's remarkable adventures beyond the Earth:
That the most far-reaching and momentous historical events often spring from minute and seemingly inconsequential accidents is a fact which I can attest from my own experience.

For the past four months now-insofar as I have been able to measure the passage of time-I have dwelt on an alien world, surrounded by a thousand foes, struggling and battling my way through innumerable perils to win a place beside the most beautiful woman in two worlds.


As I sit, painfully and slowly setting down these words with a quill pen and homemade ink on a sheet of rough parchment, I cannot help but wonder at the obscure vanity which prompts me to record the tale of my incredible adventures-a tale which began in a lost city deep in the impenetrable jungles of southeast Asia and which ventures from there across the incredible distance of three hundred and ninety million miles of infinite space to the surface of a weird and alien planet. A tale, furthermore, which I deem it most unlikely any other human eye will ever read.

Yet I write on, driven by some inexplicable urge to set down an account of the marvels and mysteries which I alone of all men ever born on earth have experienced. And when at last this narrative is completed, I will set it within the Gate in the hopes that, being composed entirely of organic matter, paper and ink as well, it may somehow be transported across the immeasurable gulf of interplanetary space to the distant world of my birth, to which I shall never return.

In the night sky, at certain seasons when the Inner Moons are on the other side of our primary and the starry skies are clear, I can (I fancy) see the earth. A remote and insignificant spark of blue fire it seems from this distance; a tiny point of light lost amid the blackness of the infinite void. Can it truly be that I was born and lived my first twenty-four years on that blue spark-or was that life but a dream, and have I spent all of my days upon this weird world of Thanator? It is a question for the philosophers to settle, and I am but a simple warrior.
As I'll readily admit, there's scarcely an original idea in Jandar of Callisto. Yet, as you read the above passage, I hope you got some sense of the gusto with which Carter spins his tale. There's an adolescent seriousness to it that creeps up to but never quite crosses the line into parody that I find charming. Others might reasonably disagree and I won't attempt to argue the point, since, at earlier times in my own life, I too might have felt Jandar of Callisto risible rather than delightful. But if you're looking for some light reading (the book is just a little over 200 pages long) that recalls Burroughs and his better imitators, you could do far worse than this novel. If nothing else, Carter ably demonstrates how to do pastiche well and, as such, Jandar of Callisto makes a great study for referees everywhere.


  1. There does not seem to be a single "original" element in D&D, yet we still seem to like it. And when people try to change up the old standards (vampires that sparkle in the sun?), we howl with outrage.

  2. I'm a fan of Lin Carter's work, I think his involvement with L. Sprague DeCamp gave him a bad rap. I'd like to see a publisher release collections of his novels sometime, I don't believe any of them are still in print.

  3. I don't understand all of the hate on L. Sprague DeCamp. His Novarian stories, Krishna Stories, etc., are all solid pulp fiction and Gygax took spells and the Giants adventures almost verbatim from 'The Compleat Enchanter'/Harold Shea stories. Plus his non-fiction work is filled with a lot of stuff about history and warfare and folklore --- he's on my "must read to understand Circa '78 D&D list."

  4. I think lots of people like De Camp's original works. It's his Conan pastiches and the lies he spread about Howard that get him in the bad books.

  5. I didn't know he told lies about Robert Howard. Maybe I'm an unsophisticated reader, but I read a Conan story, "Curse of the Spider God" (I think that was the title) by DeCamp and thought it was as good as Howard.

  6. Maybe "lies" is a strong word -- "misinformation" might be a better term. His biography of Howard is filled with lots of uncharitable interpretations of Howard's life, particularly with regards to his suicide and his devotion to his mother.

  7. I have the first two novels, but haven't read them yet.

    The first two are also available in a Kindle edition - with cover borrowed from Brackett's 'The Ginger Star' paperback (?)

  8. I have enjoyed quite a few of Carter's books. The Callisto books are good Sword & Planet romps. He wrote a couple books in the style of Leigh Brackett's Mars stories. Those are okay but not as good as Brackett's.

    I'm a pretty solid ERB fan but I enjoy a lot of his imitators too like Fox and Carter. ERB fans hating on the pastiche writers is a bit disingenuous. Most of ERB's output is just him plagiarizing his own work.

  9. "at earlier times in my own life, I too might have felt Jandar of Callisto risible rather than delightful."

    As I've got older, had children, etc. I seem to have grown a lot less bothered about whether my choices in fiction (or hobbies, for that matter) are 'serious'. I just want them to be good.

    "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." C.S. Lewis.

  10. I'd say the first three Callisto books are thoroughly entertaining, if, indeed, totally unoriginal (although the insect guys with the whip-swords) are a bit unusual. After that, Carter's notorious series-burnout begins to set in (although maybe not as quite as bad as Pirates of World's End; oi but he was obsessed with pirates!).

  11. Still need to read some of these. Such a fun (and important) editor and his pastiches, hopefully, point folks to the original sources.
    I encountered Carter as a kid in the seventies when he and de Camp still held sway over Conan and it was all fun. As an adult, like Dr.Bargle, I can't get too bothered by all that stuff. If it's good (and with a lot of this stuff that means simply FUN) I'll read it.

  12. One of these days I'm going to have to reread the de Camp/Carter Conan stories. I enjoyed them in high school long ago, but, now that I've read all the Howard tales, I'm curious to see if de Camp/Carter are really as awful in comparison as so many say they are.

  13. Five or six years ago I started collecting the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Reading many of these has given me a great appreciation for Carter's mission to keep classic fantasy in print.

    His introductions are generally informative and elicit excitement for the genre in the reader.

    That said, much of what he writes is shameless self-promotion (every anthology he edited seemed to include at least one of his own tales). His works about Tolkien and Lovecraft are pretty horrendous. What really turned me off to him is his sandwiching those pastiches of his between the works of writers like CAS, REH, CL Moore, Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, Merritt, etc. His writing may be fun, but put next to these masters, it suffers considerably while simultaneously showing the reader he is wasting his time reading Carter when there is a plethora of good stuff out there.

    Maybe I should give some of his longer works a try, but with a backlog of writers he turned me on to it is hard to justify spending the time.

  14. I do not know much about L. Sprague DeCamp's involvement with Conan, save what I read on this blog, but I've read some of his other fiction and liked it. On the other hand, what little Lin Carter I've read was set in Lankhmar, and was not impressive to me at all. Still, I am, on the whole, enjoying my forays into classic pulp sci-fi and fantasy, so thank you for that.

  15. Pastiche is fine by me... Star Wars, D&D... even Harry Potter by my reckoning. I've read the Green Star books but haven't gotten around to Callisto yet.

  16. I think Lin Carter was a victim of the PC media lie machine, his own enthusiasm and (from our perspective) the good works he did.

    Essentially he bankrupted himself and made himself be seen as a "Hack" for posterity by his works of rescuing many greats from total obscurity (like Lord Dunsany) and making sure Conan would stay mainstream. But his own works since he was only a "Good" writer were seen as imitative and unoriginal. Oh, yeah, talk how "Imitative" he is of Burroughs, but then look up "Gullivar of Mars"? Essentially an identical setting, though of course some differences and the later rip off was better.

    But he was part of that "Groovy" era that the modern PC lie machine crushed mercilessly.