Back in the eighties, when I was a geeky junior high and high school student who spent most of his time reading, most of the reading I did was comics like Ka-zar, Warlord, Savage Sword of Conan, and, above all, Lin Carter novels. In fact, about 90% of what I read besides the aforementioned comics was Lin Carter.
I'd been noticing Lin's paperback covers, especially those to the Callisto books in the science fiction book sections as a young child back in the seventies. And I knew Lin Carter had done a feature article on these books for an issue of Savage Tales, which I had back when I was in first grade (my dad bought these comics for me, even back then, and would read them to me; my mom absolutely detested the things). I first started reading Lin Carter when I deemed myself old enough, in the seventh grade. My first was Hurok of the Stone Age, which I received as a St. Patrick's Day gift upon request. I bought and read the rest of the Zanthodon series as it came out after that, and began searching out all the books in the Callisto series I could find, at used paperback book stores, after which I started on all of Lin's other books.
Even back then, I realized that Lin was not what was considered a great author, and since then, I've graduated to other books, both fantasy-oriented and otherwise, that have much stronger characterization, and more substantial plots than anything by Lin Carter. But in response to some of the more virulent criticism I've read of Lin and his work, especially by Robert E. Howard circles, I will say that Lin did know how to write mesmerizing escapist adventure yarns, which was one thing I felt I needed in the troubling teenage years when I read most of them. And I will defend Lin's quality as a writer in at least one aspect: his power to describe the unreal. Lin Carter was better than any other writer I know (with the possible exception of Robert E. Howard) to paint visual images with words. Lin could imbue his fantastic realities with such vivid detail that he always held me awed, and kept me panting for more.
Also, even though a great deal of what Lin wrote intentionally paralleled Burroughs, the worlds Lin created were still unique unto him; Barsoom might have its gigantic toothy thoats and emerald-skinned giants, but Thanator had its Yathoon arthropods mounted on fierce four-legged avians. Lin Carter had a tremendous outpouring of imagination in the creation of the monsters, civilizations and races that inhabited his various worlds ( only the Callistan Chess Game seemed a little too derivative-maybe he should have tried a game of living Scrabble). And then there was the Green Star series in which Carter really seemed to come into his own. Though clearly Burroughs inspired, Burroughs never invented anything quite like the world of skyscraper-sized trees infested by sentient races and scarlet dragons. Lin's Callisto series reached a real high point when Carter put himself into the story in Lankar of Callisto. You might think this would have been a disastrous move, but as Robert M. Price comments, it worked-and surprisingly well. I still remember reading the part when Jon Dark informs Carter about the Mind Wizards plans to invade Earth, and the ease in which this could be accomplished. That part actually gave me a scare, even though I really knew Lin's statements about the Callisto stories being actual accounts were purely imaginary, and the books themselves had already gone out of print, long after an "invasion" by alien telepaths could have taken place.
Carter's Terra Magica series was less good,[sez you, Tony--some of us consider the Terra Magica tales to be his most imaginative work, In those he harked back to the fantastic literature of the Middle Ages.--Ken] but I still read them, largely because of Carter's great descriptive power. This series did have perhaps an overdosage of whimsy, but it didn't bother me greatly, since I knew this series was supposed to be a more a parody of fantasy novels than the real thing. As others have noted though, Lin was much less successful when he tried to infuse this whimsy into serious novels, most notably the World's End series. These books had good moments when Carter's imaginative power seemed at its peak but they soon lost their flavor because of their overt silliness. If Lin was trying to imitate the Oz books, then one wonders why he didn't bother writing a straight Oz pastiche, like he did with Burroughs pastiches. Some great tastes don't taste great together, as combining Oz with sword-and-sorcery adventure yarns simply didn't work.
Lin Carter's proposed fantasy epic Khymyriam, or what he wrote of it, really does, as R. M. Price suggests, contain some of his most vivid prose, and it's truly a shame Lin never got around to finishing. Maybe this was because Carter was more of the "dreamer" type and lacked the patience to embark on seemingly endless sagas of this scope. Believe me, I can relate to that on a personal level. But still, if it had only seen completion, Carter could have given modern Tolkien imitators like Terry Brooks and David Eddings a run for their money. I sometimes wonder if Lin Carter's vivid desciptive style couldn't be combined through some alchemy with the intricate structure and strong characterizations of authors like Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. The result would be truly phenomenal!
As far as Carter's Conan works are concerned, I have to agree that Carter shouldn't have touched them in the first place. Like all non-Howard works that try to imitate Howard, they fall short. What's mostly missing from Carter's Conan stories is the sense of darkness that is present in Howard's originals. These, like many Robert E. Howard tales, border on being horror stories. But that's really no reason to disparage Carter. I've read Carter's Conan tales in later years, and found them to be actually among his best works. But I've read them as Carter stories, not Conan pastiches.
I realize, of course, that Lin Carter will never take his place in the hallowed halls of literature like certain other modern authors (such as Stephen King, for one) likely will one day. But even if Carter's stories lack enduring quality as literary works, they more than make up for it in sheer escapist adventure. I read them back when I was still struggling through the teen years, and they were just what I needed. Thanks, Lin Carter!