Conan review #8: “Shadows in the Moonlight”

This was first published in Weird Tales, April 1934. It didn’t make the cover.

Shah Amurath, conqueror of the kozaki, is missing his own fete due to chasing the runaway slave girl Olivia. As he tries to drag her away from a marsh on the edge of the Vilayet (Caspian) Sea, Conan pops up, dried blood on his body and sword. Turns out he’s the lone survivor of those conquered kozaki guys. He kills Amurath and then pulls out a hidden boat, ignoring Olivia.
“Do not leave me! Take me with you!”
Barely registering her existence til now, Conan is confused. “I am a barbarian, and I know from your looks that you fear me.” She admits she does, but better to take her chances with him than be re-enslaved and tortured by Amurath’s followers. So our odd couple is off on a boat.
She tells him she’s a princess of Ophir. Conan can’t swing a dead cat without hitting the noblewomen of Ophir, can he? Her father sold her into slavery for refusing to marry a prince of Koth. Conan had been one of five thousand mercenaries for a rebel prince in eastern Koth, “and when he made peace with his cursed sovereign, we were out of employment; so we took to plundering the outlying dominions of Koth, Zamora and Turan impartially. A week ago Shah Amurath trapped us…” Hey I wonder if he was the same guy Olivia’s father wanted her to marry?
Rowing north, they find an island. A parrot appears and says ominously “Yagkoolan yok tha, xuthalla!”, laughing. Then something throws a huge block of cut stone at them, and they’re spooked because no man could throw that more than three feet and they see no siege engine. They find a long building in ruins, made from similar blocks of stone. Inside they find life-size statues of iron, looking continually polished despite no one being around. Conan is confused that they’re made of black metal yet don’t resemble black people. Leaving, they climb the highest point on the island and spot a sail north in the water. Conan suggests they sleep in the ruins to avoid the newcomers, which scares Olivia. Conan brags: “I could sleep naked in the snow and feel no discomfort, but the dew would give you cramps, were we to sleep in the open.”
Olivia’s thoughts: “His kinship to the wild was apparent in his every action; it burned in his smoldering eyes. Yet he had not harmed her, and her worst oppressor had been a man the world called civilized.”
Is anyone else noticing the affinity these stories have with the conventions of romance novels, when the POV character is a woman rather than Conan? Just put Fabio on the cover with his hair Photoshopped black.

Olivia dreams of the people the statues represent, torturing a godlike blond guy bound to a pillar. His death is described almost exactly like that of Livia’s brother in “The Vale of Lost Women”: “Blood trickled down the ivory thighs to spatter on the polished floor.” Upon his death, a mature white god turns the killers into rows of statues with a cry of “Yagkoolan yok tha, xuthalla!”
As soon as she wakes up, Olivia sees the statues move! She runs away, Conan following. He wants to know which gods she saw interact with the statue-men: “Who knows? They have gone back into the still waters of the lakes, the quiet hearts of the hills, the gulfs beyond the stars.” Huh, preceding Star Trek’s Apollo by 32 years here.
They would have fled the island, but something smashed their boat. Later they spy on the ship that’s arrived, Conan identifying it as Hyrkanian by, literally, the cut of its jib. He’s pleased to identify the crew as the Red Brotherhood of pirates. He steps forward to try his luck at joining them. But oops, their captain is an old enemy, a Kothian named Sergius. They duel, Conan predictably wins. A pirate named Aratus knocks Conan unconscious with a sling and explains that no outsider is entitled to a Klingon Promotion: only an initiate of the Red Brotherhood, which Conan is not. He’s bound as the pirates go check the ruins for loot, leaving Olivia sad.

Olivia spies on the pirates from the grass til after moonrise, and once every pirate is drunkenly sleeping, she comes up to free Conan. Fleeing, they’re ambushed by “a monstrous shambling bulk–an anthropomorphic horror, a grotesque travesty of creation.” Hey, that’s an awful thing to call gorillas! Well, like Tarzan before him, Conan increases his power level by going from killing a Mangani/Thak to killing a gorilla. That was him throwing the stone. Also, Conan says it’s a wary creature that only attacked out of lust for Olivia. Ew.
The pair climbs aboard the ship while the pirates sleep. At dawn the 44 of them come running, crying that a dozen of their fellows were killed by the statues in the moonlight, so we’ll accept you as captain if you let us up! We end with Conan seeing if Olivia will vow “To sail a road of blood and slaughter? … This keel will stain the blue waves crimson wherever it plows.” She will!
I now pronounce you barb and wife. THE END

This was a well-constructed fantasy adventure. The monster site has an interesting explanation, the situation is complicated by a natural threat and the arrival of pirates, and Conan’s plans never pan out until the end, requiring him to think fast and get rescued by the girl. And the girl… well, at least she’s not a distressed damsel. She doesn’t have much of a personality, but she undergoes a small character arc and gets to save the hero.
I feel that one of the weaknesses we’re going to see in the formula is Conan ending up with the girl only for the next story to find him in another place with no reference to her existence.

Speaking of which, next time Conan will have given up piracy to serve a queen who turns out to have an evil twin in “A Witch Shall Be Born”!

Conan review #7: “Black Colossus”

This story was first published in the June 1933 issue of Weird Tales. As was common when the series made the cover, a girl from the story is depicted (naked) and Conan isn’t.
(Poor Lovecraft. Weird Tales was his major market but he rarely wrote female characters and when he did, they were fully clothed.)

