Showing posts sorted by relevance for query The Tower of the Elephant. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query The Tower of the Elephant. Sort by date Show all posts

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Conan - The Tower of the Elephant

Robert E. Howard scholars typically cite “The Tower of the Elephant” as the best representation of Conan the Cimmerian literature. The story first appeared in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales. It later appeared in the 1946 Arkham collection Skull-Face and Others, the 1953 Gnome Press hardcover The Coming of Conan, the 1968 Lancer paperback Conan, and a 1975 hardcover collection by Donald Grant simply titled The Tower of the Elephant. It was adapted into comic form three times, Conan the Barbarian #4, Savage Sword of Conan #24, and Conan #20-22

The story begins with a young Conan arriving in Arenjun, the “City of Thieves”. It’s in this city that he overhears a conversation involving some drunk men talking about theft and coveted wealth. A boisterous Kothian mentions a place called The Tower of the Elephant, and the impossibility of ever robbing it of its vast riches. Conan, who loves a sparring challenge, disputes the notion, matching wits with the Kothian over the possibility. Agitated with the conversation, a candle is extinguished and Conan quickly kills the loud-mouthed Kothian under cover of darkness. Challenge accepted - rob the Tower of the Elephant!

At night, Conan begins his attempt to climb the smooth-walled tower. He finds that the structure itself is surrounded by rings of thick shrubbery, like a grassy moat. Surprisingly, another thief, a seasoned pro named Taurus, “Prince of Thieves”, has the same plan to infiltrate the tower and runs into Conan. Taurus kills deadly, fierce lions with poison gas and Conan strangles one of the guards. Using a grappling hook, both Taurus and Conan ascend the tower and enter through a window. It’s here that Taurus is somehow poisoned in a doorway, and Conan finds an alien being named Yag-kosha. This alien explains to Conan that he became imprisoned in the tower by an evil sorcerer named Yara. For Conan to capture the riches, and a famed ruby elephant heart, he must contend with the sorcerer, a giant, hideous spider, and figure out a way to free Yag-kosha.

Howard’s endless imagination just flows onto the page with this wild, action-packed adventure. It quickly pulls you into the story with just a few opening paragraphs. The author's prose is just so smooth and stimulating, providing excellent plot development and pacing. 

Considering this is a tale concerning a savage, alpha male, Howard is still able to create a colorful, cautionary tale about greed and its effect on the human condition. Metaphorically, Yag-kosha could be the billionaire trapped by his own wealth. Or the idea that the upper class is a very ugly thing. Conan’s role as the anti-hero, purely a rouge scoundrel that's self-serving, justly receives his comeuppance. Regardless of its social, not-so-preachy commentary, "The Tower of the Elephant" is an enjoyable, rousing pulp sword-and-sorcery tale that lives up to its long-lasting legacy. It doesn’t get much better than this. Highly recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Conan - Conan

Many of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian short-stories were out of print for decades, or had steep auction house pricing that prevented casual fans from reading them. Aside from one Ace paperback, and a series of Gnome Press hardcovers, these previously published stories existed in back-issues of Weird Tales

Beginning in the late 1960s, Lancer began publishing affordable paperbacks collecting these original Robert E. Howard published Conan stories. In addition, these collections also included unpublished Conan manuscripts and new material edited or authored by Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. You can journey down any pulp sword-and-sorcery rabbit-hole and read more about the development of these Lancer paperbacks, the discovery of manuscripts by Howard heirs' literary agent Glenn Lord, and both the praise and criticism of Conan pastiche writing, which is included in these Lancer editions. 

I want to simply highlight the stories including in each paperback, beginning with the very first Lancer edition aptly titled Conan. The collection was first published in 1967 and features a Frank Frazetta cover. The paperback, weighing in at just 221 pages, includes two of Howard's most respected and well-known Conan stories, “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Rogues in the House”, with the latter selection influencing the book's cover art. 

