Wednesday 11 August 2010

Pastiches 'R' Us: Ryan Harvey Inadvertently Destroys De Camp

Full confession time: I haven't read Conan of the Isles.  I have, however, read Roy Thomas' adaptations of various De Camp/Carter pastiches in the recent Marvel reprints courtesy of Dark Horse, and from what I can gather, Thomas was - unfortunately - as faithful to De Camp as he was to Howard. Admirable on Thomas' part, but leads to a lot of infuriated spluttering on my part. Like Conan the Liberator. To hell with that.

Anyway, Conan of the IslesRyan's review is shockingly lenient on De Camp, but this paragraph he quotes from the book is just something else.

Now that [Zenobia] was gone, he found himself often thinking of her, in moods of black depression that were unlike him. While she lived, he had taken her devotion as his due and thought little of it, as is the way of the barbarian. Now he regretted the words he had not said to her and the favors he had not done for her.

I've bolded the parts which utterly stunned me.  "Moods of black depression that were unlike him"?  Conan?  He of the gigantic melancholies, one of the first things we ever learn about the character - in the first sentence?  He who spoke of the Cimmerians' native predisposition for gloominess and depression?  He who himself suffered an episode that could only be called black depression in a draft for "The Phoenix on the Sword"?

The carven door closed behind the Poitanian, and Conan turned back to his task. He paused a moment, idly listening to his friend’s retreating footsteps, which fell hollowly on the tiles. And as if the empty sound struck a kindred chord in his soul, a rush of revulsion swept over him. His mirth fell away from him like a mask, and his face was suddenly old, his eyes worn. The unreasoning melancholy of the Cimmerian fell like a shroud about his soul, paralyzing him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavor and the meaninglessness of life. His kingship, his pleasures, his fears, his ambitions, and all earthly things were revealed to him suddenly as dust and broken toys. The borders of life shrivelled and the lines of existence closed in about him, numbing him. Dropping his lion head in his mighty hands, he groaned aloud.

Yet as De Camp would have it, such black depression was "unlike Conan." This alone just showed how clueless De Camp was, to ascribe one of the single most important aspects of Conan - his "gigantic melancholies" - as being "unlike him."  For Crom's sake, De Camp.

Then there's that garbage about Conan considering Zenobia's devotion as "his due."  If it's possible, this infuriates me even more: Conan was astonished at the lengths Zenobia went to to bust him out of Belverus.  He was so impressed that he promised to make him his queen.  A seraglio girl he just met!  Yet apparently, according to De Camp, Conan just took her daring devotion it as "his due," and thus didn't see any need to reward it - you know, apart from making the woman his queen.

Conan did not at once reply; wild and passionate and untamed he was, yet any but the most brutish of men must be touched with a certain awe or wonder at the baring of a woman’s naked soul.

He inspected the weapon the girl had given him, and smiled grimly. Whatever else she might be, she was proven by that dagger to be a person of practical intelligence. It was no slender stiletto, selected because of a jeweled hilt or gold guard, fitted only for dainty murder in milady’s boudoir; it was a forthright poniard, a warrior’s weapon, broad-bladed, fifteen inches in length, tapering to a diamond-sharp point. He grunted with satisfaction...

...He caught her up in his iron arms, crushed her slim, vibrant figure to him and kissed her fiercely on eyes, cheeks, throat and lips, until she lay panting in his embrace; gusty and tempestuous as a storm-wind, even his love-making was violent.

“I’ll go,” he muttered. “But by Crom, I’ll come for you some day!”

Wheeling, he gripped the gold bars and tore them from their sockets with one tremendous wrench; threw a leg over the sill and went down swiftly, clinging to the ornaments on the wall. He hit the ground running and melted like a shadow into the maze of towering rose-bushes and spreading trees. The one look he cast back over his shoulder showed him Zenobia leaning over the window-sill, her arms stretched after him in mute farewell and renunciation.

What about any of that sounds like Conan just thought it his "due"?  He was impressed by her practical intelligence, and smothered her with kisses when they parted.  When was the last time Conan did anything like that?  Zenobia was special, not just among Conan's women, but to Conan himself.  He appreciated her enough to make her his queen.  Not his "due."

For Crom's sake, De Camp.

Now, I should note that Ryan notes what's what:

Although the veteran writers conjure up a breezy fantasy adventure with a pulpy sense of excitement, Conan of the Isles will put to the test a reader’s taste in post-Howard Conan. Which is more important: adherence to Howard’s spirit, or wild adventure? If you can have both, that’s wonderful. But I think most of us would prefer to have a good sword-and-sorcery adventure instead a boring and slavish attempt to imitate Howard. You will never mistake Conan of the Isles for Howardian Conan, but you won’t mistake it for a boring novel either.
You can’t expect all of it to makes sense or adhere to traditional Conan, but at least this pastiche lives up to the sword-and-sorcery obligation to entertain with fast, fun, imaginative action.

But that's kind of the problem, isn't it?  This was De Camp and Carter's attempt to imitate Howard.  De Camp fully intended for these stories to evoke the same spirit, and he felt that he succeeded - that any shortcomings were a result of being unable to copy Howard's "madness," rather than any flaws on De Camp's part.  "If I can't copy Howard fully, then it's because he's crazy, not because I'm incapable of doing it!"  All De Camp saw in Howard was "fast, fun, imaginative action."

Anyway, sorry for this rant, but man, that paragraph was stunning.  As if Sigurd of Vanaheim wasn't enough to have me stay very far away from this novel...


  1. I think DeCamp understimated Howard's skill as a writer and overestimated his own.

  2. from having read the 12 ace Conan's previously, I thought Isle's was the worst.. slightly ahead of liberator and Spider-god .. all the ones DeCamp worked on on his own in otherwords..

    it is a shame too, that DeCamp didn't spend the effort he used on the Conan pastiches to flesh out his Novaria more.. as its quite an interesting place.

  3. Come on Lagomorph-Conan the Buccaneer was worse.

    The single biggest thing Conan of the Isles made me think of, was how much I wished Howard had written of Conan wandering the nameless western continent.

    CotI really made me bummed that REH never wrote that one down.

  4. Which one was buccaneer? I can't remember so maybe it was so bad I blocked it out.

  5. Conan the buccaneer, king Ferdrugo of Zingara, Princess Sancha... is one of the traditional edition...
    all in all Ryan Harvey says interesting things in the paragraphs you have selected...