Review: Robert E. Howard’s ‘Conan: Hour of the Dragon’


 

Hour of the Dragon was first serialized in Weird Tales magazine, appearing between December of 1935 to April of 16. It was later published by Gnome Press in 1950 in hardback as Conan the Conqueror. The first Weird Tales episode came one month after Man-Eaters of Zamboula. It is the seventeenth published story in the Conan canon, and the last to see print in Robert E Howard’s lifetime. It is also the author’s only novel-length Conan tale.

 

Spoilers abound below.

 

If you have not read it, please avail yourself of that pleasure before reading this review. Like many classics pulps tales of yore, it is available to read without fee, and you may enjoy it.

 

 

In HOUR OF THE DRAGON, which is the last tale Howard told of Conan while alive, the brooding Cimmerian returns to his roots, and we see him in the same situation and same scenario as his first tale The Phoenix on the Sword : Conan is set on the throne he won in battle, and beset by corrupt courtiers and treacherous nobles, who, unable to face his sword or undermine his popularity, stoop to unmanly and unnatural sorcery to undo his rule.

 

We are reintroduced to his loyal friends, Count Trocero of Poitain and his general, Prospero. We meet his wife to be. Not without supernatural aid, Conan’s savage sword prevails. It is a fitting farewell.

 

Technically, Red Nails is the last tale Howard wrote, sold before his death and seeing print the month after. Two tales not published in his lifetime are The God In The Bowl and The Black Stranger. Posthumous collaborations and pastiches, some better and some worse, and retellings in comic, film, television, and even radio plays, continue to this day beyond my patience to count.

 

Nonetheless, by the internal chronology of the stories, we may consider this the final foray of Conan, because the theme of his departed life as an adventurer here comes to a finale, and the untold story of his life as king and father and founder of a dynasty is implied.

 

It is noteworthy that the whole span of the Conan canon, the whole of the tales published by Robert E Howard, from first to last, ran from December of 1932 to October of 1936, a mere four years, and comprised less than a score of stories.

 

 

I must confess this is not my favorite Conan tale.

 

Some authors are better suited to the tension and economy of the short story or novella, and the architectural foresight and craft needed to maintain raising and falling action in due proportion across the span of a whole book is not theirs.

 

Both H.P. Lovecraft, in his sole novel-length work DREAMQUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH and Robert E. Howard in HOUR OF THE DRAGON, betray this limitation. Both novels consist of a series of episodes connected only by the main character, who himself displays no character growth nor change throughout.

 

In this case, the episodes are straightforward, eerie or action-packed by turns, but no characters are carried over from one to the next, and there are few dramatic plot twists here, as we have seen in some shorter tales, and no single theme, setting, nor central event.

 

There is however ferocious action from start to finish, fray and fracas by land and sea, epic clashes of chivalry and infantry by the thousands, fights in a haunted forests or ancient temples; and these various vivid scenes are visited by necromancers bestirring the undead to a hideous mockery of life, sinister priests and sneaking footpads, slave revolts and sudden death, oriental assassins with eerie powers; here is torture, revenge, betrayal and escape; not to mention slave girls yearning for true love or voluptuous vampire-queens yearning for living blood; while an unliving sorcerer-king of ancient Acheron slumbers in the sinister opium dreams of the fumes of the black lotus.

 

In this longer work, and Conan is King, so he has leisure to mention his political philosophy:

 

I but wish to hold what is mine. I have no desire to rule an empire welded together by blood and fire. It’s one thing to seize a throne with the aid of its subjects and rule them with their consent. It’s another to subjugate a foreign realm and rule it by fear…

 

Tyranny in the original sense of the word referred to any sovereign elevated to the throne by force of arms rather than claim of right. Conan is one such, as is any founder of a dynasty. His stated philosophy divides the popular and paternal form of such a tyranny from unpopular and alien, as must be the case when building empires.

 

Volumes could be written on the insight. Perhaps learning to bear the weight of a royal crown made Conan wise.

 

 

Conan also has time to take the measure of the age in which he lives, which cannot live up to this rule:

 

“Age follows age in the history of the world, and now we enter an age of horror and slavery, as it was long ago.”

 

Speaks Howard here of the Hyborian age or his own, on the eve of world war renewed?

 

The days of … free cities are past, the days of empires are upon us. Rulers are dreaming imperial dreams, and only in unity is there strength …

 

Again, speaks he of the Hyborian Age, or ours?

