I finally finished the third book in the Lancer/Ace Conan series, Conan the Freebooter. And no, it didn’t take me three months to read, although it might seem that way. Nevertheless, it does bring up an interesting remembrance that this was one of my least favorite books in the series. Not because of the stories, oddly enough, because there are some really great original Robert E. Howard Conan novelettes here. No, it was because this was one of the few non-Frank Frazetta covers and despite the adage, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” subconsciously then, and possibly now, I did judge it.
This cover was done by John Duillo. I knew nothing of him then and I know just as much about him today and I thought he was a nothing but a poor imitation of Frazetta. Frazetta drew bigger-than-life heroes. They were dynamic, bold, full of life, and seemed to burst from the page, splashing you with blood and sweat. Duillo didn’t..
So it’ll come as no surprise that my least favorite books in this series all turned out to have covers drawn by Duillo. Strange that I should be so influenced by art work.
Regarding the cover, one thing that irritated me about it is the fire spurting from the gorilla’s arm. Yes, I know. It’s supposed to represent the utter power and savagery of Conan’s slash that it severed the gorilla’s arm and the blood is gushing off the blade of the scimitar as it arcs upward. Well, there are two issues with that. First, where did the arm go? If the sword is still in it’s upward motion as evidenced by the shower of blood, the arm should still be somewhere in the picture, right? Second, if the gout of blood is supposed to show that the blade has just finished the slash and is at the top of it’s arc, why then is the blade reversed? That’s a single-edged scimitar and the edge, and Conan’s hands on the hilt, are facing in the wrong direction to have just completed that slash. Yes, I know, it’s a silly complaint, but it’s little details like that which turn what might have been a decent piece of art into a head scratcher. Conan is just positioned wrong.
Conan the Freebooter (1968) (by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp)
“Introduction” (L. Sprague de Camp)
“Hawks over Shem” (Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp)
“Black Colossus” (Robert E. Howard)
“Shadows in the Moonlight” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Road of the Eagles” (Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp)
“A Witch Shall be Born” (Robert E. Howard)
Conan the Freebooter, published in 1968, was the seventh Lancer Conan book published, but it is considered the third book in the series. Confusing, yes. As you can see from the contents, all the stories here are all written by Howard with some heavy editing by de Camp on two of them, because they weren’t originally Conan stories. They were retrofitted to fill in the gaps of Conan’s chronological timeline as proposed by P. Schuyler Miller and Dr. John D. Clark.
It is these retrofitted stories than many Howard purists consider an abomination to Howard’s original Conan stories. They seem to forget that until L. Sprague de Camp became involved in resurrecting the Conan stories, that Howard was just another forgotten pulp writer. But the Lancer books changed that by selling millions of copies and putting our favorite Cimmerian back into the public’s eye, a place he hasn’t relinquished since.
Introduction. A brief opening essay by de Camp on Howard and how de Camp became involved with the Conan stories.
Hawks over Shem. From an original unpublished story by Robert E. Howard based in 11th Century Egypt. The story was retrofitted to become a Conan story by de Camp and was published in Fantastic Universe Science Fiction, October 1955. Reprinted in Tales of Conan, Gnome Press, 1955.
Conan becomes involved in some political dealings in the city of Asgalun, joining up with some rival generals to get his revenge upon General Othbaal. In the meantime, the city is ruled under the increasingly mad King Akhirom, who begins to believe he’s a god. Conan gets his revenge and has to flee when he is recognized as Amra, the pirate captain. Despite it not being a Conan story, this is still a decent rip-roaring action yarn by Howard.
The Black Collossus. First published in Weird Tales (June 1933). Edited and reprinted in Conan the Barbarian (Gnome Press, 1954). The Conan Chronicles Volume 1 (Sphere, 1989). The original version was first republished in Black Colossus (Grant, 1979). The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz, 2000), Conan of Cimmeria: Volume One (1932-1933) (Del Rey, 2003), The Weird Writings of Robert E. Howard Volume 1 (Girasol Collectables, 2006), The Complete Chronicles of Conan (Gollancz, 2006), Valley of the Worm (Wildside Press, 2006) and Three Tales of Conan the Barbarian (Echo Library, 2007).
A thief tries to steal the treasure from the tomb of Thugra Khotan, a 3000-year dead sorceror, unwittingly awakening him and bringing about the thief’s death. The Princess Yasmela of Khojara begins to have troubled dreams of a shapeless shadow claiming she will be his queen. She seeks the help of the god Mitra. The oracle tells her to go into the streets and put her kingdom in the trust of the first man she meets. Who does she meet? Conan. So he becomes her general and with his aid. he faces the vast army amassed by Thugra Khotan. There is some fine battle strategy written by Howard here.
Shadows in the Moonlight. First published in Weird Tales (April 1934) as “Iron Shadows in the Moonlight.” Reprinted in Conan the Barbarian (Gnome Press, 1954). The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz, 2000) and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume One (1932-1933) (Del Rey, 2003). It was adapted by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and Alfredo Alcala in Savage Sword of Conan #4 in 1974. And again by Tim Truman and Tomas Giorello in Conan the Cimmerian #22-25 in 2010.
The novelette begins with a woman fleeing captivity, pursued by Shah Amurath, a Hyrkanian who was her former master. Just as he catches her, a figure rises from the reeds near the edge of the Vilayet Sea and cuts him down. It’s Conan. Conan and Olivia flee Shah Amaurath’s men by taking a small boat to an island. On the island, they find an ancient ruins filled with statues. They spend the night there and Olivia has dreams that the statues come to life. To appease her, Conan agrees to leave, but they find their boat smashed. IN the meantime, pirates land on the island and Conan challenges their captain, He wins but is knocked unconscious by a rock as the pirate crew is divided on what to do with him.
