Monday, June 17, 2019

Conan of the Isles


The first Conan novel – indeed, the first Sword & Sorcery novel – was Howard’s own The Hour of the Dragon, which was serialized just before and just after his death, and later put out in book form in 1950 by Gnome Press. The first post-Howard Conan novel was The Return of Conan by L Sprague de Camp and Bjorn Nyberg, also put out by Gnome. Though Gnome was a giant among fan publishers, it was a tiny press that put out less than a hundred books over fourteen years in business, and thus these made little impression on the public at large.

After Lancer and then Sphere took up the Conan business, there was more money and exposure to go around, and so de Camp and Carter tried again to create a genuine Conan novel with the 1968 release of Conan of the Isles. The novel is rather interesting, as it seeks to add the one thing Howard never got around to doing with his barbarian hero – a capstone. Every great legend needs an ending, and while Howard simply wrote tales in the order they occurred to him, without much thought toward a larger continuity, he did at least contemplate Conan’s end.

The book is set some twenty years after Conan’s usurpation of the Aquilonian throne. His wife Zenobia – who he met in Hour of the Dragon – has died in childbirth, and his son Conn is of age to take the crown. The authors clearly wanted to get Conan off his throne and back to wandering, so they cooked up a boring magical plot device called “red shadows” - phantoms who come from the sky and carry people away. Conan has a dream where he gets told only he can stop the magical bullshit and to sail west.

With that out of the way, the book actually gets kind of fun. Conan rounds up a ship and a crew and sails off into the mysterious western ocean in search of bad guys to kill. There’s a pretty vivid sea battle, and when he gets plunged underwater, he gets in the middle of a battle between a giant squid and a giant shark that is pretty bad ass.

Coming ashore, he finds he is in the mysterious Antilles, where the last remnants of ancient Atlantis built a civilization that is essentially depicted as being Aztec. It’s pretty obvious the authors did some research, and the depiction of the city of Ptahuacan is vivid and well thought-out. Conan’s crew was taken prisoner and are due to have their hearts ripped out, and so he sets off to rescue them. This mostly takes the form of blundering around in tunnels under the city, trying to find a way to the main temple.

On the way, he discovers a cave where giant lizards are kept to eat the bodies of the sacrificial victims, and turns them loose on the priests and the city in a rather gleeful scene of mayhem. He rescues his crew, they steal a ship and sail away, heading westward for new adventures. The whole “red shadows” nonsense is resolved in typical Carter fashion. The evil god who controls the phantoms is confronted by the god Mitra, who comes out of an amulet Conan got in a dream and the ensuing battle ruins the entire temple. It’s boring and stupid, and even the narrative doesn’t spend much time on it. It’s a standard Lin Carter deus ex machina where the good magic bullshit defeats the evil magic bullshit, while the hero stands and watches.

That aside, this is not badly done. Conan actually spends some time waxing melancholy about his past adventures, and we see him starting to decline a bit, physically – he’s not the iron-armed young man in his twenties any longer. The pacing is pretty good, and the action actually has some grit to it. The major problem is that it needs a silly magic plot device to get the story moving, and then uses another stupid plot device to resolve the first one, without much of any involvement from our hero.

As a pirate tale, this is agreeably breezy and entertaining. As an attempt to set an ending for Conan it fails miserably. If Howard were going to put finish to Conan’s story, he would have done it in a furious battle with rivers of blood, and Conan would go down fighting and he would fucking die at the end. You can’t tell me Howard the fatalist would have shied away from that. So de Camp and Carter get points for attempting to tie up the saga, but lose them all for not having the nerve to actually kill their hero off at the end.


Monday, June 10, 2019

The Forest of Death


Shath walked through darkness for six nights under the shattered moon, hiding from the sun by day. The desert grew more and more desolate, until he moved through a wasteland without feature or mark save barren earth and jagged stone. The stars shone down by night and by day, and there was nothing to be found of food or water or ease.

