Thursday, December 7, 2017

Conan Of Cimmeria (Conan #2)

Conan Of Cimmeria, by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter
December, 1985  Ace Books
(Original Lancer Books edition, 1969)

Everyone’s favorite barbarian returns in this second anthology, which once again sports an awesome Frank Frazetta cover. This Conan book in particular I recall reading as a kid, thirty-some years ago, however re-reading it again now I was surprised to discover that I didn’t remember the majority of the tales. But overall I enjoyed this one more than Conan #1.

“The Curse of the Monolith” (de Camp and Carter) – This one’s basically Conan versus The Blob. De Camp and Carter again kick off the proceedings with another of their pastiches, which ostensibly exist to “fill in the gaps” in Conan’s life, but really just come off like pointless, supernatural-tinged adventures. Conan when we meet back up with him is in a country called Kusan, leading a party of Turanian warriors; the events of last volume’s “The City of Skulls” are given as six months ago.

Conan is slightly more refined, this time; rather than the loincloth-sandal ensemble of the previous book, he now wears a coat of mail and a spired Turanian helmet. But these very things get him in trouble in this story. The purpose of this trip to Kusan is to foster an accord between Turan and Kusan, but treachery is afoot, courtesy the wiley Duke Feng, a Kusanian who is part of a group that doesn’t want peace with Turan. He fools Conan one night, telling him of riches in a nearby area, riches that he needs the help of a strong man to acquire.

Our hero doesn’t come off too bright in this story, so it’s really not the best introduction for him. But he heads on off with Feng and soon enough is ensnared by the titular monolith, which is a giant magnet – something no one in this Hyborian Age is familiar with. Worse yet, a massive blob (referred to as a “jellylike mass”) lurks on the top of the monolith, and its touch melts flesh; the place is littered with the corpses of its victims. But Conan is able to move himself around to a broken weapon, saw off the leather thongs that bind his jacket of mail, and free himself in time to deliver a fitting revenge to Feng. He then apparently burns up the blob. All told, a short and trifling story.

“The Bloodstained God” (Howard and de Camp) – Howard wrote this one in 1935 as a contemporary Middle Eastern adventure starring recurring character Kirby O’Donnell, titled “The Curse of the Crimson God,” but it was rejected everywhere. De Camp discovered it in the ‘50s among Howard’s papers and went about revising it, changing O’Donnell to Conan and adding a supernatural element to the story. I had a hard time connecting with this one. It seems very messy; Conan’s in Middle Eastern-esque Arenjun and comes upon some dude being tortured, but after hacking and slashing the tormentors, Conan’s knocked out. He wakes up and finds some other dude watching over him: Sassan, an “Iranistani,” who is an enemy of those tormentors.

Sassan is after some priceless valuables that are protected by a god or something, and Conan in a typical “why not?” moment decides to tag along. But Sassan is dead in like a few more pages and Conan is working with his enemies as they’re besieged by yet another enemy. Long story short, it ends with Conan alone in a castle of stone that houses the titular god, which is a statue that comes to life, per the de Camp norm. Guess who wins? Honestly the story was rushed, boring, and came off like the typical de Camp padding – he could’ve at least set up the next story, in which Conan is suddenly out of the Middle East and back up in the northern countries.

“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” (Howard) – The first pure Howard yarn in the book is an immediate standout, not to mention the inspiration for Frank Frazetta’s incredible cover painting. Famously rejected by Weird Tales when it was written sometime in the early ‘30s, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” was turned into an adventure starring some other one-off Howard creation, before surfacing again in the ‘50s when de Camp discovered it among Howard’s papers. He supposedly rewrote it extensively, and it’s that version that appears here in Conan Of Cimmeria, but I read the undiluted Howard original in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2003).

