Monday, May 20, 2019

Conan of Cimmeria

A product of the early period of the Howard renaissance, this is the second volume in the original Lancer series, first printed in 1969 and republished many times since. This book collects an interesting hybrid of original Howard works alongside pastiches and bastardizations to produce a book that is more entertaining than it has a right to be.

The book features three genuine Howard stories about Conan – the classic “Queen of the Black Coast” alongside the lesser work “The Vale of Lost Women”, which is a rather inconsequential tale that is far from Howard’s best. The third one is the inexplicably popular “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”, which has a reputation as a great Conan story when it is really not, and coasts by almost entirely on atmosphere. These are the only complete Howard stories included that are his work from beginning to end.

The table of contents is filled out with a variety of other works. Three of these are straight-up original stories by the usual team of Carter and de Camp. “The Curse of the Monolith” is a quick little tale with some nice macabre details and an interesting premise, though it is more of a Lovecraft tale than a Conan one. “The Lair of the Ice Worm” is a pretty darned good story, with some nicely bloody action and a satisfyingly menacing ice worm. There’s nothing especially Conan-ish about it, and it could star any barbarian and be pretty much unchanged. That said, it’s one of the best works by the Carter/de Camp team.

“The Castle of Terror” is a decent story, again with more horror than action. Conan is less a protagonist in this than an observer, which weakens it, but the monster is a suitably gruesome one, and the tale at least moves quickly, even if it is the second story – after “Ice Worm” – that features Conan sleeping through danger as a major plot point.

The last two stories are “posthumous collaborations”, which really means rewriting Howard’s work, or adapting it. “The Bloodstained God” is a fun, violent action story that feels like a real Howard tale because it is – de Camp just took one of Howard’s contemporary middle-eastern adventures and altered it into a Conan story. I may dislike this practice, but it makes for a fine story, and I can’t even say it’s not something Howard himself would have done, since he did things very much like it on more than one occasion.

A more uneven effort is “The Snout in the Dark”, which has a bad title and comes off as more than a bit of a hack job. The first part of the story was left as an unfinished draft by Howard, showing Conan caught up in palace intrigues of the African-styled kingdom of Kush. However, he had only just appeared in the story when Howard stopped working on it, and so Carter and de Camp set about to finish it. The draft showed tremendous potential, but they wasted it with a rushed, poorly-done final act. It retains a good bit of momentum simply from Howard’s opening and from the exciting, vividly-drawn setting.

Overall this is one of the better collections that is not 100% Howard. Carter and de Camp both seemed to have a better grip on Sword & Sorcery, and on Conan in particular, when they stuck with the short story form, and didn’t try to pace out a full novel. I suppose it’s possible they were not particularly bad at writing Conan, but were maybe just bad at novels in general. Still, the inclusion of one undeniable classic and some decent pastiche work makes this one a good bet.

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