Hither Came Conan: Jason Durall on “Xuthal of the Dusk”

Monday, March 11th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

John Buscsema - Savage Sword of Conan - Issue #20

John Buscsema – Savage Sword of Conan – Issue #20

Welcome back to the latest installment of Hither Came Conan, where a leading Robert E. Howard expert examines one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best. Jason Durall is the line editor for Modiphius’ RPG, Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.

Xuthal of the Dusk on 25 Lunas a Day

Of all of Howard’s Conan stories, “Xuthal of the Dusk” is one of his most emblematic, regardless of its quality compared to the other. If one were to assemble a tasting menu of Conan containing all his recurring themes and story elements, one could look no further than this story and come away with a good sense of the whole. With only one glaringly weak point, the story is an underappreciated gem and worth reconsidering in its place among the overall canon.

First appearing in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales under the title “The Slithering Shadow”, the story, like many of Howard’s tales, was graced with an extremely risqué cover by Margaret Brundage, no small contributor to the magazine’s sales (more on this later). Though the story’s published title was “The Slithering Shadow”, Howard, in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, clarifies that its original title was “Xuthal of the Dusk”. Given a choice between the title the story was written under versus a title provided by the editor, let us remain true to Howard’s preference in the matter.

“Xuthal of the Dusk” may not be the best of the Conan stories, but it is one of the purest Conan stories. Let’s examine all the notes this story hits, and this should become clear.

 

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Hither Came Conan: Iron Shadows in the Moon, the Bible, and Dark Horse

Monday, March 4th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_Shadows_PirateFightEDITED2 Timothy Truman turned sixty-three recently. Truman is one of the leading graphic book writers and artists in the industry. He was a cornerstone of Dark Horse’s Conan line, both writing and drawing.

Truman scripted “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” which Morgan Holmes recently expounded on. So, today we’ve got a bonus Hither Came Conan post, looking at Dark Horse’s version. Along with some discussion of the ‘before and after’ in that storyline.

The Free Companions covered issues 16 -18 of Dark Horse’s Conan The Cimmerian run. They picked up the storyline after the end of “Black Colossus,” with Conan at Yasmela’s side, to the disapproval of the Khorajans. He rescues her brother, king Khossus, but by story’s end, is displaced by Prince Julion of Muric (Al-Muric), an exiled stepson of King Strabonus.

Issues 19 – 21, Kozaki, cover Conan leading the Free Companions. After being dismissed from Khorajan service by Al-Muric, they raided willy nilly, building up some enmity.

But all of this is muddled together, as Dark Horse has Conan, near dead, in the swamps of the Ilbars River, the lone survivor of the Free Companions. And until Shah Amaruth shows up, pursuing Olivia, the story is a mélange of flashbacks involving Conan, Olivia’s story, and activity in the swamps. It will take more effort than it’s worth to sort through all that, so I’ll just work in a relatively linear fashion, time-wise.

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Hither Came Conan: Dave Hardy on “Vale of Lost Women”

Monday, February 25th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_ValeMarvelCoverEDITEDWelcome back to the latest installment of Hither Came Conan, where a leading Robert E. Howard expert (and me) examine one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best. Dave Hardy is the leading El Borak scholar around, and today he weighs in with a fresh perspective on what is pretty much regarded as one of Howard’s worst Conan tales.

PAIN CRYSTALLIZED AND MANIFESTED IN FLESH: THE VALE OF LOST WOMEN

“She was drowned in a great gulf of pain—was herself but pain crystallized and manifested in flesh. So she lay without conscious thought or motion, while outside the drums bellowed, the horns clamored, and barbaric voices lifted hideous chants, keeping time to naked feet slapping the heard earth and open palms smiting one another softly.”

“The Vale of Lost Women” is a neglected part of the Conan canon, scorned even. It was not particularly loved in Howard’s time. Howard wrote “Vale of Lost Women” probably around February 1933. Howard was unable to sell “Vale.” If he submitted it to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, Wright didn’t buy it. The story was first published in The Magazine of Horror in the Spring, 1967 issue. Compared with such gems as “Queen of the Black Coast,” “Red Nails,” “Black Colossus,” or “Tower of the Elephant,” “Vale” might seem a very slight tale indeed.

And yet there is something primal about “Vale” that defies one to forget it. Despite its crudities and glibness, it taps into dark recesses of fundamental fears and dream logic.

The setting is a village in Kush, the fictional equivalent of Africa. Livia is a young woman from Ophir, one of the civilized countries of Hyboria, in Howard’s setting for the Conan stories. It is a pseudo-European country, inhabited by a fair-skinned folk. She had journeyed with her brother, Theteles, who sought to learn sorcerous wisdom in a remote Stygian city. Instead they were captured by Kushite raiders and came to be captives of Bajujh, king of Bakalah.

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Hither Came Conan: David C. Smith on “Pool of the Black One”

Monday, February 18th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Val Mayerik - Savage Sword of Conan #22

Val Mayerik – Savage Sword of Conan #22

Welcome back to the latest installment of Hither Came Conan, where a leading Robert E. Howard expert (and me) examine one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best. Up today, it’s author and Howard literary biographer David C. Smith. I reda Oron long before I discovered Conan. Read on!

