Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Short Take: Robert E. Howard, "Iron Shadows in the Moon"

"Iron Shadows in the Moon," Robert E. Howard's eighth story featuring the Conan the Barbarian character, was also the eighth to be published. Written in late 1932, the story first appeared under the title "Shadows in the Moonlight" in the April 1934 issue of Weird Tales (cover at right). As was usually the case with the Conan stories, it functions as a stand-alone tale; there's no reference or continuity with the earlier efforts featuring the character. It doesn't aspire to be anything more than a well-crafted adventure tale, and it succeeds quite well. The two main characters, Conan and a princess-turned-fugitive-slave named Olivia, are effectively established in the opening scenes and convincingly paired for the second and third acts, which deal with their travails on a deserted coastal island. Howard handles the sexual tension between the two quite well, and with this outing, he's pretty tasteful about it. He keeps the reader aware of Conan's desire for Olivia, and of her trepidation towards him gradually turning to trust and a sense of security. But these elements are used to inflect the story; they're part of the ambience, and are there to tease the reader. Unlike other Howard stories, there's no seduction scene, and while it's obvious by the end that the two will become lovers, the story is over before things get that far. As for other aspects of the story, one can't help but admire Howard's use of the uncanny for suspense and narrative twists. Conan and Olivia face some kind of superhuman threat on the island, and Howard is careful to make one wonder if it is connected to the mysterious statues the two find in a ruined temple. The question is answered very satisfyingly. Just because something appears connected to the supernatural, that doesn't mean it is. But other things that seem tied to the supernatural genuinely are. The story has those elements reveal themselves in ways one doesn't expect. The plotting is quite clever. The only letdown is the ending. It makes the story seem like the first episode in a serial, but if one knows the Conan stories that follow, one also knows that none connect to it. The tale's finale is an empty promise. But even so, "Iron Shadows in the Moon" is quite entertaining by itself.

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