Showing posts with label Fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fantasy. Show all posts

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Conan - The Devil in Iron

Robert E. Howard's Conan short “The Devil in Iron” first appeared in the August 1934 issue of Weird Tales. It was later reprinted in paperback by Lancer in 1968 as a part of the Conan the Wanderer collection, later reprinted by Ace with a cover painted by Boris Vallejo. The story was adapted into comic form in the October 1976 issue of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian with a cover also painted by Vallejo. 

The story begins with a Yuetshi man deposited on the coast of Xapur, an abandoned island, after a storm disrupts his fishing. When exploring the island, a thunderous boom echoes causing the man to go investigate the source of the sound. He stumbles on a large domed structure that has been broken open. Inside, the man tries to take a shiny dagger from a giant corpse (mummified?). The corpse awakens and kills the man. 

Like a lot of Conan stories, there's a political war waging. A lord by the name of Agha is ordered by Turan's king to quell a recent uprising near the border. A team of guerrilla fighters, made up of kozaki bandits, is pillaging Turan's interior. Their leader is Conan. An elaborate trap is formed that places a young maiden named Octavia on the abandoned island of Xapur (the one now housing a giant!). Here, they will lead Conan to Octavia in a snare that will allow Agha and his soldiers to hunt and kill the barbarian. It sounds way more complicated than it really is, but there are numerous plot holes here that Howard doesn't shore up. 

Off-page events transpire and the trap is in motion. Octavia is on the island. Conan sails to the island. The two run into the giant. Fairly simple. Conan quickly learns that the giant is made of iron (thus the story title) and that he will need something other than brute strength to outwit the behemoth. By the story's end, Conan has “taken” the girl's kisses and makes a path to lead her to his tent. Maybe they will make marshmallows?

If you can sense my tone, this wasn't one of my favorites Conan stories authored by Howard. The abandoned island producing a city was really bizarre and felt rushed. I'm not sure if the “Dagon” featured here has any connection with H.P. Lovecraft lore, but this Dagon is the name of a city, not a deity. The giant's colossal nature, or threat, didn't seem to affect me much after reading Conan's battles with far more menacing beasts. This was a boss-fight that didn't quite pan out. I recommend a pass on "The Devil in Iron".

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Adventures of Red Sonja - Volume 01

In the pulp magazine pages of Magic Carpet’s January 1934 issue readers will discover Robert E. Howard’s sword-mistress Red Sonya of Rogatine. She is the star of Howard’s short story “The Shadow of the Vulture”, described as a tall Russian warrior woman who fights with a dagger, two pistols, and a sabre. While writing for Marvel, Roy Thomas obtained a copy of the story from Glenn Lord, the literary agent for Robert E. Howard’s estate. Thomas, collaborating with artist Barry Smith, modified the story to introduce a new red-haired swordswoman, Red Sonja, in the pages of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian #23 and #24 (1970). The rest is history.

To celebrate the early era of Red Sonja, Dynamite Entertainment acquired the rights to some of the character’s appearances in Marvel. These appearances are collected in a three-volume set titled The Adventures of Red Sonja. I borrowed a digital copy of Vol. 1, which collects the character’s appearances in Marvel Feature #1-#7, all published in 1975, plus the “Red Sonja” story from Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #1 (1974). Up until the Marvel Feature issues, the character had only appeared nine total times – five in Conan the Barbarian (1970), twice in The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian (1974), and twice in Kull and the Barbarians (1975). So, in essence, this collection feels like a terrific landing spot for new Red Sonja readers.

The collection begins with a three-page introduction written by Roy Thomas explaining how he created the character from Howard’s original “The Shadow of the Vulture” story. This intro is a great timeline of the early appearances of Red Sonja and Roy’s collaborations with artists like Neal Adams, Barry Smith, Ernie Chan (Ernue Chua), Dick Giordano, and of course, Frank Thorne. 

Roy’s commentary is followed by the eight-page story “Red Sonja”, which was originally published in Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #1 (1974). The original story was black and white (reprinted in color in Marvel Feature #1), and this new version is colorized by Glass House Color Design. I like all three presentations, but I find myself enjoying this new colorized version (why do I feel guilty though?). The artwork by Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams, and Ernie Chan is really something special. The story has Red Sonja on a mission to earn money working for King Ghannif in a teeming city state in Hyrkania. But the King wants to add the fiery-haired She-Devil into his harem, which backfires in a big way. Sonja is also forced into a fight with the King’s albino musclebound bodyguard. 

Marvel Feature #1 follows with Thomas using an unfinished Robert E. Howard manuscript called “The Temple of Abomination” to frame his eponymous Red Sonja story. That story, originally published in the 1974 Donald M. Grant hardcover Tigers of the Sea, featured Howard’s Conan-like hero Cormac Mac Art. But, Thomas’s version has Red Sonja in a rural stretch of Nemedia forest when she stumbles upon an abandoned temple. Inside, she frees an old man chained to the wall and battles a small army of man-goats (yes man-goats!) that are sacrificing people to a slithering monstrosity in a pit. The art was created by Dick Giordano, which according to Thomas, was a guy who loved drawing women.

Some of Red Sonja’s best presentations are through the creative hands of artist Frank Thorne. He collaborated with Bruce Jones on Marvel Feature #2 “Blood of the Hunter”, #3 “Balek Lives”, #4 "Eyes of the Gorgon”, and #5 “The Bear God Walks!”. Of these stories, I found “Eyes of the Gorgon” to be the best of the bunch. Thomas returned for #6 “Beware the Sacred Sons of Set” and that story's continuation in #7 “The Battle of the Barbarians”. This last story features Red Sonja competing with Conan and Belit on a quest to recover a page from the coveted Book of Skelos.

The major complaint this volume receives is that the last story, “The Battle of the Barbarians”, ends with a cliffhanger. The story isn’t continued in this volume because Dynamite didn’t have printing rights to Conan the Barbarian. The story was continued in Conan the Barbarian #68, published by Marvel in 1970. That story, which also featured Howard’s hero King Kull (and Brule), wrapped up the arc introduced by Thomas in Marvel Feature #6. So, it’s quite a letdown to get this far into the volume and discover it unfinished. But the second volume of The Adventures of Red Sonja features a written recap of those events.  

Overall, I’m delighted with his volume and found it a nostalgic and enjoyable romp through the ages with Red Sonja. If you are interested in more, The Adventures of Red Sonja Volume 2 features Red Sonja #1-#7 (1977) and Volume 3 features issues #8-#14. Dynamite also released a volume titled The Further Adventures of Red Sonja which features more appearances of her in later issues of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Kane - Darkness Weaves

In 1970, Knoxville, TN native Karl Edward Wagner authored a short novel titled Darkness Weaves with Many Shades. It was published by Powell as a “gothic fantasy” with cover art by Bill Hughes. By 1978, Wagner had revised the book as Darkness Weaves. It was published by Coronet in Europe with a cover by Chris Achilleos. It was also published in a more popular edition the same year by Warner Books with an equally great cover by Frank Frazetta. That version was reprinted again in 1983. The ebook version was published by Gateway in 2014. The novel is also included in a large omnibus titled Gods in Darkness, which was published in 2002 by Night Shade Books with a cover by Ken Kelly.

Darkness Weaves introduces a character named Kane, who is best described by some fans as the very best elements of Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone. On page 163 of this 292-page paperback, Kane’s murky origin tale is told.

“Kane was one of the first true men - born into a hostile world of strange ancient beings. In this dawn world of humanity, Kane defied the insane god who had created his race – an experiment that had turned out far from the creator’s expectations. This demented elder god dabbled at creating a race of mindless creatures whose only existence would be to amuse and delight him. He almost succeeded, until Kane rebelled against this stifling paradise and spurred the young race to independent will. He killed his own brother, who sought to oppose his heresy, thus bringing violent death as well as rebellion to the infant mankind. Disgusted at the failure of his depraved design, the god abandoned his creation. And for his act of defiance, Kane was cursed with immortality – doomed to roam this world under the shadow of violence and death.”

Wagner’s villain protagonist (yes Kane is an evil guy) is born out of the combination of Biblical prophecy found in the book of Genesis – that of Satan rebelling against God and falling from grace to a cursed oblivion and that of Cain, who committed the first sin in the Bible by murdering his brother Abel. Readers learn that Kane never ages and has a fast-healing factor that is like Marvel’s Wolverine. His wounds heal at a remarkably fast pace. While Kane can surely die (we think), his skill in combat is unprecedented. No one can best him in battle, so the fatal blow to head or heart never seems to occur. In one vivid series of images presented to an evil priestess (more on her later), readers see Kane battling through toppled towers, fire-scarred cities and engaged in combat with giant demons or running up castle stairways fleeing from werewolves. It is easy to gain this feeling of epic greatness associated with the character. There is a lot to unpack here, but the author brilliantly shields the reader from Kane’s detailed past. Instead, only one tale is to be told, and Darkness Weaves presents that story – two empires colliding as Kane wrestle’s control of a navy fleet.

Without giving too much of the story away, the general premise is that two men track down Kane in a coffin-filled, rain-drenched cave to make a proposal. An island federation known as the Thovnosian Empire is ruled by a monarch named Maril. There’s a backstory of family relations and betrayal that led to Maril torturing and supposedly killing his wife Effrel after she had an affair with his nephew. But the horribly mutilated wife secretly survived and is now preparing an awesome military campaign to crush Maril and take over the empire.

Kane has a connection to this empire because they formed the federation to defeat him. In his early buccaneering days, Kane ravished these island coasts with his army of cutthroat pirates. So, who better to lead Effrel’s navy fleet than Kane? If Kane accepts the job, his reward will be a hand in the spoils of war – his own island kingdom. But, Kane secretly is planning on helping Effrel win the war so he can eventually overthrow her.

This is an epic book despite its rather short length of less than 400-pages. Wagner sets the table with some world building while also presenting histories for the major characters that make up the two warring factions. While there is plenty of action, readers do need to exercise patience while the author builds to the grand finale. There are numerous side-plots featuring characters involved with each other, fighting with one another, spying on the campaigns, and ultimately betraying family and friends in a quest for greed. The violence is gore-soaked and barbaric, but nothing extremely graphic or disturbing.

Additionally, Wagner’s writing is a mix of fantasy and sword-and-sorcery. There’s a Lovecraft-like dark fiction etched into the finer details of the plot, mainly how Effrel has a secret alliance with an other-worldly cosmic horror. This part of the story involves sacrifices, pentagrams, body-swapping, and tentacles – lots of tentacles.

Darkness Weaves is one of the very best sword-and-sorcery novels I’ve read. While soaked in all of the 1970s weirdness, it still has a unique literary escapism that reaches Shakespeare-styled revenge-drama. Wagner is an incredible writer that doesn’t give too much away with his style and presentation. I can’t wait to read even more of these Kane novels and short stories.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Conan - The Thing in the Cave

We've proven time and again that nothing is really off the coffee table here at Paperback Warrior in terms of books. We've covered graphic novels, magazines, paperbacks, hardcovers, and even audiobooks. So, why not a Little Golden Book review?

Chances are you've probably held a Little Golden Book at some point in your life. There are thousands of them. The first one was published in 1942 as a project of Georges Duplaix, then head of Artists and Writers Guild Inc. as a follow-up to the publishing concept of A Children's History. At the end of the first year, Simon & Schuster had a runaway hit with 1.5 million books sold. In 1958, Simon & Schuster sold Little Golden Books to Western Publishing, which then later sold it to Random House. 

