Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pirates, Indians and Treachery--Oh, My!!!!

Here's a slightly convoluted bit of publishing history. At some point in the 1930s, during his all-too-brief career as a writer of pulp fiction, Robert E. Howard wrote a story starring Conan the Barbarian. Titled The Black Stranger, it involved Conan on the run from the savage Picts (a Hyborian Age analog to American Indians). Conan stumbles across the bodies of some pirates and a treasure stored in the cleft of a rock. A nobleman living in terror of--well, something--has built a fort along a deserted stretch of coastline nearby. Soon, Conan, the noble, and two seperate pirate crews are hip-deep in machinations involving that treasure--with everyone pretty much determined to backstab everyone else at the first opportunity. There's a wizard wandering around as well, stirring up some supernatural trouble.

It's a great story, culminating in a wild battle sequence as the fort is overrun by the Picts. But Howard wasn't able to sell it. So he re-wrote it, moving the action forward to the 17th Century and replacing Conan with Black Terance Vulmea, a pirate who had a well-earned reputation as the scourge of the Seven Seas. The supernatural shenanigans were toned down, becoming more implied than overt. The story's title became Swords of the Red Brotherhood. The Picts became Indians and the nobleman became a Frenchman. Everyone still tries to double- and triple-cross each other regardless of their new ethnicities.

Howard wrote one other Black Vulmea story, published after his death in the November 1938 issue of a pulp called Golden Fleece. But Swords of the Red Brotherhood, like The Black Stranger, was never sold. It went unpublished until it was included in a paperback in 1976 titled Black Vulmea's Vengenance. This book included both the Vulmea stories and another fun pirate yarn written by Howard.

Anyways, when writer L. Sprague de Camp was reintroducing Conan to the public through a series of paperback reprints, he came across Swords of the Red Brotherhood and rewrote it into a Conan story titled The Treasure of Tranicos. It first saw print in this form in King Conan (1953), then in Conan the Usurper (1967). Howard's original version--The Black Stranger--was also eventually reprinted in its unedited form in The Conquering Sword of Conan in 2005, one of an excellent three-volume set that reprinted all of Howard's original Conan stories.

So what's the point of all this? Well, as usual, I don't really have one. But I will say thatall three versions of the story (two Conans and one Black Vulmea) are entertaining, slam-bang adventures.

If I had to pick a favorite, though, I think I'd go with Swords of the Red Brotherhood. The story has such a strong pirate vibe, I think it works better when set within Piracy's Golden Age than in an overt fantasy world. All the same, it's a pretty close call between the two original versions.

The Treasure of Tranicos, though still a good tale, comes in a distant third among all the versions. de Camp was a great writer (his time-travel novel Lest Darkness Fall is a true classic) and he deserves unending gratitude for his part in rescuing Howard's work from obscurity. But I don't think he ever really "got" Conan. His prose style--very noticable even when he was re-working Howard's original prose--never quite fit the barbarian.

But whether it's Conan or Terance Vulmea wielding a sword against savages, pirates and ill-tempered noblemen, Swords/Stranger is yet another example of the many wonderful stories that came out of the pulp era. If you're in the mood for some good pirate stories, hit the Internet used book services and dig up a copy of Black Vulmea's Vengeance. Or read it online here. You won't be disappointed.

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