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 wsa 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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Total Pulp Victory: A Report from Windy City Pulp & Paper 2019

Sunday, April 14th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Windy CIty Pulp and Paper 2018 paperback treasures-small

A few of the $1 paperbacks I brought home from Windy City

I returned from the 2019 Windy City Pulp and Paperback Show a few hours ago, weary and happy. It was another fabulous convention, and once again it proved to be the undisputed best show in Chicagoland for those who love vintage books and magazines.

This was the 19th annual convention. It was founded in 2001 by Doug Ellis, and I’ve been attending ever since Howard Andrew Jones and John C. Hocking made the long trip to the 7th Windy City way back in 2007. This year I spent most of the show with friends, including BG bloggers Bob Byrne, Rich Horton, and Steven Silver, as well as local booksellers Arin Komins and Rich Warren, who had a booth and a few spare chairs and were kind enough to let us hang out. There was lots of great food and terrific conversation, and we toasted absent friends, including Howard Andrew Jones, Jason M. Waltz, Barbara Barrett, and especially bookseller and all-around great soul Dave Willoughby, who passed away last year. Dave personified the friendly and welcoming nature of Windy City better than anyone else, I think, and he was profoundly missed.

I made numerous great purchases at the show, including an assortment of Arkham House hardcovers from Doug, some marvelous books from the Glenn Lord estate (purchased from his widow, Lou Ann), a couple of recent Dark Adventure Radio Theater releases from Greg Ketter, a box of vintage SF digests in great condition — and some really wonderful treasures at the auction, including a copy ofthe 1990 Donald Grant illustrated edition of Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness, several stacks of pulps, and an absolutely magnificent set 1927 Weird Tales, bound in two volumes.

But as usual, most of what I took home with me was paperbacks. Lots of paperbacks. I found a few that I was willing to pay a premium for, including some Clark Ashton Smith collections and horror anthologies, but the vast majority of them — well over 200 in total — were less than $1 each, including all those I spread out on my kitchen floor to photograph when I got home (see above).

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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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The 19th Annual Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention

Sunday, April 7th, 2019 | Posted by Doug Ellis

Windy City Pulp and Paper 2019-small

The 19th annual Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention is now just over a month away! The convention will take place on April 12-14, 2019 at the Westin Lombard Yorktown Center in Lombard, Illinois. As usual, we will have auctions on both Friday (April 12) and Saturday (April 13) nights, and this year’s auctions promise to be our best ever.

The Friday night auction consists of 230 lots of material from the estate of famed collector Robert Weinberg, while the Saturday night auction begins with 100 lots from the estate of Glenn Lord, literary executor for the Robert E. Howard estate, followed by 56 lots from a few other consignors. And more lots will be added to the Saturday night auction at the convention, to include material consigned there by convention attendees.

Here are some of the highlights in this year’s auctions.

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Cirsova Announces Leigh Brackett’s The Illustrated Stark

Monday, April 1st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Queen of the Martian Catacombs-small The Enchantress of Venus Leigh Brackett-small Black Amazon of Mars Leigh Brackett-small

You know what the world needs today? It needs more Leigh Brackett.

Brackett has had her 21st Century champions, including Eric Mona at Paizo Publishing, who reprinted five Brackett novels as part of his superb Planet Stories line, and Stephen Haffner of Haffner Press, who’s produced four gorgeous archival quality hardcovers collecting her short fiction. But it’s been over a decade since those books appeared, an eternity in publishing terms, and and virtually all of them are now out of print. So I was delighted to hear that Cirsova Publishing, the masterminds behind Cirsova magazine, are reprinting some of Brackett’s most famous work in new illustrated editions. Here’s an excerpt from the press release.

Cirsova Publishing has teamed up with StarTwo to create an all-new, fully illustrated 70th Anniversary Edition of Leigh Brackett’s original Eric John Stark Trilogy. Cirsova Publishing aims to bring the action, adventure and romance of Leigh Brackett to a new generation of readers.

First published in the Summer of 1949, Queen of the Martian Catacombs introduced the world to Eric John Stark, the black mercenary swordsman. Stark’s adventures continued on Venus in 1949’s The Enchantress of Venus, and the swordsman returned to the Red Planet in 1951’s Black Amazon of Mars. While Brackett would revisit the character in 1970s with the Skaith trilogy, the original novellas are significant as one of the last iconic Sword & Planet cycles of the pulp era.

