Serial Review: The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard (Part 2/3)

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

Who Goes There?

Looking back on it, many of the most important figures in fantasy are British. J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and of course we have William Shakespeare, whose fantastical plays (namely The Tempest) are essential to our understanding of the genre, even down to the language we use. As far as American fantasists go, though, few are more important (or more American) than Robert E. Howard, whose life was tragically short but who managed to produce a truly alarming amount of work in that short time. Across a near-endless supply of short fiction and poetry he ventured between low fantasy, horror, and the western, sometimes mixing the three to produce stories that were more invigorating than those written by his fellows. He was arguably the first literary swordsman, although he would probably prefer the position of “barbarian poet.”

Howard ran several series during his brief career, and Conan the Cimmerian was easily the most popular of the bunch, at least with hindsight; it, more than anything else, gave Howard a life after death as scord and sorcery’s key founder. While not Howard’s first sword-and-sorcery hero (or rather anti-hero), Conan was the final synthesis of Howard’s developing philosophy regarding man’s relationship with civilization.

Placing Coordinates

Part 2 of The People of the Black Circle was published in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. You can also read the whole novella (the individual installments are pretty short, totaling about 30,000 words) on Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats. Because this is a Conan story, and one of the more famous ones, you won’t have a hard time finding it at all, be it online or in print.

Enhancing Image

Picking up where we left off, Conan and Yamina are on the run yet again after Conan is accused of murdering an ally of his—an act actually committed by Kemsha, the wizard who, along with his girlfriend Gitara (she has a name now), turned his back on the Black Seers of Yimsha and is now trying to take Yasmina as ransom of his own. Part 1 saw us starting out in the Hyborian equivalent of India, and now we’ve moved towards the equivalent of the Himalayan mountains. You start filling in the blanks once you realize these locales are based on real places.

The romantic/sexual tension between Conan and Yasmina continues to grow when the former proposes that the latter ought to take on the clothes of a local girl so as to disguise herself; after all, at least three parties are looking for her. Conan trades with a local girl and gives her a gold coin for her troubles, although perhaps wisely he sees her running off in the buff rather than giving her Yasmina’s clothes, since if the girl were found with those clothes she could be tortured and, worse yet, Our Heroes™ could be found out. It’s a bit of a comedic scene and it provides some relief after what amounted to a prolonged chase sequence in the first installment. It’s also here that Yasmina’s attraction to Conan is written more overtly, and it turns out such attraction may not be one-sided: when Conan gives her the new robes he beckons her to change out of his sight—an unusually chivalric and modest move for the barbarian.

A little gripe to shove in here before we get to the big action set piece of this installment. I’ve said before that Howard tends to use the same words to describe things when a perfectly fine alternative doesn’t present itself immediately, like Howard is in a mad dash to get the words out and has to go with what comes to mind first. For example, I feel like there has to be a better word to describe an attractive woman’s spine than “supple.” Actually Howard throws the word “supple” at several body parts, and it only works occasionally. This is a small price to pay for writing that is, far more often than not, narratively adept. Howard, on top of having a superhuman work ethic, also had a sixth sense for plotting, both in sustaining narrative momentum and also coming up with twists and turns that’ll hold the reader’s attention.

Speaking of which, here’s one now!

Kemsha and Gitara catch up with Conan and Yasmina, quite miraculously considering Kemsha got damn near run over by Conan’s horse at the end of the previous installment, but their reunion is short-lived when the big (i.e., the true) villains of the story make their first in-person appearance. Four of the Black Seers appear out of a dark cloud, above Our Heroes™ and well out of reach, and while we were led to believe the Black Seers meant business before, this is the first time we get to see them.

Howard doesn’t miss here:

The crimson cloud balanced like a spinning top for an instant, whirling in a dazzling sheen on its point. Then without warning it was gone, vanished as a bubble vanishes when burst. There on the ledge stood four men. It was miraculous, incredible, impossible, yet it was true. They were not ghosts or phantoms. They were four tall men, with shaven, vulture-like heads, and black robes that hid their feet. Their hands were concealed by their wide sleeves. They stood in silence, their naked heads nodding slightly in unison. They were facing Khemsa, but behind them Conan felt his own blood turning to ice in his veins. Rising, he backed stealthily away, until he felt the stallion’s shoulder trembling against his back, and the Devi crept into the shelter of his arm. There was no word spoken. Silence hung like a stifling pall.

The Seers are mainly here to get at the one who betrayed them. On the one hand, fair, but also despite being a villain we’ve come to sympathize with Kemsha. Howard has a gift for creating characters who are, if not totally rounded, at least recognizably human; while we haven’t spent that much time with Kemsha and his girl we understand their motives. Surprisingly, Gitara is not a Lady Macbeth figure who bullies Kemsha into taking power so that she can rule vicariously through him; she genuinely cares for him, and he cares for her, which is a connection that is ultimately held to be true, even if what comes next is tragic.

