7-inch: Long Distance Lovers by Huggy Bear
1994 Gravity, Gravity 9
Favorite Track: Tuff Lovin
Happy holidays and anti-holidays to all of you crazy people out there! I had a wonderful trip to visit family down in the Carolinas. There was plenty of family photos, the traditional watching of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, cookies and other good food, presents, and, of course, time to bond with my nephew, an expert in insects, birds, and Jenga destruction. Also, I picked up this sarcastically wonderful head cold. But that gave me some time to catch up on my Conan the Barbarian stories, so let us see what he was up to this time! Spoilers below, of course.
“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” – 4 out of 5 broken skulls
Robert E. Howard
How long I have waited to read this tale? This is the tale that inspired The Sword to write a song about (and probably other bands as well). This is one of Fran Frazetta’s best Conan pieces and is the cover of the book (and an album cover for Dust). When I first started to show interest in Conan the Barbarian, it was the first tale whose name I learned. So how did it stack up? Quite well. Conan has found himself with an AEsir war party who has been slain in a mighty battle that leaves Conan all alone. A semi-nude woman appears and taunts him which drives the battle-weary barbarian into a lusty anger (how rude Conan! What are you a barbarian or a gentleman?) and he pursues her deep into the winterlands. Conan can never quite catch her and she sends two Frost Giants, her brothers, to attack Conan, which leads to an excellent fight. At the last moment, the woman calls upon her godly father’s name and a blindly bolt of lightning causes Conan to pass out (something he does a lot. I should have kept track of that.) When he wakes up, he thinks it was a dream until he sees her veil in his hands.
The tale is based upon Bulfinch’s version of Atalanta mixed with Apollo’s chase after Daphne after having been struck by Cupid’s arrow. This may be the mythological justification for Conan’s pursuit with intent to rape, but that aspect of the story is problematic. Now no one should be reading Conan and thinking he is a good guy and modeling their life after his behavior, but this action is too far wrong even for an “anti-hero”. In fact, Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter added Conan’s code of honor towards women in the very next story, stating specifically that Conan would never rape a woman, which I think was their (perhaps lame) attempt to gloss over this story. The rest of the story, however, is brilliant. It contains some of Howard’s best landscape descriptions and the battle with the Frost Giant’s is vicious. Also, it was a nice break from all the treasure hunting. A man overcoming the powers of nature and some gods before ultimately being humbled by a very powerful god, reminding Conan that even he has limits.
“The Lair of the Ice Worm” – 5 out of 5 broken skulls
L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter
This title excited my brain to no end. I wanted to just pull out a piece of paper and draw what I thought the Ice Worm looked like and its lair. The story did not disappoint. Conan is traveling through the mountain ranges at the beginning of spring. A woman’s scream alerts him to some cave people circling a strange woman, so Conan begins to impale them upon his lance until it breaks. But his war axe handles the rest. The woman hardly knows a word Conan can understand, but she follows him into a cave so they can stay warm. Soon, they make love–okay, I did roll my eyes at this. While Conan slumbers, the girl sees two giant eyes. When Conan wakes up, he finds her missing and his honor shamed that he did not protect her. He follows the Ice Worm’s tracks to its lair and uses an ingenious idea (Conan understands science!) to defeat the Worm. I loved this story because the descriptions were just like out of a movie or an excellent D&D campaign. I love stories set in cold mountains during the winter. The Ice Worm was a great villain: a giant mouth with thousands of teeth to eat the flesh off the skeleton, but also a freezing breath to save food for later. Perhaps the plot is a bit too simplistic, but it show cases Conan as a maser fighter against even the most vicious of beasts.
“The Queen of the Black Coast” – 4 out of 5 broken skulls
Robert E. Howard
The first epic Conan tale. Some people rank this as the best Conan tale. Although I disagree, it certainly is a strong one. But like “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” even its lush language and large-scope plot cannot hide the sexism and racism in the story. The story starts with Conan fleeing a crowd by leaping on a barge and quickly befriending the captain, Tito. Conan admits he does not understand civilization: he had been called into trial as a witness (this may be the third time Conan has gone to court; is this another thing I should be keeping track of?) and frustrated at not understanding why he was there, Conan broke the skull of the judge and fled. What is interesting about this is you have the typical American “anti-hero” attitude against the Man (court system, police, government, etc.) which is commonly thought of as happening in the ’60’s, being presented in a Conan story written in 1934. Unfortunately for Tito, Conan is a bit of a curse of his companions as they are almost immediately attacked by Belit, the Queen of the Black Coast, which is exactly the groan inducing title you think it is: a white woman considered a goddess by superstitious black natives, who come with tom-toms, spears, and circular shields. By Crom, Robert E. Howard! She is also topless although maybe because she is also sailing around the hot southern oceans that would make a little sense…okay, looking at all the ladies glaring at me, nope, nevermind! Tito and his crew are killed and Conan leaps aboard Belit’s ship expecting to die, but Belit is sexually turned on by his savage nature and she asks him to become her mate. The sex hinted at suggests BDSM. Thus, Conan becomes a pirate and makes raids along the Black Coast until Belit decides to find a fabled lost city full of treasure. Okay, people have to stop doing this around Conan. It is definitely bad luck. As they travel down a lonely river, a giant snake eats one of the crew members. I suspect the Weird Tales editor said to Howard: “It has been five paragraphs since someone has died. Kill someone quick!” Then we get to the real meat of the story where they find the treasure, Belit issues some bad commands maybe under a curse, a winged creature has destroyed their water supply, Conan leads some troops into the jungle only to pass out at the touch of a black lotus. There he hallucinates the eons of history of the forgotten city: where superhumans lived but devolved into winged apes and other humans were turned into hyenas. Then comes a lot of death, including Belit who is hung from the yardarm. Conan’s final showdown expertly combines brutal wartime with the supernatural, which makes these Conan tales so special.
I really appreciated the scope of this story. It takes the normal Conan tale and stretches it into three distinct sections, pushing the limits of what Howard could get away with. A movie could be made out of this tale alone. Belit is a bit hokey as a character, but a better woman character despite her nakedness and immediately sexual attraction to Conan. Had Howard wrote out her background and how she become Queen of the Black Coast, this may have earned another broken skull in my ratings system. The dialogue between her and Conan feels comfortable and sort-of believable despite how fast they seem to pair up. Besides there is a jump-cut of time between sections one and two of the story, where obviously the two love birds would learn about each other. We are treated to Conan’s inner thoughts about gods including Crom. I did not expect this sudden religious contemplation at all! Then you get a Lovecraftian ancient history lesson followed by a bloody fight and a mourning Conan who gives Belit a Vikings funeral. Like I said, the scope of the story is impressive and had Howard only fleshed it out just a little bit more–say another 3,000 words–this would be contending with the best (minus the sexism and racism, of course). That being said, I would recommend this story to people first picking up Conan as an introduction besides “The Tower of the Elephant.”