Welcome back to my fanboy look at all of the original Robert E. Howard completed Conan stories. When last we left our Cimmerian hero, he was leading a new group of Kozaks against the Turanians and their often-mentioned but never-seen king, Yezdigerd. And as we continue through Conan’s campaigns as an adult, things are about to get even more dangerous… and exciting.
The People of the Black Circle
Bunda Chand, king of Vendhya (what is now India), orders his sister the Devi Yasmina to kill him and save him from the curse placed on him by the Black Seers of Yimsha. Yasmina wants vengeance for her brother, and intends to use Conan, now the new chief of the Afghulis who were raiding both Vendhya and Turan, as the instrument of her revenge. Conan, however, manages to kidnap the Devi, and not a moment too soon. They’re being pursued not just by the dark wizards from Mount Yimsha, but agents of King Yezdigerd (who ordered the death of Bunda Chand) and Khemsa, a rogue sorcerer who has his own aspirations of power.
This is the longest of the original stories that wasn’t novel-length, and it’s also one of the best and most universally beloved of Conan’s adventures. There’s a great sense of Arabian Nights-style adventure, and Yasmina and Conan’s bickering conversations make for a great dynamic as the two face foes on all sides. This is truly one of the best adventures in fantasy.
Shadows in Zamboula aka Man-eaters of Zamboula
It’s already going to be a bad night for Conan. First, he is nearly served up as a meal for the slaves that roam the city at night, all of whom are cannibals. Then, he meets a dancing girl named Zabibi who is trying to save her lover from the madness he’s under from a poison from the evil priest Totrasmek. She promises Conan a “reward” if he helps her face Totrasmek. Yes, it’s going to be a bad night.
I’ve gone on and on about how much I love so many of these stories. Sadly, I can’t give the same level of praise for this one. Besides the fact that the depictions of the cannibal slaves borders on outright racism (something Howard is amazingly good at avoiding despite the time he lived in), there’s just not a lot of spark in this one. Most of the characters are just stock rehashes of what we’re used to with Conan, and the only good part is a confrontation with a man as strong as Conan as they test their might against each other. Read it if you like, but you’re not missing out on much.
The Vale of Lost Women
Livia is a slave in the darkest depths of the Black Kingdoms (what is now Africa), her brother murdered, and herself kept to be the pleasure for the tribal chief. Conan, now a leader of the Bamula tribe, meets her and she attempts to get his help because they are both white. Conan initially balks at her offer, until she offers herself to him. Once Conan and his tribe murder her captors, she escapes to the Vale of Lost Women, where strange, enchanting females appear and prepare the girl for a horror from the stars… unless Conan can save her.
I hate this story. There, I said it. I can see how Howard attempted to do something new (the whole story is told from Livia’s point of view, and has a dream-like atmosphere), but Livia is the most racist (in-story) and annoying female to grace these stories. Then again, that may have been his intent. Still, this is the one story of Conan I say that if you skip it, you will not miss out on anything at all. God, I hate this story.
The Pool of the Black One
Zaporavo, a ruthless buccaneer from Zingara, and his crew pick up a waterlogged Conan while at sea. The Cimmerian had just ended a career as a pirate of the Barachan Isles, and Zaporavo grudgingly gives him a job. As Conan builds up a good reputation with the crew and Zaporavo’s female prisoner Sancha, the captain is determined to head further into the uncharted Western ocean to an island he believes has treasure. But while Conan has higher ambitions on the ship, the island they find is ruled by strange, sadistic supernatural creatures. And even Conan can’t win this alone.
Conan returns to the sea and piracy, taking more from the classic idea of piracy. And this is also a good story to show how Conan often was aiming for the highest position in any group once he enters it, as well as showing just how his past experiences have made him a leader of men. And the monsters of this tale, the Black Ones, are intriguing antagonists.
Beyond the Black River
The kingdom of Aquilonia has decided to expand their territory into the Pictish Wilderness. Unfortunately, the savage Picts are uniting under a leader, the shaman Zogar Sag. Conan, now serving as a scout on the frontier (despite helping repel such an incursion by the Aquilonians into his native Cimmeria as a teen), takes a group of men who know the forest, including the young soldier Balthus, to stop Zogar Sag. But can even Conan save the day, when the odds are stacked against him and his allies?
This is probably the most different Conan story Howard wrote. Instead of ancient cities and hot women, we have the Cimmerian in the woods, in what could seriously have been colonial America. And while there is magic, it’s not as important as just the fact that Conan is fighting against a foe that fights as he did for his own home. Throw in one of the most bittersweet endings we’ve seen for Conan since Queen of the Black Coast, and it’s easy to see why this is frequently on lists of must-read Conan stories.
The Black Stranger
On the Pictish coast, we find Count Valenso Korzetta of Zingara, living out his days with his court in exile, including his niece Belesa and her child-handmaiden Tina. Two pirates, Strombanni of the Barachan Isles, and Black Zarono of Zingara, have come seeking the lost pirate treasure of Tranicos. And then there’s Conan, who has spent more than enough time in the wilderness escaping the Picts. But as these forces seek the treasure, the question is: what is the Black Stranger that Count Valenso fears? And most distressingly, can anyone stop it?
Yet another Conan story where Conan feels incidental, this is yet another beloved tale by hardcore fans, due to how different it is. Seriously, take out the Conan references and it’s a frontier pirate story. Also, this has the most random image in all of the stories… Conan dressed like a typical pirate. I’m not kidding, hat, pants and jacket… I mean, wow. Not the image I think of when I picture Conan of Cimmeria.
