Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories can be daunting to jump into, with over twenty completed works to choose from. Those wishing to explore the bedrock of the sword & sorcery genre may find themselves wondering where to start. To remedy this, I have listed my top five Conan stories that I think best capture the barbarian’s saga. These are not necessarily in order, as each setting has its own unique charm and is hard to definitively put above the rest.
People of the Black Circle is a fascinating look at Hyboria’s Middle East, with predecessors to India, Aghanistan, etc making appearances. This one centers around the schemes of a shadowy group of powerful wizards, with a healthy dose of political intrigue thrown in. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of how magic works and is tied to the culture surrounding it. This leads to interesting musings on the fundamental spiritual differences between East and West and displays Howard’s sophisticated grasp on the cultures he references.
Tower of the Elephant is short and sweet, like most of the best Conan tales. Gets straight to the point with a classic “magic jewel in a booby-trapped tower” heist. Conan finds an unlikely companion in the king of thieves, and the pair face down a slew of horrors as they search for the prized possession of an infamous sorcerer. The ending is probably one of the best showcases of how bizarre Hyboria can be, and masterfully blurs the line between fantasy and science fiction. If someone were to ask me which story to read first, this would be the one due to how short it is. In one sitting you can get a complete feel for Howard’s style and move on to whatever piques your interest.
Red Nails is an exploration of the horror side of Conan, as he and Valeria (a predecessor to the movie character) find themselves trapped in a forgotten city inhabited by the remnants of an ancient Aztec-esque civilization. The inhabitants have all but lost themselves to madness, and wage war against each other over ancestral grudges and nihilistic bloodlust. There are hints of Lovecraft in this one, as the city is also inhabited by chthonic supernatural forces that put even Conan on edge. Valeria is one of the more fleshed-out of Conan’s love interests, as she is a deadly and renowned warrior in her own right.
Queen of the Black Coast is peak Corsair Conan. A swashbuckling tale of romance where Conan, on the run from the local authorities, falls into a relationship with the Queen of Pirates. The two head for dangerous territory to discover a lost city and plunder its riches. The story takes a hard turn in the second half that teaches the reader to always expect the unexpected. You may notice that almost all of the stories here star Conan in his thief or pirate days. As fun as “King Conan” is, he’s a barbarian at heart and at his purest when merely exploring strange lands for adventure, war and rapine. Even canonically Conan looks upon those times as his glory days.
Beyond the Black River is likely my favorite. Possibly the most unique setting of them all as Conan struggles to survive the terrifying frontier of Hyborian America. An Aquilonian settlement is threated with destruction by the Picts, Howard’s equivalent of Native Americans. These normally splintered tribes are unified by a crazed shaman, who proceeds to unleash primitive magic much different than any other found in the Conan mythos. The horror of American colonization finds its best representation in all of fantasy here. The story also contains the best explorations of the theme of barbarism vs civilization, and how the latter will always fall to the former in the end. This message is ultimately the heart of all Conan tales, which is why I put this story at the top of my list.
There were a few honorable mentions left out of this list such as The Frost Giant’s Daughter, Rogues in the House and The Hour of the Dragon. These are also excellent tales that I wouldn’t begrudge someone for calling their favorite, but they were edged out by the ones listed above in my opinion. The Conan stories are numerous and often vary in quality, with many of them recycling themes from better stories, but the ones listed here all add something of their own not found anywhere else in fiction.