Showing posts with label Lin Carter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lin Carter. Show all posts

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 1, 2023

Zanthodon #03 - Hurok of the Stone Age

Lin Carter's third installment of the Zanthodon series, also referred to as the Eric of Carstairs series, is Hurok of the Stone Age. It was published by DAW Books (423) in 1981, and features illustrations by Josh Kirby (Krull, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi). If you aren't familiar with the series, I encourage you to read my reviews of the first two installments before reading this review. 

The prior novel, Zanthodon, ended in a cliffhanger as Darya was captured by Barbary Coast Pirates. In this novel's beginning, both Eric and Professor Potter (both men from our present-day USA) have been snatched by what the folks of Zanthodon refer to as Dragonmen. They earned this title because they wear magic armbands that allow them to telepathically control dinosaurs! So, these Dragonmen capture Eric and Professor Potter and take them across miles of Zanthodon's baked Earth to the Scarlet City of Zar. There, the two meet the Sacred Empress of Zar, a woman named Zarys (who is like the twin-sister of Darya).

Meanwhile, Hurok and Jorn the Hunter embark on a rescue mission to retrieve their friends from the Dragonmen. This side-story adventure has the two facing near-death experiences as they cross a treacherous mountain pass called the Wall of Zar and an inland sea known as the Lugar-Jad. Additionally, there are other side-stories that involve a guy named Garth searching for his daughter Yualla, and Tharn searching for Darya. 

Make no bones about it, Hurok of the Stone Age is a convoluted novel packed with alternating side-stories within chapters that make up “parts” of the book. Often, I lost track of who the characters were, which tribe or type of people they represented. When you have characters that are Zarian, Drugar, Sagoth, Cro-Magnon, Thanadar, Gorpaks, etc., I nearly needed an organization chart to just figure it all out. At one point, I decided to just enjoy the adventure and let it all just sort of flop over my head on the who's who battle for clarity. In doing so, I found I really enjoyed the book, particularly Professor Potter's participation in the narrative and his quest to bring gunfire to this bizarre world. 

If you enjoy Lin Carter's absorbing, self-indulgent storytelling – high on character count, exotic locales, plot holes a mile wide – then this is a really fun read. Punt the logistics, suspend disbelief, and look over the convoluted meshing. In doing so, you'll not only love this novel, but appreciate the entire series.

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, 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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE. 

Monday, April 24, 2023

Zanthodon #02 - Zanthodon

The Zanthodon series was created by science-fiction and fantasy author Lin Carter. Inspired by “hollow Earth” concepts by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne, the series explores the adventures of action-man Eric Carstairs and his zany employer Professor Potter as they navigate an immense underground world. The series ran five total installments, all published by DAW and now available through Wildside Press. Considering how much I enjoyed the debut, Journey to the Underground World (1979), I was excited to read the next novel, simply called Zanthodon (1980).

For new readers that are picking up the series at this juncture, Zanthodon begins by summarizing the events from the first book. In this novel, main characters like Eric, Potter, Darya, Jorn, and Hurok are misplaced in Zanthodon, each forced to fight to survive in the cruel, harsh landscape. There are dinosaurs, giant spiders, Neanderthals, Cro-Mags, pirates, and cave dwellers that all play a hand in the characters becoming alienated from each other. 

Through the narrative, these characters eventually reunite under unpleasant circumstances. While either stumbling blindly or captured, the characters find themselves trapped in a giant cave system that is occupied by slaves mastered by the evil Gorpaks. Rape, torture, and sacrifices to enormous bloodsucking leeches are all commonplace in the Hellish tunnels. Needless to say, Eric comes up with a prison break plan that occupies most of the narrative's second-half. 

