Pulp Story Review, Robert E. Howard, Sword and Sorcery

The Frost-Giant’s Daughter

The Frost-Giant’s Daughter (first published in 1976)

by Robert E. Howard

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This very short story opens with the last two warriors stand over the snowy field of battle between viking-like fighters, one side with blonde beards and the other hair as red as flame.  One of the tall combatants is a red-headed Vanir named Heimdul, the other is a youthful man with mane of black different from the others as Cimmerian named Conan.  After a brief exchange, Conan slays Heimdul and is the last man standing in this bloody battle of eighty men on frozen fields.

Yet he spies a woman with milky white skin and completely bare of clothing despite the freezing temperature.  She posses an elfin beauty with fair of neither Vanir red nor Aesir but a blend of each.  Conan remarks he knows of no village nearby she could be from.  The beautiful woman leads across plains of hoar-frosted snow to low hills that give way to towering mountains.  It is these silvery mountains of blue ice that the woman springs her trap upon the barbarian warrior.  Her brothers, giants seemly carved of snow and ice with thick armor and frost covered axes, strike  at Conan with the fury of a winter storm.

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This story was originally rejected by Weird Tales hence the publishing date of more than 30 years after the author’s death during the 1970’s fantasy and sword and sorcery boom.  This tale is perhaps the earliest account in Conan’s adventurous life as he is younger than most of Howard’s original stories.

As for the story itself, I can partly understand why it was rejected.  It comes in at a scant seven pages making it the shortest of the Conan stories.  Additionally, there isn’t a whole happening in this story as well.  Conan is the last warrior in a battle of eighty men (which comes off rather incredible even for Conan).  He follows a strange naked beauty for several miles in some strange lust-fueled obsession only to be attacked by frost giants.

For me, The Frost-Giant’s Daughter may be my least favorite Conan story between The Black Stranger and Vale of Lost Women both which are better stories but have elements I dislike more than any of The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.  With The Black Stranger it is swashbuckler/pirate Conan which just seems out of place for the character.  While Vale of Lost Women is one of Howard’s more racist stories though it does have Conan fighting a creature seemly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft.

Bottomline, this is not a particularly good Conan story though it is serviceable and short enough to read without leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

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Pulp Story Review, Robert E. Howard

Blue Flame of Vengeance Review

Blue Flame of Vengeance (originally titled Blades of the Brotherhood and first published in Red Shadows in 1968)

by Robert E. Howard

This short story was never published in Howard’s short life time and was finally published more than thirty years after the author’s death.  The story, as many Howard stories often do, opens sans the title character between a duel between the offended Jack Hollinster and a nobleman named Sir George Banway near the shore of an English town.  Sir George had offended Jack by publicly slandering, Mary Garvin, the woman he loves.  The local magistrate halts the duel after Jack’s quicker blade wounds Sir George’s arm.  While the magistrate considers the matter of honor concluded, the two men seek a clash of rapiers to the death.  However, each second as well as the magistrate break up the two men before it becomes lethal. Image

Jack Hollinster decides to walk the English shore line to cool his head where he encounters a tall swordsman dress in black with a slouch hat, the only bit of color about him a green sash made of fine silk.  The wanderer introduces himself as Solomon Kane and speaks with Jack who is still furious from the duel.  Kane has come here seeking Jonas Hardraker, whom some call The Fishhawk.  Out on the sea is a black ship keeping its distance from the English settlement and Kane believes it to be the Fishhawk’s.

Later, Jack Hollinster wakes from nightmares to discover from his Mary has been abducted by Sir George.  Jack takes with him Sam who told him of the fiend’s deed to go to Banway’s home to rescue poor Mary.  Jack and Sam reach the dilapidated home of Banway, and before Jack can find entrance he is betrayed by Sam.

When Jack awakens he finds himself in the the large cellar of the Banway estate bound hand and foot.  He is surrounded by garish and dangerous pirates as well as Sam and Sir George.  Mary is bound to a great oak ring with him in the cellar where the couple is taunted by Sir George.

The carousing pirates at interrupted by Solomon Kane who had infiltrated the Banway estate.  Armed with two wheellock pistols Kane seeks to rescue Jack and Mary and pierce the black heart of the Fishhawk with a pistol bullet.  The Fishhawk realizing he is dead-to-rights frees the captives and taunts Kane.  He calls Solomon a coward for not having the courage to face him in an honest duel. The ploy works as Kane hands his pistols to Jack and prepares to duel the Fishhawk in a fight with daggers.  Kane armed his dirk and the Fishhawk banishing a wicked-looking Turkish dagger.

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     The Blue Flame of Vengeance is only complete story that Howard wrote about Solomon Kane that has no fantastic or supernatural elements to it.  Even the uncompleted fragments of Kane stories alluded to some sinister supernatural start.  It may have been the lack of any fantastical elements that prevented Howard from being able to sell this story.  It is merely a work of swashbuckling action without any of usual weirdness to it.  This does not take away from the story.  The swordplay and action scenes are Robert E. Howard’s usual visceral and vividly descriptive style the author is known for.  As are the expertly crafted visages of the pirates.  I felt like I was there in the cramped cellar with these brigands.

