Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ranking Robert E. Howard's Conan stories


I've never been the biggest fan of sword 'n' sorcery fantasy, nor brute violence. Whenever I played fantasy-based video games as a teenager, I'd invariably choose to play as the most morbid or ridiculous character available, rather than the meat-axe warrior who had a much easier ride.

So it was surprising when, at one point, I got a bit obsessed with the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film. The one starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which James Earl Jones turns into a snake. It was around the same time I developed my Manowar problem. Was it the dark, mythic atmosphere? Ancestral memories of simpler, crueller times? The pecs? I eventually recovered... or did I?

I read Robert E. Howard's horror stories a couple of years back, to see where he stood among his pulp contemporaries. Horror didn't seem to be his forte – but then, I didn't like Lovecraft's twee fantasies either. So let's see if reading The Top 28 Conan Stories awakens anything in me, violent, homosexual or otherwise. I'm going to get sick of that soundtrack.


Legend of the black key:

Published in Weird Tales
Published in The Fantasy Fan
Published posthumously


28. The Vale of Lost Women (1933)

Robert E. Howard put a lot of time and thought into populating his Hyborian Earth.

He didn't have to make the entirety of dark-skinned humanity terrible savages by default, but he did. He didn't have to fill every line of description with relentless comments about how black they are, like that's partly to blame for their degeneracy, or to make Conan say he'd crawl over 50 dusky sluts just to get to one fair piece of ass (only slightly paraphrasing). As a bonus, it's also probably the most misogynistic of the Conan stories, which is saying something.

The comprehensive collections have to include this one by law, but I hope it doesn't make it into any of the casual collections. We don't need to rewrite history, we just don't deserve to have our escapist fantasy reading spoiled by this offensive piece of shit.

27. The Hall of the Dead (Unfinished)

All we have is Howard's unembellished synopsis-to-self, which is a shame, because this would have been another fun tale of Conan's despicable thief years (as opposed to his various other despicable careers).

Nothing to rival 'Tower of the Elephant,' but enough scene changes and magical twists and turns that I imagine adapting it for your comic or animated series would be a breeze.

26. Wolves Beyond the Border (Unfinished)

It's not really fair to rank incomplete first drafts against established classics, but this never would have been one of those classics anyway.

In principle, I'd enjoy reading about the fringes of Conan's world, seeing how his conquests are rippling out to affect the little people. This one just goes about it in quite a boring way, with only some creepy inter-species soul-swapping to redeem it.

25. The God in the Bowl (1932)

Howard successfully experiments with many different genres across the Conan stories, from high fantasy to the high seas. This locked room murder mystery isn't one of the success stories.

Conan spends most of it standing around awkwardly in just his loincloth listening to bureaucrats bickering, then there's an abrupt bloodbath finale. You know those unappreciated classics that were foolishly rejected by short-sighted editors at the time? This isn't one of those either. Sometimes the man got it right.

24. The Hand of Nergal (Unfinished)

Only two short chapters were written of whatever this story would have ended up being called, since there's no Hand of Nergal in sight (are those posthumous "collaborators" proud of themselves for leaving their indelible marks on the canon? They are delighted).

Before the last page spoils things by introducing a plot, this can be enjoyed as a pair of pleasant paintings. In one, Conan holds aloft an inexplicable nude woman amid the bloody remnants of carnage at sunset; in the other, inexplicable fear paralyses a shuttered, shadowed city at twilight.

Am I tempted in the slightest to read the "finished" version, unauthorised on account of the original author being long dead? No.

23. Cimmeria (1932)

More extended universe miscellany, this is... quite a nice little poem, I suppose? My literature degree, there. A pleasant yet mildly foreboding prelude that sets the tone for the adventures ahead.

22. The Hyborian Age (1932)

Howard nips speculative scholarship in the bud with an encyclopaedia entry that connects his alternate history to the races, cultures and geography of today in tedious detail. Well done him.

This is where my Conan journey started, and it's comforting to know that some thought has gone into making this world consistent and three-dimensional.

