Hither Came Conan: Ryan Harvey on “Hour of the Dragon”

Hither Came Conan: Ryan Harvey on “Hour of the Dragon”

Hither_HourWTCoverEDITEDWelcome back to the latest installment of Hither Came Conan, where a leading Robert E. Howard expert examines one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best in it. Today, it’s Ryan Harvey looking at the only Conan novel, Hour of the Dragon (not Conan the Conquerer!).  And here we go!

When Robert E. Howard’s twenty-one completed Conan stories are randomly distributed to twenty-one people, each challenged to argue that their assigned work is the finest of all, it brings up some interesting questions if you’re among the twenty-one.

The chances of getting your favorite? Approximately 4.8%. The chances of getting an excellent story, even if not your favorite? Quite high, I’d say. The chances of a mediocre one are low, but there’s certain to be something interesting to mine from those mid-tier works. And there’s only a 4.8% chance of getting stuck with the worst one, “The Vale of Lost Women,” or ending up with the longest one, The Hour of the Dragon.

So before I received my assignment, I felt safe I’d end up with something interesting, although not my favorite, and one that might be a novella, but still not the longest.

Then I got The Hour of the Dragon. Which is both.

I don’t know who else may have inadvertently gotten their true favorite Conan work and therefore end up effectively not participating in this experiment of trying to promote as the best something you don’t think is the best (there’s a 95.2% chance I’m the only one). But here I am. The Hour of the Dragon is the best Conan story and I don’t have to stretch to make that sound true, because it is true. At least to me.

The Hour of the Dragon is a gigantic work: the only Conan novel Howard wrote, twice as long as the second lengthiest Conan story and twenty-two times longer than the shortest. Even though 72,000 words, short for modern fantasy novels, it contains more incidence than novels three times its length. This is a monstrous mural of fantasy, crossing much of the Hyborian kingdoms and going as far south as Stygia.

Hither_HourDHConquerer1CoverEDITEDIt provides a summation of Conan’s long career and sticks him into a string of amazing set-pieces that could constitute their own standalone stories. It has the greatest of all Conan villains, the resurrected Acheronian sorcerer Xaltotun, and a parade of colorful allies and traitors. It contains two tremendous pitched battle scenes, a fight with an giant ape, a fight with a giant snake, an immortal vampire woman, a shipboard battle, political intrigue and maneuvering, an urban spy mission — look, I could spend enormous amounts of time running down all the highlights, but that in and of itself is as good an explanation for why it’s superb. This is a case where more is absolutely more.

Howard was a master of short works and novellas. But he used the novel form to its best advantage in The Hour of the Dragon to create interlocking episodes — each exploring an area of his strengths and interests as a writer — under the arch of a larger tale. He boosted the stakes to their most extreme, forcing Conan to rescue an entire kingdom and prevent the return of the vile Empire of Acheron. But he also concentrated on smaller individual stakes within the episodes, such as Conan’s infiltration mission into Tarantia to rescue Countess Albiona or the entrance of another plotting evil sorcerer, Thutothemes, during the mind-meltingly great episode in Khemi. (A Conan story that actually goes into Stygia! Huge points for that alone.) The novel is episodic yet cohesive, allowing for a delirious pace of set-pieces, but all moving toward the single purpose of Conan “finding the heart” of his kingdom and regaining it from the coterie of conspirators who snatched it away and the resurrected sorcerer who plans to replace it.

But there’s more to The Hour of the Dragon’s quality than the immensity of spectacle, incidence, characters, and plotting it manages. There is a sense of completion and maturation I find emotionally stirring. In no other Conan story do I find myself admiring the Cimmerian as much as here. This is the story of the settling of Conan into his role as ruler. He spends only a short time as the effective king of Aquilonia, but he is its true king throughout, even as he passes through the other phases of his career along the road. The lure of the life lived on his own terms tempts Conan, in one of the most remarkable passages of REH’s career …

Conan felt the old tug of the professional fighting-man, to turn his horse and plunge into the fighting, the pillaging and the looting as in days of old. Why should he toil to regain the rule of a people which had already forgotten him? — why chase a will-o’-the-wisp, why pursue a crown that was lost forever? Why should he not seek forgetfulness, lose himself in the red tides of war and rapine that had engulfed him so often before? Could he not, indeed, carve out another kingdom for himself? […] So his familiar devil whispered in his ear, and the phantom of his lawless and bloody past crowded upon him. But he did not turn aside; he rode onward, following a quest that grew dimmer and dimmer as he advanced, until sometimes it seemed that he pursued a dream that never was.

