Sunday, 6 December 2015

Short Story Sunday 10: The Slithering Shadow (Reading Conan 05)

After last week’s disappointing story “The Black Colossus” I’m happy to say that the next Conan story by Robert E. Howard is much better. It has a simple plot, but because of its eerie and atmospheric execution along with its underlying mystery and near complete focus on Conan, it ends up being one of the most enjoyable of the first five Conan stories.

“The Slithering Shadow” by Robert E. Howard, originally published in Weird Tales (Sept. 1933)

Conan finds himself in the desert accompanied by his female companion, Natala. They’re the last survivors of Prince Almuric’s army. They’ve just run out of water and their situation looks bleak. It’s not long before Conan spots what appears to be a city in the middle of the sun scorched dunes. Naturally, they head towards it. Immediately upon arrival, things aren’t what they seem, and Natala starts to worry. Conan is more practical and after a bit of searching they find a room in which a feast is laid out. There are no diners in sight. Famished and thirsty, Conan eats his fill.

Satisfied, they explore the city. Something seems off and their suspicions are confirmed after they see a sleeping man being taken away by a large shadow that seems more corporeal than it should be while lacking any distinct physical feature. This isn’t their first strange encounter in the city, nor will it be theor last. While trying to make their escape they encounter a Stygian witch, Thalis, who becomes infatuated with Conan. She tricks him and kidnaps Natala out of jealousy. She feeds her to the dark shadow, Thog, the beast who feeds on those who live within the city. Conan sets out to rescue Natala and in order to do so fights off the crazed citizens of Xuthal and even Thog itself. Fans of Conan will not be surprised by the outcome.

From the comic book adaptation by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and Alfredo Alcala in
The Savage Sword of Conan #22.

Originally published as “The Slithering Shadow”, this story was later published under the alternate title of “Xuthal of the Dusk”. As mentioned above, the plot is pretty straightforward but I’m alright with it because it gives Howard the opportunity to develop Conan’s character a bit more. By this point in the publication order of the original Conan stories, parts of his character and his past are very, very clear while very large chunks of it are still a complete mystery to the reader. Howard’s character building is often more suggestive than explicit. Some of the things we know for sure are that Conan is extremely strong. He’s a mighty warrior and loves battle. We know about his deceptive cunning (deceptive because he’s not a brain dead barbarian, but an intelligent and thinking one) and he’s a skilled strategist. What’s mostly lacking in lacking in Conan’s development as a character so far is any clear idea of what his overall life was like, from his childhood to his final days as King of Aquilonia.

Though we lack a clear chronology of his life, “The Slithering Shadow” does provide us with a lot of insight into the way Conan acts. As would befit the muscled barbarian, Howard gives us most of this information by telling us about Conan’s action rather than giving us any insight into his thoughts.

One of the most enjoyable things about this story is how much time is dedicated to Conan. It’s just what I wanted after the last story which I found focused on other characters more than on Conan. In previous stories Howard’s made it pretty clear that Conan is a very physical being. He’s often described in comparison with a tiger, especially when he’s fighting. This story also proves that Conan must have been a very attractive man as his conversation with Thalis makes her lust after him in just a couple pages. It’s no surprise that paintings and drawings of Conan are often very sensuous. You don’t need to look any further than the comic book adaptations published in The Savage Sword of Conan or the paintings by Frank Frazetta.  

Cover of Weird Tales (Sep. 1933) by Margaret Brundage.

This story, more than any that came before it, suggests the kind of man Conan really is. He’s been given a few descriptors that struck throughout the years. The Cimmerian, the Destroyer, the Conqueror, the Barbarian. All of those names fit and they fit quite well, but really I think he’s more accurately described as Conan the Survivor.

That he continues to survive the highs and lows that destroy other, lesser, men makes him mightier than anyone else alive during his age. Conan even outlives and outlasts entire civilizations. In this story alone he survives the destruction of Almuric’s army, the harsh and uncaring desert, the madmen and women of Xuthal who in their drug induced stupor try to kill him. He also survives the trickery and traps set for him by Thalis and he defeats Thog. That he definitively defeats Thog but doesn’t necessarily kill it adds to the idea that Conan is, above all else, a survivor rather than a conqueror or a destroyer as he’s often been described by his fans in the decades since his original publication. His goal isn’t to kill Thog, it’s to survive its hunger and fury long enough to successfully escape Xuthal with Natala in his arms. That’s his goal and he only fights Thog as long as he needs to in order to succeed.

Upon further reflection, this interpretation applies to more than just this story. It’s only been made clear to me with “The Slithering Shadow” but it’s a characteristic of Conan and his stories since the very beginning. Consider the other stories read so far. In “The Phoenix on the Sword” he survives the assassination plot and the demon summoned by Thoth-Amon. In “The Scarlet Citadel” he survives the machinations of Tsotha-Lanti and the horrors found in the dungeon. Interestingly, he doesn’t engage directly with any of the horrors in the dungeon other than hacking down the demon plant. My interpretation is that he did it to save a fellow man in the hopes that he would be able to help him escape the dungeon. At the very least he was putting him out of his misery. Either way, he had a purpose in engaging an enemy. I was pretty sad that he never took on the giant snake but doing so without being attacked by the snake would have been foolhardy to say the least. In “The Tower of the Elephant” he survives the many defences of the tower which included lions, guards, a giant poisonous spider, and an evil sorcerer. In “The Black Colossus” he skilfully navigates the battle fields and kills the wizard Natohk. There’s nothing he can’t overcome. Sometimes he receives help and other times he’s entirely on his own, but whatever happens to him he comes out of it alive and he always leaves bodies behind.  

From the comic book adaptation by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and Alfredo Alcala in 
The Savage Sword of Conan #22.

In addition to this, “The Slithering Shadow” gives the reader a glimpse at the kind of relationships he has with women. We see this most clearly with the way he treats Natala. There were no women in the first three stories and his time spent with Yasmela in “The Black Colossus” was that of a general serving his master whom he was hired to protect. In this story Natala is described as being Conan’s sex slave. Yet he keeps her around well beyond the point where it would be convenient. Why worry about her wellbeing once you’re lost in the desert? What purpose could she serve? I’m not asking from my own point of view, but that of Conan’s. He really doesn’t need her. My conclusion is that he’s concerned with her wellbeing as much as his own because he’s an honourable and generous person, up to a point. There is no tenderness to it, though. I don’t think women are quite like objects to him, they’re people, but secondary to himself. I don’t want to say anymore because I feel as though I’ll be speculating more than interpreting what was in the story. I don’t think they’ve have been enough women in these stories for me to get a good grasp of how Conan thinks about them.

Let’s get back to the Conan as supreme survivalist thing because I can’t get that idea out of my head. There is a cold practicality to Conan that is equal parts frightening (because you see to what lengths he’ll go in order to overcome a challenge) and admirable. He gets the job done, regardless of the difficulties at hand. He fights a monstrous tentacled demon with a large gaping mouth and survives. He comes out of it a ruined mess of a man, but he’s alive (barely). In a way he reminds me of Parker from the novel series by Richard Stark. Both men are cold, calculating, and practical to a fault. They often end up in unpleasant and dangerous situations because of the ineptitude of weaker men but they have the drive and the abilities to escape those situations. I’m not sure what Conan’s motivations are or what his purpose in life is, but it’s clear that whatever trouble he gets into he’ll be able to get out of again.

Cover art by Earl Norem.
While I enjoyed this story a great deal, there were parts of it that weren’t quite up to par. Natala is nothing more than a cookie-cutter damsel in distress. She’s a hanger-on in the worse way and based on Howard’s descriptions of her, the only good thing about her is how pale and milky her skin is which is inconsequently to most readers, I’m sure. I don’t expect she’s a good conversationalist either.

The other thing that didn’t impress me is seeing how poorly Howard describes the physical aspect of the monster. He’s quite skilled at describing mood and things that aren’t corporeal. Even though the monster is described as a large shadow Howard later describes it during a physical fight with Conan. If Thog is going to fight Conan then the monster needs to have some recognizable and physical features. Aside from specifying that Thog has tentacles and a head that looks like that of a toad, we get no other descriptions for it. It’s weird that Howard has such an imaginative mind yet stumbles at describing monster that aren’t insubstantial. I had a similar problem with the demon in “The Phoenix on the Sword”. This shortcoming is at odds with the Howard that gave us the excellent visuals of Yag-Kosha in “The Tower of the Elephant”. It also sucks because artists don’t get a good description to work with and we end up with monsters looking like the one on the cover of The Savage Sword of Conan #22. Sure, it’s gross looking, but it’s also kind of hilarious.

Rating: 4 Toad Shadow Monsters (what? I’m sure Thog has a family)
I’m starting to get a grasp on what makes a good Conan story. It needs a creepy, most often supernatural, element, Conan doing something badass, a nice thematic element linked to barbarism and civility. This story has all that and it’s also a nice little mystery about what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-Xuthal. Answer? A lot. But that translated to a lot of good times for the reader.

Next Sunday: Pirate Conan in “The Pool of the Black One”. That is all.

No comments:

Post a Comment