Thursday, March 28, 2013

"He Steals and Murders Openly"

We've been taking an occasional look at Robert E. Howard stories in which he uses a very effective trick to generate suspense: The protagonist is forced to team-up with a sworn enemy. The two must work together against a common enemy or because they have a common purpose, knowing that they'll try to kill one another as soon as that purpose is achieved.

Conan the Barbarian was forced into this situation in "People of the Black Circle." But that's wasn't the first time he'd been in a reluctant alliance.

Not long after Conan came to civilization--still naive about the ways of civilization (and probably still a teenager)--he became embroiled in the machinations of two feuding noblemen. All this is recounted in "Rogues in the House," first published in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales.

It's set in an unnamed city-state or minor kingdom. The puppet king is controlled by Nabonidus, known as the Red Priest and also known to bring his political enemies to an unpleasant end. He's looking to do this to Murilo, a nobleman who has been lining his pockets by selling state secrets.

Threatened with exposure, Murilo hires Conan to kill Nabonidus. But the twists and turns of the plot soon land all three men in a catacomb beneath Nabonidus' mansion. Above them is Thak--an ape man that Nabonidus kept as a servant. Thak, it turned out, was just human enough to harbor ambitions of his own. He's killed Nabonidus' human servant and taken over the mansion.

So leaving the catacomb by the only available exit--through the mansion--means walking into the sharp talons and fangs of a brutal, super-strong humanoid creature.

The only way the three men can get out alive is to work together.

The story is one of the best of the original Conan tales. For one thing, it's a textbook example of good plot construction. In just a few paragraphs, REH introduces us to the main characters and tells us enough about their relationships and their personalities to give us a firm lock on them. He then moves the plot along quickly but logically, mixing in suspense and action in just the right doses.

Howard also mixes in the thematic aspects of the story so that it complements the plot without ever slowing down the action. Murilo and Nabonidus are rogues--dishonest men who use their power and position for personal gain. Even though Murilo is actually a little likable in that he shows personal courage when he has to, both men are essentially rotten hypocrites and thieves.

This is contrasted with Conan, who may also be a thief but at least isn't a hypocrite. As Murilo phrases it: "This Cimmerian is the most honest man of the three of us, because he steals and murders openly."

What good that may do the person Conan is robbing and murdering is debatable, but Howard still has us rooting for the big guy. It's really quite a balancing act in terms of good characterization. Conan does murder during the story, but he still has standards that raise him above Murilo and Nabonidus.

For instance, he shows a degree of mercy to a woman who had betrayed him. Well, sort of. He drops her in a cess pool instead of killing her. And he gutted her new boyfriend a few moments before that without batting an eye. But he refrains from killing a woman nonetheless.

He also shows loyalty to an agreement he made with Murilo even when he could have gotten safely away from the city. So we end liking Conan and hoping he survives despite his moral flaws.

Aside from the theme and the characterizations, the key action set-piece in the story is fantastic. Conan and Thak inevitably go up against each other in a savage hand-to-hand battle and it is truly awesome. Howard had a knack for describing exciting fight scenes, but this one still stands out from the crowd.

It is, in fact, Frank Frazetta Awesome

When you consider all of Howard's Conan stories together and remember that he did not write them in internal chronological order, then the character arc he gives the barbarian is a really remarkable achievement. The first Conan story Howard wrote shows us the barbarian as a king, with a degree of wisdom and maturity (though without losing the ability to hack his enemies apart in droves). But stories about a young Conan give us an impetuous thief and killer who barely understands much of what civilization has to offer. Stories set between these time periods give us a Conan who is maturing into a leader, less likely to act on blind impulse.

 "Black Colossus" (published in 1933) is a good example of Conan's overall character development. Set at a time when Conan has largely left thievery behind to work as a mercenary, the story shows us the first time he is given command of an army. Outnumbered, he deploys his troops in a conservative defensive manner. When someone comments that Conan normally leaps into the thick of a fight, he explains that he usually only has himself to look out for. But now he's responsible for thousands of lives and must act differently. It's a key moment in his career, allowing us to believe that this is a man who can one day rule a nation.

Once again, Howard didn't write these stories in any order. Each successive story jumped from one point in Conan's life to another at random. But string them together in an order that makes internal chronological sense and you have a definable and fascinating bit of character development.

All this and great fight scenes as well. Because that fight between Conan and Thak really does drip with awesome sauce.

We have one more example in which an REH character has to team up with an enemy. This will involve the pirate Black Vulmea, whom we visited once before. Before long, we'll take a look at "Black Vulmea's Vengeance."

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