My advice is read the Lancer/Ace series if you can find them. It's Howard's most popular series by a huge margin.
It's Howard's most popular series by a wide margin because it was the first major Howard series published in the cheap, easy-to-print and disseminate paperback format. There's nothing in them that isn't already in the Del Reys, unedited, unexpurgated, and untainted with nonsense.
Selling in the hundreds of millions worldwide and introduced the rest of the world (those poeple who would normally have overlooked Howard) to Conan.
There are plenty of reasons the Lancers were phenomenal successes, but in a day and age where the Del Reys are accessible (or even the likes of Gutenberg & Wikisource) there is zero reason to get the Lancers apart from pure nostalgia.
Some people say there is work by two other authors (DeCamp and Carter)
Some say?!? De Camp is co-credited. From Conan the Adventurer onwards, the books are written by "Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague De Camp." This is right on the cover of the freaking books.
but those stories are few and only serve to create a chronology that Howard was obviously working on and unable to complete.
Oy. First of all, "few"? De Camp got to work on original stories before he got all the Howard texts out there. The very first such collection has "The City of Skulls." Such classic Howard stories were pipped to the post by pastiche. Pastiche material far outweighs the Howard material as a whole.
Second of all, "obviously working on"? Obvious to whom? Howard himself had this to say:
In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.
So, yeah, Howard wasn't really making a particular chronology.
Despite what is said, they never stepped beyond the bounds Howard set for Conan. For instance, they never wrote a story placing Conan in Cimmeria, Lin Carter's intro story finds Conan running from wolves having just escaped slavery, age 16.
I guess completely re-writing the ending of "The Black Stranger" and completely warping Howard's intended ending for the "Tombalku" fragment doesn't count as "never stepping beyond the bounds."
Most of their work was based on fragments and outlines of stories Howard never finished so a fine restoration in a chronology that the reader can easily follow.
"Fine" being subjective, of course. I think "The Hand of Nergal" is a joke, "Drums of Tombalku" limp and unsatisfying, "The Snout in the Dark" a terrible title and terrible completion, and the less said about "The Hall of the Dead," the better.
Add the fine covers by Frank Frazetta and you have the best imagery and and most complete chronology for Conan.
It's only complete if you're accepting pastiches. Which most Howard fans don't. I mean, it's fine to have them, but ferchrissakes don't get the Lancers instead of Howard's own damn text! See, most people are intelligent, and can come up with their own ideas of Conan's chronology. That's part of the beauty of it. You can read the stories as Howard wrote them, and there's barely any problem as a result. Unless you have so barren an imagination that you cannot make up your own ideas of where Conan went and what Conan did between the Howard tales, the Lancers are worth nothing.
It's the continuity the restoration of Howard's uncompleted stories brings, that critics of the Lancer series overlook, and what makes it a must read for any Howard buff.
Except even if we're talking "chronology," the Lancer system is not beyond reproach. There are many Conan chronologies out there, and they're all quite different. Indeed, the Lancer chronology only makes sense because De Camp mangled an existing Howard story in order to fit into one of his own creation. De Camp usurps Howard in the Lancers. That alone doesn't make it worth a bean. Call it a "must read" for a Conan buff, but don't dare call it a must read for a Howard buff. You won't know any more about Howard from the Lancers than you would from reading the Del Reys. In fact, you would know less.
It's a shame they are out of print really. People knock them because they were so popular.
People have much better reasons for knocking them than "because they were popular." The fact that De Camp interjected himself as a posthumous collaborator isn't enough? The fact that he puts himself on equal billing with a genius he couldn't hope to match isn't enough? The fact that he alters and butchers perfectly good stories for his own reasons isn't enough? The fact that better versions of the stories, with better accompanying essays and better information on Howard is available, isn't enough? No, I guess we only bash the Lancers because they were popular.
Even saying chronological reading is bad for Conan? It's good reading though, trust me.
Chronological reading for Conan isn't necessarily bad, it's just nobody can - or should - present a chronology as being "Howard's intention." The only defensible method of reading the Howard stories is in their publication order, which just makes sense, as it follows how Howard wrote the stories, how his conception of the Hyborian Age changed and expanded, and how Conan as a character evolved. By all means, I'm not against reading the Conan stories in an order, but it's entirely arbitrary. Reading in publication order is just preferable.
Also, if you read the content of the stories you would want to say 'The Tower of the Elephant' is first just because Conan is very young and Howard creates a good image of the Hyborian Age as the story progresses. With that groundwork, the 'Frost Giant's Daughter' and 'God in the Bowl' have a better foundation in the reader's mind. The early stories have a loose fit, but I wouldn't just trace a line from Cimmeria to Zamora and say that's the chronology.
