It occurred to me as I was about to start this post with “I am a big fan of Robert E. Howard‘s Conan the Barbarian stories and…” that I start a lot of posts that way. This seems especially true when it has to do with authors of book series: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King… maybe I am a sucker for epic tales and the continuing adventures of recurring characters. However, when I say I’m a “big fan of” something, I always mean it.
I read the Conan books way back in junior high, and enjoyed then thoroughly. They were fun to read, made up of short stories that were easy to consume in a reasonable amount of time, and there was something about the character of Conan that was magnetic. Sure, some of the stories were much better than others and a few of them seemed oddly out of place, but through them all the Conan character acted as the glue that held the whole together. He was elemental, living by a crude code of honor and carving an empire with his heavy broadsword. Fun stuff. I still take them out and read them every once and awhile. I’ve got some dog-eared copies of the Ace paperbacks with the Frazetta or Boris covers.
It wasn’t until later that I learned the Conan stories I was reading were not all Howard’s work. In fact, most of the stories were heavily edited, some were Howard stories that he wrote for other characters but were rewritten by others as Conan tales, some were stories written by others based on scattered notes found in Howard’s papers after his death and some were pastiches written entirely by someone else. The “someone else” were two gentleman named L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. They were two American science fiction and fantasy authors who’s original work, such as they had, never attained a great deal of popularity nor was much known outside the circles of enthusiasts. They corresponded with Howard about his stories, particularly Conan, and helped put together a chronology of the character as Howard’s short stories were not written nor published in any chronological sequence. After Howard’s death (he committed suicide in 1936) they collected his works and with much editing, rewriting and pastiche writing, published them as the 12 volume Conan books most readers today are familiar with.
Now, I have a soft spot in my heart for those books, and I do not fault de Camp or Carter for their efforts. However even as a kid I could tell some of those stories were awful compared to others, and some seemed like stories belonging to other eras like the American old west that were weirdly out of place. That all made sense when I read some of the series’ prologues and discovered the de Camp/Carter intrusions. For decades, outside of finding and buying expensive back issues of very old pulp magazines, the original and unedited Howard tales were unavailable to the general public.
I am happy to say that is no longer the case. Del-Ray has finally published (well, they’ve been in print for 7 years but I just discovered them) a three volume set of the original and unedited Howard Conan tales: The Coming of Conan the Barbarian, The Bloody Crown of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan. Actually these stories are not even the edited versions that originally appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales during the Depression Era, but the unaltered Howard originals as he would have published them himself (you can get the stories edited as originally published in Weird Tales in the single volume The Complete Chronicles of Conan). Comparing the raw and untampered Howard originals with the homogenized de Camp/Carter versions is like comparing a Corvette to a go-cart. Howard’s stories are supercharged with energy and life, ferocious in their storytelling and the de Camp/Carter ones are…. not.
So, here’s a chance for all you Conan fans out there to read the Cimmerian’s adventures as Howard really envisioned them, in the order in which they were written and published. If you haven’t read any Conan stories, or are only familiar with the 12 volume series (and perhaps weren’t that impressed by them), give these a try. Fantasy has rarely been a better read.
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