Conan, the black-haired, red-skinned Cimmerian, has become over the last twenty five years a different fellow than the legendary swordsman who walked off the pages of Weird Tales magazine and out of the imagination of Robert E. Howard. First, collections with pastiches by other writers, comic books, then films have changed Conan's "public image" greatly, making
him a veritable household word as it increased his size, reduced his intelligence and obscured the fantastic backdrop that was a part of all Robert E. Howard's best works.
The Hyborian Age, that time between the Fall of Atlantis and the rise of the world as we know it, is a vivid setting for the adventures of the Cimmerian who came down from the North to carve out an empire. But behind the Hyborian Age, as behind the worlds of Howard's other characters, like Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn and King Kull, rests a macabre shadow, a world vision that is largely inspired by Howard's correspondent, fellow contributor to the famous Weird Tales magazine and friend, H. P. Lovecraft. The influence that Lovecraft had on the younger Howard was much greater than many recognize.
Once, at a convention, I asked L. Sprague de Camp, biographer of both Howard and Lovecraft, if he considered the Conan series to be part of what Derleth called "The Cthulhu Mythos"?. Mr. de Camp only acknowledged a begrudged family resemblance. Though no one has claimed the Conan stories as part of the Cthulhu Mythos, that group of stories by HPL and his friends centered on Cthulhu and his kin, it does by proxy exist next to them. One of the King Kull stories, "The Shadow Kingdom" (Weird Tales, August 1929) is a Mythos tale. Kull lived in the age before Conan, thus, they exist in the same world, though at different times. But this isn't enough to place the Hyborian Age into the framework of the Mythos. Howard did write at least six undisputed Cthulhu Mythos stories, "The Worms of the Earth" and "The Black Stone" being two of the best. These tales name the beings of Lovecraft's world, tell of new books and monsters, but none feature the beloved Cimmerian.
Howard's concept of the supernatural in his fiction can be best summed up by this dialogue taken from "Shadows in the Moonlight" (Weird Tales, April 1934):
"What gods?" he muttered.
"The nameless, forgotten ones. Who knows? They have gone back into the still waters of the lakes, the quiet hearts of the hills, the gulfs beyond the stars. Gods are no more stable than men."
Here we can see Howard has created a world that was once inhabited by wondrous and terrible creatures but most have fled, leaving only a few remote survivors, much as Lovecraft's Great Old Ones who once held the
Earth but can now only be found in remote and evil places. But unlike HPL's protagonists, Howard's humans do not quail and go mad, but hurl steel and muscle against the unsettling forces of the supernatural -- and one of the mightiest of these combatants is Conan. This key difference is the point of divergence for
these two masters of weird fiction.
In the de Camp-edited tale, "The Vale of Lost Women" (Magazine of Horror, Spring 1967), Conan shows us this underlying difference as he tells of the minions of the Dark:
"A god," she whispered. "The Black people spoke of it -- a god from far away and long ago!"
"A devil from the Outer Dark," he grunted. "Oh, they're nothing uncommon. They lurk as thick as fleas outside the belt of light which surrounds this world. I've heard the wise men of Zamora talk of them. Some find their way to Earth, but when they do they have to take on some earthly form and flesh of some sort. A man like myself, with a sword, is a match for any amount of fangs and talons, infernal or terrestrial . . ."
How are such creatures to compare with: "The thing can not be described -- there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order."? ("The Call of Cthulhu," 1926)
Robert E. Howard wrote at a furious pace, making his living by knowing what editors of action-adventure magazines like Oriental Stories, and Top-Notch wanted, often revising little or not at all. He cannibalized names without much regard for past stories, knowing his audience cared little for such details. The very first Conan story, not truly a tale of the Hyborian Age, was called "People of the Dark" (Strange Tales, June 1932) featuring a reincarnate Briton named "Conan of the reavers." Later, Howard would revise his unsold Kull story "By This Axe I Rule" to feature Conan the Cimmerian, beginning a series of seventeen stories to appear in Weird Tales between 1932 and 1936. That Howard sold so many stories to the legendary pulp can only be attributed to the color with which he depicted the monster-haunted worlds of his imagination. Few of the Conan tales lack some "squamous beast" or "unearthly horror," and those few that do feature other sorceries.
