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Authors: Robert E. Howard

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The Conquering Sword of Conan

BOOK: The Conquering Sword of Conan
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Contents

Title Page

Dedication

Plates

Foreword

Introduction

The Servants of Bit-Yakin

Chapter I: PATHS OF INTRIGUE

Chapter II: A GODDESS AWAKENS

Chapter III: THE RETURN OF THE ORACLE

Chapter IV: THE DOME OF THE TEETH OF GWAHLUR

Beyond the Black River

Chapter I: CONAN LOSES HIS AXE

Chapter II: THE WIZARD OF GWAWELA

Chapter III: THE CRAWLERS IN THE DARK

Chapter IV: THE BEASTS OF ZOGAR-SAG

Chapter V: THE CHILDREN OF JHEBBAL SAG

Chapter VI: RED AXES OF THE BORDER

Chapter VII: THE DEVIL IN THE FIRE

Chapter VIII: CONAJOHARA NO MORE

The Black Stranger

Chapter I: THE PAINTED MEN

Chapter II: MEN FROM THE SEA

Chapter III: THE COMING OF THE BLACK MAN

Chapter IV: A BLACK DRUM DRONING

Chapter V: A MAN FROM THE WILDERNESS

Chapter VI: THE PLUNDER OF THE DEAD

Chapter VII: MEN OF THE WOODS

Chapter VIII: A PIRATE RETURNS TO THE SEA

The Man-Eaters of Zamboula

Chapter I: A DRUM BEGINS

Chapter II: THE NIGHT SKULKERS

Chapter III: BLACK HANDS GRIPPING

Chapter IV: A SWORD-THRUST THROUGH THE CURTAIN

Red Nails

Chapter I: THE SKULL ON THE CRAG

Chapter II: BY THE BLAZE OF THE FIRE JEWELS

Chapter III: THE PEOPLE OF THE FEUD

Chapter IV: SCENT OF BLACK LOTUS

Chapter V: TWENTY RED NAILS

Chapter VI: THE EYES OF TASCELA

Chapter VII: HE COMES FROM THE DARK

Miscellanea

Untitled Notes

Wolves Beyond the Border, Draft A

Wolves Beyond the Border, Draft B

The Black Stranger, Synopsis A

The Black Stranger, Synopsis B

The Man-Eaters of Zamboula, Synopsis

Red Nails, Draft

Ephemera

Letter to P. Schuyler Miller

Map of the Hyborian Age

Appendices

   
Hyborian Genesis Part III

   
Notes on the Conan Typescripts and the Chronology

   
Notes on the Original Howard Texts

Acknowledgments

Praise

Publication Information

Other Books by Robert E. Howard

Copyright Page

 

 

This is for Brodie Goheen and Cody Goheen,
my models for Conan and his world. Your excitement about this
book and enthusiasm about my work continues to inspire me.

Gregory Manchess

Plates

Conan

With a triumphant bellow the monster scooped her up under one arm

No word was spoken

Then he realized the full strength and ferocity of the Cimmerian

Stones and logs whirled through the air

Zarono

Instantly he dominated the group

They stood in tense stillness

. . . he studied the grounds for an instant

Then began a grim game

Foreword

I never knew Conan. Oh, I saw the movies and studied the paintings and thought I knew all about Conan’s character. Then I read the stories presented here.

I knew next to nothing until then. And neither does anyone else who hasn’t read Howard. Because locked within these flights of fury, these vaults of untamed male fantasy, is the actual persona of the character so many have captured on canvas.

And now it was my turn and I leapt at the chance. I believed that the real character would come to life in my mind’s eye in a different way than what I had been exposed to. Intuitively, I knew I was not understanding the full picture.

I began reading with the daunting task before me of trying to capture a view of Conan that was entirely my own approach. As I read I was struck by Howard’s wordsmithing. The words with which he chose to describe certain passages were themselves descriptive and visual. It sent me running for the dictionary.

The farther I read, the more I realized that these stories were becoming classic in a broader sense than the pulp genre. I viewed them in a way that N. C. Wyeth may have absorbed
Treasure Island
or Mead Schaeffer visualized
Lorna Doone
. A grand adventure scale with all the seriousness that the Golden Age illustrators embued their pictures. A classic illustrated adventure book. I wanted to own Conan the way those guys owned their presentations of beloved characters.

