Hither Came Conan: Jeffrey Shanks on “A Witch Shall Be Born”

Monday, June 17th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_WitchTreeofWoeEDITEDThree stories to go! This week, Robert E Howard Foundation multiple time award winner, Jeffrey Shanks, takes on “A Witch Shall Be Born.” That ain’t exactly an easy task. See what he’s got to say about this one.

Thou Shalt Not Suffer “A Witch Shall Be Born” — Or Maybe You Should?

“A Witch Shall Be Born” is not usually on anyone’s list of the top tier Conan stories – despite containing what could arguably be the most powerful and iconic scene in the entire series. The tepid reception to “Witch” is not entirely unfounded – the novella-length yarn is heavy on exposition, awkwardly constructed, poorly paced at times, and somewhat anticlimactic in its dénouement. And yet it has moments in which Howard’s powerful vision shines through the flaws. Howard Jones and Bill Ward noted in their recent REH Re-Read series  that it feels a bit like a draft, and I tend to agree. The story was written hastily in just a few days as Patrice Louinet has noted, and feels a little like a piece of choice meat that is a bit undercooked – It could have used another minute on the grill, but it’s still pretty damn tasty.

“Witch” was published in Weird Tales in the December1934 issue. As with “Black Colossus, it is a Hyborian version of one of Howard’s blood and thunder, Harold Lamb-style “Oriental” tales, in the same vein as the Crusades yarns he had been writing a few years earlier. The small kingdom of Khauran in which much of the story is set is something of analog to the historical Crusader kingdom of Outremer, a Western (Hyborian) polity precariously set on the fringes of the Eastern steppes.

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Hither Came Conan: Woelf Dietrich on “Wolves Beyond the Border”

Monday, June 3rd, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_Wolves1EDITEDAnd with only four stories remaining, Hither Came Conan is winding down. Of course, this series has featured a different leading Robert E. Howard expert each week, examining one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best in it. Author Woelf Dietrich looks at the ‘most complete, incomplete’ Conan tale from Howards, “Wolves Beyond the Border.” Read on!

I am to provide proof that “Wolves Beyond the Border” is the greatest Conan story ever told by Robert E. Howard. Except that Conan never appears in the story apart from a mention or two and Howard never completed the story nor was it published in his lifetime. L. Sprague de Camp finished the fragment relying on a one-page outline discovered with the unfinished manuscript that Howard had written in the 1930s. Lancer Books published it in 1967 along with three other stories in Conan the Usurper.

So, as you can see, I find myself in a peculiar situation. A potential dilemma given the awesome essays published so far in this series. The competition for the best Conan story is a fierce one. How, then, do I convince you that this story is the best despite the absence of Conan?

Let us start with the plot, shall we?

Plot

We are introduced to “Wolves Beyond the Border” with a mini-prologue:

“The revolution progresses with hurricane speed. While knights and sergeants in gleaming mail clash in charge and counter-charge on the Aquilonian plains, civil war rages along the Pictish frontier between the partisans of Conan and those of Numedides. The Picts, naturally, see their opportunity. Here is a tale of some of the events of that strife-torn land, as told by one of the survivors of the conflict; for the Hyborian Age was a time of stirring events in many times and places, not merely those in which Conan was present.’

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Hither Came Conan: The Khoraja Saga

Monday, May 27th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_BlackColossusWTInterior1EDITEDDeuce Richardson will be looking into “Black Colossus” for Hither Came Conan. I wrote an essay last year for my friend James Schmidt’s Mighty Thor JR’s blog, looking at the expanded saga of the gem from that story. Surprisingly, it made the Preliminary List for the Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards! I’ve since read more Conan pastiches involving Khorajan affairs, and I expanded the original essay. So, here’s the updated version. My thanks to James for letting me appear over at his blog.

Robert E. Howard was a master worldbuilder, as Jeffery Shanks wrote about over at Black Gate for the Discovering Robert E. Howard series. The history of Hyboria is sprinkled throughout his Conan tales, creating a vast backdrop, in both time and place. Conan’s own Cimmeria, Set-worshipping Stygia, the jungles of the Picts, mighty Aquilonia, fallen Acheron: it’s really amazing the depth and breadth that Howard created in the short story format (there was one novel, Hour of the Dragon, which drew on existing short stories – an approach used by Raymond Chandler a few years later: he called it ‘repurposing.’)

