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THE CONAN CHRONICLES:
An Interview with Stephen Jones

by Edward Waterman - June 2000
 

Fifteen years since the last softbound printing, the complete collection of Robert E. Howard's legendary Conan tales will finally be available in a paperback. The editor of the upcoming Conan books, Stephen Jones, is the winner of two World Fantasy Awards, three Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards and two International Horror Guild Awards, as well as being a Hugo Award nominee and a twelve-times recipient of the British Fantasy Award. One of Britain's most acclaimed anthologists of horror and dark fantasy, he has published more than sixty books. He lives in London.

 

EW: It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to interview you, Mr. Jones. I understand you are the editor of an upcoming publication of Robert E. Howard's immortal Conan stories. Can you tell me a little about the project? What is, or are, The Conan Chronicles?

SJ: The Conan Chronicles are two bumper-size trade paperbacks which collect together for the first time anywhere in the world all of Robert E. Howard's stories, novellas and fragments featuring Conan the Cimmerian. Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle is published in August by Orion Book's Millennium imprint, and Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon is scheduled to appear around February next year.

EW: Why did you choose the name, The Conan Chronicles, for the two volume set? You are aware that a collection of pastiches by Robert Jordan were published under that title, right?

SJ: I was of course very aware of the Jordan omnibus. My original title for the books was The Chronicles of CONAN, but the publisher insisted on the current title, even after I made them aware of the Jordan volume.

EW: Where will the books be sold?

SJ: Hopefully everywhere. General bookstores, specialist bookstores and over the Internet. I should point out that Orion only has a deal to publish these volumes in Britain, Canada and the commonwealth. Unless Conan Properties agree to it, there are no plans for these volumes to be published in America.

EW: Can a person living in the United States or another country not in the Commonwealth purchase the books?

SJ: As is usually the case, you will probably be able to find copies through specialist fantasy and SF dealers on both sides of the Atlantic, or you can order off the Internet: Amazon.com apparently already has the first volume listed, or you can just as easily order through the UK site: Amazon.co.uk

EW: As you know, Robert E. Howard's Conan stories have not been reprinted as a complete set since around 1984. Was there anything which prompted Millennium to publish them now, over 15 years later?

SJ: I'm not sure that there has ever been as complete a set of Howard's Conan stories as we are publishing. For the past couple of years Orion has had huge success with its series of 'SF Masterworks' trade paperbacks. These are attractive, inexpensive books reprinting classic SF novels or collections by many of the greatest names in the field. Because these have become such a hit with both the book trade and readers, publishing director Malcolm Edwards and series editor Jo Fletcher decided to launch a companion series of 'Fantasy Masterworks' towards the end of last year.

Jo is an excellent editor, who grew up reading Lin Carter's Ballentine Adult Fantasy series. She knows her stuff. It was only logical that she would want to include Howard's Conan stories in the series, if she could. Meanwhile, I just happened to be working on a similar concept to pitch to another publisher. When we discussed what she was doing, it made sense to combine both projects.

The final volumes are not exactly what I had originally envisioned, but I am more than happy with them.

EW: Will there be other authors included in the series? Can you give some examples?

SJ: The first Conan volume will actually be No.8 in the 'Fantasy Masterworks' series. Other titles in the series have included The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison, Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany, Shadow and Claw by Gene Wolfe, Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny, Little, Big by John Crowley and Viriconium by M. John Harrison. Upcoming are titles by Jonathan Carroll, Michael Moorcock, Patricia McKillip, and L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Many of these volumes actually contain multiple books. They are incredibly good value for money.

EW: Why, do you think, were Howard's Conan stories chosen to be included in the 'Fantasy Masterworks' series?

SJ: Jo and Malcolm wanted the series to include as many classics of the genre (both past and modern) as they could get. Howard's original Conan stories are obviously seminal to the sword & sorcery and fantasy genres.

EW: Who are your readers for this? What market are these particular books, The Conan Chronicles, designed for?

SJ: These books -- and the series in general -- are aimed at the mass-market. They will be on sale through general bookstores and, on the basis of the name "Conan", will hopefully attract new readers to Howard's fiction. I compiled a pretty extensive list of his other titles to be included in each book as a kind of "further reading" guide.

EW: Why do you think the Conan stories have been so popular over the years? What's their appeal?