In his revised tale, "Phoenix on the Sword" (Weird Tales, December 1932), Conan, while lost in dream, sees a strange unearthly place. "He shuddered to see the vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones, and he knew somehow that mortal feet had not traversed the corridor for centuries." The similarity to the Great Old Ones, the Old Ones or Ancient Old Ones, of Lovecraft stories such as "At the Mountains of Madness" (1931) and "The Dreams in the Witch-House" (1932), which Howard may have seen in rough form, is obvious.
Conan's protector, Epemitrius the Sage, warns: "It is not against men I must shield you. There are dark worlds barely guessed by man, wherein formless monsters stalk -- fiends which may be drawn from the Outer Voids to take material shape and rend and devour at the bidding of evil
magicians . . ." Again a description that could as easily apply to HPL's "The Call of Cthulhu."
The Nameless Old Ones may be the same Old Ones mentioned in "The Queen of the Black Coast" (Weird Tales, May 1934):
"This was the temple of the old ones," she said, "Look -- you can see the channels for the blood along the sides of the altar, and the rains of ten thousand years have not washed the dark stains from them. The walls have all fallen away, but this stone block defies time and the elements."
"But who were these old ones?" demanded Conan.
She spread her slim hands helplessly. "Not even in legendary is this city mentioned."
The monsters in Howard's Conan stories are often very Lovecraftian in their repulsiveness. Here in "The Slithering Shadow" (Weird Tales, September 1933), a horror stalks a city of opium dreamers:
She saw a giant toad-like face, the features of which were dim and unstable as those of a specter seen in a mirror of nightmare. Great pools of light that might have been eyes blinked at her, and she shook at the cosmic lust reflected there . . . Only the blinking toad-like face stood out with any distinctness. The thing was a blur in the sight, a black blot of shadow that normal radiance would neither dissipate nor illuminate . . .
It towered above him like a clinging black cloud. It seemed to flow about him. His madly slashing saber sheared through it again and again, his ripping poniard tore and rent it; he was deluged with a slimy liquid that must have been its sluggish blood. Yet its fury was no wise abated.
What these descriptions show is that though it is never named as either a frog-like Servitor of the Outer Gods or a shoggoth ("The nightmare, plastic column of fetid, black iridescence oozed tightly onward . . . -- a shapeless congerie of protoplasmic bubbles . . ."), it does bear a striking familiarity to both, difficult to see clearly, amorphous and black. These kinds of similarities can be found elsewhere.
In "The Vale of Lost Women," Livia witnesses a decidedly Cthulhuian relative:
. . . It hovered over her in the stars, dropping plummet-like earthward, its great wings spread over her; she lay in its shadow . . . Its wings were bat-like; but its body and the dim face that gazed down upon her were like nothing of sea or earth or air; she knew she looked upon ultimate horror, upon black, cosmic foulness born in the night-black gulfs beyond the reach of a mad-man's wildest dreams.
Yag Kosha, the imprisoned elephant being from "The Tower of the Elephant" (Weird Tales, March 1933), describes his people as traveling through space: ". . . We swept through space on mighty wings that drove us through the cosmos quicker than light . . . But we could never return , for on earth our wings withered from our shoulders . . ." A description that might apply equally to HPL's Mi-Go in the "The Whisperer in the Darkness" (1930). "The things come from another planet, being able to live in interstellar space and fly through it on clumsy, powerful wings which have a way of resisting the aether but which are too poor at steering to be of much use in helping them about on earth . . ."
