Robert E Howard - Conan and Friends!

Extollager

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From what I can recall, the lost/ancient cities motif pops up in the following stories:

The Devil in Iron
The Slithering Shadow
The Jewels of Gwalhur
Red Nails
Shadows in the Moonlight (more a ruined temple than a city)
Black Colossus
A Witch Shall be Born (not sure on this one, it's been a while since I read it)
Pool of the Black One
Queen of the Black Coast

So yes, it was quite a commonly recurring element in the tales.

If your list is correct, that's nine stories out of 21, or 43% of Howard's Conan stories.

One could also crunch the numbers on how often Conan fights with an apelike creature or gets involved with a princess, or how often Howard indulged in scenes of woman-to-woman physical cruelty.

My memory is that the Kull stories are marked by none of these repetitions. I think we readers have less to "forgive" with them than with the Conan stories.
 

Extollager

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We who comment at Chrons are often people who discovered a given author when we were youngsters, and when we reread, there's the pleasure of fond associations, especially if we have hung on to the same copies we owned so many years ago. The danger here is that rereading becomes a somewhat unwholesome wallow in nostalgia (and also a deliberate self-blinding to objectionable writing); at any rate, when indulging in nostalgia, we might not really be reading the story that is in front of us. Isn't that bad reading? One simple way to counter this might be to reread a favorite from youngsterdom in a different book or, if available, as an online text. I'm not saying that any form of nostalgia is illicit, but let's distinguish such sensations from those rightly attributable to a story itself.

"Red Nails" was never one of my favorite Howard stories, but I'm not sure I had read it since sometime in the 1970s, and J. D. mentioned it here, the other day, so I decided to revisit it. I read Project Gutenberg text, which I believe is taken from Weird Tales.

Reading it today for perhaps the third time, I was struck by the pictorial quality of Howard's prose in the first few paragraphs, and here and there later on.

The story seems to have three plot elements, and they aren't very integrally related.

a.The dragon-dinosaur in the jungle accounts for a good fifth of the story's length. Its attack and its demise are told with some attention to detail. I was reminded of Rider Haggard's way of including a lion-hunt scene early in an Allan Quatermain story before we settle down to the business of a lost civilization. Howard eventually suggests that the dwellers in the lost city believe (most of them) that the jungle is full of these creatures, from which there would be no escape if they ventured out, but given their mad murderousness towards one another, the device of the "myth" of a jungle full of dragons doesn't seem necessary, or at least doesn't seem fully adequately accounted for. The dragon gives Conan an adventure to start the story off with a bang and allows Howard time to develop the relationship between Conan and Valeria.

b.The story of the Hatfields and McCoys -- excuse me, Xotalancas and Tecuhltli -- is the major plot element. Some of the exposition regarding how they came to be there, how they wage their war, etc. is clumsy. Incidentally I wonder if anyone has explored the possibility that Howard was influenced by the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons. The feud accounts for much of the bloodletting in this extremely violent story. Howard simply has it that the two (formerly three) factions are all mad. They have stopped reproducing themselves and simply engage in raids. They seem, then, puppet-like, and the reader must conclude it is the author pulling the strings. Since Howard doesn't provide much of a justification, in terms of the fiction, for the endless feuding, and since we hardly care about any of the characters except Conan and Valeria, we readers are left to derive what interest we can simply from the descriptions of the violence for its own sake.

c.There's also the plot about how Tascela has kept herself beautiful for so many centuries through the sacrifice of other women. This element just seems plopped in to the story to add to the weirdness. Howard hasn't imagined it in any depth; it seems to be there primarily, first, to give him an excuse for describing one beautiful woman staringat another, which he seems to find intriguing in its own right, and, second, to provide a climactic scene with Conan coming to the rescue. So Howard has the idea of an "immortal" witch-queen but hardly uses it. This seems eminently and culpably pulpish to me: often pulp fiction contains elements of fantastic romance that a gifted writer could really make something of (e.g. Haggard in She), but in the hands of the pulp writer they are not well developed. There's little of the truly impressive in the rendering of the unpleasant Tascela.

One wonders if Howard couldn't have got a lot more bang out of his materials, if he was determined to use all of them, if he'd suggested, for example, that the madness of the two factions was due in part to the strain of living, year after year, with this horrible, age-defying, beautiful presence in their mortal midst. Maybe even some connection between Tascela, who is so ancient she can't remember her origin [I think -- I couldn't find the passage on a quick check], and the ancient dragon-dinosaur, could have been developed.


I was struck by how pulpish some of Howard's writing was, including terribly stagy dialogue ("'Tolkemec! ... You have dwelt for twelve years in darkness! Twelve years among the bones of the dead! What grisly food did you find? What mad travesty of life did you live, in the stark blackness of that eternal night?'") and blatant verbal clichés. "Conan saw red." The dragon "snapping off saplings as if they had been toothpicks."