Zanthodon is much better than the series debut and offers up wild adventure in so many different ways. Whether it is pirates, monsters, evil villains, deadly soldiers, prison breaks, and sword fights, the book is saturated with nonstop action. Lin Carter's prose is rather goofy at times, especially considering he was using the concept that all of this is a real manuscript simply published for the public's sake using an alias of “Lin Carter”. It reminds me of all the MAMs back in the day that were “told by the real participants to the unknown writer”. It's really silly, and I wish the whole thing was presented in third-person to avoid the confusion of “this was relayed to me”. But, aside from that, there is nothing to dislike about the story. 

If you are familiar with Lin Carter, you'll recognize the formula of one event leading to another crazy event, like one long chain-reaction that the characters are experiencing. It's a lot of fun and makes for a breezy, easy to read action-adventure worth its salt. Highly recommended. Bring on Hurok

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Conan - Lair of the Ice Worm

“The Lair of the Ice Worm” was authored by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. It was first published in Conan of Cimmeria, a 1969 omnibus published by Lancer Books, then later by Ace. The story was also published in the Sphere Books collection The Conan Chronicles and adapted into comic book form in Savage Sword of Conan #34

The story picks up after the events of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" as a twenty-something Conan is trudging through the snowfall in Aesir. A short distance away, Conan sees a young woman being attacked by savage men resembling Neanderthals. Soon, Conan is slicing his way to the woman's rescue, but his horse is killed in the battle. In an eerie premonition, the girl warns Conan of something ominous called a Yakhmar, but Conan (and readers) isn't sure what that is.

Finding shelter in a cave, Conan makes love to the girl by the firelight. He awakens to discover the girl is no longer in the cave. With the icy conditions outside, Conan fears something may have happened to her. Outside, he follows a trail that leads to two skeletons, one of the girl and another of his horse. Both have been picked clean of all flesh and oddly enveloped in ice. Conan begins to think that this Yakhmar thing is actually a Remora, a giant vampire-like worm. Feeling responsible for the girl's death, Conan tracks the worm's trail to an icy cave. Will he escape this fiendish assault of Remora?

An eerie atmosphere and ambiance prevails throughout this short fantasy story. There's the obvious elements of horror, complete with a worm-like creature squirming under the icy tundra. It was this sort of vibe that made me think of Lovecraft in a broader horror sense. The early battle with the savages was written well and contained the sweeping adventure that REH's Conan stories frequently possessed. As an aside, the brawny hero had no resistance in bedding down the beauty of the story, another obvious trope of Conan storytelling.

Overall, this was another great short story told by de Camp and Carter. It certainly fits into the Conan of Cimmeria collection alongside "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and "Queen of the Black Coast" in terms of extreme locations. There's nothing about the story to really dislike. Recommended.

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 7, 2023

Conan - The Curse of the Monolith

Worlds of Fantasy magazine featured “Conan and the Cenotaph” in their first published issue in 1968. The story was authored by Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp and was later featured in the 1969 Lancer paperback Conan of Cimmeria under the title “The Curse of the Monolith”. It was also featured in the 1971 anthology Warlocks and Warriors as well as Sphere Books' 1989 collection The Conan Chronicles. The story was later adapted into comic form in Savage Sword of Conan #33.

The story takes place right after “The City of Skulls” and finds the titular hero serving as a captain to King Yildiz of Turan. He's assigned the duty of delivering a letter to King Shu of Kusan, a minor kingdom in Khitai far to the East (and almost off the map). The letter is to encourage an alliance between Turan and Kusan, an alliance that Shu happily agrees to. Upon meeting Conan, he sends his agreement in the way of a letter to be carried back to King Yildiz. He also sends Duke Feng, a guide and escort to accompany Conan back to the western border of Kusan. Feng has two servants and avoids any sort of manual labor, a trait that Conan fiercely despises. But, when Feng offers Conan a treasure, his interest and possible kinship is peaked. 

Feng explains to Conan that he knows where a large treasure is held at the top of a mountain nearby. He encourages Conan to suit up in armor and to accompany him to a black monolith of stone to acquire the treasure. Why does he need Conan? Apparently there are savages nearby that could attack Feng while he is dealing with the treasure grab. With Conan by his side, watching his back, the treasure can be gained and split. Conan agrees and the two go to the monolith.

