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.