Shevatas the thief is trying to loot the ruins of a place called Kutchemes. He makes his way inside a dome of pure ivory, which sounds like a logistics puzzle for Player Character looters. That dome is the tomb of Thugra Khotan, “the dark sorcerer who had reigned in Kuthchemes three thousand years ago.” The lore is that he locked himself in the tomb when barbarians sacked his city and drank poison. “Thugra Khotan slept unmolested, while the lizards of desolation gnawed at the crumbling pillars, and the very river that watered his land in old times sank into the sands and ran dry.”
OK, you know what will happen. He wakes up and Shevatas dies.

Later, Princess Yasmela has a problem. Rumors waft from kingdom to kingdom that a veiled prophet named Natohk is raising an army of fanatical nomads, her small land of Khoraja is placed to bear the brunt of such an invasion, and her brother the king is being held for ransom by the king of Ophir. Worse, she has nightmares of Natohk claiming to be a shaman who visits her dreams while the frame of bones and flesh sleeps threatens to take her to wife, and “I will teach thee the ancient forgotten ways of pleasure!” Oh my.
One of her servants tells her to go to the temple of Mitra, god of her Hyborian ancestors.

Yasmela rose, but objected when Vateesa prepared to dress her. “It is not fitting that I come before the shrine clad in silk. I will go naked, on my knees, as befits a suppliant, lest Mitra deem I lack humility.”

“Nonsense!” Vateesa had scant respect for the ways of what she deemed a false cult. “Mitra would have folks stand upright before him—not crawling on their bellies like worms, or spilling blood of animals all over his altars.”

This is hilarious, because what Yasmela is talked out of doing is exactly what’s on the cover.
Mitra says “Go forth upon the streets alone, and place your kingdom in the hands of the first man you meet there.” Of course that’s Conan, clad in scarlet cloak flowing from his mailed shoulders and polished blue steel greaves and basinet. This is basically the mercenary gear described at the beginning of “Queen of the Black Coast”, and he’s now serving the princess as an obscure captain of mercenaries. Cloaked and with a cap and veil, he has no idea who she is, and drunkenly speaks rudely to her, peppered with archaic vocabulary words like “your leman robbed the king’s seraglio.”
(He’s added another language to his repertoire, “barbarous Kothic”.)
She leads him into the palace and is described as falling in love with his barbarous virtue. After realizing who she is, Conan explains the local political problem: “You can trust Amalric, our general, but the rest of us are only common men who love loot. If you pay the ransom Ophir asks, men say you’ll be unable to pay us. In that case we might go over to the king of Koth, though that cursed miser is no friend of mine. Or we might loot this city.”
(Elsewhere in the series Conan fights for “a rebel prince of Koth” against the king.)
Asked by the princess “Have you seen much war?”, he replies “I have fought in blood-feuds, tribal wars, and imperial campaigns.” I suppose piracy doesn’t fall under war, and we haven’t seen any imperial campaign, though Howard’s unpublished papers include a fragment about “The Hand of Nergal” where he serves the Turanian empire, a period to which L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter added three short stories for the Lancer paperbacks.
Placing the barbarian behind a curtain, Yasmela summons her foppish and elderly nobles in their 14th century cotehardies and ermine robes. Howard clearly has a thing for stereotyping nobles as weak, despite their origin as a horse-owning warrior caste. She says tomorrow they must march, and here is your leader!

Jerking aside the velvet curtains she dramatically indicated the Cimmerian. It was perhaps not an entirely happy moment for the disclosure. Conan was sprawled in his chair, his feet propped on the ebony table, busily engaged in gnawing a beef-bone which he gripped firmly in both hands. He glanced casually at the astounded nobles, grinned faintly at Amalric, and went on munching with undisguised relish.

Quoth Amalric: “If the dog ever commanded more than a company of cut-throats before, I’ll eat him, harness and all!” (Was the Bamula tribe only equivalent in size to a military company plus wives and children?)
The chapter ends with plate harness being brought to replace Conan’s chainmail. I wonder how many Player Characters at Gary Gygax’s table got this upgrade described as a story reward like this.