The Cirsova covers are homages to the original Planet Stories pulp covers (see below), though I’m pleased to see that (like the Paizo editions before them), they correctly depict Eric John Stark as black skinned.

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Hither Came Conan: Keith West on “Beyond the Black River”

Monday, April 1st, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Gregory Manchess for Del Rey's 'The Conquering Sword of Conan'

Gregory Manchess for Del Rey’s ‘The Conquering Sword of Conan’

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 West (love his Adventures Fantastic blog) landed one of my favorites, “Beyond the Black River.”

I. Introduction

“Beyond the Black River” is the best Conan story. There are several reasons why.  First, there is plenty of action.  It’s well choreographed and the pacing is superb.  Unlike some of the Conan stories, which are simply adventures stories (not that there’s anything wrong with simple adventure stories), this one contains quite a bit of philosophizing.  Finally, the structure of the story is such that not only do we see Conan through the eyes of the supporting cast, Howard gives us enough information to place the Conan of this story in the context of the rest of the stories. We’ll look at each of these strengths. And just so you know, there will be spoilers.

 

II. The Action

The story opens with a young man named Balthus heading through the region known as Conajohara towards a fort on the Black River.  He’s not sure if he wants to join the garrison there as a recruit or try to clear some land and build a cabin. Although a competent woodsman by the standards of the Bossonian Marches, he’s out of his league in the wilderness, as he soon learns. Conan saves his life from a Pict who’s been watching him.

Balthus was completely unaware of both Conan and the Pict. On their way back to the fort, they come across the headless body of a merchant. Hearing something in the forest, Conan throws his ax at it but misses. Conan tells Balthus that the commander of the fort had recently imprisoned a Pict sorcerer named Zogar Sag who had stolen some liquor and drank enough that he passed out before he made it back across the Black River. They should have either killed him or let him go with gifts since imprisoning a Pict is a mortal insult.

Now Zogar Sag has summoned some type of demon. It has been killing men one by one and removing their heads. Conan and Balthus reach the fort and learn that Zogar Sag has managed to unite the quarreling Pict into a massive army. He plans to wipe out all the Aquilonian settlements from the Black River all the way back to Thunder River and beyond. Conan leads a small group across the Black River to reconnoiter.  All but Conan and Balthus are wiped out.

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Hither Came Conan: James McGlothlin on “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”

Monday, March 25th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Manuel Perez Clemente (Sanjulian)

Manuel Perez Clemente (Sanjulian)

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. James McGlothlin drew “The Servants of Bit Yakin” in our Hyborian lottery.

“The Servants of Bit-Yakin” is the best Conan story ever written by Robert E. Howard!

Or at least that’s my assignment (given to me by Bob Byrne) to convince you of such.

Here we go!

If you are familiar with the Conan canon, you will probably think my task quite a challenge. Case in point: The late Fritz Leiber, one of the greatest sword and sorcery writers of all time, and someone who clearly admired Howard’s Conan tales, rated “The Servants of Bit-Yakin” among the worst of the Conan stories ever written calling it “repetitious and childish, a self-vitiating brew of pseudo-science, stage illusions, and the ‘genuine’ supernatural” (“Fantasy Books”, Fantastic, May 1968, p. 143). Oh boy! With such an authoritative voice weighing in on the supposed poor quality of “Bit Yakin”, I have quite the task set before me. But before getting on to my attempt to convince you that this story is the best Conan story ever written by Howard, let’s get a little background on the tale first.

Though originally titled by Robert E. Howard as “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”, it first appeared in Weird Tales, March 1935 as “Jewels of Gwahlur”. The story was later reprinted in King Conan (Gnome Press, 1953), Conan the Warrior (Lancer Books, 1967), as well as various other later collections. Also, Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano famously adapted it for Marvel Comic’s Savage Sword of Conan #25 in 1977 and the story also later appeared in Dark Horse comics in 2005. This story has some legs; so perhaps it’s better than Leiber thought!

It’s hard to quickly summarize “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”. But I will try to be as brief as I can with the following.

