This is the first proper Conan books that I have read with the previous one simply being a novelisation of the John Milius movie. I guess I enjoyed the novelisation because I love, and still love, the movie, but with this book we pretty much go back to the 1930s (in some cases) to experience the original Conan stories that appeared the the pulp magazine Weird Tales. The book contains four stories, not short stories but novellas, three of them original Howard works and one of them written by de Camp from some of the notes that Howard left behind.
After reading this collection I now understand why my friend, and others, make mention of the difference between the two authors. In a way de Camp was never going to be able to truly replicate Howard's work simply because he was not Howard and as such was only able to attempt to reproduce Howard's unpublished works, so when he sat down to create the stories from Howard's original notes, there was always going to be a substantial difference. Further, Howard wrote pre-Tolkien while de Camp was writing post Tolkien so the influences on each of the authors was going to no doubt be different.
One thing that I have to do before continuing is to quote from the opening of the Slithering Shadow, the quote that pretty much describes the Conan novels, particularly those of Howard:
He stood like a bronze image in the sand, apparently impervious to the murderous dun, though his only garment was a silk loin-cloth, girdled by a wide gold-buckled belt from which hung a sabre and a broad-bladed poniard. On his clean-cut limbs were evidences of scarcely healed wounds.
At his feet rested a girl, one white arm clasping his knee, against which her blonde head drooped. Her white skin contrasted with his hard, bronzed limbs; her short silken tunic low-necked and sleeveless, girdled at the waist, emphasised rather than concealed her lithe figure.
Well, that pretty much sums up what Conan is about, both with the original Howard stories and the de Camp re-edits. The world is a harsh and barren world set before recorded history, populated with scantily clad men and women, with the woman being powerless without the protection of a powerful warrior. A friend of mine suggested that Conan was more like a Cthulu novel than a fantasy adventure story, and having read three of Howard's stories I am now inclined to agree. However they can be confusing because with the way Howard drafted the stories there is almost an implied knowledge of the world that the reader should have and despite the world being based on our own, and the many countries he visits based on our own, unless you are aware of that then there are going to be difficulties in following the story.
As mentioned, there are four stories in this book, the first dealing with the abduction of a princess from Afghanistan after the king of India is killed. The second involved Conan travelling through the desert with a woman looking for water and stumbling on a lost city with some very nasty surprises inside. The third is one of de Camp's stories, and seems to be very similar to the second story (which is also set in a desert) however for half of the story Conan isn't even around and we are following one of his friends. The final one I quite liked where Conan joins a pirate ship where the captain has decided to attempt to cross the Western Ocean, and in doing so finds himself on a tropical island which holds a dark secret.
In a way this last story reminded me a lot of parts of the Odyssey. In this story the crew run onto the island and gouge themselves with fruit which causes them to fall asleep. While Conan is exploring the island (after killing the captain so that he can take command of the crew) he discovers some humanoids taking the crew back to their city to sacrifice them to some horrid beast. As mentioned, these stories sound very Lovecraftian, particularly when they are being chased by demonic beasts that cannot be killed, however Conan is not a horror story, but rather a tale of high adventure set in a world lost in the mists of time.