Monday, March 31, 2014

Guest Post: The Literary Conan - a Primer

Revisiting Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories

By Brandon Engel

Conan the Barbarian has occupied a special place in popular culture for nearly 80 years. He was first created in the thirties by writer Robert E. Howard (1906 – 1936), who is credited with inventing the “sword and sorcery” genre of pulp fiction. Howard was a contemporary of writers Robert Bloch and H.P. Lovecraft, all of whom contributed stories to the magazine Weird Tales, and it was through this very magazine that Howard debuted Conan.


Conan hails from the fictional land of Cimmeria. Along his travels, he usurps thrones, engages in gruesome warfare, and encounters mystics, wizards, and giant serpents. The stories would ultimately inspire a series of Marvel comics which premiered in the seventies and were continually published into the early nineties. There was a feature film adaptation directed by John Milius titled Conan the Barbarian (1982), which was followed up by Richard Fleischer’s poorly received sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984). The year 2011 saw a reboot of the franchise starring Jason Mamoa, Conan the Barbarian..


The stories read like exercises in romantic, macho escapism. They often feature tales of heroism, anti-heroism, and torrid love affairs shared between the titular barbarian and athletic pirate women in dragon infested forests. Like Tolkien and the other great escapist fantasy writers of the early 20th century, Howard constructed his own geographies, races, and civilizations, offering the reader a completely alternate reality into which they could immerse themselves.

In 2011, Ballantine books put out a compilation of six original Robert E. Howard stories from the thirties, all of which originally appeared in the magazine Weird Tales. The book was released to coincide with the release of the aforementioned Jason Mamoa Conan the Barbarian film, thus providing a more comprehensive context for the character and his world.

Selected Works:

“The Phoenix on the Sword” (1932)

This story is one of the first Conan stories that Howard penned. It tells of a Conan who is further along in his years, and is presiding over the Kingdom of Aquilonia, having usurped the throne of the villainous King Numedides several years earlier.

It’s an intriguing, fantasy-based political allegory, wherein the character of Conan, who was initially respected and held in high regard by the Aquilonian people, has watched his popularity decline sharply over the years due to the public’s mounting distrust over his Cimmerian ancestry.

A band of Conan’s adversaries assemble with the intention of attacking Conan while his defenses are down.

However, Conan is visited by the ghost of Epemitreus, a long-since-dead sage, who also marks Conan’s sword with the image of a phoenix, thus invoking the power of Howard’s fictional god Mitra.

A running theme throughout the Conan stories is that mystical entities come to Conan’s rescue when he’s in a pinch, so that in spite of the many hardships he endures throughout the course of his lifetime, there are even more moments where the stars seemed to be aligned in his favor.

“The People of the Black Circle” (1934)

Published over the course of three issues of Weird Tales, the story is a historical allegory set during Howard’s fictional Hyborian Age. It’s a story which covers a lot of ground, extending from the land of Vendhya (a fictionalized interpretation of India when it was still united with Pakistan) to Ghulistan (fictionalized Afghanistan).

At the beginning, Bunda Chand, the king of Vendhya, has been killed, and it is believed that he was murdered by a band of sorcerers: The Black Seers of Yimsha. Chand’s sister Devi Yasmina swears vengeance, and it is decided that Conan, who, at this time, is the leader of a hill tribe, is needed. Devi and the rest of the royal court of Vendhya orchestrate the capture of seven hill-men from Conan’s tribe with the intention of ransoming Conan into their bidding.

Conan instead abducts Yasmina, and insists that he won’t let her go until his men are freed. Along the way, other political entities intervene. Conan seeks refuge in mountain villages, but is pursued by several other armies. Even though the seven hill-men are put to death, Conan nevertheless murders the Seers, wages war against the Turanian army alongside his hill-men, and ultimately safely returns Yasmina to Vendhya.

“The Tower of the Elephant” (1933)

Conan, at a much younger age, is drinking in a tavern amongst a band of roughnecks, and he overhears a story about a phenomenally powerful jewel known as the “Heart of the Elephant,” which is said to be housed in an ominous tower guarded by an evil wizard named Yara.

