Hither Came Conan: Scott Oden on “The Devil In Iron”
There is a weird synchronicity at work, here, Gentle Readers. Between the time when Bob Byrne solicited a few of us for this series and him handing out our story assignments, I wrote a Conan novella for Marvel (currently being serialized in the pages of the renewed Savage Sword of Conan, over a span of twelve issues). Specifically, it is a sequel to Robert E. Howard’s “The Devil in Iron”. Then, a few days later, I received my randomly selected story assignment from the good Mr. Byrne. My story? “The Devil in Iron.” Thus, the gods have spoken . . .
“The Devil in Iron” marked Howard’s return to the Hyborian Age after an absence of about six months. Written in the autumn of 1933, it employs a technique common to pulp-era writers in that Howard cannibalized plot elements of his own previous stories – the eerie resurrected villain á la “Black Colossus” (also used in The Hour of the Dragon); the greenish stone ruins from “Xuthal of the Dusk” (AKA, “The Slithering Shadow”); the sentient iron statues from “Iron Shadows in the Moonlight”; and even stylistic echoes from “Queen of the Black Coast.”
Howard sent the story off to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, who accepted it for publication on December 14, 1933. It appeared in the August 1934 issue. The story was lurid enough to take top billing, with Margaret Brundage providing one of her signature covers – this one depicting a rather anemic-looking Conan against a black background, struggling in the grips of a giant serpent while a gauzily-clad woman swooned at his feet. Hugh Rankin illustrated the story itself.
It is a fairly straightforward tale, if a bit formulaic. According to both Patrice Louinet and Howard Andrew Jones, who are scholars of Howard and his sources, it’s one of the few stories of the Conan canon that displays the clear and overt influence author Harold Lamb had over Howard.
Lamb wrote primarily for Adventure, his tales of Cossacks and crusaders fitting nicely with the works of Talbot Mundy, Rafael Sabatini, Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur and Farnham Bishop, and Arthur D. Howden-Smith. These were Robert Howard’s inspirations – writers of what we’d call today pure historical fiction. REH wrote what he knew he could sell, or what he believed had a good chance of selling; though he’d rather have spent his days writing the kinds of tales he loved from Adventure, it was proving a difficult market to break into. But, he knew by adding a splash of the Weird to the same rollicking adventure yarns, Weird Tales’ editor Farnsworth Wright would more than likely buy it.