Once they arrive, Conan feels a strong magnetic force and is shocked to find that he is nothing more than a fridge magnet. With the armor on, Conan is thrust to the monolith due to the magnetism possessed in the stones of the mountain. Feng explains to Conan why he has trapped him here. Further, a jellylike monster guards the monolith and drops flesh-eating acid on its prey. With Conan trapped by Feng and facing a torturous death by the equivalent of The Blob, he must use his strength to break the power of magnetism. 

"The Curse of the Monolith" weighs in at just 20 pages and is an average story at best. There's nothing to overly dislike about the plot other than its simplistic premise. Carter and de Camp's description of the mountains and monster was vivid and provided just enough atmospheric touch to place the readers into the story. However, this was just another short Conan adventure that was rich with descriptive details but not particularly memorable. This isn't a necessary read.

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, June 17, 2022

Zanthodon #01 Journey to the Underground World

As a longtime fan of science-fiction, fantasy, and the works of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lin Carter (1930-1988) authored a number of novels and series titles using unfinished manuscripts from his literary idols or by utilizing a pastiche to contribute future installments of established, classic titles. Using the Pellucidar series, written by Burroughs between 1914-1963, Carter created his own “hollow Earth” concept with the Zanthodon series. The five-book run, also inspired by Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle, was published by DAW Books between 1979 and 1982. It has been reprinted by Wildside Press as one of their digital Megapacks featuring all five books for an affordable price. I'm starting with the series debut, Journey to the Underground World

The book's star is Eric Carstairs, the stereotypical 1970s action-hero that can pilot, captain, shoot, salvage, and deal with the best of them. He's in North Africa looking for work when he saves a professor named Potter from muggers. At the bar, where Carstairs stores his steep tab, he discusses Professor Potter's interesting proposition. Potter explains that he needs Carstairs to pilot a helicopter into an inactive volcano in an effort to locate the middle of the Earth, a place called Zanthodon. He provides evidence that many ancient cultures knew about Zanthodon and wrote about its whereabouts. The origin stems from a giant meteor that crashed to Earth, plunging through the volcano and making an impact on our planet's central core. The “Big Bang Theory” would have created a miniature Earth inside Earth. Make sense? Potter wants to locate it.

Carter doesn't waste the reader's time, and by page 40 both Carstairs and Potter have crashed the helicopter miles below the volcano. They crawl out of the aircraft and discover that Zanthodon is an evolutionary paradox. Dinosaurs roam free, along with two different types of humans – Neanderthal, which are the most basic of prehistoric humans and the slightly more advanced, evolved humans known as Cro-Magnon. As we know it, roughly a 350,000 year difference between the two on the evolutionary scale. But, in Zanthodon they are both alive and active, although warring with each other.

Aside from being a fighting man, Carstairs has a key advantage by carrying a .45 handgun to shoo away the pests. But, the duo is soon captured by the Neanderthals and taken on a long trek through the wilderness. It's here that Carstairs meets Darya, the captive daughter of the Cro-Magnon's tribal king, as well as Jorn, a fierce warrior-hunter. The narrative builds around Carstairs' attempts to become free while working together with an unlikely ally in Hurok. The book introduces future plots while familiarizing readers with the series vibrant and dangerous landscape.

As pure popcorn fiction, there's nothing to dislike about Journey to the Underground World. It obviously pays homage, and takes some liberties, from prior works like The Lost World and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Carter spends ample time with each character detailing the separate perils they are facing. The plot is spacious, allowing multiple events to occur in different areas – different enemies and challenges that rotate for the characters. I really liked that aspect of the storytelling. 

As a fast-paced, descriptive adventure novel, Carter delivers the goods. Journey to the Underground World is a journey worth taking. Recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE. Get the eBook omnibus HERE.