Conan sets about finding the jewel, and along the way he finds a traveling companion named Taurus of Nemedia. They go to great lengths to uncover the mystery of the jewel, battling fierce guardian lions and gigantic, venomous spiders before gaining entry into the tower.

It’s within the tower that Conan discovers a mystical person/elephant hybrid named Yag-Kosha whom Yara has kept prisoner for years. To harness the power of the jewel, Conan must kill Yag-Kosha and spread his blood on the jewel. It’s a fascinating tale, which displays something of the wanderlust and dynamism of the character in his youth.

“Queen of the Black Coast” (1934)

Conan, trying to escape political enemies in Argos, demands entry onto a barge. When the barge drifts into pirat- infested waters, Belit, known as “The Queen of the Black Coast,” and her minions lay siege to the ship and kill everyone aboard except for Conan, with whom she falls passionately in love. The pair begins conquering villages, and becomes the stuff of seafarers lore, with many survivor’s from ravaged ships retelling stories of the fearsome power couple.

Eventually, they find ancient ruins and a bizarre winged monster. Belit professes that she will stop at nothing to prove her love to Conan.  Not even death itself will deter her. Much of the story is about the burgeoning passion between Conan and Belit, which lends the story an emotional timbre which is seemingly absent from the rugged, hyper-macho works of Howard otherwise.

“Red Nails” (1936)

This was the last Conan serial published through Weird Tales, and once again, it features Conan and a romantic interes, this time the pirate Valeria, whom Conan meets in the wilderness while Valeria is in exile for having killed a man who attempted to assault her.

After a stand-off with a dinosaur, they find what at first appears to be an old, abandoned city. They learn that there is a hermetically-sealed world within this old city, known as Xuchotl.  There, the political rulers who built the city were overthrown long ago by a tribe overseen by brothers Xotalanc and Techulti, who had led their people peacefully. That is, until the brothers began feuding after Techulti had an affair with Xotalanc’s wife.

Xuchotl is now fraught with tension, and while Valeria and Conan are initially embraced for their athletic prowess and military capabilities, things soon take a strange turn.

Eventually, we come to learn that a servant girl, who makes attempts to drug and abduct Valeria, is actually a sorceress, and the wife of Xotalanc…who had an affair with Techulti. The sorceress wants to sacrifice Valeria on an altar as part of a ritual that would endow the sorceress with Valeria’s youth.

One of the themes featured prominently in this story is the “lost civilization” trope. The idea of a civilization unraveling to its own decadent excesses was also featured in other Conan stories, such as “Xuthal of the Dusk.”

“Rogues in the House” (1934)

This story is somewhat similar to “The People of the Black Circle” in that it’s another situation where Conan is recruited to carry out the bidding of a nation-state during a time of crisis. His reputation precedes him…

This story takes place in a province between two feuding states, Zamora and Corintha, the former of which is ruled by the Murilo, and the latter of which is ruled by the priest Nabonidus.

Murilo learns about Conan, who is reputed as being a man of unmatched strength and agility, and decides to recruit him to kill Nabonidus.

Conan murders a corrupt priest, and afterwards, while drunk, he is turned over to the authorities by a prostitute. Murilo goes to visit Conan in jail, and arranges for Conan to be released on the condition that he murder Nabonidus.

Ultimately, Conan breaks out on his own but decides nevertheless to honor his word to Murilo.

After exacting his revenge on the prostitute who betrayed him, Conan enters Nabonidus’s castle, only to find that both Murilo and Nabonidus are being held captive by Thak, an evil, Neanderthalic, ape-person/hybrid whom Nabonidus had abducted as a child and made into a slave.

Conan ultimately slays Thak, and as Nabonidus proclaims his evil plans to harm Conan and Murilo, Conan swiftly kills him.


