The Literary Horizon: A Princess of Mars, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

I will valiantly defend to the death the amazing, life-changing work that comes out of speculative fiction—by the way, have I mentioned you should read The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey recently? But there’s still always a time for good, old-fashioned pulp fiction, which is exactly what we’ll be looking at today.

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Suddenly projected to Mars, John Carter found himself captive of the savage green men of Thark. With him was Dejah Thoris, lovely Princess of Helium. And between them and rescue lay a thousand miles of deadly enemies and unknown dangers.

via Amazon

A Princess of Mars is considered to be a classic sci-fi text, having been published in 1917—accordingly, this makes it both eligible for Project Gutenberg and for the delightfully subversive Penguin Classics cover. Perhaps it’s all the Penguin Austens I encountered last semester, but the combination of the pulpy, Silver Age with the usual Penguin packaging just makes me smile.

Amanda at the now defunct Life and Times of a “New” New Yorker found it to be a fun and straight-forward read, and the horror writer Jeffrey Thomas considered it to one of his top reads from 2008 at the Fantasy Book Critic.

A Princess of Mars was published in 1917.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard

“Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities . . . there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars. . . . Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand . . . to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

Conan is one of the greatest fictional heroes ever created–a swordsman who cuts a swath across the lands of the Hyborian Age, facing powerful sorcerers, deadly creatures, and ruthless armies of thieves and reavers.

In a meteoric career that spanned a mere twelve years before his tragic suicide, Robert E. Howard single-handedly invented the genre that came to be called sword and sorcery. Collected in this volume, profusely illustrated by artist Mark Schultz, are Howard’s first thirteen Conan stories, appearing in their original versions–in some cases for the first time in more than seventy years–and in the order Howard wrote them. Along with classics of dark fantasy like “The Tower of the Elephant” and swashbuckling adventure like “Queen of the Black Coast,” The Coming of Conanthe Cimmerian contains a wealth of material never before published in the United States, including the first submitted draft of Conan’s debut, “Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard’s synopses for “The Scarlet Citadel” and “Black Colossus,” and a map of Conan’s world drawn by the author himself.

Here are timeless tales featuring Conan the raw and dangerous youth, Conan the daring thief, Conan the swashbuckling pirate, and Conan the commander of armies. Here, too, is an unparalleled glimpse into the mind of a genius whose bold storytelling style has been imitated by many, yet equaled by none.

via Amazon

First off—no, I have never seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger films, and have no desire to. But the upcoming film starring Jason Momoa looks like hearty B-movie fantasy fare, and man, do I miss the days when mediocre fantasy films just happened; no concerns over whether or not moviegoers would go see it or not. And I don’t think I’ve ever read action-adventure short story collections, so bring it on.

Larry at the OF Blog praises Howard’s pacing and tension, but points out that these stories can be very backwards when it comes to race and gender. Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings absolutely loves them, though.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian was published in 2003.

11 thoughts on “The Literary Horizon: A Princess of Mars, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

  1. I truly love both of these, they are great examples of downright fun storytelling and yet within them you can see a talent that is far and above the b-grade pulp fare that sprang from these examples. Sadly fiction like this has a tendency to get lumped together and either wholly embraced or wholly cast off. Burroughs and Howard are two that should be embraced. They are well worth the time.

  2. As I mentioned in my comment at Larry’s blog, Howard was a product of his time when it came to race: it’s hardly fair to call him “backward” when practically the entire generation he was a part of felt exactly the same. Even so, there are elements of forward-thinking ideas, like the idea black people aren’t, in fact, perfectly happy to be slaves, and value freedom as much as any white man. Look beyond the Conan stories and you get guys like Ace Jessel, a sympathetic, cheerful, intelligent, proud and independent black man, who’s the lead in two stories, both of which could be argued to be anti-racist; you get N’Longa, who manages to teach Solomon Kane a sombre lesson about instinctive white superiority in “The Hills of the Dead”; you get Saul Stark, a Machiavellian black man who seeks to exploit racial tension in the deep south for his own ends, in “Black Canaan…”

    In short, the racist stereotypes of some of Howard’s stories are just regrettable artefacts of the time. However, Howard could occasionally rise above it, and I think that’s more worthy of notice.

