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By Crom: Some Conans are More Equal Than Others…

Thursday, January 4th, 2018 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Conan and the Emerald LotusI’ve been in a bit of a Robert. E. Howard mood lately, so I re-read some of his Solomon Kane stories (fine stuff). But, as always, I gravitated back to Conan. And that inevitably led me to the pastiches. A quick count of the shelves produced 42 non-Howard Conan tales, excluding the de Camp/Carter books, of which I’m missing two or three, I think.

I’ve read at least a third of those pastiches, I’d say, maybe close to half. Except for a few, they are part of the Tor line I wrote about here. And as I mentioned, they’re a mixed bag. I also wrote a post regarding how official those pastiches are considered, which generated a lot of good commentary.

The Tor line came to a halt in 1997, with one additional book in 2003 (I wouldn’t have minded if they’d skipped that last one). There have been no official Conan pastiches in fifteen years, though that’s going to change shortly.

Howard Andrew Jones, fantasy author and Black Gate‘s Managing Editor, had some thoughts similar to mine over at his blog a few years ago. Ryan Harvey’s Pastiches R Us looked at about a dozen of the Tor books: you can search Black Gate for them, but here’s one and here’s another. He also had Charles Saunders do a guest post for him.

A multitude of writers have penned a plethora of words about the Conan pastiches, but I’m keeping this post ‘in-house’ and will focus on musings from Howard, Ryan and myself.

Here are a few of the less complimentary comments regarding the Tor pastiches from the afore-linked articles:

“As a matter of fact, those Conan novels on store shelves in the ’70s and ’80s made me so skeptical of Conan that I didn’t try Robert E. Howard’s fiction until years later. I wrongly assumed that because the series looked cheap and mass produced that Howard’s writing would sound that way” Howard Andrew Jones

“None of the pastiches could match Howard, and the majority of them are poor work-for-hire that feel cranked out without much passion. The long series from Tor, which lasted from 1982 to 1997, and made a brief return in 2004 (hardback in 2003 – Bob), gets the most critical drubbing.” — Ryan Harvey

“The Tor books, pushed out at a punishing pace, are very much a mixed bag. And my experience so far is that more often than not, they fall into the “meh” or worse category.” — Bob Byrne

Conan_RaiderYou can read the essays for more comments along those lines from all three of us. There are plenty of negative observations to be made. But some of the Tor books are good reads. And at least two of us agree on a couple of them (Ryan and I think better of Robert Jordan’s efforts than Howard does).

Howard has championed John C.  Hocking’s Conan and the Emerald Lotus for years as his favorite pastiche. Authors James Reasoner and Evan Lewis both praise the book. It’s my second-favorite Tor book and in his review for SwordandSorcery.org (link now dead) I believe that Ryan ranked it highly as well. Highly recommended.

Hocking wrote a second novel, Conan and the Living Plague, and started a third. However, things got mucked about with the rights holders and Living Plague was never published. I hold out hope that will be rectified sooner rather than later.

Howard, Ryan and I all like Leonard Carpenter’s Conan the Raider. Howard wrote that Carpenter “writes with astonishing visual power” and Ryan wrote that he appreciates  “a pastiche writer willing to dig down into the more horrific side of the Weird Tales legacy.”

I commented that it was a “rather fun fantasy novel and one I liked.” You can see why I’m the bottom feeder in the triumvirate I’m talking about here…

Howard, Ryan and myself all found something to like in John Maddox Roberts’ pastiches. Howard and I have both specifically commended Conan the Rogue (Ryan might have, but I haven’t run across a mention). In fact, Conan the Rogue, which is an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel, Red Harvest, is my favorite Conan pastiche. I intend to do a thorough write-up of it some day.

Conan_ValorousRyan and I have both commented favorably on Roberts’ Conan the Valorous. I reviewed it at length and I think it did a much better job of presenting life in Cimmeria than did Harry Turtledove’s Conan of Venarium (a late and final addition to the Tor line).

