Monday, January 13, 2014

The Complete Chronicles of Conan, part 1

“I’ve roamed far; farther than any other man of my race has ever wandered. I’ve seen all the great cities of the Hyborians, the Shemites, the Stygians and the Hyrkanians. I’ve roamed in the unknown countries south of the black kingdoms of Kush, and east of the Sea of Vilayet. I’ve been a mercenary captain, a corsair, a kozak, a penniless vagabond, a general—hell, I’ve been everything except a king, and I may be that, before I die.”

Conan the Cimmerian speaks these words in the novella “Beyond the Black River”, and it sums up the breadth and range of the barbarian’s adventures, but barely scratches the surface of the excitement, intrigue, thrills and action these tales deliver. In a period of less than four years, and apparently in a fever of wild imaginings, Robert E Howard wrote like a man possessed, churning out one Conan story after another for Weird Tales Magazine, inventing a genre of literature all by himself (what we call sword & sorcery), and creating one of the most enduring and memorable characters in the history of fiction.

THE COMPLETE CHRONICLES OF CONAN is just that. It collects every Conan tale published in REH’s lifetime, as well as the few stories which weren’t, and also whatever fragments, outlines and summaries still exist. Some of these stories are brilliant. Others are fine but forgettable and a couple are even… well, not very good at all. But even the worst Conan stories have a narrative flow that is almost impossible to resist, due to REH’s muscular, excitable prose and unflagging sense of propulsion. The best of these tales are classics. 

Following are brief summaries of each story in CCoC. NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD. I thought about trying to avoid giving away the endings, but honestly I don’t think it matters. Many of these stories I’d read before, and knowing the endings didn’t really affect my enjoyment of them. But I’m giving fair warning because you may feel differently about that.

The massive volume opens with “The Hyborian Age”, a long outline Howard wrote of the history of the Hyborian world Conan stalked through. It’s a remarkably detailed and fully-realized overview that covers millennia, and the rising and falling of great powers, to be replaced by other powers. While not Tolkien-level detailed (if you’re into that sort of thing), it’s still pretty impressive world-building. I re-read it after finishing the stories, and actually got a bit more out of it than I did on the first read.

The short poem “Cimmeria” sets the tone after that.

The Phoenix on the Sword”. The first published Conan story takes place late in his life, after years of battle and plunder and adventure; the Cimmerian has wrested the crown of Aquilonia away from its fat, corrupt king and now rules with an iron but just fist.  But some of his subjects chafe under the rule of an uncultured barbarian, and a group of royals and power-seekers plot to assassinate him. Former esteemed Stygian wizard Thoth-Amon, now bitterly forced into servitude, plans to not just do away with Conan, but with his fellow conspirators as well—he magically summons a hideous ape-demon, and, as the villains attack Conan in his chambers, the monster enters the fray just in time to unwittingly save the King. Conan dispatches the assassins and the monster as well, but Thoth-Amon escapes punishment. A very good story, but Conan isn’t as fully-developed as he’ll be in later stories; in fact, this one started as a tale of King Kull, REH’s Atlantian hero, and was re-written with new hero Conan after failing to sell.

The Scarlet Citadel”. Almost a direct sequel to “Phoenix on the Sword”, this one finds King Conan and his small army lured into a trap by his enemies on the battlefield, captured, and imprisoned in a dark, creepy dungeon. For some reason, the wizard/villain isn’t Thoth-Amon, but the similarly-named Tsotha. After encountering a giant devil-snake and some other nasties, Conan escapes with the help of Tsotha’s arch-enemy wizard, whom the barbarian king has rescued. Conan races back to his kingdom in Aquilonia just in time to keep the city from falling to his enemy’s forces. There’s a beautifully written, epic battle scene, before the bad guy’s forces are routed and the capitol city is saved. Conan pursues Tsotha on horseback, catches up to him, and cleaves the wicked bastard’s head off his shoulders. This is a great story, already a huge improvement over “The Phoenix on the Sword”.

The Tower of the Elephant”. A young, brash Conan, in the depraved capitol of Zamoria, decides to try his hand at thievery when he hears the tale of a priceless jewel locked within a supposedly impregnable tower. On little more than a whim, he breeches the outer walls, encounters the “Prince of Thieves”, Taurus, and the two of them defeat the roaming lions that stand guard. They scale the tower, Taurus is killed by a monstrously huge spider (very creepy bit, this) and, alone, Conan encounters the Tower’s great secret—Yag-kosha, an ancient, alien being with the body of a man but the head of an elephant, kept prisoner by the evil sorceries of wizard Yara. All thoughts of profit forgotten, Conan puts the wretched Yag-kosha out of his misery, then visits vengeance upon the wizard using the Jewel of the Elephant. A must-read Conan adventure.

