Thursday, February 28, 2013

It'll Make Your Nape-Hairs Standup - "Young Thongor" by Lin Carter (with Robert M. Price tagging along)

   After my harsh review of "Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria", I never thought I'd go back to Lin Carter's character. Then I saw something positive about "Young Thongor", edited by Adrian Cole.  I never knew there where stories about Thongor's early days and here they were collected in one volume.  As an added bonus there were three new stories written by Robert M. Price (of Crypt of Cthulhu fame).  I've enjoyed all Price's Mythos stories in the absolutely indispensable Chaosium Mythos anthologies, so I figured that would be a nice bonus.  So I took a chance and bought it.  Okay, so at $3.43 it really wasn't much of a chance, but if you've read "Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria" you might think otherwise.
   The Thongor novels are mash-ups of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  You get your standard issue, square-cut, black haired barbarian together with super-science which should be the right concoction to get any S&S fan's blood pumping.  The problem is, while I haven't read the entire series, I can safely say the ones I have stink.  His syntax is awful, the monsters are dull and Thongor's got no more life than the ink on the page.
   In "Young Thongor" it turns out Lin Carter could actually write exciting and engaging, if still derivative, stories.  The stories ditch most of the Barsoomian trappings found in the novels, sticking to mostly pure REH and are the better for it.  Maybe he took a little more time on the stories, maybe he had learned his craft a little more.  Whatever, the short stories, though not on a level with his seventies compatriots like Wagner or Saunders, are solid, S&S fun that I can imagine rereading someday.
   The first story is the weakest in the book and it's still stronger than "Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria".  In "Black Hawk of Valkarth", we meet the teenage Thongor, sole survivor of the Black Hawk people. Only chance saved him from death during the massacre of his tribe by the Snow Bear tribe.  Armed only with Sarkozan, the sword of the ancient hero and tribal founder, Valkh the Black Hawk, and taken from the hand of his dead chieftain, Thongor sets off across the snowy countryside seeking bloody revenge.  Thongor's plan is pretty nifty but the story suffers from a little too much been-there-done-that as far as origin stories go.
   Following his successful revenge against the Snow Bear tribe, Thongor begins a long trek towards the warm, jungled lands and mighty kingdoms of southern Lemuria.  The next three stories, "The City in the Jewel", "Demon of the Snows" and Price's "The Creature in the Crypt" cover the barbarian's southward journey and Carter starts showing a little flair and the sort of over the top craziness I prize in S&S.
   With "The City in the Jewel", we get exactly that; Zazamanc, a sorcerer, has sought immortality by creating an entire world for himself and hiding it away from Death's sight in a great gem. For his own amusement he tricks and traps men and women into his realm. Once captured, the mighty thewed Thongor is forced to fight in an arena for the sorcerer's pleasure. Thongor, of course, soon becomes involved in plans to kill the unkillable Zazamanc and free himself from bondage.
   The story's highlight is Zazamanc.  Through all the stories, Thongor suffers from being a little too bland and cookie cutter of a barbarian. It's as if Carter had a checklist; square cut, black hair, might arms, big sword, more honorable than civilized men.  He's rarely the highlight, even in the best of the stories.
   Convinced by divination Thongor will cause his death, Zazamanc is still reluctant to kill him when a demon he summons warns that "if you slay him, or order him slain, or set him in such danger that his death ensues, your own death will follow swiftly".  Carter offers some insight into a seemingly all powerful wizard and the things that actually cause him fear.  Almost bored with his deathless existence he is still terrified at its coming to an end.
   "The Demon of the Snows" introduces Thongor to women and the ways of love.  He also gets to explore a possibly haunted keep and tangle with a horrifying worm-monster.  The first two thirds of the story are action-free but tense.  Carter did a great job depicting what Thongor finds in the castle and his effort to solve the mystery of what happened to its inhabitants.

"They went on searching for some signs of life.  Behind them, dangling limply in the iron chains, the dead man hung, turning idly this way and that as a gust of wind moved down the draughty halls.  The skull-like face of the old man still bore the rictus of silent laughter.  Thongor wished he knew what had made the old man smile."

