Serial Review: The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard (Part 1/3)

(Cover by Margaret Brundage. Weird Tales, September 1934.)

Who Goes There?

Robert E. Howard is one of the most important practitioners of fantasy in the genre’s history, and this is impressive when you consider not only how young he was when he died but how much he wrote in that short time. He debuted in 1924 and wrote at a truly terrifying rate until his death by gunshot wound in 1936, with a slew of completed works and outlines in his wake. Among the authors who frequented Weird Tales in the ’20s and ’30s, Howard had to be one of the five most popular contributors to that magazine, not to mention one of the most prolific. Whether it was fantasy, horror, or the Western (though, oddly, not science fiction), Howard did it all, and with a zeal that few could match. Whereas others authors had maybe major series under their belt, Howard had several, and one of these would come to define a subgenre: Conan the Cimmerian, more popularly known as Conan the Barbarian.

Conan is the single most famous sword-and-sorcery character of all time, and he wasn’t even Howard’s first attempt at creating such a figure (see Kull the Conqueror); rather he was the final synthesis of Howard’s developing philosophy on man’s relationship with civilization. Hailing from a distant alternate past where sorcery and devilish creatures reign, Conan is both a classic anti-hero and Howard’s ideal man: a nomad, a man who doesn’t take orders, a man who can fight his way out of anything, and yet a man who is articulate and thoughtful despite his brawn. “The People of the Black Circle” was the longest Conan adventure published up to that point; the series had been going on for two years and would only last two more under Howard’s watch, ending with his suicide, until the scavengers came…

Placing Coordinates

Part 1 was published in the September 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. I do believe this is also the first story I’ve covered that’s on Project Gutenberg! That’s right, you have no excuse to not read this, unless you just don’t feel like it. And since it’s a Conan story, and one of the big ones at that, you won’t have a hard time finding it in print at all. With that said, the go-to choice would be The Bloody Crown of Conan from Random House Worlds. They put out a series of Howard collections and this is just one of several Conan collections, never mind Howard’s other work. I actually have the paperback for his horror fiction, and if that one is anything to go by these paperbacks are sturdy, thick, and heavy. Like physically heavy. Your wrists are gonna be sore after a while.

Enhancing Image

Of the Conan stories I’ve read (this is like the fourth or fifth one), this one has easily the best opening scene in my opinion. We start in the kingdom of Vendhya, the in-universe equivalent of India, where the king is on his deathbed and his sister the Devi Yasmina is by his side. However, the king is not dying via natural causes; rather he’s been cursed, by the Black Seers of Mount Yimsha, presumably the people of the black circle. The king, whose soul is bound to eternal damnation by the curse if something doesn’t kill him before it can take him, begs Yasmina to take his life and save his soul, as he’s too physically weak to do it himself. In tears, but know what she has to do, Yasmina kills her brother’s body but saves his soul.

It’s a tense and delightfully macabre opener, but more importantly it’s an effective establishing moment for Yasmina, the heroine of the story and arguably the true protagonist. This is not your typical “screaming wench” of old-timey fantasy—this is a woman who, though she may get emotional, will take action and will not take shit from anyone. Her establishing scene is so good that I can forgive the fact that Howard can’t help but mention her mammaries mommy milkers titties breasts a couple times. The king’s death begins the plot, the ball only really gets rolling because Yasmina vows to avenge her brother and take on the Black Seers. This will, of course, be a massive and dangerous undertaking since the Black Seers are a league of incredibly powerful wizards, capable of cutting down a man from halfway around the globe. To take down these sorcerers will require cunning, might, and the will of an unstoppable man. Hmm…

Across the series we see Conan in a variety of occupations, from mercenary to pirate to bandit and generally anything that’s not all too reputable. Here we get word of him as the leader of a band of marauders, although he remains offscreen for a bit. Yasmina speaks with Chunder Shan, the governor of one of Vendhya’s provinces, about finding a man who may be able to enact her revenge. The good news is that Conan’s men have been captured recently and are waiting for execution, which makes them ample ransom material for Conan to join Yasmina; the bad news is that this news will undoubtedly piss off Conan, and Conan is not a man to piss off. I don’t see how this could possibly go wrong for Yasmina or the governor.

A couple scenes go by and you may notice that Conan has not shown up yet. This is not unusual for series. These stories are episodic in nature, with perspective characters usually not being Conan, but rather people with their own self-contained plotlines, never to appear again by virtue of dying or by simply never running into Conan a second time. The perspective shifts around here quite a bit, impressively so considering how short this installment is (about 10,000 words, if even that, the norm for Weird Tales serials), but ultimately Yasmina is the closest we have to a lead figure and it sure as hell is her story. None of this is a problem, since Howard has an almost supernatural ability to draw the reader’s attention, even when you’re unsure if he has everything worked out in advance.

I mean really, Afghulistan is Afghanistan? Iranistan is Iran? Who writes this shit? At least Vendhya for India is slightly more clever.

Anyway, a lot of misconceptions fly around because of how Conan’s been interpreted in other media, and admittedly I still get taken back a bit when reading one of the original Howard stories. I love Arnie and all, but his version of Conan barely fucking resembles the guy except maybe physically, and only if you’re staring through an empty beer bottle. Conan has become popularly thought of as a big dumb Germanic dude who barely talks, but in the Howard stories he’s a surprisingly articulate but still strong and nimble Celt; that last part is a bit of self insert hijinks considering Howard’s own Irish background. But no, Conan is not just dumb muscle, although to call him an anti-hero almost feels like a stretch; he comes off good because the people he faces off with are orders of magnitude worse.

