The Chronicles of Conan
The Dweller in the Pool
And Other Stories
By 1974 it was pretty obvious to the Marvel Corporation that with Conan the Barbarian they had a tiger by the tail and an enormous hit on their hands. As a result, they were keen to tell some of the Cimmerian’s later-life adventures. Indeed, they had already been tentatively doing so with the first five issues of the black & white magazine Savage Tales. Now they offered Roy Thomas the chance to start up a brand new bi-monthly b & w non-Comics Code title and he was quick to grab it, christening it The Savage Sword of Conan.
However, due to scheduling difficulties that I won’t go into, the first issue – rather than relating a tale from later in Conan’s career – followed on from the monthly comic’s Night of the Gargoyle in issue #42. Conan is still in Arenjun’s Maul district and in Savage Sword’s inaugural outing he finds himself once more teamed with Red Sonja in Curse of the Undead-Man. This was the first part of a trilogy that featured the flame-haired, steel-bikini-clad, ‘She Devil with a Sword’; but due to copyright difficulties, Dark Horse Books were unable to reprint it. As a result, Volume 7 opens with issues #43/#44 of the monthly comic-book and a two-part story traveling under the seriously dodgy titles of Tower of Blood and Of Flame and the Fiend.
We open on Conan and Red fleeing from the City of Thieves, pursued by some bounty hunters since Sonja has a price on her head. (Don’t ask. Needless to say, it involved stabbing some mad fool who had thought it was a good idea to try to interest her in the One-Eyed Trouser Snake.)
They end up in a strange valley which is ruled over by vampire-like siblings, Morophla –yeah, I know—and Uathacht, who has the not-inconsiderable saving grace of being drawn to look like Lauren Bacall. Now, that I can live with. The artwork also shows up Red Sonja to advantage and there are some really tasty depictions of the crimson-tinged valley. Apart from that though, this is a rather cheesy outing, ‘freely based’ on a story by David A. English that Thomas liked for reasons that I don’t quite get.
One disturbing sequence in it involves a sort of hideous ‘rape of Conan’ by which he is forcibly made to impregnate several pathetic, quasi-demonic looking creatures. I really could have done without this; and so could Conan.
As with Red’s last outing in The Song of Red Sonja (#24), this sad little saga ends with her braining the Cimmerian once again, proving that some barbarians never learn. She then rides off into the sunset—and incidentally, come 1977, her own comic book; proving that Marvel never saw a vein of gold that it left untapped.
A Thoroughly Modern Hyborian Family
The Last Ballad of Laza-lanti (#45) just gets to me. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I find it moving in the extreme; and incidentally I’ve never thought that Roy Thomas gave himself enough credit for his original stories, of which this is one (although he does utilize poetry from Robert E. Howard).
It has a memorable opening, in which Conan is once more in Zamora’s city of Shadizar the Wicked. He is in a tavern, thinking of Sonja and at that maudlin stage of drunk where if you put on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s classic song ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ then a little tear will trickle from your eye. Ahem. Or so they tell me.
Anyway, what Conan is actually listening to is a ballad that includes the lines:
At birth a witch laid on me monstrous spells,
And I have trod strange highroads all my days,
Turning my feet to gray, unholy ways.
I grope for stems of broken asphodels;
High on the rim of bare, fiend-haunted fells,
I follow cloven tracks that lie ablaze,
And ghosts have led me through the moonlight’s haze
To talk with demons in their granite hells.
There is a terrific fifth panel from John Buscema on page two which shows the big lunk sitting there, chin on hand and with a sozzled, faraway-look on his face as he listens to the young balladeer, Laza-lanti. I like this because in the opening scene of Robert E. Howard’s very first Conan short story, the Cimmerian is shown as a man who has a real weakness for minstrel songs. Unfortunately in this rough house he is just about the only one with any kind of musical taste and there follows a skull-crunching fight which lands both warrior and minstrel in jail.
Conan decides to accompany his new young friend across the border into Koth, to where the lad was born – in a land called Dark Valley.[Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard is the title of a so-called biography of the Texan by L. Sprague de Camp, Catherine Crook de Camp and Jane Whittington Griffin. Indeed, the title is the best thing about this piece of pseudo-psychological rubbish, so I’m glad to see some use being made of it. De Camp was also responsible for a ‘seventies hatchet-job on H.P. Lovecraft. With admirers like this, who needs enemies?
Dark Valley is also the township in Paco Pinto County (pop: 50) in which the Howards resided when young Robert was six.]
Laza-lanti is convinced that he is the son of Dark Valley’s sinister lord, but just how sinister he could never possibly guess. And this is where I scratch my head and wonder just how closely the Comics Code Authority read these in the seventies; because they seemed to get bent out of shape over a little bloodletting or suggested nudity and yet this storyline strolled right on past them. Check it out:
Two decades before, his mother had been a dancing girl of Shadizar. Sleeping alone one night far too close to the pre-human ruins on Dagon Hill, she awoke to find herself being raped by a creature out of Hell. And I’m not talking about something that looked even a little bit human – this thing was pure, screaming Lovecraftian other-dimensional insanity: a trans-cosmic, octopoid, gnarled tree-trunk-like entity with two glowing orbs-for- eyes and a pair of swinging antennae-like globes on top of what laughingly passed for its head.
From this unholy union, twins are born – one of them being our travelling minstrel-boy. However, he doesn’t find out that this is his father (well, you couldn’t exactly say that there’s much of a family resemblance) until he has killed him. Actually, he does this by cutting off those balls on top of the head in an act of symbolic, patriarchal castration if ever there was one.
But wait! There’s more! Twenty years before, after the happy event of the birth didn’t our Dancing Girl of Shadizar discover that her monstrous attacker was actually the possessor of a beautiful soul and has spent the last decades in love with him; and if you cop that panel on page 11 of the Dark Valley Lord devouring an entire cow, you’ll know that his eating habits didn’t put her off, either.
I have to tell you: I like a love story as much as the next guy; but this one made me just a wee bit queasy.
Yet it’s a terrific issue; as I said before it just gets to me. The plight of Timara, the mother; the dilemma of Laza-lanti; the terrible matter-of-fact depiction of suicide; and the many little touches that Roy Thomas throws in, making me blank out a couple of annoying plot holes. Oh, and John Buscema’s artwork is beautiful.
Thomas also touches on something close to my heart, finally settling on a chronology that I can live with when he writes on the title page that it is four years since the Cimmerian was in Shadizar as a starving thief. So that makes him twenty-two; and if I jiggle a little with a remark in issue #8, that works for me.
And one final, inspired touch: Timara has mentioned that she gave birth to twins. The alert Howard reader will have guessed that the other is Tsotha-lanti, whom Conan is destined to meet more than two decades hence –when he is king of Aquilonia.
I’ve allowed myself the indulgence of musing a little longer on The Ballad of Laza-lanti, not only because it is such a fine issue but also because it was the last half–decent one for quite a while to come.
I climbed the ridge into the moon and trembling there I turned.
Down in the blasted shadows, two eyes like hellfire burned.
Under the black malignant trees a shapeless shadow fell;
I go no more to Dark Valley, which is the Gate of Hell.
Nadir of the Barbarian
I must confess that I’ve had a great time in rereading these classic tales and having the privilege of doing a running commentary on them. And that is why I have dreaded coming to the next six issues. In fact, the last time around I worked out a convoluted scenario (the events of the tale take about a week) by which the whole thing was a fever dream of Conan’s. I found it possible to do this by way of several mentions of dreams throughout the story; and adding to this that there are so many typos, mistakes, characters doing things for no reason and so on, that it was just about acceptable to me.
Let’s face it, though, it was never going to be really satisfying. Barring Alice’s adventures in Wonderland and through the Looking-Glass, the whole idea of ‘waking up and it was all a dream’ has never been in the least bit happiness-inducing.
This six-issue story was not based on a Howard original or even a Roy Thomas outline but on one of the endless pastiche’s that rolled off the press in the ’seventies in order to meet the demand for anything with a barbarian and a sword. You knew that this one was a stinker right from the title of the book by Gardner F. Fox, Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse. Now Fox is of course a pure legend in comics but that doesn’t mean that he should even have attempted to do a Robert E. Howard, as this proved so well. God knows what Thomas was thinking of. Perhaps he was just overworked.
Anyway, the issue titles were:
The Curse of the Conjurer (#46)
Goblins in the Moonlight (#47)
The Rats Dance at Ravengard (#48)
The Dweller in the Pool (#50)
Man Born of Demon (#51)
I have no intention of giving a plot summary as it is just too stupid to spend time on. (I’m still cringing when I think of the villain with the heat vision!) The most annoying thing is that up to this point Thomas had kept Conan’s wanderings as believable as they could be, with a certain logic to the way he found himself in each new country. Here, however, he is suddenly transplanted from Koth in issue #45 all the way up to the Border Country.
The reason for this comes in two panels of #46. First of all, it’s necessary to explain that issue #4 of Savage Tales had him suddenly ride back to Cimmeria on a whim in order to have the adventure called Night of the Dark God. It was one of the crappiest ideas in the colourful history of crappy ideas. I’m one of those who have a timeline for Conan that allowed no return ever to Cimmeria, not with the distances involved. And even worse, Thomas goes on to intimate that Conan then drifted northward again for the events of The Frost Giant’s Daughter!
In fairness, I don’t think that he would have written it that way today when we have so much more information on Howard’s texts – it’s obvious that Frost Giant is the barbarian’s earliest recorded major adventure – but it still galls, mainly because it is all so appallingly written.
Since we’re stuck with this, though, I’m going to make the best of a bad lot here and use this as an excuse to fit Black Colossus and its sequel, At the Mountain of the Moon God (issues # 2 and #3 of The Savage Sword of Conan) into the chronology depicted here. I think that the timeline of most real Howard fans would put Colossus quite early in the Cimmerian’s career, anyway.
So, the recent tales here told would run thus: The Last Ballad of Laza-lanti (CB #45); Black Colossus (SSC#2); At the Mountain of the Moon God (SSC #3); Night of the Dark God (ST #4); The Frost Giant’s Daughter (ST #1) and finally to The Curse of the Conjurer (CB #46) and onwards, as Conan drifts south once more. I can’t say that I’m very happy about it, but it’s the best I can do. If anyone out there has a better idea, please contact me.
There is one nice little vignette here in amongst all this utter drivel and that is when we see in flashback the fifteen-year-old Conan losing his virginity just after his Trial of Manhood. This happens with a beautiful Priestess of the Wild called Ursla, the Bear Woman; and as drawn by John Buscema a young fella couldn’t ask for a better birthday present.
And there, mercifully, I draw the curtain over the very worst volume so far. This reading, though, it’s not quite so bad for me at least; because I happen to know that things are going to get better.
CB Conan the Barbarian
ST Savage Tales
SSC Savage Sword of Conan