The potency of cheap paperback covers

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.

Tagged , ,

6 thoughts on “The potency of cheap paperback covers

  1. Fred Kiesche says:

    LotR sold the most of the various BAF titles, but take a look at the print runs of some of the other entries in the series–Worm, Gormenghast, and even the various William Morris entries had some pretty respectable print runs. Heck, “Wood at the End of the World” went from a two-volume print to a one (for its time, pretty massive) volume print and then through multiple printings.

    “The Man Who Was Thursday” is a mystery as to its rarity. It was probably available in multiple editions then, the same as now. But that’s the book us packrats lust after.

    I really need to get back to my intended re-read of the line, now that I’ve pretty much completed my quest to either replace volumes or buy volumes I never bought the first time around.

  2. Jeff says:

    Interesting! This explains the old paperback copy of The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris I have tucked somewhere on my bookshelves. I had always wondered why someone had decided to market Morris to modern fantasy readers. Failure or not, I can’t really fault Ballantine for overestimating the first major generation of fantasy readers.

  3. Steven Hart says:

    Oh, I agree — Ballantine did us all a big favor. Lin Carter’s antiquarian streak was on the money often enough. The BAF series was succeeded by the Del Rey line edited by SF writer Lester Del Rey and his wife, which built its initial success on The Sword of Shanarra, an imitation Tolkien work by Terry Brooks. The Del Rey line was a huge influence on the direction of commercial SF and fantasy in the 1980s and 1990s. It even took over the more successful titles in the BAF lineup.

  4. […] at Lin Carter’s door, his sponsorship of Walton’s late-career renaissance through the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series ensures his place in […]

  5. […] curious thing is that these paperback covers, in contrast with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy titles I rhapsodized about a few months ago, really aren’t very good. In fact, they’re pretty lame — Sunday painter kind of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: