Reading Conan the barbarian

edited 2014-05-21 15:41:39 in Liveblogs
So Beholder is rereading the original Conan stories, and I thought we should both post our thoughts on them. We'll be going through the original Robert Howard stories from 1932-36 in published order, then the Sprauge de Camp/Lin Carter additions from the Lancer paperbacks of the '60s and '70s that popularized the character.

First up is "The Phoenix on the Sword". With this story, Conan the Cimmerian made his debut in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. Remembered today mostly for these stories and many of H.P. Lovecraft's, this was a pulp anthology of supernatural and science fiction stories with a small stable of star writers whose cover stories promised nude or scantily-clad damsels in distress, often from other women. Lovecraft never got a cover. Howard soon would, but at this time he was still finding his legs as a commercial writer. "The Phoenix on the Sword" is actually an extensive revision of "By This Axe, I Rule!", a rejected tale of Howard's previous barbarian hero, Kull of Atlantis. But enough setup!

We begin with the Stygian (prehistoric Egyptian) sorcerer Thoth-Amon meeting the statesman-turned-outlaw Ascalante in the capital of Aquilonia. They've got a conspiracy to assassinate King Conan going with two noblemen, an army commander, and a minstrel named Rinaldo. They just need to get past Conan's bodyguards, because one army commander is in on the plot and the loyal one is being lured away with Conan's right-hand man Prospero to help King Numa of neighboring Nemedia...

... yeah, Howard's Hyborian Age was Anachronism Stew.

Next we meet Conan himself, discussing matters of state with Prospero before the rightful duke of Milan departs for Nemedia. Conan is wistful for his old days as a barbarian mercenary, before taking the previous king's crown "from his gory head." Only briefly did the people hail him as a liberator before the poetry of Rinaldo, an idealist who sees the hereditary dynasty Conan ended as a remnant of a lost Golden Age, turned them against him. Prospero recommends having him hanged, but Conan says "His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me." Then Conan does some cartography.

Man, what a softy. The primal bodybuilder image only comes later.

Back to Thoth-Amon. He's complaining too, confiding in one of those treacherous noblemen that he was once high priest of Stygia, where "King Ctesphon gave me great honor, casting down the magicians from the high places to exalt me..." This was all because he could do mighty magic with the Serpent Ring of Set, "found in a nighted tomb a league below the earth, forgotten before the first man crawled out of the slimy sea." Um, I don't think Thoth grasps evolutionary history. But that's understandable if he's from prehistoric Egypt. Anyway, one day a thief stole the ring and Thoth was no longer mightier than other magi. They ganged up on him and he barely escaped the country with his life, reduced to serving Ascalante. By coincidence, the nobleman he's talking to bought the ring from the thief, which when Thoth finds out makes him strangle the man to death while shrieking things like "My ring! My power!"

By the way, this story was published five years before The Hobbit and decades before The Lord of the Rings.

Now Thoth summons "the slave of the ring", a baboon-shaped djinn, and tells it to sniff out Ascalante and kill him. Meanwhile in Conan's bedroom, the king isn't sleeping well. He starts sleepwalking and meets a sage who's been dead 1500 years, who gives him a magic sword with a phoenix etched on the blade. As he comes to full consciousness, the conspirators are sneaking through the palace, and he barely has time to put on a cuirass before they burst in on him. Outnumbered and without helmet or shield, Conan expects that he'll die and hopes to leave a respectable pile of enemy corpses at his feet. What follows is a well-paced and complex fight scene where Conan slays several mooks with barbaric fury, then falters when Rinaldo attacks, not splitting the man's skull until wounded himself (et tu, minstrel?). The bleeding Conan looks doomed until Ascalante is distracted by an attacking baboon djinn. The surviving conspirators flee, but the baboon djinn is still hungry after killing Ascalante and pounces on Conan, who finds that it melts and disintegrates into slime if stabbed with a magic sword. By this time everyone in the palace has been roused and comes to tend the king's wounds, but no evidence of the plot or the supernatural remains except the dead bodies of Ascalante and Rinaldo. (spooky chord)

Next up: "The Scarlet Citadel".
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  • READ MY CROSS SHIPPING-FANFICTION, DAMMIT!

    i get so angry sometimes i just punch plankton --Klinotaxis
    Interesting. I look forward to reading more.
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Glad to oblige, Justice.

    "The Scarlet Citadel" opens with King Conan fighting among the fallen bodies of his armored knights, having ridden in to help Aquilonia's old ally King Amalrus of Ophir, only to find himself double-crossed and fighting six-to-one odds when Amalrus teams up with King Solomon Strabonus of Koth.
    Well that's counterstereotypical. Shouldn't it be a pile of the enemy's naked warriors? And where's the girl holding his leg?
    Also on the battlefield is Kothian wizard Tsotha-lanti, who people say "had a whole library of dark works bound in skin flayed from living human victims, and that in nameless pits... he trafficked with the powers of darkness, trading screaming slave girls for unholy secrets." He wants Conan taken alive, while his allies want to use the old Persian "kill the buff implacable king with arrows from a distance" trick. Tsotha's having none of that and just knocks Conan unconscious by walking up and touching an acupressure point on his unarmored forearm. Prehistoric Chinese secret? Nah, actually a retractable needle on his wizard ring soaked in "juice of the purple lotus."
    With Conan safely unconscious, the baddies ride over Ophir's southeastern border, half a day's journey from Koth's capital of Khorshemish. Huh, that's a more felicitous name choice than I was expecting so soon after the jumble of ancient Egyptian, Roman, and high medieval ones in the first story.
    Conan is held in chains and a loincloth in the citadel as the baddies promise him freedom and compensation if he'll abdicate. No, no Bob, that's not how you get a Weird Tales cover. Maybe if you'd made one of the villains a scantily-clad queen. Anyway, Conan the libertarian refuses, boasting that he found the Aquilonians oppressed under a thousand year-old dynasty, earned the crown with his own hands, and lowered taxes. Then Amalrus wants to kill Conan for spitting in his eyes, but Tsotha blinds him with a magic powder for not knowing who the real master is, then has his buff black slaves throw Conan in the dungeon.

    Chained up in the dungeon, Conan thinks about the warm embraces of his harem girls back in Aquilonia, whom Tsotha has threatened to flay and sacrifice. I don't think any of these women even get named in the King Conan stories. He really is the love 'em and leave 'em type. Suddenly, his thoughts are interrupted by the appearance of an eighty-foot snake!

    Oh yeah, now we get the Frazetta Conan:

    image

    Then the door clangs and it slithers off. What's an eighty-foot snake scared of? A black guy with some keys. Turns out that this guy has been holding a grudge against Conan for many years, because Conan used to be a pirate on the coast of Kush, where he once plundered the village Abombi and killed its chief, which left the tribe vulnerable to slavers. This guy is the chief's brother, and Conan has no idea who he is and only a vague memory of which village Abombi was.

    ... that's right, folks: our hero is Movie M. Bison. Well, M. Bison Conan offers him "his weight in gold" for the keys, but the man screams that the only price that will make restitution is "Your head!" and swings a sword at Conan.
    ... then the snake eats him. Stretching to grab the fallen keys in his toes (ook ook), Conan unlocks his chains, grabs that sword, and starts exploring the dungeon for an exit. He doesn't get very far before the chief jailer spots him from the other side of some bars, but he kills the guy like it's nothing. Then he runs away from a weeping octopus-frog that looks like it's made of jelly, because that's just weird. Next, another Lovecraftian thing comes out of a well and Conan starts feeling nostalgic for the threat of the snake. Seriously.
    Next, he finds a cell with another prisoner and unlocks it. Turns out it's Tsotha's rival wizard Pelias, who he's kept in some kind of painful opium dream with a "devil flower whose seeds drifted down through the black cosmos from Yag the Accursed." Pelias explains that when Carchemish was built three thousand years ago, there were already ruins of an unknown people's city and the builders found these dungeons under them.

    Aw yeah, this is prototypical Dungeons & Dragons. So the wizard and the warrior have an adventure getting out of the dungeon, though they don't pick up magic loot on the way. As far as magic, though, Pelias can summon a creature "of air and the far reaches of the skies, dwelling apart, unguessed by men." It's an uncanny thing neither bat nor bird, with a forty-foot wingspan you can hitch a ride to the capital of Aquilonia on. A puppet of Tsotha's called Prince Arpello has already taken over. But hey, Conan can just jump off the flying steed, get up in Arpello's face, and throw him off a wall with a splatter of blood and brains.

    The scene now switches to the distant Aquilonian city of Shamar, besieged by Tsotha and his minions. They're about to surrender, when literally the cavalry shows up, gathered rag-tag by Conan from every settlement between Shamar and the capital. Cue another battle scene, which climaxes with Conan confronting Tsotha and beheading him after one dodged fireball and before he casts the next.
    Then things get bizarre. An eagle swoops and catches Tsotha's head in mid-air. The headless body staggers to its feet and chases the eagle, which laughs with the voice of Pelias.
    "A murrain on these wizardly feuds!" Conan says, "Damnation! What I would not give for a flagon of wine!"

    Man. They didn't call it Weird Tales for nothing, did they? We're starting to see Conan take shape as a character here. He's the kind of guy who fights battles at unfavorable odds and either wins or ends up in a dungeon. He's a bad guy, but you're expected to root for him because he's up against other guys who do things like sacrifice young women. He doesn't like the supernatural, and he usually has a different adventuring companion in each story. Sometimes it's going to feel like the Hyborian Age was a 1st Edition D&D campaign where Howard's PC was the only one who showed up every week.

    Well, I'll pause here for Beholder's thoughts, because this is going to be the last King Conan story for a long time. Next time, we'll flash back to Conan's youth in "The Tower of the Elephant."
  • First of all, that's about the best summary of the stories I've heard. Many thanks

    Some things I have noticed:
    Both of the first stories have a rather heavy-handed political commentary about the fickleness of the masses

    By the Scarlet Citadel Conan seems to be rather firmly eastablised as a Chaotic Good, or a Good-leaning Chaotic Neutral. From sudden concern about his subjects even though at fist he merely wanted to conquer, to the way "the suffering of the captive touched Conan's wayward and impulsive heart" - that sounds very in line with Chaotic Good. 

    Scarlet Citadel is properly Lovecraftian. And yet for some reason Conan is more freaked out by a wizard who wasn't doing anything scary aside of reanimating a zombie than by some... things... he saw (or didn't - I think that invisible thing was much creepier).

    In the Scarlet Citadel, it is also established that he treated his girls well (they are described as unused to brutality) even though he hardly remembers their names

    In the Phoenix on the Sword, I do wonder if the baboon-thing was similar to DnD Demogorgon, and which inspired which.

    For Conan being reluctant to kill a minstrel - that is interesting to me because in Russian fantasy fandom (mostly LotR, but the trope goes for every fantasy fandom, really) killing a minstrel as an indication of an untmost villainy is a very popular trope, invoked in many, many songs to the point of becoming subverted and parodiet because of the sheer popularity. 
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Hey Beholder,

    I agree with everything you said about "The Scarlet Citadel". Conan leaves chaos in his wake for selfish reasons (that black guy had a point) but he does have a conscience: M. Bison would have enslaved that village himself, while Conan might have guarded it to make amends. And no wonder Conan never joined a party with a wizard, if he finds Pelias's spells creepier than the invisible thing or the jellied frogtopus.

    I never thought of Demogorgon. Nice catch. Also I had no idea that killing a minstrel was a trope in Russia.
  • There will be more to say about Conan's rather inconventional attitudes towards Eldritch Abominations when we'll get to the Tower of Elephant
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Now for "The Tower of the Elephant". This was the third Conan story published in Weird Tales (March 1933). It's part of a set of "Conan the thief" stories, and I think it's the best of them.

    We start with some scene-setting prose in the Maul, the lawless quarter of a Zamorian city. Then the narrative "camera" zooms in on one of its taverns, where native rogues drunkenly, wenchingly (yes that's a word) mix with foreigners of numerous cultures. Hither came Conan, a Cimmerian, an awkward youth with no social skills, who slights the honor among thieves by suggesting that it's possible for a burglar to burgle the local wizard's tower and they just haven't done it yet. The thieves roar with laughter at young Conan's naivete, leading to perhaps the most quoted line by Howard's narrator:
    "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing."

    An offended Conan skulks off to said wizard's tower. He'll show them! He'll also show his muscles, as Howard makes a point of noting that he stripped down to his loincloth and sandals. The tower is at the end of the city's street of temples, where they worship many strange gods and even have courtyards for philosophers. Conan reflects that after hours of listening to them, he knew no more than before, except that all philosophers are touched in the head. He also reflects that this place is called the Tower of the Elephant, and he has no idea what an elephant is.
    Conan climbs over the wall around the tower, sneaks past one guard, and thinks he's been caught when he runs into another man. But nope, it's just a higher level thief to team up with! (Conan is Barbarian 1/Thief 1 right now, and no older than 18.) His name's Taurus of Nemedia, and he starts showing Conan the ropes. Literally. They're going to use rock climbing gear to sneak into the top of the tower, so as to fall on Yara the wizard from above and strangle him before he can "cast any of his accursed spells... turned into a spider or a toad." But first, there's another walled courtyard. This one has no human guards... it has lions!
    Taurus takes out the lions by breathing a strange powder at them through a blowgun. "What was that powdert?" Conan asks. "It was made from the black lotus, whose blossoms wave in the lost jungles of Khitai..." and he sacrificed it for a three-mana spell to kill all the lions on the board. Conan asks why he didn't bring enough black lotus to kill all creatures inside the tower too, and Taurus is like "Hey man, stealing even that much from a giant snake was adventure enough to make me a famous thief."
    Once they climb into the tower, they pass through a room strewn with gems, and Taurus has to tell Conan to focus on the big gem, the Heart of the Elephant. He checks a passage for traps, then enters another room ahead of Conan... and dies with a strangled scream!
    Conan tries to figure out what dastardly dungeon master trap Taurus fell into, only to look up and realize that there's a venomous spider as large as a boar on the ceiling, Now comes a pretty cool fight scene where Conan has to dance around the room dodging the spider's attacks and thrusting his sword without getting caught in its web thereby.

    Beyond the spider's chamber is another, where sits a huge green idol of an elephant-headed man, which Conan thinks will have the Heart of the Elephant gem in its chest. Then he realizes that's no idol, but a living being, kept chained in this chamber. "What this monster was, Conan could not know, but the evidence of its sufferings were so terrible and pathetic that that a strange aching sadness came over the Cimmerian..." The poor guy says his name is Yag-Kosha and, oh boy, I'd better let him speak for himself:
    "long and long ago I came to this planet with others of my world, from the green planet Yag, which circles for ever in the outer fringe of this universe. We swept through space on mighty wings that drove us through the cosmos quicker than light, because we had warred with the kings of Yag and were defeated and outcast. But we could never return, for on earth our wings withered from our shoulders. "
    'We saw men grow from the ape and build the shining cities of Valusia, Kamelia, Commoria and their sisters. We saw them reel before the thrusts of the heathen Atlanteans and Picts and Lemurians. We saw the oceans rise and engulf Atlantis and Lemuria, and the isles of the Picts, and shining cities of civilization."
    ... and he just goes on like that, and calls Conan a descendant of Atlantean refugees who degenerated into snow apes and eventually evolved into men again. Rather than being offended, Conan pities the Eldritch Abomination and asks him how he can help. Yag-Kosha asks to be killed, so his soul can leave this body and go attack Yara. So Conan does, and Yag-Kosha does. This is all very freaky, and our hero runs out of the tower without any loot, into "the cool fragrance" of the garden, where he turns around and sees the Tower of the Elephant collapse as if in an earthquake.

    This story runs to 22 pages in the omnibus I'm reading. In that length you get some good descriptive prose of a pre-modern city, a little buddy comedy, three monster encounters, and then get hit with some Lovecraft Deep Time talk. Not bad.
  • Man is a most complex simple creature: see what he weaves, and how base his reasons for doing so.
    The Dark Horse adaption of that story made the Yags more angelic and old-god than eldritch abomination.

    Visually, anyway.
  • edited 2014-05-22 11:55:30
    Acid Mammoth!!!!
    "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing."

    This is just such a great line.

    I read some of these stories a long time ago but I barely remember them, honestly.
  • So, the Tower of the Elephant, the story in which Conan undresses and a spot check is failed

    This is one of my favourite stories, mostly because of how it subverts the usual Eldritch Abomination theme - just how often does the hero get to rescue one from the clutches of a mortal doing unspeakaba things to it instead of vice versa? That being said, it turned out that I have forgot much of the story, and what I've forgot were some good parts.

    The story opens with a vivid description of the seedy underside of an ancient city. The description is quite evocative while not mired in specifics - which, by the way, is what I like about Howard's descriptions. I wonder if some fantasy worlds such as Asprin's "Thieves' World" got inspiration from that.

    Ender Conan, for a very DnDesque rumour-gathering session in a tavern. 
    Young Conan is much different from the mature king we have seen in the previous episodes. He is so naive that he is almost cute. Actually, the whole story takes pains to how just how unused he is to the intricacies of civilization and how confusing he finds it all. Which is probably why he wasn't particularly phased in the tower - everything that happened is just one more incomprehensible thing in an already incomprehensible city.

    Anyway, despite his apparent naivete, I can't help  but think if his method of gathering information by insulting the thieves was actually quite clever - they did tell him everything they knew about the tower and it's defenses, probably much more than if he asked politely.

    Can't say I miss the guy Conan eventually ended up killing. It should be noted that somehow the only people Conan gets to kill (on screen, at least) are the ones the reader definitely won't miss.  

    Conan muses what the heck is an elephant. "This a wandering Shemite told him, swearing that he had seen such beasts by the thousands in the country of Hyrkanians; but all men knew that liars were the men of Shem" - tsk, tsk, such unfortunate implications. 

    Exactly why Conan decided to undress on his way to the tower, I have no idea. Still, that's one story where he is running around with nothing but loincloth willingly. Did that start the whole "naked barbarian" thing? 

    My guess (based on this and the next story) is that in Conanverse, loincloth is something of a thief's normal uniform. 

    Another thing I liked in the story is the portrayal of Conan's unfortunate companion. Specifically, that it was a positive portrayal of a fat man as not evil and closest to an ally one gets, very competent and very acrofatic. That he failed a spot check at the end hardly matters, since anyone can have a bad roll, Conan almost failed it too (and probably would have if he wasn't very well aware that there was something in the room that killed his companion) and had one heck of a fight with the spider.

    Speaking of competence - did noone else in the whole city think of using the rope? Because the rogues described the tower as unclimbable before. Really, guys, just bring some rope!
    Reminds me of the scene in the Conan movie where only the swordlady thought of bringing a freaking rope - and by vitrue of that became a part of the team. 

    Speaking of spot checks - also an extremely DnD occurrence. Also, that's why you never split the party. 

    Conan strides past extreme riches without claiming anything just yet. Exactly why is beyound me - even if he expected the greater prize at the end, he couldn't be 100% sure that he won't be interrupted and forced to escape. Better to have something to show for all the effort. Then again, being naked sans loincloth and sword probably meant that he didn't have any pockets. 

    Now to my favorite part - the encounter with the Eldritch Abomination. And an interesting description of his disposition that explains why, unlike Lovecraftian protagonists, Conan never got driven mad from his numerous encounters with the weird things - 
    "A civilized man in his position would have sought doubtful refuge in the
    conclusion that he was insane; it did not occur to the Cimmerian to
    doubt his senses. He knew he was face to face with a demon of the
    Elder World"
    That, to me, is a very interesting phrase that clarifies a lot about Lovecraft. His main point used to be not even that the creatures are scary, ancient an powerful - even though they are - but rather that our mind is too confined with what we think should be, and thus fragile. Now, Conan is not fearless, but he is able to take things in stride as "Well, weird stuff happens", having little preconceived notions of how exactly the world is supposed to work and why exactly there should be no demons of the Elder World. To him the point is that it is vast and dangerous, not that it was not supposed to be there in the first place. 
    Conan again acting in a Chaotic Good manner - note that it did not occur to him to demand a reward or stop for looting after seeing the condition of the poor Eldritch Abomination. 
    And, in the end, the adventure concludes with Conan gaining exactly zero treasure (though probably he got some XP). It is interesting that while the series inspired a lot of games about the treasure-seeking adventurers, Conan rarely gets to keep any loot at all. 
  • Another random thought - the previous story featured an evil flower from Yag the Accursed - which is probably the same Yag. Yet the Eldritch abomination in this story is rather benevolent - and forced to flee its homeland. Was it after that when Yag became accursed? Are we stumbling on an after march of some great galactic conflict?
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Beholder said:

    This is one of my favourite stories, mostly because of how it subverts the usual Eldritch Abomination theme - just how often does the hero get to rescue one from the clutches of a mortal doing unspeakaba things to it instead of vice versa? That being said, it turned out that I have forgot much of the story, and what I've forgot were some good parts.

