"From death to death [The Heart of Ahriman] came, riding on a river of human blood. Blood feeds it, blood draws it. Its power is greatest when there is blood on the hands that grasp it, when it is wrested by slaughter from its holder. Wherever it gleams, blood is spilt and kingdoms totter, and the forces of nature are put in turmoil." -- Thutothmes of Khemi (The Hour of The Dragon, by REH)
The Hour of the Dragon (1934-1936), is Robert E. Howard''s only full length novel of Conan, the barbarian he popularized in short story form. The text is available on-line for free via the Gutenberg project, but there are reason's to track down a paperback. I read the Berkley Putnam 1977 edition, which has splendid additions to the story: comprehensive foreword and afterwords by Karl Wagner explain how the novel formed prior being serialized in Weird Tales; a map of the Hyborian Age (inspired by REH's own drawings) is essential for the Hyborian ambiances; interior illustrations are bonuses; and cover art by Ken Kelly is stellar.
Hyborian Age: As Wagner details, this book was REH's attempt to break into the UK market that demanded novels (and were not agreeable to his proposals for a collection of his own stories). REH presents Conan as King of Aquilonia. Sorcery and treachery dethrone him, and Conan trots about much of Hyboria, either pursing or being challenged by those who have the magical Heart of Ahriman (which we learn in the opening chapter). This touring of the pre-drowned Euro-Afro-Asia continent begs for a map. The traveling adventure amplifies the Hyborian Age concept; REH's Conan lived in rich pseudo historical land that enabled real ancient cultures to interact with mythical ones. Each chapter has Conan (and his enemies) traversing Aquilonia, Nemeda, Argos, Stygia, and more (these roughly translates to central Europe and Northern Africa). I'm not sure if any othe rtale
Missing Chapter Mystery: A deal was accepted but the UK publisher went belly up, so REH worked with Weird Tales to publish the chapters in serial form. As Wagner explains, there is a possibility that one chapter went missing (#20). Wagner left the numbering of the chapters consistent with the numbering as printed in Weird Tales (#20 is skipped); the original manuscript sent to Denis Archer has 4,000 more words (Pawling & Ness imprint) has 75,000 words. That edition never made it to press, but Weird Tales published the novel in serial form...and it had only 71,000 words. Regardless, the story seems consistent, so there is no obvious loss in plot.
Style: REH did not change his writing style, so each chapter maintains a very pulpy feel. Chapters are over saturated with conflicts to maintain a frenetic pace. An over reliance on chance encounters detracts from the enjoyment, but it remains a fun read on the whole. Written in the 1930's, the tone has some racial and misogynistic aspects of the time. Despite the use of the word "negro," Conan appears as a champion/friend to many and even freed many slaves. Woman on the other hand were represented terribly; the few featured are concubines who are cheer leaders of Conan requiring rescue. Here are some examples:
Example 1: Concubine saves Conan and is glad to have him put a knife to her "Walk beside me," [Conan] instructed her softly, passing his massive arm about her lithe waist. "You've played me fair so far, and I'm inclined to believe in you; but I've lived this long only because I've trusted no one too far, man or woman. So! Now if you play me false you won't live to enjoy the jest." She did not flinch at sight of the reddened poniard or the contact of his hard muscles about her supple body.
"Cut me down without mercy if I play you false," she answered. "The very feel of your arm about me, even in menace, is as the fulfillment of a dream."
Example 2: Conan relishes in his obvious manliness "All right," [Conan] muttered. "I'll trust you; though, by Crom, the habits of a lifetime are not easily put aside. Yet I wouldn't harm you now, if you brought all the swordsmen in Nemedia upon me. But for you Tarascus's cursed ape would have come upon me in chains and unarmed. Do as you wish, girl." Kissing his hands, she sprang lithely up and ran down the corridor, to vanish through a heavy double door.
He glanced after her, wondering if he was a fool to trust her; then he shrugged his mighty shoulders and pulled the satin hangings together, masking his refuge. It was not strange that a passionate young beauty should be risking her life to aid him; such things had happened often enough in his life. Many women had looked on him with favor, in the days of his wanderings, and in the time of his kingship.
Example 3: Conan thanks the concubine who saves him by taking his sexual due "A horse is hidden for you in a thicket beside the road that runs westward, a few hundred paces to the south of the fountain of Thrallos. You know where it is?"
"Aye! But what of you? I had meant to take you with me."
A flood of joy lighted her beautiful face.
"Then my cup of happiness is brimming! But I will not hamper your escape. Burdened with me you would fail. Nay, do not fear for me. They will never suspect that I aided you willingly. Go! What you have just said will glorify my life throughout the long years."
He caught her up in his iron arms, crushed her slim, vibrant figure to him and kissed her fiercely on eyes, cheeks, throat and lips, until she lay panting in his embrace; gusty and tempestuous as a storm-wind, even his love- making was violent.