James LaFond's Impressions of The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard
Reading from pages 83-254 of The Bloody Crown of Conan, 2003, Del Rey, NY, illustrated by Gary Gianni, whose work will also be considered, as the book is being examined as a cultural-mythic artifact.
This work was unusual for Howard in that it was a commissioned novel, his only one and was supported by an extensive untitled synopsis, reproduced on pages 335-7, and also extensive day-by-day notes on events in the novel reproduced on pages 339-42, with the latter only concerned with the second chapter of the novel and the former the first half of the novel. Howard wrote the work from chapter three on by the seat of his pants and completed the bulk of it with a bare shadow of an outline.
The arch villain of this thriller, which is stalked by so many more villains than heroes, is Xaltotun, arguably Howard’s best in a long line of sorcerers. Xaltotun has been dead for 3,000 years, after having been poisoned and curiously embalmed by the rival sorcerers of Stygia. He is raised from the dead by a cabal of geopolitical movers who wish to unseat the barbarian usurper king Conan from the throne of the flower of the western realms, Aquilonia.
As with Howard’s best Conan tales, a brief verse leads off before the first chapter 23:
The Hour of the Dragon
A lion banner sways and falls in the horror haunted gloom;
A scarlet dragon rustles by, borne on winds of doom.
In heaps the shining horsemen lie, where the thrusting lances break,
And deep in the haunted mountains the lost, black gods awake.
Dead hands grope in the shadows, the stars turn pale with fright,
For this is the Dragon’s Hour, the Triumph of Fear and Night.
The story itself, serialized in the December 1935 and the January, February, March and April 1936 issues of Weird Tales magazine marked both the height and end phase of Robert E. Howard’s life and career and stands itself as a triumph of the storytelling arts. It is a rare worker of fiction who sets out without a road map and retains the courage to title his every chapter. Howard not only crafted one of the ten best fantasy novels ever written, he sold this story in Britain where some of its elements would influence British fantasy writers from J.R.R. Tolkien to George R. R. Martin. As a master work, and as Howard’s single novel completed by his own hand, The Hour of the Dragon deserves to be examined a chapter at a time as an example of the best of a literary kind.
Gary Gianni’s illustration depicts a dragon turning to snarl over its back at the outsized crown that encircles his reptilian waist like a jeweled jester’s hoop.
(c) 2019 James LaFond