This is one of the stories I still remembered all these years after first reading this book; it’s a dreamlike tale, very mythic, and wonderfully told. Humrously though – at least when taken into context of this “carefully constructed” timeline de Camp and Carter have created for the series – Conan is suddenly back in the northern climes, whereas just in the previous yarn he was down in the Middle East. You’d think the two pastiche authors could’ve come up with an interim story of how Conan got from there to here, but who cares, because this is a Howard original and he wasn’t bound to any constricting continuity. At any rate Conan is way up in the frozen wastes of Nordheim, not too far from his homeland of Cimmeria.

It’s not a long story, but it definitely makes an impression; Conan is part of a war-party from Aesir, battling against the Vanir. Howard constantly refers to the ice-covered mail of the warriors and it’s some effective word-painting. Conan’s the last survivor, and as he stumbles in a battle-spawned daze he hears a woman’s laughter. It’s a flame-haired beauty who wears nothing but a wisp of gossamer. She offers herself to Conan, who madly chases after her. But she’s leading him into a trap, hoping for her “brothers” to kill him so they can serve up his heart to their father: Ymir, the Frost-Giant, a god worshiped in this land.

Conan makes pretty short work of the frost giants, truth be told – though Frazetta certainly brings the moment to life on the cover. So too did young Barry Smith (before he was “Windsor”), in the early days of the Conan The Barbarian Marvel comic. Speaking of which, blacklight poster company Third Eye featured Smith’s “Frost-Giant’s Daughter” splash page in the lineup of Marvel Comic blacklight posters they produced in 1971. Several years ago I acquired this poster…only to find out I’d actually gotten a bootleg of it. Who knew they bootleged blacklight posters?? Anyway, it’s still sitting on the floor of my study room, framed and waiting to be put up on the wall, but here’s a quick photo I took of it, both in regular light and under a blacklight:

When Conan gets the better of the two giants and continues chasing after the half-nude girl, growing more and more insane with lust, the frost-giant’s daughter calls to her father, and Conan’s knocked out. When he comes to his Aesir comrades have found him, and it appears that it was all a dream – except for the fact that Conan’s still clutching the wisp of gossamer the girl was wearing. It’s a cool story and also inspired my man John Milius, who featured a tribute to the story in the first draft of his ill-fated Conan: Crown Of Iron script in 2001. This would have been the long-awaited sequel to his Conan The Barbarian, but got scrapped when Arnold became governor. My understanding is Milius removed the “Frost-Giant’s Daughter” bit in his second draft.

Actually, just to continue with this thread for a moment, because you don’t read about it much online, but Conan: Crown Of Iron just isn’t very good, and in a way I’m glad it was never made. It has really nothing at all in common with Milius’s masterful ’82 movie. Indeed, it comes off more like a movie about ancient Rome – no surprise, then, that a few years after this script was canned, Milius created the HBO series Rome. And as for the “Frost-Giant’s Daughter” sequence, it has none of the weirdness of Howard’s story, and the Daughter herself isn’t as cruel – rather, in the script she offers Conan a son if he gives her a kingdom. This is just the first of many such WTF? moments in Milius’s script, as we are to understand that the stoic, laconic hero of Conan The Barbarian suddenly wants not only a son but a kingdom. And mind you, this sequence was actually the best part of what was really a lackluster and, dare I say it, boring script.

“Lair Of The Ice Worm” (de Camp and Carter) – Okay, now our favorite pastiche authors decide to do a little continuity-patching; we’re informed that it’s shortly after the previous story, and also Conan’s getting sick of being up here in the frozen north and misses the hotspots down south. So he’s making his gradual way back down there. Who knows why he even went back up north in the first place; maybe he realized he’d left the oven on. Otherwise this one is another de C and C misfire: lots of buildup to another lame supernatural threat. Every one of them so far has either featured the undead, statues coming to life, or giant monsters.

