A definite milestone in the birth of the Sword & Sorcery genre was the creation of the first definitive S&S novel, and as with so many other aspects, Howard was there first with his only novel-length work The Hour of the Dragon, a Conan tale to end them all. (Almost literally, as it was the last Conan story to be published in his lifetime, though it was not the last one he wrote.)
In the early 30s Howard was trying to break out of just publishing for Weird Tales, and one of his major efforts was to try and break out of the pulps and write books instead. One of the obstacles to this was that he had never written a book before. He had submitted a collection of stories to British publisher Denis Archer, which they rejected, but they suggested a novel of Sword & Sorcery might be something they would want.
Energized, Howard worked hard to conjure a novel. He started writing Almuric – a Sword & Planet adventure in the Burroughs tradition – but ultimately never finished it. Then he started a Conan novel which also went nowhere and eventually became the minor story “Drums of Tombalku”. Finally, sometime around March 17th, 1934, he started on what would become The Hour of the Dragon.
Reading it now, it is obvious that he was a relative novice at novel-writing, as the pacing is much more like what one expects from a short story. Howard always wrote fast-paced, tightly-plotted fiction, and he didn’t slow down when he was writing a longer work. He knew his strengths, and he played to them. The novel is an almost nonstop barrage of action, opening with a huge battle, and leading through a succession of bloody confrontations and daring escapes to its tense climax. It is a Howard story right to the bone.
That said, it is not the most original of his works. Howard was clearly aware of the fact that a British audience would not be familiar with his previous works, and he was in a hurry, so he borrowed rather shamelessly from his own previous Conan stories to assemble the plot. The antagonist – the undead sorcerer Xaltotun – is a dead ringer for Natohk, the villain from “Black Colossus”. The circle of rebellious nobles who gather to conjure the wizard from death are definitely reminiscent of the similar crew who drove the story of “The Phoenix on the Sword”. Conan’s escape through the crypts is drawn right from “The Scarlet Citadel”, as is the overall theme of King Conan losing his throne to a supernatural enemy and then fighting to regain it.
At around 70,000 words, the novel is extremely short, and yet the breathless pace would be exhausting if it were any longer. It is very much a pulp novel, of a piece with novels of the Shadow or the Spider, where the stories were churned out with such relentless intensity that the characters had no time to sleep. Maybe Howard would have learned to ease up and adopt a more novelistic pace if he’d had more time to practice, but as it is, he never lived to write more than a few long-form works.
Yet as derivative of his own stories as it is, Howard manages to conjure some scenes of real intensity and arresting imagery, as he almost always did. The opening battle scene, with the clash of warriors culminating in the epic avalanche, is a hell of a place to start. Xaltotun is actually a much creepier wizard-back-from-the-dead than Natohk or Tsotha-Ilanti ever managed. Previously his immortal wizards were a bit too broad pulp supervillains, while Xaltotun is more menacing and cool. Conan’s journey through the pits in “The Scarlet Citadel” was creepy, but The Hour of the Dragon adds the interlude with the vampire Princess Akivasha, which is so vivid it stays in the mind long after.
Battles, escapes, piracy, wizardry, violence, giant snakes, murderous apes – The Hour of the Dragon is a virtual guided tour through the lands and dangers of the Hyborean Age, and while for a reader of the other Conan tales a lot of it is familiar, Howard infuses all of it with his trademark energy and verve.
Denis Archer accepted the manuscript, but then went bankrupt in 1934 before it could be printed. When the book was returned to him, Howard sent it to Weird Tales, who serialized it from December 1935 to April 1936. When the last part was printed, Howard himself would only have 2 months to live.
The novel was finally printed in book form in 1950 by Gnome Press under the title Conan the Conqueror, and many later editions retained the title. In 1977 Karl Edward Wagner oversaw a new edition which restored the original text and title, and that is the version that has been reprinted in subsequent editions. It has been collected and anthologized many times, translated into a dozen languages, and adapted in the comics over and over. Whatever its flaws, the book remains the very first full-length Sword & Sorcery novel.