So an army is described, and Yasmela brings up the rear on a camel. Conan naively thinks that because she’s here, she’ll strap on a sword and fight, and Amalric makes fun of him for not being sexist. Meanwhile Natohk has been using spells to help win earlier battles: “At his bidding the demons of the air brought thunder and wind and fog, the fiends of the underworld shook the earth with awful roaring. He brought fire out of the air and consumed the gates of walled cities, and burnt armored men to bits of charred bone.”
Yasmela flirts with Conan again in camp, but things stay chaste. After a night’s sleep, a Shemite spy who knew Conan in Zamora comes with information: he was with many of his countrymen when they bowed before Natohk and “I squinted up and saw his veil blowing in the wind. It blew aside, and I saw—I saw—Bel aid me, Conan, I say I saw! My blood froze in my veins and my hair stood up. What I had seen burned my soul like a red-hot iron” — yeah yeah, the hooded visage was a bare skull, right?
“Whence came Natohk? Out of the desert on a night when … Vampires were abroad, witches rode naked on the wind, and werewolves howled across the wilderness.” I feel like he’s telegraphing too much for the reader at this point, but maybe people were less genre savvy in 1933.
Anyway, the noble Thespides who leads the knights chafes under Conan’s command and leads them into the desert valley as a vanguard over his objection. When battle is joined, Natohk rides his chariot across the front line, pouring powder that ignites into a wall of fire when the knights’ chargers strike it with steel horseshoes. Only Conan’s intidimating charisma stops his side routing. While the phalanx stands facing certain doom, he sends his light cavalry around to strike the enemy rear. Eventually they shatter the enemy horde, and he personally ends up fighting a fanatic Stygian prince named Kutamun. Then Conan sees that Natohk has reacted to his army fleeing by driving his chariot for the pavilion where Yasmela stood, “deserted by her guards in the frenzy of pursuit.” Conan chases the chariot with the captive Yasmela, but Natohk drags her indoors into some convenient ruins. He follows fast on their heels, yet finds that Natohk has had enough time to throw all her clothes on the floor and bind her naked to an altar.
He exposits “Lust for a woman weakened my sorcery. Now the woman is mine, and feasting on her soul, I shall be unconquerable! Back, fool! You have not conquered Thugra Khotan!” Wait, I’m confused. He had the hots for her, but that weakened his sorcery, so now he’s going to sacrifice her to… somebody… and that will make him win… somehow?
Anyway, he throws a stick at Conan and it turns into a cobra. Conan cuts it in half. Thugra Khotan pulls a scorpion out of his sleeve, and Conan reacts by throwing his sword. It pierces the sorcerer below his heart and goes all the way out behind his shoulders. He re-dies instantly, so Conan lifts Yasmela from the altar… and she insists on having sex with him right there. THE END

I have mixed feelings about this story. The first chapter is great, Mitra’s folktale-like arbitrary rule is a great way to set up Conan’s position, and Howard does a decent job selling the romance. Then, though, Thugra Khotan’s motives get all muddled, the prose describing the war is fine but not great, and the idea of Yasmela and Conan having sex on an altar with a dead sorcerer in the room makes me laugh.

Conan review #6: “The Vale of Lost Women”

Conan has made himself the war-chief of a tribe in Vaguest African when an obnoxious moral dilemma is sprung on him: is he a bad enough dude to not rescue President Damsel from the Negroes? Or will his conscience force him to save her from gang rape?
This story was never submitted for publication, but since Conan stories were written for Weird Tales, there are also flying Lovecraftian entities that demand women sacrifices, but mostly it’s just a racist moral dilemma. So let’s break it down…

A white woman named Livia has been abducted by the Bakalah tribe along with her brother, who was stripped naked and murdered, which seems to be described by her in a delirious PTSD-like state. A Bakalah woman brings her food, wickedly rolling her eyes and mocking her by swaying her hips. From her hut, Livia watches the ugly, smelly King Bajujh receive a visit from the warriors of a neighboring group. She’s excited to see that one of the visitors is a white man in the local fashion of leopard loincloth and plumed headdress, and the visitors have the body language of equals rather than suppliants to Bajujh.
“His appearance was alien and unfamiliar; … But she made no effort to classify his position among the races of mankind. It was enough that his skin was white.”
You can see where this is going: she assumes that he’s enough of a 1930s racist to save a white woman from black men, despite knowing nothing of his culture. So she sneaks up to him and, well, it’s a good thing he actually knows her language (Ophirean). She exposits to Conan that
“By special permission of the king of Stygia, my brother was allowed to go to Kheshatta, the city of magicians, to study their arts, and I accompanied him.” Kushites were raiding for travelers to ransom or sell into slavery outside the city, and the siblings got caught between greedy rivals until the divided band of Kushite captors got overtaken by the Bakalah tribe. She cries for the blood of her brother’s murderers, offering her virginity as a bribe. But Conan is like “Eh, no thanks. Women are cheap as plantains here.”

Livia on cultural relativism: “I see the absurdity of supposing that any man in this corner of the world would act according to rules and customs existent in another corner of the planet,” she murmured weakly.
But then Conan: “I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man; and though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her
consent. Customs differ in various countries, but if a man is strong enough, he can enforce a few of his native customs anywhere.”
Aaaugh, why even have him say no if he’s going to change his mind into a 1930s racist right when Livia says she lost their debate?
Anyway, Conan has his Bamula warriors attack their hosts instead of forming an alliance with this larger group of people to loot a third, the Jihiji. I feel like Conan’s suddenly a Paladin and, having achieved a nice small domain in his Dungeons & Dragons campaign, the racist Dungeon Master sprung a “make the Paladin fall” dilemma on him. Unarmed Conan gets the element of surprise by using the old “use a beef bone as a club” trick he learned in prison, which acts as the signal for his warriors to attack. Despite being the one who demanded violence, Livia is a soft civilized woman who freaks out at the sight of it. As Conan approaches the prison hut to free her, she smashes the door open herself and runs away. She tries to steal a horse and a local man tries to stop her, but she gets away by letting him rip off her tunic. She’ll stay naked for the rest of the story.

