Beyond the Black River – The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 7 – Pt 2

Beyond the Black River

The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 7

Edited by Paul Herman

Part Two


These ongoing pieces are overviews rather than reviews and therefore contain spoilers galore



The first two-thirds of this seventh volume contained two pretty naff Howard pieces — and one stone cold masterpiece in the shape of the title story.  Unfortunately, since the remaining two consisted of an oddity and a run-of-the-mill 30s pulp story, the volume as a whole wouldn’t be recommended for anyone but hardcore Howard enthusiasts.

And The Challenge from Beyond is, even within that subgroup, only really of interest to Howard completists such as Your Faithful Narrator.  It is of curiosity value only.

For its third anniversary issue in September 1935 Fantasy Magazine commissioned ten authors to help them celebrate in an unusual way.  Five weird fantasy writers would do a ‘round-robin’ tale and five science-fiction authors a separate one under the same title.

A Space Oddity

The fantasy version of The Challenge from Beyond (which could have passed for primitive science fiction in its own right, to be honest) was penned by C.L. Moore, A. Merritt, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Frank Belknap Long.

It was left to C(atherine) L(ucille) Moore – a pioneer among female fantasy writers – to kick off the proceedings, which she did in a nice little introduction which has a vacationer in the Canadian wilds coming across a curious crystal sphere of indeterminate age and origin.  I liked it and would have enjoyed seeing where she took it; but in the nature of the experiment it was immediately on to A. Merritt who just added a very slight piece of his own.  The light-show reminded me in a way of his famous novel The Moon Pool, but it wasn’t really up to much.

Taking over from Merritt — and with considerable gusto — was Lovecraft, who went completely cosmic on us.  He really throws himself into it and his section is far and away the best, as he draws heavily on the concept behind his The Shadow Out Of Time  — also from 1935 — and even gives a nod to his earlier The Outsider.

Sadly, our boy Robert’s section, following immediately afterward is the pits, the absolute worst; and I can only imagine that he was either simply going through the motions or even more likely, taking the Texan piss. (I find the idea of two such aggressively individual writers as HPL and REH being involved in this nonsense at all quite amusing, leaving aside the fact that they were so deeply loners that collaboration wasn’t really their thing.)

Lovecraft had left the story’s protagonist horrifyingly transported into the body of a hideous alien centipede-type creature, but whilst this state-of-affairs would drive any normal person totally screaming and raving up the walls, does it bother a Howard hero?  Heck, no; a Howard hero takes it in his stride:

“What was his former body but a cloak, eventually to be cast off at death anyway? He had no sentimental illusions about the life from which he had been exiled. What had it ever given him save toil, poverty, continual frustration and repression? If this life before him offered no more, at least it offered no less. Intuition told him it offered more—much more.

“With the honesty possible only when life is stripped to its naked fundamentals, he realized that he remembered with pleasure only the physical delights of his former life. But he had long ago exhausted all the physical possibilities contained in that earthly body. Earth held no new thrills. But in the possession of this new, alien body he felt promises of strange, exotic joys.”

It is completely off the wall; and, wrapping up after him, I have to hand it to Frank Belknap Long, a writer I don’t really care for, who somehow concludes the dismal proceedings with some dignity.

As I indicated, it is an oddity and a curiosity piece only.

Youthful Remembrances; Eastern Delights

In a wonderful scene from the title story of this volume we get a fascinating insight into how early Conan had become known for his ferocity in battle.  Howard is at his best here in this conversation with the Cimmerian, as he manages to combine character development, sense of place and Hyborian history into a few deft paragraphs:

“’But some day a man will rise and unite thirty or forty clans, just as was done among the Cimmerians, when the Gundermen tried to push the border northward, years ago.  They tried to colonize the southern marches of Cimmeria:  destroyed a few small clans, built a fort-town, Venarium – you’ve heard the tale.’

“’So I have indeed,’ replied Balthus, wincing.  The memory of that red disaster was a black dot in the chronicles of a proud and warlike people.  ‘My uncle was at Venarium when the Cimmerians swarmed over the walls.  He was one of the few who escaped that slaughter.  I’ve heard him tell the tale, many a time.  The barbarians swept out of the hills in a ravening horde, without warning, and stormed Venarium with such fury that none could stand before them.  Men, women and children were butchered.  Venarium was reduced to a mass of charred ruins, as it is to this day… But you speak of Venarium familiarly.  Perhaps you were there?’

“’I was’, grunted the other.  ‘I was one of the horde that swarmed over the hills.  I hadn’t yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires.’”