    When it came to gender, however, Howard was practically a proto-feminist: female fantasy pioneer C.L. Moore, creator of Jirel of Joiry, found his work inspirational. Do not mistake the pulp cheesecake found in some of the Conan stories to be in any way indicative of his personal views on women, especially when he creates such feminist powerhouses as Dark Agnes, Red Sonya, Valeria, Tarala, Zelata, Zenobia, and tons more. The cowed slave girls and cunning dominatrices are Howard appealing to the pulp market – specifically the Weird Tales market, who seemed to relish this stuff – and Howard was capable of so much more.

    The problem with “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian,” from my point of view, is that it has a lot of the (in my opinion) mediocre Conan stories. It starts off very strongly with “The Phoenix on the Sword” through to “Black Colossus,” then it dips into three of the most subpar Conan stories, picks up steam again with “Rogues in the House,” then whimpers out with the last two. I would almost suggest you skip “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” ,”Xuthal of the Dusk” “The Pool of the Black One,””The Vale of Lost Women” (ESPECIALLY TVoLW) and “The Devil in Iron,” but even those stories are excellent examples of pulp, they just don’t reach the mythic heights of the others.

    There are a few things that you should probably have in mind to put the tales in context: “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is a spin on the myths of Apollo & Daphne mixed with Atalanta transplanted to Nordic mythology, and “The Vale of Lost Women” is based on the true story of Cynthia Anne and John Parker mixed with gangster noir in a tribal African milieu. Without those very important things to keep in mind, you could get a lot more out of the stories than going in.

    To be frank, I’d rather you got “The Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures” over “The Coming of Conan,” since it has some of Howard’s kickass historical tales, and all the stories are of above-average quality. Most importantly, though, it features Dark Agnes and Red Sonya, who I’m pretty sure could kick even Conan’s arse.

    Even so, I’d love to know what you think of Belit in “Queen of the Black Coast”: if you liked her, you’d LOVE Valeria of “Red Nails” (who unfortunately doesn’t appear until “The Conquering Sword of Conan”)

      • Not at all! Being a Howard fan, I want everyone to read his work, but I recognize that things have changed in the 80 years since the original stories were written, and thus some background and qualifiers are needed to get the full experience.

        There’s only one Red Sonya story, but it’s a blast: “The Shadow of the Vulture” is a historical story set during Suleiman’s siege of Vienna. Far from the mail-bikini wearing rape victim of the comics, the original Sonya wore practical armour, she drank, swore and fought as heartily as any of the men, and she NEVER has to be rescued. In fact, she rescues the male co-protagonist, Gottfried von Kalmbach, a gigantic Germanic mercenary who tends to get drunk at the most inopportune of times (and they don’t hook up: they have a platonic relationship, which seems to be rare in straight male/female partnerships). Howard wanted to write more stories of the duo, but that never came to pass, sadly.

  3. I love the IDEA of pulp fiction but whenever I try to read a pulp book I always end up annoyed and bored. I don’t like the way women are portrayed in any of the pulp books I’ve tried to read, mostly because they’re so trope-y and cliched they don’t seem like real people to me. The men are the same way, but they also get all the action/adventure/exciting bits in the plot while the women trip over their high heels while running away or something. 😦

    I haven’t read a Burroughs book, though, so maybe his are better than the ones I’ve (half) read before?

  4. Anastasia, if you want a heroic female pulp character written by a woman writer, seek out C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories. Jirel was the original woman warrior and her adventures took place in the pages of Weird Tales Magazine right beside those of Conan. The short stories were recently reprinted in a trade paperback from Paizo Publishing called Black God’s Kiss.

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