Conan Re-Read: Conclusion

conquering sword conanBill Ward and I have just finished a re-read of every complete story of Conan the Cimmerian written by Robert E. Howard.

Howard: It’s hard to believe it’s been six months since we started this re-read. But then it’s hard to believe it’s over, and it’s hard to believe that there aren’t any more Conan stories. Such a fantastic character practically begs to have more adventures told about him, which is probably why the regrettable Conan pastiche industry popped up. Well, maybe not entirely regrettable, because I’ve read some I’ve really enjoyed. What’s regrettable is that for a long time they were packaged on equal footing with the real thing, or made available even when the real thing was out of print.

comingofconanBill: Ain’t that the truth. While I’m actually looking forward at this point to checking out the many pastiches I’ve never read — I’ve got a stack of Ace Conans that I’d started reading before we came up with the plans for this epic reread — I think the way REH’s stories were edited, diluted, manipulated, and concealed was contemptible. I can’t think of another author whose work was that famous who was treated so shabbily. I’m just happy we live in the age when, finally, most of his best work is available in easy-to-find volumes. The Wandering Star/Del Rey books, with their attention to restored texts and additional critical material and ephemera, are a beautiful and fitting tribute that was long overdue.

Howard: I’m in complete agreement there. Which pastiche are you planning to read? At this point I’ve worked my way through all of the well-recommended stuff, although it’s been so long since I read Wagner’s Road of Kings I might want to give that another try. Only recently, during this re-read, did I discover just how much fun the Roy Thomas Conan adaptions and pastiche can be. (For the curious, I discussed what I’d seen of the pastiche back here, and the article’s probably worth an update now that I’ve read a lot more of the comics.)

Conan_and_the_Emerald_LotusBill: I’ve never read the deCamp and Carter pastiches, or the other stories by REH that deCamp Frankensteined into Conan tales. It’ll be a while before I jump into that series, though, as I’d be rereading all the REH tales again as well. As for other pastiches, I’ve only read a few — Wagner’s Road of Kings was good, and, of course, Hocking’s Emerald Lotus is terrific. I get the impression that a great many of the novel-length pastiches are pretty mediocre, however. Why not just reread REH in that case?

Howard: Right — and that’s where anyone should start. I love my long line of Del Rey Robert E. Howard books, beside hardbacks from the Robert E. Howard foundation, all upon a dedicated Robert E. Howard bookshelf. I used to have a whole smattering of different editions, many of which were second hand and pretty beaten up, but thanks to Del Rey and the foundation I’m been getting rid of a great many of my other collections.

elephanttower1I came away from this re-read with an even greater appreciation for Howard’s work with Conan. I already number REH among my very favorite writers, and Conan among my favorite characters, so it’s no surprise that I liked what I found. But each time I revisit I’m confronted with the unassailable evidence of just how very good Howard truly was. And it seems as though, slowly but surely, there’s appreciation building about that. Unfortunately it also seems that the wider public isn’t much aware of the stories anymore. A lot of younger fantasy readers aren’t reading this good old stuff — to them I suppose stuff written in the ’90s is old stuff, and this is pliocene.

And that’s a shame, because so much about what makes fantasy fiction great is right here in the work of this astonishing pioneer. Anyone who’s going to be creating action scenes or huge battles or lost realms should make Howard’s fiction a first stop. And how about that pacing?

stranger 5Bill: There’s a reason classics are classic. And we’ve looked at quite a few, Dunsany, Leiber, and now Howard. For a fantasy fan, let alone an author, to not have at least some familiarity with their work is both tragic and baffling. REH’s Conan, especially, I think, is the most accessible of them all — the pace, the intensity, the invention, and the character himself make for immediately rewarding fiction.