Riding for hours in the dark, Livia comes across a valley. She wonders if it’s the valley her captors mentioned with fear, the one where all the women of a different ethnicity had fled to escape rape by men. Conservation of Detail being in effect, yes, there’s an all-female settlement here.
“One, lovelier than the rest, came silently up to the trembling girl, and enfolded her with supple brown arms. Her breath was scented with the same perfume that stole from the great white blossoms that waved in the starshine. Her lips pressed Livia’s in a long terrible kiss.”
Oops, I guess lesbian separatists don’t revere consent either. Right after kissing her, though, the woman and her fellows lie Livia on a stone altar. Ring around the altar, chant a soft paean of soulless joy, a welcome to the flying god come down to claim a fresh sacrifice.
“Its wings were bat-like; but its body and the dim face that gazed down upon her were like nothing of sea or earth or air; she knew she looked upon ultimate horror, upon black cosmic foulness born in night-black gulfs beyond the reach of a madman’s wildest dreams.”
Conan rushes in to fight Cosmic Horror Bat for her life, getting his blood splashed thickly on the ground for his trouble. One interesting detail: he doesn’t kill it, but only injures it enough that it chooses to fly away. He approaches the altar, panting, dripping blood at every step, and… hang on, where the brown women at? They’re never described reacting to an unknown swordsman and their god fighting.
Conan on what that thing was: “A devil from the Outer Dark, … Oh, they’re nothing uncommon. They lurk as thick as fleas outside the belt of light which surrounds this world. I’ve heard the wise men of Zamora talk of them. Some find their way to Earth, but when they do, they have to take on earthly form and flesh of some sort.”

Livia tells Conan she double-crossed him, so “punish me as you will.” Is… is that flirting? Well, no matter: Conan won’t have sex with her, calling her a child of cities, and books, which isn’t your fault but you’d die trying to be a hard man’s girlfriend. He says he’ll take her back to Kheshatta, where she can find passage home. THE END

OK then. What to say? Despite her racism, Livia is a highly sympathetic victim. She saw her brother tortured to death and rape is rape; you don’t lose all sympathy because you’re white and they’re black. But her and Conan’s 1930s racism is an obnoxious anachronism, worse than the others in the series because it’s so morally/politically charged. No one wanted to see Conan as a too-literal White Knight. The weird valley is underdeveloped as though this was only a first draft (it was), and the Lovecraftian entity is merely serviceable.

Conan review #5: “Queen of the Black Coast”

This was first published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Margaret Brundage illustrated the monster, Belit and Conan, here looking more like Rudolph Valentino than Ahnuld.

We start in media res with a ship’s master in Argos annoyed to find a mailed horseman leaping off his steed to the ship as it’s easing off the piles. It seems that Conan is being pursued by a squad of horsemen and archers on foot trudging behind, so push off now!
They’re sailing all the way from Argos to Kush, which is fine by Conan, a mercenary who found no work in Argos but did find trouble with the law.

“Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king’s guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was hauled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wroth, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand … the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge’s skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable’s stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs,”

Values Dissonance alert: Conan and the crew of the Argus are bound for Kush to buy “ivory, copper ore, slaves and pearls.”
Howard’s brief, lush descriptions of the countries they pass on the way to Kush is worth quoting, as it also captures some of the racial bias we’ll be seeing repeatedly:

They sighted the coast of Shem–long rolling meadowlands with the white crowns of the towers of cities in the distance, and horsemen with blue-black beards and hooked noses, who sat their steeds along the shore and eyed the galley with suspicion. She did not put in; there was scant profit in trade with the sons of Shem.

Nor did master Tito pull into the broad bay where the Styx river emptied its gigantic flood into the ocean, and the massive black castles of Khemi loomed over the blue waters. Ships did not put unasked into this port, where dusky sorcerers wove awful spells in the murk of sacrificial smoke mounting eternally from blood-stained altars where naked women screamed, and where Set, the Old Serpent, arch-demon of the Hyborians but god of the Stygians, was said to writhe his shining coils among his worshippers.

Master Tito gave that dreamy glass-floored bay a wide berth, even when a serpent-prowed gondola shot from behind a castellated point of land, and naked dusky women, with great red blossoms in their hair, stood and called to his sailors, and posed and postured brazenly.

(Stygia is Egypt, which practices human sacrifice while the pre-Greek, Germanic etc. Hyborians don’t, a flagrant reversal of facts. An autodidact history buff should have known.)
They find the smoking ruins of a Kushite village, which Master Tito identifies as pirates’s work. He says they’ll try to outrun any pirate ship they encounter, but they can beat off reavers if there’s no other choice, unless it’s Belit. So of course they encounter Belit, a Shemite woman whose galley is crewed by more than eighty black warriors. Conan starts exchanging arrows with the minority who aren’t manning the eighty oars, noting that he learned archery among the Hyrkanians (so he’s already been as far as the Caspian Sea in the gap between the thief stories and this one). Tito and all the steersmen die and Conan takes over, but only briefly, as the Argus is rammed, grappled, and spearmen jump to fight the merchant rowers. We get some nice description of how Conan can survive fighting outnumbered: he’s wearing armor and puts his back to a mast so he can’t be surrounded.
Belit calls off her men and Conan falls in lust, a feeling that’s apparently mutual, as she basically proposes on the spot due to the allure of his physical power: “I am a queen by fire and steel and slaughter–be thou my king!”

