Copyright 1969 by L. Sprague de Camp
Ninth printing / January 1983
The Curse of the Monolith (de Camp & Carter)
The Bloodstained God (Howard & de Camp)
The Frost Giant's Daughter
The Lair of the Ice Worm (de Camp & Carter)
Queen of the Black Coast
The Vale of Lost Women
The Castle of Terror (de Camp & Carter)
The Snout in the Dark (Howard, de Camp & Carter)
(out of 5)
This is the second volume in the series of books originally published in the 60s by Lancer, then republished by Ace, which mixed the Robert E. Howard Conan stories with Conan pastiches by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the purpose being to fill in the gaps between the "official" stories. For myself, I found the whole thing a little annoying (and cynically manipulative), giving readers no choice but to buy the pastiches with the originals. Basically, it was just a clever way of selling a bunch of de Camp and Carter stories which would never have gotten published otherwise. So there.
Of the stories here, only three belong to the "official" canon -- that is, to the twenty-one original Robert E. Howard Conan stories. The three are "The Frost Giant's Daughter", "Queen of the Black Coast" and "The Vale of Lost Women". Two more have semi-Howard status. "The Bloodstained God" is a de Camp Conan-ization of one of Howard's Kirby O'Donnell yarns, "The Curse of the Crimson God" (originally "The Trail of the Bloodstained God"), which was set in 1930's Afghanistan, and was itself first published in 1975, then later in the Berkley Medallion and Ace editions of Swords of Shahrazar. The other, "The Snout in the Dark", is based on "an ouline and the first half of a rough draft of a story" by REH.
Even though "The Frost Giant's Daughter" is considered part of the canon, it wasn't actually published during Howard's lifetime, at least not in this form. Nonetheless, it is a "significant" story, from the point of view of the Howard fan in that it, and "The Phoenix on the Sword", were the first two Conan stories which Howard submitted to Weird Tales. Editor Farnsworth Wright rejected "The Frost Giant's Daughter", but published "The Phoenix on the Sword" -- and hence, Conan was born.
The story itself has a complicated history. Howard originally wrote a tale called "The Frost King's Daughter", featuring Amra of Akbitana. When that didn't sell, he rewrote it as "The Frost Giant's Daughter", but still failed to find a market. Finally, he submitted the original Amra story to The Fantasy Fan, a non-paying fanzine (or whatever they were called back then), which published it as "Gods of the North". An "edited" version of the Conan story eventually saw print in 1953, and then, finally, Howard's own version of "The Frost Giant's Daughter" was published in 1976 in Donald Grant's deluxe hardcover collection of Conan stories. Alas, that means the version here is the edited one.
"The Frost Giant's Daughter" is chronologically the earliest in terms of Conan's life, in that it is set in the north, near his homeland of Cimmeria. Following a fierce battle, the barbarian, lying exhausted on the battlefield, is visited by a gorgeous and thoroughly naked woman. The sight of her fires Conan's blood and, when she mocks him, he chases her for miles across the snows, his intent something short of honourable. The girl leads Conan into a trap, but he makes kibbles out of her two brothers, then captures her, only to have her call upon her father, Ymir, to save her -- which he does, in suitably god-like fashion. Later, Conan thinks he must have dreamed the whole thing -- until he finds he is still holding the filmy veil which had served as the girl's sole garment.
I have always liked this story, but not for the plot, which is almost non-existent -- rather, for the writing, which is unsurpassed by any of the other Conan stories. As Conan remarks, the whole thing has the feel of a dream and, speaking as a Canadian, a snowy landscape never seemed quite so colourful. Of course, the notion that Conan could observe without a touch of suspicion this naked nymph blithely prancing through six-foot drifts without suffering frostbite -- well, as I said, I'm Canadian. And yet, because of the dream-like atmosphere, the reader accepts even such implausibilities as this. Then, too, the girl ain't half bad, either.
Howard fans have long speculated as to why Farnsworth Wright rejected this story. Karl Edward Wagner attributed it to Wright's "moral hang-ups", but, if you've ever seen the Weird Tales covers, you'd find it hard to believe Wright had any morals to hang-up. My feeling is that the story was rejected because there simply wasn't enough plot. Full stop.