Black Colossus”. The entire Hyborian world finds itself threatened by the hordes of Natohk, the Veiled One. His forces sweep ever northward, but Natohk has a thing in particular for the princess of Khoraja. Horrified, the princess consults the god Mitra, who instructs her to hand her kingdom’s defense over to the first man she sees—the man turns out to be Conan, now a mercenary in her army. With all his barbarian wiles, the Cimmerian leads Khoraja’s forces into a huge, fierce battle against the invaders, repelling and slaughtering them at the pass of a bluff, in what has to be one of the best battle sequences anyone has ever written. I don’t know much about ancient military tactics, but I was convinced of the soundness of it. Anyway, facing defeat, the evil Natohk sweeps in and steals the princess away; Conan gives chase on horseback, all the way to the ruins from which Natohk originally came. He impales the villain on his blade, rescues the princess, and even manages to enjoy a little passion before heading back to his armies. The battle scenes are beautifully done, as I say, but in most respects this is a fairly standard tale.

The Slithering Shadow”. This one appears to take place shortly after the events of the previous story. Conan (still a mercenary soldier) and a lovely concubine named Natala (no idea what happened to the princess) are lost in the desert after having survived the slaughter of the army the barbarian was riding with. They stumble across a strange city in the desert wilderness where the few scattered inhabitants spend all their time lost in blissful, drugged dreams, only occasionally pulled into reality by the morbid hunger of a horrifying, shadowy demon who feeds on them. A femme fatale sets her sights on Conan, kidnapping Natala, but the femme is attacked and devoured by the shadow-monster. After a pitched battle against the city’s recently-awoken inhabitants, Conan arrives just in time to save his girl. He manages to fling the monster down a pit, but not without sustaining serious injuries. Fortunately, the wine of the city acts as a sort of medicine, saving his life. Conan and Natala flee the bizarre city and make for an oasis a day’s journey away. Fast-paced and enjoyable, but not one of Conan’s more memorable adventures.

The Pool of the Black One”. Fresh from an unrecorded adventure on an island somewhere, Conan insinuates himself onto a passing Zingaran ship, the Wastrel, and becomes a pirate. The captain doesn’t like him, but it doesn’t take long for the crew to begin thinking of him as a leader. They set aground on a weird island, where Conan kills the cruel captain in a bid to take command. But there are other inhabitants here—a race of tall, black humanoids who kidnap the Zingarans—and the captain’s woman, Sancha (who naturally has eyes for our barbarian hero)—to sacrifice them in their unearthly green pool. Conan rescues his ship-mates, and a fierce battle ensues. The survivors race off the island, seconds ahead of the pool’s waters, which have taken on magical life. Back on board the Wastrel, Conan takes charge, and off they sail. A strange story, but one I like a lot.

Rogues in the House”. This is one of my favorite Conan stories. In a small border kingdom of Zamora, Conan is betrayed by his current female and thrown in a dungeon, until a baron named Murilo offers him a deal: Murilo will secure Conan’s escape if the barbarian will kill Nabonidus, the Red Priest, for him. Conan agrees, but the escape goes wrong and Murillo takes matters into his own hands, finds Nabonidus’s servant dead, and the place terrorized by Nabonidus’s pet man-ape,Thak, who’s apparently gone mad. Meanwhile, Conan escapes on his own but decides to keep his word to the baron. After dispatching his woman’s lover (and throwing the wench into a filthy cesspool), Conan arrives in time to hook up with Murilo AND Nabonidus; the three of them work to figure a way out of the place without having to fight the unnaturally strong Thak. Doesn’t work out. Conan engages in hand to hand combat with the beast, and, being Conan, wins. They’re about to make good their escape, when the Red Priest shows his true stripes and betrays them. Conan bashes his brains in with a chair, and decides to leave the ugly city behind. Excellent story with equal parts action and creepiness.

