Conan the Barbarian is a Conan story collection recently published by Del Rey/Ballantine as a tie-in to the 2011 Conan movie. It has the same title as a story collection published in 1955, a movie novelization by L. Sprague de Camp in 1982, and a movie novelization by Michael A. Stackpole published in 2011 concurrently with the movie.To add to the confusion, Conan the Barbarian is also the title of the Marvel comicof the 1970’s. All of which is to say, if looking for this mass market paperback, make sure you’re getting the right book.
This particular collection contains six of the better original CONAN stories written by Robert E. Howard and published in the great pulp Weird Tales Magazineduring the 1930’s. It’s a fairly solid introduction to the Conan character, although I wish that there had been a brief introduction giving a little of the background of the stories. The six stories are (in order):
- “The Phoenix on the Sword” – (originally published in Weird Tales, 1932) This is the first story of the Cimmerian hero ever to appear in print. It was actually a re-worked story of another Howard fantasy hero, Kull of Atlantis/Valusia, entitled “By this Axe I Rule!” although this fact isn’t noted in this collection. This story takes place late in Conan’s career. He’s King of Aquilonia, which had been his goal, but now he’s learning that being a King is more a “Sword of Damocles” situation than the proverbial “Bed of Roses.” Quite good, and a good introduction to both the character and the fantasy world he inhabits.
- “The People of the Black Circle” – (Weird Tales, 1934) This story is considered by many Howard fans to be one of his best. It takes place when Conan is roughly in his early 30’s, leading a group of hill tribes in a setting analogous to our world’s Afghanistan/Pakistan/India area. Howard’s “Hyborian Age” fantasy setting pretended to be our world roughly 12,000 years ago, before a major “Cataclysm” wipes out most of his world’s civilizations and sinks some major land areas and lifts others up from the sea, rearranging the map. Howard’s Hyboria and Cataclysm fly in the face of actual historical and geological knowledge and possibility, but this doesn’t make his stories and their backdrop any less fun. Actually, I enjoyed the tie-ins to different periods of history and genres of adventure that Howard was able to get away with here. The ‘People of the Black Circle’ mentioned in the title are a group of sorcerers who wish to take over the Kingdom of Vendhya (obviously a pre-historic India) by mean of magic. By fortuitous circumstance (for him), Conan captures the actual ruler of Vendhya, a woman named Devi Yasmina while trying to negotiate for the return of some of his arrested tribal leaders. Eventually Yasmina and Conan join forces to fight the common foe, the aforementioned cabal of evil magicians. Yasmina is one of Howard’s better female characters, a strong feminine foil to Conan, and a nice contrast to some of the weaker female characters in some of Howard’s other stories. Indeed, characterization is one of the stronger points in this story, with a young apprentice magician named Khemsa who betrays his evil magician masters for both love and ambition being a cut above the usual stereotypical evil sorcerer.
- “The Tower of the Elephant” – (Weird Tales, 1933) This story takes place early in Conan’s career. He is a professional thief in an unnamed thief-city in the kingdom of Zamora, a setting that is reminiscent of the later LANKHMAR stories of Fritz Leiber and also the THIEVES’ WORLD anthologies of Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey . On a whim the young Conan decides to try to steal a legendary jewel — the “Heart of Yag-Kosha” — from the tower of an evil magician, Yara. After surviving various dangers he finds that the “jewel” is not what he and others thought. This is actually one of my favorite Howard stories, with the naivety of the young Cimmerian and his motives of avarice mixed with idealism making the story more believable than much of what would later become standard “sword and sorcery” good vs. bad boilerplate during the 1970’s sword and sorcery boom. I will mention here that the discerning reader may start to throw up his or her hands at the various Yasminas, Yag-Koshas, Yaras and Yezdigerds (an off scene character mentioned in “People of the Black Circle”) that seem to litter Howard’s early Conan stories. I would steer anyone curious about this literary and possibly psychological tick to check out the essays of the French scholar, Patrice Louinet for possible reasons behind this, otherwise just go with the flow of adventure that the stories present.
- “Queen of the Black Coast” – (Weird Tales, 1934) This story is another favorite of most Howard fans. It presents another strong female character in the pirate leader Belit, and the dynamic romantic attraction between the two is much more two-sided than that presented in some of the other Conan stories. The story takes place off the coast of the Hyborian world’s equivalent of Africa, and the fact that the two leaders of the all black pirate crew are the white characters Belit and Conan may bother some modern readers.
- “Red Nails” – (Weird Tales, 1936) This is actually the last Conan story Howard ever wrote, and he personally thought it one of his best stories, citing it as “the grimmest, bloodiest, most merciless story of the series so far” in a letter to his agent Otis Adelbert Kline (a noted fantasy author in his own right). The story is firmly in the “lost city” genre made popular by H. Rider Haggard and other authors, but with Howard’s own unique take on the subject. Conan and a woman pirate named Valeria (another of his strong and capable female characters, perfectly able to “slice and dice” her foes with the best of them) are lost in the jungle when they come across a walled ancient city. Within the city of Xuchotil are two warring groups of people, the Tecuhltlis and Xotalancas who have been engaged in a war of mutual destruction for years, to the point that both groups are near extinction. Conan and Valeria side with the Tecuhltlis, with bloody consequences. Definitely not for the squeamish reader, although compared to modern splatterpunk, this story may not seem as gory and grim as Howard felt it to be when he penned it. Howard’s driving philosophy regarding the idea of civilization as decadent and containing the seeds of its own destruction is a major theme in this particular story.
- “Rogues in the House” – (Weird Tales, 1934) This is quite probably my own personal favorite story by Howard. It has a different feel than the other fantasies and sword and sorcery tales, almost a hard-boiled realism reminiscent of authors such as Dashiell Hammett. The story opens in an unnamed city-state between the Hyborian countries of Zamora and Corinthia (a Hyborian equivalent of Greece). A young nobleman named Murilo is sent a warning by a certain Nabonidus. Here’s how Howard opens the story:“At a court festival, Nabonidus, the Red Priest, who was the rule ruler of the city, touched Murilo, the young aristocrat, courteously on the arm. Murilo turned to meet the priest’s enigmatic gaze, and wonder at the hidden meaning therein. No words passed between them, but Nabonidus bowed and handed Murilo a small gold cask. The young nobleman, knowing that Nabonidus did nothing without reason, excused himself at the first opportunity and returned hastily to his chamber. There he opened the cask and found within a human ear, which he recognized by a peculiar scar upon it. He broke into a profuse sweat, and was no longer in doubt about the meaning in the Red Priest’s glance.”
To me, this is some of Howard’s best writing, where in a few sentences he tells us a great deal about the characters and the setting. The story was supposedly written in a first draft overnight and then sent in to Weird Tales with only minor changes. If true, this might explain why it flows so well. This story features a young Conan, not much older than the events of “The Tower of the Elephant” and a thief again at this point (having previously spent a brief time as a mercenary). Murilo hires Conan to kill Nabonidus, but initially his plans go awry, and he decides he will have to do it himself. In my opinion one of the more riveting Conan stories.
All in all, I think Conan the Barbarian is a good introduction to the Conan stories, especially for someone who is only familiar with the character from the movies and possibly the comics. My major quibble, as I stated earlier, was the lack of an introduction, but just based on the stories themselves , the book is excellent. For anyone interested in reading all the Howard Conan stories and also Louinet’s explanatory essays about their construction and Howard’s writing of them, I would recommend the Del Rey three-volume set: The Coming of Conan, The Bloody Crown of Conan, and The Conquering Sword of Conan.