The world that Robert E. Howard created is a grisly one, featuring many of the hallmarks of escapist hetero-masculine juvenilia in genre pulp, such as Conan’s sexual escapades, the swords, the sorcery, notions of the “self-made man” transcending the limitations of what he was born into (a motif which is expanded upon by John Milius in his film adaptation), the moral ambiguity of the character, and the fact that he always seems to triumph.

Even though it is heavily gendered prose, Howard had a fertile imagination, and the books are incredibly fun to read.

What’s more, after reading this material you will see traces of Howard’s influence everywhere, from classic swashbuckler films to comic books and contemporary action films.

Like many of his contemporaries, he didn’t receive due recognition during his lifetime, a fact made all the more tragic because Howard took his own life at a young age upon learning that his mother had slipped into a coma.

Regardless, his work lives on, and his influence is as resonant today as it has ever been.

Author Brandon Engel is a Chicago-based blogger who writes about everything from genre pulp fiction, to vintage horror films, to energy laws. Visit his blog, and follow him on Twitter: @BrandonEngel2

Conan The Barbarian Week!

As you may have guessed from the posts featured so far today, Conan the Barbarian is the subject of the week (though I’ll be continuing my retrospective of V, as well…).

Actually, my desire to look back at the Conan films originates with my good friend -- and an extraordinary blogger -- Roman Martel.  

Roman mentioned Conan and the Robert E. Howard’s character’s relationship to Riddick in the comments section of one of my reviews for the Van Diesel franchise earlier this year.

That mention got me to thinking that the time was right for a Conan retrospective here on the blog.

So this week, I’ll be taking a look at the cinematic, toy, and literary versions of Conan.

We’ll continue the quest this evening, at 7:00 pm. At that time, I’ll have guest blogger, Brandon Engel presenting a primer on the Conan stories in print.

Then, throughout the week -- Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday -- I’ll be reviewing the original films, and the 2011 re-make.

Wednesday will be merchandise/toy/pop-art day.

So by Crom, I hope you join me for this mini-journey back to the Hyborian Age…

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Barbarians

The word “barbarian” usually describes a person who is deemed uncivilized or uncultured. 

Yet by the same token, there is positive aspect of the description “barbarian,” at least in fantasy circles. 

A barbarian might be uncivilized, but he or she could also be an outsider, thus separated from the corruption and avarice of the “insiders.”

Barbarians -- usually portrayed on-screen as powerful, physically-fit nomadic men -- have appeared frequently throughout cult television over the years.  They are almost universally depicted as "wandering warriors," but personalities with the capacity -- if not always the will -- to command armies.

One of the earliest examples of the TV barbarian emerges from a Saturday morning TV series, Thundarr The Barbarian (1980 – 1982), which involves a warrior of the post-apocalyptic future. With his friends Ookla and Ariel at his side, Thundarr battles mystical wizards who seek to control the dangerous military riches and antiques of the long-gone 20th century.

The 1990s brought more barbarians to television than any decade before or since. 

This was the heyday of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995 – 1999) starring Kevin Sorbo, and its spin-off, Young Hercules (1998 – 1999), which starred a young Ryan Goslin as Herc. 

Another Hercules spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess (1995 – 2001) had more success, even, than its originator and ran for 134 episodes in syndication. The series starred Lucy Lawless as a warrior roaming the ancient countryside in search of adventure and redemption.

The most famous Barbarian of all -- Conan -- even had something of a career resurgence in the Age of Clinton.  Two animated series, Conan the Adventurer (1992 – 1993) and Conan and the Young Warriors (1994) aired mid-decade, and the franchise came to comprise over seventy half-hour episodes. 

Then, in 1997, a live-action series Conan the Adventurer ran for twenty-two episodes in syndication and starred Ralf Muller at Rober E. Howard’s hero. In this series, Conan battled the wizard Hissah Zuhl, who had enslaved Cimmeria and killed his parents.

Another animated series, Dave the Barbarian (2004 – 2008) aired last decade on Disney and spoofed barbarian tropes.  The series featured the adventures of a barbarian who lived in Udrogoth with two sisters, and his parents, the King and Queen.