I remember owning a lot of second-hand Little Golden Books, including some that were Golden Melody Books that played songs. But, my fascination was on the Golden Books special line of male-oriented titles published as A Golden Super Adventure. These special books, published in the 1980s, focused on toy-line franchises that often shared an animated children's television show. Brands like Masters of the Universe, Princess of Power, Centurions, Mask, Defenders of the Earth, and Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers

As a fan of Conan, I stumbled upon the lone Golden Book dedicated to the barbarian hero, The Thing in the Cave. It was originally published in 1986 as part of the Golden Super Adventure line. The book's cover was painted by the great Gino D'Achille (Fu Manchu, Barsoom, Flashman) while the interior pages were illustrated by the equally great Dan Adkins (Doctor Strange, Eerie, Creepy). 

Conan fans may remember a short story titled “The Thing in the Crypt”, which was authored by Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp and first published in the 1967 Lancer paperback Conan. This Little Golden Book publication, The Thing in the Cave, is a reworking of that story. It was authored by Jack C. Harris, a prolific comic book author and editor that worked for DC Comics penning titles like Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Robin, and the graphic novel Batman: Castle of the Bat. After leaving DC, Harris freelanced for DC, Marvel, and Darkhorse while also working for a trade magazine for the licensing industry. It was here that Harris received a press release from Golden Books about a series of Masters of the Universe publications being created for the Golden Super Adventure line. Harris connected with a colleague that led him to penning a number of Golden Books including Masters of the Universe, Batman, Dino-Riders, Super Mario Bros., Garfield, and this Conan book.

I would encourage you to read my review for the original “The Thing in the Crypt” (or just read that story). This Golden Book variation stays mostly true to form, but retains some safety measures for the sake of the young reader. In this version, Conan uses the chains to crack the hardened ice, thus allowing the snarling wolves to simply fall away into oblivion. In the original story, these snarling wolves chase Conan to the cave. The cave itself is substituted for the more sinister-sounding “crypt”. Also, the giant sword-wielding monster isn't so much a mummy, but instead is simply an animated statue made from rock. 

At 25-colorful pages, this was a fun little visual jaunt into “The Thing in the Crypt”, a fun, yet criticized story inspired by Robert E. Howard's literary work (mostly because it is the first story in the Conan paperback and is missing REH). My guess is this Conan title was inspired by the many Golden Book publications featuring He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Nonetheless, this is a great collector's item and worth a couple of twenty-dollar bills for the pure nostalgia.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Raven #01 - Swordmistress of Chaos

As I cited in prior genre reviews here at Paperback Warrior, the 1970s was a fertile time for sword-and-sorcery to dominate pop-culture. The British publisher Corgi took advantage of the marketing explosion to offer a five-book series of genre titles called Raven. These aren't to be confused with the men's action-adventure series of espionage titles also called Raven, authored by Donald MacKenzie. Instead, these were bonafide sword-and-sorcery novels authored by Piccadilly Cowboy writer Angus Wells (Breed, Hawk) and horror and fantasy writer Robert Holdstock (Berserker, Night Hunter) using the pseudonym Richard Kirk. The first novel, Swordmistress of Chaos, was published by Corgi in 1978 with a cover by Chris Achilleos (Conan, Heavy Metal). Beginning in 1987, the series was published in the US by Ace using new covers by Luis Royo (Conan). 

Like the 1960s Conan paperbacks published by Lancer and edited by Lin Carter, the Raven books have a handy map at the front indicating a large body of water with two islands in the center, surrounded by places called The Frozen Peaks, The Lost Mountains, The Ice Wastes, The Lost Lands, etc. This sprawling kingdom is where the Raven novel takes place. In the far south is a tiny shoreline village called Lyland, lying in the Southern Kingdoms. It is here where the Raven origin story begins.

Su'an was a young girl when a large gang of Karhsaam slave-raiders invade her village. Her father is brutally tortured and killed and her mother is raped and murdered. Su'an is hauled off to a slave-pen that will be used for prostitutes in Karhsaam. These slave-raiders are led by a cruel warrior named Karl ir Donwayne. Thankfully, Su'an escapes her bonds one night and escapes the pen. As she's running across the tundra to flee her captors, she runs into a trap led by vicious snarling hounds. Just before she's re-captured, a band of outlaws led by a man called Spellbinder sweeps in to save her with the help of a large raven. Soon, Su'an is renamed Raven and told by the outlaw gang that she has a great destiny awaiting her. 

By page 40, Raven has spent over a year with Spellbinder and the outlaws perfecting her fighting skills. Her weapons of choice are sword, shield, and throwing stars that she keeps hooked to her belt. While she makes love to Spellbinder, readers quickly learn that Raven belongs to no man or woman. She is fiercely independent, making her character similar to that of Red Sonja

Over the course of this 170 page paperback, Raven's goal is to hunt down and kill Karl ir Donwayne. She discovers that he has joined forces with the Kraggs, the larger of the two islands sitting in the large body of water shown on the map. To get to him, the narrative takes Raven and Spellbinder on a ship to join a gang of Viking-esque raiders called Sea-Wolves. Raven has a sexual relationship with the Sea-Wolves leader, a cunning warrior named Gondar. Teaming with the Sea-Wolves, Raven must locate a sacred skull to gain access to Donwayne's location. The search for this skull makes up a large portion of the book's narrative, with the ragtag group journeying through a desert, navigating a harsh mountain pass, and ultimately fighting hideous Beastmen in a sweltering jungle. When the skull is found, the narrative switches to Raven and the group fighting the Kraggs. There is a side-story of a rival magician wanting revenge against Spellbinder as well as a number of one-on-one battles between Raven and various other combatants. 

Swordmistress of Chaos is an adult-oriented sword-and-sorcery novel that does feature some R-rated sex scenes. These are never as graphic as an adult-western like The Trailsman or Longarm, but still possesses some mature content. Raven not only has romantic encounters with Spellbinder and Gondar, but also two sessions with another female. While I've read that these Raven books are pure porn, nothing could be further from the truth. None of this is what I would consider particularly provocative. 

As a sword-and-sorcery novel, this Raven debut is chock-full of action and adventure complete with nautical exploration, sea battles, sword-fighting, magic wielding, political strife, and the obligatory revenge-plotting. While I think the last 20 pages were disappointing, the “big baddie boss-fight” was extremely rewarding and vividly violent. While the main story is wrapped up in this book, I'm anxious to discover what adventure is awaiting Raven and Spellbinder next. I'm all in on this series and you should be too. Recommended!

