[Originally published in The Robert E. Howard Reader, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, The Borgo Press, 2010. Copyright 2010 by Charles Hoffman.]
RETURN TO XUTHAL
Howard’s Original Sin City Revisited
A Tale of Two Lost Cities
The first Robert E. Howard story I ever read was “Xuthal of the Dusk.” I discovered it in that great old Lancer paperback, Conan the Adventurer. “Xuthal of the Dusk,” appearing under the title “The Slithering Shadow,” was actually the second story in the collection. Preceding it was the novella “The People of the Black Circle,” one of the most popular and acclaimed of Howard’s works. “Black Circle” was an excellent choice to open the book, the first in a series of Conan paperbacks, and introduce the character to a new generation of readers. Many years later, I do not clearly recall why I postponed reading it when I first purchased Adventurer. Possibly because it ran to nearly a hundred pages and I wanted to sample the book’s contents with a story I could complete in one sitting. “Meet Conan, the gigantic adventurer from Cimmeria—and discover one of the greatest thrills in modern fiction!” the book’s cover copy had promised. As it happened, I first met Robert E. Howard’s giant Cimmerian in the lost city of Xuthal.
Lost cities have been featured in many works of adventure fiction, most famously those of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. At the turn of the 20th Century, Africa was still very much the Dark Continent, and both Haggard and Burroughs imagined its unexplored vastness to be honeycombed with the last surviving outposts of vanished civilizations. Robert E. Howard followed closely in their footsteps in the lengthiest of his Solomon Kane stories, “The Moon of Skulls.” Kane, in the course of his wanderings through 16th Century Africa, discovers the lost city of Negari. Like Burroughs’ Opar, Negari is a lost colony of Atlantis, and its alluring queen Nakari recalls both La of Opar and Ayesha, Haggard’s “She-who-must-be-obeyed.”
It was while writing the Conan stories a few years later that Howard placed his own distinctive stamp on the lost civilization genre. Conan’s Hyborian world, itself a lost age remembered only in legend, is littered with remnants of even more remote antiquities. Haunted ruins are encountered from time to time in the course of Conan’s adventures, and the Cimmerian twice discovers an entire inhabited lost city while venturing into unexplored regions. The lost cities of Xuthal and Xuchotl are found in “Xuthal of the Dusk” and “Red Nails” respectively. In both stories, the societies within the cities are in decline. Howard frequently expressed the thesis that civilizations carry the seeds of their own destruction. Xuthal and Xuchotl are both microcosms that enable the author to portray a civilization in its death throes. Their cultural decadence is emphasized by being shown from the perspective of the wilderness-bred Conan.
The importance of this theme to Howard, as well as his belief that he did not quite do justice to it in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” are both demonstrated by the fact that he felt moved to return to it at greater length in “Red Nails.” The novella “Red Nails” was Howard’s final Conan story and the last fantasy he wrote before pressing financial concerns forced him to abandon fantasy altogether in favor of more commercial fiction. For his final allegorical statement, Howard returned to the themes of “Xuthal of the Dusk.”
“Red Nails,” to be sure, is the superior treatment of the themes. In fact, “Red Nails” has come to be regarded as not only one of the best Conan stories, but also as one of the finest of all Howard’s works. “Xuthal of the Dusk,” on the other hand, tends to be slighted as a mid-level Conan yarn at best. In his essay “Howard’s Fantasy,” Fritz Leiber singled it out as “a good (or bad!) example of a run-of-the mill Conan story.“ (1) Patrice Louinet, in “Hyborian Genesis Part III,” asserts that “Xuthal of the Dusk is a rather inferior Conan tale…The heroine was insipid and the story was clearly exploitative.” (2)
I cannot help but to regard this out-of-hand dismissal of “Xuthal of the Dusk” as unfortunate. I have already acknowledged my personal sentimental reasons for liking the story. Also, I don’t think it’s too outrageous to suggest that it would be somewhat more highly regarded were it not overshadowed by “Red Nails.” More significantly, however, I believe that “Xuthal of the Dusk” has points of interest apart from the ingredients it shares with “Red Nails.” Facets of the tale serve to illuminate aspects of the character Conan and Howard’s writing, as well as foreshadowing trends in latter day popular culture. These attributes make “Xuthal of the Dusk” an intriguing story in its own right.
Fear and Loathing in Xuthal
The first noteworthy element of the story is its very title. The lost city of Xuthal is “of the Dusk.” It has reached the end of its day. Before the story even begins, Howard employs dusk as an unambiguous metaphor for the city’s impending doom. Unfortunately, the story did not originally appear under Howard’s title. For its initial publication in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales, editor Farnsworth Wright changed the title to “The Slithering Shadow.” This title, lurid where Howard’s was subtle, was retained when the Conan stories were collected in the Gnome Press hardback editions of the 1950’s, and in the subsequent Lancer and Ace paperback editions of the 60’s and 70’s. Surely this proved a liability that further hindered appreciation of the story over the years. Consider the awkwardness of any discerning reader attempting to cite a story called “The Slithering Shadow” as a favorite.
