The Coming of Conan the Collection

My bookshelves were overflowing and we had guests coming for Christmas. So I started stacking books with the intent of putting them into some semblance of order, maybe by genre, alphabetically by author, or something like that, when I came upon several books about Conan, the Robert E. Howard barbarian.

For those who don’t know, and if you don’t you should, Robert E. Howard is to heroic fantasy what J.R.R. Tolkien is to epic fantasy. Epic fantasy was, well, epic, dealing with themes of global struggle, usually involving a quest, a great evil, and a large cast of supporting characters. Tolkien influenced many followers, authors such as Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, and Stephen R. Donaldson, to name a few.

On the other hand, heroic fantasy (sometimes called sword and sorcery) deals, generally, with the swashbuckling adventures of a single character facing violent conflicts with the dangers being more personal than world-threatening. REH excelled at bold tales of larger-than-life characters and not just with his most famous creation, Conan, but with many other daring characters such as Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and Turlogh Dubh O’Brien.

REH, like Tolkien, influenced generations of writers of heroic fantasy, such as Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Lin Carter, L Sprague de Camp, and John Jakes.

Back to my bookshelves. I found several books from the Lancer/Ace series of Conan. There have been a few editions of the Conan stories published over the years. The first were the Gnome Press versions that were published in the 1950s. That collection consisted of seven volumes of Conan, written largely by Howard, but with additional stories by L Sprague de Camp and Björn Nyberg.

Then, starting in about 1966, Lancer under the direction of L Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, began to republish the Conan stories. What made these unique (and in some minds an abomination) was that the stories were arranged in chronological order starting with a youthful Conan and ending with an aging one.

The original series begun by Lancer until it went out of business, and finished by Ace Books, consisted of twelve books. Since then, more books were added to the series mostly written by de Camp, Carter, and Björn Nyberg.

More recently, Del Rey between 2003 and 2005, put out a three volume set of Conan consisting of all the original unedited Howard stories in the order in which they were first published. Del Rey also continued to publish all of Howard’s stories in several other volumes.

But again, back to my bookshelves and the Lancer/Ace books. This series, heavily edited by De Camp and Carter, with additional new material to round out the series, followed Conan from his teenage years until his grizzled elder years. Oddly enough, however, the books were not published in that order, and only later were they numbered in chronological order.

The first book published was Conan the Adventurer. It featured a cover by Frank Frazetta. The artwork as much as the material inside were responsible for the resurgence of interest in Robert E Howard and his Conan character. This novel was the first I discovered as a teenager and it quite figuratively blew me away. Up until then, I wasn’t much of a reader outside of the minimum I needed to do for school.

But this book of Conan’s adventures amazed me, stunned me. I had no idea these kinds of stories existed. After finishing this I was hooked. Hooked on Conan. Hooked on REH. Hooked on sword and sorcery. Hooked on reading. And I went on to read the rest of the Lancer/Ace series. Then I expanded to those who followed in Howard’s footsteps, and read about Elric, Brak the barbarian, Thongor, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser…

But again, back to my bookshelves. I thought I had the entire Lancer/Ace set, but as I was perusing it that day, I realized I was missing two books. (So I searched for them and found the pair online and I’m now eagerly awaiting their arrival).

And as I looked through them, admired the beautiful Frank Frazetta art, I was taken back to those days as a teen, as I devoured these books cover to cover and was transported to the Hyborian Age. As I said, these books inspired me to read, but more than that, these books inspired me to write. I began writing shortly after reading the very first book what might be termed fanfic, except that term didn’t exist back then. I wrote several stories about a character I had named after Conan’s pseudonym, Amra. These were turned to high school English and since have been lost to the ravages of time. But I also started writing stories on origianl characters and these I submitted to real fiction magazines and began to garner an impressive collection of rejection slips.

And feeling nostalgic, I was seized by the desire to reread these books I hadn’t read in nearly 40 years. Not to say I haven’t read Howard since then. I have at least nine of the Del Rey Howard library and I’ve read through much of it, especially the Conan stories. But I wanted to reread these particular stories because these are the ones that set me on the path upon which I stand today.

But this time, instead of reading them out of order, I will read them as L Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter intended them to be read. Starting with the first book, Conan, and continuing until I’ve finished the entire collection.

And maybe, as I read them, I’ll blog my impressions on each.

Until then, “Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars.”

And, not surprisingly, I never did get my bookshelves in order before company arrived.

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