Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Hour of the Dragon

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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.

The-Hour-of-the-Dragon-Berkley-fold-out

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.

weird_3512Written 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.

conaninoldladyshouse1

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.
sphere-conantheconquerorEpisodic 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?


  1. I always find it curious that my Italian publisher is, indeed, Acheron Books. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

8 thoughts on “The Hour of the Dragon

  1. I grew up reading the Howard/ DeCamp/ Carter Paperbacks (along with the Horseclans books and everything by Michael Moorcock I could find), and while I do prefer the Conan stories as originally written by Howard, those paperbacks, especially the introductions written by (I think) DeCamp, are what really made me fall in love with Sword and Sorcery. I’ve just started going back and picking my way through the pastiches and edited stories, and I’m finding them not as bad as the reputation they have.

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    • I agree.
      I grew up with the same stories (I only missed the Horseclans, damn!), and I liked very much De Camp’s introductions and his tongue-in-cheek attitude. And while no one can write as Howard did, there’s a number of pastiches that are at least pretty decent adventure yarns.

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  2. Actually, Lancer books picked up Conan and started publishing the series in 1967. Gnome books published the story as Conan The Conqueror in 1950. Ace books got the rights to publish it under that title from Gnome in 1953 as one of their ACE Double Books with the second novel being The Sword Of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett. Original cost 35 cents.

    I found a copy in an old bookstore I used to frequent back in the early 1980’s. It was just sitting on the shelf in the SF/Fantasy section.

    When I opened it to see how much it was marked for sale I started laughing because the guy in the store had marked for the original cover price of 35 cents!!

    It’s currently sitting on my REH – Lin Carter – Fritz Lieber shelf in a small plastic protective bag. the real funny part is that it’s a 65 year old paperback and it’s in better shape than most of the ones I have that were published in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.

    Here’s a link to an image on eBay;

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  3. Yeah, but I’d love to find a copy of the Hardcover like the one you have.

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