Greetings, Hyborian Horror Hounds! As someone who has long been captivated by the barbaric bombast of fantasy’s greatest barbarian, Conan the Cimmerian, The Longbox of Darkness has opted to share our joy of reading his bloody sagas with you. So in this post, we’ll look at ten of the best Conan tales by his creator, Robert E. Howard. But first, a bit of personal history…
I first discovered the Conan saga at a tender age in the confines of The Longbox of Darkness that I had received from an uncle who had clearly been obsessed with the character. The box was crammed with Marvel Comics Conan issues, and I voraciously read and reread them as a kid.
My dad took me to see the John Milius-directed Conan The Barbarian film at a drive-in movie theater when it was first released in 1982. This fueled my obsession even further, but it all came to a towering crescendo when I picked up three Lancer Conan paperbacks in a second-hand bookstore a year or so after seeing the film. One of those books was Conan the Adventurer which featured an iconic image of Conan by Frank Frazetta on the cover.
I eagerly tore into those books and became addicted. The sweeping landscapes, the grand battles, and, of course, the formidable Conan himself took hold of my imagination. I became forever intrigued by this rugged, no-nonsense barbarian badass. That fascination led me to hunt down every Conan paperback and Marvel comic I could find. And my passion for the giant Cimmerian’s stories has never waned.
But enough about me. It’s time to talk about the man who started it all – Robert E. Howard. A pioneer of the sword & sorcery subgenre, Howard introduced us to the unforgettable character of Conan the through a series of fantasy stories published in Weird Tales during the early 20th century.
Born and raised in Texas, Howard had a knack for storytelling since his youth. His tales often echoed the harsh realities of life he observed growing up in a boomtown environment. This influence is readily seen in Conan – a character who is both fierce and cunning, fearless in the face of danger, always ready for bloodletting and brawling. Conan’s world is the mythical Hyborian Age, a time after the sinking of Atlantis and before the rise of any known ancient civilization. This prehistoric setting gave Howard the freedom to blend elements of fantasy, history, and horror, leading to some of the most immersive and thrilling tales in the genre.
So oil your broadswords and strap on your hauberks, dark ones. We’re about to journey to an age of high adventure, a trek through the ten best Conan tales (in the Longbox of Darkness’ estimation). Each story is a testament to Howard’s remarkable storytelling, presenting Conan in various roles and situations that never cease to captivate me. Here they are:
10. The Phoenix on the Sword
In the first story to feature the character, Conan appears as the King of Aquilonia. Facing a revolt, Conan must guard his throne against disgruntled nobles and the malevolent sorcerer Thoth-Amon. This story not only offers a view of Conan as a ruler but also combines political intrigue, brutal warfare, and mystical elements masterfully. It marks Conan as not just an unstoppable combatant but also a cunning strategist and leader, contributing to the character’s multidimensional persona.
9. The God in the Bowl
Set in a decadent city, “The God in the Bowl” offers a unique narrative tone in the world of sword and sorcery. Accused of stealing a valuable artifact from a rich merchant, Conan finds himself embroiled in an unusual murder mystery he must solve. The narrative is an artful blend of suspense, dark fantasy, and subtle cosmic horror, creating a captivating tale of crime and mystery in Conan’s universe.
8. Black Colossus
“Black Colossus” presents Conan as a hired mercenary general who must protect a princess from an ancient sorcerer who returned from the grave. The narrative brims with grand battles and dark magic, showcasing Conan as a leader of men and offering electrifying scenes of epic warfare and heroism.
7. Rogues in the House
In “Rogues in the House,” Conan, initially a hired hand, finds himself entangled in a political plot involving a corrupt nobleman and a rogue priest. The story uniquely merges political intrigue with Lovecraftian horror when a man-ape hybrid creature enters the scene. This gripping narrative delivers a chilling sense of menace while highlighting Conan’s adaptability and cunning.
6. The Slithering Shadow
“The Slithering Shadow” (also known as “Xuthal of the Dusk”) features Conan in his prime, showcasing his raw strength, sharp wits, and indomitable spirit as he navigates a city shrouded in darkness and teeming with unspeakable horrors. Conan and his companion, the pirate princess Natala, are lost and dying of thirst in a desert after a battle. They stumble upon the ancient, seemingly deserted city of Xuthal, a place with a distinct sense of foreboding. Xuthal appears to be an empty city, yet it is not devoid of life. Its inhabitants live in a constant state of dream-like stupor, sustained by a strange, golden elixir.
