Conan and The Fan Fic Writers of Doom

If I didn’t love the writing of Robert E. Howard I would probably never have bothered with any Conan pastiche. As a matter of fact, those Conan novels on store shelves in the ’70s and ’80s made me so skeptical of Conan that I didn’t try Robert E. Howard’s fiction until years later. I wrongly assumed that because the series looked cheap and mass produced that Howard’s writing would sound that way. (Robert E. Howard, of course, had NOTHING to do with the mass marketing of his character, having been dead for decades before that marketing was carried out by other hands.)

You can fit the sum total of all the Conan that Howard wrote (including some fragments and rejected stories) into one large hardback. That’s not a lot of fiction about such a great character, and so for decades people have been trying to create new tales of adventure starring Conan, mostly because they wanted MORE!

What makes those stories pastiche instead of fan fic, I suppose, is that many of these writers were paid to write it and the result was distributed widely. You would assume that meant that the work was well-edited and had some kind of consistency, but a lot of people, me among them, would tell you you’re wrong.

Some writers don’t quite get the character, or want to change him, or don’t understand that he actually does change, age to age, and is capable of greater subtlety/humor/intellect than is popularly assumed (just as REH’s writing is more complex than popularly imagined). Putting aside the whole discussion of whether or not it’s even right or proper to publish pastiche (especially when the actual Robert E. Howard books were out of print!) what are the best Conan pastiche novels?

First, read the real work by Robert E. Howard.

Okay, so you want some more that feels  a little bit like that, or that celebrates that character and setting in a proper way? Ryan Harvey and Morgan Holmes and John Chris Hocking have read far more deeply than I have, but I can make some general comments. First, I didn’t much enjoy Robert Jordan’s work with the character. His Conan novels were like ’70s era James Bond movies — some cool action bits and moments, but also a lot of cheese and too much ’70s sex vibe. I gave up on them.

Yesterday I mentioned that Conan and the Emerald Lotus is my favorite. Here are some others from my highlight reel, in no particular order.

Karl Edward Wagner’s The Road of Kings is quite powerful, though rushed near the end. Wagner gets Conan and the setting very, very well.

Leonard Carpenter’s Conan The Raider is strong and evocative. Carpenter writes with astonishing visual power — in a few words he can sketch an entire scene with crystal clarity. I’ve heard that his plots don’t always hold together, but Conan the Raider works quite nicely.

Andrew Offut’s Conan and the Sorcerer doesn’t get mentioned much, but I thought it a pretty good Conan yarn. His second is a little talky, but I started the third (The Sword of Skelos) and it seems pretty promising, with wonderful atmosphere and forward momentum. Unfortunately, I got derailed by a pretty savage incident halfway through the book and I’m not sure I can continue.

John Maddox Roberts seems to have consistently written excellent Conan pastiche. If you don’t mind the mash-ups of famous plots then you’re in great hands. My writer friend Charles Rutledge mentioned that the JMR Conan books were a little like stories of Conan’s slightly more thoughtful brother. Anyway, I enjoyed the seven I read and can highly recommend four: Conan and the Treasure of Python (a riff on King Solomon’s Mines), Conan the Marauder (basically Conan meets up with a Genghis Khan like conqueror and his horde), Conan and the Manhunters (a nifty adventure story about a treasure theft and multiple competing factions) Conan the Rogue (a fabulous mash-up of a number of noir detective stories by Dashiel Hammet). I have yet to try Conan and the Amazon, which Ryan Harvey informed me was a little weak.

John Maddox Roberts has written some fine fiction of his own, including a long running mystery series set in ancient Rome, and a personal favorite of mine, an alternate history/blood and thunder novel titled King of the Wood.

I’ve heard good things about the novel adaption Michael Stackpole did of the recent movie and, having recently spoken with the man about both sword-and-sorcery and Robert E. Howard, am certain he appreciates both the character and the creator. I’ll be trying his book out eventually.

So is there more good Conan pastiche out there? Well, maybe. I have read and enjoyed, or read and not enjoyed (more frequent) various Conan comics, but I want to keep this discussion to novels. I haven’t heard a whole lot of positive feedback about other writers of Conan, but I won’t repeat what I can’t personally verify. If any of you out there have thoughts on good non-REH Conan stuff I’ve missed, let me know!

