Monday, January 14, 2019

Conan The Freebooter (Conan #3)

Conan The Freebooter, by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague De Camp
November, 1986  Ace Books
(Original Lancer Books edition 1968)

I had a tough time with this third volume of Conan. In fact I read it over a year ago, but at the time I found myself skimming the collected stories, to the point that when I “finished” the book I didn’t have any idea how to review it! So I waited a while until getting back to the series, only to find my interest again sagging at times. I guess the tales here didn’t pull me in like the ones in the previous books did, other that is than “Black Colossus.” But it also appeared that Robert E. Howard himself was bored; in the stories collected here, Conan is usually in a supporting status.

At least the posthumous tinkering isn’t as egregious this time; Lin Carter is a no-show, and L. Sprague De Camp only works his “magic” on two of the tales, where he again demonstrates he has no real understanding of Conan. This is especially true in a story he and Carter later wrote that isn’t actually in Conan The Freebooter but takes place within this time period (or at least this time period as defined by De Camp and Carter), but I’ll get to that one anon. Even the Howard originals here sort of come off like repeats of his previous ones, or vice versa.

“Hawks Over Shem” opens the book, and this is one of the two stories Sprague edited; it was first published in 1955, and De Camp tinkered with a Howard manuscript titled “Hawks Over Egypt,” which featured the character Diego de Guzman. I’ve never looked for Howard’s original, but I wonder if it’s as all-over-the-map as this one is. The plot changes constantly and Conan spends long stretches off-page, providing an early indication of the ensuing stories and novellas.

I like the opening, though, because it reminds me of John Milius’s Conan film; Conan’s slinking through the dingy streets of Asgalun in Shem and runs into a Hyrkanian archer-thief who becomes his best bed. All sort of like the relationship between Conan and Subotai in the movie. After Conan bashes the guy in the head for following him, they become BFFs; he says his name is Farouz. While drinking at nearby tavern Conan exposits (there’s lots of expositing throughout the book) that he’s come here to get revenge on some guy, and Farouz says what the hell, let’s do it now.

So what is initially promised to be the plot of the story is resolved within a few pages; Conan and Farouz break into the royal chamber – Conan’s target, Othbaal, is one of the rulers here – and kill him without much fuss. The storyline then sort of focuses on a busty redhead named Rufia; apparently once owned by Farouz, but then belonging to Othbaal, but now trying to maneuver her way into the graces of nutcase King Akhirom, who rules the city with an iron fist. I suspect the Rufia stuff was more central to the original Howard tale, but here comes off like, well, like material from a completely unrelated story.

Akhirom is at least interesting, a ranting and raving madman with delusions of godhood. Conan takes a break as we focus on Rufia, who doesn’t come off as a very likable character. It’s especially frustrating because the entire narrative seems to build up to Conan meeting her, but this doesn’t happen until the very final sentences and the story ends with Conan hauling her off – he does of course get a new woman each story. Much more interesting than Rufia is Zeriti, a witch in an Anita “The Great Tyrant” Pallenberg sort of vein. She schemes to get hold of Rufia for her own twisted ends, torturing her in the finale.

It’s all just very random and disjointed. Conan returns long enough to arbitrarily decide he wants to track down Zeriti, and of course comes upon her just as she’s torturing Rufia. She summons some creature from the darkness, and our hero Conan just sort of stands around while the other characters deal with everything. He doesn’t even fight the demon, which disappears(!). Then he picks up Rufia and takes off, and here the story mercifully ends.

“Black Colossus” follows, and it’s my favorite in the book by far. This one’s solely by Howard; I read the original version as published in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2003). This is a very cool tale, even though it has elements from other Conan yarns. But one can see how Leigh Brackett was so inspired by Howard, as this story is quite similar to the Eric John Stark novella Queen Of The Martian Catacombs, particularly in how an ancient menance has risen in the desert and is slowly invading the surrounding areas.

But I’d say Brackett handled the setup a lot better, if only because she kept her protagonist in the action throughout. “Black Colossus” is unfortunately yet another story in which Conan disappears for long stretches. He’s absent until the story is well underway; we get a too-long but otherwise sort of cool opening in which a thief breaks into an ancient Egypt-style crypt, thus unleashing a ghost or malevolent entity or what have you. Then we get lovely Princess Yasmela, ruler of Khojara, having a bad dream – she’s awakened by the ghostly presence of Natohk, the Veiled One, whose army is slowly coming upon Khoraja. He is the spirit unleashed in the opening, and he basically tells Yasmela that her hot little body will soon be his.

This finally leads us to Conan – Yasmela and her maid get nice and nude and pray to the old god Mitra, who tells Yasmella to go out on the street and offer her kingdom to the first man she sees. Sure enough, it’s Conan himself, skulking around the dark streets and looking for a tavern. Howard proves once again that his Hyboria is a strange amalgamation of barbaric and High Middle Ages; Conan, when Yasmella presents him to her slackjawed military leaders, is bedecked in full plate armor. I remember as a young geek this is one of the things that always annoyed me about Marvel’s Conan comics…about the most they’d ever give Conan was a helmet or something.

The tale simmers on and on, with Conan marshalling the army to take on Nahtok’s horde. Strangely though, Howard keeps the climactic battles off-page, for the most part, and even worse when Conan’s around he’s playing general and isn’t even in the fray. Some characters are killed off-page and we only learn about it thanks to Howard’s usual reliance on exposition. But still, it’s all like a pulp version of the Iliad, with lots of chariot battles and the like. I found the finale a bit underwhelming, though, with Conan merely throwing a sword through Natohk. That said, the story ends with Conan about to get some fresh after-battle booty courtesy Yasmella.

“Shadows In The Dark” – This one’s a bonus, because it’s not in Conan The Freebooter. It’s actually in Conan The Swordsman (Berkley, 1978). I only include it here for two reasons – one, because chonologically it takes place right after “Black Colossus,” and two, so as to warn others to avoid it. This short story is L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter at their very worst. Even someone with zero knowledge of Howard’s originals will know something is amiss within the first pages, in which Conan, now raised to a high military rank in Khoraja, stomps about the palace, pouting that Princess Yasmella doesn’t spend any time with him! And when he pleads with her for more time together and Yasmella says the people would frown on their princess consorting with a barbarian, Conan suggests that they get married!!

From there it devolves into the usual clich√© fantasy junk these two authors seemed to love…Conan heads out with a small retinue on some mission to free Yasmella’s brother. It goes on and on, with the expected supernatural trimmings and random betrayals. Conan’s ostensibly on the mission so as to free Yasmella’s brother so he can rule and thus Conan and Yasmella can be together more(!), but what’s especially dumb is that by story’s end Conan has had a sudden change of heart and just goes on his merry way, not returning to Khoraja. But yeah, don’t seek this one out.

“Shadows In the Moonlight” is the actual next story in the collection, and is an all-Howard yarn; I read the original version as reprinted in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian, where it appears under the title Howard gave it, “Iron Shadows In The Moon.” This one has many similarities with the superior “Queen Of The Black Coast,” which is interesting given that it was written directly before it – I almost suspect Howard wasn’t happy with this one and reworked some of the elements in that later tale.

There are also similarities to “Hawks Over Shem,” in that the story opens with Conan promptly getting revenge on some guy he’s been hunting for a while. Along the way he manages to save yet another nubile wench, Olivia, a perennially-distraught type who both clings to and shies away from Conan for the rest of the tale. She’s pretty annoying, but she’s also a princess, same as Yasmella was. As a sidenote, I find it interesting that in his “edits” De Camp never includes minor references to the previous tales, say for example Conan briefly ruminating on what led him here after the events of “Black Colossus.” Obviously such a thing wouldn’t be in Howard’s original, but you’d think De Camp would’ve figured he could tinker with these stories to make the book seem more like one multi-chaptered story instead of a sequence of random short stories.

Making their escape, Conan and Olivia find refuge on an island. Here the story reminds me of the later epic, in that Olivia has a dream – which goes on for pages – about these creatures that once lived on the island and might, gasp, still be here. Then some pirates come along and Conan goes to powow with them, getting knocked out for his efforts. Here ensues another stretch where Conan takes a bit of a break, and we must deal with Olivia, who spends most of her time either worrying or passing out from worrying. She does at least manage to free Conan from the pirates.

This is another one where you get the feeling Howard added a “supernatural” element to appease the Weird Tales editors. The thing that has been following them around the island turns out to be a giant ape with vampire fangs. A humorously-nonchalant Conan (he’s basically like, “Oh, it’s one of those things”) makes short work of it, and then Howard decides the true climax is Conan making himself the new leader of the pirates – that is, after Olivia’s dream has come true and a bunch of castle statues have come to life and gone on the attack.

“The Road Of The Eagles” is next, and this is another non-Conan yarn that De Camp has tinkered with. It’s so lame that on this second reading of Conan The Freebooter it took me over three weeks to finish it – that’s how little I wanted to return to the tale. It too is similar to “Hawks Over Shem” in that it’s clearly several unrelated storylines jammed together; the majority of the tale is about some Zamoran dancer babe trying to free her brother, and meanwhile Conan’s hanging out with some pirates and seeking revenge on a commander who betrayed them. I honestly can’t remember much else about it, other than it’s another where Conan sort of stands around while other characters finish each other off in the finale, clearly because Conan wasn’t even there in Howard’s original version.

“A Witch Shall Be Born” is the mercy shot that finally finishes off this drag of a book; it’s another Howard original, and I read the version featured in The Bloody Crown of Conan (Del Rey, 2005). Considered one of Howard’s best Conan tales, “Witch” provided inspiration for one of the most famous scenes in Milius’s Conan (though to be fair, the scene was originally in Oliver Stone’s script): Conan being crucified. Parts of the plot also appeared in the sadly-lackluster Conan The Destroyer (1984). And yet for all that, this is another Conan story in which the hero barely appears. 

There’s a bit of a “shudder pulp” vibe to this one, mostly due to the cruel horrors bodacious babe Queen Taramis of Khauran endures throughout. First she’s awoken from a nightmare – a recurring image throughout the book – to find a sister she has long thought dead glaring at her. This is Salome, Taramis’s twin, who was born with the sign of the witch (a crescent shape on her breast – which she of course happily shows off), and thus castigated from Khauran per tradition. But, as Salome relates via endless exposition, she was found by a sorceror from Khitai who raised her to be a super-powerful witch for real. Now she’s back for some hot vengeance, baby!

First Salome hands Taramis over to Constantius, evil ruler of a mercenary army; in fact, posing as Taramis, Salome has even opened the city gates to Constatius and his horde. But anyway a leering Salome commands Constantius to lock Taramis up in the dungeon, but allows him to have his way with her first. Eventually we get to one of Howard’s more famous scenes; after a sort of narrative jump-cut to some weeks in the future, we finally come upon Conan as he’s nailed to a tree. Conan, again serving in a mercenary capacity, has been stirring up the army that “Taramis” is not who she says she is – for of course Salome has been posing as her sister.

Unlike in the film, Conan doesn’t die on the cross, though he does take out a vulture looking for an easy meal. In the story he’s saved by a guy on horseback who turns out to be an infamous bandit leader. The guy makes Conan walk through the desert as a test; if he survives, he’ll give him some water. We learn via a letter that seven months pass, and when we meet him again Conan is of course fully recovered, and basically he’s become the leader of the bandits without the other guy realizing it. He dispenses some sweet revenge to the guy – sending him off into the desert – and goes about marshalling the bandit warriors to launch an attack on Khauran.

But this is another one where Conan just sits out large portions of the narrative. There’s even a running subplot about some Khauran native who loves Taramis and is sneaking around the gutters of the city, picking up choice intel – like confirmation that the queen on the throne is an imposter, and the real Taramis is in a dungeon. Speaking of which we get more shudder pulp stuff with occasional cutovers to Taramis enduring some new torture at the hands of Salome. But anyway the big battle is again relayed via exposition, with Salome learning that her much-vaunted warriors have been taken out by a bandit army.

The finale is even reminiscent of “Black Colossus,” with minor characters killing off main characters while Conan’s off-page, but this time Howard doesn’t have the excuse of being posthumously messed with. He once again blows any cool potential with Conan going up against a witch, instead having someone else take care of Salome…who manages to hang onto life long enough to unleash a demon, again like the previous yarn. Even more lame, the demon is killed by some arrows courtesy Conan’s archers. It’s all so anticlimactic, but at least in the end Conan gets to crucify the guy who did the same to him at the start of the tale.

Well, I was happy to be done with this volume of Conan, and I sincerely hope the next one is better.


Graham said...

Not a Conan novel I've read. If you ever get around to the one written by Robert Jordan of 'Wheel of Time' fame, I'll have to dig my copy out of storage.

Having the hero sit out the finale of a story is a big no-no, I've seen it a few times in role-playing scenarios as well.

tetsuo said...

Yes the next one is better. Conan the Wanderer is my most favorite book of the Conan ace series. in fact one story is very excellent, namely Flame Knife which was a De Camp rework of a Howard non Conan story. I think de Camp did a great job with Flame Knife. Conan the wanderer was also my first conan paperback book bought it in the late 70s.

Matthew said...

Black Colossus is one of my favorite too. I've read and enjoyed the original Howard "Hawks over Egypt" and "Road of Eagles." I've never read the de Camp versions, but I imagine they work better as non-Conan stories.

Grant said...

I don't know how often comics stories - I mean ones that BEGIN as comics stories - ever get adapted as prose stories, but it seems to me that that could be a missed opportunity when it comes to the Conan comics and some of the stories that were first written for them. In other words, along with people adapting the Howard stories and also writing original ones, some of those could also be adapted for books. Has this ever been done?

jerrykimbro said...

Please DON'T review any more Conan books. They are beyond you. You make them seem so trashy. Whether you know it or not, quite a lot if people love Conan, and this particular book has three of the greatest Conan stories yet written. See you disagree, and that's why you DON'T get Conan.