Friday, February 20, 2015

Forgotten Books: THREE-BLADED DOOM by Robert E. Howard (1977)

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.


Cap'n Bob said...

I take it you're lukewarm to this book.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've got this. Been a long time since I read it. I'll have to go back and see what I think.

James Reasoner said...

I read the Zebra edition of this book when it was new and loved it. Reread it about ten years ago and thought it didn't hold up well at all. I have no explanation for the disparity of those reactions. Right time, right place the first go-round, maybe.

Evan Lewis said...

Maybe if I'd been on an El Borak binge and read this hot on the heels of several better stories, I would have been feeling the character. Coming to it cold, it just never grabbed me.

George said...

I'm going to have to dig out my copy of THREE-BLADED DOOM and see if it holds up. Love those covers!

Rick Robinson said...

Naturally, it seems almost everyone else has a copy of this dog sitting about. Lucky for me I don't. I stuck with the Conan books when I was reading Howard, which was a good idea. By the way, that blonde on the Zebra edition is pretty hefty, lucky he was strong enough to lift her.

Shay said...

Breck Elkins! Back in the days when I wrote fanfic (don't laugh), I wrote a short story with a female version of Elkins as the narrator. It was great fun.