I try not to let collecting obsessions run my life any more, but I do still enjoy collecting books. I got the habit back in the 1970s, when I was in my early teens (details here) and I suppose it was inevitable that the few collector quests I hang on to date back to those days, when I was blowing all my lawn-mowing and baby-sitting money on spinner-rack paperbacks and Marvel comics.
Occasionally those things intersected, like in the case of Robert E. Howard.
When I bought my first issue of Savage Sword of Conan, back in 1976 or thereabouts, it was strictly an impulse buy, but I fell completely in love with the world that it opened up. Not just the Hyborian Age and Conan and Kull, but the idea that there were books to read beyond the comics. Much like with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan a few years before, I was delighted to discover there were a whole new bunch of additional prose adventures for me to wallow in.
And when I say a bunch, I mean a BUNCH.
It is impossible to overstate how much Robert E. Howard (and Frank Frazetta and his imitators) dominated the drugstore spinner racks in the mid-seventies. Publishers were falling all over themselves looking for anything they could repackage to lure in the Conan fans. Anything with Howard’s name on it was instantly redone in the Frazetta style. Think I’m exaggerating? Check out the barbarian makeover on this reprint of Howard’s boxing stories.
It amuses me no end that at no point does the back-cover blurb actually commit to the falsehood that there are Conan-style sword and sorcery stories therein– read it carefully, it can all be applied to boxing– but nevertheless, I am certain that many purchasers of this book felt swindled.
As for me, I fell for a lot of the Zebra Howards with the Jeff Jones covers. (Sometimes, like with The Sowers of the Thunder, I liked those even better than Conan.)
Once in a while I even would take a chance on the non-Howard continuations. Also usually from Zebra, but not always.
Often in those days, I’d find myself at Looking Glass Books in downtown Portland, because they had far and away the best selection of this sort of thing. (The fact that it was also a head shop that carried underground comics probably had something to do with it.) This was where I first saw the Donald M. Grant and Fax Books collector Howard hardcovers (that Zebra was reprinting in paperback) as well as the beautifully-illustrated Conan chapbooks Grant was doing.
I lusted for them but even at my most feverish I could never bring myself to blow that kind of money, especially on books I already had in paperback.
Today, of course, those editions are almost as highly sought-after as the Gnome Press Howard hardcovers from the fifties. The Gnome Howards are rarities that almost never fall below a hundred dollars, and the Conans you never see for under three hundred. But the Grant and the Fax Howards hover kind of within range of my budget, and I keep an eye out for them. My rule is to never spend more than ten dollars on one, which keeps it challenging.
And this last week I found two more, for seven dollars apiece. Of course I snatched them up. The first was the aforementioned The Iron Man.
This may be the only edition with a real boxer on the cover! In point of fact, I have always held that Howard’s boxing stories are as good or better than the Conans, and certainly more polished. Somehow, despite my voracious consumption of all things Howard, I missed this one back in the day; so it’s like a new book as far as I’m concerned.
The other was Son of The White Wolf.
This collects three of Howard’s El Borak stories, which I admit I already have here in other editions, but my inner bookscout couldn’t pass up what is usually a forty-dollar hardcover for seven dollars. Moreover, I do enjoy these books just as artifacts; each one is beautifully illustrated.
So increasing my collection by fifty percent this week was enough to make me feel a little smug. But there was another minor victory as well, again hearkening back to those old seventies spinner-rack days.
Longtime readers will doubtless recall that I have a soft spot for schlocky men’s-adventure paperbacks, especially the B and C-listers trying to piggyback off the success of The Executioner.
Most of these were put together by a guy named Lyle Kenyon Engel, whose usual M.O. was to think of a premise, sell the series to a publisher, and then subcontract writers to actually churn out as many books as he could persuade the publisher to take. Some were huge hits, and others were… well, not.
Chopper Cop, alas, was not a hit and the series was killed after three books. But the instant I saw this cover I knew it was for me.
They just don’t make covers like that any more, Hell, the title alone would have sold me. The trouble is, what should have been a fifty-cent used paperback in a discount box by the front of your average used-book emporium is, instead, a highly-prized collectible.
Why? I don’t know. The other two are equally overpriced.
My researches availed me little. As usual for an Engel production, the books were issued under a house name, “Paul Ross.” The first two were written by Dan Streib, a journeyman workhorse author not remembered with any particular fondness. The third, the one with that alluring title, was a collaboration between Bill Amidon and Nat Freedland, neither of whom are household names. So what’s the story?
Sites like Glorious Trash rate the books as disappointing and not living up to the covers or the premise.
Anyway, though it is #3 my heart lusts for, there’s no way I’m dropping thirty dollars on it. So unless a miracle comes to pass, I will probably never know why Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert is apparently so beloved. However, I did manage to find a copy of #2, The Hitchhike Killer, for a buck, and the criticisms that have been leveled against it by connoisseurs of the genre — the hero is too emotional, the story is a classic whodunit, and so on– all sound like pluses to me.
Haven’t read it yet, but it’s unlikely I’ll change my mind about paying gouger’s prices for the others. We’ll see.
However, I was irrationally pleased with myself just for finding one with a price that wasn’t marked up into the stratosphere. One of the things about bookscouting is that you learn to take pleasure in the small victories.
Back next week with something cool.
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