The next point of interest is a mere line drop away. The story opens:
The desert shimmered in the heat waves. Conan the Cimmerian stared out over the aching desolation and involuntarily drew the back of his powerful hand over his blackened lips. He stood like a bronze giant in the sand, apparently impervious to the murderous sun, though his only garment was a silk loin-cloth, girdled by a wide gold-buckled belt from which hung a saber and a broad-bladed poniard. On his clean-cut limbs were evidences of scarcely healed wounds.
At his feet rested a girl, one white arm clasping his knee, against which her blond head drooped. Her white skin contrasted with his hard bronzed limbs; her short silken tunic, low-necked and sleeveless, girdled at the waist, emphasized rather than concealed her lithe figure.(3)
If this description sounds familiar, it is because it was the basis of Frank Frazetta’s portrait of Conan that first graced the cover of Conan the Adventurer. Starting with this image of a battle-scarred titan in a loincloth, Frazetta fine-tuned some details, such as substituting a more characteristic broadsword for the saber, and so created both his own most famous painting and the depiction of Conan that influenced every subsequent illustration of the character. It is Frazetta’s masterpiece, an iconic image, and the definitive visual portrayal of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. And it didn’t come from “The People of the Black Circle.”
In addition to offering this key image to Frank Frazetta, “Xuthal of the Dusk” was essential in defining the character of Conan to Howard’s original audience, the readers who saw the saga unfold in the pages of Weird Tales. “Xuthal of the Dusk” was the fifth Conan story to appear in Weird Tales. The first two tales featured Conan as the middle-aged king of Aquilonia, an adventurer who seized the throne from a tyrant. The third story, “The Tower of the Elephant,” presented Conan as a teenage thief green to civilization, indicating that subsequent installments would fill in the backstory of this remarkable individual. The fourth Conan adventure, “Black Colossus,” had Conan assume the role of mercenary warrior. “Xuthal of the Dusk” followed, again featuring Conan as a wandering soldier of fortune and thus suggesting that this was the Cimmerian’s usual occupation. The Conan series was off and running.
In the story, Conan and his female companion, Natala, are survivors of a defeated army whose flight leads them to the lost city of Xuthal. Xuthal is located in a vast desert south of the proto-Egyptian realm of Stygia and the black kingdom of Kush. It is my opinion that in the Hyborian Age maps featured in various Conan volumes, the southern lands, Stygia and the black countries, are not to scale. This is not unlike the Eurocentric Mercator projection maps of our own world that diminish Africa’s true immensity. In his own sketches of Conan’s world, Howard allotted more space to Stygia. It follows that Xuthal is located in the vast “African” portion of the Hyborian supercontinent, making it in a sense an African lost city in the Haggard-Burroughs tradition.
Conan and Natala explore the eerie walled city, finding it seemingly deserted and haunted by some strange menace. The mysteries of Xuthal are explained when they meet a stunningly beautiful woman called Thalis. Thalis is not a native of Xuthal, but a Stygian who arrived there as a young girl. She informs the wanderers that the people of Xuthal spend most of their time in death-like slumber, dreaming hallucinogenic visions induced by their consumption of the “black lotus.“(4) The city dwellers’ science is sufficiently advanced to provide for all their basic material needs without much effort on their part. Their lives have become “vague, erratic, and without plan.”(5) Thalis also tells of a shadowy horror called Thog that stalks the city and occasionally devours an inhabitant. The Xuthalians simply accept this gruesome state of affairs with a complacent fatalism. Thalis opines that this is not so different from the human sacrifices practiced in her native Stygia.
Hearing this, Conan is moved to declare, “I’d like to see a priest try to drag a Cimmerian to the altar! There’d be blood spilt, but not as the priest intended.”(6) This sort of dry action-hero wit was not characteristic of such pulp magazine do-gooders as The Shadow and Doc Savage. Wry comments such as this are much more typical of latter day heroes such as James Bond or Dirty Harry.
“Xuthal of the Dusk” is one of the tales in which Robert E. Howard delineated a new type of hero –cool, supremely confident, with more than a hint of ruthlessness and sinister menace. Let us call this sort of hero “the badass” for lack of a better name. Tough and lethal, ever ready for a brawl, the badass has more in common with the hard, dangerous enemies he fights than any candy-ass types he might end up protecting. The latter regard him not with fawning admiration, but with nervous relief that he’s on their side. Though popular enough in Howard’s day, the Conan character was destined to strike a chord with the reading public in the later, raucous decades of the 1960s and `70s.
