Showing posts with label Robert E. Howard. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert E. Howard. 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.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Solomon Kane - The Skull in the Stars

One of Robert E. Howard's most iconic characters, along with Bran Mak Morn, Conan, and Kull, is Solomon Kane. The character's first published appearance was in a short story called “Red Shadows”, which was published in the August, 1928 issue of Weird Tales. Mixing sword-and-sorcery and horror, Howard's Solomon Kane stories feature a late 16th century Puritan who adventures around the world fighting evil. 

My introduction to the character is the January, 1929 issue of Weird Tales which features a Solomon Kane short called “Skulls in the Stars”. In the story, Kane is departing a small town in England and is faced with two separate roads to reach his next destination, a village called Torkertown. In the opening paragraph, Howard offers one road as a shorter, more direct route for Kane across a barren upland moor and the second option as a longer tortuous route through a dreadful swamp. Debating the decision, a boy passing by warns – downright prohibits – Kane from taking the moor road. He urges that Kane avoid the moor road because it is haunted by some sort of foul horror that claims men for his victims. Naturally, the adventuring Kane decides to travel the moor road.

Providing any additional insight into this story may spoil your enjoyment, so I'll stray from further plot points. But, Howard's story is just an exceptional blend of supernatural horror and the traditional monomyth of a hero's journey through danger. The author's descriptions of horrifying things lying in wait along the isolated, non-traveled road is superb. I love this:

“Then the thing began to take on shape, vague and indistinct. Two hideous eyes flamed at him – eyes which held all the stark horror which has been the heritage of man since the fearful dawn ages – eyes frightful and insane, with an insanity transcending earthly insanity. The form of the thing was misty and vague, a brain-shattering travesty on the human form, like, yet horribly unlike.”

What I really like about the Kane character, which I'm introduced to in this macabre tale, is his use of two long pistols as well as a rapier sword. There is a unique dynamic approach to the hero's skill-set, which will introduce yet another weapon to his repertoire – a magical staff – in future stories. He's a Puritan, with an eye for injustice and evil and a heart dedicated to the power of all things good. 

With just one story as my trial size, I can see why this character receives so much admiration and loyalty. “Skulls in the Stars” is one of the finest stories I've read this year. Highly recommended!

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Conan - Conan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, 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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE. 

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Conan - Conan the Bold

John Maddox Roberts is a Vietnam War veteran that served in the US Army from 1967 until 1970. His first novel, The Strayed Sheep of Charum, was published in 1977. Specializing in historical mystery and adventure, Roberts authored the successful Ancient Rome series SPQR, published as 13 installments between 1990 and 2010. He also authored titles like Stormlands, Hannibal, Space Angel, Cingulum, Island Worlds, and Falcon. My experience with the author is his contributions to the Conan pastiche novels published by Tor. Many Conan fans point to Roberts as one of the better authors of the post-Howard era of Conan literature. Roberts authored eight total novels featuring the hero, including Conan the Bold, originally published in 1989 with awesome cover art by Ken Kelly.

In Roberts' novel, he captures Conan's life at the age of 15 or 16, shortly after events in Conan of Venarium. After the sacking of Venarium, Conan headed south and wrestled with adventures in Pictland. It is here that he suffered injuries (off page), and as Roberts' novel begins, young Conan is being nursed back to health by a nice family in southwestern Cimmeria. In an interesting encounter, Conan is off hunting and reunites with a Great Valley Pict warrior named Tahatch. In reflection, Conan recounts his experience in the Pictish wilderness and battles with the Black Mountain Picts. After a battle, Conan first met Tahatch in a cave where the two struck up a friendship and Tahatch was able to mentor the young hero in ways of wilderness survival.  

When Conan returns from his hunting trip, he finds that his family, and the girl he was potentially to wed, all massacred by a band of slave raiders. Conan vows to track the raiders down and kill each of them. The book's narrative has Conan teaming with a swords-woman named Kalya, who has her own traumatic connection to the slave raiders. Together, the duo travel through Aquilonia, Ophir, Koth, Shem, and the River Styx over the course of nine months of hunting raiders.

