Just finished reading Robert E. Howard's only completed novel, The Hour of the Dragon. (Another novel, Almuric was left uncompleted at Howard's Death and finished by another writer.) I had read the book years ago but that was in one of the ACE paperbacks and the novel had been edited by L.Sprague de Camp and re-titled Conan the Conqueror, so this was my first read through of the pure Howard version.
It's a short novel, right at 75,000 words, and it features REH's best known character, Conan the Cimmerian. The plot is basically a rework of two Conan short stories, The Scarlet Citadel and The Phoenix on the Sword, with elements of a few of the other Conan shorts thrown in. That said, there's also quite a bit of original material as well, so while Howard was 'cannibalizing' his earlier work, he certainly wasn't being lazy. He also thought that the intended audience wouldn't have ever seen his Conan short stories so he was trying to reintroduce the character and his world.
See, Howard had attempted to sell a short story collection to a British publisher and they had informed him that sales on collections weren't too good in the UK at that time (1934) but they would certainly be interested in seeing a novel along the same lines as the shorts. So Howard hammered out The Hour of the Dragon in about four months and sent it off. The book was accepted, but then the publisher went bankrupt. This was doubly disappointing to Howard as not only did he loose what would have been his first book sale, he had informed a friend in a letter that if the company bought the book he would probably go to London for a while. Robert E. Howard in London. Now there's a alternate history story waiting to be written.
Anyway, the basic plot of Dragon revolves around a plot by a group of conspirators to remove King Conan from the throne of Aquilonia and replace him with a puppet king. To do this the plotters resort to the black arts and revive the long dead sorcerer Xaltotun. They manage to capture Conan and put their plan into effect but of course the brawny barbarian escapes and all hell breaks loose. The second half of the novel follows Conan on a quest to retrieve a stolen mystic talisman, the heart of Ahriman, the only object that can defeat the undead sorcerer.
The novel is extremely episodic, and in fact certain chapters could easily be removed and not affect the overall plot. (Author Karl Edward Wagner theorized that a chapter may indeed have been lost between the original manuscript and the version printed in Weird Tales.) Doesn't matter. Howard's narrative drive keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. In many ways the book is a walk down memory lane for Conan as he once again becomes a traveling mercenary, then a pirate, then a thief. There are two stand out chapters not based on earlier material, one with a mob of ghouls in a haunted forest and one with a slinky vampire babe, that could easily have been expanded into individual short stories.
Many consider Hour of the Dragon to be Howard's best work. I don't necessarily agree, but I can see why the book is held in such high esteem. It does contain some of Howard's most mature writing. The plot is complex and multi-layered. There are multiple points of view and many of the supporting characters, especially the bad guys, are well fleshed out. Howard makes good use of his knowledge of history in presenting the political intrigues and the battle scenes. And Conan is, of course, Conan, stalking through the pages, a wolf at bay and protecting his territory. He may be down in the first half of the book but by the last few chapters he's back to show Xaltotun and his cronies how the world works.
I've mentioned before that I think the short story is the natural medium for sword & sorcery and it's hard to keep the mood and intensity that defines the genre for the length of a novel. I can count what I consider to be good S&S novels on my hands and have fingers left. Howard, as befits the father of the genre, pulls it off. The Hour of the Dragon is must reading for anyone who enjoys sword & sorcery. Wouldn't hurt a few of today's fantasy authors to give it a look either. Howard's storytelling remains powerful 75 years later.