Thursday, February 21, 2008


Linwood Vrooman Carter, aka Lin Carter, was a complicated man paradoxically composed of many simple, albeit sometimes ill-fitting elements. This is often the result of self-invention, and Lin was nothing if not self-invented.

Aside from his own flair for the dramatic and self-promotional extravagance, Lin’s greatest component was that of scholar, reader, and fan of fantastic literature, which included science fiction. That was what I found most attractive about him: the breadth and depth of his knowledge and appreciation for the history and literature of fantasy. He was also a natural storyteller, and more than once I read a work of fantasy that he’d described and summarized, only to be mildly disappointed in the actual work, since Lin’s summation had caught the essence of it and had improved on the presentation.

After he dropped out of advertising (yes, advertising) to become a full time writer, he made a good living for quite a while churning out pastiches of the popular “classics” of fantasy: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett, H. P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and Kenneth Robeson. In the literary sense, he was least successful with Dunsany and Smith, both brilliant prose stylists, which Lin was certainly not. He was most successful, again in the literary sense (and this would be my own, probably idiosyncratic opinion), with his series featuring Zarkon, Lord of the Unknown, which managed to be both a pastiche and parody of Doc Savage, a finely walked line that required a near perfect tone. Commercially, I’m sure that the Burroughs and Howard pastiches were most successful; Lin caught the Conan wave at exactly the right time, and that humorless barbarian was easy to clone (the Thongor series) and money in the bank.

I’ll also mention one final attribute of Carter as a writer of fiction, one that was usually given short shrift, owing to the pastiche nature of most of his work: Lin could write humor. The only works where this really shines are in his two Thief of Thoth books (one of which contains one of my favorite bullshit lines of all time: “In n-space you don’t go any faster, you just cover more distance in less time.”) and the Almaric the Mangod story in the Flashing Swords #1. The latter contains the not unreasonable notion that an immortal adventurer must be rather dim in order to not go insane from the memories that accompany extreme age.

Lin’s first significant book of scholarship, Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings also came at an opportune time, and it and others paved the way for Lin to become the editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Lin knew that it was only a matter of time before the Tolkien clones arrived, but rather than himself leading that charge, he took advantage of a window of opportunity to republish the classics of fantasy. If he managed to only bring Cabell and Dunsany back into print his contribution would have been enormous; that he managed to reprint practically every major and minor work of classic fantasy is an achievement so magnificent as to deserve secular sainthood.

Lin was one of the first science fiction and fantasy celebrities that I came to know well, another being Barry Malzberg a combination for which I must credit two members of the Albany Science Fiction Fan Federation (more or less originating at SUNY Albany), John Howard and Ben Sano. Ben was/is a Cabell and Dunsany fan, and Johnny would quote Malzberg’s writings back at him (Note to would be social climbing fans: writers love this. It’s almost as good as being young, attractive, and of the opposite sex).

As an aside, I’ll note that, owing the strange discovery of having mutual fans, Carter and Malzberg became friends, even at one point discussing a collaborative project of mutual interest, pornographic in nature. Go ponder what that would have looked like.

The Albany group, which Lin referred to as “The Albanians,” was an exemplar of fan behavior generally. At one party at Lin’s the toilet was malfunctioning, the handle mechanism having previously broken. Toward the end of the party, Lin confided to me, “Most of the fans I’ve had over here would have made jokes about it or just complained. You folks taught each other how to move the lid and use the coat hanger to reach the chain and flush it.” A little while later, he discovered that one of us had just fixed the mechanism.

His home at its zenith was a collector’s dream, not just for the books and artwork, but also the antique collectables such as the Japanese temple dagger, and the Enzenbacher sculptures. A good fraction of that left when Noel, his second wife, left him, but even after that, “Carter Manse,” was filled with interesting oddities which, of course, included the proprietor, his dog, the Mighty McGurk and sundry other pets, including a goldfish/carp that liked to gum fingers.

Lin tended to live extravagantly, as befitting his self-created persona, and when his luck turned, his extravagances did not serve him well. Similarly, his years of self-promotion had stepped on a toe or two (or twenty), and as money tightened, substantial portions of his collector’s paradise were liquidated, a sad end to yet another artistic vision. His precarious finances also had a hand in the complicated ending of the Gandalf Award, which I have written about elsewhere.

I saw him only a few brief times in his final years; Ben and other members of the Albany crew saw him a bit more often. I have heard from some who say that he became more irascible and impolite toward the end, as might be expected from someone disfigured by surgery and in constant pain, but I’ve not heard from any in the Albany group who ever found him to be anything but courtly and polite. I can’t speak for the others, of course, but I considered him to be a friend, and I believe it was reciprocal.

Lin died in 1988, of cancer of the mouth and throat, almost certainly caused by a lifetime of artful smoking, at the age of 57. This essay is in the nature of a memoir and a belated eulogy. My real tribute to Lin may be found here, and in my story “The Emperor of Dreams.” Godspeed, Lin, wherever that may take you.


Anonymous said...

Typo: Malburg/Malzburg/Malzberg



James Killus said...

Wow, I managed all three, didn't I? My apologies to Barry, and I've fixed the error.

Thanks for the catch.

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