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After Chronological Conan
“I Finished the Lancer Conan Series, What Should I Read Next?” Plutonious Nimbus Wants to Know
You loved the Conan series, including the pastiches and posthumous collaborations by L. Sprague De Camp, Bjorn Niborg and Lin Carter.
In many ways this series was great and also pointed to the degeneracy of heroic fiction, with PC multiculturalism, fat-ass Zenobia transformed into bad-ass Zenobia in Niborg’s Conan the Avenger, and Juma the hero Bantu inserted in Conan the Buccaneer… The men who rode Howard’s coattails could not help but degrade his work but did good work on their own.
De Camp’s best book was Lest Darkness Fall, nerdish time travel fantasy. His fill-in shorts were excellent in the Conan series, Lair of the Frost Worm, Black Tears and the scene in which Conan is being tracked by a pride of lions as well as the seen with him being run down by wolves in the first book and finding the Atlantean crypt, which made it into the movie, are really good stuff.
Lin Carter worked best on his own, in my opinion, with the novellas Renegade of Callisto and the three Thongor Books, my favorite being Thongor Against the Gods, being excellent pulp in their own right.
The structure of the Lancer and the Ace series, as well as the Road of Kings series latter featuring the best non-Howard Conan writer, Karl Edward Wagner, made Conan accessible to the readers of Edgar Rice Burroughs and followers of American TV and movies and comic books.
The clean chronological progress of Conan’s “career” in true modern fashion is created.
The wife Conan never had, is created.
The heir that Conan never had, is created.
A sentimental destiny for the doomed usurper spitting into the fierce gales of cruel Fate, is created.
Apologies for Conan’s racism and sexism are made…
All this so that the modern citizen of a well-ordered and uneventful world designed for our comfort, security, longevity and prosperity, may enjoy the stories of a barbarian troding the jeweled thrones of the world beneath his sandaled feet, might enjoy the adventures of a hero who is evil by all of our sissy definitions of what is good in life.
John Milus, who made the Conan the Barbarian movie, knew this, and that is why he inserted that Genghis Khan inspired scene in which Conan—chained as he was in a few stories, as we all are—is asked “What is good in life,” and he answers, “To crush da enemy, to seem dem driven before you—en to hear da lamentations of da vimen!”
We, of course, would say, “A blond that turns into a six-pack and a sandwich.”
So, fantastical as Conan is, since his world is so real, and he expresses criminal and barbaric and honor-based desires and actions, he strikes the reader, as more real than the reader’s own life—unless the reader is hopelessly feminized and then he is an outrageous abomination and the most unrealistic of heroes, even though he has more realistic behaviors than we domesticated drones.
Now that you have developed a taste for Conan in its candy-coated, reduced-alcohol form, I suggest, from faulty memory, my Robert E. Howard library collected over a lifetime now long gone, reading:
-1. The Ballantine Del Rey collections of Robert E. Howard stories according to characters and themes: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, and the other two volumes which titles escape me, one being The Bloody Crown of Conan. In literary terms, the best Conan stories are Rogues in the House, The Tower of the Elephant, Queen of the Black Coast and People of the Black Circle. My personal favorite is The Frost Giant’s Daughter.
-2. Kull collection, the direct Conan prototype, the best story being By This Axe I Rule!
-3. Bran Mak Morn collection, the best story being Worms of the Earth
-5. Solomon Kane collection, Howard’s best and most unique character, featuring Howard’s only real sidekick character, N’Longa the juju man
-6. El Borak and Other Desert adventures, in which you will find some stories later rewritten by posthumous coauthors and comic authors as Conan stories, such as the Lost Valley of Iskander. These strait adventures feature Howard’s fastest pace writing
-7. Sword Woman and other medieval Adventures, with Lord of Samarkand being the best story by far
-8. The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, with the best story being, Black Canaan
In the series above, fragments of stories and verse including these characters and themes, never before published or first published in the 1970s, are all placed in the order that the editor thinks they were written, so that you can follow Howard’s evolutionary character development as done through story.
There is another series by the University of Nebraska which collects many of the same works.
For instance, you will see that the Conan story Hawks over Shem, was a superficial adaptation by the chronological series editor of the medieval adventure story Hawks over Egypt, which de Camp used to pad out the Conan series.
Overall, if you liked the “career” version of Conan, you will really like the episodic version, told by Howard starting at the end of Conan’s life as a real adventurer would relate his exploits. As a man who has done numerous biographies, I can tell you that it is impossible to get men of action to relate their adventures and other experiences in strict chronological order. As Howard originally told the tales of his heroes, they stand out as more human and less archetypical.
-9. The paperback Tigers of the Sea about unpublished hero Cormac Mac Art
-10. The paperback Almuric, a planetary adventure so abrasively masculine that body builders who read it suffer immediate and irreversible testicular shrinkage
-11. Marchers of Valhalla, a paperback featuring tales of doom and suicide in various genres
-12. Black Vulmea’s Vengeance, featuring a 17th century version of Conan as a pirate, beginning with a rewrite of The Black Stranger, which the Lancer coauthors rewrote as the Treasure of Tranicus and Howard had rewritten as Swords of the Red Brotherhood. Black Vulmea is even less a gentleman than Conan!
Howard’s Conan is a character who is unlucky and ill-stared and plagued by his own poor decisions through every bit of his off stage career, typically beginning an adventure broke, or beaten or on the run, or duped, and never beginning the next with any of the goods he acquired in the last adventure—especially not any of the exceptional pussy he gets and then loses. Howard’s tales of Conan, where only those adventures in which Conan had success, often with the stage set by his off stage failures. This was the genius of Howard’s approach. By doubling the number of adventures and filling in all of the gaps in a modern style chronological “career” Conan is made unrealistically successful and what is worse, is rendered consistent, when the character was anything but.
Conan, was in fact, an anti-Modern archetype, a man who fights the Cosmic Horrors of Lovecraft’s devise in Xuthal of the Dusk and The Vale of Lost Women with blithe ignorance and blind bloodlust, and battles the machinations of Modernity in the guise of sorcerers such as The Red Priest, The Black Stranger, The People of the Back Circle and Xotha Lanti. Conan’s classical heroics are expressed in his foes of elder evil in the form of The Devil in Iron and the Black One and the risen necromancer of Acheron in The Hour of the Dragon and other elder races. So what Howard accomplished, was to craft a hero that would screw-up in every mundane way in which most modern men succeed, yet battle evil in the tradition of Odysseus and Beowulf, in the occasional unfathomable Cosmic form, and most typically battling against the shrouded forces of manipulation, politics, crime and deception embodied by the sorcerers who are fully half the villains he faces, and who represent the politicians, pollsters, lobbyists, jackals, secret agents, propagandists, stockbrokers and fanatics who wield such power over the modern reader.
To read a Conan story is to momentarily cheer the downfall of our rulers, which is why, in his first story, Conan is introduced as a barbarian usurper of a corrupt kingdom, a populist assailed by idealistic and opportunistic actors within and without. In Conan the Barbarian, the only man of his race ever to appear in his adventures, Robert E. Howard created a character which is the embodiment of the alienated, moral, masculine actionist trapped within the amoral and immoral snake pit of feminized civilization—Modernity.
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