“Introduction” - As I alluded to earlier, the development of the Lancer paperbacks is a much talked about event that populates the sword-and-sorcery community. In this five page introduction, author L. Sprague de Camp introduces readers to Robert E. Howard with a brief biography. He also cites a specific letter that Howard wrote to fellow author Clark Ashton Smith explaining how the Conan character was created. In addition, de Camp analyzes the term “heroic fantasy” and how it came to fruition. 

“Letter from Robert E. Howard to P. Schuyler Miller” - This is four and a half pages showcasing a letter that Howard wrote to the science-fiction writer and educator Miller. In the letter, Howard explains the Hyborian nations and comparisons to medieval Europe, Asia, and Africa. The letter also displays Howard's explanation of Conan as the king of Aquilonia for many years. This letter was originally published in the The Coming of Conan hardcover by Gnome Press in 1953.

“The Hyborian Age, Part 1” - Howard's 14-page essay outlining the entire Hyborian kingdom and the rise and fall of the various cultures that make up the sprawling landscape. This was originally contained in the The Phantagraph in 1936, and subsequently in the volumes The Coming of Conan, King Kull, and Skull-Face and Others.

“The Thing in the Crypt” - Some find fault that this book, which is a celebration of Robert E. Howard's Conan creation, offers a non-Howard work as the first fictional story in the collection. “The Thing in the Crypt” was authored by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, but the reason it is the first actual story in the collection is because the books, edited by Carter and de Camp, are a road map of Conan's chronological life. This story features Conan as a teenager who just escaped a slave pen after being captured after a raid in Asgard. Later, there is a story that Bjorn Nayberg authored (with assists from Carter and de Camp), “Legions of the Dead”, that predates the events in this story. It is found in Conan the Swordsman. In “The Thing in the Crypt”, Conan finds a cave containing a mummified corpse holding a sword. When he takes the sword, the mummy comes to life and the two battle. This story also influenced a similar scene in the Conan the Barbarian film. “The Thing in the Crypt” first appears in this story collection. 

“The Tower of the Elephant” - This first appeared in the March, 1933 issue of Weird Tales. A young Conan arrives in Arenjun and overhears a conversation about the wealth and riches contained in a tall structure deemed The Tower of the Elephant. Always looking for thieving opportunities, Conan climbs the tower with the help of another thief, Taurus. Conan discovers cosmic horror inside the tower and fights to escape. Howard’s endless imagination just flows onto the page with this wild, action-packed adventure. It quickly pulls you into the story with just a few opening paragraphs. The author's prose is just so smooth and stimulating, providing excellent plot development and pacing.

“The Hall of the Dead” - This was a fragmented Conan the Cimmerian document created by Howard and then re-worked by L. Sprague de Camp. This version was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction's February 1967 issue. Like many other stories, the era of “The Hall of the Dead” is set during Conan's thieving years, around 18-20ish. It picks up when Conan enters an abandoned, ancient city called Larsha. In a hot-pursuit is a group of Zamorian soldiers who have been assigned to arrest Conan for theft. As Conan explores this abandoned city, he teams up with another thief as the two fight giant slugs and other baddies that are protecting gold within this abandoned city. There's nothing to really dislike about “The Hall of the Dead”, but loyalist complaints favor Howard's original version, which is shorter and features some differences in Nestor's actions in the story and the disappearance of the giant slug. In essence, I felt the story as a whole, regardless of writer, effectively placed Conan in a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting of an abandoned city, albeit a very short visit, and that was very rewarding. 

“The God in the Bowl” - This Robert E. Howard story wasn't published in the author's lifetime. It was rejected by pulp magazine Weird Tales, and after Howard's death, went undiscovered until 1951. It was then edited by L. Sprague de Camp and first published in Space Science-Fiction's September, 1952 issue. The premise reveals that “thief” Conan accepts a job from Nemedia's Governor's son to break into an antique house to steal a precious diadem. This diadem is being kept in a sarcophagus that was apparently discovered in the dark realm of Stygia. However, there is a monster lurking in the house and and the overnight clerk is found dead. The story has a really unique flavor for a Conan story and nearly borders on detective-fiction. Overall, I can recommend “The God in the Bowl”, but there are plenty of other Conan stories you should be reading before this one.

