The Chronicles of Conan Volume 13 Heading North: Whispering Shadows And Other Stories Part 2

The Chronicles of Conan

Volume 13

Heading North:

Whispering Shadows

And Other Stories

Part 2



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


Robert E. Howard’s short story The Vale of Lost Women didn’t appear in print until thirty-one years after his death, at which point it was quickly accepted into the official canon of Conan the Cimmerian.  Despite that, it probably remains at worst, one of the most hated of all Conan stories; and at best, a tale which makes a lot of Hyborian Age enthusiasts extremely uncomfortable.

Myself?  I love it!

Told entirely from the point of view of a beautiful young woman, Livia of Ophir, Conan is almost a secondary character.  And through her eyes he is perceived by her to be almost as bad as the savage black tribesmen who have taken her captive. Sexual violence hangs over this piece to an almost claustrophobic extent.  Nor is Conan – at least initially – painted as much of a paragon of virtue.

And why should he be?  Retaining control as war-chief of a Black Kingdoms tribe would undoubtedly have meant a certain level of savagery, which he wasn’t short of at the best of times.  So in that regard it is perfectly consistent with the way in which such a man would in all likelihood have behaved.

I really don’t quite understand the dislike towards the original story – unless it comes from fans who bought into the whole ‘noble barbarian’ concept a bit too much for their own good.

However, here we are dealing with Roy Thomas’s adaptation, The Vale of Lost Women in the November, 1979 issue (#104) of Conan the Barbarian. So, how does he fare with it?

Well, given the content that he had to produce for a Comics Code approved outing, pretty damned well indeed!

Livia and her brother Theteles are amongst a team of…uh, scientists, who have been given dispensation from the King of Stygia to visit Kheshatta, the City of Magicians. (Which reminds me that we haven’t heard for a while from the lovely-but-treacherous Neftha, now King Ctesphon III.)

Captured by the gross and disgusting Bajujh, chief of the Bakalah tribe, she is waiting to be raped by this loathsome creature as soon as he recovers from being paralytic drunk after enjoying watching Theteles being mutilated, butchered and fed to jackals in front of his sister.

She finds herself with a glimmer of hope when she sees the white leader of a rival tribe visiting that worthy to discuss a joint attack on yet another tribe. And her first sight of Conan is excellent:  as he strides through the Bakalah, with his Bamula tribesmen by his side, he looks every inch the born leader that he is.  It’s an arresting image.

Livia rather optimistically offers her body to the Cimmerian if he will bring her Bajujh’s head, only to be brought back to the helplessness of her situation when he tells her:

“You speak as if you were free to give yourself at your pleasure – as if the gift of yourself had the power to swing kingdoms. Women are cheap in this land.  If I wanted you, Bajujh would give you to me rather than fight me.”

For reasons all his own, however, he and his men slaughter the Bakalah tribesmen; but when she sees him approaching her hut with the chief’s dripping head she manages to mount an escaping horse and flees.

She ends up in a mysterious vale where brown-skinned women with the gait of zombies surround her:

“It’s said these women are of a strange race which inhabited the land ages before the coming of the blacks.  There, men say, they turned into white flowers – transformed by the Old Gods to escape their ravishers.”

So far Thomas has been able to effectively capture – albeit in a diluted state — the savagery of the original, but at this point he omits completely the lesbian subtext and simply has the ‘women’ about to sacrifice Livia to a Lovecraftian creature of the Outer Dark.  Conan, though, has trailed the fleeing girl – deciding that to force her to keep her word to him would make him no better than a rapist himself; and he quickly saves the day, before taking her back unmolested to the Stygian border.

This is another good solid issue and probably one that was difficult enough to pull off successfully.  And Thomas is more than ably assisted in the telling by the impression that artist John Buscema appears to be enjoying illustrating the disheveled and scantily-clad Livia more than he did in portraying the grimmer figure of the late Bêlit.

For good measure he also has a very nubile but malicious black tribeswoman visit Livia in her hut, and who seems to have stepped straight out of Robert E. Howard’s imagination:

“The single, taunting laugh her visitor tosses back over her shoulder as she departs, bespeaks more insolence than any civilized woman could have suggested with spoken taunts.”  