Writing such as this isn't conducive to the dignity of the best fantasy -- it is writing that the reader needs not to pay close attention to: "'What are you waiting down there for, you misbegotten offspring of questionable parents?' was one of his more printable queries." "...the monster was wallowing like a dog with pepper in its eyes." Conan's use of "Sure!" where something like "Aye!" would've been more admissible.

In my remarks, then, I have tried to say something not just about "bad writing," but about bad reading. A story must be criticized if it solicits bad reading, that is, solicits inattention to the words as well as the ideas and images, etc. I don't say that the writing in "Red Nails" is bad all the way through, but that there is quite a bit of bad writing in it.
 

j d worthington

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"Red Nails" is one of those odd stories which is, as you rightly say, full of flaws, but which also has some peculiar strengths, some of which are connected to your comments, and are things which are scarcely noticed most of the time. There is a similarity here between this story and "The Jewels of Gwahlur", a decidedly secondary tale both of the redoubtable Cimmerian (how's that for a cliche?:p) and "Red Nails", in that Howard varies in both these stories between an eerie atmosphere and setting and some deliberately tongue-in-cheek approaches to it all... including Conan himself. I am always reminded of the line in "Gwahlur" where Muriela attempted to "go into the usual clinch" when Conan shows up to rescue her. Their situation is certainly dire, yet even the barbarian has grown a bit irritated by such behavior, it would seem. The bit of insult Conan throws at the poor dragon is another such instance of Howard deliberately going over-the-top in much the same way he did in his regional humor tales about Breck Elkins, "Jeopardy" Grimes, etc., or some of his fight tales about Sailor Steve Costigan and the like. One sees more of this, for instance, when Conan comes across Olmec in that peculiarly nasty yet unavoidably (and, I would argue, again deliberately) comical torture device. It is a rough, earthy sort of humor one doesn't often see with Howard's "straight" heroes, but which does, inevitably, crop up from time to time; very much the sort of frontier humor Howard himself found so amusing. It is broad, and shifts things distinctly toward the "tall tale" rather than straightforward fantasy... but I find it sometimes rather refreshing as a result (at least when he doesn't overdo it).

As for the "dragon", or dinosaurian creature at the beginning... the focus there really isn't about that apparently final member of a long-dead-but-sorcersouly-revived species, but about the interaction between the stubbornly amourously inclined Cimmerian and the equally stubborn and decidedly uninterested piratical companion Valeria; and, again, the entire sequence is handled with a great deal of comic intent. This actually, I think, contrasts rather well with the eeriness of the next setting, when they are introduced to the haunted city of Xuchotl.

Incidentally, I would argue that the idea that the inhabitants are all mad is less a bit of editorializing on Howard's part and more an example of Conan's own reaction to the obviously neurotic and decaying culture he encounters there. I would also argue that the dragon being used as a way to keep the inhabitants (or at least the lower class... the elite seem to know that the one Conan and Valeria meet up with was the last of its kind, if memory serves) works because it is precisely the sort of cynical playing on superstitious fears that such people would tend to invent, and then to continue to carry on long after it was no longer necessary... another sign of their decadence and approaching dissolution.

Tascela is, to me, a not entirely successful creation, but an intriguing one. She seems to have deliberately begun the feud, and to have kept it going; apparently out of a wish for some particularly repugnant amusement, much like torturing lab rats to see which ones will eat the others. Howard always tended to make his sorcerous women among the most cynical of the lot (a very odd thing, considering his comments on Cabell's Something About Eve), and Tascela is right up there with Salome or the semi-human witch in "Worms of the Earth" when it comes to this character trait. (Oddly, I don't find her reaction to Tolkemec that pulpish in itself; to me it has always hinted both of a certain reluctant fear she feels toward him, coupled with a strong curiosity and desire to know the secrets he has beheld... whether to relieve her continuing ennui, or to further her sorcerous powers, I am not certain if even she could say.)

However, I will agree that there are frequent patches of bad writing in this tale, not to mention various conceptual flaws; but I think much of this is redeemed by that pictorial element you mention (which is really quite impressive; the descriptions of the city in the early portions of the narrative would almost make it worth reading just for that element alone, they are -- to me, at least -- so poetically and imaginatively impressive), as well as the unusual elements of humor in an otherwise starkly grim and even brutal tale; and for that contrast between the two as well.

By the way... I have read this story in numerous editions over the years: the comic book adaptation by Barry Windsor-Smith (which is how I first read it... well worth looking up, if you've not seen it); the Lancer Conan set (the first purely prose edition I read); the Berkley restored version; the Donald M. Grant edition; and the more recent Del Rey tpb The Conquering Sword of Conan. It is still far from my favorite story personally, but nonetheless I rank it rather high in the canon for various reasons, some of which I've addressed above.
 

