And so we get to the third book in the series, which is simply called 'Conan' – which has had the effect of making the title of this post look a bit odd. The first two collections had one long piece and a few short stories; this one is a collection of seven Conan stories, bulked out with the first half of the 'Hyborian Age' essay. (I'm going to cover that in a separate post at some point – for now it should just be noted that it is present in the book.) This collection is notable for one key element – two stories that are listed as being written by De Camp and Carter. I'll get this out of the way right now – I have an awful lot of time for Lin Carter. If it were not for him, likely I would not have heard of Conan, and would have missed out on an awful lot. His writing, however, is often rather questionable, even though I rate him extremely highly in other areas. So it was with some trepidation that I launched myself into this book.
So, we begin with 'The Thing in the Crypt', a Carter/de Camp story, and...a novelization of the 'escape' scene from Conan the Barbarian. I tell a lie, since the movie came a few years later, but I know where that scene came from. Which...is not really a problem, because it is an excellent scene. Unfortunately – that's it. A young Conan falls into a crypt, finds a sword, and leaves. Conan isn't Arthur, or Elric. The sword he wields is not a major part of his character. Now this could be the beginning of a story if it turned out he'd found something more interesting, something which could spin off into a larger plot, but...it isn't. It's pretty well-written, it just doesn't go anywhere.
With a deep sigh of relief, I turn to 'Tower of the Elephant'. So far an iconic Conan story has been in each collection, and this is no exception. Why the book doesn't start with this is somewhat baffling, though I suppose it is the editor showcasing 'his' Conan story to the world, but it is here, and it is just as good as ever. Here we see the editors trying to tell the tale of Conan in a chronological order – they've started at the beginning of his career with an 'origin story', and are now working their way onward. Interesting that his 'special sword' is not in evidence.
Tower of the Elephant is one of the greats, and deservedly so. Here we see a young Conan, new to the lands of civilization, practising the art of thievery. We have a classic fight against a serpent, and the quest for the Elephant's Heart, a huge gem – the thievery as much to prove he can as for the wealth it may bring him. Then we have the element that reminds us this was in Weird Tales; the encounter with the eldar creature, who has seen the history of Hyboria spin around him, after arriving from its homeworld of Yag. That this feels a natural extension of the world is a credit to Howard, and reading this one was a treat. I just wish it had been longer; but there is no trace of padding within it.
Following on from this is 'Hall of the Dead', another piece set in Conan's career as a thief, tied in with another lost city piece – this time seeking more gems in the abandoned city of Larsha. Notable in this is the key fight with...a giant slug. There's an attempt to make this a great fight, but it doesn't really work – to be honest, it's not hard to see the joins in this story, even if you haven't read the fragment. Nestor's a reasonable character, with some similarities to Taurus from 'Elephant', though their proximity in the collection might be adding to this.
'The God in the Bowl' follows on from this piece, seeing Conan in a city once again – with the 'Palian Way' and 'Publico' giving some ideas on influences here. This one is another one of my favourites, with Conan framed for the murder of a local dignitary – who he was planning to rob. Again we see a serpent as the foe; Howard used these fairly often, tracing them back from his ancient Atlantean past with the Serpent Men – it works extremely well in this place, building the mystery up in a nicely Hitchcockian fashion – the monster is only revealed at the end.
'Rogues in the House' sees Conan once again entangled in the web of civilized intrigue, as he is offered his freedom in exchange for killing a man – a deal he accepts, before ending up fighting a giant ape who has gained a modicum of intelligence through foul sorcery, trapping his creator as well as those who would have him dead. What immediately occurs to me is that as has happened before in these collections, a pair of too-similar stories are placed next to each other; this time they both weather it reasonably well, but spacing them further apart might have been a better idea. It has a strong opening, this one, but the giant ape ending lets it down a little – though Conan racing out of the kingdom certainly has the air of truth to it.
Hence comes the 'Hand of Nurgal', with an opening obviously linked by de Camp to the previous story – unnecessary, but certainly forgivable. This one is another Eastern story, and again the strengths of Howard working in that theatre shine through; the setting is lavish as ever, with a strong trace of the Mongols this time. This is a fairly minor work, with Conan almost stumbling into the item he needs to save the day, but I linger a little on the ending – where Conan refuses 'all the treasure he could carry', instead riding off with a small sack of gold on a horse, as well as a girl who attracts his eye. Great ending to that story.
The final story, 'City of Skulls', is another de Camp/Carter piece. This one has obviously been written as a sequel to the previous story – if such is necessary – or a least has been heavily modified with this in mind. Names such as Jalong Thongpa suggest Carter's heavy influence in this work, and it reads...well, it reads like someone making an attempt to copy Howard's style. The words are there, but somehow the magic isn't. It feels a little like 'Conan-by-numbers' at times.
Difficult to rate, this one. I'd probably give this one seven and a half; the non-Howard pieces don't really add very much here, and the collection – whilst having several good stories – could use a little more variety than is present. I'll also say – reading seven stories on the trot was a bit of a slog! It's a lot easier, somehow, when it is just three or four, even when they provide as long a book. Fortunately, I shall not have that problem tomorrow.