 

HOUR OF THE DRAGON opens with an evocative scene worthy of Howard, setting the mood and ensnaring the reader immediately via a few well-chosen words with intimations of the momentous and eldritch events to come.

 

 

Four conspirators, possessed of courage as profound as their lawless ambitions and capacity for evil, through darkest magic, seek to restore the mummy of the ancient wizard Xaltotun to life, using a mystic gem or talisman called the Heart of Ahriman, and, with his help, to overthrow the realm Conan rules as a just and well-loved king.

 

 

As is also typical of Howard, the political situation is complex rather than simple, as it would have been had Howard been writing historical fiction rather than prehistorical:

 

One of the conspirators is an evil priest turned necromancer who hopes to wake the dead; the second, a prince who schemes to slay his royal brother and usurp the neighboring kingdom of Nemedia; the third is an exiled kinsman to the king Conan overthrew, hence claimant to the throne of Aquilonia; and finally is the wealthy Nemedian baron funding and backing both their ambitions, who means to rule two kingdoms through them, and, eventually, all the civilized world.

 

Unfortunately, having created such a splendid and larger-than-life anti-hero in Conan, Howard often has difficulty making Conan’s opponents memorable. They cannot be pillars of virtue, for there is no such thing in the picaresque world of the Hyborian Age; and cannot be bolder, fiercer, stronger, more savage or more manly than Conan, for there is no such thing in any world.

 

The whole point and theme of the Conan stories is that something inexpressibly precious is siphoned out of the souls of men when civilization grows old: a rude courage, a savage sense of honor, an unselfconscious strength and simplicity which scoffs complexity, legalism, self-restraint, hence which scorns deception, occultism, conspiracy, and all craven sleights.

 

This means the civilized and mortal men conspiring against Conan rarely have any astounding virtue or grandiose villainy to them, save for sorcerers.

 

In this case, the four men are described as: large; small and dark; tall and yellow-haired; large; and their names are Orastes, Tarascus, Valerius, Amalric. I had to reread the passage where they are introduced nine times to remind myself of their names and roles. They are not memorable.

 

Likewise, Xaltotun himself cuts a somewhat forgettable figure, at least to look at, described merely as “a tall, lusty man, white of skin, and dark of hair and beard” but his dark eyes are “deep and strange and luminous.”

 

Hence our rogues gallery, at the beginning, consists of two princes, two sorcerers, and a rich baron. More rogues are encountered later, as the plot unfolds. Many more.

 

No doubt, like the child in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, you are wondering which of these five villains Conan kills. Like the grandfather, I needs must report that he kills none of them.

 

There is a comic book adaptation where Conan is on hand to slay two or three of them, but, alas, in the original text, it is not so. More on this later.

 

 

As hinted above, sorcerers in a sword-and-sorcery tale tend to be grandiose, and have more grandiloquent lines, than evil princes or bad barons. Orastes, the necromancer who revives Xaltotun, is given a paragraph to expound his dread and dreadful past:

 

“I AM no longer a priest of Mitra,” answered Orastes. “I was cast forth from my order because of my delving in black magic. But for Amalric there I might have been burned as a magician.

“But that left me free to pursue my studies. I journeyed in Zamora, in Vendhya, in Stygia, and among the haunted jungles of Khitai. I read the ironbound books of Skelos, and talked with unseen creatures in deep wells, and faceless shapes in black reeking jungles. I obtained a glimpse of your sarcophagus in the demon-haunted crypts below the black giant-walled temple of Set in the hinterlands of Stygia, and I learned of the arts that would bring back life to your shriveled corpse. From moldering manuscripts I learned of the Heart of Ahriman. Then for a year I sought its hiding-place, and at last I found it.”

 

And again, like the unwise wizard who wakens him, Xaltotun is grand in his great evil. His ambitions are befitting to the greatest wizard of three thousand years. When he gazes on a modern map, a momentary hatred is seen in his dark eyes: the merest hint of his true motives.

 

Unbeknownst to the other conspirators, who learn to their regret what they have conjured up, Xaltotun means to use his own necromancy not to resurrect another dead man or two, but to summon up his entire fallen empire from out of the misty abyss of time.

 

He means to change the shape of hills and rivers and coastlines back to what they were millennia ago, raise up the purple towers of the fallen city of Python, and bring whole multitudes out of their graves to resume their old places.