    The story opens with a vivid description of the seedy underside of an ancient city. The description is quite evocative while not mired in specifics - which, by the way, is what I like about Howard's descriptions. I wonder if some fantasy worlds such as Asprin's "Thieves' World" got inspiration from that.

    Ender Conan, for a very DnDesque rumour-gathering session in a tavern. 
    Young Conan is much different from the mature king we have seen in the previous episodes. He is so naive that he is almost cute. Actually, the whole story takes pains to how just how unused he is to the intricacies of civilization and how confusing he finds it all. Which is probably why he wasn't particularly phased in the tower - everything that happened is just one more incomprehensible thing in an already incomprehensible city.
    As you say, his ignorance ends up letting him talk to Yag-Kosha, while a civilized Lovecraft protagonist would have gone mad from the blasphemous contradiction of his worldview.

    Yes, this unnamed tavern in the Maul is the original D&D tavern, predating the one where the hobbits met Strider by two decades. I've never read Thieves' World, but the Zamorian city with its rogues' quarter, street of temples, and wizards looks like the prototype for Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar. The fact that Howard tosses this place off in a single short story, while Leiber made his name in the fantasy genre developing it in story after story, shows what a well of creativity Howard had, behind his pulp hack work ethic.

    Conan muses what the heck is an elephant. "This a wandering Shemite told him, swearing that he had seen such beasts by the thousands in the country of Hyrkanians; but all men knew that liars were the men of Shem" - tsk, tsk, such unfortunate implications. 

    Yyyeah. I've been trying to avoid discussing racist throwaway lines. There will be time for it when racial stereotypes are actually plot-relevant. Racial stereotypes were a crutch that commercial fiction writers depended on in Howard's time. IIRC, around the time the Lancer paperbacks came out, the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, perhaps the epitome of commercial genre fiction, were revised to avoid exposing children to racism.
    But geez, what a line. Beyond the unfortunate implications, if the Hyborian Age is supposed to be part of our prehistory, there should plenty of elephants in the land of Shem. Elephants lived in the Syrian cedar forests as late as Classical times.

    Exactly why Conan decided to undress on his way to the tower, I have no idea. Still, that's one story where he is running around with nothing but loincloth willingly. Did that start the whole "naked barbarian" thing? My guess (based on this and the next story) is that in Conanverse, loincloth is something of a thief's normal uniform. 

    Well, thieves become thieves because they're poor. We've seen King Conan in plate armor, and different types of metal armor will be mentioned in stories where he's a mercenary. But armor was expensive, and we're going to see him earn it. He's a pretty modern vision of a pre-modern hero, working his way up from poverty rather than only appearing as the lord of a city like Gilgamesh or the heroes in Greek epics.

    Another thing I liked in the story is the portrayal of Conan's unfortunate companion. Specifically, that it was a positive portrayal of a fat man as not evil and closest to an ally one gets, very competent and very acrofatic. That he failed a spot check at the end hardly matters, since anyone can have a bad roll, Conan almost failed it too (and probably would have if he wasn't very well aware that there was something in the room that killed his companion) and had one heck of a fight with the spider.

    Yes, Taurus was cool and he only died because dungeon/tower/whatever crawling was deadly. Save or die!

    Speaking of competence - did noone else in the whole city think of using the rope? Because the rogues described the tower as unclimbable before. Really, guys, just bring some rope!
    Reminds me of the scene in the Conan movie where only the swordlady thought of bringing a freaking rope - and by vitrue of that became a part of the team. 

    Haha. This is one of several stories borrowed from for the original film, with Thulsa Doom replacing Yara and Yag and Valeria taking over Taurus' introduction as the thief who brought rope.

    Conan strides past extreme riches without claiming anything just yet. Exactly why is beyound me - even if he expected the greater prize at the end, he couldn't be 100% sure that he won't be interrupted and forced to escape. Better to have something to show for all the effort. Then again, being naked sans loincloth and sword probably meant that he didn't have any pockets. 

    Exactly, he needed both hands for any dangers encountered. I assume that's why Taurus told him to focus rather than pick up gems.

    Now to my favorite part - the encounter with the Eldritch Abomination. And an interesting description of his disposition that explains why, unlike Lovecraftian protagonists, Conan never got driven mad from his numerous encounters with the weird things - 
    "A civilized man in his position would have sought doubtful refuge in the
    conclusion that he was insane; it did not occur to the Cimmerian to
    doubt his senses. He knew he was face to face with a demon of the
    Elder World"
    That, to me, is a very interesting phrase that clarifies a lot about Lovecraft. His main point used to be not even that the creatures are scary, ancient an powerful - even though they are - but rather that our mind is too confined with what we think should be, and thus fragile.
    Yes. Reading Lovecraft, it took me awhile to figure out why "blasphemous" was one of his favorite adjectives. It wasn't just a hack writer's verbal tic: he was trying to convey that whatever thing the adjective described outraged the protagonist's worldview, his religion or his faith in scientific materialism. Conan is too ignorant for that.
    @kingCrackers: Interesting. That fits with Yag's positive depiction.
    @Imipolex: "This is just such a great line."
    It is.
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    And now, let's read "Black Colossus".
    This was the fourth Conan story published in Weird Tales (June 1933). From this point on, he was one of the magazine's star writers, with 9 of the next 14 stories making the cover.

    image

    The name of the artist here is Margaret Brundage. This is actually pretty mild by her standards.

    We start with a Zamorian thief named Shevatas attempting to rob a 3000-year-old tomb a few days' camel ride northeast of the river Styx (which is what Howard calls the Nile, for some reason). He's "a thief among thiefs", "who lived in songs and myths for a thousand years", so he should be fine, right? Maaaybe.
    Back when the witch-king entombed here, Thugra Khotan, lived, Stygian kingdoms extended far north of the Styx, over Shem and Koth.
    "Then the great drift of the Hyborians swept southward from the cradle-land of their race near the northern pole. It was a titanic drift, extending over centuries and ages. But in the reign of Thugra Khotan, the last magician of Kuthchemes, gray-eyed, tawny-haired barbarians in wolfskins and scale-mail had ridden from the north into the rich uplands to carve out the kingdom of Koth..."
    ... this is some heady 1930s racism here, but it has precious little to do with the plot, so let's move on. People are still scared of this tomb 3000 years later, because legend lives on that Thugra drank a magic potion as his kingdom fell, so he might wake up if disturbed. Shevatas kills a giant snake and makes his way into a chamber beyond, "a wonderland of magic and splendor, treading stars under his sandalled feet."  Gold dust forms a carpet inches deep for "piles of diamonds, sapphires, rubies..." the gilded helmets and gem-encrusted harness of buried kings, etc.
    Now Thugra wakes up and kills him.

    Later, rumors drift north to the Hyborian cities that a new prophet called Natohk, meaning "veiled one", is welding bands of nomads into a coherent horde. Hmm, I wonder who that might be! Most kingdoms see their attacks as no threat, but in the independent Kothian state of Khoraja, Princess Yasmela is really scared. While 10 other ladies sleep in her bedroom, she prostrates herself naked before an idol as Natohk telepathically threatens her with "lustful titterings."
    "I will sweep into the lands of my ancient enemies. Their kings shall furnish me skulls for goblets, their women and children shall be slaves of my slaves' slaves." That's some serious social stratification.
    Lady Vateesa wakes up and tells Yasmela that her worship of Ishtar has failed to drive off Natohk, so she needs to visit the oracle of Mitra, "the universal Hyborian god" whose worship the Kothians are forgetting.
    Sigh. See, the prehistoric Hyborians worship Mitra because he was one of the Aryan gods (i.e. Hindu devas/Zoroastrian "angels") Howard knew of. At the time, it was normal to call all Indo-Europeans "Aryans." But it gets particularly ugly as we realize that Zamora and the kingdom of Ayodhya are supposed to be proto-Hindu and there are Iranian tribes around, but these people don't count as Hyborian/Aryan.
    Anyway, Yasmela goes to Mitra's temple, where he tells her to go forth upon the streets alone and entrust her kingdom to the hands of the first man she meets. Fortunately, they turn out to be the brawny hands of Conan! He's walking the streets in a helmet, greaves and chainmail tunic with a fancy red cloak, looking for booze. He's apparently a captain of the mercenaries, and complains about "white livered reformers" who don't let the taverns stay open at all hours like in Corinth, where he was a rank-and-file mercenary. He's clearly taken as least two levels of Fighter since his days as a loincloth-clad rogue (which we'll revisit with "Rogues in the House"). I don't remember which stories cover his time in Corinthia and his first mercenary promotion, but that's part of the fun of reading in publication order.
    Anyway, Conan and Yasmela exchange some banter, then he scolds her for wearing a veil and rips off her cloak, becoming confused that "you're no waif, unless your leman robbed the king's seraglio for your clothes."
    Huh, Conan usually doesn't talk that cod-medieval, although minor characters say things like "Harken unto this heathen!"

    Well, Yasmela takes Conan back to the palace, so she can obey Mitra by promoting him to General of Khoraja. This doesn't sit well with General Amalric, who by Conan's own admission is the only other mercenary who wouldn't betray Yasmela the day her funds ran dry. But he takes it better than the other advisers Yasmela calls in, Chancellor Taurus and Count Thespides, who calls it an insult to ask gentlemen to take orders from a barbarian and gnaws his own hat in anger.

    The next chapter opens with one of Howard's army descriptions. Yasmela's army has five thousand armored Shemite horse archers, a mercenary of two thousand plus a thousand cavalry, and five hundred knights led by Thespides, and each "wore a lady's token, a glove, scarf or rose, bound to his helmet ... they were the chivalry of Khoraja."
    Yeah, because culture consists of timeless stereotypes, rather than chivalry being a historically-contingent propaganda campaign by the Catholic Church to make warrior aristocrats act less barbaric.
    General Conan is at the rear with Amalric's cavalry reserves, where Yasmela has ridden along on a camel. Conan has misgivings about her presence, thinking she's too soft to fight, an image Amalric finds hilarious. Apparently strapping on a sword to aid in battle is something only barbarian women do.
    Natohk has a horde of nomads, 2,500 Stygian chariots and at his bidding the demons of the air control the weather, the fiends of the underworld cause earthquakes, and he can bring down fireballs.
    Yeah, between Conan and Tolkien's battles, it's easy to see why D&D evolved out of a war game with a fantasy supplement.
    Before the battle, Conan cuddles Yasmela in her tent to drive away fear from Natohk's telepathic intrusions. Once she falls asleep, a Shemite from Sumer whom Conan adventured with in Zamora "before you donned hauberk" tells him that he went off to investigate the tomb from Chapter 1 before the battle... and Thugra's corpse is gone! Natohk is Thugra!
    "Whence came Natohk? ... Vampires were abroad that night, witches rode naked on the wind, and werewolves howled across the wilderness. On a black camel he came, riding like the wind, and an unholy fire played about him..."
    The next chapter is taken up by the battle, where Conan uses a narrow pass to advantage but they're still overwhelmed by numbers and magic. Then he gets one of those outside-the-box ideas of his and orders the spearmen to mount on horses of their dead comrades. "This day you become knights! Follow me to Hell!" Sure thing, Leonidas! Expecting no more cavalry charges, the horde is surprised and routed.
    Natohk now retreats with a demon in his chariot. Conan  and Yasmela chase him to the tomb, where Thugra casts Sticks to Snakes. Then he just throws a scorpion at Conan. Conan throws his sword at Thugra, which goes in his diaphragm and out his back. Even though he's undead, this kills him.
    Yasmela embraces Conan, who says he has work to do. No, she protests, we have to make out right here, for "You are mine! Back there I belong to others, but here I am mine - and yours!"

    I didn't like this one as much as I did the previous two stories. The racist vision of prehistory started to annoy, and Thugra's defeat was anticlimactic compared to a magic-using vampire like Dracula or a modern lich. Clearly, what made the difference between between Howard getting the cover and getting a backup feature was his ability to write a love interest for Conan.

    Next time, it's "The Slithering Shadow".
  • So, the Black Colossus, the first story to make it to the cover.

    It starts with a long, long, long lesson in the Conanverse geography. Looks like the 'verse has everything, especially the things that were not supposed to appear at the same time. 

    For the backstory of the inhabitant of the tomb, I did like the mention of forgotten and degraded cults existing for thousands of years. This is properly Lovecraftian. 

    Now, Shevatas is established as a very successful (and thus not poor) thief, yet here he is described as wearing nothing but loincloth (granted, that was a very fashionable loincloth) and a weapon. Which is what makes me wonder if the thieves in the 'verse normally dress like that while on business? And what do the female thieves wear, then?

    Thieves seem to be very good at gaining an entrance, but not an surviving what they find inside.

    Princess Yasmela is having some annoying night visitor. We are treated - constantly - with the description of how her nightmare makes her twist and writhe her slender body, supple belly, supple spine, dainty bare flesh - alright, alright, we get it already! Really, it goes for on and on and on. Guess that's how one appears on the cover.

    Speaking of the cover - it is indeed quite mild by Brundage's standards. I am looking forward to seeing the more, ahem, amusing ones (as I do appreciate her favourite theme). But it is sstill more explicit than the scene actually found in the story. As I understand, it is supposed to depict Yasmela asking Mitra for help - well, she was actually clothed in that instance! Though she did try to go naked, but her faithful lady-in-waiting would have none of it.

    The Mitra's advice to place the fate of the kingdom in the hands of the first man she met on the street reminds of fairy tales, which is why I liked it.

    At least Conan is dressed in this story. And dressed quite snappily, I might add.

    More descriptions of the princess thinking dreamily of Conan's rough hands. Constantly. Really, we get that!

    After the princess makes him a general, there is a comedy gold moment. 

    "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." - Way to make a positive first impression, Conan!

    The comment about Conan's armour looking better at him than on a king is intended as a heavy foreshadowing, as it is explicitely noted that Conan remembered it. But it hardly counts as we have already seen the "Conan the King" stories. The joys of reading in the publication order

    An off-hand comment about Conan thinking that Yasmela is going tto actually join battle. That is interesting to me as it illustrates his rather contradictory views a women. He is delinitely a womanizer and seems to think of the most women he encounters as of whores for him (granted, that might have a lot to do with the kind of women he encounters) but at the same time appears to have no doubt that women are as capable of fighting as men. Not exactly a "stay in the kitchen" guy, although definitely a "go to bed". Considering the times it was written - intresting.

    The final encounter was indeed very anticlimatic. One would expect an undead sorcerer being more difficult to kill. Guess throwing swords works much better than throwing scorpions.

    The story ends with Yasmela being unable to keep her hands off Conan (really, he seemed much less anthusiastic about all this than she was. Poor guy) while the freshly re-killed undead sorcerer stares disapprovingly as if to say "get a room!"


  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Now, Shevatas is established as a very successful (and thus not poor) thief, yet here he is described as wearing nothing but loincloth (granted, that was a very fashionable loincloth) and a weapon. Which is what makes me wonder if the thieves in the 'verse normally dress like that while on business? And what do the female thieves wear, then?

    Haha, I never thought of that!

    The Mitra's advice to place the fate of the kingdom in the hands of the first man she met on the street reminds of fairy tales, which is why I liked it.

    It sure does.

    The comment about Conan's armour looking better at him than on a king is intended as a heavy foreshadowing, as it is explicitely noted that Conan remembered it. But it hardly counts as we have already seen the "Conan the King" stories. The joys of reading in the publication order

    Indeed. I wonder how much continuity is going to hold up in only the Howard stories. One continuity issue that I remember bugging me is how often a story will end with Conan getting the girl, only for her to disappear from Conan's life without explanation. At least Yasmela explains that she can only have a one-night stand with a barbarian because she's royalty.

    The story ends with Yasmela being unable to keep her hands off Conan (really, he seemed much less anthusiastic about all this than she was. Poor guy) while the freshly re-killed undead sorcerer stares disapprovingly as if to say "get a room!"

    Hahaha. So, did you like this one better than I did?
  • Not sure about whether I like it. I did like the explosition in the beginning, but Yasmela is very annoying and the fight is anticlimatic
  • Another random point - we never learn what happened with Yasmela's brother, even though him being held captive was a major plot point. Poor guy, nobody seems to care about him including the author
  • For once, or maybe twice, I was in my prime.
    I'm going to assume that the guy holding him captive also stopped caring and just let him go.
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Let's read "The Slithering Shadow". Ms. Bondage Brundage, if you please?

    image

    We open on Conan lost in the desert with a kneeling girl clasping his knee. He's in a loincloth again, so it's quite Frazetta, except for the fact that being lost isn't very macho. He orders the girl, Natala, to drink the last of their water even though a bodybuilder needs much more than a small woman. Then they see what appears to be an oasis town and are like "Yay, not gonna die!"
    It turns out that Conan and Natala are the last survivors of an army raised by Prince Almuric of Koth, not to be confused with General Amalric who lives in Koth. Whe Almuric lost, his mercenaries tried to pull a Xenophon but ended up in a desert south of Stygia. Now that's just embarrassing.

    Just inside the gate of the walled town, they find a dead body with no wounds on it, and the place appears deserted. Then as they're trying to find a bucket to get well water, the dead guy charges them and Conan decapitates him. Still unable to get a drink, they start searching mysteriously empty houses, where "This couch is still warm from contact with a human body. That silk cushion bears the imprint of someone's hips." At Weird Tales, even desperately looking for water should sound erotic.
    Then they find drink, as part of an uneaten meal. Natala is being annoying, always "Won't they punish us for eating without permission?" and "Oh Conan, won't they charge you with murder for beheading someone?"
    "Lir an mannanan mac lira!" swears Conan the Irishman, forcing her to sit down to eat and drink. Later, in another chamber, they find a double of the man Conan beheaded, but in a rich guy's jeweled garments. Then a shadowy black monster carries him off!
    The first conscious person they meet turns out to be a babbling Lotus Eater, who hits on Natala and then runs away screaming when they mention the monster. After him, they meet someone even weirder: a Stygian who's not black! Alabaster-limbed Thalis is the brunette whipping blond Natala on the cover. Before that, though, she explains that this city is called Xuthal, an old stop on the caravan routes until the population found black lotus growing in the oasis. Now magic lotus dreams are all they care about, even though a demon named Thog hunts them for food. Conan is horrified, but Thalis asks what the difference is between being sacrificed by a priest and the deity taking you himself. Conan is all "By Crom, Crom doesn't accept human sacrifice, nor does Mitra!"

    In the next chapter, Thalis goes and contradicts herself by slipping down a secret passage with a captive Natala and binding her wrists to the ceiling as a sacrifice for Thog. She strips her and whips her for having the audacity to grab a dagger and fight. Oh, and she's sacrificing Natala because she wants Conan for herself.
    "The whippings Natala had received in the Shemite slave markets paled to insignificance before this. [Thalis'] caress was more exquisitely painful than any birch twigs or leather thongs." Then Thog sneaks up behind Thalis and carries her off screaming. Now Natala is left alone in bondage, her bare toes barely able to touch the floor.

    The third chapter switches back to Conan. He hears Natala scream on the other side of a tapestry, so he tries to charge into the room. Turns out that tapestry was covering a solid wall, and he bounces off it with "impact that would have shattered the bones of a lesser man" - now that's comedy!
    All the noise stirs a score of the Lotus Eaters. Conan slays a couple of them before being surrounded, then sees a stairway and bounds out of the circle of mooks, running into the man on the staircase just as he becomes alert enough to draw his sword and dispatching him. Conan dashes, through empty rooms and apartments with armed men, until he enters one occupied by a naked woman adorned with jewelry lounging on a couch. He's distracted by the sight and she springs a trap door under his feet. He takes falling damage, but not much, because he's "a man built of steel springs and whalebone." Is he a corset?
    Hey, he fell into the room Natala was left in. And Thog is back, "a nightmare shape bred in the lost pits of hell."
    Conan stabs Thog over and over again with two swords, getting deluged with his slime-like ichor. But Thog's wounds knit themselves as fast as Conan can make them, while he gets battered and bloodied by tentacles or scorpion-like limbs. It's all somewhat vague and Lovecraftian. Then Thog either dies or gets bored, vanishing into the distance as an eldritch mist.