Howard liked Conan the Sorcerer, the first of Andrew J. Offut’s trilogy. I did as well. I think it’s about the pulpiest of the pastiches. The second book kept me going on, but then Conan rapes a woman early in the third book. It was out of character and completely unnecessary and it ruined the trilogy for both Howard and I.

So, here’s a quick recap of recommendations. I don’t think you’d go wrong starting here with your Conan pastiching:

Conan and the Emerald Lotus – John Chris Hocking
Conan the Rogue – John Maddox Roberts
Conan the Raider – Leonard Carpenter
Conan the Valorous – John Maddox Roberts
Conan the Sorcerer – Andrew J. Offutt

There are others worth reading, of course. And I didn’t even get in to the de Camp/Carter line. While I totally understand that de Camp rewrote Howard (there’s some intestinal fortitude!), I like the stories in those Ballantine/Ace collections. And I think they’re generally superior to the Tor books.

I’ve got several reviews of Conan books up at Amazon – search ‘Conan’ and ‘Robert Byrne.’ And definitely look for Ryan’s Pastiches R Us moniker at BlackGate.comJust type ‘Conan’ over at  Howard’s excellent blog for some good stuff. The review that he and Bill Ward did of Del Rey’s trilogy of original-text Conan tales is a must read.

Some miscellaneous tidbits:

Conan_FlameKnifeKarl Edward Wagner’s The Road of Kings, a Bantam (not Tor) book is frequently cited among the top pastiches and Howard liked it. I had heard quite a bit about it when I finally read it and wasn’t as impressed as I expected to be.

Also, Ryan wrote,

You may have noticed that in my series of reviews of Conan pastiche novels, I have yet to review an entry from Roland Green.

That is correct. I have not. Noted. Moving on. . .

But I rather liked Green’s Conan the Relentless, so I don’t think Green missed on all of his efforts.

I both read and write Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ve got hundreds of pastiches on my shelves. And many, many of those writing about the world’s first private consulting detective try to emulate Doyle’s style. As you can well imagine, results are all over the map. But there are a few, like Hugh Ashton and Denis O. Smith and June Thomson (and with his Solar Pons, Cthulhu guy August Derleth) who sound very much like Doyle.

And quite a few others who do Doyle well, if less perfectly. It’s not the same with Howard. I’ve not read a pastiche where I thought, “Boy, he writes just like Howard!” Perhaps REH can’t be replicated as Doyle can – I don’t know. But as a Sherlockian, it’s an interesting difference. BTW — have any women written Conan?

While I was writing this post, I was reading Sean A. Moore’s Conan and the Grim Grey God. I had not yet read any of Moore’s three Tors. Ryan Harvey had reviewed his Conan the Hunter and said that Moore’s “imagination shows promise.” I’ll be writing a review of Grim Grey God, but I just wanted to mention that it immediately became one of my five favorite Tors. It hit a lot of the right buttons and I definitely enjoyed it more than most of the others in the Tor series. I’ll be looking for Moore’s other two books. Sadly, he died in a car accident shortly after the third pastiche.

Finally, I will mention The Flame Knife. I LOVE Howard’s El Borak stories. Francis Xavier Gordon rivals Conan as my favorite Howard character. Howard wrote Three Bladed Doom, an El Borak story that wasn’t published until 1976. But about twenty years earlier, de Camp had taken the story and rewritten it as a Conan tale, The Flame Knife, which saw print in 1955. I think that both versions are good reads.

More Conan coming, I’m sure…

1/23/18 UPDATE

In mid-January, I had the opportunity to read several more Tor pastiches. John Maddox Robert’s Conan the Marauder was the best of the bunch. There’s a Genghis Khan type figure who is uniting the horse-riding Hyrkanian tribesmen. Howard Andrew Jones had recommended this one to me in the past. I’d give it four stars and I think I’ve now read enough Tors that so far I judge Roberts a cut above Hamilton and Coleman and a couple levels better than Perry.


Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate  from March 10, 2014 through March 20, 2017 (making an occasional return appearance!). He also organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.

He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IVV and VI.

33 Comments »

  1. Love the tag line! Great Orwellian quote!

    Comment by James McGlothlin - January 4, 2018 12:33 pm

  2. Thanks James. Gotta start the new year at Black Gate with some Conan! I think I’m going to stick ‘By Crom’ on the front of all my Conan posts this year.

    I’m going to try and go through most of the Tors in (primarily) publication order this year. And write up a couple posts for each author. Currently enjoying my re-read of Roberts’ ‘Conan the Valorous.’

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 4, 2018 1:07 pm

  3. Great post. I’ve read a fair number of the pastiche novels and felt that of those I read, Offutt was the best. I really don’t remember the rape you mention, so that didn’t stand out to me. But I’d counter regarding Conan’s behavior, what do you think he was going to do if the frost giant’s daughter hadn’t escaped his grasp?

    I also liked the de Camp and Carter stories. Jordan wrote adequately enough but the novels are formulaic and basically tell the same story over and over. Maybe read one and be done with him.

    It might be worthwhile to steer people away from the worst Conan pastiche writer: Steve Perry. Nothing worthwhile there.

    I’ve often wondered whether the Tor novels all had a page/word count that was part of the contract since almost all of the novels came in at around 300 pages. Was that the sweet spot in the fantasy book market in the 80s?

    Comment by NOLAbert - January 4, 2018 1:18 pm

  4. I have the entire TOR run and will make a run through quite a few this year. Emerald Lotus was a very entertaining read and had a familiar REH trope – three main storylines – Conan, villain and the wild card who shows up at the end. The Carter/de Camp stories of a higher level, but there is plenty to like about the Tor selections (if even for the great cover art). I’ve read two Jordan pieces and they portray Conan as too civilized at times.

    Comment by ssiknaf - January 4, 2018 1:28 pm

  5. NOLAbert – Thanks.

    Funny you mention the page count. I was just noticing in Moore’s The Grim Gray God that the font was smaller than most Tors, and the page count was much less. It stood out.

    Frost Giant’s Daughter – that’s certainly a topic that’s been debated. I recall somebody saying he had been ensorcelled and wasn’t totally himself, though I don’t remember those lines in the story.

    And there was no teasing and chase in Offut’s book. It was a very clear “No.” The fact that she liked it afterwards didn’t make it okay for me and it tarred the rest of the book.

    I liked Perry’s Conan the Defiant, but his Conan the Indomitable was one of the worst fantasy books I’ve read.

    As I mentioned in my The Tor Conan: Quality May Vary post (linked above), the quality of those Tor pastiches, which came out fast and furious, were just all over the place. You might find one you liked from an author, then read two bad ones from the same guy.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 4, 2018 1:29 pm

  6. Years ago I read an interview with Steve Perry where he mentioned that his private nicknames for his Conan novels were things like “Conan Because my Kid Needs Braces” and “Conan Because the Car Needs a New Transmission”.

    Comment by Amy Bisson - January 4, 2018 1:40 pm

  7. Bob,

    Frost Giant’s Daughter — yes, Conan was under her magical seduction, since that is how she lured men to be killed by her brothers so that their hearts could be offered to Ymir. The story would be a field day for feminists I’m sure.

    Offutt — was he writing his smut around this time? Maybe that influenced his Conan novels. Rape fantasies being a cliche in those types of books.

    Comment by NOLAbert - January 4, 2018 1:47 pm

  8. Doyle certainly appears easier to pull off than REH. The headlong intensity, the BELIEF…just isn’t there. In may ways, Howard was a singular talent. It doesn’t help that most Conan pastiche authors seem to have gotten all their Hyborian Age info from one of the Bruce Jones Conan comics in the ’80s. Writers, especially if they’re Holmes fans, tend to have a good idea about the Victorian Age.

