A Tale of Two Conans

The Essential Malady compares Chuck Dixon’s Conan, which is based on Robert E. Howard’s public domain Conan, with Tor’s Conan, which is presumably licensed from the Swedes holding the rights to the later portrayals of Conan the Barbarian.

Last month I reviewed The Siege of the Black Citadel by “The Legend” Chuck Dixon. I mentioned in the review that it was the first I had read that wasn’t written by Robert E. Howard (excepting comics). I expressed that I was reluctant to read stories by other authors because I didn’t believe they could live up to Howard’s work but that Dixon came very close which is high praise.

Late last year, the first new Conan novel since 2011 was published by Titan Books some months before Dixon’s new story was out. This is written by S.M. Stirling who has been a published author since the 1980s though I hadn’t heard of him until now. Blood of the Serpent is written as a prequel to what is probably Howard’s most recognised story, “Red Nails” and indeed, the events are so closely tied that it is included at the back. When I noticed my library had a copy, I thought it would be worth reading to compare with both Howard and Dixon.

It wasn’t but read on as I elaborate.

S.M. Stirling is a competent enough writer and he has made use of plot details provided in “Red Nails” to construct his narrative. What is wrong with this has little to do with his writing and more to do with what is revealed in the Afterword:

“Red Nails” is pure Howard… Raw and powerful, it’s also very much of its time— written almost a century ago, when our culture could be less socially aware and genre fiction in particular often exhibited rough edges some of today’s readers may find jarring.

From this alone we can establish that both the publisher and the author are embarrassed by (or dislike) the source material. It is not clear who wrote the Afterword so I will assume this is a shared opinion. It would have been more honest to put this in the Foreword so a potential reader could have saved themselves the hassle of finding out. As opposed to “some” of today’s readers, the main reason Howard is seeing a resurgence in popularity is because readers are looking for exactly what they find within Howard. Far from “jarring”, they find his stories refreshing and exciting.

The other problem is if you think Howard had “rough edges”, then why write a new story so closely related instead of one that can stand on its own? Blood of the Serpent is completely dependent on “Red Nails”. The ending is the beginning of the latter and so the ending to Blood of the Serpent isn’t really an ending at all without knowledge of what it is leading up to. What makes this even worse is that it is over three times the length and establishes nothing that wasn’t done more efficiently and eloquently in the opening pages of “Red Nails”. So on these points alone it is pointless but it gets worse still.

Read the whole thing. Apparently it does get worse, and the comparison is considerably in The Legend’s favor. And this explains why Castalia is beginning to delve into revivals of public domain icons, because if we don’t provide correct continuations that respect and hold true to those icons, the Zero History crowd will provide false continuations that invert and betray them.