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Red Sonja #04 - Endithor's Daughter

This fourth installment in Ace's Red Sonja paperback series places the fiery-haired swordswoman in the city of Shadizar, the sister city to Zamora. She's in town searching for work, but struggling for fair payment. Mostly, the jobs consist of guard duty for the various merchants and shippers traveling from Shadizar to neighboring cities. As proficient as Sonja is with a sword, she faces discrimination for being female. The lack of securing a job keeps her planted in this urban city for the entirety of David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney's novel.

In the book's beginning, a man named Endithor is attempting to sacrifice a virgin by stabbing her with a knife. Guards, and a city leader named Nalor, break into the room and arrest Endithor before the girl is stabbed. Endithor declares that Nalor betrayed him, and that the whole ritual was planned by Nalor in an effort to supernaturally dispose of a political rival named Kus. Endithor is placed on trial the same day, found guilty, and then is tortured to death in the city square as an entertaining public spectacle. Endithor's daughter Areel watched the execution while also planning her revenge on Nalor, thus she gains the book's title.

That's a lot to unpack, but ultimately Nalor felt that Endithor was becoming a fearsome political rival and just set him up to die. So who is this Kus fellow? That's the really cool part of the book. In flashback scenes, readers discover that Kus was an ancient warrior who fell to his knees on a corpse-strewn battlefield. Approaching death, Kus is “kissed” by a beautiful woman. Kus discovers that the woman was a vampire and that she cursed him with the eternal gift of draining victims of their blood to remain alive and ageless. With the gifts of immortality, Kus also has the ability to shape-shift, control minds, and fly around. Kus sleeps in a coffin in a cold basement because he can't be subjected to sunlight. Both Kus and Nalor form a partnership to protect each other's interests – Kus staying alive and preying on the city while also killing off any of Nalor's political rivals and foes. 

Where does Red Sonja fit into all of this? Since she is living in Shadizar at the time of Endithor's execution, she begins to find herself embroiled in the political rivalry. She crosses paths with Areel, learns of Nalor's nefarious ways, and discovers Kus's sorcery and vampiric nature. By teaming up with a local bartender, and a group of mischievous kids, Sonja discovers where Kus is sleeping during the day and then, well, I won't ruin this “fright night” for you. 

Needless to say, Endithor's Daughter is an entertaining combination of sword-and-sorcery and Hammer Horror in a not-so-traditional horror presentation. The book's first-half sets up the characters and political strife occurring in the city. The second-half is the quest to find Kus and dispose of Nalor, which takes some time. The book's last 50 pages were exceptional as the story hit its stride and the inevitable “the blade versus the fangs” finally rose to fruition. But, I stress that the reader needs some patience because the novel is heavy on dialogue, less on action. Prepare accordingly, and then enjoy the Hell out of it. 

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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Quest of the Dark Lady

Ben Haas (1926-1977) sold his first story to the pulps when he was 18 years of age. After serving as a Sergeant in the U.S. Army, and working in the steel industry, Haas became a full-time writer in 1961. He used pseudonyms like Thorne Douglas, Richard Meade, John Benteen, and William Kane. I'm familiar with the author's western writing, but wanted to try something a little different from the author. 

I decided to read another vintage sword-and-sorcery novel, a Haas-penned paperback called Quest of the Dark Lady. It was written under the pseudonym Quinn Reade. The book was first published by Belmont in 1969 using artwork by Jeff Jones. It was printed again by Belmont using a different cover by Jeff Jones. The publisher re-cycled artwork that was first used on the Belmont paperback The Quest of Kadji by Lin Carter. The book was also published in the U.K. by Paramount using that same artwork. 

In the book, readers discover that the Earth was devastated by a nuclear war hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago. What remains is a scarred civilization that resembles the Middle-Ages – men on horseback fight for King and Crown using swords, shields, and magic. The only known human population dwells in a placed called The Iron Lands. It is here that King (sometimes referred to as Emperor) Langax protects the people with a vast military force. Beyond the safety of The Iron Lands lies the Terrible East, a desolate landscape plagued by hideous monsters.

Years ago, Langax made the unfortunate mistake of ousting all of the sorcerers and magicians from The Iron Lands. In doing so, he then became vulnerable to some sort of spell originating in the Terrible East. This spell places Langax in a deep coma. He awakens briefly to advise his staff that the only savior now is an entity (or human) known as the Dark Lady. But, she lies somewhere in the Terrible East. The only person who can find her lies in Langax's dungeon awaiting execution for sabotage. That man is a former high-ranking soldier named Wulf.

There's so much to love about this simple 140-page adventure novel. The mystery surrounding why Wulf lies in a dungeon is slowly fed to the reader in the early pages. Eventually, this backstory is spelled out for the reader, but part of the book's reading pleasure is this core mystery. Surprisingly, Haas also includes a partner for Wulf, a fiery swordswoman who also plays a romantic role. When these two team up with a sorcerer, the three embark on a Hero's Quest to find the Dark Lady and save the kingdom.

This is a wildly entertaining, simple sword-and-sorcery novel that has plenty of action-oriented adventure. The monsters rear their ugly heads, the secret of the Dark Lady is revealed, and Wulf's exposure as an admirable hero are chief components making this an easy recommendation. But, get the second printing if you can locate it. It has interior artwork panels to enhance the great story.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Paperback Warrior Primer - Claw the Unconquered

In the late 1960s, the publishing industry was abuzz with the reprinting of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Most of these had been missing from the commercial markets for decades, others had been collected in expensive hardback collections that fetched nearly auction-house prices. For the first time, the casual consumer could read these stories, including some that were previously unpublished, in affordable paperback editions courtesy of Lancer. With these new editions, authors like Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp were able to also contribute their own Conan stories as pastiches of Robert E. Howard's own storytelling style. 