This is one of those occassions where I'm going to engage in chronology: I'm a Rippkean. Aside from indecision over the placement of "Iron Shadows in the Moon," I think it's solid. Thus, Dale's arguments for placing "The God in the Bowl" before "The Tower of the Elephant" are compelling, and I think bulletproof. There's no way I can see Conan going from the curious, modestly confident thief of "Tower" to the naive, feral savage in "Bowl". I can take or leave the placement of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter before or after, but in my mind, "Bowl" clearly takes place before "Tower".
The Lancers place "Tower" before "Bowl." Oh... and they don't even make the first chronological Conan story a Howard one, for they put "The Thing in the Crypt" as the first. Yup, De Camp couldn't help himself.
Anyway, my advice is ignore the criticism's of the Lancer/Ace series.
My advice is to ignore this dunderhead.
All in all, even if there were bad edits by DeCamp, it is minor pastiche compared to what later authors and publishers wrote into the character and world.
Oh, I see: ignore the sins of De Camp, because they're nothing compared to the sins of later authors! For the same reason, you should ignore De Camp kicking you once in the groin, because Harry Turtledove kicked you ten times! Even though Nyberg is probably one of the worst pasticheurs, and he was the first De Camp brought in. And of course, the De Camp controversy is hardly "minor pastiche."
It just seems very trite to me to shoot down Howard's most explosively popular compilation ever and say, "It was a mistake, don't read it." I say read it and decide for yourselves!
It seems trite to me to defend the Lancers just because they were popular all those years ago. If they were so popular, how come they're out of print? If De Camp was so powerfully necessary, why didn't they reprint Conan of the Isles in the Del Reys?
We just don't need to read the Lancers. The Del Reys are better in every possible way, unless you're a Conan freak who can't make up your own damn stories, and must look to other authors to fill in the gaps. I thank Mitra I'm not like this, otherwise I would have to take Conan of Venarium as canon, for lack of imagination.
Luckily, there's someone speaking sense at the forums, by the name of Bossonian:
My advice is contrary to Bladesaints advice, stay away from the lancer stories altogether and go straight to the source. De Camp edited REH's work with much gusto and arrogance. As Conan pastiches are concerned De Camp is the worse not only for his horrible interpretation of Conan but also for his openly negative remarks about REH.
That said DelRey has the complete REH collection in 3 nice volumes and unedited from the originals. Why eat hamburger helper when you could have the steak instead?
My impression is that it is DeCamp's remarks that get his contributions labeled wrongly.
Are you kidding me, man? We don't "mislabel his contributions", because the bastarding things are labelled already! There's no ambiguity here, you fool.
Also, at the time the remarks were 'supposedly' made, everybody was trying to make a buck off Conan and Robert E. Howard and dislodge DeCamp as the editor of Howard's works. So anything DeCamp might have said was blown out of preportion and taken out of context. Remember, this Conan series (Lancer) was an explosive worldwide bestseller. Money talks and creates armies of wanna-be's looking for their piece of the action.
Aaah, so the remarks De Camp "supposedly made" that were printed in his own damn books by his own damn hand are not a result of hubris on his part, but on people jealous of him? Come the hell on.
It's also bloody hilarious to see De Camp cast as the poor guy being hijacked for the millions the Lancers earned. That's nothing like how De Camp hijacked Howard's creation and made himself a millionaire in the process. No siree.
The success of the Lancer series spawned a new genre of spin-off fantasy, based off Howard's Conan, which came to be known as "Sword and Sorcery". So it's impact on readers world-wide was profound.
Oh, now he's saying that Howard himself did not create Sword-and-Sorcery? That there was no Sword-and-Sorcery to be found before 1967 and the Lancers made a debut? Is that what you're saying? That Howard's own work in Weird Tales languished in obscurity, and that it would take Our Lord And Saviour De Camp to create Sword-and-Sorcery?
Having read the Lancer series, the Del Rey series, and Skullface Omnibus before them I have to honestly say the Lancer Series is still 90% Howard's work.
The Lancer Series is nowhere near 90% Howard's work. That's codswallop.
I can't believe I'm wasting time here, but let's break down the "Howard quotient" of the Lancers:
Conan: 5 Howard, 2 collaborations, 2 pastiche
Conan of Cimmeria: 3 Howard, 1 collaboration, 1 non-Conan rewrites, 3 pastiche
Conan the Freebooter: 3 Howard, 2 non-Conan rewrites
Conan the Wanderer: 2 Howard, 1 non-Conan rewrite, 1 pastiche
Conan the Adventurer: 3 Howard, 1 collaboration
Conan the Buccaneer: Pastiche
Conan the Warrior: 3 Howard (!)
Conan the Usurper: 2 Howard, 2 collaborations
Conan the Conqueror: Howard
Conan the Avenger: 1 Howard, 1 Pastiche
Conan of Aquilonia: 4 pastiche
Conan of the Isles: 1 pastiche
Howard - 23 stories, including 1 novel
Collaborations - 6, 4 from barely synopses
non-Conan rewrites - 4 novellas
Patiche - 13 stories including 4 novels
Howard including Collaborations & non-Conan rewrites: 33 out of 46, 70%
Only Howard stories as he wrote them: 23 out of 46, 50%
So even being very generous, the absolute top percentage of Howard in the Lancers (and it would be much less, since I have not deducted De Camp & others' contributions to the collaborations & added elements to the non-Conan rewrites) is 70%, not 90%. In actuality, it's probably closer to 50%, and probably even less, since three of the 12 Lancers are novels with zero Howard material, compared to the 1 Howard novel.
The only difference is the added stories create a chronology which makes Conan easily accessable to new readers. I am not aware of any gross misinterpretations of Conan in the Lancer series, but some fragments and outlines of stories were changed, Some say too much, but only with the purpose of uniting the storylines.
Oh, well that makes it alright then. De Camp gutted "The Black Stranger," adding in a superfluous sorcerer and a needless tie-in to his royal campaign, but because it was in order to "united the storylines" that's aaaaaalll riiiiiggghhht. Except it is not.
The real pastiche gets applied by later authors and comics. AoC suffers some of this as the Cimmeria in the game is purely from a later author's concept and matches none of Howard's descriptions of Cimmeria or Cimmerians. Of course Howard (and DeCamp) never included actual trips to Cimmeria or other Cimmerians because it was a core method of Howard's character development to have Conan be the only Cimmerian we ever meet. Taking Conan back to Cimmeria is such an obvious storyline, but remember that DeCamp followed Howard's lead and never violated that aspect of Conan.
Bladesaint is acting under the impression that De Camp had no say in John Maddox Robert's Conan the Valorous, that he was powerless to stop him from doing this heinous misinterpretation of Howard's character.
Except. De Camp. Hired. Roberts. To. Write. It.
Anyway, Bossonian has little to worry about. Howard's explosively bestselling series has been effectively banned from re-publication by critics who are really criticising DeCamp with a microscope and not the work itself.
Oh I see, they've been banned now! Despite the MILLIONS of people clamouring for a new print run of De Camp's wonderfully made books, Paradox/CPI just won't listen to the outcry of the fans! Despite the fans CONSTANTLY petitioning for unabridge, original editions of Howard's stories that we're only in the past 10 years getting, apparently the Lancers are getting the bum deal!
I doubt very many copies exist since Lancer books were poorly bound and the pages would be re-glued by now if they still exist. If you can find them read them. Conan is mostly the same and the added content is actually well founded in Howard's lore.
Dude, I'm not even going to bother telling you why they're not "well founded." Dozens, if not hundreds, of Howard fans before me have done that already. For decades.
In closing I will say that the Lancer series united a triumverate of great creators in Howard, DeCamp, and cover artist Frank Frazetta and soon after the entire world discovered Conan the Cimmerian in a bestseller book named, "Conan the Adventurer". There was something special about the Lancer series that ignited the imaginations of readers and re-ignited a keen interest in Howard's storytelling.
I don't needlessly trash De Camp, but if I'm going to give him credit for anything, it sure as hell isn't for his Conan work. I wonder if Bladesaint has even read Harold Shea, Lest Darkness Fall, "A Gun for Dinosaur," or any of the works De Camp deserves to be remembered for? For such a "great creator," very few seem to be asking for new print runs of his non-Conan work.
As a final thought, he quotes a Conan story. What does he pick, something from "Beyond the Black River"? "Queen of the Black Coast"? "Red Nails"? "The Tower of the Elephant"? "The Phoenix on the Sword"? "Rogues in the House"? "Black Colossus"?
"The desert shimmered in the heat waves. Conan the Cimmerian stared out over the aching desolation and involuntarily drew the back of his powerful hand over his blackened lips. He stood like a bronze image in the sand, apparently impervious to the murderous sun, though his only garment was a silk loin-cloth, girdled by a wide gold-buckled belt from which hung a saber and a broad-bladed poniard. On his clean-cut limbs were evidences of scarcely healed wounds.
At his feet rested a girl, one white arm clasping his knee, against which her blond head drooped. Her white skin contrasted with his hard bronzed limbs; her short silken tunic, low-necked and sleeveless, girdled at the waist, emphasized rather than concealed her lithe figure."
-from "The Slithering Shadow"
... Yeah. "The Slithering Shadow." Not even "Xuthal of the Dusk," a poetic, evocative title for an underrated (but nowhere near great) Howard tale, but the pulptastic "Slithering Shadow."
Just another in the long list of confounded imbeciles, I'm afraid. I wish I could log on to the forum and give him this post directly, but because I still don't have the game, I can't. Damn it. Any AoC players reading, make sure good Mr Bladesaint gets it.