Conan the Conqueror

Martin Greenberg scored a coup in the small world of science fiction with his fifth book of 1950. How he did this is another Gnome mystery, but somehow the one and only novel about Conan the Barbarian reached his hands, spurring a run of seven Conan books, more than 10% of Gnome’s entire output over the next seven years.

Robert Ervin Howard wrote for the pulps for half his short life, producing dozens of stories for sailing, boxing, and western pulps that outnumbered his work in fantasy and may have been more successful commercially. His first book, in fact, was a collection of western yarns featuring the brawling Breckinridge Elkins, slightly revised to make them appear to be episodes in a novel and released in 1937 by the British publisher Herbert Jenkins under the title of A Gent from Bear Creek. Howard was already dead by that time and the book simply disappeared. Almost literally. Maybe a dozen copies have survived.

But for a slight twist of fate, that would have been his second book. Back in 1934, with fewer than 10 Conan stories published – for so famous a series, it’s weird to remember that only 17 appeared in Weird Tales, with four more posthumously published much later – another British publisher, Dennis Archer, approached him for a Conan novel. Archer went bankrupt after receiving the novel and it languished for a year until Weird Tales serialized it in the five issues from December 1935 through April 1936 under the title “The Hour of the Dragon.”

In the aftermath of World War II, with fans across the country starting small presses to recapture lost pulp yarns, Don Grant tried his hand at it, over and over again. Today Donald M. Grant, Publisher, is a legendary name in the field, redolent of high quality special editions of great bibliographic, historic, and aesthetic value. In the 1940s, he was another wannabe whose several imprints flickered briefly in the sky. This speaks to the miraculous success of Gnome, the only press that lasted a full dozen years. (Fantasy Press ran ten years, through 1957 and then tried coming back in 1962 with two short-run titles that were reprinted in large runs, ironically, by Gnome.) If Don Grant couldn’t succeed, think of the odds that Marty Greenberg faced.

Grant had a contact in Otis Adelbert Kline, a Burroughs-style pulp writer of the 1920s. He published Kline’s The Port of Peril in 1949 in fact. Moreover, Kline ran a literary agency and, to connect the dots, was Howard’s agent. Grant wanted to reprint Howard’s stories and Kline wanted him to. Fate steps in again. Grant was short of money, precisely because all his capital was sunk into Kline’s book, which wasn’t returning any income. As a conscientious agent, Kline had to move elsewhere. In future decades Grant would make his name with fine editions of Howard, but in the here and now of 1950 Marty Greenberg had another big name to add to his roster.

Greenberg wasted no time in boasting. A book titled Conan the Conqueror appears on the back of 1949’s Pattern for Conquest and Sixth Column as part of the “GNOME PRESS BOOKS FOR SPRING 1950” house ad. Fans must have deeply furled their brows as the description gave no clue that, not for the first time, Greenberg was changing the title from the original magazine appearance.

The most famous barbarian warrior of them all, Conan, at last in book form. Colorful excitement in the legendary kingdoms when earth was young.

I don’t know if Greenberg or his partner Dave Kyle wrote the blurbs, but you’d think that tossing a stone into a random gathering of sf writers would hit someone who could do a far better job, and would offer to do so just to get them to stop tossing the stones.

Kyle is credited with the cover design, equally bland, with a John Forte illustration of a sword-wielding warrior surrounded by overpowering typography. The book rewarded opening immediately, with a two-page map of Conan’s world spread across the endpapers. It’s a spiffed-up version of a map hand-drawn by Howard in 1932, and bears the label:

A New and Exact MAP of the World of Conan in the Hyborean Age. According to the Actual Notes of R. E. Howard. With Map of Europe superimposed for reference. Made by David Kyle.

Kyle map from Conan the Conqueror

Two fairly major nits to pick. I don’t see any trace of Europe in the drawing. And Howard spelled the Age “Hyborian.” Gnome would use the variant spelling “Hyborean” consistently throughout the series, though Kyle must have had Howard’s spelling to go by. Still, the map, printed in the same magenta ink as the cover, would be reused on the endpapers of King Conan and The Sword of Conan, as an insert in Tales of Conan, and as background across the cover and onto the front flap of The Coming of Conan.

History was made but, as usual, it did Greenberg little good. The 1950s were the era of science fiction, not fantasy, or even “science fantasy” as the book was described on the jacket cover. Conan wouldn’t strike it big culturally until the 1970s, when a series of paperbacks edited by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter joined with Roy Thomas’ comic book version for Marvel, and Grant’s high-end hardcovers. Greenberg would never stop trying to launch a pure fantasy line, but fantasy became a smaller and smaller proportion of Gnome titles as the years went by.

Fletcher Platt’s review for the January 7, 1951 New York Times Book Review was dismissive:

…in its approach rather resembles a Superman comic strip. Strictly for the aficionados.

August Derleth reviewed it for the march 3, 1951 Madison Capital Times:

In his introduction, Dr. John Clark emphasizes Howard’s greatest virtue: “He was a story-teller,” never much of a stylist, but certainly a born story-teller.

Groff Conklin reviewed it for the January 1951 Galaxy:

[It] is a colorful action story, in many ways a delightful piece of relaxation reading.

Conan the Conqueror, by Robert E. Howard, 1950, title #9, 255 pages, $2.75. 5000 hardbound copies printed.

Hardback, magenta cloth with black printing. Jacket design by David Kyle; Illustration by John Forte. David Kyle map of Hyborean Age on front and rear endpapers. Conan the Conqueror: The Hyborean Age stated on title page. “First Printing” stated on copyright page. No printer designated. Introduction by John D. Clark, Ph.D. Excerpt from Introduction on rear cover. Gnome Press address given as New York.

Conan the Conqueror jacket cover

Conan the Conqueror flaps

Conan the Conqueror front cover

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