Conan by Robert E Howard

Conan by Robert E Howard

(Sphere, 1974; previously published by Lancer, 1967 )

First in the Conan series. A brief introduction follows; skip down to the story synopses if you prefer.

Eighteen Conan stories were published in Howard's lifetime, including one novel. After his death another eight turned up among his papers, some of them unfinished, plus notes for a few more. When L Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and Bjorn Nyberg set to work on the Lancer paperback series they sorted the stories into chronological order - Howard had written them in no apparent order, commenting that an adventurer 'telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.'

In order to fill the gaps, then, de Camp and his cohorts followed hints in Howard's notes and letters, completed unfinished stories, and sometimes rewrote some of his other stories which had originally had contemporary settings and heroes.

Due to copyright complications the Lancer books were issued in the wrong sequence (only the stories in the respective volumes follow a chronology). And this legacy has been handed on down so that Sphere, who decided to number the volumes, numbered them in the wrong order (So Conan is numbered 3 though in fact it's properly the first of the series).

Anyway, so much for all that; here are the stories:

The Thing in the Crypt (Carter & de Camp): A mere lad, Conan escapes from slavery and heads off across the snowy steppes half-naked and carrying only a length of chain for a weapon. Pursued by wolves, he takes shelter in a crack in the rock, where he discovers a long dead chieftain buried with all his regalia. Part of this piece was used in the first Schwartzenegger Conan film.

The Tower of the Elephant (Howard): In Zamora, the City of Thieves, Conan learns of a fabulous treasure kept in a glass-smooth tower, guarded by monsters and magic. Inside he discovers an alien being held captive by a magician. The first true Conan adventure, this one isn't bad. Again, part was used in the film; and it provided the story for a classic Barry Smith Marvel comic.

The Hall of the Dead (Howard & de Camp): Hearing rumours of treasure in a ruined city, Conan sets off, hotly pursued by a troop of soldiers sent to arrest him. The story opens well, and the ruined city is nicely evoked, but the nasties don't amount to much (he should have remembered to bring a few slug pellets). Written by de Camp from an outline of Howard's.

The God in the Bowl (Howard): A night watchman finds a hideously mutilated body in an open doorway just as Conan appears on the scene. The local police are called and an investigation is mounted. A strange bowl-shaped sarcophagus lies within, and someone has tampered with it. The entire story unfolds on the single stage set of the street and the room, which lends a claustrophobic intensity to what is in fact a kind of sword and sorcery detective story. It's a tour de force, the tension doesn't let up for an instant. The only minor criticism which could be levelled at it would be an occasional slight confusion over dialogue - who's saying what? But characterization was never one of Howard's strengths. That aside, it's brilliant and quite chilly. One of my favourite Conan stories.

Rogues in the House (Howard): Another one drawn brilliantly by Barry Smith for Marvel comics. Conan's latest girlfriend has betrayed him to the police, but a priest helps him escape on condition that Conan murders an enemy for him. The trail leads to a house with death traps in every room and a monstrous and murderous pet who has learned far too many tricks from his master. There's a strongly Freudian moment when Conan mounts some stairs and bursts in on his double-crossing former girlfriend clutching a bloody dagger, sheaths the dagger, picks up the girl, carries her outside and drops her from the roof into a cesspit...which leaves one wondering just what was Howard's view of women.

The Hand of Nergal (Howard & Carter): A battle's being fought and Conan's on the losing side; the enemy have supernatural allies. Fortunately for Conan he happens to be carrying a magic talisman which he just happened to find the day before, and this saves his life. Wandering home thigh-deep through blood and entrails (Carter really lays this stuff on thick) he finds a naked slave girl who tells him he must come at once, her master has need of his assistance and the pay's good. It turns out that the king of the nearby city has fallen under the spell of an evil talisman ...and you can work out the rest for yourself. Written by Carter from a three page fragment found among Howard's papers by Glen Lord.

The City of Skulls (Carter & de Camp): Another time waster. Conan is part of an escort conveying a princess to her intended husband when the caravan is attacked and Conan, his comrade and the princess get taken captive. A stint on a galley follows, but eventually after the usual head bashing stuff they all escape and Conan delivers the princess, by this time one month gone, to her delighted hubby. Ah well, at least one of Conan's fatherless children found a good home.

The book also contains the usual introduction by de Camp, a letter from Howard to P Schuyler Miller, and The Hyborian Age (Part 1), an essay by Howard, which is far too dull to go into here. Frank Frazetta contributes another splendid cover painting. But if nothing else, read The God in the Bowl in this volume. The Tower of the Elephant and Rogues in the House are also among Howard's best.

(In Lancer, 1967)

Rog Pile

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Conan by Robert E Howard (Sphere, 1974). Cover by Frank Frazetta

Cover by Frank Frazetta

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