Conan the Adventurer
Copyright 1966, by L. Sprague de Camp
People of the Black Circle
The Slithering Shadow
Drums of Tombalku (Pastiche)
The Pool of the Black One
(out of 5)
In the 1960s, L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter set out to publish the Robert E. Howard Conan stories in chronological sequence (I think, first under Lancer Books, then reprinted under Ace), according to the life-history which they had worked out for the Cimmerian. As well, they attempted to fill in gaps between the official stories by writing pastiches as well as completing unfinished Howard stories and also changing non-Conan stories into Conan ones. This is volume 5 in that series.
For a Robert E. Howard fan such as myself, this series was quite annoying. REH's stories were spread out and mixed up with the pastiches. As a result, the Howard fan had no choice but to buy the imitations along with the originals. In this edition, for example, "Drums of Tombalku" is a pastiche by De Camp, so the reader is really only getting three Howard stories. But a worse problem was De Camp's admitted tendency to rewrite even the original stories, often for remarkably silly reasons. So, even the Howard stories may not be exactly as originally published in Weird Tales. Still, until something better comes along, we'll have to make do with this.
The first story is "The People of the Black Circle". I don't know if De Camp made any changes to this, but since an unedited version was published by Berkeley in Conan: The People of the Black Circle, I have reviewed it there. Here, I will simply repeat that "The People of the Black Circle" is my favourite Conan story, second only to The Hour of the Dragon.
"The Slithering Shadow" (Howard's original title was "Xuthal of the Dusk") is another one of my favourites. Fleeing a battle, Conan and a slavegirl, Natala, encounter a strange city in the desert. They find the city's inhabitants live in a bizarre dreamy state, the result of drugs, waking only long enough to eat, then slumbering again. But one woman, Thalis, does not take part in the lotus sleep of the others and, taking a fancy to Conan, she decides to do away with Natala, seeing the slavegirl as a rival. But, while the inhabitants sleep, the monster-god, Thog, slithers among them, feasting...
Though thin on plot, "The Slithering Shadow" more than makes up for that in the surreal atmosphere of the dreaming city. There is a good sense of mystery throughout and it is also one of the more sexy Conan stories. The city itself is basically the same as the one that appeared later in "Red Nails", a sort of city-wide palace with glowing gem-stones for light, and the dreamy citizens are reminiscent of (also, later) "The Devil in Iron".
Natala is considerably wimpier than just about any of the other Conan-heroines and, as a result, not nearly as interesting. She is likeable, in a timorous sort of way, but not one of the best. Even Muriela, the dancing girl in "Jewels of Gwahlur" had more backbone. Of course, heroines in these sorts of stories have always met criticism for being too weak, but, in fact, usually Robert E. Howard's heroines were quite strong and confident. This is one of the few times his heroine fitted the stereotype.
While I do not intend to review the pastiches included in this series, I do have some comments to make about "Drums of Tombalku". According to the notes, this pastiche was based on an outine and rough draft of the first half found among REH's things long after his death. In cases like this, I am always curious to wonder how much is Howard's and how much De Camp's. In this case, I think a fair guess can be made.
The first half reads like a completed story, but featuring Amalric, a Conan-like figure, who, fleeing a battle, encounters a girl in the desert who leads him to a city inhabited by strange "people wrapped in dreams". Sound familiar? While the people wander about in dreamy unconcern, a monster- god roves the city, feasting on them. Amalric kills the monster and flees the city. At this point, he encounters Conan who leads him off to Tombalku and a separate adventure altogether for the second half of the story.
The first half of this tale is reasonably well-written and, other than a few details (for example, Amalric defeats the monster with a magic incantation which he had picked up before the story started and which the reader did not know about -- something REH would never have done), reads like Howard's writing. The second half does not. My guess, then, is that Howard wrote the first half as an Amalric story, then rewrote it as "The Slithering Shadow", under which title it was published in Weird Tales. But, as I say, that's just a guess.
"The Pool of the Black One" (which appeared in Weird Tales the month after "The Slithering Shadow") is a weird little story, and one of the better Conan offerings. The story begins with the Cimmerian, adrift at sea, clambering aboard a pirate ship, which he promptly takes command of in suitably bloody fashion. Encountering a mysterious island, everyone goes ashore, including the defunked-captain's girl, Sancha. The island turns out to be inhabited by strange tall black creatures who capture the crew (missing Conan) and set about dunking them in the titular pool...with bizarre results. Conan, of course, rescues them and somehow triggers a kind of self-destruct device in the pool, barely getting away in time.
Two things stick in my mind about this story. The first is the pool's strange effect on human anatomy. One suspects Howard was influenced by the shrunken heads of the Jivaro Indians; shrunken heads were very big in the thirties (so to speak). Here, Robert E. Howard has taken the process a step further -- with creepy results. Stranger still, is the fact that we are given no explanation for who the creatures are or what reason they have for dipping people in the pool. That may be something of a weakness in the story, but the very vagueness of the whole thing adds to the sense of unreality. It is almost like a nightmare. (As well, REH may have been influenced by the lotus eaters story from the Odyssey. As in that story, the crew here finds themselves falling into a drugged sleep when they eat the fruit of the island.)
The other thing that sticks with me is the climax. For some reason, I am reminded of the pulse-pounding climax to Stephen King's short story, "The Monkey". (Read them both and see if you agree.) I can't think of another Conan story which had this same edge-of-your-seat, race-with-the-devil sort of ending, and it works very well.