I see where in honor of Bob’s birthday people are relating their first encounter with his work. My story is, I think, unique; at least, I’ve never heard a similar one.
I was 14 and had read every Edgar Rice Burroughs story to be found, and a lot of Andre Norton as well. I went to the downtown Sears by bus, to check out their mezzanine bookstore which was the only place I knew that had those Ace paperbacks with the cool Krenkel and Frazetta covers. And my eye was caught by a crudely painted cover with a gory scene of an ape with its arm hacked off and a near-naked hairy guy who was apparently doing the hacking. Apparently Lancer had put out a new printing of the Conan series, but other people had already bought all the Frazetta ones. No matter; this, and the other Duillo-covered one, Conan the Wanderer, looked interesting enough to pick up and take home.
I read the first story in Wanderer, “Black Tears” by Carter and de Camp, and figured I’d made a mistake. Even at my tender age I thought this was hackneyed and lame. Understand, I shared a small bedroom with my brother and a full-sized piano. I didn’t have a lot of shelf space, and what I had was largely given over to models of airplanes, tanks, monsters and super-heroes. I particularly liked building tanks, for some reason, and every time I built a new one I would give an old one to Larry, the little kid next door, so as to have space for the new one on my shelf. His dad didn’t much like me for this, as every now and then he’d be mowing the lawn and be startled by the cacophony of shattering plastic as he ran over one of my old tanks hidden in the grass where Larry had left it. I digress, but the deal for books was similar; I only had space for so many, and those not especially favored went downstairs. The next step from there was Goodwill. So there went the Conans. As Kyle says in The Terminator, “We were that close to going out.”
Then, I saw in some Marvel comic a promo for a new comic. The graphic was simply a rugged arm thrusting a sword high. I recognized the work of Barry Smith, who had recently been working on Daredevil and one of Marvel’s horror mags – I liked his work, though it was far cruder than what he would do later. The promo mentioned that Conan had been created by one Robert E. Howard, something I’d missed, I think, when looking at the Lancers. I remembered I had those two books down the basement, and thinking to get a jumpstart on the comic, or at least an idea of if I would like it, I went to fetch them back upstairs. This time I made sure to read the Howard and only the Howard.
And of course, I got irrevocably hooked. This is why I have always been a staunch advocate of a Howard-only Conan collection, such as Berkley tried to do, and Millenium and ultimately Del Rey did. Note I do not mention Don Grant, whose overpriced, bland grey covered, incomplete and bowdlerized Conan series was an insult to collectors. And the Wandering Star Conans, while much more valuable than Grant’s attempts, were also incomplete and overly expensive. Because de Camp had insisted on putting his and Carter’s stories into the Lancer Conan series, I might have missed out on Howard altogether, were it not for Roy Thomas and Stan Lee. And I find that disgraceful, and always will.