Time passes, and one day they pull in to the river Zarkheba, where a Stygian galley once fled from Belit upstream and washed back downstream days later with its cargo but only one man, and he was gibbering insanely. She believes there’s a walled city somewhere on that river: let’s go sack it! Hmm, seems like a bad idea if you’ve established it’s a Lovecraftian city of death and madness, but OK.
On the way there, Conan and Belit debate theology and life after death. The plot-relevant part is Belit saying “Were I still in death and you fighting for life, I would come back from the abyss to aid you” They also lose a man to random encounter with a giant water snake. Then they come to the city, and find it a ruin where the only sign of life is a great bird/bat/winged ape that flies off a spire. The black men are afraid to go try to loot the open-air dungeon, and they’re clearly in the right. She makes four of them lift up an altar by handholds and stops her lover from helping them: she foresaw that lifting it would trigger a falling stone trap that kills the four lifters. Sure enough, the trapped altar covered a chest high as a woman’s arms full of diamonds, rubies, bloodstones, sapphires, turquoises, moonstones, opals, emeralds, amethysts, etc.
They see the bat-thing perch on the ship. Conan runs to investigate and returns reporting the thing destroyed their water casks. He leads twenty men away from the putrid river to find fresh water. His face gets close enough to a black lotus blossom to smell it, but while “juice was death, [its] scent brought dream-haunted slumber.”
He dreams that the city was built by winged humanoids before even lungfish evolved. The individuals were mortal but the species endured over geological time, and eventually an earthquake “caused the river to run black for days with some lethal substance spewed up from the subterranean depths, a frightful chemical change … Many died who drank of it; and in those who lived, the drinking wrought change, subtle, gradual and grisly” … basically the Devonian angels evolved into cannibal ape demons. His dream reaches human history, and he sees the ape demon transform people it encounters into werehyenas, then he sees himself arriving, and his sub-chief N’Gora attacked by the creature. So waking up, Conan obviously has to fight N’Gora and more werehyenas. He hurries to the ship, where he finds Belit hanging from the yardarm strangled by the very ruby necklace she stole!
Conan grieves by giving Belit a funeral on the ship. He thinks the demon is toying with him, letting him fill with grief and fear before attacking. Eventually it sends twenty werehyenas and he kills some with arrows before he runs out (combat scenes are better when you track ammo!), then fights with his sword until they reach grappling range, and finally fights two bare-handed. Then he’s knocked down by the flying demon and is about to be killed when… Belit’s ghost interposes herself! Her intervention holds the monster while Conan gets up and cuts the thing in half just above the hips.
Then it’s back to the ship with Belit’s cloak-wrapped body… he gets her out to sea all by himself, then sets it on fire from shore. And… come on, man, you discarded the treasure?!

For those who don’t know, the character Belit was copied from the title character of H. Rider Haggard’s 1886-7 novel She, about an immortal Middle Eastern woman who’s lived for 2,000 years as a goddess in Africa. Why Belit’s crew would worship her when she lacks She’s god-like qualities goes unexplained. Howard must have assumed 1934 readers would take it for granted that this is just what black men do. That’s the “white goddess” trope, which shows us that 1880s-1930s Anglo-American racism considered Semitic peoples white.

Of the original Conan stories, this is objectively the one that most captured the imagination of future writers. The first comic book to feature Conan was published in Mexico starting in 1952, not under his name but La Reina de la Costa Negra. When writing Marvel’s Conan comic in the 1970s, Roy Thomas stretched his time with Belit over 3 1/2 years of monthly issues.

Conan review #4: “Rogues in the House”

Conan is in jail for murder in an unnamed city “whose real ruler” is Nabonidus the Red Priest. The victim was another priest, or Anu, who also worked as a fence and a spy for the police. This was made possible by the temple of Anu being on the edge of the Maze, “a tangle of muddy, winding alleys and sordid dens, frequented by the bolder thieves in the kingdom.” The narrator comically describes how Conan was arrested: his hired prostitute betrayed him while he slept drunk, and waking up to flee “he missed the open door in his headlong flight and dashed his head against the stone wall so terrifically that he knocked himself senseless.”
An aristocrat named Murilo offers to arrange Conan’s escape if he’ll kill Nabonidus. Conan agrees. The plan is that the guard has been bribed to let Conan, having unchained himself with a key from Murilo, bind him with cloth and tell those who discover him a false story about him being broken out by fellow thieves. But some time after coming home, his spy brings the news that the guard had been arrested and thrown into prison – oops! He’s terrified that Nabonidus, who has indirectly threatened his life, is “more than human”, specifically a sorcerer who knows ESP, and used that to foil his plan.
Murilo arms himself and goes to the wall of Nabonidus’ home, fearing what might guard it besides a big dog, a slave and a servant. Then he finds the dog in the garden with a broken neck and bite marks. Breaking into the house, he finds Joka the servant dead too. In the next room he finds a seated figure in a hooded red robe, and he falls in terror when the man in the chair rises and faces him.

Back to Conan: the bribed guard brought him a joint of beef and a tankard so as to leave on a full stomach. Between then and consenting to the pretend escape, he’s arrested on unrelated corruption charges! His replacement is shocked to find a prisoner unchained and eating a huge beefbone. When he enters to restore dungeon propriety, Conan brains him with the remains of dinner and leaves with his sword and keys.
On his way to his mission, Conan walks through the Dung Ages of the Maze (streets are mud and residents empty their chamber pots there). He disembowels the departing John of the hooker who betrayed him just for being her John, then chivalrously(?) gives her the lesser punishment of being defenestrated into the muck.