 

This ambitious is so awful, awesome, and so unholy, that one of the conspirators is driven mad merely to discover it, for he sees or senses the shadowy hills, dry rivers, empty palaces, silent multitudes of shades and whole spectral landscapes like ghosts poised to take the places of their living counterparts: and upon uttering a warning, he dies the death.

 

Please note that in the world of Conan, magic able to raise whole cities back from dead eons has previously been established, as seen in The Devil in Iron.

 

It is hinted, but not stated, that the priests of Asura who aid Conan against Xaltotun have the ability to penetrate illusions. Their highpriest states that Xaltotun never was other than the withered mummy as he was in his casket, not the robust dark-bearded man he seemed to be while walking the earth. If so, Xaltotun is a dead man is deceived by mesmeric illusion into thinking himself alive. But this is never stated outright to be the case.

 

Note the Egyptian headgear and fleshless skull. Xaltotun in the text is nothing remotely like this.

 

Despite being a mummy, Xaltotun is not from pre-cataclysmic Egypt, called Stygia. He hails from the lands currently occupied by the new kingdoms — including Conan’s Aquilonia — hence has strongest motive to replace them with ghost lands he once knew. More to the point, Conan, as a barbarian, is from a similar northern stock as the barbaric hordes that sacked Acheron, and so the undead sorcerer-king has personal enmity against Conan, a grudge older than millennia.

 

The plot unfolds rapidly, indeed, at times too rapidly, as great events occur offstage only to be summarized in text or dialog. Xaltotun conjures plagues to slay kings and summons earthquakes to bury armies alive, and his dreadful night-sendings paralyze the mighty Conan, leaving him comatose.

 

Conan the king has no heirs, and no barons popular enough to unify the kingdom. Rather than anarchy, the people elevate Valerius the pretender to their throne, whereupon taxgatherers rob rich and poor alike, spies and informers spread division and distrust, malcontents are jailed and murdered, comely maidens are kidnapped off public streets, villages and castles plundered and burned, crops fail, cattle die, and all the disorders of an ill-governed kingdom are combined with all the humiliation and despotism of foreign conquest. And all think Conan dead.

 

However, something of the grim realism of a historical novel is present in this prehistoric fantasy, for as in our age, in the Hyborian Age conspirators inevitably conspire against each other.

 

For Xaltotun, instead of slaying Conan as agreed, spirits him away on his spectral chariot to his haunted dungeons of horror, for he hopes to use Conan against his erstwhile allies.

 

Meanwhile the wicked but capable king Tarascus, for the selfsame reason, steals the Heart of Ahriman from Xaltotun while the wizard is in the trancelike death-sleep of the fumes of the black lotus, sending his henchman to cast the magical talisman into the sea.

 

Meanwhile the wicked and incompetent king Valerius decides to betray the both of them by deliberately running Aquilonia into such ruin as will topple both kingdoms: and to see to Conan’s death, he sends out four mystic assassins of far Khitan, in later ages called Cathay.

 

But these oriental minions, unbeknownst to their master, have ulterior motives, for seek not merely to cut out the heart of Conan, but to rob the Heart of Ahriman from the minion of the other conspirator Tarascus.

 

These unnamed mystic assassins can trace their prey across land and sea by unknown means, can read hearts, and the staffs they wield, cut from the living tree of death, become poisonous snakes in their hands as they strike.

 

But all these minions and assassins are opposed by malevolent archpriests of Set the serpent-god from Stygia, from whose demon-guarded vaults of eternal night the talisman was long ago stolen by the henchman of Orastes. Two of these archpriests, naturally, are riven with rivalry, hence conspiring against each other.

 

Conan is secretly imprisoned by Xaltotun when Tarascus secretly sends agents to slay him by stealth while he is in chains. And even a girl of his seraglio is conspiring against Tarascus, and all these conspirators, as it turns out, she alone is ultimately successful.


John C. Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title. He has published short fiction in Asimov’s Science Fiction in F&SF in Absolute Magnitude and elsewhere. His novel Orphans of Chaos was a finalist for the Nebula Award in 2005. His novel Somewhither won the inaugural Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2016. In 2015, he made history by being nominated for six Hugo Awards in one year, more than any other author. Read more of his work at scifiwright.com or pick up one of his novels here.

JUST KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON