Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Lin Carter and the Ballantines Changed My Life

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


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    For me it was Moorcock, though not immediately. I discovered The Silver Warriors (aka Phoenix in Obsidian) in our school library, though I had seen the Elric stuff and some of the rest (Corum, Hawkmoon and Jerry Cornelius, mostly) in bookstores, but this was a free trial. I read Tolkien around the same timeframe (bought a Ballantine boxed set of LOTR and The Hobbit), but found it wasn’t really what I wanted in fantasy, as he meandered a lot and some of the characters felt one-dimensional. With Moorcock, there were more layers, they weren’t hulking brutes (despite some of the cover artistry) and they had more varied settings. That got me to try the Barsoom tales of Burroughs and, soon, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. I tried some other fantasy, but found a lot of it fell into either the Burroughs, Tolkien or REH camp, and not necessarily in a good way. I missed quite a bit of good stuff, at first, just because you couldn’t always tell much from the cover copy and money was tight enough to make experimenting a careful thing.

    Once I was in the military and had more disposable income and access to more used bookstores, and time to read (when you are at sea and not on duty, a book is a nice thing) then Moorcock had a stronger influence, particularly as I moved away from Elric into his other areas and also discovered authors like Glen Cook, who wrote believable military characters in a fantasy setting. But, it was Moorcock’s Multiverse that really fired my imagination, though DC had already set that up with its parallel worlds (until the Marvel exiles F-ed with that). I was really ready by the time some of his other material was getting reprinted, such as the Kane of Mars pastiches and, especially, the Oswald Bastable proto-steampunk novels. Then, I encountered his Seaton Begg (a Sexton Blake pastiche, who investigates crimes across dimensions). That prepped me for meta-fictional stuff, like Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Phillip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula and Diogenes Club works, the Tales of the Shadowmen anthologies, and work along those lines from French author Xavier Maumejean.

    1. I picked up Lancer’s “The Dreaming City” in the early 1970s and got hooked on Elric. Though the more meta Moorcock got, he often lost me.
      I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles as a kid (and an adult) but they weren’t as unusual as Smith or MacDonald, just excellent reading.

  2. Le Messor

    My mother used to read Tolkien and Lewis to me, among others. Some George MacDonald, Earthsea, etc… I branched out into Tanith Lee and others. (Hazily trying to remember back to the dawn of time here.) There was also sci-fi, of course, but fantasy has always been my favourite genre.

    “Tolkien did not invent elves, dwarves, magic rings or quests (he did invent hobbits, which is no small feat)”
    Of course not. Never accuse a hobbit of having small feet; they’re proud of their foots.
    Proudfeet, sorry.

    I didn’t know André Norton wrote fantasy; I’ve only run across her sci-fi.

    “those who liked the old stuff probably already owned it.”
    Reminds me of a bit from r/facepalm; a book company ran a promotion via a tweet:
    ‘Here’s a thought; why not buy a copy of your favourite book?’
    followed shortly by:
    ‘We didn’t think that through; turns out most of you already own your favourite books.’

    1. Le Messor

      Witch World… Man, my memory sucks! I’ve actually read that one. Includes MacBeth’s witches, iirc?

      The only Native American fantasy novel I can remember reading was by Alan Dean Foster, I believe (see above re: memory), though I’ve read a little actual mythology.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.