Lancer, and later Ace, contributed to an influx of sword-and-sorcery pop-culture due to their paperback releases of Conan and other Robert E. Howard stories. The genre exploded with television, movies, and countless paperback novels featuring shirtless barbarians imitating Conan. By the 1970s, sword-and-sorcery was everywhere, so it was just a matter of time before the comic book industry seized their share of the market. 

With the success of Conan on the pages of Marvel, DC Comics became busy creating sword-and-sorcery titles that would compete in the hectic heroic-fantasy realm. In 1975, the company launched their creations, eight new titles that featured scantily-clad heroes holding sharp, gleaming swords. These books were Warlord, Beowulf, Dragon Slayer, Tor, Nightmaster, Starfire, Stalker, and today's topic, Claw the Unconquered

With Claw the Unconquered, the creative team made the decision to hone in on John Buscema’s Conan artwork. Who would be the best fit for Claw's artistic design and presentation? None other than Ernie Chan, an artist that spent the prior two years inking John Buscema’s art on Conan the Barbarian. Chan created the covers for the first nine issues, and penciled the interior pages on the first seven before giving the reigns to other artists like Joe Kubert and Keith Giffen.

Gracing the cover of Claw the Unconquered's first issue, titled “The Sword and the Silent Scream”, is a black-haired muscular barbarian carefully straddling a vulnerable young woman. Without the robust Claw logo, one glance would surely register that the book is another Conan issue. But, that was the point – to capture the dedicated readers of Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian. Chan perfected this. 

Chan's co-creator of Claw was David Michelinie, who contributed to the creation of some of comics greatest characters in Venom, Carnage, War Machine, and Ant-Man. Michelinie and Chan had worked collectively on other DC books like House of Mystery and House of Secrets. Michelinie's concept was that Claw existed in a place called Pytharia, a land that resembles ancient Earth. Fans of Conan may see some similarities with Pytharia and Robert E. Howard's own landscape found in the Hyborian Age. In essence, it is a sprawling world filled with heroes and villains – noblemen, savages, evil sorcerers, terrifying creatures, and the obligatory beautiful women that need saving. 

At the forefront, like Howard's own stories, is the endless musical chairs played by politicians and their rivals. Conan, against his better judgment, seemingly always found himself embroiled in a political rivalry turned violent. Claw mirrors that same participation, which ultimately sets the table for the character's origin tale in the debut issue.

In the first three pages, readers learn that Claw's real name is Valcan and that he literally wears a red glove over his right fist, indicating early on that something is different about his hand. Claw is strolling through Ichar, the throne city of Pytharia when a thief attempts to rob him. Claw throws the poor soul through a window, then orders meat and wine. His muscles, good looks, and temperament gains an invitation from the attractive waitress to join her upstairs. But, she accidentally dislodges his glove and discovers he has a hairy hand with...claws! Later, it is revealed that the waitress was purposefully trying to verify Claw's identity in an effort to satisfy her master, an innkeeper named Tarmag.

In the streets, Tarmag has his henchmen attack Claw. Fortunately, Claw disposes of them all, but he mistakenly lets Tarmag live (a non-Conan move). The man journeys to Castle Darkmorn (what a name!) and tells (King) Occulas of the Yellow Eye the whereabouts of Claw. His reward? An instant fatal backstabbing by Occulas' guards. But why does Occulas want Claw? 

In a flashback from years ago, Prince Occulas is plotting to take the King's throne and learns from an oracle (named in the third issue as Miftung) that the only thing standing in his way is a man with a bizarre hand. Occulas has a peasant man tortured to learn that someone named Kregar of Kanon Wood has a funny hand. He bribes the King's men to go out and kill Kregar and his family. On page 13, where these events unfold, readers see that Kregar does have a hand that resembles Claw's. While Kregar and his family are all murdered, the men left behind a small infant that had a clawed right hand. Off the page, an angelic hand reaches for the baby and says that “your time is not yet come, for there are tasks awaiting that only you may perform.”

Occulas fatally poisons the King, snatches the crown, and for years thrusts Pytharia into desolate servitude. An older, crueler Occulas is then shown speaking to the oracle about a new threat that arises, a man named Valcan that has a deformity that has earned him the name Claw. Sensing this new threat, the story then circles back to the beginning (present day) as Occulas sends another of his henchmen to kill Claw. With the aid of the beautiful waitress, Claw is deceptively led to the Temple of Kann where a giant beast is awakened with a magical gem. Claw fights the monster, and then leaves the temple as the waitress is left to die. 

What readers gather from the first issue is that the through-story will be Occulas attempting to seek and destroy Claw as the hero journeys from place to place fighting the good fight for the people. The book takes on some other genres, like the traditional western monomyth, science-fiction, and fantasy. Additionally, Claw can't remember his past, so readers will be mysteified as to who the angel was that saved Claw from death as an infant. Through his journeys, he is searching to learn more about his origin and why he is destined to do great things. Magical elements regarding the claw and its purpose begin to shed some light on Claw's destiny. 

Like most of the other sword-and-sorcery books that DC launched, Claw the Unconquered was short-lived. The original run lasted just a total of 12 issues, ending in September 1978. The character made another appearance in 1981 in Warlord issues #48-49. 

Claw continues to exist in comic book continuity. He has randomly appeared in the modern pages of Wonder Woman, Justice League, and Swamp Thing. In a completely different character, there were elements of Claw used for the Primal Force comic also published by DC. The character was re-introduced to Conan fans through a rebirth by Dynamite Entertainment. Claw teamed with Red Sonja in the four-book miniseries Devil's Hands. Additioinally, there was a spin-off of that series simply called Claw the Unconquered, which ran a total of six issues and was written by Chuck Dixon. 

