This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
This article is, to an extent, old news. There has been a ridiculous amount of ink spilled on the subject of Conan ever since Robert E. Howard began writing about the guy. Over and over again, people have said some variation of what Jason Sanford says here – to paraphrase, that Howard was tediously and egregiously racist by our standards, and that perhaps we shouldn’t keep loudly recommending his work as being essential reading in the fantasy genre. And like clockwork, in come the weaksauce defences. At best, you get pieces like this, in which Jonathan Moeller at least acknowledges that Howard was a racist but tries to argue that what Sanford was proposing was censorship. (It isn’t. Shunning is not censorship. Sanford never argued that Howard’s works should be suppressed or banned from publication, but Moeller seems to regard refusing to positively promote Howard’s works as being the same thing as actively working to suppress them.) At worst, you have people proposing the most incredible arguments as to why, despite all appearances, Howard wasn’t that bad of a racist, and wasn’t even a sexist either. We’ve had some of that here in the past, and I suspect we’ll see more; certainly, it seems to be a law that if you criticise Howard on your SF/fantasy website, fanzine or other forum, his defenders will manifest to wheel out the same tired arguments in his defence.
But the fact remains that the Conan stories have been skewered before, repeatedly, and by people with far more standing to complain about them than I’ll ever have. What’s prompted me to step in here?
Well, first off, it seemed timely. Having reviewed the Conan movies fairly recently, and having had exchanges about Howard on here too, the subject was on my mind. It had been a while since I had reread the stories anyway. People might be interested in a review since there seem to be several reprints making their way onto the shelves in the wake of the movie remake. Why not?
Secondly, the series seems ideal subject matter for the Reading Canary, though in the reverse to the way I usually do these articles – rather than being an exercise in asking “where does this series end up losing what made it good in the first place?”, this has turned more into a “which Conan stories might almost have been OK if Howard had been able to shut up?” deal. A lot of the tales I simply cannot enjoy any more because of the racism and misogyny on display. On top of that, one has to confront the stark fact that Robert E. Howard just wasn’t that good of a writer a lot of the time – remember, these stories were cranked out quickly, for a market that was permanently hungry for new material, and aside from some of the longer stories there’s little sign of polish. Howard would regularly recycle plots or slap a new name on essentially the same supporting character (I lost count of the number of female leads who were Caucasian escapees from dark-skinned slavers), and generally cut corners in order to produce as much product as he could. When the stories are often shit, often bigoted, and fairly often both bigoted and shit, the question arises as to whether any of them are worthy of their reputation at all.
Thirdly, I did this because in another life I might have been one of those defenders. I can remember reading the stories as a teenager and simply failing to notice the bigotry involved; I can also remember reading them again when somewhat older, and being able to recognise the bigotry but willing to argue that people should read the stories anyway because they were so influential and the quality shone through. Both are positions I regard with some embarrassment.
So, basically I am tilting at a windmill which already has a small forest of lances poking out of its sails for the sake of self-flagellating about my former bad taste. It’s more fun than it sounds, which is good because the Conan material is much less fun than I remember it being.
Obvious caveat: I’m a white man, so I have a thick woolly layer of privilege between me and a lot of the issues I talk about here. It’s entirely possible I give Howard an easy time in some places or don’t quite cut to the heart of what’s wrong in other places. I might even flip out at parts which aren’t actually that offensive in some places.
Oh, and trigger warning: racism and sexism aplenty in this stuff. Plus there’s one story which can be summarised as “Conan tries to rape someone and fails”, so yeah.
The Canon of Conan
The Conan stories first appeared in a range of pulp magazines, and were predominantly written for and pitched to the famous Weird Tales. After Howard’s death, they got reprinted in book form. At around this time, Lin Carter and L. Sprauge de Camp set to work completing some of the stories Howard had left unfinished in his lifetime, as well as tampering with the text of the original stories in order to fit them into the timeline of Conan’s life they had worked out. Then, once the Howard word-mine had been completely exhausted, Carter, de Camp, and a cast of thousands set to cranking out more and more Conan stories until the market was hopelessly swamped in them.
The text I’m working from here is the two-volume Conan Chronicles put out by Gollancz as part of the Fantasy Masterworks series, which arrange Howard’s original stories in the chronology as worked out by de Camp and Carter and restores them to the text as originally penned by Howard himself. (Gollancz has reprinted the same texts in one volume as The Complete Chronicles of Conan, and has fairly recently put them out in three volumes as Conan the Destroyer, Conan the Berserker and Conan the Indomitable in order to cash in on the movie remake.) Howard purists would say that the restored text is the best way to experience Howard, because the tampering by other hands over time was, at points, quite extensive, and certainly not up to the standards of the man himself. Personally, I’m fine with taking this approach because firstly it means I get to hang Howard with his own words and secondly fuck reading those mountains of pastiches.
In addition, I’m not going to be reviewing any stories which were left unfinished or only existed as first drafts when Howard died. Only stories which were completed by Howard and submitted for publication by him are covered, and trust me, that’s more than enough.
The Context of Conan
Many Conan compilations include the background essay The Hyborian Age, which as Howard explains in his introduction was an invented history of the prehistoric period the stories take place in. Specifically, it’s an account of the rise and fall of different peoples and nations during a period when the global status quo was shaken by the cataclysm that sank Atlantis. Most of the peoples who arise during this time are, long ages later, scattered to the winds by a Pictish incursion, but eventually end up the ancestors of a wide range of modern cultures. Conan’s lifetime unfolded at some point during this history, but precisely where is difficult to determine – though if I had to guess, I’d say Howard was vaguely planning to cast Conan as the last King of Aquilonia who goes down fighting Gorm’s Picts as they sweep aside the Hyborian peoples.
The utility of the essay is obvious – sketching out a geopolitical history of Conan’s era allowed Howard to populate his world with a richer array of cultures than is typical for a fantasy setting, whilst relating said cultures to modern peoples makes them familiar and recognisable enough to readers that we aren’t completely lost. Of course, because Howard is Howard he completely botches the actual application of this – too many of his fictional cultures seem interchangeable and lack distinguishing features, and those which are readily identifiable are so because they are crude and obvious caricatures. However, it’s still worth giving some attention to this essay. The Hyborian Age is, in fact, Howard’s 20-page equivalent of the Silmarillion, in that it was an act of worldbuilding that, whilst undeniably important in setting up all the stuff the stories allude to, is kind of a snoozefest to read in its own right, but is compulsory reading for any serious examination of the stories it underpins because it provides a clear and at points damning outline of the philosophy behind the fiction.
The Silmarillion, after all, is an imaginary history, and as such the subjects it focuses on tend to reveal Tolkien’s own theory of history. The history of Middle-Earth is a history of people’s relationship with righteous authority, which proceeds from God (in the guise of Eru Iluvatar) via the loyalist Valar and Maiar to elves and men. The significant events of history all consist, at their roots, of rebellion against or reconciliation with this authority. Melkor wanted to sing his own song at the song of creation rather than following Iluvatar’s tune, and he became Morgoth, the first dark lord; Aule created the dwarves as his own thing rather than letting the other Valar in on it, but when Iluvatar found out he confessed and offered to destroy his handiwork – and Iluvatar forgave him and let the dwarves live as a result. The Valar told the elves not to chase Morgoth across the ocean to get the Silmarils back, the Eldar defied them and endured aeons of horrifying warfare in Middle-Earth; the Eldar were reconciled with the Valar after the end of Morgoth, and that set in motion their exodus back to the West. The Numenoreans allowed Sauron to tempt them away from obedience to proper authority and Numenor sank; Aragorn followed the counsel of Gandalf and restored the kingdoms of men to order. Saruman forgot that he was a Maiar answerable to the Valar and Iluvatar, and tried to set up as a power in his own right; Gandalf pointed out that without his divine purpose, Saruman had no power, and Saruman’s staff broke. Good monarchs like Aragorn and Theoden get their mandate by divine right; bad monarchs like Denethor do not recognise the authority held over them by those who possess the divine mandate.
If the Silmarillion has a recurring theme of relationships with a divine hierarchy, said theme being possible to discern from a careful reading, The Hyborian Age has a frothing-at-the-mouth obsession with race which it screams from the rooftops. Apologists may point out that the text was intended to provide a cultural backdrop for the stories, and consequently could hardly afford to ignore issues of ethnicity, but this would be to ignore a lot of what Howard says in the essay itself – in which he clearly and directly outlines a pseudo-Darwinian theory of race, and a racialist theory of history.
Specifically, the history outlined here is based on the fundamental axiom that physical evolution and cultural sophistication is inherently linked in human beings. The survivors of Atlanteans, in reverting to savagery, are described as devolving into “ape-men”, physically regressing just as they culturally regress. This anthropocentric and mistaken view of evolution as a ladder rather than an ever-branching river is essential to Howard’s fiction; in several Conan stories our hero comes up against apes who it is strongly suggested are the degenerate descendants of human beings.
It is true that Howard was not alone in this ridiculousness – Lovecraft wrote a story about some guy who commits suicide on learning that some of his ancestors interbred with albino gorillas from Africa. However, whilst Lovecraft’s fiction is often blighted by his bigotry, the fundamental axioms of the Cthulhu mythos are at least based on the fundamental irrelevance of all human cultures and endeavours on a cosmic scale, and so it is possible to produce fiction which is recognisably Lovecraftian without being a racist tit about it. Creepy Howie managed to do that himself occasionally, or at least got close to it. Conversely, the Conan tales are built from the ground up around two themes: the idea of history as a clash between races for dominance, and the idea of the barbarian and barbarian societies as the most optimal expression of human development.
Howard essentially depicts cultures as existing in three distinct states: savagery/primitivism, barbarism, and civilisation. Savagery is the province of, say, the Atlantean ape-men or their Pictish caveman competitors: people who lack all technological or cultural sophistication and live nasty, brutish and short lives in the kill-or-be-killed wilds, little better than beasts. Hunted, despised, living like animals, the jungle is the savages’ home. Civilised folk have a diametrically opposed nature to this; they build cities, write poems, conduct trade, craft cultural and artistic works, and study diverse sciences and magic in order to advance their lot. However, in distancing themselves from the natural world civilised folk lose touch with their animal nature, which tends to make them soft and decadent – soft, in that many of them are disinclined to violence and even those who are into it lack the natural instinct for self-preservation at any cost that the savages and barbarians boast, and decadent in that they are prone to hedonism and corruption. In extreme cases, their distancing of themselves from nature leads them to worship curious gods from the horrible outer darkness of space, with consequences Conan continually trips over during his adventures.
To Howard, the barbarian represents the ideal compromise between effete civilisation and animalistic savagery. The barbarian is in touch with his natural drives and instincts, is not ashamed of them, and will not apologise for pursuing them – wealth, sex, and power are there to be grabbed by any means necessary, enjoyed whilst they are possessed, and not unduly mourned when they are lost. The barbarian can organise, can raise a kingdom or lead an army, can see to the forging of swords and armour, but does not raise the sort of bustling metropolis that the civilised man thrives in – not for them the idleness and luxuries and softness promoted by polite society.
The myth of barbarians at the gates ready to overthrow civilisations and their attendant cultures is precisely that, a myth. The Germanic kingdoms which replaced the Western Roman Empire gladly accepted the Empire’s national religion (or had been adherents of it for generations already) and soon came to think of themselves as natural successors to it. Kubla Khan, on conquering China, gladly let the civil service carry on as before because he realised you don’t kill the bureaucracy goose that lays the golden tax eggs. Cultures have, of course, destroyed other cultures (or made earnest attempts to do so) repeatedly in history, but the idea that urbanised cultures with technologically sophisticated toys are in danger from non-urbanised cultures is only believable if you ignore a tremendous amount of world history.
Still, Howard clings to the idea for dear life, and so The Hyborian Age is a long saga of one people being conquered by another over and over again. Howard does not seem to be completely against inter-racial mingling – there are some cases in which two races occupying the same area interbreed with the result that both their bloodlines are reinvigorated, but this is only the case when you have two races intermingling who are strong in the virtues Howard prizes. Most of the time, race mixing is a bad idea, particularly the sort of melting pot you get in the great cities, and in general it’s a good idea to keep your race pure. (Salient quotes include the fact that most Hyborians are mixed race to some extent and “Only in the province of Gunderband, where the people keep no slaves, is the pure Hyborian stock found unblemished”, a glancing mention that “the barbarians have kept their bloodstream pure”, and the fact that the lower classes of Stygia consist of “a down-trodden, mongrel horde, a mixture of negroid, Stygian, Shemitish, even Hyborian bloods”.)
The end of the Hyborian Age is, in fact, brought about by an ill-conceived attempt to impart the values of civilisation in savages. Arus is a priest who, in the name of promoting peace and non-violence, takes up missionary work amongst the cave-dwelling Picts. Soon enough, his teachings lead them to uplift themselves from savage tribes to a barbarian kingdom, which ends up sweeping across the world and eliminating all the old corrupt civilisations in their path. The segment narrating this is by far the most detailed part of the essay – for one thing, it’s the only part which includes any named individuals whatsoever – so it’s clear that it held some importance for Howard. The whole point about savage peoples not being softened or pacified by civilised missionaries does make me wonder whether it was a haphazard stab at social commentary on his part, arguing that colonialism simply expends the resources of the colonisers in providing infrastructure, technology, and sweet delicious guns to a bunch of savages who’ll ignore all the “civilising influence” their colonisers bring to bear and eventually maul the hand that feeds them. Charming.