The beastly servants of Bit-Yakin, in Howard's "The Jewels of Gwahlur" (Weird Tales, March 1935), are faintly reminiscent of the Martenses in HPL's "The Lurking Fear" (1922):
. . . He ate the food the priests brought as an offering to Yelaya, and his servants ate other things -- I've always known there was a subterranean river flowing away from the lake where the people of the Puntish highlands throw their dead. That river runs under this palace. They have ladders hung over the water where they can hang and fish for the corpses that come floating through . . . At first they seemed like gray stone statues, those motionless shapes, hairy, man-like, yet hideously human; but their eyes were alive, cold sparks of gray icy fire.
The fact that Howard mentions the eyes strongly suggests that "The Lurking Fear" may have been of influence, since it is the eyes in Lovecraft's story that give it its final, terrifying clincher:
What I saw in the glow of the flashlight after I shot the unspeakable straggling object was so simple that almost a minute elapsed before I understood and went delirious. The object was nauseous; a filthy whitish gorilla thing with sharp yellow fangs and matted fur. It was the ultimate product of mammalian degeneration; the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication, and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground; the embodiment of all the snarling and chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life. It had looked at me as it died, and its eyes had the same odd quality that marked those other eyes which had stared at me underground and excited cloudy recollections. One eye was blue, the other brown. They were the dissimilar Martense eyes of the old legends, and I knew in one inundating cataclysm of voiceless horror what had become of that vanished family; the terrible and thunder-crazed house of Martense.
With so many extraterrestrial beings invading Conan's world, it is only fair to assume some scholarly mage has created the Hyborian Age's equivalent of the dread Necronomicon. The Book of Skelos is mentioned in "The Pool of the Black One" (Weird Tales, October 1933): ". . . He desired to learn if this island were indeed that mentioned in the mysterious Book of Skelos, wherein, nameless sagas --, strange monsters guard crypts filled with hieroglyphs -- carved in gold." And in "The Devil in Iron" (Weird Tales, August 1934): ". . . Conan had seen rude images of them, in miniature, among the idol-huts of the Yuetshi, and there was a description of them in the Book of Skelos, which drew on prehistoric sources."
One of most fascinating of Howard's villain is Khosatral Khel from "The Devil In Iron", a super-being with an Achilles' Heel, which Conan discovers only in the nick of time:
. . . he was seeing the transmutation of the being men called Khosatral Khel which crawled up from Night and the Abyss ages ago to clothe itself in the substance of the material universe . . . He became a blasphemy against all nature, for he had never known the pulse and stir of animate being . . .
Strange and grisly were his servants, called from the dark corners of the planet where grim survivals of forgotten ages yet lurked. His house in Dagon was connected with every other house by tunnels through which his shaven-headed priests bore victims for sacrifice.
Here Howard clearly labels Khosatrel Khel as a terrible survival from another age, quite possibly one of Lovecraft's other ages. The use of the name "Dagon" seems to be another allusion to Lovecraft's 1917 story of the same name.
Though the references are never overt, the Conan stories are filled with Lovecraftian atmosphere. The best example is the strange inhabitants of Xuchotl in "Red Nails" (Weird Tales, July, August-September, October 1936; 3-part serial). Though not stated, the story has a weird quality reminiscent of HPL, as does the insidious "crawler," the giant devil-worm equated to Zogthuu in "Black Abyss" (a Kull story), and the Worm in Howard's Mythos tale, "The Valley of the Worm," by Karl Edward Wagner in his excellent pastiche The Legion from the Shadows (1976).
Conan was Howard's last and greatest character. The strong Lovecraftian elements shown in his early work had begun to fade with these final stories. Perhaps with "Beyond the Black River," his last completed Hyborian tale, Howard leaves Lovecraft behind for good, substituting his own Texas locale and American history into the background. Ultimately this change had to occur with the divergent ideas in Howard's and Lovecraft's fictional goals. The world of Conan is a world of magic and muscle in conflict, a place where Lovecraft never dwelt.
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Created: July 1, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004