“Rogues in the House” - This story first appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in January, 1934. That same year, it was also featured in a short story collection, Terror by Night, published by Selwyn and Blount. The premise has Conan being assisted by an aristocrat to escape prison. In a series of wild events, Conan, the aristocrat, and a priest are trapped inside of a large house. The house contains a number of deadly traps used to enslave and kill the priest's political rivals. But, this story also influenced the Conan paperback's front cover with Conan battling Thak, an ape-like creature that prowls the house. This story is one of my all-time favorites by Howard and is filled with political intrigue, action, and savage violence. A must read.

“The Hand of Nergal” - Originally a fragmented story authored by Howard  in the 1930s, Lin Carter completed the manuscript and titled it. Along with appearances in Conan, “The Hand of Nergal” was also featured in The Conan Chronicles and Beyond the Gates of Dream. In the story, Conan is a mercenary serving Turan. In the heat of battle, Conan is battling these crazy giant bats when he nearly falls unconscious. Thankfully, Conan had discovered a strange amulet days before, which helps to repel the bats. Conan meets a female warrior and the two of them journey to the city of Yaralet to battle the sorcerer responsible for conjuring up these crazy bats. I really enjoyed this story and found Carter's stroke of science-fiction and fantasy a great blend with the more “on the nose” carnage that Howard's Conan typically creates. The Carter and Howard blend worked well, in my opinion, on the Kull stories, and you get that same sense of adventure, dark sorcery, and utter doom in this story.

“The City of Skulls” - This paperback collection is the first appearance of this story, which was originally titled “Chains of Shamballah” in the first printing's table of contents. This is one of only two stories in the collection that is authored by both Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp, void of any Robert E. Howard writing. In this story, Conan's military unit is massacred, leaving only himself, his friend Juma, and a princess alive. The three are taken captive and forced across mountains, through bitter cold winds, and into a warm jungle called Shamballah, the City of Skulls. It's an epic story with Conan and Juma eventually sold into slavery aboard a ship and the princess being promised to a Toad-God-Thing. The story locations are described so well and thrust these characters – unwillingly – into the heart of madness with high altitudes and low temperatures. Mix in the ruthless rowing expedition as testaments to Conan's internal fortitude to soldier on. That's why we read these harrowing adventure tales. Carter and de Camp can tell a great story and I feel like “The City of Skulls” is a worthy addition to this stellar Conan collection. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Conan - Queen of the Black Coast

Along with “The Tower of the Elephant” and “The Frost-Giant's Daughter”, “Queen of the Black Coast” is one of the most praised Robert E. Howard stories starring Conan the Cimmerian. It was originally published in Weird Tales in May, 1934. The story was reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader #8 in November 1948. It was collected in The Coming of Conan (Gnome Press, 1953), Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer, 1969), The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz, 2000) and later as comic book adaptations by both Marvel and Dark Horse. 

Conan sailing the seas was something hinted at in “The City of Skulls”, “The Pool of the Black One”, then again at the end of “Shadows in the Moonlight”. Obviously, the hero conquered the high seas as a pirate, and nothing illustrates that part of Conan's life better than “Queen of the Black Coast”. 

The story begins with Conan fleeing the law in Argos. Conan explains later that his friend killed someone defending a girl, and after going on the run, the magistrate demands that Conan provide his friend's location. Instead of providing information about his friend, Conan kills the magistrate. In an effort to avoid his pursuers, Conan demands passage on the Argus, a trading barge. When the Argus crew refuses to allow Conan to board, he threatens to kill the captain and his crew. Conan then befriends the ship's captain, a guy named Tito. 

