I’m not a compulsive or completist Howard collector, but I can be tempted by curios and divergent packagings, especially from Outremer. The shameful truth is, I own 2 editions of Conan of Aquilonia (two more than can be justified on the basis of sword-and-sorcery merit).
The first is of course the original 1977 Ace Books paperback designed to look as much like the lost Twelth Tribe of Lancer as possible, but with a Boris Vallejo cover painting: Conan (a well-preserved graybeard) and a catamite-resembling Conn confront a Zembabwan spearman atop the least menacing wyvern in reptilian mythohistory.
The second is a later reprint of the 1978 Sphere books paperback from the U.K. which uses a muddied reproduction of the Frazetta painting famously art-napped from the Lancer offices. Not exactly a pinnacle for Brooklyn’s favorite son — a white-haired, walrus-moustached Conan, buck nekkid save for an armored codpiece, wreaks havoc among fairly generic nonsupernatural assailants.
But anyway, being susceptible to escapees from genre publishing’s odditorium, I’d been cyberstalking Robert E. Howard’s World of Heroes, a 1989 collection from Robinson Publishing, for years, awaiting a well-preserved copy priced to move at a little less than the cost of a Faberge egg. Finally found one this spring…
…and after my first glance at the cover couldn’t help but wonder how some of our brethren who reacted like cats caught in a summer squall to the use of the term “homoerotic” in a recent issue of The Dark Man would cope with the Chris Achilleos painting. The clenched buttocks of a mostly unclothed swordsman flexing with his back to the “camera” are very much the visual focal point; everything about Sword Guy screams that he’s come to the big city because there are no bathhouses in the gray northern hills where his clansmen dwell.
As I myself had arranged the stories in The Black Stranger and Other American Tales as a sort of Howardian history of the New World, something that intrigued me about Robert E. Howard’s World of Heroes in advance was its similar organizational gimmick. In his introduction editor Mike Ashley (nearly as indefatigable an anthologist as Stephen Jones) explains “[The selections] follow an historical sequence and, if you believe in memories of past lives or reincarnations, as Howard himself liked to fancy, then you can follow through the adventures of Howard’s eternal champion in his various incarnations.”
Borrowing a term as Moorcockian in its associations as “multiverse” or “runesword” is no way for the editor of a Howard volume to ingratiate himself, and even before getting to the intro I noticed that the back cover blurbage was problematic as well. The come-on for “The Shadow Kingdom” reads “Kull must slay the snake-men in the ruined halls of Atlantis to keep his throne.” No, not exactly, but I for one could handle a well-written pastiche in which Gonar pitchforks Kull forward in time to actual Atlantean halls during their ruination by the Cataclysm (Roy Thomas did something of the sort during his second stint on Savage Sword, permitting Kull to glimpse the fall of Valusia).
“Worms of the Earth” is listed as “Worm of the Earth,” (as if Howard’s budget had been slashed and he could only afford one) and the back cover tells us “A tribesman is crucified in Rome and Bran Mak Morm seeks revenge at the door to the Black Stone.” (A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum…) “Kings of the Night” is placed after “Worm/Worms,” and is passed off as starring Cormac of Connacht as if he were an autonomous, self-sustaining Howard hero (granted, he’s the POV character in “Kings,” but still — third billing at best, after Bran and Kull). An even more junior varsity presence is that El Borak wannabe Kirby O’Donnell; why not Terence Vulmea?
Ashley is wildly off in sequencing “The Valley of the Worm” as preceding “The Shadow Kingdom” in prehistory, but a point in his favor is that World of Heroes featured the only appearance of “Hawks of Outremer” after the Grant hardcover of that name until Rusty Burke made things easy for all of us dog-of-a-Nazarene types with Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient in 2005. So although that Achilleos cover still has me imagining some unreleased Village People single meant to follow “In the Navy,” World of Heroes is not only an amusing novelty but 424 pages of REH heroic fantasy and adventure fiction served up at a time when the pickings were slim at best (1989 was a wonderful year for the accelerated oxidizing of the Iron Curtain and Mick and Keith deciding to resolve their differences and resume recording and touring, but somewhat Howard-challenged. . .)