Next Conan sneaks into Nabonidus’s basement, where he finds Murilo. Murilo tells him their target has been replaced by a thing “not unlike a man, but from the scarlet hood of the priest grinned a face of madness and nightmare! It was covered with black hair, from which small pig-like eyes glared redly; its nose was flat, with great flaring nostrils; its loose lips writhed back, disclosing huge yellow fangs, like the teeth of a dog. The hands that hung from the scarlet sleeves were misshapen and likewise covered with black hair.”
Conan’s response is priceless: “Everyone knows there are men who take the form of wolves at will. But why did he kill his servants?”
They agree to escape without trying to kill the were-thing, but infer that every exit is trapped. They find a half-naked man lying limply in a corridor… and it’s Nabonidus! Conan wants to kill him on the assumption that he’ll werewolf out and be immune to normal weapons immediately upon waking, but Murilo stops him. The priest reveals that his pet ape Thak beat him and stole his robe. And there’s further wacky miscommunication: his threat to Murilo was supposed to be understood as exile, not the death penalty. And why? Murilo bribed someone to filch state secrets, which he in turn sold to rival powers. Murilo retorts that Nabonidus swindles the king, so hey, we’re all three thieves. They agree to work together: they’ll overcome Thak so the priest is back in charge of the house, not report Murilo to the king, and let Conan escape the city to ply his trade in another.
It seems that Thak’s species is something like Australopithecus, and Nabonidus knows about evolution, saying “If they are not exterminated, I believe they will become human beings in perhaps a hundred thousand years… They dwell in the high crags of well-nigh inaccessible mountains, knowing nothing of fire or the making of shelter or garments, or the use of weapons. Yet they have a language of a sort,”
They observe Thak on the main floor through a series of mirrors, the invention amazing Murilo but not Conan, who shrugs it off as witchcraft. A gang of “ardent young nationalists” breaks into the house, and Thak knows how to activate traps to kill them.
(To last story’s deadly black lotus off Khitai we now add “The dust of the gray lotus, from the Swamps of the Dead, beyond the land of Khitai.” It seems to give you instant rabies.)
Eventually Conan gets Thak in a leglock and tries frantically to not get killed in the clench while stabbing him with a sword. (This is why you need usable grappling rules) Succeeding, he says “I have slain a man tonight, not a beast. I will count him among the chiefs whose souls I’ve sent into the dark, and my women will sing of him.”
Well, shoot. We see Conan with more than a dozen love interests by Howard’s own pen alone, before getting into the later authors, and I don’t think we ever see him teaching a woman to sing the Ballad of Thak.
Just one more plot twist before the end: Nabonidus betrays them. He’s going to pull a rope that opens a trap door down to the acid pit, dissolving Murilo along with Conan and Thak – hey, I only swore not to get you killed by the king! Conan quickly dispatches him with a thrown piece of furniture and says Murilo promised him gold and a horse for his death.

This story was published in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales (it didn’t make the cover). You’ll notice that despite that despite being written for that market, there’s no demonstrable supernatural element. Claims of magic only appear as part of the comic misunderstandings. This tone is a fun change of pace for the series, but the story’s just not as good as “The Tower of the Elephant”, which it cribbed several bits from (lotus powder, worrying about a wall, and Conan stripping to his loincloth as he leaves a building).

Conan review #3: The Tower of the Elephant

Since we’re going through these in an internal chronology, Conan is still a youth of a thief. We’re in an unnamed city in the country Zamora, in a tavern where Conan approaches a foreign kidnapper who says “I know lords in Shem who would trade the secret of the Elephant Tower for [a female victim].” It seems “that Yara the priest dwells there with the great jewel men call the Elephant’s Heart, that is the secret of his magic.”
Conan naively asks why no one has stolen this jewel already, for he’s seen no guards there. Just climb the sheer walls, easy! The man mocks him as a foolish yokel planning the impossible (I guess not every Thief has an 85% or better chance?)

The Cimmerian glared about, embarrassed at the roar of mocking laughter that greeted this remark. He saw no particular humor in it, and was too new to civilization to understand its discourtesies. Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.

They of course get into a bar brawl, which knocks out the only candle and leaves the kidnapper dead and most patrons fled when it’s relit. Outside, Conan’s tunic has been ripped, so he one-ups Captain Kirk by entirely discarding it, going about in only a loincloth and sandals.

He had entered the part of the city reserved for the temples. On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight—snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora’s myriad strange gods. He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora’s religion, like all things of a civilized, long­settled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals. He had squatted for hours in the courtyards of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.

