The sixth book in the series, Conan of Cimmeria, and this one has the most stories yet – eight, in total. Four Howard, four de Camp and Carter – and once again, de Camp has chosen to lead with a pastiche instead of an original story, starting with 'The Curse of the Monolith'. The prose begins with him walking among bamboo, rhododendrons and mighty redwoods as old as Atlantis, and Conan tasked to take a letter from one city to another. It just never really seems to flow, and it's hard to maintain a suspension of disbelief. At one point a noble from Khitai brings out a crowbar to open crates of gold! The story concludes with Conan fighting a jelly...I've only just started this anthology, and already the mark is falling. Not a good start.
'The Bloodstained God' follows, a Howard story. Interesting how Conan seems to use the tulwar a lot in stories that have been converted; this once again is a fragment for another character that has been expanded. It's not great, and there is something missing – the flavour isn't there. Hard to define, but somehow the description seems to be a little by the numbers, and the dialogue doesn't feel right. It has a pretty decent Howard ending, and at least true to the spirit of Conan – treasure only matters for what it can buy him, and in this case it has bought him his life – a fair bargain.
Finally, an unadulterated Howard in the form of 'The Frost Giant's Daughter'. Most put this story at the beginning of Conan's life as chronicled, and it's one of the more directly mythologically-inspired stories, delving into Norse myth. The usual descriptive touches are nicely present in the piece, though the theme – Conan chasing a beautiful woman into the icy wastes that he might have his way with her – is somewhat questionable. It's still a decent story, though not the best.
With the title 'Lair of the Ice Worm' the next pastiche comes into view. The description here is actually a little better, though 'Snow Devil Glacier, also known as the River of Death Ice' sticks out rather. This one is a damsel-in-distress story – and the damsel is nothing special. This sort of story can work very well in the canon, but there needs to be a lot more too it than that, and here, there really isn't. She dies, he kills the monster, a vampiric ice-worm, and then decides to go where it is warm again. It's actually a half-decent story, probably the best of the pastiches yet, with a good monster at least, even if the plot is rather by-the-numbers.
'Queen of the Black Coast'. That's more like it. Howard returns to his pirate theme here in a tale that sees Conan rise to the command of a raiding ship with the beauteous Belit at his side – or more to the point, he at hers. Here is where be becomes Amra, and has the adventures referred to back in 'Scarlet Citadel'. He wins all and loses all; despite his successes in the end the love of his life is dead, his crew wiped out, and he is alone on the deck of his ship, the Tigress. Again, this is an excellent story, lavish in description and with more of the exotic feel that works so well in this sort of story.
After this treat comes 'Vale of Lost Women', and I'll get the technical part out of the way first; in terms of the quality of the writing, it is an exciting tale about at the middle of the canon, descriptive with some interesting characters – but from a modern perspective, this one can be somewhat problematic; the language here can jar somewhat – given that he has opted to make the barbarians 'black dogs' this time. Interesting to note, though, is that to Conan, these are just another group of barbarians. No different to the Afghulis, he seeks to become their ruler to lead them to battle. (On an aside – de Camp has put two of the most controversial stories in a single anthology...bundling them with his own. That's potentially quite a daring move.)
Next comes 'Castle of Terror', which...I'm sorry, this sounds like it should have 'suitable for levels 3-5' as the sub-heading. It's just not a good title. Another pastiche coming up, but actually – they've given a bad title to a pretty decent story. The opening is good, setting the scene quickly, and although Conan hardly says a word in the entire story, his character comes through pretty well. Kull is referenced here – de Camp did like using the canon, didn't he – in a throwaway line. The plot's a bit bland – Conan runs across the veldt, finds a castle filled with, well, terror, and leaves, but this one is reasonable. About on a par with 'Ice Worm', and that I can live with.
I've changed my mind. 'Castle of Terror' is a brilliant title. In comparison to 'Snout in the Dark', anyway. This is obviously a working title...and really needed to be changed. There's a lot of good Howard in this story, but it really needed to be longer, in my opinion. The plot feels skeletal, and could really have been entangled a lot more than it was; given that de Camp and Carter completed this from a story fragment, I really think they should have done more. That Conan rides off with the woman who is a bit less interesting than the fiery Queen of the book is rather amusing, if nothing else.
This one goes down to 7.5, and that's because of 'Black Coast' pulling it up. The pastiches are actually getting a little better in some places, but Howard's work is getting more and more diluted at this point, and it's more noticeable than I expected. I'm doing this as a learning experience, in the way of research for my own sword and sorcery, and I didn't feel that I took that much from this collection.