To paraphrase that famous line from Noel Coward — “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is” — I’m struck by the continued potency of some of the paperback book covers I own. The covers above and below, both entries from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series of the late 1960s and early 1970s, are two cases in point. Both were painted by Gervasio Gallardo, and while now I can recognize how easy it would be to dismiss Gallardo’s style as Magritte Lite, looking at them still gives me a whiff of the swoony sense of barely contained magic they offered when I snatched them off the rack at Schiller’s Books back in the day. His style was certainly well suited to the opium-haze fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, a California poet who rounded out the curious Weird Tales pulp literary circle that included H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. The BAF series gave my youthful brain its first encounter with Smith’s singular style, which is one of the reasons I remember the books with such fondness.
This edition of The Man Who Was Thursday is reputed to be the scarcest of the BAF pack. That’s ironic, because G.K. Chesterton was one of the better known authors in the series and The Man Who Was Thursday is certainly his best known work — available in several other editions. No doubt the inclusion of Chesterton helped elevate the tone of a series otherwise devoted to obscure names like Ernest Bramah, downmarket ones like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and forgotten ones like James Branch Cabell.
The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series was a grand folly of the time. Ballantine was making a fortune with the first authorized paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings (there had been what amounted to a bootleg edition published by Ace Books in the mid-1960s) and its quest to find The Next Tolkien it had resurrected The Worm Ouroboros and Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan cycle — great books in their own right, but hardly the kind of mass-appeal fantasy Ballantine wanted. Enter Lin Carter, a lower-tier genre writer who was deputized to scout out more Lord of the Rings candidates from the largely overlooked and critically derided body of fantasy literature.
The venture was misguided: Tolkien fans weren’t really interested in Tolkien’s precursors, they wanted more of the same, as slavishly imitative as possible. Carter was part fanboy and part literary grifter: he and fellow writer L. Sprague DeCamp had tapped into the explosion of interest in Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories by “editing” and even rewriting Howard’s work to give themselves a bigger cut of the royalties. But he was also a fine, deeply knowledgeable fantasy editor. BAF was a labor of love for him, and it showed. He brought Tolkien influences like William Morris and visionary eccentrics like David Lindsay back into print, made it possible for Evangeline Walton to complete her powerful Mabinogion cycle (thereby giving Stevie Nicks a songwriting boost), sponsored new fantasy writers like Joy Chant and Katherine Kurtz, and of course feathered his own nest by sticking his own stories into several anthologies. But whatever — Carter would have ensured his spot in heaven simply by bringing out The Children of Lyr and The Song of Rhiannon, and he did a lot more.
This image was the cover for a BAF collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s dreamier fantasy stories, the ones written under the spell of Lord Dunsany. If memory serves, this was the collection that led me into the BAF books, since I was already a Lovecraft geek with the two Lancer paperback collections and a complete set of the Beagle Books editions, all with rather schlocky covers. Ballantine put out the classiest-looking paperbacks of the 1970s, and the BAF titles were standouts.
Potent these books remain, to me anyway, but they’re no longer quiite so cheap. A good quality copy of a BAF title can go for some $10, and harder to find titles even higher.