There are even more obvious analogies to recent history in the essay. The whole savage/barbarian/civilised split is fairly plainly an adaptation to fantasy of the classic breakdown of cultures in Westerns – the savages have much in common with the way Native Americans were portrayed in many Westerns of the time, in that they’re violent primitives who live in the wilderness and are barely more than animals (the Picts in his stories are actually pseudo-Native Americans – this is most obvious in Beyond the Black River and The Black Stranger), and the civilised folk are those coddled, complacent sorts back East who don’t understand what the pioneering settlers are going through. The barbarians, naturally, are the settlers themselves, living in farms and in small towns rather than cosmopolitan cities, living off the land, accepting of violence and the cruel ways of nature but not brutishly ruled by them. These are the people that Howard, the son of a travelling doctor who as a child heard tales of the dying frontier spirit from the lips of cowboys, Civil War veterans and former slaves, obviously identified most with, and so it’s only natural that he would be highly partial to their analogues in his Wild West ancient past, the barbarians.
The typical defence raised by Howard’s defenders is that whilst he did have a view of history based on the clash of races, he didn’t necessarily privilege any particular race over any others – sure, white people are riding high now, but Howard’s ancient histories include races of brown-skinned Atlanteans being the dominant force at points in history. Everyone gets their turn in the sun, so what’s the problem? Well, first off, let’s remember that even if Howard did happily accept the idea that white people weren’t necessarily at the top of the privilege pyramid throughout the whole of history, and was open to the notion that they might be knocked off the top of the pyramid in the future, that doesn’t change the fact that at the time he was writing white people were the privileged class, and that remains the case to this day. The context Howard was written in, the audience he was writing for, and the context we read the stories in today are all relevant. And what sort of heroes did Howard write about? Overwhelmingly, white men standing tall against massed hordes, more often than not hordes of other races.
To cap things off, the essay is careful to illustrate how the various peoples of the Hyborian Age were the distant ancestors of many nations of today. “Bluh bluh they’re not meant to represent real world races” is always a terrible excuse for fiction based on inherently racist axioms, but in the case of the Conan stories it’s also objectively wrong; when Howard includes sly mentions in stories to hook-nosed Shemite counterfeiters, or mentions that Shemites tend to be lying, treacherous sorts, there’s no wriggle room to pretend this isn’t antisemitism because he said the Shemites were the ancestors of today’s Arabs and Jews.
Even though I don’t agree with the axioms on which the Silmarillion is based, I’m personally glad I took the time to wade through it, difficult though that was, because I feel it genuinely enriched my enjoyment of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to understand the various myths that those stories constantly allude to but rarely explain. Taking the time to properly read and understand The Hyborian Age – an essay which, due to its extremely dry nature, I had always skipped over before – has the opposite effect; it reveals just how ideological the Conan stories are. Much is made by Howard’s defenders of the “nihilistic” and “amoral” basis of the stories, but whilst the tales do not adhere to conventional morality, they do nonetheless quite clearly push an agenda – the idea that civilisation is weak and phony, and only men who have been acquainted with violence since birth and to whom violence comes naturally can effectively defend themselves and others from animalistic savages. The distinction between savage, barbarian, and civilised peoples, and the essentialist characters of the different races, are reaffirmed in absolutely every Conan story. It is quite simply impossible to get away from these ideas. Which is a shame, because they leave a sick taste in my mouth whenever they come up.
Conan the Thief
As far as fictional characters go, Conan is interesting because he simultaneously does and does not have a backstory. The very first Conan tale Howard wrote was The Phoenix On the Sword, which regardless of how you work out the internal chronology of the stories actually comes quite late in Conan’s life story – he’s already King of Aquilonia when it takes place, in fact, and the second story in order of writing (The Scarlet Citadel) is another tale from his reign. Consequently, a hell of a lot of the stories written subsequently are attempts to fill in Conan’s backstory as hinted at in those two stories, and shine a light on the experiences which gave a Cimmerian warrior like Conan the breadth of life experience and the skills as a warlord and a leader of men that were his to command as King of Aquilonia. (It’s tempting, in fact, to speculate that these prequels were merely written to keep the cheques coming in whilst Howard wrote the third and most ambitious story of Conan’s kingship, The Hour of the Dragon, which the sole novel-length Conan story he wrote and so was clearly more than just another quick knock-off to pay the cheques to Howard.) This does mean, of course, that the further you go back in the internal chronology, the more of a cipher Conan becomes, because he genuinely doesn’t have any backstory beyond “some Cimmerian who became a thief” there; this is why adaptations which tend to focus on the early tales (like the movies) end up having to concoct their own backstories to the dude.
Nowhere is the blank slateness of young Conan more apparent than in the third Conan story written, The Tower of the Elephant. The Tower is usually held to be either the first in the chronology or, at any rate, very early on in it – the most convincing evidence for this is that Conan is described as a youth in it, a descriptor which is more or less never applied to him subsequently. It’d also make sense logically that after successfully selling the first couple of Conan stories and deciding to flesh out King Conan’s early life, Howard would jump to as close to the beginning as he thought would be interesting. Conan in this story is as featureless as he ever gets in the series: he’s a young Cimmerian who’s trying to make his way as a thief in an unnamed city, he’s new in town and isn’t up to speed on the local rumours, and he’s still fumbling his way through learning the ways of city folk, and that’s literally all we know about him. He tries to break into a wizard’s tower to steal a mysterious gem he’s heard rumours about (the legendary Heart of the Elephant), but after he encounters another thief – the legendary Taurus of Nemedia – it becomes clear that our young Conan does not yet have the experience to pull off the heist, and he only survives thanks to Taurus’ carefully planned gambits and the intervention of a sad space elephant.
This story is interesting for anyone trying to analyse Conan’s character because although it doesn’t tell us much about where Conan has come from, it tells us a lot about how Howard thought of the character, and in particular what characteristics he thought Conan gained from his Cimmerian ancestry and upbringing. Here, we see a Conan more or less without baggage and before civilisation (as Howard conceives of it) has touched him – unlike in the later tales, he’s not yet a well-travelled citizen of the world capable of quickly adapting to the demands of different cultures, and he’s very much a stranger in a strange land. He’s got little to his name except his instinct for killing and self-preservation – as demonstrated when someone attacks him in the tavern he goes to in order to pick up some rumours to start off his first level thief quest – and a disregard for the norms of civilised society.
What is particularly interesting is that in presenting the unformed and unblemished proto-Conan to us, Howard also explicitly endorses Conan as simply being a better human being than everyone else in the bar:
He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him, This person was as much out of place in that den as a gray wolf among mangy rats of the gutters.
Again, the claim by Howard’s defenders that the Conan stories present an amoral and nihilistic view of the world seems kind of off here; it’s hard to see a statement like the above as anything other than a value judgement on the inherent worth of Conan compared to the rest of the crooks in the tavern. You might try to argue that the above is written from Conan’s point of view and therefore represents a judgement on his part, rather than on Howard’s, but that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny if you look at the overall story – in which it’s fairly clear that the first segment, concerning Conan doing his research in the tavern, is written as though the narrator were an invisible observer noting events unfolding in the bar during the preamble before honing in on the Kothian informant’s view of things (and keeps Conan’s motivations and inner thoughts a mystery), whereas the next section could more credibly be said to be told from Conan’s perspective since the narration is focused on Conan and regularly chimes in with what Conan’s thinking about things.
Now, we might debate as to whether the judgement made there is a moral one or not, but it certainly isn’t a nihilistic one. We’re being directly told that Conan possesses innate qualities that place him head and shoulders above the crowd around him – he is the noble and fearsome grey wolf, the others are mangy rats scrabbling for refuse in the gutter. It’s incredibly hard to read the above – particularly when taken in context – as anything other than Howard as narrator voicing his approval of Conan, and asking us to approve of him in turn. Whilst the stories are doubtless more enjoyable if you take them as being nihilistic orgies of violence with a protagonist whose actions you aren’t meant to condone, it stretches credibility to suggest that this is how they are presented; Howard was nowhere near as consistently nihilistic as he is made out to be.
Still, The Tower of the Elephant is a fun enough tale simply because despite the reader being nudged into siding with Conan, at least he doesn’t do anything dreadful this time around. Sure, he knifes a guy in a pub, but that’s in self-defence, and sure, he’s a thief, but he’s a thief who’s out to rob an evil wizard and he does end up saving the sad space elephant in the process. This makes the narration’s occasional references to greedy, hook-nosed Shemites particularly irritating because if those jibes weren’t there I’d have been able to give this one a clean bill of health. Still, I found I ended up enjoying the two other stories of Conan’s career as a thief – The God In the Bowl and Rogues In the House – to be superior, because as well as being much closer to the nihilistic and amoral stance the fans claim for Conan, they also present a wider cast of characters and use them to set up more interesting scenarios.
Take, for instance, The God In the Bowl, in which Conan is in no way the sole protagonist, and may not even be the main protagonist. The story unfolds in the premises of Kallian Publico, a merchant of Nemedia who deals in antiquities, and kicks off when city guardsman Arus discovers Kallian murdered. When Conan blunders into the scene, Arus’ quick thinking allows him to summon backup, and Conan is soon apprehended on suspicion of being the killer. Conan swears he just broke in to rob the place and didn’t murder anyone; most of the watchmen are inclined to discount his story, but the perceptive Inquisitor Demetrio thinks there’s more to the case than meets the eye. Of course, it turns out something nasty and supernatural is to blame and Conan has to kill the monster, but despite having a fairly predictable conclusion the story has a far from conventional structure for Howard – Demetrio, who’s the local equivalent of a detective, is at least as prominent as Conan, and in some respects is actually more of a protagonist than Conan this time around; for much of the story Conan glowers in the corner protesting his innocence whilst Demetrio turns up clues and ponders over their meaning.
The climax of the story – in which Conan snaps and butchers most of the watchmen, leaving Demetrio limping out of the story holding his entrails in with one hand, and the Cimmerian then faces the titular god in the bowl – might put Conan at centre stage, but though his slaying of the creature is arguaby a heroic act, the circumstances of Conan’s escape from his captors are brutal enough that it is hard to see him as a hero as opposed to a brute who happens to end up in a situation where he has to kill a god to survive. Then again, I suspect part of the reason I enjoy the story so much is because Howard doesn’t give it the spin his barbarian-savage-civilised philosophy would, strictly speaking, demand of the story. In principle, I guess we’re supposed to see Demetrio as a corrupt and effete representative of a corrupt and effete civilisation – at least, that’s what he’d be depicted as if Howard were being consistent about his philosophy. And certainly, you could read it that way, especially if you knew about Howard’s creepy ideology; the way the guards are keen to just pin the murder on Conan certainly seems to be a case of the corrupt civilised sorts having it in for the barbarian who’s far better qualified to deal with the problem than they are.
What saves the story is Demetrio, who upstages Conan for much of the tale by dint of being more interesting. As numerous Warhammer 40,000 novels have demonstrated, an Inquisitor who goes around torturing and oppressing people is no fun at all, but an Inquisitor who is basically a high-powered detective is really awesome fun. It does seem that Howard felt the same way, the love of a good detective story overriding his philosophical disdain for civilisation to the point where he almost seems to forget it’s a Conan story at points. The existence of characters like Demetrio does not excuse Howard’s noxious ideas – it doesn’t matter if you concede that a few individuals of a particular ethnicity might be OK guys if you still hold their culture in contempt – but in this case it does make Howard a lot more palatable than he otherwise would be.
Rogues In the House is another story in which Conan is one of several protagonists, and isn’t the most sympathetic one with it, although it is more problematic than The God In the Bowl. The basic premise is pretty good – Conan is in prison in some unnamed city when Murilo, a young noble, offers him a deal: if Murilo can engineer a jailbreak to get Conan out of the prison, Conan will assassinate the infamous Red Priest Nabonidus who is the puppetmaster dominating the political life of the city.
When the jailbreak part of the plan does awry Murilo decides to kill Nabonidus for himself – he doesn’t have time to try again because if he delays the Red Priest will make good on his threat to have Murilo denounced as a traitor and executed. Conan, when he does manage to break free from prison by repurposing materials provided under the original plan, decides that honour demands that he repay the favour he owes Murilo, even though the breakout didn’t go as expected, and makes his own way to Nabonidus’s house. Conan and Murilo both find that themselves trapped in the Red Priest’s dungeon along with Nabonidus himself, all three of them having been cast down there by Thak, Nabonidus’ super-intelligent pet ape who has sussed out how the house’s various traps work and has used them to take control of the place. Murilo, Nabonidus and Conan find they must work together to beat Thak, despite the fact that they really, really can’t trust each other.
