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An Ode to the Berkley Medallion Conans

Thursday, April 12th, 2012 | Posted by Brian Murphy

... in all their tattered glory

... in all their tattered glory

Karl Edward Wagner was and remains the most qualified individual to weigh in on the issue of Conan stories penned by someone other than Robert E. Howard, given that he wrote arguably the best pastiche of them all (The Road of Kings). So it behooves us to listen to what he had to say in the foreward to the Berkley Medallion Edition of Conan: The Hour of the Dragon (August 1977):

I have written Howard pastiches myself, so I can speak both as a reader and an author: Every author leaves his personal mark on whatever he writes; the only man who could write a Robert E. Howard story was Robert E. Howard. Read Howard pastiches as you will — but don’t let anyone kid you that you’re reading Robert E. Howard. It is far more than a matter of imitating adjective usage or analyzing comma-splices. It is a matter of spirit.

While Howard fans these days are spoiled by the Del Reys, prior to 1977 you could not buy a collection of the Conan stories without editorial emendations or the presence of pastiches. Both the widely printed Lancer/Ace collections of the 1960s and 70s and the rarer Gnome Press editions from the 1950s were marred by editorial changes and additional non-Howard material. That all changed with the Berkley Medallion Editions, published by the arrangement of the late, great, Glenn Lord (1931-2011), and edited by legendary horror and swords and sorcery author Karl Edward Wagner (1945-1994). These consist of three books in an aborted series that was supposed to run longer and include all 21 of Howard’s original stories. They include The Hour of the Dragon, The People of the Black Circle, and Red Nails. To prepare the Berkley Medallion Edition manuscript Wagner made photocopies directly from the pages of Weird Tales, correcting only obvious typographical errors.

As a kid I didn’t understand anything about the contentious issue of Howard pastiches. All I knew was that I liked Conan and that these gorgeously-covered books said “The Authorized Edition Edited By Karl Edward Wagner,” so I bought them. I was disappointed to find that the full color fold-out poster inside had been removed from my copies (undoubtedly they would have festooned my bedroom wall, and probably were on some other kid’s) but in the end that was okay: The stories remained. Only later did I move on to the wonderful forewards written by Wagner and discovered the cauldron of controversy brewing in Howard fandom.

I happen to own the paperback editions of the Berkleys and I’m glad I do as apparently the hardcovers were themselves subject to editorial emendations that rounded off the sharp edges of Wagner’s criticisms of the likes of L. Sprague de Camp.

One giant f-ing snake

One giant f-ing snake

When he wasn’t writing about the importance of preserving Howard in his original form, Wagner also included some shrewd observations and analysis of the stories. He calls “Beyond the Black River” a “Hyborian Age variant of the American frontier.” Recalling a theory first floated by Amra editor George H. Scithers, Wagner explores Scithers’ theory that Howard wrote himself into the plot of “Beyond the Black River” as the young woodsman Balthus, with Howard’s beloved dog Patches playing the part of Balthus’ hound Slasher. “It is interesting to think of Howard stepping into his own story to meet Conan face-to-face,” writes Wagner. I do disagree with his assessment of “Red Nails,” which he calls “something of a disappointment,” a solid Conan story but not worthy of being Howard’s final sendoff to his most famous creation. I happen to think it’s one of Howard’s best. Writes Wagner:

For myself, I think the disappointment lies in knowing that “Red Nails” is the last Conan story Howard wrote. As such, it’s an anticlimax, emotionally. Conan deserved a better farewell. A hero of his stature should have earned a Götterdämmerung, not just a kiss.

The Berkley Medallion Editions are also noteworthy for their gorgeous full-color Ken Kelly cover art, black and white pulp artwork (Hugh Rankin and others), fine two-page maps of the Hyborian World, and of course the forewards from Wagner that appropriately set the stage for those about to rock, experiencing pure Howard for the first time since Weird Tales:

But now… It is summer of 1934. You have just spent two-bits for the August issue of Weird Tales. Margaret Brundage has done the cover again — a rather unlikely Conan wrapped up in a huge green serpent, a semi-draped blonde watching the struggle. You open to the first story: “The Devil in Iron…”

I love my Berkley’s because not only do they possess the power to transport me back in time to the 1930s, but also a period a bit closer to us temporally. In the early 1980s I came to Howard through a treasure-trove of cheap Savage Sword of Conan back issues. Later I moved on to the prose stories themselves, purchasing used copies from the Ace/Lancer line and later the Berkleys. The bookstore I frequented had multiple copies in stock, a whole shelf full of Conan and other tattered fantasy paperbacks. I paid a whopping 50 cents a book, and on the way back home would pick up a candy bar or two and a can of soda from a nearby drugstore to enjoy an afternoon of reading. It all sounds so quaint and after-school special-ish now, but it remains a fond memory from my childhood (funny how the concept of a bookstore now seems outdated). Those were better times, with Wagner and Lord still the living stewards of a legendary writer.