So much for that near-perfect work, Beyond the Black River.

One of the insights that the next Weird Tales Conan story of November 1935 offers is another intriguing glimpse of the Cimmerian as a young buck.  Of course, the first thing that brilliant if erratic editor Farnsworth Wright did, when receiving a manuscript entitled The Man-Eaters of Zamboula, was to change it to the totally generic one of Shadows in Zamboula.  *Sigh*.

Anyway, that passage I mentioned:

“’You fool!’ [Conan] all but whispered.  ‘I think you never saw a man from the West before.  Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads  off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string?  Hell!  Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong.  I did that, before I was a full-grown man – like this!’”

At which point you won’t be surprised to hear that the murderous, swinish bastard unfortunate gentleman being addressed thus pretty much parted company with his head.

And why am I not in the slightest bit surprised that a teen Conan could do this to a wild bull?  They bred ‘em tough in Cimmeria.

There were really only three Conan stories that I didn’t care for and this was in third place, after The Servants of Bît Yakin and Queen of the Black Coast.  It’s not that it’s awful; it’s just that it’s such a major step back after the genius of its predecessor.

The Man-Eaters of Zamboula appears from the internal evidence to be set some time after Conan’s stint as a Zuagir leader and trip south to Vendhya.  Penniless and heading Westwards once more he stops for the night at a hostelry in the city of Zamboula, immediately falling afoul of a cannibal cult and some royal politics.

Howard’s depiction of the wild splendour and colour of this Eastern city is what elevates it above the standard pulp story of the time.  It’s also interesting to again see just how savage Conan is when in pursuit of revenge.  Here, his vengeance on one of the story’s villains is every bit as brutal, bloody and protracted as that on Constantius in A Witch Shall Be Born.


Weird Tales had now published fifteen stories of the Cimmerian, starting with his later period as a Western king before tracking back and forth over his wild lives and times as a young thief, a mercenary, a kozaki, a corsair on the Black Coast and a pirate on the Zingaran one, among other exploits.  The readers of his grand adventures now had a lot of information to play with in making up their own timeline.

But things were about to come full circle.

The following month of December would see the beginning of the serialization of the last Conan story to appear in Howard’s lifetime.  This was the only novel-length tale of Conan — and the great chronicle of his triumphant later years as the King of Aquilonia.

Next:  Hours of the Dragon.






Author: Charley Brady

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  1. Kurt Busiek did his take on Thoth Amon’s past. It’s not a bad story but out of place. Basically Thoth was a street urchin suffering under the hands of his drunkard father. When his best friend saves the life of Ibis’s priest (This being a time when Ibis overthrew Set) but doesn’t let the priest see his face Thoth murders him to get his place. He’s seduced by the knowledge of Acheron and begins a bloody rise to power (killing acolytes, even framing his kindly mentor for his crimes when the guy finds out, resulting in the poor guy getting lobotomized.) His best friend Kalanthes (yes the guy Thoth tried to murder in God) is suspicious but doesn’t want to believe his friend is evil. Eventually he realizes a painful truth (he asks his father and his father can only cry.) Thoth initiates his plans to summon Acheron after crucifying Kal, but the ritual goes to hell and Kal is saved. Xaltotun is banished (yeah that’s where it got weird). and Kalanthes flees with the few Ibisite survivors. At the end of the story Thoth is told that his sister (the one good thing in his life as a child, who he promised to find) died in a plague he unleashed……and is completely indifferent. He goes back to planning, any humanity he had long gone.

    It’s a pretty brutal story (Thoth pulls NO punches with his evil) and there is a sense of tragedy (Stygia is actually a nice place to live before Thoth destroys it, and the lobotomization of his kindly mentor was painful in a good way.) At the same time it’s out of place. Thoth is downright scary though (far more than in any pastiche de camp and carter ever did).

    At this point I hope DH keeps going (it’s kind of in an odd place now. It’s at 9500 but it still outsells most of DH’s other brands so they kinda have to keep it) if only for Thoth to finally get his comeuppance (it’s implied that Conan and Thoth had some battle at one point.)

  2. Hail, greetings and salutations to you, Ryan! I always feel it’s a win-win when I get a mail from you as I know that I’m going to learn something. AND you always make me feel that I really should be catching up with the Busiek Conan before I fall off the twig and exit this particular dimension.

    I do in fact have the very first issue here in front of me and notice that it’s cover-dated May 2004. So he is still going strong twelve years on? That’s quite an achievement. It’s also an awful lot of reading that I just don’t have the time to get around to at the moment.

