Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Grail Quests, Part Two: Achievement (Partially) Unlocked

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.

So far I have acquired four… Almuric, Dennis Dorgan, Worms of the Earth, and Tigers of the Sea.

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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  1. Le Messor

    Had I been searching for Conan-style things, I could totally have bought that paperback, and I would have felt totally swindled.
    (Not to mention, the blurb might not have committed to the lie, but the cover painting certainly did!)
    … frankly, it could still happen.

    When I was a kid, my parents bought me a Conan comic – one of the Marvel magazines. It had a scene where he fights a (humanoid) monster and rips one of its arms off, which ultimately killed it. I’d never known that could kill you before.
    (Anybody know which issue this is? There was also a story where he got a monster struck by lightning, by getting it to raise its sword over its head. I think there was a winged horse somewhere in it; the cover?)

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    The internet has a lot of prices way out of whack. It used to be, you could find stuff on the internet, for normal used book prices, even collectible stuff. Then, everyone started seeing them go for ridiculous prices on eBay, because someone went nuts trying to outbid for something, rather than wait for another to come along, and suddenly everyone jacks up their price to match, even if the demand isn’t that high. Instant gratification and little sense! I tell my wife that I am a Charlie Bucket in a world of Veruca Salts!

    I wen through my collecting phase, when I was younger and could go on the hunt more. I accumulated a bunch of stuff that I never got around to reading. After a couple of moves, I got tired of packing up stuff I had never read and wasn’t particularly chomping at the bit to read and thinned stuff way down. 20 years of bookselling also brought me other stuff that I liked better, though also the same problems of accumulation. Now, I go more for a new thing or a decently priced reprint, if it can be had. The heads up here about the re-release of the POTA books got me those for much less than the originals go for.

    eBooks have been a more affordable way to check out old authors who fell out of favor, like Talbot Mundy or some of the other pulp writers. It would be great if more of those cultish books could be offered that route, for those of us who just want to read the story.

    My holy grail, for a while, was Robert Mayer’s Superfolks, which I eventually got from Joseph Koch (a comic vendor who advertised in CBG). Then, about 5 years or so later, it was reprinted. My copy didn’t cosy me that much, so I didn’t mind that it was reprinted.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Never heard of that eBay theory on the wild prices for low-brow paperbacks of yore, but that makes sense. I always figured it was a just a matter of a lot of aging geeks (not pointing any fingers here) who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s wanting to reacquire some of the trashy books they used to have back in the day. I found that out when I started looking for copies of the Marvel superhero novelizations from the late ’70s.

      1. Well, some of these titles have become insanely desirable to collectors. Invasion is as unremarkable as any of the Laser Books were, just a straightforward SF adventure… but it was an early book by Dean Koontz under a pen name so it’s a find. Likewise the later UNCLE novels are priced high because they had much lower print runs and they are scarce.

        I know that there are guys that collect 70s sleaze paperback series — like this one and this one — but the guys that are into that stuff are collecting as much for amusement as anything, they understand the stuff is BAD. You rarely see one going for more than ten bucks.

        The thing that is baffling me is that Chopper Cop doesn’t really tick any of those collector boxes. It’s so esoteric that only people like me even know about it, so it’s not some legendary collectible like early Byron Preiss; it’s not particularly sleazy so those hobbyists don’t care about it; the authors and the cover artist were all basically unremarkable journeymen toilers in the trash-paperback vineyard, so it’s not like early work from someone who later became famous. The series is just kind of a lame riff on the biker genre, mashed up with a typical Dirty Harry-style thriller. Bikers aren’t readers– in fact a big criticism that has been leveled against Chopper Cop is that the motorcycle stuff is all wrong. The more I read about the series the more baffling it gets. There’s no reason for people to be paying that much.

        Jeff’s explanation is as good as any, I guess. Another one I’ve heard is people are laundering money through used-book sales on Amazon, jacking up prices through the roof so they can claim they made all that money selling rare books. Who knows?

        1. Edo Bosnar

          Wow, laundering money through used book sales. Sounds weird, but I guess that’s a possible explanation for why there’s often one Amazon marketplace seller with a listing for a given book priced at a few hundred dollars while all of the other listings are around the $5-$10 range.

  3. “Three Bladed Doom” is my favorite example of how big Howard was back then. An unpublished story, it saw life first when rewritten as a deCamp/Carter Conan story (“The Flame Knife,”). Then it later appeared as itself, and as another rewritten pastiche.

    1. David107

      There seem to be at least three versions of Three-Bladed Doom.

      According to Wikipedia, the first is shorter (24,000 words) than the second (42,000) words. The short version was printed first, in issue #4 of the magazine REH Lone Star Fictioneer (Spring 1976). The long version was printed the following year in the Zebra paperback Three-Bladed Doom (July 1977). Both of these versions, however, had their beginning and ending substantially re-written by Byron Roark, editor of REH Lone Star Fictioneer. The restored version was printed in issue #10 of the fanzine REH: Two-Gun Raconteur (Winter 2006).

      I’ve read the shorter one, and I have an El Borak collection which contains the long one, though I’ve no idea which ending it has.

      1. Believe it or not, I bought that particular issue of Lone Star Fictioneer off the stands when it was current, at the aforementioned Looking Glass Books. (One of the things I loved about the place was that it carried small-press and semi-pro zines like Lone Star and Star*Reach.) It was a VERY classy package– that particular “Three-Bladed Doom” was illustrated by Steranko.

        By the way, here is the complete listing for Donald M. Grant and here is the one for Fax Press. I’m not interested in the poetry collections or the Conan, that’s covered already here in the home library, but that still leaves a fun shopping list to pick at when we are out on the prowl.

  4. tomfitz1

    I used to read the Conan comics published by Dark Horse, especially the ones written by Kurt Busiek and Tim Truman. Never did read the paperback versions.

    I did, however, read the paperback versions of the Elric and Corum by Michael Moorcock after reading the comics published by First Comics in the 1980’s.

    I can’t remember if you did a blog on Moorcock books either here at AJS or CBR,
    Titan Books is doing a nice job reprinting the Moorcock comics in hardcovers.

  5. Edo Bosnar

    “Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert” – that … is such an awesome title. So awesome that it needs its own movie. Doesn’t even have to be based on the book, it just needs to exist.

    1. Not bad. But not great. I’ve never found any of the prose pastiche writers working at a level to match the originals, though. Some are entertaining, but that’s about it. Howard really was sui generis.

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