Conan the Viking: The Thing In The Crypt

The Thing In The Crypt is the first story of the first book of the post-Howard Conan era, when de Camp picked up the torch left behind by Robert E. Howard some thirty years earlier and began expanding upon Conan for the first time since then. This story inaugurates Tor books Conan and introduces one of that expanded universe’s most prolific authors, L. Sprague de Camp. There’s a lot of history in this story, is what I’m getting at, and we’ll see whether or not it’s actually good.

This book also inaugurates the use of italicized narratives to give us information that the stories themselves could have as easily conveyed, with the primary information given being exact placement in the timeline.

Chapter 1

Conan is being chased by wolves, having recently escaped his Hyperborean captors. The story then backs up to briefly recount Conan’s escape:

He had not, however, long remained in slavery. Working at night while others slept, he had ground away at one link of his chain until it was weak enough for him to snap. Then, during a heavy rainstorm, he had burst loose. Whirling a four-foot length of heavy, broken chain, he had slain his overseer and a soldier who had sprung to block his way, and vanished into the downpour. The rain that hid him from sight also baffled the hounds of the search party sent after him.

By the time he makes his escape, however, Conan is deep in Hyperborean lands, so rather than fleeing directly for Asgard, he instead flees south towards Brythunia and Zamora.

The year before, Conan had had his first taste of the luxuries of civilization when, as one of the blood-mad horde of Cimmerian clansmen that had poured over the walls of Venarium, he had taken part in the sack of that Aquilonian outpost. The taste had whetted his appetite for more. He had no clear ambition or program of action; nothing but vague dreams of desperate adventures in the rich lands of the South. Visions of glittering gold and jewels, unlimited food and drink, and the hot embraces of beautiful women of noble birth, as his prizes of valor, flitted through his naive young mind. In the South, he thought, his hulking size and strength should somehow easily bring him fame and fortune among the city-bred weaklings. So he headed south, to seek his fate with no more equipment than a tattered, threadbare tunic and a length of chain.

De Camp was the one who first set down in his chronology that the Frost Giant’s Daughter occurred long after Conan left Cimmeria, rather than immediately afterwards. I bring this up because it means that according to the chronology de Camp himself was pushing, this is Conan’s origin story, bringing him from the barbaric north into the civilized (though very corrupt) land of Zamora, whereupon he begins climbing towers of the elephant and so forth.

Side note, if Conan’s only equipment is “a tattered, threadbare tunic and a length of chain,” does that mean he doesn’t have pants?

Conan fights a running battle with the wolves who pursue him, fighting them off with the length of chain and then fleeing towards Brythunia, until finally he fights them on a frozen river, the ice gives way, and he is swept away by the current. Some unknown number of wolves are killed, but Conan pulls himself free, and the wolves resume their pursuit.

He knew that, bare-handed, he stood little chance against a dozen shaggy man-killers.

Jesus, there’s a dozen wolves still chasing after him even after he’s killed two with his chain during their first encounter and some unknown number were then killed in the encounter at the frozen river? Even if all the wolves survived the river, the original pack size was fourteen, which is about double the average. Packs of this size tend to exist only when prey is abundant, and these wolves have specifically been driven to hunt dangerous game due to hunger.

In fairness, this point is nitpicky as Hell and would’ve been much harder to research in 1967, long before the internet.

Chapter 2

Conan races up a hillside, hoping to make a stand against the wolves at the summit. He instead finds the entrance to a burial mound, and races inside. The wolves do not pursue, probably because they know there’s a thing in this crypt (the narrative definitely draws attention to how weird it is that they aren’t pursuing – Conan didn’t come here because he expected the wolves to give up pursuit, but because he expected to have a chokepoint).

Conan begins to explore the crypt.

Stretching to his full height—already inches over six feet—the boy began exploring the wall with outstretched hand. Soon he came upon another door. As he groped his way through this portal into pitch-blackness, his questing fingers told him that here were chisel marks on the stone, forming cryptic glyphs in some unknown writing.

Unknown, at least, to the, untutored boy from the barbarous northlands, who could neither read nor write and who scorned such civilized skills as effeminate.

I kind of have to wonder if de Camp is intentionally making fun of his own writing here? There were shades of this in the last story, too. I’ve read de Camp before, but never several of his stories in a row or with a particularly critical eye, and now I’m wondering if lines like “the ancient crypt’s funerary inscriptions were in a language Conan couldn’t read, because he was illiterate” are intentionally supposed to be kind of funny.

The place smelt of ancient dust and bats’ droppings. His shuffling feet encountered things scattered about the floor. While he could not see these objects, they did not feel like the forest litter that carpeted the antechamber.

They felt more like man-made things.

As he took a quick step along the wall, he stumbled over one such object in the dark. As he fell, the thing splintered with a crash beneath his weight.

I’m kind of hoping that the thing which just splintered is the actual thing in the crypt. Like, it’s not some undead horror or whatever, it’s just a chair that Conan tripped over in a crypt during a brief interlude to an unrelated adventure, and the wolves don’t follow Conan because they don’t like the lingering smell of funeral incense.

Conan starts a fire using the shattered chair as kindling, and in its light, he can see a partly-mummified corpse sitting upon a throne. This freaks him the Hell out.

Chapter 3

Though freaked the Hell out, Conan notices that the corpse has a really nice sword. He grabs it, is filled with enthusiasm, and bellows out a Cimmerian war challenge to no one in particular. Not wanting him to be left hanging, the corpse gets up off the chair to try and murder Conan.

Chapter 4&5

“Really?” you’re thinking, “that’s it for chapter 3, and chapter 4 and 5 are so short as to be meshed together?” Yeah, the story spends plenty of time on how it’s a really spooky corpse with a really nice sword, and it’s decent atmosphere but doesn’t amount to much. Plus, this short story has real short chapters, even compared to the last one (unless it’s just a difference in ereaders? It might be, this one isn’t available on Kindle).

The mummy advances upon Conan, who backs away until, cornered, he decides to try actually attacking the thing. The narrative goes out of its way to emphasize Conan’s youth and the superstitious ways of his barbarian people several times, and this makes Conan’s reaction here work well in this story. In context of Legion of the Dead, however, it’s super weird. This isn’t even the first time Conan has fought the undead, and he knows from experience that they can be incapacitated if you slice them into small enough pieces. Which is exactly the strategy he lands on here, although there’s a chapter break in the middle of the melee.

Just like the zombies from the last story, the mummy in the crypt is completely undeterred by wounds, but nevertheless is at something of a disadvantage for having limbs hacked off. Thus begins Conan’s battle with Ed the Undying. Ultimately, he wins by tossing the mummy into the campfire, along with all its independently animate bits.

Sensing that the final boss of the adventure has been defeated, the wolves run away, leaving Conan to emerge from the crypt with his new +1 sword. Thus ends the story.

I realize I’ve said this at the end of every Conan short story so far, but this is another story carried by the strength of its concept. Despite that, this one has a real momentum to it, over and above that. Whereas the Legion of the Dead has a stop-and-start pacing that would’ve badly damaged a longer work, the Thing in the Crypt sets up Conan with an initial problem, and then when he finds what appears to be refuge from it, builds up a sense of dread that something else is wrong here. Rather than Conan achieving victory only to find that he is pursued by an even greater threat, a somewhat clunky device that still works because the narrative rolls over the gap too quickly to be derailed by it, here Conan still has the wolves baying at the door when he retreats into the crypt and its attendant thing.

Plus, we managed to get through the whole story without drawing undue attention to the fact that women have breasts. Probably only because there are no women at all, but still.

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