Swords in the Mist and The Coming of Conan

Swords_in_the_MistWith our completion of  Swords in the Mist last week, Bill Ward and I started exchanging final thoughts and ended up mostly just looking ahead for next week’s read from The Coming of Conan.

When we finished Swords Against Death if felt like we had a lot more to talk about, perhaps because there were so many more stories, or perhaps because there was a whole scale of good to great (or occasional average). In Swords In the Mist we had three levels of quality. There were the three excellent short stories (“The Cloud of Hate,” “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” “When The Sea Kings Away,”) and some entertaining linking bits that weren’t quite stories and weren’t entirely satisfying but still had some nice moments. And then there was the unlamented and never-to-be-read by Bill and Howard again “Adept’s Gambit.”

Fritz Leiber

Fritz Leiber

Bill: Agreed. I’m not sure what we could say that hasn’t already been said: Leiber at his best is sublime and the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser catalog contains many tales from various points in his career, with some shoehorning to get them into “saga shape,” which sometimes results in things like stories written twenty years apart rubbing shoulders with one another. That can be confusing, in a whole lot of ways.

Which makes me think how much I’d love to see these tales get the same treatment as Del Rey gave Conan and many more of REH’s best known tales.

Howard: It wasn’t so long ago a collection like The Coming of Conan would have been impossible. It’s not that there weren’t Conan books, but, well, there weren’t any Conan books by Robert E. Howard that were in print. Due to some publishing machinations I don’t feel like getting into here, any Conan stories by Robert E. Howard were hard to find for decades, and even if you could find them in used book stores they’d been heavily edited, revised, and packaged with pastiche (stories written by other writers). There were occasional attempts to get us the real thing, among them Karl Edward Wagner’s three edited volumes, but none of those collections ever had the chance to be completed.

comingofconanBill: Exactly. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it wasn’t until these Del Reys came out around ten years ago that we finally (!) got the original, unexpurgated REH Conan. That is a long time for an extremely popular character (one who has eclipsed his creator) to not have his adventures properly chronicled. As you say, the machinations are too long for this post (and are better detailed in many other places), but the whole thing, at its worst, seems to me like a gross parasitism off the legacy of a true original and pioneer. And I actually like some of the de Camp stories; I just don’t think they ever needed to be written as Conan stories — a guy named Robert E. Howard already did it better than anyone ever could.

Howard: Nicely said.

Bill: And then I think of REH not even getting paid for some of his Conan sales to Weird Tales, contrasted with all of the baroque licensing and trademark laws that exist now to ensure that Conan, a multimedia property far more familiar to people through films and games and comic books than the original stories, is worth millions to his corporate masters, and it makes me want to start crushing skulls with an Underwood. Exhibit A: the execrable recent Conan film. Conan himself wouldn’t be bothered to be angry about thisconan books, of course, he had a very unsentimental view of the world.

The Del Rey’s are truly beautiful though, the royal treatment, and about damn time, too. We have stories that are as close to the originals as we can get, in the probable order they were written, complete with some fragments that are themselves interesting. Great art and supporting materials, and a real feeling that, finally (!!!) we are getting a proper honoring of the legacy of one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. Only took sixty years or so.

solomon kane del reyHoward: Very nicely said. I do sometimes wonder whether it was really necessary to include all of the appendices with rough and unpublished drafts, especially in some of the volumes with lesser-known characters, because I’m not sure that a lot of them are going to be of interest to anyone apart from scholars. Some years back Leo Grin had an interesting essay suggesting that some of the contents might have been combined, for instance Bran Mak Morn and King Kull in one volume, and all the leftovers saved for inclusion elsewhere.

And as fabulous as it is to finally have the unexpurgated text, I’ve been wondering HOW unexpurgated they are. Are ALL the texts restored to be just as Robert E. Howard wrote them originally? I’ve never been clear on that, and I wonder sometimes if we’re getting the “best” edition of REH possible if it’s him completely unedited. Surely he might have thought some suggestions or changes to his prose were good.

Sword-Woman1Bill: It may become clearer when we read the supporting material in The Coming of Conan, but my impression was that the normal edits that occurred in his lifetime to give us the published stories as they originally appeared are essentially retained, aside from maybe going back to a peculiarity of spelling or usage that REH preferred. It’s the alterations that occurred in the pastiche era (particularly to unpublished stories) that are rectified.

Howard: It’s probably there in the fine print and I’ve just never read it. Which I’m a little embarrassed about, actually, seeing as how I’ve contributed an essay to one of the Del Reys and am friends with many of the Robert E. Howard scholars. As to what lies ahead of us — it’s a mighty compilation of short stories. A few of them were never published in Howard’s lifetime. In general, when Farnsworth Wright rejected a Conan story it was because it wasn’t as strong. He didn’t have perfect ears, though. For example, he rejected a very strong King Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule” until it was repackaged with more purple prose and more sorcery into the first published Conan tale.