    We catch up with Natala when a bloodied Conan saunters back from the fight and cuts the cords binding her to the ceiling. The pair escape Xuthal, Natala filching a healing potion along the way. Out in the desert, Natala puts some clothes on for protection even though she doesn't mind being naked, then asks Conan if he saw Thalis. "She tortured me, yet I pity her." Kinky. Conan says no, maybe Thog ate her. Then she says everything was his fault for looking "long and admiringly at that Stygian cat!"
    "Crom and his devils! ... Did I tell the Stygian to fall in love with me? After all, she was only human!"

    Freeze frame, end credits.

    I didn't like this one until the third chapter. It felt like a rewrite of the Lotus Eater episode from The Odyssey with a demon and BDSM written in for the sake of Weird Tales. Then Howard started writing a mix of comedy and well-constructed fight scenes when Conan tries to race through the dungeon building.
    I'm guessing this story takes place shortly after the "Conan the thief" ones, as he's become a mercenary but is still running around without armor.
  • So, the Slithering Shadow, the story probably written for the sake of getting on the cover, and featuring the most annoying Bond Conan girl ever. 

    Speaking of cover, I've read somewhere that Howard himself was not too fond of sex scenes nor of deliberaly distressed damsels, and preferred the stories without any. Too bad for him that the tastes of the resident illustrator were quite specific and very well known - that is, naked ladies, preferrably in distress, preferrably by other ladies. I can imagine the conversation went somewhat like that: "Look, I like your stories, but the last time I had to fudge in order to fit any naked lady on the cover at all. That just won't do - Alright, alright, I'll get it right next time - You'd better <cracks whip>"

    Anyway, here I thought Yasmela in the previous story was annoying. Enter Natala, upping the bad for annoying to a whole new level. She is constantly complaining, constantly worrying, and constantly getting in the way, making the whole adventure into some sort of escort mission. Conan probably regretted appropriating this particular slave girl. It is amusing to note that Conan himself very much noticced her stupidity during the story and was frequently annoyed with it (grabbing his sword arm? Really?)

    There was one moment when I thought that maybe Natala is not wholly useless. That would be when the Stygian lady abducted her, and she stabbed her with a dagger. However, right after that the only thing she does is cringing in a corner, while an unarmed Stygian recaptures her with not even a token resistance. Did she want to get captured or what? I mean, the illustration implies that she did not terribly mind. 

    Moving on. The description of the city itself was appropriately weird, and I rather liked it, even though I can't help but chuckle at the anti-escapist aesop in what is essentially an escapist fiction.

    The white Stygian lady was probably there because of the author's own aesthetic preferences, however, it is not without certain historical parallels. She explains that she does not look like other Stygians because she comes from the ruling dynasty, which might be taken as a parallel to the Ptolemic dynasty of late Egypt. That it doesn't mesh with the time period - who cares. 

    As usual, the final peril is resolved through an incredibly contrived coincidence - didn't we see a bad guy suddenly getting eaten by a monster a few episodes earlier? And of course the trap door Conan stumbled upon just happened to drop him at exactly the right place.

    Of DnD themes, we have seen an escort mission, falling damage and healing potions. Also, apparently Conan failed his survival check, being so hopelessly lost in the desert.

    I wonder what made the monster so hungry. In the exposition we were told that it usually awakens, eats someone and goes right back to sleep. Yet in this story he had eaten at least 3 people and enthusiastically groped the fourth all in the course of maybe a couple of hours, for some reason. 

    And yet again Conan escapes a place of great riches with nothing whatsoever. It's about time he got himself some pockets. 
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Speaking of cover, I've read somewhere that Howard himself was not too fond of sex scenes nor of deliberaly distressed damsels, and preferred the stories without any. Too bad for him that the tastes of the resident illustrator were quite specific and very well known

    I hadn't heard that Howard disliked this stuff. His pal Lovecraft obviously would never write a titillation scene: he saw himself as a literary man trying to become as good as his idols Poe and Dunsany. Howard was writing for the market.

    Natala is definitely annoying. Sadly, I don't think the ladies get any better than Yasmela in the next three stories. But then we'll get to "Queen of the Black Coast."

    The description of the city itself was appropriately weird, and I rather liked it, even though I can't help but chuckle at the anti-escapist aesop in what is essentially an escapist fiction.

    Such irony.

    Not going to touch the white Stygian lady (she's mean!).

    Of DnD themes, we have seen an escort mission, falling damage and healing potions. Also, apparently Conan failed his survival check, being so hopelessly lost in the desert.

    Manly men never ask for directions.

    As far as pockets, I'm still assuming Conan is really poor at this point, rather than wearing a loincloth instead of garments with pockets for fashion reasons because he's dumb. Although he did charge into that solid wall...
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Let's read "The Pool of the Black One."

    We're hitting a run of three stories that didn't make the cover. I thought it would be interesting to show you what Weird Tales readers saw in October 1933 instead:

    image

    ... Batgirl's first costume was weird. Well, onto the story:

    "Sancha, once of Kordava, yawned daintily, stretched her supple limbs luxuriously, and composed herself more comfortably on the ermine-fringed silk spread on the carrack's poop-deck."
    Okay, Spaniards on a carrack. This must be our introduction to Conan as a pirate.
    ... and yes, Conan rises out of the sea like a merman and jumps onto the ship. Sancha even asks him if that's what he is. And another pirate asks "Who the devil are you, sirrah?", using that word in its correct insulting sense. He's Conan, of course. He swam here from the Barachan islands and already knows that this ship is the Wastrel and he's speaking to one Zaporavo. Conan gets himself a job as a pirate even though Zaporavo dislikes him (ships can always use more hands). There's some heavy foreshadowing that Zap is doomed to lose everything.
    One of the pirates hazes Conan, who punches him so hard that he breaks his neck against a railing. This is what passes for social skills among pirates, and Conan becomes a respected member of the crew.
    Next we learn that Sancha is a duke's daughter who was enslaved when "Zaporavo tore her screaming from the flaming caravel his wolves had plundered." Slavery is harsh, but she "came to find pleasure in it" because "she was young and vibrant with life." (!)
    Anyway, she's left on the carrack when the pirates go ashore on an island to gather fruit. She sees Conan stalking Zaporavo and goes to investigate the mystery. She has to get "naked as Eve" to swim to the beach, of course. And when she finds Zaporavo... he's dead!

    We flash back to Conan arguing with Zaporavo as they explore the island. Conan kills him, then stumbles upon a walled courtyard. There are towers along the wall, built with "a mad symmetry alien to humanity", so expect things to get Lovecraftian. He sees the youngest of the pirates being mind controlled by a larger-than-human black humanoid, which causes him to reflect how perverse civilized beings can be. He only cites "the cities of Zamora" as a source of this knowledge, so I'm thinking this story takes place before his mercenary career, when he became familiar with many civilized countries.

    Well, this one's going to be quick to summarize. The giants capture some of the pirates and dip them in the titular pool, which turns them into statues. One carries off Sancha and Conan saves her, killing the black colossus (wasn't that a different story?). Then he lures the rest away so Sancha can save the surviving pirates.  Conan kills one more giant, but at this point in his life, that's about the best he can do when facing multiple opponents. It takes the timely arrival of the sword-wielding surviving pirates for him to survive. After several gory fatalities on each side, they retreat to the Wastrel. Throughout the fight and retreat, Conan has been barking orders, and after followting them, the pirates can't object to him making himself the new captain. Mwahaha!
    "Lick your wounds, bullies, and break out a cask of ale. You're going to work ship as she never was worked before. ... We're bound for waters where the seaports are fat, and the merchant ships are crammed with plunder!" he said, and kissed the girl.

    I thought this one was pretty average. After that setup with the non-Euclidean towers and mysterious magic pool, just fighting overgrown NBA players were rather a let-down. If you're going to go down that road, give me a kaiju-fighting Charles Barkley. The love interest is nothing special. But if this is the point in Conan's life where he first became a leader, it's interesting.

    Next time, we'll read "Rogues in the House." That one's gonna be fun.
  • edited 2014-05-24 22:38:46
    Conan's social skills are not limited to punching. He effortlessly wins over the crew and implies great familiarity with specifically how such things are done. He correctly accesses the mood, gets the pirate customs very well, and is actively working to usurp the place of the captain. And he knows very well in which circumstances fighting him for it would be acceptable to the crew andd in which it isn't.

     "Conan, indeed, gave him no provocation. He mixed with the crew, lived and made merry as they did. He proved himself a skilled sailor, and by far the strongest man any of them had seen. He did the work of three men, and was always first to spring to any heavy or dangerous task. His mates began to rely upon him. He did not quarrel with them, and they were careful not to quarrel with him. He gambled with them, putting up his girdle and sheath for a stake, won their money and weapons, and gave them back with a laugh. The crew instinctively looked toward him as the leader of the forecastle. He vouchsafed no information as to what had caused him to flee the Barachas, but the knowledge that he was capable of a deed bloody enough to have exiled him from that wild band increased the respect felt toward him by the fierce Freebooters. Toward Zaporavo and the mates he was imperturbably courteous, never insolent or servile." 

    Did he actually learn some manners?
    That is interesting in comparison with the naive young Conan in the Tower of the Elephant who does not understand such games and old Conan from his time as a king who probably understands them, but holds them in disdain
    Sancha is much less annoying than the previous two love interests, though rather unimpressive. But the plot focuses on her lusting for Conab/bugging him much less. At the beginning I thought she would have some potential, as she is described as someone successfully adapted to a harsh life, who managed to secure herself a comfortable enough existence anyway, so I did expect her to keep her wits about her. But that's not what happened, and during the dangerous parts of an adventure Conan has to shake her to her senses and push her into right direction before she might be useful. 
    The story itself seems rather unfinished - an unstarted, for that matter. We never got any exposition on what the heck was going on on the island. We don't even get the name for the race of antagonists. Who they were, what exactly they were doing, why - it is never even hinted at. Zaporavo initially "desired to learn if this island were indeed that mentioned in the mysterious Book of Skelos, whereon, nameless sages aver, strange monsters guard crypts filled with hieroglyph- careen gold." Well, was it? We have seen no crypts and have no idea if it is even connected.
    Some interesting realism in the writing, as, while taunting the bad guys in order to draw them away, Conan composed a clever plan involving the ledge of the coutryard they were fighting at. A lott of attention is drawn to it, describing how the monsters underestimated their opponent and thought they are about to corner him while actually he has moved there deliberaly and is about to do something clever... only for the ledge to prove unstable and the clever plan to fail.
  • And, blast it, I still have no idea about the formatting on this board
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    You summarized Conan's social skills better than I did. After being a naive loner in the thief stories, he can now effortlessly win over rogues, if not respectable people.
    Yeah, Howard has Zaporavo drop that line about the island of guarded crypts from the Book of Skeletor. Finding it seems like it would have made a better Weird Tales plot than fighting an unnamed race that turns people into statues for no reason.
  • Oh yes, it would devinitely make a better plot.

