Saturday, September 01, 2007
In the world of Robert E. Howard scholarship there are certain Conan stories which are considered classics. These would include such stories as Rogues in the House, The Tower of the Elephant, Queen of the Black Coast, and the two stories generally touted as the 'best' Conan tales, Beyond the Black River and People of the Black Circle. (Howard had a thing for the word Black, it seems.)
Then there are the duds. The stories that aficionados of Conan believe were written merely for a paycheck and not through one of those bouts of feverish inspiration that make the aforementioned Conan stories so readable. These would include The Slithering Shadow, Jewels of Gwahlur, Shadows in Zamboula, and that "Spock's Brain' of Conan stories, The Vale of Lost Women. These then, are considered lesser Conan.
I don't necessarily agree in all four cases. Some would say this is because I am so obsessed with the character that my judgment is biased and sooner or later I will catch up with these people and render Crom's judgment on them. Er... I mean, I'm perfectly capable of identifying bad work, even by authors I really like. There are a couple of novels by John D. MacDonald, who is like a god to me, that I absolutely cannot stand. Same goes for Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker. They have all written phoned in work and so did Robert E. Howard.
For instance, I will wholeheartedly agree that The Vale of Lost Women is a bad story. Really, really bad. In this one, a pampered noblewoman is captured by jungle savages who plan to sacrifice her in messy fashion. Conan shows up and she offers herself to him if only he will save her. Conan, who is ever lustful, agrees. She escapes on a stolen horse as Conan hacks his way through the jungle savages. In like the third from the last page of the story, the naked girl rides into the titular Vale and is set upon by a gibbering, slavering Lovecraftian horror. Conan shows up and dispatches said horror in a paragraph. Now not only is this yarn poorly plotted, it's poorly written, containing some of the clunkiest prose Howard ever produced. Howard couldn't sell this one, and it was only printed many years after his death, when Conan-mania was rampant and someone could have sold a book of Howard's grocery lists. Probably would have been better if it had never seen the light of day.
I'd also agree that Jewels of Gwalhur is pretty bad. I just re-read it yesterday and found it to be rambling and disjointed in construction. It's not badly written, however, and contains some nice action scenes. Still, I can see why most Conan fans don't much care for it. (And Cliff, Conan does NOT wear bike shorts anywhere in this story.)
However, I don't see much wrong with the other two stories. Shadows in Zamboula is well plotted, moves very quickly, and has some imaginative sequences to it. The Slithering Shadow, which reads like a warm-up for the later Conan tale, Red Nails, is certainly a nice little horror tale with some deft touches and even some dark humor. Maybe hard-core Conan fans don't like to see their mighty hero cracking wise but I rather liked it. This one was also beautifully adapted in Savage Sword of Conan by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and Alfredo Alcala. (See illo)
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the 'lesser' tales of Conan.