Category Archives: Conan

L. Sprague de Camp at 110

Lyman Sprague de Camp was born on November 27, 1907.  He passed away in 2000.  I hadn’t intended to do another birthday post so soon after the ones earlier this week, but when I saw today was de Camp’s birthday, I couldn’t pass it up.  L. Sprague de Camp had one of the longest careers in the field (over 60 years) and worked as both author and editor.  He was a major player in the history of Robert E. Howard.

We’ll talk about de Camp and Howard in a bit.  First, I want to look at de Camp as a writer independent of Howard.  Among Howard fans, that work tends to be overlooked. Continue reading

Blogging Brackett: “Black Amazon of Mars”

“Black Amazon of Mars” appeared in its original form in Planet Stories, March 1951. It was later expanded into the short novel The People of the Talisman (1964). This post will review just the original version. I’ll save comparison of the two for another day.

The story starts with Eric John Stark accompanying a Martian companion, Camar, home to the city of Kushat just south of the northern polar ice cap. Camar is dying and wants to return a sacred talisman he stole. The talisman was left by the legendary Ban Cruach to protect the city from a danger in a canyon to the north known as the Gates of Death.

Camar dies in the opening scene of the story, but not before Stark promises to fulfill his quest. The talisman is a jewel. Stark puts it against his temple, sees strange visions that come straight from Ban Cruach’s mind, and takes it off. He hides the talisman in his belt and sets off for Kushat. It isn’t long before he runs into trouble. Continue reading

It’s Frank Frazetta’s Birthday

Frank Frazetta, one of the greatest fantasy artists to ever stride this land, was born on this date (February 9) in 1928.  I’m not even going to try to put the impact his art has had on my life into words, much less that of the fantasy field.  Here are a couple of my favorite works of Frazetta’s.

The image on the left is the promotional poster for a Frazetta exhibit I saw in Austin last spring.  That trip has really been on my mind today, maybe because the weather has been so unseasonably warm.  The image was used on the cover of one of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books.  You can read about my trip in this post.

Probably my favorite of the Frazetta Conan covers is the one shown on the right.  It’s  for Conan the Usurper.  I saw this one at the Frazetta exhibit, and let me tell you, none of the reproductions do the images justice.  It was awesome to stand in front of some of those paintings and see close up the detail and the brushwork.  The painting were larger than what you see on a book cover, of course, and the detail really stood out.

I think the thing that has always captured my imagination about this picture is the snake.  I hate snakes.  There’s just something evil about them.  I’m not sure why, but they’ve always given me the willies.

Frazetta is gone now, but his work lives on.  While it might be easy to think that with his popularity, there will always be copies available to enjoy, that’s a dangerous way to think.  Today hot property is too often tomorrow’s has-been, or worse completely forgotten.  So take a moment over the next few days to admire a Frazetta painting, especially if it’s one you’ve not seen before or not seen in a while.

Update:  Here are tributes by David J. West and Woelf Dietrich.  They’re both worth checking out.

Blogging Brackett: “Enchantress of Venus”

Planet Stories Fall 1949“The Enchantress of Venus”
Originally published in Planet Stories, Fall 1949

I first read this story in high school in the SFBC edition of The Best of Leigh Brackett.  It was my first introduction to Eric John Stark, arguably Brackett’s greatest creation.  In my opinion it is arguably her best work at shorter lengths.

Stark is an Earthman, raised by a tribe of aboriginals in Mercury’s twilight belt.  (The astronomy geek in me is compelled to point out this story was written before Mercury’s 3:2 rotational/orbital resonance was discovered.  Mercury doesn’t have a twilight belt because it doesn’t keep the same face towards the Sun.)

Stark is black, although whether he’s of African descent or permanently burned by the Sun, Brackett never explicitly says anywhere (that I can recall).  His tribal name is N’Chaka, which implies the former rather than the latter. Continue reading

Daughter of Naked Slave Girls, Illustrated Edition

tribesmen-of-gor-230A few years ago I wrote a post entitled “Why Modern Fantasy Needs More Naked Slave Girls“, in which I said that too many people were taking modern fantasy too seriously and killing all the fun by trying to impose their views on everyone else.  This was before I moved everything over from Blogger.  At the time I transferred everything over, it was the second most viewed post I had written.  (A review about a book on the Bayeux Tapestry was the most viewed.  No, I don’t know why.)

Well, apparently we need to revisit that topic (naked slave girls, not the Bayeux Tapestry) because some people haven’t gotten the message.  The latest dustup involves the Conan board game that set records on Kickstarter, like over $3 million.  There have been a couple of posts recently that have taken the makers of the game to task because of the art used.  The picture in question, which will be shown below the “Read More” tag, shows a damsel in distress.  And we can’t have that now, can we?