In 2011, Jason Mamoa -- who later played Conan in a re-boot of the movie franchise -- essayed the role of Khal Drogo, a Dothraki barbarian in the first season of the popular fantasy, Game of Thrones.

Finally, the original Star Trek (1966 – 1969) even featured an episode with “barbarians” in it, using the term's original definition. In this case, the Enterprise encountered a planet that had modeled itself on ancient Rome, and anyone from outside Rome -- including Kirk, Spock, and McCoy -- were termed “barbarians.” The episode, "Bread and Circuses" aired in the series second season.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Barbarians

Identified by SGB: Star Trek: "Bread and Circuses" (Rhodes Reason)

Identified by Hugh: Thundarr the Barbarian

Identified by Hugh: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

Identified by Hugh: Conan the Adventurer

Identified by Hugh: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (Kevin Sorbo)

Identified by Hugh: Xena: Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless)

Identified by Hugh: Conan The Adventurer (Rolf Muller)

Identified by Hugh: Young Hercules (Ryan Gosling)

Identified by Hugh: Beast Master (Daniel Goddard)

Identified by Duanne: Dave the Barbarian

Identified by Terri Wilson: Erik Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) in True Blood.

Identified by Hugh: Game of Thrones (Jason Mamoa)

Identified by Carl: Vikings (Travis Fimmel)

Television and Cinema Verities #115

“The ’80s was a time when studios started rethinking and looking at B movies, suddenly, as A movies. There was also the effect that women’s liberation had…Action movies became the outlet where these guys could all run to and still feel like He-Man. But specifically action movies where heroes looked the part. It was like in the ’60s when all of those bodybuilders — Reg Park, Steve Reeves, Gordon Mitchell — all went and did those Hercules movies. It was the same in the ’80s: if you had the body and could act a little bit and had some talent with fight scenes, then you were in.”

-Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses the beginnings of his film career -- the era of Conan – in a 2012 interview with Empire Magazine.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Advert Artwork #10

Tribute: Kate O'Mara (1939 - 2014)

Author, actress, and horror icon Kate O'Mara (1939 - 2014) has passed away today, according to reports in the press.

The lovely and talented O'Mara was a staple on British television for a generation, and appeared in such series The Saint (1967), The Avengers (1969), The Persuaders (1972), The Protectors (1974), Return of the Saint (1978), Dempsey and Makepeace (1986) and Absolutely Fabulous (1995 - 2003).  

O'Mara may be best-remembered in America, however, for her turn as Cassandra 'Caress' Morrell -- sister to Joan Collins' Alexis -- on the prime-time soap opera Dynasty (1986).

For genre fans, O'Mara was also a welcome and beloved face. 

She portrayed a renegade Time Lady -- The Rani -- on Doctor Who (1963 - 1989) on three memorable occasions.  She starred opposite the sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) in "Mark of the Rani" and opposite the Seventh (Sylvester McCoy) in "Time and the Rani."  In 1993, Ms. O'Mara  resurrected the villainous character for the short called Dimensions in Time.

O'Mara also made a mark in the much-loved horror films of Hammer Studios, playing in The Vampire Lovers (1970) and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970).

A performer who could exude a dark intelligence as well as a brand of alluring sensuality, O'Mara brought humanity and subtlety to her many roles in and out of the genre. 

In fact, Doctor Who fans of the modern era have often clamored for a return in the new series of The Rani, a testament, no doubt, to O'Mara's delightful and beloved performances in the role from the mid-1980s.

Tribute: Lorenzo Semple Jr. (1923 - 2014)

The press is now reporting that Hollywood screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (1923 – 2014) has passed away of natural causes at the age of 91.

If you grew up in the late-1970s and early 1980s -- and read the genre magazines -- you probably remember Mr. Semple’s name.

Although the older generation of fans at that time remained highly critical of his work throughout his life, Mr. Semple wrote many cinematic touchstones of my generation, including King Kong (1976), Flash Gordon (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983).

I admire all three of those films (and have written reviews of them on the blog…) but King Kong and Flash Gordon were controversial upon release, especially with purists who apparently didn’t like the films’ self-awareness or touches of humor.