As I mentioned, Rogues In the House shares with The God In the Bowl the idea of including a more sympathetic character than Conan who gets to share the spotlight with him – this time around, it’s Murilo. Sure, he’s a guy who hires assassins and arranges jailbreaks – and sells secrets to the city’s enemies, it turns out – but he’s in a predicament that we can sympathise with and there is something admirable in the way he tries to beat Nabonidus at his own game as opposed to curling up and dying. Indeed, much of the early narration in the novel is from his point of view instead of Conan’s.
But this time around, Murilo does not upstage Conan to the extent that Demetrio did in the previous story; Conan is most definitely calling the shots in this adventure. And on the whole, it’s a pretty good story, packed with more dramatic reversals and surprises than many less talented fantasy authors manage in full novels, though there are some seriously problematic elements to it. As far as antagonists go, Thak is a kind of sleazy choice if you remember (or are even aware of) the whole thing with particularly “degenerate” savages reverting into being ape-men, and it is heavily hinted that this is the case with Thak. Even more off-putting is the first instance of what I am afraid is a recurring theme in the series: Conan treating women like shit.
In this particular case, I mean that literally. Before he goes off to assassinate the Red Priest, Conan has a little unfinished business to deal with: his lady friend who snitched on him, and her guardsman lover. Conan stomps over to where they are shacked up, confronts the guardsman and kills him. Then Howard seems to balk at having Conan kill the woman as well – perhaps for fear of alienating his readership, or perhaps because he keeps kidding himself into thinking that Conan is basically a decent guy who treats women right, a character trait entirely inconsistent with the way Conan actually behaves. (That’s going to be another recurring theme, I’m afraid.) So instead he has Conan pick her up and toss her off the roof of the building into a cesspit. Because violence, humiliation, and thick coatings of shit are perfectly alright but murder isn’t, or something.
This is the worst of all possible worlds. If Conan had dumped both the guardsman and the woman in the cesspit, then that’d be fine – Conan humiliates the people responsible for incarcerating him, everybody lets out a hearty lol, we move on. If Conan had butchered them both, then that’d be grimdark to the extreme and rather unpalatable, but at least it would put the woman on an even pegging with the guardsman – she was equally responsible for Conan’s imprisonment, she ends up equally dead, it’s not something we can cheer or applaud but it’d be grim and amoral and nihilistic and all that other shit the defenders claim the stories are. As it stands, the way Howard presents the scene implies that the woman is essentially human refuse who isn’t even worth killing; when a man does Conan wrong, then it’s just and right that Conan takes his bloody revenge, but when a woman does Conan wrong then she’s a silly little thing who couldn’t help her self and shouldn’t be held to the same standard – instead, she should just be publicly humiliated, that’ll learn her.
Of course, it would have been even better for the flow of the story if Howard had just cut the scene out altogether – regardless of whether you have Conan killing a defenceless woman or flinging her in the poo pit, it’s a completely distasteful sequence from beginning to end and serves absolutely no purpose. It isn’t even necessary to establish that Conan is a badass that you do not fuck with because at this point in the story he’s already demonstrated that with the manner of his escape from jail. In the end, the scene seems to exist only to fluff up the word count, and to humiliate some random woman we weren’t previously aware existed in the process.
Conan the Rapist
It gets worse though. In The Frost Giant’s Daughter we learn that Conan is a frustrated rapist.
The Frost Giant’s Daughter is a tricky story to place in the chronology – although Conan is clearly meant to be quite young in it, and it’s set way up in the frozen north in one of the few stories which take place in close proximity of his Cimmerian homeland, he isn’t quite described in the adolescent terms applied to him in The Tower of the Elephant and some of Howard’s correspondence seems to suggest Tower is meant to be the character’s chronological debut. Either way; Conan’s gone up north to fight alongside the Aesir (not-Vikings) as a mercenary. The story begins at the conclusion of an epic battle, of which Conan is the only survivor. Suddenly, a mysterious naked woman who calls herself Atali appears on the battlefield and teases Conan; Conan charges off after her across the frozen wastes, only to discover that she is the daughter of the god Ymir, and she makes it her habit to lure warriors off battlefields so that her brothers (who are much more giant-like) can kill them. Long story short, Conan fights her brothers and kills them, then decides that on balance he still wants to fuck Atali, and he ends up chasing after her and attempts to rape her; she is rescued only when her divine father shows up and spirits her away.
There is no excuse possible for this story. In execution the prose is alright by Howard’s standards and it succeeds at striking the mythic tone he was apparently going for this time around. But the subject matter at hand is completely vile. First off, there is absolutely no question that Conan intends to rape Atali, though Howard apologists have been known to claim otherwise. Howard leaves no room for ambiguity when it comes to Conan’s motives here: he intends to chase Atali down, overpower her, and rape her. I suppose that if you were really trying your hardest to find a way to make the story palatable, you could interpret Atali’s behaviour as being inviting at first, considering that her teasing can be summarised as “it’s a shame you’re not a manly manly man who could chase me down and have hot tundra sex with me, no way, you can’t do that, nuh-uh, I double dare you”, but even conceding that it might have that sort of angle to it at the beginning, it certainly doesn’t by the end. Once Conan has confronted Atali’s brothers and killed them, that really ought to be the end of Conan’s plans to have sex with Atali, because there’s no longer any room to argue that Atali might be playing some sort of consensual game with him; at that point, she’s running for her life.
Even worse than the story itself is the arguments I’ve seen people make trying to defend it. It seems that there are several Howard fans out there – I won’t single any out by linking to them – who are perfectly happy to do the victim-blaming thing, arguing that Conan was provoked into trying to rape Atali and therefore he shouldn’t be blamed for it when she was the one strutting about naked being a teasy tease-tease. It is of course indisputable that Atali was there to provoke Conan – that was kind of the plan. At the same time, there’s a name for the sort of person who responds to provocation with rape, and that’s “rapist”. I’m not saying I’d necessarily respond well if someone plotted to lure into an ambush so their brothers can kill me, most people wouldn’t. But it’d at least get me to reconsider the situation. I’d probably say to myself “Hm, perhaps this nice lady isn’t trying to lead me to a dumpster full of mint-condition Warhammer 40,000 novels,” (or whatever premise is used to get me to follow her down a dark alley). “Maybe,” I would think, “a nice tea party and a stimulating discussion of the Horus Heresy novels wasn’t her plan for this evening after all. Why, I ought to fundamentally reconsider my interactions with this person, because to continue angling after something which was never on the cards anyway would be downright irrational!”
Conan doesn’t work like that. He’s here for sex and by Crom he’s going to have it, whether Atali likes it or not. The fact that she’s no longer teasing him or snidely suggesting that a real man would have chased her down already, that she’s now scared and running to get away from this situation, means nothing to him. There’s even a creepy rape-as-punishment vibe to make the whole thing extra nasty. I guess you could count this story as another one where the whole “it’s supposed to be amoral and nihilistic!” Howard-defenders’ bleat is actually true for once, but even if that’s the case, who really wants to read anything this ugly and seedy? And besides, it isn’t amoral because there is a clear (and abhorrent) moral to the story: don’t wave your ass around like that or you’ll get more than you bargained for. Reprehensible.
Conan vs. Africa
Queen of the Black Coast sees Conan, fleeing from the law, takes passage on a southbound ship which ends up being raided by the fearsome Bêlit, a ferocious Shemite pirate captain, and her crew of black dudes who worship her as a goddess. Impressing Bêlit with his prowess and thewfulness, she makes him her lover and co-captain, and together they terrorise the seas off the coast of not-Africa. Despite the fat stacks of loot they have won for themselves, Bêlit’s unquenchable thirst for riches is still not sated, and she convinces Conan that they should go on an expedition downriver into deepest not-Africa to find a legendary lost city. Then there’s chaos, disaster, and yet more mutated ex-humans fallen into the state beneath savagery. (In this case there’s a bat person and some hyaena people.) Bêlit and crew buy the farm, so at the end of the tale Conan is marooned in not-Africa.
So, we’ve got racism by the score here: Bêlit, a woman whose skin is compared favourably to ivory, lords it over a bunch of black guys who worship her as a goddess. Naturally, Conan as another white person is qualified for a leadership role and responsibilities which it is never suggested any of the other crewmen gets even close to possessing. Obviously, said crewmen are all servile and craven and superstitious, and on the whole the story sees Howard’s racist instincts very much on display. It isn’t as bad as the subsequent story, The Vale of Lost Women, but that’s hardly anything to boast about: there’s probably Klan pamphlets that aren’t as racist as The Vale of Lost Women.
Where Queen of the Black Coast really stands out for me is in its sexual content; specifically, the hilariously juvenile nature of its sexual content. The next time male geeks deride “girl books for girls” on the basis that all that lovey-dovey stuff isn’t proper storytelling… Well, to be honest the best response to that is to tell them to fucking grow up, but once you’ve done that you could also point them towards this story, which has a romance subplot which far outshines more or less anything I’ve read when it comes to unabashed authorial wish-fulfilment.
Bêlit literally sails into Conan’s world and within a minute of seeing him in action decides that they are going to fuck. She more or less declares this and Conan is glad to agree. Bêlit celebrates this by pretty much doing a striptease for Conan in full view of the crew, at the end of which they embrace and the scene fades to black, leaving us to wonder whether they bothered going to her cabin or just rutted in front of their underlings. Later, they are described as lounging about on the deck snuggling whilst discussing their piratey business, and Bêlit has fallen so deeply in love with Conan that after she dies she comes back from the afterlife to save his skin. (This is where that plot detail from the 1982 movie came from.) In short, the whole story presents Bêlit as an incredible fantasy figure – a forceful, commanding woman who practically begs Conan to let her be his sexual plaything and is willing to show off their sexual relationship to all and sundry, including by performing an honest to goodness mating dance (“Wolves of the blue sea, behold ye now the dance – the mating-dance of Bêlit, whose fathers were kings of Askalon!”) for the titillation of Conan, pirates and of course the readers.
As well as all the slimy sexism and racism angles to this (supposedly powerful woman is rendered submissive before the brawny barbarian’s boners, pirate queen considers burly, handsome black crewmen unworthy but strips for the first burly, handsome white dude she sees), it’s also completely laughable. Queen of the Black Coast is one of those stories where you end up suspecting that the author was typing one-handed. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with writing stories about what gets you hard, there’s often a consequence of basing stories on your very specific sexual fantasies: namely, that the results only really work if the reader also happens to share your fantasies, and if they don’t, then a lot of the time the story will just come across as being either offensive or ridiculous. Unless you yourself think the idea of having some ivory-skinned naked pirate lady jump onto your ship and fuck your brains out in front of her entire crew is smokin’ hot, it’s almost impossible not to snigger at the romantic subplot here.
Speaking of white supremacist sex fantasies, wow, the next story is terrible. The Vale of Lost Women centres around Livia, a terrified white women who has been captured by a raiding party of the most horrifying monsters of the Hyborian Age: black people. Disgusted and afraid of everyone from the tribal chief Bajujh to the woman who brings Livia her food, Livia thinks she has her chance for escape when Conan, who has become chief of an allied tribe by virtue of being
white awesome (just kidding, it’s totally because he’s white) comes to visit. Slipping into Conan’s luxury VIP guest hut, Livia throws herself on his mercy, and he agrees to help her because the idea of leaving a white woman to be raped by black people is repulsive to him.
They make their escape, but unfortunately Livia gets lost due to being a silly civilised woman who needs a big strong daddy to take care of her and make the decisions for her. (This is a recurring motif of any story in which Conan has to take care of a white woman from civilisation, particularly those of the “slave escaped from a black master” variety; almost invariably, the woman in question will prove to have an almost infinite ability to get into trouble when outside Conan’s supervision.) She stumbles into the titular vale, inhabited by the titular lost women, and they coo and pet her and give her drugs and it begins to look like one of them – or maybe several of them – might become Livia’s big strong daddy. (“Her lips pressed Livia’s in a long terrible kiss. The Ophirean felt coldness, running through her veins; her limbs turned brittle; like a white statue of marble she lay in the arms of her captress, incapable of speech or movement.”) Having fulfilled his titillation quotient, Howard has his tribe of undomesticated homosexuals try to sacrifice Livia to a giant bat, because that is totally what lesbians do to nice straight white girls who fall into their clutches, and Conan charges in to save the day.
You might, based on the above summary, come away with a negative impression of the story. Take that and amplify it a hundredfold and you might have some idea how abhorrent the whole thing is. The “it’s meant to be amoral” argument takes another crippling blow this time around, in which it is quite clear that despite frequent claims to the contrary Conan does have a code of honour and morality which he adheres to in this story.
“You said I was a barbarian,” he said harshly , “and that is true, Crom be thanked. If you had had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig this night. I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I live by the sword’s edge. But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man; and though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her consent. Customs differ in various countries, but if a man is strong enough, he can enforce a few of his native customs anywhere. And no man ever called me a weakling!
“If you were old and ugly as the devil’s pet vulture, I’d take you away from Bajujh, simply because of the colour of your hide.”