His small companion clung to him when he walked, and he gave her the last of his food and his water, knowing he could go on as far as he must. He was not a man made only of flesh and blood, but a creation of will and endurance. He would not fail in his quest because he would not allow himself to falter, and he would sustain himself upon pure iron in his heart and his veins.

On the sixth night, under the brilliant stars, they came to the place where the earth was torn, and he saw the first shadows of the trees. Ahead, across the earth baked hard as steel, the shadows rose one after another, and as they came closer he saw the familiar shapes. Like trees they thrust up from the desolate soil, metallic trunks forking again, and again, and again, until they ended in an array of glassine arrow points thrust upward to the sky.

He had never seen more than one, only the single, lone tree that had been the center of the myths of his people. The tree that did not live yet did not die. The tree that cut flesh and drank blood, that sparked like fire when touched, and whispered to those brave enough to embrace it.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Conan


This was the very first of the Conan collections put out by Lancer books and began the Howard renaissance which, in a way, is still going on. Entitled simply Conan, it contains seven full stories as well as one of Howard’s letters and part of his “Hyborian Age” gazetteer which laid out the history and kingdoms of his imaginary world. This volume was, essentially, a mass market introduction to the world of Conan, and as such, some of the story choices are odd.

I would think that a proper initiation into Howard’s world would entail Howard’s own work alone, but only three of these stories are full-blooded Howard stories, and only one is what I would call first-rate. “The Tower of the Elephant” is one of the finest Conan tales, with a fast-moving setup, some exciting action, and an ending with unusual emotional range and a depth of pathos which shows the young hero displaying mercy and empathy in ways he normally didn’t. It’s also one of Howard’s most evocative tales, dripping with atmosphere.

“The God in the Bowl” is a strange story, though one I like very well, as it is so atypical for Sword & Sorcery, being essentially a locked-room murder mystery interpreted through a Hyborian lens. Some consider this a minor Conan story, and it probably is, but it moves quickly, and it has some genuinely creepy moments. “Rogues in the House” is often held up as a great story, but to me it is pretty average, detailing the rivalry between two noblemen in an unnamed city-state. Conan is more of a side-character in this one, though his battle with the ape-man is pretty badass. It’s a lot like a Yellow Peril story done Conan-style, and it sometimes seems like Howard enjoyed taking other genres and tossing his hero into them to see what would break.

“The Hall of the Dead” is made up of an unfinished fragment/outline found in Howard’s papers and completed by L. Sprague de Camp to make a pretty bog-standard Conan story. Conan goes off to find a treasure, pursued by guys sent to arrest him. Hijinks ensue, there’s a monster, blah blah. It’s pretty bland.

Better is “The Hand of Nergal”, another unfinished piece completed this time by Lin Carter. This one has some grit in it, and while I can easily tell which parts were done by Carter, I have to say this is some of the most evocative writing he ever did, and he manages to keep the atmosphere of the story pretty well intact. He screws up the ending, though, as he just has the evil artifact destroyed by the good artifact while Conan stands and watches, taking away all the drama he has built up.

The other two stories are entirely original works by the Carter/de Camp duo. “The Thing in the Crypt” is pretty good, and also seems to have been a definite inspiration for part of the movie, as it details a young Conan fleeing from hungry wolves when he slips into a hidden tomb in the wilderness and finds a dead king with a sword in his hands. Conan takes the blade, the dead guy gets up, and there’s a fight. One assumes the dead king in the movie would have gotten up for a fight if there’d been the budget for it. The closing tale, “The City of Skulls” is another Carter/de Camp work that dwells on Carter’s tiresome fixation with having his characters imprisoned. It’s a dull story that drowns in a welter of ugly, racist streotypes and does not bear much scrutiny.

Overall, the choice of stories to put in this opening collection seems strange, and I can only assume they had already decided on a run of releases, and wanted to parcel out the good Howard stories over time and not get stuck without anything of quality in the later books. Some of the pastiche work is pretty decent here, and it’s obvious this is one of the collections Oliver Stone read when he was working on the Conan the Barbarian film script a decade later. Maybe not a great collection, but a seminal one.