Monday, June 13, 2022

King Kull

Texas author Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) is considered the grandfather of the sword-and-sorcery genre. His most popular and influential character was Conan, an iconic fixture of film, comics, graphic novels, vintage paperbacks, and the pulps. But, Howard's precursor to the famed barbarian was another sword-wielding hero named Kull (or King Kull). In fact, Howard's very first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, was a reworking of a Kull story called “By This Axe I Rule!”. Howard authored 12 total manuscripts and a short poem that starred Kull, but only two were published during his lifetime - “The Silent Kingdom” (Weird Tales Aug 1929) and “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” (Weird Tales Sep 1929). What happened to the Kull stories after 1929?

Let's leap to 1946 and an Arkham House volume called Skullface and Others that featured “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune”, “The Silent Kingdom”, and the poem “The King and the Oak” (originally published in Weird Tales Feb 1939). Other than this rather limited publication, the Kull stories simply disappeared. In 1966, Glenn Lord, literary agent for the Robert E. Howard estate, located six cartons of the author's papers, including unpublished manuscripts, carbons, and early drafts.* Among these cartons were seven complete, previously unpublished Kull stories, plus three unfinished stories. 

Lord then went to work compiling these stories into an omnibus for Lancer, a publisher that was already reprinting Conan stories as paperbacks, including unfinished drafts and stories that were completed by L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter. It only made sense for Lancer to do the same thing for Kull that they were doing for Conan. So, the first printing occurred in 1967 as King Kull with gorgeous cover art by Roy Krenkel. The paperback included the 12 Kull stories and the poem, three of which were completed by Lin Carter based on Howard's unfinished manuscripts - “Wizard and Warrior”, “Riders Beyond the Sunrise”, and “Black Abyss”. Minor edits were also made to other stories by both Carter and Lord.** Carter also drew out a handy map of King Kull's World for inclusion. 

Ultimately, this King Kull paperback is essential for any sword-and-sorcery, Conan, or Robert E. Howard fan. I really enjoyed the entire collection, but here are three of my favorites:

“The Shadow Kingdom” - Ka-nu is a Pictish ambassador, peaceful to Kull's kingdom of Valusia but sworn enemies to Atlantis. Kull is invited to have a feast with Ka-nu, where he is warned that a Pictish warrior named Brule the Spear-Slayer will appear before Kull at sunset. Kull then travels back to his throne and Brule the Spear-Slayer appears. Brule reveals to Kull that there are secret passageways in Kull's palace that he isn't aware of. Futher, Brule shows Kull that Serpent Men are secretely disguising themselves as palace guards and that the real palace guards are all knocked unconscious and their bodies hidden. The story features furious fighting in the palace and a dose of magic as an imposter Kull is revealed. These Serpent Men become Kull's enemy, although they never appear again in any future stories. But, this is a great reading experience, filled with stirring action sequences. It moves along quickly with an uncanny amount of vivid descriptions of grim settings. This story sweeps away the prior romanticism of fantasy stories and poems and replaces it with a more serious tone. 

“Black Abyss” - This story concerns one of Brule's fellow warriors, a guy named Grogar, seemingly disappearing into a black crevice in the wall. Brule quickly notifies Kull and the two enter this secret doorway into the dark. Inside, they find dark wizardry as Grogar has been tortured and strapped on an altar. When Kull attempts to free him, a giant slithering devil worm enters and the story turns into an action-packed horror story. It was so descriptive and dark, and I really loved the ending, which I assume is credited to Carter's storytelling. This story was also adapted into comic form as The Beast from the Abyss (The Savage Sword of Conan, No. 2 Oct 1974), written by Steve Englehart with art by Howard Chaykin. 

“By This Axe I Rule” - In this story, an outlaw named Ardyon has been employed by four killers. Together, the group proposes a plot to assassinate Kull. The group, assisted by 16 rogue swordsmen, will strike while most of Kull's army has been lured away from the palace. However, Kull learns of the murder attempt from a slave girl, providing him just enough time to prepare for the onslaught of death and violence. In the throne-room, Kull fights 21 men with a sword and battleaxe. Needless to say, this story was brutal, violent, and exhilarating in its good-versus-evil clash. The bloody finale finds Kull destroying the city's old laws and proclaiming, “I am the law.” Powerful stuff. 