Set aside, for a moment, Conan’s claim that he has never raped anyone, because we know from The Frost Giant’s Daughter that this is purely a competence issue as opposed to being a matter of ethics. The point is, Conan has expressed here a moral outlook: namely, that black people are depraved animals and only a flint-hearted cur would leave a white woman in their clutches. No, friends, it’s clear that the Conan saga does have a moral dimension, arising from a moral system that by today’s standards has been banished to the fringe when it is stated this openly and aggressively but which is still very much with us in more low-key manifestations. Sure, I’ll grant you that Conan immerses himself in the local culture to the extent that he becomes a tribal leader, but that doesn’t change the fact that once a white woman is involved all bets are off, because at heart Conan, like Howard, is a paternalistic and racist asshole who considers it his job to protect white women from black men. Let’s remember that at the time Howard was writing this very story, the moral principles outlined in the above speech were being to put into effect by white lynch mobs across the American South.
(And, of course, there were also white people who were completely shocked and ashamed by the whole concept of lynching, and by the appalling racism of the time in general. Let’s not give Howard the get-out clause that “everyone was racist” back then, because everyone was certainly not racist to the extent that this story and many, many others reveal Howard to have been.)
If you set the racism aside… well, let’s face it, you can’t can you? There’s some shit which is just too disgusting to ignore and “FILTHY BLACK MAN GET YOUR HANDS OFF OUR PRECIOUS WHITE WOMEN” is one of them. But in a theoretical situation in which you were able to set the racism aside – say, because you’re a privileged white boy who can just glide past all that stuff – the story still has plenty of issues. The sexism, for one thing. The Vale of Lost Women is just one of a long series of stories in which Conan is paired off with a civilised woman who is entirely capable of taking care of herself; like other such characters in other stories, Livia is almost completely infantilised, and the events of the story make it brutally apparent that bad shit happens whenever she fails to meekly follow Conan and obey his every order.
To give Howard his due, he may be doing something here which is a tiny bit more nuanced than simply saying “man strong, woman weak, woman do what man say and man protect woman, get kisses”. It is definitely arguable that his treatment of women, like his treatment of men, is a reflection of his barbarism-civilisation-savagery philosophy. Bêlit, though the Shemites are usually in the civilisation camp, lives a barbaric lifestyle, and like the other barbarian women who occasionally pop up in the stories is far more capable of taking care of herself and is much closer to interacting with Conan as an equal than the civilised women, who as mentioned are depicted as incompetent, prissy crybabies who might possibly show the odd glimmer of having some steel to them by the end of the story they are in. Howard, in short, might be trying to suggest that refined manners and cultural mores are themselves responsible for infantilising women and making them utterly dependent on men, whilst the proud barbarian women have not undergone this process of cultural conditioning, whilst strong women such as Bêlit are capable of breaking free of it.
But merely pointing out that some of Howard’s female characters are stronger than Livia does not get Howard off the hook. Valeria, one of the strongest female leads in a Conan story, ends up helpless and in need of being rescued, as do more or less all the other women in Conan stories aside from Bêlit, who dies and comes back from the dead to rescue Conan. So, of all these supposedly strong female characters, only Bêlit manages to avoid having said strength neutralised during the course of the stories they appear in. She still gets fridged for her trouble – and she still basically throws herself at Conan’s feet and encourages him to consider her his sex puppet. Compare to the various civilised men who adventure with Conan momentarily, such as Murilo in Rogues In the House, who is clearly supposed to be wussy as a result of the wussifying influences of civilisation but still gets to keep something resembling dignity and a backbone.
Really, the big difference is this: in the Conan stories, soft civilised women are afraid of violence and sex, whilst barbarian women and the stronger sorts of civilised women say “yes” to both. Livia, like other civilised women who accompany Conan until he invariably ditches them between stories like unwanted puppies, is horrified by the violence unleashed as a result of Conan going into action, and tries to suppress and deny her yearning for Conan to go into action with her naked-style. Bêlit, conversely, is just free and liberated enough to know that she really wants Conan to do the nasty with her and her strength consists of her saying “Nice loincloth, wanna fuck?”
Conan the Commander
At this point in his career Conan finds his way back to miscellaneous desert kingdoms and makes a go of life as a mercenary. Stories in this vein include Black Colossus, a particularly ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn something resembling foreshadowing into the saga. The plot is fairly simple: Thugra Kotan, a sinister wizard from bygone days, is roused from his deathlike slumbers and attempts to conquer the world, necromancers traditionally being peckish for world conquest when they’ve been resurrected. Princess Yasmela, the ruler of Khoraja, is one of the rulers whose city-states are in the path of Thugra’s army of darkness. Thugra is a creepy sort, given to visiting Yasmela in spirit form in order to go “woooo check me out I am spooky also you will be my wife in ghost land woooo”. Yasmela is naturally upset, so at the suggestion of her handmaiden Vateesa she goes to the shrine of Mitra in order to beg for the deity’s help. She is instructed to go into the street incognito and give command of her armies and the mercenary forces hired in to bolster them to the first man she sees. That man, of course, is Conan.
At this point, the story goes completely coo-coo for Destiny. More or less everything that happens subsequently is designed to yell from the rooftops “Hey! Guys! Conan’s going to become a king one day!” For instance, when Conan dresses up in his fancy-pants Top General armour we are directly told that he looks kingly. And despite having been a rank-and-file footsoldier in the mercenary band up to this point, he adapts to the demands of leadership rapidly, managing to win a desperate victory where most expect only certain defeat. Now, it is of course possible that up to this point in his career Conan had been able to learn a thing or two about army-scale tactics from observing his superior officers. And, of course, because of the fuzziness of the Conan timeline he might have had prior experience at this sort of thing. But the internal evidence of the story suggests otherwise; Conan never says anything along the lines of “It’s OK guys, I’ve actually led armies before” when everyone is taken aback by the fact he’s been picked to lead them, and in general the point seems to be that as far as everyone (including himself) knows Conan is a completely quixotic choice for leader of the army, and yet he surprises everyone with how well he does (even though the army does get smushed in the process). Still, aside from this Great Man silliness the story’s one of the more inoffensive Conan tales aside from the damsel in distress stuff, which is cosmic background radiation levels of sexism compared to how misogynistic Howard gets elsewhere. It’s just a shame the story’s so mediocre once the action actually starts to get rolling.
Shadows In the Moonlight is both tiresomely dull and horrifyingly offensive, in comparison. Conan has, it seems, been spending some time leading the kozaki warrior hordes, but a reversal of fate has found them scattered by Hyrkanian forces under the leadership of the infamous Shah Amurath, lord of Akif. We come to the story as Amurath finds himself deep in swampland, chasing after Olivia, a princess of Ophir, who he purchased as a harem slave and who recently escaped from his entourage. So, straight off the bat you have the evil, filthy not-Arab cornering the cowering not-European woman and getting into exchanges like this:
“Let me go!” begged the girl, tears of despair staining her face. “Have I not suffered enough? Is there any humiliation, pain or degradation you have not heaped on me? How long must my torment last?”
“As long as I find pleasure in your whimperings, your pleas, tears and writhings,” he answered with a smile that would have seemed gentle to a stranger.
By this point you should be able to tell where this is going. We have, right here, a woman being menaced with sexual violence and humiliation by someone who isn’t Conan – even worse, someone who isn’t white. This means that it’s a bad thing and Conan’s going to show up to save her, so she can get off on submitting utterly to his hardened white barbarian nature as opposed to Amurath’s decadent, degenerate, civilised brown person nature. Much of the rest of Olivia’s character arc consists of her realising that despite Conan coming from “a people bloody, grim and ferocious” he actually knows how to treat a lady – in that he tells her what to do and cares for her like you would a particularly helpless pet – whereas the supposedly civilised man just wanted to degrade and abuse her.
Anyway, Conan and Olivia have fairly random and directionless adventures in the swamp, fall asleep in an ancient city full of iron statues – who turn out to be the frozen inhabitants who only return to the flesh under the moonlight – and eventually Conan ends up in charge of a pirate ship and they sail away. Oh, and there’s some stuff with a man-ape, and it turns out the iron men back when they were alive were black-skinned and yet “They were not negroes” – presumably because the idea of actual African people building a city was just too fantastical for Howard to contemplate. Oh, and if Olivia’s dreams are to be believed they were cursed after they had the temerity to abuse, mutilate, and murder a handsome white boy who might have been some kind of demigod.
To be honest, the tale is an enormous mess, Howard apparently not deciding whether it’s going to be about Conan meeting Olivia or Conan taking over the pirate ship or Conan fighting a man-ape or bad shit going down in the sinister city, and opting to just throw all that stuff out there without really electing which to focus on. It comes across, in fact, like the opening chapters of a longer story in which Conan and Olivia go pirating on the high seas, except as usual Olivia vanishes and never appears in any subsequent Conan tale. (A suspicious person would question what Conan does with all these women who end up clutching to him at the end of his stories, and posit the existence of a range of shallow graves dotted across the Hyborean realms.)
A Witch Shall Be Born sees Conan back in full-time employment as head of the palace guards of Tamaris, queen of Khauran. As the story opens, Tamaris is awoken from her sleep by an intruder – Salome, her long-lost twin sister, who was left in the desert to die at birth due to a superstition about witches being born into the royal house of Khauran and was, ironically enough, adopted by a warlock who taught her all the magic he knew. Along with her accomplice Constantius and his band of Shemite mercenaries, Tamaris has neutralised the palace guards in order to pull off the perfect coup – tossing Tamaris into the dungeon so that she can steal her identity and rule Khauran in her place.
Conan, meanwhile, after being taken captive is crucified by Constantius in the desert. (Yes, he does survive by biting through the next of a vulture and drinking its blood like in the 1982 movie.) Eventually rescued by Olgerd Vladislav, leader of a group of desert bandits, Conan eventually wrests control of the band from Vladislav and forges them into a terrifying fighting force, which he intends to storm Khauran with to get his revenge. Meanwhile in Khauran, a few of the downtrodden locals discover the true fate of Tamaris, prompting the heroic Valerius to mount a daring rescue attenpt – but Salome in the meantime has summoned the monstrous Thaug to reside in the temple of Ishtar and nom on sacrifices, and Tamaris is on the menu!
This is one of those Conan stories which becomes halfway palatable mainly because Conan is not the sole protagonist, and in fact is upstaged by someone else partway through – namely, Valerius. Valerius, as a product of civilisation, has less of Howard’s sympathy, but I find that inadvertently Howard manages to make me care about Valerius and support him more than Conan. The fact is that Valerius’s rescue mission is a high-stakes gambit on which the very survival of Khauran depends – Howard does a good job of illustrating how if Tamaris is not freed them between the tyranny of Salome and Constantius and Conan’s bloodthirsty desire for revenge Khauran will be ripped completely to pieces. As it is, because Valerius is able to present Conan with the real Tamaris and demonstrate that it was not she who betrayed him, Conan limits his vengeance-taking to Constantius and his men and fucks off.
There’s a startling bit towards the end where Conan declares he is going to kill all the Shemites in the city, which sounds terrible to anyone reading it after 1945 but in context clearly refers to the mercenaries, so it’s a merciless and cold-hearted war crime perpetrated against a defeated army as opposed to ethnic cleansing of women and children. Either way, I think it helps the story that by that point Conan says this Valerius has taken his place as the actual hero and Conan is yet another threat to the city that must be neutralised. This is probably not the interpretation Howard intended but I’ll take what I can get at this stage.
Shadows In Zamboula is a story about how there’s no good or legitimate reason for white people and black people to live in the same community, and white folks who willingly let black people share the same town as them have got to be up to something unsavoury.
No, seriously, I am not fucking kidding. A large part of the action revolves around the fact that the town of Zamboula has a bunch of slaves from Darfar – black slaves, obviously – who happen to be cannibals. The civilised fops of the town are so decadent they see nothing wrong with letting their slaves roam the streets at night eating people – because, after all, only undersirables like beggars and travellers would be out at night and or leave their doors unlocked in the town. There’s some mildly interesting chicanery going on with Conan being manipulated by some of the locals in a scheme revolving around a magic ring, only for the twist ending to reveal that Conan was not the naive rube they took him to be and had in fact been duping them himself, but that’s rather eclipsed by the whole “cannibal night watch” deal, which manages to be both appallingly racist and staggeringly stupid at the same time.
Oh, yeah, and there’s an evil priest who sacrifices people to “Hanuman the Accursed”, because Howard got all his knowledge of Hinduism from Kipling.
The Devil In Iron is an expanded take on the same general concept. Again, we have a slave girl who we are supposed to understand is vaguely European – Octavia – escaping from the clutches of a gentleman we are supposed to understand is some sort of dubious Middle Eastern type – in this case, the villainous Jehungir Agha. Again, Conan is a kozak leader whose kozak allies are conspicuous by their absence – this time, because he’s set out on his own for a rendezvous with Octavia, who he’s been led to believe is going to run away from Agha’s clutches that night so he can spirit her away.
However, Octavia was in fact coerced into giving Conan that impression so that he could be lured by himself to the island of Xapur, where Agha’s men will be able to trap him and capture him. This nefarious scheme goes awry due to the wild card involved – Khosatral Khel, a hellish demon from the outer void, which has been awoken from its ancient sleep by an unsuspecting fisherman exploring the island. Khel has used its awesome powers to reconstruct the island as it was back when Khel was last awake – once more, the fearsome fortress of Khel stands, and his servants, the sinister Yuetshi priesthood, once more live and worship Khel within its halls. In other words, once again we have a sinister city of some long-forgotten race and an evil within it which turns out not to be as dead as everyone thought it was complicating the plot, but at least this time around the source of the evil is something a bit more interesting and less exasperating than “woo, spooky black people”.
