My favorite Howard character is normally either Breckenridge Elkins, Conan or Francis Xavier Gordon, depending which I've read most recently. After reading one of their adventures, I'm usually raring to rip into another. Not so with Three-Bladed Doom. Rather than racing to dig more adventures of El Borak, I was just relieved it was finally over.
According to L. Sprague de Camp's intro to the 1968 paperback Conan the Wanderer, Howard wrote a 42,000 version of 'Three-Bladed Doom" in 1934. When that failed to sell, he chopped it to 24,000 words and tried again. That didn't sell either. Portions of the story first saw print in 1955, when de Camp rewrote it into the 32,000 word Conan story "The Flame Knife" for the Gnome Press collection Tales of Conan.
All this talk about word count is important, because the version of this story I just read, published in both the U.S. and Great Britain in 1977, seemed much, much longer. The Orbit book is 121 pages of small type, and the Zebra edition is 166 pages of large. Maybe it's true there are only 42,000 words in each book, but it looks like a lot more, and the story takes a long time to unfold. Truth to tell, I kept falling asleep, and it took a lot of determination to pick it up again and again and push on through to the end.
I'm guessing the editors who rejected this story back in the '30s had the same trouble. Somehow, Gordon's character never really comes alive, and Howard's normally poetic prose falls flat. Descriptive passages drone on for many paragraphs with very little happening. Even when the story finally gets moving, Gordon is relegated to the role of frustrated observer, and sees little action.
Too bad, because the bare bones of the plot are promising. An ancient cult of assassins, whose trademark is a three-bladed knife, is reborn under a pitiless master, and now includes villains from many far-flung lands. Together, they're eradicating rulers who stand in the way of Germany's world domination.
The folks at Zebra probably knew this was a turkey, prompting them to market it as "fantasy/adventure" (a flat-out lie) and try to fool folks into thinking it was a Conan book by dressing Gordon in a Speedo.
I'm thinking it's time to dig back into the saga of Breckinridge Elkins, but it's going to take quite a few non-Howard books to cleanse my palette of Three-Bladed Doom.