The People of the Black Circle
The authorized edition edited by Karl Edward Wagner
Copyright 1977, by Glenn Lord
The Devil in Iron
The People of the Black Circle
A Witch Shall Be Born
Jewels of Gwahlur
(out of five stars)
This collection of four Conan tales is one of three books put out by Berkley and Karl Edward Wagner in the late '70s -- the others being Conan:Red Nails and Conan:The Hour of the Dragon -- which contain the unedited texts as they appeared in Weird Tales, before being messed with by L. Sprague de Camp et al. I hold considerable bitterness toward Mr. De Camp, who took it upon himself to rewrite many of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories often for no other reason than because he felt they didn't form a coherent chronology. As a result, it is difficult today to know which versions are Howard's and which are De Camp's. For that reason, I value this collection highly (and make human sacrifices to Wagner whenever time allows).
But even apart from fidelity, this is an excellent collection, all four stories being among the best. Of the lot, the weakest is "The Devil in Iron". Although it's still a very good tale, it lacks the characterization which makes the others so special.
In "The Devil in Iron", Conan is tricked by the evil Jehungir Agha into chasing the lovely Octavia to the island of Xapur -- Octavia having been forced to make goo-goo eyes at the barbarian, to inflame his passion -- never a tough thing to do. On the island, Jehungir means to hunt Conan down like an animal. Meanwhile, an evil wizard/demon, Khosatral Khel, has awoken on Xapur and magically resurrected an ancient city, complete with its dreamy citizens. The wizard develops a keen interest in Octavia, a giant snake puts in an appearance and...oh yes, the wizard literally has pects like iron...hence the title.
One weakness -- minor, admittedly -- is the incredible coincidence upon which the story hinges. Jehungir Agha was lying when he told Conan Octavia had run away to Xapur. In fact, she had been handed into the loathsome clutches of some nobleman or other. Escaping, she somehow finds her way to...Xapur! Given that Xapur is supposed to be a tiny island with virtually unscalable cliffs (which is the whole reason Jehungir wanted to trap Conan there), the likelihood of her finding her way there purely by chance seems a little hard to swallow.
Another problem is that we see very little of Octavia or Jehungir. As a result, we don't get much in the way of characterization. Even Conan seems to be spending more time running than thinking. I suspect this may be partly because Howard wasn't sure how Conan should react to something so clearly inexplicable as a city appearing magically overnight. To REH, I think, the Conan stories were inherently realistic -- hence, why he favoured gorillas and snakes, instead of making up monsters. Similarly, even the magic is often explained either as a sort of super-science, or as hypnosis. In this case, there can be no such realist explanation, and so Howard himself found it a little hard to accept.
"The People of the Black Circle" is my second favourite Conan story (second to "The Hour of the Dragon"). It is an astonishing tour de force, with hardly a miss-step, combining multiple plot-threads, a beautiful and gutsy damsel, several villains, each complexly drawn, and any number of neat magic tricks from a ball that turns into a spider, to floating fluff-balls that explode when touched. In fact, there's just so much to like about this that I can only throw up my hands and say read it yourself.
Basically, the plot involves a group of wizards on Mount Yimsha who kidnap the Devi Yasmina to their mountain stronghold. Conan must join up with another ruffian and rescue her. While all the characters are remarkably multifaceted, I particularly liked Khemsa, a novice wizard who is talked into rising above his station (and defying his masters) by his beautiful, scheming girlfriend. He is both evil and tragic in a way that might best be described as Shakespearean. Then, too, of all the Conan-girls, I have a special fondness for Yasmina. Somehow, Howard combines in her a perfect blending of imperious strength and fetching vulnerability that makes her stand out from all the rest.
"A Witch Shall Be Born" is somewhat less successful, but still an excellent read. Wagner, in the afterword, was impressed by Robert E. Howard's use of story-telling tricks to compress the narrative, especially the part which is told as a letter written by an observer who otherwise does not appear in the story. But, for me, this is the story's only weakness. We jump around from observer to observer, leaving us with no central character -- least of all, Conan himself.
For Howard fans, this story is best known for the famous crucifixion scene (later used in the movie Conan the Barbarian). Conan, nailed to a cross, proves just how tough he is by catching a vulture in his teeth and breaking its neck. (Recently, Xena:Warrior Princess paid homage to the scene in a similar incident involving rats.) The princess, Taramis, is another one of REH's tough but vulnerable women, somehow retaining her dignity even after being tortured for several months by her evil twin Salome. The key here is that, no matter what is done to her personally, Taramis remains more concerned for the people who depend upon her than she does for herself. What a woman, eh?
The final story is "Jewels of Gwahlur", which Wagner dismisses as "a minor Conan adventure" and "a formula Conan story". I would strongly disagree. It may not be "The People of the Black Circle", but it's still one of the best.
Conan comes to the abandoned city of Alkmeenon looking for the fabulous treasure known as the "Teeth of Gwahlur" (which was Howard's title for the story). A rival ruffian, Zargheba, has convinced the people of nearby Keshia to consult their female goddess/oracle, Yelaya, said to reside in Alkmeenon, concerning the possibility of giving him some of the jewels for political reasons. In Alkmeenon, Conan finds that Zargheba, cleverly, has set up his dancing-girl, Muriela, with instructions to impersonate the ancient oracle. Conan convinces Muriela to switch sides, and, pretending to be the oracle, tell the priests to give him the treasure. Unfortunately, Alkmeenon isn't as uninhabited as everyone thought, for something lurks in the underground passages...
"Jewels of Gwahlur" nicely blends the machinations revolving around the false Yelaya with the steadily building mystery of the city's inhuman inhabitants. I always like stories involving impersonation, but here, the scheme is given an added Scooby Doo creepiness by the disappearance of the real Yelaya's perfectly preserved corpse. Muriela, of course, hasn't the gutsiness of either Yasmina or Taramis, but then, she's just a lowly dancing-girl, after all. In her own way, she still comes across as appealing, with a sort of rough, street-urchin charm.
The climax is very unusual for a Conan story, involving as it does placing Conan in a situation where he must decide between saving the jewels or the girl. I can't think of another story where this happened, and it has always stuck with me.
Both the foreword and afterword by Wagner are highly recommended reading for anyone interested in Robert E. Howard.
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