Unfortunately, there are women and people who are not European involved in the story, and therefore Howard once again jams his foot in his mouth. As well has having Octavia threatened with torture and abuse at the hands of a sinister Shemite in order to get her to co-operate with the plan, Howard ends the story by yet again driving a truck over the very concept of consent. Having won the day, Conan is momentarily crestfallen when Octavia says she isn’t actually attracted to him and was just pretending because she was forced to. Then he laughs, declares it doesn’t matter because she belongs to him anyway, and starts forcing her to make out with him until she likes it. Once again, it’s made clear that Conan has absolutely no problem with rape, because the sheer force of his masculinity will make the women he turns his attentions to want it bad by the end of the process even if they don’t want it at all at the beginning; granted, the whole idea of the woman who at first spurns a particular guy’s attentions before changing her mind and coming around to liking him is the core premise of a whole swathe of stories, not all of which are necessarily gross, but to have that change come about in the space of a paragraph simply because a guy is a good kisser is sheer wish fulfillment of the most crass kind, the sort of thing authors get laughed out of town for even in fairly accepting amateur communities like fanfic circles.
The Conan Who Would Be King
The People of the Black Circle is a fairly lengthly Conan novellla which combines the best and worst of Howard’s writing. The story begins in Vendhya (think the Indian subcontinent), where the ruler Bunda Chand has been assassinated thanks to the occult influence of the Black Seers of Yishma. The Devi Yasmina, Bunda’s sister, is outraged at this turn of events and hits on a plan to use Conan to get her vengeance. Conan has made himself leader of a fearsome force of Afghuli bandits (yes, they’re loosely based on Kiplingesque depictions of Afghans), and it just so happens that Yasmina’s forces have apprehended a bunch of the Afghuli leaders. Conan needs to free these men if he is going to keep the Afghuli’s loyalty, so Yasmina intends to offer to release them in return for Conan riding forth against the Black Seers.
Things do not quite go down as planned. First off, Conan has his own ideas: he kidnaps Yasmina so that he can ransom her back to her people in return for the Afghuli prisoners. Second, Kerim Shah, a spymaster for the King of Turan, is on the scene – and in fact commissioned the Black Seers to kill Bunda Chand in the first place – and when shit hits the fan moves to exploit the situation for his employer’s benefit. Thirdly, the Black Seers have their own agent in the vicinity, Khemsa – but since Khemsa has fallen for the Devi’s ambitious maid Gitara in breach of his Jedi-like obligations to rise above emotional entanglements, it’s anyone’s guess what he will do with the magical power his training with the Black Seers have given him. And at some point in all the chaos, Yasmina is captured by the Black Seers, prompting Conan to attempt a daring rescue.
The People of the Black Circle is one of those Conan stories which really frustrates me, because even though it carries around a bundle of bigotry there’s a lot to like about the tale. First off, it’s one of the longer Conan stories, and this gives Howard room to attempt a somewhat more involved and well-developed plot than the shorter and more formulaic ones; Howard sets up an interconnected web of treachery, coincidence, and people working at cross-purposes with a skill you would never had expected he possessed on the basis of, say Queen of the Black Coast. There’s dramatic reversals of fortune worthy of Jack Vance, properly weird and otherworldly magic, and some really good fights on top of that.
However, there’s no getting around Howard’s finely-honed scepticism of the idea that women might be competent to make their own choices, or the disasters which ensue whenever Howard turns his attention to cultures other than his own. At its heart, the fantasy of the white European making himself the leader of an Afghan horde is straight out of Kipling (who, again, seems to be Howard’s sole source of information on this part of the world), as is the depiction of Afghan culture as having more or less no attributes other than banditry. Similarly, the Black Seers are clearly based on the sort of mangled rumours about Tibetan Buddhism that had inspired Helena Blavatsky to weave her stories about secret masters from the Himalayas guiding humanity and transmitting the secrets of Theosophy to her. (Weirdly, I find that this makes the depiction of the Black Seers a bit more palatable than that of the not-Afghans, probably because in the case of the Black Seers the depiction is separated from reality to such an enormous extent that it’s not so much a bigoted stereotype about real flesh and blood people so much as it’s a complete fabrication. Then again, actual Tibetans may feel differently on that score.)
On top of this, whilst Conan begins the story as one of a series of people who are furiously screwing each other over, by the end of the tale he is back in the role of main protagonist and is presented as someone we are expected to cheer on as he rescues Yasmina from the clutches of the wizards. This makes Conan’s attitude to Yasmina seriously problematic. Once again, Conan is constantly telling Yasmina that they are going to fuck at some point and Yasmina is like “no, we’re not” and Conan is like “psah, like you have a fucking choice”. At least, unlike in The Devil In Iron, the Devi is not overpowered by the force of Conan’s kisses and is able to go free unmolested. When Conan says he’ll come visit one day with his army she swears to have an army twice the size to meet him when he shows up, which Conan takes as cheeky flirtation rather than the “I will raise a force of thousands of armed men whose job it is to make sure you never, ever touch me again” statement it kind of comes across as; I think we’re meant to take their exchange as laughing banter which is meant to imply that Yasmina does kind of dig Conan, though the story has given us absolutely no reason to believe that would be the case.
Conan vs. Cities
The Slithering Shadow is yet another story in which Conan travels around with a pet girl in tow, who is all feeble and delicate and whose spoiled civilised ways cause our stalwart barbarian hero trouble and grief. This time, she’s called Natala, and she are Conan are stuck in the desert when they come across the fabulous lost city of Xuthal. The people of Xuthal spend their lives in a drugged daze due to their regular consumption of wine made from the narcotic black lotus, and are preyed upon by Thog, a god from the outer darkness who’s all shadowy and tentacly and blob-like – think a Howardian take on a shoggoth – and who regularly eats them. Conan and Natala meet a woman called Thalis, who falls in love with Conan and so decides to dispose of Natala by sacrificing her to Thog. Conan saves Natala from Thog, they leave, the end.
As one of the more simplistic Conan stories, The Slithering Shadow comes across like a rough blueprint for Red Nails, which has a similar premise – Conan and woman are in the wilderness, they find an abandoned city, it turns out there’s a lost civilisation in there, also there’s monsters. However, whilst Red Nails features Valeria, the only woman ally of Conan aside from Belit who is ever allowed to do anything cool ever, The Slithering Shadowis one more bog standard “helpless woman really ought to submit to whatever Conan wants if she hopes to survive” deal, and it’s about as infuriating in that regard as you’d expect – plus you have the added spin of the plot being driven by female sexual jealousy to add even more sexism points to the pile. On the racism front, given that Xuthal is a city-sized opium den, Howard takes the depressingly predictable route of emphasising how the locals (aside from Thalis, who like Conan and Natala are outsiders) are yellow-skinned sorts with slanted eyes, so there’s your Howardian racial xenophobia box firmly checked.
Of course, now that we’re thirteen stories deep, none of this is a surprise. But you know what did jump out at me? The bit where Thalis ties Natala up, strips her naked, and flogs the shit out of her. In context, this comes out of nowhere and makes absolutely no sense; Thalis’ plan hinges on disposing of Natala quickly by feeding her to Thog and then laying the charm on Conan, and so taking time out to flog her doesn’t aid the plan at all and only creates the risk of Conan walking in on them. Once someone discovers you standing there holding a whip whilst a naked girl with lash-marks across her back is dangling from her bonds sobbing her little heart out, saying “This isn’t what it looks like” doesn’t really cut it, you know? Howard comes up with a semi-justification for the scene by having Natala (completely ineffectually) attempt to stab Thalis in order to get away from her, but even then that doesn’t wash, because you know what also be good revenge? Feeding Natala to Thog as planned.
No, the scene is transparently present for one reason and one reason alone: because Weird Tales was a sleazy old rag whose editor at the time, Farnsworth Wright, never missed an opportunity to put some Margaret Brundage bondage art on the cover to boost sales, like so (link is NSFW, by the way). This aspect of Weird Tales is often forgotten these days, possibly because after all, the only other Weird Tales author whose fame these days shines even approximately as brightly as Howard’s is good old H.P. Lovecraft, and the idea of Creepy Howie writing a sex scene for the purposes of audience titillation – or, indeed, writing a sex scene at all – is too ridiculous for words. But then again, Lovecraft and Wright were always kind of out of step of each other – Wright even rejected At the Mountains of Madness, a crime for which he should have been
stripped naked, spanked, and then fed to shoggoths – whereas Howard and other Weird Tales authors were much more willing to cater to Wright’s tastes by throwing in a bondage scene here and there, purely to catch Wright’s eye in order to snag the cover illustration for their story.
This is one of Howard’s more blatant attempts at this particular game. The only thing it really adds to the story is set up a reason for Thog to sneak up on Thalis and eat her whilst she’s busy beating the shit out of Natala. Apparently shoggoths get off on nonconsensual girl-on-girl BDSM scenes, who knew?
Like all of Conan’s other pet women, Natala obviously didn’t last long, because in The Pool of the Black One Conan is all on his lonesome again – we catch up with him as he clambers aboard the Wastrel, a pirate ship out in the open sea, a twist of fate having left Conan adrift. Forcing his way into the crew through bluster, intimidation, and violence, Conan soon has designs on taking the captain’s spot as commander of the ship – and taking Sacha, the captain’s lover and this episode’s weak civilised woman, for himself. The opportunity seems to present itself when the Wastrel makes landfall at an apparently deserted island, but there’s a complication in the form of giant black men who like to make white boys get naked for them and dance before dipping them in their magic pool.
No, seriously, it seems this time around Howard got really really bored of writing lesbian bondage sequences for Wright’s edification and decided to turn the tables a bit. Observe:
The blacks nodded and gestured to one another, but they did not seem to speak – vocally, at least. One, squatting on his haunches before the cringing boy, held a pipe-like thing in his hand. This he set to his lips, and apparently blew, though Conan heard no sound. But the Zingaran youth heard or felt, and cringed. He quivered and writhed as if in agony; a regularity became evident in the twitching of his limbs, which quickly became rhythmic. The twitching became a violent jerking, the jerking regular movements. The youth began to dance, as cobras dance by compulsion to the tune of the faquir’s fife. There was naught of zest or joyful abandon in that dance. There was, indeed, abandon that was awful to see, but it was not joyful. It was if the mute tone of the pipes grasped the boy’s inmost soul with salacious fingers and with brutal torture wrung from it every involuntary expression of secret passion. It was a convulsion of obscenity, a spasm of lasciviousness – an exudation of secret hungers framed by compulsion: desire without pleasure, pain mated awfully to lust. It was like seeing a soul stripped bare, and all its dark and unmentionable secrets laid bare.
Googling “Pool of the Black One” and “homoerotic” finds more or less no discussion online of the fact that this is blatantly meant to be a homoerotic scene, though filtered through an inherently homophobic lens (“desire without pleasure” implying nobody could actually enjoy being gay, etc. – you shouldn’t need me to unpack this one for you). The silence on this issue in Howard criticism seems deafening, at least from where I’m sitting.
But aside from this incident, you get exactly what you expect from this sort of story: sinister black representatives of a lost civilisation are super-evil and are out to sacrifice terrified white people, heroic Conan saves the white people and gets the girl regardless of any objections she might have.
Red Nails is yet another rehash of the old “Conan explores lost city in the company of a woman, who he has to rescue” formula, and is also one of the most frustrating stories in the canon because whenever Conan isn’t around it’s really good. We open following Valeria, fearsome swordswoman of the high seas, having killed a man who attempted to rape her at the bandit camp she’d been staying at and not feeling much confidence in the buccaneers’ ability to see things her way. Conan catches up with her, because he’s horny, but whilst Valeria would prefer to push on by herself an encounter with a dinosaur forces the pair to work together. Eventually, they take shelter in the city of Xuchotl, which has a pseudo-mesoamerican aesthetic and is inhabited by a pair of warring factions fighting a grotesque and bloodthirsty feud which stems from an unfortunate love triangle their leaders were involved in generations ago. Conan and Valeria inadvertently find themselves allied with the faction led by Prince Olmec, but the true power behind the throne is Tascela, the woman at the heart of the romantic conflict which started the war. Tascela owes her longevity to the fact that she’s a sorceress who is able to prolong her life through the ritual sacrifice of sexy young women – and Valeria is more than sexy enough for her purposes.
The most irritating thing about Red Tails is that it keeps hovering of the verge of being really, really good as a depiction of a society driven to destruction because its inhabitants end up prioritising a blood feud over communal survival. The ambushes the different factions spring on each other – often with the aid of dire monsters or sinister magical items retrieved from the dungeons deep beneath the city – are wicked cool, as is their psychotic celebrations whenever they kill an adversary from the opposing team. In addition, when Valeria is by herself, for the most part Howard allows her to actually kick ass – granted, this stops once he needs her to be the damsel in distress for Conan to save, but up until that point she’s just as capable and bloodthirsty and black-hearted a rogue as Conan is.