It comes as no surprise that Thalis, having tired of her city-bred lovers, is attracted to Conan. She therefore attempts to get rid of Natala --but not before tying her up and whipping her. Thalis is one of the more beguiling evil women to appear in Howard’s fiction. In his essay, Fritz Leiber describes her as “sophisticated, hard as nails, sadistic, catlike, and schooled in every vice.”(7) Her name appears to have been derived from Thais, a courtesan who became the mistress of Alexander the Great, and also the name of the title character of a novel by Anatole France and an opera based on it by Jules Massenet. In “The Garden of Fear,” Howard mentions Thais in company with Cleopatra and Helen of Troy.
To the readers of Weird Tales, Thalis the Stygian was the first femme fatale to appear in a Conan story. Howard had previously introduced the golden-haired siren Atali in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” but the story did not see print in the author’s lifetime.(8) In any event, Atali has little in common with the other femmes fatale encountered by Conan. She is not a poisonous seductress, but a kind of ultimate cock-tease able to get away with her adolescent cruelty thanks to the protection of her menacing big brothers and her daddy’s power and authority. Thalis, on the other hand, is a jaded sophisticate, and the femmes fatale who subsequently appear in the series –Akivasha, Salome, and Tascela- are brunette sybarites who resemble her so closely that they could all be members of the same clique.
In fact, the next of these ubervixens Howard wrote of, Akivasha, so nearly mirrors Thalis that she, too, is a Stygian princess. It is interesting to compare Conan’s first sight of each. Howard’s initial description of Thalis reads:
…A figure framed itself in the doorway…It was a woman who stood there staring at them in wonder. She was tall, lithe, shaped like a goddess; clad in a narrow girdle crusted with jewels. A burnished mass of night-black hair set off the whiteness of her ivory body…The Cimmerian had never seen such a woman; her facial outline was Stygian, but she was not dusky-skinned like the Stygian women he had known; her limbs were like alabaster.(9)
And here is Howard’s introduction of Akivasha in The Hour of the Dragon, written nearly a year and a half later:
…A girl stood at the mouth of a smaller tunnel, staring fixedly at him. Her ivory skin showed her to be Stygian of some ancient noble family, and like all such women she was tall, lithe, voluptuously figured, her hair a great pile of black foam, among which gleamed a sparkling ruby. But for her velvet sandals and broad jewel-crusted girdle about her supple waist she was quite nude…(10)
In much of his writing, Howard seems blessed with a pipeline to his reader’s unconscious. The provocative dream-like image of an alluring woman framed in a doorway or passageway, as though poised on some mysterious threshold, seems uncannily resonant. Clearly the image of Thalis lingered long in Howard’s imagination, and undoubtedly in Conan’s as well.
The blonde Natala is the dark-haired Thalis’ victim, and a character generally deemed worthy of little attention. Some commentators on Howard’s work, in an effort to proactively appease feminist critics, cite the author’s ability to create “strong female characters.” Bêlit, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, and the Devi Yasmina are dutifully trotted out. Of course a woman like Thalis is also a “strong female character,” but the femme fatale tends to be narrowly regarded as another demeaning stereotype, rather than seen as a powerful archetype. “Insipid” heroines like Natala, who merely spice up the story in their capacities as damsel-in-distress and/or sex kitten, are scornfully noted and quickly glossed over.
Natala, however, merits scrutiny precisely because there is so little of the “strong female character” in her makeup; she is almost astonishingly weak and passive. Compared to Natala, heroines like Octavia and Sancha are like Amazons. Wandering through Xuthal with Conan, Natala is at all times timid and easily spooked. When they discover food and drink, Natala worries that they may anger someone by helping themselves, even though she and Conan are dying of hunger and thirst. A sex kitten character like Yasmela may not be much help to Conan, but Natala is explicitly shown to be a downright hindrance. She literally steps on Conan’s heels and endangers them both by clutching at his sword-arm.