SJ: I think Howard often wrote with his heart, but not always with his head. He churned these pulp stories out in a white-heat of emotion, and this excitement and intensity leaps off the page when you read his best fiction. He also obviously had a soft-spot for Conan, and this is evident in even his average pot-boilers featuring the Cimmerian.

And Conan himself is undeniably one of fiction's greatest heroes. Despite his barbarian upbringing, the character has intelligence and integrity, as well as being a mighty fighter and attractive to women. In short, he is the perfect male wish-fulfillment. Which is why, I guess, this type of fiction is so popular amongst adolescent boys.

EW: It is interesting to note that Howard's fiction has been popular in the United Kingdom since the 1930's. Howard's first book, A Gent from Bear Creek, was first published in England, and The Hour of the Dragon was originally written by Howard to be published as a book in the UK. In fact, while Howard was alive he found the UK to be a growing market for his work and even today many people believe this native Texan to be an English author. Why do you think Howard's work appeals so much to the English?

SJ: I actually think Howard's appeal is world-wide -- hence the reprinting of his fiction and the media spin-offs which continue to appear more than sixty years after his death. Like many things in publishing, Howard's connection with Britain is just one of those coincidences that happens. I'm just proud to be able to continue that tradition with these latest two volumes...

EW: A lot of commotion has been made by Conan and Howard fans alike about the way the Conan stories have been altered and expurgated in the past. Is the text of the stories pure, meaning exactly as it originally appeared in the 1930's pulp magazine, Weird Tales -- errors, inconsistencies and all?

SJ: Yes, pretty much so. This was something which Orion and I agreed on from the day we first discussed the project: these books would contain Howard's Conan, and only Howard's Conan. As good as some of the pastiches have been over the years, none of them could match up to the original. We wanted to introduce a new generation of fantasy fans brought up on other writers' interpretations of the character to experience Howard's original and, in my opinion, superior version of Conan.

However, as I said before, these books are aimed at the mass-market readership. They don't care whether Farnsworth Wright changed a comma to a semi-colon (and, to be honest, neither do I). Therefore, so far as the Howard "purists" may be concerned, these volumes have been "edited" to some degree, but we have retained the original American spellings where appropriate. We also corrected a few errors and inconsistencies, although I'm sure that given the quality of some of the material we were working from, the occasional new typo has slipped through. This is unfortunately the nature of mass-market publishing.

EW: What about the story fragments, synopses, and posthumously published stories? Did you use the original manuscripts as the source for these texts?

SJ: I had to argue my corner with Orion to include these. I had originally wanted to feature the stories in the order they were first published the same way that my old friend Karl Edward Wagner had done with his three Berkley collections in the 1970s. (As an aside, both books are dedicated to Karl's memory for his inspiration and ground-breaking work.) However, Orion was adamant that the stories appear in the chronological order of Conan's life (I assume to give the books more of a "novel" feel). As this hadn't been done before, I didn't fight it too hard. We used the Miller-Clark chronology in Glenn Lord's The Last Celt as our guide.

When it came time to discuss how we broke the volumes down, I originally suggested three books. However, Orion wanted its 'Fantasy Masterworks' series to represent value-for-money, so I eventually restructured the contents to fit two bumper editions. (As another aside, I would dearly love to see the books published in hardcover, preferably as a single volume, sometime in the near future -- perhaps as a book club edition.)

Anyway, having shoe-horned all the known Conan stories into these two volumes (including the posthumously published pieces), I started to look at the fragments and synopses. And I managed to convince Orion that we would have something truly unique if we included all this material as well. To be honest, they really didn't take that much convincing. So in the end we included every Conan and Cimmerian-related piece of Howard's writing that we knew about.

Wherever possible, we went back to the first publication of this material. When we could, we re-set from a story's original Weird Tales or other magazine appearance. I also used Karl Wagner's Berkley and Echoes of Valor collections. Very occasionally we used Arkham House versions or the Donald M. Grant books. This was simply for ease of typesetting. Because of the financial margins involved in publishing these books, Orion simply could not afford to re-set from Howard's original manuscripts (even if we could have got hold of them all in the short time I was given to compile both books). A number of wonderful people helped us to obtain this original material, including Scott F. Wyatt, Robert Weinberg, Randy Broecker, Lew Cabos, Kent Butler and Alistair Durie, while Joe Marek very kindly supplied us with copies of Howard's original typescripts for both draft versions of 'Wolves Beyond the Border'.