  The finale with the demon is sufficiently fun but it's the horror story mood that precedes it that makes the story a success.
   "The Creature in the Crypt" is notable mostly for having served as the genesis of "The Thing in the Crypt", a Conan story Carter wrote for "Conan".  According to Adrian Cole's excellent foreword, Carter had planned to develop the plot into a Thongor story but never got around to it before his death.  Price took it upon himself to make the effort. It's okay, what with a revivified blue skinned, three-eyed ancient king in a mysterious cave, but that's about all it is. Like it's Conan version it's only a trifle of a tale.
   In "Mind Lords of Lemuria", also by Price, Thongor, after establishing himself in the civilized south lands, has entered the service of an ambitious lord, the Sark Arzang Pome of the city of Shembis.  Thongor is part of an expedition into the Lemurian jungles in search of silver for the greedy Sark.  Along the way they encounter the major plot element of "The Shadow Out of Time".  I'll just let you know "Mind Lords" features mind-swapping aliens and chapters entitled "Thongor against Thongor!" and "Thongor Berserk!".
   "Mind Lords" just doesn't feel right.  Carter's stories work because, unoriginal as they are, clearly spring from deep inside his great, beating, fan-boy heart.  They overflow with the intense enjoyment Carter seems to have gotten from trying to recreate stories in the styles of his literary heroes.  This story is too labored.  It feels like a parody of something that's already, even if unintentionally, a little parodic.  Everything's a little too much, too over the top.  I also think Carter would've used the actual Great Race of Yith and made the HPL-crossover explicit.
   With "Silver Shadows", Price succeeds at creating a more Carterish feeling story.  Tired of working for others, Thongor has turned his hand to banditry.  Still, though an outlaw, he finds himself again in the service of Arzang Pome in search of silver.  This time it's a cursed hoard of the metal hidden in the tunnels under Shembis.  There's a kindly wizard, a delectable courtesan and a reptilian ape-monster.  Not a bad story at all.
   "Keeper of the Emerald Flame" is my favorite tale in the collection.  Thongor now leads a band of outlaws in the regions around Shembis and the Sark has sent out troops to run him to ground.  Evading the Sark's forces, Thongor and his band find themselves in unknown lands.  They meet a jungle girl and find a pre-human city out of dark legends. Those legends also include stories of great quantities of gems just waiting to be found.

"The colossal stone wreck was one of incredibly detailed and curiously unfamiliar architecture. The eye became lost in a maze of balconies, towers, colonnades and buttresses. The mind was baffled and confused among the mad profusion of wall and arch and wing and extension. It was not so much one building as a cluster of buildings, all built together in a man-made mountain of stonework....Like a titanic idol, hewn from a solid mountain of dead black squatted, brooding, amid dreary waste of desolation."

   It's not the most poetic of descriptions but it works well conveying the alien nature and scale of the ruins.  From the girl, Thongor learns that the place is haunted by Shan Chan Thuu, a wizard who came out of distant Omn centuries ago to learn the secrets of the dead city.  Still hiding from the Sark's men and hoping to find the gems, Thongor and his crew risk a night in the ruins. Soon enough his men start dying in horrible, bloody ways.
   Again, like in "The Demon of the Snows", Carter's aim appears to be tension and atmosphere, not action. S&S's roots are as deeply planted in horror as adventure tales.  Chelim, his lieutenant, says to Thongor, "I get the feeling this place is somehow alive - watching me - waiting for me to take a false step, before it pounces; or does something worse."  As his men start to die, fear grows and Thongor sets out to confront whatever horror is stalking them.  
   The foreword to "Black Moonlight" tells us Thongor was eventually captured by Arzang Pome and set to work as a galley slave.  Freeing himself in a bloody uprising, Thongor makes it to the pirate city, Tarakus, and becomes famous as the captain of the "Black Hawk".  This story brings Thongor and his shipmates to the haunted island of Zosk in search of legendary treasure.  The usual lunacy transpires - savage beast-men attack, the moon runs red and a stone monster lurches into action.  Short, sharp and bloody.
   "Young Thongor" comes to its conclusion with "Thieves of Zangabal".  Thongor has run afoul of the pirates' king and finds himself forced into robbing a sorcerer for a Lemurian nobleman.  The story's a little long and the fights are a little dull, but the complicated demon that serves as Thongor's primary antagonist is a clever creation.
   Where "Young Thongor" fails too often is with the character of Thongor.  He's too perfect a hero.  A teenage barbarian never exposed to civilization, he's too knowledgeable about too many things too quickly.  He also seems too young to be leading bands of experience bandits and pirates.  He never quite seems as young as he supposed to be and too mature.  Mostly, though, he's a bit too dull. He's brave, noble and rarely unsuccessful. It's a little hard to suspend all my disbelief every time.
   Fortunately, the book succeeds at creating a fun, ruin and demon haunted world at the dawn of time.  Almost overstuffed with background, Carter's Lemuria teems with vivid life and adventure.  It doesn't aspire to the same depth as REH's Conan or Wagner's Kane stories or break ground like Moorcock's Elric or Saunder's Imaro series.  What it does is provide great, straight up S&S that'll give readers looking for a few hours of thrills a good time.  I'm really grateful to Adrian Cole for overseeing this collection and getting out there.