This story may also be one REH’s more dialogue heavy stories.  Unfortunately, the author tends to be a little weak there, but in Blue Flame of Vengeance to conversing is serviceable.  The character of Mary is largely a plot device which like Red Shadows and nearly every other Howard story with notable exceptions (Red Nails being one) is very typical for him.

As I stated before, I’m a bigger Solomon Kane fan than Conan fan, and I enjoy this story as standing apart fro the other Kane stories having no supernatural element.  It is a good read and well worth it for a fan of swashbuckling action, sword and sorcery, and 1930s pulp stories.  In terms of Solomon Kane stories I rate it a little less than middle of the road.

Bottonline: This is the one Kane story without any supernatural elements that is a decent enough read.  However, it is a little less than average writing for Robert E. Howard and not likely to sway someone who is not already a fan.

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Pulp Story Review, Robert E. Howard, Sword and Sorcery

Red Shadows Review

Red Shadows (first published in Weird Tales, August 1928)

by Robert E. Howard

ImageTraveling on a moonlit night the puritan wanderer named Solomon Kane discovers a mortally girl.  Asking what fiend had done this to her the girl gives the name Le Loup.  As the girl’s body goes limp, Kane’s is filled with righteous rage and swears an oath, “Men shall die for this.”

Later, at the lair of bandit Le Loup, his men tell tales of Solomon Kane vengeance as if he were demon.  Kane has slew nearly all of Le Loup’s men leaving the initials SLK carved into the cheeks of the dead.  Even now the last remaining bandits escaped with barely their lives.  In fact, these survivors have led Kane back to Le Loup’s lair.  It is only by treachery and trickery that Le Loup escapes Kane.

Months, perhaps even years, have passed since the confrontation between Kane and Le Loup.  The trail has lead Solomon to the Dark Continent of Africa after his quarry.  The fire of vengeance no less intense even after countless miles.  Kane has his ship wait for seven days afterward they can assume that he will never return from the jungle.  Solomon attempts to sneak upon the African village that Le Loup has joined in hopes of surprising the Wolf and finishing what Kane believes to be God’s justice.  As stealthy as Kane is, he bested by a humungous African warrior named Gulka, the gorilla-slayer.

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Kane painfully awakens bound in a hut with a ju-ju man.  N’Longa, the ju-ju man, offers deal to Kane to work together to bring down Songa the chief of the village and his new partner Le Loup.  Before Kane can react, he and N’Longa are pulled from the hut and bind him to a post in front of the Black God, a huge, black parody of the human form.  He meets again with Le Loup who is cockly describes all the near misses two of them had in their chase from Italy to Spain.  Le Loup explains that he was never truly concerned to confront Kane, but found the chase far more enjoyable.  That is until now.  Now he has decided he has grown weary of the game and it must end with Kane’s death to the Black God.

Suddenly N’Longa appears as if by magic only to be felled by the great brute Gulka.  Also tied to a post it appears that N’Longa and Solomon Kane are to burn in sacrifice to the Black God.  As one of the villagers begins to set fire to N’Longa, the ju-ju man threatens his enemies with magic he has never let living men see.  The torch man falls dead seemingly of fright.  N’Longa goes into a trance and the once dead man rises once again and moves toward chief Songa…

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   While this is not my favorite Solomon Kane story, I do think it is an excellent example of the tenacity of the character.  The story also foreshadows Kane’s future adventures in Africa has well as the strange friendship between the puritan and N’Longa the ju-ju man.  The story’s basic frame Kane seeking to help a young girl/woman for no reason beyond it being God’s will or good will be seen again in The Moon of Skulls.

I also think it is important to spend sometime in this review to go over the racism or perceived racism found within this and other Robert E. Howard (REH) stories.  Yes, Howard describes Gukla as having an ape like head and many of the African villagers having flabby red lips.  Chief Sulka is given a particularly unsavory description.  Even N’Longa speaks pigeon English in this story.  However, I do not believe it was Howard’s intent to make the Africans seem inferior rather Sulka and Gukla are villains and as such given ugly features as short hand to their villainy.  In the later story The Hills of the Dead, N’Longa speaks highly eloquently in Kane’s dreams due to the ju-ju man’s vast intelligence not bound to the crudeness of language.  In fact N’Longa demonstrates in that story to understand the universe better than Kane or really any other white man with his knowledge of the supernatural.  Finally on this subject, I will state that REH lived in rural portions of Texas his entire life in the early part of the twenty century.  There is was nothing stopping him from being much more racist that he writing are given the place and time he lived, and yet some of his writing seems to contradict this.  I won’t say that his stories don’t have any racism when view through contemporary values, but that I believe that his critics are far more harsh toward him that he truly deserves.

