Gardens of Fear
The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 6
Edited by Paul Herman
These ongoing pieces are overviews rather than reviews and therefore contain spoilers galore
Weird Tales for August of 1934 was home to the tenth published episode in the life of Conan of Cimmeria, Howard’s most commercially successful series to date. And since I’m that anal-retentive kind of obsessive who likes nice, neat little lists, here they are as they had appeared to this point:
The Phoenix on the Sword
The Scarlet Citadel
The Tower of the Elephant
Xuthal of the Dusk (WT title: The Slithering Shadow)
The Pool of the Black One
Rogues in the House
Iron Shadows in the Moon (WT title: Shadows in the Moonlight)
Queen of the Black Coast
The Devil in Iron
A Note on Chronology
Another thing that we obsessive-types just love is working out timelines for fictional characters, my own personal favourites being James Bond, Tarzan of the Apes and, of course, Conan. There’s just something immensely satisfying when a piece of the jigsaw fits snugly into place.
A glance at the list above shows that Robert E. Howard was here, there and everywhere as regards to what point he placed these, but this was intentionally so. He famously wrote that it felt as if the Cimmerian was standing at his shoulder, regaling him with tales of a lifetime and roaming all over the gaff as regards time and space, just as we would expect such a wild adventurer to do.
Obviously the earliest two pieces — The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel – take place latest in Conan’s career, since they see him as the more mature, less headstrong King of Aquilonia. And just as easy to place are the earliest – The Tower of the Elephant and Rogues in the House – where he is a feckless young thief-about-town.
The fun begins with looking for clues in the remaining six stories, as Weird Tales readers were undoubtedly doing by now. And we know that at least two superfans had probably already started: P.S. Miller and Dr. John Clark, who would later write to and get a lengthy reply from, Howard himself. (Which, in a way, would lead somewhat to a muddying of the waters.)
The readers of 2016 won’t have had their minds polluted in the way that my generation had in the 60s/70s, by being introduced to REH by way of L. Sprague deCamp. And if you have then the first thing to do is to take his timeline and throw it out. Just… into the shagging bin with it! You don’t need it. Use your brain and work out your own; it’s bound to be better than that one.
Clearly *ahem!* my own timeline is the best, and that’s kept safely in my head where you can’t see it; but I have a strong regard for Dale Rippke’s Dark Storm Conan Chronology, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site. I certainly disagree with him big time on at least one crucial point (which doesn’t concern us here) but he has given a lot of thought to his outline and is to be respected, if only for daring to do the sensible thing and place Iron Shadows in the Moon earlier than anyone else did, except my less-than-humble self. It clears up a hell of a lot.
We also agree that the events of The People of the Black Circle took place sometime after The Devil in Iron, a rare example of continuity in the publishing (probably accidentally) – although you will have to use the old imagination to fill in the blanks between the end of one and the start of the other.
In terms of publication People began printing in the very next issue and, since this was the longest story to date and in fact really a novella, it covered the September, October and November issues of 1934.
In the Mountains of the Himelias
I have enormous affection for The People of the Black Circle, given that it was my introduction to both Howard and Conan some 45 years ago. It has stood the test of time and still remains impressive for the amount of sheer hard work and detail that REH put into it. This isn’t just a longer short story but is a complex work, taking into account various factions and juggling with them most effectively.
Conan has now seasoned his leadership traits to the point where he can even unite groups which are naturally mistrustful of him simply due to his origins as a foreigner of the far, semi-mythical North. As the story opens he has obviously been in the Eastern countries of Vendhya and Ghulistan for some time and has rose to chieftainship amongst the hill tribes. As we have noticed before, he is a man of fierce ambition:
“I have been a mercenary soldier, a corsair, a kozak, and a hundred other things. What king has roamed the countries, fought the battles, loved the women, and won the plunder I have?
“I came into Ghulistan to raise a horde and plunder the kingdoms to the south – your own among them. Being chief of the Afghulis was only a start. If I can conciliate them, I’ll have a dozen tribes following me within the year. But if I can’t I’ll ride back to the steppes and loot the Turanian borders with the kozaki.”
Circumstances see Conan become first the abductor of the beautiful Yasmina, Devi of Vendhya, and then her rescuer as he pursues the magicians of Mount Yimsha into the Himelias. But this stark outline only suggests how sure-footed Howard now was as a storyteller. He can summon up a total atmosphere with just a few choice phrases and The People of the Black Circle is a headlong adventure that also has the violent action associated with the series.
It’s also full of those supermacho descriptions that give this reader such a blast. There is blackness that not even Conan’s eyes can pierce; sounds that not even Conan’s ears can hear; impacts that would splinter the bones of a lesser man other than… . You get the idea.
Yet, in a way that I’ve always found it difficult to accurately pinpoint, it feels very different to other stories in the Saga. I’ve seen it compared to the work of Talbot Munsey and I am ashamed to say that, despite having a fairly extensive knowledge of pulp writers, I have somehow consistently managed to miss out on him. Perhaps that’s where the fault lies. And Munsey seems to have been a fascinating man, so it really is a gap in my education that I should address.
In any case, The People of the Black Circle was a triumphant return to form with a series that was in danger of growing stale.
And the following month things were about to get even better.
Harbingers of Violence
“…not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood, restless harbingers of violence and bloodshed, knowing no other path…”
Weird Tales made it five issues in a row to be featuring the giant barbarian by seeing out 1934 with December’s A Witch Shall Be Born.