Early in the story, when they are stranded in the desert, Conan actually considers putting Natala to death as an act of kindness:
[Conan] had not come to the limits of his endurance, but he knew that another day under the merciless sun in those waterless wastes would bring him down. As for the girl, she had suffered enough. Better a quick painless sword-stroke than the agony that faced him.(11)
The point is made that Natala is not Conan’s equal when it comes to facing the perils of the wilderness. Interestingly, Thalis, like Conan, also regards Natala as less than an equal in terms of her fitness to survive. Rather than the wilderness, however, it is the urban perils of Xuthal that Thalis declares Natala unfit to face. Still, Thalis comes to the same conclusion as Conan when she suggests that Natala should be put to the sword because of it:
“…[I]t would be better for you to cut that girl’s throat with your saber, before the men of Xuthal waken and catch her. They will put her through paces she never dreamed of! She is too soft to endure what I have thrived on…”(12)
Natala is thus deemed inferior in some sense to both Conan and Thalis. This point is emphatically reinforced. Crossing the desert to reach Xuthal, Conan carries Natala not only figuratively, but also literally: “Stooping, he lifted Natala in his mighty arms as though she had been an infant. She resisted weakly.”(13) Later, Thalis carries Natala with similar ease: “With a lithe strength [Natala] would not have believed possible in a woman, Thalis picked her up and carried her down the black corridor as if she had been a child…”(14)
Natala and Thalis contrast startlingly with one another, no less than De Sade’s virtuous Justine and her depraved sister Juliette. Natala, the fair, is meek but good-hearted. Thalis, the dark, is haughty and cruel. “I am the daughter of a king, no common woman,” boasts Thalis.(15) Concerning Natala’s background, we are told:
The girl was a Brythunian, whom Conan had found in the slave-market of a stormed Shemite city and appropriated. She had had nothing to say in the matter, but her new position was so far superior to the lot of any Hyborian woman in a Shemitish seraglio, that she accepted it thankfully…(16)
Among the secondary Conan women we find a “buccaneer’s plaything,”(17) a “dancing girl” or two, and even several designated “captive.” But it is Natala who is explicitly relegated to the role of slave. The “slave girl” is, of course, a common erotic fantasy figure, her popularity attested to by John Norman’s Gor series.
To the extent that she conforms to the “slave girl” fantasy, Natala compliments Thalis as well as contrasting with her. In the whipping scene, they represent different sides of the same coin: top and bottom, dominant and submissive. It is revealing that both women arrived in Xuthal under similar circumstances:
[Conan and Natala] were, so far as he knew, the sole survivors of Prince Almuric’s army, that mad, motley horde which, following the defeated rebel prince of Koth, swept through the Lands of Shem like a devastating sandstorm and drenched the outlands of Stygia with blood. With a Stygian host on its heels, it had cut its way through the black kingdom of Kush only to be annihilated on the edge of the southern desert…
From that final slaughter…Conan had cut his way clear and fled on a camel with the girl. Behind them the land swarmed with enemies; the only way open to them was the desert to the south…
For days they had fled into the desert, pursued so far by Stygian horsemen that when they shook off their pursuit, they dared not turn back. They pushed on, seeking water, until the camel died…(18)
Natala’s backstory is recounted in the third person, while Thalis boldly narrates her own tale:
“…I was abducted by a rebel prince, who, with an army of Kushite bowmen, pushed southward into the wilderness, searching for a land he could make his own. He and all his warriors perished in the desert, but one, before he died, placed me on a camel and walked beside it until he dropped and died in his tracks. The beast wandered on, and I finally passed into delirium from thirst and hunger, and awakened in this city. They told me I had been seen from the walls early in the dawn, lying senseless beside a dead camel…”(19)
Thus, both Thalis and Natala owe their presence in Xuthal to the thwarted ambition of a “rebel prince” and a subsequent flight on camelback in the company of the sole surviving warrior. In Xuthal, Thalis and Natala become rivals for Conan’s attention, possibly due in part to Thalis’s memory of her own one-time protector. There the similarities between the two women end.
While Thalis is contemptuous of Conan’s “little blond” (20), we are told that “[Natala] felt small and dust-stained and insignificant before this glamorous beauty.”(21) It comes as little surprise when Thalis and Natala are joined in a scene of girl-on-girl sadomasochism. Howard has done everything to depict Natala as a meek submissive short of spelling her name with a lower case “n.”
The whipping scene itself is erotically charged:
…As in a nightmare Natala felt her tunic being stripped from her, and the next instant Thalis had jerked up her wrists and bound them to the ring, where she hung, naked as the day she was born, her feet barely touching the floor. Twisting her head, Natala saw Thalis unhook a jewel-handled whip from where it hung on the wall, near the ring. The lashes consisted of seven round silk cords, harder yet more pliant than leather thongs.
With a hiss of vindictive gratification, Thalis drew back her arm, and Natala shrieked as the cords curled across her loins. The tortured girl writhed, twisted and tore agonizedly at the thongs which imprisoned her wrists…Every stroke evoked screams of anguish. The whippings Natala had received in the Shemite slave-markets paled to insignificance before this…(22)
This may seem strong stuff for a magazine sold over the counter in 1933. Nevertheless, this very scene was depicted in full color on the September Weird Tales cover. One of Margaret Brundage’s exquisite pastel compositions illustrates the whipping of a demure Natala by a stern Thalis. In a 1973 interview, Mrs. Brundage revealed that the entire print run of that month’s issue sold out, and remarked that they could have used a couple thousand extra copies. Although this was the first Brundage Weird Tales cover to depict a whipping scene, it was not the last.
