Friday, January 13, 2017

Short Take: Robert E. Howard, "Xuthal of the Dusk"

"Xuthal of the Dusk" was first published under the title "The Slithering Shadow" in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales (cover at left). It is the ninth story Robert E. Howard wrote featuring Conan the Barbarian, and the fifth to see publication. Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser author Fritz Leiber hated it, but others may find it among the more compelling of the Conan stories. It's a particularly lurid piece. In addition to the standard violence of the fight scenes, as well as some bits in the vein of Lovecraftian mythos horror, the story has a strong and at times perverse sexual edge. It opens with Conan and a slave-girl named Natala walking in desperation through the desert. They are out of water, and as Conan prepares to kill Natala as an act of mercy, they see a city in the distance. Once inside the gates, the two find there are no people about, and they eventually learn why. The citizenry have all the food and drink they could want, and they spend most of their time indoors intoxicated from eating the lotuses found in the city's pits. The great downside of life in the city is that it is the stalking ground of a Lovecraftian demon that preys on those who cross its path. Howard does a fine job of maintaining the story's suspense. In the opening section, he effectively dramatizes Conan and Natala's predicament, and he maintains a sense of urgency as they search for water and food in the city. Once that is resolved, he ably shifts the story's tension to the terror of becoming the demon's victim, and then to Conan and Natala's determination to flee the city. But what stands out the most is the story's rather overt handling of sex: an intoxicated townsfellow's vocal lust for Natala; the mutual desire Conan and a woman encountered in the city have for each other; and the eyebrow-raising scene where one sexy woman punishes another with a multi-corded whip. Howard not only has a taste for sex and violence; he's fascinated by bondage and domination, too. One may find that the Conan stories with the strongest sexual material are the most intriguing; it's interesting to see just how off the beaten path Howard can get. "Xuthal of the Dusk" joins "Queen of the Black Coast" as a key story in that canon.

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