This establishes that Conan is eager to learn and has now been in cities long enough to start stereotyping them. Approaching the tower’s courtyard wall, he starts to feel fear: he’s heard report that Yara the priest can transform people into spiders. But he continues and finds an armored guard on the other side of the wall, but a dead one! He meets a second thief, Taurus of Nemedia. Now we have an adventuring party. He’s been planning this for awhile, and tells Conan “We’ll steal down through the top of the tower and strangle old Yara before he can cast any of his accursed spells on us. At least we’ll try; it’s the chance of being turned into a spider or a toad, against the wealth and power of the world.” They won’t be able to climb the tower when there are lions guarding it, but Taurus has planned for them too. “A long jet of yellowish powder shot from the other end of the tube and billowed out instantly in a thick green-yellow cloud that settled over the shrubbery, blotting out the glaring eyes.” It’s an airborne toxin made from the black lotus, whose blossoms wave in the lost jungles of Khitai, where only the yellow-skulled priests of Yun dwell.
Conan asks why Taurus can’t just go on killing people by blowing that powder: “Because that was all the powder I possessed. The obtaining of it was a feat which in itself was enough to make me famous among the thieves of the world. I stole it out of a caravan bound for Stygia, and I lifted it, in its cloth-of-gold bag, out of the coils of the great serpent which guarded it, without awaking him.” Well, that’s one way to limit spell-casting!
Taurus throws a grappling hook and starts climbing when Conan has to save his life from the one lion not caught in the toxic cloud. On the 150-foot climb, Conan gets distracted by the scintillating jewels embedded in the wall and suggests prying that fortune out. But changing goals in the middle of a heist could get you killed!
They open the door into the top floor and find a glittering chamber, the walls, ceiling and floor of which were crusted with great white jewels which lighted it brightly, though its only light source. This is akin to an explanation in Hindu Puranas of how the pleasant underworld is illuminated: light bulb-like jewels in the hoods of the nagas who live there.
Something in the room kills Taurus. Conan soldiers on to see what it was. It sneaks in the shadows but eventually reveals itself: a spider the size of a pig, skittering around a second treasure room. Conan is injured even from the splash of tiny drops of venom as the spider misses its attack, and barely prevails in the fight scene. Continuing into other rooms, he finds “Smoke and exotic scent of incense floated up from a brazier on a golden tripod, and behind it sat an idol on a sort of marble couch. Conan stared aghast; the image had the body of a man, naked, and green in color; but the head was one of nightmare and madness. Too large for the human body, it had no attributes of humanity. Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls.”
This is no statue, but a rational organism, who turns out to have been chained, blinded, and otherwise tortured by Yara. He says his name is Yag-Kosha, and tells a tale of how he came to this planet with others of my world, from the green planet Yag, with wings faster than light. They fought the strange and terrible forms of life which then walked the earth, so to establish peace and quiet in the jungles of the East. They observed humans develop from apes to city-builders, and the sinking of Atlantis. As Deep Time ground on, all died except Yag-Kosha. Then to the temple in Khitai where he was worshiped came Yara, who learned white magic at his feet before betraying and torturing him to divulge what black magic he’s learned over the eons. Yara also forced him to conjure the bejeweled tower into existence in a single night, like the Slave of the Lamp for Aladdin. Now he asks Conan to kill him and squeeze his heart’s blood onto the Heart of the Elephant, then take it to Yara’s bed chamber and then flee the tower while he, now a mighty spirit instead of flesh and blood, takes his revenge.
Conan is savvy enough to do as a supernatural being says, and runs out past the magically-dead guards on the ground floor as the spirit of Yag-Kosha wreaks vengeance. Then it sways and crashes down into shining shards.

Well that was Lovecraftian, wasn’t it? We’ll see this sort of invocation of Deep Time as the monster’s origin again in this series, but it seems to be done best here. The tone partakes of myth and fairy tale as well as Lovecraftian SF, and the strength of Howard’s descriptive prose adds its own element to all that.

Conan review #2: The God in the Bowl

This short story depicts Conan as a wild youth encountering civilization. It was submitted to Weird Tales at the same time as “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the earliest depiction of Conan as a king. Thus Robert E. Howard sketched out the whole arc of the character’s life, save its ending, from the first. It was rejected by WT editor Farnsworth Wright and rediscovered and published by L. Sprague de Camp in 1951-2, who placed it after “The Tower of the Elephant” – which we’ll be reviewing next – when arranging the stories chronologically.

It opens at midnight in a candlelit building somewhere in the country of Nemedia. “It was a fantastic establishment, the great museum and antique house which men called Kallian Publico’s Temple, with its rarities from all over the world”: mainly idols, weapons, and shields, and it’s not clear to what extent this is a pre-Classical place of worship vs. a rich art collector’s house. We’re going to find these stories full of anachronisms, and while the socio-technological ones are the basic conceit to accept, a Latin name like “Publico” particularly bothers me. Naming people after Latin words we still use in English undermines that “lost civilization” conceit.
But no matter! That guy’s dead anyway, and it’s up to the watchman who finds him to discern whodunit. He finds a suspect right away: teenage Conan, who claims he just climbed in the window to rob the place, arriving too soon to be the killer. He’s a bit clueless in general, not realizing that Arus the watchman is a watchman even when he rings a bell to summon six pre-modern cops to arrest Conan. The Chief Inquisitor of the city inquisits him to determine if he’s the killer.
If one’s eyes are keen to Dungeons & Dragons tropes, this bit will amuse:

How did you enter the Temple?’
‘I hid in the shadows of the warehouse which stands behind this building,’ Conan answered grudgingly. ‘When this dog —’ jerking a thumb at Arus—’passed by and rounded the corner, I ran quickly to the wall and scaled it—’
‘A lie!’ broke in Arus. ‘No man could climb that straight wall!’
‘Did you ever see a Cimmerian scale a sheer cliff?’ asked Demetrio impatiently. ‘I am conducting this investigation. ‘

(In the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons, every Thief has an 85% chance to climb a sheer wall or cliff at Level 1.)

