Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cimmerian 'Stravaganza: The Knock-Off Novels!

In the wake of two successful Hollywood movies, the literary estate of Robert E. Howard opted for a little looting and pillaging of their own: the book-market flooded with Conan pastiche-novels. We've dealt with this phenomenon - and some of these novels - before here at Stevereads, but of course their name is legion. Conan Properties, Inc. got rather excessively glad-handed with its permissions, and they weren't exactly super-vigilant about vetting the manuscripts that were no doubt pouring into their mailbox - and the result was teeming multiplication of titles that usually managed to share only one thing in common: they should never have been written. The irony is that most of these books burst onto the American book market at at time when the average reader walking into a retail bookstore would have been able neither to find the original Howard stories on the shelf nor to order them ... for copyright reasons rather to abstruse to parcel out here, a decades-long period opened up in American bookstores during which the pastiches were the only game in town if you wanted to read about Conan and the Hyborian Age.

The reading wasn't very good. In fact, most of these pastiches were gawd-awful, such stiff exercises in freelance paycheck-harvesting that you almost want to offer to pay the authors to stop. One of the earliest such cases was Conan the Swordsman, a 1978 pastiche by Bjorn Nyberg, who got ample scripting, plotting, and writing help from our old friends L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter, with less than stellar results:
Conan shook a somber head. "I, too, have changed my plans. I'll head north, to see my native land once more."

The queen studied Conan's solemn mien. "You do not sound as if you liked the prospect. Do you fear to return?"

Conan's harsh laugh rang out like the clash of steel on steel. "Save for some sorcery and certain supernatural beings I have met, there's naught I fear. I may come home to trouble with an ancient feud or two - but this does not disturb me. It is just ... well, Cimmeria is a dull country after the southerly kingdoms."

Of course, not all was sheer misery. As we've noted before, such reliable hacks as Steve Perry could sometimes turn in a passably enjoyable C-rate Conan, although Perry wrote so many Conan novels that even generous readers can't expect him to be on his game all the time. His lines are devoid of art, but they're at least commonly readable, if slightly funny in an unintended way. The Cimmerian in his 1984 novel Conan the Fearless certainly wasn't afraid to talk in cliches:
"That is your plan?" Conan shook his head. "I am to scale a giant mountain, enter a castle, search perhaps thousands of rooms until I find our quarry, defeat the forces that might be mounted by a powerful wizard inside as guards, and return with three children?"

"That is my plan, yes."

"Ah. And here I had thought there might be some difficulty in this undertaking. How foolish of me! It will be simple!"

"Sarcasm does not become you, Conan. I am open to better suggestions."

The Cimmerian shook his head again. "Nay, your plan suits me well enough." He touched the hilt of his sword. "I would rather rely on my blade than on complicated posturing in any event."

"I shall go with you," Kinna said.

Conan chuckled. "Nay. I said before I work better alone."

Even an innocent reader will look at that line "I work better alone" and start conjuring parodies, and such readers will be delighted to know that their best efforts along those lines were excelled way back in 1972 by the perennially enjoyable author John Jakes (who later went on to national best-seller status for his novel The Bastard). Jakes was one of the original fans of Howard's Conan, and for all those hours of reading enjoyment, he repaid the author's memory with the highest tribute of all: rich, hilarious parody. In his novel Mention My Name in Atlantis (shamefully out of print), the ancient continent of Atlantis is rich and prospering - until it's visited by Conax the Barbarian of far-off Chimeria. Conax his huge, hairy, and hilariously hot-tempered - and he's read way too many Robert E. Howard Conan stories:
"And you come from the far north?"

"That's right. I sailed out in command of my goodly band of reavers, our dragon-sail craft bound to plunder the shipping lanes. However, that storm I mentioned caught us by surprise. Our stout vessel foundered, then broke apart. In the midst of the screaming, squalling, storm-lashed holocaust of hell -" There he went again with his heroic phraseology. But prudence prevailed; I merely nodded in an attentive way.

Fingering the hilt of his mighty sword, he went on: "- in the midst of that wailing, thundering, thrice-cursed maelstrom, we sighted the monster."

"Monster?" I replied, starting visibly.

"Indescribably phantasmagoric! A creature from time forgot! A sea-swimming dragon of them most baleful appearance. It loomed amidst the crashing waves and fixed us with its damned glowing eye. Had I been near enough to pierce it with my stout broadsword, it would have, I am certain, gushed pustulant ichor from hell!"

"That's very interesting. But are you sure this monster wasn't some figment of your imagination?"

He whipped up the sword so that its point distressed my belly. "If you're questioning my veracity, Crok knows that I'll send you shrieking to the nether fires!"

Our hapless narrator might watch his p's and q's, but the continent of Atlantis doesn't prove so circumspect, and disaster soon follows. It should almost go without saying that in terms of imagery, pacing, and mood, Mention My Name in Atlantis is by far the best Conan pastiche of them all, achieving its quality even while it's bashing its source. Like so many Conan pastiche novels, it'll make you laugh - but in a good way.

But what's the state of Conan-books now, in the present day, right on the eve of the big-budget Jason Momoa movie from Lionsgate? Our Cimmerian 'Stravaganza concludes tomorrow by answering just that question!


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