Shadows in the Moonlight”. Conan rescues Olivia from a cruel nobleman in the grassy reeds, and the two of them set off in a boat and wind up on the shores of a strange island. There’s a threatening presence there in the trees that makes Conan uneasy; but the uncannily life-like iron statues they find in some ruins makes Olivia uneasy—she has a dream that they come to murderous life in the light of the moon. A lusty band of pirates arrive on the island, taking Conan captive. That night, Olivia steals in to rescue him before the statues can animate. They make their escape, only to encounter that threatening presence in the trees, a vicious man-ape (there’s a lot of those around in the Conan stories, almost as many man-apes as giant snakes). Anyway, Conan gorily dispatches the beast, and he and Olivia are shaken by the sounds of slaughter coming from the ruins as the iron statues come to life and kill most of the pirates. The next morning, the survivors stumble out to shore to find Conan on their ship, informing them that he is their new captain. They’re good with that. I’m not really crazy about this story, as, aside from the action set-piece with the man-ape, there’s not too much memorable about it.

“Queen of the Black Coast”. One of the great Conan stories. Escaping from some city authorities in Argos, Conan hops on to the Argus, and it isn’t long before the ship is raided by the Tigress, led by the notorious Queen of the Black Coast, the beautiful and deadly Belit. The pirates kill the entire crew, save Conan, whom Belit is instantly smitten with; the barbarian returns her lusty affections, and accepts her offer of being her right hand man. They sail and plunder together for some time (it’s hard to say how long, exactly, maybe a year or more?) before Belit decides she wants to raid an ancient city far up the jungle river Zarkheba. And what Belit wants, Belit gets. The crew arrives, plunder begins, but they are menaced by what appears to be a winged ape—the last of a once superior, ancient race now degenerated. Conan is lulled into a black lotus sleep while the winged ape’s pawns, a bunch of were-hyenas, slaughter the crew. Conan awakes to find them all dead, including his beloved Belit. In a rage, he kills the monster hyenas before facing the winged ape; he’s about to die when Belit appears in a ghostly form to save him, as she promised in life she would. Conan sets her on a funeral pyre on the Tigress, lights the fire, and watches as the ship drifts out to sea, aflame. The closest thing you’ll find to a love story in the Conan chronicles, and a must-read.

The Devil in Iron”. An ancient wizard, Khosatral Khel, comes back to horrible life when a witless fisherman removes the magic knife from his chest that was keeping him inert. Meanwhile, in the border countries of the east, Conan has taken up with the kozaks—hill raiders and thieves, and become an enormous thorn in the side of Jehungir Agha. So Agha sets a trap for the Cimmerian on a mysterious island called Dagon (a little nod from REH to his pal Lovecraft?). Conan finds a bizarre green-walled city that wasn’t there, like, the day before, as well as (in a plot development that makes ZERO sense) Octavia, Agha’s recently escaped concubine. Conan saves Olivia, tussles with the silent, iron-hided Khosatral, and the two of them make their escape out of the city just as Jehungir Agha’s men, not knowing about the weird stuff going on, rush in to kill Conan. They instead get slaughtered by the robot-like wizard. Outside, Conan and Olivia run smack into Agha; Conan dispatches the villain easily enough, but it gives Khel time to catch up to them. With the magic knife, Conan is able to kill him. This is one of my least favorites, I’m afraid. While Khosatral Khel is a formidable and creepy enough opponent, his exact purpose, other than walking around looking scary, isn’t really clear, and oddly enough there’s never a point in the story where we feel like our hero is in real danger.

The People of the Black Circle”. A novella-length adventure, and one of the all-time best Conan stories. There’s a lot going on in this one, but I’ll do my best to be as clear as possible. In the far eastern kingdom of Vendhya, the prince has died from a magical curse placed by Khemsa, a disciple of the Black Seers who has gone somewhat rogue. The prince’s sister Yasmina vows revenge. Meanwhile, governor Chunder Shan, long harried by Conan and his marauders, holds seven of Conan’s men ransom. Conan shows up to negotiate, but spots Yasmina, recognizes her as the princess, and being the opportunistic fellow he is, grabs her and makes off with her. They are pursued by Chunder Shan’s men, as well as by the wizard Khemsa and his… girlfriend, I guess. Conan and Yasmina take refuge with some of Conan’s hill tribe allies, but a magical attack turns them against their former friend, and the Cimmerian and the princess are forced to flee again. Farther up the mountain, they come face-to-face with Khemsa, and are almost killed but for the sudden arrival of the Black Seers. They kill Khemsa’s lady-friend, and then dash Khemsa himself to the jagged rocks below. But they aren’t there to save the day; they kidnap Yasmina and fly off to their stronghold with her. Conan gives chase, runs directly into Chunder Shan’s men, and they all form a temporary alliance to save the princess. As a group, they storm the castle, as it were. Most of them are killed by the Black Seer’s disciples, the ones that make it in are not that lucky. Men drop like flies in a beautifully written battle sequence, until only Conan is alive to face off against the final Black Seer. He kills him, rescues Yasmina, and they make their way out and back down the mountain. But the story’s not over yet: In a narrow pass, Conan’s former allies have been cornered by the militant forces of Yasmina’s political enemies. Conan rushes down to aide them while Yasmina swears to go and fetch Chunder Shan’s forces, which are not far behind. The two units defeat the bad guys, and Yasmina rides off with her men as Conan watches her off with admiration in his eyes. I love how this one plays out—lots of great adventure, with Conan at his most sly and devious, and one of my favorite Conan females in Yasmina.