Well folks, Conan runs across some apelike creatures that are attacking a lone woman. Why apelike creatures are even up in the snowbound Aesir region is anyone’s guess, but Conan hacks ‘em up and saves the babe. Her name is Ilga and she appears to be afraid of something, but regardless camps out with Conan in a cave that night. Well, Conan knows one sure cure for nervousness – “a bout of hot love.” Yes, friends, it’s the first sex scene yet in the Conan saga, but of course it happens off-page. Conan bangs the lass into a restful slumber…but she wakes up, these weird glaring eyes hypnotizing her and calling her away.

Conan wakes – and finds Ilga’s corpse lying in the cave, her head smashed to a pulp. Most of her flesh has been sucked off, and what’s left of her is covered in ice. So long, Ilga! First it was ape things, now it’s a giant friggin’ worm here in the icy wastes – as Conan, sporting a random access memory type of a brain, suddenly recalls legends of a “vampiric worm” that operates in the vicinity. Conan heats up an axe, hurls it into the monstrosity’s gaping maw, and high-tails it out of there as both the giant worm and the glacier itself explode, as if a friggin’ heated axe is the Hyborian equivalent of C4. But one most admit it’s an appropriately-moronic end to a moronic tale.

“Queen of the Black Coast” (Howard) – Justly regaled, this story is considered one of Howard’s pinnacle Conan yarns. Yet I always seem to remember it being longer than it actually is; upon this third (or fourth?) reading, it again seemed to me that “Queen of the Black Coast” was heading for its conclusion just as it was getting started. My assumption is the richness of Howard’s prose, which is in exceptional form throughout, makes the story seem longer. My only problem with it is the chapter that abruptly detours into a too-long history of the batlike creatures that show up toward the end; otherwise “Queen of the Black Coast” is great, and definitely my favorite tale yet.

Once again I read the Howard original, as collected in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. Conan’s back down south, in Argos – well, “back down south” if you’re following the de Camp chronology. But obviously there’s no link with the previous tale because it didn’t exist for Howard. So anyway when we meet Conan he’s running from the Argos authorities for a crime he eventually exposits upon – once again, the exposition in Howard can get to be a little annoying. Also worth noting is that Conan’s in full armor, with a horned helmet, black hauberk, and silver chain mail covering his arms and legs. But then Conan usually sports armor in the Howard originals, at some points wearing full-on plate armor; it always annoyed me that Marvel Comics never depicted this, and about the most armor you would ever see Conan wearing was a mail vest. 

Conan forces his way onto a merchant vessel about to leave the Argos port; the captain is one of those “silver lining” types and instead of seeing Conan as a stowaway, figures he could provide some much-needed security for the ship! They’re headed down into Kush (aka Africa, I believe), which is the notorious stomping grounds of pirate queen Belit, a white beauty of Semite (ie Jewish, I believe) stock who commands a ship of “blacks” that look upon her as a goddess. And soon enough the ship is attacked by these very same reavers, hacked down to a man by Belit’s warriors – all save Conan, who fights heroically and impresses Belit.

So there’s only one thing for Belit to do – perform her “mating dance” and have sex with Conan right there on the deck of her ship with all her black warriors watching the hijinks. Of course, Howard doesn’t get too explicit, but I guess it’s spicy enough. And Belit herself is firmly in the spicy mold, wearing nothing but a “broad silken girdle.” Which I would imagine to mean that good ol’ Belit goes around topless and bottomless. No wonder Conan decides to become her mate!

But it’s here that the story suddenly heads into the climax, just as it’s getting started. We’re informed that Conan and Belit’s reavers become a fearsome force, and Conan and Belit a hot item, but the focus of the story instead becomes Belit’s obsession with the fabled riches of an ancient ruin near the poisonous waters of the river Zarkheba. Immediately upon discovering the haunted ruins, Conan sees some weird stuff, in particular these batlike ape-things. But Belit finds the riches she’s been seeking and seems unconcerned that the creatures might be sabotaging her ship.