This is my next-to-favourite Conan story (that one appeared the following year), which may come as something of a surprise to those who think that it just has too little of the main character in it. To me, that matters not a jot. It is a perfect little miniature in which we can examine various facets of the Hyborian Age – and it is now clear that in only twelve short stories Robert E. Howard had built a totally convincing world that years later it would take Tolkien or Martin several volumes and many hundreds of pages to do the equivalent of. The plain truth is that when it came to this kind of saga-making and world-building Howard really didn’t have any equals – then or now.
In his interesting but flawed study Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard Darrell Schweitzer talks of a ‘lack of structure getting out of hand’ in relation to this tale.
It’s not the only thing in Darrell’s overview that leaves me scratching my head. For A Witch Shall Be Born is to me structurally perfect.
It opens with the decent and virtuous Taramis, queen of one of those Eastern Hyborian splinter kingdoms, being usurped by her identical sister, believed dead. And with the flourish of a New Testament name, Howard uses this supremely evil personality to remind us that this Age is a historical prelude to our own. The twin explicitly tells Taramis:
“’Every century a witch shall be born.’ So ran the ancient curse. And so it has come to pass. Some were slain at birth, as they sought to slay me. Some walked the earth as witches, proud daughters of Khauran, with the moon of Hell burning upon their ivory bosoms. Each was named Salome. I too am Salome. It was always Salome, the witch. It will always be Salome, the witch, even when the mountains of ice have roared down from the pole and ground the civilizations to ruin, and a new world has risen from the ashes and dust – even then there shall be Salomes to walk the earth, to trap men’s hearts by their sorcery, to dance before the kings of the world, and see the heads of the wise men fall at their pleasure.”
Although Howard read Edgar Rice Burroughs and is still occasionally lumped in with him, one big difference is that being ‘decent and virtuous’ is no guarantee of being rewarded with a happy life; not with Howard’s bleak world view. When Tamaris is seized with Salome’s approval, this would have been the point in a Burroughs novel at which she would be rescued. Here, it signals many months of rape, degradation and mental and physical torture. For the women in her court it means enforced participation in the orgies of the depraved sorceress.
We then hear from a wounded soldier, Valerius, of what took place after the witch and her lover, the evil and smirking Constantius, took power (this guy literally twirls his moustache; that’s how evil he is!). It is the first of several instances of the action taking place ‘off-stage’ as it were, with the events being described rather than shown.
The Crucified Cimmerian
If done wrongly this could have been disastrous; but in the hands of a master like Howard it gives this extraordinary feeling of bloody scenes almost seeping through on to the pages of history. Later, the major battle for the kingdom will also be handled in this manner.
For now, though, we hear Valerius tell of Conan’s refusal to lay down his weapons and instead to fight as he has never seen a man fight — until even he is overcome.
And it is only at this point that the Cimmerian enters the story proper, with hands and feet impaled by massive spikes and hanging from a cross. Howard paints the startling scene in some of his most vividly cinematic images. With Constantius looking on, this is surely the most powerful sequence in the entire canon. Drunk the night before, Conan is appallingly dehydrated, yet his lust to survive remains unquenchable.
“Curses ebbed fitfully from the man’s lips. All his universe contracted, focused, became incorporated in the four iron spikes that held him from life and freedom. His great muscles quivered, knotting like iron cables. With the sweat starting out on his graying skin, he sought to gain leverage, to tear the nails from the wood. It was useless. They had been driven deep. Then he tried to tear his hands off the spikes, and it was not the knifing, abysmal agony that finally caused him to cease his efforts, but the futility of it. The spike-heads were broad and heavy; he could not drag them through the wounds. A surge of helplessness shook the giant, for the first time in his life. He hung motionless, his head resting on his breast, shutting his eyes against the aching glare of the sun.”
Did I say that this guy was tough?
Even when a vulture attempts to gouge out his eyes as he hangs there, he bites the thing’s neck clean through. It’s this fella those jokes should be about, not Chuck Norris. You know: the dark is afraid of Conan. I’ll just bet it is, too.
Rescued from the cross in a blood-drenched sequence that will leave you absolutely wincing he joins a band of desert nomads and begins to plot revenge.
The third section – ‘A Letter to Nemedia’ – is one of Howard’s effortless strokes of genius: a travelling historian sends back a report on what is happening in the East to his friend in Nemedia, where most scholarship is centred. Set seven months later, it gives us an overview of Hyborian religion and politics, as well as practically drawing a detailed word-map for us. It is exemplary and concise writing.
As to that seven-month interval, though. I’m finally going to have to address the fact that it has always taken a very large amount of belief-suspension to imagine that Conan could have survived some of the wounds he has received; but here we are supposed to accept that, having had huge spikes hammered through both feet and palms, he can walk without a limp and swing a sword again? Just think of the punishment his bones and tendons have taken. Yet he even effortlessly breaks a man’s arm here and grinds the broken bones together. It doesn’t take a sweat out of him.
Well, in my mind I’ve always just assumed that Conan is not just a man with the savage vitality of a Northern barbarian who extols the merits of regular exercise and clean living, but is a mutant of some sort.
No, hold on; I’m quite serious. Such an assumption is necessary if we are to accept how quickly he heals in general – and in addition there has always been something uncanny about his facility with languages. (But there’s another theory there.)
And there is precedent in Howard’s work. Check out the character of Stephen Costigan in that fine novella, Skull-Face.
I suppose by now you’ll have noticed that I long ago lost all perspective on this minor masterpiece and could write about it all day; so I will resist the temptation (a bit belatedly, sez you!) and ask you instead to join me in a month or so for Volume 7. Same Conan-time! Same Conan-channel!
Next: Beyond the Black River