Cimmerian Collection

Cover by Frank FrazettaConan
Copyright 1967, by L. Sprague de Camp

Letter from REH to P.S. Miller
The Hyborian Age (Part 1) (Howard)
The Thing in the Crypt (Carter & de Camp)
The Tower of the Elephant (Howard)
The Hall of the Dead (de Camp & Howard)
The God in the Bowl (Howard)
Rogues in the House (Howard)
The Hand of Nergal (Carter & Howard)
The City of Skulls (Carter & de Camp)

(out of 5)

This is book #1 in the series of Conan collections originally published by Lancer in the 1960s, then later by Ace combining the original Robert E. Howard stories with pastiches by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter for the purpose of "filling in the gaps". As a result, all the stories appear according to a chronology of Conan's life worked out by de Camp and Carter.

In this volume, three stories are from the original canon of twenty one written by Howard -- "The Tower of the Elephant", "The God in the Bowl", and "Rogues in the House". Two others claim semi-Howard status. "The Hall of the Dead" was written by de Camp "in accordance with an outline" found among REH's papers. As for "The Hand of Nergal", the notes here give no indication of its pedigree, except to nebulously claim that Howard had something to do with it.

Of all Howard's Conan yarns, the three found here are the weakest to my way of thinking. (In fact, I care for them so little that it took me forever to get around to reviewing them!) Why that should be, I'm not sure. While all three are unusual in featuring a younger version of Conan, this doesn't really impact on the stories and, in fact, were we not told that the Cimmerian is a "youth", we would hardly know it from the way he is described. He just seems like his usual brawny self. Nor were they apparently written at the same time. "The Tower of the Elephant" was one of the earliest to see print in Weird Tales, while "Rogues in the House" was one of the last.

"The Tower of the Elephant" was the third Conan story published after "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "The Scarlet Citadel". Unlike "The Phoenix on the Sword", which is set when Conan is in his twilight years, "The Tower of the Elephant" presents a youthful Cimmerian, just starting out upon his adventurous travels.

In the city of Arenjun, Zamorian "city of thieves", the young Conan learns of a fabulous jewel called the "heart of the Elephant" kept in the eponymous tower by an evil sorcerer named Yara. Before you can say Topkapi, the Cimmerian sets out to steal the jewel, along the way encountering another thief, Taurus of Nemedia, with the same design, and the two team up. But Taurus soon does the Star-Trek-red-shirt thing, and Conan, undaunted, continues on, where he discovers a strange "trans-cosmic being" having a human body with an elephant's head. The being, named variously Yag-kosha or Yogah, is a blind, tortured prisoner of the sorcerer Yara. It turns out that the Cimmerian's coming fulfills some sort of prophecy and, at Yag-kosha's behest, he uses the magic "heart of the elephant" to both free the being and do away with the evil Yara.

Needless to say, there's some bad craziness in Zamora. (One is inclined to suggest that our boy Conan has been smoking something he shouldn't -- maybe sprinkled with a little black lotus?) While the first part of this tale is pretty standard Conan fare, the "trans-cosmic being"...ain't. Apart from "The Vale of Lost Women", this sort of Lovecraftian winged-old-ones-from-the-space-between-the-spheres stuff doesn't show up in the Conan stories. I am reminded of Howard's Kull stories, which were more willing to take unexpected tacks like this. And, while some readers probably appreciate this sort of thing, I prefer my Conan straight. As REH himself once explained, Conan was inherently "realistic". "Monsters" were usually revealed to be mere animals from foreign lands and "magic" was merely a blending of science and hypnotism. When (as in "The Vale of Lost Women" or "The Slithering Shadow") something truly inexplicable reared its slimy head, it was revealed only fleetingly, a shadowy glimpse of outer cosmic horror. The elephant-headed elder god in this tale is not only too clearly revealed but he even talks! The effect for this reader is simply too jarring.

A side note: The names for the sorcerer and the trans-cosmic being are awfully similar -- Yara, Yag-kosha or Yugah. As is the being's home planet, "Yag". Meanwhile, in Howard's outer space novel, Almuric, the winged bad guys were called "Yagas" from the Black City of "Yugga". Obviously Howard had quite a yen...heh, heh.