First up, though, before we even tackle the stories, we’re reading an essay Robert E. Howard wrote about the Hyborian Age. Likely he never intended it for anyone else’s eyes but his own — a background document so he could keep his world building straight. If you’re new to Conan you may want to hold off and start reading with us when we tackle the short stories, because this essay’s not truly indicative of the kind of spell Robert E. Howard’s prose can weave. It’s in the back of The Coming of Conan and can be found in most other “complete” Conan collections under the title of “The Hyborian Age” (and even in the first two volumes of the old de Camp/Carter Ace collections — although de Camp likely rewrote even that).

If you are new to Robert E. Howard, try not to bring the modern world with you when you’re reading his work. I try to remind first comers to REH that these tales were composed in a different time, by a rather young man, for a very specific market.

Bill: And if they got a problem with that, best duck when I start swinging the typewriter.

 

 

14 Comments on “Swords in the Mist and The Coming of Conan

  1. Guys, the Del Rey Conans were (IIRC) reprints of the Wandering Star volumes (first published in the late 90s to early 00s), which were intended for the serious Howard collector, which is why all the material in the appendices was included. All but one of the Wandering Star collections were reprinted, and I think when Wandering Star shut down, Del Rey continued with the remaining volumes in the pipeline. The Howard portion of the contents were, again IIRC, laid out well in advance, with only the essays and supporting material included closer to publication.

    It’s interesting to look at some of the fragments and alternate drafts and see how the stories changed (or didn’t) as Howard worked on them.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to rereading these stories.

    • You know, I’d completely forgotten about that! Thanks for being in the ball with the information, Keith!

  2. Short of scooping them directly out of his brain with a melon-baller, I think this is as close as we’ll ever get to unadulterated Howard. Myself, I’m happy they included all of the fragments & other bits and bobs — they’re at the end, so can be skipped over with no harm done.

    Between the Del Reys and the REH Foundation publications, we’re pretty much in a golden age of Howard. (The Del Reys are even slightly more complete than the Wandering Star books — there was at least one fragment (in Bran Mak Morn?) that was discovered between publication of Wandering Star and Del Rey, and so included in the Del Rey but not the Wandering Star; also, I think they fixed a few typos &c. along the way.

    I just kind of wish Del Rey would’ve done a reprint of Ultimate Triumph — I thought that was a particularly strong collection.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on the stories.

    • Oh yeah, I remember seeing Ultimate Triumph advertised. Couldn’t afford it at the time. Sniff.

  3. I loved Ultimate Triumph, but it was a thematic collection, so I’m not surprised Del Rey didn’t reprint it. And Joe H. is right about a new Bran Mak Morn story coming to light after the Wandering Star edition was published. I remember Rusty Burke saying it was discovered after the Del Rey edition was published but was in the SFBC edition, which came later. My memory may be playing tricks on me, though. I’ll try to think to check when I get home and compare the contents.

  4. Pingback: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Start Conan Read Through | Adventures Fantastic

  5. I read “The Hyborian Age” and am ready to join this expedition!

  6. I was re-reading Louinet’s introduction to ‘The Coming of Conan’ and came across this: “…no Sherlock Holmes scholar ever entertained the idea of repackaging Conan Doyle’s original stories in the order of thier occurrence in Holmes’ life rather than the order in which they were written…”

    Louinet wrote this in 2002. Obviously, he is not a follower of Holmes studies. For it’s commonly known among Holmes fans that in 1967, William S. Baring Gould issued his two volume Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which put the stories in that very order. It remained the standard annotation for decades. I myself have two copies (a single and the standard double volume).

  7. I do agree with how he finished that sentence, however, for it went on, “…or inserting pastiches amidst the established Canon.”

    That very comparison between the Holmes and Conan pastiches is my July 27th post over at http://www.BlackGate.com

    • Oh yeah. I can’t imagine anyone daring to do that with Sherlock Holmes, but they did it with Conan.

  8. And coincidentally, it sounds like Centipede Press is in the process of putting together a collection. From their latest newsletter:

    “As many of you know, we are working on an 8-volume set of the complete Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber, complete with all the related poetry, essays, letters, and other memorabilia that goes with this. I am trying to find an already typed version of the great essay by Fritz Leiber, “Fafhrd and Me,” without having to do all the scanning of pages. Would anyone have this?”

    • I’ll have to look into that… although given that I have my White Wolf books with the Mike Mignola covers and given that after this re-read it may be a LONG time, or possibly never, that I re-read the entire series, it might not be worth it for me.

      • Yeah, those Mignola illustrations are the best. Having said that, in the hardcover edition of Farewell to Lankhmar, they dropped like the last four chapters from The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars. (They did restore them in the paperback edition, at least.)

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