Echoes of Valour
Edited by Karl Edward Wagner
Copyright 1987, by Karl Edward Wagner
The Black Stranger, by Robert E. Howard
Adept's Gambit, by Fritz Leiber
Wet Magic, by Henry Kuttner
(out of 5)
Conan: The Treasure
Copyright 1980, by Conan Properties, Inc.
Illustrations copyright 1980, by Esteban Maroto
"The Black Stranger" was one of the last Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard and very little is known with any certainty about it. The manuscript was simply found among his papers some time after his death, and it is presumed that it was submitted to Weird Tales and rejected. Another manuscript, called "Swords of the Red Brotherhood", featuring the pirate Black Vulmea, was also discovered and was nearly identical to "The Black Stranger". It, too, had never been published. But which came first? L. Sprague de Camp, in his 1967 essay, "The Trail of Tranicos", noted only that: "There is reason to believe that the pirate version came before the Conan one." On the other hand, Karl Edward Wagner, in the introduction to "The Black Stranger', found in Echoes of Valour, commented that "I have the photocopy of Howard's original manuscript of 'The Black Stranger', which clearly shows Howard's efforts to change the story from the Conan to the Black Vulmea version."
"The Black Stranger" tells the story of Count Valenso Korzetta, who has fled his homeland and sought exile in the wilderness of the Pictish coast to escape a demon who he had called up and then tried to double-cross. When the demon tracks him down, the Count makes a deal with a passing pirate, Zarono -- Zarono can have the Count's niece, the Lady Belesa, in exchange for passage away aboard Zarono's ship. Conan shows up with the news that he has discovered the location of the "treasure of Tranicos". Machinations follow, as does a concerted attack by the Picts.
Although the Vulmea story and the Conan story are virtually the same, the Vulmea version is one of my favourite REH stories, while I don't really care for the Conan one. Why? Firstly, the Vulmea version is slightly shorter and, so, more tightly written. But of more importance is the setting. As Wagner observed in Echoes of Valour: "The Black Stranger" is similar to "Beyond the Black River" in that it is a departure from the usual Conan "Thief of Baghdad" milieu. Again we have log forts and war-painted Picts clearly modelled after North American natives. At the same time, whereas "Beyond the Black River" was western in spirit, "The Black Stranger" is much more of a pirate yarn. Either way, though, trying to fit this setting into the Hyborian reality is like trying to fit Conan into a tux -- something has to give somewhere. Which is why -- although I accept Wagner's conclusion -- I would have assumed that the Vulmea story came first. Turned into a straight pirate yarn, "The Black Stranger" (now "Swords of the Red Brotherhood") finally seems right at home.
"The Black Stranger" has a long, painful history which was chronicled by L. Sprague de Camp in "The Trail of Tranicos" found in the illustrated Conan: The Treasure of Tranicos. For Howard fans, De Camp is a problematic figure. On the one hand, it was through his unceasing efforts that Robert E. Howard's writings were kept alive all these many years. On the other hand, De Camp showed appallingly bad judgment and staggering arrogance in rewriting many of the stories, often for the most ludicrous of reasons. "The Black Stranger" is no exception. In his essay, De Camp detailed the many changes which he made to the story (including the title change to "The Treasure of Tranicos") and his reasons for doing so. To my mind, the effect is to leave one breathless at the sheer pointlessness of it all. Perhaps one can justify tightening the narrative (which, as I said, REH himself did when turning it into a Vulmea tale), but many of the changes were made purely because, to De Camp's mind, the story was not sufficiently tied into the Conan chronology which De Camp had worked out. Such meddling is simply inexcusable.
For that reason, it was a welcome relief when Karl Edward Wagner finally published the original version in 1987, as part of Echoes of Valour. Wagner made it his mission to undo much of the damage done by De Camp as well as many other editors, by publishing Robert E. Howard stories either as they appeared in Weird Tales or, as in this case, as they appeared in REH's unpublished manuscripts. If you can find it, this is the version to read. As for Conan: The Treasure of Tranicos, the principle reason for picking up that book is for the excellent illustrations by Esteban Maroto.
A final point of interest: in "Black Vulmea's Vengeance", (not to be confused with "Swords of the Red Brotherhood", nee "The Black Stranger") reference is made to a pirate named "Tranicos". In the Conan story, we find the "treasure of Tranicos". This raises the interesting question: which came first? Is Tranicos a name more suited to a pirate yarn or a Conan yarn?
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