For a while now and never more so than during this extended period, Thomas and Buscema had made a seamless team of tale-spinners.  There seemed to be no end in sight to what they could accomplish together.

Avoiding Crow

Now, at this point I thought that I was going to have to eat some Humble Pie.

Whispering Shadows (#105) makes it clear that I have made a very slight geographical miscalculation in where the Bamula tribe was located.  I still assume that it would have been a number of weeks after the death of Bêlit before Conan came into the chieftainship; but that erroneously made me feel safe in assuming that this would have put him across the border into Kush.

Instead, this tale has him fleeing northward for that border after his rule has come to its inevitable end –the black-white divide just proving predictably too much.  So in fact the territory of the Bamulas must have been south of Kush and somewhat to the north of the Zarkheba River, where his she-pirate mate had met her end.

I was just about to put my hands up and dine on crow when it occurred to me, however, that I may have an ‘out’ in a passage from a famous letter from Robert E.  Howard to P.  Schuyler Miller, dated 10 March, 1936 and in which he writes:

“Concerning Kush, however, it is one of the black kingdoms south of Stygia, the northernmost, in fact, and has given its name to the whole southern coast.  Thus, when an Hyborian speaks of Kush, he is generally speaking of not the kingdom itself, one of many such kingdoms, but of the Black Coast in general.  And he is likely to speak of any black man as a Kushite, whether he happens to be a Keshani, Darfari, Puntan, or Kushite proper.  This is natural, since the Kushites were the first black men with whom the Hyborians came in contact – Barachan pirates trafficking with and raiding them.”

So there you go.  That should make it clear that I never made a mistake at all.  Perish the thought.  I was simply speaking as any Hyborian would.

That‘s my story and I’m sticking to it.

In any case, this tale is based on a predictably limp affair with the equally predictably limp title of Castle of Terror from the dreaded (and limp) writing team of L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter; and it is one of those fill-in efforts that I could so easily live without.  This time around, though, because Roy Thomas additionally uses their story in order to help wind up Conan’s stint with the Bamula, it’s actually not bad.

And Buscema does a decent enough job with yet another Lovecraftian nightmare, which reminded me vaguely of the climax to The Dunwich Horror.  In fact, this one is so nasty that the Cimmerian does the wise thing, and stays the hell away from it altogether, leaving it to finish off a group of Stygian soldiers whilst he continues pell-mell for that troublesome southern border of Kush.



Into the  ’80s…

And with the next two-parter, Conan the Barbarian entered the 1980s, having made a very tentative debut for Marvel Comics in October of 1970 — what must have now seemed a lifetime ago to Thomas, who was back then of course working with the rapidly developing artist, Barry Windsor-Smith.  It

This episode was based on an intriguing ten-page draft found amongst Howard’s effects after his death, entitled The Snout in the Dark.  Although brief and rough, it provided a lot of useful information, not the least of which was that this tale took place soon after the barbarian’s stint as a corsair on the Black Coast.  He is even specifically referred to as Amra, the Lion.

The draft was completed by De Camp and Carter; but since this time they had something semi-solid to work with, they weren’t able to do too much damage – and Thomas improves the tale even farther with this contribution.

Issue #106 carries the rather clunky title of Chaos in the Land Called Kush and Conan is really only a secondary character.  It introduces several new ones, though, including a beautiful Nemedian girl called Diana, who has been captured by slave-traders and who is now forced to become a spy in the court of Queen Tananda.

Harshly attractive, this lady rules Kush’s capital of Meroê with an iron fist.  It is uncomfortably composed of a wealthy inner city and a poorer one located outside the main city walls (this is particularly well captured by John Buscema in the lower panel of page seven); and Tananda puts down even the suggestion of rebellion with a ruthlessness that hasn’t exactly won her too many friends.

This comes back to bite her on the ass when her entourage is surrounded in the outer city and she herself is almost killed.  She is only saved by the timely arrival of the giant Cimmerian, who she promptly makes her Captain of the Royal Guard.

And, it is intimated, her lover, something which — if we cast our minds back to The Dweller in the Dark (#12) and the equally vicious Queen Fatima – tells us that this isn’t going to end happily.

