Continuing a review begun here of THE COMPLETE CHRONICLES OF CONAN, Centenary Edition, published by Gollanz in 2006.
“Beyond the Black River”. This one is probably my all-time favorite Conan story. It’s terrific, and the first indication that REH wanted to take Conan in different directions. Settlers are pushing into the wild frontier territory of the savage Indians-I-mean-Picts, and our Cimmerian is employed at the fort to patrol the woods along the Black River for marauding natives. He meets brave young soldier Balthus, and outside the garrison the two of them come across the latest victim of Pictish wizard Zogar Sag, who has a mad-on against the settlers. The fort’s governor dispatches Conan and a select group of men (including Conan’s new friend Balthus) to penetrate into enemy territory and put an end to Zogar Sag. But the settlers have no idea that the various Pict tribes are gathering for a massive attack, and once across the river, Conan’s forces are slaughtered. Conan escapes, but Balthus and a couple of others are captured. Balthus witnesses first-hand Zogar Sag’s mystical power over savage animals before Conan swoops in to rescue him. The heroes escape, the Picts hot on their heels, and a few close calls later they finally make it downriver enough to cross—they have to warn the fort of the impending attack. They make it across, but too late; the fort is already done for. Conan and Balthus decide to rush on and try to save the settlers. They split up, Balthus to clear the outlying houses and Conan to alert some men who’ve gone off to… gather salt, I take it? The Picts are already starting to get beyond the ruined fort and things are looking bad. Balthus and a kick-ass dog called Slasher die heroic deaths, defending the retreat of some helpless settlers. Conan, meanwhile, gets the salt-gatherers out of harm’s way, only to come face-to-face with Zogar Sag’s demonic familiar. The Cimmerian kills the creature. Later, after the Picts have rolled back, Conan learns that Zogar Sag is dead, slashed and cut in the same manner as his familiar. But it’s a hollow victory, Conan knows; because, in a way, the Picts won. While this isn’t the story I’d recommend to a first-time Conan reader (it’s not really representative of the tone and subject matter of the Conan stories in general), it blew me away more than any other tale in this book. Balthus and Slasher were actually meant to be Hyborian versions of REH himself and his dog, which is a nice touch.
“Shadows in Zamboula”. This story… well, where to start. It raises some issues that I’ll get to in a minute. Conan finds himself in bustling Zamboula, where he takes lodgings in a sinister inn. But the innkeeper has a regular deal going on with the roving bands of “black cannibals” that practically rule the streets at night. See, the authorities turn a blind eye to the human eating, because during the day, the blacks are just terrific slaves and it would be a shame to lose them. Attacked in his room, Conan slays his attacker; outside, he spots more of the nasty cannibals, dragging a beautiful naked (white) girl to her death. Conan does some impaling and head-chopping and rescues her. She says she was out of her home because her boyfriend went berserk—she gave him a love potion, but instead of making him swoon with desire it made him crazy. She convinces Conan (with the promise of her body) to help get her man under control and then kill Totrasmek, the wizard who sold her the faulty potion out of unrequited love and spite. Conan is game. He subdues the boyfriend, and then he and the girl break into Totrasmek’s temple. Almost immediately, the girl is whisked away through a secret door (as girls in Conan’s world are wont to do) and Conan is confronted by a behemoth of a fighter in the wizard’s employ. This was a great opportunity for a rousing fight scene, as it’s not very often Conan comes across someone as physically intimidating as himself. Unfortunately, it’s over in a couple of paragraphs. After dealing with the big guy, Conan goes after the girl, who is being toyed with by Totrasmek. Conan comes up behind the jerk and impales him very neatly on his sword. At that point, the girl reveals that she is in fact the princess of Zamboula, and her lover is the satrap. What she really needs is a magic ring she believes the wizard took from the satrap, but they are unable to find it. She gives Conan money and a horse to begin a search for the ring; he takes what she offers, then heads off—to the inn where it all started. After getting some tasty revenge on the villainous innkeeper, he leaves Zamboula… with the ring, which he took off the satrap earlier. It’ll fetch a nice price in the next town, he figures. There are a lot of things to like about this story—the pacing is good and moves along pretty quickly, and roving bands of scary cannibals in the city streets is a nice idea. But if REH’s work is often marred by an obvious racism, this story is positively destroyed by it. The racially superior attitude and the vile wickedness of all black people are impossible to ignore in “Shadows in Zamboula”, and it made it difficult to focus on the story’s merits.
