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Conan and the Spider God by L. Sprague de…
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Conan and the Spider God

by L. Sprague de Camp

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L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter wrote a number of stories about Conan’s service in the Turanian military: “The City of Skulls,” “The Curse of the Monolith,” and “The People of the Summit.” Since they never explained how Conan left his mercenary career in Turan (and eventually landed on King Yezigerd’s Most Wanted list), the novel Conan and the Spider God appeared to fill in this “gap.” This time, however, de Camp goes it alone with the famous Cimmerian without the help of Carter.

A quick plot rundown: Conan deserts the army after he slays a superior officer in a duel when the Turanian catches Conan with his lady. Conan treks to Zamora seeking work in the city of Yezud, home to the worship of the spider god Zath. He learns that Zamorians from Yezud have kidnapped Jamilah, the favorite wife of the King of Turan, as part of a political ploy. While Rudabeh, a beautiful dancing girl of the temple, tempts Conan toward marriage and domesticity, Conan also finds tempting the jewels in the eyes of the idol of Zath. And when a Turanian emissary offers him a reward for rescuing Jamilah from the spider god’s temple, Conan decides to dare the horrors that may lurk in the catacombs beneath Zath’s house of worship.

I first read Conan and the Spider God during the time when I started wandering through Conan pastiches after completing the Howard canon. I recall enjoying the book, but in the passing years my opinion of L. Sprague de Camp has both risen and fallen. I discovered de Camp’s classic science-fiction and science-fantasy writings and loved them: Lest Darkness Fall, The Incomplete Enchanter, and the Rivers of Time stories. He definitely deserved the Grand Master award that the SFWA bestowed on him in 1978. But de Camp’s Conan pastiches rank as some of his poorest work. Pure sword-and-sorcery eluded his touch, and he produced overwritten and overanalyzed stories that feel as if a psychologist plunked Conan down on a couch and asked him to justify everything he did for two hundred pages. (“So, Mr. Barbarian, how does that make you feel? Hmm, interesting.”) Lin Carter, a pulpier and wilder writer with a genuine love of fantasy fiction, seems to have ameliorated de Camp’s effect on their collaborations. De Camp was the superior writer, but Carter was more at home in the realm of Conan. When L. Sprague de Camp strikes out on his own, as in Conan and the Spider God, the mismatch between a Grandmaster of Science Fiction and the World’s Greatest Sword-and-Sorcery Hero appears obvious.

You’ve probably figured out that my second visit with the spider god was less satisfying than the first. Right you are. This is de Camp’s last Conan novel (aside from the novelization of Conan the Barbarian written with Carter) and perhaps he had gotten tired of the character. The torch then passed to Robert Jordan and a new generation of Conan fans.

A complaint I’ve always had with de Camp’s pastiches is his rationalized approach to Conan’s barbarism. His version of Conan spends a great deal of time thinking and reasoning through problems and speculating on choices. It deprives the character of his primal instinctiveness and makes him seem inordinately civilized. De Camp’s history with “rationalized fantasy” á la The Incomplete Enchanter makes him include scenes such as Conan getting a Zen-like training to resist hypnotism. Rationalized fantasy and blood-red sword-and-sorcery do not mix smoothly. Conan also has fits of maudlin sentimentality that don’t go down well. The romance with the temple dancing girl Rudabeh is overstated to the point that Conan seriously debates settling down to domestic life with a girl who seems like no more than another of the pretty young things he habitually encounters.

Here’s a good example from the text of how Conan acts too conservative and cautious, even when reacting violently:

The Cimmerian seldom interfered in others’ affairs…. If the villager had spoken him fair, he might have shrugged and gone his way. But Conan was impulsive and easily roused to anger. And the protection of women, regardless of age, form, or station, was one of the few imperatives of his barbarian code. The villager’s threats tipped the balance in the old woman’s favor.

In another very “non-Conanical” move, de Camp has the hero play a musical instrument and sing! A least he didn’t break into “Am I Blue?” but it’s still a ludicrous moment.

In his previous Conan adventures, de Camp favored one-shot monsters—like the swamp cat in an early chapter here—and fast moving, quick thrills. Such monsters and action scenes are the exception in Conan and the Spider God, however: the action stalls when Conan arrives in the city of Yezud and never moves. Once settled in this city the story turns into an unconnected heap of scenes of characters milling about in taverns and arguing. Conan has murky motivations, and therefore the plot never moves along a direct or interesting line of action. Conan at first needs to escape from Turan, then he decides to pursue his stolen money and horse, then when he gets to Yezud he starts contemplating stealing some gems from the temple. This makes it difficult to get involved in the story since Conan has no consistent or urgent reason to do much of anything. The through-line of the story appears only at the two-thirds mark, when the Turanian Lord Parvez hires Conan to achieve the most hoary plot device of all sword-and-sorcery: Rescue the Princess. Yet de Camp drops even this after two chapters and back to the theft motivation. The author can’t make up his mind, Conan can’t make up his mind—should the reader feel any different? Meanwhile, a subplot about the priests of Zath planning an apocalyptic scheme against all of Zamora goes no place at all.

De Camp also falls prey to one of sword-and-sorcery’s most tired devices: Plot Coupons. These dreaded hobgoblins of amateur writers—information or objects a hero must collect and use so he can “send away” to the author for the ending—appear too frequently and make the story feel like a Grimm fairytale where a parade of wise old sages hand the hero magic items that come in handy later in suspiciously specific ways. Here, Conan receives 1) powder of forgetfulness, 2) training to defeat hypnotism, and 3) a magic finger bone that can open any door. Just like in a videogame, Conan finds use for each one in turn so he can advance to the next “level.”

De Camp’s overtaxed faux-archaic prose bogs down the already floundering story and characters. He tries too hard to dazzle the reader with arcane and unusual words, and overstocks his dialogue with dusty phrases and terms like “certes,” “nonce,” and “meseems,” which sound especially cloddish when Conan says them. De Camp seems to believe that the wonder of the setting requires this writing style. Howard, however, used such devices sparingly and preferred a clipped and brutal style when dealing directly with Conan. De Camp paints everything with the same baroque brush, and it can make for dull, ponderous reading.

Does anything work? Yes, thankfully—but not much. The long-foreshadowed encounter with the super spider does have a feverish intensity. But it fails to build to a proper conclusion. The finale of the novel whimpers to a close, which is no surprise considering its lack of direction in the first place.

L. Sprague de Camp was a fine writer, but he was not adept at sword-and-sorcery. A novel like Conan and the Spider God actually makes me appreciate the contributions of Lin Carter to the Conan legacy. His love of wild ‘n’ wooly fun must have kept his pal Sprague in line when they worked together, and without Lin along de Camp is as lost as Conan in the maze of the eight-legged god Zath. ( )
1 vote Z-Ryan | Jul 2, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
L. Sprague de Campprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mussarra, Joan JosepTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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