Thursday, January 3, 2013

Alliance of Wolves

A month or so ago, I wrote about a Conan novella--The People of the Black Circle--in which one of the fun aspects of the story was Conan being forced to team up with an enemy. The two men had to work together until they achieved a specific goal, then they would go back to trying to kill one another.

This got me thinking about other stories in which Robert E. Howard used this plot device. He did it on one other occasion with Conan and once with 20th Century adventurer El Borak. We'll take a look at these stories eventually.

Today, we'll look at "Trail of the Blood-Stained God," which recounts an adventure of yet another 20th Century adventurer wandering around the Middle East. This is Kirby O'Donnell, an Irish-American brawler who--when the story first opens--is looking for a stolen treasure map in a dark alley located in a Mid-Eastern city.

This leads into a fast-moving and exuberant adventure yarn. Kirby is almost immediately involved in a fight against half-a-dozen opponents--not realizing he's actually fighting the map thieves while he's trying to rescue a man from being tortured. This is the first of several truly exciting fight scenes that Howard manages to fit comfortably and realistically into this fairly short story.

Soon after that, he teams up with a Persian named Hassan, who also knows about the map. Kirby knows Hassan will probably back-stab him after they find the treasure, but for now the two men need each other. The thieves have left the city, so the erstwhile partners pursue.

Soon after THAT, O'Donnell and Hassan find themselves trapped between the map thieves (led by an English renegade named Hawklin) and some local savage tribesmen. Outnumbered, Hawklin allows O'Donnell and Hassan to join him--leading to another great fight scene as the tribesmen try to overwhelm the small force. Later, with Hawklin now the only survivor of his group, he, Kirby and Hassan go after the treasure--each of them knowing that their alliance will only last as long as it takes to find it. Howard calls it an alliance of wolves--three skilled warriors who work together to survive and gain loot, then will without question try to carve each other up afterwards.

This very bare bones summary doesn't do justice to the story at all. Aside from the great action, it is a model of solid story construction--with one event leading logically into the next.

I didn't get to read this story in its original form until just a few years ago, when it was included in a Howard anthology. When I was a little one, I had read an L. Sprague de Camp re-write of the story that was included in the old Lancer paperbacks that anthologized the Conan stories.

de Camp's Conan pastiches generate a lot of strong emotion among REH fans. I myself don't hate them vehemently, but I don't think they're all that good. My opinion of de Camp is that he was an excellent writer, but with a prose style and a world-view that left him unqualified to write good Conan stories. His original Conan novels--such as Conan and the Spider God and Conan the Liberator--are actually quite dull.

The Conan version of "Bloodstained God" is probably the closest thing to a good Conan pastiche that de Camp did. This is in part because the story is so straightforward and in part because there was an opportunity to insert a supernatural element without it seeming contrived--a major drawback with other non-Conan stories that de Camp changed to fit into the Hyborian Age.

It (the Conan version) was also adapted into a comics story in 1977--with John Buscema's art work making it look too cool for words.

But the original REH story has an exuberance and a love of pure adventure to it that de Camp managed to lose when he re-wrote it. This shows through especially in the ending--de Camp's climax is a little depressing, while Howard's ending looked forward to more adventure, as well as tying the events of the whole story together more solidly.

Howard only wrote a few Kirby O'Donnell tales, but the Irish-American was a fun character with a real love of life that give his tales a unique ambiance. I wish we'd seen more of him. "Trail of the Blood-Stained God" didn't sell during Howard's lifetime, but it's a wonderful adventure yarn.

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