“Red Nails”. LOVE this one. In many ways, you could call this the quintessential Conan story, as it has all the elements that make Conan and his world so fascinating, and REH, as a writer, was at the top of his game. Way south of the “Black Kingdoms”, formidable swordswoman Valeria is on the run after killing a sleazebag. Conan has followed her to help; he catches up to her far out in the jungle wilderness. She’s none too pleased to see him, but reluctantly accepts his help when they are set upon by a “dragon” that traps them atop a crag. Conan very cleverly gets the dragon to clear out long enough for him and Valeria to clamor down the cliff and strike off for an entirely unexpected city they see far out on the plains. The dragon gives chance through the woods and onto the plains in an amazingly thrilling sequence that ends with the dying beast braining itself on a tree (a dragon in REH's world, by the way, is actually a prehistoric leftover, like a brontosaurus, sort of, not a dragon in the Tolkien "high fantasy" sense). They make it to the city, only to find it’s actually an enormous palace, enclosed, apparently deserted—until Valeria comes across a man skulking through the ornate halls. She saves him from being killed by a creepy guy in a skull mask, and when they are set upon by more men, she kills them, with a little aid from Conan, who shows up just in time to lend a hand. Turns out there are two rival factions of people living in this strange place, and they’ve been at war with one another for decades. The man takes them to the leader of his people, Olmec, and Olmec convinces the adventurers to help him destroy their rivals. Valeria is a little concerned about creepy Tascela, the woman who sits beside Olmec but is not his queen. That night, Valeria is awoken when Tascela’s “sullen-faced maid” Yasala tries to drug her; she chases the conniving little wench as far as a door that leads to underneath the city-palace, but Yasala’s cry of horror stops her in her tracks. Meanwhile, the rival faction jumps the gun and stages a full-on attack, tricking their way into the enemy’s part of the city. Conan and Valeria help their new “friends” in a big fight scene that leaves virtually ALL of the rivals dead. Olmec convinces Conan to take two of his men and go to see if any of the enemy have survived. Valeria, slightly wounded, stays behind. But once away from the others, the two men with Conan try, without success, to kill him, on orders from Olmec. Meanwhile, Valeria is set upon by Olmec, who backs off when Tascela shows up and claims the swordswoman for her own. Tascela is an ancient sorceress who retains her youth by blood, and she intends to kill Valeria. Conan makes his way back, and Olmec leads him to Tascela—but he’s a devious bastard, and when he tries to literally stab Conan in the back, our hero does away with him. In the throne room, Conan finds Valeria upon an altar, Tascela ready to do her dirty work. The barbarian is trapped in a leg iron and can only watch in helpless rage. Things are going poorly, when suddenly Tolkemec, the original leader of the tribe, shows up. Long thought dead, he has wandered the eerie depths under the palace, living on the flesh of corpses. He has a magic wand sort of thing and he proceeds to kill everyone with it. Scared now, Tascela frees Conan and he kills Tolkemec. Valeria kills Tascela, and the two adventurers decide to forgo looking for treasure in this messed-up place. There will be other treasure, and other adventures. As I said at the beginning, this is a perfect example of a superior Conan story, and it also has the added benefit of a great female lead. I wish Valeria had appeared in more stories, instead of the usual simpering, helpless concubines or princesses we see so much of. She’s a great character who could probably carry a story on her own.
