The first volume in Del Rey’s awesome Fully Illustrated Library of Robert E. Howard.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

  • Author:  Robert E. Howard
  • Published:  2003
  • Contents Originally Published:  mostly 1932-1934 in Weird Tales
  • Publisher:  Del Rey
  • Pages:  463
  • First Line  (sort-of):  “Over shadowy spires and gleaming towers lay the ghostly darkness and silence that runs into dawn.”
  • Film Version:  Conan the Barbarian  (1982  –  *** – dir. John Milius), Conan the Destroyer  (1984  –  **  –  dir. Richard Fleischer), Conan the Barbarian  (2011  –  *.5  –  dir. Marcus Nispel)
  • First Read:  Fall, 2006

I sometime thinks I missed my proper age as a writer.  Not in terms of what I write about – I am glad to be situated here a good century into the history of film to have more to write about.  I mean for fiction.  If I had been writing 80 years ago, I have no doubt I would have been submitting short stories to Scribners.  But I think, under other names, I also would have been sending stuff into Black Mask, hard boiled detective stories in the style of Dash Hammett.  And I think I probably would have had fantasy stories, in yet another name, on the way to Weird Tales.  These are my types of stories.

I approach pulp fiction kind of the same way that I approach horror films.  Much of it is crap and much of it we would be better off without, even if people eat it up.  But the best of it, well the best of it has a kind of poetry that doesn’t really exist in the kind of mainstream fare of serious straight films and modernism literary masterpieces.  And it’s not just the great pulps of the late 20’s and early 30’s.  Look at the works of Ian Fleming, such great stuff to read and enjoy (the same way that Hammer Horror of the same period would also revive memories of the great Universal Horror Films that were from the same era as the original great pulps).

Now, I like my pulps to actually be pulps.  I have all the original James Bond novels, but I have them all in old Signet mass markets.  I searched for quite a while to find an old mass market copy of Princess of Mars rather than buy a new trade last year.  But sometimes I make exceptions.  And this is the best reason to make an exception: The Del Rey Illustrated Library of Robert E. Howard.

Howard was a king among the pulps, a master of fantasy writing and one of the few masters of the genre who clearly bears no influence from Tolkien, as he killed himself a year before The Hobbit appeared in print.  And there are plenty of pulp mass market versions of Howard’s work, notably the Lancer editions from the 60’s and 70’s which have wonderful covers.  What they don’t have, however, are faithful reproductions of Howard’s work.

Howard wrote in a variety of genres and for a number of magazines, but his most famous works are the Conan stories, many of which appeared in Weird Tales between 1932 and 1936.  But over the years, as copyright passed between hands, and the fall-off of the fantasy genre, and then the resurgence in the 1970’s, lead by the massive paperback sales of Lord of the Rings in the late 1960’s, Lancer Books started putting out collections of the Conan stories.  But by this time, they were collections of either heavily edited copies of Howard’s original stories or imitation stories written by a number of different writers (including Robert Jordan, which helped build him as a fantasy name well before Wheel of Time).  The original Howard stories were, by this point, very difficult to find.  But, finally, beginning in 2003, Del Rey, which has long been a major name in fantasy publishing, collected the original Howard stories, as Howard wrote them, along with early drafts, synopsis and other esoterica.  And so came the Del Rey Illustrated Library of Robert E. Howard, eleven wonderful trade volumes in three sets: the Conan books (in three volumes), the five-volume Adventurers Series (which includes Kull and Solomon Kane, two of his other well-known creations, the first of which actually lead directly into Conan as the first Conan story was a rewrite of a Kull story) and the three volume collections of his other stories.  As is stated in the Introduction, “until the present publication, Howard’s Conan stories had never been published as Howard wrote them, in the order in which he wrote them, in a uniform collection.”

This illustration from the book is by Mark Schultz and he owns the copyright.  I hope he doesn't mind me using it to promote his magnificent art for the book.  I pulled this off his Tumblr pages.

This illustration from the book is by Mark Schultz and he owns the copyright. I hope he doesn’t mind me using it to promote his magnificent art for the book. I pulled this off his Tumblr page.

That was 10 years ago.  For a decade now, we actually can read them, exactly as Howard wrote them, with beautiful illustrations (one of the things about the original Weird Tales magazine was that it really drew in the reader with magnificent illustrations that really emphasized the only partially (or not even partially) clad females in the Conan stories as illustrated by Margaret Brundage – this collection does not skimp on those kind of illustrations, but it also has a magnificent illustrations of everyone’s favorite barbarian himself, as well as the numerous creatures that he encounters along the way, the most impressive of which might be the illustration of Yogah in “The Tower of the Elephant”).  And when the book says it is fully illustrated, it is not skimping on that – every break in the stories (and there are lots – nearly even Conan story has several small chapters to it) has an illustration to it.  There are 76 illustrations in all, 16 of which are full-page and 4 of which are plates (so, no text on the other side of the page) and they are magnificently done by Mark Schultz.

They also don’t skimp on the extras.  The first volume, which I am discussing here, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, covers all the Conan writing that Howard did, from the conception of the character, in early 1932, up to late 1933, the first phase of his Conan writing (as mentioned, the stories are presented in the order they were written, not in the order they took place – more on that later).  But it also includes the rejected first draft of the first Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword”, some unfinished work, synopsis of a few stories, Howard’s essay “The Hyborian Age”, in which he outlined the world he was writing about, and most helpful, a long essay entitled “Hyborian Genesis”, which traces the history of Howard’s work on Conan that is covered in this first volume.

So that’s the book, as presented by Del Rey.  What about the stories themselves?  Well, if you have any interest in fantasy, they are some of the most seminal works in the genre’s history, almost the creation of Sword & Sorcery as a genre.  And they are first-rate, far above most fantasy writing, either at the time, or since.  Part of it is Howard’s descriptive abilities.  How could Schultz have done such a magnificent illustration without this description to work from: “Conan stared aghast; the image had the body of a man, naked, and green in color; but the head was one of nightmare and madness.  Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls.”  Or look at the first time we see Conan in the very first story, “The Phoenix on the Sword”: “Behind an ivory, gold-inlaid writing-table sat a man whose broad shoulders and sun-browned skin seemed out of place among those luxuriant surroundings.  He seemed more a part of the sun and winds and high places of the outlands.  His slightest movement spoke of steel-spring muscles knit to a keen brain with the co-ordination of a born fighting-man.  There was nothing deliberate or measured about his actions.  Either he was perfectly at rest – still as a bronze statue – or else he was in motion, not with the jerky quickness of over-tense nerves, but with a cat-like speed that blurred the sight which tried to follow him.”

This first time we see Conan he has already become King of Aquilonia.  But in the next published story (the third written, as the second story was rejected by Weird Tales) we meet him as a young thief.  Howard had scoped out his world, but not yet the biography of its chief resident and we move around in Conan’s history through the stories – king, young thief, pirate, mercenary for hire.  Through them all, we see Conan’s speed (“blinding speed and strength impossible to a civilized man” we are told in “The Pool of the Black One”) and we see him deal out death against the most extreme of odds (as in “Xutahl of the Dusk” where we read “He was never motionless or in the same place an instant; springing, side-stepping, whirling, twisting, he offered a constantly shifting target for their swords, while his own curved blade sang death about their ears.”).  He stumbles about sometimes in a world he was not born to: “He saw no particular humor in it, and was too new to civilization to understand its discourtesies.  Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

This is the very heart of the pulp world, the very soul of fantasy writing, the darkness and legacy of H.P. Lovecraft pulled away from the horrors of Cthulhu and brought out onto another age, one which easily flowed from Howard’s typewriter to the readers that now number in the millions.  While Tolkien’s legacy has been immense and much of it for good, there was a major influence before his writing had even been read outside the Inklings, the fantastical other side of the hard-boiled Dash Hammett mirror.

And don’t forget to read: