Sunday, 13 December 2015

Short Story Sunday 11: The Pool of the Black One (Reading Conan 06)

It’s only been a few short weeks that I’ve been reading Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. There have been highs and lows, and after only six stories I’m feeling Conan fatigue. If I’m being honest I think it’s overall blogging fatigue as bumping up my posting schedule to two posts a week is starting to take its toll. Finally reading these stories has been an interesting experience. I find the stories vary in quality to such a degree that you never really know how much you’ll enjoy the next story. My thought is that these earlier stories might be the worst of the lot but I’ll only know for sure once I’ve read them all. For now though, I think I need a little break from Conan as this story proved once again that the quality of the stories fluctuates significantly.

“The Pool of the Black One” by Robert E. Howard, originally published in Weird Tales (Oct. 1933)

Off the west cost of Zingara and in sight of the Barachan Isle, a woman is sunbathing on a ship. Without warning Conan rises out of the water and climbs aboard. He’s accosted by the captain Zaporavo who is immediately threatened by Conan’s sheer physical size. He has a right to feel that way since Conan plans on taking command of his ship. He doesn’t act on it yet, instead he begins making friends with the crew so that even if their captain doesn’t care for the Cimmerian, the crew will.

The ship sets anchor at an island where the captain hopes to find treasure. They land on the beach and make their way into the jungle. Conan makes him move and kills the captain. Shortly after he sees a large, dark skinned creature carrying a man away deeper into the jungle.  It’s humanoid in shape but not a man. It’s larger and looks just slightly otherworldly. Conan follows it into a hidden city and there he witnesses the evil secrets of the island and its inhabitants. Before long, Conan leads a rescue operation and evacuates the island in a hurry. He’s fighting tooth and nail to save as much of his crew as possible to man the pirate ship that now belongs to him.

Structurally, this story is very similar to the one I reviewed last week. In both stories Conan gets attached to a scantily clad woman, uncovers a weird hidden city with a strange culture, living in the presence of strange and inexplicable magic. Conan confronts that magic and the citizens of the city in question, then escape with the damsel in distress at his side. Of the two stories, this one has the most excitement in it but the former, “The Slithering Shadow”, is the better story. Howard’s writing was tighter in the previous story than it is here. The plot, while similar in both, flows better in the first story. While there are plenty of unanswered questions regarding Thog and the dreaming citizens of Xuthal, Howard at least developed it beyond simply introducing a threat to Conan as he does with “The Pool of the Black One”. The city on the island, the one with the green pool of magic, isn’t developed. Rather, it plays the role of antagonist HQ for the Black Ones.

What “The Pool of the Black One” does better is putting Conan in an entirely new setting. Being on a pirate ship gives Howard the freedom to play around with things that normally wouldn’t work in other settings. Finding the island and seeking treasure (as was Zaporavo’s reason for anchoring there) are good, classic beginnings to an adventure story. Today it would be hopelessly cliché as it’s been overused to death, but with Conan it works. By the time Howard was using this as the beginning of his story, this idea was still fresh. The fact that the characters never even get close to picking up the trail of the treasure also helps.

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

Overall this is a straightforward story but Howard does take time to show off his writing skills in the first chapter which is excellent. It’s one of the best single chapters I’ve read in a Conan story so far. Conan’s introduction on the ship is told through the point of view of Sancha, the captain’s woman. This outsider point of view allows Howard to include humour in the story when Conan is proving himself to the crew members. It’s also nice to see the incredulous reaction that Sancha and the ship’s captain have at the way Conan arrives aboard. I quite enjoy how quickly the tension built between the characters. I would have like this chapter to be the entire story because once the crew arrives at the island the plot unravels.  

It’s a straightforward kind of adventure story where the strangeness of the locals is slowly uncovered to be a horrific culture of uncivilized and far more barbarous beings than anyone aboard the boat. The exploration of this hidden culture and the island’s inhabitants is poorly written. There is casual racism thrown in and the narrator’s mention that the islanders are specifically not black men doesn’t do anything to dissuade me that they weren’t thought of as such in the writer’s mind. In terms of plot, Conan’s desire to explore the island and uncover what’s going on with the crewmembers being taken away seems pointless. His goal on this island was to kill the captain so that he could take over the ship as his own. This happened just a few minutes after landing on the beach. Why spend time on the island after it’s been made pretty clear there is no treasure to be found?  

While this middle part of the story isn’t good, there are some good ideas lying around. I like the creepiness of the green pool and there is a pretty palpable sense of dread and danger. Though I like the green pool, its power and presence on the island is a mystery that never get gets discussed or developed. It’s simply a device to create conflict with Conan. So are the islanders. Howard fails to make me interested in their story and culture, but he does make good use of them as opponents to Conan. I found the action and sense of adventure really picked up during the last few pages of the story. The crew’s escape of the island and the overflowing green pool makes for a riveting few moments. Here, Howard’s writing calls back to the tone of the first chapter without ever really hitting the same note. Though it doesn’t reach the same heights as the first chapter is does help make this story a good one by ending the downwards slope in quality since the beginning of the second chapter.

The odd thing about this story is that it feels like the second act of a larger story, featuring Conan during his time on the high seas. What happened before? What will he be doing now that he has his own ship and a crew? I want to read the stories that are set before and after this one. Since I’m reading these stories in their publication order, I might get either one of those stories later on but I doubt that I will. Howard doesn’t seem to care about presenting a complete story of Conan’s life, not even in broad strokes. The references done to past events and the different countries of the Hyborian Age are mostly used as a way to add detail and a sense of realism to the place and time in which Conan’s stories happen. I don’t get the feeling that it’s all there for continuity.

Cover art by Val Mayerik. 

Rating: 3 shrunken pirates
“The Pool of the Black One” is a fun adventure story that gives Conan plenty of opportunity to show off his strength and cunning in battle. Howard includes some really excellent writing but the quality of the overall story is undermined by lackluster plotting in the middle chapter. Thankfully Howard racks up the tension for the conclusion and the story ends with the reader wanting more from Conan’s time on the sea.

Next week: Taking a break from Conan. I’ll review a couple science fiction short stories and I’ll get back to Conan the following Sunday. In the meantime you can catch up with the Conan stories read so far. If you don't own any of the stories by Howard, you can buy an ebook version of The Complete Conan Saga here.

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