The biggest source of controversy regarding Mr. Semple, of course, involved his 1966 TV adaptation of Batman (1966 – 1969), in which “camp” was a major factor. 

Long-time fans of Batman comics disliked the series' jokey approach, though again, my generation grew up with that Adam West series and many folks love it to this day. I know that I still get a kick out of the Dozier series’ dynamic colors, the amazing Batcave set, the Batmobile, and the roster of celebrity “villains,” which included Julie Newmar, Vincent Price, Maurice Evans, Roddy McDowall, Fank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, and more.

Sure, the series doesn’t take Batman entire seriously, but the glorious thing about the TV series is that it worked on two levels. For kids, the series was entirely serious, because the children didn’t pick up on the campy humor. Yet adults could enjoy the series specifically for its sense of humor. 

Frankly, after a decade of angst-ridden, humorless, mega-expensive superhero films, it’s nice to watch an episode or two of the 1960s these days and experience a work of pop art that actually operates intellectually on different levels. And in a sense, the Batman series was very faithful to the 1950s-early-1960s Batman comics.

Outside the genre, Mr. Semple’s work was generally far more warmly received.

Mr. Semple wrote one of my favorite films of the late 1960s, Pretty Poison (1968), as well as such highly-regarded efforts as Papillon (1973), The Parallax View (1974), and Three Days of the Condor (1978).  In 1984, he wrote Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, a film which unlike King Kong or Flash Gordon hasn’t undergone a critical re-evaluation, and is not likely to, either.

At Mr. Semple’s passing, I would like to convey my condolences to his family, but also my sincerest thanks and appreciation for giving my generation so many unforgettable movies. 

Mr. Semple gave the world the return of Sean Connery as 007 after more than a decade away, a version of King Kong featuring social commentary (about the Energy Crisis of the 1970s), and what remains to this day the definitive Flash Gordon adaptation. 

Mr. Semple's words and ideas were a major part of my youth and will always remain a part of me. He will be greatly missed, but he lives on in those audiences his work touched. 

Outré Intro: Adventures of Superman (1951 - 1958)

The introductory montage to Adventures of Superman (1951 - 1958) is elegant simplicity. 

This introduction is concise, vivid, and blunt. 

In short, it transmits to the audience absolutely everything it needs to know about the superhero series in order to enjoy an episode.

The introduction opens with an adventurous title card (above), and then we get the perfect conjunction of voice-over and imagery.  What we see is, simultaneously, what we are told.

First, we get acquainted with Superman's amazing capabilities.

He is "faster than a speeding bullet," and the montage cuts to a gun firing. 

He is "more powerful than a locomotive," and so we see a train racing by on a track.

He is able to "leap tall buildings in a single bound," and the camera pans up and up across the exterior of a skyscraper.

Next, a voice implores us to "look up in the sky."  It's a bird! It's a plane!'s....Superman.

During this interlude, we are treated to the series central (and stock...) special effects footage, of Superman flying through the air. We hear "wind" sound-effects as he travels.

The next series of compositions are all the same, modified only by one small change between shots, again proving the montage's economical nature.  

First, we learn that Superman is a "strange visitor from another world" as we see him striding over the Earth in his colorful costume. The background of the planet suggests this alien or interplanetary nature.

Then, the image shifts.  Only Superman changes, as the background remains the same.  Now, he is seen in his "disguise" as "Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter from a major Metropolitan paper, the Daily Planet.

Finally, the image changes again.  An American flag now appears behind Superman (back in uniform...) when he learn that the hero fights for "Truth, justice, and the American way."  The flag appears just as the narrator stress the word "American."

In just under a minute then, this colorful and terse montage introduces us to Superman's powers, his origin, his secret identity, and his quest.

In short, it's absolutely perfect. There is not a wasted breath, image or sound here, and in some sense, this brevity of detail captures the essential strength of the central character, the Man of Steel.

Next week on Outré Intro: Space:1999 Year Two.

20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dar...