Hither Came Conan: Morgan Holmes on “Iron Shadows in the Moon”
“Shadows in the Moonlight” (editor’s note: Howard’s original title was “Iron Shadows in the Moon”) was the eighth Conan story to appear in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Conan had turned out to be a popular character with Weird Tales readers. The character was so popular in fact that fellow Weird Tales writer, E. Hoffmann Price, later wrote that Conan had saved the magazine more than once.
“Shadows in the Moonlight” appeared in the April 1934 issue of Weird Tales. This was an especially strong issue of the magazine. The contents included:
“Satan’s Garden” (Part 1 of 2) E. Hoffmann Price (cover story)
“Black Thirst” C. L. Moore
“Corsairs of the Cosmos” Edmond Hamilton
“Shadows in the Moonlight” Robert E. Howard
“The Death of Malygris” Clark Ashton Smith
“Behind the Screen” Dale Clark
“The Cane” Carl Jacobi
“Bells of Oceana” Arthur J. Burks
“In Mayan Splendor” (poem) Frank Belknap Long
The 1930s Golden Age of Weird Tales was in full force with the three main first stringers present: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and C. L. Moore. Carl Jacobi, while not a headliner author, always produced good-to-excellent horror stories. The Arthur J. Burks story is a reprint from 1927. Burks was the sort of middling writer along the lines of Otis Adelbert Kline and Seabury Quinn that editor Farnsworth Wright was comfortable publishing. The only real weak story was by Dale Clark. Farnsworth Wright has a penchant for barely competent and unmemorable stories of this sort.
Series predominated in this issue. E. Hoffmann Price had just gone full-time writing for the pulp magazines. “Satan’s Garden” was in his Pierre d’Artois series, where the middle-aged French fencing master battling resurgent Assassins. Price snagged the cover with one of Margaret Brundage’s flagellation scenes.
C.L. Moore’s story was her second appearance in Weird Tales. She has made a splash with “Shambleau” the previous November. “Corsairs of the Cosmos” was the last of Edmond Hamilton’s “Interstellar Patrol” series.
“The Death of Malygris” was one of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories set on Poseidonis, the last remnant of Atlantis. There has been a previous story about the sorcerer Malygris in Weird Tales in 1930.
“Shadows in the Moonlight’s” opening scene has a girl on the run in “a jungle of reeds” on a shore. She is Olivia; cornered by Shah Amurath, who is described as “a tall man, slender, but hard as steel.” Enter Conan: “You Hyrkanian dog!” Steel is drawn and Conan wounds and then butchers Shah Amurath.
Conan has been a fugitive. He had been part of a group of unemployed mercenaries in Koth. They had drifted eastward in no man’s land raiding Koth, Zamora, and Turan. Shah Amurath traps the Free Companions five thousand, with fifteen thousand. The Turanians call the Free Companions Kozaks, which means ‘wastrels.’ Conan escaped the slaughter by moving east instead of north or west. This story is earlier in Conan’s life as Yildiz is mentioned as king of Turan, not his successor Yezdigerd, of later stories.
The Free Companions are an Hyborian Age version of the Grand Catalan and Navarrese Companies who adventured in 14th Century Greece and Byzantine Empire. The literary inspiration is probably Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company. There is a dash of Harold Lamb. Poul Anderson wrote a wonderful historical adventure novel, Rogue Sword, which is about the Grand Catalan Company in the early 14th Century.
Olivia is a runaway slave from Shah Amurath. She is also a daughter of the King of Ophir! Conan scares her at first. They plan to sail north in the Vilayet Sea in a small stolen boat out of Hyrkanian waters. Eventually they will travel west once out of Turanian territory. They land on an island to find water and food. The Vilayet Sea has some islandsof almost tropical aspect.
The island has strange things. First is the parrot calling “Yagkoolan.” Conan senses something menacing in the forest. A massive piece of shaped stone is thrown at them and they get the hell out there. Conan and Olivia find a ruin made of green stone. Robert E. Howard liked green stone a lot. Inside, they find black life-sized statues that appear to be made of iron. They have “cruel, hawk-like faces.” Olivia has a bad feeling about the place and not crazy about spending the night.
She has a dream of black-skinned warriors torturing a blond youth of god-like beauty. The youth cries out, summoning a god-like man who arrives to pronounce a doom on the torturers, who become rows of statues. Olivia tells Conan, who in turn races to check on their boat, which has been destroyed.
A pirate galley happened to arrive, and Conan makes a bold move. Conan announces himself to join the Red Brotherhood. There is a problem – the captain Sergius of Khrosha is an enemy from the past. Conan and Sergius engage in some trash talk, with Conan calling Sergius “big-belly” and Sergius calling Conan “northern dog.”
There is a duel between Conan and Sergius. You know who wins. I was thinking of the fight between Captain Peter Blood and Lavasseur from Captain Blood, but Howard does a far better job than Rafael Sabatini in this instance.