I’m going to include some pictures here that some hothouse flowers might find offensive.  I did put “Illustrated Edition” in the title, you know.  If you’re one of those, be advised that I don’t provide fainting couches or smelling salts, and this is my space, so it won’t be a safe space.  If you can’t handle that, go somewhere else. Continue reading

Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Start Conan Read Through

If you aren’t reading Howard Andrew Jones’ blog, then you’ve been missing some good posts.  He and Bill Ward have been reading through works by major fantasy authors for about a year now and discussing them.  They started with a couple of collections by Lord Dunsany and then moved on to Swords Against Darkness and Swords in the Mist, two Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser collections by Fritz Leiber.  Each week they’ve discussed the story they’ve read and invited anyone interested in doing so to read along with them.

Today Howard postedComing of Conan a wrap-up of Swords in the Mist and a discussion of their next project.  This will be The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.  Today’s post was mostly about Conan, not so much about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  Next week they discuss Howard’s essay “The Hyborian Age” before launching into the stories themselves.

If you’re a Howard fan, or just a Conan fan, you should check it out.

Blogging Conan: The Scarlet Citadel

It’s been quite a while since I wrote a post on Conan.  All I can say, “Where did the time go?”

Anyway, there are times when you just need to get back to basics.  This weekend has been one of them.

The Frazetta art for “The Scarlet Citadel”, shown at right and originally appearing on the cover of Conan the Usurper, has always been one of my favorites.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t like snakes.  If that were me chained up, I probably be a blubbering mass of jelly.  Anyway, even though it isn’t exactly faithful to Howard’s description, it’s still a masterpiece. 

“The Scarlet Citadel” was the third Conan story published in Weird Tales, following “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Tower of the Elephant“, although “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl” were probably written before Howard wrote “The Scarlet Citadel”.  (Links are to my posts about those stories.)

This story takes place during Conan’s reign as King of Aquilonia.  It opens with him taking 5,000 of his knights and riding to the aid of King Amalrus of Ophir against Strabonus, King of Koth.  With them, and actually the one in charge, is the sorcerer Tsotha-lanti.  It’s a trap, and all of Conan’s men are killed.  Conan is captured and offered his life if he will abdicate.

If you’ve read any of the Conan stories, you should know what his answer is.  As a result, he’s chained in a dungeon in total darkness to wait for the giant snake in the above picture to have him for a snack.

I’m assuming most of the people reading this are familiar with the story, but there are probably one or two of you who either haven’t read it or haven’t read it recently, so I’ll not give much in the way of spoilers. 

It had been a few years since I last read “The Scarlet Citadel” before I reread it the other day, and the images that had most stayed with me were the opening scene and the sequence of Conan and the snake.  It was fun to refresh my memory of this tale.

Howard by this time was becoming comfortable with the character.  His identity is well established.  Howard’s prose is top notch.  There’s a portion of the story in which Howard relates the events in Aquilonia after the population learn (falsely) that Conan is dead.  Howard summarizes the series of events beautifully, painting in broad strokes the usurpation of Conan’s throne by Tsotha-lani’s pawn and giving details about the resistance of certain individuals, such as the student Athemides speaking out and having to flee the city.  This is some of Howard’s better writing, although probably not his absolute best.  It’s certainly better than the passages in “A Witch Shall be Born“, in which the soldier Valerius relates events to his lover Ivga.

Yet, as much as I enjoyed this story, I can’t help feel that Howard was never really comfortable with Conan as a king.  While he’s still king, he spends most of the story trying to regain his throne.  Most of the story that’s told from Conan’s point of view consists of his capture and adventures in the dungeon, plus the concluding portion of the final fight at the end.  We never really see him in any kingly role.  And even though he’s portrayed more like a ruler in “The Phoenix on the Sword” and The Hour of the Dragon, I can’t shake the impression that Howard is at his most comfortable with the character when he’s not a king.  Even in The Hour of the Dragon, Conan spends much of his time traveling in order to regain his throne and even reminisces about when he was a wanderer. I know the Conan stories I’ve enjoyed the most have been those in which Conan answered to no one, even if there was a woman he was protecting.

Much of this one after Conan manages to escape consists of summaries and skips over some of the details.  If filled in, those details would turn this particular adventure into a short novel.  I don’t know if Howard didn’t feel as though he could write some of the details effectively or if he didn’t think he could sell Farnsworth Wright a story of that length about this relatively new character.  Certainly on the surface the basic concept of Conan having to fight against an invading army here bears a strong resemblance to the basic plot of The Hour of the Dragon.  Perhaps Howard felt more comfortable a few years later when he wrote Dragon, or if the character was by then popular enough to sustain a serial of that length.  Of course, by the time he wrote The Hour of the Dragon, Hester’s health was in a steep decline, and he probably needed the money a novel would bring more than he did when he wrote “The Scarlet Citadel”. 