    @ NOLAbert: Offutt wrote smut his entire career. You see it crop up in his (supposedly) non-smut novels pretty frequently. He couldn’t help himself.

    Comment by deuce - January 4, 2018 2:07 pm

  9. Amy – That sounds about right. And funny! The pace wasn’t as punishing as the Age of Conan spinoff series’ they did, where I heard (secondhand) that the authors had 90 days to write three novels!

    But the Tor books came out pretty fast and furious. I think there were a few instances of two books in one year by one writer.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 4, 2018 2:20 pm

  10. I would love to see what C.L. Moore or Leigh Brackett could have done with Conan. But neither likely would have come close to their own original works (as was the case with de Camp).

    I am kind of burned out on Conan pastiches after reading a few dozen this past summer, but you have given me a handful of individual books to look out for.

    Better to read more actual Howard. He really is incomparable as a stylist. You can write Vancian fiction, but you can’t write like Jack Vance…

    I haven’t read many if any of the individuals books you mentioned. For what I have read, I really like Jordan’s (except the first one) and Roberts’ and that’s it.
    https://everydayshouldbetuesday.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/announcing-summer-of-conan/

    Comment by everydayshouldbetuesday - January 4, 2018 2:50 pm

  11. I was much like Howard and I stayed away from Conan because of how they were marketed. I figured they were just a cheap cash grab like the movies.

    After I discovered Black Gate and stared reading the Conan posts here. Someone happened to give me old copies of the first two Ace Paperbacks.

    I enjoyed those and found a copy of The Flame Knife at a used store.

    I thought the Flame Knife was ‘meh’. I didn’t try anymore pastiches after that. But i also discovered the Del Rey series by then.

    Comment by Glenn - January 4, 2018 3:07 pm

  12. Glenn – Have you read the original Flame Knife? It’s in the El Borak Del Rey.

    As I read it, I consistently thought that it would make a good Conan novel. As I said, I liked the de Camp version. Though I like the El Borak better.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 4, 2018 3:23 pm

  13. I have not read the original. I only ended up getting the Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane volumes of the Del Rey series.

    I have a few of the Bison books series as well, but none of those have “Three Bladed Doom” in them.

    I read it just as i was getting into pulp writing. So i might like it more now. I only remember enjoying the monster scene at the end.

    Comment by Glenn - January 4, 2018 4:17 pm

  14. Glenn – I wasn’t that fond of Kull and that’s not one of my favorite Del Reys (not that you asked, but hey – it’s my post….)

    But I like the Solomon Kane book and REALLY like the El Borak. Of course, Conan is Conan and great.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 4, 2018 4:24 pm

  15. I only now realize that not one Tor Conan that I read “sounded” like REH. I have only read 15 or 20 of them over the years, so I figured that if anyone had tried to capture the headlong blood and thunder of Howard in a Tor pastiche, I had simply not read it/them. Looks like no one gave it a go in that long run of pastiche works. Despite their reputation, I sometimes felt that deCamp, Carter and Nyberg occasionally captured a bit of REH in some of older pastiches. I thought deCamp’s novelization of Conan the Barbarian was far more ’Howardian’ than the movie.
    I hope that the new authorized Howard pastiche novels try to capture even a little bit of Bob’s thundering voice. I know that’s exactly what I have tried in my own Conan short story; however, my level of success is entirely subjective …

    Comment by thedarkman - January 4, 2018 4:47 pm

  16. Its strange that you mention Kull. I was going to say that it was one of my favorites.

    I guess i was expecting him to be a worse version of Conan. I loved that he seemed like Conan, but tried to use his brain more.

    The scene at the end of “By This Axe I Rule” gives me chills every time i read it.

    The Skull and Silence is so visceral when they are all trying to ring the gong.

    I’m having a hard time remembering titles, but the one where he discovers another world when he goes in the lake.

    I really need to reread those. (its not my post, but you brought up Kull.)