By mid-1932, when Robert E. Howard wrote “The Pool of the Black One,” his tenth story to feature Conan the Cimmerian, he was well past the journeyman phase of his career. The very successful Sailor Costigan boxing stories had been appearing regularly in Fight Stories since the summer of 1929; Howard was becoming one of the prize contributors to Oriental Stories with his historical fiction set during the Crusades; and his stories featuring King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn and the ancient Picts had earned him star status as one of the premier contributors to Weird Tales.

Of the first four Conan stories written in early 1932, Farnsworth Wright had accepted for publication “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Tower of the Elephant.” These stories, together with the two unsold manuscripts — “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl” — make clear that Howard was finding his way with the character and with his Hyborian Age setting. Conan is introduced in “The Phoenix on the Sword” as the regal king of Aquilonia; in the unsold second story, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” he is a lustful young man eager to rape a beautiful goddess. The weird and imaginative “The Tower of the Elephant” takes place in a haunted tower, introduces a space alien trapped by the magic of an evil sorcerer, and concludes with a comically dark turn equal to any of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories. “The God in the Bowl,” on the other hand, is essentially a murder-mystery.

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Hither Came Conan: Morgan Holmes on “Iron Shadows in the Moon”

Monday, February 11th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_ShadowsRuins

Mark Schultz from Del Rey’s The Coming of Conan

“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.

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Hither Came Conan: John C. Hocking on “The Scarlet Citadel”

Monday, February 4th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_ScarletSavageI’m here to sing the praises of Robert E. Howard’s Conan story, “The Scarlet Citadel.”  This classic yarn first appeared in the January 1933 issue of Weird Tales and was the second Conan story to see print, following “The Phoenix on the Sword.”   This is a tale of Conan when he was King of Aquilonia, and many, Karl Edward Wagner among them, have noted it shows clear parallels to Howard’s only Conan novel, the peerless The Hour of the Dragon.

In “The Scarlet Citadel,” Amalrus, King of Ophir, requests military aid from Aquilonia, saying that the kingdom of Koth, ruled by Strabonus, is pushing over his borders.  Conan comes to the aid of an ally in need, of course, but soon finds he has been deceived, that Amalrus and Strabonus are in league to betray and entrap the Cimmerian and his army.  Conan’s forces are mercilessly destroyed, and he is captured and tossed into the dungeons of a sorcerer of Koth, Tsotha-lanti.  This wizard has been using his dungeons to work eldritch experiments and otherwise practice occult deviltry, the result being a dark underworld setting as memorable as Tolkien’s Moria.

Attempting to escape the dungeon, Conan encounters Pelias, a wizardly foe of Tsotha-lanti, and sets him free from the embrace of a grotesque plant.  Pelias, sinister but apparently genuinely grateful, helps Conan escape and get back to Aquilonia, where the barbarian eventually leads an army against his enemies in a spectacularly described battle.

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Hither Came Conan: Jason M Waltz – “The Tower of the Elephant”

Monday, January 28th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

The great Mark Schultz

The great Mark Schultz

Every Monday morning for Hither Came Conan, a Robert E. Howard expert looks at the merits of one of the original Conan stories from REH. Up this week is Jason M Waltz with “The Tower of the Elephant.”

The Tower of the Elephant is #1!

That’s the chant I heard rising above the darkened canopy shrouding the mighty yews and other overgrown vegetation blocking any chance I might have had to see the Pictish village. The heavy hand upon my shoulder kept me from ever knowing if the wattle huts truly stood there, cavernous doorways gaping wide like entrances to giant earthworm tunnels, shadowed gates to a scarcely known past few dared to poke and muck about in.

Pulled backward until I was off my feet and set hard upon the trunk of a fallen giant, I craned to my left to see my captor. A mane of black hair, shaggy strands barely covering the flash of sullen eyes, twisted away, the hand that had never left my neck squeezed tight, forced my face forward. A downward glance caught a mighty foot and shin of brown skin girthed in high-strapped sandals, before they too were snatched from my sight by that iron grip jerking my head upright. A chuckle sounded low behind me, shook the arm up which it traveled till I shook as well.

“You’ve been asking which of my tales is best; none better to tell you than those who know me best. A man’s story is only as good as his foes tell it, after all. You think these Picts will praise the tales within which I slaughter them? Ha! Those are the tales they tell their whelps over the fires to hone their hatred. Their favorite tales, the ones they retell strangers, are my adventures outside their territories.

“Now my favorites are those times with Bêlit, my queen…” A gigantic sigh echoed, followed by a shake of that mane and a rueful laugh. “Ah, if only I’d met the elephant-man later, there is much I might have asked. But it is he who taught me to open my eyes, he who made me take heart.

“The best of my tales? It must be “The Tower of the Elephant”, all else follows, for I’d not be the man I am without it.”