While I can't speak on the title after 1978, I highly encourage you to read the full 12-issue run of the original DC comic. If you enjoy 1970s sword-and-sorcery literature, then this is well worth the nostalgic trip through time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, September 15, 2023

Chronicles of Counter-Earth #01 - Tarnsman of Gor

There are many different names given to the Gor series of sword and planet adventures. Some refer to it as The Chronicles of Counter-Earth or The Gorean Saga, other monikers exist like The Saga of Tarl Cabot, Gorean Cycle, Gorean Chronicles, and Counter-Earth Saga. Additionally, some readers refer to is as How To Place a Dog Collar on Your Lover in 5 Easy Steps. The series was authored by John Lange Jr under the pseudonym of John Norman. The series ran 37 total installments between 1966 and 2022. The novels have been published by a combination of DAW Books, Ballantine, and Open Road Media. They currently exist in digital and audio versions.

The first thing you need to know about the series is that it is a controversial one. In these books, the author depicts women in an unfavorable light, often showcasing them as material possessions serving as abused collar-bound slaves. These women submit themselves to men by dropping to their knees and placing their arms in a position where it would suggest they are begging. These female slaves are known as kajira. The popular series spawned a subculture lifestyle known as Gorean with its own language. I'm not choosing this platform to either praise or criticize anyone who likes the series or its influence. You do you, and I'll do me. I'm simply sampling the series based on my newfound love for fantasy and science-fiction novels. Nothing more, nothing less.

Before reading the debut, Tarnsman of Gor, I discovered that the early novels in this series are pure sword-and-sorcery  heavily influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series (1912-1943). After reading the first few chapters, I discovered it is darn-near a complete ripoff of A Princess of Mars. But, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

At the beginning of the book, readers are introduced to a British man named Tarl Cabot, residing in present-day (read that as the 1960s) America. We learn that his mother died when he was young and his father seemingly disappeared. Tarl becomes well-educated at Oxford University and later becomes a professor at a New England college in America. While on a hiking and camping vacation in the rural mountains of New Hampshire, Tarl stumbles on an electronic device that allows him to use his thumbprint to access a document. The device is a makeshift letter from his father dated 1640. Soon, a spaceship appears and beams up Tarl.

Tarl awakens to find that his father is alive and well and a senior leader in a tower city called Ka-Ro-Ba. This city exists on a planet called Gor, which is “hidden” in the same solar system as Earth. The planet is ruled by a mysterious sect of supreme beings known as Priest-Kings and the leaders they have chosen for society are provided insights on the planet's dynamics – like the fact that it is round. The rest of society – those in a lower class – are fed misleading information to keep them on the lower rungs of survival. The lower classes think that Gor is flat. They also don't have access to any modern technology, or have the ability to rise above their intellectual levels. So, most of Gor exists on the same technological level of...say Earth's Bronze Age. Weapons are swords, daggers, shields, spears, etc. But, the most popular vehicles are large winged birds called Tarn, which all of Gor's military seem to ride. 

Without going too far down the rabbit hole here, Gor's various nations tend to war with each other. The winner gets that nation's home stone, which is just a rock with the name of the nation printed on it. Apparently if your nation captures another nation's home stone, then you control that nation. So, the nation of Ar is getting a little too big for their pants, so young Tarl is educated in Gorean culture, including how to fight with the various weapons and how to control and ride the Tarn animals. Why? Because he is going to fly into Ar undercover and steal their home stone. Which makes up the bulk of this series debut. 

Here at Paperback Warrior, we just call them how we see them. I sat down one Saturday for a couple of hours and read this 220-page paperback from cover to cover in one sitting. I was never bored by it. By suspending my disbelief on some of the ridiculous hero saves, I found myself thoroughly entertained. Lange certainly took some liberties with Burroughs' Barsoom series, including the first and last chapters of the book, and I had some hesitation on reading past the first chapter because of it. But, I'm glad I did because this is pure adventure from start to finish.

The book's monomyth story kicks into high-gear when Tarl is “shot down” over the skies of Ar. Landing in the jungle with the King of Ar's spunky daughter Talena, he must contend with giant Spider People, a fight to the death with a master swordsman and survive being crucified on a boat and drawn-and-quartered by flying birds. All of this is carefully navigated as Tarl contends with two brutal villains on a quest to disrupt the power of Ar while questioning his own nation's mission on Gor.

In some ways, this fish-out-of-water tale reminded me of Lin Carter's own Burroughs' rip-off series Zanthodon, albeit a more advanced version in terms of society and landscape. I prefer the Carter series more, but there was nothing about Tarnsman of Gor that was unsatisfactory. In fact, this early indication suggests that Tarl is a hero that disputes the idea of slavery and punishment of women. In one scene he frees a slave girl destined for death, and throughout the narrative he continually promotes equality between himself and Talena. He frees more slaves and has a more respectful view of women than...say...Conan. The most despicable treatment of women I've ever experienced in fiction is William W. Johnstone's Out of the Ashes series, which sets the gold standard in terms of male chauvinism. But, as I've noted, this series apparently retains some quality in the early installments.   

If you enjoy over-the-top, completely senseless science-fiction adventure, then Tarnsman of Gor will deliver a good time. I can't speak for the rest of the series, but this specific book was wildly entertaining. Highly recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Thane #01 - City of Doom

Warren Publishing experienced success with one of their flagship comic magazines, Creepy. The black and white magazine escaped the Comic Code Authority because their rules and regulations didn't govern magazines. While the book would mostly consist of traditional horror storytelling to match its title, by the late 1960s the contents began to alter. This era of comic and paperback publishing found success by concentrating their efforts on sword-and-sorcery tales. This was a fertile landscape dominated by the reprinting of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories in the Lancer paperbacks and the birth of the character in comic format. Additionally, this was the prime-time for artists to show off spectacular genre paintings that sometimes even surpassed the quality of the sword-and-sorcery stories they celebrated. 

In the June, 1967 issue of Creepy (#15, cover by Frank Frazetta), longtime Warren writer Archie Goodwin introduced a new barbarian for readers to cheer, Thane. This character debuts in “City of Doom” with artwork by Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Daredevil). Uncle Creepy sets the table on the first page: “They had left Thane staked out to die on the black sand of volcanic wasteland, bait for the beaks and talons of the great albino vultures which hunt there.”

