Thursday, November 9, 2017

Conan (Conan #1)

Conan, by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter
July, 1984  Ace Books
(original Lancer Books edition, 1968)

If you had asked me when I was 13 years old who my favorite author was, I probably would’ve said Robert E. Howard. When my men’s adventure novels phase abruptly fizzled out around that time, I found myself moving on to sci-fi and fantasy, in particular the Conan stories. At that time these Ace paperbacks were ubiquitous in bookstores, at least in my area – unfortunately though I was just a poor kid and couldn’t afford all of them. But I had this one, though I have no recollections of it, other than one or two stories – and I can’t believe it was almost exactly thirty years ago that I first read it!

These days the Ace books (which themselves were reprints of the original Lancer editions) are out of print and out of favor; Howard purists lose lots of sleep over the editing L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter did to the original Howard tales, not to mention the “pastiches” they wrote to fill in the gaps in Conan’s life. As is well known, Howard didn’t write the Conan stories in any sort of chronological order, but in response to a fan’s letter he did construct a sort of template; de Camp used this when fleshing out the Conan saga.

The Conan series ran to 12 volumes, taking Conan from youth to old king; initially most of them were published by Lancer, but after that imprint went out of business, Ace took over. The books also weren’t published in order; Conan The Adventurer, for example, while being the fifth book in the series, was actually published first. Millions of copies of these books were sold over the decades, no doubt due in large part to the cover paintings by Frank Frazetta (his work is kind of butchered on this Ace edition of Conan #1, though; the original Lancer edition shows more of the painting). Boris Vallejo’s paintings, later in the series, are also great, I think.

Anyway, for this re-read I did something a little different. For the Howard tales contained herein, I read the original, unadulterated versions, which are now readily available in a trio of Del Rey trade paperbacks that came out several years ago. (I would bet good money that these Del Rey editions haven’t sold anywhere near the amount the old Lancer/Ace editions did, though…) So I can’t speak to the tinkering de Camp/Carter did to the REH originals, though you can find copious amounts of info about this sort of thing online, particularly on Wikipedia.

Re-reading Conan #1 all these years later, in addition to finding that I hardly remembered any of the tales, I also found that the majority of them were overly repetitive. The same thing basically happens over and over again, and Conan himself doesn’t really stand out until late in the book. In this way perhaps this book isn’t the best introduction to the character, but I decided to start with it (again) anyway.

Here are the stories:

“The Legions Of The Dead” (de Camp & Carter) – Okay, I’m cheating here; this story doesn’t actually appear in Conan #1. It’s from the 1978 Bantam paperback Conan The Swordsman, which is yet another book of Conan pastiches by these two authors, written after their Lancer/Ace stuff. I included it here because this story takes place before “The Thing In The Crypt” (below), thus chronologically it was the earliest tale in Conan’s life that these two authors wrote.

Conan is just a teenager when we meet him, serving as a mercenary with an Aesir war party that has ventured into “haunted” Hyperboria; we’re informed he has left his native Cimmeria due to a “blood feud.” The Aesir are here to rescue Ranni, daughter of Njal, the Aesir leader. There isn’t much to the story, and Conan doesn’t really come to life – we’re just informed that his ideas are usually discarded by the Aesir. But through his ingenuity he’s able to rescue Ranni from the castle in which she’s imprisoned, and the Aesir escape.

The titular legion of the dead soon attack – it is an army made up of their fallen comrades, as well as other “gaunt” Hyperboreans they’ve recently killed. This is necromancy courtesy wicked Queen Vammatar of Hyperborea, an ageless beauty with “high breasts.” It was she who took Ranni captive, and now aims to get her back with her undead warriors, but Conan again saves the day; as Njal and the others fall to the sword-wielding zombies, Conan knocks Vammatar off her horse, puts Ranni on it, and the horse races off. Meanwhile Conan is caught, destined for the Hyperborean slave pens, and here the tale ends.

“The Thing In The Crypt” (de Camp and Carter) – The previous story was basically a prequel to this one, which is the official first story in Conan #1. It’s another trifle of a story, but well-known in its own right because writer/director John Milius included it in his awesome ’82 film Conan The Barbarian. (The sequence is not present in Oliver Stone’s original draft of the script.) The problem with reading “The Legions Of The Dead” before this one is that repetition I mentioned above.