“The Hour of the Dragon”. This was the only full-length novel REH ever wrote about Conan, and, fittingly enough, it was the last to see publication during Howard’s life. It also sort of brings things full-circle for our barbarian hero, as he is once again the King of Aquilonia in it, just as he was in the first two published stories. This is an absolutely terrific novel, full of action and intrigue and suspense, with an unflagging pace that leaves the reader breathless. Since it’s a novel, I’m not going to try to summarize it like the others, but in a nutshell: Conspirators plot against King Conan to usurp his throne; they revive the corpse of an ancient evil necromancer to aide them, and Conan’s armies are destroyed by magic in a decisive battle. Everyone thinks Conan dead, but he is actually captured by the necromancer. He escapes, and what follows is a hair-raising, pulse-pounding series of adventures as Conan pursues the Heart of Arhiman, the only thing that can counter-act the necromancer’s magic, from one corner of the Hyborian world to the other. There’s a great sense of our hero careening madly from one encounter to the next, and REH uses the opportunity to explore the full range of the world he created. He touches on many of Conan’s past aspects as well—corsair, thief, fugitive, warrior. If it had been the final Conan story, no one could have complained, as it would have been perfectly fitting. This novel has also been published a number of times as CONAN THE CONQUEROR.
“The God in the Bowl”. It’s clear from this story that REH was anxious to take Conan in new directions and to stretch his writing muscles a little, as this is a totally unique story in the canon. A brash young Conan is operating as a thief in Zamora, when in the act of stealing from the temple/museum of the filthy rich Kallian Publius, he stumbles across a watchman, who, in turn, has just stumbled across the murdered Kallian.The watchman holds Conan at bay long enough to call the authorities, and once the Inquisitor and his men arrive, the story turns into a classic locked-room murder mystery. Suspicion falls on several individuals in turn as the circumstances of the murder are worked out by the Inquisitor, but when a solution can’t be reached, it looks as though Conan is going to be their scapegoat. At that point, the story takes a turn for the horrific and fantastical, and, unlike the other stories in this volume, the entire thing depends upon the big reveal at the end—which, this time, I won’t give away. This one is a nice change of pace, a well-done mystery/horror tale, and I quite liked it.
“The Black Stranger”. This is a novella-length tale that didn’t see publication until long after REH’s death, again taking place in the Pictish wilderness, after the events of “Beyond the Black River”. While the setting is just as terrific and effective as in the other story, this one isn’t quite as good—although it still has much to recommend it. The story: Conan has escaped the clutches of the Picts, but in their pursuit they’ve driven him west, toward the ocean. After hundreds of miles, a weary Conan finds sanctuary just in time on a bluff that the natives seem afraid to go near. He finds an opening, goes inside, and… blacks out. Meanwhile, fleeing a demonic entity intent on destroying him, Count Valenso and his court have wound up stranded on the coast of the Pictish wilds, where they’ve built a fort of sorts. Along with Valenso are his niece Belesa, and the young girl Belesa takes care of, Tina. Menaced constantly by the barbarians in the woods, their situation is made even worse by the arrival of two different pirate crews, both in search of a treasure rumored to be buried nearby. Just to complicate matters, the demon (called The Black Man) seems to have tracked Valenso down, and the count is teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. The pirate chiefs, Zarono and Strom, hate each other passionately, and after some violence against each other and against Valenso, the three of them sit down to negotiate. Their bickering is interrupted by the arrival of a hale and confident Conan, who tells them he knows where the treasure is. He forces them into an uneasy alliance, although everybody seems to know that everybody plans on killing everybody else first chance they get. Conan leads the pirates to the treasure cave, where he’d planned on letting the deadly vapor inside it kill them. Things don’t work out and a massive fight ensues, interrupted by an attacking band of Picts. The survivors rush back to the fort, chased by the Picts, and many die defending the place from the natives, including first Zarono and then Strom. The whole place is on fire, and Conan rushes into the manor house to save Belesa and Tina. Inside, he finds Valenso, who has hanged himself, and encounters the Black Man. Conan hefts a 100-pound silver bench at the demon, who stumbles into the fire and dies. The next morning, they hail Strom’s ship, which had been anchored out at sea—Conan intends to take the girls somewhere safe (even gives them jewels enough to be set comfortably for life) and then take himself back to sea for more pirating. Some good action in this one, and the Picts are formidable enemies. The scene where Conan holds Valenso, Strom and Zarono over a barrel is classic clever Conan stuff, and Belesa is one of the better females in a Conan story, all the more so because she has her own thing going on and is not a love interest for our Cimmerian.
