Conan the Destroyer by Robert E. Howard
Published by Gollancz, October 2011
ISBN: 978 0 575 11500 2
Review by Mark Yon
Following the release of the Conan the Barbarian film tie-in ‘taster’, we now have Gollancz’s latest release. The first of three volumes (with Volume Two, Conan the Berserker, and Volume Three, Conan the Indomitable, to follow) this is Howard’s twenty-five tales in chronological order. So we start here with The Tower of the Elephant, and finish in this first volume, fourteen tales later, with The Devil in Iron. The book also begins (again!) with Howard’s background essay, The Hyborean Age.
My comments of the importance of Conan to the genre have been mentioned before, and do not need repeating here in detail. Suffice it to say that, for all their limitations, in my opinion you need to at least try reading Howard’s stories.
Do we need another collection? Again, the production of small bites of the canon may entice those intimidated by the two-volume Fantasy Masterworks series or the (lovely) del Rey or Gollancz Black Library editions. However, as five of the stories in this new collection are also in Conan the Barbarian, some readers may be annoyed at the overlap. Whereas Conan the Barbarian is a taster, the three-volume set is perhaps more for those who have tried some and want the fuller picture.
The amount of material to choose from is pretty limited, for reasons discussed before. There are only twenty-five original Howard tales, though other writers added to the volume of material after Howard’s death in June 1936. Published in his lifetime are seventeen stories (titles in red are those in this Volume One):
1. The Phoenix on the Sword (Dec 1932)
2. The Scarlet Citadel (Jan 1933)
3. The Tower of the Elephant (Mar 1933)
4. Black Colossus (Jun 1933)
5. The Slithering Shadow (Sep 1933)
6. The Pool of the Black One (Oct 1933)
7. Rogues in the House (Jan 1934)
8. Shadows in the Moonlight (Apr 1934)
9. Queen of the Black Coast (May 1934)
10. The Devil in Iron (Aug 1934)
11. The People of the Black Circle (Sep/Oct/Nov 1934)
12. A Witch Shall be Born (Dec 1934)
13. Jewels of Gwahlur (Mar 1935)
14. Beyond the Black River (May/Jun 1935)
15. Shadows in Zamboula (Nov 1935)
16. The Hour of the Dragon (Dec 35/Jan/Feb/Mar/Apr 1936)
17. Red Nails (Jul/Aug/Sep 1936)
although Howard completed four Conan stories, not published in his lifetime:
18. The Frost Giant’s Daughter , originally a Conan story, but after being rejected, Howard revised it, retitled as “The Gods of the North”, the main character’s name changed to “Amra of Akbitana”.
19. The God in the Bowl
20. The Vale of Lost Women
21. The Black Stranger, rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp as “The Treasure of Tranicos”; Howard’s version published in 1987 in Echoes of Valor.
There are also four other Conan stories begun by Howard but unfinished included in this series:
22. The Snout in the Dark, fragment
23. Drums of Tombalku, fragment
24. The Hall of the Dead, synopsis only
25. The Hand of Nergal, fragment
There’s also Wolves Beyond the Border, a non-Conan story fragment set in Conan’s world.
As you can see we do get, as with the Del Rey editions and in the Fantasy Masterwork editions, a number of unfinished parts. The Hall of the Dead is a two-page synopsis of a tale now long lost. The Hand of Nergal is a three-page fragment of a story incomplete. The Snout in the Dark is a ten-page draft version of another tale whose revised version, if it ever existed, is now sadly gone.
What we don’t get here are the colour images of the hardback Del Rey and Wandering Star editions, nor the little Les Edwards pencil sketches of the Black Library editions or the artists such as Gary Gianni, Mark Schultz, Gregory Manchess, Justin Sweet, Jim & Ruth Keegan, Greg Staples and Tim Bradstreet in the Del Rey paperback editions. This is a collection that is based just on the stories.
But what stories! We have tales of the young mercenary Conan (“Elephant”), of Conan fighting alongside women (“Moonlight” and “Vale of Lost Women”) against pirates and giant apes (“Moonlight”), Conan fighting sorcerers and evil wizards (“Colossus”) and corrupt priests and aristocrats (“Rogues”). At their best, they are dark, breathless, baroque and imaginative tales and have an energy that is still quite hard to beat, even if the issues of racism and the old-fashioned roles of women herein can sit a little uncomfortably with contemporary tastes.
Reading the material in small amounts rather than en masse does mean that the repetitive style of Howard’s work, due to the speed of writing, is less noticeable, as it would have been when published monthly originally, and this therefore can be a strength.
However, reading the stories in a chronological order may be seen by some as both a strength and a weakness. Whilst reading the tales chronologically shows the reader Conan’s progression in time, from the young mercenary to King of Aquilonia, it does mean that you are mixing tales from different times of Howard’s writing.
Actually, that’s not much of an issue as you might think, in that the Conan tales were pretty much all written in the white heat of pulp publication from 1932-36. What may be more important is the point that Howard himself wrote that he preferred the tales to not be in chronological order, presumably as it gives an impression of a much bigger epic (something which later writers such as Robert Jordan, L. Sprague de Camp and Andrew Lyon would use to add their own version of the mythos.)
“In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That’s why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.” (Letter, March 10, 1936)
Most of the tales in this first volume were published in 1934.
What those who are only aware of Conan through the Schwarzenegger films may be surprised by here is the darker and multi-textured nature of the prose Conan. The written Conan is so much more multi-faceted than the 1980’s film versions, and is, to my mind, a richer experience.
So: a welcome version of Howard’s tales which hopefully will introduce many to his work. It is clearly meant for those who want something more than the taster stories of Conan the Barbarian, but are not sure about the luxury editions nor want to spend time reading alternative versions of the same tale. If you own the earlier editions then there is nothing to be gained by these: however, for those wanting to be introduced to Conan, these may be an access point.
Mark Yon, October 2011