Copyright 1968, by L. Sprague de Camp
Hawks over Shem (Howard & De Camp)
Shadows in the Moonlight
The Road of Eagles (Howard & De Camp)
A Witch Shall be Born
(out of 5)
This is one of the original Lancer books (volume #3, but actually the 7th to be printed), reprinted in the '70s by Ace (Sphere in England) in the set of anthologies which tried to publish all the Howard Conan stories in chronological order. "Gaps" in the chronology were filled in either with unfinished fragments completed by De Camp and Lin Carter, or with non-Conan (but still Howard) stories rewritten as Conan yarns. Here "Black Colossus", "Shadows in the Moonlight" and "A Witch Shall be Born" are all part of the original 21 Conan stories, while "Hawks over Shem" and "The Road of Eagles" are both rewritten versions of non-Conan tales. I have previously reviewed "A Witch Shall be Born" elsewhere.
Unlike the covers for the other books which were excellently done by Frank Frazetta, this cover presents a fairly poor effort by John Duillo.
"Black Colossus" starts strong but, as with so very many of REH's stories, degenerates into long, often hard to follow massed battle scenes before partially redeeming itself in the one-on-one climax.
A powerful wizard named Thugra Kotan is awoken from his three-thousand year sleep by a clever, but not quite clever enough thief. Thugra wakes with big ideas. He takes the name Natohk, the veiled one, gathers an army of followers and sets out to conquer the world (and why not?). The kingdom of Khoraja stands in his way, a country presently ruled by the lithesome Yasmela, sister of the king, who is himself a captive of neighbouring Ophir. In desperation, Yasmela turns for advice to a pagan god, Mitra, and is told to go out into the streets and hand over the defense of the kingdom to the first man she meets. Lucky girl, the first man happens to be...Conan! Conan already has a position in her army, but now he is given total command, much to the chagrin of the other more cultured commanders. He goes head-to-head with Natohk's army, but soon finds the wizard's magic more than he bargained for. Meanwhile, the wizard himself has made it clear conquering the world isn't the only thing on his agenda...he also desires the lovely Yasmela herself...
The first part of this story, wherein Yasmela recruits Conan, is entertaining and original, with a nice contrast between the uncultured barbarian and his proud, disdainful critics. There is something wonderfully audacious about the very premise of a princess handing over the reins of power to the first man she chances to meet. As silly as it sounds, Howard makes it all perfectly plausible.
Then, even as the story turns into large battle scenes which I normally don't like, Howard manages to keep things interesting, as the wizard, Natokh, uses his powers in imaginative ways. We really begin to wonder how Conan can possibly defeat such a powerful foe and that wondering has us on the edge of our seats. But then, when Conan does defeat Natohk's army, it is done in such a perfunctory way that you almost miss it. Nor is it particularly clever. I don't know what I was hoping for, but something more than I got. In fact, Natohk himself is nowhere to be seen during this part of the battle. We would expect him to try one last desperate spell...but nada.
Only with his army already in ruins does Natohk finally reappear, and this in a pathetic bid to snatch Yasmela...having apparently abandoned the whole conquer-the-planet thing and decided to settle for a more achievable goal. Conan gives chase and, for a moment, our interest is held once again, as he goes mano-a-spello with the wizard in the ruins of a Stygian temple. But alas, again the solution is too simplistic and this reader was left disappointed.
I have previously mentioned that "The
Scarlet Citadel" was the inspiration for much of the first half of
"The Hour of the Dragon". "Black Colossus"
is far less certain, but it too reminds me more than a little of that novel.
The wizard woken from an endless sleep, the battles in which the wizard's
magic plays a large part...Unlike "The Scarlet Citadel", the individual
scenes aren't so close, but the overall ideas are similar.
"Shadows in the Moonlight" (Howard's original title was "Iron Shadows in the Moon") is a moody little tale, and one of the better Conan yarns. It is set on one of those mysterious islands which REH did so well. It begins a little unusually though as a female lovely named Olivia, having fled captivity from the city of Akif, is chased down and cornered in a marsh, on the edge of the Vilayet Sea. Her pursuer and former master is a sadistic rogue named Shah Amurath. But before he can lay loathsome hands on our hapless heroine, a figure rises from the reeds. And what a figure he is! Apparently, the newcomer has his own bone to pick with our boy Amurath, having seen all his friends betrayed and treacherously cut down to a man, before escaping into the marshes where he has hidden out for so long he is nearly mad. Nearly? He is all but frothing at the mouth...actually he does that too! The newcomer quickly dispatches Shah Amurath, then he and Olivia hop in a boat and decide to lie low for the next little while. Only then does the newcomer identify himself. Conan!
The two fugitives find their way to a dark and apparently deserted island, where they spend the night sleeping in some ancient ruins, ruins decorated with remarkably life-like statues. Olivia has a dream in which she sees a group of men turned into those selfsame statues and wakes convinced they will come to life in the moonlight. Conan is less than convinced...he is more concerned by whatever it is is lurking in the jungle, lobbing giant boulders at the two fugitives... Gulp.
Though "Shadows in the Moonlight" is mainly about mood, it nonetheless features a nice mix of intersecting plot threads, from the statues to the THING IN THE JUNGLE to the pirates. (Pirates? What pirates? you ask. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention those. Never mind. I have to leave some surprises, don't I?) If it doesn't have the machinations of other stories, it makes up for that in its elegant simplicity. Little explanation is actually given. The whole thing is made all the eerier because we see everything out of the corner of our eyes, obliquely. A hint of movement here, a glint in the eye of a statue there...Howard knows that sometimes less is more, especially in horror. A lesson he learned from Lovecraft, I suspect.
One quibble I would have -- when Conan
first arises in the marsh, frothing and nearly insane for revenge, he really
doesn't seem like the Conan we have come to know and love. I know
that the whole point is that he has been driven to the brink. He
tells Olivia: "It was those cursed marshes, with their stench and stinging
flies, that nigh unmanned me." But unmanned or not, we still have
to believe this is Conan unmanned...and I didn't. It is the only
time, in all the 21 Conan yarns, that I would say Howard slipped.
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