Hither Came Conan: The Best Conan Story Written by REH Was….?

Hither Came Conan: The Best Conan Story Written by REH Was….?


Welcome to a brand new, Monday morning series here at Black Gate. Join us as a star-studded cast of contributors examine every original Conan story written by Robert E. Howard: and tell you why THAT is the best of the bunch. Read on!

“KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed,sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”—The Nemedian Chronicles

And so it began. In the December, 1932 issue of Weird Tales (a good month for pulps! Black Mask included stories by Frederick Nebel, John Carroll Daly and Erle Stanley Gardner), Conan of Cimmeria, a barbarian who had wrested the kingship of the mighty kingdom of Aquilonia with his sword, struggles mightily with…paperwork! Truly, heavy is the crown…

But Robert E. Howard, creator of Kull, Solomon Kane, El Borak and others, had come up with what would become the most recognizable character in the Fantasy genre. No silly Hobbitses here!

It wasn’t all mead and concubines from the get go, however. Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, and who remained intertwined in Howard’s life to the end, rejected two (“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl”) of the first three tales. Not exactly a stellar start.

However, with Conan, Howard had found something within himself and his not-inconsiderable talent poured out words. As he told Clark Ashton Smith in a December, 1933 letter:

“I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen – or rather off my typewriter – almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it.”

A bit more The Three Amigos than El Borak…

I’ve learned to take Howard’s comments on his writing efforts with a grain of salt, but there’s no denying he was cranking out the Conan. And starting with a two-page essay, he created a world for Conan that grew into the 8,000-word classic, “The Hyborian Age.” “The Tower of the Elephant” was the first story written after “The Hyborian Age.” It’s widely considered one of the best in the Conan Canon, and “The Hyborian Age” is credited with providing a depth and framework that enriched the series.

Mark Finn, Patrice Louinet, David C. Smith, and others (including L. Sprague de Camp, who, on the whole, I consider a jackass), have written in depth, and often eruditely, about the creation of the various stories.

In March of 1932, Howard sent “The Phoenix on the Sword” and The Frost Giant’s Daughter” to Wright. On July 22nd, 1935, he sent “Red Nails,” the twenty-first completed Conan story. There would be no more. Howard shot himself in the head on June 11th, 1936. Howard had stopped writing about Conan after “Red Nails” (not counting his exchange with John D. Clark and P. Schuyler Miller) and had been focusing on western-oriented stories. He seemed to have moved on from sword and sorcery.

We’ve got a terrific group of contributors for this series, and I have no problem admitting I’m about the bottom of the list as far as REH expert goes. I’m in because I’m the one who put the whole thing together. But I’ll put my Sherlock Holmes credentials up against anybody here.

It’s always possible, but I don’t know that he would have returned to Conan. Except…for money. Howard was a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and had some of the latter’s books in his library (oh man, how I would love one of those!). Patrice Louinet has speculated that Sir Nigel and The White Company, Doyle’s two novels of The Hundred Years War, influenced, or were of use to Howard, for “The Scarlet Citadel.”

I bring Doyle into the conversation because, as is well known, Doyle threw Holmes off of a cliff, as the author felt that his famous ‘pop creation,’ was keeping him from writing better things. BTW – Doyle was wrong. Nothing else he wrote was nearly as good as Holmes.

frank-frazetta-conan-the-barbarian1_smallHowever, when he was offered sufficient financial inducement, Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles. The story was set before Holmes’ death, so the detective wasn’t quite ‘back.’ Now, Doyle was a man of many causes and hobbies. Expensive causes and hobbies. So, he brought Holmes back to life for good, tossing off short stories and a fourth novel, when the mood, and financial rewards, prompted him to do so. Doyle kept raking in the cash on the egotistical detective; the last story appearing three years before his death.

So, had Howard not taken his own life and lived on into his sixties or some such age, he would have presumably continued being an outstanding author. And just maybe, some offer to write about Conan would have been for too much money to pass up. But as a writer, he seemed to be done with Conan.

And the point of all this is,,,,oh yeah. As I recently explained, Black Gate has rounded up twenty-one Howard scholars and fans (I’m definitely in the latter group). Each was randomly assigned one of Howard’s original Conan tales. Wait for it…And then charged with explaining why that particular story was the best one in the Conan Canon.

Of courses, some folks got a much tougher assignment than others. And since only a couple actually got their favorite story, they’re going to have to dig deep into Howard’s writing to pull out what was best. I think it’s going to be fantastic.