"The God in the Bowl" is unusual for a Conan story, written almost as a murder mystery. Conan himself has almost no part to play and just pretty much stands around the whole time making threatening gestures with his sword. The story did not see print until 1952, long after Howard's death, when it was published in Space Science Fiction, which leads me to believe I wasn't the only one who didn't care for it.

One night in the Rome-like city of Numalia, Conan, in the midst of a robbery, finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation when the temple's owner, Kallian Publico, turns up strangled. Though the Cimmerian is the prime suspect, the investigating magistrate and the prefect of police show remarkable (and implausible) forebearance, allowing Conan not only to remain free, but also to keep his sword even when he continually threatens them with it. As the investigation unfolds, it turns out Publico recently received a strange bowl-like sarcophagus sent from Stygia which now lies open and empty -- and, while the magistrate may be baffled, the reader quickly begins to suspect the murderer may have been something other than entirely human. A scream, a death, and the entire temple clears out leaving Conan alone with the "murderer", which he quickly dispatches with his mighty sword, learning only in the final sentence the true horror of "the god in the bowl"....

REH said he couldn't write mysteries and this certainly bears that out. While most of "The God in the Bowl" has the feel of a drawing room mystery (and, for that reason, is top-heavy with dialogue), the mystery itself isn't very mysterious, and the whole thing degenerates in the end anyway as Conan springs into action. At the same time, it certainly isn't a terrible story. It just seems like an awkward blending of genres, mystery with heroic fiction.

I recall reading somewhere that one line was changed by one of the later editors. The line "The god has a very long reach!" was originally "The god has a very long neck!" The change was intended to keep the reader from guessing the solution. Good luck.

"Rogues in the House" is a curiously written tale. Reportedly, it was dashed out in a single draft, without rewrites. Unfortunately, that shows in the first part which reads like the outline for a much longer story. But then, once things get going, Howard returns to his usual swashbuckling style and the result is a good yarn -- though with an overly empty-headed Conan.

A nobleman, Murilo, plots to murder "the Red Priest", Nabonidus, who has made things too hot for him in town. Murilo engages Conan, languishing in prison, offering the Cimmerian freedom in exchange for the murder. When that deal seems to have fallen apart, Murilo goes to Nabonidus' villa to do the bloody deed himself -- only to find Nabonidus's pet ape (!) has taken over, imprisoning both Murilo and Nabonidus in the basement. When Conan belatedly does show up, he too ends up trapped. Soon a group of "nationalists" put in an appearance, intent on murdering Nabonidus, and are themselves done away with in grisly fashion by the ape. Eventually, though, the three "rogues" make a dash for it, and Conan goes mano a mano with the ape -- naturally coming out the winner. Nabonidus, the varlet, promptly seeks to betray the other two, and himself meets a bloody (and fairly ignominious) end when Conan decks him with a stool.

Apart from the poor beginning, "Rogues in the House" is remarkably logical and sure-footed, given that it was a first draft. Howard is often complimented for his use of language and imagination, but rarely for the care he puts into the simple reality of things. When, for example, Nabonidus is found unconscious, as he wakes, Murilo asks him how long he has lain there. Nabonidus replies: "A peculiar question to put to a man just recovering consciousness. I do not know what time it now is." Obvious, but how many authors would have thought of that?

There is also unexpected humour, largely centring around the question: "How dumb is Conan?" In fact, this is perhaps a bit of a weakness, since Conan comes across as quite a bit dimmer than in later stories. Nabonidus has a special contraption to show him what is going on in the room above and, even when he explains how it works, we are told Conan can't understand, but simply puts it down to magic. In another situation, though, Conan's naivete adds to the humour and reality I already refered to. Because Nabonidus's ape was dressed in his master's robes, both Conan and Murilo initially jump to the mistaken conclusion that Nabonidus is a were-ape. Okay, not a big joke, admittedly, but you had to be there...

Howard's attitude toward the ape is also a bit of a surprise. When Conan slays it, he pays it an unusual honour: "I have slain a man tonight, not a beast. I will count him among the chiefs whose souls I've sent into the dark, and my women will sing of him." Apart from the question of just which women the perpetually partnerless Conan is refering to, the sympathy shown for this creature is interesting in that it brings to mind another monster ape, one which would have hit the theatres just the year before Howard wrote this story. King Kong. As a Kongoisseur, I like to think that Howard enjoyed that movie so much he decided to imitate it in this story. It's the romantic in me.

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