We begin the story with Conan heroically climbing a rock face. In typical Howard fashion, it is clearly communicated how impossible this would be for any normal human being to do the same. But for Conan, with his panther-like strength, it seems not much harder than a jog in the park. While climbing though, Conan comes across a small cave with a mummy holding an inscribed parchment. Conan grabs this ancient document and then completes his climb (the parchment comes into play later). At the top Conan finds on the other side of the cliffs the ancient ruins of the city of Alkmeenon.

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Hither Came Conan: Scott Oden on “The Devil In Iron”

Monday, March 18th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Boris Vallejo for 'Conan the Wanderer'

Boris Vallejo for ‘Conan the Wanderer’

There is a weird synchronicity at work, here, Gentle Readers.  Between the time when Bob Byrne solicited a few of us for this series and him handing out our story assignments, I wrote a Conan novella for Marvel (currently being serialized in the pages of the renewed Savage Sword of Conan, over a span of twelve issues).  Specifically, it is a sequel to Robert E. Howard’s “The Devil in Iron”.  Then, a few days later, I received my randomly selected story assignment from the good Mr. Byrne.  My story?  “The Devil in Iron.”  Thus, the gods have spoken . . .

“The Devil in Iron” marked Howard’s return to the Hyborian Age after an absence of about six months.  Written in the autumn of 1933, it employs a technique common to pulp-era writers in that Howard cannibalized plot elements of his own previous stories – the eerie resurrected villain á la “Black Colossus” (also used in The Hour of the Dragon); the greenish stone ruins from “Xuthal of the Dusk” (AKA, “The Slithering Shadow”); the sentient iron statues from “Iron Shadows in the Moonlight”; and even stylistic echoes from “Queen of the Black Coast.”

Howard sent the story off to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, who accepted it for publication on December 14, 1933.  It appeared in the August 1934 issue.  The story was lurid enough to take top billing, with Margaret Brundage providing one of her signature covers – this one depicting a rather anemic-looking Conan against a black background, struggling in the grips of a giant serpent while a gauzily-clad woman swooned at his feet.  Hugh Rankin illustrated the story itself.

It is a fairly straightforward tale, if a bit formulaic.  According to both Patrice Louinet and Howard Andrew Jones, who are scholars of Howard and his sources, it’s one of the few stories of the Conan canon that displays the clear and overt influence author Harold Lamb had over Howard.

Lamb wrote primarily for Adventure, his tales of Cossacks and crusaders fitting nicely with the works of Talbot Mundy, Rafael Sabatini, Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur and Farnham Bishop, and Arthur D. Howden-Smith.  These were Robert Howard’s inspirations – writers of what we’d call today pure historical fiction.  REH wrote what he knew he could sell, or what he believed had a good chance of selling; though he’d rather have spent his days writing the kinds of tales he loved from Adventure, it was proving a difficult market to break into. But, he knew by adding a splash of the Weird to the same rollicking adventure yarns, Weird Tales’ editor Farnsworth Wright would more than likely buy it.

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Hither Came Conan: Jason Durall on “Xuthal of the Dusk”

Monday, March 11th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

John Buscsema - Savage Sword of Conan - Issue #20

John Buscsema – Savage Sword of Conan – Issue #20

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. Jason Durall is the line editor for Modiphius’ RPG, Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.

Xuthal of the Dusk on 25 Lunas a Day

Of all of Howard’s Conan stories, “Xuthal of the Dusk” is one of his most emblematic, regardless of its quality compared to the other. If one were to assemble a tasting menu of Conan containing all his recurring themes and story elements, one could look no further than this story and come away with a good sense of the whole. With only one glaringly weak point, the story is an underappreciated gem and worth reconsidering in its place among the overall canon.

First appearing in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales under the title “The Slithering Shadow”, the story, like many of Howard’s tales, was graced with an extremely risqué cover by Margaret Brundage, no small contributor to the magazine’s sales (more on this later). Though the story’s published title was “The Slithering Shadow”, Howard, in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, clarifies that its original title was “Xuthal of the Dusk”. Given a choice between the title the story was written under versus a title provided by the editor, let us remain true to Howard’s preference in the matter.

“Xuthal of the Dusk” may not be the best of the Conan stories, but it is one of the purest Conan stories. Let’s examine all the notes this story hits, and this should become clear.

 

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