Khoraja is a small nation southeast of Koth. It isn’t one of the great countries of Hyboria, but it sat front and center for “The Black Colossus.” “Colossus” was the fourth published story to feature the Cimmerian, and one of five to find its way to print in Weird Tales in 1933. Editor Farnsworth Wright had rejected two others (“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl“) that would have added to that total. But before Conan enters the story in Khoraja, we get a little history from Howard.

Shevatas the thief is exploring the ruins of Kutchemes, once a great city and part of Stygia when its borders extended far beyond their present state (‘present’ in the Conan stories, that is…). Prior to Shevatas actually doing anything, we get this from Howard:

Eastward, Shevatas knew, the desert shaded into steppes stretching to the Hyrkanian kingdom of Turan, rising in barbaric splendor on the shores of the great inland sea. A week’s ride northward the desert ran into a tangle of barren hills, beyond which lay the fertile uplands of Koth, the southernmost realm of the Hyborian races. Westward the desert merged into the meadowlands of Shem, which stretched away to the ocean.

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Hither Came Conan: Bob Byrne on “Rogues in the House”

Monday, May 20th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_RoguesMarvelEDITEDWhen I was pitching this series to folks, I was using the title, The Best of Conan. I didn’t come up with Hither Came Conan for about eight months, I think. Yeah, I know… The idea behind the series came from an essay in my first (and so far, only) Nero Wolfe Newsletter. The plan for 3 Good Reasons is to look at a story and list three reasons why it’s the ‘best’ Wolfe story. And I toss in one ‘bad’ reason why it’s not. And finish it off with some quotes. You’ll be reading more 3 Good Reasons here at Black Gate in 2020.

So, I’m going to take a somewhat different tack from those who have come before me (I doubt I could have measured up, anyways) and pick out two elements that make this story one of Howard’s best recountings of the mighty-thewed Cimmerian. Then, throw a curveball from the Wolfe approach and highlight a few items worthy of note.

OUR STORY

Obviously, you need to read this story, but here’s a Cliff’s Notes version: Nabonidus, the Red Priest, is the real power in this unnamed Corinthian city. He gives a golden cask to Murilo, a young aristocrat. And inside the cask is a human ear (remind you of Sherlock Holmes? It should.). We learn a little later on that Murillo has been selling state secrets, and the ear is from a clerk he had dealings with. The jig is up!

Given the choice of running away, waiting meekly for assured death, or finding a tool to escape his predicament, he chooses the latter. And Conan is that tool. Wait: that didn’t sound right…

Conan and a Gunderman deserter had been successful thieves until a fence, a Priest of Anu, betrayed them. The priest also happened to be a spy for the police. As a result, the unnamed Gunderman (more on that below) was captured and hung. Conan then cut off the priest’s head in revenge. A ‘faithless woman’ (presumably his current main squeeze) betrayed him to the police, who captured the Cimmerian as he hid out, drunk.

Murillo visits the cell and Conan agrees to kill Nabonidus in exchange for his freedom. Things go a bit awry and Murillo goes after Nabonidus himself but faints at the sight of the red priest in his house. Meanwhile, Conan, after casually killing his ex-girlfriend’s new lover and then dumping her in a cesspool, sneaks into the pits under Nabonidus’ house, where he encounters Murillo, who had been dumped down there.

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Hither Came Conan: Mark Finn on “The God in the Bowl”

Monday, May 13th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_BowlFrazettaDarkHorseEDITEDWelcome 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 Howard biographer Mark Finn looking at one of the first stories, “The God in the Bowl.” And here we go!

The God Has a Long Neck

“The God in the Bowl” is part of the holy trinity of Conan stories. No, not “Tower of the Elephant,” “Red Nails,” and “Beyond the Black River” (though they are undoubtedly worthy of the appellation). I’m talking about the Original Trinity, the Big Three, the initial stories that Robert E. Howard wrote and submitted to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales back in 1932.

