Or at least changed my taste on books (this is another repost from my own blog, from 2013)
Someone once described the late specfic author Lin Carter as fantasy methadone. Read all of Howard and Burroughs three or four times over? Not to worry, Carter-written series such as Thongor (the Conan riff) and Jandar (Barsoom) can give you more of what you want. It won’t satisfy you the same way — Carter was an inferior writer to both ERB and Howard — but it’ll take the edge off your hunger.
Hack though he was, Carter knew his fantasy fiction. In 1969 he wrote Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings for Ballantine Books, which had published LOTR along with much other SF and fantasy. The book explained to readers whose fantasy knowledge began and ended with Tolkien that no, Tolkien did not invent elves, dwarves, magic rings or quests (he did invent hobbits, which is no small feat). Carter also detailed the legends that Tolkien drew on, as well as his fantasy-writing predecessors. This impressed Ian and Betty Ballantine enough to invite Carter to edit a line of classic fantasies for them. He accepted.
I think the first time I stumbled upon Ballantine Books’ Adult Fantasy was the 1973 paperback for The Charwoman’s Shadow by Lord Dunsany (who was, indeed, an English lord, as well as a novelist and successful playwright). An impoverished aristocrat’s son apprentices with a magician, then discovers the wizard has his cleaning lady’s shadow locked away in a chest. Can the protagonist restore her shadow and take her away to safety?The book was like nothing I’d ever read before. Dunsany’s poetic prose style, the striking cover and the remarkable mundaneness of the characters — I’d read a lot of mythology and a fair amount of fantasy, but I hadn’t run across one where the damsel in distress was a middle-aged housekeeper. I kept my eyes out for more Adult Fantasy books and snapped them up when I found them.
It was all the more exciting because fantasy novels were thin on the shelves in those days. There were Andre Norton’s books, Robert E. Howard reprints and short-story collections from various authors; at the library there was Oz. That was about it. Our town had one bookstore and a couple of newsstands, so even published fantasy might not show up where I could buy it. Lots of paperbacks had coupons in the back for ordering a full catalog, but I think I did that maybe once in my teen years. Catalogs weren’t always free and ordering books that way meant paying shipping and handling! By my budgetary standards that was insanely expensive. The small presses that were usually publishing obscure fantasy novels would have charged more, even if I could have found them (tricky doing in those pre-Internet days).
Thanks to Carter and the Ballatines, I could read George MacDonald’s allegorical Lilith. Clark Ashton Smith’s stylized dark fantasy short stories, collected in Poseidonis, Xiccarph, Hyperborea and more. James Branch Cabell’s cynical tales of less-than-noble knights, with a healthy serving of sex. New authors such as Evangeline Walton, with her retelling of the Welsh Mabinogion and Saunders Anne Laubenthal’s remarkable Alabama Grail quest, Excalibur (some of the covers are in this old post of mine).
It would be a satisfying ending if I could say reading these books shaped my own fantasy-writing style, but I don’t think they did. I did try to write some Dunsanian stories when I started out, but like most writers who imitate a distinctive stylist, the results were … not good (I’m not even going to mention my efforts at imitating Lovecraft — crap, I just did). They did, however, do a marvelous job broadening my taste beyond Conan and Frodo Baggins.
The Adult Fantasy reprints died away later in the decade, when Ballatine Books became DelRey books. The new management’s thinking was that most readers wanted new material; those who liked the old stuff probably already owned it. I certainly didn’t own it, but as DelRey stayed in business for years, I guess they knew what they were doing (I bought plenty of their books). And now, of course, it’s easy to find pretty much any book on the Internet, though sometimes they’re still more than I can afford. But during that brief window of the early to mid-seventies, Carter and the Ballantines stood alone on bookstores shelves. For that they have my thanks.#SFWApro. Book covers by Gervasio Gallardo, comic book cover by Gil Kane