Conan leads a party of warriors into the jungle, to get water, and here we have that extended flashback to the origin of the bat-apes and the other creatures who now live in this haunted place. It’s all very Weird Tales but to tell the truth I’d rather read more about Belit and Conan’s reaving adventures. No wonder Roy Thomas and John Buscema extended the Belit saga into a year’s worth of comics for Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian. Because, for me at least, the story pretty much comes to a dead stop for an entire chapter. When Conan comes to and finds all the warriors slaughtered, he rushes back to the ruins and finds poor Belit hanging from her own ship.

Another moment that made it into the ’82 Conan film, existing also in Oliver Stone’s original 1978 screenplay – which Stone apparently wrote under the influence of heavy drugs, with a pile of Howard books and Conan comics at his side (not a criticism, mind you) – Belit has sworn to Conan that, even if she dies, she will come back to fight by his side. And true to her promise, she does indeed briefly come back to save him, however I feel it was much more effectively handled in the movie (in which it was Valeria who came back, not Belit, of course). It’s almost an afterthought in Howard’s story, but it has the same outcome – Belit saves Conan’s skin at a pivotal moment, then vanishes. 

Otherwise the finale is almost a prefigure to another Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: Predator. For a vengeance-minded Conan gets together his weapons, stakes out a spot on a pyramidal structure in the ruins, and waits for night to fall – and for the bat-things and its subservient creatures to come meet death by his various bladed weapons. It’s a great ending to a pretty great story, and it’s a shame de Camp and Carter were incapable of delivering equally great pastiches. No wonder de Camp later bemoaned that he’d hired Carter instead of Leigh Brackett, when it came to writing these Conan stories…now Leigh Brackett sure as hell could’ve written a Conan yarn at least as good (and likely even better) than “Queen of the Black Coast.”

An Australian outfit did a 7-part, full-cast audio adaptation of “Queen of the Black Coast” a few years back, but were legally restrained from doing anymore such projects; even though the story “Queen of the Black Coast” is now public domain, the character of Conan is not. However, the adaptation is up for free download on the The Internet Archive.  I haven’t been able to get through the whole thing myself; it’s done so over the top that it’s borderline parody. The dude doing Conan’s voice in particular sounds like he’s straining with a serious case of constipation.

Finally, If you’ve ever wondered what it might’ve been like had Frazetta done a painting of this story instead of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” for the cover of Conan Of Cimmeria, then check this out – a Frazetta-inspired painting of “Queen of the Black Coast” by modern artist Brom:

“The Vale of Lost Women” (Howard) – We get another Howard original straight after, but this one was not printed in Howard’s lifetime, and perhaps was never even submitted for publication. The original can be found in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian, which is where I read it. In many ways this one’s more along the lines of a Tarzan story, and doesn’t much feel like a Conan tale. It also triggers the sensitive types of today with its outrageous racial elements; what few reviews you’ll find of the story all complain about the racism. You won’t find such snowflake bullshit here, folks – for one, I prefer (nay, demand) my pulp to be outrageous, and two, I think there are a helluva lot more things to get upset about than an 80 year-old pulp story that wasn’t even published during the author’s lifetime.

And Conan isn’t even the main character; it’s Livia, a stacked blonde (who spends the final quarter of the tale naked) who has been captured, deep in the jungles of Kush, by a black tribe. Her brother was also captured but was killed earlier that day. When Conan makes an unexpected visit, leading his own tribe of jungle warriors – following the de Camp chronology I guess we’re to assume he gathered them up while he was in the area, after the death of Belit – Livia sees her chance for escape. She gets away long enough to make her plea to Conan. And boy, it’s a helluva plea, insisting that Conan is obligated to help her as a “fellow white.” Humorously, our hero doesn’t seem much interested in helping Livia out, though her promise to screw him silly in repayment does interest him at least a little.

Rather than the race angle, what I personally found unfortunate about “The Vale of Lost Women” is that the climax consists of Conan slaughtering the other tribe – apparently down to every man, woman, and child. This occurs during what is initially a friendship feast between Conan’s tribe and the other, but our “hero” gives the signal and his boys set to a-slaughterin’. Livia flees the melee and ends up in the titular vale, which is supposedly haunted and avoided by the supersitituous natives. This part’s like some weird Japanese horror film as female zombie-spirit things come to life out of the woodwork and creep up on her.

