If there was a book made for me, this is it. It’s an out of print hardcover from Sauk City Wisconsin-based Arkham House Publishers, Inc, whose very name awakes fond thoughts of Cthulhu and other tentacled horrors. The book is a handsome little volume with great black and white cover art by Tim Kirk that would be right at home as interior art of a Moldvay/Cook Dungeons and Dragons manual.
I’m loving the contents so far, too, which includes an introductory essay “The Swords of Faerie” and subsequent pieces on William Morris, Lord Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft, E.R. Eddison, Robert E. Howard, Fletcher Pratt, Clark Ashton Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.H. White, before concluding with “Conan’s Compeers,” an overview of REH sword and sorcery contemporaries like Fritz Leiber, C.L. Moore, and Henry Kuttner. I’m about halfway through and the only thing I’ve found a bit galling so far is the introduction by Lin Carter. I love Carter as an editor and am eternally grateful for his Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, his Flashing Swords anthologies, and his unmatched passion for the swords and sorcery genre, but his intro is a bit of a tug job on his friend de Camp, whom he compares favorably with all the greats. Writes Carter:
If you can get past its hero-worshipping veneer, I think Carter’s analysis unwittingly hints at de Camp’s biggest flaw: His stuff is little more than lightweight escape fiction, at least in my limited exposure to it. I quite like The Tritonian Ring for example but it’s written with an ironic, half tongue-in-cheek style, and is certainly no "Red Nails." DeCamp’s writing style is journalism-solid but lacks the distinctive poetry and force of the authors mentioned above, which is why I believe his fiction hasn’t held up as well as the authors detailed herein.
I actually prefer de Camp the essayist and reviewer. His essays in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers are more than mere thumbnail sketches, combining a fair degree of biographical detail while placing their works into a larger historical heroic fantasy context. They are in no way definitive, but serve as a nice summation and primer for looking further into their works. De Camp also provides us with end notes with references to biographies and letters that an interested reader can use for further exploration.
I just finished up “Superman in a Bowler: E.R. Eddison” and am anticipating with half-dread “The Miscast Barbarian: Robert E. Howard,” which de Camp later expanded into his full-length biographical treatment Dark Valley Destiny. But having already read DVD and rather enjoying it despite its warts, nothing de Camp says about Howard is going to come as a shock. I’m looking forward rather more to his legendary garage chat with J.R.R. Tolkien over pipes and beer. More to come on this book later.