NOTE: I am surprised how hard I've been on the late Mr. Carter. I tend to keep my claws sheathed even when writing about authors/stories I despise. I suspect it's only because he's dead that I'm so harsh and dismissive about his books. I struggle not to be mean spirited or flippant about writing I don't like because I think it's cheap and serves no good purpose. Criticism should be about promoting the good and seeking to explain why failures fail in hopes of encouraging better writing in the future. Ripping people and their works does none of that.
   With Lin Carter, though, it's unfortunately too much a part of the general S&S community. Sure, he could be a sloppy writer. Too often his stories seem more like fan-fiction than original writing. Still, the general attitude toward him seems a little too much. A lot of it comes from his association with Sprague de Camp and his control over Conan for so many decades. From all accounts, Carter was a decent guy undeserving of the sort of dismissal he often gets. He also did more than so many others to promote fantasy and specifically S&S. In the future I'm going to try to show a little more respect for someone incapable of fighting back and who did so much for a genre I love.


  1. Lin Carter edited the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, and for that I'm incredibly thankful. Without his involvement, The Sorcerer's Ship might never have been republished.

  2. As Michal points out, we have Carter to thank for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which covers a multitude of sins. I've not read any of his fiction, so I can't intelligently comment on him as a writer. But as an editor, few have come close to matching his achievements.

  3. Amen, to both of you. His editorial merits are astounding. Between the Ballantine Adult Series and Flashing Swords! a reader can get about as good a grounding in the depth and breadth of fantasy as possible.

    Michal - I really need to read The Sorcerer's Ship. Have you read Beyond the Golden Stair as well? If so is it good?

  4. I haven't, unfortunately. I should get my hands on a copy, though--Hannes Bok had a truly inspiring imagination.

  5. Carter could write pretty well when he took the time to do it. I'm a huge fan of his, but even I will admit that he perhaps hacked out too much stuff. But when he slowed down he could turn out some decent fiction. I agree that the Thongor short stories are considerably better than the novels. One of the biggest problems with characters like Thongor, John Jakes' Brak, and Gardner Fox's Kothar, is that they were designed to be copies of Conan and thus never went much beyond that. Thus they seem pale shadows with little individuality and no characterization. Just Conan stand-ins. Far better to produce an Elric, a Kane, or a Druss, characters who have Conan-ish adventures but stand on their own as original creations.

    1. Absolutely. They're perfectly acceptable filler until the next KEW or Charles Saunders comes around.

      Do you have any particular Carter favorites?

  6. My favorites are probably the Callisto novels, especially the first, Jandar of Callisto, and the sixth, Lankar of Callisto. I liked Lankar so much that I wrote a sequel to it, Secret Masters of Callisto, which is online at ERBzine.
    After those, the six Thongor shorts and the novel Kellory the Warlock, which is about as original a book as Lin ever wrote.