The story's title comes to fruition when Belit arrives, a gorgeous female pirate commanding the Tigress. Her clashing with Conan's crew in Kush is a violent, epic struggle as the Argos crew is annihilated by Belit's black pirates. However, she finds Conan's fighting skills to be superb, peaking her interest in the adventurer. Belit is sexually attracted to Conan and soon the two become lovers as they ravage Stygian coastlines as pirates of the Tigress. Conan is deemed “Amra”, meaning “Lion.”

On the river Zarkheba, Conan and Belit discover an ancient tower in the jungle. After rotating the tower, they find a wealth of treasures, including a cursed necklace for Belit. Soon, subhuman creatures (hyena men?) and a winged demon appear to slaughter the Tigress's crew. The necklace creates madness for Belit and after Conan's lone departure to kill a monster, he returns to find her corpse hanging from the ship. 

There is a lot happening within this short story, mostly death, destruction, and total carnage. The swordplay becomes nearly grotesque as brains are cracked and bodies are cleaved in half. But, Howard's violent storytelling is a necessity to convey the jungle horrors that befall Belit and Conan. It is gruesome, but still remains unique in its avoidance of any typical Conan tropes.

“Queen of the Black Coast” presents something unusual for Conan – a true love. This love interest is more powerful than that of Valeria (“Red Nails”, Blood of the Serpent) and Olivia (“Shadows in the Moonlight”). While readers don't partake in the relationship itself, they are there for the beginning. Belit's attraction to Conan is nearly hypnotic, submitting to the hero despite the number of crewmen she commands and the overall superiority of her ship. Conan instantly feels the attraction and is magnetized by this “She-Devil”. 

Howard's story is among the upper echelon of Conan tales and certainly deserves the accolades heaped upon it. This is an adventure story for the ages, but also a horror tale. The combination of genres is exciting, riveting, and completely awe-inspiring. This is the Conan story you need to read. Highest of recommendations.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Conan - The City of Skulls

In the very first edition of the Lancer Conan (1967) paperback, the table of contents lists a Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp story “Chains of Shamballah”. But, on page 189 the story title appears as “The City of Skulls”, and in future editions of the book, both the TOC and page 189 both lists “The City of Skulls”. It's one of those oddities in Conan literature. But, drilling down to the review of the story, this is only one of two stories in Conan that is authored by both Carter and de Camp. The other story is “The Thing in the Crypt”. All of the remaining stories in the collection are combinations of Robert E. Howard/Carter or de Camp. The story is also included in Sphere's 1989 omnibus The Conan Chronicles (pictured).

Like “The Hand of Nergal”, Conan is serving as a mercenary soldier for Turan's military. His detachment has been assigned the duty of escorting Princess Zosara to her wedding date with a powerful nomad. As the entourage crosses the plains at the base of a large, and snowy, mountain range, they are overrun by a tribe of savage warriors. Conan's entire squad is massacred, leaving him with two survivors, his friend Juma and the Princess Zosara. 

In an epic, short-lived 20ish pages, the three are forced through bitter cold winds, across the mountains, and into a warm jungle environment called Shamballah, the City of Skulls. It's here that Zosara is promised to a Toad-God-Thing named Jalung Thongpa and Juma and Conan are sold into slave labor aboard a ship. In a violent, brutal struggle, Conan is forced to row for days as he's whipped by a slave master and nearly starved. In an upheaval, Conan and Juma escape the ship and head back to save Zosara. 

In a book that contains Howard classics like “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Rogues in the House”, I'm surprised at how much enjoyment the two Carter/de Camp stories brought me. “The City of Skulls” feels epic, which is really impossible considering it's 33 pages. The story locations are described so well and thrust these characters – unwillingly – into the heart of madness with high altitudes and low temperatures. Mix in the ruthless rowing expedition as testaments to Conan's internal fortitude to soldier on. That's why we read these harrowing adventure tales. Carter and de Camp can tell a great story and I feel like “The City of Skulls” is a worthy addition to this stellar Conan collection. Recommended. 