The cops hold the sword-armed Conan in a standoff and come around to investigate Publico’s corpse, finding that his neck was crushed by a cable thicker than a man’s arm, which is not found on Conan or otherwise. They question the dead man’s clerk and enslaved charioteer. The former reveals under threat of torture that Publico came here clandestinely from a villa to look at a stolen treasure. By double-crossing a caravan master, he came into more than temporary possession of “‘A sort of sarcophagus, such as is found in ancient Stygian tombs, but this one was round, like a covered metal bowl. Its composition was something like copper, but much harder, and it was carved with hieroglyphics.” Publico believed that he’d managed to steal the box for the diadem of an ancient giant-king, “which myths say was set with the strange jewels known only to that ancient race, a single one of which is worth more than all the jewels of the modern world.”
They find the sarcophagus or bowl empty, but it’s unclear it if arrived that way. It’s surmised that “When Kallian had the Bowl open, the murderer sprang on him—or he might have killed Kallian and opened the Bowl himself.”
Back to Conan. To not incriminate himself by silence, he confesses that a civilized man gave him a diagram of the temple and suggested he use his Thief skills to steal a diamond goblet from it. Meanwhile all clues are starting to point toward Publico having been killed by a serpent sent in the bowl as a “gift” from Thoth-Amon, archenemy of the priest it was intended for before Publico stole it. The prefect of police, who the narrator tells us is a materialist, acts like an idiot and does nothing about the supernatural snake on the loose, even bringing in Aztrias, Conan’s contact, who betrays him. Conan kills him along with the inquisitor, then the remaining forces of civilization are routed as the title character strikes: a constrictor snake with a beautiful, god-like human head. Conan kills that too as he makes his escape from the city and what it represents. But unlike killing a man, it seems to give him PTSD: “The thought of Set was like a nightmare, and the children of Set who once ruled the earth and who now sleep in their nighted caverns far below the black pyramids.”

I find this a pretty average example of the sort of thing Howard was going for with the Conan tales: genre fiction (unusually in this case a detective story) with brutal action in a context of an eerie sense of supernatural Deep Time.

Conan review #1: The Frost Giant’s Daughter

Welcome to Part 1 of a 21-part series reviewing the original Conan (later universally known as the Barbarian) stories by Robert E. Howard.

This short story was published in March 1934 in The Fantasy Fan, the first-ever fanzine for fantasy or “weird fiction” (which would include Horror and some or all SF). Since Conan was a Weird Tales exclusive, the author renamed the character Amra of Akbitana for this story. As such, it escaped notice in the only attempt before Howard’s 1936 suicide to organize the Conan stories, the “Miller/Clark chronology.” So while I’m treating it here as a teenage Conan’s first encounter with the supernatural before ever seeing civilization, you’ll also find it later in the old paperbacks with the Frazetta covers.

The short story starts with a very evocative description of two warriors facing off in the drifted snow, already battered and all comrades on both sides dead. “Beardless and black­maned” Conan soon slays his older, red-haired and bearded foe after some quick exposition that they come from lands called Cimmeria and Vanaheim respectively. He is alone feeling faint, with superficial bleeding through his mail. He hears cruel, mocking feminine laughter and has a vision of a woman naked “save for a light veil of gossamer.”
Despite her not dying of hypothermia, Conan reckons her a mortal of the enemy Vanir tribe, based on the People of Hair Color trope. Only slowly as they talk does he figure out that there’s anything supernatural about her liminal beauty, with skin whiter than any “white person” and shifting hair and eye colors, even demanding “there must be a village nearby since you’re here naked: take me there if you are of Asgard.” When she does lead him on, he’s possessed by a blood-pounding desire to grope her, with implications of rape and ambiguity about whether it’s a sort of fae mind control as she effortlessly outruns him until he stumbles into a trap by her brothers.

“Brothers!” cried the girl, dancing between them. “Look who follows! I have brought you a man to slay! Take his heart that we may lay it smoking on our father’s board!”

Yet Conan is so badass that he slays the two frost giants and continues to threaten “you’ll not escape me!” Once he grabs her, she, like Daphne not consenting to Apollo, calls on her father Ymir to save her. He causes a natural disaster that brings Howard’s prose as close as it comes to Lovecraftian invocations of Deep Time:
“In a cold dark universe, whose sun was extinguished eons ago, Conan felt the movement of life, alien and unguessed.”
… but it was all just the fever dream of a wounded man as Vanir who missed the skirmish have caught up and awaken Conan. Or was it? Conan himself agrees with that assessment, but…

He broke off, glaring at the object that still dangled from his clenched left fist; the others gaped silently at the veil he held up– a wisp of gossamer that was never spun by human distaff.

OOoooOoH! It’s the kind of non-committal to the supernatural that had been well-worn by gothic fiction long before 1934. As an introduction to the character, it also raises moral qualms: if it was a dream, he’s a rapist in his subconscious. At least an unambiguously-real Atali (the giantess) would exonerate him by mind-control lust being Fair Folk sport. All in all, while it has some good establishing prose and fairly naturalistic expository dialogue typical of Howard’s better efforts, it’s an entry both average and awkward.