Beyond the Black River
The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 7
Edited by Paul Herman
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.