Friday, June 3, 2011

Adventure classics -- Conan forever

“Conan the Conqueror” (original title: “The Hour of the Dragon“) would have been the first of Robert E. Howard’s stories to appear as a stand-alone book -- except that its would-be publisher went bankrupt first. As it happened, Howard did not live to see any of his stories published in book format.

The first to appear, “A Gent from Bear Creek, “came out in hardback in 1937, the year following his death. It was a collection of the Westerns Howard became interested in during the last years of his life. Leon Nielsen’s “Robert E. Howard: A Collector‘s Descriptive Bibliography with Biography,” lists this as very rare. Only twelve copies were known when Nielsen‘s book was published in 2007. A paperback edition came out in 1938 but no copies are known to exist. Nielsen speculates they may have been destroyed in World War II paper drives.

And, with a few exceptions, that was the end of book publishing of Howard stories until the early 1950’s. “The Hour of the Dragon,“ retitled “Conan the Conqueror “to take advantage of the name recognition of Howard’s most famous character, appeared first in hardback in 1950. My mass market paperback version, whose cover illustrates this post, was printed by Ace Books in 1953. It was billed as “two complete novels” -- being printed back to back with a shorter fantasy novel, “The Sword of Rhiannon,” by Leigh Brackett. Its cover price was thirty-five cents.

I paid a good bit more than that when I bought it at the Fencon science fiction and fantasy convention in Dallas, Texas, in 2008. Nielsen’s guide listed its market value at thirty-five dollars. The cover art made me long for the likes of the late Frank Frazetta’s work, depicting a more barbaric version of Conan. But this more polished illustration of the character is actually appropriate to the story, which takes place when Conan had achieved kingship of one of Howard’s fictional realms.

The story has eerie similarities to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” attributable to the convergent interests of both authors. Tolkien actually began writing his masterpiece after Howard’s death, completing much of it during World War II, before he would have been able to read Howard’s book, with its climatic battle reminiscent of Helm’s Deep, a talisman with supernaturally-derived powers, and a sorcerous antagonist.

Having said that, Howard’s work can’t challenge the depth or moral heights of Tolkien’s. But Tolkien’s work reflects the personal and spiritual maturity of a man nearly fifteen years older than Howard, writing later in life and with a greater range of scholarship and experience. I don’t grieve that Howard’s work isn’t deeper but that we are left with only the prologue to indicate what Howard might have been capable of if he had lived a normal lifespan in less straitened circumstances. What tales he might have swapped with Tolkien.

(Next week: Decades before Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, REH mixed pirates and zombies in “Red Shadows.”)

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