Conan Archive

Conan: Rogues in the House

Posted November 1, 2018 By John C Wright

Rogues in the House, the seventh published Conan story, first was published in Weird Tales, January 1934.

Here, Robert E Howard has finally hit his stride: the characters, the action, and above all the theme leap vividly from the page and into a permanent place in the reader’s imagination. This is a fan favorite, and for good reason. If you want to introduce Conan to someone who has never read a Hyborian Age tale, this is the one to recommend.

And I do recommend it. Please read no further if you have not read it, because I must spoil several clever twists in order to discuss them.

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Howard’s Hyborian Age

Posted October 11, 2018 By John C Wright

Robert E. Howard, as many an author fascinated with his world building is wont to do, wrote extensive notes on the years between when the oceans drank Atlantis and the coming of the Aryans.

This he dubbed the Hyborian Age, and it is the setting of his Conan tales. These notes he presented as an essay in The Phantagraph, February 1936, with a brief note affixed before it warning readers not to read to much into it: “Nothing in this article is to be considered as an attempt to advance any theory in opposition to accepted history. It is simply a fictional background for a series of fiction-stories.”

Basically the races and peoples of his Hyborian Age are the prehistoric ancestors of the races we know from the first chapters of our written history: The Stygians are the forefathers of the Egyptians, the Hyrkanians of the Sumerians, the Shemites of the Semites, and so on.

It is a clever conceit. It not only allows the writer the freedom to mix the flavor, look and feel of various historical periods, while slipping the chain of historical fact, the writer also is permitted to make wry comments on any historical event to which he invents a close parallel. He can, for better or worse, also have the event turn out as suits his disposition.

Somewhere in the middle of this history, there is an example of such an example of such a parallel event and its result. In this case, it is far more grim, even disproportionately so, than the real historical event from which the parallel is drawn. One is tempted, despite Howard’s warning words heading his essay, indeed to read too much into the reading.

Here Howard slow the pace of his centuries-per-paragraph history for a detailed anecdote of the singular meeting which produces one of the great wars of his age.

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Conan: Pool of the Black One

Posted October 4, 2018 By John C Wright

Into the west, unknown of man,
Ships have sailed since the world began.
Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack—
Follow the ships that come not back.

With these eerie, evocative words opens Pool of the Black One, the sixth published Conan tale, first published in Weird Tales, October 1933. Conan did not make the cover, but this image is famous among aficionados of weird illustration, so I hasten to post it here:

I fear that, as I go in publication order through the Conan canon of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age stories, if I continue to praise each tale as brilliant and original, the reader might begin to suspect that I gush over everything flowing from Howard’s pen uncritically.

But, alas, Howard’s writing continues to be brilliant and original, and my critical eye sees little to criticize. To be sure, there are recurring themes and tropes that repeat from tale to tale, but rather than seeming rote or unoriginal, they gather momentum and weigh, in just the same way, in comedy, if done right, a running joke gets funnier each time it is revisited.

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Conan: Xuthal of the Dusk

Posted September 27, 2018 By John C Wright

Xuthal of the Dusk is the fifth story in the Conan canon, first published in Weird Tales, September 1933, under the title The Slithering Shadow.

If this is the first Conan story you ever read, your notion of him will not be the aging but still stalwart king, tough as an old oak tree, betrayed but still fighting, nor again the daring thief who escapes from a curse-shattered tower of eldritch witchery, nor the young warlord wise in war-craft. In Xuthal of the Dusk, we finally see him in the setting, situation, and garb of the Conan of popular imagination.

I have seen reviews dismiss this tale as formulaic. It may be so, but let is also be remembered that this was one of the tales that set the formula.

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Conan: The Black Colossus

Posted September 22, 2018 By John C Wright

The fourth published tale in the Conan canon, appearing in the June 1933 issue of Weird Tales, is The Black Colossus.

Some have dismissed this as a minor entry in the canon. I beg to differ: I hold that it establishes many of the basics which give one of the best beloved characters of this era and genre his particular strength and appeal.

This is one of the Conan stories of which I have no recollection of having read in my youth. I presume I read and forgot it. Looking at it with the eyes of age, I wonder that I did not see the wonders here.

It is the first story of Conan in his prime. This is the tale where Robert E Howard hits his stride in terms of the fury of bloodshed, the eldritch horror of the unknown, the passion of romance, and rough grandeur of his barbarian hero. Here is the Conan as he is commonly recalled by fond fans.

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Conan: The Tower of the Elephant

Posted September 20, 2018 By John C Wright

This is a reprint of a review column published at the Castalia House blog, but which has not previously appeared on my blog. Previous entries are here:

  1. Conan and the Critic
  2. Phoenix on the Sword
  3. The Scarlet Citadel


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Conan: The Tower of the Elephant

Come, reader. Let us continue the review and commentary of the Conan stories of Robert E Howard. This episode is Tower Of The Elephant, first appearing in in Weird Tales, March 1933.


Conan is young here. The internal chronology of the stories is subject to some guesswork. But it is fair to say that this is the second or third tale in Conan’s career, taking place after Frost Giant’s Daughter (1934). We see him for the first time in what will be his signature costume: “naked except for a loin-cloth and his high-strapped sandals.”

I found, as I often do, that not only is Robert E. Howard a better writer than I was able, as a callow youth, to see he was. He also easily surpasses the modern writers attempting to climb his particular dark mountain. From the high peak, brooding, he glares down at inferior writers mocking him, and, coldly, he laughs.

Particularly when Howard is compared with the modern trash that pretends to be fantasy while deconstructing and destroying everything for which the genre stands, he is right to laugh.

Let us list the ways.

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The Riddle of Steel

Posted February 8, 2018 By John C Wright

This is a comment on the justly famous Conan movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Someone asked me my opinion on the meaning of the movie.

The plot concerns two quests: Conan seeks revenge for the death of his family, and seeks the answer to the Riddle of Steel. One is a physical quest, the other is spiritual.

Some think the meaning is wrapped up in the most famous quote of the movie, where what is best in life is defined as driving one’s enemies before you, and hearing the lamentation of their women.  Read the remainder of this entry »

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Conan: The Scarlet Citadel

Posted November 27, 2017 By John C Wright

I am rereading Robert E Howard’s Conan yarns in publication order, and noting how they have improved with age. Often dismissed as a mere boyish adventure tales, adult eyes rereading these alleged boy’s stories will see depth to them.

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Conan: Phoenix on the Sword

Posted November 5, 2017 By John C Wright

“KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

—The Nemedian Chronicles


With these words the most famed of the many famous creations of Robert E Howard, Conan the Barbarian, sprang to vivid life in the pages of WEIRD TALES magazine, 1933.

Conan is somewhat more deep and complex than the cartoon image of a brute in a bearskin loincloth found the popular imagination, with a dancing girl clutching his brawny thigh and a devil-beast dying under his bloody ax. The theme and philosophy he represents is not the product of adolescent neurosis (as certain bitter critics would have us believe) but of somber, even cynical, reflection on the age of the world, the costs of civilization, and the frailty of man.

Recall the era.

1933 was in an uneasy period wedged between two World Wars. Trench warfare killed whole villages of their sons in a single hour. Notions of heroism and honor, the glamor and chivalry of war, were also killed. Science had been a benevolent genii, but now was famed for making weapons of indiscriminate and dispassionate mass-slaughter.

The economic boom of the 1920’s came to its inevitable bust and crack-up. The world was bellycrawling through a depression. Roosevelt had just been elected President. At this time, there was not even the foxfire of Keynesian economics to grant a glint of false hope to a bankrupt world. The General Theory of Employment, with its false promises, was not to be published for three years.

The Lone Ranger made his debut on the radio to the stirring strains of the William Tell Overture. The Shadow, with his eerie laugh and occult powers, was but three years old. The atmospheric film THE MUMMY, staring Boris Karloff, so akin to Howard’s writing in theme and mood, had debuted but a year before.

The academic world was infatuated with faddish notions about eugenics. Civilization failed to cull the weak, and so carried the seeds of its own degeneration — or so the theory ran. The political world was deeply bitter about failed promises of peace which, in the Victorian Era, but twenty years before, had seemed easily within reach. Scientifically-managed economies were all the rage, and a contempt for the common man.

In America, the Western Frontier was closing. Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, and all the men of myth or history who brought civilization out of savage wilderness had apparently done their work too well.

Civilization was triumphant, but was grown gross, corrupt, vulgar, and small. Something was missing. The spirit of the age languished.

Civilization had lost faith in civilization.

During such a time, the imagination of readers and writers in the more imaginative genres are likely to meditate on what had been lost, and at what cost.

During such a time, men romanticize the savage. It is only natural.

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Conan and the Critic

Posted November 2, 2017 By John C Wright


It is an eerie thing to reread the half-forgotten stories treasured in one’s youth. For better or worse, the old haunts never look the same. The worse happens when eyes grown cynical with age will see tinsel and rubbish where once glamor gleamed as fresh and expectant as the sunrise in the Garden of Eden. And, to the contrary, the better happens when one discovers added layers of wonder, or deeper thoughts to savor, than a schoolboy’s brain can hold.

So I decided to read, in their order of publication, the Conan stories of Robert E Howard. I was not a devout fan of Conan in my youth, so some stories I had read before, others were new. But in each case I was surprised, nay, I was shocked, at how much better they were than I recalled.

In this space, time permitting, I hope to review each tale as I read it, starting with Phoenix on the Sword. But before any review is written, which will tell what Conan is, let me tell the candid reader what Conan is not.

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Conan: Red Nails

Posted January 11, 2014 By John C Wright

This is a somewhat overdue review, only seventy-eight years after the fact.

‘Red Nails’ is a novella first serialized in 1936 in the July through October issues of Weird Tales, and the last of the tales of Conan the Barbarian penned by Robert E Howard, as well as one of the best. Thanks to the magic of the internet, it is available free of charge to any who care to read it: or listen to it:

Some of the appeal of this yarn may be lost on any modern reader who has encountered Howard’s many imitators, because this story contains all the elements of the quintessential Conan adventure: from a feisty yet desirable swordswoman, to prehistoric monsters raised by eldritch powers, to lost races (at least two) swimming in their own sadistic corruption and occultism, adepts of black magic (at least three), murder, torture, betrayal, death, and at least one mystic wand issuing a death-ray.

As with all Howard stories, the characters are defined with broad and simple yet bold brush strokes, nor prompted by any complexity of motives to their acts, nor given overmuch to introspection; the action is fast, death is swift, and the mood is one of oppressive eldritch darkness closing in.

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