However, beneath the city’s eerie tranquility lurks a monstrous entity known as Thog, the titular “Slithering Shadow.” Thog is a grotesque creature of the abyss that periodically feasts on the city’s indolent inhabitants. When Natala is chosen as the next sacrifice, Conan must descend into the dark depths of the city to save her.
“The Slithering Shadow” is notable for its exploration of decadence and lethargy, as reflected in the citizens of Xuthal, who choose a life of intoxicated oblivion over confronting the monstrous reality lurking in their city. Meanwhile, Conan, the embodiment of vigor and resilience, stands in stark contrast to them. The story is a rich, atmospheric yarn that delves into the darkness of horror while reaffirming the indomitable spirit of its titular hero.
5. Beyond the Black River
“Beyond the Black River” depicts Conan as a seasoned scout in the Pictish Wilderness. The story sees Conan and a young settler, Balthus, standing against a brutal Pictish invasion led by the sorcerer Zogar Sag. This gripping, grim tale of survival and warfare showcases Conan’s tactical acumen and ruthless ferocity, concluding on a reflective note about the cycle of civilization and savagery.
4. Queen of the Black Coast
“Queen of the Black Coast” tells the iconic story of Conan, now a feared pirate, meeting the fiery and independent Bêlit. Their romance, marked by raw passion and mutual respect, adds emotional depth rarely seen in pulp adventures. The pair’s pirate escapades and tragic end transform this narrative into a high-seas adventure with deep emotional undertones.
3. Red Nails
“Red Nails” is arguably one of Robert E. Howard’s most gripping tales, pushing Conan into a claustrophobic city teeming with relentless paranoia and bitter feuds. Alongside the fiery female pirate Valeria, Conan must navigate a deadly web of treachery between two feuding clans. The story stands out for its suspense, its exploration of human decadence, and the fascinating dynamic between Conan and Valeria.
2. The Tower of the Elephant
In “The Tower of the Elephant,” a young and daring Conan, making his way as a thief in the bustling city of Arenjun, sets his eyes on the precious jewel known as the “Heart of the Elephant.” The gem is heavily guarded in a seemingly impenetrable tower protected by a monstrous beast. Despite this, Conan’s audacity leads him to an unexpected encounter with an alien entity imprisoned within the tower. This story masterfully intertwines sword-and-sorcery action with elements of cosmic horror, revealing a world much broader and more complex than the usual realms of Conan’s adventures.
1. The People of the Black Circle
LOD’s personal favorite Conan tale, “The People of the Black Circle” is a novella that centers on Conan as the leader of a band of hillmen in the mysterious eastern country of Vendhya. This story is regarded as one of the finest Conan tales from Robert E. Howard, presenting a rich blend of adventure, sorcery, and political intrigue.
The story unfolds when Yasmina, the Devi (Queen) of Vendhya, seeks to avenge the death of her brother, who fell victim to malevolent black magicians, the Black Seers of Mount Yimsha. While planning her revenge, she is kidnapped by Conan, who aims to use her as a bargaining chip to save seven of his hillmen captured by the Vendhyan forces.
However, events take a turn when Conan and Yasmina find themselves embroiled in the dark schemes of the Black Seers, who hold immense power and seek to manipulate events to their advantage. Forced by circumstances, Conan and Yasmina must confront these dark forces together.
While primarily an action-packed adventure tale, “The People of the Black Circle” also delves into the nature of power, the clash of cultures, and the ambiguities of morality. Conan is portrayed not just as a warrior but also as a leader, strategist, and even an ally, revealing a more complex character than is often remembered. The story stands out for its vibrant setting, gripping plot, and rich depiction of Conan’s multifaceted personality, and it defines the best of Robert E. Howard’s work.
And that wraps up our list of The Longbox of Darkness’ ten best Conan stories. What are some of your favorites, readers? Leave a comment below, and let me know. And remember to subscribe to the blog to receive notifications of future posts. And if you haven’t yet had the chance to sample some Conan but have always wanted to, the Longbox of Darkness recommends the following collections, chronicling the best of the giant Cimmerian’s adventures, by Crom!
Until next time, take care of yourselves, Hyborian Wanderers.
Click on the above images to check out the tomes!
All images are owned by their respective copyright owners unless stated and are used for promotional and review purposes only.
Disclosure: The Longbox of Darkness is reader supported. Clicking on the links we provide may help us earn an affiliate commission at zero cost to you if you click through the link and finalize a purchase. Read our affiliate disclaimer to learn more.
To all you fellow fear fans out there, thank you for supporting LOD. You rock!