Underground Reading: Iron Men and Silver Stars, edited by Donald Hamilton
Underground Reading: On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Old Releases (New Covers): The Call of Cthulhu and Conan the Barbarian

Vintage's The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales and Gollancz's Conan the Barbarian each collect existing material from the two greatest writers in the genre. Beyond the shiny new covers, there's nothing included that's new to their existing readers. But any collection of these authors' work has a lot to offer new readers, and the stories have been carefully selected for that purpose.

Vintage Classics - Call of CthulhuLovecraft's work is out of copyright and just popular enough that both specialist and mainstream publishers have been happy to take the plunge in recent years. Since 2008, we've seen new editions from Gollancz and Penguin, as well as a host of collections from small and electronic publishers. 

The new Vintage collection, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales, has stolen a trick from the picture-shows and made its pitch using fancy-shmancy 3-D technology (ooooh aaaaah). As far as cheap thrills go, having some slightly elevated wiggly tentacles on the cover is more on the "cheap" side than the "thrilling"... but... God help me, I bought it. However much my (tiny) rational mind screams in protest, the cover did its job. 

Beyond the red-blue wigglies, The Call of Cthulhu has more value to someone approaching Lovecraft for the first time. The editor (uncredited) has done an excellent job of sifting through Lovecraft's body of work and finding the most commercial nuggets. The theme is weighted towards the Cthulhu mythos. As well as the famous titular story, the collection contains "The Dunwich Horror", "The Nameless City", "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", "The Whisperer in Darkness", "The Festival" and, of course, "At the Mountains of Madness". Already, this excels as a primer for the Elder Gods.

Weird TalesOn top of that, there's also a pair of Lovecraft's pure, Poe-like, horror stories, "The Picture in the House" and the terrifying "The Rats in the Walls". [Aside: "Rats" was the first Lovecraft story I ever read, and I did so in a creaking old New Orleans B&B. After buying my bedraggled, water-damaged copy from a mysterious basement bookseller who wasn't there the next day. Ok, part of that isn't true. But I didn't sleep at all that night.] 

The only two false notes are the final stories in the collection, "The Thing on the Doorstep" and "The Haunter of the Dark". The former was justly noted by Lin Carter as being "curiously minor and somehow unsatisfying". The latter is half of a writing experiment (with the other half by Robert Bloch) and, taken on its own, reads like Mr. Lovecraft is writing a bad pastiche of himself. Fortunately, these two are both located at the end, after the monumental "At the Mountains of Madness". Readers can simply excise the last sixty pages with a razor and be none the worse off for it. 

The collection wears its Cthulhu-hugging heart on its sleeve, with the non-Mythos stories essentially serving as filler (in the case of "Rats", very good filler, but filler nonetheless). There's none of Lovecraft's Dunsanian Dreamlands stories, none of his poetry (thank god) or essays (shucks) and not a drop of secondary content. Luring in new readers with the Mythos tales is a nice touch - they are, by far Lovecraft's most popular category of story. But without a hint of comment on Lovecraft's significance, a new reader could forgiven for walking away from this volume thinking they'd read the entire body of his work. With the 3-D cover and the crowd-pleasing selections, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales is a quick win and a stocking-stuffer, but not a serious look at either the breadth or depth of H.P. Lovecraft.

ConanConan the Barbarian, the new collection from Gollancz, is equally unrepentent in its focus on first-time readers of Robert E. Howard. Like The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales, the Conan collection comes with a minimum of extra features and relies heavily on its cover (in this case, a movie tie-in) to lure in the new fish.

Like Lovecraft, Howard's importance can't be praised highly enough. There's the belief that "low" fantasy burst fully-formed from the forehead of George R.R. Martin in 1996. Before A Game of Thrones, all fantasy was a tepid Eddingsian miasma, and the Georgefather valiantly saved us from an eternity of happy endings. 

Alas, there's no grim element - no "grittiness" - in contemporary fantasy that wasn't already present in the works of Howard sixty years ago. In Conan the Barbarian, the collected stories contain all the hallmarks of "gritty" fantasy - descriptive violence, ambiguous heroes, pyrrhic endings, fruitless quests. Even a few of the shock value tropes can be found in these short stories, including (but not limited to) torture, incest and rape.

However, there has been some evolution in sword & sorcery (although a few books are trying their damndest to regress). Robert E. Howard often relied on appalling racial stereotypes and his female characters are laughable (eeeeeeeevil witches or vapid maidens, either way, don't get too attached to them). As far as technique goes, Howard's settings, language and themes (the "philosophy", for lack of a better term) are unmatched, but his characterisation was often one-dimensional. Conan grows over the course of the stories (Howard didn't write them in order, which makes this a particularly nifty trick), but he's often the only memorable character in each tale. Even then, Conan spends most of his time either angry or wily; very little in-between. Howard wrote a cunning hero, not an intelligent one. This limited the range of the stories and kept Conan defined as an escapist character, not an empathetic one.

All this, for better and for worse, is contained in Conan the Barbarian, as the collection includes many of the barbarian's defining moments.

Weird TalesThe first story in the volume features the young Conan exploring "The Tower of the Elephant". With its gloriously science-fictional explanations, this is a beautiful example of the genre-crossing beauty of the truly Weird text. "Rogues in the House" is a similarly-structured adventure, down to its fulfilling (if unrewarding) ending. Like the characters in Joe Abercrombie's series, Conan never seems to gain much for his troubles. At key moments, he holds all the jewels in the world, but by the end, he's invariably back down to sword and (if lucky) horse.

"The Frost-Giant's Daughter", unpublished in Howard's lifetime, shows the darker side of Conan. The barbarian pursues a tantalising maiden across a snowy plain. She leads him into one trap after another, but he continues to chase her. Conan's bravery and determination would be more impressive if his ultimate goal weren't rape. [Another aside: There's an interesting parallel here with Patrick Rothfuss' Felurian - another age-old sex-fairy who lures young men to their destruction by flashing her lady-bits. In Howard, the Frost-Giant's Daughter snags a sex-crazed alpha male who terrifies her into teleporting away. In Rothfuss, Felurian snares a fifteen year old virgin who masters her with his sexual prowess. Neither is pleasant, but one is slightly more believable.]

Although the decaying jungle of "Queen of the Black Coast" may be Howard's most breath-taking setting, both race and gender issues rear their ugly heads. Conan's special lady-friend is an evil and lusty pirate queen, with a crew of savage and superstitious dark-skinned warriors. The adventure itself is good (and Conan again ends his quest no better off than he began), but the cast is spectacularly offensive. 

The highlight of the collection is my favorite Howard tale, "Beyond the Black River". Howard breaks his own narrative tradition for "Black River", with the story following not Conan, but an overwhelmed young settler named Balthus. Civilisation has over-reached and the dark, barbaric, unknown forces of the wilderness are lashing back. Conan is the child of both worlds. He's allied with the settlers, but his tactics and outlook are barbarian. I've raved about this a few times previously, but like "The Call of Cthulhu", I believe this is one of the defining short stories in fantastic fiction.

Howard's importance, as noted above, is too often forgotten. This makes it a shame that, like Vintage's Lovecraft collection, Gollancz's unknown editor didn't take advantage of the wealth of secondary material. The collection includes Howard's world-building essay, "The Hyborian Age" and a short (<1 page) biography, but it feels like a missed opportunity to link the master of yesteryear with the stars of today. As much fun as I have explaining waving my arms around and bellowing about Howard's importance, this is something that proper scholars and authors have all done much more articulately.

Still, Conan the Barbarian is an excellent starting point; packed cover to cover with some of the best in timeless fantasy. As with the Lovecraft collection, this book has little value to existing readers, but would make an excellent gift for those in need of pulpy enlightenment.