* An interesting addition to the story is the introduction of a regular character in Juma. His backstory is explained in detail, placing him on the same path as Conan in terms of tragic childhood and harsh lessons in the terrifying wastelands of the Hyborian Age. Juma is featured in both Conan the Buccaneer and Conan the Hero novels. I believe he is also featured in many issues of Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan

** “The City of Skulls” was adapted into comic form in the Savage Sword of Conan #59 and very loosely in Conan the Barbarian #37.

*** The Conan: The Adventurer animated television show used a portion of this story, specifically the "Ship of Blood" chapter for Season 1/Episode 2/"Blood Brother". The episode was written by Christy Marx, who had previously provided comic writing for Red Sonja, Conan the Barbarian, and Savage Sword of Conan. The show swaps out the story's character of Juma with an ongoing character named Zula. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Conan - Blood of the Serpent

S.M. Stirling (Stephen Michael Stirling, b. 1953) is a Canadian-American science-fiction and fantasy author. His literary work includes the Draka, Fifth Millennium, Shadowspawn, and Emberverse series titles. He also co-authored The General series with David Drake and teamed with Jerry Pournelle for two Falkenberg's Legion books. My first experience with Stirling is his recent Conan novel, Blood of the Serpent, published by Titan Books in 2022. It is the first official Conan novel since 2011's novelization of Conan the Barbarian

Blood of the Serpent takes place after the events in Conan the Buccaneer and before the novella “Red Nails". Conan, in his late 30s, has joined up with the Free Companions working for the leader, Zarallo. In the book's opening pages, Conan is in a bar in the southwestern portion of Stygia. It's here that he first sets eyes on Valeria, a female privateer in the Red Brotherhood. After Conan saves a gambling man's life, Valeria herself runs afoul of a reckless Stygian commander. In quick fashion, Valeria wins the fight and embarrasses the leader. 

The book's first adventure has Conan, Valeria and other mercenaries guiding a Stygian shipment of supplies and slaves to one of their massive mines. In an odd twist, Conan and Valeria must protect the Stygians when the slaves revolt, kill off their masters and run the mercenaries off. Conan admits that if he were enslaved, he would have done the same. With the slave uprising, the Stygian command is fragmented, making a perfect getaway for Conan and Valeria to conduct a gold heist. After some fights with crocodiles and other reptiles and animals, the gold heist doesn't quite work out. But, this sets up the next part of the narrative when Valeria is forced to kill the Stygian commander she skirmished with earlier. She then flees on her own, but Conan learns that the commander's brother is going to trail her, hoping for a vengeful surprise kill away from prying eyes and allies. 

The second half of the novel has Conan battling Abomean warriors deep in the jungle. He makes love to a native, frees her people, and then aligns with the Abomeans. There's also battles with apelike creatures that were right out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, but I received vibes that closely compared with that of Thak, the ape-man creatures that Conan fought in “Rogues in the House”. There were some odd moments with Conan and the native girl swinging on vines through the jungle, but eventually the book pairs right up to the opening paragraphs of “Red Nails” with Conan finding Valeria. 

Many have compared this novel to the Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney Jr.) Conan books, and that might be a fair comparison. But, Stirling is rougher around the edges, incorporating lots of gore and ultra-violence. He's far from Robert E. Howard (isn't everybody?), but still can tell a quality story that has the overall feel of Conan. I would have preferred the titular hero to do less talking, have a little more bravado compared to Valeria, and be more authoritative. I don't believe de Camp, Howard, or Carter's versions of Conan would have a return of the gold, but instead would have involved some way for the hero to lose it in a self-serving, selfish attempt to get rich quick.

I enjoyed Stirling's flashbacks to classic Conan adventures from the past. Conan recounts events from “Rogues in the House” and “Tower of the Elephant”, and I also really liked the purposeful continuity right into Howard's “Red Nails” novella. It is seamless, and maintains the same pace and formula that made that story so outstanding. As a bonus, the book even has “Red Nails” at the end to preserve one long story. If you bought the hardcover, there are also illustrations by Roberto De La Torre included. If you wanted to finish this particular portion of Conan's life, Roland Green's Conan and the Gods of the Mountain completes this story arc and dismisses Valeria's future participation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Conan - Shadows in Zamboula

The November, 1935 issue of Weird Tales featured “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula”, a Conan the Cimmerian story authored by Robert E. Howard. The story was later republished in the 1954 Gnome Press collection Conan the Barbarian and the 1968 Lancer paperback Conan the Wanderer as “Shadows in Zamboula”. The story was adapted to comic format in Savage Sword of Conan #14 (1976), and reprinted in Conan Saga #17 (1988) and The Savage Sword of Conan #2 (2008).

Conan finds himself horseless in the westernmost outpost of the Turanian Empire, Zamboula. This city, ruled by Jungir Khan and his mistress Nafertari (revealed in this story) serves as a diverse meeting place for traders and drifters. But, Conan hears a tale about a mysterious inn owned by a man named Aram Baksh. Rumor has it that newcomers to the city fall prey to the innkeeper, disappearing to parts unknown while their belongings are later sold in the marketplace. Conan, never backing down from a challenge (see "Tower of the Elephant"), wants to learn the secret of this dreadful place.

The Cimmerian hero soon approaches Baksh about spending the night at his inn. One of the odd things that Conan learns is that at sundown, no one ventures into Zamboula's streets, not even the beggars. Shown to his room, Conan pulls the curtain on the quieting town, locks his door, and falls asleep with his sword in hand. He awakens in darkness and discovers an intruder has unlocked the door and forced himself into the room. Conan quickly kills the intruder and discovers he is a black Darfari slave with teeth filed down to fangs. This man is a flesh-eating cannibal! 

Conan learns that Baksh has been selling his guests to the cannibals, then selling their belongings at the marketplace. This is why at dark, Zamboula lies in a quiet stupor as Baksh's disturbing transactions take place. With sword in hand, Conan journeys onto the dark streets and finds three cannibals carrying a woman towards a torturous bone pit. Slaying the psychos, Conan teams up with the girl to find her kidnapped lover (another victim for the flesh-eaters!) and they do battle with an evil priest named Totrasmek.

Robert E. Howard was really on top of his game with this eerie, violent tale. There's so much atmosphere in the early going with Conan discovering the intruder and venturing into the quiet streets. The author's vivid descriptions of cannibals, and the evil magic of Totrasmek, possessed enough imagery to rival the best of H.P. Lovecraft and other pulpy horror of the era (or even today for that matter). The overall theme – Conan accepting a challenge for money – always has a twist with these stories and this one was no different. The thrill-ride to arrive at the surprise twist was pure pleasure. This is my kind of Conan story, highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Conan - The Hand of Nergal

The Conan paperback published by Lancer in 1967 is a treasure trove of excellent short stories starring Robert E. Howard's brawny hero Conan the Cimmerian. Along with Howard shorts like “Rogues in the House”, “Tower of the Elephant”, and “The God in the Bowl”, the book also features stories outlined or half-completed by Howard and finished by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. One of the second to last stories in Conan is “The Hand of Nergal”. It was originally a fragmented story authored by Howard  in the 1930s. Lin Carter completed the story and titled it. Along with appearances in Conan, “The Hand of Nergal” was also featured in The Conan Chronicles (1989) and Beyond the Gates of Dream (1969). 

What I really enjoy about Conan stories and novels is that the environment and time period is variable. Conan could be a thief, soldier, gladiator, or royalty. In this story, Conan is a mercenary warrior fighting in Turan's civil war. Serving Turan, Conan is thrust into a planned battle to defeat rebellious forces led by a guy named Khan. In the heat of the fight, an army of large, demonic bats swoops down to the battlefield and begin to attack the Turan forces. 