I’m looking forward to the twenty-one essays in the coming weeks and months. And I’m really excited about the discussions I expect in the Comments section. I think there’s going to be some great stuff. And I’m going to try and mix in some other posts, such as reviews of David C. Smith’s Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography, and Patrice Louinet’s The Robert E. Howard Guide.  And if I’m got the time and feeling daring, I’d like to dig into Dale Rippke’s chronology. We’ll see…

With a few practical exceptions, I’m going to try and follow the Del Rey/Wandering Star order of the stories. I essentially discovered Conan through the Del Rey volumes, and they’re the ones I refer to for my scribblings on the Cimmerian. So, here’s the plan:

Rob DerieThe Phoenix on the Sword

Fletcher VredenburghThe Frost Giant’s Daughter

Jason M WaltzThe Tower of the Elephant

John C. HockingThe Scarlet Citadel

Deuce RichardsonBlack Colossus

Morgan HolmesIron Shadows in the Moon/Shadows in the Moonlight

Jason Durall Xuthal of the Dusk/The Slithering Shadow

David C. SmithPool of the Black One

Bob ByrneRogues in the House

Dave HardyThe Vale of Lost Women

Scott OdenThe Devil In Iron

James McGlothlinThe Servants of Bit-Yakin/Jewels of Gwalhur

Keith WestBeyond the Black River

Fred AdamsThe Black Stranger

Steven SilverThe Man-Eaters of Zamboula/Shadows in Zamboula

Keith TaylorRed Nails

Gabe DybingThe People of the Black Circle

Ryan Harvey The Hour of the Dragon

Jeffrey Shanks A Witch Shall Be Born

Patrice LouinetQueen of the Black Coast

Mark FinnThe God in the Bowl

Woelf DietrichWolves Beyond the Border

If you are a fan of Robert E. Howard, or Conan, PLEASE leave some comments. It’s the discussions that are going to make this series even more special. And as always, please be respectful. Howard’s works can generate some strong emotions. Let’s keep things civil.

I’m really excited for this series to get going at Black Gate. So, tune in next week as multiple REH Foundation Award winner Rob Derie presents what’s best about “The Phoenix in the Sword”!

By Crom: This should be fun!

Prior Posts in the Series:

Here Comes Conan!

Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column in the Fall and Winter of 2018.

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate  from March 2014 through March 2017 (still 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.

And he will be in the anthology of new Solar Pons stories coming this year.

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I thought the Phoenix on the Sword was starting today!

I read “By This Axe I Rule” and “The Pheonix on the Sword” last weekend to have it fresh in my mind. Now I have to keep it all in for another week! Not that i’m excited or anything.

I wonder if Howard had lived into the 60s would his work have gotten quite as popular. Would Glenn Lord worked with Howard directly? Would the Gnome Press editions still have been printed?

The stories hold up so well that i’m sure they wouldn’t have been forgotten, but would there have been a boom in popularity in the 60s and 70s?

Like I said before, I am very excited about this series. Some of these it will be my first time reading them. I guess I’ll just have to reread “By This Axe I Rule” and “Phoenix on the Sword” again. I could reread Kull smashing those tablets a hundred times and not get tired of it.

Brian Kunde

It should indeed be fun, and I am looking forward to reading all of it. But I hope it will be of a higher caliber than the gratuitous slam at L. Sprague de Camp. The “jackasses” of the world break the trails for the horses. They show the way to go (and at times, the way not to go). Beginning Conan with the Del Reys is starting at the pinnacle, but doesn’t confer standing to kick the burro that picked its way to the mountain.

Brian Kunde

Hi Bob.

I do have a different take. I think that throughout his life de Camp was trying to understand Howard–and not doing very well. He developed theories, and much of his biographical inquiry was directed (and misdirected) accordingly. But I don’t think he ever really got a handle on him, his suicide in particular. That fact worried at him to the point that he worried at it, excessively, unsympathetically, and sometimes flippantly. Not his most attractive feature.

De Camp was also a product of his time (and who isn’t?), which in his case (particularly in his younger years) meant he interpreted human behavior in Freudian terms. De Camp was definitely over-impressed with Freud, and with those who followed him–like his collaborator, Jane Whittington Griffin. She opened a lot of doors for him in Texas, but overall, her influence on the biography was probably malign. Which isn’t to see de Camp wouldn’t have pushed the Freudian angle too far by himself, just that her take (seen largely in the account of Howard’s boyhood) was truly overboard.

As for the notion promoted by de Camp detractors that he was tearing Howard down to build himself up, I just don’t buy it. Some of the hostility comes simply because he in effect controlled the Conan franchise for many years, and people had legitimate beefs with where he took it. Some of it was likely jealousy. Well, one can legitimately disagree with his opinions and the positions he took. One can legitimately be rubbed the wrong way by perceptions of his personality. None of these objections justify the frequent ad hominem attacks I have read against the man over the years. My apologies if I tend to over-react in turn!

