Monday, September 17, 2007
Keeper of the Emerald Flame
Over the weekend I was re-reading some of Lin Carter's Thongor short stories. Thongor, the real one and not my alias on Yahoo, was Carter's answer to two of his favorite authors, Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Often referred to as 'Conan on Mars', Thongor was physically almost identical to REH's barbarian hero, but his adventures, at least in book length form, more closely resemble those of ERB's John Carter of Mars.
The six short stories, on the other hand, are almost pure Howard pastiches, being mostly straight forward barbarian adventures with very little of the sword & planet trappings of the novels. They could almost be Conan stories. Come to think of it, some of them were.
See in the 1960s, Lin Carter broke into the publishing world with his novel The Wizard of Lemuria, starring his Conan analog Thongor of Valkarth. The book had been read in manuscript by noted science fiction writer, L. Sprague Decamp. Decamp had recently been involved in re-writing some of Robert E. Howard's non-Conan adventure stories into Conan yarns, four of which were published as the book Tales of Conan. Decamp was also trying to get the various Conan stories printed as a series of paperbacks. Problem was, there aren't really that many Conan tales. Only 21, which wouldn't make for much or a series. Decamp's answer was to rewrite more of REH's other stories and to write some brand new Conan stories. He offered Lin Carter the chance to collaborate on the new stories.
Carter, who had already sold a few Thongor short stories and had plotted several more, jumped at the chance. He stole his own Thongor plots to write as Conan adventures. So the world was robbed of further short adventures of Thongor and given new adventures of Conan.
But years later, at least one of the original Thongor plots actually saw the light of day as a Thongor story, even though it had already been written as a Conan yarn. Thus we have Lair of the Ice Worm, the Conan version by Carter and Decamp, and Demon of the Snows, Carter's solo tale of Thongor.
Last night I read Keepers of the Emerald Flame, which is my favorite of the Thongor short stories. It's set early in Thongor's career, when he's a mere lad of 19 and making his living as a bandit chief. One of the kingdoms that Thongor and his men have been raiding has sent a troop of soldiers to wipe out the bandits. They pursue Thongor and company deep into the steaming jungles of Lemuria, but turn back when the bandits enter an area of the jungle thought to be haunted. As it turns out, there's a lost city in there and it is indeed haunted by a particularly gruesome fiend. Things turn bloody and ugly fast. Keepers is a rollicking action filled story with some vividly described settings and a couple of genuinely creepy moments. The vast, empty, castle/city reminds me of the black stone temple in the Decamp/Carter Conan story The Castle of Terror and of the weird city in REH's Red Nails. Carter was an uneven writer. Some of his stories don't hold together well, and some are just sloppy. But when he was on he could make a nice turn of phrase and tell a well plotted solid tale, like this one. I consider the Thongor short stories to be some of Lin's best writing and I find them superior to the novels. Most of the stories can be found fairly cheap in various anthologies. They're well worth seeking out.