Lancer/Ace Conan: Rereading and Reminiscence

As I said in my previous blog outings, I planned on reading each of the original 12 Lancer/Ace Conan paperbacks and then blog my experience. So, surprise! I finished the Lancer/Ace Conan.

Frank Frazetta cover

Frank Frazetta cover

Conan is the first book in the Lancer/Ace Conan series as edited by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. “But wait! The cover says ‘Volume Five!’” Yes it does and good catch. The first book published in this series was actually Conan the Adventurer. Conan is the first book in the chronological order as set forth by de Camp and Carter, but the fifth book published. Confused? Good. Me too. But first some particulars:

Conan copyright 1967, first published 1968 (Wiki says it was actually published in 1967, but who are you going to believe?)

Contents

“Introduction” (L. Sprague de Camp)
“Letter from Robert E. Howard to P. Schuyler Miller” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Hyborian Age, Part 1” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Thing in the Crypt” (L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter)
“The Tower of the Elephant” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Hall of the Dead” (Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp)
“The God in the Bowl” (Robert E. Howard)
“Rogues in the House” (Robert E. Howard)
“The Hand of Nergal” (Robert E. Howard and Lin Carter)
“The City of Skulls” (L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter)

First, take a long gander at that Frank Frazetta cover. He’s the reason many of us picked up the book in the first place. I was wowed by his art then, and I’m still a huge fan. He was the master and to me, everyone else is just paying homage to him.

Introduction. Conan starts out with an intro by de Camp that gives a brief bio on Robert E. Howard and a short history of sword and sorcery. It’s a short, but interesting read.

Letter From Robert E. Howard to P. Schuyler Miller. The Letter is written by REH himself and is to P. Schuyler Miller, a science fiction writer of the day (Miller also, oddly enough, completes the circle as he also collaborated with L. Sprague de Camp, on the novel Genus Homo, de Camp’s first work of fiction). Miller, along with Dr. John D. Clark, another sci-fi writer, had contacted REH concerning the chronological order in which they thought the Conan stories should be sorted (Howard published the Conan tales without regard to Conan’s age, jumping from a seasoned warrior back to a youth and back again). This letter is much the basis for the order that de Camp and Carter eventually put the Conan stories when they started to create the series of books, with stories of their own to fill the holes. This letter was originally published in the 1953 Gnome Press The Coming of Conan.

The Hyborian Age is, as any Howardian should know, is Howard’s own historical essay on the times surrounding Conan’s life. This is Part 1 of that essay. Part 2 appears in Conan the Avenger, the tenth book in the series. If nothing else, the essay shows the detail that Howard put into the creation of Conan and his world. This was originally published in parts in several issues of The Phantagraph in 1936. It was later printed in Skull-Face and Others, a collection of short stories put out by Arkham House in 1946; in The Coming of Conan (with revisions by John D. Clark); and in King Kull, by Robert E. Howard and Lin Carter and published by Lancer in 1967.

And now, we get to the meat of the collection, the actual Conan stories.

The Thing in the Crypt. When I read this collection the first time, I didn’t really pay attention to who wrote what. I assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that REH wrote the majority of the works and de Camp and Carter were merely editors, doing whatever magic it is editors do. But I was wrong. And this is where the Howardian purists get their panties in a bunch. This very first story, the one that introduces us, more or less, to a teenaged Conan, was nothing more than fill written by de Camp and Carter to complete what they perceived to be a blank spot in Howard’s Conan history. For years now, I thought this story was written by Howard himself and only now, reading it this time, have I learned the truth. And what is the truth? That it isn’t a bad story. It stayed with me for 40 years. There must be something special about it. Part of this story, where Conan is running in the frozen wilderness in an attempt to escape a pack of wolves and climbs into a cave, which turns out to be the crypt of some ancient king, was brought to life in the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Conan the Barbarian. However, one of the reasons I dislike that movie so much is it stopped just when the short story gets good. If you remember, in the movie, he takes the sword from the skeletal hand of the king and swings it around. Then the hand moves. But instead of the king coming to life and battling Conan, which would have added a wonderful element of supernatural horror to the movie, the king’s skull just rolls onto the floor and Ah-nold said, “Crom,” with as much emotion as if he were saying, “Eggs.” Do yourself a favor and read the short story and forget the movie. This story was later reprinted in The Conan Chronicles (Sphere Books, 1989).

The Tower of the Elephant. Finally, we get to a true REH story. Maybe de Camp and Carter have edited, maybe not. I’m not about to compare it to other versions I own just to point a finger at them like others do. Instead, I’ll just say, Howard does a great job portraying Conan, new to civilization and it’s strange ways, as an inexperienced youth wanting to fit in, yet quick to react to perceived slights. To prove his mettle, Conan goes to rob the Tower of the Elephant, despite warnings of strange guardians and an even stranger wizard. To go back to the movie, they condensed this whole story into a mere shell by having them scale a tower where Ah-nold ends up killing a snake worshiped by Thulsa-Doom’s followers. Forget for a moment that Howard created Thulsa-Doom as an antagonist to KULL, not Conan (can you tell I loathe that movie?), they gutted all the best of this story, removing all Howard’s supernatural elements, all the surprise, all the horror and wonder and replaced it all with pretty much nothing. If you want to see a good interpretation of it, find a copy of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian #4 (April 1971). Barry Smith does a good job illustrating the tale. This story was originally published in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales. It was later reprinted in Skull-Face and Others and The Coming of Conan. It has since been reprinted in The Tower of the Elephant (Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc., 1975), The Conan Chronicles (Sphere Books, 1989), The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz, 2000), and Conan of Cimmeria (Del Rey, 2003)