This story doesn't prove to be much of an origin tale as very little information is provided on where Thane lives and what role he serves. From the text, and the tradition of the genre, it seems as though he is an adventurer and mercenary. As the strip unfolds, readers learn that Thane was hired by Ultor, leader of a band of raiders called Scythians, to help them fight a battle. After the campaign ends, Thane was promised his share of the plunder. But, the Scythians double-cross Thane and leave him to die. Thane escapes being bound to stakes in the desert and trails his betrayers through the wasteland.

Thane is surprised when a woman calling herself Livia, the High Priestess of the ancient city of Kadith, appears on his path. She requests Thane's help in defending her city from the Scythian raiders. With a chance at vengeance, Thane follows Livia into a large fortress with plenty of winding stairways and dark halls. Soon, Thane realizes he has been betrayed again when he discovers that Livia is actually an evil servant of the city itself. Inside the fortress, the walls and floor come alive as writhing tentacles suck the flesh from bone. Thane finds Ultor being eaten alive by the hideous creature, then must find a way to slash his way through the monster to escape this terrifying living city. 

This is obviously Conan worship, with Thane displaying brutal tendencies, a fiery temper, and the typical dialogue that accompanies the Cimmerian. Like Conan exclaiming “By Crom!”, Thane declares, “By Thoth!” He also expresses his anger by calling his enemy “Scythian Dogs”, recalling Howard's hero throwing down "Stygian Dogs". Ditko's artwork, which is really the highlight, comes alive as Thane enters the dark passageways. His artwork on the bottom of page eight captures the hero's shock when he finds hordes of savages awaiting him. The wide panel on page nine showcasing Thane's sword slicing through the enemy is remarkable and reminds me of something more modern that I've seen in Conan comics (perhaps Dark Horse). The upper panels on page ten capture that same emotional intensity as Ultor screams while being eaten alive. 

This story was a lot of fun and launches what should have been a longer Thane serial for Goodwin. The character appears again in “Angel of Doom” (#16, August 1967, artist Jeff Jones), “Barbarian of Fear” (#27, June 1969, artist Tom Sutton), and “The Last Sorcerer” (#112, October 1979, artist Alex Nino). Additionally, these stories were reprinted in additional issues of Creepy. Three of these stories were completely written by Goodwin, with “Barbarian of Fear” being partially authored by Bill Parente (Vampirella, Eerie). Unfortunately, only a total of four original stories were created starring this character. While cookie-cutter at best, this hero is still entertaining in his own right. Or, I'm just sucker for this era of sword-and-sorcery.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Dax the Warrior #01 - Dax the Warrior

There are a hundred or more Conan clones saturating pop-culture, including fiction, comics, movies, and games. These sword-and-sorcery stars were extremely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, pairing with the popularity of Lancer and Ace reprinting many of the Robert E. Howard Conan stories along with new entries by the likes of Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. In addition, the great Conan comics emerged like Conan the Barbarian

Eerie, published by Warren Publishing Company, debuted a Conan-esque hero in the pages of their 39th issue, released in April of 1972. The story, “Dax the Warrior”, featured Esteban Maroto as both the artist and writer, a joint position that Maroto maintained for all of the early installments of the series. Maroto would later rise to prominence within the world of Conan, contributing to comics like Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian and Savage Tales and creating awesome paperback artwork for Ace including Conan: The Flame Knife, Conan and the Sorcerer, Conan the Mercenary, and Conan: The Treasure of Tranicos. Needless to say, I was excited to recently discover this Dax series created solely by this talented artist.

"Dax the Warrior", later re-titled to "Dax the Damned", was Eerie's second serial after the short-lived Prince Targo. The character appears in Eerie issues #39, 40-41, 43-50, 52, 59, and 120. Oddly enough, ten of these dozen stories were re-written for Eerie issue #59, published in April 1974. While the reasoning isn't completely explained by Warren Publishing, apparently the company felt that these stories written by Maroto needed to be reprinted and re-written to centralize plots and to smooth out some of the hero's strengths. The artwork of these prior Dax stories remained for issue #59, but the stories are all written by Bud Lewis instead. I may be crucified for saying this, but I think Lewis is a superb writer and does a better job with these stories than Maroto. But, there is no criticism from me or anyone else in terms of the art. It is exceptional. Issue #59 also features Dax on the book's cover for the first time, appearing in an awesome painting by Ken Kelly (Conan, Molly Hatchet). If you want to read this character's stories, issue #59 would be the best. It features 10 stories over the course of 100 pages.

So, who or what is Dax exactly? That part of the story is mired in darkness for most of the series, including the character's debut in “Dax the Warrior”. In the opening pages, the swordsman is riding through a battlefield littered with corpses. The narrator states that Dax is returning to his native land now that the battle is over. He is tired and his horse is weary, but he hears a voice in the air coming from a young woman. He is excited to find her and says to himself he had almost forgotten that there were women in the world. 

Increasing the pace, the girl, who is known as Freya in this story, suggests that they both try to escape. Who the girl wants to escape from isn't clear, but suddenly the couple are attacked by a creature riding a large bird (reminding me of the Tarn on Gor) and the girl is taken from Dax. He swears to rescue her, so he pursues the pair into a dark gruesome lair filled with webs and bones. He is met at the passage's opening by a cloaked individual who warns Dax to never enter this place. He demands that Dax live with the memory of Freya and to leave forever. Ignoring the warning, Dax ventures further into the lair to discover its horrible secrets. The last panel is instrumental in setting the tone and ominous nature of these stories. 

As I alluded to earlier, this story was re-written for issue #59, including a splash of color on one panel to illuminate Maroto's excellent artwork. Again, Maroto's art remains intact throughout the story, but Bud Lewis re-writes the narrative. Freya's name is changed to Naiad and the story is re-titled to “Dax the Damned”, which suggests that Dax has somehow been transferred from the battlefield to some form of Hell. Or, it is honing in on the message from the last panel. It's not completely clear based on this story.