I imagine Lin Carter got a chuckle out of seeing this story in the film, as it turns out “The Thing In The Crypt” started life as a story featuring Carter’s character Thongor of Lemuria. Thongor was changed to a young Conan, who when we meet him has escaped those Hyperborean slave pens and is running from wolves that chase him. He has no weapons, same as in the film, and finds a passageway into an underground crypt – again, same as in the film. But where the movie diverges is the skeleton in the crypt is inanimate, other than when Conan takes the Atlantean sword from it.

In the story, the “thing in the crypt” is actually a “mummified” corpse with rough gray skin, and it comes to life to attack young Conan when he has the umbrage to take its sword away. Conan is understandably freaked out, but fights back – however, given that I read “The Legions Of The Dead” before this, I was like, “Conan, you just fought an entire legion of zombies – you’ve got this, man!” But admitedly, that story was written much later, and clearly the authors didn’t go to too much trouble to connect the two stories. Needless to say, Conan gets the sword and makes his escape.

Back to the film, Milius also improved on the sequence by making the sword so important that it became Conan’s main weapon – indeed the one he used to break his father’s sword, thus implying that Conan had become stronger than his father. In this story, the sword is just a sword, and it’s not mentioned again as being important in any way. I know purists dislike Conan The Barbarian, but I love it; I could care less that it isn’t faithful to Howard’s work, as it stands on its own…the movie is like a Nietzschean myth on film, and it might be my favorite movie ever. Here is a great review by someone who gets it.

“The Tower Of The Elephant” (Howard) – First published in the March, 1933 issue of Weird Tales, “The Tower Of The Elephant” is another Conan yarn that found its way (sort of) into the ’82 film; it’s even present in Oliver Stone’s original script. This was the only tale I remembered from this book. But I didn’t read this version, this time – I read the faithful reprint of “The Tower Of The Elephant” that can be found in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2003).

I actually re-read this story several years ago, when I got that Del Rey book at the library, shortly after it was published; I recall at the time I was underwhelmed by most of Howard’s early Conan yarns, not liking them nearly as much as I had when I was a kid. And with this reading…well, I sort of felt the same. “Elephant” is a cool story, sure, but there really isn’t much to it. Conan’s in depraved Zamoria, where he wants to prove his mettle as a young thief. Promptly displaying his barbarian nature, he kills a local who has the temerity to mock him in a tavern. Oh and incidentally, the tales collected here are ones in which Conan is actually stated as wearing the damn loincloth-and-sandals ensemble he wore in every single issue of the various Marvel Comics series. So Conan’s a true barbarian here with no refinements.

Conan sneaks into the titular Tower, accompanied by a famous and portly fellow thief. On the temple grounds they are attacked by trained lions, and other evils wait inside the tower. Up top resides a Ganesha-like creature which appears to be an ancient alien, one imprisoned here by the evil wizard below. Conan just sort of stands and listens to a long speech, kills the elephant-headed alien at its bidding, then watches as the evil wizard is shrunk down in celestial vengence. Sadly, this isn’t the only story in the book where Conan just stands around.

“The Hall of the Dead” (Howard, de Camp and Carter) – This is a de Camp and Carter fleshing-out of a Howard outline; the original outline can be found in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. Conan’s still in Zamora, still thieving, and tries to loot a deserted section of the city that’s supposedly haunted. A group of soldiers are chasing him, led by a “Gunderman.” Conan kills all of them and gets into the city, in which he finds a massive slug, which I guess just lives there. Anyway, it tries to attack him, and he kills it. He then finds that the Gunderman’s still alive, and Conan talks him into looting the place with him.

The titular hall features a bunch of skeletons which, you won’t be surprised at this point to learn, come to life and attack Conan and friend. So that’s the third tale in which our hero encounters the undead. De Camp’s dialog is incredibly lame and juvenile throughout, including even a “Let’s get out of here!” courtesy the Gunderman. The story features an O. Henry-esque finale in which the priceless jewels the duo have looted either crumble to dust or become animate – and poisonous.

“The God in the Bowl” (Howard) – This one was rejected by Weird Tales when Howard submitted it sometime in the ‘30s; it was published decades later with de Camp revisions, and that edit is included in this Ace book. However, I read the original Howard version, again collected in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. I can see why this one was rejected. It doesn’t feel like a Conan yarn at all; it’s a locked room murder mystery in which our hero once again stands around for long portions of the narrative.

Anyway Conan’s in Nemedia, having been hired by a fallen noble to loot a temple. However Conan is wrongly accused of murder; he’s caught in the act of snooping through the temple by a guard who has come across the murdered corpse of the temple owner. Conan’s accused of murder, and there follows a tedious story of various one-off characters coming along to exposit on this or that, accusing Conan of murder, when of course he’s innocent. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the supernatural is to blame, as the dead owner had recently curated an ancient artefact of Set – another element which made it into the film, as the Set logo is even described as a two-headed snake.

Another element that made it into the film is the creature itself – here it is a massive snake with the head of a man, which of course brings to mind Thulsa Doom’s transformation to a snake in Conan The Barbarian. (Thulsa Doom of course was a villain of Howard’s other character, King Kull, but then, the ’82 movie has more in common with Kull than it does Conan, even down to the titular character, as Arnold’s Conan is just as prone to brooding as Kull was.) But otherwise the only thing I found memorable about “The God in the Bowl” was Conan constantly calling his accuser “dog.” Conan The Gangsta Rapper!

“Rogues in the House” (Howard) – The REH originals continue; this one first saw print in Weird Tales, January 1934. Once again I read the faithful reprint in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. This turned out to be my favorite Howard story in the book, even though I had no recollection of it from my first reading, three-score years ago. It also sufficiently inspired Frank Frazetta, who chose a scene from this story for his awesome cover painting – a scene that also appeared to inspire the producers of the crappy Conan The Destroyer (1984).

Conan’s in a prison near Zamora when we meet him, having been working as a thief alongside a “Gunderman” who went rogue from his ranks – a Gunderman who is dead before the story even begins, having been hanged. Likely we are to assume it is the same Gunderman who became Conan’s sort-of ally in “The Hall of the Dead,” which I guess one could see as clever pastiching on de Camp’s part. Conan’s in pure badass mode, finally; he’s visited in prison by a nobleman named Murilo who wants Conan to kill an evil priest named Nabonidus. In return Murilo will engineer Conan’s breakout.

Conan takes the job, and manages to escape prison even when the nobleman’s plans fall through, “braining” a dumb guard with a bone and making his “leisurely” escape. Conan then takes care of unfinished business: revenge on the whore who sold him out. First he guts one of her customers, then he dumps the half-nude babe into a cesspit. After this he figures it’s “time to kill” the priest. In a nice bit of characterization, while Conan is an uncivilized barbarian, he keeps his word and he pays off his debts; he feels indebted to the nobleman, even though technically Conan freed himself.

The “rogues in the house” turn out to be Conan, Murilo, and Nabonidus himself, all of whom make it into the darkened tunnels beneath the priest’s home. Nabonidus’s apelike creature-servant Thak has taken over the place, sitting above on Nabonidus’s throne in the preist’s red robes. There’s a lot of standing around and listening and watching as Murilo and Nabonidus take turns expositing on this or that (a Howard mainstay, one I always forget about until I read him again). Then they all watch as some interlopers are killed off by Thak, using Nabonidus’s hidden weapons. The cover painting comes from Conan’s brutal but brief mortal combat with Thak. This one’s good, but a bit too much of it is composed of exposition and characters just standing around.

“The Hand Of Nergal” (Howard and Carter) – Now it’s Lin Carter’s turn to flesh out an untitled outline Howard jotted down in the ‘30s. Despite its reliance on coincidence (a Carter specialty), and the fact that Conan acts a bit out of character so far as his willingness to fight the supernatural goes, I liked this one a lot more than I expected. Conan’s serving as a mercenary in a Turanian army, battling the forces of Munthassem Khan; Carter attempts to tie back to the previous story by mentioning that Conan is riding the horse Murilo gave him. The opening is the best part, with a gore-spattered Conan on a bloody battlefield of corpses. You won’t be surprised to learn that this is the portion that’s mostly by Howard; the outline he wrote can be found, again, in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian

Carter adds supernatural stuff – a horde of demon-bats descends on the carnage, and Conan alone has the gumption to fight them off. In his escape he finds a nubile wench named Hildico who, Carter coincidence in full effect, was tasked by her ruler to come here, to a battlefield, and find Conan. Conan recently came across a talisman of sorts, just plumb found it (Carter in effect again), and it turns out this means he’s now “the chosen one” who can stop the evil Munthassem Khan, possessor of the titular Hand of Nergal. This talisman by the way also succeed in scaring off those demon-bats, which turn out to have been sent by the Khan.

This one’s kind of similar to the previous story, in that Conan stands around in a dungeon-type setting while supernatural forces come into play, but this time those spirits do all the heavy lifting and Conan just watches it all go down. His ass is saved by Hildico, who coincidence-again-be-damned knows how to use Conan’s talisman against the Khan; despite all the fuss made about Conan being chosen and whatnot, only this serving wench-type knows that you have to throw the talisman at your victim to full activate it(!). Pretty damn dumb, but Carter’s invested in the tale, so it’s entertaining despite its dumbness.

“The City Of Skulls” (de Camp and Carter) – We end the anthology the way we started it: with another pastiche by de C and C. Believe it or not, this was my overall favorite story in the collection, and by a wide margin. I really liked it! The authors do an admirable job of capturing the vibe of a Howard original, but I liked this one better than any of the actual Howard originals in the book. It opens identically to the previous yarn, with Conan serving as a mercenary in a war party that’s in the process of being slaughtered. It’s a little over a month after the previous story (which is recapped, as if we didn’t just read the damn thing a few pages ago), and Conan’s in a party that is escorting sexy Princess Zosara into Hyrkania to marry “the Great Khan.”

I read somewhere that, in his “edits” of Howard’s original work, de Camp removed some of the more racist material. This accusation is thrown into doubt within the first few pages, where we come upon stuff like, “[Conan] drove the point of his tulwar straight into the slant-eyed, yellowish face,” not to mention our introduction to Conan’s new best bud, Juma: “a gigantic black from Kush.” Conan, Juma, and Zosara are captured and taken on the long journey to Shamballah, the City of Skulls, the capital of a hidden kingdom called Meru which is like at the bottom of a valley or something. Zosara is to be wedded to the depraved “god-king” ruler, and Conan and Juma are consigned to the galley of a ship as slaves.

Conan’s actually pretty badass here, “braining” dudes left and right, even with the chains of his manacles. The authors dole out lots of gore, from the opening massacre to Conan and Juma’s inevitable revolt on the slave galley. The novella ends in Shamballah, where the duo rescue the bound and nude Zosara from the god-king, who sits on a throne of skulls, worshipping a massive jade statue with many arms. It comes to life, trying to smash them, and Juma saves the day, tossing the god-king beneath the statue’s crushing feet. Features a goofy finale in which, a month later, the two safely deposit Zosara in the kingdom of the Khan she’s to marry, and Conan gossips to Juma that, unbeknownst to the Khan, Zosara’s already bearing him a heir – courtesy Conan, of course.

Overall I enjoyed Conan #1, with the caveat that none of the stories were particularly memorable. You know something’s up when the de Camp and Carter pastiche is the most entertaining story in the book! Writing-wise, Howard’s prose is head and shoulders above de Camp and Carter’s, but bear in mind that REH was a pulpster given to some seriously purple prose; he is in particular enamored with the word “ejaculated,” which isn’t used in the sleazy way you might think but instead as a dialog modifier. And he regularly uses thirty words where two would suffice. (Hey, just like my wife!!) He is also prone to exposition, and telling rather than showing. It appears that de Camp and Carter tried to mimic his style in their pastiches, but I’m unfamiliar with either man’s work outside of their Conan oeuvre. Regardless, their stories don’t have that weird fire of Howard’s original work.

On to Conan Of Cimmeria, which is one I do remember very well, if only for the masterful “Queen Of The Black Coast.”


John said...

My first Conan book was the Lancer edition of "Conan the Adventurer". This was during the horror, fantasy, pulp fiction revival in the 1960s. Weaned on Doc Savage, this Conan stuff was far superior. I think we all owe the enduring popularity of Conan to one person (besides the author himself) -- Frank Frazetta. He captured the character perfectly.

Nicholas Ahlhelm said...

I've come to terms with being a "bad" Conan fan. I actually enjoy the De Camp and Carter stories just as much as I do the Howard stories and vastly prefer many of their edits than the original versions. But I also grew up on comic book Conan, a character heavily influenced by those changes through the work of Roy Thomas.

Marty McKee said...

Sure, sure, Conan, whatever. But what about...Gor?

Marty McKee said...

(Yes, I'm joshing.)

Peter Collinson said...

Happy to see you review Conan here but your comments make me realize how different our literary DNA must be.
I read this one when I was in grade school. The stories, and the prose used to tell them, were branded permanently into my memory.

Grant said...

I've never read the prose story, but I'm very sentimental about the comic book version of "The Hand of Nergal" in Conan # 30.

Since I don't know the subject well, I have a very general question. Have any of the stories that started out in the comics been turned into prose stories (as opposed to turning the prose stories into comics)?

Steve Carroll said...

I distinctly remember seeing a rack at a Woolworth's department store in the early 70s with the Lancer paperback Conan books displayed on it. I had grown up a huge Tarzan fan and when I saw those (primarily) Frazetta covers I was hooked. Here was a character that looked even more badass than Tarzan fighting all kinds of bizarre creatures with weapons far more impressive than a knife. I begged my Dad to let me buy one, but he refused as it was so close to Christmas. It became my mission in life to collect them all, which I accomplished over the next couple of years.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

John -- I agree totally...there's a documentary about Frazetta, "Painting with Fire," from 2003 or something. They have a nice section about Conan, but it could've been longer.

Nicholas -- Same here, also grew up with the Conan comics. I recall when Savage Sword of Conan was like this mysterious magazine I'd only heard of, which supposedly had more violence and nudity. Of course when I finally saw a copy, it wasn't anything like I'd been imagining, but it's still probably the coolest Marvel mag ever. Well, either it or Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu.

Marty -- I've honestly tried to read Gor but just couldn't hack any of the ones I attempted...I think I still have a few of them somewhere.

Peter -- Thanks for letting me know when you started reading these. I was reading Conan when I was 13 or so, and I'm thinking more about this stuff now that I have a kid...wondering when I should introduce which books to him. Even though he's only 9 months old he definitely likes books already -- he focuses on the book you are reading him to the exclusion of everything else. So I'm looking forward to him reading some of the stuff I liked as a kid (hell, the stuff I still like as an adult).

Grant -- I'm not an expert on the subject, but I don't know of any comics that were turned into stories. So far as those Roy Thomas adaptations go, the pinnacle for me would be the Red Nails he did with Barry Smith...I was obsessed with that one, when it ran in the Conan Saga reprint in the early '90s. Then several years later I discovered it had been printed in the mid-'70s in massive "Marvel Treasury" size, with color by Smith himself. Surely the greatest ever Conan comic, in my opinion.

Steve -- Enjoyed your comment. Isn't it interesting how we always remember the things our parents DIDN'T buy us? Must be some lesson there...

Grant said...

Either that or things that you could afford but passed up in order not to be "too greedy," followed by wishing you'd been a little MORE greedy and bought them. The reverse of "buyer's remorse."

Thank you for your answer. The main reason I asked is because of my usual favorite thing in "Men's Adventure" stories (and I guess sword and sorcery sort of falls under that heading), and that's "femme fatale" characters, especially the "flesh and blood," non-supernatural kind. Like "Amytis" in Conan # 36 or "Fatima" in Conan # 12. So, since those stories evidently aren't adapted FROM Howard or other prose writers (as far as I know), it would've nice to find prose adaptations OF them.