There was so much to choose from. The images were cascading and overlapping in waves of postures, lighting, and movement. As I sketched away into many nights, out came the Conan bouldering through a creek bed, on his way to or from so many of the actions in this collection. It became the slipcase, presenting Conan’s essential portrait. Alert, confident, and solitary.

I wanted a range of his emotions. The next painting to appear stemmed from my desire to portray the stealthy, panther-like side of the Cimmerian. And so he strides atop the wall at night in
The Man-Eaters of Zamboula,
on a mission to educate someone about the way the world works. I added another night scene because I wanted to see those streets in Zamboula and find Conan rescuing Nafertari, sneaking about, ever watchful for dangerous cannibals.

Then the pirate story. As adventurous and mythical as Sabatini’s
Captain Blood
, Conan steps into the story of
The Black Stranger
in full-on pirate gear. I had to show him as no one is likely to have seen him portrayed. Finest pirate regalia, as if Howard had just discovered an old trunk of his grandfather’s in the dusty attic. The portrait of Black Sarono is in the Golden Age mode of limited colors: red, black, and white, and executed with the same spirit. Each black-and-white chapter painting was an excuse to capture my chance of illustrating an old pirate tale. And I reveled in it.

I also knew that I had to present Conan as the flat out, berserker warrior that instantly comes to mind at the mention of the stories. I wasn’t against showing him this way, indeed, I had to find my particular point of view for the battle madness. It came as two pieces. One was Conan one on one with an equally corded Pict. This became the dustjacket. I wanted to show a bit of tension in the exchange, not a clear view of Conan conquering. And I needed to present his dynamic physique. This led to the second battle scene with Conan surrounded and exploding into a killing machine. The bodies work as a swirling, upward element toward Conan, captured in mid-flash of some offstage lightning. I added the background bolt to charge the scene and the sharpness of the melee. Another chance to capture Conan’s great musculature came in
The Servants of Bit-Yakin
. I could see him rushing up those stairs for Muriela, light glistening off his sweaty back, so many archways to race over.

Beyond the Black River
was especially visual in a classic Conan way, but again I chose a night scene of warriors in a stealth assault mode. I was there on the hillside as those malevolent mercenaries, like black ops of today, climbed the embankment on their mission of mayhem. In contrast, I chose a bright and sunny day to see the Picts getting pelted with anything that would fit in a catapult. It seemed ironic tragedy to be killed on such a beautiful day.

Red Nails
could be painted over and over again. (And I hope it will be by many others!) But even though I steered away from showing too many monsters for fear of taking away from the readers’ own exaggerated manifestation, I just had to see that decrepit old man and his bizarre instrument of death. Besides, it was an excuse to paint that babe, Tascela.

I saved the final piece for the title page. I wanted it to be an icon of the character of Conan the Cimmerian: adventurer, warrior, and explorer of the weird ways of Hyperboria. Several influences of mine cried out, but I listened to a particular voice from Leyendecker and proceeded to design with his efficiency in mind. It was a fun and fitting way for me to indulge my heroes and end my own adventure into Howard’s world.

Gregory Manchess
2005

Introduction

This volume completes the Wandering Star collection of Robert E. Howard’s tales of Conan of Cimmeria. Every story, fragment, synopsis, and note that Robert E. Howard ever committed to paper about the Cimmerian (even including some of the drafts) – and only those written by Howard himself – can now be found in the pages of the three volumes comprising this collection. Incredible as it may seem, it is a world premiere: Howard’s complete Conan stories had never before appeared in a uniform collection free from revision, rearrangement, and interpolations by others. For the first time, Howard’s Conan series can be judged on its own merits.

It is also the first time the stories are published, not arranged according to the character’s “biography,” but in the order Howard wrote them, as seems to have been his intention: “That’s why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

Previously, any conclusion one was tempted to draw regarding Howard’s achievement with his Conan series could only be based upon a presentation which not only didn’t show Howard’s growth as a writer, but presented the stories according to Conan’s “career,” in a manner which, I would argue, was meant to bolster an interpretation of that career alien to Howard’s original conception. The interpolation of non–Howard Conan stories into the series, the altering and rewriting of certain passages in Howard’s texts (notably in
The Black Stranger
), the adding of introductory paragraphs before every story, and even the retitling of Howard’s novel from the original
The Hour of the Dragon
to
Conan the Conqueror
, all worked toward presenting the whole series not as the life of “the average adventurer,” as Howard would have it, but as a cohesive saga, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, a kind of Tolkienesque quest in which each story represented yet another step up a ladder from penniless thief (as depicted in
Tower of the Elephant
) to mighty monarch of a civilized empire (
The Hour of the Dragon
).