"Queen of the Black Coast" can also claim to be a "significant" Conan story, in that it is the only time Conan fell in love. Thus, Belit is somewhat like Sherlock Holmes' Irene Adler. While sailing in the vicinity of Kush, Conan's ship is attacked by pirates led by Belit, the Queen of the Black Coast. Belit slaughters the rest of the crew, but goes all mushy for the barbarian, and convinces him to sail with her (after first doing "the mating dance of Belit", no less!) Uncharacteristically smitten, Conan agrees and, for a time, they do what pirates do best. Then, sailing up a nameless river, they encounter ancient ruins, in which is found a lost treasure, a winged something and really big hyenas. In a moment of passion, Belit promises that even death could not keep her from Conan's side -- a promise which she must make good on far sooner than she expects...
I have mixed feelings about this one. The use of description is peak Howard, and nearly as good as that found in "The Frost Giant's Daughter". But the narrative doesn't have the flow of the better Conan yarns. It comes across as pretty, but cold and stiff. Largely, this is because Howard was obviously going for an epic feel, something to which the story is eminently suited. In fact, plot-point by plot-point, "Queen of the Black Coast" comes closest of any of the Conan stories to achieving the quality of "legend", if you know what I mean. (In that sense, it reminds me of the Bran Mak Morn/ King Kull team-up "Kings of the Night".) The story is filled with epic moments -- the dead Belit hanging by her necklace from the yardarm; Belit's flaming Viking funeral; Belit's ghost returning to save her lover. Then, so we'll know this isn't just any old adventure, REH begins each chapter with bits from "The Song of Belit" -- a poem presumably written by Hyborian Age minstrels to honour her memory. In the end, then, "Queen of the Black Coast" is the sort of story which is less fun to read than it is to reflect back upon...if you know what I mean.
"The Vale of Lost Women" is another story which, although included in the canon, wasn't published until after Howard's death. Livia, a white woman, soft and civilized, finds herself a prisoner of a black tribe, the Bamulas. Thinking Conan, as a white man, might feel kinship with her, she asks for his help. (Obviously, this is one of those cases where Howard's racism tends to lessen the reader's enjoyment.) When he balks, she makes a deal, offering him herself as a reward for rescuing her. But when Livia sees Conan drenched in blood, coming to claim his reward, she has second thoughts and flees to a weird valley with beautiful blossoms, dark skinned women, and distinctly lesbian overtones...
Like "The Frost Giant's Daughter", there isn't much in the way of a plot here. Just the same, it's a memorable, and therefore pretty good, yarn. The whole thing is told from Livia's point-of-view, and there is again a dream-like quality to much of it. Also, for those who are keeping track, the creature from the stars, which attacks Livia in the valley, seems inspired by Lovecraft's mythos.
While "The Snout in the Dark" isn't really a Howard story, I think it's still fun to try and figure out which part was written by Howard and which by de Camp and Carter. My guess (and that's all it is) is that Howard wrote up to and including the scene where Diana is shown the "snout in the dark", while de Camp and Carter started with the next scene, the whipping scene, and wrote the rest. My reasons?
Firstly, the first part of the story reads like Howard, with complex machinations and everyone plotting against everyone else. In the second part, everything suddenly falls apart. The writing too becomes far simpler starting with the whipping scene. But the reason I place the break precisely where I do is because of two details. In the scene just before the whipping, the villain threatens to punish Diana "after the Shemitish fashion" with "the slipper". In one of the El Borak stories, Howard makes a similar reference to beating a woman to death with a slipper, an idea which I find fairly outre -- so Howard probably wrote that. Then, in the whipping scene which follows (believe me, these are the only two such references -- the story isn't what you think!), Conan is described as wearing a jubbah. Now, I don't know what a jubbah is, but I frankly doubt that Howard would have known, either. I certainly don't recall seeing it in any other Conan story, so I assume de Camp and Carter wrote that. Q.E.D.
Okay, I just got my copy of The Conan Chronicles vol. 1: The People of the Black Circle, which has the original Conan stories before L. Sprague de Camp and friends got ahold of them. It includes the original fragment that "The Snout in the Dark" was based on. Sure enough, I was right in thinking Howard wrote up to and including the scene where Diana is shown the monster. But I was wrong about the word "jubbah". Howard did use that word earlier in the original fragment, albeit spelled slightly differently. Djebbeh. I was right about the slipper thing. And I still don't know what a jubbah/djebbeh is.
Anyway, in spite of its shortcomings, "The Snout in the Dark" is still a pretty good story and worth a read.
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