Extollager

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"Red Nails" is one of those odd stories which is, as you rightly say, full of flaws, but which also has some peculiar strengths, some of which are connected to your comments, and are things which are scarcely noticed most of the time. .....very much the sort of frontier humor Howard himself found so amusing...

Valeria's remark to Conan, about the degree and nature of his interest in her, that a stallion couldn't have made it plainer....
 

Extollager

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Incidentally, I would argue that the idea that the inhabitants are all mad is less a bit of editorializing on Howard's part and more an example of Conan's own reaction to the obviously neurotic and decaying culture he encounters there. I would also argue that the dragon being used as a way to keep the inhabitants (or at least the lower class... the elite seem to know that the one Conan and Valeria meet up with was the last of its kind, if memory serves) works because it is precisely the sort of cynical playing on superstitious fears that such people would tend to invent, and then to continue to carry on long after it was no longer necessary... another sign of their decadence and approaching dissolution.

I understand, but Howard doesn't say this. It is as if he misses opportunities to strengthen his story's coherence here (and elsewhere) -- the sort of thing I have in mind when I refer to slipshod writing.
 

Extollager

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Oddly, I don't find [Tascela's] reaction to Tolkemec that pulpish in itself; to me it has always hinted both of a certain reluctant fear she feels toward him, coupled with a strong curiosity and desire to know the secrets he has beheld... whether to relieve her continuing ennui, or to further her sorcerous powers, I am not certain if even she could say.

JD, I might not have made my point clearly. I understand Tascela's thoughts and feelings in regard to this ghastly apparition -- the fear, curiosity etc. that you mention. My objection was to the quality of the dialog that expresses them. It's not that I want Howard to write in a completely "naturalistic" manner here -- and of course that begs a question about what "naturalistic" would be for this witch living thousands of years ago! It's just that the dialog isn't very good, and this undercuts the effectiveness of what was meant to be a key moment of weird excitement.
 

Extollager

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....that pictorial element you mention ...which is really quite impressive; the descriptions of the city in the early portions of the narrative would almost make it worth reading just for that element alone, they are -- to me, at least -- so poetically and imaginatively impressive....

Yes, these descriptions were well done. The conception of the magnificent huge almost Gormenghastly city (but I imagine it as in better repair than Gormenghast) with the two factions and the no-man's-land between them is indeed impressive. To my mind Howard doesn't make terribly good use of it. Really, could nothing have been done with the idea of the nursery where the fruit is grown that sustains these people? Is it possible that the same food that keeps them alive contributes to the madness (or "madness") that keeps them all there? Would it have been worth Howard's while to send Conan into the chambers below -- perhaps looking for Valeria? I'm not saying Howard should have written the story "my way." But there is this sense that he misses opportunities for perhaps some memorable fantasy writing here, on the one hand, and, on the other that what he does write is marred by slipshod habits.
 

nomadman

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If your list is correct, that's nine stories out of 21, or 43% of Howard's Conan stories.

One could also crunch the numbers on how often Conan fights with an apelike creature or gets involved with a princess, or how often Howard indulged in scenes of woman-to-woman physical cruelty.

My memory is that the Kull stories are marked by none of these repetitions. I think we readers have less to "forgive" with them than with the Conan stories.

I won't deny that the Conan stories can often be repetitious and 'pulpy' (in the derogatory sense) but then they were also to some degree commercial works which the earlier Kull pieces, particularly the vignettes, weren't. This isn't necessarily to excuse their failings, but I think it's an unfair comparison to make. Howard was still finding his feet as a writer when he penned the Kull tales and was thus prone to being more experimental, whilst by the time he wrote Conan he was already an established and experienced writer with a solid fanbase and a deep understanding of the pulp market. For a professional writer in Depression-era America the ability to consistently sell work was, I'd imagine, more important than avoiding occasional charges of repetitiveness (which Howard didn't, as Robert Bloch's letter to Weird Tales shows us: see "Conan the Cluck") and I think it's to Howard's credit that so much of his later work is still so distinctive and imbued with his own personal stamp as an artist when it could so easily have been otherwise.
 

nomadman

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I think Red Nails is one of the best Conan stories from a technical point of view and certainly one of the tightest written and most cohesive. There are very little of the random throwaway encounters that marked a lot of his other works; every element ties in to the story as a whole and the conflicts that arise stem from entirely natural tensions within the environment in which it's set.

Its main weaknesses for me lie in its beginning and end, but they're also not problems untypical to many of his other Conan stories. Firstly there is the introduction of Conan himself, who just sort of pops out of nowhere in the middle of this vast forest to get the ball rolling. Sure, there's a backstory of sorts explaining why he's there in the first place, but I still feel it's a bit of a cheap way to introduce the character.

Then there's the ending, which I've always felt was far too abrupt. Again, this isn't unique to this piece: Howard had a habit of slowly building up a background menace, generally a wizard or some supernatural creature, only to then kill them off as quickly as possible once they finally make an appearance. In some cases they don't even get the opportunity to put up so much as a perfunctory fight (see the demon in A Witch Shall be Born for instance). Tolkemec at least gets a bit of destructive airtime before meeting his doom, but I still feel that he is rather too easily dispatched given the manner in which he's developed throughout the tale.

And then there's the final dialogue exchange which with its flippancy and bravado just ends the story on too upbeat a note for my liking, especially given the dark tone of the rest of the piece.

The humor I confess I never really picked up on, though I can see where it might be intended. I'm not sure I'd agree that the torture scene was meant to be funny however.
 

J Harker

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So i've picked up a few del reys to start expanding my collection. Nice books with almost everything could be wanted on a particular genre/character. I've managed to get hold of the Historical Adventures and Bran Mak Morn. The thing i'm not sure about with these editions though is they remind me a lot of school textbooks. Is it just me?
 

nomadman

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So i've picked up a few del reys to start expanding my collection. Nice books with almost everything could be wanted on a particular genre/character. I've managed to get hold of the Historical Adventures and Bran Mak Morn. The thing i'm not sure about with these editions though is they remind me a lot of school textbooks. Is it just me?

The only textbooks I can imagine they might remind one of are the old Cambridge Latin books, though those were smaller and the illustrations weren't quite so graphic.

By the way, and this is a question open to anyone, I'm looking to get hold of a collection of Howard's historical fiction and was wondering which would be the best. Is El Borak the most worthwhile purchase?
 

j d worthington

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The only textbooks I can imagine they might remind one of are the old Cambridge Latin books, though those were smaller and the illustrations weren't quite so graphic.

By the way, and this is a question open to anyone, I'm looking to get hold of a collection of Howard's historical fiction and was wondering which would be the best. Is El Borak the most worthwhile purchase?

I haven't kept up with Howardian releases of late, so I may have missed this one, but... is there a collection of all the El Borak stories? If so, could you provide some information on it?

Other than that, I think I might suggest the Lord of Samarcand collection from the University of Illinois' Bison Books, which is a fairly good selection of his historical/Oriental writings. This is assuming that you aren't talking about his Westerns, some of which are also are of an historical (albeit much more recent) nature; in the latter case, I think I'd suggest The End of the Trail, again from Bison Books. This does not, of course, address his more humorous Western tales, of which there are several collections....
 

j d worthington

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Well, there's this Del Ray publication: "El Borak and Other Desert Adventures" for which the contents can be viewed here:

http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?305480

Ah... many thanks. No, I wasn't aware of that one, and it is one I most certainly want to get....

Looking at the table of contents, I'd say that yes, this would be a very good investment. One thing, though... the El Borak and Kirby O'Donnell stories aren't really "historical"; they are set pretty much in Howard's own time or very shortly before....
 

J Harker

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I'm currently reading the Del Rey release - Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures. Not sure how complete it is but it's got 18 full stories and a bunch of fragments and poems. Opens with Spears of Clontarf which i enjoyed a lot and now i'm on to Hawks Over Egypt. Planning to get the El Borak collection next.
 

Connavar

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El Borak collection is one of the best ones i own by Howard. It is practicly historical fiction since its set in 1910-1920s before Howard. It is better adventure than most of his crusade,other historical fiction. Lord of Samarkand and other adventures, Dark Agnes is other good historical collections.

His historical is like his westerns, written only few years before his death and him at his best,mature prose.
 

Jacob Larch

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Which Conan stories do folks think come closest to transcending the limitations of mere pulp entertainment?

It's going back to my teenage years to remember this, but if I've got the title correct, I think "the flame knife" (originally posted as an El Borak story "three bladed doom") got my vote as an example of that!
 

j d worthington

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Which Conan stories do folks think come closest to transcending the limitations of mere pulp entertainment?

It's going back to my teenage years to remember this, but if I've got the title correct, I think "the flame knife" (originally posted as an El Borak story "three bladed doom") got my vote as an example of that!

That one, however, was rewritten as a Conan story by L. Sprague de Camp; it was not really Howard (though it contained a fair amount of Howard's writing, albeit edited, often changed, and otherwise adulterated).

I must admit that this is one I never found particularly well done, in either version (which may be why no editor ever picked it up during Howard's lifetime), and (no disrespect intended) I'd describe it as pure pulp, of at best the middle stature. That being my own reaction, I'd be interested to know what you found in this story which made it transcend that categorization?
 

BAYLOR

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Bjorn Nyberg story Conan of Aquilonia which was included in the 12 volume set of books was a too me a pretty good story int own right.
 

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