Thursday, April 5, 2018

Three Conan stories by Robert E. Howard written in 1932

Ed Emshwiller's jolly Conan from 1955
It's time for a stiff dose of that toxic masculinity we keep hearing about!  In his essay "Hyborian Genesis," Patrice Louinet tells us that Robert E. Howard wrote "Iron Shadows in the Moon," "Xuthal of the Dusk," and "The Pool of the Black One," three stories about Conan the barbarian that would go on to be printed in Weird Tales, in quick succession in late 1932.  Louinet also strongly suggests these three stories are inferior specimens of Howard's work ("routine" is one word he uses to describe them.)  I've read all the Howard Conan stories, and while I remember the ones the critics prefer like "Tower of the Elephant" and "Red Nails" reasonably well, I have to admit I can recall nothing about these three pieces.  My recent reading of those Frank Belknap Long stories brought "Xuthal of the Dusk" to mind, and so I decided to reacquaint myself with it and some other Conan stories from the same period.  Let's journey back through the mists of time to the forgotten Hyborian Age and explore lost cities, sail the high seas, and grapple with hideous monsters with the Cimmerian muscleman in stories written by his creator.

I read "Hyborian Genesis" and the three Howard stories under review today in my trade paperback copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, published by Del Rey in 2003 and illustrated by Mark Schultz.  The stories first appeared in Weird Tales, in a different order than Howard wrote them, and would go on to be reprinted again and again in various publications.  The texts of the stories as they appear in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian are essentially the same as the versions printed in Weird Tales back in the early '30s.

"Iron Shadows in the Moon" (1934)

This story appeared in Weird Tales in 1934 as "Shadows in the Moonlight," alongside stories by C. L. Moore, Edmond Hamilton and Clark Ashton Smith, and a poem by Frank Belknap Long, all behind another Margaret Brundage Not-Safe-For-Work-Or-Anyplace-Else cover illustration that raises innumerable issues about race and gender and exploitative sex.

"Iron Shadows in the Moon" starts in medias res, with a princess, Olivia, who was sold into slavery by her ruthless father, being pursued by her current owner, Shah Amurath, the merciless lord of Akif!  She was only able to escape this guy because he and his cronies were drunk at a party--a party celebrating their destruction of a band of brigands lead by Conan of Cimmeria!  Shah Amurath catches up to Olivia at the sea shore, and moments later Conan, who was hiding in the reeds, catches up with him!  Conan slays the lord with ease, and then he and Olivia make off in a row boat.

The pair come to a forested island on which they find an abandoned city full of iron statues.  They spend the night in the ruins despite Olivia's fears, and she has a dream which indicates the statues are living men, criminals petrified as punishment for their misdeeds.  Olivia awakens and tells Conan of this dream, and our protagonists decide to leave the island at once, only to find that their little boat has been wrecked.  The next day, before Conan can build a raft, the Cimmerian meets and is taken captive by pirates who set up camp in the ruined city and commence to party hearty.

At night Olivia sneaks by the drunken sailors to free Conan; when they get outside the city he has to fight a giant monstrous ape which, it is hinted, wanted to rape Olivia.  (The ape's appearance solves some earlier mysteries, like who wrecked their boat.)  The iron statues come to life and kill more than a third of the pirates, who, cowed by this disaster, accept Conan as their new leader.  Olivia, having fallen in love with Conan, elects to join him in the next stage of his career of nautical murder and thievery.

"Shadows in the Moonlight" is included
in this Lancer edition of Conan stories, and
appears to have inspired the cover illo
"Iron Shadows in the Moon" is entertaining.  Conan is a sort of static character, but it is fun to see him fighting a giant ape and his huge self-confidence is amusing: "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....My slumber is light as a wolf's.  Nothing can enter this hall without awaking me."  At the same time, Conan and Howard make clear that the Cimmerian benefits from others' mistakes, the help of those--like Olivia and some of the pirates--his animal magnetism and rough charisma win to his side, and dumb luck:  "What brought him [the ape] into the open, I can't say, but it was lucky for us; I'd have had no chance with him among the trees." 

Partly because of Conan's unchanging and superhuman nature, partly because of the way Howard presents the tale, Olivia feels more like our viewpoint character than does the Cimmerian.  We follow Olivia's thought processes as she becomes attracted to Conan and, due to his selfless and generous example, comes to admire barbarians over so-called sophisticated and civilized people like her father and Shah Amurath, who proved themselves selfish and ruthless oppressors.  We are privy to Olivia's dream, which first reveals the truth of the statues, and it is Olivia who first sees the ape.  And of course Olivia, who is scared of the pirates, ape and living statues, is easier for us mere mortals to identify with than the fearless Cimmerian, whose animal nature is stressed in this passage (which is also a good example of Olivia acting as our viewpoint character): she stared in wide-eyed horror at the bronzed figure facing the monster, she sensed a kinship in the antagonists that was almost appalling.  This was less a struggle between man and beast than a conflict between two creatures of the wild, equally merciless and ferocious.            
An enjoyable story.

"Xuthal of the Dusk" (1933)

Under the title "The Slithering Shadow," this story first appeared in Weird Tales in 1933.  (We gawped at Margaret Brundage's S&M cover for the tale in our last blog post, when we discussed Frank Belknap Long's 1924 "Death-Waters," which was reprinted in the very issue with "The Slithering Shadow.")

Xuthal is an ancient city surrounded by desert, a metropolis which has been out of contact with the rest of the world for aeons.  Once its people were great scientists, and some of their devices, like radium lights that switch on and off at a touch and machines that effortlessly create food "from the primal elements," still operate, but the descendants of the city's once vigorous and creative inhabitants have fallen into decadence and ineptitude.  These few hundred people, inheritors of a squandered legacy, spend almost all their time under the influence of powerful drugs, their bodies in a state of suspended animation while their minds enjoy elaborate and immersive erotic dreams.  Xuthal is home to two creatures besides these drug addicts; one is Thog, the god of Xuthal, who on occasion arises from his pit to devour a portion of the city's dwindling human population.

Conan, the motley army he had been serving with having been defeated and scattered, is fleeing for his life through the desert, accompanied by his blonde slave girl Natala, when they come upon Xuthal.  They spend some time exploring Xuthal, finding much-needed victuals and then meeting a beautiful brunette princess, Thalis, who tells them the history of the city.  Thalis is not herself a native of Xuthal, but through circumstances not that dissimilar from Conan and Natala's, stumbled upon the eerie city as a teenager when she was the sole survivor of an army that suffered a disaster.  Trained in the "mysteries" at the "temples of Derketo" in her native land, Thalis is a kind of sacred prostitute, and is thus popular with the sex-crazed men of Xuthal.

Conan and Natala are eager to vacate this city of sex maniacs and ravenous deities, but Thalis has taken a shine to Conan--after all, stuck in this city of dope fiends, she hasn't seen a real man in ages!  When Conan rejects her in favor of Natala, whom Howard tells us is "his sweetheart," the black-haired princess seizes the blonde slave and drags her through a secret door to dispose of her.  Natala is beaten, stripped, and bound to a wall to be whipped, but Thalis is only able to deliver a few good blows with the cat o' nine tails before Thog appears and ingests her.  Thog is about to make a second course out of Natala when Conan (who has been fighting and eluding Xuthalian guards) appears and grapples with the amorphous god, driving it back to its pit.

In the final section of the story Natala finds a healing elixir (more of that Xuthal super-technology) that reinvigorates the wounded Cimmerian, and then they sneak out of the city towards an oasis Thalis told them about.

"Xuthal of the Dusk" appeared in these French collections, the covers of
which foreground the spicy aspects of the Conan stories 
In his essay, "Hyborian Genesis," Louinet tells us that Howard produced only two drafts of "Xuthal of the Dusk," a rough draft and a final draft.  I think the story could have benefited from some additional polishing.  For example, Howard overuses feline metaphors: Conan and Thalis, because of their strength and speed, are compared to cats and panthers and tigers time and again.  Each instance on its own is fine, but Howard uses these descriptors way too much in a way that becomes distracting.  Then there is the character of the men of Xuthal, which is inconsistent, even sort of contradictory.  Thalis tells us that the Xuthalians are fatalists who accept that one day Thog will gobble them up, but we also see that fear of Thog can drive them into hysterical fits.  Thalis says that the men of Xuthal care only for sensual pleasures, and that the city's guards do not take their duties seriously, even taking drugs and getting high while on guard duty, but then the guards show courage and dedication in their repeated (and futile) attacks on Conan.  I'm not sure why they are so hostile to Conan, anyway; they never try to parley with him.

Howard also doesn't bother to give Natala much of a personality or develop any chemistry between Conan and the blonde.  I'm not the kind of person who would be bothered if Conan treated women as disposable sex objects--he's a barbarian thief, for crying out loud--but if Howard is going to make his attachment to Natala a plot point, he should try to make this attachment convincing.  As things stand, Thalis is much more interesting than Natala, and she has a lot more in common with the Cimmerian (like he, she is strong and fast, willful and ambitious, a confident outsider living among inferiors) than does the blonde, and I was disappointed that Conan rejected her so easily and that she got killed so quickly.

Despite these complaints, I enjoyed "Xuthal of the Dusk."  The city is a good setting, Thog and Thalis are good villains, and I liked the fight scenes.           

"The Pool of the Black One" (1933)

"The Pool of the Black One" was printed in the issue of Weird Tales that bore the most famous and perhaps best cover to ever appear on the unique magazine (it always reminds me of a Chiparus bronze.)  Brundage's work generally looks amateurish, but this image is like a bold Art Deco design that also hearkens back to the macabre work of turn-of-the-century artists, like Sarah Bernhardt's sculpture of herself with bat wings or Penot's Bat-Woman.

Zaporavo is a gloomy, introverted pirate captain.  Accompanying him aboard his ship, the Wastrel, is Sancha, the sexy daughter of a duke--he seized her from one of the many ships he and his men have captured (we are told Zaporavo has been in "a thousand fights.")  Sancha has a spirit of adventure, and actually enjoys participating in the Wastrel's dangerous voyages.

One day a giant of a man climbs out of shark-infested waters to join Zaporavo's crew--it is Conan of Cimmeria!  Conan is a fine sailor, a good looker, and possessed of an animal magnetism, and soon the sailors are thinking maybe Conan should be captain instead of Zaporavo, and Sancha is thinking maybe she should be sleeping with Conan instead of Zaporavo.

The Z man is too busy poring over ancient books and maps to notice he has a rival.  He sets a course that has the Wastrel sailing far from the inhabited world and customary shipping lanes--the pirates don't see land or another vessel for weeks.  When the pirates finally do weigh anchor at an island, Zaporavo goes off by himself, hoping to find the ancient treasure his research leads him to suspect is there.  Conan follows him, and, where there are no witnesses, challenges Captain Z to a duel to the death.  The book I'm reading is called The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, not The Voyages of Zaporavo the Hawk, so you can guess how the duel turns out.

Conan soon discovers the island's horrifying secret: in an ancient lost city (like John Carter's Barsoom, Conan's world is littered with abandoned ancient cities) live a tribe of seven- or eight-foot -tall giants with black skin and taloned hands.  These giants have a magic pool, and love nothing better than to put ordinary-sized people in the pool, where they drown and are shrunk down to action-figure size so they can be added to the giants' comprehensive collection of 8-inch tall human specimens.

Sancha catches up to Conan, the giants capture all the pirates (the corsairs are inebriated from eating some unhealthy fruit), and then Conan and Sancha rally the pirates and a long tedious battle ensues.  The pirates suffer terrible casualties, but the giants are wiped out.  The pool then comes to life like a giant snake made of water and chases the surviving buccaneers back to the Wastrel.  Conan sails away in charge of the ship and with Sancha in his arms, looking forward to terrorizing international sea-going trade.

The cover painting to my copy of The Coming of
Conan the Cimmerian
illustrates "Pool of
 the Black One."  Unfortunately it is not a very
good painting--I don't like the composition or
the figures' poses or their faces--Sancha
looks like she is smiling!  Sad!
"Pool of the Black One" is the weakest of these three Conan stories.  I like the start of the story, which focuses on the relationships among Zaporavo and Sancha and Conan--at times Sancha plays the role Olivia plays in "Iron Shadows in the Moon," that of a viewpoint character with an evolving personality with whom the reader can identify, and obviously the flawed Zaporavo has a more complex psychology than static and invincible Conan.  But then Howard jettisons these human characters to focus on his uninteresting and poorly realized monsters. Surely he could have come up with more compelling antagonists than speechless giants and some sentient green water--these monsters have no dialogue, there are no clues to their history or motives, and the action scenes involving them drag on way too long and are more silly than thrilling.  If I was editing Howard back in 1933, I would have suggested keeping Zaporavo alive longer--as a bookish and cruel civilized man he could not only have played the role of a foil that highlighted the good qualities of the barbarian Conan, but he could have explained what the lost city and pool and black giants were all about--as the story stands, both the Z-man's research and the black giants' nature feel like dangling loose ends.

Disappointing; gotta give this one a thumbs down.


I think my appetite for swords and sorcery and cosmic horror has been slaked for the time being; in our next episode we'll be exploring interstellar space!

No comments:

Post a Comment