Hither Came Conan: Gabe Dybing on “The People of the Black Circle”

Monday, July 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Black_Circle

Fellow Black Gater Gabe Dybing loaded his entry directly into the website and it fell off my radar. My fault. HERE is the final entry in our Hither Came Conan series, as he tackles “The People of the Black Circle,” which I’ve always felt, story-wise, was one of REH’s more unique Conan tales. Read on! 

Robert E. Howard’s novella “The People of the Black Circle,” first published in the September, October and November 1934 issues of Weird Tales, contains all of the elements that, in retrospect, entail an ultimate Conan tale. As an exemplar of what was to become known as the Sword & Sorcery subgenre of fantasy literature, “Black Circle” exhibits Conan as a swordsmen at the height of his career in brigandry: the tale commences with Conan negotiating for the release of seven of his hillmen chieftains who are being held by the Devi of Vendhya for ransom or execution.

But Conan has not lost any of his more youthful thiefly abilities; his introduction in this story has him climbing through a window after sneaking over a barbican and single-handedly dispatching of the guards there. The “sorcery” portion of the Sword & Sorcery subgenre is supplied here by not just one but by an entire Circle of magic-users. Most notable of these are Khemsa (who even is a perspective character!) and the Master of Yimsha, who ultimately is the chief adversary of the novella. To further exemplify the Sword & Sorcery genre, the narrative contains ample doses of the weird—monstrous antagonists, an adventure locale worthy of a Dungeons & Dragons module, and even one secret passage! But that’s not all!

Other Conan stories contain these things, too, but this story is the very best Conan story because it has what no other does — the Devi of Vendhya. “Black Circle” exhibits all the things that we love about Conan, but, unlike any other, it also details the making of a lover and a heroine to complement Conan in every way.

What? Isn’t that heroine supposed to be Red Sonja (to confuse the Conan “canon”) or one of Conan’s two great “loves” (Belit or Zenobia)? Perhaps, perhaps not. Conan had many women throughout his varied careers, and if he never came to actually “love” Yasmina, the Devi of Vendhya, then he at least recognized in her, at the end of this tale, all of the qualities that he most valued in a woman. A major aspect of “Black Circle” is just who Conan is at this time of his life and what characteristics could counterbalance this hero as a satisfying lover, if not a full mate. Through her experiences in this tale, Yasmina transforms — at least in Conan’s eyes — from an artificial and unattainable Devi into a true “elemental” woman of passion and desire.

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Hither Came Conan – The (Almost) Final Post

Monday, July 15th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

HIther_RoguesVallejoEDITEDEDITOR (ME, BOB)  SCREW UP – Our own Gabe Dybing brought to my attention that I forgot to run his post. He is correct! Entirely an oversight on my part. It will run next Monday morning, and I’ll update this ‘final’ listing afterwards. My fault. Sorry about that.

And so, Hither Came Conan comes to an end. Every Monday morning, from January 7th through today, July 14th, Black Gate brought you story insights from some of the most knowledgeable Robert E.  Howard writers around. And me. We covered all twenty-one completed Conan tales written by Howard: and even tossed in “Wolves Beyond the Border” for good measure!

In case you forgot, each story was randomly assigned to one essayist.  The most common comment I heard was some variation of “Thank goodness I didn’t get “Vale of Lost Women.” Unfortunately for Dave Hardy, he didn’t get to say that…

But while it’s natural that some stories are better than others, what I think this series showed, is that even a ‘bad’ story, contained some worthwhile elements. Whether it was a character, or an exciting scene, or some of his excellent prose, there’s always something worth reading in a Howard story. Or in this case, a Conan tale. Because, while he did write some stories that weren’t particularly good (“The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” almost makes my eyes bleed) Robert E. Howard was an excellent writer.

I am a fan of William Bernhardt’s The Red Sneaker Writers Book Series. Bernhardt, author of the excellent Ben Kincaid legal thriller series, has written some terrific books to help writers. And one of them is Thinking Theme. Several writers mentioned Howard’s frequent depiction of the conflict between barbarism and civilization. That theme is a powerful engine for the Conan series. Decaying civilizations, and honor and justice, were also themes Howard used Conan to comment on. “Beyond the Black River,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” “Rogues in the House”: Howard’s strong belief in theme formed foundations for his tales.

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Hither Came Conan: Patrice Louinet on “Queen of the Black Coast”

Monday, July 8th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_QueenWTCoverEDITEDRobert E. Howard wrote twenty-one tales of Conan, the mighty-thewed Cimmerian. And with today’s entry from Patrice Louinet, Hither Came Conan has looked at all of them: plus, we tossed in “Wolves Beyond the Border” as a bonus! We’ll wrap things up with a summary post. But read on as we close out our examination of the Conan Canon with  story that is generally considered to be in the top two or three – when it’s not ranked number one.