Howard: As far as the individual stories, I had only a few surprises. The most unpleasant was that “A Witch Shall be Born” was pretty weak. On the other hand, “The Hour of the Dragon” was even better than I remembered, and “The Black Stranger” was so much better than I recalled that it was a true joy to rediscover.

witch4Bill: I certainly had a similar reaction to “A Witch Shall Be Born,” especially reading it right on the heels of so many strong stories. One of the best aspects of this reread for me was slowing down my approach to the stories by reading only one a week — we only ever worked ahead on multiple stories a few times, mostly they were all spaced out. This really let me pay attention to each piece as an individual. Most of my surprise moments were in realizing how much better and more vivid a particular story was that had previously been just a vague and undifferentiated memory for me. I suppose that’s the danger in reading a collection rather quickly; and I absolutely flew through these Del Rey’s when I first got them years ago. It was extremely rewarding to come back and give these pieces the focus they deserved.

hour of the dragon 9Howard: There’s a slight difference between a list of which Conan stories I think are best and which I’m most likely to re-read, and I don’t see any reason to give them both. “Beyond the Black River,” for reasons I’ve stated earlier, is among his best, but I’m in no hurry to revisit it.

Bill: I agree with that distinction, for example I probably like “The God in the Bowl” more than I’d rate it on a pure quality scale. It’s perhaps too fine a point, and really not anything we need to belabor.

Howard: “The Tower of the Elephant” will probably always have first place on my most beloved list, owing to its brevity. It’s hard to fit in a quick re-read of the novel length The Hour of the Dragon or even “The People of the Black Circle” on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Bill: Can you believe that “The Tower of the Elephant” is slightly longer than “The Phoenix on the Sword” and almost two thousand words longer than “The God in the Bowl?” There is a lot to be said for perfect pacing, it can warp time itself!

black circle 3Howard: I hadn’t realized that! “The Tower of the Elephant” feels like the shortest of them all. Perhaps because it’s just so very finely crafted. I lose myself in it every time. In all fairness to some of the others, it probably edges them out, just a little, as my favorite. In the next tier are probably The Hour of the Dragon and “Black Colossus,” and very close on their heels the rest I enjoy including, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” “The Phoenix on the Sword,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” “Queen of the Black Coast,” “Xuthal of the Dusk,” “Rogues in the House,” “The Devil in Iron,” “The People of the Black Circle,” “The Servants of Bit-Yakin,” and “The Black Stranger.” Add to that the opening half of “Red Nails” and one great scene from “A Witch Shall be Born.”

Bill: That’s the cream of the crop right there. Our lists are certainly similar. “Bit-Yakin” didn’t do as much for me, and I suspect I liked “Iron Shadows in the Moon” a lot more than you did. I also enjoyed “Beyond the Black River,” though I share some of your reservations there as well.

scarlet 5“The Tower of the Elephant” is practically the Platonic ideal of the sword & sorcery story. I think I’d call it my favorite Conan if there weren’t others that were just as strong, but achieve a different kind of effect. “The People of the Black Circle” is amazing, thirty-thousand words honed like a razor, exuberant yet completely under control. Both “The Scarlet Citadel” and “Black Colossus” are mini-epics in which REH manages to convey extraordinary battle scenes with comparatively few words (he also does this in some of his historicals — maybe a future reread topic!). “Queen of the Black Coast” has such a different feel to it, and it packs a real emotional punch and gets at the heart of the character of Conan, in many ways it’s lingered with me more than any other story. The Hour of the Dragon seems to gather up all the strands and put everything REH has learned and Conan has done into one story — it’s a masterpiece in the truest sense, the proof that REH ranks up there with the all time greats.

black coast 9One of the chief pleasures of this reread was experiencing these stories in their proper order, so much so that it felt like discovering Conan and the world of Hyboria right alongside REH. The earliest stories in particular present a through-line of development for the series — a region seen on a map in “The Phoenix on the Sword” is the setting for “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” a line of description in “Queen of the Black Coast” becomes the title of “Black Colossus.” It’s like REH is moving so fast, has so much momentum, that he’s spinning off ideas left and right and leaving a trail behind him that anyone can follow. But we can also see when REH stumbles a bit, either in trying out a new mode of inspiration as he did in “The Vale of Lost Woman,” or in reducing Conan to a minor, if still the most interesting, character as in “A Witch Shall Be Born.” But no matter how much he experimented with the character and the “formula,” — or, even, how many times he used the same name for different characters in subsequent stories or repeated a plot point or the premise of a scene — it always seemed to me that there was a tremendous sense of connectedness between the tales. The cohesion, I think, is due to REH’s sincerity. He believed not only in what he was saying, but he believed in Conan.

hour of dragon 1Howard: Very finely said, Bill. I don’t think there’s much I can add to that, although I think it’s that sincerity and belief that has made it possible for so many of the rest of us to believe in Conan as well.

