Tag Archives: robert e howard

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.

Almuric

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Almuric by Robert E Howard.

Howard Almuric

As the jacket copy on the lovely little Donald M. Grant edition of Almuric explains, Robert E. Howard took his only novel-length foray into the sword-and-planet subgenre at the urging of his literary agent Otis Adelbert Kline, who was a chief proponent of the form. Howard’s protagonist is rather different than the paradigm of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, though. Esau Cairn is not a gentleman warrior, just a murderous thug. The documentary foreword in the voice of the fictional Professor Hildebrand provides even less of a rationale for interplanetary travel than is usually present in a school of fiction that often demands heroic levels of suspension of disbelief.

Before Cairn can be built up into the barbarism of his adoptive society on the planet Almuric, he is first reduced to an entirely feral existence. In this condition he waxes philosophical, by the standards of an REH hero: “I tell you, the natural life of mankind is a grim battle for existence against the forces of nature, and any other form of life is artificial and without realistic meaning” (38).

Other than the peculiar savagery of the protagonist, Almuric is highly conventional pulp-era sword-and-planet fare. Cairn ends up uniting two tribes of Guras (the hairy ape-men to whom he assimilates) against the citadel of the sadistic Yagas, devilish winged humanoids. He single-handedly defeats their secret weapon, a giant electrified slug. There is a happy ending of considerable predictability and triteness.

I’ve previously remarked the salience of ideas of gender in sword-and-planet literature. Almuric features extreme sexual dimorphism and rigid gender roles among the Guras. Cairn’s clean-shaven face causes the first Gura he encounters to ask “with unbearable scorn … ‘By Thak, are you a man or a woman?'” (21) This affront is grounds for a combat to the death.

I am an avid reader of both Robert E. Howard and sword and planet, so I was delighted to discover this book and felt compelled to read it. It didn’t take me very long. But it is neither one of Howard’s better efforts, nor an especially rewarding example of its sub-genre.

Conan the Valiant

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan The Valiant by Roland Green from Tor Fantasy:

Roland Green's Conan the Valiant from Tor Fantasy

 

This novel features Conan the Cimmerian twice removed from his literary origins. Author Roland Green doesn’t give us Robert E. Howard’s Conan, but rather Robert Jordan’s version of Howard’s hero. If it hadn’t been obvious to me from the level of chatty banter and the excessive nudity and sex, Green makes his debt clear by repeatedly referring to Conan’s former struggle against the “Cult of Doom,” a feature of Jordan’s Conan the Unconquered. The good news is that Green does Jordan’s Conan at least as well as Jordan does, and furnishes supporting characters and intrigue slightly better.

The story bears an odd similarity to another Conan novel I read not long ago, John Hocking’s Conan and the Emerald Lotus. In both books, Conan ends up allying himself to a sorceress, bedding her warrior-maid bodyguard, and journeying with them to confront an evil wizard who has designs on the sorceress. The basis of the magic in the two books is different (vegetable vs. mineral), but both are distinctively green.

Conan the Valiant takes place during Conan’s Turanian soldiering period, and allows him some reflection on the maturity he is gaining even at this early stage in his career. It’s adequate sword-and-sorcery junk food, but offers nothing much to distinguish itself from the great mass of Conan novels. [via]

 

 

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Conan the Bold

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan The Bold by John Maddox Roberts from Tor Fantasy:

John Maddox Roberts' Conan the Bold from Tor Fantasy

 

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian was not often motivated by vengeance, but many of the other authors who have offered stories about that character have decided that a revenge plotline is the best way to get him his due share of violent deeds. Perhaps such writing is under the influence of cinematic revenge drama tropes. Certainly, both the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film and the otherwise quite different 2011 movie of the same title ground Conan’s quests in revenge for the murder of his family and the violent destruction of his home village. The novel Conan the Bold by John Maddox Roberts offers a similar narrative.

In this case, we fortunately avoid the non-REH and now-cliche murder of Conan’s own parents. Instead, we get a sense of his barbarian honor in championing revenge on behalf of a Cimmerian family and village where he was a guest (albeit one with a prospect of marrying into kinship). For an extra helping of vengeance, Conan’s principal companion for most of the book has her own parallel revenge motive that draws the two of them into collaboration. Much of the story is suspended around set piece battles, which suggest a cinematic imagination as much as the revenge plotline does.

Conan is very young in this book, and a little wanting in the sense of humor that Howard gave him, but that so few later writers have managed to keep. His dour determination is quite consistent. After liberating the captives of some slavers, he is told, “We do not know how to thank you.” And then, He shrugged. “I am here because there are some men I must kill.” He turned and walked away (229).

Given how early it is set in Conan’s career, this novel is still an awkward fit in the loose continuity established by Howard’s stories, let alone any more tangled one that might account for the contributions of later authors. It references the sack of Venarium, but has Conan leaving Cimmeria for the first time on a journey that takes him as far as southern Shem.

The diction of the text is neither jarringly modern nor affectedly antique, and the descriptions of sorcery are in keeping with the better efforts of various Conan writers. One might object, however, to such a youthful Conan seeming to have an informed aversion to wizardry, which he has hardly yet had the chance to experience. Roberts does succeed rather admirably at evoking the sense of deep layers of civilization and barbarism that Howard cultivated for his Hyborian setting, without a lot of name-dropping “lore.” The novel’s conclusion has a minimum of denouement, but it is well-crafted for all that. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.