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Vintage Treasures: The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard

Saturday, April 27th, 2013 | Posted by John ONeill

people-of-the-black-circleI may have more books by Robert E. Howard in my collection than any other writer.

I’m not certain, as I haven’t counted, and if you allow anthologies then he’ll be beaten out handily by folks like Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. But the venerable Mr. Howard occupies more than two shelves in my library, which is astounding for someone who died at the age of thirty.

I came to Howard early. The first story I read by REH was “Pigeons from Hell,” which Charles Saunders mentioned in a speech he gave to the Ottawa Science Fiction Society in 1981, the year his groundbreaking Imaro was released. “Horror doesn’t usually scare me,” he told us. “‘Pigeons From Hell’ scared me.”

I think the second REH tale I read was the Solomon Kane tale “Skulls in the Stars,” which I enjoyed even more. (I wrote about the two Bantam Solomon Kane collections, Skulls in the Stars and The Hills of the Dead, last year.)

But I wasn’t a Conan fan. Most of it was prejudice — in those days, all those novels with barbarians on the cover were considered the lowest form of fantasy, and I generally snubbed them. Oddly, I don’t think I even associated Conan with Robert E. Howard.

I surreptitiously tried a Conan book in my early teens, a collection of tales mostly by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, if I remember correctly. Didn’t impress me. That was all I needed to confirm that I was better than this stuff and return to reading books of quality, like Perry Rhodan and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.

All that began to change with The People of the Black Circle, a Christmas gift from my brother Michael.

The People of the Black Circle was edited by Karl Edward Wagner, and it included the original text — and the original illustrations — for Howard’s tales, exactly as they first appeared in Weird Tales in the 1930s.

Suddenly, I was able to see Conan for what he was: not a product of the 70s fantasy explosion, just another cheap paperback in the supermarket, but a pulp hero, with a proud and respected legacy.

The spectacular cover art, by Ken Kelly, didn’t hurt either. Nothing against Frank Frazetta, who did the covers to many of those Lancer paperbacks I’d snubbed, but the cover of The People of the Black Circle fired my imagination in a way that none of the others had.

It depicted Conan not as a casual monster-slayer, defeating a drooling horror while a naked woman clung to his ankles, but as a grim and determined bringer of justice, caught in the instant before smiting the last (and doubtless the most deadly) of the Black Seers of Yimsha.

The book, as scrupulously edited by Wagner, collected four long Conan tales, bracketed by both a Foreword and Afterword by the editor:

“The Devil in Iron” (1934)
“The People of the Black Circle” (1934)
“A Witch Shall Be Born” (1934)
“Jewels of Gwahlur” (1935)

Black CanaanThirty years and dozens (and dozens) of Howard books later — some of them gorgeous, limited edition hardcovers, the kinds of books that REH could never dream of appearing in while he was alive — The People of the Black Circle is still my favorite Robert E. Howard book.

Part of it is nostalgia, I know. I have never read the book straight through, only dipped into it from time to time over the years. But perhaps that’s the best way to really savor it.

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.”

Presumably due to the success of these three, Berkley followed up with a complete line of Howard books, collecting his horror, fantasy, historical, and western fiction. Titles included Skull-Face, Sword Woman, Black Canaan, The Last Ride, Sons of the White Wolf, Marchers of Valhalla, Swords Of Shahrazar, The Vultures of Whapeton, Almuric, and others. I think most (or maybe even all) had Kelly covers, but the first three were the only Conan books, and the only ones edited by Wagner.

The People of the Black Circle, edited by Karl Edward Wagner, was published in 1977 by Berkley Medallion. It is 293 pages in paperback, with a cover price of $1.95.

37 Comments »

  1. Great stuff, John. I could read this kind of thing every day.

    Comment by chrislatray - April 27, 2013 11:49 pm

  2. Thanks Chris!

    Comment by John ONeill - April 28, 2013 1:19 am

  3. Great piece. But it must be said … the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books really were awesome.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - April 28, 2013 2:04 am

  4. I know, right? I’ll have to do a piece on them next.

    Or yield to someone who could do a better job, like Matthew David Surridge.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 28, 2013 2:48 am

  5. Good on your brother giving you the book. The Wagner collections were the best Conan you were going to get until the Wandering Star/Del Rey’s came out. And those Kelly covers are magnificent.

