7-inch: Ceremony by Wussy
2016 Damnably DAMNABLY045
Favorite Track: Ceremony (cover)
More Conan reviews! *Spoilers*
“The Hand of Nergal” – 2 out of 5 broken skulls
Robert E. Howard and Lin Carter
This story begins in a fascinating manner: Conan has become a mercenary in the Turanian army and is in the pitch of battle against the forces of Munthassem Khan. During the combat, Conan watches a field commander be slain by giant shadowy bats. The descriptions of these beasts are beautiful and, once again, the cosmic horror of Lovecraft stands out. Conan swings his sword and slices one open but it just reforms. Conan begins to go numb but remembers a conveniently found talisman in his pouch and pulling it out causes the shadowy bats to flee and warmth to return to his body. Then he faints. When he wakes up, he is alone on the battlefield. He picks his way forward finding a horse and then a nearly naked lady still alive. She has come to find him and bring him back to the sorcerer Atalis, who wants to over throw Munthassem Khan.
So far so good. But then this is where the tale slacks. We learn that Munthassem Khan was once a good ruler, but when the Hand of Nergal fell from the sky it corrupted him. The only counter is the Heart of Tammuz. Note: both of these are ancient Mesopotamian gods. Conan leads an attack against the Khan but fails, however, the Heart of Tammuz and the Hand of Nergal grow into giant beings that fight each other until nothing is left. The Khan also turns into ash.
For the first time in these stories, the cosmic aspect disappoints me. It is nice to see that Conan is not the “hero” of the story in the conventional sense of him slaying the evil monster/person (*see story below), but the two strange artifacts just turning into cosmic beings and disappearing makes for a lacking ending. Also, what happened to the bat creatures from the start of the tale? I wanted to see Conan figure out a way to kill them. Compared to the rest of this collection, this story falls short in two ways: one) premise is too similar to all the rest but lacking the great details or atmosphere of the other tales and two) cop out ending.
“The City of Skulls” – 4 out of 5 broken skulls
L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter
I believe this was the longest tale in the story. The length added to the story making it feel like the first world-adventuring story in the entire collection. So far, most of the tales involved Conan arriving in a city, learning where some treasure is, trying to steal, and killing lots of people. This time we have Conan in an army again with a friend named Juma, who I really hope returns. Juma is a tall man from Kush, who is ferocious in battle yet laughs pleasantly. Their army is defeated, Conan, Juma and the princess Zosara are captured and taken to the fabulous land of Meru, whose origin we learn later on in fascinating details. Shamballah, the capital of Meru, is known as the City of Skulls and everywhere Conan looks, skulls looks back. I shivered once when I imagined if Ben Templesmith drew a picture of the City of Skulls.
The rimpoche, Jalung Thongpa, wants Zosara as a bride. Conan attempts to rescue her, but his magical staff knocks him unconscious. Oh no, in addition to the kill count, I should have kept track of how many times the barbarian falls unconscious. Conan and Juma are sentenced to slaves and whips crack as we are reminded of a brutal and nasty part of history even the United States tries to cover up. How sick and twisted are people to look at another human being and see nothing there but an animal or worse, to bind them in fetters and beat them, starve them, and rob their dignity. Of course, Conan and Juma find a way to break free after what I assumed was seven nights of rowing. They kill some of the slavers, but do not have time to free the other slaves, leaving us readers in a bit of a moral quagmire.
Upon return to Shamballah, they find a magic ritual going on, Zosara is tied up naked (of course), and an excellent fight scene happens. The statue of the god Yama comes to life and hypnotizes Conan, but Juma throws Jalung Thongpa under its foot, which crushes the rimpoche and then slips smearing his remains across the dais, which is the most descriptive and brutal death in the series so far. Way to go Juma! I love this character. The death of the rimpoche causes the statue to become stone again and Conan, Juma, and Zosara leave. Then comes the silliest part of all the stories I’ve read so far! Conan tells Juma he is going to return Zosara to the bridegroom waiting for her. After a month journey, he does so and they are rewarded with gold. Juma asks him why he returned a good looking woman who was obviously fond of him and Conan replies, “I don’t want to get tied down, but the heir to the throne is already on the way.”
Zing! That’s pretty terrible, so I will just shake my head. Despite the ending, I am down with the story. I felt this one could be filmed as a movie as it is, although they would want to expand on the history and action scenes. But there is plenty to work with as a reader of these tales: good battles, travel albeit in the terrors of slavery; rebellion, magic, a crazy statue coming to life, and more action. The pacing felt good and enough of the environment was given its lore to feel real. Juma is the best “sidekick” Conan has had and I hope we see more of him. Also, it is nice to see Conan doing other things beside thieving although what isn’t being a mercenary justifying looting corpses because you were paid to hack them apart?
Overall, the first book in the Conan series was really good. The best story, in my opinion, was “The Tower of the Elephant” and we had only one mediocre story, “The Hand of Nergal”. What happens in the next book, I have no idea, but I love the Frank Frazetta cover.