The Bloody Crown of Conan is the second of Del Rey’s three-volume collection of Robert E. Howard’s Conan yarns. Including Howard’s only Conan novel, it has the fewest stories of any volume in the collection. The Bloody Crown of Conan is also heavily illustrated, this time by Gary Gianni. Gianni did excellent work for George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms collection. I don’t like his Conan artwork quite as much (the art in my paperback copy is black and white). There is a foreword by Gianni, an introduction by Howard scholar and series editor Rusty Burke, several synopses, drafts, and notes, and the second part of editor Patrice Louinet’s long essay on the Genesis of the Hyborian Age.
The stories in this volume are longer than those in the first volume. Conan is well served by stories running more in the novelette range. The novel, The Hour of the Dragon, can’t help but feel a bit conventional, even with its breakneck pace. The other two stories, The People of the Black Circle and A Witch Shall Be Born, are two of my favorite of all the Conan stories. This volume might be a better introduction to Conan than The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.
Hank Williams famously said, “You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” Conan’s version is “It takes oppression and hardship to stiffen men’s guts and put the fire of hell into their thews.”
Like Hank Williams, Robert E. Howard hailed from a rural area deep in the hinterlands. Like Hank Williams, Robert E. Howard lived a short, tortured life. Like Hank Williams, Robert E. Howard’s writing is raw and full of truth. It’s rough around the edges and occasionally a little stilted. But don’t let anyone tell you he wasn’t a great stylist. It’s just that Howard is just the sort of writer that today’s would-be literati don’t appreciate. For one, he wrote bloody, visceral action scenes. I’ll take the below passage from the first volume over R.A. Salvatore’s over-choreographed, antiseptic action scenes any day.
Details stood out briefly, like black etchings on a background of blood. She saw a Zingaran sailor, blinded by a great flap of skin torn loose and hanging over his eyes, brace his straddling legs and drive his sword to the hilt in a black belly. She distinctly heard the buccaneer grunt as he struck, and saw the victim’s tawny eyes roll up in sudden agony; blood and entrails gushed out over the driven blade. The dying black caught the blade with his naked hands, and the sailor tugged blindly and stupidly; then a black arm hooked about the Zingaran’s head, a black knee was planted with cruel force in the middle of his back. His head was jerked back at a terrible angle, and something cracked above the noise of the fray, like the breaking of a thick branch. The conqueror dashed his victim’s body to the earth—and as he did, something like a beam of light flashed across his shoulders from behind, from right to left. He staggered, his head toppled forward on his breast, and thence, hideously, to the earth.
He also didn’t hew to the stylistic dogmas of our day. Howard really wanted to be a poet, and it shows in his prose. He also had a strong command of rhetorical devices. He tended to tell, then show, but that’s a small bug for a deep reader and a feature for a shallow reader. Similarly, he uses a lot of repetition, especially when describing Conan. Definitely a feature when you’re reading stories in a magazine months apart, mildly annoying when reading the stories in rapid succession. And despite the modern obsession with reaching for the thesaurus every time you might repeat a word, repetition can be used to powerful effect.
Preening, would-be intellectuals will never know the joy of Howard for the same reason they will never know the joy of Hank Williams. It’s not just their bias against certain aspects of storytelling. And it’s not just their stylistic dogmatism. Robert E. Howard and Hank Williams spoke from a place those people have never been nor care to go.
Table of Stories
The People of the Black Circle, first published Weird Tales, September, October, and November 1934
The Hour of the Dragon, first published Weird Tales, December 1935 and January, February, March, and April 1936
A Witch Shall Be Born, first published Weird Tales, December 1934
You can find all of my Summer of Conan posts here.