13 Comments »

  1. I got “Red Nails” not the others. Good editions:-)

    Comment by GreenGestalt - April 13, 2012 1:01 am

  2. Well, hell. I have the hardcover of ‘Red Nails’. Now, I guess I’ll keep my eyes open for the paperback. I didn’t know about the changes to Wagner’s foreword.

    Still, I have the paperbacks of the other two and those intros are still eye openers. I agree strongly with KEW’s idea that original works and pastiches should be kept separate.

    Great editions, important editions, to be sure.

    Comment by pmcnamee67 - April 13, 2012 9:13 am

  3. I had no idea that the editorial in the hardback was different. I have the paperbacks.

    I have to say that, while I find Road of Kings to be pretty good, it felt like Wagner wrote the conclusion in a rush. For my money, the best published Conan pastiche I’ve ever read was Conan and the Emerald Lotus. Some might say that’s because John Chris Hocking is one of my closest friends, but the truth of the matter is that it was the book that began the friendship. I was a third of the way into Emerald Lotus and so very impressed I was determined I had to meet the guy who’d written it!

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - April 13, 2012 10:21 am

  4. It’s rare that I disagree with Wagner, but I’m with you on “Red Nails”: if anything, I feel it was an entirely fitting ending to Conan’s saga along with “The Hour of the Dragon.” But then, all Howard fans and scholars have their points of disagreement.

    Comment by Al Harron - April 13, 2012 12:12 pm

  5. Wagner’s opinion on Red Nails sounds to me like it was colored by forgiveably fannish sentimentalism. “That’s it?! That can’t be all! Where’s the rest?” IMO, Red Nails is clearly one of the best, if not the best, of the Conan stories.

    I haven’t read Emerald Lotus yet but Road of Kings didn’t impress me very much. I just don’t think Wagner had a good handle on Conan’s personality (although it was still light years ahead of De Camp’s take).

    Comment by andy - April 13, 2012 12:19 pm

  6. A fine article, Brian. The People of the Black Circle was my first introduction to Conan (and REH), a Christmas gift from my brother Mike in 1977. I immediately ran out and purchased the others.

    Mine had the fold-out posters, and they were glorious. Unlike you I did read Wagner’s intros first, probably because I’d been trained by Isaac Asimov to think introductions were often the highlight of an anthology.

    Wagner’s strong opinions on pastiches impressed me, but not in a very positive way. Mike was a big Conan fan, reading almost exclusively pastiche novels, and it seemed like this guy Wagner was insulting my brother’s taste. He got enough of that from everyone else who mocked his reading choices, he didn’t need it from other Conan fans.

    I remember getting a bad taste in my mouth when I later discovered Wagner had written pastiches. Felt a little bit like Roy Thomas’ rather mean-spirited editorial in the Dark Horse Conans, telling readers to avoid everything that wasn’t REH Conan. Coming from someone who’d make a living writing Conan comics for decades, that seemed a little ungracious, to say the least.

    Anyway, to my teenage mind, reading Conan fiction seemed like a sure-fire way to earn contempt from every direction: my parents, other fantasy readers, and even the people who wrote the stuff. For roughly three decades after reading Wagner’s introduction to The People of the Black Circle, I avoided anything to do with Conan. I never even read a single story from the book.

    It wasn’t until Howard Andrew Jones encouraged me to read “The Tower of the Elephant” that I discovered the power of the stories for myself. My respect for REH came from reading much of his other work, especially Solomon Kane and his horror stories.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 13, 2012 1:04 pm

  7. I never read a Conan story (at least not that I can recall) until I was in college and saw that the town library had a copy of Conan (the first Ace book) on the shelf. I knew about him, but never really picked anything up prior to that — I was more of a Burroughs kind of guy. (Is that like a Beatles vs. Stones thing?)

    Now I have all twelve books on my shelf — a mix of Ace and Lancer editions. (Plus two of the three Wagner anthologies.) And since I own the Del Reys, I’ll probably never read any of the other versions again, but I still appreciate the role they played in introducing me to Howard’s work.

    Comment by Joe H. - April 13, 2012 3:10 pm

  8. I think the criticism of the Conan pastiches was well justified. I cannot think of another literary character whose original creator was falsely maligned, the original work unavailable outside poorly edited and modified versions, and still had a large pastiche industry. I think de Camp is scum for what he attempted to do to REH’s legacy and, fortunately, we have moved beyond that phase and can enjoy REH’s Conan the way it was written. I can’t imagine anyone being a fan of Conan without reading REH’s stories than anyone being a fan of Sherlock Holmes without reading the Doyle stories but that really isn’t the issue. The issue was the attempt by lesser men to minimize REH’s role in his own work.

