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

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

Who Goes There?

We’re at the point where I probably don’t have to introduce Robert E. Howard to you, but I’ll do it anyway; or rather I’ll elaborate on what makes Howard special. Fantasy is a very old genre, but it’s much less so as practiced by American authors, at least if we’re talking fantasy as separated from horror. It doesn’t help that historically the magazine market hasn’t been very kind towards fantasy, but for a stretch Weird Tales was the most famous and most prolific outlet for American fantasy, and it was where Howard published much of his most famous work. Of course Howard was looking for several outlets at the same time, since he was such a massively productive writer, whether it be his fantasy, his horror, or hell, his stories about boxing. Oddly enough, though, he was basically absent from the then-growing science fiction scene, and one has to wonder if he would have eventually moved into SF had he lived longer.

Howard’s life was tragically short, and yet he wrote more in the span of a decade than most authors (especially today) write in fifty years. His tales of Conan the Barbarian alone take up several volumes, despite the fact that he was only able to write one Conan novel with The Hour of the Dragon. Conan is, of course, the godfather of sword-and-sorcery heroes, despite not even being Howard’s first such character. Conan is really more of an icon than a character with traits people recognize, whether it’s his very loose film depiction via Arnold Schwarzenegger or the more faithful paintings done by Frank Frazetta. As depicted in the original Howard stories, Conan shows himself to be quite different from people’s assumptions.

Placing Coordinates

Part 3 was published in the November 1934 issue of Weird Tlaes, which is on the Archive. Because Howard has been dead for almost 90 years at this point, pretty much all of his work is in the public domain, including The People of the Black Circle, which you can read in its entirety on Project Gutenberg. If you want a book copy, you have plenty of options; the Conan stories have been perpetually in print (albeit subject to some editing fuckery early on) for the past several decades.

Enhancing Image

Sadly there’s not a whole lot for me to say about the conclusion to this gripping novella; not the story’s fault really, it’s more that I’m not a very good reader and even worse when it comes to action. Howard has a sixth sense for writing action and suspense, although given how much there is of it in the third installment you might start to get the impression that Howard is grasping at straws, or rather ways in which he can challenge his nigh-invincible anti-hero.

To recap, Conan has teamed up with fellow gun for hire Kerim Shah to rescue Yasmina from the Black Seers of Yimsha, with help from some redshirts under Kerim Shah’s leadership. Kerim Shah and the Black Seers were originally working for the same country but the latter went rogue and snatched up Yasmina for their own ends. A bit of a disappointment, albeit an inevitable one, with this installment is that Yasmina is absent for much of it; she’s too busy being a damsel. I bring this up because Yasmina is almost as good a Conan woman as Bêlit from “Queen of the Black Coast,” which if I remember right was my first Conan story. I may have set up an unfair precedent with that one. Howard wrote “Queen of the Black Coast” and The People of the Black Circle close to each other, and I get the impression that at this point in his career he got pretty good at writing women who have personalities and agency. Bêlit has the advantage of being a criminal, the titular queen of the black coast, while Yasmina is filthy royalty (no truce with queens), but nobody’s perfect.

Conan, now armed with the magic girdle Khemsa had given him in the last installment, proves to be very valuable; arguably it’s the only reason he’s able to get out of this conflict alive. Something I’ve noted before and which I still like is that the enemy Conan faces off with in this story is objectively way more powerful than him, and even Conan admits that defeating the Seers for good is basically impossible. The key objective then is not to beat the Seers so much as to rescue Yasmina and get the hell out of there as fast as possible—which, naturally, involves facing off with the Seers and their underlings to some capacity. I don’t feel like recounting every detail of that journey, since it’s one long action sequence and I’m tired, but I do feel like pointing out a few things, such as…

Howard seems to be of the belief that when in doubt, throw a big aggressive animal at the protagonist. Not even an animal that’s all that fantastical, just take a normal animal and make it the size of a car. One of the first enemies Conan fights in this installment is a really big dog. How exciting. We also get giant magical snakes later on, which are at least marginally more exciting because of how Conan has to defeat them; it involves balls. I’m also pretty sure these snakes inspired this memorable interior, courtesy of Hugh Rankin. I can easily imagine Conan stories, especially this one, being adapted into an adventure flick in the ’50s or ’60s with stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, although I doubt the gore would be replicated.

Speaking of gore, I was wondering, at the end of the last installment, if Conan and Kerim Shah would fight the Seers together and then have an epic duel in the aftermath, or if there would be a betrayal beforehand; turns out I was wrong about both. The master of the Seers, who last we checked was subjecting Yasmina to some pretty far-out torture, doesn’t care too much about Conan and Kerim Shah invading his private space—not because he doesn’t mind them but because he sees them as little more than petulant flies. While Conan was able to deal with the underlings and the giant snakes at the cost of a few redshirts, this forthcoming battle won’t be as easy. Actually it’s a battle that Conan hopes not to win outright so much as to incapacitate the master long enough to rescue Yasmina.