Unfortunately, whilst at points the handling of Valeria represents Howard hobbling, bit by bit, towards a depiction of a female character which isn’t a complete embarrassment, at other points in the story his absolute worst habits given a free hand to do as they wish. First off, there’s Conan’s old romantic strategy of pestering people and telling them that you and they are gonna fuck until they give in. In their first meeting, Conan brushes aside any attempt by Valeria to tell him she’s not interested in him, and, whilst they are hiding on top of a rock to stay out of the grasp of the dinosaur, plops her down in his lap and starts groping at her whilst they are trying to work out an escape plan. Of course, she just mutely accepts this, because Howard cannot allow any woman to refuse Conan and actually mean it, and equally more or less every suggestion she makes for how to alleviate the situation turns out to be silly for some reason Conan himself points out. Effectively, getting rid of the dinosaur is a solo effort on Conan’s part, Valeria’s only role being to ask questions which show how she’s less well-travelled and less knowledgeable than Conan, so that Conan can explain things to her (and to the reader) and show off how awesome he is. The correlation between Conan being present and Valeria being forbidden from doing stuff of her own initiative is more or less exact.
On top of that, let’s look at how Valeria is constantly threatened with rape, or stuff we’re meant to mistake for rape until the plot twist comes and it turns out “rape” is going to be a black magic ritual. Let’s count! First, there’s the guy she kills before the story starts at the bandit camp. Then, there’s Conan creeping at her. Then, there’s Prince Olmec. And last, but by no means least, there’s Tascela, who stares at Valeria more or less non-stop from the point they first meet in possibly the least subtle “this chick totally wants that chick” hint an author has ever devised. Although it transpires Tascela doesn’t actually want to fuck Valeria after all, there’s no doubt that Howard intends us to think that’s the case – all the other characters jump to that conclusion, and according to Novalyne Price Ellis (whose memoir of her brief relationship with Howard was the basis of a movie which, based on the poster, seems to be trying to sell Howard as a romantic lead) the story that became Red Nails was inspired by Howard’s theory that when a civilisation becomes irreversibly decadent people become obsessed with sex and become gay.
Sure, Howard, whatever, but are you sure you didn’t go for this angle so that you could be 100% guaranteed to get a cover story out of Wright? There’s not one, not two, but three girl-on-girl bondage sequences in the story, in one of Howard’s most blatant displays of pandering to Wright’s particular tastes ever. First off, here’s how Valeria reacts when she discovers the slave Yasala trying to drug her in her sleep:
“You sulky slut!” she said between her teeth. “I’m going to strip you stark naked and tie you across that couch and whip you until you tell me what you were doing here, and who sent you!”
She proceeds to do exactly that, of course – and yes, that line is just as silly and shoehorned-in in context as it sounds. It’s like Valeria’s interrogation technique jumps straight from “slapping the person you’re interrogating about the face and demanding they spill the beans” to “stuff which would look like a weird sex game if we put it on the front cover, but it totally isn’t a weird sex game so we should be able to slip it past the censors, wink” without anything in between. Later, there’s another bit where Valeria is tied to a chair by Tascela and taunted, and then finally there’s the actual sacrifice sequence itself which eventually made the front cover (NSFW, obviously).
It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder whether that the Conan stories wouldn’t seem so offensive if they were approached as bondage-themed fantasy erotica as opposed to straight-ahead sword and sorcery stories. True, the racism would still be an enormous issue, but at the same time I think that if you get off on male-dominant-female-submissive dynamics in a sexual context then you ought to be able to get jerk material which caters to that. However, if you take a sexual fantasy catering to the tastes of a few people and turn it into an all-encompassing philosophy which you yearn to apply to an entire society, things start getting deeply uncomfortable. John Norman’s Gor novels may make passable jerk material for people who are sexually excited by dominance, submission, and impossibly shitty prose, but the philosophy packaged with them ends up falling to bits whenever Norman tries to apply it to society as a whole.
It’s the same with Conan; Howard never set out his sexual philosophy to the same level of detail as he did his racial ideas, but it seems evident from his stories that there’s an undercurrent going on of women surrendering themselves to Conan, who is depicted as a good partner because he uses his physical dominance to protect and keep safe his partners instead of brutalising them. However, Howard presents this in the context of escapist adventure fiction instead of BDSM fantasy erotica, and the audiences for the two might overlap but they are by no means the same audience; what one audience might understand as being the premise of a sexual fantasy comes across to the other audience as just a crass philosophy that it’s OK to crush women’s independence and free will with the force of your masculinity.
Of course, you could just say “Well, this is escapist fantasy fiction with mild BDSM themes, surely there’s a place for that.” Why, of course there is. But that isn’t how Howard’s material is usually presented and upheld by his supporters. When people recommend Howard or defend his work it’s as amazing works that form an essential cornerstone of sword and sorcery, and there’s often little if any discussion of the point that the stories also seem to cater to a particular set of sexual fantasies which many readers interested in sword and sorcery may not share, or of the thoughtless parroting of these sexual fantasies by Howard’s imitators in the field which made much of the sword and sorcery field kind of unfriendly to those who aren’t interested in that particular kink.
Right, enough of that. Next up we have Jewels of Gwahlur, a story about how black people are credulous rubes.
No, seriously, I’m not kidding. It’s set in the land of Keshan, in not-Africa, inhabited by “a mixed race, a dusky nobility ruling a population that was largely pure Negro”. Supposedly, the mixed race nobility are descended from a race of superior white people who came from the mysterious city of Alkmeenon. Within Alkmeenon lies the perfectly preserved body of Yelaya, the last white princess of Alkmeenon, who is worshipped by the people of Keshan and to whom their priests look for oracular proclamations – and because the city is sacred, it is kept uninhabited (so far as anyone is aware) with the priests only visiting when it is time to seek the wisdom of Yelaya. Also hidden away in Alkmeenon are the legendary jewels of Gwahlur, a fantastic treasure – and it’s this which Conan is after.
However, Conan is not the only one to have heard rumours of the jewels – other scam artists in the form of the sinister team of Thutmekri and Zargheba are on the case, and Zargheba has hit on an ingenious plan – make his prize slave girl Muriela take the place of Yelaya, so when the priests come to consult the oracle she can order them to hand over the jewels to Zargheba. Conan, for his part, convinces Muriela to betray Zargheba and come away with him, and the rest of the story consists of a series of double-crosses and machinations as the different factions jockey for position whilst desperately trying to avoid the priests noticing that something is up.
Unfortunately, all that cool stuff is overshadowed by the racist premises the story is built on – that this priesthood of black people would be taken in by transparent flim-flammery and bullshitting, both on the part of the thieves and of those who are really behind the oracular statements of Yelaya, and that this kingdom of black people has based an entire religion on worshipping white people. The whole “black people worship us as gods” deal is probably one of the most exasperating colonialist fantasy motifs ever, and it’s well and truly at work in this story. There’s not much more to say about it really, other than to mourn the kernel of a good story once again buried under bullshit.
Conan vs. Picts
In Beyond the Black River we find Conan holding down something resembling an honest job. The Aquilonians are busily colonising the lands between Thunder River and the Black River – lands formerly held by the savage Picts, who despite the name are depicted as being more reminiscent of Native Americans than Scottish people. Conan thinks this colonisation business is bullshit when the Aquilonians can get sufficient farmland by seizing land from the useless aristocracy who use it for idle leisure as opposed to farming – in fact, Conan has all sorts of grand ideas about how Aquilonia should be run – but he isn’t above earning his keep by working as a sort of freelance lone ranger dude patrolling the area and fucking the Picts’ shit up if he encounters them.
Anyway, we begin the story in the company of Balthus, a guy travelling to the colonies in search of his fortune. Balthus runs into Conan and the two become buddies, and in the process of doing so stumble across evidence of a mysterious killing. Conan reveals there’s been several such murders in the area – supposedly at the hands of a swamp demon summoned by the Pictish sorcerer Zogar Sag, who is running a campaign of vengeance against the Aquilonian settlers who humiliated him. Conan’s boss, Valannus, tells Conan that
City Hall is breathing down his neck about the Zogar Sag case and he needs results in 24 hours otherwise he’ll have Conan’s badge the terror campaign needs to stop, so he tasks Conan to lead a crack team of sword and sorcery commandos (including Balthus) across the Black River to assassinate Sag. However, once on the other side the plan goes awry, and Balthus and Conan discover that Sag has convinced the Pictish tribes to come together for an all-out invasion of the colonised lands, and they end up in a race against time to warn the settlers in time.
Now, in terms of the action, this is one of the best Conan stories out there. Conan’s climactic battle against the swamp demon is awesome not just for the violence involved, but also for the magnificently evocative speech the swamp demon gives about Conan being marked for death. Reading the part where Balthus and the war-dog Slasher make a lone stand against the onrushing Picts, holding them off for the crucial minutes needed for the fleeing settlers to make their getaway and ultimately sacrificing their lives under a human wave of attackers, I found Howard’s prose genuinely stirring – with that sort of siege narrative of small forces facing desperate odds, it’s not too hard to get the blood racing, and Howard manages it brilliantly.
But that’s part of why I find this story so disturbing, because whilst I found myself getting really into it, I also couldn’t help but notice it was essentially a restating of the myths of America’s westward expansion in a Conan context. You’ve got the distant folks back off in the east who live their comfortable lives of luxury and don’t really understand how it is, you have the good old settlers who are courageously eking out a hard existence on the frontier, you have the overstretched authorities and you have the beastly natives who want to burn down people’s houses and kill them and rape them. You have a few token mentions of how it’s kind of a shame that the settlers had to displace so many of the locals, but when the chips are down you’re expected to side with the settlers all the way, and of course for the hero you have your rugged, experienced frontiersman, who combines the best of both civilisation and savagery.
These are the premises on which numerous Westerns were built – Howard himself wrote a bunch, after all. But they add up to transparently self-serving propaganda, lionising those who committed genocide in past generations and declaring it vaguely necessary for the pacification of the continent. At the end of the story, Howard has some random forester come up to Conan and spout Howard’s own basic philosophy at him:
“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring soberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
Mind you, this is in the context of Conan swearing to go into Pict territory and start cutting off heads in honour of Balthus and Slasher, so the implication of statements such as this couldn’t be more clear: a people who want to survive and thrive in the long term must, by necessity, act as barbarians and commit atrocities which “civilised” people would shrink from in order to secure their interests. Those
Injuns Picts certainly were willing to do so, so the white colonists Aquilonians had better do the same if they don’t want to be consigned to the dustbin of history! In short, Howard espouses an “us or them” ideology which points unequivocally to the conclusion that not only were past atrocities against Native Americans were justified, but also seems to suggest that the US should continue to oppress them as much as possible because if white people set aside their barbaric, violent instincts they would be swept away by a tide of savagery. Ew.
In The Black Stranger, which unfolds deep in Pictish territory, we see this point made again. Way on the west coast of the Picts’ realm, a bunch of not-Spaniards from Zingara, led by the brooding and haunted Count Kortezza, have made themselves a little fort and are living out their lives in obscurity for reasons Kortezza has never made clear to his niece, the Lady Belesa. The obscurity sought by the Count is shattered by the arrival of not one but two rival bands pirates – one led by the fearsome Strombanni, played by Brian Blessed, and the other under the command of swarthy, sleazy not-Spaniard Black Zarona. Both pirates are seeking the location of the famed treasure of Tranicos, a famed pirate from ages past, which they believe to be in the locale, and both pirates have assumed that Kortezza established his fort there because he was hunting the treasure too.
In a tense negotiation between the Count and the pirates, it is revealed that the decision to make landfall here was made not by the Count, but by the seafarer who the Count had commissioned to help him move his court away from his homeland to somewhere nice and isolated – said sailor being one of the three people, the other two having been Strombanni and Zarona, to have had any clue of where the treasure was located. Dramatically, Conan interrupts the meeting – having seen the pirates arriving and sussed out what they wanted – and reveals that he himself has found the location of the treasure purely by accident, and is willing to lead the two pirates to it if they will help him drag it back and give him a share.
Of course, immediately everyone plans to double-cross each other, and much of the rest of the story revolves around three things: the mutual betrayals and backstabbings amongst the main characters (by far the most entertaining feature of the story), the Picts getting angry at the Count because they think he killed one of their guys and besieging the fortress as a consequence of that, and the Count being even more scared of black people than Howard is.
Well, I’m misrepresenting the situation a little there. It’s not just any black people that the Count is afraid of – it’s a specific one. In fact, the reason he’s gone off to live in the wilderness is to keep ahead of the dreadful entity – it’s a demon in human form which the Count had a magician summon so that he could get it to slay his enemies, but then the Count got cold feet about paying the fiend its due so it now pursues him across the world. So, fair enough, it isn’t a human being… but that’s not actually an excuse when you consider that the scariest form Howard could think of to give this demon in human guise is a spooky black guy. Plus the Count’s explanation of all this leads to this marvellous prose train crash:
“In my lust for wealth and power I sought aid from the people of the black arts – a black magician, who, at my desire, raised up a fiend from the outer gulfs of existence and clothed it in the form of a man. It crushed and slew my enemy; I grew great and wealthy and none could stand before me. But I thought to cheat my fiend of the price a mortal must pay who calls the black folk to do his bidding.”
Considering that the context of the conversation is a discussion of demonic magic and, uh, a black guy, the sheer repetition of “black” in the above bit of dialogue borders on the ludicrous, especially when you consider that in each instance Howard could have equally meant black as in “oooh noooo, Satan!” or black as in “oooooh noooo, black people!”.
Anyway, so afraid is the Count of this black man that when Tina, the Lady Belesa’s little companion, shows up to mention she saw a black person coming ashore, the Count freaks the fuck out and has her stripped naked and whipped to try and get her to say she’s lying. Sounds like yet another attempt to shoehorn in a flogging scene to titillate Wright, doesn’t it? Well, it comes across that way too, with the sequence seeming weird and over-the-top even in context and all that jazz… except for the fact that Tina is a child, as the narration repeatedly reminds us. (This isn’t the first time Tina is naked in the story either – earlier on we get a somewhat more affectionate description of her naked body.) Maybe, if I were at all inclined to give Howard anything approaching the benefit of the doubt at this point, I might suggest that this was merely an attempt to troll Wright into publishing cover art of a Tina of decidedly adult proportions being flogged, which would have proved that Wright only skimmed submissions to Weird Tales for bondage scenes and didn’t really pay attention otherwise, but fuck it, I’m eighteen stories deep into the review and this shit is loathsome however you cut it.
Oh, and this story also does the “native Americans just want to wreck civilisation” deal again. Sigh.
Conan the King
At some point here in the timeline Conan becomes king of Aquilonia. Though Howard never got around to writing a story to explain how that happened, he gives us enough pointers to infer what went down: the former king was a disaster, the people wanted a revolution, Conan happened to be the strong leader they needed and bam, a king is he. In essence, he’s a populist dictator sweeping away the dross of a decadent aristocracy and being the strong man his people need to defend them against foreign aggression, and who has to constantly keep on the look out for plots domestic and foreign to remove him from the throne.
It’s the former variety of plot he has to contend with in The Phoenix On the Sword, the first Conan story written, in which a cabal of Aquilonians known as the Rebel Four come together to oust Conan and put an Aquilonian-born king on the throne. Little do they know, however, that they are being manipulated into doing the will of the villainous Ascalante, an outlaw who intends to use the chaos of their coup attempt to seize power for himself. Things are complicated with Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer kept as a slave by Ascalante, ends up recovering the magic ring that is the secret of his power through the sheer unparalleled stupidity of Dion, a member of the Rebel Four; having regained his powers, he decides to head home to Stygia, but not before summoning a demonic entity to take his revenge on Ascalante. On top of that, the ghost of Epemitrius the Sage appears to Conan in a dream to warn him of the coup and grant him supernatural aid.
I can definitely see why there was a major demand for sequels after The Phoenix On the Sword, because it’s a great little story which not only presents decent action, but also showcases a more nuanced and interesting (and less repugnant) Conan than the Conan of the prequel tales, and also doesn’t really have that much in the way of egregious bigotry spoiling things. There really aren’t any women at all in it, which is of course not cool but is certainly preferable to anything Howard does when women enter the picture, Thoth-Amon is a sympathetic character (perhaps the sole sympathetic character from Stygia in the entire canon), and whilst the dig about sending the Picts booze to cause trouble amongst them is absolutely repugnant if you’re aware that they’re meant to be Native Americans, there’s nothing in the story itself to suggest that connection, so if you aren’t up on your Conan lore you could believe that the story goes by with more or less no racist jibes at all.
The depiction here of Conan as a literate sort who hesitates to kill Rinaldo, a minstrel who had joined the Rebel Four, because he doesn’t want to deprive the world of his poetry adds a dimension to the character that is entirely absent from both the sequel stories and the prequels, and likewise the figure of Epemitrius as an occult guardian of the nation is an interesting one who seems to have been set aside after this story; similarly, the various supporting characters in Conan’s court were never given more prominent roles in subsequent stories, which is a shame because Conan’s interactions with them are interesting. Then again, I guess when the series took off Howard probably decided to simplify things drastically so that he could crank out crap at a high pace.
This certainly seems to have been the case with The Scarlet Citadel, the second Conan story written, which feels more like a brief sketch than a fully-developed tale. In summary: Conan travels to the neighbouring kingdom of Ophir, where his buddy Amalrus is claiming to be being imperilled by Strabonus, the king of Koth. Actually, they’re just trolling Conan: Ophir and Koth have made a secret alliance to overthrow him and take Aquilonia for themselves, and to accomplish this they have the help of the evil wizard Tsotha-lanti, who soon confines Conan in his dungeons. Conan, frees the wizard Pelias, who Tsotha-lanti was also keeping captive, and then ousts the invading forces from Aquilonia with Pelias’ sorcerous aid.
To be honest, I suspect Howard wasn’t satisfied with this one, because he re-used the premise for The Hour of the Dragon and in general improves on it. For the most part, it’s an inoffensive read with the occasional really awesome moment; for instance, here’s how Conan re-takes his kingdom from Arpello, who tries to take over as king in order to rule as Strabonus’ satrap:
The sun was rising over the eastern towers. Out of the crimson dawn came a flying speck that grew to a bat, then to an eagle. Then all who saw screamed in amazement, for over the walls of Tamar swooped a shape such as men knew only in half-forgotten legends, and from between its titan-wings sprang a human form as it roared over the great tower. Then with a deafening thunder of wings it was gone, and the folk blinked, wondering if they dreamed. But on the turret stood a wild barbaric figure, half naked, blood-stained, brandishing a great sword. And from the multitude rose a roar that rocked the very towers, “The king! It is the king!”
Arpello stood transfixed; then with a cry he drew and leaped at Conan. With a lion-like roar the Cimmerian parried the whistling blade, then dropped his own sword, gripped the prince and heaved him high above the head by crotch and neck.
“Take your plots to hell with you!” he roared, and like a sack of salt, he hurled the prince of Pellia far out, to fall through empty space for a hundred and fifty feet. The people gave back as the body came hurtling down, to smash on the marble pave, spattering blood and brains, and lie crushed in its splintered armor, like a mangled beetle.
See, that’s just awesome. You know what isn’t awesome? Long, tedious sections in which Conan is teased by some black guy who happens to have the key which will let him escape the dungeon. As well as being a complete deus ex machina – this naked black dude shows up from out of nowhere to taunt Conan about some past incident we haven’t been told about until now and then gets conveniently eaten so Conan can get the key and get out of there – it’s yet another display of Howard’s complete disdain for black people, this time manifesting by the fact that Conan can barely come up with any terms to describe the guy other than referring to his black skin to a ridiculously repetitive extent and mentioning that he has “thick blubbery lips”. Chin up, though, the end is in sight.
The Long Conan Friday
The Hour of the Dragon, the sole full-length Conan novel written by Howard, is essentially a rehash of The Scarlet Citadel, turned up to 11. An international conspiracy consisting of degenerate Nemedian ringleaders and their craven race-traitor sellout Aquilonian stooges plots to take control of the Hyborean world, intending to place the conspirator Tarascus on the throne of Nemedia and Valerius, a scion of the ousted royal dynasty, on the throne of Aquilonia – with both of them puppets of lead conspirator Amalric. In order to gain some devastating occult backing for their plot, the conspirators use the ancient Heart of Ahriman to revive Xaltotun of Python, the most feared sorcerer of the long-lost civilisation of Acheron, who were overthrown by the Hyboreans back when they were virile barbarians instead of wussy civilised folk.
Soon enough, between the conspirators’ scheming and Xaltotun’s magic Nemedia and Aquilonia are under the conspiracy’s control. Tarascus, having defeated Conan’s armies on the battlefield thanks to sorcerous intervention, wants to kill Conan, but Xaltotun takes Conan prisoner so that he can use the threat of Conan returning to retake the throne of Aquilonia to exert leverage over the conspirators. Things do not go as planned, however, for Conan is soon able to make his escape. On making contact with resistance forces within Aquilonia, Conan learns that the populace are too terrified of Xaltotun’s sorcery to rise up – but if he can regain the Heart of Ahriman, which has the power to counteract Xaltotun’s magic, a revolt against Valerius and his foreign backers could very well succeed. Luckily enough, Conan happened to learn during his escape that Tarascus had stolen the Heart from Ahriman under the false belief that it was the source of Xaltotun’s power, and had dispatched an agent to ride forth and put it beyond Xaltotun’s reach. This prompts Conan to set forth on a desperate chase to track down the Heart so that he can win back his kingdom.
Howard didn’t really write that many novels, so The Hour of the Dragon is kind of odd as far as Conan stories go; it has some strengths that the short stories lack, but it also has some weaknesses which stand out pretty starkly. A major problem is the travelogue format of much of the novel, in which Conan ends up visiting various different lands as he chases after the Heart. Let’s face it: Conan’s world doesn’t make a blind bit of sense, consisting as it does of a range of nations snatched from various points in the last few thousand years of history and jammed together in whatever combination felt cool to Howard when he was cooking this stuff up, so you have pseudo-Renaissance pirates of the Spanish Main living in the same world as pseudo-ancient Egyptians and pseudo-Viking war bands.
Now, in the short stories – as in, say, any D&D campaign set in a game world working on similar principles – it doesn’t really matter. The episodic nature of the thing means that the setting of the week is really the only thing that matters, and worrying about the tech level and cultural state of the rest of the world isn’t really an interesting or useful way to approach the material. It’s different in The Hour of the Dragon; because we end up visiting multiple different nations in the same story, the discontinuities between them end up getting rubbed in the reader’s face, to the point where the Hyborian Age is revealed for what it is: a mere paper backdrop for Conan to be cool in front of.
Partially as a consequence of this, the novel often feels like a bunch of disconnected Conan serials jammed together to form a narrative, with characters and themes disappearing into thin air and reappearing at Howard’s whim. For instance, to pad the story out a bit Howard has Conan venture into the capital of Aquilonia in order to rescue the Countess Albiona, a loyalist who is up for execution due to her refusal to denounce Conan and accept Valerius’s rule. After being rescued and travelling to a place of safety, Albiona does absolutely nothing and contributes to the story in no material way whatsoever; she exists only so that Conan can go do something brave and encounter the cult of Asura who, thanks to his tolerant policies towards them, are working to help Conan regain the kingdom. Watching Howard flail to try and work out something for Albiona to do before giving up and leaving her on some other noble’s estate is one of the more facepalmy moments in the novel.
Another particularly stupid incident is Conan’s encounter with Akivasha, the high priestess and secret ruler of a cult in Stygia. It turns out she’s an immortal vampire, which is interesting and all, but after Conan discovers this and says “Uh, no blood-soaked vampire sex for me, thanks, I’ll be going now” this particular plot point disappears absolutely. It’s like Howard copy-pasted some material from an unfinished draft into the story to pad out the page count, or was perhaps considering a side plot concerning Akivasha before saying “ah, fuck it” and giving up without going back to take out the entirely irrelevant diversion.
As far as sexism and racism goes, of course Howard can’t write for this long without saying something awful, that’s just the way he is. As well as the complete uselessness of the Countess and the “evil slutty temptress” gig Akivasha has got going on, the only other woman of significance is Zenobia, a slave girl from the harem of Tarascus who helps Conan escape from the dungeon towards the start of the story. Actually, as far as civilised slave girls who are all scared and need big daddy Conan to protect them, Zenobia is probably the most inoffensive because – unlike pretty much all the other characters of that stripe in the saga – she is at least interested in Conan before he even meets her, rather than having his attentions forced on her until she learns to like it. Sure, it’s still galling to have a female character defined solely by how much she loves Conan and wants to be of use to him, but you’ve got to love a character who expresses her desires with metaphors like this:
“But I am no painted toy; I am of flesh and blood. I breathe, hate, fear, rejoice and love. And I have loved you, King Conan, ever since I saw you riding at the head of your knights along the streets of Belverus when you visited King Nimed, years ago. My heart tugged at its strings to leap from my bosom and fall in the dust of the street under your horse’s hoofs.”
Aside from coming up with ridiculously gory pick-up lines like the above, Zenobia is actually pretty efficient – she frees Conan, provides him with a decent weapon, sneaks him through the palace, and gets out of the way so he can go adventure and then come back for her when he isn’t busy. At the end of the novel, he declares he’s going to marry her, presumably because he’s glad to find a woman who is absolutely happy to just get completely trampled underfoot for his love, doesn’t make much of a fuss about hardship, and doesn’t get herself captured by sultry vixens who strip her naked and flog her for Farnsworth Wright’s titillation. Fair enough, except Zenobia hasn’t been a factor in the book since Conan’s escape, and for all we know Conan doesn’t really think about her and his promise to return to her until the very last line of the book. It’s almost as though Howard decided that the story really needed to end with Conan settling down and getting married to indicate that the saga closes here with a happy ending, except he didn’t fancy doing any of the leg work of actually developing the love interest in question beyond a brief appearance to establish that she’s the doormat of Conan’s dreams.