I hate to bring up another blocky quote like this, but I had to copy down some of the confrontation between Kemsha and the Seers as told from Yasmina’s perspective. The wizards have a bit of a Dragon Ball Z standoff, and despite facing off against four wizards more powerful than him, Kemsha is able to hold his ground. We knew he was more powerful than he appeared from he was able to do in Part 1, but this battle of wills is easily the greatest test of Kemsha’s strength, both as a wizard and as a human being. Yasmina, however, being far from a brainless damsel, figures out how Kemsha does not immediately succumb to the Seers, and how he probably is only able to do this with Gitara by his side.

The answer, simply is love.

The reason was the girl that he clutched with the strength of his despair. She was like an anchor to his staggering soul, battered by the waves of those psychic emanations. His weakness was now his strength. His love for the girl, violent and evil though it might be, was yet a tie that bound him to the rest of humanity, providing an earthly leverage for his will, a chain that his inhuman enemies could not break; at least not break through Khemsa.

Unfortunately something has to give. The Seers, similarly to Yasmina, pick up on Kemsha’s love for Gitara as his shield and proceed to use it against him. Redirecting their efforts at Gitara, she unfortunately is not able to withstand their efforts and is thus guided off the mountain’s edge, taking Kemsha with her to their apparent deaths. Again, despite being villains, their downfall is framed as tragic, and such framing works as we feel their loss. With their biggest opponent (who isn’t Conan) out of the way, the Seers snatch up Yasmina and take her to their lair, with Conan getting the fuck away just by the skin of his teeth. If you’ve read a few entries in this series before then you know Conan ain’t scared of shit, except… well, maybe these creepy bald guys. Admittedly a barbarian, while he can punch and slice his way out of most trouble, would probably get ass-blasted by some high-level wizards.

The People of the Black Circle is a later Conan story and it definitely feels like a later entry, on top of being the longest written up to that point. Conan has loved and lost before, and faced off with some pretty scummy bad guys, but the Black Seers actually make the guy retreat and think hard about how he can get his girl back. Of course it’s a hard conflict to spoil since we know in advance that Conan will come out on top somehow, but it’s more a question of how many people have to die for the bad guys to get taken down. Speaking of which, there’s a character who only appeared for a second in Part 1 who makes a big reappearance here, and his crossing paths with Conan may well lead to quite the final battle with the Seers…

There Be Spoilers Here

There is one player I’ve not mentioned till now, and that’s Kerim Shah. He was allies with Kemsha in Part 1 for like five seconds before the latter decided to go rogue, but now that Kemsha is dead (well, not quite yet) it’s up to Kerim Shah to rescuse Yasmina (and by “rescue” we mean capture her for his own ends) with or without Conan’s help. Since Our Hero™ is at his lowest point towards the end of this installment and since all his allies are now either dead or think him a traitor (his own Afghuli henchmen, having thought he killed the glorified redshit from Part 1, are now after him as well), he might do well to enter a temporary truce with Kerim Shah.

The two thus join forces.

What I find entertaining about this arrangement is that Kerim Shah makes no secret of wanting to take Yasmina as ransom; he states clearly that he and Conan have different goals in mind, and that even if they were to defeat the Seers they would still fight over Yasmina. They team up anyway. Kerim Shah might be a mercenary and a bit of a shithead, but he’s nothign compared to the creepy bald guys who spend the final scene of Part 2 subjecting Yasmina to some rather esoteric torture. Hero versus villain? Yawn. Hero teaming up with Villain B to take down Villain A? Now that’s more interesting. Of course what separates Conan from Kerim Shah is that he’s not a dog for bureaucracy and he actually seems to care for Yasmina. Again, Conan is really an anti-hero; he’s the guy we root for because the people he faces off with are always much worse than him.

Oh, and one last thing…

Gitara has fallen to her death, sadly, but for better or worse Kemsha’s death was not as swift. Conan finds Kemsha barely alive, apparently little more than a pile of broken bones, but luckily Kemsha lives long enough to give Conan his magical… girdle? Yeah, I guess you’d call it that. Conan is not a magician at all, but even a tool handed down from a skilled wizard will certainly help him in his inevitable confrontation with the Seers. Then Kemsha finally dies, sort of in a state of grace, broken but not destroyed, his humanity preserved. We actually get a spectrum of villainy with this story, from irredeemably bad (the Seers), to bad pragmatic and cool (Kerim Shah), to kinda bad but also kinda good (Kemsha). Howard has a way with bringing characters to life with relatively few words.

A Step Farther Out

Thing about Conan stories is that, like any other episodic series with a recurring protagonist, we know Conan will get out of this ordeal fine; the question is how and at what cost. Conan is wearing plot armor, but they must’ve run out of stock at the plot armor store because nobody else has it. People are dropping like FLIES! And yet the good news is that the plot is funneling into what looks to be an exciting climax. Will Yasmina make it out okay? Will Conan and Kerim Shah keep to their truce or will there be BETRAYAL? Most importantly, how the FUCK do people run around half-naked or just totally naked fine when we’re in the mountains? I’m pretty it’d be chilly at that elevation. Anyway, stay tuned.

See you next time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: