Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Two Fantasy Authors' Lives: A Twosday Twofer

Apostle of Letters: A Critical Evaluation of the Life and Works of Lin Carter (2006), Edited by Stephen J. Servello, WildCat Books. 193pp.
Lin Carter (born Linwood Vrooman Carter in 1933; died 1988) will perhaps be best remembered for three things, in increasing order of importance: his own fantasy books, such as the Lemurian cycle; his editing and additions (with L. Sprague de Camp) to Robert E. Howard's Conan stories; and his editorship of and critical writings for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Carter's style of sword-and-sorcery has fallen out of favor, perhaps to be enjoyed mainly for its nostalgia value by those who read it as teens. His work on Conan, while doing much to keep Howard's name and fame alive during difficult times, is presently seen by many purists and critics as mere accretions to be cleared from the original writings. His own "critical" writings on Tolkien and Lovecraft have become outdated since a vast wealth of resources, unpublished at the time, are now available. But Carter is fondly remembered today by many writers in the fantasy vein as someone who introduced them to obscure historical gems of the imagination through the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

And it is here, I think, that Lin Carter's importance lies. He was an enthusiast, an amateur, an ascended fanboy. He was no scholar of the books he talked about: he was a lover of them, and he wanted to pass on what he loved about them to others. At a time when Fantasy was in its own despised ghetto of literature he showed there was a rich history of great names and wondrous works behind it all, and he scraped together every scrap of knowledge he could get to share with others and fan that flame until it burned clear again. His own novels were entertainments and his style usually a pastiche of writers like Carter and Lovecraft and E. R. Burroughs, but he had a high vision that occasionally (as in his unfinished Khymyrium stories) lifted itself into the song of his own voice.

This book of 17 essays and interviews mostly covers aspects of his work, and relatively little of his life. I came away wanting to know more about the man personally. But maybe that's as it should be. It seems to me that for Lin Carter his work was his life, and he loved it.

H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (1996), by S. T. Joshi, Necronomicon Press.
This monumental volume (708 pages, including notes) is an incredible achievement by Joshi, and an amazing balancing act. I will not pretend I have read every page of it (I am still in that enjoyable process), but what I have read impresses me no end. In telling the story of H. P. Lovecraft, Joshi not only tells what Lovecraft did and what happened to him, but the historical context in which it occurred. The vastly different state of science, the prevailing social theories, the basic standards of living of the times, are touched on to explain the context of HPL's life and conduct. Lovecraft's own works are examined mainly as facts; when he wrote them, what influenced them, how he sold them and for how much, and the effect their publication had on him. Joshi as an author seldom intrudes or makes a judgmental statement. Facts are presented as facts; any opinions tend to be Lovecraft's own or his contemporaries, and these are cited simply as to the fact that they were made.

This makes it sound like the book is dry or dull reading. It is not. It is a superb orchestration, the theme being Lovecraft's life, and his family, his times, the city he grew up in, his friends, his wife, his writing, are all strands of music that swell and fade and intermingle in ever-developing chords, and all made by simple touches on the keys that are the facts.

In reading this book I seem to see Lovecraft more clearly than ever before, as if Joshi were painstakingly cleaning and restoring an old portrait darkened by the years, separating the authorial persona from the person. Insights into HPL's beliefs, his humor, and his habits have already startled and enlightened me. I can hardly wait to continue the book, although it leads to every life's sad end. But then, unlike real life, one can always start a written life again at the beginning, and I am sure that this is only the first of many readings of this book that I would like to have.

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