It has been suggested that Weird Tales began to feature whipping scenes on its covers in a bid to remain competitive with the “weird menace” magazines or “shudder pulps” that began to appear in the mid-thirties. Lurid pulps like Terror Tales and Thrilling Mystery featured covers and stories that depicted grotesque acts of sadism in the tradition of the Grand Guignol Theater of Paris. However, the first shudder pulp was Dime Mystery Magazine, which adopted the weird menace format in October 1933, one month after Howard’s “Xuthal of the Dusk” appeared in Weird Tales as “The Slithering Shadow.” Terror Tales did not begin publication until September 1934, nearly a year later, and its companion magazine, Horror Stories, debuted in January 1935. Weird Tales did eventually feel the heat from this competition and attempted to get in the game by inaugurating the “Doctor Satan” series, concerning a costumed sadist, in the August 1935 issue.
Howard himself dabbled in the weird menace genre, later contributing “Graveyard Rats” and “Black Wind Blowing” to Thrilling Mystery. It has therefore been suggested that the instances of flagellation and bondage that occur in the Conan stories are examples of the author “pandering” to his readers. However, a look at the contents of Howard’s library reveals a more than passing interest in sadomasochism. “I…have in my possession a very good book on sadism and masochism by a noted German scholar,”(23) he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft. His collection also included small press publications that could be considered soft-core erotica, such as An Amateur Flagellant: Experiences of Flagellation and A History of the Rod. A listing of additional titles for sale such as Painful Pleasures and Presented in Leather was found among his papers. Glenn Lord believed that Howard was interested in acquiring such volumes for “research” purposes. The amount of “research” essential for writing for the shudder pulps notwithstanding, mild sadomasochism, such as the spanking of adult women, occurs in some of Howard’s erotic poetry as well. This does seem to indicate something more than academic interest. Considering that REH was a physically vigorous young male with no regular sexual outlet and possessed of one of the most vivid imaginations on the planet, it would actually be surprising if he possessed no kinks whatsoever.
Returning to the perils of Natala, we find things going from bad to worse. Natala’s screams attract the blob-like monster Thog, which engulfs Thalis and carries her off. Before long Thog returns for Natala:
…A dark tentacle-like member slid about her body, and she screamed at the touch
of it on her naked flesh. It was neither warm nor cold, rough nor smooth; it was like nothing that had ever touched her before, and at its caress she knew such fear and shame as she had never dreamed of. All the obscenity and salacious infamy spawned in the muck of the abysmal pits of Life seemed to drown her in seas of cosmic filth. And in that instant she knew that whatever form of life this thing represented it was not a beast.(24)
In his essay, Fritz Leiber notes that, “The lost city is terrorized by the beast-god Thog, who dwells in a deep well which strikes me as a symbol (unconscious? –probably) of female sexuality, and who is an amorphous and ravening Lovecraftian monster with the addition of an unlikely sexual hunger…Thog kills Thalis and at least attempts the rape of Natala.”(25)
Thog is some sort of gelatinous invertebrate, solid but shapeless, and Leiber regards the notion of such a creature lusting after a human female as outlandish. To Howard, however, this sequence represents a kind of ultimate perversity. Boneless, Thog is a creature composed entirely of hungry flesh, essentially a monstrous roaming appetite. We are told that the Xuthalians themselves “`live only for sensual joys. Dreaming or waking, their lives are filled with exotic ecstasies, beyond the ken of ordinary men.’”(26) Lustful and voracious, Thog is the embodiment of the city-dwellers’ unwholesome appetites. However, Thog is also a step above the Xuthalians on the food chain, devouring and defiling them in the manner of a natural predator.
We have already seen that Howard was ahead of the curve when it came to introducing sadomasochistic elements into pulp fiction. In depicting Natala being violated by Thog, he was a good half-century ahead of his time. Today there is an entire pornographic sub-genre of Japanese anime commonly referred to as “tits and tentacles.” These adults-only animated cartoons portray the plight of young women, usually teenage schoolgirls, who are sexually abused by monsters very much like Thog.
The only thing even remotely resembling this in the pulps was to be found in the science fiction magazines. There covers depicted attractive female astronauts clad in skintight spacesuits and fishbowl space helmets being menaced by “bug-eyed monsters.” No sexual context was explicit or implied; it was simply a way to pair a cute damsel-in-distress with a scary monster. And again, this could not have influenced Howard. Mort Weisinger introduced the bug-eyed monster format when he became editor of Wonder Stories (which then became Thrilling Wonder Stories) with the August 1936 issue. Howard was dead by the time it appeared.
All things considered, Natala was perfectly justified regarding her many forebodings of dread concerning Xuthal. Conan has his work cut out for him in dealing with the city’s menaces. And here too we see how Howard was ahead of his time as a purveyor of popular entertainment.
When Conan and Natala first enter the city, they find the gatekeeper lying motionless in the courtyard. Cold and lifeless upon examination, the supposedly dead man rises and attacks moments later. The presumed dead or defeated menace that abruptly launches a new attack has become a horror movie cliché in recent decades. This episode is the first of several plot elements of “Xuthal of the Dusk” that exemplify motifs which became commonplace in later works of popular culture.