If you were going to suggest some stories for first time visitors to Conan, where would you point them?

Bill: Well, I think “The Tower of the Elephant” probably leaps to both our minds as a solid introduction, and there is probably no way you could go wrong with that. But it also occurred to me that, for many readers, short fiction is really sort of an alien indulgence — and with that in mind I’d probably recommend The Hour of the Dragon to a lot of readers, especially young ones, that just don’t quite get the short story thing, but love fantasy novels. As an introduction, it’s essentially all-inclusive — REH was even writing it with a completely new audience in mind, and he does a great job building the world and the character of Conan. I think it would convey just what sword & sorcery is all about, and the headlong pace is a good introduction to how the shorts stories work. There are many strong stories to choose from, though, and you could even tailor your selection based on the reader’s tastes; we’ve got everything from pirate stories and massed battles to double-dealing roguery and lost worlds. What do you think, are there a top three or so that you could recommend to just about anyone?

elephanttower 8Howard: Growing up as I did reading and re-reading Swords Against Death (my first introduction to sword-and-sorcery) and then other short story compilations, I have a hard time accepting that some readers find short stories a foreign landscape. It’s as if they never want to watch an episodic tv show — they have to have a miniseries. (And those kids should get off my lawn!) That said, I think the choice of The Hour of the Dragon is an astute one for exactly the reasons you cite. If they were up for trying short stories I’d probably point them first at “The Tower of the Elephant,” and if it proved interesting, then either “Black Colossus” or “The People of the Black Circle” depending upon their own personal interests. I think once they were that far in they’d probably be good to go to explore on their own.

But then I’ve noticed in comments sections that some of our readers started their REH reading with “Red Nails” or even “Beyond the Black River,” a story that delayed my own entry into the REH fan club for a couple of extra years. In short, I just don’t know WHAT will work — I’d probably tailor those recommendations depending upon the reader. Even the weakest of the tales have strong points. There’s a little bit of magic in all of them.

lambvol1While not a grueling marathon by any stretch, Bill and I found ourselves a little taxed in the back half of this re-read, when many of the stories proved longer. We’re going to lay off any more re-reads until Spring. When we return, we’re talking about looking at some more Leigh Brackett, and then perhaps some Harold Lamb. I’m also tossing around the idea about visiting some other Robert E. Howard, but are there other old writers you’re interested in looking at, Bill? How about the rest of you?

Bill: I think Clark Ashton Smith would be a good choice, and possibly a return to our old friend Lord Dunsany. We could perhaps instead look at an anthology series, such as Flashing Swords or Thieves’ World. Or we could do the unexpected and pick a classic collection from someone like Bradbury or Zelazny. I think I’d always be ready for more REH, though, and there’s plenty to choose from there.

Howard: Hmm. Clark Ashton Smith might be an interesting, and challenging choice. His fiction is so rich I usually can’t read more than a few in a row, but perhaps a shorter collection would be an interesting place to start. That said, I’ve been jonesing (see what I did there?) for another look at Lamb’s Cossack stories. The only difficulty there is that most of them stretch on to “People of the Black Circle” length. I wonder if we could alternate them with shorter works from others?

Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard

Bill: The odd juxtaposition of CAS one week and Khlit the next just might prove to be a chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment. Weird thing is, in the case of our Conan re-read, we were sort of getting a bit of both of those kinds of stories in every tale. REH was truly an amazing writer.

Howard: No argument there. He was a trail blazer. And in a lot of ways, the rest of us are still sprinting to keep up.

See you all in a couple of months, when our re-read series continues with a new book or two! In the mean time, I’m sure I’ll keep blathering about cool books I’m reading, old pulp, the occasional game, and the writing life.