EW: Did you finish the story fragments or include pastiches by other authors?

SJ: Absolutely not! That would just have been repeating past mistakes. As I said previously, from our first discussions it was agreed that these books would only contain Howard's writing. The 'Fantasy Masterworks' series honours the author just as much as their characters or series.

EW: Robert E. Howard often wrote more than one draft of his stories. Regarding the fragments and unpublished stories, will there be any alternate drafts included in the series?

SJ: No. Again, that's the kind of thing you can do in a limited edition volume. It just wouldn't work in the mass-market. In almost every case we went for the first, most "definitive" published version of a story. The only exception was 'Wolves Beyond the Border'. After discussing it with Joe Marek and Jo Fletcher, I decided to add Howard's brief synopsis from the end of his first draft to the more polished second draft of the story, which is the one we are using in the book. That's probably the most overt "tampering" I have done. We also decided to add Howard's poem 'Cimmeria' to the end of the second volume, just because it felt "right" to finish on it.

EW: It's interesting that the text is generally unedited. What made you decide not to edit the text?

SJ: Basically because it wasn't my job to. Most of the stories had already been edited by the editors of the magazines in which they had originally appeared. I respected that. So except for some minor tidying-up to put the text into Orion's "house style", we pretty much decided that it was already in its "definitive" published form after six decades.

EW: Does Millennium's decision not to edit have anything to do with the fan protest or the desire among fans to have access to the pure text?

SJ: As much as we would all like to think so, the answer is actually no. As I've said, these books are not really aimed at the fans (and, to be honest, we've all been a bit surprised at the reaction they've caused amongst the die-hard Howard "purists"). When I was first given the opportunity to compile these volumes, it was simply a job of work. Albeit one I greatly enjoyed. But I assumed that the real fans already had more than enough versions of the Conan stories in various editions. This was simply an attempt to inspire people who had never read Howard before, and who perhaps only knew Conan through the pastiches or the media adaptations, to discover for themselves what an entertaining and enjoyable read the original stories still are.

EW: As an editor, what do you feel your job is?

SJ: To simply do the best job I can given the time and material to hand. Please remember that I only "edited" (I actually prefer the word "compiled") the books. I did not edit Howard's texts so much as tidied them up a bit.

EW: Do issues of artistic integrity ever become involved?

SJ: When you're dealing with material that has been around for as long as Howard's stories have, of course it does. I would have no compunction while working with an author on a new story to make changes which I thought improved the text. I don't think you can do that with something that has already reached "classic" status. Also, it would be presumptive of me to try to guess what Howard wanted to achieve all those years ago. At least he and Farnsworth Wright discussed it with each other before the stories appeared in Weird Tales, and that's good enough for me.

EW: When you edit a book do you edit the text to make it conform to standard English usage, do you edit the text for social content and general mass appeal, or do you prefer to leave the text exactly as the artist or author intended it to be published?

SJ: All books have to conform to a publisher's "house style". That is usually done by the in-house editor and a copy-editor. Otherwise, I try to work with an author to achieve the best story. I would not edit for social, sexual or political content (unless I thought it truly offensive), and then it would be more likely that I would simply reject that story. Sometimes I get stories that I don't need to touch. Other times I'll work with a writer over several drafts until we are both satisfied with the finished result.

Because most of my books are published in both America and Britain and because of travel, movies, TV and popular culture our two society's are very similar -- I often try to give my volumes a "mid-Atlantic" feel which I hope will appeal to the widest possible audience. I don't think that the mix of British and American spellings in the Conan books will put anyone off reading them...

EW: What are some of the problems you encounter in editing, especially regarding The Conan Chronicles?

SJ: In general, the biggest problem is having to plow through numerous bad manuscripts until you find that one gem you want to publish. Of course that is not the case with reprint anthologies and collections. You're hopefully already choosing the best material available. I can't really say there were that many problems with compiling The Conan Chronicles. Orion did the deal with the agent for Conan Properties. I was just brought on board, on a work-for-hire basis, to pull it all into shape. We only had a couple of months, so that was tight, and getting the most appropriate versions of the stories could have been difficult if we hadn't called in a few favours from friends and colleagues. However, overall it was a pretty stress-free (and enjoyable) experience.

