Sunday, 8 November 2015

Short Story Sunday 07: The Scarlet Citadel (Reading Conan 02)

“The Scarlet Citadel” by Robert E. Howard, originally published in Weird Tales (Jan. 1933)

This tale begins in the middle of a battle, set during the time where Conan is king of Aquilonia. He’s consolidated his military strength with the neighbouring kingdom of Ophir to defend their lands from the conquering king of Koth, Strabonus. Soon it’s revealed that the battle was a trap and that the kingdoms of Ophir and Koth are conspiring together, with the hopes of destroying Conan. They’re aided by the sorcery Tsotha-lanti and Conan ends up in chains. He’s tossed into Tsotha’s citadel, inside a dungeon filled with ancient and evil horrors.

In the dungeon, Conan manages to free himself from his chains. There, he encounters strange evils. They range from giant snakes to demon toads. Surprisingly, the giant snake is the least terrifying of all these creatures. After he frees another prisoner, a sorcerer called Pelias. Together they manage to escape from the dungeon. Now free, Conan moves his focus to recovering his kingdom from the tyranny of Tsotha’s evil. Pelias aids him, and Conan finds himself thrown about by the wills and desires of sorcerers and magics he doesn’t understand. He survives the final confrontation on the battlefield, but not solely because of his skill and might as a warrior.

After reading my first original Howard Conan story, I thought I knew what to expect with the rest of these story. I’m actually pretty pleased to say that I didn’t expect the second Conan story to start in the middle of a battle between three armies. It was a nice surprise. That the story takes a detour mid-way to explore a style of writing more akin to H. P. Lovecraft was also welcome, but to have the whole story circle back and end on the battlefield was just the cherry atop the sundae of unexpected moments that this story represented. I should stop trying to think of what future Conan stories will be and just enjoy them.

This story’s structure, while exciting to read for the first time, doesn’t actually work all that well once you start thinking about it. I found the story was too compressed. There are a lot of things that happen and I would have liked for Howard to let things breathe a little more. He does this during the middle section of the book, the part that focuses on Conan’s exploration of the Scarlet Citadel’s dungeons. Here, the pacing of the story works superbly. Howard’s evocative language really gave me the creeps (in a good way). I’ve read that The Hour of the Dragon is very similar in plot structure to this story. As the only Conan novel, that makes sense, because there is a lot of material here than can be and, honestly, needs to be expanded. I’m looking forward to The Hour of the Dragon but that’s very far away. I’ve got plenty more Conan stories to read before I get to that one.

From the adaptation by Tim Truman (writer), Tomás Giorello (art), and José Villarrubia (colourist).

To me, Conan’s time in the dungeon is the heart of this story. Here he explores interconnected rooms in search of a way out. While doing so, he discovers a series of monsters and weird, otherworldly creatures. It’s basically a dungeon full of supernatural monsters and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Howard does an excellent job descripting the mood and overwhelmingly evil atmosphere of the place. My favourite of these creatures is a demon flower. It sets its roots in foul soil and feeds on humans. It can keep a human alive for years, slowly feeding on the victim’s soul and growing in size and in appetite. It’s a creative monster and I’ve since a couple variants of deadly plants before, but Howard’s is the earliest I’ve ever encountered and might actually be the creepiest.

While I really enjoyed reading this story, it’s not perfect. It’s not as carefully crafted as “The Phoenix on the Sword”, which I think is a better story than this one. If nothing else, this feels more like a Conan story to me because of the dungeon scenes and the way the weird magic works. I’m pretty disappointed that Conan only fights one monster in the dungeon. Surely another monster fight would have improved this story, right?

Another surprise I had while reading was realizing how reactionary Conan is during most of this story. It’s not a good surprise like the previous ones. This is actually a bit of a lame surprise. For the most part, he’s tricked into going to war which actually happens to be a plot to destroy him. Then he’s imprisoned, but not in a regular dungeon mind, in a real fucked up place full of supernatural horrors just waiting to devour his life essence and damn his soul to an eternity of suffering. Naturally, he works hard to get out of that situation but he’s only there because others conspired to put him there. Even when he succeeds in escaping it’s because he receives the help of Pelias. He continues to get help of the magical sort when confronting Tsotha-lanti. Other than killing other warriors in battle, the only thing Conan does in this story is try to survive the evils of sorcerous men and conspiring rival kingdoms.

I don’t know about you, but I like my sword & sorcery heroes to be a little more proactive. It brings this story down a notch for me. It feels wrong that Conan is so often at the mercy of powers he doesn’t understand.

Cover art by Darick Robertson.

Rating: 3 Soul-Eating Monsters
The beginning and end of “The Scarlet Citadel” are enjoyable, but they lack any real storytelling punch to make them memorable. The middle section however, is an excellent bit of writing. It’s a little disappointing that Howard didn’t connect the different parts of this story together in a more effective way, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are some really good bits here.

Next Sunday, I review one of my all-time favourite Howard stories: “The Tower of the Elephant”! You don’t want to miss it.

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