Cover by Ken Kelly

Conan: The Hour of the Dragon
The authorized edition edited by Karl Edward Wagner
Copyright 1977, by Glenn Lord

(out of 5 stars)

This is the only Conan novel REH wrote and also the only full length novel he ever completed. This edition was one of three Conan books (dear to my heart) put out by Berkley and Karl Edward Wagner, the other two being Conan:Red Nails and Conan:The People of the Black Circle. Unlike all previous editions of The Hour of the Dragon which were altered and/or edited in various ways for God knows what reasons, here is presented the original text as it appeared in Weird Tales. If you can find it, treasure it.

Another version was released under the title Conan the Conqueror as part of the "Conan the (pick an adjective)" series, but, given that the editors weren't even willing to keep the title, I know which version I'd prefer.

Chronologically, this is the final Conan story, set when he is king of Aquilonia. Intrigue is afoot when an evil wizard, Xaltotun, is raised from the dead in order to help bring about the death of Conan so that Valerius, exiled in neighbouring Nemedia, can ascend the throne of Aquilonia. The wizard, however, has his own plans for the Cimmerian and secretly keeps Conan alive in a dungeon. Conan escapes, of course, and sets off to find a magic gem which is the only thing capable of defeating Xaltotun. The bulk of the novel consists of this search and, as such, The Hour of the Dragon is basically a Hyborian road movie.

The Hour of the Dragon is my favourite Conan story, bar none. Now, I freely admit that may only be because it was the very first Conan story I ever read, but I also think it has something to do with the story's length. Unlike other Conan stories, here the sheer duration of the adventure increases the sense of grandeur and scale. There is a greater sense of immersion both in the reality and in the events themselves. When we reach the end, we feel we have really been through the wringer -- and gotten our money's worth.

At the same time, though, I am forced to admit that I don't understand why The Hour of the Dragon works so well. It shouldn't really. For one thing, it is extremely episodic, with many of the episodes lasting no more than a few pages. At one point, for example, Conan wakes to find himself threatened by ghouls. In two pages, he hacks them to pieces and rides off. This is plot? And yet, somehow we don't care. Perhaps the reason is precisely because the episodes are so short. We are swept along from one exciting adventure to another without time to ask ourselves how all this relates to the larger picture -- or whether Howard is just marking time until he has enough words to make a novel.

Another weakness is the lack of a love interest. Now I know there are many Conan fans who prefer the stories without "wenches", but I personally am a sucker for a pretty face. If for no other reason, I find a female character serves to soften the edges, offering much needed contrast to the plethora of often brutal and unsympathetic male characters frequently found in Conan stories. Then too, in amongst all the disembowelling, a lissome maid is always a welcome relief. There are a couple of women, but both are give short shrift. One, Zenobia, appeared scantily clad on the cover of Weird Tales. Given how tiny her part was, I think this shows I'm not the only one who wanted to see more of her.

A third weakness only became apparent to me after many years. There are very few truly memorable scenes. Nothing on the order of, say, the crucifixion scene in "A Witch Shall be Born", or...well, just about any scene in "The People of the Black Circle". The Hour of the Dragon is brimming with exciting scenes -- but not memorable ones. Somehow, here, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We remember the overall experience, rather than the individual exploits.

But that, apparently, is enough, and The Hour of the Dragon works very well indeed. Wagner called it "one of the best novels ever written in the epic fantasy genre" and I certainly agree. But I find it all the more intriguing when compared with Howard's earlier Conan story, "The Scarlet Citadel", of which it is something of an expanded version. Intriguing, because I really don't like "The Scarlet Citadel". That earlier story was only the second Conan story to be published and Howard had not yet figured out how to make Conan fun. The first part reads like a nightmare version of a C.L. Moore story as Conan wanders through the aforementioned dungeon observing all manner of horrors. The second part is one prolonged battle scene, endlessly describing whose host smote who. Somewhere in the two years between "The Scarlet Citadel" and The Hour of the Dragon, Howard refined his craft and discovered a perfect balance between art and pulp. It affords a fascinating peek into the evolution of a master.

Howard wrote The Hour of the Dragon (in four months) at the behest of a British publishing house, in hopes he could finally become a full fledged novelist. Unfortunately, as described in the afterword, the publisher went under and Howard ended up selling the story to Weird Tales instead. The magazine published it in five issues, the last issue coming out only two months before Howard died. It was thus the last Conan story which he saw published.

Both the foreword and afterword by Wagner are wonderfully informative and recommended reading for anyone interested in REH.

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