This survey of Conan’s own bloody, thrilling history beckons him to move on to the next adventure. But there is no next adventure after this one. For this Conan, it stops here: a suffering nation depends on him.

Conan does not think those exact words, but I find this moment a moving one that encompasses all the novel. Conan is now a man of responsibility and duty. Kingship is not about just seizing something and spending it, as he may have once thought. Conan, now in his mid-forties and with no stories featuring him older than this, has become an adult. He may even marry, if he keeps the promise of the final lines of the book.

Hither_HourWTInteriorEDITEDThis is why it’s natural for me to think of The Hour of the Dragon as the final Conan story Howard ever wrote, although it isn’t. It’s the capstone of the character’s career. It was only by the accident of how I first got hold of Robert E. Howard’s stories that I came to read The Hour of the Dragon last of all his Conan tales, and this helped create the feeling of a summary. And it may have helped my bias toward the work among the Conan canon — the final grand act where the orchestra swells and thunders to a furious crescendo, roaring in final battle when Xaltotun dies from his hubris and Conan leads the forces of the Lion of Aquilonia to end the hour of the Dragon of Nemedia.

You know what else helped my bias? That kick-ass sequence in Khemi with the Khitai assassins in the Hall of the Dead. I can’t tell you how much that thrilled me the first time I read it. Oh, and the grotesque way Xaltotun slays Orastes with a smoke snake … or the ghoul attack in the forest … or …


From the Dusty Scrolls (Editor comments)

Howard drew on earlier Conan short stories for the novel; a technique that Raymond Chandler used to great effect a few years later. Chandler referred to his actions as ‘cannabalizing’ his own short stories. 

In  January of 1934, after a year’s delay, Howard heard back that a promising project – a short story collection to be published by Denis Archer in England – had been kiboshed. Archer did tell him that fantasy novels were hot and a subsidiary publisher would take one from Howard, with the promise of good sales. He was working on a second draft of Almuric when he abandoned it and decided to try and sell Pawling and Ness, Ltd., a Conan novel. 

Howard wrote a synopsis and a (partial?) draft of a Conan novel, which he dropped. Hour of the Dragon followed this attempt. An epic Conan adventure, replete with elements from British authors and legends (Arthur Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, the Arthurian mythos) seemed like a smart move.  Patrice Louinet believes the entire thing was written between March 17th and May 20th – an average of 5,000 words a day, seven days a week, for two months! John D. MacDonald may have looked to REH as his model. That’s a joke…

Pawling and Ness went into receivership and the new owner was not interested in the novel. It was returned to Howard in October of 1934. I believe this had to be a crushing blow to Howard: a devastating rejection. He sold it to Farnsworth Wright and it ran in Weird Tales from December, 1935 through April, 1936.

In 1950, Martin Greenberg kicked off his Gnome Press Conan line with this tale, retitled Conan the Conqueror. 

In Dark Valley Destiny, L. Sprague de Camp referred to it as the “Best-known and best-loved of all the Conan stories.” But had to add that is was poorly named. He just can’t help himself in that book. 

Marvel adapted part of Hour of the Dragon in Giant Size Conan issues 1 through 4. The line was dropped, with two color issues of Hour of the Dragon still to come. It was completed in the black-and-white Savage Sword of Conan, issues 8 and 10.                                                                                                                                                                         

Dark Horse adapted Hour of the Dragon in two parts. The first six issues, running from May through October of 2013 under the same title. Six more issues followed from February, 2014 though July, 2014, as Conan the Conqueror. They were part of the King Conan series. 

Prior Posts in the Series:

Here Comes Conan!
The Best Conan Story Written by REH Was…?
Bobby Derie on “The Phoenix in the Sword”
Fletcher Vredenburgh on “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”
Ruminations on “The Phoenix on the Sword”
Jason M Waltz on “The Tower of the Elephant”
John C. Hocking on “The Scarlet Citadel”
Morgan Holmes on “Iron Shadows in the Moon”
David C. Smith on “The Pool of the Black One”
Dave Hardy on “The Vale of Lost Women”
Bob Byrne on Dark Horse’s “Iron Shadows in the Moon”
Jason Durall on “Xuthal of the Dusk”
Scott Oden on “The Devil in Iron”
James McGlothlin on “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”
Fred Adams on “The Black Stranger”
Stephen H. Silver on “Man Eaters of Zamboula”
Keith J. Taylor on “Red Nails”


Ryan Harvey is one of the original bloggers for Black Gate, starting in 2008. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and his stories “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb” are available in Black Gate Online fiction. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn.” is available as an e-book.  He is currently blogging regularly for Perilous Worlds. Ryan lives in Costa Mesa, California where he works as a marketing writer. 