In the jungles far south of Stygia, the legendary seafaring swordswoman Valeria has barely escaped after murdering a commanding officer who wanted to assault her sexually. Thankfully, Conan (who was serving in the same unit) took care of the avenging brother. And then the two barely survive a battle with a dragon when they make it to a strange massive city-sized building. Xuchotl is a city whose people have been in an age-old blood feud, and as their decaying civilization dies out, Conan and Valeria find themselves hired by the Tecuhltli tribe in their war against the Xotalanc. But when the Tecuhltli leader Olmec and his co-ruler Princess Tascela (who seems disturbingly interested in Valeria) rule over a tribe who drive red nails in a post to mark how many foes they’ve killed, can Conan and Valeria find a way out with their lives and sanity intact?
Red Nails was the final story Howard penned before his untimely death, although it is not last in its order. And it’s possibly the best short story he wrote. In this, we get the achievement of his goal to depict a dying civilization. And Valeria is the only woman to be Conan’s equal since Belit appeared. And most importantly, this is Conan at the height of his career, with a lifetime of experiences that help him during this adventure. This is one of the best, a writer putting everything of himself into his story. Read it as soon as you can.
Jewels of Gwahlur aka The Servants of Bit-Yakin
Conan, after playing a risky game of politics in Keshan to find the Teeth of Gwahlur (a set of jewels supposedly older than the world and more valuable than anything), discovers the location of the city hiding it, Alkmeenon. However, there’s something strange going on, and it’s not just the agents of his rival Thutmekri who seek the Jewels and control of Keshan. Nor is the beautiful slave girl Muriela. No, it’s the lingering thoughts of the mummified corpse named Bit-Yakin, and the mention of his servants… servants who may still be in the city.
I don’t understand why people don’t like this story as much as I do. I mean, it’s Conan as Indiana Jones as he explores an ancient city searching for a treasure and deal with the dangers there. I don’t understand it. It’s such a fun adventure. And its climax shows that despite the constant attempts at gaining position and power, Conan is a good man. Check it out when you can.
The Phoenix on the Sword
It’s been one year since the now 40-year old Conan killed the mad King Numedides and became the new ruler of Aquilonia, the most powerful kingdom in Hyboria. Since then, he’s taken the responsibility seriously, and done his best to provide for the people and keep the nobles in line. However, a group of plotters led by the exiled Count Ascalante have set their plan in motion. Its goal: the death of King Conan. And Ascalante’s slave, the legendary Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon, wants the death of his master, and with the return of his black ring, he summons a demon to kill him and all with him, including the King. Conan is in for the fight of his life in the first of many attempts to end his reign as Aquilonia’s ruler.
This was actually the first story to feature Conan. Yes, our first look at the hero of these stories is when he is already in his forties and a king. And it is awesome. This story, with the exception of the set-up of the plot, establishing scene of Conan as a responsible and intelligent king, and Thoth-Amon’s plot, it’s just wall-to-wall action. This was a sign of good things to come, and always there was the lingering sense that one day Conan will be king.
The Scarlet Citadel
King Conan has been captured. Tricked into a battle with the kingdoms Koth and Ophir, the Cimmerian finds himself imprisoned in the titular Scarlet Citadel of the evil wizard Tsotha-Lanti, the true power behind this conspiracy. With Conan gone, Aquilonia is threatened with both a civil war in its borders for control of the throne, and an invasion by Koth and Ophir. But Conan is still alive. And a living Conan, with a lifetime of experience, is possibly the most dangerous thing to imprison.
When we get a King Conan story, what we have is not the inexperienced thief, nor the battle-hardened soldier, nor the great adventurer. We have Conan at the top of his game, despite his age. And often, his adventures as a King involve battles for his kingdom and to keep his throne. The Scarlet Citadel is one of the most harrowing tales Conan goes through, due to the supernatural monstrosities waiting in the depths of the tower. And trust me, it’s one hell of an adventure from opening to closing.
The Hour of the Dragon aka Conan the Conqueror
Another plot to depose Conan from his throne is set in motion. This time, the new plotters use the ancient artifact known as the Heart of Ahriman to resurrect Xaltotun of Python, the most dangerous and evil wizard who ever lived. Xaltotun, after helping depose Conan and take his kingdom, has plans of his own: to sacrifice the world in a bloody ritual to bring back his fallen empire of Acheron. And the only hope is to find the now-lost Heart of Ahriman. To find it, Conan will have to travel all over the Hyborian world, not just to reclaim his kingdom, but to save the world.
This was the only novel Howard wrote. And it is awesome. This is basically a story with everything you ever needed to know about Conan. We get him escaping dungeons and breaking into jails to rescue friends. We have him traveling through war zones and facing fiendish ghouls. We have him return to sea and his old pirate friends, and traveling all the way to Stygia to face the horrors there. And with Xaltotun, we have a genuine threat that Conan can’t solve simply with a sword. This is the greatest hits of Conan. And yet, there’s also the maturity that Conan shows. Many times, he’s tempted to do as he had done in the past, just let go of what he lost and seek something new. This time, he knows that he owes it to his subjects, and the world, to fight on.
And that is all of the completed Conan stories by Howard. Seven decades later, and Conan is still one of the greatest fantasy heroes. I think he endures because he’s the dream we all wish we could be. He’s brutally honest and fiercely loyal without becoming a naive fool, never back downs from a fight, and never thinks that he can’t achieve something. His is a story of a barbarian who travels the world, learned its secrets and pleasures, and rose to the highest pinnacles that a man could rise. And through it all, he adhered to the simple truth: life is meant to be enjoyed at every moment, and you can’t half-ass it. So never give up. There’s a Cimmerian inside you who will be angry if you don’t give it your all everyday.