Three by de Camp

So earlier this evening I was reading the comments in a thread about whether or not someone new to the fantasy and science fiction fields should read Asimov, Heinlein, and Tolkien.  More than a few of the comments said that not only should a new reader not read bigoted dead white guys, those authors should go out of print.

Personally, I found many of the comments to be bigoted, at least as much if not more than the authors the comments were directed toward.  Rather than get into a fight with idiots people I don’t know on the internet, I decided I was in the mood to read some dead white guys. And since there has been a bit of discussion about the works of L. Sprague de Camp in the comments here since yesterday’s post, I  was wanting to revisit his work.  I thought I would read some of his short stories.

Here are my thoughts on what I read:

“The Gnarly Man”  First published in Unknown in the June 1939 issue, this is the story of an immortal Neanderthal.  There have been a couple of other tales in this vein, such as Phillip Jose Farmer’s “The Alley Man” (which I didn’t care for), but this was one of the first.  (I want to say “Old Man Mulligan” by P. Schuyler Miller falls into this category.  I’ve read it, but I’ve long since forgotten the details and my copy isn’t where I can get to it easily).

The story de Camp tells is about a woman, an anthropologist by profession, who comes across an Ape Man in a sideshow.  She quickly realizes that he’s not someone dressed up in a costume and makeup.  Upon getting to know the man, she discovers that he’s the last Neanderthal.  There were some rough spots in the story, but it was one of de Camp’s early efforts.  I found the story a little predictable, but then I’ve read it at least twice before, so that’s not surprising.  I like this story.  I’m a little surprise it was published in Unknown.  It’s more of a science fiction story than a fantasy; de Camp tries to provide a semi-logical explanation for why a Neanderthal would survive into modern times.

A month later in Unknown de Camp returns with a straight fantasy, “Nothing in the Rules”.  Unlike the previous story, in which de Camp treated his subject matter straight, here he goes for screwball comedy of the Cary Grant variety.  While it wasn’t laugh out loud funny, his tale of a mermaid competing in a women’s swim meet had its moments.  Especially when the mermaid begins to get drunk on the freshwater in the pool.  L. Sprague de Camp had a dry sense of humor, and it shows in this tale.  I like it at least as well as “The Gnarly Man”, and I think de Camp handled the cast of characters better in this one.  One thing that struck me was how he used dialogue and his different characters’ speech patterns to show their personalities.

The final story I read was from the Gavagan’s Bar series, which de Camp wrote in collaboration with Fletcher Pratt.  “A Better Mousetrap” is the story of a man who borrows a dragon to rid his apartment of mice.  He lives over a restaurant, and his landlady won’t allow exterminators on religious grounds.  It’s against her faith to harm a living creature.  So the man borrows a small dragon from a magician while the magician is away at a conference.  Only he loses the dragon.

The Gavagan’s Bar stories are structured like a group of people in a bar telling each other stories.  Pratt and de Camp make them sound like real conversations where a group of guys are sitting around drinking and talking.  There are interruptions and distractions, and from time to time the story rambles the way someone casually telling an anecdote will ramble.  The tone is very informal.  I’ll definitely be rereading this series.  “A Better Mousetrap” was a light, fun read.

So that’s how I spent my evening, rereading some stories by a dead white guy that I had enjoyed some years ago.  And enjoyed again tonight.

12 thoughts on “Three by de Camp

  1. Woelf Dietrich

    It actually hurts when people talk about past writers and wish to condemn them to obscurity. This utter lack of foresight and depth astounds me. How can they not see the value and worth of those men and women that came before in this genre? I’ll continue to read the old ones. They shaped and inspired me. I’m not turning my back on them anytime soon.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Agreed. While I admit that it might be a combination of age and nostalgia, I will continue to read the writers who inspired me in my youth. I do so recognizing that some works might not hold up upon rereading. I’m still going to reread them.

      The quote about those who fail to study history being doomed to repeat it comes to mind. I think what we’re seeing with this attitude is a manifestation of the trend to remove anything historical or from the past (statues, paintings, books, etc.) because it doesn’t conform to a certain set of contemporary standards. In other words an attempt to make the world a giant safe space.

      The problem with that idea is that the only truly safe space is the grave, and I’m not sure if that’s even true there.

      1. Woelf Dietrich

        Admittedly, my age and sense of nostalgia play a big role here but I find as people become more and more sensitive and outraged about little things (or the writers of old) I tend to retreat deeper into my cave of nostalgia.

        Those people who wish to ignore the earlier writers because they do not conform to today’s updated moral framework do not really love reading. They do not possess the foresight to understand how important it is to see how far we’ve come or to appreciate the “time-capsule” element of reading old writers.

        Having said that, I’m now going to find me some L. Sprague de Camp stories. I’d prefer a physical copy but an ebook will do, too.

        And with that I am now actively searching for Du Camp sto

        1. Keith West Post author

          Yep, same here. My cave is quite comfortable.

          I think a lot of the noise is rooted in fear and jealousy. Based on what I keep hearing, sales for fantasy and science fiction have been trending downwards for a while. (I don’t have time to look up the numbers. I need to get off the internet and get back to work.) I suspect part of the dynamic is that the older writers, many of the bigger names such as Asimov and Heinlein and such, are still popular and continue to sell. Some of the newer writers could be jealous of that popularity and are afraid of their contracts being canceled. I don’t know that that’s the case for all of them or if I’m completely off-base with that idea. I know I’m not the first person to have suggested it.

  2. Fletcher Vredenburgh

    Right now I’m listening to the unabridged lotr, reading excerpts from the silmarillion, AND looking thru my old middle earth rpg maps.

    I haven’t had much luck rereading decamp and he’s someone I loved in my youth. Maybe I need to give his short stories another try

  3. H.P.

    I am a big fan of de Camp’s sword and sorcery book The Tritonian Ring. I have a copy of Lest Darkness Fall I need to get to.

    There is a certain irony in arguing people shouldn’t read certain authors while appealing to their prejudices by describing them as “old white guys.” Writers, by their nature, tend to be forward thinking. I would put Tolkien’s views on stewardship on the environment or ERB’s treatment of race or REH’s female characters up against any of the lauded writers of today. In fact, it is the writers of today, not those of the 60s/70s, who are the regressives. We are talking about people who tended toward full-throated support of the Civil Rights Movement. But “forward thinking” today means working to tear down our progress toward equality (all while pretending to do the opposite). In 40 years people will pick up today’s works and be painfully embarrassed at just how bigoted they are, in a way that I am not when I pick up works from the 60s/70s.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I have The Tritonian Ring but haven’t read it yet. Maybe I need to move it up in the queue…

      Yeah, I noticed that irony as well. I’m less concerned about the ethnicity of the authors than whether they can tell a good story. And you raise an excellent point about Tolkien, ERB, and REH. I’ve gotten gun shy about a lot (most?) of the critical darlings of today. One of the commenters in the thread said we should read current releases. To a point I agree. There are some good writers doing some interesting things these days. But too often I have to sift through a lot of dreary lectures or caricatures of people who are different than the author.

      I’m sick of the virtue signaling and the identity politics. If you are wanting to read only about people like you, then maybe fantasy and science fiction aren’t the genres for you. Of course human nature is the same no matter how you self-identify. I don’t care if the characters don’t look like me or come from my background. I care about how they respond to the events and people surrounding them.

      I also don’t want to read in an echo chamber. I want to be exposed to different ideas. That doesn’t mean I’m going to accept those ideas or agree with them. While I prefer that the works I read share a core set of values with me, I’m not going to limit myself to just those ideas. To put it another way, I want to read other things that are different, if for no other reason to see what “the other side” is up to. I learned years ago in debate that one of the best ways to understand an argument you don’t agree with it to argue for that side in a debate. The only way to have constructive dialogue is to understand not just someone’s beliefs but why they hold those beliefs. And you can’t do that if you close yourself off to their ideas. Equality doesn’t mean “everybody thinks and acts like me”. It means, to paraphrase MLK, people are judged based solely on their character and not traits such as skin color, plumbing, or the socioeconomic strata in which they were born.

      Finally, I agree with you a lot of what is written today will be embarrassing in 40 years. That’s the danger of tying your work to the current issues of the time in which you write. It quickly becomes dated and doesn’t age well. Many of these folks need to learn some humility and realize that their positions may be viewed as harshly by the next generation as they ones they are criticizing.

  4. Paul McNamee

    I’m all for diversified reading and writing (for Crom’s sake, Charles Saunders’s IMARO anyone?)

    But once you start demanding that I *don’t* read someone in favor of others–instead of saying, “hey, how about *adding* some more to your reading mix?”–I’ve stopped listening.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Yes, this. The quickest way to make me not read what you think I should read is to tell me I can’t read what I want to read.

      There are certain subgenres I read more of as I’ve gotten older. I think of that as comfort reading. With my reading (and writing) time being limited at the moment, I’m going to read more of that type of thing. And yes, they tend to be older works by dead writers. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to read more diversely. It just means I’m exercising my freedom of choice based on my constraints.

  5. Mr. West

    I’ve read a bit of DeCamp and enjoyed for what it was, my favorite was a trilogy of his The Reluctant King (Goblin Tower, Clocks Of Iraz, Unbeheaded King) l think l thought it was so good was because l was coming off mostly Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander and it was derivative of either of those, it was unique. Whereas l put down Swird of Shannara a few chapters in because it felt like such a ripoff.

    DeCamp can’t improve REH (and he had some bad calls about REH) but was a fine writer in his own right.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I haven’t read The Reluctant King, although I read The Pixilated Peeress, which is set in the same world (I think). BTW, did you mean “wasn’t derivative”? I never tried Shannara, although I considered picking up a copy on the freebie table at WFC. Brooks was getting the Lifetime Achievement Award.

      Agree completely with you about de Camp and REH.


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