My take on de Camp vis-à-vis Howard (and I recognize that others have their own) is that he admired the latter’s art, fiction and poetry both, and realized it touched something his own work didn’t. He wrote as much, on a number of occasions. He did criticize what he saw as sloppiness in world-building, research, consistency and style, and was a little too confident he knew better on some of these points. Some of these judgments he gradually realized, as he got older, had been wrong-headed.

And, I feel, he really didn’t understand the man at all.

James McGlothlin

Looking forward to these posts as well. (Conflict of interest announcement: I’m one of the posters!)

I think this comment stream is helpful. For as much as I don’t care for de Camp and his history with Conan (See my Blackgate post on his bio of REH, https://www.blackgate.com/2017/07/27/a-tale-of-two-robert-e-howard-biographies/), I too hope to see that these posts won’t just be repeated “slams” against de Camp.

Given the point of the this series, I’m confident that this won’t be the case.

Ty Johnston

Glad to see this series started, and looking forward to the rest of it!

As for Howard’s take on Conan’s creation, I fully understand, especially: “I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred.”

That’s how I write. I don’t feel as if I’m making up stories, but that my heads a radio tuned into another world. Admittedly sometimes the radio doesn’t tune in as well as it does at other times, but still …

V. Russell Waciuk

I’ve been rereading the Del Rey collection recently, even before the announcement of this series of articles.

I’m of a similar mind as you Bob. If Howard had lived, there would have been some impetus (either financial or creative) at some point to return to Conan. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

Thomas Parker

Of course we can never know, but I suspect that Howard would never have returned to Conan. He wasn’t sentimental about abandoning characters who had played out their string – adieu, Solomon Kane! As for financial incentive and the pressure from a clamoring readership, I don’t think the comparison with Sherlock Holmes holds. Holmes was one of the most famous characters in the world (and Doyle one of the most famous writers), but Conan and Howard weren’t nearly as well known. At the time of his death, wasn’t REH seeking to leave the pulps behind precisely in order to break into better paying, more respectable markets?

Whatever he would have produced, it’s a great loss that we can never read it.

Major Wootton

I corresponded a little with L. Sprague de Camp for several years about forty years ago. I thought about responding to the “jackass” remark, etc., but, really, let’s stick to the theme of discussing — not Howard, not Howard’s biographers, but just the stories, for what they are.

They have lasted now for around 40-50 years. They aren’t remembered primarily on account of their author, I suppose, but rather he is remembered primarily on account of these stories and some others. (I think the stories get a little “glamor” also, aside from their own merits, because of the legendary status that Weird Tales and “the Lovecraft Circle” possess for some readers. But I hope we will stay away from surmises about that factor too.)

What I hope is that columnists and readers of the postings will -do the work- …
Try to say something about the literary qualities of the stories. That means things such as focusing on what they “do” for readers who like them.
Here’s a question I think deserves serious discussion. There ARE stories that remain popular but that are badly written in the sense that they are not meant to invite good reading.
Good reading is attentive. Good reading pays attention to the words the author uses. Good reading doesn’t bring -to- the story a load of unearned esteem but rather responds to what’s actually there.
Now take Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” This is a perennially popular story, but it invites bad reading. If you read it attentively, it falls apart. I mean: Rainsford meets Zaroff on the island and they settle down to a finely cooked filet mignon. But Connell has no idea who COOKED that meal (the brutish Ivan??). Zaroff’s homicidal hobbit depends on a continuing supply of shipwrecked sailors, lured by his fake beacons. Who constructed the beacons? That was obviously not a one-man job. Very well, Zaroff hired some construction workers to do it. Right — and they would go back to the mainland and tell about the weird experience of setting up beacons that will inevitably make ships wreck. Oh, you say, but Zaroff thought of that — he killed the construction workers. Right — and nobody knew where they were working and came to investigate? So the thing falls to pieces if you actually pay attention.
Or take a favorite of mine, “The Speckled Band.” Evil Dr. Roylott kills his stepdaughter with a trained Asian snake that slides down the dummy bell pull. Right — neither of the stepdaughters asked “What’s with the dummy bell pull? And by the way, stepdad, why’s the bed bolted to the floor?” Nor is it probable that the snake would kill both women on the first attempt; one would awaken to find the snake there. “What’s with the exotic reptiles, stepdad?”
But no — we don’t notice these things because we are caught up in the story and are reading inattentively.

So, is this sort of thing going on in Howard’s stories? or do they invite, and reward, alert reading? Perhaps some do and some do not.

Dale Nelson

Major Wootton

“Homicidal hobbit” should be “homicidal hobby”!

I do think Tolkien’s writing repays attentive reading, but my own comment needed some.