Less comforting is the all-too-familiar racism that slips out in the admiration of pure, unblemished racial stock and insistence that Egypt's early Pharaohs were descendants of white people. Can't go crediting marvels like the pyramids to darkies.

21. Drums of Tombalku (Unfinished)

Why the hell are we following Conan's buddy rather than Conan himself? He shows up at the end, to save the day and dispense a tedious world-building lecture while we wait impatiently for the bell, but before that we're stuck with just some guy.

Worse, just some paedophile, since the progress of his naive love interest's development is left in no uncertain terms when her unconscious body is first dumped in the sand and a band of cutthroats decide the order in which they're entitled to rape her. When a man-eating demon and his hellish horde show up, it's quite the relief.

20. Shadows in Zamboula (a.k.a. The Man-Eaters of Zamboula, 1935)

Tasty cover, but this is easily the worst of the Conan stories published in Howard's lifetime. And not only because of all the racism and sexism (what was that you were saying about the cover?)

Its only redeeming quality (cover aside) is that it features one of the few twist endings in the canon, as Conan reveals he isn't quite the stupid brute he tactfully allows people to imagine him to be. If you like your female characters to spend the entirety of the story unclothed and coerced into various acrobatic situations, there's that aspect too.

19. The Snout in the Dark (Unfinished)

There's enough set-up in these few short chapters to get an idea of what the story could have been, and it stood a chance of being a good one. It might have come down to whether Howard could reign in his repulsion at writing about black people – he doesn't do very well even in this brief fragment.

On the other hand, presenting the first chapter from the perspective of a black man feels like a positive breakthrough. Even if he is abruptly killed so we can focus on the white people who matter.

But one of those white people is a princess of the strong rather than the sobbing variety, so that's another progressive point. The only benefit of this story being incomplete is that she avoids the inevitable doom that awaits anyone unlucky enough to be a suitable suitor for our hero.

18. The Devil in Iron (1934)

We're about half-way through the original run, and it seems we've finally reached the rut. That's fair enough, I suppose. It's like they got a computer, or an uninspired writer facing a deadline, to shuffle a stack of familiar plot points from previous tales and hope it all hangs together.

This ends up being most noteworthy for its ludicrously ramped-up multi-peril gauntlet as Conan contends with assassins, an undead army, a giant snake and an iron-skinned demon. He wins, obviously, and claims his reluctant female trophy. My hero!

17. Shadows in the Moonlight (a.k.a. Iron Shadows in the Moon, 1934)

Conan's objectification of women is as inconsistent as his career choices. He's happy to transfer ownership of a plundered princess when she comes as a job lot with a pirate ship, but other times he burdens himself with rescued damsels and waits patiently for their inevitable supplication.

Depends how long the interval's been, I guess.

16. Jewels of Gwahlur (a.k.a. Teeth of Gwahlur, a.k.a. The Servants of Bit-Yakin, 1935)

Demonstrating the basic unreliability of these improvised rankings, this trezer-huntin' tale would place a lot higher if it had come earlier in the run, when even the tackiest pulp adventures were still a novelty hoot (see: 'The Slithering Shadow,' 'The Pool of the Black One,' et al).

By now, it's actually pretty boring, Conan's chivalry is getting infuriatingly inconsistent, and the ape men at the end feel as arbitrarily shoehorned in as a Doctor Who monster. This is your Egyptian level, couldn't you have at least made them mummies or something?

15. The Phoenix on the Sword (a.k.a. By This Axe I Rule!, 1932)

We're told Conan is destined to become a king at the end of the film, which I felt spoiled things a little, since that makes him invincible in any story you're reading or watching where he isn't a king yet. I didn't realise Howard spoiled things right from the get go, by setting the first ever Conan story during those weary royal years.

Howard was already a pulp adept by the time he debuted his most famous creation, so there's no early awkwardness here – just your basic attempted usurping foiled by barbarian instincts and a little help from a magic sword. There's a brief appearance by an ungodly monster with shades of Lovecraftian unfathomableness about it, which warmed my black heart.

