I recently finished reading the entirety of the Conan stories penned by Robert E. Howard. It’s taken a couple years, reading a story or two in between other books, but I really enjoyed the tales. Howard’s writing style can be difficult to read, but that is common to most writing from the era. I found Howard’s Conan stories to be far more readable than contemporaries like Lovecraft or Burroughs, for instance.
Where does one begin to read the adventures of Conan? Look no further than this list. I’ve selected my favorite five stories. All five really stood out and would be excellent starting points. The best part about Conan is that there’s not a strict continuity. In one story, he’s a king, in the next, an inexperienced thief, and perhaps a mercenary leader in the next. Part of the fun is figuring out which Conan you’re reading about in any given story.
I’ve included links to download free copies of each tale. (Just click on the headers with the story titles.) These are all within the public domain, and thus widely available. If you are interested in more of Howard’s work, I recommend this collection on Kindle. It includes all the stories below, plus most (all but I believe five) of Howard’s Conan stories. I found the formatting was best on this compilation, and it’s only $0.99.
Please keep in mind that these stories were written nearly a century ago, and reflect the attitudes of the time. There are elements that are sexist or racist. I don’t in any way condone these attitudes. However, I believe there’s enough good stuff in the tales that they are worth reading despite these elements.
If you were only going to read ONE of these stories, make it this. The story is one of the quickest reads, and also one of the best. It’s a bite-sized portion of what makes Conan great.
Set early in Conan’s career, the Cimmerian is a young rogue, just beginning to adventure in “civilized” lands. After a bar fight (yes, it’s a trope, but it’s done really well), Conan goes off to infiltrate a wizard’s tower. The object of his quest is a gemstone called the “Heart of the Elephant”. Conan comes across another thief as he sneaks inside, and the two team up to face the wizard’s challenges.
I don’t want to spoil the story, but suffice it so say that there is a great fight scene, and one of the strangest encounters in any Conan tale. There’s a reason why The Tower of the Elephant is one of the most-adapted Conan stories; it’s easily one of the best.
Conan the Pirate? Yep. A good portion of Conan stories are set in the high seas. This one is the best of them. Conan flees onto a departing trading ship, as he is facing a little legal difficulty. (Killing a magistrate tends to do that.) “Hired” on as muscle, Conan gets in good with the ship’s captain and learns sailor-type stuff.
And then, the famed Queen of the Black Coast comes along with her devoted band of pirates. Belit is, in my opinion, the strongest of the female characters in Conan’s life. She and her pirates attack the trading ship, slaughtering all the sailors. Conan fights hard, and kills many of Belit’s crew, but is sure to be slain by the pirates’ large numbers.
But Belit stops them. She needs a lover, you see. And Conan is a big ol’ huk of a man. Thus begins the legendary exploits of Belit, Conan, and their savage crew. The story really starts to get great when the passionate pair come upon a strange island full of treasure, ruins, and horrible monsters…
This time around, Conan is a tribal chieftain. (Hey, just go with it.) An emperor is assassinated by the Black Seers of Yimsha, a bunch of wicked wizards. The new Empress, Yasmina, kidnaps some of Conan’s men, hoping to force the Cimmerian to go after the Black Seers to enact her revenge. Conan ain’t having it, and kidnaps Yasmina instead.
There’s plenty of drama to be had, including a traitorous handmaiden and her lover, an attack by a rival tribe, and all sorts of weird magic and strange creatures. The climax, where Conan and his men head to the fortress of the Black Seers to retrieve Yasmina, put me in mind of a trap-filled D&D module like Tomb of Horrors. Great stuff.
The People of the Black Circle also stands out because of the setting. Howard’s Hyborea was loosely based on the ancient real world. Here, Conan is basically exploring ancient India. There’s even an appearance by a group of Rakshas, who are a bit different than those you’d find in the Monster Manual. This story is heavy on sorcery and horrific wonders, which makes it quite memorable in my opinion.
The typical Conan story follows a standard pattern. Conan is thrust into various strange and dangerous situations, facing either large numbers of normal bad guys to slay, or terrible monsters to defeat. There’s usually a scantily clad woman hanging off his hip. You know, your basic pulp stuff.
The God in the Bowl is NOT typical. We’ve got Conan in full on thief mode, and he’s breaking into the Temple of Kallian Publico. The Temple is basically a museum, full of all sorts of wonders from around Hyborea. Ripe for the pickings, especially for a smart, strong dude like Conan, right?
Well, things go wrong when Conan is discovered by a watchman. The watchman himself has just come across the body of the museum curator, and naturally suspects Conan is the murderer! The city watch are summoned, and from here on out we basically move into a locked-room mystery. After some investigation, it looks like a relic was messed with that shouldn’t have been, and something’s loose in the museum.
The God in the Bowl isn’t a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. Such an unusual take on the standard Conan fare makes it truly stand out among the rest.
One of the things I enjoy the most about Howard’s Conan stories are the weird and wonderful settings they take place in. While Red Nails begins with an exciting battle against a dragon (dinosaur) creature, the majority of the tale is based inside the city of Xuchotl. Huge, walled, and totally enclosed by an emerald dome, the city is basically a series of interconnected rooms. It’s also home to two fierce rival factions.
Conan is joined on this adventure by Valeria. Valeria is a pirate and mercenary and her adventures are nearly as legendary as Conan’s. (She’s quite different from the character named after her in the 80s Conan the Barbarian film.) While Valeria does become the damsel in distress at one point in the story, she’s a capable fighter and far different from the submissive maidens that typically appear in Conan stories.
Valeria and Conan get caught up in the conflict between the two rival factions. Plenty of swordfighting and bloody battles keep the pace quick in this one. The strange history of the city of Xuchotl is quite interesting, and the conclusion of the story is as epic as you could hope for.
Red Nails was one of the latest Conan stories published during Howard’s lifetime, and it is one of the most compelling. At one point, an animated film adaptation was planned, but alas, this never came to be. If you only read one of these stories, make it The Tower of the Elephant, but if you read two, Red Nails is a strong choice.
Next up on my list is reading the Conan comics from Marvel. This summer, the first Epic Collection of these issues will be released. I look forward to purchasing this and continuing my trek alongside Conan through his illustrated adventures.