Welcome 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.
It 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.
This 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.
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.
And he is in a new anthology of new Solar Pons stories, out now.