A stone from a sling hits Conan in the head knocking him out. The pirates argue over Conan’s fate while Olivia watches from a hidden spot. The pirates party at the ruin with Conan tied up. Olivia sneaks in and helps Conan escape. The escape is not easy. It turns out what threw the stone and destroyed their boat was one of the man-eating gray apes that Robert E. Howard liked to use. There is an epic fight between ape and Conan.
No sooner does Conan deal with the ape when they hear a commotion of fighting at the ruins. The next morning the surviving pirates find Conan on their ship. They agree he is now the leader.
Howard sprinkles some information about the Hyborian Age in this story. Sergius is from Koth. Ivanos the Corinthian is the only character from that nation I can think of in the Conan stories. The name is a Howard creation, the get the feel of the mix of Greek and Slav. Sergius was a name for more than one medieval Duke of Naples and Byzantine patriarchs. The name gives Koth a Byzantine aspect while Ivanos gives Corinthia a Serbian or Balkan feel.
The story compares well to Price’s “Satan’s Garden.” Price said of his later Pierre d’Artois stories: “I see these as mass meat-cutting, mechanized mayhem, in the trashiest ‘thrilling’ stuff of the early 1930s. For good measure, these were laboriously over-written.”
I sat down and re-read the first third of “Satan’s Garden. Price did overwrite. He could write a good action scene when he wanted, but those scenes were buried amidst the talk. Price lacked the efficiency of Robert E. Howard. On the other hand, Edmond Hamilton’s “Corsairs of the Cosmos” has little description and no atmosphere. Howard could achieve a balance few could.
“Shadows in the Moonlight” has a lot going for it. You have the start to the story with Conan on the run. Pirates, man-eating apes, Hyrkanians, and a very well done supernatural menace. Action is present but not overpowering. The story was deemed a good introduction to Conan by L. Sprague de Camp to include it in Swords & Sorcery (Pyramid Books) in 1963. “Shadows in the Moonlight” was probably the first Robert E. Howard story for some readers. It is a classic anthology containing a classic story.
From the Dusty Scrolls (Editor comments)
Olivia is one of the helpless maidens that appear throughout the Conan Canon. She could have been a character of substance, overcoming her brutal circumstances, but seems to just be present so Conan has a frightened maiden handy.
Conan starts the story as a failed army leader. He slays a powerful monster and escapes death from god-cursed creatures. And finishes as the captain of a band of pirates. There’s a lot packed in this story!
Leonard Carpenter’s Conan the Renegade is set between “Shadows in the Dark” and ‘Shadows in the Moonlight” (it was very shadowy during this period). In that novel (one of the better Tor pastiches), Conan takes command of the Free Companies. Which, unfortunately, leads to his disastrous defeat near the banks of the Ilbars River.
L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter’s “The Castle of Terror” pastiche is pretty similar to this story. I think it’s one of the better ones they wrote.
Arthur J. Burks was (not really arguably) the leading writer of pulp aviation stories. Dale Clark appeared in the legendary Black Mask over forty times with his detective tales.
Dark Horse issues 22 through 25 covered “Iron Shadows in the Moon.” I like the preceding and following issues, which expand the story line “around Iron Shadows.”
It was the story for Issue 4 (February, 1975) of The Savage Sword of Conan.
Prior Posts in the Series:
Here Comes Conan!
The Best Conan Story Written by REH Was…?
Bobby Derie on “The Phoenix in the Sword”
Fletcher Vredenburgh on “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”
Ruminations on “The Phoenix on the Sword”
Jason M Waltz on “The Tower of the Elephant”
John C. Hocking on “The Scarlet Citadel”
Up Next Week: Jason Durall looks at “Xuthal of the Dusk/The Slithering Shadow”
Morgan Holmes has been called the world’s greatest expert on sword and sorcery. He is the former official editor of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association. He has been published in The Cimmerian, Robert E. Howard: Two Gun Raconteur, The Robert E. Howard Companion, The Dark Man journal, and Blood N’Thunder among other publication. By day he is a podiatrist who battles toenail fungus and by night investigates obscure sword and sorcery. He blogs at Castaliahouse.com.
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He also organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V and VI.
And he will be in the anthology of new Solar Pons stories coming this year.
Off topic: I purchased Sprague de Camp’s (Conan pastiche writer) copy of In Mayan Splendor. Enclosed unknown to most (De Camp’s collection had been picked over by that time) was an index card from Jim Turner then editor of Arkham House to Sprague about Frank Belknap Long who was still living. Alas mors vincit omnia.
Somewhat on topic: I came across this story in the Dark Horse reissue collection of the Savage Tales magazine. Why create new Conan stories when Robert E. Howard’s were so excellent. Mine that vein till it runs dry.
I’ll confess, this is one Conan story that never really rang with me – even in comics adaptation. It’s good, REH was alwasy Blood ‘n Thunder, but seems like a half formed idea.
In comparison I like far better “The Devil in Iron” of similar theme – Island, damsel in distress for Brundage Cover fodder, Conan being pursued by people who want to kill him – justified perhaps but they are bad guys, supernatural menace.
