Sunday, 29 November 2015

Short Story Sunday 09: Black Colossus (Reading Conan 04)

“Black Colossus” by Robert E. Howard, originally published in Weird Tales (Jun. 1933)

Out of the Conan stories I’ve read so far, this is easily my least favourite. It was painful to read it. The plot read like a draft version of “The Scarlet Citadel” and the descriptions of people and places are endless and quite distracting. Robert E. Howard has undeniable skill when it comes to the use of descriptive language to set the mood and create atmosphere. It just so happens that sometimes he misses the mark and ends up describing things needless for pages on end. Since I started this project I’ve always been slightly worried that some of these stories would be duds. I didn’t expect to encounter one so soon. “Black Colossus” is a bore with a few nice moments tucked into the story. Sadly, those nice moments just aren’t numerous enough or good enough to make this story worthwhile.

The story opens with a thief who breaks into the tomb of a long dead wizard named Thugra Khotan. Soon after entering the treasure room, the thief encounters the awakened wizard and dies at his hands. Miles away and what surely must be weeks later (though it’s never clarified in the story), Yasmela, princess of Khoraja, is having a nightmare. Natohk, the Veiled One, is threatening to destroy her kingdom and capture her for himself. He and his armies are near Khoraja and it won’t be long until he can act out his threats. In the hopes that he will aid her, Yasmela pleads to her god who tells her to go out in the city and request the aid of the first man she encounters. The first man she meets is Conan. He is already a member of Khoraja’s army and she asked him to take command of the kingdom’s forces. Conan agrees. He will fight for Yasmela and Khoraja as long as they continue to oppose Natohk and his hordes. Conan sets out to meet Natohk’s force and the story ends in a large scale battle.

There’s a lot I don’t like about this story. For starters, why does Thugra Khotan change his name to Natohk? He’s been dead for three thousand years. Who would remember him? Another question I have is why does he want to take over the Hyborian countries? He clearly had enough loot and gold to live comfortably for decades. You could say he’s enthralled by Yasmela and her beauty but again, with that much gold, you could pay for a harem. Yasmela characterization isn’t any clearer than Thugra Khotan’s. She’s the head of the state while her brother, the king, is being held captive by a neighbouring kingdom. She’s not a political or military leader. She’s clearly just a figurehead because her idea of taking care of her kingdom and managing the war is to go out and give command of her armies to a complete stranger. Still, she has moments where she exudes strength but they’re counterbalanced by other moments where she’s acting like a damsel in distress. Which brings us, finally, to Conan.

You could argue he’s not even the main character of this own story. We’ve had a couple stories start out from a point of view not strictly focused on Conan and in those instances it’s actually worked pretty well. He comes to the game relatively late in “The Phoenix on the Sword” but he’s clearly the focus of the story from start to finish. In that first tale the men of his kingdom are conspiring against him. He’s not an active member of the plot at that point but he’s the focus of it. Not true in this story which begins with the resurrection (or awakening) of Thugra Khotan. It then progresses to his warmongering under a different name. Only after he’s made it clear to his newest target, Yasmela, that he’s coming for her does Conan enter the story. From that point on, nobody really gets the spotlight as Howard juggles many characters, both important and incredibly unimportant. He orchestrates a large battle and minor characters are everywhere, all of them creating further chaos and distraction from the main character. It’s very disappointing.

Art by John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala.

Because of the lack of focus on Conan, “Black Colossus” doesn’t teach us much about Conan. The only thing I learned with this story is that Conan is a good military commander. Really though, that’s not much in terms of characterization. Though I don’t think it’s been mentioned outright before, his military prowess and skill with strategy was pretty heavily implied in his love of battle.   

Regarding the large scale battles, this is the second one we get in two stories. The first took place in “The Scarlet Citadel” and the second one in this story. While there are some things that Howard is really good at writing, large scale battles are not one of those things. I’m starting to think it’s just not where his strengths are as a writer. Techniques he uses when describing people and places, descriptions that can make them feel foreign, interesting, grandiose and sometimes very, very old, just don’t work for battles. There is a distinct lack of precision and clarity missing from the scenes that deal with entire armies and regiments moving across the battlefield.

After reading the original Howard story, I grabbed my copy of Dark Horse’s collection of The Savage Sword of Conan volume 1 because it contains one of the comic book adaptations of this story. In the second issue of the series, “Black Colossus” was adapted by Roy Thomas with art by the excellent penciller/inker team of John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala. I was curious to see if the story would read better in this format. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much the same. As one of the shorter Conan stories it fits quite nicely in the 20 or so pages of the comic. There was one undeniable upside to reading it in this form: the art. It’s stellar. If you’re a fan of black and white comics and sword and sorcery, I can’t recommend these collections enough. They’re very thick (over 500 pages!) and very affordable. Even better, the majority of the stories are quite good.

While doing a bit of fact checking in preparation for this review, I discovered that “Black Colossus” got reworked and became parts of The Hour of the Dragon, the only Conan novel. Interestingly, a story that shares similar elements with this one, “The Scarlet Citadel” was also used as the basis for The Hour of the Dragon. It makes quite a bit of sense considering the similarities that both stories share. The most prominent of them being large scale battles involving many different nations of people and a dungeon or tomb filled with horrors and treasures respectively.

Cover art by Neal Adams.

Rating: 1 Super Undead Wizard
I really disliked this story. I was surprised by this because a lot of the story elements being used here have been used in the previous three Conan stories. Maybe that’s the problem because the story feels pretty stale. Even the art of the legendary team-up of Buscema and Alcala wasn’t enough to make me enjoy it. I feel bad giving “Black Colossus” my lowest rating but I think it’s an accurate summary of its quality.

Next Sunday: I hope for a better story. Maybe Conan will actually play an important role and not be just a pawn in the hands of the gods. Will “The Slithering Shadow” disappoint? I hope not.

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