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Hither Came Conan: Ruminations on “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_PhoenixDHSwordBobby Derie wrote a great essay on the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” for this Hither Came Conan series. Certainly, better than anything I could ever come up with. But I still wanted to do a post on this tale. Because:

A –I wanted to contribute more than just what is likely going to be a bottom-rung essay on my assignment (fans of “Rogues in the House” – sorry, you drew the short straw); and

B – I’m pretty sure “Phoenix” was the first Conan story I read. Now, it might have been “The Thing in the Crypt,” in the first Lancer/Ace collection, which I had bought and then stuck on a shelf for at least a decade or two. But I didn’t remember that story when I started going through the Ace books, AFTER exploring Conan via the Del Rey trilogy. So, I think it was “Phoenix.”

So, because I’m a wordy typer, what started out as just one-third of a post on the first three essays in our series, grew into a solo show.

The Phoenix on the Sword

It is well known that “The Phoenix on the Sword,” the first story of Conan the Cimmerian, was a rewrite of a previously unsold tale of an earlier Howard character, Kull, an exile from Atlantis.

Howard sold three Kull stories to Weird Tales, appearing in the August and September issues of 1929, and finally, in November of 1930. Howard also wrote nine more tales about the character, which were not published until after his death. So, only 25% of his Kull stories sold. Not exactly a money-maker.

However, “By This Axe I Rule!”, which had failed to sell to Argosy and Adventure, was dusted off to feature a less philosophical barbarian.

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Hither Came Conan: Fletcher Vredenburgh – “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”

Monday, January 21st, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Frank Frazetta's famous work

Frank Frazetta’s famous work

Submitted in 1932 to Weird Tales, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is possibly the first Conan story of entirely new material (read Keith West on the story’s publication history), and it is also unique in its style. It is stripped down to the bare, primal essences of sword & sorcery, and exists on the lip between reality and nightmare. There’s more of myth and dream to “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” than to any other Conan yarn. When I first encountered it in my younger days, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but since then, I’ve come to appreciate it on several levels.

The lone survivor from a band of Aesir, Conan the Cimmerian finds himself facing Heimdul, the sole survivor from a Vanir war party, on a corpse-littered field of snow. As soon as Conan defeats and kills the Vanir warrior, he finds himself overcome by the blinding sunlight reflected off the blood-stained snow.

He is raised from his stupor by the arrival of an ivory-skinned, red-haired woman of surpassing beauty. She is barefoot and naked, save for a filmy gown. Soon she is taunting him and he is chasing her. Both rage and mad lust drive him after her into increasingly mountainous terrain with a sky streaked by the colors of the borealis. As he finally nears her, two armored giants rise up from the snow and the woman reveals herself to be their sister. She has lured the Cimmerian northward to his doom.

He proves too powerful, though and, driven by a primal urgency, dispatches them quickly. Unable to ward off Conan any longer, the woman calls on her father, the terrible god, Ymir, and in response to her cries a cascade of blinding blue lights from the heavens strike Conan, leaving him unconscious again. He next finds himself shaken awake by some of his comrades from another war band.

A debate follows whether Conan’s experience was real or just the result of the blow to his head that dented his helmet. One old soldier, Gorm, claims to have seen her in his youth. She is Atali, daughter of Ymir, and has lured men to their deaths for ages. Only Gorm’s wounds kept him from following her himself. Despite the tale, Conan is still unsure of what really happened – until he realizes he still clutches a gossamer gown in his hand.

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Hither Came Conan: Bobby Derie – “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Monday, January 14th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_PhoenixFightOur Hither Came Conan series gets well and truly underway this week with Bobby Derie presenting the case for “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Grab your loin cloth and tulwar (or zhaibar knife, if you prefer…)  and tread upon some jeweled thrones!

“Know, oh prince…”

The Texas pulpster sat at his typewriter, pounding away at the keys, talking the story out loud as he typed. The long novella of King Kull, “By This Axe I Rule!” written some years earlier remained unsold, rejected by Argosy and Adventure. Already the Texan was working over the history in his mind, weaving together bits of fact and legend of the “Age undreamed of.”

Thinking back to just months ago when he had been down south, in a dusty little border town of the Rio Grande valley, and a character had come into his mind…a raw conception with an old Celtic name, and…

“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

The opening to “The Phoenix on the Sword” is the greatest incipit in pulp fiction, an invocation to the muse of artificial mythology, a sketch of a world and a character all at once. It ran as the banner across the Marvel Conan comics for decades, and an abbreviated version opened the 1982 film which introduced the Cimmerian to a whole new audience. It almost didn’t happen.

“But “The Phoenix on the Sword” has points of real excellence. I hope you will see your way clear to touch it up and resubmit it. It is the first two chapters that do not click. The story opens rather uninterestingly, it seems to me, and the reader has difficulty in orienting himself. The first chapter ends well, and the second chapter begins superbly; but after King Conan’s personality is well established, the chapter sags from too much writing.”
—Farnsworth Wright to Robert E. Howard, 10 Mar 1932

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