“The Frost Giant’s Daughter”. Taking place very early in young Conan’s career, this short tale finds our hero north of his home in Cimmeria, fighting with the blond-haired people of Asgard against the red-bearded warriors of Vanaheim. Conan is the only survivor after a brutal battle in the icy snow, and he’s not sure if he can believe his eyes when an unearthly beautiful, nearly naked girl with ivory skin appears before him. He is overcome with desire for her, and gives chase when she glides away, laughing and mocking. The ethereal girl leads Conan right to her “brothers”—two axe-wielding giants. Much to the girl’s surprise, Conan slays the giants, and grabs her. She cries out for help from her father, the god Ymir, and vanishes. Conan passes out, and when he awakens he finds he’s been rescued by warriors of Asgard. They almost convince him he hallucinated the entire thing, until he realizes what he’s gripping in his fist—the beautiful girl’s silky gossamer veil. This is a pretty minor Conan tale, and is the last completed story in the volume.
“Drums of Tombalku”. This is a fragment of an incomplete story, and Conan himself appears only near the very end. The majority of it features Conan’s lifelong friend Amalric. He and Conan were part of a mercenary army fighting against Stygia, but after an attack that left everyone else dead, including, apparently, Conan, Amalric hooks up with some thieving desert wanderers an one of the wanderers finds a beautiful woman lost in the desert—Amalric fights a pitched battle against three of them to save the honor and life of the girl. He kills them all, but sustains enough injuries to pass out (this guy ain’t Conan, remember). When he awakens, the girl is tending his wounds. Her name is Lissa, and she’s come from a nearby city called Gazal. Already, Amalric is half in love with her. They ride back to that city, and what Amalric finds is a run-down, falling-apart place with listless, distracted people, resigned to eventually becoming the victims of some horrible creature who periodically lurches out of a mysterious red tower through to claim victims. That night, the creature comes again. With Lissa’s life in danger, Amalric fights the thing, destroys it with an incantation he happens to know, and the two of them ride out of Gazal. It isn’t long before they are pursued by seven creepy black figures on horseback. At the last moment, Amalric and Lissa are rescued by a group of armed riders led by none other than Conan. The Cimmerian explains that, after being taken captive and transported to the mythical kingdom of Tombalku, he eventually worked his way into a position of power there. The fragment ends with Conan promising to take the couple to Tombalku, where the pickings are easy. It’s hard to make any sort of judgment based on only part of a story, but what exists is entertaining enough. It’s odd, though, that there would be so much action sans Conan. And I get the impression that the tale was about to go off into something completely unrelated to Amalric’s adventure, which makes me wonder why REH would have spent so much time with it.
“The Vale of Lost Women”. Another fragment, the beginnings of a story REH either abandoned or never got a chance to finish. A high-bred Ophirian woman named Livia is captive of a tribe somewhere in the jungles of the Black Kingdoms. They’ve already mutilated and killed her brother, and she is sure the fate that awaits her is a horrible one. Hope comes to her when the tribe parlays with another, led by Conan himself (how Conan came to be the leader of a black tribe is a story not told here). She steals into his hut and bargains with him to rescue her; he does so, of course, setting his men on the other tribe. In the bloody fighting, Livia freaks out and takes off on horseback. She rides for hours before coming across a beautiful, restful valley, beyond the reach of men. But her idyllic interlude is interrupted by a group of strange, brown women who secure her to an altar. She is almost killed by a winged, Lovecraftian thing, but Conan shows up just in time to save her. He agrees to get her out of there and back to civilization, where she belongs. I’m not sure where REH intended to take it from there, but I imagine it would have more to do with the strange cult of women in the valley (hence the title, right?) Potentially, it would be a good story, but remember the overt racism I mentioned in “Shadows of Zamboula”? It’s even MORE prominent here; this is no subtle racial hatred, but full-on “all black people are vile and evil” type racism that I’m sure would have been objectionable even to many people in the ‘30’s, when it was written. I won’t go into a tirade about Howard’s unfortunate racism, as the subject has already been written about extensively, but for someone who is a fan of his work, it’s a glaring problem that can’t be resolved or justified, and just as the issue of slavery is a great stain on American history, hateful racism is a stain on the legacy of REH. And that’s all I have to say about that.
