Saturday, January 4, 2014

Short Take: "Black Colossus," Robert E. Howard

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The June 1933 issue of Weird Tales (pictured) featured Robert E. Howard's "Black Colossus." It was the seventh story he wrote featuring his Conan the Barbarian hero, and the fourth to be published. It's a stunning piece of sex-and-violence, sword-and-sorcery pulp adventure. The opening scene owes a good deal to H. P. Lovecraft's work: the desolate landscape, the otherworldly ruins, and the premise of banished gods seeking to reestablish their rule over our world. Howard's treatment of the premise is far more reactionary than Lovecraft's. The heroic adventure genre more or less dictates the threat will be contained or defeated by the story's end, but as entertainment Howard's approach is more immediately satisfying. After the prologue, the setting shifts to the city of Khoraja some months later. It is under siege by nomadic tribes. They are under the command of a mysterious sorcerer named Natohk, and they have captured the city's king. Natohk's sister Yasmela, who rules the city in his stead, encounters Conan one evening. He is serving in Khoraja's defense as a mercenary, and Yasmela, following the advice of an oracle, puts him in command of the city's soldiers. The battle set pieces that follow are masterfully handled. Howard's prose is characteristically florid, but the flood of adjectives, similes, and metaphors never bog it down. If anything, the purple heightens the story's pace. The climactic revelation of Natohk's connection to the banished gods of the story's opening is fairly predictable. But one may be so caught up with the bravura of the combat scenes that it seems beside the point. If the rush of these sequences weren't enough, there's also the overt presence of sex. It's a source of a fair amount of the story's suspense, both in the threat of Yasmela's rape by Natohk, and in her increasing desire for Conan. Howard's ample inclusion of eroticized descriptions of the princess keep things heightened as well. He never fails to keep one turning the pages. "Black Colossus" is literary junk food, but it's a fine reminder of how tasty good junk food can be.

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