|From Hyborean Apocrypha|
Following the William Galen Grey Chronology our first story is "Legions of the Dead" By L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter which is found in Bantam Book's Conan the Swordsman, originally printed in 1978. This volume mostly consists of ret cons that slot in between various previously printed stories, some of them actually do help clear up some confusion, but others due mostly to editorial oversights simply add to the confusion.
The book contains a forward before each story to lend it context, at the beggining of this one it is established that Conan's father is a blacksmith, that he comes from the cloudy and dour land of Cimmeria and that he at the age of 15 stands 6 foot tall and weighs 180lbs.. and that he was a member of the forces which sacked the Aquilonian garrison of Venarium.
At some point after the raid on Venarium, Conan (age 16) joins a band of Aesir warriors who are raiding their foes the Vanir, and the evil sorcerers of the nation of Hyperborea, itself allegedly an offshoot of the very same Hyperborea of Clark Ashton Smith fame.. This concept is not really explored, and beyond them having the same name and the fact Lin Carter edited a series of Clark Ashton smith volumes for Ballantine books.. its mostly conjecture but an intriguing concept none the less.
We learn a few pages in that Conan has fled his native Cimmeria due to a blood feud and taken up with the band of Aesir warriors, though the story opens with a hunt in progress, not for loot, but for dinner. It's a pretty good way to display the strengths that this younger Conan already has to offer. His prowess in the hunt is good, swiftly dispatching a dear with a javelin, disposing of the offal and covering his tracks well.
We are quickly introduced to the Aesir characters, Njal the Jarl of the group, Gorm the Skald, and Egil the Huntsman, they are just a few of the 6 dozen or so Aesir warriors in the war band. A war band which is fixing to raid the Hyperborean stronghold of Haloga and its evil sorceress mistress. The Purpose of the raid is made clear, Njal's daughter, Rann, has been kidnapped by the witchmen so that their dark queen may perform some diabolical rite.
Njal had split the group in two, about three dozen men under their leader Egil the Hunter are dispatched to scout ahead, A move which the young Conan had protested. Njal and the rest follow them a day latter. Njal's troop reaches the walls of Haloga to discover no Egil, the sun is also about to rise. To the horror of Njal, Conan and the rest, this morning sun displays a grisly sight, all of Egil's men have been hung from the parapets of the Fortress.
While Njal despairs, Conan sneaks into the fortress and dispatches two Hyperborean guards, who we are told is gaunt, pale, with amber eyes and dressed in black, nearly the spitting image of Micheal Moorecock's Elric. Conan quickly locates Rann, and they plot their escape. Rejoining the rest of the band, they quickly depart, sacrificing stealth for speed.
But despite their speed, they are inexorably pursued... much to the horror of the Aesir.. by their previously thought dead comrades, some how re-animated to life by the Witch-Queen, Vammatar the Cruel. The undead legion quickly overwhelms the Aesir. Njal and Gorm are slain, but Rann and a few others escape thanks to Conan, who is himself taken into captivity by Vammatar.
The Story ends with Vammatar's procession of slaves being lead back to Haloga.
Generally speaking this is a pretty decent story, even a decent Conan story. It attempts to establish a basis for Conan's hatred of sorcery and an especial loathing for the Hyperborean race. It does this well, though we never do learn exactly what happened to Conan during this time period, as the next story picks up after he has escaped from Halogas slave pens and is making his way south through the mountains. It's certainly one of the better of the LSdC&LC offerings, but it does have several problems.
The most glaring of which, may seem inconsequential at first, but for anyone who knows anything about Conan, it instantly makes one want to hurl the book across the room. The seemingly innocent problem is that Conan prays to Crom in this story, something that the Original author Robert E. Howard specifically stressed he wouldn't do.. it apparently " Wasn't wise to draw the gods attention to you ".. It shows that despite all his bluster, DeCamp really never payed attention to the original stories. Parts of the story come across as rather too cute, but thats another staple of DeCamp's work, and in its own way it is at least a novelty to set him apart from Carter and Howard.
All in all I give this story *** out of ***** stars.
Legions of the Dead -
Towns, cities and other places: Haloga
Characters: Conan (age about 15), Njal, Gorm, Egil, other assorted Aesir Warriors, Rann Njalsdottir, Vammatar the cruel
Up next is " The Thing in the Crypt ".