I consider these stories to be Ground Zero for the essence of Conan the Cimmerian as he was originally introduced. In “Phoenix on the Sword,” we meet Conan the King, an established old campaigner, with a whole lifetime of stories under his furrowed brow, struggling with his new role as a king. This was borne out of Howard’s desire to write fiction in the guise of history; tales of adventure and sweeping consequences, without having to fact-check and sideline his narrative vision. Using his unpublished Kull story, “By this Axe, I Rule!” as a jumping off point, Howard clearly had an idea of what he wanted to do.

But he had to sell it to the market that was buying, and since Oriental Stories, the magazine he’d been selling his historical adventures to, had shuttered its submission window, he turned to his old standby, Weird Tales. “The Unique Magazine” under the editorial direction of Farnsworth Wright enjoyed a kind of nebulous distinction as a kind of catch-all for any kind of story, so long as it was weird. This included anything with a spicy suggestion, such as ice maidens wearing gossamer robes and taunting a battle-exhausted youth. “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” was made for Wright, who would recognize its classical mythic underpinnings, but would also not mind the implied slap-and-tickle of the naked girl laughing at young Conan.

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Hither Came Conan: The Animated Red Nails That Never Was

Monday, May 6th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

RedNails_ConanMovieRedNailsAnimated_ValeriaEDITEDIn Keith J. Taylor’s entry for “Red Nails,” I mentioned an animated movie project, based on that story, which never made it to fruition. Here’s some more information on that ill-fated project.

Comic book artist Kevin Eastman is the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He also owned Heavy Metal magazine from 1992 to 2014, and I believe he is still the publisher.

Eastman, a long-time Conan fan, drew a variant cover for the new Savage Sword of Conan comic from Marvel.

Back in 2003, he was trying to set up a new studio and wanted to do a full length animated DVD of Red Nails with a limited theatrical release. A temporary deal was reached with Fredrik Malmberg’s company, but the business plan didn’t work out for Eastman.

Steve Gold, who had worked on the Conan and the Young Warriors animated television show, was also interested in a Red Nails project at the time. When the Eastman deal fell through, his company, Swordplay Entertainment, signed a contract with Malmberg to animate Red Nails. A screenplay was developed and Gold’s group looked for financing.

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

Monday, April 29th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

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.

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Hither Came Conan: Keith J. Taylor on “Red Nails”

Monday, April 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Oliver Cuthbertson for an Oxford University Press edition

Oliver Cuthbertson for an Oxford University Press edition

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. Keith Taylor talks about “Red Nails.” It was the last Conan story written by Howard, who was moving on from fantasy. Read on!

“Red Nails” happens to be one of this writer’s favourite Conan stories, of that particular length, along with “People of the Black Circle” and “The Black Stranger” (which REH also wrote as a Black Vulmea pirate yarn, “Swords of the Red Brotherhood”).

Aside from their general length, they have other elements in common. One is the usual rip-roaring, headlong action, inventiveness, and raw violence which Howard’s name on a story guaranteed. Another is a pattern of shifting alliances and double- or triple-crosses. Yet another is a furious resolution at the end, involving the gory deaths of some of the main players.

The background against which the story unfolds in “Red Nails,” the mad, claustrophobic lost city of Xuchotl, is almost a major character in itself. For a contrast, at the beginning, Howard opened his story in the natural world outside, an immense forest of ancient trees, rocky crags and wild beasts. He introduces his protagonists there, Conan and the Aquilonian pirate, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. Valeria has killed a mercenary officer who tried to rape her, and before that, had to jump overboard from a pirate ship because “Red Ortho wanted to make me his mistress.”

Conan has followed her south from the mercenary camp with that identical idea. They are almost about to come to sword-strokes when a dragon kills their horses and interrupts the scene – described by Howard as “at once ludicrous and perilous.”

The dragon is interesting. In general design it’s like a stegosaurus, right to the spiked tail, armour plates along the spine, and “absurdly short legs.” The head, though, is not tiny but decidedly big, its vast gape armed with rows of carnivore fangs. It turns out later that the dragon and its kind had in fact been extinct for an epoch or so, and nothing remained of them in the forest but their bones, until the magicians of Xuchotl resurrected them, “clothed in flesh and life.”