Roberts compiles a lot of side-stories and small adventures in this 280 page novel. Aside from presenting these two heroes, the narrative spends a lot of time on the slave raiders led by a nefarious individual named Taharka. As the plot develops from different points of view, Taharka runs a gambit of slave raiding, pit fighting, robbing, and murder. These plot jumps feature an evil sorcerer named Alexandrias that uses drugs to bolster his fighting spirit. Readers experience the pit fights between slaves, Alexandrias, and Kalya, as well as prison breaks, boat fights, the liberation of a caravan, and numerous characters, the highlight being a dagger throwing phenom named Vulpio. 

Aside from too many story elements, Conan the Bold is a fantastic pastiche novel showcasing Conan's teenage years. At times the hero seems much older than 16, with dialogue suggesting he has lived a lot longer. But, the Conan Wiki has an excellent article justifying some of Roberts' writing and that Conan could have potentially experienced a lot of these things even at such a young age. If you are looking for a great adventure novel that fits into an old fashioned traditional western revenge yarn, then look no further than Conan the Bold. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Conan - The Vale of Lost Women

Many of Robert E. Howard's stories weren't published during his lifetime. His Conan the Cimmerian original short “The Vale of Lost Women”, estimated to have been written in 1933, was published in Magazine of Horror in the Spring, 1967 issue. Glenn Lord discovered two versions of the story, one as a 17 page draft and another finished version at 21 pages. According to the Deep Cuts blog, there was never any indication that the story was submitted to the pulps. Aside from its original publication, it was featured in Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer 1967), The Conan Chronicles Vol. 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz 2000) and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume One (Del Rey 2003). 

“The Vale of Lost Women” takes place after the events of “Queen of the Black Coast” and Belit's death. Conan has joined the Bamula tribe in the jungles of Kush, becoming their new tribal king. In an effort to propose a possible truce, Conan visits a rival tribe called The Bakalah. It is here that he meets a white female prisoner named Livia. He learns that both Livia, and her brother, are scientists from Ophir that were captured by Bakalah warriors. Livia's brother was tortured to death, and she's certainly next to die. 

Livia suggests to Conan that she is a virgin, and after he refuses to free her, she offers him her body. Conan then agrees to help her escape. Later that day, she sees Conan walking towards her carrying the bloody severed head of the Bakalah's tribal chief. In fear that Conan, now drenched in crimson, is coming for her, she escapes on horseback into the jungle. It's this portion of the story where things take a bizarre turn.

Livia falls from her horse and discovers she's in a beautiful valley that is home to a tribe of black lesbians! But, the lesbians are using poisonous orchids to create a hallucinogenic effect, placing Livia in a trance. She finds that these lesbians are sacrificing her on an alter to a giant black bat! Thankfully, Conan has trailed Livia and fights off the giant bat thing. Livia, fearing that Conan will attempt to claim her, becomes frightened. However, Conan simply advises her that he made a mistake in accepting her proposal to give herself to him. Arguably, he is suggesting there is no honor in that. Instead, he agrees to guide her to the Stygian border where she can eventually find passage to Ophir. 

There isn't much to Howard's story, which probably contributes to the possibility that it was never submitted for publication during the author's lifetime. The imagery of Conan slowly walking through carnage holding a severed head is memorable, but aside from that there isn't a whole lot to highlight. But, the story does present a rarely seen moment of the hero's life as the Bamula leader. 

Besides “The Vale of Lost Women”, Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp authored a 1969 story called “The Castle of Terror” that briefly recaps Conan's tenure with the Bamulas, stating he ruled the tribe for a year. It further states that a severe drought struck the region of Kush, which the Bamulas blamed on Conan, ultimately forcing him into exile. Roland Green's 1994 novel Conan at the Demon Gate also depicts Conan's time with the Bamulas and his rise to ruler of the tribe. Marvel's Conan the Barbarian adapted events from “The Vale of Lost Women” in issues #101-104. 