BTW – I thought by the list we were going to do “Black Colossus” this week?
To his credit, Morgan doesn’t even pretend this is the best Conan story, even while he extols it as having “a lot going for it” and “a good introduction to Conan.” Which perhaps hits on its real value in the corpus; this is a Conan sampler. Free company? Check. Duels? Check. DiD? Check. Supernatural menace? Check. Giant ape? Check. Pirates? Check. So what’s not to love? Who cares if the supernatural menace scrapes from the bottom of the barrel? Who cares if the plot is less than tight, and more the one damn thing after another? It checks the boxes, man! This is your intro, and if you like what’s here you can find a more worked up version of each detail in another Conan tale. So drink up!
The thorough comparison with the other contents of the Weird Tales issue in which the story first appeared is a typical (and welcome) Morganesque bonus.
It is worth noting, however, that Howard too can be overwritten, in adaptation if not the original. Love those furious, hairy, knotted thews! Roy Thomas is the sinner there, I take it.
I do like Dark Horse’s adaptation. In fact, I’ve got the first thousand words of a post written, talking about it. I just need to get it finished.
Practical necessities force me to occasionally juggle the order from my original plan. I usually give a week’s notice by including the ‘Next week’s post’ line at the bottom of each essay.
There will likely be a few more adjustments as we go, but hopefully not too many.
Scott Oden has written a direct sequel to this one that you’ll be seeing in the back pages of the new Conan comic very soon now…
So we’ll do “Slithering Shadow” then next week, then.
Love the checked-off checklist, Brian.
Interesting news, Managing Editor!
Nice, analytical examination of the story, Morgan. Including brief looks at the other tales accompanying this one’s first appearance is a great offering of perspective – for me, making this Conan tale definitely the best available.
Morgan wrote, “The story was deemed a good introduction to Conan by L. Sprague de Camp to include it in Swords & Sorcery (Pyramid Books) in 1963.”
Interestingly, de Camp gave J. R. R. Tolkien a copy of this little anthology. One thing led to another, and in 1969, Lin Carter, in Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, was claiming that Tolkien had read the Conan stories and liked them.
But de Camp’s last word (so far as I know) on the matter was in a 1983 letter to Tolkien scholar John Rateliff. De Camp, wrote, “I know he had read Swords and Sorcery because I had sent him a copy. I don’t know if he had read any other Conan besides ‘Shadows in the Moonlight,’ but I rather doubt it.”
In de Camp’s 1976 book Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, he wrote, “[Tolkien] said he found [the anthology] interesting but did not much like the stories in it,” de Camp said (243).
But de Camp also remembered Tolkien as having said that he’d read Conan and “rather liked” the story or stories in question (p. 244).
So the bottom line appears to be that Tolkien read the present Conan story (and only that one) and liked it, as remembered by de Camp.
That, surely, is interesting!
One can read more about this in my entry on Howard in the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, edited by Michael Drout (2006), or in an article due to appear in the Tolkien Society’s journal Mallorn, in which I tried to track down all the evidence relating to Tolkien and C. S. Lewis reading things by Howard, Lovecraft, or Smith (or Donald Wandrei) — and Howard, Lovecraft, or Smith having read Tolkien, Lewis, or their friend Charles Williams, author of seven supernatural thrillers.
Ack! I just wrote:
—But de Camp also remembered Tolkien as having said that he’d read Conan and “rather liked” the story or stories in question (p. 244).—
I meant the HOWARD story or stories.
By the way, Tolkien’s own copy of this de Camp anthology came up for auction a few years ago. The offering included Tolkien’s notes on the Dunsany story, which seems to have engaged his interest quite a bit:
Would that we had a similar note from Tolkien about “Shadows in the Moonlight.”
Considering how negatively he felt about the other stories in “Swords & Sorcery” (by Smith, Dunsany, C.L. Moore and Poul Anderson), I strongly doubt Tolkien actually liked the Conan story.
Green, I am with you there! Maybe it’s because I read The Devil in Iron first, but in comparison Iron Shadows in the Moon is one of the less memorable Conan tales for me.
I think this actually is my favorite Conan story. The Thomas/Buscema Savage Sword rendition is, in my opinion, the best version.
Editor, I disagree with you about Olivia being a convenient “frightened maiden.” She overcomes her fear and actually rescues Conan.
Gabe – The fact that she rescues him is why I think she could have been a strong character. But Howard does nothing else with her.
(Does she only faint once?)
I think he could have presented her so she’d be remembered alongside Valeria and the like. But I don’t know of anyone who puts Olivia in the ‘strong female’ category.
I like that Olivia’s story after ‘Iron Shadows’ is told by Dark Horse. I discuss that a little in a post I haven’t finished yet.
I have a lot of those, sadly…
Green (& Others) – Circumstances have forced me to move David C. Smith’s essay on ‘Pool of the Black One’ up a week.
So, that will run this coming Monday. With so many guest posters, some juggling remains inevitable.
But we’ll hit them all by the end!
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