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Hither Came Conan: Steven H. Silver on “Man-Eaters of Zamboula”

Monday, April 15th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Of course, that's a Margaret Brundage cover

Of course, that’s a Margaret Brundage cover

Why “Man-Eaters of Zamboula” Is the Best Conan Story of All Time, with the Possible  Exception of “Shadows of Zamboula,” which Is the Same Story, So It Really Is the Best of All Time

“Man-Eaters of Zamboula” is, without a doubt, the best, and most quintessential story about Conan the Barbarian written by Robert E. Howard.  And since stories by other authors don’t count (with one exception noted below), that means that “Man-Eaters of Zamboula” is the absolute best Conan the Barbarian story ever written.  I suppose a case could be made that “Shadows of Zamboula” is a better Conan the Barbarian story, but since the only difference between those two stories is the replacement of the phrase “Man-Eaters” with “Shadows,” I’d be willing to concede the point.

Howard first published “Man-Eaters of Zamboula” in the November 1935 issue of Weird Tales, where Margaret Brundage provided a lurid piece of cover art showing Zibibi naked and standing between four cobras preparing to strike, an image taken directly from the story’s climax.

The story has everything: a mysterious stranger giving Conan an enigmatic warning, which the Cimmerian completely ignores, a power struggle between a mad priest and a distant satrap and his power-behind the throne wife, mystical potions, star-crossed lovers, beautiful (naked) women, the one man who can give Conan a physical challenge, snakes, cannibals, revenge, a precious gemstone.  You can practically see the over-the-top movie trailer proclaiming the various elements of Conan’s day in Zamboula, because all of that action takes place in a single day and night.

In the beginning, the story opens with Conan, bereft of all his possessions save the clothes he is wearing and his massive sword,  walking through the Zamboulan suq. A Zuagir tribesman sidles up to Conan and warns him not to go to stay in the House of Aram Baksh because anyone who stays at the inn who isn’t a native Zamboulan winds up disappearing.  Although Aram Baksh claims they’ve all left town, many of their possessions wind up being sold in the suq.  The tribesman does not give a reason why a Zamboulan would spend the night at Aram Baksh’s, but the important part of the message is that Conan, under no circumstances whatsoever, should spend the night at the House of Aram Baksh.

Naturally, Conan immediately heads to the House of Aram Baksh to spend the night because it is inexpensive, located at the edge of the city, surrounded by a wall, and he has been told that staying there is a phenomenally bad idea. He also has already paid Aram Baksh for his night’s lodging even before getting the warning.

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Hither Came Conan: Fred Adams on “The Black Stranger”

Monday, April 8th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Gary Gianni

Gary Gianni

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. Fred Adams talks about “The Black Stranger.” Which was a story that Howard failed to get published, was rewritten without Conan, and still rejected. Fred takes a brand new look at the story. Read on!

Conan as Picaro in “The Black Stranger”

There are days when I ask myself whether Robert E. Howard didn’t sneak away for four years and earn a degree in English Letters when I encounter his facility with literary tropes and conventions. Many would suggest that the influence of the great western writers rubbed off on him from his omnivorous reading, others simply that he labored past mediocrity to instinctively hone his considerable skills at writing, recognizing what worked and what did not.

Whichever the case, he made good use of a variety of literary conventions and techniques, as David C. Smith elaborates in his Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography. One that I have noticed specifically is his use of the picaresque mode of the novel. A good example is his experimentation with the form in the Conan story “The Black Stranger.”

Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literature, Seventh Edition defines “Picaresque Novel” at great length:

“A chronicle, usually autobiographical, presenting the life story of a rascal of low degree engaged in menial tasks and making his living more through his wits than his industry. The picaresque novel tends to be episodic and structureless. The picaro, or central figure, through various pranks and predicaments and by his associations with people of varying degree, affords the author an opportunity for satire of the social classes. Romantic in the sense of being an adventure story, the picaresque novel nevertheless is strongly marked by realism in petty detail and by uninhibited expression.” (389)

To call Conan a “rascal of low degree” is mild at best, but to say that he lives “more through his wits than his industry” seems close to his nature. Conan is a barbarian with no social standing whatsoever who lives by his wits as a thief, a reaver, and a warrior. True to the form, he begins the story in a loincloth running for his life from a tribe of savages. By the time the tale ends, Conan has attained the kingly position of leader of the Red Brotherhood, and possessed of enough wealth that he gives a bag of rubies worth a fortune to Belesa saying, “What are a handful of gems to me, when all the loot of the southern seas will be mine for the grasping?”

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