(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number nine.)
"Conan once!... Conan twice!", the come-on on the back of this 1970 collection of sword-and-sorcery tales boasts. Maybe it should just read, "All right Conan a bunch of times, okay? It's not like any of these other stories would be around without him anyway." The whole genre of heroic fantasy, after all, was more or less summoned into existence by a lonely Texas kid named Robert E. Howard who channeled his lifelong sense of displacement into "yarns" sold cheaply to pulp magazines. Howard had a deep love for brawlers, history, and philosophy. From this he spun tales of sorcerers, barbarians, ancient gods (and boxers, cowboys, and, er, a tough Puritan named Solomon Kane) until taking his own life at the age of 30 in 1936.
Or maybe it wasn't Howard who summoned them into existence at all. Describing Conan's creation, Howard talked about being directed by the barbarian himself in writing his adventures. Whether he believed that or not, the elements of Howard's Conan tales obviously predate the early 20th century American West. But it's there that he found a way to create a world that's a mash of prehistory and medieval Europe where everyday life is equal parts sinew and dread.
I've got a lot of respect for Howard and his most famous creation, who's been turned into something of a cliché by successors and imitators. And however accidentally, this collection provides a fairly easy way to talk about what Conan is by opening with a fairly dreadful imitation by Lin Carter that's everything the best Howard stories are not. Carter's Conan er Thongor, is here in charge of a merry band that encounters a hot-blooded (and, as Carter points out at every opportunity) mostly naked young woman. From there it's a little bit of exposition, a little bit of magic, some fighting, and then a trip off into the sunset, girl in hand. The end.
The collection closes with one of the best Howard stories, "Beyond The Black River," in which Conan, in the process of hiring himself out as a mercenary for the forces of civilization, finds himself in conflict with a wizard named Zogar Sag. Sag, after suffering an insult at the hands of the settlers, has decided to exact revenge by calling on help from old, bestial gods and barbaric locals. Conan fights well but fruitlessly. In the face of such opponents, civilization doesn't have a chance and he's left with no choice but to agree when someone suggests, "Barbarism in the natural state of mankind Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance." Howard could write formulaic, half-naked-lady-centric tales to pay the bills, but at his best he took Conan fairly deep into Heart Of Darkness territory. He had a clear, if simple, vision of how the world worked and he sought to express it using sword and sorcery as his tools.
The rest of the collection is filled out by some who sought to use the same tools, with varying degrees of success. Someone named Bjorn Nyberg contributes another Conan tale, one of dozens of continuations written by other authors. John Brunner's "Break The Doors Of Hell," is a barbarian tale in only the loosest sense, and not terribly interesting in any sense. Michael Moorcock contributes an adventure from his albino anti-hero Elric and Robert Zelazny delivers a story of a warrior named Dilvish.
Moorcock and Zelazny are by far the most-respected non-Howard writers here and I'll have to confess to not having read any of their other stuff. Zelazny's "The Bells Of Shoredan" made little sense to me, and some research confirmed that it was part of a larger series of tales. (Still, this passage didn't make me eager to seek out more: "Hohorga's eyes were the eyes of a ruined god: infinitely sad, as proud as an ocean of lions." Hey! That's some weird kind of ocean!) Moorcock's Elric adventure "The Flame Bringers" was more intriguing, but, again, I felt like I was jumping in the middle of the story.
I left The Mighty Swordsmen with more or less the same impression of its sub-genre as I had going in: There's Howard and then there's everyone else. Still, the nutty introduction by editor Hans Stefan Santesson would have made it all worthwhile anyway. A choice passage:
All that is demanded of us is the willingness to accept the possibility that civilizations have risen and have fallen, long before those which may be known to us by their records or their monuments. We have to recognize the possibility that we may even have misread these records or failed to understand the meaning of these monuments.
Indeed, we must also recognize–and I am aware of the fact that it is heresy to even murmur this, even in fantasy and science-fiction circles–that ours is not necessarily the best of all possible worlds.
Heresy! Heresy! But we'll forgive you, Hans, if you give us an amazing Jim Steranko cover to go with your heresy. Hey, there it is.
Next: Shotgun by Ed McBain
Then: The Long Afternoon Of Earth (a.k.a. Hothouse) by Brian Aldiss
And then: The Valley Where Time Stood Still by Lin Carter