For a short course I gave online in the past weeks, I went back and revisited The Hour of the Dragon, a novel by Robert E. Howard, also known as Conan the Conqueror.
This is the only novel about Conan ever written by Howard, and it was used many years ago to introduce the character to the Italian public. In this, the Italian publisher followed the lead of Lancer Books, that in 1950 started its Conan series with this same book.
It was not the first Conan book I ever read (that was Conan the Adventurer) but it was the first Conan story by Howard I ever read in English. And I read The Hour of the Dragon in the Berkeley edition curated by the late Karl Edward Wagner, and based directly on copies of Weird Tales. Without, that is, the editorial interventions of De Camp.
Much later, in the mid-90s, I managed to get a copy of the Donald M. Grant hardback edition, that rests on a secret, heavily guarded shelf, too priceless to be contemplated by mortal eyes.
And finally, I re-read the book in the past week in the Gollancz complete Conan Centenary hardback edition.
Let’s take a look at this thing.
The novel presents us with a Conan now forty-five and “settled”, having usurped the throne of Aquilonia. But betrayal is at hand – and the political adversaries of the Cimmerian do not hesitate to resort to necromancy, bringing back to life the late Xaltotun, a very dark sorcerer from the ancient and corrupt empire of Acheron1. Stripped of the title and incarcerated, Conan manages to escape, and gets on the trail of the Heart of Arhiman, the only weapon that will allow him to face and defeat his enemies.
Written by recycling ideas and situations from a dozen previous stories, The Hour of the Dragon represents Bob Howard’s (failed) attempt at breaking into the British market. The manuscript was in fact prepared in 1934 for the English publisher Dennis Archer, who however went bankrupt before being able to publish it.
When Archer’s project went belly up, Howard recycled The Hour of the Dragon and Weird Tales published it as a serial.
True, there is a legend of some dozens of printed and never bound copies, which were for some time a sort of Holy Grail of Howardian collectors, as well as the hypothesis of a chapter missing from the Weird Tales edition and present in the manuscript sent to Archer.
However, it is almost certainly a matter of apocryphal and unfounded stories.
According to some, The Hour of the Dragon is not the best work of Howard, who was more comfortable with the short or intermediate form, and the criticisms is usually pinned on the structure too episodic, making the book almost an all-inclusive tour of the Hyborian Age … if today is Thursday this must be the Stygia.
Certainly, the novel enjoys the dubious primacy of presenting the most unexciting female protagonist of the entire Hyborian canon: the slave Zenobia that frees Conan from his prison, and that the Cimmerian promises to marry. The fact that later, in the apocrypha written by Carter and De Camp, he actually marries her is certainly the worst crime perpetrated by the two writers against Conan.
And yet the novel is a fun read, and if it is not the top of Howard’s work, it is still a solid work; it certainly offers a good overview of the strengths of the Texan writer, committed to giving the best to impress the potential British customer.
Episodic and at times very predictable, Conan the Conqueror (the title of De Camp’s revision of the original) guarantees us a good tour of the Hyborian world, and introduces us to Conan in a rather interesting moment of his career – in the role of a king oppressed by his crown, and all too happy to return to the adventures and freedom of his youth.
For the rest, the editorial changes made by De Camp – apart from the title – are not, despite what the purists claim, deserving of being burned at the stake. As usual, De Camp removes the politically incorrect language of Howard, adapting the text to the sensibilities of a general public, and inserts perhaps a couple of pedantic paragraphs.
Very pedantic, admittedly.
It was all in all a pleasant read.
The action is fast, the episodes are fun, there is a sexy vampire that somehow makes it easy to forget poor Zenobia, and the payback is quite adequate.
Howard’s technique is maybe not constantly top notch, but is certainly well above average.
All in all, a pleasure despite being a work-related choice, and highly recommended.
But really, if you never read The Hour of the Dragon, what are you doing here?
- I always find it curious that my Italian publisher is, indeed, Acheron Books. ↩