Personally, I feel that artist Ken Kelly's cover art for Conan the Bold, a 1989 paperback by John Maddox Roberts, is a good recommendation of Conan battling a "bat creature" while protecting a girl, an event that happens in "The Vale of Lost Women" but oddly never occurs in Roberts' novel. Also, Conan battles a "dark bat thing" while protecting a girl in Conan the Barbarian #9, an adaptation of Howard's 1934 horror story "Garden of Fear". Both Kelly's artwork for the novel and Roy Thomas's writing in the comic just remind me of "The Vale of Lost Women" for some reason.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Conan - Conan the Rebel

Prolific science-fiction and fantasy author Poul Anderson (1926-2001) wrote one Conan novel, 1980's Conan the Rebel. It was originally published by Bantam in 1980, then reprinted by the publisher again in 1981. Ace Books reprinted the novel twice, 1988 and 1991. England's Sphere Books also reprinted the novel in 1988. Tor Books published the novel as a hardcover in 2001 and a softcover in 2003.

What makes Conan the Rebel really interesting is that it is set in a time-period of Conan's life that directly places him in the middle of a Robert E. Howard story called “Queen of the Black Coast”. In Howard's story, originally published in 1934, Conan joins a sailing crew led by raven-haired pirate-queen Belit as they ravage the Stygian coast on their Tigress ship. The beginning of the story is Conan's introduction to Belit and incorporation into the life of piracy. The second half of the story is the Tigress destruction and Belit's death. However, in the middle of the story Howard suggests that the duo had a wonderful life together sailing the high seas as lovers. This is the era that Anderson hones in on.

In Conan the Rebel, both Belit and the titular hero are experiencing love and adventure at sea. But the two become targets of a sorcerer who is serving the dark god Set. In the opening pages, the Stygian magician Tothapis is warned by Set that both Conan and Belit are now a loving couple (that won't produce children). Set tells Belit that a magical ax will be used to wreak havoc on Stygia. Tothapis, gaining insight from Set's rather vague vision, assembles a meeting with a military leader and a vile priestess. The military man recognizes the ax in the description as the powerful Ax of Varanghi. Putting two and two together, the group focus on killing Conan to keep him from using this ax to destroy's Set's sanctuary. 

While Anderson's narrative is rather dense with characters and multiple story arcs, the collective whole is a rousing action-packed, sword-and-sorcery novel. There are multiple allies assisting Conan through various aspects of the adventure. Readers are provided varying backstories for each character to build validity and purpose to their inclusion in the plot development. The adventures incorporate nautical aspects, jungle escapism, a prison break, treasure hunting, and the wicked supernatural entities summoned by the magician and priestess. 

Conan the Rebel was a real pleasure to read and an entertaining romp through a small, isolated portion of Conan's spectacular history. Belit would later die in “Queen of the Black Coast”, so the character in the books and short story is short-lived. However, in the Conan the Barbarian comics by Marvel, she is featured predominantly in issues 58-100. Dark Horse's own Conan the Barbarian comic featured Belit through issue 25, later partially collected in the trade paperback Conan Vol. 16: The Song of Belit.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Conan - Queen of the Black Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 25, 2023

Conan - The Blood-Stained God

Robert E. Howard created a fictional character named Kirby O' Donnell in the 1930s. O' Donnell was a treasure hunter from the U.S. that disguised himself as a Kurdish merchant. There were two published stories starring the character, “Swords of Shahrazar” (Top-Notch, October 1934) and “The Treasures of Tartary” (Thrilling Adventures, January 1935). The third story, “The Curse of the Bloodstained God”, was not published during Howard's lifetime. Instead, it was discovered in Howard's unpublished manuscripts. It was revised by L. Sprague de Camp and replaced O' Donnell with Conan. It was re-titled “The Blood-Stained God” and was first published in Tales of Conan (Gnome Press, 1955). The story was also featured in Fantastic Universe (April 1956). Additionally, it was reprinted in the paperback Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer, 1969). Howard's original O'Donnell version was published in Swords of Shahrazar (Orbit, 1976). As clarification, my review is de Camp's Conan version of the story.