We actually get a physical description of Conan when he decides to cut out the middle man and pay the governor an unscheduled and rather direct visit. You can see with your mind’s eye where Frank Frazetta’s legendary paintings of the man might have come from.

The invader was a tall man, at once strong and supple. He was dressed like a hillman, but his dark features and blazing blue eyes did not match his garb. Chunder Shan had never seen a man like him; he was not an Easterner, but some barbarian from the West. But his aspect was as untamed and formidable as any of the hairy tribesmen who haunt the hills of Ghulistan.

Things quickly get more complicated. Yasmina comes in and catches Conan and the governor in a behind-locked-doors conversation, and being a perfectly reasonable man Conan snatches up Yasmina and jumps the nearest goddamn window like it’s no big deal. Ah, the tables have turned! Yasmina, having offered Conan’s men as ransom, is now ranson herself, and in the arms of a man who will not be fucked with. He’s kinda cute, though. To make matters stickier Yasmina’s servant (who I don’t think is named in Part 1) runs off with plans of her own, conspiring with her boy toy Khemsa (who happens to be a wizard) to turn against the Black Seers and go after Yasmina themselves. Khemsa is an interesting character, and we’ll get back to him in a minute, but to complicate things even more we have Kerim Shah, a formiddable mercenary who was formerly in league with Khemsa but, upon overhearing the lovers’ plotting, seeks to strike out on his own.

At this point we have at least three factions with their eyes on the Devi, each for their own purposes, and honestly reminds me a bit of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, though obviously this is not a comedy. It is quite a fun time, though. In record time we’re introduced to an ensemble cast, on top of the sheer badassery of Conan himself, plus an exotic location, plus a MacGuffin of sorts, plus a sizable dose of intrigue. It’s a multi-threaded chase that’s maybe a bit overstuffed, but again, it’s consistently enthralling. Howard was not a refined writer, but somehow he found the energy himself to not only write with alarming speed but to convey that speed into the writing itself; the ffect is a wee bit intoxicating.

There Be Spoilers Here

Conan sometimes gets a love interest of the week; sometimes this translates to some woman who just needs rescuing and whom Conan will abandon as soon as she’s out of danger. To her credit, Yasmina is far from a nameless damsel, partly because, while normally a woman in her position would be captured by the villain of the week, Conan is the one doing the capturing here. Despite their circumstances, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where their relationship is heading, especially once Yasmina starts putting on the tsundere “it’s not like I like you or anything” act deep into Part 1. What makes the budding relationship fun to read is that both of these characters are tops—that is to say, they’re both dominant types. Conan won’t take any of Yasmina’s shit and Yasmina conversely won’t take any of Conan’s; at most she’ll keep quiet as a pragmatic decision.

And of course Howard can’t help but describe in loving detail how physically well-toned both parties are. Look, I’m bisexual, I’ll take it.

Just as curious is the subplot with Khemsa, a wizard and underling of the Black Seers who goes rogue and who may be more powerful than he would seem. There’s a bit of Orientalism at play here, with Khemsa sometimes being referred to as “a man in a green turban”—ya know, to remind the reader that he’s From the East™. Some racism at play, no doubt, but it’s not that bad unless you’re at the age where you don’t know where babies come from yet. What makes Khemsa interesting is that he’s a villain for sure, but he’s also doing this for good pussy out of love, and he’s also clearly not the biggest threat, though we do get hints of how terrible his power can be. A glorified redshirt who knew Conan from a previous adventure feels the wrong end of a wizard-conjured spider. Still, he’s one player in a much grander scheme who hopes to become something much greater than just a mook; you could say he’s the rare mook who gains self-awareness and takes matters into his own hands, and damn his masters.

Unlike the other Conan stories I’ve read, this one has a distinctly “exotic” set of locales, encompassing central Asia and the Middle East. again there’s some racism at play, what with Howard repeatedly comparing Conan’s handsome (albeit deeply tanned) whiteness with the rest of the cast, which to Howard’s credit this is a mostly POC cast, including the love interest. Howard’s writing on race and gender can be messy, not helped by the tragic fact that he died so young, but unlike Lovecraft, whose depictions of non-white folks (or hell, non-WASPs) are almost always cringe-worthy and whose representation of women in his fiction is next to zero, at least Howard tries. This was 1934, and SFF writers (with a few exceptions) even two decades later struggled to write women and non-white characters as inclusively.

A Step Farther Out

There are maybe one too many plot threads going on, considering how short it is, but this is a train with no brakes on it and I just bought a ticket. Howard, even when he’s phoning it in, knows how to move a plot forward at breakneak speed and intensiity, and “The People of the Black Circle” is pretty far from him phoning it in. We get an expertly crafted opening scene and Conan’s not even in that, and while it does take a bit for him to show up, that’s by no means a bad thing as we’re given more time to know the supporting cast. The action starts right from the first page and it basically doesn’t stop, with gambit being piled on top of gambit and with characters plotting behind each other’s backs. Speaking of characters, some leading ladies in Conan stories are just there to be captured and then rescued, but Yasmina is much more thoroughly characterized than the norm, and one more example of how Howard is actually able to like, write women. Crazy to think about, I know. Howard’s ability to balance narrative momentum and characterization continues to astound me.

See you next time.

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