Conan | Conan the Barbarian #1
Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter | Ace Books | 1967 | 221 pages
The Thing in the Crypt (Carter & de Camp)
The introductory tale to the collection reads like a single scene, brisk and to the point, with a hair-raising payoff that prefigures the choices presented in choose-your-own-adventure stories or D&D campaigns.
Fleeing a hungry pack of wolves, Conan discovers the remnants of an ancient high altar hidden deep in a cave. The mummified corpse of a long forgotten king is seated upon the throne, with a gleaming sword held across its lap. The fantastic blade beckons Conan to pick it up. What could possibly go wrong?
The Tower of the Elephant (Howard)
The second story plays like a heist, only Barbarian style—without anything remotely resembling meticulous planning, but featuring plenty of run-right-in-and-take-it action.
Scaling a bejewelled tower to plunder the Elephant’s Heart, a fabled gemstone imbued with magical power reputedly hidden inside the walls, Conan battles against a pack of guardian lions and a pig-sized spider before ultimately facing off against an evil wizard. However, the reveal of the gem’s namesake infuses the simple attempted theft with an unexpected sense of melancholy, and throws open a window on an entirely new cosmology.\
The Hall of the Dead (Howard & de Camp)
Joined by the sole survivor of a team of soldiers ordered to capture him, Conan plunders the ruins of the fabled metropolis of Larsha.
Once inside the walls of the cursed city, Conan tracks through a sticky trail of ooze on the ground, leading him into battle against a fantastic creature — or a simple, gargantuanly grown, garden pest — that puts the musclebound Cimmerian unexpectedly on the run.
The treasure room scene treads on some more overly familiar ground (and precipitates another action sequence) as Conan discovers seven brilliant gems on a low altar, with only the sightless gaze of seven seemingly dead guardians to view the theft—-until he drops the gems in his pouch.
The epilogue in the tavern provides a satisfying reversal of fortune, as Conan attempts to spend the spoils of his pillage. Although he perhaps fails to recognize any greater moral to his tale, Conan does display a good-natured allegiance to the phrase, “Honor Among Thieves”.
The God in the Bowl (Howard)
When a guard stumbles across Conan standing above the body of the slain master of the house, a murder mystery of sorts ensues with the local constabulary standing off against the muscular Cimmerian.
The inquisitor’s focus eventually shifts to an unusual item of interest: an ancient burial urn now standing open in a chamber adjacent to the murder room. Comparable to a suspenseful chamber piece, tensions among the group ebb and flow, ultimately being released with the sudden beheading of a pompous young aristocrat. In the wake of this violent act, the former occupant of the sarcophagus-like object reveals its otherworldly nature, setting the (now cleared) stage for a horrific climax.
Rogues in the House (Howard)
Conan descends into the murkiness of palace intrigue after agreeing to assassinate Nabonidus, a corrupt high priest, in exchange for being released from prison.
All does not go according to plan, however, as Conan ultimately finds himself trapped in the sewers below Nabonidus’ manor with the young nobleman who hired him, and —- unexpectedly —- his intended victim. Seemingly, the priest’s strange ward Thak, a hairy beast akin to a missing link in man’s evolution, chose this night to run amok and kill everyone in the great house. The unusual threesome strike a new alliances to evade Thak’s murderous rampage, and escape the rooms above—-rooms set and loaded with diabolical traps blocking their route to freedom.
Although capable of fantastic violence and possessing little understanding of the complex rules of society, Conan’s actions illustrate the barbarian’s unwavering internal moral compass, set in stark contrast to the duplicity of the highborn classes.
Plus a brutal creature fight.
The Hand of Nergal (Howard & Carter)
While engaged in some battlefield carnage as a mercenary, Conan witnesses a nearly apocalyptic attack by ethereal, bat-shaped beings. Awakening after the onslaught to discover himself alone in a sea of corpses, he is recruited by a young girl to aid the local king in his battle against a powerful sorcerer. It seems the dark magician has gained possession of a legendary ancient artifact, giving him control over unimaginable forces of darkness.
After building a bit of lore surrounding the Hand of Nergal, and its opposing talisman, the Heart of Tammuz, Conan sets off for the throne room to confront the mage and destroy the evil object.
Ultimately rescued by the girl from the immediate threat of the shadowy demons released from the Hand, Conan essentially stands back and watches the battle of opposing cosmic forces, reduced to a light show playing before his eyes.
The City of Skulls (Carter & de Camp)
While escorting Princess Zosara to her betrothed in a distant land of Khan nomads, a swarm of savage attackers descends upon the wedding party. Along with Zosara, Conan and his fellow mercenary Juma are the only survivors. The trio of prisoners are led across the rugged Talakma mountains to the remote kingdom of Meru. Once inside the capital of Shamballah, a sacred city festooned with images of skulls, they are brought before King Jalung Thoma to learn of their fate.
It’s all stage setting for a few action pieces, including Conan and Juma making a particularly bone-crushing escape from a slave galley. Later while stealthily working their way through passages under the city, they —quite fortuitously—emerge in the high temple during a ceremony with the captured Zosara. Conan unexpectedly discovers the true nature of the power held by the “toad-like little god-king”, battling yet another monster-come-to-life-by-wizardry, and confirming the understandable rationale behind the barbarian’s superstitious fear of the uncanny.