    Only sad thing about your post is I was impressed with my one shelf of Howard books until now. Hmm … how long are your shelves anyway?

    Comment by Kerstan Szczepanski - April 28, 2013 2:48 pm

  6. > Hmm … how long are your shelves anyway?

    Kerstan,

    It’s not nearly as impressive as it sounds. :) It’s virtually all paperbacks, and there are lots of duplicates.

    I snapped a quick pic of the complete collection by arranging them in ordered piles on the floor in my library. When my cat stopped investigating, anyway (that’s her paw on the far right).

    http://www.blackgate.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Robert-E-Howard-book-collection-2013.jpg

    They’re in five stacks, by publisher: Ace, Berkley, Del Rey (and others), Baen & Lancer, and finally Zebra.

    Of course, after I took the pic I noticed I missed nearly half a dozen Centaur and Dell paperbacks on a lower shelf, and at least one book was in the wrong stack, but I’m too lazy to re-take it. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - April 28, 2013 3:59 pm

  7. I must never have looked closely when I came by, or I would surely have commented on all that. Good lord! Multiple copies of those Berkleys?

    Good stuff.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - April 28, 2013 9:42 pm

  8. Hey Howard! I’ve gradually accumulated them over the years. I bought another copy of PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE in terrific shape from Gary Gianni at the Windy City Pulp and Paper show two weeks ago for just 2 bucks. It’s hard to resist them when I see them for just a buck or two. :)

    And congratulations on stealing the top spot in the BG Fiction list again — for the third month in a row!

    Comment by John ONeill - April 28, 2013 11:12 pm

  9. I love the del Rey version as much as the next guy, but those bison editions don’t get enough love.

    I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Lord of Samarcand.

    Comment by Glenn - April 29, 2013 6:54 am

  10. > those bison editions don’t get enough love.

    Glenn,

    I agree completely. They collect Howard stories hard to find elsewhere, like two volumes of his Westerns — THE RIOT AT BUCKSNORT, and THE END OF THE TRAIL.

    And the introductions — by Steve Tompkins, Rusty Burke, and others — are well worth the read as well.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 29, 2013 9:16 am

  11. I absolutely love when people show photos of their old paperbacks! Love it! One of the things I love about these sorts of posts is seeing the covers of the originals. Keep these posts coming! I love them!!

    Comment by mcglothlin.13 - April 29, 2013 1:58 pm

  12. Warts and all, REH has always been a passion of mine. Those KEW/Berkely editions knocked my socks off back during High School.

    http://uncledougsbunkerofhorror.blogspot.de/2013/01/the-moon-of-skulls-by-robert-e-howard.html

    http://uncledougsbunkerofhorror.blogspot.de/2012/03/normal-0-21-microsoftinternetexplorer4.html

    take care.
    Doug

    Comment by doug - April 30, 2013 6:01 am

  13. It’s not exactly photos off of my shelves, but:

    http://www.librarything.com/catalog.php?view=hoopmanjh&deepsearch=robert+howard&collection=-1

    Comment by Joe H. - April 30, 2013 1:06 pm

  14. Howard takes up two shelves in my library as well, double stacked.

    Comment by westkeith - April 30, 2013 3:29 pm

  15. > One of the things I love about these sorts of posts is seeing the covers of the originals. Keep these posts coming! I love them!!

    James,

    Good to hear from a kindred soul! I’m a hopeless fan of vintage paperbacks, and I love to see pics of the covers. Sometimes I think I post these articles just so I’ll have an excuse to scan the covers.

    SO not to worry — I plan to keep it up. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - May 1, 2013 5:08 pm

  16. Doug,

    Thanks for the links! You’ve certainly done a more-than-capable job of celebrating old paperbacks on your own site.

    Oh — and THE MOON OF SKULLS paperback you feature in the first link was one of the first Howard books I ever read, containing the short story “The Skull in The Stars” that I mentioned above.

    Comment by John ONeill - May 1, 2013 5:12 pm

  17. Joe,

    That’s a great link! It would have come in very handy when I was trying to complete my collection of REH Berkley paperbacks — not to mention Zebra, Centaur, and others!