After serving for approximately two years as a soldier in Turan, Conan sets off solo in search of a fabled treasure in the Kezankian Mountains. Before the rugged action begins, Conan is in the city and sees a man being tortured by a group of men. After a scuffle that knocks Conan unconscious, he awakens to meet an Iranistani named Sassan. This man reveals to Conan that he is in search of the treasure and that a former prince and his companion were the torturers (this was rather confusing). Sassan and Conan decide to team together to search for the treasure.

In the mountains, Conan and Sassan are attacked by the prince and his companion, who are then attacked by a small army of Kezankians that are protecting the treasure from invaders. This fight ends up with everyone dead except Conan, Sassan, and the prince. The three find the temple and Sassan is killed by a booby trap. In an obligatory fashion, the prince attempts to kill Conan and is shocked when the real guardian of the treasure reveals itself. 

I feel like these treasure-hunting Conan stories all end in the same fashion - the hero never gains the gold. The protective baddie always prevents wealth and prosperity, forcing Conan to live his wild and restless lifestyle. What saves “The Blood-Stained God” is the action sequences that escort Conan and Sassan through the dangerous mountain pass. The oncoming army and two key criminals (not Conan and Sassan!) let the arrows fly, increasing the need to find the treasure by destroying each other. I also enjoyed Conan's easy problem-solving to avoid a similar fate that killed Sassan. The treasure’s protector was a lot of fun, but predictable. Recommended, but there are better Conan stories out there.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Conan - The Frost-Giant's Daughter

“The Frost-Giant's Daughter” was written by Robert E. Howard in the early 1930s. The story, featuring Conan the Cimmerian, was originally rejected by Weird Tales, so Howard changed the character to Amra of Akbitana and called the story “The Gods of the North”. It was accepted and published by The Fantasy Fan #7 in March, 1934. As a Conan story, its original, more popular form, “The Frost-Giant's Daughter”, was published in The Coming of Conan (Gnome Press, 1953) and Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer, 1969). At just 10 paperback pages, it ranks in the top echelon of Conan literature. 

The titular hero has returned to his homeland in Cimmeria, but grows a hunger for battle. He decides to participate in a raid into Vanaheim with his old barbaric friends the Aesirs. As the story begins, Conan is the last remaining combatant of the Aesirs and an enemy named Heimdul is the sole member left of Vanaheim's fighting forces. They both lock into battle and Conan kills Heimdul, but collapses from exhaustion on the hard frozen ground. 

Conan awakens to feminine laughter and then sees a beautiful ivory-skinned woman in front of him. She's naked and barefoot, yet dancing on the snow. Lusting for this cold-weather maiden, Conan trails the woman for miles through the frozen wastelands. Growing tired, he suddenly realizes that the woman has led him to her two brothers, savage frost giants. They want to cut Conan's heart out for some sort of ritual sacrifice. Forced into battle, Conan kills both giants and then the woman vanishes in a blue flame after asking her father, a god named Ymir, for help. Conan collapses yet again, but this time awakens to find another band of Aesir comrades by his side. 

Conan explains that his encounter with the strange woman and the Aesir don't believe him. They also fail to locate any tracks made by the woman. One Aesir warrior confesses that he does believe what Conan is saying is true and explains that this woman is Atali, the daughter of the god Ymir. The Aesir still refuses to believe Conan's account, but are surprised to see that the warrior is holding a piece of the woman's clothing in his hand. 