The pirates spend the night in the ruins. Olivia sneaks in and frees Conan and they sneak out just in time, because the statues do come alive and slay many of the pirates. Conan, however, is attacked by a giant ape (thus the cover art), which he manages to slay. The pirates escaping the statues try to return to their ship, but they find Conan on deck and he challenges them again. They agree to let him be their captain.
The Road of the Eagles. This is another unpublished non-Conan story retrofitted by de Camp. It was originally set in the 16th Turkish Empire. First published in Fantastic Universe (December 1955) with the title, “Conan, Man of Destiny.” Reprinted in Tales of Conan (Gnome Press, 1955) but with Howard’s original title, “The Road of the Eagles.” The original story, renamed “The Way of the Swords,” was published in The Road of Azrael (Donald M. Grant, 1979).
Conan and his pirates end up on shore after an encounter with General Artaban of Shapur nearly scuttles their ship. They end up lost in some canyons and are found by the sole survivor of a tribe the Hyrkanians have wiped out. He leads Conan through a secret trail that comes out behind a waterfall. There’s a story line involving Hyrkanians, Turanians, a castle, and of a kidnapped prince, and her lover, who is trying to save him; they both die in a Romeo and Juliette type scene, Conan kills Artaban and a canyon filled with zombies attacks the pirate crew, who escape on the ship, leaving Conan behind. Conan feels it’s just as well. He wants to wander some more. It’s not a bad story, despite the retrofit, I just wonder how the original reads.
A Witch Shall Be Born. Weird Tales (December 1934). Reprinted Avon Fantasy Reader #10, 1949. It was the cover story in both publications. Howard completed the story in a few days in only two drafts because Weird Tales’ editor, Farnsworth Wright was demanding another Conan story due to the barbarian’s popularity. A de Camp edited version appeared in Conan the Barbarian (Gnome Press, 1954). It was first published in book form as A Witch Shall be Born, by Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc. in 1974. It has been reprinted in The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz, 2000), The Bloody Crown of Conan (Del Rey, 2005), and as part of the Penguin Modern Classics collection Heroes in the Wind (Penguin Books, 2009).
This story is a classic. Taramis, queen of Khauran, is surprised to discover she has a lookalike sister, Salome. Salome had been born with the royal curse, the mark of the witch, and was left in the desert to die. But she didn’t die. Instead she had plotted against her sister. Outside the city gates Shemitish mercenaries under the command of Constantius are camped. Salome takes the queen and puts her in the deepest dungeon, brings in Constantius and his mercenaries, telling the people they will now form Khauran’s army and the other soldiers are told to disarm and disband. Conan happens to be the Captain of the guards and approaches Salome and realizes the hoax being perpetrated. He and his men try to fight but they are unprepared for battle against heavily armored mercenaries. Conan is taken alive and Constantius takes him out into the desert, crucifies him, and leaves him to die.
The crucifiction scene has some great writing that shows the stuff of which Conan is made.
“By the side of the caravan road a heavy cross had been planted, and in this grim tree a man hung, nailed there by iron spikes through his hands and feet. Makes but for a loincloth, the man was almost a giant in stature, and his muscles stood in thick corded ridges on limbs and body, which the sun had long ago burned brown. The perspiration of agony headed his face and his mighty breast, but from under the tangled black mane that fell over his low, broad forehead, his blue eyes blazed with an unquenched fire. Blod oozed sluggishly from the lacerations in his hands and feet.”
Conan attempts to rip the nails loose and failing that, attempts to tear his hands free. That too proves futile. So he stoically hangs there, suffering from thirst, and waits for the vultures to circle down and begin feasting upon his still living flesh, until…
“In his dulled ears sounded the louder beat of wings. Lifting his head he watched with the burning glare of a wolf the shadows wheeling above him. He knew that his shouts would frighten them away no longer. One dipped–dipped–lower and lower. Conan drew his head back as far as he could, waiting with terrible patience. The vulture swept in with a swift roar of wings. Its beak flashed down, ripping the skin on Conan’s chin as he jerked his head aside; then, before the bird could flash away, Conan’s head lunged forward on his mighty neck muscles, and his teeth, snapping like those of a wolf, locked on the bare, wattled neck.
“Instantly, the vulture exploded into a squawking, flapping hysteria. Its thrashing wings blinded the man, and its talons ripped his chest. But grimly he him on, the muscles starting out in lumps on his jaws. And the scavenger’s neck-bones crunched between those powerful teeth. With a spasmodic flutter the bird him limp. Conan let go, spat blood from his mouth. The other vultures, terrified by the fate of their companion, were in full flight to a distant tree, where they perched like black demons in conclave.
“Ferocious triumph surged through Conan’s number brain. Life beat strongly and savagely through his veins. He could still deal death; he still lived. Every twinge of sensation, even of agony, was a negation of death.”
Howard affirms just how powerful and alive Conan is. Nailed to a cross in the hot desert sun he doesn’t succumb, as a weak, soft civilized man would. Instead he triumphs.
This scene was used in Conan the Barbarian (1982), with the usual bad results. Instead of being nailed to a cross, Ahnold is simply tied to the Tree of Woe. (Whoa!) Compared to the vigor of the literary Conan, Ahnold is passive. At least they got the scene with the vulture right, but again, instead of being exultant over defeating the vulture, Ahnold merely sags.
And there you have it, Conan the Freebooter.
Next up, Conan the Wanderer, also with cover art by John Duillo. I’ll try to get to it sooner.
Lancer/Ace Conan of Cimmeria
Conan the Freebooter