It is not normally my habit to discuss writers collectively, rather than separately, however the two I am writing about today worked so closely together, and had such similar impact on the genre, that I am going to go ahead to put them together. It is time, as a lover of Sword & Sorcery fiction, to discuss the twin elephants in the room: Lin Carter, and L. Sprague de Camp.
Lyon Sprague de Camp was the elder of the two, and indeed served as a kind of mentor to Linwood Vernon Carter, who wisely chose to write as simply “Lin”. A generation apart in age, the two worked closely together for many years, and though they apparently fell out late in life, this did not become widely known in their lifetimes.
De Camp had the more distinguished career, as he began working in SF and Fantasy in the heyday of the 30s and 40s alongside his friends Asimov and Robert Heinlein, though he never achieved their kind of mainstream acclaim. He wrote numerous books and enjoyed considerable success, and his nonfiction books debunking pseudoscience and historical fabrications remain highly readable to this day.
Carter was more of a fanboy type. A fan of genre fiction from his teens, he struggled mightily to become a published writer, eventually succeeding, and producing a considerable body of work. Carter made up for the essentially derivative nature of his imagination with volume, and he wrote dozens of novels, stories, articles, and nonfiction books.
The legacy of these two remains a complex one, because even as de Camp was a rather dry writer, and Carter often just terrible, together they probably did more to popularize Sword & Sorcery and the work of Howard than anyone else ever has. Carter, in particular was tireless as an editor, historian, and critic of heroic fantasy, putting out countless anthologies. His memory is only somewhat tarnished by the fact that he was almost equally tireless as a self-promoter, and his over-eager way of butting into things did not always cast him in the best light.
Both of them had their most obvious impact on the S&S genre as posthumous “collaborators” with Robert Howard. The publishers who put out Howard’s work in collections had great sales but one glaring problem – Howard was dead. Once everything they could find was in print, there was no more. You can only repackage the same stories so many times.
Into the breach stepped Carter, and his mentor de Camp to a lesser degree. Together they dug up unfinished manuscripts and even outlines by Howard and turned them into finished works, along the way often re-editing them to make them less violent and to remove other objectionable elements. Later they moved into straight-up pastiches, writing novels that bore the Conan name but contained not one word or idea produced by Howard.
Thus they inaugurated a practice that continues to this very day. Writers such as Robert Jordan and John Maddox Roberts have gotten their start and paid their bills writing these overheated Conan novelizations, which have nothing whatever to do with Howard or what he wrote. Because of the success of this I think many readers first encountered Conan in one of these pastiched novels and wondered whatever the fuss was about.
Carter in particular branched out, writing a lot of half-baked pulp adventure novels, fantasy novels, and Planetary Romances. He even produced a truly awful Sword & Sorcery porn novel entitled Tara of the Twilight.
Thus Carter, and to a lesser degree de Camp, did both great service and great harm to the genre. On one hand their work helped popularize Sword & Sorcery and make it a cultural touchstone that refuses to be eradicated. On the other, they cluttered up the landscape with a lot of second-rate imitations - some of them well and truly awful – and this helped cement in the popular mind that S&S was junk. When the bottom fell out of the Sword & Sorcery market in the 70s – never to really recover – it was largely due to shit like Conan the Buccaneer.
De Camp lived a long life, passing away at the age of 92 in 2000. Carter, his younger protege, did not outlive him. Plagued by cancer and alcoholism, he died in 1988, only 57 years old. It would be best, I think, that their works in the genre be set aside, and we instead remember their enthusiasm and genuine love for Sword & Sorcery. Without them, it might have been forgotten.