“The Scarlet Citadel” is well worth the read.  The action is broken up into two main parts, the first being Conan’s capture and subsequent escape, and the second relates what happens in Aquilonia while he’s gone and how he gets his throne back.  It’s not one of the longer Conan stories, and it’s readily available in a number of collections.

Blogging Northwest Smith: Scarlet Dream

“Scarlet Dream”
C. L. Moore

This post contains content of an adult nature and is not suitable for younger readers.  You have been warned.

“Scarlet Dream” is the third Northwest Smith story.  In terms of sexually charged imagery, it’s the most explicit of the ones so far, hence the warning above.  (My discussions of “Shambleau” and “Black Thirst” can be found here andhere.)  There will be spoilers, as well.  You’ve been doubly warned.

When the story opens, Smith is wandering through the Lakkmanda Market on Mars.  The name has a decidedly Leigh Brackett feel to it.  “Scarlet Dream” was published in 1934, predating Brackett’s Mars by a few years, but still I can’t help wondering if Brackett was influenced a bit by the name.

Smith spies a shawl with an intricate pattern consisting of a scarlet thread woven in a blue and green background.  The Martian vendor displaying tells Smith the thing gives him a headache, and he sells it to Smith for a good price.

After he returns to his quarters, Smith tries to trace the pattern on the shawl, gives up, covers himself with it, and goes to sleep.  Sometime in the night he begins dreaming that he’s walking up a mist enshrouded stair.  He soon loses sight of the bottom.

Eventually he is nearly run over by a young girl with long orange hair, wearing a short shift, and covered in blood.  She babbles something about some type of monster killing her sister.  Smith manages to calm her enough to carry her to the top of the stairs.  Once there he takes her into a side room, sets her on a stone bench, and gets a little more explanation from her.

The girl, who is never named, tells Smith that he’s dreaming but that he’s entered a dream world that can only be exited by death or by a fate worse than dying.  Most of Smith’s questions are answered along the lines of “We find it best not to think/ask/do that.”  This includes trying to leave or learn new things.  Indeed, it’s only when Smith eventually decides to leave that the monster shows up and attacks him.  But that comes later.

One of the things she tells him is that no one has ever gone down the stairs he came up.  She only went down the stairs in a panic.  Why Smith doesn’t at some point try to retrace his steps is never explained.  But if he did, then there would be no story.

Smith and the girl are in giant temple, and she leads him outside to a lake and a small shrine containing two cots, two blankets, and a few clothes.  It’s completely open to the air, but since the temperature never changes, that’s not a problem.

The trees seem to bend towards them, and the grass certainly does.  Smith eventually learns that if a person stands barefoot in the grass for long, it will begin sucking blood through the feet.  The trees are implied to be flesh eating.

Smith sits with the girl beside the lake, drifts off, and comes to as night is falling.  Moore implies that at this point Smith engages the girl in sex.  Regular sex between them is implied, with the word “kiss” and its variations being a euphemism for more than a kiss.  In spite of the raciness of the covers Farnsworth Wright selected for Weird Tales, the contents tended to be squeaky clean.  One of Robert E. Howard’s early Conan stories was rejected because Wright felt Conan took too many liberties with a young lady.  (My opinion of that can be found here.)

Where Moore engages in some serious sexual imagery is when the girl shows Smith the only source of food.  She takes him to a hall in the temple in which there are people “eating”.  That there are other people present is mentioned more than once, but this is the only time we see them.  Smith has no interaction with them.  In fact, they’re only mentioned in a few sentences, basically as backdrop.

The way people eat is they kneel before spigots in the wall, spigots that curve upwards.  What they drink from the spigots is blood, with the hint that it contains some addictive substance.  Once Smith realizes what he’s drinking, he’s repulsed but finds himself returning the next day.  Moore goes into details describing how pleasant and yet repulsive feeding is, dwelling on the taste.

Now I don’t know what mental picture you get, but what comes to my mind now is the same thing that came to mind when I was 15.  Fellatio, although I had not encountered that word at the time.  It’s hard to escape that image.  The posture of kneeling, along with Moore deliberately stating that the spigots curve upward from the wall, leave little room for any other conclusion.  What I have to wonder is what Wright thought about this imagery, or if he even noticed it.  I doubt we’ll ever know.  Smith comes to enjoy the feeding more than the girl, although he never completely overcomes his revulsion of it.