    Great post by the way. But it makes me feel like i made the right decision in staying away from most of the pastiches. Even if that Conan the Hero cover almost got me to read it.

    Comment by Glenn - January 4, 2018 4:50 pm

  17. Conan the Valorous is my favorite pastiche too. I don’t know if I read any other of John Maddox Robert’s Conan books. (His alt-history book King of the Wood is awesome.)
    I liked Steve Perry’s Conan the Savage at the time I read it. Any opinion on it?
    Loving this thread and looking forward to the upcoming new Howard pastiches.

    Comment by kid_greg - January 4, 2018 6:22 pm

  18. I admit I kind of found the TOR novels to be a huge turn-off back in the day — kind of like a big row of extruded Conan product; someday, I should probably go back and check out at least some of the more highly-recommended ones.

    I came to Conan (of any stripe) relatively late — well, I’d had minimal exposure to the comics when I was in high school, but it wasn’t until I went to college and found the first Ace volume at the public library that I actually read any of the stories. Then, of course, I had to order the complete Ace series, that being what was available at the time.

    Comment by Joe H. - January 4, 2018 10:02 pm

  19. everydayshoudbeTuesday (but would Tuesday become the new Monday?)

    I admit I’ve never read Brackett or Moore, for all I’ve read about them. I should probably try a couple.

    I read a TON of Sherlock Holmes, so I’m used to a lot of chaff mixed in with the wheat.

    But f ‘Conan the Indomitable’ had been my first Tor pastiche, I might well have just given the line one more try – sink or swim. That was the worst fantasy book I’ve read. The Ator of sword and sorcery fiction. And I saw Ator on the big screen… (shudders)

    I’ll check out your ‘Summer of Conan’ posts. Thanks for the link.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 5, 2018 7:41 am

  20. ssiknaf – I need to make a list and see which Tors I don’t have yet. I’m guessing about a half dozen. I too am attempting to re-read the line this year – in publication order. Expect to see some reviews here at Black Gate.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 5, 2018 7:42 am

  21. kid_greg – I haven’t read Conan the Savage. That one’s by Leonard Carpenter, not Perry. I’ve read a couple Carpenter. I think I ranked them okay to not so good.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 5, 2018 7:59 am

  22. Deuce – I think that’s a good point on Holmes writers (the better ones, anyways), being up on the Victorian setting. I know I’ve learned a lot about it for the stories I’ve written and I think I represent it fairly well (plotting is my Achilles heel).

    Offutt’s second Thieves World spin-off novel featuring Hanse Shadowspawn is a rape-centric book, as I recall. It’s the only Thieves World-related book I read only once. And I like the first Shadowspawn novel.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 5, 2018 8:54 am

  23. Joe H – YEARS ago, probably in my twenties, I read the first Ace volume and that was my entire exposure to Conan for a couple decades. Then I read a couple more. Then, maybe 6 or 7 years ago, I bought the first Del Rey Conan and realized what I’d been missing all that time.

    Now I re-read the Del Reys somewhat often and still work my way through the Tors, which I’ve commented on plenty in this post and the prior one here at Black Gate.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 5, 2018 8:57 am

  24. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that even back in the day I knew some of the stories in the Ace volumes were better than others. (Although those covers!)

    And these days I have all of the Del Reys, to say nothing of all of the REH Foundation volumes.

    The last pastiches I read were, as it happens, De Camp & Carter (although I think probably mostly De Camp at that point) — the three volumes collected in Sagas of Conan (Swordsman, Liberator & Spider God). They were … not very good. Not unreadably terrible or anything, but just not very good.

    Comment by Joe H. - January 5, 2018 9:58 am

  25. Joe H – I have Swordsman and Liberator but haven’t read them yet. Don’t own Spider God.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 5, 2018 10:35 am

  26. Liberator and Spider God are, to put it kindly, poor. The Swordsman, on the other hand, is a collection of short stories that is far mor fun to read than the novels by deCamp. Conan the Rebel by Poul Anderson was a decent read if I recall; it’s been over 30 years since I last read it.

