Short Take: "The God in the Bowl," Robert E. Howard
This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Robert E. Howard’s third Conan the Barbarian story, “The God in the Bowl,” is a murder mystery with sword-and-sorcery< trappings. Howard drafted the story in 1932, but it didn’t see print while he was alive. Farnsworth Wright, the editor of the Weird Tales pulp magazine, rejected it. The story was discovered in Howard’s papers after his death. A revised version by L. Sprague de Camp was published in the September 1952 issue of Space Science Fiction (cover above). The original text didn’t see print until 1975, when it appeared in the limited-edition Howard collection The Tower of the Elephant, published by Donald M. Grant. It seems surprising that the story was rejected at the time it was written. It’s an entertaining effort, and one may find it more enjoyable than “The Phoenix on the Sword,” the first Conan story to see print. Howard doesn’t include many of the supernatural allusions that gave the earlier effort its fascination, but the story at hand plays better. The setting is a temple museum. The temple’s owner has been found murdered, and Conan, who was discovered breaking in to the museum to rob it, is the prime suspect. But the authorities on the scene don’t quite accept him as the culprit. Part of the reason is that the details of the crime don’t point to him as the killer. But there’s a strong underlying suggestion--and this gives the story a welcome dash of humor--that the authorities don’t relish the prospect of trying to arrest Conan unless they are absolutely sure of his guilt. His combat skills all but guarantee a pile of corpses if there is any attempt at capture. But he doesn’t try to leave the scene, and the investigation calmly continues. The temple owner’s malevolence comes to light, as does the act that prompted his murder. The real killer is eventually discovered, and this provides some additional humor: Conan is the only character with the courage and fighting acumen to confront him. The story ends on an oblique note that refers to the mysterious supernatural aspects of Conan’s world, and as with “The Phoenix on the Sword," it’s the sort of intriguing bit that hooks the reader into coming back for more with the character. One wants to learn more about the world he lives in. “The God in the Bowl” isn’t a great adventure story, but it’s a good one: rich with description of the exotic locale, and briskly paced. And it certainly holds one’s attention while one explores this enigmatic fictional setting.