Friday, 5 August 2011

‘Conan the Barbarian’ – Robert E. Howard (Del Rey/Gollancz)

I’m not saying anything bad about movie novelizations per se, all I’m saying is that I’ve only ever read one where the book was better than the film. If you were wondering, that book was Joan D. Vinge’s ‘Ladyhawke’, a book that has a lot more depth to it than the film and no annoying disco soundtrack that gets in your head when it really has no business being there. With this previous track record in movie novelizations I’ve got to admit that I winced a little when a copy of ‘Conan the Barbarian’ came through the door. My ‘movie tie-in’ reading includes the original ‘Conan the Barbarian’, another book that didn’t quite match up to the film, so you can understand where I’m coming from here!

I was pleasantly surprised then, and more than a little relieved, to find out that ‘Conan the Barbarian’ isn’t a movie tie-in at all. What we’ve got here instead is a collection of five stories that ‘inspired the movie’ and that had me excited all of a sudden. Gollancz and Del Rey seem to share the rights to certain stories from Robert E. Howard so it’s an obvious move then for them to cash in on the release of the movie by dipping into the archives and finding some stories to go into a new collection. That doesn’t bother me, I’d rather have the real deal than a rehash of the movie and the stories in this collection are (for the most part) proof of that preference...

I’ve been reading the US edition which contains the stories ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’, ‘The People of the Black Circle’, ‘The Tower of the Elephant’, ‘Queen of the Black Coast’, ‘Red Nails’ and ‘Rogues in the House’. The press release for the UK edition suggests the same line up but don’t quote me on that as I haven’t been able to confirm this. Scholars of Robert E. Howard will possibly be able to find a connection between these tales, that I have missed, but I couldn’t see anything here to suggest anything other than a group of people sifting through the archives and saying, “that tale is awesome, include it!” If this was the case then opinions will naturally differ, they certainly did for me as you will see when I get onto the stories themselves.

 What I would say though is that the collected stories (in the US edition at least) do give the reader a very clear picture of what Conan was all about at different stages of his life. It’s not all about fighting monsters and pirates etc either. If you’ve only ever seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger films then you’re going to be very surprised at the depth of character Howard gives his barbarian hero. Conan can still throw down with the best of them, the pulp tone of these tales makes him ‘the best of them’ and you’ll start to wonder if anything can stop him. Where the surprise comes is that there seems to be plenty that can stop him in his tracks, at least initially. Conan’s worst enemy in that respect is himself, his own excesses will lead him to fight for things that he won’t know what to do with when he gets them. That’s where the fun begins and you’ll see a whole new side to a character that you thought you knew already.

Things kick off with ‘The Phoenix in the Sword’ where we find that although Conan did eventually get his crown he is particularly well suited to the demands of kingship. Everyone has to start learning somewhere but Conan is obviously a man best suited to solving his problems at sword point. Luckily for him (if you look at it in that way), Conan gets the chance to do just that when usurpers seek to overthrow him... I thought this was a great story to start on as Conan is up against a host of problems that he can’t necessarily solve in the normal way and you see him really struggle to pull through. The outcome is never really in doubt but it’s one hell of a blast when the action kicks in and you see that Conan is more comfortable dealing with a band of assassins than he is dealing with the royal admin. A great tale to hook readers right from the start.

There’s more along the same lines as ‘The People of the Black Circle’ once again shows Conan in over his head as he must deal with the fractious tribesmen under his ‘control’ as well as an evil wizard and the ruling elite that he is fighting against. It’s going to take more than that to keep Conan down though and this particular tale really shows the reader how stoic our hero is; no what happens, Conan takes it all in his stride and keeps on coming. There is plenty going on here (Howard pretty much throws everything at Conan here...) and this just adds to Conan’s mythos. Another great tale that keeps the book moving along very smoothly indeed.

It’s a shame then that things seem to derail slightly in ‘The Tower of the Elephant’. Conan must brave a wizard’s tower, if he is to steal its treasures, and I was left feeling that there was nothing really there to test him. A very straightforward and linear plot moves Conan from A to B with no real obstacles in his way and I was left feeling a little flat by it all (although I loved the mythology behind the wizard’s prisoner, these tales may be pulp but a lot of thought went into them).

Things really picked up though with ‘Queen of the Black Coast’ and ‘Red Nails’, two tales where Conan meets female leads who are very much his equal and provide some real spark to the dialogue. Pulp convention may demand that Conan comes out on top (and he does with one of them at least) but, again, he doesn’t have an easy time of it and this says to me that there is far more to Howard’s writing than you would at first think. Howard is very adept with his scene setting, especially considering that these short stories were written for magazine publication and had to be concise for this reason (and to give readers a short sharp buzz of action). Both of these tales have a real claustrophobic air to them (‘Red Nails’ in particular) that really adds to the tension and pushes the plot forward into the bursts of violent action that Howard is renowned for.

‘Rogues in the House’ rounds things off nicely and is very much what ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ could have been, the same essential plot but with a real twist to it which results in real problems for Conan to solve. Conan comes through, of course, but (again) you find yourself really appreciating what a strong character he is because of it.

I haven’t read any ‘Conan’ for a number of years and I found this collection to be a great way to get back into his stories. By the same light, I’d recommend this work to those who haven’t picked up the original stories yet. There’s the odd bump here and there but ‘Conan the Barbarian’ is a great introduction to the character and you might just find out something new about him on the way.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

Edited to Add: I popped into town this lunchtime and saw a copy of the Gollancz edition which has a couple of extra stories, and Howard's poem 'Cimmeria', as well as the stories featured in the Del Rey edition.

1 comment:

Taranaich said...

I'm somewhat astonished that you consider "The Tower of the Elephant" to be the weakest story here, as I (and a few others) consider it to be one of the very best Conan stories - indeed, I consider it one of Howard's best stories of all. True, the in-narrative action and stakes aren't as high as in other tales, but I felt that the surprises lie in the plot and characterisation - for one thing, the identity of Yag-Kosha being not a monster to be slain, but a prisoner to be pitied and freed. Then you have little snippets like Conan listening into philosophical debates, his awe at "civilized mysteries" and the weirdness that was Conan acting abashed and embarrassed when taunted by the Kothian.

But hey, that's the thing with Howard: fans all have their favourites and least favourites.