Conan’s haphazard and carefree life was artificially transformed into a “career.” What made the series so wonderful – that intense sentiment of freedom resulting from the complete independence of each story from its predecessor and successor (almost no recurring character other than Conan in these tales!) – was undone, and Conan’s adventurous life became a “manifest destiny,” so to speak. It then became easy enough to see in Conan nothing more than a superman who would rise from poverty to kingship through his physical might (as exemplified in the Hollywood version of the Cimmerian).

That Conan eventually became king of Aquilonia is not in question, of course: he was king in the very first story Howard wrote about him. But nowhere in the stories as Howard wrote them do we detect a hint of a plan to become king one day. In
Beyond the Black River
, Conan comments: “I’ve been a mercenary captain, a corsair, a kozak, a penniless vagabond, a general – hell, I’ve been everything except a king, and I may be that, before I die.” In
Red Nails
, he is no more precise: “I’ve never been king of an Hyborian kingdom. . . . But I’ve dreamed of being even that. I may be too, some day. Why shouldn’t I?” Conan became a king simply because the situation presented itself to him at a particular moment of his life, not because of any predetermined plan.

As to Howard’s conception of kingship, it was not an imperialistic one, but rather an Arthurian one, in which the king is first and foremost at the service of his people and not the reverse, so much so that in fact King Conan’s only ambition at times would be not to be a king anymore: “Prospero . . . these matters of statecraft weary me as all the fighting I have done never did. . . . I wish I might ride with you to Nemedia. . . . It seems ages since I had a horse between my knees – but Publius says that affairs in the city require my presence. Curse him! . . . I did not dream far enough, Prospero. When King Numedides lay dead at my feet and I tore the crown from his gory head and set it on my own, I had reached the ultimate border of my dreams. I had prepared myself to take the crown, not to hold it. In the old free days all I wanted was a sharp sword and a straight path to my enemies. Now no paths are straight and my sword is useless.” When his supporters propose that he conquer another kingdom after having been dispossessed of Aquilonia, in
The Hour of the Dragon
, Conan’s answer is unequivocal: “Let others dream imperial dreams. I but wish to hold what is mine. I have no desire to rule an empire welded together by blood and fire. It’s one thing to seize a throne with the aid of its subjects and rule them with their consent. It’s another to subjugate a foreign realm and rule it by fear. I don’t wish to be another Valerius. No, Trocero, I’ll rule all Aquilonia and no more, or I’ll rule nothing.”

We are here very far from the perception the general public has of Conan, that of a fur-clad, semi-illiterate brute (for Conan in the media suffered the same fate as Burroughs’ Tarzan: both mysteriously lost their ability for articulate speech), bent only on raping, slaying, and conquering. The tales of Conan as a king, the last ones chronologically speaking, should thus in no way be considered as the culmination of a lifelong saga that leads to becoming the most powerful ruler of the Hyborian Age. After all, these tales of King Conan were penned rather early in the history of the series (
The Phoenix on the Sword
and
The Scarlet Citadel
were among the very first Conan stories written by Howard in 1932, and
The Hour of the Dragon
, written in 1934, was essentially a cannibalization of earlier efforts).

All the tales in this third volume were written well after
The Hour of the Dragon
. It is therefore in these that we will find Howard’s final words on Conan, the conclusion to his four-year stint with the character that brought him fame. They do not represent any sort of conclusion whatsoever to the character’s life (how could they when Howard himself pleaded ignorance: “As for Conan’s eventual fate – frankly I can’t predict it. In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me.”), but they are the conclusion to the series:
Red Nails
was completed in July 1935, eleven months before Howard’s suicide. No evidence exists that Howard ever wrote anything about the character after that date.

Weird Tales’ inability to pay Howard regularly probably played a great part in this, and it could be said that Howard was forced by circumstances to abandon the character. The fact that he submitted only one story to Weird Tales after
Red Nails
supports the idea. However, by late 1934, Howard was clearly branching out from fantasy fiction, and was more and more interested in the history and lore of his own country, the American Southwest, and in its potential as a subject for fiction. It is this growing passion which colored the last Conan tales: for the first time, Howard’s interest was something with which he was in touch in his everyday life. His knowledge of the Celts, which had permeated many of the early Conan stories, was gained from books only. The last Conan stories – those contained in this volume – were tales in which Howard would continue, as he had in all the stories to date, to explore his theme of “barbarism versus civilization,” but for the first time he was in a position to add much more sincerity and firsthand knowledge of his subject.

