Monday, September 03, 2007

The Strange Tale of The Black Stranger


Re-read the Conan story The Black Stranger this weekend for the first time in maybe twenty years. Fond as I am of Conan, I'd avoided that one because it's a very atypical story and doesn't contain most of the things I read Conan for. Check out this description:

"The stranger was as tall as either of the freebooters, and more powerfully built than either, yet for all his size, he moved with pantherish suppleness in his high, flaring topped boots. His thighs were cased in close-fitting breaches of white silk, his wide skirted sky-blue coat open to reveal an open necked white silken shirt beneath, and the scarlet sash that girdled his waist. A lacquered hat completed the costume. A heavy cutlass hung at the wearer's hip."

Long John Silver? Johnny Depp? Nope. That's Conan. Yes, Conan, in full Spanish Main pirate regalia. Now Robert E. Howard always played kind of fast and loose with the technological level of his imaginary Hyborian Age. Usually it fell somewhere between bronze age and early Medieval. But somehow, in this one story, it suddenly jumped to the level of the 17th or 18th century. It's a bit jarring, as if Julius Caesar suddenly showed up in Treasure Island.
The story is also strange in that Conan only appears in about a third of it. The rest of the story is concerned with Count Valenso, a nobleman seeking to escape some horrible supernatural fate, his niece Belesa, and her ward, a child named Tina. Throw in a couple of pirate captains and a horde of savage Picts to add danger and intrigue. Thing is, on re-reading the tale, I found that it's actually a very good story and probably contains some of Robert E. Howard's best prose. He handles the secondary characters with a level of polish and maturity that isn't discernible in much of his earlier work. Keeping Conan on the fringes of the story until the last third allows him to seem very mysterious and dangerous when he finally does appear. And the last few scenes of the story contain some incredibly suspenseful action sequences as the plans of the pirates fall apart, the Picts overrun the manor house, and the titular Black Stranger shows up to wreak his revenge.
Now here's where it gets even more weird. Howard failed to sell this story to Weird Tales. So he re-wrote it as a standard pirate yarn featuring a protagonist named Black Vulmea instead of Conan. That one didn't sell either so both versions went into Howard's stack of unsold manuscripts. Later, when all this stuff was unearthed, many people thought that Black Stranger, because of its differences from the other Conan tales, was actually a rewrite of Swords of the Red Brotherhood. I can see why. The story really does read as if Howard re-wrote a historical pirate adventure and grafted Conan into it. But, the late Karl Edward Wagner, who first published The Black Stranger in unaltered form (more about that in a moment.) says"

"There has been some confusion as to which is the original version. I have a photocopy of Howard's original manuscript of The Black Stranger, which clearly shows Howard's efforts to change the story from the Conan to the Black Vulmea version."

I mentioned above that Wagner was the first to publish The Black Stranger in unaltered from because L.Sprague Decamp did a rewrite of the original story which was published as The Treasure of Tranicos. Decamp made a lot of changes in the story so that it would better fit into the chronology he had established for the Conan stories. There are several different versions of Tranicos as well, as it was slightly rewritten by editor Lester Del Rey for its original publication in Fantasy Magazine in 1953, then almost completely rewritten again by Decamp for the version that appeared in the Lancer paperback, Conan the Usurper in the 1960s.
So there you have it. The strange tale of the Black Stranger.

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