‘The stories that inspired the movie’ says the strapline atop the front cover on this book. Don’t be put off by that. Although the ‘Conan’ movies are uniformly awful, sometimes in an entertaining way, the original stories are excellent pulp fiction. Along with H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard is the most successful, in the long run, of those who wrote for ‘Weird Tales in the 1930s and, because his stories are more action orientated, they translate better into visual terms. Those films and his heroes are now the best known to the non-reading public, even if they’ve never heard of the author himself.
Most of the stories are short but it‘s worth mentioning that all these ‘short’ stories run to about 25 printed pages, which means perhaps 10,000 words. The modern definition of short fiction is more restrictive and you’ll be lucky to find a market accepting 7,000 words. The usual is about 4,000. Therefore this older stuff has room for more development of plot and character. ‘Queen Of The Black Coast’ is 30 pages. The longer tales, ‘Red Nails’ and ‘The People Of The Black Circle’ are both about 80 pages, say 30,000 words.
Howard liked to pack a lot of plot into his yarns and sometimes they groan under the weight of coincidences. In ‘Rogues In The House’, the nobleman Murrillo chooses to assassinate Nabodinus the red priest and hires Conan for the job. On that same night, the priest’s man-ape servant rebels and a group of ardent young nationalists turn up to slay Nabodinus as well. There certainly are a lot of rogues in the house all at once. Howard pulls it off with panache and it’s a classic tale.
‘The Phoenix On The Sword’ was originally a ‘King Kull’ story ‘By This Axe I Rule’ and it worked better that way for me but it was rejected by the magazines and Howard rewrote it a bit for Conan. Although this was the first story featuring our brave Cimmerian, I never got used to King Conan and, except for this one tale, it wasn’t a concept Howard used. Conan works better as a wandering freebooter and sword for hire.
This book also features ‘The Tower Of The Elephant’, which is a firm favourite among Conan fans and possibly his best story. Conan decides to raid the shining tower where Yara the priest dwells and steal the famous jewel men call the Elephant’s Heart. He encounters another thief on the same escapade and they team up. I think this works so well because of the pity evoked at the end, a change from the usual thud and blunder which reveals that Conan has a heart. As does someone else.
Conan’s steals the heart of Bêlit, ‘Queen Of The Black Coast’ in the story of that name. Bêlit is a pirate queen who runs around half naked with ‘the ivory globes of her breasts’ on show. Quite how she stays so ‘ivory’ while romping topless in the tropics is a mystery not explained. Impressed by Conan’s mighty thews, she takes him as her mate and they pirate together for a while until a deadly lost city snares them. I believe Bêlit is popular with Conan fans but I’m not sure why, though the story was okay. I note after some research that ‘thew’ means ‘muscles and tendons perceived as generating strength’. So you couldn’t really have weedy thews and mighty thews is a bit of a tautology. I’m only saying. Actually, Howard doesn’t use the phrase but other people do.
‘People Of The Black Circle’ is a brilliant work in which Conan is the leader of a pack of Afghulli tribesmen and seven of his henchmen are captured and held hostage. Meanwhile, the Black Seers of Yimsha have killed off the King of Vendhya and his sister, the Devi, swears vengeance. Meanwhile, her serving girl plots with Khemsa, the instrument of the Black Seers, to overthrow them, conquer Vendhya and then the whole world and King Yezdigerd of Turan is plotting to take Vendhya as well. All these elements are woven into a complicated plot that rolls along at the usual high speed and ends very satisfactorily. Among Howard’s best and it highlights one of his strengths which was a good understanding of real military history and politics in the days of swords, bowmen, bandits and kings.
I didn’t bother re-reading ‘Red Nails’ because I’ve seen it before and was not hugely impressed. It seems to go on a bit but, again, it has a huge following among aficionados of the Cimmerian. Mind you, reading anything by Howard is satisfying in some measure because his language and the headlong rush of the plot just sweep you along. Lush descriptions of jewelled towers, foetid jungles, bleak mountains, armoured warriors and deadly monsters abound. It’s not all lithe, supple limbs and hot-eyed brazen wenches, though they have a role to play. As a sensitive, modern new man, I obviously find those sexist parts totally unacceptable but one has to take them in context.
This collection contains some of Robert E. Howard’s best work and is a great introduction to both the author and Conan the Barbarian.
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/