    Also, it seems that Sancha was naked during all the events on the island. I mean, it is mentioned that she undressed to swim ashore and it is never mentioned that she got any sort of clothes back there. Now, this is not surprising considering the genre, what is surprising is that it is not really drawn attention to, while in the previous story the author could not even describe a furniture without making it sound erotic. 

    It is interesting to see Conan hving a rather clear level progression. We don't see him level up in the story, but in each one it is quite clear which levels he was gaining before. That wouldn't be pure Barbarian - there are several levels of thief (climbing, moving silently, social skills) and fighter (heavy armor, fight in formation, strategy) too. 

    Oh, and apparently Conan knows ribald songs in dozen languages. Now that's education!
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Let's read "Rogues in the House". This was published January 1934 in Weird Tales, and this cover has nothing to do with it:

    image

    Well, instead of a girl tied up in a dungeon, we meet Conan chained up in one. The back story here is that Conan was the most daring thief in an unnamed city, and he's in prison for killing the priest of Anu who had his partner in crime hanged. Murilo, a young nobleman, has come to make a deal with him because he's just received a threat from Nabonidus the Red Priest "the real ruler of the city." He unchains Conan in return for a promise to assassinate Nabonidus for him, saying a bribed guard will be along soon with a key. But after he returns home, one of his servants reports that guard has been thrown in prison for corruption. Whoops!
    This story is basically going to be a comedy with barbaric violence.
    A paranoid Murilo is convinced that Nabonidus read his mind, and the ability to read minds is why he's the puppet master of this city. Despite this, he hides a sword under his cloak and sneaks up to Nabonidus's house. He scales the outer wall and drops quietly into the garden, on his guard for the deadly dog who lives here. This city must share a mason's guild with the one from "The Tower of the Elephant." But breaking into the house turns out to be much easier than climbing into the tower. The door's even unlocked.
    Murilo finds one of the servants dead, then spies a man in a hooded red robe seated at dinner. The robed figure rises and Murilo screams at the sight of his face... then silence.

    Jump back to Conan. Turns out that the guard's arrest had nothing to do with Nabonidus; he really was arrested for past dealings with thieves. When the honest guard who replaced him makes his rounds, he sees Conan unchained and enters the cell. Conan brains him with the beef bone from supper and sneaks out with his stolen sword. He briefly wonders if he's still indebted to Murilo for his freedom: the answer is "yes."
    Before going to Nabonidus, though, our loincloth-clad hero strolls through town to the slums of "the Maze". He barges in on the girl who sold him out to the law, killing her boyfriend along the way. Once there, he pushes her into a cesspool and successfully escapes in the commotion. Wah wah waaaaah.

    In the next chapter, we learn that Murilo was only unconscious, not killed. He comes to and soon bumps into Conan. They exchange misunderstandings, then tells Conan that when he saw Nabonidus in the house, it was no human figure... Nabonidus must be a were-ape!
    Except then they encounter Nabonidus unconscious. Conan moves to slay him, but Murilo says wait.
    "He has cast off his beast guise and sleeps. Will you awaken him to tear us to pieces?" Conan asks, but Murilo sees evidence that the priest has been out cold for hours. So what's the deal?
    Nabonidus comes to and exchanges icy banter with Murilo over who's the biggest criminal, before they settle on Conan being the most honest man here because he thieves and kills openly. The priest also blames someone named Thak for knocking him out and stealing his clothes. Who's Thak?
    "Some would call him an ape, but he is almost as different from a real ape as he is different from a real man. His people dwell far to the east, in the mountains that fringe the eastern frontiers of Zamora. There are not many of them; but, if they are not exterminated, I believe they will become human beings in perhaps a hundred thousand years."
    Very Tarzan. But what's with the anachronistic knowledge of evolution?
    Anyway, Thak resents his master and has turned against him. So the three rogues in the house team up to get out of the house without getting killed by angry ape strength. Meanwhile, more people show up to assassinate Nabonidus, only to get caught in a trap that seals off a chamber with descending glass walls before killing those inside with dust of the grey lotus, which is even rarer than the black.
    Well, the trio run around but fail to escape Thak, so Conan takes the direct route, making like Tarzan and trying to stab him to death in a wrestling clinch. Thak is going to crush the life out of Conan, who's saved by Murilo stunning Thak by breaking a chair over his head.
    Recovering after stabbing Thak, Conan says "I have slain a man tonight, not a beast. I will count him chief among the chiefs whose souls I have sent into the dark, and my women will sing of him." ... I'm laughing at the thought of that becoming an Aquilonian folk song.
    The story's not over yet, though. Nabonidus, being a priest in a Howard story, betrays Conan and Murilo, threatening to pull a rope that will dispose of them in his house's acid vat trap. But talking is not a free action, and Conan breaks the Red Priest's neck by throwing his stool at him.
    We end with some friendly banter between Murilo and Conan, who plans to get the hell out of Dodge. This city is weird, man!

    I think this story is one of the best ones. It's a caper with an ape in a cape.

    I'll leave you with Frank Frazetta's illustration for it:

    image
  • So, the Rogues in the House

    Right from the beginning we get a sense that this story is going to be amusing. Indeed, just how mighty Conan got captured in the first place? Well, he was severely drunk when the guards arrived, and "Waking to stupefied but ferocious life when they seized him, he disemboweled the captain, burst through his assailants, and would have escaped but for the liquor that still clouded his senses. Bewildered and half blinded, he missed the open door in his headlong flight and dashed his head against the stone wall so terrifically that he knocked himself senseless". That is quite a beginning. 

    The story is also amusing because of the numerous unrelated plans running ahead of each other. The corrupt guard gets caught on corruption but not on the plot-related one, the man-ape goes to rampage just as various parties try to kill it's master and a completely unrelated team of would-be assassins barges in just to fall prey to the man-ape in quite a jumbled mess. This has a very scenic quality, ith freaky coincidences happening in a short period of time, but also has a weird kind of realism about it. 

    Conan is about his worst so far in this story, killing a probably not quite innocent but completely random man, but the story does a good job at establishing that at least he is still the most honest person of everyone present. The Affably Evil banter of Nabonidus is quite something. I really liked him as a character.

    Conan's reaction to suspicion that Nabonidus might be a werewolf is priceless: "That's evident. Everyone knows there are men who take the form of wolves at will." Yes, that's Conan for you - taking weird things in stride as if they are supposed to happen.

    Interesting to note that Nabonidus displayed an odd pride at the cleverness of his rebellious pet. As Thak is about to close a trap, Nabonidus is exited "He remembered!" Nabonidus was exulting. "The beast is half a man! He had seen the doom performed, and he remembered! Watch, now! Watch! Watch!"

    So, apparently, the characters share the opinion that the defining characteristic of a human is an ability to use tools, in this instance, traps.

    Lots of use of furniture in combat, in purposefully and ironically anticlimatic ways. Conan is only able to prevail over Thak because a side character who is not half as good a fighter as any of them manages to strike Thak over the head with a chair. Then, Conan disposes of Nabodinus with a chair mid-monologue.

    Talking is indeed not a free action, and I liked how the stupidity of gloating and explaining to the heroes just how they are doomed is lampshaded. The only way it could possibly be lampshaded further would be if Conan killed the treacherous priest by hurling a lampshade. 

    Hmm, so Conan would bide his women to sing about this episode. First, I wonder which women he is talking about, as at this point of the story he doesn't have any except the one he dumped into a cesspool for selling him out to the guards, and she probably doesn't count. And second, I wonder if he actually got his Aquilonian harem sing about it later, and if yes, did it include knocking himself senseless by running into a doorframe, cleaving skulls with beef bones and sidekicks hitting ape-man over the head with a chair. 

    Anyway, this is one of the most entertaining Conan stories so far. It is strange that Howard seems to be better at urban stories so far rather than the ones set in the wilderness. 
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    This is the second time we've seen Conan run into a stone wall for laughs. He has a high Constitution score.

    I do like how this story consists of one damn thing coincidentally running ahead of another, and how Murilo assumes Nabonidus must be a sorcerer using telepathy. Then he thinks he's a werewolf. I like it when a fantasy setting is complex enough to include false beliefs about the supernatural.

    This does show Conan at his worst so far. That girl's paramour never really did anything, and killing him wasn't even funny like the furniture kills at the end. And yeah, the characterization of the other rogues is interesting. "That's my Thak!"

    First, I wonder which women he is talking about, as at this point of the story he doesn't have any except the one he dumped into a cesspool for selling him out to the guards

    Conan the thief was not good with women. I like how he only becomes the irresistible hunk later, even though Howard had to sacrifice the bonus pay for a cover story when he didn't pander to Ms. Brundage's interests.

    Howard was definitely better at writing urban than wilderness adventures for Conan. It ends up being both a source of character complexity - Conan is a barbarian who really prefers civilization - and a flaw. Howard never actually depicts Conan's savage childhood, nor does he have him reflect on which societies he likes better than others on his travels, both things Burroughs had done for Tarzan. So in some ways Conan will always come across as shallower than his inspiration.
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    All right, next story is "Iron Shadows in the Moonlight". It was published in the April 1934 issue of Weird Tales:

    image

    We start with a damsel named Olivia being distressed by Shah Amurath. He boasts of having slain the troublesome Kozaks, when suddenly their last survivor, Conan, bursts in. And he's "naked but for a girdled loincloth" again. Amurath is quickly dispatched in a sword fight, even though he was in a helmet and mail. Then Conan walks to the water's edge and is about to take off when Olivia insists he take her with him.
    "I am called Olivia. I was his captive. I ran away. He followed me. That's why he came here. Oh, do not leave me here! His warriors are not far behind him. They will find his corpse—they will find me near it—oh!" She moaned in her terror and wrung her white hands.
    He stared at her in perplexity.
    Oh Conan, what happened to your social skills? Well, Olivia tells him that she's a princess of Ophir whose father sold her to a Shemite chief when she wouldn't marry a prince of Koth. She was given as a gift to Amurath, so here she is. Conan is all "we noble savages don't sell our children." Then they banter about where the heck they're going on the sea.
    "If we make the steppes, we shall not starve. I was reared in a naked land." That explains your fashion sense. Then they find a mysterious island, and they haven't gone far when a parrot comes up and cries "Yagkoolan yok tha xuthalla!" Uh oh, that's going to turn out to be a prayer to a Great Old One, right?
    After eating fruit, they find a huge stone that someone or something threw into a tree. Too big for a man, and why would there be catapults on a deserted island? OooOooh...
    Then they find the ruins of a stone temple full of iron statues, when not even legend speaks of this island ever holding a city. Oh, and turns out they have to spend the night in this spooky building, because strangers are poking around in a sailing ship.

    Now things get bizarre. Olivia dreams that the statues had been living men, black men with "not negro" faces (???) who sacrificed a captive prince and were punished for it by his divine ancestor, who came down and transformed them with a cry of "Yagkoolan yok tha xuthalla!"
    Olivia screams and runs out of the ruins. Conan follows, grabbing her arm and asking what the heck is going on. She gets Conan so riled up that his superstitious barbarian mind wants to leave the island even though there's no evidence that the statues are coming alive. First though, that ship from earlier disgorges 70 pirates! Conan asks to join their "Red Brotherhood", but their captain is Sergius, an old enemy of his. Whoops!
    It's OK though, Conan kills Sergius in a fair duel. So he gets to be captain now, right? Wrong: a pirate hits his head with a rock and Conan falls "as a tall tree falls to a woodsman's ax", all Homeric like. Then the pirates play Rules Lawyer over whether killing the captain makes one captain only after being officially inducted. They bind Conan's naked limbs and carry him off to the ruins. Wrong sex if you want to get the cover, Bob.
    Olivia watches this from her hiding place and is sad.

    In the next chapter, Olivia tries to overcome her delicate upbringing to sneak up on the pirates and rescue Conan. She comes upon the ruins at sundown, finds the pirates already sleeping, and unties Conan's arms. They flee the pirates and statues, only to run into... a silverback gorilla?!
    Good grief, is this a D&D wilderness crawl?
    Conan severs one of the gorilla's mighty arms between shoulder and elbow, but the other grabs his hair and tries to break his neck. He's only saved by his steel neck muscles (and whale bone vertebrae?). The gorilla goes down to rapid sword thrusts in his abdomen before he can kill Conan with another wrestling move. And that's the first time we've seen Conan pull a Tarzan without someone else hitting the ape with furniture.
    Suddenly they hear screams coming from the ruins!

    The story ends with Conan and Olivia standing on the bow of the ship as 44 pirates come running up, crying that their fellows were killed by living statues. And that's how Conan became a pirate captain.
    "And what of me, sir?" Olivia asked. 
    "I'll make you Queen of the Blue Sea! Cast off there, dogs! We'll scorch King Yildiz's pantaloons yet, by Crom!"

    Huh. This felt like a retread of "The Pool of the Black One" with a more competent girl.

    Next time, we'll read "The Frost Giant's Daughter."
  • I rather liked that story, because for once we get a decent Bond Conan girl. Olivia is not a badass, but she is not annoying in a "girly" way - she needs protection more because she is a civillian unused to fighting than because she is a girl specifically. When we meet her she is in the middle of an escape attempt - that it would have failed if not for Conan is irrelevant, as at least it shows her being proactive, and besides, it was not because it was a bad idea - it's just the other horse was faster. Olivia also takes much more time to fall for Conan than Yasmela, and is much less annoying about it. Plus, she gets to help Conan out. So, yes she is fearful and not a fighter - as most people would be - but she can take charge of her fate, take chances, keep her wits about her and overcome her fear if needed.

    The "scary" parts of the story had so much potential that just never been realized. From that parrot to the overall atmosphere of creepiness over the ruins. I even liked that the statues ended up attacking the random and vaguey hostile NPCs, giving the sense that our protagonists narrowly escaped something very bad. But I guess it's just the very idea of the statues is not very scary. Some sort of undead might have worked better, I'd think.

    Still, it is amusing that the monster that the story is named for only gets an appearance off-screen, while the actual fight with the gorilla is more like a random encounter.

    I do wonder where the hay Kozaks fit in th verse' geography.

    The main theme of this story seems to be Conan as a Noble Savage archetype. The story focused quite a lot on how distasteful, corrupt and cruel the civilization is (with a mistreated slave girl as a showcase focus for it), and how Conan would have none of it.


  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    I also liked this one better than "Pool of the Black One." Olivia is more interesting than... whoever from that story, because we get novelistic insight into her thought process as she tries to be proactive while having been reared without any relevant skills.

    The "scary" parts of the story had so much potential that just never been realized. From that parrot to the overall atmosphere of creepiness over the ruins. 

    This. The Weird element of the Tale was the weakest. For someone who was a pulp writer and not a novelist, it's funny that this is weak while characterization is strong.

    I do wonder where the hay Kozaks fit in th verse' geography.

    East of the "Vilayet" (Caspian) Sea, I think, Same as the historical Kazakhs. The name and Conan as leader of a band of them reappears in a story set around Iran or "Vendhya" (prehistoric India or part of it).
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    This next one is a bit different. "The Frost Giant's Daughter" got a rejection letter from Weird Tales, so it was published in 1934 in a magazine called Fantasy Fan, with Conan's name changed to "Amra" (which fans might have recognized as his pirate name).

    So Conan is the last survivor of a band of Aesir warriors in their battle with a band of their Vanir enemies. He kills the Vanir Heimdall, to find himself alone on the snowy field. Ah, the euhemerism is strong with this one. Then a woman appears, naked but for a transparent loincloth, laughing at him. They exchange banter, and he gets mad when she taunts him:
    "Then why do you not rise and follow me? Who is the strong warrior who falls down before me?" she chanted in maddening mockery.
    So Conan chases her, crying that she can't outrun him, and if she leads him into a trap, he'll pile up the heads of her kinsmen to possess her. So yeah, he's being a barbarian rapist. She cries for said kinsmen, and two frost giants appear. Here's Frank Frazetta's take on that:

    image

    Conan kills them, then pins the girl to the snow, groping and kissing her. She breaks free and gets the attention of her father, Ymir. Yes, the primordial being so great that, in Norse mythology, he's already dead and we're living inside his body. Of course Conan is no match for that.
    Switch to a couple of Aesir finding Conan unconscious on the field. When roused, they think his story is a dream. He starts to agree with them, but sees a transparent cloth. Oooh...

    There's not much plot here, but there's enough Unfortunate Implications to talk about. Who wants to start?
  • i think "sympathetic protagonist attempting to rape a lady" falls beyond unfortunate implications into straight up "indelible black mark against the name of the author" territory.
  • Well, as far as Unfortunate Implications are concerned, it seems rather clear for me that Atali the Ymir's daughter is using some sort of charm and Conan is hardly in his sences. Also, she was leading him in a trap, deliberately, so that her brothers might slay him. He is not as much pursuing a woman as following a siren. 
  • I guess, but wouldn't any sort of charm on her part be undone when she wants it to be undone?
  • edited 2014-06-01 00:38:33
    I think he was motivated more by stubborness and spite at that point. And the early sentenses rather clearly allude to a charm, to a kind of ghost story of a siren luring people to their death. 

    "Am I not beautiful, oh man?"
    "Like Dawn running naked on the snows," he muttered, his eyes burning
    like those of a wolf.

    "Then why do you not rise and follow me? Who is the strong warrior who
    falls down before me?" she chanted in maddening mockery. "Lie down and
    die in the snow with the other fools, Conan of the black hair. You can
    not follow where I would lead."
    "He had forgotten the fight, forgotten the mailed warriors who lay in their
    blood, forgotten Niord and the reavers who had failed to reach the
    fight. He had thought only for the slender white shape which seemed to
    float rather than run before him." This hardly looks like a description of a man in control of his senses. Oh, and he was pretty much dying at that point - I doubt he could follow if not for a supernatural compulsion.
  • edited 2014-06-01 00:39:28

    Hmmm.

    That does kinda explain it, but trying to rape a person out of spite...

    ...on the other hand she just tried to murder him.

    my feelings on this are a very sustained eeehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
  • edited 2014-06-01 00:54:47
    And the final paragraph, that explains what Atali is: 

    "It was Atali, the daughter of Ymir, the frost-giant! To fields of the dead
    she comes, and shows herself to the dying! Myself when a boy I saw
    her, when I lay half-slain on the bloody field of Wolraven. I saw her
    walk among the dead in the snows, her naked body gleaming like ivory
    and her golden hair unbearably bright in the moonlight. I lay and
    howled like a dying dog because I could not crawl after her. She lures
    men from stricken fields into the wastelands to be slain by her
    brothers, the ice-giants, who lay men's red hearts smoking on Ymir's
    board."
    So, she is a supernatural being with magical compulsion, and she does that sort of thing regularly. I coul very well see the Unfortunate Implications in that it implies that women, generally, do such sort of thing and that if a man ddesires to possess her it is because she made him somehow. That is a common attitude today, and yes, full of Unfortunate Implications. However, one can hardly see Atali as a representative of a mortal woman. Again, I think that this story is essentially a ghost story of an encounter with the supernatural. Atali's role is that of a siren, a vanishing hitchiker, a jack-of-the-lantern leading people into a swamp to drown... I think even the sentence about Conan sweaing he'd kill whoever she calls if she leads him into a trap indicates that. For such stories, it is common for people to fully realise the danger, to know that they should not heed the siren's voice, to ignore the ghostly flame, yet they feel drawn on to continue regardless, not knowing even why. So this indicates that Conan is aware of the danger, he realizes that following her is death but he is still drawn on for some reason, as if the common trope for such stories. 
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Well, he was going for something deeper than a ghost story. Atali isn't a ghost or a generic Fair Folk, she's Ymir's daughter. He's trying to add to Norse mythology here, and it's not clear to what end.