34 Comments on “Conan Re-Read: Conclusion

  1. I’ve been reading Smith’s Hyperborea a few weeks back and it was pretty amazing. I’d really love to see you cover those.

    One thing to say about Conan is that he seems to have aged not just remarkably, but exceptionally well. I’ve read many authors from that era who are considered classics, and while many of them are a lot of fun, they are almost all a bit crappy by modern standards. But Robert Howard doesn’t. His writing is rock solid; as sophisticated as anything you might find today.

    • I’m still learning from him, that’s for sure. Have you tried any Harold Lamb?

      • Not yet, but I’ve been thinking for some time that I really, really need to.
        You don’t need to become a fan of everyone, but there’s just some writers related to the genre that you really should have read to know what your options are. And from all I’ve heard, Lamb is one of those.

  2. Howard and Bill,

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series although I’ve not read a few of the posts yet because I wasn’t able to get to those stories on their respective weeks (“A Witch Shall Be Born”, The Hour of the Dragon, “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”). I intend to read them over the next couple of months.

    Anyway, this has been fun and only reinforced my appreciation of REH and his works. Thanks guys.

    • Ditto what Keith said. Thank you.
      Though Beyond the Black River tops my list, that’s because I’m a frontier nut. When I introduce people to Howard’s Conan, I recommend Hour of the Dragon and People of the Black Circle.

      • Thanks, Jim. Two great choices. And you and Bill may be right. Especially with today’s audience, a novel might work better, and Hour of the Dragon really does work nicely as an introduction.

  3. I’ve made a habit of regularly telling my English Department colleagues that “Tower of the Elephant” and Leiber’s “Bazaar of the Bizarre” are two of the greatest short stories ever written in English. I think I may have converted one of them into not automatically dismissing me as insane. The work goes on!

    • Rob, those are two great choices. Good on you for bringing at least one more convert to the cause!

  4. As for your next re-read, I would certainly love to see some Leigh Bracket or Harold Lamb. There are both too very underrated writers.

    If choose to read more Howard, Solomon Kane would be a good choice. He is probably Howard’s second most famous character (and some fans favorite character, myself included.) El Borak would be another good choice. The stories about the Texas gunslinger in Afghanistan show a huge influence of Lamb and Talbot Mundy.

    • I think if we were to do Kane or El Borak we might not want to read them all straight through. Solomon Kane is a great character, but he was created a little earlier on in REH’s writing career, and I think the story construction shows it. El Borak stories are a little more complex, but even there they have less variety than the Conan stories. Maybe we could do some kind of alternate thing, eventually, between a historical and Kane and El Borak, say.

  5. Thanks so much for doing this series and sharing it with us. It’s been a lot of fun. Nothing to add. Howard was extraordinary. I too don’t understand this modern aversion to short stories. It is the perfect form (along with novellas) for fantasy adventure, in my opinion. Although you can do things in a novel you can’t in a short story, the opposite is also true.

    As for more re-reads, I would love to have a re-read of stories in Vance’s The Dying Earth, which wouldn’t take long. That book is incredible, and one of the bedrocks of fantasy literature. Also, an Elric book would be fun (the three stories from Sailor on the Seas of Fate), or perhaps Kenneth Morris? And, yes, a selection of a few of the better CAS stories would be good.

    Although I don’t like all of the stories in Nifft the Lean, The Fishing of the Demon Sea by Micheal Shea is simply one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written. Could be a fun one-off.

    • I’m a big fan of the original Dying Earth. You know, I had Nifft the Lean for ages but never made it all the way through, and I’m sad to say I never read “The Fishing of the Demon Sea.” Now I’m regretting parting with the book.

  6. I discovered this re-read too late to contribute, but as Howard fan for nearly 40 years I enjoyed this a lot. He is a master story teller. Howard had the gift to conjour these magical realms of fantasy which could fire up the readers imagination. My best of list is similar like yours. “Tower of the Elephant”, “People of the Black Circle” and of course “Queen of the Black Coast”. I have a soft spot for the lesser tales though, like “Shadows in Zamboula”. But I prefer “By this axe I rule” to “The Phoenix on the Sword.” I often think Kull is underrated.

