Vintage Treasures: The Bantam Giant Novels of Lawrence Schoonover

Vintage Treasures: The Bantam Giant Novels of Lawrence Schoonover

golden-exile3Who the heck is Lawrence Schoonover?

I had no idea. At least until I found myself in an unexpected bidding war for a beautiful collection of Bantam Giant paperbacks on eBay, including two by Mr Schoonover: The Golden Exile and The Burnished Blade (cover here).

Don’t know much more about him. I’m sure a trip to Wikipedia would tell me lots about Schoonover but, really, his covers tell me pretty much everything I need. Apparently he wrote big fat adventure novels featuring dudes with swords, exotic settings, and women who had little use for clothing. I’m a fan.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt that his novels were published as Bantam Giants.

There’s just something about the Bantam Giants that really brings out the collector in me. If you’re any kind of paperback aficionado, you know what I’m talking about.

The first Bantam Giants appeared in 1951, during the tenure of the legendary Ian Ballantine. I don’t believe they were numbered separately from Bantam’s usual sequencing, which makes cataloging them somewhat problematic, but their ranks included James Michener, Emile Zola, Harold Robbins, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Wilder, C. S. Forester and many, many more.

Some of the best literature of the 20th Century appeared in paperback as Bantam Giants, such as Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

They also included a superb assortment of classic adventure novels from Rafael Sabatini, Thomas R. Costain, John Masters, John Dickson Carr, and even some dude named Lawrence Schoonover.

If you're the one who outbid me for this eBay lot, you should be ashamed of yourself.
If you're the one who outbid me for this eBay lot, you should be ashamed of yourself.

There was also a smattering of science fiction and fantasy, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s classic anthology The Circus of Dr. Lao and Other Improbable Stories, John Collier’s Fancies and Goodnights, and novels by Bradbury and Jerry Sohl.

I think a large part of the appeal of Bantam Giants is their sheer size. They promise a lot of reading for your 35 cents. And dang, they look good don’t they? Just check out that beautiful eBay lot at left (click for bigger version.)

‘Course, I’d know a lot more about Schoonover if I’d just managed to win that damn auction. Since I didn’t, I was forced to hunt down virtually every single title in the set individually on eBay. I finally managed to complete that daunting task late last week. It’s okay, I’m sure the kids didn’t really need that college fund.

And before you ask which I’m going to read first, I think that should be fairly obvious. I’m curious about all of them, but before anything else I have to find out just what the Great Folly of that young lady in the bottom right is.

Even though I think I have a pretty good idea.

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John, you have wandered into the era of 1940s and ’50s historical adventure novels. Costain and Schoonover wrote scores of the things, along with Samuel Shellabarger and Edison Marshall and some others.

They delivered solid adventure stories with intricately detailed settings and good sword fights, although you’ll likely find the authors repeating themselves with plots and the pacing delivering more talking than battling. I read The Burnished Blade and enjoyed it, though not enough to investigate Schoonover’s writing further. Schoonover had a fine turn of phrase and excellent writing chops, but the pacing is slow — although it’s honestly faster than many a modern fantasy epic.

Costain was similar, although if memory serves, he might have been the best regarded by critics of the time. I read two or three of those, including one (The Black Rose) with a very Harold Lamb like plot of a Crusader and a Welsh longbowman going east into the land of the Mongols.

My favorite of the bunch is probably Edison Marshall, whose writing I enjoyed enough that I tried a number of his novels. He too could be repetitive — he frequently recycled a similar plot of a young man from a troubled family coming of age and fighting his way to win the dream girl and prosperity. But his Earth Giant is a wonderful novel of the historical Herakles, and probably the best “historical Greek hero” novel I’ve read — it’s probably up there on my favorite books list. His Yankee Pasha novel was a thrilling adventure about an American after revolutionary days who gets swept up into the Middle-East. It was turned into a movie in ’54. Several of Marshall’s other books made it onto celluoid as well, including The Viking (titled The Vikings on screen) starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas.

John Hocking

Bantam Giants! Yes, indeed. The only problem with considering the noble things is that you inevitably realise that, no matter how many you already have, well, there are obviously some out there that you do not have, which is frankly intolerable.

I have the Schoonovers, but I don’t have that Shellabarger. Intolerable, I tell you.

You don’t mention one of the main reasons I love them so much– the art wraps around the entire cover. Yes, there are actually fully painted, swashbuckling, glorious images on the BACK of these books. This is almost too wonderful.

But, John, just to get you haunting the midnight corridors of Ebay some more, did you know that Bantam Giants were not the only paperback line of their era to do this? And for swashbuckling historical fiction, too?

Yes, Graphic Giants, publishers of Swords for Charlemagne, The Golden Blade (“Out of the West Rides a Stranger Whose Sword Shakes the World!”), and the underwhelmingly titled Captain Bashful (“Noble Passion and Naked Steel!”)
And more besides.

Hey John, look at this…

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/56781833@N06/5312439983/

Take in that cover. Wraps right around. Admire those fiery tag-lines at the bottom of the rear cover. Believe me, I have sought in vain for another paperback novel that promises ‘Rakehell Action’.

Pretty cool, huh?

I’ve read only a little Sabatini. Captain Blood was quite good. I hear some of the short stories are quite good as well. Seahawks and several others are supposed to be excellent.

I love the opening line to Scaramouche but could never get caught up in the plot. I’m sure many historical adventure fans would cry foul or heresy.

I like Harold Lamb much better, though, and Sabatini’s historical fiction is more contemporaneous with Lamb than Lamb is with Marshall and Schoonover and Costain. Writing in the 20s and 30s, Lamb’s historical fiction has more of a modern pacing than the fellows writing 20 and 30 years later. …Except for Marshall, who I quite liked, as I mentioned, although he does recycle that same plot. Another thing Lamb avoided for the most part.

Davide Mana

I hate to sound pedantic, but “The Circus of Dr Lao” (great book, incidentally) is not by Bradbury, the author being the sadly overlooked Charles G. Finney.
But considering Bradbury always had a thing for circuses, I guess the slip is understandable 🙂

Thanks, by the way, for revealing me the existence of the Giants by Bantam – I never suspected such marvels existed.

Joe H.

I hate to sound pedantic re: pedantry, but there was actually a Bantam Giant anthology titled “The Circus of Dr. Lao and Other Improbable Stories” that listed Ray Bradbury as the editor.

In addition to Finney’s work, it included stories by such as E.B. White, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson and Henry Kuttner.

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6966431-the-circus-of-dr-lao-and-other-improbable-stories

westkeith

Every time I think I’m starting to get some traction on the backlog of books at my house, somebody somewhere (usually at Black Gate, like in this case) posts something, and I discover there are treasures I’ve missed.

Davide Mana

Hell, foiled again by the devilish Ray Bradbury!
I stand corrected.
I will abstain for further pedantries.

Joe H.

And to muddy the waters even further (and in hopes that Davide doesn’t abstain from further pedanting, which wasn’t my intent): Bantam did publish Circus as a standalone under Finney’s name, but it was a Bantam Fifty, not a Bantam Giant.

And dare we hope to see a Dabir & Asim book published that reuses the cover of Golden Exile?

“And dare we hope to see a Dabir & Asim book published that reuses the cover of Golden Exile?”

Heh. You brought a smile to my face, sirrah.

Realistically, I think we’ll be seeing more modern looking covers going forward. Much as I loved the ambiance of the hardback cover, it didn’t look modern enough for big bookstore chains.

Sawyer Grey

The Spider King, about Louis XI, was probably the best of Schoonover’s historical novels.The Burnished Blade was okay, but Schoonover actually cribbed the whole section that takes place in Trebizond from the third volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I had read The Burnished Blade when I was much younger, so it was rather surreal reading it all in Gibbon again, practically down to the last detail.

He also wrote an decent little science fiction novel titled Central Passage The premise is that there is a nuclear war, and bombs blow a hole in the isthmus of Panama. The resulting shift in the ocean currents causes major climatic changes that wreak havoc on humanity.

I’d like to add another name to the historical fiction author list for you gusy who are interested. Hardly anybody in the US has heard of him, but Maurice Druon wrote a series of novels called The Accursed Kings covering the period from Philip the Fair to John II. IMHO they’re even better than Costain’s work.

Anyway, sorry to drag this off topic. I just never see posts about this kind of thing. 🙂

RadiantAbyss

I have a few Bantam Giants.

Only by chance. I never sought a collection. They were just too expensive in the shops I saw them at.

My own modest assortment of Bantam Giants however is a shot-gun set of historical fictions of the pulpiest sort to the more ‘literary’, to the outright ‘classic’.

Whatever I could get that looked interesting and wasn’t going for more than vintage SF/F/H paperbacks I would likely prefer.

Anyways I like Costain + Marshall, I feel they are two of the better old guard Anglophone historical fictionists.

( Yes, I know fictionist is not an acknowledged word, get over it )

If it helps GRRM mentions Costain all the time.

Sabatini is cool, but he was even an influence on REH.

I have that Golden Exile one though.

I was like 8 and my favourite books in the world were several shades of One Thousand And One Nights.

I knew better. I knew it wasn’t going to be much like Nights just ’cause of the cover ( that’s just silly. Period. ) but I took the plunge any ways.

Golden Exile is fun I guess. Didn’t really do much for me in the long view though.

Oh and I have two first edition hardbacks of Desert of Souls.

I did so ’cause I knew when it didn’t tank ( yes, I KNEW DOS would not tank, and it would get a sequel or three ) that they would move away from that old-style cover art which I prefer.

Glenna

I found ‘The Spider King’ in my hotel room in Iowa City which had a fireplace surrounded by bookshelves containing REAL hardcover books. My kind of place! I ‘borrowed’ the book intending to send it back after I read it. (There is a price of .50 written on the first page, so I didn’t think it would be a great loss to the hotel!) I didn’t really expect to like a book that was written in 1954, but I enjoyed it so much that I went looking for more info on the author, and that is how I ended up here. It has been fun reading all of your comments. I can’t wait to stay at that hotel again, and see what other old gems I can find in the bookshelves.

[…] year I talked about discovering the works of Lawrence Schoonover, especially his 13th Century adventure novels The Golden Exile and The Burnished Blade. Tucked into […]

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