Three of the tales contained in this volume are among Howard’s best Conan stories:
Beyond the Black River
,
Red Nails,
and
The Black Stranger
. The first two are overwhelmingly considered by Howard scholars and connoisseurs alike to be among the best tales of the entirety of Howard’s fiction. Here was a writer at the peak of his talent producing the tales which would eventually propel him beyond the status of exceptional storyteller, to that of an author who also had a message to deliver. With these last Conan tales, Howard proved that he was indeed worthy of critical attention.

It is in that sense that we can consider the last Conan stories as a conclusion to the series, but also as a form of literary testament. The events depicted in
Beyond the Black River
were nothing especially new in Howard’s fiction, replete with tales depicting successful forays of savages against civilized settlements and cities that had grown too weak to defend themselves. In
Beyond the Black River
, as in those other tales, it is the inevitable division of the civilized people and the weakening that goes with it which brings about their defeat. What sets
Beyond the Black River
apart, however, is that the background and characters ring true, because all were drawn from sources that were so much closer to Howard than his usual pseudo-Celtic or pseudo-Assyrian settings. The settlers, farmers, and workers that people this particular story are not cardboard characters, but are as alive and vibrant as Conan himself. Few are the writers of fantasy stories who have succeeded in mingling fantasy with realism with such mastery. The story is a masterpiece because Howard didn’t let any damsel in distress get in the way, because he subdued the more fantastic elements of the tale, and refused to resort to pulp magazine conventions: he carried his grim opening predicament through to its bitter end, and didn’t let melodrama get in the way. The last Conan stories are much more realistic than fantastic, and it is that realism which sets them apart. Howard was very much aware of this. Just after he had sold
Red Nails
he commented to Clark Ashton Smith: “Too much raw meat, maybe, but I merely portrayed what I honestly believe would be the reactions of certain types of people in the situations on which the plot of the story hung. It may sound fantastic to link the term ‘realism’ with Conan; but as a matter of fact – his supernatural adventures aside – he is the most realistic character I ever evolved.”

If
Beyond the Black River
represents Howard’s definitive statement of his views concerning barbarism, he chose, in
Red Nails
, the other Conan masterpiece, to explore the other side of the coin: decaying civilizations. Once again, it was definitely not a new theme for the Texan. For example, Conan’s predecessor, Kull of Atlantis, was the king of the decadent empire of Valusia, and countless Howard stories are set in locales that usually were somewhere between decadent and decayed. The situation inevitably led to a final destruction, usually at the hands of the barbarians who were always, conveniently, at the gates, waiting for such a moment. In
Red Nails
, however, Howard dispensed with the barbarians and made sure his city was utterly isolated.
Red Nails
would thus be the story of a decaying process that would be carried to its logical conclusion. Written at a time when Howard’s mother’s health was declining at an alarming rate, her body slowly decaying under her son’s eyes toward a conclusion that was as inevitable as it was obvious, the last Conan story is a tale which is particularly rich in resonance with the terrible events that were happening in Howard’s life and mind at the time he was composing the story. (For a fuller explanation of the background to each story, see “Hyborian Genesis Part III” at the end of this volume.)

With the Conan stories, Howard ensured his literary legacy. His suicide at age thirty cut short a career that had promised to be an exceptional one. Less than a month before his death, he wrote Lovecraft: “I find it more and more difficult to write anything but western yarns. . . . I have always felt that if I ever accomplished anything worthwhile in the literary field, it would be with stories dealing of the central and western frontier.” Howard would probably have become an important writer in that field, but fate decided otherwise. However, the Conan stories transcend by their very nature the genre they are derived from, whether it be western, history, or high-adventure. By displacing them from their historical context and cloaking them in a Hyborian guise, Howard gave those stories a universality they would not have had in another form. They became timeless, as truthful today as they were seventy years ago.

“Scratch the veneer at your own risk,” I wrote concerning the stories found in the first volume. You are about to discover that the veneer is almost nonexistent in most of the tales of this last opus.

This is Howard at his rawest.

At his best.

Patrice Louinet
2005

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