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)
Thirty 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.