Retro Review: Conan The Barbarian by Robert E. Howard

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I was perusing Half Price Books about a week ago and saw a stack  of a 2010  edition of Conan The Barbarian by Seven Oaks Press, taking a collection of Robert E. Howard’s classics.This is not the complete works volume which I’ve seen since researching — and if you’re looking for more complete, I suggest getting that one. I wish I had more Conan adventures to read at this point so that might be more worth  your while. Many Conan stories are also available on the free archives site that is online.

However, this collection does have excellent stories, and at Half Price, it was good value.

I’d never been much of a Conan fan. I’ve seen portions of the cheesy movie from the 80s, but that didn’t inspire me to want to pursue it further .It took a long while of the Pulp Revolution talking up how great Robert E. Howard was as a writer for me to check it out.

And I’m glad I did. I was gripped  through these adventures like none other. Now none of them really tie together. Conan could be a pirate, a city guard, an explorer, a treasure hunter, any smattering of jobs or backgrounds. He’s always mentioned as Cimmerian and a barbarian, however. Different women are in distress, and he’s interested in whatever one happens t o be in front of him.  The sense of continuity is loose at best. A couple of stories mention he’s had all of these different jobs, and some regions of the world or peoples are referenced from time to time, but it’s best to view each of them as more stand  alone than as a progression.

Howard does create a great sense of dread and a sense of fun in each of these. Conan is fairly light hearted, but he’s a serious warrior. He goes about his tasks with unwavering purpose. He fights worth a dozen or more men every time. Parts of it are almost horror-like, with looming creepy things in the background that can end up ordinary apes or men for Conan to fight, or something supernatural. it all blends together to create a feel and impression that helps keep tension rather than often being explicit about whether a wizard actually has powers or not — the lack of explaining is something we wouldn’t see in modern fiction, where we are obsessed with defining things for “realism” effect. In fact, I think the way Howard does it is better for storytelling as it keeps the reader guessing  what is real, what isn’t. When coming to wizards  and illusions, that serves the story well.

This book opened with an essay by Howard – The Hyborian Age, which  sets  a lot of the background of the world/myth. While it’s the slowest and least interesting part of the book, it is worth a read  just to familiarize yourself with some terms for later stories. It should be viewed more as an appendix than a story itself.

My favorite stories were probably “Shadows In The Moonlight” – it being the first in the volume, it hooked me on Conan. It may be one of the weaker ones if I went and read it again, but the feel there was perfect. “Queen Of the Black Coast” was also great, showing Conan’s love  for a pirate queen. “A Witch Shall Be Born” I thought  was a very solid one dealing with magic, and finally “Red Nails” is probably my favorite of all of them. Valeria is a great character and I wish she would have continued through other stories.

Some are stronger than others, but I can’t say one in the volume was particularly bad, just not as exciting as the ones I listed. It’s got 10 tales in all including the Hyborian Age, and serves as a great introduction to Conan. This isn’t even half of the stories or fragments out there though, so there’s a lot more reading to do.


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