 

 

19 Comments on “Conan and The Fan Fic Writers of Doom

  1. Yep, that was me, Howard. I always felt that JMR’s Conan was more of the professional mercenary and less the barbarian. Almost all of his TORs are worth reading.

    • Hey Charles! Nice to know my memory isn’t completely shot. Which ones were your favorites, and why? (Does that sound too much like a college essay question?)

  2. I haven’t read much of the Conan pastiche stuff. I remember shortly after I had finished an omnibus that contained the Karl Wagner edited REH stories -which is to say hardly edited at all, a good thing – my uncle gave me a box of the Lancer paperbacks with the Frazetta covers that I couldn’t wait to dig into. It was there that I got my first taste of non-Howard Conan, and cared for it not at all. The only one that I’ve read is KEW’s Road of Kings, as I number Wagner among my favorites for his own work, and thought it was pretty good. But that’s it for me as far as Conan goes. I should give Hocking, Roberts and Offut a try though, it seems the consensus that they do the man justice.
    Now, some of the non-Conan pastiche is quite good in my opinion; Wagner’s Worms of the Earth sequel is excellent-far superior to Road of Kings-and David C. Smiths Black Vulmea is a lot of fun.

    • I have the Wagner Bran Mak Morn pastiche but I haven’t yet read it. I’ve heard great things about the Offut/Taylor Cormac Mac Art novels, and will probably get to them sooner or later. As vacation reads, probably. I did enjoy Smith’s Vulmea book.

  3. Of the lot I liked Conan the Champion and Conan the Rogue best. In Champion Conan basically teams up with Vikings, and Rogue is the one that uses elements of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest.

  4. Some of my favs
    Conan the Defender its by Jordan but I agree some of his are really weak, this one I enjoyed very much.
    Conan the Outcast by Carpenter…different but very interesting indeed. A more realistic Conan but still good. A bit like Tarzan plays Conan.
    Conan and the Gods of the Mountain…not really a great book but it does have something that keeps you going. Plus lots of Valeria

    • Tell me some more about both Conan the Defender and Conan the Outcast. What made those particular ones stand out?

      • The Defender is one I don’t recall much about except that I really enjoyed it.
        Outcast was a superb tale, a little different approach with Conan relying as much on
        his wits as his sword arm. I really enjoyed the setting and the plot was excellent.

  5. Pingback: Black Gate » Blog Archive » Legion from the Shadows by Karl Edward Wagner

  6. I agree with Grey that Conan the Defender by Jordan and Conan the Outcast by Carpenter
    were very good. I also enjoyed Conan the Magnificent by Jordan and Conan the Hero
    by Carpenter. Those are four good books. I also enjoyed Gods of the Mountain although
    it isn’t quite as good as the first four I mentioned. Mists of Doom by Green is also a pretty
    decent read IMO. Conan and the Emerald Lotus is a fine novel. These are all some of the
    very best I’ve read.

    • I tried Jordan but just couldn’t’ get into the tone of him. Maybe I’ll give another Carpenter a shot, because I quite enjoyed the one I tried.

      • some of the Jordans are pretty lame but Defender really stood out for me.
        Conan the Outcast and Conan the Hero were good reads by Carpenter, I also enjoyed Conan the Warlord. Some of his others didn’t work for me…its seems there are a lot of hit or
        miss with the pastiche stuff. Perhaps the best Ive read is Conan the Victorious, this is
        the shorter version of Conan the Avenger. Its by Nyberg and De Camp and was published
        in a magazine. I really enjoyed it a lot…Nyberg probably wrote most of it. Not to be confused with Conan the Victorious by one of the Tor guys.

  7. Conan pastiche is often a far cry from the original work, which as you mentioned, is much more complex than commonly assumed.

    I think Robert Jordan’s work in the field is a little smutty, frankly, and didn’t really get the character of Conan. Like someone above said, there’s something James Bond-y about his Conan. The books are still entertaining and can be a guilty pleasure, but they’re susceptible to criticism. After all, the most original character in the Jordan books is Karela, and her name means “bitter melon” in sanskrit. Given the character, there is no way that is a coincidence.

    The general issue with Conan pastiche though, and perhaps fan fiction/pastiche in general, is that the references to Howard’s work are often superficial and seem an attempt to glue Howard’s characters or vocabulary to an otherwise routine fantasy yarn.

  8. Not a novel, but the Siege of Makkalet is pretty damn good, the free companion arc for dark horse is also great

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