Later, Conan finds himself under attack by twenty swordsmen of Xuthal. Unskilled and inexperienced, they are no match for Conan as he slices through them and escapes. In Fritz Leiber’s words, “Conan cuts up a besworded bunch of the `ridiculously slow and clumsy’ drug addicts in a battle described with butcher-shop thoroughness.”(27) Fred Blosser has observed that Leiber’s remarks about “butcher-shop thoroughness” seem quaint in light of today’s ultra-violent entertainment.
Taking this observation further, it is worth noting that the battle of a lone protagonist against numerous multiple attackers is the chief scenario of modern video games. Frequently censured for their violence, such games often feature the hero (the game-player’s surrogate) slaughtering whole herds of enemies in bloody combat. Though seemingly hopelessly outnumbered, the hero is possessed of great prowess while his opponents are comparatively lousy. The latter are like the walking dead in George Romero-type zombie movies –another modern violent entertainment—in that they are not all that dangerous one-on-one, but potentially lethal en masse.
In the end, of course, Conan prevails and rescues Natala. Natala believes that Conan’s flirtation with Thalis led to their troubles, and Fritz Leiber admits that “Conan’s humorous and matter-of-fact, happy acceptance of the two girls’ rivalry for him is refreshing.”(28) In her last thoughts concerning Thalis herself, Natala admits, “`She tortured me – yet I pity her.’”(29)
Submissive to the last.
Xuchotl of the Dusk (or, Red Nails in the Sunset)
Long after the sun set on Xuthal, Conan would tread the gloomy corridors of another lost city with a similar name, Xuchotl, in his final adventure, “Red Nails.” Like Xuthal, Xuchotl is home to a decaying civilization; only here the inhabitants are addicted to homicidal mayhem rather than sex and drugs.
This was not the first instance of Howard’s reworking elements of early Conan stories into later installments of the series. Fred Blosser described how Howard recycled plot elements from “Black Colossus” and “The Scarlet Citadel” to create the novel The Hour of the Dragon, an example of what Raymond Chandler called “cannibalizing.” In this case, Howard was revamping and improving some of his best material to make his only book-length Conan adventure as hard-hitting as possible.
In other instances, however, Howard may have felt that he had failed to do justice to ideas with greater potential. “Xuthal” and “Red Nails” together comprise the most notable example of this principle, but not the only example.
“Iron Shadows in the Moon,” written in November 1932, and “The Devil in Iron,” written in October 1933, both feature Conan in the Eastern lands of Hyrkania. In both stories, he is a member of the kozaks, marauders of the wastelands who prey on civilized outposts. However, in the former story, the power of the kozaks has been broken and Conan is first seen as a hunted fugitive hiding in swamps. In the latter tale, Conan is the chieftain of all the kozaks and a thorn in the side of the king himself. Both stories feature similar supernatural menaces found in an island’s haunted ruins. Yet the earlier story’s menace consists of mere “Iron Shadows,” statues that mysteriously come to life and kill some people offstage. The later story raises the stakes with a veritable “Devil in Iron” –a demon walking the earth in a body of iron because flesh is too fragile to contain it. Here we see Howard reworking the story to give it more of a punch.
Howard could also revamp the concept of a previous story to create a purer subtext. Case in point: “The God in the Bowl” and “Rogues in the House.” “The God in the Bowl,” written in March 1932, was Howard’s third Conan story. It was rejected by Weird Tales, and he subsequently reconfigured elements of it in the composition of “Rogues in the House,” believed to have been written in January 1933. In both stories Conan is a youthful thief at odds with civilized society. The action of each story takes place mostly indoors, within some sort of bizarre edifice where a strange creature is on the loose.
Each story was also written as an exposé of the hypocrisy and corruption of civilized authority. Characters in “The God in the Bowl” include a wealthy merchant who plans to steal a treasure and set up an employee as the fall guy, and a foppish young nobleman after the same treasure who hires and then betrays Conan. Then there are police officials who routinely torture confessions from suspects. However, the cast also includes honest men just trying to do their jobs.
In “Rogues in the House,” on the other hand, no one is pure. The “rogues” of the title are Conan, thief and hired assassin; Murilo, another unscrupulous, foppish young nobleman; the Red Priest Nabonidus, who exploits his power in the kingdom for his own gain; and arguably the ape-man Thak, a missing link who endeavors to become more human through murder and theft. But, as though that were not enough, there is also an assortment of unsavory minor characters as well. These include Conan’s partner in crime, who deserted from the army; a priest who plays both ends against the middle as both a fence for stolen goods and a police informer; the girl who sells out Conan to the police; the girl’s new lover, yet another thief; and a jailer who accepts bribes and has underworld ties. There is also an honest jailer, but he is portrayed as petty and drunk with his own authority. A group of assassins attempt to kill the Red Priest for the good of the kingdom, but they are assassins nonetheless. Everyone is guilty of something or has something to hide.