If you love 1970s sword-and-sorcery, then Dax should probably be on your radar. You can enjoy this series by purchasing Eerie trade paperback volumes, searching your comic store for back issues, or by reading the issues for free on Internet Archive. I've featured the “Dax the Warrior” story for you below:

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, May 13, 2023

Conan - Black Tears

The 1968 Lancer paperback collection Conan the Wanderer begins with “Black Tears”, a short story by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. It was also featured in Orbit Books omnibus The Conan Chronicles 2. The story was later adapted by Roy Thomas and Ernie Chan in issue #38 of The Savage Sword of Conan

The story picks up right after the events in “A Witch Shall Be Born”. Conan is the chief of the Zaugir, an outlaw band of Kozak horsemen, a role he obtained by usurping their former leader Vladislav. Unbeknownst to Conan, the Zuagir have a traitor in their ranks, a former blood brother of Vladislav named Vardanes. Off page, Vardanes makes a deal with the rival Turanians to have the Zuagir ambushed on a mountain pass. 

The story begins with the Turanians lying in wait for Conan and the Zuagir to reach the pass. Once Vardanes reaches safe passage through the pass, the sky is filled with arrows as the remaining Zuagir are attacked. Thankfully, the Zuagir possess the fighting spirit to charge up the hill and crush the weak Turanians. Seeing the disaster, Vardanes rides off to escape the carnage. One enemy is left behind, a former acquaintance of Conan's named Boghra. Conan tricks Boghra into revealing that the traitor was Vardanes.

Conan is later drugged by the Zuagir and left to die in the desert. His Hellbent quest for vengeance against Vardanes wasn't widely supported by his men. After five days of riding, Conan stumbles upon a city rumored to be a myth, a place called Akhlat the Accursed. Dehydrated, Conan falls from exhaustion and is nursed back to health by two of the city's residents. They explain that the city has been cursed by a vampiric force that drains the life from every living thing. Supposedly, their religion states that a man will come to liberate the city, thus Conan is assigned a task. He must destroy the ancient enemy while also finding and killing Vardanes (who just happens to be in the city as well).

Parts of this story reminded me of Robert E. Howard's “The Scarlet Citadel”, especially the inevitable boss-fight in the city's underground tunnels. The stone statue part of the story was reminiscent of “Shadows in the Moonlight”, with a little bit of “Red Nails” thrown in with the inner-city stuff. I really enjoyed the story and found it to be a perfect companion to “A Witch Shall Be Born”. The descriptions of mountains, tunnels, and the “beast” were executed very well. I know some Conan fans really don't like Carter or de Camp's pastiche style, but as I've stated in numerous reviews, I find their work to be enjoyable. 

Depending on your timeline, this story is followed by “Shadows in Zamboula” or John Maddox Roberts' Conan and the Manhunters, which takes place in southwest of Turan.

Buy a copy of this book HERE. 

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Conan - The Castle of Terror

Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp teamed together to author “The Castle of Terror”, a short story starring Robert E. Howard's Conan. The story was first published in the Lancer paperback collection Conan of Cimmeria (1969), which was later reprinted by Ace. Additionally, the story was featured in Sphere Books omnibus collection The Conan Chronicles (1989). The story was adapted into comic format in Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #105. That comic story was also collected in Dark Horse's The Chronicles of Conan Vol. 13: Whispering Shadows and Other Stories (2007).

What I enjoyed about this story is that the authors wanted to expand on Howard's “The Vale of Lost Women”, which was never published in the author's lifetime. This era of Conan's life begins after “The Queen of the Black Coast”, with the titular hero in the jungles of Kush. It is here that he becomes the tribal chief of the Bamulas, which is outlined in “The Vale of Lost Women”. Carter and de Camp further explore that concept in the beginning of “The Castle of Terror”.

In the story's opening pages, Conan is on the run across the flat prairies of Kush. It is revealed that Conan was the Bamula tribal chief for approximately one year. But, a harsh drought occurred in the region and the tribe felt that Conan was the reason for the hardship. Ousted from power and forced into exile, Conan now finds himself with dwindling supplies and chased by lions. At dusk, Conan stumbles onto a strange scene, a crumbled Gothic-styled castle atop a stretch of dead grass. The pursuing lions stop their pursuit and refuse to go near the old house. Hoping to escape the rain, Conan goes inside.

While Conan is seeking shelter in the house, a band of Stygian slave raiders is also seeking shelter from the elements. They too go inside the cavernous house. Inside, Conan has an experience of astral projection, seeing himself outside of his body. Spiritually, he's attacked by hundreds of ghosts before awakening from his trance. At the top of a staircase, Conan witnesses the slaughter of the Stygians by a hideous hundred-headed spider-like creature. Escaping the house, Conan is forced to kill the remaining Stygian.

“The Castle of Terror” includes Conan reflecting on the old stories he heard as a child about King Kull of Atlantis, one of Robert E. Howard's other characters, the prototype for Conan. Conan recalls the stories of Serpent People inhabiting the land prior to mankind, an element that plays into the Kull mythos, including the very first sword-and-sorcery story in the US, “The Shadow Kingdom”, featuring King Kull. Additionally, the idea of natives refusing to follow Conan across a type of forbidden or sacred ground was used in Howard's “The Black Stranger”, which later was morphed into Treasure of Tranicos. But, instead of natives, “The Castle of Terror” uses lions. Arguably, the Kull short story “Skull of Silence” has comparisons as well, complete with Kull charging into a monolithic black house reportedly haunted by a cosmic horror.

This may be one of my favorite stories by Carter and de Camp. I love the eerie atmosphere and its similarity to an old Hammer Horror or Universal vampire flick. The concept of weary travelers attacked by a supernatural entity in a dark castle is sometimes overused, but in this story it works really well. The descriptions of the house, the creepy atmosphere, and the sense of urgency placed on the character to escape the lions was perfectly crafted. It's a remarkable combination and a mandatory read for fans of dark fantasy and horror.

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