Robert Ervin Howard committed suicide in 1936, ending a prolific career as
an author spanning almost half of his thirty years. A small-town boy, a native
of Cross Plains, Texas, his vivid imagination seized upon the history and mythology
of the wider world and transmuted them into fantasy. He wrote for the pulp magazines,
a voracious market. Hundreds of titles sported their lurid covers on the news-stands
of the period, while their contents strove to match them in extravagance. Howard,
from the first, revealed a natural talent for the sort of writing which hooked
the reader from the opening paragraph and never let go.
Dozens of muscular characters shot, hacked and slugged their way through the
fearsome perils spawned by his typewriter. For the most part, they were burly,
reckless and possessed of a quixotic streak where pretty girls in distress were
concerned. In foreign ports, in lost cities and Himalayan strongholds, in labyrinthine
vice-dens, they outfaced fiendish crimelords and their swarming henchmen. Good
rousing stuff, if occasionally reminiscent of Rohmer, say, or Mundy. But in
the genre now labeled Heroic Fantasy, Howard truly came into his own, welding
together various elements into a form which would not achieve its maximum popularity
until thirty years after his death. And towering over all of the heroes created
for this genre is Conan the Cimmerian, greatest warrior of the Hyborian Age.
Unlike many pulp heroes, Conan cannot readily be detached from his background.
The Hyborian Age, falling between the destruction of Atlantis and the beginnings
of recorded history, is as vigorous, colourful and improbable as the Cimmerian
himself. Howard, dipping into the treasure-chest of Earth's past civilizations,
selected the shiniest gems and combined them in a pattern which could exist
only in his imagination. The counterparts of medieval Europe, Ancient Egypt,
Assyria and many more share common frontiers; assegai clashes with broadsword,
tulwar with battleaxe; wizards of deepest dye summon grisly creatures of the
Underworld to further the ambitions of kings; a penniless adventurer can become
an emperor or a princess a sorcerer's slave. Purists have balked at Howard's
use of historical names for his mythical lands and characters, but they lose
none of their exoticism by the practice, any more than do Leigh Brackett's Celtic-sounding
Martians and Venusians. Conan, taken from this brawling, perilous setting, would
be like an engine deprived of a governor; only the Hyborian Age can contain
his furious energies.
Conqueror (in its original magazine format The Hour of the Dragon)
is the more successful of Howard's two published novels. The other, Almuric,
is a rather loosely constructed tale of adventure on a distant planet. He was
essentially a short-story writer. Conan's progress from northern barbarian to
thief, mercenary, adventurer, regicide and finally king is told in this form.
When Conqueror opens, he has already crushed two rebellions and is about
to face a third. Three nobles and a defrocked priest of Mitra plot to reanimate
Xaltotun, a long-dead sorcerer from the vanished empire of Acheron. His ancient
knowledge is needed to control a fabled magical stone, the Heart of Ahriman,
which is to be used in usurping not merely one throne but two: those of Conan's
Aquilonia and its deadliest rival, Nemedia. They succeed in reviving Xaltotun,
but fail to foresee that he may have plans of his own.
The wizard soon sets to work. A plague strikes Nemedia, wiping out King Nimed
and his sons. His younger brother, Tarascus, one of the plotters, ascends the
throne and declares war on Aquilonia. Led into a trap by treacherous allies,
the Aquilonian army is defeated and the sorcery of Xaltotun overpowers Conan.
Instead of killing him, Xaltotun imprisons him, having other things in mind
for the Cimmerian. With the help of Zenobia, a girl from Tarascus's seraglio,
he escapes, after slaying a giant ape and severely wounding Tarascus. He is
unaware that the Nemedean king has stolen the Heart of Ahriman, hoping to curb
the growing power of Xaltotun, and has dispatched a rider with orders to cast
it into the sea.
Reaching the Aquilonian capital, Tarantia, Conan rescues the Countess Albiona
from the headsman's axe, carving his way through nobility and soldiery alike.
Given sanctuary by the priests of Asura, a sect he had protected from persecution,
he learns of the power of the Heart of Ahriman and sets out to overtake Tarascus's
messenger. Not without a certain relish, he reverts to the role of footloose
adventurer, splattering his trail with the blood of ghouls, robber barons, giant
serpents, and other Hyborian fauna. In the depths of a Stygian pyramid-necropolis,
he has an amorous encounter with Princess Akivasha, a deathless vampire. He
inquires of directions in the maze of corridors from an undead mummy. All of
these incidents pale into triviality when Xaltotun unveils his masterplan, which
is nothing less than to resurrect ancient Acheron and impose its evil magnificence
upon the Cimmerian's world.
Since the upsurge of interest in Heroic Fantasy, many writers have been commissioned
to add to the Conan canon. A few have caught something of the authentic feel
of the Hyborian Age. But Conan and his times sprang full-grown from Robert E.
Howard's embattled psyche. There can be no real substitute.