Conan the Berserker by Robert E. Howard
Published by Gollancz, November 2011
ISBN: 978 0 575 11502 6
Review by Mark Yon
And so to Conan: the Midlife Crisis, in the second volume of this re-released series, publishing the original Conan tales in chronological order. The first of the three volumes, Conan the Destroyer, was reviewed HERE, with Volume Three, Conan the Indomitable, to follow. Here Conan is at his most vibrant, less the inexperienced youth of the earlier tales and not yet the grimmer, more sombre King of Aquilonia in the later tales.
Of the twenty five original tales and after the fourteen tales of Volume One, this time around we have a mere seven, starting with The People of the Black Circle and ending with Beyond the Black River (titles in red are those in Volume One, those in green here in Volume Two):
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
Though the number of tales are fewer, there are the longer novellas here of The People of the Black Circle and Red Nails.
This will make many fans happy: both tales are regarded as classic Conan. People of the Black Circle is often regarded as one of the best Conan tales, a story of the countries of Vendhya and Ghulistan (though we would perhaps call them India and Afghanistan respectively today). It is, at its heart, a revenge tale, the tale of Devi Yashmana who seeks revenge for the death of her brother, Bunda Chand, the King of Vendhya. Conan kidnaps the Devi, intending to use her as hostage in return for seven of his men. Together Conan and the Devi create a grudging alliance. Conan wants his men back, Devi wants to kill the Black Seers of Yimsha. We later discover Kerim Shah, a secret agent who killed Bunda on the orders of King Yezdigerd of Turan.
Similarly, the novella Red Nails is also regarded as a classic, as well as the last tale written by Howard, published posthumously in 1936. (It’s also available as a free download HERE from Gollancz.) It’s a tale of sorcery, evil rulers and societal breakdown and decay as Conan discovers the Aztec-like ‘lost city’ of Xuchotl. We meet Valeria (who some may recognise, but in a different form, as the love interest in Schwarzenegger’s Conan film Conan the Barbarian) a pirate mercenary and swordswoman. Escaping from having killed a guard who has attempted to rape her, she is pursued by Conan. They both end up in the ‘lost’ city of Xuchotl, where they meet rulers, sorceresses and the Tecuhltli people. After attempted sacrifices, betrayal and various adventures, it does not end well for Xuchotl, but Conan and Valeria leave together. This tale is perhaps the one that shows greatest poignancy as, by the end, its telling shows that there was so much more untold potential before Howard’s untimely death.
Those two tales make this collection worth the price of admission, though the other tales are pretty good too. Of these, The Slithering Shadow is a suitably monstrous Weird Tale of desert cities and the demon Thog, whilst The Pool of the Black One is a fast-moving pirate tale that involves Conan and tall dark figures around a pool with mutational powers. The last tale in this collection, Beyond the Black River, is almost Western-like in its telling, and portrays Conan at Fort Tuscelan on the Black River rescuing the settlers and fighting the Picts. It is suitably violent and exciting, with sacrifices made by man and beast.
So we have tales from a broad range of locales, at sea, in what we would call the Caribbean, in Europe, Asia and South America. As I said previously, this collection is perhaps for those who have not come across the original Conan tales before. It holds up to the rest of the collection admirably and gives a reader a chance to read the originals. It could quite happily be read without reading the previous collection (Conan the Destroyer) or the last one (Conan the Indomitable, due in December 2011). However, I suspect that if you like the energy and enthusiasm of this one, you’ll want to read the others.
Mark Yon, November 2011