Paladin Superhero

Thankfully as to the Dark Valley Destiny Nova Price a woman who actually knew Bob Howard set the record straight with her novel “The One who walked alone”. This was used in the movie the Whole Wide World.


Looking forward to this series – was a bit of a teaser this article but I see it was to establish the order it’d be in.

My favorite is “The Man-Eaters of Zamboulla”. Now, I’m not arguing it is the “Best” as if there should be any list of the best. It’d be either “Tower of the Elephant” or “Red Nails” IMO. Said “Man-Eaters” story is on the lower end.

But its the first read Conan story of mine after the comics and the incredible movie way way back in like 4th grade or something! Loved how Conan got paid to go on a ‘quest’ rescuing said damsel and dodging then using the city’s now un-thinkable “Night Watch”.

Another thing is that Charles Saunders also had that and other REH works making him nuclear mad over stereotypes used -though unlike Lovecraft, Howard wasn’t negative racist just using stereotypes of the time and pseudo history posted by people who were Theosophists and ‘race theory’ advocates. Howard at least had pity for the races wiped out, the going consensus meaning they were inferior – Bran Mak Morn for instance. The rage of that helped him make his “Imaro” character what he became and helped give a good ‘kick in the pants’ to the Afro futurism/scifi/fantasy genre – imagining Africa not as simply “Kush: Land of Savage Cannibals” but some vast continent of different races, religions, cultures, essentially a whole world in itself.

But, at least a decade later, this simple perhaps now silly story stuck in my mind and as I saw later the “Political Correctness” going on and removing movies I loved, hiding stories I liked – I went “Gah! It’s not like REH held his pistol to people’s heads to make them like the story or buy Weird Tales… But there are people who’d force editors not to publish him, not that they read the magazine even…”

Since that one is down the pipeline a bit, maybe we could ask Charles Saunders to write for it or do an alternative take? No offense to Mr. Silver – I’d just like to see Mr. Imaro lend a voice also.


De Camp is in good company. Page 190 of One Who Walked Alone: “all the good men are either married like Nat Williams, or they’re jackasses like Bob Howard.”


Very much looking forward to this series. I like the names attached to the stories and have great respect for their respective opinions. I’m happy to see that the focus will be on the tales rather than on the writer. And at this point I could care less about deCamp and what he did/didn’t do to Howard’s work. Let’s just glory in these fantastic tales and have some fun! I’m hoping this proves to be so popular that it can be expanded to include Howard’s other characters and tales; some would argue that Howard peaked as a writer his historical adventures, or Worms of the Earth, or El Borak or…you see where I’m going with this.


Very much looking forward to this series for more insights in to why I should appreciate Conan more. I was always more fascinated by Solomon Kane but I tend to like the ‘B’ characters especially in comics-Blackhawk, Adam Strange, Jonha Hex, Unknow Soldier. My discovery of Conan happned with the paperback from the 60s with the Frazetta covers. I had been reading almost everything by Edggar Rice Burroughs that Ace and Ballentine has reprinted up to I Am a Barabrian which I disliked and by then never botheredwith the last paperback I saw the Efficiency Expert. Also at the time Doc Savage was about 20 volumes or so in the Bantam reprints. My problem I had reading onan was simple. he wasn’t Tarzan. Conanh would have run off with La of Opar in a heartbeat by way of contrast and thought nothing about leaving Jane in lurch-much like Travis Morgan in Warlord comics. I found the stories uneven. My real appreciation for Conan with Roy Thiomas’ run on the comics and especially Savage Sword f Conan. Back then I could afford read all the Marvels and DC. His respect for Howard and the character was very apparent. But I have to confess Conan remains a character I OUGHT to love but not quite. I respect his heroic heritage but like Jonah Hex his silences are maddening. I like to KNOW the inner workings of the character’s mind. I have to admit-to some degree-Howard’s suicide hits me in a personal way and some bias is involved when I read him. Not enough to not to appreciate his talents. I found Kull his most beautiful writing if rather bland adventures but their is some whispers of darkness when I read him.


Bob–as to Kull I always thought his stories were enchanting to read much like C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories however the stories left me wanting something more basic–like Conan or Han Solo in comparison. I really enjoyed Brule best and wanted to see more of him in the comics. Solomon Kane remains my favorite. Never read El Borak -yet.


Beyound the Black River- I don’t even have to think about it. I just love seeing Conan from someone else’s eyes and of all the stories, I think these one really drives home the fact that Conan is a barbarian.

Even though the Gundermen soldiers are tough ass frontiersman themselves, its still so evident that Conan is more -or less than them. Conan is like a wolf among dobermans and German shepherds. Conan has more in common with the enemy than the men he fights besides.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x