Tag Archives: Conan – (fictitious character)

The People of the Black Circle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The People of the Black Circle [Amazon, Local Library] by Robert E Howard, ed Karl Edward Wagner.

Howard Wagner The People of the Black Circle

This particular The People of the Black Circle — several different Conan books bear the name — is a collection of four of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories from his heyday as a Weird Tales author (1934-35). It is part of the late-70s “Authorized” edition under the supervision of Karl Wagner, who conformed the texts to their pulp-era first issuance (with minimal typographical corrections), and sequenced them in publication order. The book jumped to the front of my reading queue as an antidote to the rather weak 2011 Conan movie, and so some of my remarks here will be inflected with mildly irrelevant cinematic concerns.

“The Devil in Iron” is the first of the stories here, and of its six sections, Conan is only present for the final three. (He is mentioned in the second, but does not actually appear in its action.) The character motivation is not too deep: Conan’s enemies correctly surmise that he can be baited with a beautiful girl. The complication and climax are provided by the age-old evil that the reader encounters before any mention of the critical human players. The weird element is in respectable relief here, in the form of the spectrally-rebuilt city on the deserted island of Xapur, as well as the reanimated villain.

It would be simplicity itself to get a good screenplay out of “The People of the Black Circle,” the tale which lends its name to the whole book. It’s got just about the right character distribution and plot complication for a feature film, already being in that middle zone between the short story that needs to be padded out and the novel that needs to be cut down to movie size. It has a nice two-tiered villain system, plenty of sorcery, and a clever resolution of the tension between Conan and the Devi (princess). To be really faithful to Howard’s vision on this one, though, it should be shot in Nepal!

“A Witch Shall Be Born” is one of the most memorable and remembered Conan stories — even for people who haven’t read it, since the crucifixion of Conan in the 1982 Milius movie was derived from this tale. As Wagner notes in his critical afterword, Howard really pulls out the stops here, using a variety of perspectives and literary forms to condense a long narrative into pivotal episodes and embedded synopses. There is a strangely biblical air to the story: not only does Conan get crucified, but the name of the titular witch is Salome, and Howard strongly implies that she is the remote ancestress of her namesake in the court of Herod.

Wagner judges “The Jewels of Gwahlur” to be the least of the four stories in this volume, and I concur. Still, it is a fun and exciting read, with some real mystery and a good deal of tension. And I had to laugh out loud when reading Howard’s explanation: “Conan was basically a direct-actionist.” (177)

Wagner’s apparatus (a foreword and an afterword) is thoughtful and unintrusive. This volume was perfect for the task I had set for it: to tare my scale as a Conan fan after a few too many pastiches and clumsy adaptations.

The Life and Death of Conan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan the Barbarian, Book One: The Life and Death of Conan [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Mahmud Asrar, Jason Aaron, & al., book 1 of the Conan the Barbarian (2019-) series.

Asrar Aaron Conan the Barbarian The Life and Death of Conan

This trade paperback collects the first six issues of the new iteration of the Conan the Barbarian title at Marvel Comics. Writer Jason Aaron and principal artist Mahmud Asrar appear to be accomplished creators within the contemporary Marvel operation, and they both do competent work here. I’m not really blown away the way that I was in the early numbers of the Dark Horse run back in 2003-4, but I did find these new comics to be quick and satisfying reading. It does seem like there’s an attempt to strike a balance between the tone of the original Marvel run and the Dark Horse title.

Aaron hits a few clinkers with his language, but on the whole his Conan seems more faithful to Howard’s original hero than most of the pastiche novel Conans have been (to say nothing of the movies). Each issue starts with the same Nemedian Chronicles quote (“… when the oceans drank Atlantis yada yada …”) and a full-continent Hyborian Age map highlighted to show the location of that number’s principal adventure.

This collection has stories set throughout Conan’s life, using as a framing device young Conan’s encounter with a malevolent witch who returns to kill him in sacrifice to her arch-demon benefactor many years later when Conan is king of Aquilonia. Whether she succeeds (as implied in the “Life and Death of” title of the book) is left unresolved at the end of the sixth issue.

Appended to the reprinted contents is a vast gallery of alternate cover art. For the first issue alone, there were at least a dozen covers. I really have to wonder if this now venerable publishing gimmick is really serving any purpose. Are readers foolish enough to buy multiple copies for the different covers? Well, I guess I represent the opposite extreme, since I waited for the trade collection and then borrowed it from the public library.