I want to finish up by stating that Solomon Kane is my favorite Robert E. Howard protagonist.  I enjoy his adventures far more than Conan’s exploits.  However, I can see why Conan has wider appeal.  Kane is too rigid and fanatical in his cause seeming less like a man and more, as I’m sure Howard intended, a weapon of God’s justice.  REH himself noted that using earth’s own history was often times more of a noose that required far more research for creating a story than it was worth.  While nearly all of Conan’s world has a fairly obvious real world equivalent, Howard used this a short hand and changed the parts he wanted or was ignorant of to serve plot of Conan tales.

Bottomline: Red Shadows was still early in Howard telling of his stories and has a few rough parts.  Additionally, the African depictions could be offensive to modern readers depending on how they interpret them.  However, this story is a very good tale of swashbuckling and sword and sorcery.

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Pulp Story Review, Robert E. Howard, Sword and Sorcery

The Phoenix on the Sword Review

The Phoenix on the Sword (first published Weird Tales 1932)

by Robert E. Howard

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by Andrew Robinson

The first novella of Howard’s iconic character is a startling contrast to the image Conan the barbarian has in popular culture.  In this first story Conan is king of Aquilonia with his adventuring days long behind him.  The story starts with a conversation between the Stygian sorcerer turned slave Thoth-amon and his current master Ascalente setting up the exposition for the basis of the story of The Phoenix on the Sword.  Asalente along with four other men (Dion the fat baron of Attalus, Volumana the Count of Karaban, Gromel the Black Legion Commander, and Rinaldo a fiery poet-minstrel) seek to overthrow King Conan.  Ascalente knows each of his fellow traitors reasons: Dion has royal blood and believes that gives him the right to the throne, Volumana seeks to return to the old regime where the nobles could collect and keep far more taxes than today, and Grommel seeks to be commander over the entire army of Aquilonia.  Only Rinaldo has no personal ambition; he sees Conan as a barbarian tyrant that wrongly claimed the throne by slaying King Numedides and taking the crown for himself.  Soon these men will assassinate the King and their coup will be complete.  However, Ascalente worries that Dion’s nerves with show the traitors intentions early, or worse yet, turn the traitors in.  For that reason, Ascalente send the Thoth-amon to watch over the fat baron.

In Chapter two King Conan speaks of his laments to Prospero, Seneschal of Aquilonia, the work being a ruler is far more difficult that fighting any man in combat.  Conan speaks of when he sieved the crown of Aquilonia he was greeted as a liberator.  Now the people spit on his name and burn him in effigy.  Led by Rinaldo, the people sing songs about old King Numedides and even placed a stature of him in the temple of Mitra in his memory.

Chapter three involves Thoth-amon under of the guise of serving Dion.  Dion is indeed starting to crack and Thoth-amon reassures the rotunt noble that the plot cannot fail.  Thoth-amon even attempts to ally himself with Dion to rid himself of the yoke of Ascalente by warning the baron that once Conan is murdered, Ascalente with Imageturn on him.  However, Thoth-amon being a formerly powerful magician could help Dion if agreed to help him find his magic ring.  Dion mostly ignores Thoth-amon for the lowly slave he is but shows some interest in the his story about a ring.  Thoth-amon describes this ring which Dion states he has something much like it.  Producing his lucky ring from a secret compartment in his seat, Dion actually possesses Thoth-amon’s ring of sorcery.  The Stygian slave springs onto the blubbery noble plunging a dagger deep into the Dion.  Thoth-amon contacts his true master Set and uses the magic of the ring to summon a shadowy misshapen baboon-like monster to destroy Ascalente.

Chapter Four begins with Conan in a strange dreamland where he encounters the sage Epemitreus who had been dead for 1500 years.  Epemitreus warns Conan that he is betrayed and something monstrous not of this world is loose.  The sage enchants Conan’s sword with the outline of the Phoenix.  Conan wakes confused with his sword in hand, the phoenix etched on its blade.  He takes no time putting on his armor.

The rogues and traitors burst in on King Conan’s bed chambers to find the King party armored and for their assassination attempt.  Conan standing one versus twenty men knows that he will be slain this night, but he will take as many as he can before he dies.  Grommel charges first, his head smashed but not before shattering the King’s blade.  Rinaldo screams and attacks like a mad man ignoring Conan’s attempts to persuade him.  Reluctantly, Conan also finishes off the minstrel.  Bloodied, Conan continues to fight slaying Volema.  However, during the conflict with Ascalente, the murderous traitor is killed by the talons of Thoh-amon’s nightmarish beast.  The beast then turns on Conan who instantly kills it with the broken blade of the Phoenix Sword.

     The Phoenix on the Sword is an action-packed story that Robert E. Howard clearly knew he was going to write many more stories about the character Conan and the world a Hyboria.  What did surprise me was I was expecting a later story with Thoth-amon as the villain that never manifested.   This story is far from the best or even one of my favorite Conan stories it feels very much like Howard was still trying to figure out what he wanted out of Conan and his world.  My biggest complaint would be this story has many characters a few of which could easily been edited out (Volema for one) especially for such a short tale.  Almost none of which make a second appearance in a Conan story written by Howard.

Bottomline: I’m appreciative that Weird Tales bought this story and Howard did create this world, but The Phoenix on the Sword is a long way from his best writing and story telling.  It is average fantasy pulp.

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