    And I am big fan of his horror tales. Sure, a lot are not very good. But a lot of writers never do manage to write something like “The Black Stone” or “Pigeons form Hell” in their whole career.

    • Thanks, Andy. You know, I kind of prefer “By this Axe I Rule” as well, although I should go back and re-read it while my memory is still fresh on “The Phonix on the Sword.”

      I’ve never been that much of a horror buff, although I naturally love elements of horror or I wouldn’t enjoy sword-and-sorcery stories so well. I own the Del Rey REH horror collection, though, and wouldn’t give it up. I also have all four of the REH boxing collections, which surprises me more. I am no boxing fan, and I wouldn’t have thought I’d enjoy these, but they’re surprisingly entertaining so long as you don’t read too many in a row. So far the only REH that’s fallen completely flat for me were the Weird Menace and Detective yarns.

  7. Thanks guys, I thoroughly enjoyed following along. Great and thoughtful stuff from you both, and the many people who posted. I can’t believe how fast 6 months flew by…which leads me to reflect on how fast REH’s life and writing career flew by as well. One can’t help but imagine what wonders he would have penned had he lived a full life. But his legacy certainly lives on, with a new Conan RPG, video game, movie, and boardgame (that reached over 3 million in funding), all in the works. It’s not a bad time to be a Conan fan.

    My best of list contains the usual suspects, “People of the Black Circle” and “Tower of the Elephant”. But a story that is rapidly rising up the ranks, and seems to get better with each read is “Xuthal of the Dusk”. Conan is just so bad ass in that one, even after he gets his ass handed to him by Thog.

    Keep up the great work! Looking forward to the next re-read.

    • Thanks, Marz. I hope you’re right, and that there will be more great Conan related stuff in the near future.

      I have to agree with you about “Xuthal.” Sure, it has some warts, but it’s just a grand adventure romp with a lot to recommend it.

  8. Late to the party, but have you considered Haggard for a possible reread? Either some of his lost race stuff or some of the historicals? They’re novels, not short stories, but I’d love to hear what you think.

    Or for something more recent, maybe C.J. Cherryh’s Morgaine books?

    • Bill and I have never talked about Haggard OR C.J. Cherryh. I’ve read only a little Haggard — I think three books, and I’ve never tried the Morgaine books. Are the Morgaine books novels, or short stories?

      We really want to stick with short story cycles so that we can more easily fit stuff in to our week. The last batch of Conan stories, which were much longer, made it much harder to get things done. Despite our fondness for most of them, it began to feel more like a homework assignment and less like something fun we were doing together in our spare time.

  9. Congrats on a job well done. This series was a very fun read, even if I had a different take on some of the stories than you. Wagner’s Kane would be a great choice. There’s a lot of stuff to delve into there.

    • Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Kane has always been hit or miss for me, but I’d be willing to give him another look and see if my opinion has changed. The biggest problem is the scarcity of the material. Some years ago when I was hard up for cash I parted with my two volume hardback collection. All I have now are two beat-up paperbacks. Are there any editions currently in print?

  10. Morgaine is novels, but the first three are fairly short by modern standards. But yeah, that’d probably still be hard to handle unless you did them in smaller chunks.

    As for Kane, I think that the three novels and two short story collections are currently available in eBook format.

    • Huh. Joe, thanks for that. Maybe Bill and I will talk about Christopher’s proposal for some Kane reading, then. I do think Bill and I are going to stick with Brackett, Lamb, and some Smith as planned, but if Kane is available not just to us but any other interested parties, maybe we’ll try that too.

    • On Cherryh’s Morgaine novels, I’ll just add some brief comment.
      There are a total of four: the original three written back in the 1970s, which make a viable trilogy, and a fourth written later, which seems perhaps to be starting a new story but was never followed up on.
      The original three are *very* short by modern standards: less than 250 pages (the first novel is only 190 pages!). But no short stories per se.
      (The notional background is science-fictional, but the feel is very much pseudo-medieval swords & sorcery. And they’re very good.)

