Wilson & Alroy on High Fantasy Novels  

Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard was the Jimi Hendrix of Sword and Sorcery, in many ways: He both created his genre and brought it to its apex. He died through his own actions in the prime of his career. And not least, his unfinished works have been picked over, reworked and pastiched by a succession of talent-challenged if well intentioned lesser artists, to the point where it's hard to find his original, untouched work.

Howard began writing stories about Conan the Cimmerian in 1931, and continued until 1935 (he seems to have stopped chronicling the barbarian's adventures about a year before committing suicide at the age of thirty). The stories were first collected in book form in the mid-50s by Gnome Press. In keeping with the theme of this site, though, we've decided to skip those and move on to the more widely read and influential paperback series of Conan stories, which were heavily edited, repurposed and expanded by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter to create a cohesive narrative of Conan's climb from penniless thief to king of a prosperous prehistoric nation. De Camp and Carter (and, one assumes, Lancer Books) were essentially trying to assimilate Howard's self-contained yarns into one vast fantasy epic along the lines of Tolkien, and as a commercial venture they succeeded (aided greatly by Frank Frazetta's cover art), but in the process they obscured Howard's own contribution. Incidentally, De Camp's science fiction, particularly the classic short story "Lest Darkness Fall," is much better than you'd think if you've only read his REH pastiches.

At long last, though, Howard's original Conan stories (and one novel) have been collected in three readily available paperback volumes, presenting each tale in the order it was conceived, and we're reviewing those as well. (DBW)

Conan The Adventurer (Vol. 5) (Howard & De Camp: 1966)

Conan The Warrior (Vol. 7) (Howard: 1967)
The best of the Lancers, with two classics - "Red Nails" and "Beyond The Black River" - and no pastiches. (DBW)

Conan The Conqueror (Vol. 9) (1967)
This time De Camp simply edited and retitled Howard's novel The Hour Of The Dragon. (DBW)

Conan The Usurper (Vol. 8) (Howard & De Camp: 1967)
"The Phoenix On The Sword" is the first Conan story Howard wrote - actually a rewrite of "By This Axe I Rule!," a story about Atlantean hero King Kull. (DBW)

Conan Of The Isles (Vol. 12) (De Camp & Carter: 1968)
In which the now-sixtyish Conan accidentally sails to America, or something. (DBW)

Conan Of Cimmeria (Vol. 2) (Howard, De Camp & Carter: 1969)

Conan The Avenger (Vol. 10) (Howard, Nyberg & De Camp: 1969)
Though Howard's name appears first, he's represented only by a brief essay on the Hyborian Age; 99% of the volume is taken up by a novel-length pastiche. (DBW)

Conan The Buccaneer (Vol. 6) (De Camp & Carter: 1971)
In which Conan messes around with Queen Nzinga, about whom I can only recall that she got really mad and the ebon globes of her breasts danced. (DBW)

Conan Of Aquilonia (Vol. 11) (De Camp & Carter: 1977)
Lancer went out of business before they could publish this silly tale of King Conan, his bratty son Conn, and Stygian wizard Thoth Amon (De Camp and Carter wrote him into the canon whenever they could, attempting to cast him as Conan's arch-nemesis). (DBW)

The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (1932-1933, collected 2002)

The Bloody Crown Of Conan (1934, collected 2003)

The Conquering Sword of Conan (1935-1936, collected 2005)