I started re-reading my R.E. Howard Conan collection last Sunday. Why? Why not! It's good stuff.
Anyway, it's gotten me thinking about some stuff for the old blog (see my previous post - or rather don't waste your time, it's just me venting on a bad day). This is the first, some thoughts about the first story, "The Phoenix on the Sword."
The basic plot is that four conspirators are trying to kill King Conan because they can usurp the throne Conan himself usurped. But there are two things they don't expect. First is the awesome barbarian prowess of Conan (of course), and second is a betrayal by a slave owned by one of the conspirators. There's of course a supernatural element, and being the first story Howard wrote about Conan it provides a good basic introduction to the Hyborian Age without being too heavy on the exposition.
The story is well paced, with the conspirators and their slave being introduced in media res, and Conan getting a bit of dedicated character building in the second "chapter." After that, the plot moves quickly, and the betrayal by the slave being the instrumental event that shapes the story.
This actually is not surprising, since the basic plot was originally written as a Kull of Atlantis story, "By This Axe I Rule." Howard had written the story already, let it sit, then when the character of Conan came to him, it was rewritten to star his new character. I've got the 2003 Del Rey collection, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, and the appendices and introduction make it clear that there were several drafts of the revised Conan version, as well. I'll have to get my Kull collection to see if it makes any comment about how many drafts the original went through. Needless to say, Howard put a lot of work into this story, and it shows.
It's definitely a good way to introduce one of the most famous characters in fantasy fiction. The next two stories aren't so well done, but I'll save them for another post.