14. The Black Stranger (a.k.a. Swords of the Red Brotherhood, a.k.a. The Treasure of Tranicos, 1935)

The fact that Howard could easily rewrite this as a generic piracy story by changing the names tells you it's not a particularly strong Conan story.

After an action-packed Indiana Jones-style prologue, the Cimmerian disappears from this novella-length story for the rest of the first half, and he could be any wily treasure-hunting cur.

13. Rogues in the House (1934)

While I've been celebrating the medley of genres across Conan's turbulent career, that does make it hard to maintain a consistent tone.

This gritty tale of assassination, corruption and bloody vengeance feels like it's treading water, but we need to restore the factory settings every now and then to help the odd ones stand out.

12. The Frost-Giant's Daughter (a.k.a. The Frost King's Daughter, a.k.a. Gods of the North, 1932)

We take a rare trip to the frozen north to follow Conan as he's cock-teased by a nude nymph.

Weird Tales didn't want it as a Conan story until Howard switched the character's name, and maybe they were right. With its mythological atmosphere and twinkling scenery, it lacks the usual grime. But then you'd miss out on the delights of young Conan's sexual frustration.

11. Black Colossus (1933)

Conan only shows up half-way through this one. A lumbering scene-setting introduction makes sure we're sufficiently afraid of the ancient evil that's brewing in the desert before we can get down to the military campaign. I much preferred the first half.

Having enjoyed Howard's experiments with horror and sci-fi in the earlier stories, casting Conan as the hero who saves the princess feels a bit unadventurous. It's going to become a recurring theme, but it gets better.

10. The Slithering Shadow (a.k.a. Xuthal of the Dusk, 1933)

Let's face it, vintage stories about an uncouth primeval savage are going to be a bit sexist by nature. But they're not as bad as they could have been.

While he might not use a knife and fork, it's to Conan's credit that he's generally happy to pillage without the raping. Why exert himself, when 100% of the women he encounters are unable to resist his raw masculinity?

Some stories do it better than others. This one's brimming with catty jealousy and gratuitous (imagined) nudity, and even ends with Conan cracking a joke that amounts to "tsk, women!!!" But it's also eerily atmospheric and ventures into Lovecraftian nightmare territory, so I couldn't help but enjoy it. Sorry, sisters.

9. The Pool of the Black One (1933)

Howard continues to resist the comfortable rut – good on him – and adds another layer to his hero as we track back or forward to Conan's pirate days.

It's a bit grittier than Treasure Island, and what I said earlier about Conan not being a total misogynist... it turns out he went through phases.

The jet-black abhuman islanders aren't proper black people, so at least it's not racist probably. Weirdly, it's the second story in a row to do a lotus-eaters riff, so that's a bit embarrassing. But on the plus side: hydro beast!

8. A Witch Shall Be Born (1934)

I know there are demons and wizards in every single other story, but I can't help feeling this one could have been improved by a little ambiguity in place of the fatalism.

What if the "evil twin" – condemned as a witch based on nothing more substantial than a birthmark – only became that way because her awful parents abandoned her in the desert and she happened to be raised by an evil (subjectively speaking) sorcerer?

I stopped pretending I'm in any position to offer advice to Robert E. Howard when I reached Conan's gloriously overwrought crucifixion scene. That even made up for all the anti-Shemitism.

7. The Scarlet Citadel (1933)

We skip the first 34,999 fatalities of a bloody battle to join King Conan in his moment of dishonour, defeated by a pesky sorcerer and locked up in an improbably hellish dungeon.

Until his inevitable escape, this is an undiluted nightmare, as Conan faces down giant snakes, man-eating plants and blubbery things that defy categorisation. The invincible hero's out of his element amid the eldritch shadows that menace mind and soul, and it's satisfying seeing him taken down a peg, as his boasting was starting to get annoying.

I didn't rate Howard's more conventional horror tales, but this one takes its cues from the Lovecraft school of weirdness. A bit of genre variety is always appreciated; there'll be plenty of time for battles.