Honorable mention goes to Kull's origin story, “Exile of Atlantis” and the “The Skull of Silence” with its dark and brooding Lovecraft elements. 

Sphere Books reprinted the paperback in 1976, then Bantam reprinted it again in 1978 as Kull minus Lin Carter's edits. Donald M. Grant reprinted the novel in 1985, once again titled Kull without Carter's edits. In 1995, Baen Books released the paperback as Kull with Carter's edits removed and a story added, “The Curse of Golden Skull”. Finally, in 2006 a trade paperback was published by Del Rey called Kull: Exile of Atlantis

* Information found in Glenn Lord's article “An Atlantean in Aquilonia” (The Savage Sword of Conan, No. 1 August 1974).

** Information found in Lin Carter's article “Chronicles of the Sword” (The Savage Sword of Conan, No. 2 October 1974). 

Get the Kull: Exile of Atlantis book HERE.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 96

The boys are back in town! On Episode 96, Tom brings you all of the action at the Windy City Pulp and Paper Con from Lombard, Illinois and reviews a vintage Robert Colby paperback called Kim. Eric examines the birth of the Sword & Sorcery genre with Robert E. Howard's Kull character. He also delves into the Lancer paperbacks, Conan, graphic novels and magazines. Listen on any podcast app, or download directly:

Listen to "Episode 96: Windy City Pulp & Paper and Robert E. Howard's Kull" on Spreaker.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Time War

Lin Carter (Linwood Vrooman Carter, 1930-1988) was a longtime science-fiction and fantasy fan. Along with his writing mentor, L. Sprague de Camp, he authored a number of Conan novels either as original tales, or by finishing original, unfinished drafts by Robert E. Howard. He also contributed edits to Howard's Kull character while also creating his own series titles like Gondwane, Terra Magica, and Thongor of Valkarth. Carter only authored a few stand-alone novels, one of which is the science-fiction novel Time War. It was originally published by Dell in 1974 with an amazing cover by Frank Frazetta. It was reprinted by Wildside Press in 2021 in both physical and digital editions. 

John Lux is a scientist, industrialist, entrepreneur, and a military veteran. He's also the target of an invisible assassin. In the book's opening pages, John is shot at by an invisible force that somehow lifted his own revolver from his desk drawer. In another murder attempt, John is nearly run over in the street by a maniacal driver. Why is he being targeted for assassination by this intelligent, murderous entity?

After visiting a local friend and professor, John awakens the next day to learn the man is dead and the police are searching for him as the prime suspect. On the run from the police and an assassin, John learns more about his nightmarish predicament from a strange woman who claims she is from the future. Her explanation of John's trials and tribulations is similar to that of Skynet and John Connor, two time-traveling opponents that battle through the years in the popular Terminator franchise of movies, books, and comics.

In the future, Earth's population is pampered in a sprawling urban metropolis known as the Living City, governed by a super computer. It is here that civilization has spiraled into a luxurious world where every want and need is supplied by the city. Because of this slothful lifestyle, humans have evolved into simply existing with no ability to think for themselves. They can no longer survive without the assistance of the computer, thus the development of this long-lasting parent-child nurturing. Instant entitlement and gratification is the way of existence.

John learns that this computer has built a cocoon around the city, a nearly impenetrable shield that protects everything and keeps this rather elementary form of living intact. But, a rebellion created a Weapon Machine to destroy the computer, only it is stuck inside the shield with no way to penetrate the exterior, and no method of retreating. To John's surprise, he learns he is the only human in existence that has neuro-radiontic powers. In essence, he is a time-traveling superhuman that can teleport himself anywhere. Since his powers are new and underused, this dormant skill can only be utilized if his body is facing an emergency. Thus, these future agents are attempting to kill John to awaken his ability to teleport. If he can teleport through time, and through this city shield, he can bring the Weapon Machine to its destination and liberate humanity.