    Comment by thedarkman - January 5, 2018 10:44 am

  27. “ssiknaf – I need to make a list and see which Tors I don’t have yet. I’m guessing about a half dozen. I too am attempting to re-read the line this year – in publication order. Expect to see some reviews here at Black Gate.”

    I have a few duplicates – I’ll shoot you a list of ones I’d send your way.

    Comment by ssiknaf - January 5, 2018 10:50 am

  28. Thanks. A highly enjoyable article. De gustibus non est disputandum. However, one doubts that these pastiches are worth much critical attention. The de Camp rewrites The Flame Knife/Hawks over Egypt/The Trail of the Crimson God/The Road of Eagles are interesting artifacts of the 1950s. The de Camp/Carter ‘completions’ offer an enjoyable parlour game: it is fun to imagine how one would tackle the task from the Howard fragment. Apart from that everything else can be left alone. Neither Gods of the North or The Vale of Lost Women were professionally published by Howard, so one has to careful about commenting on the misogynist nature of those two stories. It always seemed to me that Moore and Brackett were writing in a quite different style. The non-compatibility is well illustrated by Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis stories. If I had to put my finger on it, I would say that Howard created atmosphere with precise sentences whereas his contemporaries evoked mystery through imprecision.

    Comment by SJB - January 5, 2018 2:07 pm

  29. TOR’s licensed Conan pastiches were always a bit less interesting to me than some of the unlicensed pastiches, particularly in comics (and it was funny how some of the early Conan pastiches were then re-written as Conan stories for the Marvel comics – like Gardner Fox’s Kothar tales).

    Don’t exclude some of the other REH characters from your re-read – the four Red Sonja novels by Richard Lupoff and David C. Smith, Lupoff’s “posthumous collaboration” THE RETURN OF SKULL-FACE, Offut’s novels of Cormac Mac Art and Black Vulmea, or (if you’re feeling truly ambitious) the notorious round-robin GHOR, KIN-SLAYER.

    Comment by greyirish - January 5, 2018 4:13 pm

  30. I loved Tigers of the Sea back when I read it. Must be near thirty years ago, it deserves a re-read along with Oufitt’s Sword of the Gael.

    Comment by Tony Den - January 6, 2018 8:02 am

  31. So..I finished my re-read of the first post-Jordan Tor, John Maddox Roberts’ ‘Conan the Valorous.’ I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did the first time (I didn’t remember Crom’s heavy foot), but I’ve certainly read worse Tors.

    And I believe one of those is absolutely going to be the next in the series, which I just started. That is Steve Perry’s ‘Conan the Fearless.’ Here’s the premise, I think:

    A half-demon witch (?) is constructing a love-slave (kind of a sex golem?) and needs the bravest heart of all to bring it to life. And who is braver than the Cimmerian?

    And…a werepanther who wants to sleep with the half-demon witch (having failed to satisfy her in his first attempt, before he was a were-panther) has been introduced. He wants to hold Conan hostage and offer him to the witch in exchange for one more try at satisfying her. This plot isn’t even up to the standards of appealing to hormonal fourteen year old males.

    What a TERRIBLE story. I can’t imagine this being someone’s first or second Conan. They’d NEVER try the barbarian again. Perry’s combats haven’t been bad, but talk about the elephant in the room…

    Wow – that is just stupid.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 8, 2018 7:41 am

  32. And finally, I break in Italy…

    http://heroicfantasyitalia.altervista.org/gli-articoli-di-black-gate-per-crom-alcuni-conan-gli-somigliano-pi-di-altri-2/

    Comment by Bob Byrne - January 11, 2018 10:05 am

  33. […] in January, I did a post over at BlackGate.com, looking at some of the better Conan pastiches that have been written, with […]

    Pingback by I’m Not Dead! Just not Writing Much… | Almost Holmes - March 6, 2018 5:58 am


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