Returning to “Red Nails” and “Xuthal of the Dusk,” we find that “Red Nails” owes much more to its predecessor than those other examples of reworked stories. The lost cities of Xuthal and Xuchotl have nearly identical names, sharing the same first syllable and beginning with the letter “X” –a similarity that invites comparison. They are both located somewhere south of the black kingdoms of Kush and Darfar. Hyborian Age maps show them in roughly the same vicinity. The twin “X” cities are the Sodom and Gomorrah of Conan’s world.
Conan is amazed to discover that the city of Xuchotl is constructed almost entirely of jade. In his earlier adventure, he observed that Xuthal was constructed of “a smooth greenish substance that shown almost like glass.”(30) Green or “greenish” building materials are used from time to time in the Conan series to impart a hint of eldritch menace to mysterious ruins or alien structures. The “shadowy ruins”(31) discovered in “Iron Shadows in the Moon” were built of “greenish stone.”(32) The ruins on Xapur in “The Devil in Iron” that were inexplicably rebuilt overnight, a thing “monstrously out of joint,”(33) were also erected with the “iron-like green stone found only on the islands of Vilayet.”(34) The citadel of the inhuman giants in “The Pool of the Black One” is composed of some “green semi-translucent substance”(35) that heightens the effect of architecture “alien to human sanity.”(36) Outside of the Conan canon, the winged man’s tower in “The Garden of Fear” is also built “of a curious green stone, highly polished, and of a substance that created the illusion of semi-translucency.”(37) One wonders if REH would have described the Emerald City of Oz as “monstrously out of joint” or “alien to human sanity.”
In addition to being composed of similar building materials, Xuthal and Xuchotl are constructed along similar lines. Each city actually consists of a single massive self-contained structure. In “Red Nails,” this is obvious to Conan as he enters Xuchotl. In “Xuthal of the Dusk,” however, he is unaware that the buildings of Xuthal are all interconnected until Thalis so informs him. Her revelation comes when the story is well underway, suggesting that this detail occurred to Howard as he was writing it. An embryonic concept in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” the enclosed city is one of the most striking elements of “Red Nails.”
Other similarities between the two cities include the fact that the inhabitants of both have abandoned agriculture and livestock raising. Instead, all food is produced indoors. The inhabitants of Xuchotl cultivate fruit that “obtains its nourishment out of the air.”(38) In Xuthal, food is manufactured out of the “primal elements.”(39) Each city is illuminated by gems or fossils with luminescent properties. And more interestingly, each city is home to a dark-haired femme fatale whose name begins with the letter “T”—Thalis of Xuthal and Tascela of Xuchotl.
Of course there are differences as well as similarities between the two stories, and the most striking departure from the earlier tale is undoubtedly the depiction of Conan’s romantic interest. In “Red Nails” the demure Natala is replaced by the bold warrior-woman, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. Natala and Valeria are both blondes, but there the similarities end. Valeria fights at Conan’s side and more than holds her own.
“Red Nails” is not without its “exploitative” elements. As in “Xuthal,” sadomasochistic elements enter the story. Unlike the winsome Natala, however, Valeria assumes the dominant role. When a young woman of Xuchotl attempts to drug her, Valeria strips her naked, ties her up, and whips her, as Thalis whipped Natala, with “hard-woven silken cords.”(40) Nevertheless, Valeria meets her match in Xuchotl’s resident femme fatale, Tascela. Their encounter ends with Valeria herself in bondage and finally nude. Readers are treated to the spectacle of a dominant woman being dominated herself.
Throughout “Red Nails,” Valeria of the Red Brotherhood is presented as a fitting companion for Conan, nearly his equal --yet not quite. Mention is made of the fact that, due to spending so much of her life aboard pirate ships, Valeria cannot run very fast or very far. Therefore, when they are pursued by a carnivorous dinosaur en route to the city, Conan must pick her up and carry her along. Not unlike the meek Natala, Valeria has to be carried by Conan…for a little while at least.
In evaluating “Xuthal of the Dusk” in his essay, “Hyborian Genesis,” Patrice Louinet remarks, “The basic plot of the tale –Conan and a woman finding an isolated city peopled by decadent inhabitants and a wicked woman—would indeed be considerably enriched and developed in the future Red Nails (1935). The theme had profound psychological resonance in Howard’s psyche. In late 1932, however, Howard was not ready to give it the treatment it deserved, and Xuthal of the Dusk pales in comparison with the future Conan tale.”(41)
Perhaps so. Yet it bears repeating that if “Red Nails” had not been written, “Xuthal of the Dusk” would almost certainly be held in higher esteem. Apart from that, “Xuthal” deserves to be seen as more than just a kind of blueprint or rough draft for “Red Nails.”