    Comment by Tyr - April 13, 2012 6:13 pm

  9. On these three superb collections of REH’s Conan works I have multiples of them all.

    The Hour of The Dragon seems to be the one I have found the most frequently at book stores, flee markets, garage sales etc.

    This is how I was introduced to Howards’ Conan, the penultimate Conan. The original.

    I was about 10.

    I can see I was most fortunate.

    I recently reread all three just ’cause.

    For those lurking about this site, go check out amazon you’ll find any of these for almost nothing, you’ll just have to pay like $4 shipping (if you don’t have amazon-prime, if you do shipping is free!), but with the books going for less than 50 cents you can’t beat that can you?

    All of REHs’ original Conan, for less than the latest fantasy hardcover.

    Any ways…People should go get these their almost giving this stuff away.

    Also on Amazon are the Cosmos Books collections( sub titled The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard ) which are also great. Those contain other works than the Conan stuff, but for that reason alone are worth looking into, and some are like going for 1 cent. No shit ONE CENT! (+ shipping ) that’s beyond awesome.

    Concerning Karl Edward Wagners’ controversial role in these Berkley Editions as well as Pastiche work in general I may come back to touch on that in some detail.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - April 15, 2012 1:29 am

  10. Thanks for the comments, all. A few follow-ups:

    I didn’t know about the changes to Wagner’s foreword

    I didn’t know that either until I was doing some research for the post. Once again I find myself indebted to the late Steve Tompkins for bringing this to light.

    I have to say that, while I find Road of Kings to be pretty good, it felt like Wagner wrote the conclusion in a rush. For my money, the best published Conan pastiche I’ve ever read was Conan and the Emerald Lotus.

    You could be right, Andrew. I read “Road of Kings” a long time ago, when I was reading anything, pastiche or no, featuring Conan.

    Wagner’s opinion on Red Nails sounds to me like it was colored by forgiveably fannish sentimentalism. “That’s it?! That can’t be all! Where’s the rest?” IMO, Red Nails is clearly one of the best, if not the best, of the Conan stories.

    I think so too. “Red Nails” is right up there with “Beyond the Black River” and “Tower of the Elephant” in my estimation.

    The issue was the attempt by lesser men to minimize REH’s role in his own work.

    I agree Tyr, that’s the main problem I have as well. Had De Camp presented the pastiche material properly and left out some his mean-spirited criticisms of REH in the introductions I’d have a much better impression of the Lancer/Ace editions. I still have a lot of fond memories of these editions from my younger days, but have a lot less patience with them now.

    Felt a little bit like Roy Thomas’ rather mean-spirited editorial in the Dark Horse Conans, telling readers to avoid everything that wasn’t REH Conan. Coming from someone who’d make a living writing Conan comics for decades, that seemed a little ungracious, to say the least.

    I don’t object to pastiches in principle, as long as they are clearly marked as such and kept separate from the original works.

    All of REHs’ original Conan, for less than the latest fantasy hardcover.

    Yes, some amazing deals can be had. And the great thing about the Conan stories is that they are all self-contained; no need to wait 6 years for the next doorstop-sized volume to advance the plot.

    Comment by Brian Murphy - April 15, 2012 5:27 pm

  11. I object to pastiche work on principle. 😉

    Any ways isn’t it enough of an honour to write Swords + Sorcery ( or whatever ) itself?

    Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.

    I am always very wary of any pastiche work.

    It’s a prejudice I admit ’cause some pastiches are quite excellent.

    I think it takes a very a unique writer to pull off a pastiche honorably.

    I second the recommendation for John C. Hockings’ Conan and The Emerald Lotus.
    It’s as good as Wagners’ much more famous pastiche which says a lot.

    I said it before on here ( and IRL! ) that I would like to see something like Songs of The Dying Earth ( Dying Earth pastiche antho ) done for REHs’ Conan.

    We’d probably need John C. Hocking and Howard A. Jones to captain that ship lest it goes into ‘Conan’ waters we’ve seen enough of.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - April 15, 2012 11:11 pm

  12. […] Lord was also responsible for publishing a trio of my favorites, the Karl Edward Wagner edited Berkley Medallion Conans. In short, his impact on Howard studies is incalculable, as these videos […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Plethora of Howard Days Panels on Youtube - August 31, 2012 1:12 am

  13. […] The People of the Black Circle is one of three Conan collections edited by Karl Edward Wagner; the other two are The Hour of the Dragon and Red Nails. All three were published in 1977, and all three included fold-out color posters by Kelly. Brian Murphy wrote a nice survey of them in his 2012 article, “An Ode to the Berkley Medallion Conans.” […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard - April 27, 2013 11:20 pm


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