Thursday, November 5, 2009

Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard

The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard is a wonderful five-volume series out from Cosmos Books. I have become a big Howard fan after reading the first two volumes (the second of which was one of the first books reviewed here at Luke Reviews), and own all five books, so it was only a matter of time before I jumped on to the next one. Beyond the Black River, Volume Three of The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, will be reviewed on a story-by-story basis, followed by a review of the collection as a whole.

“A Witch Shall Be Born”: The opener of this collection is a Conan novella which pits Conan against a false queen and her mercenary regiments, but Conan takes the backstage for large portions of the tale as the soldier Valerius plans on how to save his queen. An interesting tale from an author that I’m not used to seeing use two strong plotlines in a well-balanced manor. Not a great story, but fun.

“The Grisly Horror”: A dark tale of a man fighting the forces of black magic to save the woman he loves, “The Grisly Horror” loses some of its effect due to its rather racist tendencies. While obviously a product of its times, to a modern reader the occasional crop-up of very racist attitudes causes a speed bump in what is otherwise a fast-paced, gripping tale. The only other plot flaw is that the hero falls into the trap of letting the villain bash him in the head repeatedly, leaving you to wonder if he will ever learn.

“Jewels of Gwahlur”: This tale just fell flat. Ostensibly about Conan’s search for the Teeth of Gwahlur, a set of jewels with an enormous value attached, yet it starts slow with far too much description and far too little plot, manages to pick up a bit with some action, then slows to Conan stalking his prey (the stealthy, spy-like Conan is not Conan at his best or most exciting), and then finally picks up in time for Conan to fail at every single goal he set out to accomplish and yet try to have an upbeat ending. Conan was not used to his strong points even remotely, leading to a slow and disappointing story.

“Beyond the Black River”: This longer novella follows Conan as he goes deep into enemy territory to try and stop their leader, an evil shaman intent on destroying the fort across the Black River. “Beyond the Black River” is one of the best Conan tales I have ever read, in which Howard balances out Conan with a solid minor character in Balthus, a young man seeking a living and working with Conan to protect the settlers in the area. Howard pulls together a lot of different themes into this story, and does so with an excellence rarely seen in adventure/heroic fantasy.

“The Challenge From Beyond” by C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long: “The Challenge From Beyond” is a round-robin story in which a series of authors hand off the story to each other, each getting a turn to continue the story, until its conclusion. While this tale has a who’s-who of pulp area authors of the fantastic (each one is well-deserved in the renown attached to their names), this tale falls rather flat, as a gimmick like this tends to. It started out well, especially the first two sections, but it begins to spiral out of control, into an ending that is rather contrived and un-impactful.

“Shadows of Zamboula”: Conan survives a break in by cannibals and runs to return a woman to her lover in this tale of revenge. Most of the story was straight Howard, with his brand of action and fast-paced plot, but it was the ending that made this one a great read, with a fun twist that wasn’t a huge shock followed but the perfect moment that encapsulates who Conan is.

All in all, Beyond the Black River continues the trend of wonderful collections in The Weird works of Robert E. Howard series. It struggled a bit in the middle, but the second half of the book (for the most part) pulled it right back out of that funk. As these stories age, some of them are bound to age badly (“The Grisly Horror”), but many other of Howard’s tales retain the wonderful charm and tense storytelling talent that he will always be known for. This entire series so far is a must read for fans of pulp era science fiction, fantasy, horror, and adventure.


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