Robert E. Howard’s best Conan tale? Well, it’s a toss between “Beyond the Black River” and “Red Nails,” with a definite leaning for the latter. No way I can say otherwise: I have repeated this over and over, and it’s in print in many places.

And here I am today having to explain why “Queen of the Black Coast” is the best of the Conan tales. Had I been allotted “Vale of the Lost Women,” you would have known I was lying to you, but “Queen”? Luckily for me, “Queen of the Black Coast” is obviously one of the best Conan tales (general consensus), and it also happens to be one of my personal favorites. It contains some very memorable scenes – Conan and Bêlit’s discussion of the afterlife and the gods, most noteworthily – and it addresses in a powerful manner Howard’s theme of the cycle of civilizations:

Conan’s flight from the city to live a barbaric life of piracy only to sail right into the poisonous river that leads to the heart of darkness and the last degenerate survivor of a once-powerful civilization. Powerful stuff in a story that is replete with exquisite – if dark – imagery, and a tragic ending that no one can ever forget. So yes, easily one of the best Conan stories. But not “the best.”

I have been mulling this problem for a while now, and of course, I had the answer all along: “Queen of the Black Coast” is the best Conan tale to read if you have never read any before. In other words, it is the perfect story to discover the character, the Hyborian setting, and of course Howard’s talent.

One of the numerous problems that have plagued the perception of the Cimmerian by the general public is this idea that the tales represent as many steps in Conan’s so-called “biography,” though nothing in the series supports that notion. So, how do you understand a character and his motivations if you have no real biographical background? Well, think James Bond or Dirty Harry and read on.

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Convention Report: Robert E. Howard Days 2019

Thursday, July 4th, 2019 | Posted by James McGlothlin

Howard Days 2019 Cross Plains sign-small

Robert E. Howard (1906–1936) is most famously known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian. But he was a very prolific pulp writer of various genres who created several other memorable characters including Solomon Kane and Kull, gracing the pages of Weird Tales and various other pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s.

To celebrate the importance of this writer, Robert E. Howard Days exists as an annual event (first weekend of every June) that brings together Robert E. Howard (REH) fans and scholars to celebrate the life of this great pulp writer. This event takes place every year in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas, the hometown of REH. The primary locus of events takes place at the Robert E. Howard Museum, which was actually the home of REH and his parents, and the place where most of his greatest stories were written.

After years of planning to attend Howard Days, I finally bit the bullet and made the road trip to Cross Plains (from Minnesota!) After arriving in Abilene late Wednesday, I got up early Thursday morning in order to drive to Brownwood (30 minutes or so south of Cross Plains) to go to Greenleaf Cemetery where REH’s grave resides.

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Hither Came Conan: Deuce Richardson on “Black Colossus”

Monday, July 1st, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_BlackRedPicEDITEDIt’s our second-to-last story essay here at Hither Came Conan. Deuce Richardson, who I’ve talked a lot of REH with, looks at “Black Colossus.” And he digs deep on this one. You absolutely should read on!

Robert E. Howard’s “Black Colossus” is the greatest Conan yarn ever written. Within it, Howard distilled–for the first and best time–nearly all the elements that Conan fans have loved over the course of the last nine decades. Saddle up, REH fans. This is going to be one wild and bloody ride.

The tale begins in the deserts of eastern Shem, a hundred miles northeast of Stygia. There we find Kuthchemes, the ruined and shunned city once ruled by the wizard-king, Thugra Khotan, in the days when the Stygian dominion marched all the way to the rugged uplands of eastern Koth.

Shevatas, master-thief of Zamora–itself the City of Thieves in a nation of thieves–has spent long years preparing to plunder the tomb of Thugra Khotan. Robert E. Howard describes him thus:

“This was Shevatas, a thief among thieves, whose name was spoken with awe in the dives of the Maul and the dim shadowy recesses beneath the temples of Bel, and who lived in songs and myths for a thousand years.”

Shevatas penetrates the ivory-domed sepulchre, achieving his life-long dream…and then dies “as no man has died in three thousand years.”

Here lies the first bit of genius within “Black Colossus.” Namely, REH gives his readers the last chapter of a fine sword-and-sorcery tale as the first chapter of his Conan yarn. The tale of Shevatas is a mini-epic in itself and it makes a perfect blood n’ thunder intro to the main story.

Not only does it serve up great action–mortal combat against that archetypical Howardian antagonist, a giant serpent–but it also introduces eldritch, Lovecraftian horror from the git-go, which is a well-nigh essential ingredient in great sword-and-sorcery tales.

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Ramblings on REH (Encore Appearance)

Monday, June 24th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Ramblings_KullAxeDue to some difficulties, I do not have a Hither Came Conan essay ready to run today. I hope to have one next week. And, work is brutal at the moment. Also, as this post goes live, I am on day three of a four-day camping trip with my son. So I did not have time for an original Conan essay — or even a new A (Black) Gat in the Hand post, either. So, from waaay back on August 10, 2015, here’s one of the very first REH-related posts I wrote here at Black Gate. I think the first was a review of Harry Turtledove’s middling Conan of Venarium.

I was an REH neophyte at the time: I’ve learned a LOT since then. I do plan on expanding on the Howard/Hammet similarity some day. I saw that from the very beginning. Since you probably missed this post the first time around, read on!


In a way, Robert E. Howard’s career is similar to that of Dashiell Hammett. Both men had huge impacts on their genres (Howard wrote many styles, but he’s best known for his sword and sorcery tales). Both were early practitioners in said genres. Both men wrote excellent stories for about a decade. And both men ended their careers on their own.

Hammett, who seemed more interested in a dissolute lifestyle than in writing, effectively walked away from his typewriter. He wrote his last novel in 1934 (The Thin Man) but produced literally nothing for the remaining twenty-five years of his life. He could have gone back to writing the hard-boiled stories that made his career, but he voluntarily ended his writing life.

In 1936, Howard’s mother was failing in a coma. He walked outside to his car, pulled out a gun and killed himself. His writing career was more effectively finished than Hammett’s would be.

Both were supremely skilled writers who chose to deprive the world of their talent and left decades of stories unwritten. But there was a key difference between the two. From the beginning, Hammett was acclaimed and recognized as the leader in his field. Though Carroll John Daly came first (barely), there is no comparison between the two in critical view.

Howard was not critically lauded. His first Conan tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (a rewriting of the Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”), appeared in Weird Tales in December of 1932. The next two Conan tales were outright rejected!

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Hither Came Conan: Jeffrey Shanks on “A Witch Shall Be Born”

Monday, June 17th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_WitchTreeofWoeEDITEDThree stories to go! This week, Robert E Howard Foundation multiple time award winner, Jeffrey Shanks, takes on “A Witch Shall Be Born.” That ain’t exactly an easy task. See what he’s got to say about this one.

Thou Shalt Not Suffer “A Witch Shall Be Born” — Or Maybe You Should?

“A Witch Shall Be Born” is not usually on anyone’s list of the top tier Conan stories – despite containing what could arguably be the most powerful and iconic scene in the entire series. The tepid reception to “Witch” is not entirely unfounded – the novella-length yarn is heavy on exposition, awkwardly constructed, poorly paced at times, and somewhat anticlimactic in its dénouement. And yet it has moments in which Howard’s powerful vision shines through the flaws. Howard Jones and Bill Ward noted in their recent REH Re-Read series  that it feels a bit like a draft, and I tend to agree. The story was written hastily in just a few days as Patrice Louinet has noted, and feels a little like a piece of choice meat that is a bit undercooked – It could have used another minute on the grill, but it’s still pretty damn tasty.

“Witch” was published in Weird Tales in the December1934 issue. As with “Black Colossus, it is a Hyborian version of one of Howard’s blood and thunder, Harold Lamb-style “Oriental” tales, in the same vein as the Crusades yarns he had been writing a few years earlier. The small kingdom of Khauran in which much of the story is set is something of analog to the historical Crusader kingdom of Outremer, a Western (Hyborian) polity precariously set on the fringes of the Eastern steppes.

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Hither Came Conan: Woelf Dietrich on “Wolves Beyond the Border”

Monday, June 3rd, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_Wolves1EDITEDAnd with only four stories remaining, Hither Came Conan is winding down. Of course, this series has featured a different leading Robert E. Howard expert each week, examining one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best in it. Author Woelf Dietrich looks at the ‘most complete, incomplete’ Conan tale from Howards, “Wolves Beyond the Border.” Read on!

I am to provide proof that “Wolves Beyond the Border” is the greatest Conan story ever told by Robert E. Howard. Except that Conan never appears in the story apart from a mention or two and Howard never completed the story nor was it published in his lifetime. L. Sprague de Camp finished the fragment relying on a one-page outline discovered with the unfinished manuscript that Howard had written in the 1930s. Lancer Books published it in 1967 along with three other stories in Conan the Usurper.

So, as you can see, I find myself in a peculiar situation. A potential dilemma given the awesome essays published so far in this series. The competition for the best Conan story is a fierce one. How, then, do I convince you that this story is the best despite the absence of Conan?

Let us start with the plot, shall we?