      • Thanks, Peter. I’ve never heard a thing about these. I guess I’d better go take a look this year.

  11. Pingback: Black Gate » Articles » Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Wrap Up Their Epic Conan Re-Read

  12. Oi! My twin brother’s been telling me and telling me to read this series and once that I finally get here it’s all over!

    Very nice wrap up! Going to have to go back and review this whole tamale. Looks like a terrific review of the King. Very enjoyable.

  13. Way late to the party, but…I recommend giving John Maddox Roberts’ ‘Conan the Rogue’ a try. It is very much influenced by Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest,’ which is an outstanding blood and guts hard boiled novel. Roberts clearly was a Hammett fan and I think it’s the best of the Tor books I’ve read so far.

  14. Hi, I’ve just discovered this reread, having seriously tackled Robert E. Howard Conan for the first time. I’ve finished the Prion Conan the Barbarian, which has 10 of the later of the published tales: Shadows in the Moonlight to Red Nails.

    I’ve enjoyed your commentary, but I have to ask: have you discussed the bigotry? I’ve only read your posts on the stories in the Prion collection, so maybe I’ve missed it.

    I’ve enjoyed the stories and appreciate that Howard was touched by genius – though some of his prose is laughably overwritten and much of the dialogue just exposition – but any discussion should include the appalling stereotypes that fill these Conan tales. ‘African’ stories Queen of the Black Coast, Jewels of Gwahlur and (to an extent) Shadows in Zamboula don’t have a single admirable black character – and their civilisations are ruled by brown people. Story after story features pale woman menaced by hulking, dark-skinned villains. Giant negro cannibals. Bloodthirsty, ‘swarthy’ barbarians terrorizing good white folks. This is the stuff certain other people obsessed with race in the 1930s raved about.

    To add to that, Red Nails (which is brilliant in many ways) brings us lashings of homophobia.

    The internet tells me Howard wasn’t a total racist, and I was pleasantly surprised at how many strong women he created. But, despite all power and fun of the stories, the ugly stuff is hard to get past.

    Having said that, it’s not been enough to put me off. I’ll be reading The Hour of the Dragon and some other stories at some point, and look forward to coming back to the reread then.

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying the commentary. Like all fiction from another time, it has a different perspective. Lesbianism, as REH called it in a letter while he was working on this story, wasn’t something he’d ever heard much about until just before he drafted the yarn. Homosexuality was all strange and new, something that “others” did, not “clean cut” folks. It just wasn’t talked about in a small town. And as for the racism, he was a Texan in the 1930s AND a pulp writer, so in addition to the usual perspectives from that time and place, he also used shorthand descriptions to discuss those from other places. It’s just how things were done, and it’s different from how they’re done today.

      Racism and sexim don’t seem to have been REH’s mindset, as your internet researches have shown you (he was actually pretty far ahead of his time in his thinking on this, if you read his letters). And sometimes he had to write to the market. He would happily have written a whole series of tales about Dark Agnes, the independent and capable sword woman, but NO MARKETS of the time wanted to buy them, so he stopped writing them. Likewise, he knew that if he put in a whipping scene, the Weird Tales editor would publish the tale and probably give it the cover illustration, so whipping scenes cropped up a lot. They don’t seem to be a hang-up of REH himself.

      We all have different thresholds for what we can tolerate and what we can’t. I can wince now and then at what happens in REH, but mostly I’m along for the thrilling journey and am in his corner. Others give me more pause. I’m a huge fan of Jack Vance’s world building, but I started to notice an icky sexual sub-text that kept cropping up and I’ve become less interested in reading his fiction as a result.

      • Thanks Howard, good to have that context.Part of the tragedy of REH’s suicide is that we never got to read what he might have written when he was older, more worldy and not tied to a pulp market. One wonders what he would have made of the Lord of the Rings explosion in fantasy

        • That’s a good question. He probably would have liked the good and not the bad. Would that we could have known… although even if he hadn’t taken his life the odds of him surviving long enough to have seen them was pretty slim.

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