Monday, January 16, 2012
The 1987 version of "The Black Stranger" was published in anthology called Echoes of Valor, edited by Karl Edward Wagner. Wagner plays an important role in the history of Howard scholarship, because of his efforts to restore the texts of Howard (and several other pulp fantasy authors) to their original form. In doing so, "The Black Stranger" is freed from De Camp's imaginary chronology of Conan's exploits and allowed simply to be. There's no overarching significance to the events it describes. Indeed, "The Black Stranger" has a somewhat odd feeling to it, since it's essentially a pirate story rather than a swords-and-sorcery one, though the definition of the latter is of course broad enough to include tales such as this. Still, I think the story is better served by being presented in this fashion rather than, as De Camp would have it, as a significant step on the road to Conan's becoming king of Aquilonia. "The Black Stranger" is too slight a tale to bear such narrative weight and, more to the point, there's absolutely no evidence that Howard himself conceived of it as anything more than another episode in Conan's many, many adventures.
In its original form, "The Black Stranger" tells the tale of Conan's discovery, in the Pictish wilderness, of a hidden cave filled with the treasure of the pirate Tranicos. When he attempts to claim the treasure for himself, a demon of mist forms and attempts to kill him. Conan escapes the cave with his life and not long thereafter discovers that others seek the treasure he's just inadvertently discovered. These others consist of two feuding buccaneers, Black Zarona and Strombanni. When Conan meets them at the stronghold of an exiled Zingaran nobleman, he offers to join forces with them to loot the treasure and share its spoils equally. Of course, Conan's real plan is to use his erstwhile allies to draw out the demon while he makes off with the fabled treasure. Of course, the pirates themselves are far from trustworthy and have their own plans ...
As I said, "The Black Stranger" is a slight story, far from Howard's best. I like it well enough, but there's very little about it that screams "Conan!" to me. That may be why, when De Camp published it in the '50s, he felt the need to spice it up and give it some greater meaning beyond being another example where Conan outsmarts some fellow criminals to make himself (temporarily) rich. Unfortunately, I don't think "The Black Stranger" can bear that kind of narrative weight and De Camp's attempt to make it do so come across as hamfisted and tone-deaf -- like so much of what he did to Howard's corpus.