Back when I was a young fencing coach, I had an epiphany about how skill develops that has come to define the way I approach learning. Learning the rules changes how you think about the game, and it makes you predictable. This is the second volume in Del Rey's collection of the Conan stories, and it is the only collection of all Howard's original manuscripts for those stories, untainted by later editors. As I mentioned in my review, the earlier stories from the first volume are wilder, and show more variability, depicting Conan at many points in his life, dealing with a number of different situations. This volume is more homogenous: they are about an older Conan embroiled in political machinations, which was enjoyable for a student of history, as anyone who has read Tacitus or Sallust cannot fail to recognize Howard's stylistic inspiration. So it seems that after his early experiments, stories that were sometimes erratic but rarely repetitious, Howard has settled into a more predictable style, that plateau we all hit after we have learned and internalized a set of rules. Though many think of a 'black belt' as the sign of a master, in truth it is the sign that a student has learned all of those basic things which must be gotten out of the way before the real learning can start. As you learn more and more of the rules and techniques, you also become predictable. It was my hope that in the next volume, Howard would be able to combine the creativity of his early works with the reliability of this middle stretch and produce final stories might live up to their reputation as the strongest of the Conan tales--but alas, Howard died too young, and never reached that peak.
I first read the great majority of the Conan stories a number of years ago. The man has his weird quirks and sure, his stuff can be a little repetitive at times, but I would argue that in terms of pulp writers he was probably one of the more diverse, being able to work in a variety of different genres, in contemporary, historical or constructed settings. For example, he could write a western, but if the market wasn't biting to his satisfaction....change the characters, names and places, throw in a bit of magic, and boom, you have a hyborean Age story fit for the pages of Weird Tales. The Conan tales proved to be extremely popular though, and seem to have been a great boon for Howard in the 1930s, when he was really struggling financially, so he wrote about twenty of them. I'm writing this now after having discovered that, somehow, while reading all the other Conan tales way back, I skipped "Hour of the dragon", either because I was just waiting to save the longest for the right time, or because I believed it was a kind of "fixup" of a bunch of other Conan stories sloppily thrown together for novel publication and thus probably not as good as the other stories. It turns out, to my delight, that "Hour of the Dragon" is one of the best Conan tales, precisely because it's able to take advantage of a longer format. Still though, there's a great sense of menace at almost every turn and one can feel Conan's mounting unease as he no longer can tell who is friend or foe. The world feels properly large this time, and not just because Howard drops loads of talk about geography and races the way he normally does, but because Conan has to do a whole lot of travelling. I found the level of danger and suspense to be higher than normal, and I think this shows that Howard could have been a great adventure novelist had he continued writing into the following decades. Yeah, there are some inconsistencies in the text, both in the way Conan is portrayed (usually very keen and sharp-witted, except when once or twice he inexplicably isn't), and in the passage of time (sometimes it seems like just a couple of days have passed since Aquilonia has fallen to the Nemedians, sometimes months), but it's all just such headlong, fast-paced, moody, bloodthirsty fun to read that I can't really fault Howard for any of that. "People of the Black Circle" is one of my favourite Conan tales, and it's a great way to open the anthology and possibly as good an introduction to Conan as you can find (although I would maybe suggest something shorter first, like the immensely enjoyable "Rogues in the House"). You won't find anything as majestically existential as "The Mirror of Tuzun Thune" among the Conan tales (a friend once likened the opening passages of this one to Gormengast), but the grand vastness of the world depicted makes looking outward into great landscapes peopled by brigands, witches, sorcerers and kings, as well as the odd demon, monstrous serpent or ape, a supremely pleasurable experience. I think it's important to keep in mind that Howard was a young man living in rural Texas in the '20s and '30s who never got to travel, but whose heart was set aflame by tales of history and imagination, and who feverishly worked for a period of a mere ten years or so, churning out dozens and dozens of stories, most of which contain impeccable action writing and occasionally reach depths of melancholic, mysterious intensity.
It wasn't until I was a bit older that I read the original Howard stories and, let me tell you, nothing compares to these original tales.
Few, if any, of the Conan short stories make reference to any of the others, yet in Hour of the Dragon you can feel Howard dipping into the rich history he'd already established for the character as Conan, now in middle-age, returns to many of the places he'd adventured as a young man to call in old debts make use of his decades of experience.
The first book in this set, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, would be a better place to start for anyone new to reading Conan, I think the shorter stories are more accessible in terms of getting into the character. It's gritty and entertaining, but Conan has a lot of near-misses with his goal that make it read like the serial it was first published as, so the story benefits from giving it a little space every few chapters.
Given the chance to write longer tales, he makes good use of the extra space and fills the stories with all sorts of memorable sequences, some of them not even including. The most famous sequence in "A Witch Shall Be Born" (and pretty much the reason everyone remembers the story) is where Conan is crucified and there's a definite loving attention to his efforts to escape from the nails, and even more detail paid when it comes time to take Conan down from that cross. To me it seems more like Howard was just trying to prove how tough Conan is (for comparison another character gets crucified at the end and Conan goes out of his way to point out what a sissy he is and that he'll be dead soon). But Howard handles all the various tribes and armies deftly, with everyone having their own motivations they have to either compromise on or keep close to their chests if they want to get their way, which makes for a Conan story that depends more on everyone navigating a narrow political line through their own desire than heads getting lopped off, although that happens too. "A Witch Shall Be Born" is remarkable for a few reasons, one of which is the already discussed crucifixion sequence and the other how Conan only appears in like two chapters and yet you rarely notice with all the other plotting and scheming going on around him. As good as Howard was in general, there's a definite singularity of purpose to his best Conan stories that a lot of his other tales don't match and what I find most interesting isn't the battle sequences and fights (although there are plenty of those and they are fairly decent) but the plotting, the attempts to write sword and sorcery tales that transcend the genre.
The Bloody Crown of Conan is the second of Del Reys three-volume collection of Robert E. Howards Conan yarns. Including Howards only Conan novel, it has the fewest stories of any volume in the collection. I dont like his Conan artwork quite as much (the art in my paperback copy is black and white). There is a foreword by Gianni, an introduction by Howard scholar and series editor Rusty Burke, several synopses, drafts, and notes, and the second part of editor Patrice Louinets long essay on the Genesis of the Hyborian Age. The stories in this volume are longer than those in the first volume.
I like my Conan in shorter form than these three stories.