It's been a while since I began reading The Bloody Crown of Conan, volume two of a three-part annotated anthology covering Howard's most memorable creation. This volume contains three of the longer stories including The People of the Black Circle, which I've review here. The second story in the collection is Howard's Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon. This piece was originally written in an attempt to bring Conan to British audiences and serve as a sort of debut for the character across the pond. We don't know how well it would have been received, but I do remember one Cornish professor in Oxford remarking dryly that "Conan the Barbarian is an ethnic slur". With that as a preface, let's take a look at the novel.
The Hour of the Dragon presents us with Conan as the aging ruler of Aquilonia fighting against a conspiracy to dethrone him and replace him with a survivor of the old dynasty. When the conspiracy succeeds with the help of a long-dead wizard, Xultotun, brought to life with ancient magic, Conan finds himself on the run and must fight to regain his throne. The plot thickens as Xultotun subverts his fellow conspirators and begins using his necromantic powers to revive the 3,000 years-vanished empire of Acheron. Conan gains mystic help of his own in the form of a witch and the high priest of Asura who reveal to him that he must seek "the heart of Ahriman," an ancient jewel with power to defeat Xultotun. After many and varied adventures, Conan recovers the gem and unites with his allies to restore his kingdom and send Xultotun back to the land of the dead.
The Hour of the Dragon is a short novel, falling well below 200 pages. No Cimmerian Lord of the Rings here. In further distinction to Tolkien's masterwork, The Hour of the Dragon was written under the gun as opposed to the 12 years of careful gestation and revision that produced The Lord of the Rings. Unlike the good professor, Howard was relying on his writing to pay the bills, and that leaves an indelible mark on his stories. In this case, The Hour of the Dragon reads like an excellent first draft because that's what it is. Howard didn't have time for further revisions: he needed to sell it or move on. The chief places where this shows are in the endless string of fortuitous circumstances that guide Conan's quest and the multiplication of unnecessary episodes. You can see Howard pillaging from other stories and furiously laying down the tracks before train of his thunderous adventure. This gives large stretches of the novel the feel of "we go here, see this weird thing, and then move on". A part of this may be that Howard felt that he needed to show off as much of his Hyborian age as possible to his new audience, but he lacked time to smooth these "tourist" episodes into the rest of the narrative. Against this fundamental failing, however, Howard is able to marshal his considerable skill in creating gripping narratives and compelling action. By this point in his career, Howard knows his characters, his world, and his themes and those aspects of the novel shine. In fact, this story, along with perhaps The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel presents the ripest source for a future movie adaptation that I can think of. The defects that remain are those endemic in Howard's writing: sexism and racism. Those defects and the ones mentioned above combine with Howard's strengths make The Hour of the Dragon precisely what it was designed to be: a showcase of Conan and his world.