There’s also a bat-creature, which of course brings to mind the similar bat-creatures of the previous story, and sure enough Conan shows up just in time to feed it some steel. Livia, now twice rescued, figures it’s time for that promised screwing, which apparently also implied that she’d marry Conan, or give herself to him, or something, but Conan has deemed that if he were indeed to screw Livia, it would prove him the “barbarian” she thinks him to be. So forget about it; he’ll just get her back to civilization.

Overall I can see why this one was never sold, or perhaps never even submitted, who knows. It just feels more like the average “jungle pulp” story of the day, and little like a Conan story. Given its locale it’s easy to place it here in the chronology, though, and one could further theorize that Conan seems a little off – and a little more savage than normal – due to his heartbreak over Belit’s loss. Otherwise what you basically have here is a too-long story featuring a self-involved blonde babe of a protagonist, with Conan in what’s really just a walk-on role.

“The Castle of Terror” (de Camp and Carter) – Our pals return with another middling tale that’s probably courtesy Lin Carter alone, as it turns out that this story originally featured Carter’s recurring character Thongor of Lemuria before being rewritten as a Conan tale. Same as the previous book’s “The Thing In The Crypt” – and, just like that story, this one also opens with Conan on the run from a pack of animals. In “The Thing In The Crypt” it was wolves, this time it’s lions. Conan, who we learn late in the game has lost the hauberk and mail he wore during his time with Belit, is reduced to his usual low-frills getup, so doesn’t have much to defend or protect himself with.

Perhaps de Camp’s contribution comes with the material that refers back to “The Vale of Lost Women;” we’re informed Conan has run afoul of his old tribe and ended up killing the shaman-type before beating a hasty retreat. He’s still in the jungles of Kush, looking for a way out, but there are these damn lions chasing him now. He comes to a broken-down black castle that seems to have been built off-kilter, leaning upon itself and looking like it’s about to fall apart. A storm is coming so Conan decides to camp out in the abandoned place.

We have a pure Lin Carter part with this random, almost psychedelic sequence where a dreaming Conan’s spirit, or “ka,” exits his body and astrally voyages around the haunted castle! I say “pure Lin Carter” because it’s all exposition and coincidence; somehow Conan’s spirit “just knows” all there is to know about the castle and the vampiric spirits that now inhabit it. They hunger for Conan but are too weak to manifest themselves.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated subplot, a war-party of Stygians (ie Egyptians, I believe) are headed through this area, having been looking for slave material. They decide to camp out in the castle to avoid the storm. So the “climax” is composed of Conan hiding up on a balcony and watching these Stygians down below; they get drunk and pass out and then the dark spirits of the castle pull up old corpses and carcasses and whatnot and form themselves into this grotesque, multi-limbed, mult-headed creature, which begins to rip apart the Stygians in full gore detail.

And Conan’s still up there watching. He finally sneaks out, kills a crazed Stygian who himself tries to escape the castle, and takes the dude’s armor and sword. And then Conan leaves, folks! Nope, he doesn’t fight the gruesome monster, doesn’t even try to! So I guess in that regard at least this tale is a bit different than the repetive de C and C pastiche norm. Bear in mind though that the majority of the tale either features Conan running from something or dreaming.

“The Snout in the Dark” (Howard, de Camp and Carter) – Here we have yet another unfinished “fragment” started by Howard sometime in the ‘30s but never completed; along came de Camp and Carter, decades later, to finish the job. This one’s similar to “The Vale of Lost Women” in that it has a lot of racial stuff and also in that Conan doesn’t appear for the first quarter of the story. We’re now in Meroe, which is like the capital of Kush or something; interestingly, it is run by non-blacks; “brown” is how they are specifically referred to. I believe they’re supposed to be descendants of Stygians or something? At any rate, we are often reminded of the “black dogs” who live outside Meroe and serve all the slave functions.