A barbarian would have absolutely no chance against such a high-level wizard—not even a certified badass like Conan, were it not for that magic girdle. Indeed the gift from Khemsa had saved him before; the aforementioned big dog went after the redshirts but ignored Conan for reasons he did not understand at first. No doubt the girdle has symbolic value: Khemsa used it to good effect when protecting Gitara, his girlfriend, while Conan is using it to help him in rescuing Yasmina. Is it quaint that we’re supposed to believe Conan and Yasmina love each other despite having known each other for less than a week and being mostly on the run during that short time? Maybe, but what’s a good old-fashioned adventure yarn without some high-spirited romance? Even for a super-macho guy like Conan.

There Be Spoilers Here

I was gonna discuss Kerim Shah’s death in the previous section, but realized a) it really is a spoiler, and b) I should probably hold off on talking about it. I just say that because it’s pretty gnarly; it’s the most memorable part of the novella’s concluding installment. The Conan series is not averse to gore at all, but even by its standards this man goes out in a gruesome fashion. When Conan and Kerim Shah confront the master of the Seers the creepy guy YANKS KERIM SHAH’S HEART OUT OF HIS BODY. Like it’s the easiest thing in the world, too. Since Kerim Shah isn’t protected by any kind of magic, well, honestly he probably should’ve seen that coming. Even so, Howard’s talent for describing visceral action kicks into high gear and the result is almost mesmerizing with how grotesque it is.

Observe in all its glory:

He held out his hand as if to receive something, and the Turanian cried out sharply like a man in mortal agony. He reeled drunkenly, and then, with a splintering of bones, a rending of flesh and muscle and a snapping of mail-links, his breast burst outward with a shower of blood, and through the ghastly aperture something red and dripping shot through air into the Master’s outstretched hand, as a bit of steel leaps to the magnet. The Turanian slumped to the floor and lay motionless, and the Master laughed and hurled the object to fall before Conan’s feet—a still-quivering human heart.

Anyway, Conan manages to “defeat” the master, nab Yasmina, and get the hell out of Yimsha, although by Conan’s own admission his defeat of the master is by no means permanent; it’s mighty hard to kill such a powerful wizard. But wait, we’re not quite out of the woods yet! In the previous installment Conan’s henchmen, by way of misunderstanding, thought he had betrayed them, so now we have to tie up that loose end with one last battle where Conan makes it clear that he was loyal to his homies the whole time. We also get what is implied to be the final appearance of the master of the Seers, in the form of a big bird (not to be confused with Big Bird), because, like I said, when in doubt just take an animal and super-size it.

The ending sees Conan and Yasmina parting ways, as is to be expected. Yasmina is the love interest of the week, and as is custom she must either die or be unable to “tame” the Cimmerian. I’m not sure if this story takes place before or after “Queen of the Black Coast,” but probably after. Bêlit was, as far as I can tell, the closest Conan had to a true love, which due to tragic circumstances was not to be. Yasmina is in many ways a worthy partner, but as queen of Vendhya she has an obligation to her people—an obligation that Conan refuses to take part in; wisely he chooses his nomadic lifestyle over being forced into becoming something he’s not in the name of love. This all reminds me of the back end of Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road, albeit more concise and without those weird Heinlein-isms.

Now I’m just thinking about what the field would look like had Howard and Heinlein crossed paths, since they’re both such unique personalities and have such odd views of how man ought to interact with the society around him. Mind you that Heinlein started out as a quirky New Deal Democrat and only later became the quirky right-libertarian we recognize him as, and meanwhile Howard’s political outlook is… harder to parse. At least in the Conan stories, however, his sympathy for barbarism (or rather his definition of barbarism, which involves being quasi-civilized) is easy enough to understand. Conan’s capacity to stay a free individual and keep himself outside the confines of normal society is what makes him such a noble figure despite his penchant for criminal activities, at least for Howard. So ends yet another adventure for the Cimmerian.

A Step Farther Out

I’m conflicted about the length of this thing. It could’ve been streamlined and shortened, but also it could’ve been expanded to novel length so that we get more character development. The scale Howard invokes here is enough to fill a modern fantasy novel (so like 600 pages), but he’s content to give us a novella that would fill 90 to a hundred pages. I might still prefer “Queen of the Black Coast” if we’re talking Conan, but it’s hard to fault The People of the Black Circle for its heightened ambition. Also, while there is some old-timey misogyny at play, Howard proves once again that he was pretty ahead of his time with regards to writing female characters. The relationship between Conan and Yasmina is a bit rushed but both parties are assertive types with their own agendas, and while Conan clearly has an upper hand physically they’re mostly shown to be equal partners. This is also one of the longest of the original Conan stories (albeit still a novella), so now I’m curious as to what the sole Conan novel (that Howard wrote) looks like.

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: