Bill Ward and I are continuing our read through of the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection The Bloody Crown of Conan. This week we’re discussing the first nine chapters of “The Hour of the Dragon.” We hope you’ll join in!
Bill Ward and I are starting our read through of the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection The Bloody Crown of Conan. This week we’re discussing “The People of the Black Circle.” We hope you’ll join in!
Bill and I have been exchanging notes about what to read next following The Coming of Conan. After tackling a whole pile of Lord Dunsany texts and a big stack of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar adventures we were struck both times by fatigue from reading work by just one writer. We’re not sure we’ll feel that way with REH because many of those Conan stories yet before us are the most sophisticated and polished.
And that’s why we’ve decided to keep on going through the rest of them, even though, as Bill pointed out in one of our recent reviews, most are a LOT longer. We might try splitting discussion of some of the lengthier yarns up over the course of a couple of weeks, but we’ll try not to do that. If the real world gets super busy, we might have to have a catch-up week where we discuss Conan comics or movies or something as we’re reading the next story.
Bill: One thing that struck me as fresh with “The Devil In Iron,” a story that reprises many familiar elements from the last handful of Conan stories, is that an antagonist’s plan to kill Conan is what sets the plot in motion. We haven’t seen that in a story since “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Scarlet Citadel,” two King Conan yarns where his importance to the larger Hyborian world is undeniable.
Howard: I ended up liking this one more than I was afraid I was, because I’d recalled that it was sort of a fix-up of elements we’d seen before. I do wish we saw more of Conan being a Kozak and having Kozak adventures, but, alas, we only hear about it and see his outfit.
Howard: In the essay that concludes the book, “Hyborian Genesis,” Robert E. Howard scholar Patrice Louinet gives the probable background of this tale, recounting how Howard had grown more and more interested in tales of the American Southwest. Apparently at about the time he wrote this he’d begun to exchange tales with writer August Derleth, and recounted to him the story of the abduction of Cythia Ana Parker by the Commanche. Louinet speculates that this story was the inspiration behind “Vale.”
Last week I wrote that “Vale” was a rejected Conan story, but in actuality there’s no record that it was ever submitted. It might be that REH himself understood it wasn’t up to snuff and never bothered to turn it over for consideration.
Before Stormbringer keened in Elric’s hand, before the Gray Mouser prowled Lankhmar’s foggy streets—before even Conan trod jeweled thrones under his sandaled feet, Khlit the Cossack rode the steppe. He isn’t the earliest serial adventure character, but his adventures are among the earliest that can still be read for sheer pleasure.
He was created in 1917 by Harold Lamb, in a time when “costume pieces” provided the same kinds of thrills that fantasy and science fiction adventure stories deliver today, and he appeared in the pulp magazines.
The best remembered of these magazines today are probably those devoted to the adventures of single characters—like Doc Savage or The Shadow—or the early magazines of the fantastic wherein those we now recognize as giants were published—Weird Tales, and, later, Unknown, Planet Stories, and other science fiction magazines.
Shortly after World War I, though, there was very little to be found in the realm of the fantastic. For all their fame, the later science fiction magazines and Weird Tales were hardly representative of the content found in most pulps. The most popular of magazines tended to be devoted to westerns and detective tales. Aside from the occasional Verne reprint and a few innovators—like the fellow who’d written of a civil war soldier transported to Mars—adventure was found in more recognizable places.
And then came Lamb.
Bill: “Rogues in the House” is a welcome return to form after a few lesser Conan stories, and once again it sees Conan run afoul of civilization’s ways. The story reprises elements of “The God in the Bowl” and “The Tower of the Elephant” to give us Conan as a rogue and outlander — indeed the story begins with his incarceration for the murder of a priest. The priest in question was a thoroughly corrupt fence of stolen goods and police informer and, like the Red Priest at the center of this story or Kallian Publico or Yara from the aforementioned yarns, a prime example of the height of civilized hypocrisy and self-interest. A distrustful Conan says later in the story “When did a priest keep an oath?” and is proven correct in his distrust. The priestly class seems singled out as a prime exemplar of REH’s critique of civilized ways.
Bill: “The Pool of the Black One” closes off a trio of lesser Conan short stories written at a time when REH was absolutely in command of the character, but perhaps also a bit willing to sacrifice overall quality for a finished and saleable manuscript.
Bill Ward and I are reading our way through the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection The Coming of Conan. This week we’re discussing “Xuthal of the Dusk,” sometimes known under the title “The Slithering Shadow.” We hope you’ll join in!
Howard: By this or its other name, “The Slithering Shadow,” Fritz Leiber once named this story as one of the weakest Conan yarns, describing it as “”repetitious and childish, a self-vitiating brew of pseudo-science, stage illusions, and the ‘genuine’ supernatural.”
Bill: “Iron Shadows in the Moon” (retitled “Shadows in the Moonlight” for its Weird Tales and some subsequent appearances) contains everything most readers associate with a classic Conan tale: a beautiful female sidekick, the mysterious ruins of a forgotten race, supernatural peril, the clash of civilization and barbarism, subhuman monsters, and, above all, Conan being Conan. REH is firing on all cylinders at this point in his work on Conan and, if a few subsequent stories sometimes seem a bit like formulaic echoes of this story, it’s for good reason, as these elements all come together to tell a really terrific adventure.