Among the chaos of death and destruction, Conan locks into a fierce battle with one of the bats. Magically, the bat nearly places Conan into a cold-induced coma, but a strange amulet that the hero picked up days before seems to repel the creature. Later, Conan meets a bloody and battered female and they are ushered to the city of Yaralet to assist with killing the rebel leader Khan. 

Through a sorcerer, Conan learns that Khan controls these bat creatures using a precious stone known as Hand of Nergal. Conan and others eventually find Khan's throne room, deep in the bowels of a cave system hidden under the city, and a final battle ensues. There's a touch of cosmic horror and a lot of magic as Conan's forces eventually break Khan's curse and free Turan (I think). 

I really enjoyed this story and found Carter's stroke of science-fiction and fantasy a great blend with the more “on the nose” carnage that Howard's Conan typically creates. The Carter and Howard chemistry worked well, in my opinion, on the Kull stories, and I got that same sense of adventure, dark sorcery, and utter doom here. The balance of brawn and pure strength contending with magic is a recurring theme in Conan literature, and this story is a showcase of that strong storytelling. 

Many Robert E. Howard readers and fans aren't thrilled with the pastiche authors like Carter and de Sprague, but I'm definitely enjoying my voyage through all of these old paperback collections. It is pure escapism and I'm loving it because of stories like “The Hand of Nergal”.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Conan - The Scarlet Citadel

The January, 1933 issue of Weird Tales featured the Robert E. Howard story “The Scarlet Citadel”. It was later included in the King Conan (1953) and Conan the Usurper (1967) collections. The story was published more recently in The Conan Chronicles Vol. 2 (2001) and Conan of Cimmeria Vol. 1 (2003).

“The Scarlet Citadel” features Howard's famed Conan the Cimmerian in a much later period of his life. Readers discover that Conan is now an older, wiser warrior that has taken the crown of Aquilonia. King Conan receives a message from the king of Ophir claiming that the emperor of the nearby region Koth is threatening his kingdom. Ophir needs Aquilonia's assistance, so King Conan generously leads an army of 5,000 knights to fight Koth's invasion. 

Upon arrival, Conan discovers that it was a trap. Both Ophir and Koth's leaders were working together to ensnare the hero. Their secret weapon is Tsotha-Lanti, an evil sorcerer that captures Conan and places him in a deep, multi-chambered dungeon in a high tower. It is here that Conan experiences horrifying creatures that have been created or altered by the “mad scientist” Tsotha-Lanti. His biggest rival is a giant, slithering serpent that seems to guard the dungeon's cavernous hallways. 

In an attempt to escape, Conan frees a powerful wizard named Pelias. In a short backstory, Pelias explains to Conan that he was a rival of Tsotha-Lanti before being captured and imprisoned for ten years by the mad sorcerer. As the story continues, there's a prison escape, Conan riding a flying dragon (?), and an epic showdown as Conan and Pelias extract their revenge.

This story is on par with “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Rogues in the House” in terms of pure storytelling excellence. The escapism, extraordinary sense of adventure, and suspenseful dungeon horror are key elements that catapult the story into the higher echelons of Howard's literary showcase. His attention to detail grips the reader with an ominous overtone that promises nothing short of death and bloody destruction. Howard's lengthy paragraph describing Tsotha's castle overlooking the city, its lone road with steep, daunting hills on each side, makes for an impregnable tomb. This description makes Conan's dazzling, unorthodox escape more powerful and entertaining. 

As a fan of Conan's younger years – thieving, wandering, soldiering – I neglect to read many of his royalty adventures. As King Conan, “The Scarlet Citadel” is about as good as it gets. This older and wiser hero was just a real pleasure to read and understand. As an aside, this story was adapted by Roy Thomas and Frank Brunner in Savage Sword of Conan #30 (1977) and in King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel (2011). I highly recommend reading the original story and then the comic adaptations if you need more visuals. Howard's imagery is enough, in my humble opinion. Highly recommdended!