    I’m intrigued to see you mention that he throws Xaltotun of Ancient Acheron into the mix there since I’m re-reading ‘The Hour of the Dragon’ at the moment for the first time in several years, in preparation for the next exciting and not-to-be-missed installment of my round-up of the collected REH weird tales. Xaltotun, Kalanthes and Thoth-amon, all in the one outing? Kind of makes me think of that period in the late fifties when three major names — well, one major and two that were to become so — were wrangling over making the Western film ‘One Eyed Jacks’. At one point a young Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick and Marlon Brando were trying to hammer out differences: in the end, Brando directed himself (and made a pretty decent fist of it); but can you imagine three egos like that trying to work together? No wonder it never happened.

    I’m a bit pissed-off with Dark Horse at the moment. I’ve contacted them twice now to see if it’s OK to use some illustrations from the Roy Thomas/Windsor-Smith/John Buscema run for my book ‘An Age Undreamed Of’; but so far I’ve only received an acknowledgment to say they’ll get back to me. I guess they’re busy folks!

    Thanks again for the mail and stay well…!

  3. Busiek bowed out in 06; he had health problems and DC offered health insurance. Tim Truman took over and was the guy on the main book till 2011 (when he was moved to King Conan.) Road of Kings was ok, but not great. The Queen of the Black Coast was terrible; there were a few flashes of greatness (Conan’s relationship with the crew was sublime and would shut any idiot accusing howard of racism up) but Wood didn’t care about Conan as a character or the stories that came before. Avenger was a well written series but the art was terrible so the readers declined even more. The current series is actually good writing and art.

    At the moment the only stories DH has left is Devil in Iron, Shadows in Zamboula, Drums of Tombalku Vale of Lost Women Pool of the Black One Beyond the Black River, Black Stranger and Red Nails.

    The first two series had a framing device. A Prince and his wazir find a statue of Conan and a copy of the chronicles. The prince has the wazir read them. The wazir is pretty much Thoth Amon (they don’t state it outright but it’s pretty obvious.) It’s implied at some point there was a final clash between them that saw Thoth defeated.

    Truman managed to make Akivasha sympathetic. She’s evil, but a part of her has realized that beauty means nothing without companionship. Unlike Twilight it’s more “human within the monster.”

    I think by 2023 they’ll have wrapped the series up for good. Maybe you can read the series then. One of the guys on our conan forum is pushing 80 and he’s still reading.

  4. Now I’m more intrigued than ever.

    It was a miserable and rainy Irish day here so I finished re-reading ‘The Hour of the Dragon’, meaning that Akivasha is fresh in my mind and I can see how she would warrant a decent backstory. Even in the brief sketch that Howard gives us there is something sad about that character. She’s obviously inspired by Haggard’s Ayesha and the thought of this woman gradually losing her humanity and thinking that an eternity in the shadows is worth it to hold onto her beauty…just sad.

    You say that they haven’t adapted ‘The Vale of Lost Women’ yet. That also interests me for a couple of reasons: one is that — keeping in mind that I obviously don’t know the continuity — this one always seems to me to logically take place immediately after ‘Queen’. Apart from putting him in the right part of the world, his bleak outlook seems to me in keeping with a man who has just lost his great love. It’s certainly Conan at his most savage.

    I know the arguments against this but I still see him in his mid-twenties there, just prematurely soured on the world and taking his first real steps to being the natural leader he was to become. I also can’t understand the disdain it’s held in by a lot of Howard readers. God knows it’s streets ahead of ‘Queen’ which I’ve never warmed to at all — if ever critics were right by throwing the ludicrous claim out that Howard wrote two-dimensional characters then it was with Belit.

    When you get right down to it, I’m really only interested in the Conan of the source texts. Getting into the Thomas series was only because I was blown away by how, within the limitations of the Comics Code of the time, he showed so much damned respect towards his original material. Even down to keeping Thoth-amon away from actually meeting Conan. As you know, they never actually did meet up. Not in ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’ and then he’s only offstage in ‘God in the Bowl’ and ‘Dragon’. Having said that, I would have to grudgingly admit that de Camp did a good job of writing him into ‘The Black Stranger’. But the pure Howard story is still far better — and is really great as a companion piece to ‘Black River’. In fact I’ve always seen those two and the draft ‘Wolves Beyond the Border’ as a kind of Pictish trilogy.

