One of the Conan stories Howard left unfinished was “Wolves Beyond the Border,” set in the Pictish Wilderness of “Beyond the Black River” and “The Black Stranger.” It was also somewhat of a new direction for the famous Cimmerian.
In “Wolves,” the strong influence of author Robert W. Chambers is present. Howard had three of Chambers’ books, which take place during the American Revolution, on his bookshelf and he used many of the names from those books, albeit slightly altered in “Wolves.” The Chambers influence is also seen to a lesser degree in “Beyond the Black River.”
As with the other Conan fragments, L. Sprague de Camp could not resist putting his heavy hand on “Wolves,” completing and altering it in the process to “fit” his vision of what Conan’s life should have been. Both of Howard’s drafts did not see print together until 2005 when they were published in Del Rey’s The Conquering Sword of Conan. In fact, all of stories discussed in this series are in the third book of Conan stories. In this volume, Editor Patrice Louinet writing in “Hyborian Genesis Part III,” talks of the birth of “Wolves Beyond the Border:”
“Wolves” is one of the most intriguing Conan fragments precisely because it is not, strictly speaking, a Conan story. It was not the first time Howard had attempted something different with Conan and, as we are about to see, not the first time he experimented with another character because he was starting to feel “out of contact” with one of his creations.
Shortly before he wrote his novel The Hour of the Dragon, Howard had attempted another story in which Conan is only an off-stage presence for a significant part of the tale. In that case, however, Conan’s absence was confined to the first chapters of a story which was envisioned as a novel; as the synopsis for the complete story attests, the Cimmerian was intended as a prominent character, if not actually the protagonist of the story. The situation can be seen as a parallel to “A Witch Shall Be Born,” in which the Cimmerian acts mostly off-stage. But in the case of “Wolves Beyond the Border,” the situation is markedly different, most notably due to the fact that this is a first person narrative, in which Conan makes no appearance, though he is mentioned several times in the course of the story.
A very similar situation had arisen a few years earlier in Howard’s career, and makes for an interesting comparison. In 1926, Howard created Kull the Atlantean, his first epic fantasy character, about whom the Texan wrote or began a dozen tales. In 1928, however, Howard apparently started to lose interest in his character. He then began – but never completed – a very intriguing fragment in which the major character was not Kull. [He] was relegated to a minor role, but his friend Brule, the Pictish warrior, whose characteristics were markedly different in that in his previous appearances. Kull was apparently becoming merely a supporting character in his own series, in quite the same fashion Conan seems to be in “Wolves Beyond the Border.” Howard never completed the fragment, but from that moment on the character of Kull underwent a drastic evolution. It is quite striking to see that in those two fragments, the off-stage characters are barbarians who have become or are becoming kings of civilized countries. And in both fragments, the sentiments of the new protagonists when it comes to politics are the same. Compare the following:
“The people of Conajohara scattered throughout the Westermarck, in Schohira, Conawaga, or Oriskawny, but many of them went southward and settled near fort Thandara… There they were later joined by other settlers for whom the older provinces were too thickly inhabited, and presently there grew up the district known as the Free Province of Thandara, because it was not like the other provinces, royal grants to great lords east of the marches and settled by them, but cut out of the wilderness by the pioneers themselves without aid of the Aquilonian nobility. We paid no taxes to any baron. Our governor was not appointed by any lord, but we elected him ourselves, from our own people, and he was responsible only to the king. We manned and built our forts ourselves in war as in peace. And Mitra knows war was a constant state of affairs, for there was never peace between us and our neighbors, the wild Panther, Alligator and Otter tribes of Picts. (from “Wolves Beyond the Border”)
“We of The Islands are all one blood, but of many tribes, and each tribe has customs and traditions peculiar to itself alone. We all acknowledge Nial of Tatheli as over-king but his rules is loose. He does not interfere with our affairs among ourselves, nor does he levy tribute or taxes…[H]e takes no toll of my tribe, the Borni, nor of any other tribe, neither does he interfere when two tribes go to war – unless some tribe encroaches on the three who pay tribute… And when the Lemurians or the Celts or any foreign nation or band of reavers come against us, he sends forth for all tribes to put aside their quarrels and fight side by side. Which is a good thing. He might be a supreme tyrant if he liked, for his own tribe is very strong, and with the aid of Valusia he might do as he liked—but he knows that though he might, with his tribes and their allies, crush all the other tribes, there would never be peace again… “ (from the untitled Kull fragment)
Here are more than passing resemblances. In both instances, the peculiar political turmoil can also be read as a mirror of a similar turmoil taking place in Howard’s psyche, connected to the social situation of his regular protagonists: Kull the king of Valusia and Conan the soon-to-be king of Aquilonia. In both instances, the Picts – only mentioned once so far in the Conan series (in “The Phoenix on the Sword”) – appear as the necessary catalysts for change: Brule is a Pict, and the threat they pose to the Aquilonian settlement triggers the events of “Wolves Beyond the Border.” The Picts – the savages forever present in Howard’s universe – force the Howardian characters to reveal their true nature.