“The Frost-Giant's Daughter” has a special kind of frosty ambiance. Howard's descriptions of the battlefield, cold weather, the beautiful woman, and the frost giants themselves was just so vivid. The opening dialogue between Conan and Heimdul seemed epic, despite the fact that the reader never experienced the actual battle. For such a short story, the whole narrative felt this way due to the storytelling and pace. Conan's realization that the dream was reality was a fitting ending and proved to his comrades that his sanity, along with his fighting spirit, was still fully intact. Howard absolutely nailed this Conan story and I'm surprised it wasn't picked up by one of the publishers of that era in its original form.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Conan - The Road of the Eagles (aka Way of the Swords, Conan Man of Destiny)

The December, 1955 Fantastic Universe issue featured an L. Sprague de Camp Conan story called “Conan, Man of Destiny”. This story was taken from a Robert E. Howard manuscript, originally titled “The Road of the Eagles”, discovered by Glenn Lord, about the Ottoman Empire featuring a hero named Ivan Sablianka. Howard's original version was edited by Lord and published in the Donald Grant collection Road of Azrael as “The Way of the Swords”. de Camp changed the title “Conan, Man of Destiny” to “The Road of the Eagles”. That story – de Camp's version – was later published in Lancer's 1968 collection Conan the Freebooter as by both de Camp and Howard. The comic adaptation appears in The Savage Sword of Conan #38

“The Road of the Eagles” continues where “Shadows in the Moonlight” leaves off. Conan and his pirates, now referred to as the Red Brotherhood, are attacked by Yildiz, the king of Turan and his General Artaban. Meanwhile, a young woman named Roxana escapes the ransacking and destruction of her village by a man named Kurusk Khan. Roxana, and a small army of Hyrkanians, runs into Artaban and he explains to her that he was in debt to Yildiz and basically attacked Conan's pirate crew to just pay off debt. Now, he is sort of rethinking his decision to serve Yildiz and wants to go independent and do his own thing with his army. 

With Artaban's change of heart, Roxana also reveals that the chief rival to Yildiz is Prince Teyaspa, her lover. She tells Artaban that Teyaspa is in a dungeon jail and he agrees to assist her with liberating him. While this is happening, Conan, nearly playing a bit part by this point, is running around with his surviving pirates trying to find and kill Yildiz. Here is where the story becomes very complicated and rather convoluted. Which, seems to be a pattern now with de Camp's reworking of Howard's stories that were never meant to feature Conan or The Hyborian Age. 

My understanding is that the castle where Teyaspa is imprisoned is simultaneously attacked by the Hyrkanians wanting revenge for their village destruction and Conan and his Red Brotherhood that want to find and kill Artaban before they seek Yildiz. Then, you have Artaban and Roxana attempting the prison break for Teyaspa. Honestly, this is like Game of Thrones on drugs that just leads to a Shakespeare-styled tragic ending. But, before the suicides (yes, they happen) the best part of the story reveals itself. Conan vs vampires!

Inside the dark cavernous tunnel system below the castle are ravenous hairy cave creatures called brylukas. They are vampiric in nature and attack Conan and his crew. This portion of the narrative is just brimming over with intense action-adventure as the titular hero attempts to climb through the cave's passageways while fighting off these savage monsters. This is more of what I want from Conan – brawn versus monsters, evil men, and sorcerers. Unfortunately, this exhilarating story within the story of Conan's escape from the creatures comes at the very end and is very short-lived. 

“The Road of the Eagles” is an okay read, but requires patience and pen on paper (or a handy phone notepad) just to keep up with who is chasing whom and for what reason – revenge, power, loot, women, etc. If you can dedicate 45 mins of heavy concentration, then the story totally works. If you are looking for just casual escapism, look elsewhere.