If Robert E. Howard is remembered for nothing else, he merits recognition as an important figure in twentieth century art for his key role as a pioneer of sexy, violent entertainment. Howard understood clearly that consumers of narrative art have an innate hunger to identify with protagonists placed in extreme circumstances. After all, Romanticism and its Gothic subgenre were all about unusual situations, intense moods and heightened emotional states. Sex and violence in entertainment are routinely condemned by politicians, teachers, and other authority figures that have an interest in keeping the masses docile. On the other hand, every storyteller, good or bad, knows instinctively that no situation is more dramatic than physical conflict, and that no concept is more compelling than the prospect of total sexual fulfillment. Sex and violence are like the primary colors of the artist’s palette, regardless of how they may subsequently be blended, softened and refined. Howard was adept in employing the “primal elements” of sex and violence in his prose. He made use of them in ways that were decades ahead of his time, and did so in a sure, knowing fashion. Conan eventually superseded Tarzan in the popular imagination owing in part to Howard’s awareness that the typical male’s macho fantasies don’t consist of monogamy and beating up animals.
Howard was without question an accomplished purveyor of electrifying entertainment, but of course that wasn’t all he was. Many readers come to REH for the high adventure, the action and horror, the sex and violence; but they stay for the darker, more compelling aspects of his artistic vision. Howard regarded writing as a profession-- he worked at it; he didn’t play at it. He believed in giving his readers their money’s worth, yet as H. P. Lovecraft noted in his obituary of Howard, he was adept at embodying his worldview within even his most outwardly commercial fiction. Martin Scorcese acknowledged a similar practice among filmmakers when he referred to “the director as smuggler.”
Concerning “Xuthal of the Dusk,” Howard wrote to Clark Ashton Smith that, “It really isn’t as exclusively devoted to sword-slashing as the announcement [in Weird Tales] might seem to imply.”(42) Even so, he later admitted to Lovecraft that he wrote “Red Nails” because “I have been dissatisfied with my handling of decaying races in stories…”(43) “Xuthal of the Dusk” may not rank among the best of the Conan stories, but as we have seen, it is a virtual showcase for the innovative manner in which Howard crafted sexy, violent entertainment. For that reason alone, it merits some attention in its own right.
“Red Nails” casts a deep shadow, but “Xuthal of the Dusk” has been obscured by that slithering shadow for far too long.
Herron, Don (ed.). The Dark Barbarian. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984
Howard, Robert E. The Bloody Crown of Conan. New York: Del Rey Books, 2004.
_____. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. New York: Del Rey Books, 2003.
_____. The Conquering Sword of Conan. New York: Del Rey Books, 2005.
_____. Eons of the Night. New York: Baen Books, 1996.
_____. Selected Letters, 1931 1936. West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1991.
1 Fritz Leiber, “Howard’s Fantasy,” in The Dark Man (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984 ) p. 9.
2 Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis III,” in The Conquering Sword of Conan (New York: Del Rey Books, 2005) p. 383.
3 Robert E. Howard, “Xuthal of the Dusk” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 219.
4 Ibid. p. 230.
6 Ibid., p. 231.
7 Leiber, op cit., pp. 9-10.
8 Although Howard did donate a variant version of the tale, with the hero’s name changed to Amra of Akbitana, to a fan publication. This version has appeared under the titles, “The Frost-King’s Daughter” and “Gods of the North.”
9 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 228.
10 Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon in The Bloody Crown of Conan (New York: Del Rey Books, 2004) p. 214.
11 Howard, “Xuthal”, op. cit., p. 220.
12 Ibid., p. 232.
13 Ibid., p. 220.
14 Ibid., p. 236.
15 Ibid., p. 232.
16 Ibid., p. 221.
17 Robert E. Howard, “The Pool of the Black One” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 255.
18 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., pp. 220-21.
19 Ibid., p. 232.
21 Ibid., p. 229.
22 Ibid., p. 237.
23 Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft, 5 December 1935, in Selected Letters 1931-1936 (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1991) p. 68.
24 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit.., p. 238.
25 Leiber, op cit., p. 10.
26 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 233.
27 Leiber, op cit., p. 10.
29 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 247.
30 Ibid., p. 221.
31 Robert E. Howard, “Iron Shadows in the Moon” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 198.
32 Ibid., p. 194.
33 Robert E. Howard, “The Devil in Iron” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 330.
34 Ibid., p. 322.
35 Howard, “Pool”, op cit., p. 260.
37 Robert E. Howard, “The Garden of Fear” in Eons of the Night (Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 1996) p. 45.
38 Robert E. Howard, “Red Nails” in The Conquering Sword of Conan (New York: Del Rey Books, 2005) p. 246.
39 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 230.
40 Howard, “Red Nails”, p. 254.
41 Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 449.
42 Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, quoted by Patrice Louinet in “Hyborian Genesis”, op cit., p. 449.
43 Howard to Lovecraft, op cit., p. 72.