Review: Conan – Robert E. Howard (Ed. L. Sprague De Camp)(1976)

Robert E Howard wrote gripping, suspenseful short stories, bringing the character of Conan and the primitive, physical and eerie world he inhabits to life. This collection of short stories suffers somewhat from the contributions of L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter, but remains an enjoyable introduction to Conan and the Hyborian Age.

Frazetta’s cover art.

I read the 1976 Sphere edition of Conan, a reprint of the Lancer/Ace collection of short stories, that first introduced the UK to the character of Conan.

I picked it up on a whim during a visit to UBU Books in Brighton – a wonderful second-hand bookshop in the Open Market here. Having read and enjoyed the first three of John Norman’s Gor series recently I’m receptive to some sword and sorcery fantasy – especially if it comes without the sense of an imminent degeneration into rather nasty pornography that I got from Norman.

Barring the final story, The City of Skulls, I enjoyed this book.  However, when I started, I had no idea of the heavy handed and controversial editing and rewriting work that L Sprague De Camp had done on Howard’s work for these editions of the Conan stories – or even that De Camp/Lin Carter pastiches were included amongst the Howard stories here.

Having noticed their contributions, I read up on it whilst I read the book, and have to say that the critics of Carter and De Camp have a point. Their contributions are noticeably flat footed and pallid when set against Howard’s work.

In particular, the last story, which they co-wrote, I found unpleasant, introducing a race obsession and body fascism I had not noticed in any of Howard’s stories.  Howard’s stories are physical, and there are plenty of descriptions of physiques.  Conan is also always a noticeably, hulkingly large and strong presence, but that s never the point of the story, as it seems to be in The City of Skulls, and there is not the same sense of others as inadequate or inferior by comparison to Conan in Howard’s work.

Contrast to this last story really brings out what is so good in Howard’s stories. In his hands Conan is an interesting character set within dramatic and often puzzling or weird situations. The Tower of the Elephant in this collection is a great example, with the core of the story not Conan’s prowess, but the twist in the tale and its underlying weirdness – a weirdness that really works, putting the reader off balance but in a way that seems to make sense within, and brings out the character of the world Conan inhabits. With Carter and De Camp, Conan becomes something of a superman, moving through a series of action set-pieces to demonstrate it.

On the strength of this evidence, I would probably recommend buying editions of Conan without Carter and De Camp’s work.  Nevertheless, I’m heading back to UBU Books to see if they still have the next in the Sphere series – Conan of Cimmeria – for a few reasons. First, and main, Howard writes great, gripping short stories.  I did see one review suggesting reading only one a day though, as they are all rather alike in tone – the addition of the pastiches in these editions helps give another layer, interesting as it sets off the strengths of the Howard stories.   They are also how Conan was introduced to this country, forming the Conan canon. 

Finally the books are nice artefacts in themselves – I’m a sucker for 60s and 70s sci-fi or fantasy paperbacks; they just have a great aesthetic, heightened by their age as objects – and the Frank Frazetta covers of this series are superb.

Robert E Howard wrote gripping, suspenseful short stories, bringing the character of Conan and the primitive, physical and eerie world he inhabits to life.  This collection of short stories suffers somewhat from the contributions of L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter, but remains an enjoyable introduction to Conan and the Hyborian Age.