6. The Hour of the Dragon (a.k.a. Conan the Conqueror, 1934)

The only story Howard wrote for any character that passes the arbitrary word count of a novel, this is an impressive extended narrative for someone who made his living writing short. That said, it's a lot easier to digest when you break it down into its constituent episodes, which doesn't seem to affect the mid-length novellas.

It's slightly less impressive when you're reading these in order and can't help but notice that he's cannibalising previous stories left, right and centre to bulk it out. It's greater than the sum of those parts, even if it ends up being oddly less memorable. You could declare it the ultimate Conan story and I wouldn't argue, but not for me.

Maybe it's the piecemeal approach that tries to be all Conans at once. Maybe I'm less interested in reading about the wise and responsible King Conan than I am the up-and-coming barbarian outsider. Maybe it's the lack of stand-out moments compared to the best snack tales. Mainly, I just ran out of patience.

5. Red Nails (1935)

Where 'Hour of the Dragon' is definitive, epic and a bit boring, Howard's final Conan story is a load of stupid fun. This two-player dungeon quest pairs Conan with a female Conan in the form of the magnificently-bosomed Valeria, as they hack and slash their way through dragons, skull-headed sorcerers and other slithering beasties until the lost city is purged.

If Valeria's opening frustrations about the sexist times she lives in lead you to expect something more progressive than usual, have no fear. She's stripped and sexually assaulted before too long, and there's some extremely mild lesbian subtext that was doubtless a hit with those people who mainly bought Weird Tales for the covers.

4. Queen of the Black Coast (1934)

This epic seafaring romance may not be strictly on brand, but you could say that about half of these stories.

This heroic take on Pirate Conan was the first to pair him with a woman who can keep up. We could argue about the relative OTP merits of BĂȘlit vs. Valeria, but it's not like episodic serialisation allows them to hang around anyway. It'd just get in the way of Conan rescuing generic swooning maidens every other month.

3. The Tower of the Elephant (1933)

It's only the third Conan story, but I knew there wouldn't be many that topped this rollocking jewel theft caper. The basic story of scaling a sheer-sided tower guarded by a wizard's weird pets is so familiar, I figured it was from the Arabian Nights or something. Turns out it was something else in the public domain that you can all just steal.

I liked how Conan embarked on this perilous heist for basically no reason. Maybe he was just bored. It's also full of what I'm delighted to discover is customary strangeness, from the giant spider to the elephant-headed alien.

I suppose there are people who have a problem with aliens showing up in their otherwise totally realistic sword 'n' sorcery adventures, but I'm happy that Howard keeps mixing things up.

2. Beyond the Black River (1935)

Conan heads west as Howard gives us our first (only?) look at Hyborian America.

When I read Howard's horror stories, his homespun Southern Gothic yarns towered above those based on stock Old World tropes. If his career wasn't so close to its premature end, might his native Texas have become as rich a setting for these dark fantasies as Lovecraft's New England?

I always appreciate a shift from the well-entrenched formula, even at the worst of times, and this weird western is more satisfying than any of the uninspired jungle and desert tales. There are wooden forts rather than stone towers and Pictish Indians standing in for other twisted stereotypes, but it's still a Conan story to the core. To the extent that we're refused the expected happy ending as civilisation discovers it's no match for the savage wilds and "progress" halts in its tracks.

1. The People of the Black Circle (1934)

I always feel strangely proud when I'm following a short story writer and they graduate to a long(ish) one. Well done. But when I've got used to the flighty pace of a 25-page TV episode, it can take some willpower to make it through a 75-page film (full-size novels are a TV season, if you were wondering).

Happily, this is a story that makes great use of that extra space. It puts us through the wringer of evil sorcery, rather than settling for the usual stock spells and eldritch beasties, and takes us on a horseback tour of the almost-familiar geography of prehistoric Asia (Vendhya is India, but no prizes for deciphering Afghulistan, Irak and the Himelians).

The genre-spanning saga of Conan has many pleasing shades, but I prefer it at its pitchest dark.




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