Most of the proceedings are taken up with political (which in the Hyborian Age usually pretty much means murderous) maneuverings; and as regular readers will know by now, I always find that kind of thing fascinating.  Conan even deals with a minor uprising completely off-panel and doesn’t really come into his own until the second part, Demon of the Night (#107) in which he does battle with the obligatory Creature of the Outer Dark before reluctantly leaving Tananda to die a well-deserved death during an uprising:

“A moment ago, Conan – true to his charge – would have risked life and limb to protect the cruel, thoughtless Queen he had sworn to serve.  That’s just the way he is.  No use, however, in protecting a corpse. “Besides, Conan is bronze of skin, for all his years south of Stygia.  He doesn’t fool himself into believing he could join the rebellion, or even survive it for long.”  

He flees the city with the fair Diana sharing his saddle, having spent not quite two months in Meroê; but it is safe to say that his presence has helped to change the course, if only in a small way, of Kushite history.



Next.  The Final Volume – 14: Shadow of the Beast 





Author: Charley Brady

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  1. Well there’s also the fact that the Vale comes across as racist. It says “You care naught that a man of your own color has been foully done to death by these black dogs” and “But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man” No offense but the second one especially is really racist.

  2. And no offence taken, Ryan. In fact you’ve raised a point that I’ve expected to come up for a while. Oddly, I didn’t expect it to be THIS story.

    I just don’t see it like that, Ryan. I never have done. Sure, there are stories of his such as ‘Black Canaan’ where the repetitive use of the word ‘nigger’ makes it really uncomfortable for the modern reader. But Howard was a Texan born in 1906, for heaven’s sake. The Civil War was in the memory of his parents.

    I don’t even see the second sentence quoted as racist. In the context of the story that’s the way he would have talked.

    Any quick search of REHUPA archives or the internet will show you a lot of sensitive little souls who actually have stopped reading him when they ‘discovered’ what a racist he was. Well, they can show me a hundred examples and I can do the same to back up my argument. You’re still reading him so I guess that you accept him as he was to some extent.

    It really belongs in another article, but I would have no problem defending Howard in this respect, unlike Lovecraft who really WAS a racist — not that this would ever stop me reading him. No more than I would a great piece of American literature like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ just because it has a character called ‘Nigger Jim’. I mean, this isn’t something utterly moronic like the white supremicist piece of shit, ‘The Turner Diaries’, this is something OF ITS TIME. (And I’ve just realised the trap I’m walking into here. ‘Mein Kampf’ was of its time, also.)

    Howard admired and would travel to see black boxers. He liked black women. When you cut to the chase with Howard, what he had a hang up about was the entire human race. He didn’t like them at all. Count the amount of times he mentions ‘swinish stupidity’ in his stories and letters and you’re likely to run out of fingers.

    For a while there I wondered if I was right in using the term ‘black’ so much; but if it’s used in the stories then why would I change it? In the sixties when I was a kid African Americans were properly called Negroes. Then it became something else. Now I think it’s people of colour (as if I’M not a person of colour — in fact I think it’s bloody racist to call me white! I’m more kind of reddish-pink or something. In fact I’m offended!)

    I wish I could hear from an African American/ black/person of colour reader. I’ve a feeling that we whites get more serious about this than our black brothers do!

  3. I can link you to Charles Saunders. Another site silverkey (run by a white dude) stated that yes by modern standards Howard would be racist but that by the standards of the day he was mild

  4. I just had a quick look at Saunders and thanks for introducing me to him! Especially as Tarzan gets a mention. I’ve always enjoyed Burroughs as you’ll see here:

    I haven’t had a look at Silverkey yet as I wanted to answer you first.

    It just seems to me that we have lost sight of the real things in this PC world. I know I’m not racist and if people wish to believe that I am, that’s their problem, not mine. I just don’t care. One of the advantages to getting older and grumpier, I guess.

    As it happens, I would have a far harder time in trying to defend Burroughs against charges of racism. You could just about get away with it when it came to Africans but there’s no way you could survive what he said about Germans or Japanese. As matter of fact, in the latter case, utterly UNDEFENDABLE. Ditto Lovecraft and his pampered thoughts on almost anyone who wasn’t White Anglo Saxon. And this from someone who loves his writing!

    But REH? I’m looking forward to checking out ‘Silverkey’ (and I DO hope that you haven’t put me on to some Aryan nutcase) if he says that REH was mild.

