The Lancer Conan: Why I thought Robert E. Howard was bland (#SFWApro)

Frazetta-01-Conan+the+AdventurerI think the Lancer series of Conan paperbacks played a big role in establishing the Cimmerian’s popularity. They also left me feeling, as a teen, that he was a little bit … dull (cover by Frank Frazetta, all rights with current holder).

Up until that point, Conan had appeared in Weird Tales (plus several unpublished stories, then in an early fifties series of hardbacks from Gnome Press. One volume of which was actually L. Sprague deCamp rewriting various non-Conan stories by Howard. I think it’s possible that had things stopped there, Howard might have wound up one of those Great Authors You Haven’t Heard Of rather than the household name he became. Talent doesn’t always win out; in Howard’s lifetime, Seabury Quinn far outranked him and Lovecraft both as Weird Tales most popular author. So perhaps the Lancer 12-book series made a big difference in making people aware of Howard (and perhaps things would have turned out the same without them in the long run, of course) . They made me aware of him, but I was less than impressed.

Part of that is just taste. The sword-and-sorcery characters I really loved as a teen included Elric, Jirel of Joiry and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, all of whom were less conventionally swaggering and macho than Howard’s Cimmerian (there’s a lot more to Conan than that as I would realize later).

But part of it is also that as with the Gnome books, this added a lot of material to the published Conan stories. This included unpublished stories; rewritten non-Conan REH stories, both published and un- (Lin Carter, who worked with deCamp on the series, said that Howard’s heroes were interchangeable—they were all at least 40 or 50 percent Conan—so this should work fine); and some completely new stuff.

The trouble was, this mixed lots and lots of weak material in with superior stuff such as “The Devil in Iron” or “People of the Black Circle.” Despite Carter’s assertion, Conan is actually a much stronger, more striking character than many of Howard’s heroes (compare the difference between “By This Axe I Rule,” featuring Kull and the vastly better “Phoenix on the Sword” featuring Conan). And a lot of the historical adventures they rewrote into Conan were dull stories (as confirmed when I read the originals in Sword Woman). Some of the unpublished stories they tidied up and included were poor too—”Drumbs of Tombalku” is an appalling mess.

And then there were the stories deCamp, Carter or sometimes others wrote from scratch. It probably looked easy enough—Conan stories are not complex—but the truth is, Howard worked like hell to get them right. And the distinct style and voice and energy he brought to his work is not that easy to duplicate (Roy Thomas in the comics probably came closest), even by talented writers such as deCamp or (later)Poul Anderson (Carter, despite being a terrific editor and having written a number of Conan knockoffs, was pretty much a hack). They were, at best, second rate Howard, and frequently not even that good. And influenced my sense that Conan was mostly swagger.

Surrounded by all that mediocre stuff, I don’t think I ever appreciated how good pure Howard could be (even given he had his own weak Conan stories).

But since then, of course, I’ve learned.



Filed under Reading

3 responses to “The Lancer Conan: Why I thought Robert E. Howard was bland (#SFWApro)

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