A Witch Shall Be Born”. Taramis, Queen of Khauran, is shocked and horrified when her twin sister, the witch Salome, shows up, throws her in a dungeon, and assumes her identity. With the help of the wicked Constantius, the witch begins dismantling the queen’s good name with wild debaucheries and vengeful behavior. There’s a general revolt in the city, and one of the leaders of the revolt is the brash soldier Conan. Our hero is crucified by Constantius for his trouble, but escapes (a very memorable scene!) and hooks up with the outlaw chief Olgerd. After he recovers, Conan wrests control of the outlaws from the weak-willed Olgerd and sets about instituting his bloody revenge against Constantius and his forces. Meanwhile, former soldier Valerius learns that the woman on the throne is an imposter and that Taramis is a prisoner; he kills Salome and rescues the real queen, and with Conan’s help escapes the weird ape-like creature that serves Salome (yep, another ape-creature) and slays Constantius’ men. In a nice epilogue, Conan captures Constantius and crucifies him; a little turn-about is fair play, after all. It’s funny, but when I finished this one my initial thought was that it was a fairly weak tale, but thinking about it now I realize it’s not without its merits. The crucifixion scene, and Conan’s tasty revenge at the end really carry it, though.

Jewels of Gwahlur”. In the kingdom of Keshan, Conan learns of a vast treasure hidden in an ancient fabled city called Alkmeenon. He insinuates himself into the good graces of Keshan’s royal court as a fighting man, offering to train their army—but what our hero really wants is to get to that treasure. He has a rival, the Stygian Thutmekri. Realizing he’s beat, Conan goes after the treasure on his own, scaling a massive cliff and entering the ancient city. After a close call involving a collapsing floor and a wildly rushing underground river, Conan finds what appears to be the never-aging, never-dying body of the Oracle of Alkmeenon—but it is in fact an amazingly irritating female named Muriela, employed by Thutmekri to convince the ruler of Keshan to turn the jewels over to the Stygian. Conan makes her change her tune and she sides with him, presumably because he’s got huge muscles. When the Keshan priest Gorulga arrives with his entourage, the fake goddess tells him he must give the jewels to Conan and give Thutmekri the boot. But no sooner do the holy men leave when the girl is snatched away by some unknown creature through a hidden door (another Conan staple, the hidden door) to be replaced by the REAL oracle. Conan fights Thutmekri’s henchman, doesn’t quite kill him (much to his later regret) and goes after the priests, hoping they’ll lead him to both the missing girl AND the treasure. After one more run-in with the huge henchman, Conan finds Muriela chained up, rescues her, and arrives at the treasure chamber just in time to see the priests set upon by savage hairy devils and slaughtered. When the coast seems to be clear, he and the girl steal down, grab the treasure, and start to make their way out of the cave. But they are spotted by one of the creatures, and Conan fights him on a stone bridge over the madly rushing underground river. He kills the thing, but in the process the treasure and the girl both wind up teetering over the river and Conan can only save one. He chooses the girl, of course (stupid girl!) but shrugs it off with his typical philosophical indifference. There will be other treasure, in other places. This is a fair story, with a fun, solid plot, but Muriela is probably the most annoying of all Conan femmes.

This takes us to just about the half-way point in the collection. Here is Part Two.


  1. Reading the Conan stories in the order Howard wrote them is the way to go, all right. Watching him develop as a writer is great fun. "Black Colossus" is one of my favorites because I've been where that big battle takes place. What I mean by that is that Howard used the Cap Rock in West Texas for the description. I recognized it right away the last time I read the story. This is an excellent post and I'm looking forward to the next installment.

  2. I love Conan. I've always preferred this kind of fantasy, swords and sorcery, to Tolkien and his imitators.