EW: I think I can probably go out on a limb and guess that you are a Robert E. Howard fan, but as an editor, what do you think of Howard's writing?

SJ: Actually, I'm just a fan of fantastic fiction. I grew up reading all the Weird Tales writers -- H.P. Lovecarft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Manly Wade Wellman, Frank Belknap Long, Seabury Quinn and others -- and Howard was simply another member of that crowd. And like most pulp writers of that period, who were churning out wordage just to put food on the table -- some of his work is marvellous, and some of it is pure "hack".

EW: Can you be more specific or do you have an example?

SJ: I've never been a great fan of Howard's comedy Westerns or the boxing stories. However, I've always enjoyed his sword & sorcery and weird menace stuff, and horror stories such as 'The Horror from the Mound', 'The Black Stone' and of course 'Pigeons from Hell' are amongst some of the best the genre has to offer. In fact, I'm trying to convince Orion to launch a 'Horror Masterpieces' series so that I can put together a definitive collection of Howard's horror fiction.

EW: A collection of Howard's horror tales is such a good idea, I'm almost speechless! I hope Orion likes the idea. Howard's horror stories have an amazing way of touching a barely sensed, deeper, and primitive part of our psyche. Tell me, do you see any deeper themes or messages in the Conan stories, or any motif running through the tales?

SJ: I don't really believe that Howard ever thought about "subtext" in his stories. He turned them out, sent them off to an editor, and then began work on the next one. That's how the pulp authors survived. But having said that, all writers bring something of themselves to a story and perhaps more than in his other work, there is definitely something of Howard in his Conan stories. He obviously believed in the nobility of barbarianism, while his attitudes to women and ethnic minorities unfortunately reflected the times and location he grew up in. I guess these would be the major recurring motifs throughout the Conan stories. That, and an obvious love of mystery and adventure.

EW: Certain authorities have often said the Conan stories have no deeper meaning, have nothing to say, and have no worth other than their entertainment value. What do you think of that?

SJ: I think that could well be true, for the reasons I have explained above. Again, it would be presumptive of me to try to guess what Howard was thinking all those years ago. I'd just rather sit back and enjoy being caught up in the fantasy worlds he created.

EW: Did Robert E. Howard's work have any lasting impact on the literary field?

SJ: I think that depends on what you mean by "literary". In the big scheme of publishing, Howard is a very, very minor footnote. Just as SF, fantasy and horror are reduced to "genre" status by so-called "mainstream" publishing. But in the genres he worked in, Howard was (and still is) a giant. It has been more than six decades since he cut his life so tragically short, and it would be impossible to guess what his reputation would be today had he lived out his natural years. I'm not sure I would subscribe to August Derleth's suggestion that he would have become a major regionalist. However, what is remarkable, is that despite his relatively brief career, and the types of publications his work appeared in, his fiction and concepts have endured and grown over the years, and he is as much of an influence now as he has ever been. That certainly proves that there is something enduring about his work and is a testament (if one was needed) to his skill as a writer.

EW: Any influence on later authors?

SJ: Of course, far too many to mention. And who knows, maybe The Conan Chronicles will influence a new generation of heroic fantasy writers, the same way the Weird Tales, Gnome Press and Lancer printings influenced their own generations...? I certainly hope so, and to this end I wrote a 5,000-word Afterword split over both volumes which charts the careers of Howard and his most famous creation. My intention with this was to put these stories into perspective while at the same time to try and spark the same kind of enthusiasm and excitement in Howard's writing (and other members of the Weird Tales circle) that I experienced when I first discovered the Conan books around the age of 14.

EW: There are many Conan chronology aficionados out there in Conan fandom, can you tell us what order the Conan stories will be published?