Smith eventually spies mountains through the surrounding mist, attempts to leave, is attacked by the monster, and drives it off with his blaster.  It’s at this point that the girl tells Smith she would rather lose him to the fate worse than death than through death at the hand of the monster.  She helps him get home, although he doesn’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late.

Smith awakens to find his partner Yarol and a doctor leaning over him.  Smith has been in a coma for a week.  Seems Smith can’t be left alone to wander about on Mars without getting into trouble.  Yarol gave the shawl away while Smith was out.  The pattern was giving him a headache.

This is the third Northwest Smith story, and other than “Shambleau”, it’s the one that has stuck out the most in my mind since I first read the series nearly 30 years ago.  Again, I’m struck by how graphic the sexual imagery is in these stories.  If my parents had known what I was reading….

Moore seems to have a theme of vampirism going as well.  In the first story, the vampire fed on life essence, in the second beauty, and now the grass actually drinks blood.

I’m going to continue this series.  The post on “Black Thirst” is in the top 10 most viewed posts I’ve done.  Stay tuned.  There’s more to come.  Or should that be Moore to come?

Happy Birthday, Conan.

I’m a little late getting this post up, but this month marks the 80th anniversary of the first appearance of Conan, the man from Cimmeria.  Conan first appeared in “The Phoenix on the Sword”, a rewrite of an unsold Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”  I blogged about both pieces here.  That’s the cover of the issue, December 1932, there on the right.  And, no, Conan wasn’t featured on the cover.  But he soon would be.

It’s been a while since I last wrote a piece dedicated solely to Conan.  No, don’t go looking it up; all you’ll do is embarrass people, namely me.  I’m going to look at three more Conan stories, maybe more.  The stories I’ll definitely look at are “Rogues in the House”, “Queen of the Black Coast”, and “Red Nails.”  There are a few other Conan tales I will try to get to, but those three are, in my mind at least, major stories that every Howard fan should read.

Howard wrote that Conan seemed to spring into his mind as a fully fleshed character.  There’s good evidence that wasn’t literally the case.  Still, Conan is arguably the most fully fleshed out character Howard put to paper.  The world he inhabits is by far the most complex and detailed of any Howard created.  Mark Finn argues in his biography, Blood and Thunder (reviewed here), that Conan was the most commercial of Howard’s Weird Tales creations.  He makes a good case.  Whether or not Finn is correct, it was Conan and the classic tales in which he appeared that gave us those gorgeous Margaret Brundage covers.

Conan was the first Howard I read.  As a result, he holds a special place in my heart.  I was a freshman in college when I started reading Conan, in the Ace reprints of the de Camp and Carter edited Lancers.  I soaked it all in.  When I think of sword and sorcery, Conan is usually what comes to mind.  A loner who lives by his own code in an exotic world filled with danger, monsters, and magic.  Along with a few scantily clad females.

A lot of the appeal for me of the Conan stories are the fact that they are stand-alones.  Yes, there are some that obviously take place later in Conan’s life, but for the most part they can be read in any order.  Whether you read a whole volume at once or only a single tale, these stories still take me to a land of adventure. 

This is the mental template I have for a sword and sorcery character or series.  Self contained adventures full of the exotic and wonderful with a dash of horror, where the swords are fast, the magic is dark, and the heroes are both larger than life and flawed.  And anything is possible.

These are the qualities I look for in sword and sorcery.  Fortunately those qualities are still around.  So happy 80th, Conan.  Here’s wishing you many more.

Everything Old is Still Old

My head is still reeling from the announcement that Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to revise his role as Conan.  Al Harron has covered this more eloquently than I can, so I’ll defer you to his remarks

Instead, I want to take a slightly different approach and say this:  Really, Hollywood?  Really?  This is the best you can do?  Trot out an actor who is too old for the role, to play a character who was never anywhere near that old in any of the stories Howard wrote.

What you have here, ladies and gentlemen, aliens and Old Ones, is a perfect case of why box office reciets in general are dropping.  Hollywood can’t do anything but recycle itself.  A more appropriate metaphor would probably be breed with itself.  We all know what sort of thing results from that, which is a good description of what Hollywood tends to churn out rather than coming up with something original.

At least take a fresh script (preferably written by someone who will be faithful to more than the “spirit” of Howard’s most famous creation) and keep Jason Mamoa.  He fits the description of Conan much better than the Governator does.

I suppose that’s too much to hope for, as is this being a sick (and scary, very scary) Halloween joke.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go burn incense to the gods of Development Hell.  Much incense.