Bob_Houston_HatCroppedBob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 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 is in a new anthology of new Solar Pons stories, out now.

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My favorite part of this great book is how Howard takes Conan back through the paces of his previous adventures, touching on most of the types of jobs and situations he’s had before, all in a sort of once-more-into-the-fray style. It is not at all repetitive, even if it was in some ways a greatest hits package.

Brian Kunde

Ryan Harvey got the cush (Kush?) assignment, no doubt about it. I don’t know that he tries quite as hard to push his assigned story as some others have, but then, he hardly has to. The story does its own pushing. It is indeed the summation, the culmination, the distillation of all that is great in the Conan stories. Others may have sharper focus, finer moments, more memorable support characters, or more gut-wrenching individual scenes. But they’re like separate pieces of a larger puzzle, here assembled. Bits of greatness, here put together. This is the whole picture!

The Hour of the Dragon has it all. This is truly an EPIC fantasy. It’s no mystery why Gnome Press published this Conan story first when it came time to put the Cimmerian’s saga between book covers. Or why Berkley Books did the same for the first serious attempt to present the unadulterated Howard Conan in book form. The Hour of the Dragon just rocks! So rock on, Harvey!

I see he’s still listed as up to write about The Hour of the Dragon next week. Typo, no doubt, but I’m sure he could fill up a second essay on the only Howard Conan novel quite easily.

Rich Horton

This would be my choice, though I admit I’ve only read it in the Ace Double format (i.e. CONAN THE CONQUEROR.) That’s a pretty darn major Ace Double, though, with CTC backed with Leigh Brackett’s THE SWORD OF RHIANNON.


Conan’s decision to regain his throne rather than becoming a freebooter again does indeed reflect the character’s growing wisdom.

And when Count Trocero urges Conan to forget Aquilonia and instead forge a new empire, Conan replies:

“Let others dream imperial dreams. I but wish to hold what is mine. I have no desire to rule an empire welded together by blood and fire. It’s one thing to seize a throne with the aid of its subjects and rule them with their consent. It’s another to subjugate a foreign realm and rule it by fear.”

That demonstrates Conan’s humanity and respect for self-determination.

Joe H.

I might go so far as to say that’s the best of all possible Ace Doubles, although I’m far from an expert.

Ryan Harvey

@Joe – I can’t imagine one better. Sword of Rhiannon is about as good as it gets for me.


Margaret Brundage was strong at portraying women but her Conan was week.

Brian Kunde

As opposed to Frazetta’s Conan, who was month…

Enthusiastic write-up, Ryan, your love for the story is obvious. I’m glad the odds rolled in your favor.


I’m truly disappointed with this post and probably the last two that were posted. Why? Because they are nothing more then summaries of the stories. These essays are nothing more than bad book reports from 8th grade. All the authors forgot the idea as to WHY the story is the BEST. Yep, that takes knowing of the other stories and determining why their assigned story is bigger and better than the others. I’m sorry, but it’s a big fail.

Tony Den

I remember taking the hardback out of the public library while in high school. It was the first true Conan I had read, and I suspect I hadn’t even seen the movie yet. (Conan the Barbarian that is.) so it would be safe to say The Hour of the Dragon is what got me into Conan and Howard in general.

It was way back but I do recall being really impressed. There were bits where no doubt a better knowledge of the Conan canon would have helped but not so much as to make the book inaccessible.

Years later a nice touch by Dark Horse was a one off about the Stygian Vampire lady, whom Conan encountered in this novel.

John E. Boyle

Thank you, Mr. Harvey.

Anyone who has read my comments to the previous posts in this series knows that I lack the backbone to actually choose a BEST Conan story, but this is one of my favorites and it has just about everything. We get not just one or two great scenes but a multitude of them. And the attack of the priests of Set’s Black Hand on the Followers of the Tree of Death: EPIC!

I agree with your assessment of Conan’s character and personality; Hour of the Dragon shows a side of Conan that is usually ignored: his ability to lead and inspire loyalty. Part of that is his sense of duty, not necessarily something the typical barbarian warrior thinks much about. Well done.

PS: I second the motion regarding The Sword of Rhiannon (IMO Leigh Brackett at her best).

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