SJ: The contents of Volume 1 are: Map of The Hyborian Age (by Dave Senior, from a map prepared by Robert E. Howard); 'The Hyborian Age'; 'The Tower of the Elephant'; 'The Hall of the Dead' (fragment); 'The God in the Bowl'; 'Rogues in the House'; 'The Hand of Nergal' (fragment); 'The Frost-Giant's Daughter'; 'Queen of the Black Coast'; 'The Vale of Lost Women'; 'The Snout in the Dark' (draft); 'Black Colossus'; 'Shadows in the Moonlight'; 'A Witch Shall Be Born'; 'Shadows in Zamboula'; 'The Devil in Iron'; 'The People of the Black Circle'; 'The Slithering Shadow'; 'Drums of Tombalku' (draft); ' The Pool of the Black One' and 'Afterword: Robert E. Howard and Conan: The Early Years' by Stephen Jones.

Volume 2 consists of: Map of The Hyborian Age; 'Notes on Various Peoples of the Hyborian Age'; 'Red Nails'; 'Jewels of Gwahlur'; 'Beyond the Black River'; 'The Black Stranger'; 'Wolves Beyond the Border' (draft); 'The Phoenix on the Sword'; 'The Scarlet Citadel'; 'The Hour of the Dragon' (verse); 'The Hour of the Dragon'; 'Cimmeria' (verse) and 'Afterword: Robert E. Howard and Conan: The Final Years' by Stephen Jones.

EW: Thank you for taking the time to give all us Conan fans something to cheer about. All the best to you, Mr. Jones.

SJ: Thank you for your interest. I just hope that all the Howard "purists" out there realize that these books are not specifically designed for them. They are general paperbacks aimed at the casual fantasy reader and, as such, I truly believe that everyone involved in this project has achieved more than could ever have been expected. I am very proud of my work on these books, and if it results in just one new reader going out there and tracking down more works by Robert E. Howard, then I feel that I will have achieved what I set out to do.




Afterword

A list of textual sources for the upcoming Conan Chronicles, has been recently floated around various internet discussion groups and even published in REHupa. If you've seen this list, you've no doubt noticed that the listing of textual sources in that list differs from the list Mr. Jones gave us in this interview. Mr. Jones explained the difference to me: "...the list I sent Joe was off the top of my head. I don't have a definitive list of where exactly each story manuscript originated from because we were always finding better versions from different people." You'll also notice that Mr. Jones goes to great lengths to state that The Conan Chronicles are not a set of "definitive" texts which will stand up to the scrutiny of Robert E. Howard purists or scholars. Although the "second best" sources (such as Skull Face and Others, the Wagner edited Berkley books, etc.) were used for some stories, Mr. Jones attests that about 80% of the material was typeset directly from photocopies of the original Weird Tales magazines. In a few cases, especially for the posthumously published stories and story fragments, expurgated and edited texts were used simply because those stories have never been published in unedited and unaltered form and Howard's original manuscripts were not available (with the notable exception of "Wolves Beyond the Border"). [Click here to see an update on the sources used for the text since this interview took place.]

As you read in the interview, Mr. Jones and Orion wisely made the decision to retain the American spellings for Howard's stories. After all, Howard was an American author, and it's only natural that the American "feel" to the author's words should be retained. The British spellings Mr. Jones speaks of only pertain to the Forwards and Afterwords in the books. Although a publisher's "house style" typically includes standardized spellings and punctuation, in this case only such things as chapter headings (caps or upper and lower -- Orion went for the latter) and chapter numbers (3 or III -- Orion went for the former) were affected. In the original source material, these kind of things varied from publication to publication. Orion simply standardized the format. Unfortunately, we can expect quite a few typos in these new books, as well as most of the errors present in the original sources.

Still, it is quite a feat to collect all of Howard's stories together without any pastiches or finished story fragments!!! Mr. Jones is right there has never been a collection of Howard's Conan tales quite like this one. In fact, this omnibus collection is easily the preferred replacement for the old Ace Books Conan paperbacks, and the text of the Conan stories is almost entirely unedited! Hopefully, these books will create a trend that will sound the death-knell of disgraceful Lancer/Ace-like Conan collections where the text is butchered, the author is abused, and poor quality pastiches are treated as equals to Robert E. Howard's masterful creations. Well done, Orion!



THE CONAN CHRONICLES VOLUME 1: THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE by Robert E. Howard is published by Millennium on 10 August. ISBN: 1-85798-996-1 6.99 pounds. 548pp.



Coming in May 2001...     



Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon

ISBN 1-85798-747-0
7.99















(Copyright 2000 Edward Waterman - All rights reserved)






 
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