November 27, 2004

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, by Robert E. Howard

Some time back, The Forager reprinted a post on the relative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. As I related at the time, I was moved by this and by teenage memories to rediscover Howard's work, and especially his tales of Conan the barbarian.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is an anthology of the first thirteen Conan tales in the order in which they were written, and I have to say that the quality is spotty. Some of the tales are quite good; others seem designed just to let Conan spend a lot of time with hot chicks. And some of the plot elements are distressingly repetitive. In at least four different stories (and it might be five) Conan comes to an island on which he finds ruins made of a strange green stone which were built by some cosmically evil non-human elder race who worshipped a horrible demon who will return to cause Conan grave difficulty but over whom Conan will ultimately triumph. Sometimes the remnants of the cosmically evil non-human elder race still live among the ruins.

Now, if this were one single cosmically evil non-human elder race which left its markings scattered hither and yon across the globe, that would be one thing. But it's quite clear that each story concerns a different cosmically evil non-human elder race, and that each went from extreme majesty and power to the control of this one single island, and then dwindled almost to nothing, only to be forgotten by time. I mean, really--how many cosmically evil elder races can one planet accommodate?

There are other flaws as well. For example, no longer being fourteen I really can't believe that pirate queens can maintain discipline over an all-male pirate crew by lounging seductively on the quarter deck clad in next to nothing. And I dare say that most princesses, no matter how grateful, would prefer to remove themselves from the tomb of their late undead captor and perhaps tidy up a bit before allowing themselves to be ravished by their rescuer, no matter how buff and barbaric he is.

The best of the tales, though, are pretty good. As good as Tolkien? Me, I don't buy it. But pretty good. The biggest stumbling blocks for a modern reader are these: brevity and familiarity. Taking the latter first, Howard was enormously influential, and much that is original in his stories has become trite from overuse. And then, these are short stories; there's simply not time or space for the kind of character definition and narrative detail fantasy readers have gotten used to in recent years.

Ah, well. Considering the short length of his career (only twelve years) and the vast number of stories he wrote, I suppose I have to cut Howard some slack. Per Sturgeon's law, 90% of everything is crud, and when you're writing and selling your writing as fast as you can, I suppose a lot more of the crud inevitably gets through.

It appears likely that there will be at least one follow-on volume, and I suspect that I will probably get it if I see it.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 27, 2004 12:26 PM