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.