The author's note from Carter states that he authored Time War as an affectionate tribute to author A.E. van Voget, a contributor to the Golden Age of mature science-fiction led by John W. Campbell Jr. and his Campbellion revolution. In doing so, Carter inputs a lot of startling social awareness into his precognitive narrative on mankind's modern dependence on technology. Much of Carter's future, filled with frivolousness and a rudimentary need for immediate satisfaction, resembles our present. While it isn't preachy or chastising, Time War certainly predicts and warns of many present day struggles.

As an action-oriented science-fiction novel, I found the narrative was busy and bogged down with explanations of what, when, where, and how. There just wasn't enough space to allow the anticipated front-cover action to develop properly. I encourage short novels, but the 150 page count was too short in this instance. If you love a dense, smart story, then Time War should be a wonderful experience. Those of you looking for a soaring stellar war should look elsewhere. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Conan - The Thing in the Crypt

"The Thing In The Crypt", authored by L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter, appears in the 1967 Conan book by Lancer. The story was later reprinted by Ace after Lancer's business operations ceased. 

If we were to view Conan's life chronologically, I believe "Legions Of The Dead" is right before "The Thing in the Crypt." At the closing of that story, Conan is in chains, snared by the Hyperboreans after a raid in Asgard. This short story begins when Conan finds a way to break his chains, thus escaping to the south. Once there, he discovers a pack of snarling, hungry wolves on his trail. In one captivating scene, Conan fights the wolves with a length of broken chain. Fearing certain death, he escapes into a mountain cave for protection. The wolves become frightened in the doorway of the cave and refuse to go in.

Inside, the Cimmerian finds darkness, bones and a mummy seated on a throne holding an iron sword. Looking for a means to arm himself for the coming danger, Conan takes the sword, triggering something that animates the mummy. Conan is thrust into a fight with this "thing" and at the end emerges from the cave with his new iron sword.

These scenes are in the original Conan The Barbarian film, albeit minus the mummy fight. In the movie, Conan simply picks up the sword and the mummy continues his corpse slumber. I can't find any fault with the story's presentation and deliverance. I know these authors receive tons of heat from the fans and some of it might be valid. "The Thing In The Cryp"' is basically one long action sequence and the descriptive detail regarding the snow capped mountains, the crunch of bones in the crypt and the snarling wolves are certainly eye candy for the adventure hounds. Recommended.

Conan - Legions of the Dead

The short story "Legions of the Dead" is by Bjorn Nayberg with assistance from Lin Carter and L. Sprague De Camp. I believe the original unfinished manuscript was started by Robert E. Howard. The story can be found in the 1978 compilation book Conan The Swordsman.

The story's time-period features Conan at a young age, possibly seventeen or eighteen. This is of course after the events of Venarium and finds our hero running with a band of raiders known as the Aesir. The leader of these raiders is Njal, who awakes to find that his daughter Rann has been kidnapped by Hyperboreans. Njal sends out thirty scouts to a castle called Haloga. Conan, Njal and a handful of raiders depart to recover Rann and also to discover the whereabouts of the missing scouts. 

In one graphic scene, we find that the scouts have been hung on hooks and displayed around the top of Castle Haloga. The perpetrator? A wicked queen called Vammetar and her sinister Witchmen. Conan penetrates the fortress only to find that the dead have risen and are on the hunt for the raiders. 

Interesting enough that the story ends with Conan in chains, a slave to the Hyperboreans. This "slavery" is shown at the beginning of the film Conan The Barbarian and also recalled in the next Conan entry entitled "The Thing In The Crypt". Overall, I thought this was a decent read filled with action and occult. I am not sure who to credit the writing too, but overall it was a really good literary piece to fill in the young adult era of Conan's life.