Early 1932 saw Howard taking one of his frequent trips around Texas. He traveled through the southern part of the state with his main occupation being, in his own words, “the wholesale consumption of tortillas, enchiladas and cheap Spanish wine.” In Fredericksburg, while overlooking sullen hills through a misty rain, he conceived of the fantasy land of Cimmeria, a bitter hard northern region home to fearsome barbarians. In February, while in Mission, he wrote the poem Cimmeria.
It was also during this trip that Howard first conceived of the character of Conan. Later, in 1935, Howard claimed in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith that Conan “simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande.” However, the character actually took nine months to develop.
Howard had originally used the name “Conan” for a Gael reaver in a past-life-themed story he completed in October 1931, which was published in the magazine Strange Tales in June 1932. Although the character swears by the god “Crom”, that is his only link to the more famous successor character.
Going back home he developed the idea, fleshing out a new invented world—his Hyborian Age—and populating it with all manner of countries, peoples, monsters, and magic. Howard loved history and enjoyed writing historical stories. However, the research necessary for a purely historical setting was too time consuming for him to engage in on a regular basis and still earn a living. The Hyborian Age, with its varied settings similar to real places and eras of history, allowed him to write pseudo-historical fiction without such problems. He may have been inspired in the creation of his setting by Thomas Bulfinch’s 1913 edition of his Bulfinch’s Mythology called The Outline of Mythology, which contained stories from history and legend, including many which were direct influences on Howard’s work. Another potential inspiration is G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse and Chesterton’s concept that “it is the chief value of legend to mix up the centuries while preserving the sentiment.”
By March, Howard had recycled an unpublished Kull story called “By This Axe I Rule!” into his first Conan story. The central plot remains that of a barbarian having become king of a civilized country and a conspiracy to assassinate him. However, he removed an entire subplot concerning a couple’s romance and created a new one with a supernatural element; the story was re-titled “The Phoenix on the Sword”, an element from this new subplot. Howard immediately went on to write two more Conan stories. The first of these was “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”, an inversion of the Greek myth surrounding Apollo and Daphne, set much earlier in Conan’s life. The last of the initial trio was “The God in the Bowl”, which went through three drafts and has a slower pace than most Conan stories. This one is a murder mystery filled with corrupt officials and serves as Conan’s introduction into civilization, while showing that he is a more decent person than the civilized characters. Before the end of the month, he sent the first two stories to Weird Tales in the same package, with the third following a few days later.
With these three completed he created an essay called “The Hyborian Age” in order to flesh out his setting in more detail. There were four drafts of this essay, starting with a two-page outline and finishing as an 8,000-word essay. Howard supplemented this with two sketched maps and an additional short piece entitled “Notes on Various Peoples of the Hyborian Age.”
In a letter dated March 10, 1932, Farnsworth Wright rejected “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” but noted that “The Phoenix on the Sword” had “points of real excellence” and suggested changes. “The God in the Bowl” would also be rejected and so a potential fourth Conan story concerning Conan as a thief was abandoned at the synopsis stage. Instead of abandoning the entire Conan concept, as had happened with previous failed characters, Howard rewrote “The Phoenix on the Sword” based on Wright’s feedback and including material from his essay. Both this revision and the next Conan story, “The Tower of the Elephant”, sold with no problems. Howard had written nine Conan stories before the first saw print.
Conan first appeared to the public in Weird Tales in December 1932 and was such a hit that Howard was eventually able to place seventeen Conan stories in the magazine between 1933 and 1936. Howard then took a short break from Conan after his initial burst of stories, returning to the character in mid-1933. These stories, his “middle period,” are routine and considered the weakest of the series. Stories, such as “Iron Shadows in the Moon”, were often simply Conan rescuing a damsel in distress from a monster in some ruins. While earlier Conan stories had three or four drafts, some in this period had only two including the final version. “Rogues in the House” is the only Conan story to be completed in a single draft. These stories sold easily and they include the first and second Conan stories to feature on the cover of Weird Tales, “Black Colossus” and “Xuthal of the Dusk”. Howard’s motivation for quick and easy sales at this time was partly motivated by the collapse of some other markets, such as Fight Stories, in the Depression.
Also in this period, Howard wrote the first of the James Allison stories, “Marchers of Valhalla.” Allison is a disabled Texan who begins to recall his past lives, the first of which is in the later part of Howard’s new Hyborian age. In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith in October 1933, he wrote that its sequel “The Garden of Fear” was “dealing with one of my various conceptions of the Hyborian and post-Hyborian world.”
In May 1933, a British publisher, Denis Archer, contacted Howard about publishing a potential book in the United Kingdom. Howard submitted a batch of his best available stories, including “The Tower of the Elephant” and “The Scarlet Citadel”, on June 15. In January 1934 the publisher rejected the collection but suggested a novel instead. Though the publisher was “exceedingly interested” in the stories, the rejection letter explained that there was a “prejudice that is very strong over here just now against collections of short stories.” The suggested novel, however, could be published by Pawling and Ness Ltd in a first edition of 5,000 copies for lending libraries.
In late 1933 Howard returned to Conan, starting again slightly awkwardly with “The Devil in Iron“. However, this was followed with the beginning of the latter group of Conan stories which “carry the most intellectual punch,” starting with “The People of the Black Circle“.
Howard probably began to work on the novel in February 1934, starting to write Almuric (a non-Conan, sword and planet science fiction novel) but abandoned it half way. This was followed by another abortive attempt at a novel, this time a Conan novel which later became Drums of Tombalku. The third attempt at writing the novel was more successful, resulting in Howard’s only Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon, which was probably started on or around March 17, 1934. This novel combines elements of two previous Conan stories, “Black Colossus” and “The Scarlet Citadel,” with Arthurian myth and provides an overview of Conan and the Hyborian age for the new British audience. Howard sent his final draft to Denis Archer on May 20, 1934. He had worked exclusively on the novel for two months, writing approximately 5,000 words per day, seven days a week. Although he told acquaintances that he had little hope for this novel, he had put a lot of effort into it. However, the publisher went into receivership in late 1934, before it could print the novel. The story was briefly held as part of the company’s assets before being returned to Howard. It was later printed in Weird Tales as a serial over five months, beginning with the December 1935 issue.
Howard may have begun losing interest in Conan in late 1934, with a growing desire to write westerns. He began to write, although never finished, a Conan story called “Wolves Beyond the Border”. This was the first Conan tale to have an explicit (Robert W. Chambers-influenced) American setting, although American themes had appeared earlier, and the only one in which Conan himself does not appear. His next story was based on his unfinished material and became “Beyond the Black River” which not only used the different American-frontier setting but was also, in Howard’s own words, a “Conan yarn without sex interest.” In another novel twist, Conan and the other protagonists have, at best, a pyrrhic victory; this was rare for pulp magazines. This was followed by another experimental Conan story, “The Black Stranger”, with a similar setting. The story was, however, rejected by Weird Tales, which was rare for later Conan stories. Howard’s next piece, “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula”, was more formulaic and was accepted by the magazine with no problems. Howard only wrote one more Conan story, “Red Nails,” which was influenced both by his personal experiences at the time and an extrapolation of his views on civilization.
The character of Conan had a wide and enduring influence among other Weird Tales writers, including C. L. Moore and Fritz Leiber, and over the ensuing decades the genre of Sword and Sorcery grew up around Howard’s masterwork, with dozens of practitioners evoking Howard’s creation to one degree or another.