    I don't see why Atali would intentionally keep charming Conan after losing two of her brothers in the game. Not unless frost giants are quite psychologically different and unsympathetic. So does that mean he's morally culpable for his actions after that point?

    The way I was interpreting it, which relies on the Dark Horse chronology where this is the earliest of Howard's Conan stories, is that even if she started it with an enchantment, he didn't see rape as wrong. Why not? Because he's living in Norse society, and learned how to care about consent in civilization.
  • That makes sense I think.
  • That would contradict the characterisation established in other stories where he is much more clear about consent from his women thannthe civilized men. He could hardly learn it from them.

    And it might be that she could not cancel whatever she was doing. It had to wear off in time.

    I think that the mere fact of Conan going that far while essentially dying shows a kind of compulsion. He is not normally that crazy, and attentions from women at unfortunate times tend to annoy him. Remember how Yasmela had to throw herself at him and he was like "Ugh, don't we have work to do?". And he was in much better shape at that time.
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    Now let's read "Queen of the Black Coast". We're back to Weird Tales with the May 1934 issue, and Conan gets the cover:

    image

    Conan looks like a silent movie star here. Says something about changing male standards of beauty.

    Each chapter starts with a stanza from "The Song of Belit". I wonder, did Conan end up making his Aquilonian harem sing about his best beloved ex-girlfriend, once they'd perfected the Ballad of Thak?
    We get off to a running start, literally, with Conan jumping off a galloping horse onto the deck of a trading galley. Our scene takes place in Argos, where Conan is on the run from the law. Tito, the captain, thinks he's crazy, trying to join a crew to a destination unknown to him, but what part of "outlaw" don't you understand? Push off, by Crom!
    It turns out that Conan is an outlaw because one of his drinking buddies killed a guardsman for messing with his sweetheart. When they fled, Conan was hauled into court as an eyewitness to the murder, and refused as a barbarian to betray his buddy.
    "Then the court waxed wrath, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown."
    When threatened with imprisonment for contempt of court, Conan split the judge's skull and fled to the docks on the constable's horse. Tito's blase about all this, noting that he's often been fleeced at court in disputes with richer merchants. Now I'm just imagining Tito in a comedy of Aristophanes when Conan bursts in.
    They sail south past Shem. Then they get scared by Stygia even though a gondola full of naked dusky women comes out to flirt with them, because this is the country
    "where dusky sorcerers wove awful spells in the murk of sacrificial smoke mounting eternally from blood-stained altars where naked women screamed"
    I seriously don't know why Howard associated this sort of thing with ancient Egypt. They ended human sacrifice in the 2nd or 3rd Dynasty, 3,000 years before his beloved Celts. Anyway, then they reach the coast of Kush. Only then do we get a good description-cum-background of Conan.
    "Young in years, he was hardened in warfare and wandering, and his sojourns in many lands were evident in his apparel. His horned helmet was such as was worn by the golden-haired Aesir of Nordheim; his hauberk and greaves were of the finest workmanship of Koth; the fine ring-mail which sheathed his arms and legs was of Nemedia; the blade at his girdle was a great Aquilonian broadsword; and his gorgeous scarlet cloak could have been spun nowhere but in Ophir."
    This makes me wonder how many of Conan's mercenary adventures take place before this. Also, "The Frost Giant's Daughter" was the one and only Howard story set in Cimmeria or points north, so if you use the Dark Horse chronology, has he been keeping that Aesir helmet through all his adventures?
    Now they're attacked by the famous pirate captain Belit! Conan requests a bow, humbling bragging that while archery isn't manly, he did become an expert among the Hyrkanians. He sees Belit, but "some whim or qualm" keeps his arrow from hitting her. It hits a black warrior next to her instead. Black guy always dies first. Belit's black corsairs kill Tito with an arrow, then grapple the merchant ship. Conan, the only survivor, leaps to the pirate ship and kills several of them in "the fighting-madness of his race", protected by his armor. So it's a little different from berserkergang.
    Well, turns out that Belit likes the cut of his jib. Or lusts it. By Ishtar, she has never seen his like, from Zingara to the ultimate south.
    this daughter of Shem made no distinction between Aesir, Vanir or Cimmerian. With the unerring instinct of the elemental feminine, she knew she had found her lover, and his race meant naught, save as it invested him with the glamor of far lands.
    Funny that his race meant naught, yet she's remained conveniently single on a ship full of men. She tells the pirates that he's their master now as she is their mistress, then does "the mating dance of Belit" for Conan. End Chapter 1.

    ... ok, let's pause here. Belit is a trope, albeit a forgotten trope. She's a She. Now I don't think H. Rider Haggard was being racist by having an immortal Arab woman ruling a lost East African city as a goddess. Sorcerers being mistaken for deities is a fair trope regardless of the subjects's race (Snorri Sturluson claimed the Aesir were Asian sorcerers who duped the primitive Norse), and Arab rulers in East Africa were a historical fact. But Haggard was publishing in a racist era, and his imitators just took it for granted that worshiping a white woman was a thing Africans would do. This won't be the last time we see a She in a Howard story, alas.

    Onto Chapter 2. Conan has been a-viking with Belit for years now. Hers is the mind that directs their operations, and he's just the strongest arm actualizing her ideas. It's interesting that his longest-lasting romance is the one where he's least dominant.
    Well, one day they pull up to the mouth of a jungle-clouded river that's rumored to have a city upstream. Belit figures it will have richer booty than the villages they've been raiding. Starting upstream, they hear a fierce cry, which Belit calls an ape's. This leads to one of the fun disagreements between her and Conan: she believes that apes are reincarnated wicked humans, while Conan only knows them as sad-eyed creatures that wicked humans keep in cages.
    And then they debate religion. This is one of the best scenes, which I won't even try to summarize. I did just say that Belit fits a racist trope, but you have to weigh that against her characterization in dialogue with Conan, and then judge. Anyway, the upshot of this dialogue for the plot is that she tries to convince a skeptical Conan that the afterlife is knowable because soulmates can still interact when one predeceases the other.
    Suddenly a giant snake carries off one of the pirates. Man, Howard did not have problems with pacing. Conan replaces the dead pirate on the watch, and soon they see ruins of the fabled city. There are no signs of life save a winged creature on one big building.
    "It is a great bird," said one warrior.
    "It is a monster bat," said another.
    "It's an ape," said Belit.
    Then the three of them went off to grope an elephant. Er, I mean everyone cautiously enters the ghost town. Belit calls a big building "the temple of the Old Ones", which can't be a good sign. She orders the four strongest corsairs to lift the stone altar and check for treasure underneath. Conan tries to participate, but she cries that a snake is attacking her. He comes to slay it. The altar rotates and activates a trap that crushes the four corsairs under collapsing masonry. Belit says the snake was a lie: she just wanted any traps to kill henchmen rather than a PC.
    Well, under the trap there turns out to be a horde of gemstones. They can see the ship past a collapsed wall, and the batbirdape has been messing with it. Belit is too distracted by the shiny (due to "the Shemite soul", no less!) to care, while Conan fears that it's trapped them by damaging the ship. He tells everyone that it's destroyed their potable water, a noise they would have heard in time if they hadn't all been distracted by the shiny. Er, so what was the point of that racist aside, again? He leads half the corsairs away to find water while Belit makes the rest load loot. Then Conan separates from his henchmen and nearby black lotus makes him fall asleep.

    In the next chapter, Conan dreams exposition. Turns out that this city was built by a pre-human race of material angels. Then an earthquake changed the course of their river, and the polluted water turned those who drank it into bat-apes. Their numbers dwindled and prehistoric humans arrived, to their resentment. To make a long story short, the last bat-ape is the monster they've seen, and it kills Belit while Conan sleeps. He also finds his henchmen torn apart as if by animals. Making his way back to the ship, he tries to find the corsairs who stayed with her, but they're missing. Also, a pack of hyenas attacks him.
    SPOILER: the bat-ape magically changed the corsairs into hyenas.
    Conan kills hyenas and has to fight the bat-ape. He's totally outclassed, and is about to die when... Belit's spirit appears! She frightens it long enough for Conan to win the fight.

    The story ends with Conan giving Belit a viking funeral and traipsing inland to find a new place to stay.

    This is actually one of my favorite Conan stories. There's some essential racism, yes, but it has interesting dialogue and is one of the most effective at creating a prehistoric mood rather than Anachronism Stew.
  • That is indeed an interesting story, and Belit is rather hard to peg to "okay/not okay" as far as implicatins are concerned. A white queen of a black tribe, a "Shemite soul" and so on - that is more than a little racist. Also, the way she is Stuffed into the Fridge just to give Conan some motivation for revenge is problematic. However, she is the first Action Girl we see in the series. While she falls for Conan immediately, she remains the one in command. And she has much more interesting things to say than most of the characters, male or female, so far. Also interesting that an Action Girl pirate captain seems to be the only girl Conan himself fell for - his relationship with her goes a lot deeper than with his usual Bond girls. 

    This story also feels longer than it is, due to some very different encounters, some sweeping lessons in geography, contemplative dialogue amid action scenes and the action scenes happening in wastly different places and circumstances. And that city was downright creepy, and just waiting to be inserted into some DnD adventure.

    Hehe, I can just imagine Conan's harem singing about that. So that's what you do with so many girls - organise a choir!

    Speaking of helmet - the early Marvel comics depict Conan always wearing the same (rather silly) horned helmet to go with the loincloth. 
  • "It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected.... Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him." -- Charles Dickens
    I don't see how Women in Refrigerators is a mark against this. That term comes from serial fiction like comics and TV, when a writer tries to fix a perceived narrative lull by having a male protagonist's love interest killed in order to create a revenge plot. Belit was created for this story and there was no revenge: it was more Survival Horror as Conan was trapped with her killer.
    I think using that term every time a hero's wife/girlfriend dies will only encourage shallow writing. Discovering why Conan and Belit aren't a couple in future stories was a big step up from the cast of disappearing Bond girls.
    And yes, she's dominant and has better dialogue than almost any other character. Some of what she says is tightly woven into the plot, too. If Conan the skeptic had been the one killed instead, would she have gotten supernatural aid?

    The city was creepy, yes. It's mysterious and dangerous, but with enough consistent details that you can get a sense of the Old Ones's character.

    The Marvel comics did that? Yeesh, reminds me of The Eye of Argon describing the barbarian hero in a tavern "naked save for a loincloth, thick leather sandals, and an iron horned battle helmet."
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