The Sword and Sorcery Legacy of Donald A. Wollheim: Part Two

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Don Wollheim died on November 2, 1990, leaving behind him a sword and sorcery legacy that has never been matched. In the rarefied Valhalla of S&S editors/publishers, Wollheim sits enthroned at the high table. He debuted or "broke out"--as in, "their first big splash in the paperback market"--more enduring and important characters in the S&S pantheon than any other editor/publisher. It is as simple as that.

In Part One of this series, I chronicled Wollheim's days as a plucky fanzine editor who published REH, Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft while all three were still alive. After that, he went on to start up Avon's SFF line, publishing the likes of Merritt, Howard and Nictzin Dyalhis. Having established the first major American SFF paperback publishing line, Wollheim was ready to start another, even bigger, SFF paperback franchise.

Gentle Readers of the DMR Blog, let me take you on a slight tangent here. One fact must be stated: Mass market paperbacks are the natural habitat of sword and sorcery fiction. In no other venue has S&S thriven so mightily as in the plebian world of the MMPB. Some people hold to the misconception that S&S was "big" in the pulps. Not the case. Very much a niche category. Sword and sorcery--as a genre--has never been a big seller in hardbacks. Paperbacks are where S&S sold the best and kicked the most ass. And Don Wollheim is the man who pulled the trigger.

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In 1952, Wollheim was feeling restless and left Avon to work for A. A. Wyn at the Ace Magazine Company. His job was to spearhead a new paperback book list, Ace Books. He spent his first year getting things in order, publishing mysteries and Westerns--and inventing the Ace Double. In 1953, Don introduced science fiction--and fantasy--to the Ace lineup. Peruse the SF lineup for that year here.  

As Dr. Michael S. Smith has noted, "The beginning of the ACE Double publication run was not with science fiction, but more mainstream mystery and western stories. The first 'true' ACE D-series SF volume is considered the A. E. van Vogt 'Null-A' stories of D-31, released in October 1953." Guess what the second Ace SF Double was? Conan the Conqueror (along with Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon). Wollheim wasn't messing around. He had just published the first paperback sword and sorcery novel ever--albeit as a Double.* 

The Ace edition of Conan the Conqueror had the same text as the Gnome hardcover from 1950. Wollheim commissioned a cover from Norm Saunders who was, like later Conan artists John Duillo and Earl Norem, a popular artist for men's adventure mags at the time. Don gave the book the marquee treatment.

The book seems to have sold reasonably well, since copies are still not that hard to find. That begs the question: Why no more Conans from Ace? I believe one reason is that there were no more Conan novels, not even short ones like "Conqueror." Book publishers have never given top priority to short story collections because they usually sell less than comparable novels. I'm pretty sure another factor was that the wheels were starting to come off the Gnome Press train and Wollheim decided to keep his distance, just as he would later. Finally, it's possible that the book didn't sell that well, the Fifties literary market being fairly inimical to fantasy in general. Wollheim went out on a limb publishing it in the first place.

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While not publishing any more S&S for the rest of the decade, Don nurtured numerous future sword and sorcery luminaries by buying their SF output. 1954 saw him publish Andre Norton and Sprague de Camp, 1956 had Gordon Dickson, Poul Anderson and EC Tubb, and the rest of the decade saw Jack Vance and John Brunner also being published. We know that Wollheim was keeping tabs on the state of S&S during this period because he found Roy Krenkel by way of reading Amra. In 1959, Don also published an REH horror tale in The Macabre Reader.

The early Sixties saw Wollheim bringing Manly Wade Wellman, Fritz Leiber and Gardner Fox into the Ace bullpen, all the while sparking the Burroughs Boom. In January 1964, Wollheim brought REH back to Ace with the first paperback publication of Almuric. Planetary romance--or as Don dubbed it, "sword & planet"--was surging back, primarily thanks to his actions. 

In mid-1965, in the midst of the burgeoning Tolkien Boom which he had ignited, Donald Wollheim published the first single--as opposed to an Ace Double--paperback S&S novel ever: Lin Carter's The Wizard of Lemuria. In several ways, this novel starring Thongor bridged the gap between Burroughsian sword & planet fiction and Howardian S&S. It also helped get Lin Carter his future gig as a Conan pasticheur.

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The summer of '66 saw the Ace publication of Jack Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld--featuring Cugel the Clever--and the second Thongor novel. Over at Lancer Books, the S&S bombshell called Conan the Adventurer had just dropped as well. While I have no intention of derailing this post to go into why I think Wollheim passed on the Conan tales, I hope what I've shown above demonstrates that Don was an admirer of REH, Conan and S&S in general. Whatever his reasons were for passing on the De Camp-brokered Conan deal, Wollheim had no intention of surrendering the field to Lancer. He had more horses in his stable.

1967 saw Ace publishing Zelazny, Moorcock and Jakes, although all the novels were SF, not S&S. However, 1968 saw Wollheim firing back hard with the publication of three Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books, for the first time in paperback, starting with Swords of Lankhmar. They all had gorgeous Jeff Jones covers, which didn't hurt. Wollheim gave Jones his first paperback cover gig, by the way, just as he had Krenkel and Frazetta.

1970 saw the debuts of two more Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books. Saberhagen's The Black Mountains and Brunner's The Traveler in Black. came out in 1971, but Wollheim's days at Ace were drawing to a close. Wyn had died in 1967 and the new owners were in serious financial trouble. Writers were not getting paid by the bean-counters. Wollheim, always known as a straight dealer with his authors, wouldn't stand for it. After over thirty years of working as an employee, Wollheim was ready to start his own publishing house... and he was going to take a big chunk of his Ace authors with him.

*We are fast approaching the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Ace edition of Conan the Conqueror, which was published in December of 1953.