    And the mention of the river reminds me…have you seen the film about Howard called ‘The Whole Wide World’? If not, then you are in for a treat: Vincent D’Nofrio simply nails the part of REH and Rene Zellwiger is pretty great as Novalyne Pryce. In fact the whole thing is labour of love from all involved and even Lovecraft gets a mention. Terrific film. [Come to think of it, I’ve probably gushed about this before. Apologies.]

    Totally unrelated… I was clearing out some old boxes of stuff the other day and came across some great old Howard fanzines (‘Cromlech’ and ‘The Dark Man’). Some wonderful and insightful essays in them. I also came across his Cormac Mac Art tales, set to a background of Arthurian Britain. Get a load of this:

    “‘…most of the chiefs are gathering about Arthur Pendragon for a great concerted drive. Pendragon – ha! He’s no more Uther Pendragon’s son than you are. Uther was a black-bearded madman – more Roman than Briton and more Gaul than Roman…he’s pure Celt — a waif from one of the wild western tribes that never bowed to Rome. It was Lancelot who put it into his head to make himself king – else he had still been no more than a chief raiding the borders. One of your Danes might seem like a gentlewoman beside him. He’s a shock-headed savage with a love for battle…

    “‘Lancelot is a renegade Gallo-Roman who has made an art of throat-cutting. He varies reading Petronius with plotting and intriguing. Gawaine is a pure-blooded Briton like Arthur, but has Romanish leanings. You’d laugh to see him aping Lancelot — but he fights like a blood-hungry devil. Without these two, Arthur would have been no more than a bandit chief. He can neither read nor write.'”

    Wonderful, full-blooded Howard prose that just leaps off the page and would make for a hell of a King Arthur film.

    Anyway…went off on a tangent there. The Conan forum you mention — is that a comics one or does it take in the books also?

    Oh, and thanks for seeing me still in the Land of the Living at 80 — and congrats to your friend. If I do make another 22 years I’m sure I’ll still be reading Howard.

  5. 1.) People dislike Vale because they perceive it as being REALLY REALLY racist. That’s how a lot of people feel.

    2.) The Issue (Sorrow of Akivasha) is great. We see that Akivahsa has come to realize that beauty is nothing without companionship. Yeah she has beauty….but it’s empty. It’s stated THAT’S why she was attracted to Conan. He was full of life and power. She tells the prince her story across time and space. I bought it for the cover (I was 16) and stayed for the surprisingly moving story. It managed to strike a balance between human and monster

    3.) Kurt Busiek and Timothy Truman had a GREAT 75 issue run. Wolves, Phoenix, Citadel and Hour were adapted by Truman. They didn’t do as well but are damn fine (Though hour is a little rushed at the end.)

    4.) Devil and Shadows are the stories being adapted next (Van Lente cut his teeth on a Black Circle Adaptation. It was cut down but still a worthy tale)

    5.) Book of Thoth (the origin story) is divisive in the howard fandom. It freely challenges a lot of it, but on it’s own merits was a downright heartbreaking story. Kalanthes is fleshed out; he’s a child of privilege but he’s a good person (he looks past Thoth’s humble origins and befriends him). His problem is that he can’t perceive evil; there are hints that Thoth is evil but he ignores it because he wants to believe the best. By the time he does it’s too late. When Conan meets him in the series proper Kal’s centuries old but still fighting despite having lost everything.

    In sadder news my grandma just died

  6. So they adapted ‘Wolves Beyond the Border’? I always liked that one. Without Conan in it, there was a nice feeling of expanding the Hyborian world. I’m assuming of course that they rewrote it to give Conan a part.

    One thing I DIDN’T like was that it messes a small bit with my own chronology. It’s due a reread but I seem to recall that the narrator mentions the events of ‘River’ being ten years in the past.

    Anyway, thanks again, Ryan — and condolences.

  7. The events of the fragment occur in flashback. The rest of the story is Conan and Nai (a pict he had an alliance with once to stop a serpent man from leading the picts to war) working to stop another war.

    Basically it’s largely a flashback.

    I was hoping Conan does something like this

    Basically the Lich King was one of the biggest bad guys in World of Warcraft. He committed legions of atrocities and in Patch 3.3 the forces of light besiege his castle. The souls in the room are all the people his mystical sword absorbed. The old man is his father. One of the very first person he murdered in his quest for power

    I imagined that IF DH ever got to writing a throw down between Conan and Thoth there’d be a similar scene. Thoth is confronted by the ghosts of his sister, his kindly mentor and his friend….all the people he sacrificed for his ambition. When Thoth dies he sees his sister staring sadly at him, at which point he succumbs to his wounds and bleeds out.

    I appreciate the condolences. She had a very long life.

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