“Wolves Beyond the Border”. This fragment is sort of the odd-man-out in the collection, for two reasons: Conan himself doesn’t appear in it at all, except in passing reference to his bid for the throne of Aquilonia, happening concurrently with this story. Secondly, it’s told in first person, something REH rarely did. It takes place, again, on the Pictish frontier, which he was clearly enamored of—Howard really wanted to be writing Westerns at this point in his career, and writing of the settlers and the Indian-like Picts was the next-best-thing. It’s actually the beginning of a very good story: a garrison “forest-runner” named Gault Hagar’s son, witnesses a secret Pict ceremony, and much to his shock spies a white man among them. He escapes back to a fort, where he tells of what he’s seen, and also delivers the news that his people are eager to support Conan. Everyone is in agreement about that, and happy. Then Gault spots the Lord Valerian—the same white man he’d seen consorting with the Picts. Valerian is arrested, but later that night Gault is attacked by a, yes, ape-creature under the Lord’s guidance. Gault and his allies rush to the jail, to find Valerian has escaped. They gather up a crew and go after him. At this point, the story becomes more a rough outline for what follows—they overhear Valerian’s plans to start a Pict siege on the forts, follow, and after a great battle save the day. I liked where this one was going, and REH really shines when writing about the Pictish wilderness. Shame he never got a chance to finish it.
“The Snout in the Dark”. Another fragment, and not really enough to tell where REH intended to take it. A commander of the spearmen in Kush’s army, Amboola is imprisoned by the (queen?) Tananda and is slaughtered in his cell by a demon with the face of a pig. A power-seeking wizard called Tuthmes (who controls the demon) uses the murder to make a bid for power; he orders his people to spread a rumor that Tananda was responsible for the killing. The people, who loved Amboola, attack Tananda in the street and only the timely arrival of Conan, lately a corsair but now a penniless drifter, saves her. She promptly makes him the captain of her guard. Honestly, there’s not enough to work with here to determine whether or not this would have been a good story.
“The Hall of the Dead”. This is a very short summary of a tale REH never got around to. Too bad, because it sounds like a fun one. To summarize a summary: Conan and a Gunderman named Nestor put aside their differences long enough to steal some treasure from an ancient ruin, and have to do battle with some undead warriors in the bargain.
“The Hand of Nergal”. In this fragment, basically one and a half scenes, Conan saves a girl horribly wounded on the battlefield. The scene then switches to the city of Yarlalet, plagued by supernatural happenings; presumably this is where Conan intends to take the girl. We briefly meet a rogue-philosopher called Atalis, who is conversing with the handsome Prince Than. That’s it. No idea about what REH had in mind, but from the unanswered questions brought up in the brief first scene, I bet it would have been a good one.
That’s it for the stories in THE COMPLETE CHRONICLES OF CONAN. Following is “Notes on Various Peoples of the Hyborian Age”, which is very interesting and also gives some insight into the political turmoil around Conan becoming King of Aquilonia.
And, to wrap it all up, there’s a terrific afterword by Stephen Jones (who, incidentally, edited this volume and based on his work with the ongoing MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR is my very favorite editor) about Robert E. Howard and Conan. I found it immensely entertaining and informative; Jones is clearly a fan of REH, but approaches the writer’s work with a level head and not an ounce of hero worship.
You could make an argument for the Conan stories being Howard’s crowning achievement, and the stories in this volume would lend weight to the argument. He wrote about 800 stories during his career-- tales of adventures in the Orient, grim Westerns, contemporary horror, broad comedy, boxing stories, historical adventure… there wasn’t a genre he didn’t work in at some point. And his work was uniformly entertaining and memorable. And of course, Conan wasn’t his only series character—there was Sailor Steve Costigan, Bran Mak Morn, Kull, Solomon Kane (a favorite of mine), and others besides.
But there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that Howard put more of himself into Conan than any other of his literary creations, and more of his own philosophy about civilization vs barbarism. These are stories with spirit and heart, told with wild, infectious enthusiasm.