Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Top Five Conan Stories

Over at The Blog That Time Forgot we were talking about introducing Conan and REH to new readers and what would be good Conan stories to give to someone just discovering the character. This led to a discussion of what do we various REH fans think are the top five Conan yarns. So this will be my list of what I consider to be the top five Conan stories. They are also the five I would give to a Conan newbie.

The People of the Black Circle

If I could only use one Conan story to introduce the big Cimmerian to someone, this would be it. As Stan (The Man) Lee used to say, This One's Got it All. It's some of Robert E. Howard's best prose, I think. The secondary characters are every bit as well fleshed out as Conan. It has some of REH's most effective depictions of sorcery as Conan makes his way into the stronghold of the Black Seers. The magic here is weird and creepy. Not at all reader friendly. Conan himself is very well drawn, at turns fierce, crafty, loyal, ruthless and even humorous. Any of Howard's detractors who consider Conan a one dimensional character need to give this one a closer look. For my money, this is one of the top sword & sorcery stories ever written.

The Tower of the Elephant

A story from early in Conan's career, while he was still making his living as a thief and still often mystified by civilization. This one shows Robert E. Howard in full Weird Tales mode, as Conan comes face to face with Yag-Kosha, an alien being from the trackless outer gulfs of space and time. Howard manages to make this creature a sympathetic character and by the end of the story, you're rooting for the bad guy, who cruelly tricked and mistreated Yag-Kosha, to get his strange and horrific comeuppance. And he does. There's not a tremendous amount of action in Tower of the Elephant but for mood and atmosphere it's hard to beat.

Rogues in the House

This is my favorite Conan story. I've always been partial to urban fantasy and I think it works particularly well with Conan, because he's such a fish out of water in a city at this point in his career. This one has court intrigue, revenge in various forms, death traps, a dangerous man-beast, a vile and sneaky sorcerer, and an interesting companion in adventure in the somewhat foppish Murilo. Through it all stalks Conan, dealing with everything thrown at him. It also features the famous scene where Conan tosses a woman who has betrayed him into a cesspool. One of the best.

Red Nails

Robert E. Howard himself thought Red Nails might be "too much raw meat" for many readers, but man, what a story. Howard had written before of a lost, but still inhabited city in the wilderness in The Slithering Shadow (Xuthal of the Dusk) but he really (ahem) nailed it in this story. The supporting cast in this one is great, from Techotl, the warrior who guides Conan through the winding streets and tunnels of Xuchotil, to Tascela, the creepy queen of one of the decadent warring tribes, to the incomparable Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, a woman warrior who certainly puts lie to the words of those who say Howard didn't write strong female characters. Oddly enough, Valeria is also the primary viewpoint character through much of this story. Swordfights, monsters, sorcery, and a brooding atmosphere of violence and treachery. This one vies with People of the Black Circle as the possible best Conan tale. It was also the last one.

Beyond the Black River

Another story often championed as the 'best' Conan yarn, and it is a great one, no question. In this one, Robert E. Howard seemed to be trying to take Conan in a different direction. Beyond the Black River is sort of 'Conan the Indian Fighter' but with Picts standing in for Native Americans. There's still some sorcery, enough to market the story to Weird Tales anyway, but this is closer to a tale of the American frontier than of the Hyborian Age. Late in his writing career, REH seemed to be moved to write more of the world he knew and lived in, or at least was close to the history of, and so he brought Conan into a setting of log cabins and frontier forts, where characters wore buckskins and beaded belts. No glittering cities and silk clad dancing girls here. Conan, of course, is still Conan. Still the toughest hombre on the block and the only man around who can match the Picts at their own woodcraft. While I would recommend this one for a new reader, I'd warn him to read the other four on my list first, as Beyond the Black River isn't a good example of the overall tone and setting of the Conan stories.

Okay, so that's my top five 'best' Conan stories. Now, unlike some of my fellow fans, I can differentiate between best and favorite. If I tried to make a list of my top five favorite Conan stories, I might have to juggle a bit. I really like The Black Stranger, which doesn't seem to make it onto too may people's lists of favorite Conan yarns. I like its almost Gothic plot structure and I think it shows Howard's growing ability to write multiple viewpoints. (Lady Belesa and the young girl Tina are particularly well handled.) I'm also fond of The God in the Bowl, because I think the early scenes do a great job of showing the differences between a barbarian and the civilized men around him. Would I replace any of the above with either of these two? That would be telling.


Taranaich said...

I'm not going to spoil my list, but I will say yours is a pretty solid one.

TPotBC has the odd distinction of being one of the most bewilderingly misinterpreted of the stories. I've seen at least three dissertations on the story that come to WILDLY insane conclusions. One actually seemed to think that the ending of the story was chilling, because he somehow thought that Conan was swearing to rape Yasmina in the burning ruins of her palace. I wish I was making that up.

RitH is an awesome one, but I wouldn't give it to a Conan newbie, simply because I think it shows Conan at his most contemptible. In QotBC, Conan's atrocities are offstage, but in RitH, Conan kills two people in cold blood. It's really quite sobering, and while it shows that the Hyborian Age is a kill-or-be-killed sort of age, it still seems like the sort of thing that might "scare off" a Conan newbie. Not nearly as alarming as TVoLW or TMEoZ, but still...

Anyway, top-notch list. I'll have to get cracking on mine now!

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Good points, Al. I never thought about how big a bastard Conan was in Rogues in the House. And that's my absolute favorite Conan story. de Camp probably would have read a lot into that about me. Heh!
Looking forward to your list.

Taranaich said...

It IS an excellent story, the second best of the thief stories after TotE, in my opinion. Tons of great stuff in it, one of the best fights in the stories, one of the coolest evil "sorcerers," and an iconic Conan moment. I just think people will see Conan killing two guys in cold blood and accepting what's basically an assassination job and be a bit scared off.

No doubt de Camp would consider your ideas about treating REH as a human being, instead of an Oedipal, paranoid, maladjusted psychotic, as the signs of a delusional fanboy. Ah well.

Anonymous said...

Black stranger is the best all-time. Now that story has everything

Chris Pacyniak said...

"The Scarlet Citadel", 'nuff said.