By Robert E. Howard
This is the third and final volume of the Conan series from Del Rey (though Wandering Star had a hand in it too). The critical aspect of these books is that they present the Conan tales in the order REH wrote them using the words he put into them, without heavy-handed editorial intrusion. If you are familiar with the old de Camp edited series of Conan stories, you’ll recall that they are arranged according to what de Camp decided they fit into Conan’s life. Further, de Camp made quite a few interpolations to link up stories, as well as re-writing non-Conan stories to include the Cimmerian. All that is gone, you get REH and nothing but REH.
While the first volume showed REH building Conan’s character, the second showed a confident maturity as REH broke the boundaries of fantasy, and the third is the Cimmerian at his grimmest and bloodiest. The book opens with “The Servants of Bit-Yakin” (aka “Jewels of Gwahlur”), a tale of deceit and treachery among treasure hunters in a haunted ruin. “Beyond the Black River” shows Conan as a ranger in the service of Aquilonia. It is a distinctive tale, the point of view character is not Conan, but Balthus, a young settler on the Pictish frontier. “Black River” more than any other tale, gives REH’s view on the clash of civilization and barbarism. It is a grim one, “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind… civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must ultimately triumph.” Discounting their technological sophistication, the horrors of the 1940s fully confirmed this prognosis. The 21st century has done little to dispel it.
Unlike other Conan tales, there is no treasure to win or beautiful girl to carry off. This is a battle for survival on a bloody frontier. It also has one of REH’s most lyrical passages in a demon’s description of the rituals of death.
My brother had not painted a skull black for you and hurled it into the fire that burns forever on Gullah’s black altar. He had not whispered your name to the black ghosts that haunt the uplands of the Dark Land. But a bat has flown over the Mountains of the Dead and drawn your image in blood on the white tiger’s hide that hangs before the long hut where sleep the Four Brothers of the Night. The great serpents coil about their feet and the stars burn like fireflies in their hair.
When somebody talks about a “sense of wonder”, this is what they mean.
“The Black Stranger” and “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula” come next. The first is a tale of Hyborian Age pirates on the Pictish shore. While it is a good tale, I think in some ways the re-write to make it a historical adventure (featuring Black Vulmea) works better. “Man-Eaters” takes the Cimmerian down to the borderlands where the Turanian Empire butts up against the lands of Zuagir nomads and the lands of the black-skinned folk of Kush.
The last story is “Red Nails”. REH called it the “bloodiest and most sexy weird tale” he had ever written. While the latter may be questionable, the former is most emphatically true. Conan pursues Valeria, a pirate/mercenary who has fled from a murder charge in Stygia. She is a woman in a man’s world and wants nothing to do with the Cimmerian, but when they find a massive ruin they explore it together. Inside they find the decadent remnants of a tribe called the Tlazitlans, now split into warring factions. Their home is a single structure, the size of a city, entirely enclosed. Food is produced by means of a forgotten science without sunlight or soil. The “people of the feud” as they call themselves live only to kill and torture rival clansmen. REH lets the corrosive nature of hate flow freely here; the Cimmerian is a grim slayer indeed, but compared to the Tlazitlans, he is a ray of sunshine. The apocalyptic violence seen in “Beyond the Black River” reaches the ultimate level in “Red Nails”, absolute destruction.
Extras include drafts and synopses, as well a map of the Hyborian world, and an excellent critical essay by Patrice Louinet. Gregory Manchess is the illustrator, he favors smoky, charcoal smudged backgrounds that characters emerge from. It’s a bit of nit-picking, but sometimes he arms the Cimmerian with a falchion or cutlass, when REH stresses the double-edged broadsword that Conan usually carries.
The Conquering Sword of Conan is essential reading for Sword & Sorcery fans.