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, February 25, 2023

Conan - Shadows in the Moonlight

Robert E. Howard's “Iron Shadows in the Moon”, starring Conan the Cimmerian, was published in Weird Tales in April, 1934. The story was renamed to “Shadows in the Moonlight, and appeared in the Gnome Press volume Conan the Barbarian in 1954. It was later edited by L. Sprague de Camp for inclusion in Swords & Sorcery, a 1963 collection published by Pyramid that featured authors like Fritz Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. The story can be found in the Lancer 1968 paperback Conan the Freebooter and future collections by Gollancz and Del Rey. It was later adapted into comic format in Savage Sword of Conan #4 and Conan the Cimmerian #22-25

“Shadows in the Moonlight” reads as if it is a hybrid of atmospheric horror and action-adventure. With Howard's association with Lovecraft, E. Hoffman Price and Clark Ashton Smith, his darker passion was stirred to author hair-raising tales like “Pigeons from Hell” (Stephen King named it one of the finest horror stories of the 20th century). But, beyond Conan battling evil sorcerers, snake behemoths, and the undead, how does “Shadows in the Moonlight” incorporate a less “on the nose” horror element? 

By placing Conan, and a damsel in distress, Olivia, on a deserted island, Howard branches this story off into new directions. First and foremost, this deserted island that Conan and Olivia sail to is deathly quiet, an atmosphere that the always colorful Howard is able to describe in an eerie fashion. When exploration begins, out of both boredom and hunger, the two find a crumbling, ancient ruin. Inside, they discover lifelike black statues that are placed in a half-circle. Finding no other shelter, the two decide to spend the night at the ruins (terrifying!) and Olivia has a nightmare that these statues come to life. I found this entire section of Howard's story to be chilling in its total abandonment of this archaic art. 

But, the horror element is temporarily swept aside as Conan and Olivia see a pirate ship on the shore. Hoping to gain passage, Conan fights the pirate captain and wins. But, these pirates are a bad lot (even for pirates) and they soon overtake Conan while Olivia runs into hiding. With Conan beaten and unconscious, the pirates take him to the ruins. But, there's a surprise with the statues, and I'm not going to ruin it for you here. 

“Shadows in the Moonlight” is set during the buccaneer era of Conan's life. In the story, Conan reveals to Olivia that he was in a a brigade called Free Companions, raiding the borders of Koth, Turan, and Zamora for a prince in Eastern Koth. Apparently, all of the Free Companions were killed except for Conan. By the story's end, Conan has become a pirate captain, complete with his own crew and ship. In the grand Conan mythos, this sets up his life under the alias Amra and his pirate empire in the Vilayet Sea. Details of this period make up the narrative of Leonard Carpenter's 1994 novel Scourge of the Bloody Coast

Sitting aside all the horror and pirate talk, “Shadows in the Moonlight” is a barbaric tale with plenty of sword fights and heroic saves set in an exotic location. As a men's action-adventure novel, there's nothing to dislike here. Robert E. Howard was in top form when he wrote the story and it's entertainment value has yet to dwindle. Highly recommended!

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Conan - Red Nails

Robert E. Howard's last sole contribution to his Conan the Cimmerian character was the novella “Red Nails”. It was published posthumously in Weird Tales over the course of July, August/September, and October 1936, mere weeks from Howard's suicide in June. The story was reprinted in The Sword of Conan (Gnome Press, 1952), Conan the Warrior (Lancer, 1967), and numerous times through Del Rey. “Red Nails” was adapted to comics in Savage Tales issues #2-3, which was reprinted in Conan Saga #9

Conan, in his late 30s, finds female pirate Valeria of the Red Brotherhood in a rural stretch of forest. She had killed a Stygian officer and then fled the city. Conan attempts to join her, urging that they should head to the coast. During the verbal debate on which direction to explore, the duo fight a large reptile monster that resembles a dragon. In the distance, they see a large walled city and head there.

Reaching the city, called Xuchotl, the two agree that this walled place seems desolate, a cavernous void of abandonment and neglect. Inside, the enormous building resembles a large apartment building with hallways and corridors leading in different directions. The entire city exists as a combination of shopping mall and housing, completely enclosed in this gloomy remote structure. 