The Hall of the Dead. According to the copyright page, was written by de Camp from an outline found among Howard’s papers in 1966 by Glenn Lord, a Howard scholar and his literary agent. Now lets get this out of the way, L. Sprague de Camp was no slouch when it came to writing. He wasn’t handed the reins to Howard’s Conan legacy based on his looks. The man had chops. And he didn’t take up the Howard mantle lightly. He studied. He became a scholar of Howard. He did more for Howard’s legacy than all of de Camp’s detractors combined. And he was one of the Big Names of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, creating nearly 100 books and countless short stories. This story is about Conan being pursued by mercenaries promised a reward by merchants Conan had robbed. Only one of them survives to follow Conan into an ancient, deserted city, where they run into… something. Originally published in the February 1967 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It has more recently been reprinted in The Conan Chronicles (Sphere Books, 1989) and in its original form in The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz, 2000) and Conan of Cimmeria (Del Rey, 2003)

The God in the Bowl. Another original Howard tale. Classic Conan, caught thieving by a guard, he gets caught up in the murder of the owner of the warehouse, until others die mysteriously. This story was loosely adapted in Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian #7 (July 1971) as illustrated by Barry Smith under the title, “The Lurker Within!” Originally rejected by Weird Tales, it was rediscovered and edited by de Camp and published in the September 1952 issue of Space Science Fiction and reprinted in The Coming of Conan. More recent reprints have removed the de Camp edits and it was published in the collections The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle and Conan of Cimmeria.

Rogues in the House. An original Howard story that was published in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales. This is the story the cover art is based on. Conan is thrown in jail. A young nobleman, Murilo, visits him with an offer to slay a political opponent for him, Nabonidus, the Red Priest. In exchange, he’ll make sure Conan gets out of town. Murilo’s plans go awry when the guard who was supposed to assist Conan is arrested, but the ever-resourceful Cimmerian is able to free himself. In the meantime, Murilo decides he has to kill the Red Priest himself and slips into his compound. Conan, of course, could leave, not being bound to his promise to Murilo, but he has a code of conduct, crude as it may be, and he heads over to the Red Priest’s place also. This story, also, was very well interpreted by Barry Smith in Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian #11 (November 1971). The story was reprinted in Terror by Night, an anthology edited by Christine Campbell Thomson and published by Selwyn and Blount in 1934; Skull-Face and Others, The Coming of Conan, and More Not at Night, edited by Christine Campbell Thomson and published by Arrow Books in 1961. More recently it was reprinted in Rogues in the House (Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc., 1976); The Conan Chronicles (Sphere Books, 1989); The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle; and Conan of Cimmeria.

The Hand of Nergal. This story was finished by Lin Carter from a fragment Howard had started. Conan is a mercenary, who has found a mysterious golden talisman. Long after the battle, he finds himself alone and runs into a young girl who bids he return with her to meet her master. Curious, Conan follows. He meets a group of men who are all cursed by the local wizard. They tell him a tale of the Hand of Nergal and how the wizard wields it to get his way, but Conan has found the Heart of Tammuz, which they believe will protect him. Will he help them to assassinate the wizard. Sure, what the heck. Unfortunately, the Heart doesn’t protect Conan, and you have to read the rest of the story to find out what happens. This was the first time this story appeared in print, but it was reprinted several times after. In The Conan Chronicles by Sphere Books in 1989 and Beyond the Gates of Dream by Belmont Books in 1969. The original fragment was published in The Conan Chronicles: Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle by Gollancz in 2000 and Conan Of Cimmeria by Del Rey in 2003.

The City of Skulls. The first book ends as it began, with an original Carter and de Camp non-Howardian story. Conan, once again is a mercenary, along with his Kushite friend Juma, assigned to escort the king’s daughter, Zosara, to her wedding. They are attacked by warriors and all the Turanians are killed except for Conan, Juma, and Zosara. They are taken to Shamballah, the City of Skulls, where they are brought before the king, who the people worship as the reincarnated son of their god. Conan and Juma are sentenced to a life of slavery. They escape and return to attempt a rescue of Zosara. This is the story’s first published appearance and is only reprinted in The Conan Chronicles (Sphere Books, 1989).

As I’ve said, it’s been 40 years since I read these stories (although I’ve read REH in other forms) and truth to tell, I really enjoyed this book. Maybe it’s part nostalgia on my part, I’ll admit, but something about these stories recaptured whatever it is they captured when I was a teen. I feel inspired.

For many of my generation, these were the books that not only introduced Howard’s greatest creation to us, but defined him as well. And I think it bears mentioning again, it wasn’t just the stories, it was the packaging with the Frank Frazetta cover as well. It is quite possible that without the Lancer/Ace releases of Conan, the Cimmerian might have slipped into the mists of forgotten literary heroes. How many other pulp heroes are, today, completely forgotten? How many authors? I know it’s hard to conceive that someone of Howard’s talent or his massive catalog of stories could have simply faded away, but we don’t need to worry about that. We can just be thankful for whatever circumstances in the late 1950s and early 1960s led to the popularization of sword and sorcery and the success of these Howard reprints and made the fantasy world a better place.

-30-

Lancer/Ace Conan
Lancer/Ace Conan of Cimmeria
Conan the Freebooter

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One thought on “Lancer/Ace Conan: Rereading and Reminiscence

  1. I was also very much disappointed by that “crypt scene” in the movie, knowing the skeleton king was suppose to come to life and Conan had to fight him for the sword.Actually I think that was what killed most of the movie for me.

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