Monday, January 28, 2019

Conan the Swordsman

Howard pastiches really kicked off in the late 1970s, and 1978 seems to have been a kind of watershed year. The release of the beautifully-illustrated but poorly-written Conan and the Sorcerer seems to have been the starting point, but it was quickly followed by the short story collection Conan the Swordsman that same year, which makes a much more favorable impression.

Returning Conan to his short story roots produces work much more in line with what Howard created, and some of the stories here are surprisingly good. The work here is credited largely to Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp, though I tend to think de Camp did most of it, as you can pretty much tell when Carter is writing, given his addiction to faux-archaic words and sentence constructions that make the narrative sound like Yoda is writing it. The style used by de Camp is much more straightforward, and while he never manages that fever-pitch quality Howard hit with his action, he does pretty well.

The stories here are just classic pulp workouts that are entertaining even if they are derivative. “Legions of the Dead” is a straightforward tale of brutal violence and grim savagery, while “People of the Summit” (rewritten from a story by Bjorn Nyberg) is just a great pulp story by any measure, even if it does borrow more than it should from “The People of the Black Circle”. “The Gem in the Tower” and “Moon of Blood” are similarly gripping, bloody adventures, and even the weaker stories here, like “The Star of Khorala” are readable.

One interesting feature here are the in-between-story notations about the course of the rest of Conan’s life. Carter and de Camp seemed to work at putting the events of Conan’s life as depicted by Howard into some kind of logical order and then set to filling in the gaps, as it were. For instance, Howard tells us that Conan spent a great deal of time as a pirate, but only one story - “The Pool of the Black One” - really depicts an episode of his life during this period. Other stories touch on it, but it remains an underexplored part of the character, and thus ripe for pastiche and homage. “The Gem in the Tower” is a very fine example of this, filling in a cracking adventure while still fitting into the broader continuity.

From this start, the business of detailing Conan’s life in more detail was off to the races. Entire novels like The Road of Kings and The Sword of Skelos filled in events we had only previously been told about. It set the stage for how such works are handled even today, though by now Conan has had so many adventures that one human lifetime could never have time for them all.

The upside is that this book contains some really good stories that manage to capture a lot of the feel and mood of the genuine article. Too many authors have stumbled through their Conan imitations, not seeming to really care if they get it right, but unlike the weak Conan and the Sorcerer, Conan the Swordsman successfully gives you a reason to keep reading.

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