As was the case with the Kull fragment then, Howard did not complete “Wolves Beyond the Border.” His first draft diminished into part-story, part-synopsis, while the second was similarly abandoned. The tale was probably at the same time too derivative of Chambers and too much a necessary exercise before Howard could fully tackle this new phase of his character’s evolution.
The tale is told by a border ranger named Gault Hagar’s son, who is asleep in the woods at the beginning of the story. The ranger is awakened by the sound of a drum and witnesses a secret Pictish ceremony conducted by Tenayoga, a Ligurean shaman in the presence of Lord Valerian, an Aquilonian nobleman. During the sorcerous ceremony, a man and a giant snake exchange souls before being slain by the shaman.
Gault is discovered by the Picts after an unsuccessful attempt to kill the shaman and flees to Fort Kwanyara, then to the town of Schondara where he meets an old friend in a tap room and is updated on Conan’s conquest of Aquilonia. He sees Valerian in the town and points him out as an ally of the Picts. The nobleman is imprisoned but escapes with the help of his Pictish mistress.
That night, Gault is attacked by and slays a giant ape. Gault, Hakon and a dozen others follow Valerian to a cabin where they observe him with the old shaman and a band of Gunderman guards. The leaders of four Pictish tribes plan to meet together and consult a wizard in the swamp prior to their attack on the settlers. Gault, Hakon and their rangers attack the cabin setting it on fire. The two are the only survivors of the battle and track those who escaped the carnage to the swamp meeting and where they are captured.
The tribes agree to attack Schondara using magic supplied by the wizard and depart, leaving Gault and Hakon bound to stakes. The two break free of their bindings and Gault slays the wizard. The pair then follows the war party and sabotages the Pictish assault, saving Schondara.
As Patrice notes above, Howard and Conan are indeed evolving. In October 1934, Howard told girlfriend Novalyne Price that he was “getting a little tired of Conan … This country needs to be written about. There are all kinds of stories around here.” Clearly he was longing to write a great American novel set in his native southwest.
Since Howard wrote his last Conan story in July 1935, his discontent with Conan does give prudence to those who claim he was losing interest in writing weird tales. Clearly, there is a good argument for this, but Howard had other reasons for turning his back on Conan during the final 11 months of his life. No doubt a combination of the strong pull of his western roots and Farnsworth Wright’s unwillingness to pay him what he was owed nudged away from writing weird tales. I personally believe the interest was still there, but faced with the reality of his terminally ill mother and the desperate need for cash, Howard understandably turned toward markets that paid and paid on time.
As for returning to writing weird tales, Howard may have given us the answer. After his death, among his papers and manuscripts was a draft/synopsis of an untitled weird yarn. Howard mentions this unfinished effort in a letter to August Derleth, dated May 9, 1936, just one month before his passing:
I haven’t written a weird story for nearly a year, though I’ve been contemplating one dealing with Coronado’s expedition on the Staked Plains in 1541. A good theme if I can develop it.
The story mixes a southwestern theme with ancient Egypt and sorcery. Glenn Lord later gave it the title of “Nekht Semerkeht” (the name of the yarn’s evil sorcerer) to the story and Andrew Offutt completed it in 1977 for Swords of Darkness #1. The original Howard version appears in The Black Stranger and Other American Tales.
Who can say what the rest of Howard’s unlived life would have offered the world. More Conan stories? More weird tales? No one knows for sure. But clearly Howard was chomping at the bit to spin many, many more yarns of his beloved wild, wild west.
Part I / Part II / Part III