Plot

We are introduced to “Wolves Beyond the Border” with a mini-prologue:

“The revolution progresses with hurricane speed. While knights and sergeants in gleaming mail clash in charge and counter-charge on the Aquilonian plains, civil war rages along the Pictish frontier between the partisans of Conan and those of Numedides. The Picts, naturally, see their opportunity. Here is a tale of some of the events of that strife-torn land, as told by one of the survivors of the conflict; for the Hyborian Age was a time of stirring events in many times and places, not merely those in which Conan was present.’

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Hither Came Conan: The Khoraja Saga

Monday, May 27th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_BlackColossusWTInterior1EDITEDDeuce Richardson will be looking into “Black Colossus” for Hither Came Conan. I wrote an essay last year for my friend James Schmidt’s Mighty Thor JR’s blog, looking at the expanded saga of the gem from that story. Surprisingly, it made the Preliminary List for the Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards! I’ve since read more Conan pastiches involving Khorajan affairs, and I expanded the original essay. So, here’s the updated version. My thanks to James for letting me appear over at his blog.

Robert E. Howard was a master worldbuilder, as Jeffery Shanks wrote about over at Black Gate for the Discovering Robert E. Howard series. The history of Hyboria is sprinkled throughout his Conan tales, creating a vast backdrop, in both time and place. Conan’s own Cimmeria, Set-worshipping Stygia, the jungles of the Picts, mighty Aquilonia, fallen Acheron: it’s really amazing the depth and breadth that Howard created in the short story format (there was one novel, Hour of the Dragon, which drew on existing short stories – an approach used by Raymond Chandler a few years later: he called it ‘repurposing.’)

Khoraja is a small nation southeast of Koth. It isn’t one of the great countries of Hyboria, but it sat front and center for “The Black Colossus.” “Colossus” was the fourth published story to feature the Cimmerian, and one of five to find its way to print in Weird Tales in 1933. Editor Farnsworth Wright had rejected two others (“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl“) that would have added to that total. But before Conan enters the story in Khoraja, we get a little history from Howard.

Shevatas the thief is exploring the ruins of Kutchemes, once a great city and part of Stygia when its borders extended far beyond their present state (‘present’ in the Conan stories, that is…). Prior to Shevatas actually doing anything, we get this from Howard:

Eastward, Shevatas knew, the desert shaded into steppes stretching to the Hyrkanian kingdom of Turan, rising in barbaric splendor on the shores of the great inland sea. A week’s ride northward the desert ran into a tangle of barren hills, beyond which lay the fertile uplands of Koth, the southernmost realm of the Hyborian races. Westward the desert merged into the meadowlands of Shem, which stretched away to the ocean.

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Hither Came Conan: Bob Byrne on “Rogues in the House”

Monday, May 20th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_RoguesMarvelEDITEDWhen I was pitching this series to folks, I was using the title, The Best of Conan. I didn’t come up with Hither Came Conan for about eight months, I think. Yeah, I know… The idea behind the series came from an essay in my first (and so far, only) Nero Wolfe Newsletter. The plan for 3 Good Reasons is to look at a story and list three reasons why it’s the ‘best’ Wolfe story. And I toss in one ‘bad’ reason why it’s not. And finish it off with some quotes. You’ll be reading more 3 Good Reasons here at Black Gate in 2020.

So, I’m going to take a somewhat different tack from those who have come before me (I doubt I could have measured up, anyways) and pick out two elements that make this story one of Howard’s best recountings of the mighty-thewed Cimmerian. Then, throw a curveball from the Wolfe approach and highlight a few items worthy of note.

OUR STORY

Obviously, you need to read this story, but here’s a Cliff’s Notes version: Nabonidus, the Red Priest, is the real power in this unnamed Corinthian city. He gives a golden cask to Murilo, a young aristocrat. And inside the cask is a human ear (remind you of Sherlock Holmes? It should.). We learn a little later on that Murillo has been selling state secrets, and the ear is from a clerk he had dealings with. The jig is up!

Given the choice of running away, waiting meekly for assured death, or finding a tool to escape his predicament, he chooses the latter. And Conan is that tool. Wait: that didn’t sound right…

Conan and a Gunderman deserter had been successful thieves until a fence, a Priest of Anu, betrayed them. The priest also happened to be a spy for the police. As a result, the unnamed Gunderman (more on that below) was captured and hung. Conan then cut off the priest’s head in revenge. A ‘faithless woman’ (presumably his current main squeeze) betrayed him to the police, who captured the Cimmerian as he hid out, drunk.

Murillo visits the cell and Conan agrees to kill Nabonidus in exchange for his freedom. Things go a bit awry and Murillo goes after Nabonidus himself but faints at the sight of the red priest in his house. Meanwhile, Conan, after casually killing his ex-girlfriend’s new lover and then dumping her in a cesspool, sneaks into the pits under Nabonidus’ house, where he encounters Murillo, who had been dumped down there.

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