The authorized edition by Karl Edward Wagner
Copyright 1977, by Glenn Lord
Beyond the Black River
Shadows in Zamboula
The Hyborian Age
(out of 5 stars)
This is one of three Conan books (dear to my heart) put out by Berkley and edited by Karl Edward Wagner which contain original Conan stories exactly, word-for-word as they were published in Weird Tales -- before L. Sprague de Camp and friends got their grimy mits on them. The other two are Conan: People of the Black Circle and Conan: The Hour of the Dragon. For this, Wagner deserves a very special place in Valhalla. Of the three books, this is my least favourite, but that's only because it contains "Beyond the Black River", one of my least favourite Conan stories. It also features "Shadows in Zamboula" and "Red Nails" -- two of the best.
"Shadows in Zamboula" (Howard's original title was "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula") weaves together two nifty plots. First, we have an evil inn-keeper who makes a tidy profit handing over unsuspecting patrons to a bunch of local cannibals. When he tries to make a profit off the Cimmerian, he finds he's picked the wrong sap. Then, at the same time, we have Conan helping Zabibi, a lovely Zamboulan dancer (naked throughout, no less), to find the antidote to a madness drug given to her sweetheart by an evil wizard, Totrasmek. To enlist the Cimmerian's aid, the dancer offers him nothing less than her supple self -- to which Conan readily agrees.
This is one of the sexier Conan tales, most notable for the scene in which Zabibi must literally dance for her life between the darting heads of four cobras -- surely a classic perils-of-Pauline situation. As well, the whole inn-keeper storyline has a wonderful E.C. Comics-feel, complete with a grisly, but suitable end for the villainous inn-keeper.
One quibble: We are told both that only a Zamboulan dancer could have avoided those deadly cobras and that only a dancer could wander about naked without feeling shame -- yet, in the surprise ending, it turns out Zabibi was only pretending to be a dancer. Now, the naked bit we can excuse (for obvious reasons), but how come she dances so good?
In "Red Nails", Conan teams up with the swordswoman Valeria (who should have gotten her own pastiches instead of that pale pretender, Red Sonja!). Together they find themselves trapped in a weird, fully-enclosed city inhabited by two peoples locked in a desperate war which has long since passed the point of diplomatic resolution. This is a war of extermination.
Of course, Robert E. Howard could never resist piling on the complications, and here is no exception. Though Conan and Valeria offer their services to one side in the war, Valeria soon finds herself the object of the devouring, and seemingly lesbian gaze of the King's wife, Tascela. In the end though, it turns out Tascela desires Valeria for something other than...that.
Again, this is one of the sexier stories, and perhaps even goes a little over the top in a couple of scenes. In one, the reader is treated to the remarkably prolonged and explicit whipping of a villainous girl sent to drug Valeria. Well, they didn't call them the "thrashing thirties" for nothing. In the other scene, Valeria herself is manhandled by King Olmec in ways which seem a tad undignified given how tough she seemed in the beginning. Depending on your inclinations, these are either the best parts or the worst parts.
This was the last Conan story Howard wrote before giving up on Weird Tales due to the delay in payment, and I think it was an honourable conclusion.
In "Beyond the Black River", the story is largely told from the point of view of Balthus, a young soldier stationed on the Black River guarding the settlers against the Picts from across the way. There are many interesting elements here: especially the swamp-demon, and the notion that animals too have their gods. But for me it just isn't Conan. According to the afterword, this is a common reaction among Conan fans. Writes Wagner: "It all comes down to whether...[the reader] is attracted by the reality of this presentation, or more at home in the conventional milieu a la The Thief of Baghdad." Count me in the latter category. The Hyborian reality should have a consistent feel, and here, among the buck-skin and log forts, that feel is out-of-joint. Then, too, throwing in a loyal dog hardly helps matters. The whole thing begins to feel less like Conan and more like Gentle Ben.
Finally there is the question of a heroine -- or lack thereof. Wagner feels this is a plus, that to have turned Balthus into an "endangered wench" would have turned the story into the "standard fare". Well, maybe, but a heroine would have given Conan someone to be concerned for, rather than the general "save the settlement" motive found here. Then, too, Howard writes all his male characters as such brutish musclemen (though he tries to soften Balthus) that heroines lend his stories much needed characters with which we can better sympathize.
Both the foreword and afterword are musts for Robert E. Howard fans -- very, very interesting.
Finally, this book contains the complete version of REH's essay, "The Hyborian Age", his fictional history of Conan's world which he relied on when writing the stories.
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