Eventually, the duo discover a tribe living in the complex called the Tecuhltli, complete with a king and queen that explains the city's unique history. Xuchotl was ruled by two brothers, but one stole the other's wife and then the population split based on loyalties to each brother. The Tecuhltli tribe live in one part of the building, the army and people of Xotalanc exist in another part. Needless to say, the two have been feuding for ages and nails are driven into a pillar to represent the number of slain Xotalanc people, thus the story's title “Red Nails”. 

At novella length, Howard leaves himself plenty of wiggle room to incorporate numerous fights, betrayals, deaths, and action. As Conan and Valeria quickly learn, no one in this mysterious city is particularly noble. I think the narrative's switch from Conan and Olmec's alliance to inevitable confrontation (he wants Valeria) was a smooth transition that allowed some character development, albeit brief. The plot is a little crowded considering nearly the entire story takes place in one structure between warring factions, but the atmosphere and descriptive attention to surroundings enhances the story's depth. Overall, this is an entertaining blood-soaked adventure tale that sits in the higher echelon of Howard's Conan stories. 

Note – S.M. Stirling's Blood of the Serpent (Titan, 2022) full-length novel is a prequel to “Red Nails” and features an original story that details Conan and Valeria's first meeting and the events that Howard described in the opening paragraphs of this story (the death of the Stygian officer). “Red Nails” is also included in that book's ending to preserve a sense of continuity. 

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Conan - Hawks over Shem

If you look online for the definition for “convoluted”, it should just provide a link to Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp's “Hawks over Shem” short story. In my quest to absorb as much Conan literature as humanly possible, I read half of this particular short story and found myself so confused that I re-read the first half again, which led to even more confusion. What in the Hell is going on here?

Perhaps the problem with this jumbled, fragmented, mess of a story is that it was originally a manuscript that Howard wrote about ancient Egypt called “Hawks over Egypt”. This version of the story was written by Howard in the 1930s and was first published in The Road of Azrael, a 1979 collection by Grant and later Bantam. It later appeared in Sword Woman and other Historical Adventures in 2011 by Del Rey. 

By 1955, L. Sprague de Camp had re-written “Hawks over Egypt” into a Conan the Cimmerian story with a new title of “Hawks over Shem”. It first appeared in Fantastic Universe's October 1955 issue. It was also included in the Gnome Press collection Tales of Conan the same year. The 1968 Lancer paperback Conan the Freebooter contains the story and its comic adaptation is featured in The Savage Sword of Conan #36

It's a fool's errand for me to try and review the story properly considering I received it in a dense fog of endless characters and alliances. Here's my best attempt: Conan and a stranger name Farouz are attacked by four Kushites. After Conan and Farouz kill the assailants, they scamper to a bar (where no alcohol is served) where a discussion happens that serves as plot development. A guy named Othbaal is contending for leadership of Asgalun. He's the cousin of King Akhirom, a lunatic. Othbaal is fighting a commander named Mazdak and a Kushite general, Imbalayo. It's a triangle of politics, backstabbing, and a lot of alliances.

This was just a nightmare to read and I couldn't gather which character was representing which country and who the enemy was. Thankfully, Conan's elementary role was to kill Othbaal and form a friendship with a mistress named Rufia. Together they attempt to leave the city among the factions of Anakim solders, Asgalun citizens, Imbalayo's power-heave, the Hyrkanians, a witch, a bonesucking creature, the crazy King Akhirom, and a Kushite captain. There's some connection to Conan's pirate days, but by the story's end, both Conan and Rufia flee north and this story thankfully ends. 

At 50ish pages, there's a backstabbing and an alliance formed over some minor backstory on nearly every page. I haven't read “Hawks over Egypt”, but I can imagine it must be better and more restrained than this over-indulgent nonsense. Out of the Conan stories I've recently read, this was the worst of the bunch. Avoid this headache.