    In fact, I think there still may be a few on that list I don’t have. Time to pull all my paperbacks down (again!) and check.

    Collectors live for moments like this. :) Most collectors claim to take pride in having complete collections, but I think most are pleased to discover there’s an additional treasure or three out there to chase.

    Comment by John ONeill - May 2, 2013 12:58 am

  18. > Howard takes up two shelves in my library as well, double stacked.

    Keith,

    Glad to hear it! Send me a pic (at john@blackgate.com) and I’ll post it in this comment thread. I’d be intrigued to see which ones you have that I don’t know about!

    Comment by John ONeill - May 2, 2013 1:01 am

  19. John,

    Thanks! It’s got plenty of holes of its own (for one thing I don’t have the Berkely Hour of the Dragon, and I’m sure there are others) but I’m still quite pleased with it.

    On a related note, the REH Foundation just started taking preorders for a four-volume boxing stories collection …

    Comment by Joe H. - May 2, 2013 8:44 am

  20. @John,
    Trivia time! Centaur Press (Those old Kane collections) was co-founded by Donald Grant

    Doug
    p.s.
    and thanks for the kind words.

    Comment by doug - May 3, 2013 2:32 pm

  21. > It’s got plenty of holes of its own (for one thing I don’t have the Berkely Hour of the Dragon, and
    > I’m sure there are others) but I’m still quite pleased with it.

    Joe,

    So which Howard volume was the hardest for you to track down? I’m going to guess A GENT FROM BEAR CREEK, because I’ve been trying (and failing) to find a copy for years.

    For me, it was the Ace edition of THE SHE DEVIL. Although the later Baen paperbacks, like EONS OF THE NIGHT and TRAILS IN DARKNESS, were no picnic either.

    > On a related note, the REH Foundation just started taking preorders for a four-volume boxing stories collection…

    Okay, this may be sacrilegious but… does anyone want FOUR VOLUMES of boxing stories? Even from REH?

    Comment by John ONeill - May 3, 2013 4:36 pm

  22. > Centaur Press (Those old Kane collections) was co-founded by Donald Grant

    Doug,

    Seriously?

    I’m a huge fan of Donald Grant. I met him decades ago at the World Fantasy Convention, and he was such a gentleman. And boy, he did great work. I shelled out for his limited edition of Stephen King’s THE GUNSLINGER as a teenager (a huge expense at the time) and never regreted it. I still don’t, considering it’s one of the rarest King books out there.

    Comment by John ONeill - May 3, 2013 4:38 pm

  23. John–

    If you want to hate me for this, I won’t blame you … I never really went out of my way to track down the Howard paperbacks; I’ve just been lucky enough for the past 25 years to live in cities (Minneapolis, the Madison, WI, then back to Minneapolis) with really good SF bookstores, so on my more-or-less weekly visits I’d always wander over to the H section to see if there was anything there that looked unfamiliar; if so, it would come home with me.

    The Baen paperbacks I did seek out deliberately, but that’s because I mostly bought them new as they were being published.

    Actually, I think the book that I spent the most time & effort on was Cthluhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors — I’m pretty sure that was one of the books that was lost in the flood (summer of 1993) and it took me years to track down a new copy.

    Yes, four volumes of boxing stories is probably excessive but I preordered just because the Foundation does such beautiful work.

    (And speaking of Donald Grant, my Grant edition of Kull probably has my favorite art of all my Howard books.)

    Comment by Joe H. - May 3, 2013 9:02 pm

  24. Hi John,yes! THE Donald Grant. :-)

    My favorite Grant book is my autographed copy of “Borders Just Beyond” by Joseph Payne Brennan.

    Doug

    Comment by doug - May 4, 2013 12:02 pm

  25. > Actually, I think the book that I spent the most time & effort on was Cthluhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors — I’m pretty
    > sure that was one of the books that was lost in the flood (summer of 1993) and it took me years to track down a new copy.

    Joe,

    That’s one I’ve been looking for a while myself. A friend of mine recommended it to me nearly 10 years ago. Cthulhu and REH… how can you go wrong? :)

    Comment by John ONeill - May 5, 2013 1:36 pm

  26. > My favorite Grant book is my autographed copy of “Borders Just Beyond” by Joseph Payne Brennan.

    Doug,

    Admit I’m not familiar with that one. But Brennan’s “The Shapes of Midnight” is high on the list of things I troll for in bookshops!

    Comment by John ONeill - May 5, 2013 1:40 pm

  27. I lucked out and found a pristine copy of “The Shapes of Midnight” two months ago on abebooks for only $8.00 (6.5 pounds) from a fellow in the UK and also saved a fortune in postage! :-)

    Here’s “Borders Just Beyond”
    http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?36434

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-sFOHvo_xc4M/UHKwfqfQajI/AAAAAAAABlU/LxN_h1VJRjU/s1600/brennan.jpg

    Comment by doug - May 9, 2013 3:19 am

  28. Doug,

    Ah! I’m jealous of your SHAPES OF MIDNIGHT acquisition. That’s a great price, too.

    BORDERS JUST BEYOND is out of my price range, I think. Unless I get lucky in a used book store some day. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - May 9, 2013 11:35 am

  29. John,
    I bought “Borders” several years ago for around $20.00.I got lucky as all hell. Same thing with “Shapes”. It took me severaly years to find a copy in my price range. My wife keeps me on a tight budget! :-) so I have to behave obsessively and constantly check Abebooks for low priced editions and grab them before anyone else does. I’ve had snuff get snatched away during the time it’s taken me to dig out my credit card number!
    Here’s another option IF you can find an affordable copy.

    http://www.nightfallbooks.com/catalog/feasterfromafar.html

    Pelan has re-released several “Midnight House” editions as trade paperbacks. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’ll re-release this one also in an affordable edition. That’s what he did with his two Fritz Leiber collections and a few others.

    Doug

    Comment by doug - May 12, 2013 3:54 pm

  30. […] April 27 I wrote a Vintage Treasures article about Robert E. Howard’s The People of the Black Circle, one of the first fantasy books I […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: Robert E. Howard’s Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors - May 18, 2013 7:43 pm

  31. […] Vintage Treasures: The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard  […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 50 Black Gate Blog Posts in April - May 30, 2013 10:03 am

  32. Doug,

    Wow, I love that Brennan collection! The Feaster From Afar & Other Ghastly Tales looks like fabulous book.

    60 bucks is a bit out of my price range. I wasn’t aware of the trade paperbacks, though… can you point me to a few?

    Thanks!

    Comment by John ONeill - May 30, 2013 3:28 pm

  33. […] Brennan isn’t someone I discovered in the magazines. In fact, up until this week, I was pretty sure I’d never read anything by him at all. He’s been mentioned a few times here on the Black Gate blog, most recently in Douglas Draa’s review of Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural, and in the discussion surrounding Robert E. Howard’s The People of the Black Circle. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: The Shapes of Midnight by Joseph Payne Brennan - September 1, 2013 1:47 pm

  34. […] in countless paperbacks like Sax Rohmer’s The Trail of Fu Manchu, Robert E. Howard’s The People of the Black Circle, Manly Wade Wellman’s The Complete Hok the Mighty, Donald Wollheim’s Tales of Outer […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Experience the Joy of the Pulps With The Incredible Pulps - December 16, 2013 12:47 pm

  35. […] in September, prodded on by some comments Douglas Draa made in my article on The People of the Black Circle, I tracked down a copy of Joseph Payne Brennan’s short story collection The Shapes of […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: Nine Horrors and a Dream by Joseph Payne Brennan - December 20, 2013 4:13 pm

  36. […] ended up buying those two, and a few others (and was inspired to write a long overdue post on The People of the White Circle a few days later.) While I was talking to Gary he showed me some of the art books he had for sale, […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Tales From Windy City Pulp and Paper - April 23, 2014 10:20 am

  37. […] 1987, a decade after he’d edited the three volume definitive editions of the Berkley Conan (The People of the Black Circle, Red Nails, and The Hour of the Dragon), Karl Edward Wagner set out to create a major reprint […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: Echoes of Valor, edited by Karl Edward Wagner - December 22, 2014 2:27 pm


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