    By the way, the reason I singled out the witless ‘Turner Diaries’ in my previous comment is because the clown who wrote that doesn’t have the defense of having lived even 50 years ago. He’s contemporary, so where does he even get OFF on calling people of another race ‘Mud People’. He’s an idiot.

    As a general rule, I LOVE freedom of speech; but in that guy’s case I’m really tempted to make an exception.

  5. WIlliam Luther Pierce died years ago. He also tried to backpeddle once Turner was used to justify the oklaholma city bombing

    Saunders likes Conan but can’t help but feel that by our modern standards its racist as shit.
    One of the few things L Sprague De Camp got right was when he said that if Howard was racist than he was a pretty mild one. Another person pointed out that there were few black people in that region of texas so his nuance is more impressive

  6. Shadows of Zamboula has the comments on “devilish hues”. By modern standards Howard could be racist but even than its not enough to shatter one’s enjoyment.

    In the recent Conan comic series Diana (from shumballah) starts to fall in love with one of Conan’s soldiers (the city guard join Conan for greener pastures). He saves her from an attempt to off herself (Tananda is even worse in DH) and helps give her advice to come to terms with what Tananda did to her. They become close and feels organic as a result. They end up having a happy ending as well.

  7. Ah yes, dear old William Luther… I had avoided using his actual name since, believe it or not, I have a hang-up about assholes who think that the problems of this often messed-up world can be solved by finding a few surrogates in the form of, in his case: Jews, Blacks, Race Traitors (always loved that one), white women who slept with blacks. And whatever you’re having yourself.

    Off the top of my head I can’t remember who else he hated. Probably himself, if the truth be known.

    Ryan, the guy was filled with hate. But he WAS contemporary since he only fell off the twig (leaving the world no poorer for its loss) in 2002.

    Here’s one of his rants from 2 years earlier:

    “The feminized wimps need to be removed from our government, from our media, from our educational institutions, and replaced by real white men….That’ll be a tough job….I don’t really care how the job is done — whether the wimps all get machine-gunned and bulldozed into giant lime pits or whether their thinking is eventually straightened out by a program of prolonged trauma and privation.”

    As I said, a clown (unfortunately quite an intelligent one, the worst kind — and a genuine racist. In fact, I’m now tempted to defend even Lovecraft. After all, he was Jew-hater who married a Jew, the lovely Sonia.

    And you’re right: what their times made of people like Lovecraft and Burroughs and Robert Howard should never shatter our enjoyment of their writing. But the likes of that creep? That takes it on to a whole other level that I can never — nor ever –will be able to get my head around.

    Because that bastard was alive in my lifetime. And it really is a world of difference.

  8. By the way, Ryan, here’s one that you might like from the Dark Ages:

    It was around the same time I was writing for the New York Irish Examiner. I’ll see if I can dig that one up. Might be worth reprinting. It was at the time when the High Mighty Wizard of the KKK, or whatever foolish name he was calling himself, was visiting Ireland.

    Later I was told that the Klan had put me on their Black List. After I got over laughing at the irony of the pointy-heads having a black list, I felt quite chuffed with myself — until I found out that about 5,000 journalists word-wide were on it.

    There I was, feeling special for all of 2 seconds.

  9. Cool. Off topic I noticed that people who criticize chris Kyle get a lot of death threats (rhania khalek was told “I hope isis rapes you” many times”. If you look at the fact that during Ramadi the seals killed about 400 or 300 over 24 months. Given that Chris’s official tally is 1/3 of that and he was there 5 months it stretches credibility meaning he either lied or a large portion were civillians in which case Eddie Ray routh did the world a favor shooting him.

  10. Whoaa! And there’s a comment to wake you up in the morning!

    To tell you the truth, I don’t know that much about Kyle, but my gut instinct was that I didn’t trust the guy. I did put up a review of Eastwood’s strangely lukewarm film a few months ago. I think I called it ‘Messiah Complex’ if I remember. Just type American Sniper into the blog site and it should be there somewhere.

    And on that note, I’m just off to meet an old friend that I haven’t seen in years.

    Have a good day, Ryan — and thanks for the conversation; but be careful out there– it’s a crazy world and not getting any more sane!

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