The title “snout” belongs to a phantasmic creature that sprouts a piglike snout and kills some one-off character in an overlong opening chapter. Turns out this monster is at the behest of a black wizard named Mulu, who himself works for despotic nobleman Tuthmes. The villain is using the creature to kill off various notables and blame the deaths on Queen Tanada, who you won’t be surprised to know is a “brown”-skinned beauty who wears “metal plates” that just barely cover her “full breasts.” Sounds like prime Conan bait, doesn’t it? Our hero makes his eventual appearance when Tanada is almost killed by a Kushite mob, one that has been fooled into thinking she was behind the death of the dude killed in the first chapter.

The crowd attacks Tanada and rips all her clothes off, and Conan rides into the fray and saves the nude babe. This one has a bit of the spicy vibe of “The Vale of Lost Women,” too, as Tananda makes Conan the captain of her guard, but more so uses him as her latest stud. We don’t get any full-on smut, but we are informed that Conan pleases the cruel queen more than any other man ever has, to the point that she herself has become a slave to his, eh, maleness. Unfortunately this stuff is given short narratorial shrift and instead the authors focus on Tuthmes and his latest plot against the queen – sending her a stacked blonde from Nemedia named Diana who will act as his spy, whether she likes it or not.

Conan is again lost in the background, appearing only occasionally; we’re told though that he has successfully put down a riot or two “of the blacks.” (Howard’s original fragment, included in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian, implies that this would have taken greater precedence in the story). We do though get good spicy stuff like Tananda whipping a nude Diana; Conan shows up, tells her to stop, and incurs the queen’s wrath – but she cries because she’s so addicted to that good Cimmerian lovin’ that she won’t do anything about it.

The story – which I actually enjoyed quite a bit because it’s so bonkers – wraps up humorously fast; Conan goes back to his place on a whim, finds the titular demon manifesting there, and fights it, while Diana looks on in horror. The rulers of Meroe are rapidly disposed of in a quick revolution – so long, Tananda – and Conan high-tails it out of there, with a happy Diana riding off with him. Needless to say, she’ll be out of the picture, and not even mentioned, in “Haws Over Shem,” the first story of the next collection, Conan The Freebooter.

And that’s it…I have to say, writing these reviews is a bit exhausting. And also, the series has yet to get very good. The Howard originals are fun, but even they aren’t as good as I remember them…I’m looking forward to re-reading The Hour Of The Dragon eventually. I loved that one when I read it, but I was 18 at the time, so we’ll see. Anyway, on to Conan The Freebooter, which is one I did not have as a kid; it features “A Witch Shall Be Born,” which I’m really looking forward to, as a lot of it was used by Oliver Stone in his Conan script, and thus made it into the Milius film.


Johny Malone said...

I like those red beards.

FreeLiveFree said...

I consider "Queen of the Black Coast" the best of the Conan stories and "Vail" the worst. When I reread "Queen" not to long ago, I was to surprised by how short it was. I think it was because a lot of things happen and, in story, a lot of time passes are the reasons it seems longer than it it.

AndyDecker said...

I actually prefer Carter over DeCamp. Like DeCamp he didn't "get" the character either, as DeCamp's tales always show. His thinking man's Conan just don't work very well. But Carter often shows a kind of naive enthusiasm when he copies his beloved Burroughs or Howard. I find it hard to fault him for that.

I am really interested how you will like "A Witch shall be Born". It is some time I re-read it last, but I thought its parts better than the whole. It is the iconic scenes one remembers, not especially the content or the ending.

I don't have a favorite Conan tale. It is always a tie between "Queen", "People of the Black Circle", "Red Nails" or "Shadows in Zamboula".

Unknown said...

The amount of research and attention to detail you put into each one of these posts is kind of staggering. Nice job.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys!