Monday, 15 August 2022

Conan The Cimmerian Barbarian

Blood And Crom

Conan The Cimmerian Barbarian -
The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus

by Robert E. Howard
Pulp Lit Productions
ISBN: 9781635912715

Robert E. Howard wrote his completed Conan stories, of which there are around 20 (and that’s including a few novellas and one novel), between the years 1932 and 1936. The last story, Red Nails, was published shortly after his death. When he was 30 and his mother had become gravely ill, he was filled with despair and shot himself, thus ending a quite prolific literary career filled with many different characters of varying genres. Indeed, it might be said by some that he invented the ‘heroic fantasy’ or ‘sword and sorcery’ genre with others following in his path (Tolkien’s The Hobbit was first published in 1937).

I have, of course, read all of Howard’s Conan stories before, a number of times (not to mention Conan tales by other writers over the years). The last time I read them it was in a two volume paperback edition which collected the stories in the chronology of the character’s exploits. However, I wanted a nice hardback edition and, well, I can’t say I chose the absolute best edition with this Pulp Lit Productions version, Conan The Cimmerian Barbarian - The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus. It has its advantages as well as its disadvantages which, I’ll go into first because, well there is a lot of positive stuff here so, lets get the silliest thing out of the way first.

When I bought this edition of the book, for reasons I’ll go into soon, I was under the impression that I was rebuying all of Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales but, as the editor of this edition points out in his introduction, two stories are not present. One of which is a quite famous one, The God In The Bowl. Apparently this was Howard reworking one of his earlier stories and retrofitting it to his Conan character (much like I’ve seen certain money hungry authors adapt other Howard tales into Conan stories, over the intervening decades) and it wasn’t, like the other missing story, ever published in Weird Tales and, well, this is supposed to be an anthology of Conan tales published in that magazine. I could almost live with that if it weren’t for the fact that one Conan story and also one monograph on The Hyborian Age by Howard, also included in this admittedly handsome tome, were published in other publications. This felony... and I think it such because of the rules of exclusion of the two remaining Conan tales... is further compounded with the book starting off with three non-Conan short stories, one of Kull The Conqueror and two featuring Soloman Kane. This, it says, is to give us an understanding of how the writing style grew and advanced into Conan but, frankly, I’d have been more able to see this with the inclusion of those two missing Conan stories. So, yeah, that’s my only real negative here and I’ve said my piece on that.

The positives are much more interesting though because the book has been designed in a way to more or less match the reading experience as it would have been presented month after month in Weird Tales. Not that the stories are split into multiple parts but they are double columned on the page with the original interior illustrations reproduced... and with Margaret Brundage’s cover art included, albeit in black and white form, when the covers of a particular issue were highlighting Howard’s Conan contributions (two full colour Brundage art paintings are also used for the front and back covers). What I will say about Brundage’s work is... the paintings are absolutely beautiful and, in no way a reflection of Conan as a character, even by the standards that these kind of muscular characters were portrayed as back in the 1930s. The likeness of Conan is very weak in these but, it has to be said, her lithe and, almost always semi naked, women are a wonder to behold.

Another good thing about this volume is that it’s a real education into the haphazard and non-chronological way in which these things were, not just published but written. These are published in the exact order in which Weird Tales published them and so the first Conan story here is The Phoenix And The Sword. This is indeed one of the earliest Conan stories written and here Conan is already at the farthest end of his career, in that he is already the usurper King Conan of Aquilonia. The preceeding tales dot around from various different points in his career... thief, buccaneer, general, king etc... without much thought from either the magazine’s publishers nor, it has to be said, from Howard, as to the chronology of the character, although there is a perceived order when you read through the tales somewhere in there, trying to get out. Helpfully, the editor writes a small introduction to each story to place the timeframe in Howard’s output in the reader’s mind and, at the end of each story, there is a note on which page to turn to next if one wants to read the stories in the order in which Howard actually completed them, as opposed to their publication order. Reading them in their publication order this time, for the first time, gave me a real insight into what I thought had always been a long term plan in Howard’s mind. There are often passages which refer to Conan one day becoming king of a region and, where I’d always assumed that this was something he’d been working towards, I’d not realised that he had already written at least two of those tales where he was a monarch.

Even the novel, The Hour Of The Dragon, which sees Conan lose and then, through a hard quest and series of battles, regain the throne of Aquilonia, was published before the last, posthumous story, Red Nails, which sees Conan back in time as being a thief and adventurer again.

Anyone who’s read these wonderful tales will, of course, know how ahead of his time Howard was in terms of the violence and raciness of the tales. Compared to some of the pulp classics of the day such as The Shadow or Doc Savage (my favourite), the pages of Weird Tales were running red with the blood of crushed heads and bodies smote in half by Conan’s broadsword. Short, pacey sentences such as “The man’s brains spattered in his face.” were not uncommon in these tales. And the Margaret Brundage paintings were definitely on point when it came to the profusion of naked damsels with curves wobbling through the text.

Another thing I noticed, or rather deduced, was the promotion of the evil sorcerer Thoth Amon character after Howard’s death. Anyone reading the Marvel comics or writers such as L. Sprague De Camp’s additions to the Conan saga will know Thoth as his constant and devious literary nemesis. However, after making his first appearance as a periphery character who escapes his own bondage and never once met Conan in The Phoenix And The Sword, he is only mentioned, briefly in passing, in a couple of other stories. He never meets Conan and you never know whether either of them are on each other’s radar. I believe he turns up in The God In The Bowl but, like I said... that story is not included here and I don’t remember much about it. So his rise to super villainy, not to mention appearing as a main character in the second Conan movie, is definitely something that Howard would probably have not done himself.

Talking about the films though... although they are kind of pastiches of the original tales with a lot of stuff just created for the screen, you can certainly see where certain moments came from in terms of what Howard himself wrote. For instance, the crucifixion scene, complete with Conan biting on the neck of a vulture feasting on him as he hangs on a cross, is from the tale A Witch Is Born. The scene where a wizard turns a man’s arrow into a snake in The People Of The Black Circle is obviously something which the writers of the first movie looked at when concocting the demise of Valeria in that film, as is the battle with the giant snake where Conan pins its jaws together with his dagger.

Indeed, the movie version of Valeria herself seems to be an amalgam of at least two characters in Howard’s original chronicles of Conan. Valeria is very much a feisty and strong female co-star of the final tale in this volume, Red Nails. However, she also has more than a lot in common with Conan’s lover, Belit, the pirate queen from The Queen Of The Black Coast, including the long speech which is almost verbatim in the movie about coming back from death to once again aid Conan, something which she indeed does at the end of the tale, when the Cimmerian buccaneer finds himself in trouble.

There are other things of interest in the text too. For instance, the city of Dagon, which comes right out of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu tales (Howard was a contemporary correspondent of the writer and wrote his own Cthulhu tales too), turns up in the Conan story The Devil In Iron. And, from my point of view, I couldn’t help but think that the giant metal God from this same tale might well have inspired Ray Harryhausen’s giant metal creature Talos in Jason And The Argonauts (I know Harryhausen wanted to have a crack at Conan, at one point in his own career).

Another item of interest is the way in which the writing changes on occasion. There are two of the tales which feature a less than happy ending (although Conan always escapes with his own skin, obviously). And a couple of the tales aren’t always as focussed on the Cimmerian as they are on other characters. This would include one which is... and I thank the editor for pointing it out in an introduction... about the politics of the Old West but, instead of writing it in one of his Western yarns, Howard uses it as a metaphor in Beyond The Black River. But this really is a cowboys and indians sort of piece. Another example of the text suddenly straying in terms of the norm, would be in the penultimate couple of chapters of Hour Of The Dragon. Having stayed at Conan’s side for pretty much the entirety of the novel, the reader is suddenly redirected to Conan’s enemies and the last, big battle of the novel between the various armies is told from their point of view rather than the victorious Aquilonian forces and their allies. Which is kind of interesting and one wonders where Howard would have gone with the way the tales were written from here, had he not cut his own life so short.

And that’s all I have to say about the original, ‘pure Howard’ Conan stories as collected in Conan The Cimmerian Barbarian - The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus. Other than this edition comes with a free download of the book, both as an ebook and as an audio book, if you purchase this. You know my thoughts on the pros and cons of this volume so caveat emptor... and all that. You make your choice now with at least the knowledge of all that’s contained in this edition. Personally I enjoyed it very much... it would have been just perfect though, if the remaining two stories had been included.

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