As far as racism goes, well, you have Stygia being a bizarre cult-controlled nightmare nation with giant snakes slithering about in the streets, but that’s such a crazed cartoon it’s hard to relate that to real-life Egyptians. More troubling by far is the fact that across the novel any collection of non-Europeans is usually a sign of bad shit about to go down. You have those Stygian cults, of course, but you also have the black manservants of Xaltotun, and the sinister ninjas from the far East which Valerius sends to assassinate Conan, and so on. Oh, and you also have a collection of black slaves on a slave ship who turn out to be former pirate crewmen who look up to Conan as a hero, so he’s able to lead a slave revolt and take command. I guess Conan really can turn around and say “Some of my best friends are black”, provided that by “friends” he means “crew who bow and scrape to me and do my every whim” – but what I find particularly disturbing about this sequence is how Conan keeps talking about the black slaves in bestial terms, talking up how they end up in a frothing rage when the rebellion goes down because that’s just what the taste of freedom does to them. I don’t care whether you put them on the side of the good guys or not, resurrecting the antebellum South’s stance that black people are violent maniacs who would butcher people wholesale if they ever got their freedom is never OK.
To be honest, I found that the parts of The Hour of the Dragon I enjoyed the most were the parts that Conan was the least involved in. One thing Howard is consistently able to do well across the Conan series is depict collections of ne’er-do-wells who don’t trust each other one bit and who backstab each other repeatedly, and the conspirators this time around are one of the best examples of this. All of their mutual betrayals make perfect sense, and go a long way towards conserving suspension of disbelief – it makes sense that Conan is able to slip the conspiracy’s clutches and run rings around them because the conspirators are constantly concealing information from each other and working at cross-purposes. One of the best scenes in the novel is the bit where the conspirators meet up to bemoan the rebellion breaking out in Aquilonia; the meeting turns into an enormously entertaining shambles precisely because more or less everyone present is working against everyone else present whilst simultaneously trying to put on a facade of being allies.
In fact, the end of the novel from that point onwards finds Conan more or less entirely absent from the spotlight, Howard choosing instead to focus on the various villains and depicting their downfall, which for most of them ends up happening at the hands of various supporting characters. Xaltotun is faced down not by Conan, but by a witch and a cultist who help Conan earlier in the book, for instance, whilst Valerius is taken out by a plot hatched by the citizens of Aquilonia his misrule has brought low. Having these characters play roles in the final battle just as important as Conan’s own takes a little of the sting off the Great Man philosophy underpinning the series as a whole, though there’s no doubt that it is still present; the basic political philosophy is that in a hardened age of bastardry you need a populist strong man ruler in charge to show the other world powers who’s boss, a worldview which was pretty fashionable back in the 1930s but which is hard to defend now.
What Do We Do With Conan?
Let’s face it, folks: it’s time to stop making excuses for Howard. “Prejudices of his time” be damned; people’s thinking about racism and sexism might have come a long way since the 1930s, but objections to both social evils had been regularly raised for over a century before Howard wrote this stuff and were a part of political discourse at the time he was working. Howard’s attitudes might have been closer to what was the mainstream of then than they are to the mainstream of today, but it would be simply incorrect to assert that they were attitudes universally shared, or that by shunning Howard we would necessarily have to shun all of his contemporaries.
Possibly the most successful literary response to Conan is found in Michael Moorcock’s Elric novellas. Elric is an often amoral character who struggles to analyse his own actions and find a system of morality which is even vaguely functional, and as a consequence is far more interesting than Conan, who is a mostly amoral character (aside from his code of honour which forbids him from letting black people get the better of white people) who is quite happy remaining as he is. Likewise, whereas the Conan stories revolve around Conan encountering other cultures and remaining stalwart and strong in the face of their crazy and wrong ways – whether said cultures are lost nations from the dawn of time or mere cities of fat merchants and wily thieves and effete nobles – Moorcock’s heroes constantly grapple to reconcile the practical necessity of living a functional life within society on the one hand with the moral imperative to change society for the better on the other hand.
In short, Conan represents a turning away from the world and its demands on us, presenting us with a fantasy figure who straight up takes what he wants, won’t take no for an answer, and can’t be pushed around by anyone; conversely, Moorcock’s protagonists are part of the world whether they like it or not, and must deal with it the best they can. And I believe that is why the Conan stories were so alluring to a younger me who admired that fuck-the-world attitude, and why Moorcock’s outlook seems more and more comprehensible as I get older and realise how unsustainable that attitude is. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy fiction based around brash, aggressive fuck-the-world protagonists – after all, the 1982 Conan movie is based on just such an approach and it’s one of my favourite films – but it does mean that I am disinclined to see Conan as anything other than escapist fun. And you know what’s really off-putting and gross in escapist fun? Far-right political agendas and unrestrained bigotry. You’ve got to wonder about people who find that sort of thing fun.
When I started working on this article I hoped to be able to propose a list of mostly-palatable Conan stories, the sort of stories I could recommend to people so that they could read them without feeling they were being slapped in the face constantly by Howard’s bigotry. As it turns out, this was optimistic. Howard’s overt racism and sexism is even worse than I remember it being, and I find myself agreeing with Sanford’s position – the Conan stories are not a body of work I can ever recommend to someone when it comes to reading for pleasure. A few of the stories happen to combine better-than-average writing (for Howard’s average) with a lack of overt bigotry – The God In the Bowl and The Phoenix On the Sword in particular – but even then you can find reasons to feel queasy about those if you happen to be up on your Conan lore. And if you asked me to put together a 200 page anthology of Howard’s Conan stories which don’t include overt bigotry which most people should be able to recognise, I would have to cop out and go for printing the thing in very very large text.
There’s definitely something to Howard’s writing – it’s rough and not very polished, but there’s a viscerality and a vitality which shines through all that anyway – but there’s too much that is tediously bigoted and too much which is just tedious for me to really say any of the stories are good. At the end of the day, none of them match the standards of the 1982 Conan movie, which navigates the minefield which is Howard about as well as anyone could be possibly be expected to and comes up with something which is as unabashed a celebration of masculinity as anything Howard wrote and yet at the same time has a hope in hell of being vaguely inclusive. Sure, maybe the Howard purists can nitpick at it and claim it isn’t genuinely Howardian, but I’ve seen what genuinely Howardian looks like and I wouldn’t want to inflict that on anyone.
So, in the final analysis, is it or is it not time to turn our backs on Howard and consign him to obscurity? I suspect that this is the wrong question to ask; Howard has been read and enjoyed continuously until now, over 70 years after his death, and I think there is little doubt – considering how many defenders he has out there – that at least some people will still be reading Howard 70 years after I am dead. The question I think it is more sensible to ask is “who should read Howard?”
For anyone who is at all interested in the history of the fantasy genre, Howard simply is not optional. To ignore Conan and the impact of the Conan stories on the pulp fantasy market would be like pretending the Model T Ford was an irrelevance to the automobile market. The Conan stories not only spawned a small cottage industry of authors penning apocrypha about the world’s favourite Cimmerian failed rapist, but also provided a basic model for authors creating their own original works which came to be just as significant for the sword and sorcery field as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories were for the sword and planet subgenre. I don’t think anybody who condemns Howard for the outrageous bigotry regularly displayed in his writing seriously proposes that we pretend that isn’t the case.
But when it comes to more or less any other motivation for reading fantasy fiction – whether you’re angling for improving literature or trashy fun (or trashy literature or improving fun, for that matter), and assuming you are not someone who deliberately reads badly written and offensive fiction for the lulz, there is really no reason to expend time on Howard when there’s a whole world of authors out there who don’t have his grotesque issues and are simply better writers than he is.
To return to the Model T Ford analogy, if you are a vintage car enthusiuast then of course you are going to want to have a drive in one simply for the experience of doing so, and if you are really keen on automotive history then buying one is perfectly understandable. But if you are not into the history of cars and are instead looking for a vehicle for everyday purposes like going to the shops or fetching the kids from school, or indeed for more ambitious purposes like going on an epic road trip or getting into motor racing, then buying a Model T is an absurd decision. Decade after decade of modern car design have yielded models which outstrip such redundant cars in more or less every aspect you could possibly care about. Do you want luxury? There’s better cars available. Are you after speed and performance? You can get better. How about reliability? Of course you can do better there too. Do you want all kinds of stuff which didn’t even exist in cars during the Model T era, like spinning rims and a thumping sound system? The modern market has you covered. Do you want all of the above? Do the research and put your money down, and you can get it. The Conan stories are kind of like that. If you want something which does the same sort of things they do, without the grotesqueness and with infinitely better prose, there’s a plethora of options out there, as well as a bunch of material which takes the sword and sorcery concept in directions Howard never even considered.
But you can stretch the analogy even further; I’m sure by this point fans of vintage cars are pulling their hair out and yelling at me for focusing on the Model T Ford when that car was famously a mass-produced piece aimed at a more low-cost budget market than cars had previously been marketed to, whereas when it comes to really gorgeous, wonderful vintage cars – the sort of car which has heaps of nostalgic appeal and historical significance, and also has fantastic engineering and provides a genuinely luxurious experience, there’s plenty of other options. That is, of course, true, and it’s also true of Howard. There’s a whole lot of fantasy written from around the same era which is just plain better written than the Conan stuff, and whilst a lot of it does have its own issues with racism and sexism, you can at least find material which doesn’t express the sort of hot-blooded and overt hatred Howard displays. As well as authors working outside the pulp market such as Lord Dunsany or Hope Mirrlees or David Lindsay, there were also plenty of authors working in the exact same arena as Howard at around the same – Clark Ashton Smith, C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Leigh Brackett and so on – who blow him out of the water, and whilst he was admittedly an inspiration for some of them (Moore and Leiber in particular), they tended to do a good job of grabbing what was enjoyable about his stuff and running with it whilst leaving Howard’s third-rate prose and despicable bigotry in the dust.
Hell, even Lovecraft was able to produce fantasy material which, whilst not amongst his best material (and even his best stuff could be rough around the edges), at least manage to tell a compelling and haunting story without resorting to bigotry by default. I wouldn’t suggest for a second that Lovecraft wasn’t as much of a racist as Howard was; when he did choose to address race, the results were usually terrible. At the same time, Lovecraft at least had some ability to occasionally shut the fuck up about his awful views once in a blue moon. That is the point where the Model T analogy breaks down; sure, Henry Ford might have been the Hitler of the motor industry but he didn’t go so far as to inscribe extracts of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion onto the dashboards of the cars he sold. With Conan, Howard’s ideology is integral to the product; the racial philosophy espoused in The Hyborean Age is adhered to more or less consistently across the entire series.
It’s true, of course, that any attempt to read and address people writing in past times runs into the issue that past eras didn’t have the same values as ours and shouldn’t be expected to. But to write off what Howard does in the Conan stories on this basis is to set discernment aside altogether. We can put works written for similar markets (or, in some cases, the same market) at the same time next to each other and compare them, and in doing so we can see that the values espoused in the Conan stories were far from universal. The views Howard expressed through his work do stand out as being particularly beyond the pale, even when compared to similarly bigoted individuals like Lovecraft; furthermore, to claim that everyone was racist to the same extent and in the same way in the 1930s is to oversimplify matters enormously.
Equally, you can’t simply brush these issues aside by saying that the Conan stories are mere escapism and, consequently, shouldn’t be taken seriously. When we indulge in escapism through literature, art, music, games or whatever, we aren’t escaping on our own – we’re escaping in the company of the author or musician or game designers in question, because they can hardly avoid expressing their worldview and their aesthetic mores through the work they produce. This is particularly true for authors like Howard; even the clunkiness of his prose can’t suffocate the boisterous and energetic voice in which his narratives are written. The question is, who would deliberately choose to escape in the company of such a loud and obnoxious bigot as Howard, a man who makes a racist cold fish misanthrope like Lovecraft seem gregarious and friendly in comparison?
None of the excuses offered by Howard’s defenders can answer that point. The fact is, I can’t recommend the Conan stories to readers for any reason other than historical interest. Yes, he was an inspirational and influential author, but the fact is a whole lot of the material the Conan stories influenced and inspired are just better than them any metric you could possibly hope to use. Of course we shouldn’t throw Howard down the memory hole, any more than we should throw any author down the memory hole, but we can at least turf him out of the pantheon. Let him, if he hasn’t already, become one of those authors who is more talked about than read, whose influence we recognise and acknowledge but whose work we read for research rather than enjoyment.
Do I sometimes find my blood racing when I read the Conan stories? Of course I do. But I can usually count on Howard to say something awful and completely ruin my enjoyment sooner rather than later. Birth of a Nation was also a stirring, exciting story which got people’s blood racing but if you aren’t able to recognise how awful it is then something is deeply, deeply wrong. Film students are capable of studying that film, and for that matter Triumph of the Will, and recognise the technical accomplishments and novel approaches to filmmaking expressed therein and which are used regularly in movie-making up to the present, whilst at the same time separating the craft from the content and acknowledging that the content itself is abhorrent. Too many fantasy readers are unwilling to do that. Should we censor Howard? It’s a little late for that. But we can at least stop celebrating him.