Thursday, March 23, 2017

Short Take: Robert E. Howard, "The Pool of the Black One"

Robert E. Howard's "The Pool of the Black One," starring his Conan the Barbarian anti-hero, is the tenth of the "Conan" stories to be written, and the sixth to be published. It first appeared in the October 1933 issue of Weird Tales (cover at right). In keeping with the Conan stories that preceded it, there's no overlap with the earlier material. Some continuity between the stories would be welcome. If nothing else, it might have staved off the lapsing into formula that mars this piece. As in "Queen of the Black Coast" and "Iron Shadows in the Moon," a solitary Conan once again falls in with some pirates, and while accompanied by a lust-inspiring woman, investigates an apparently abandoned ancient temple or city. They confront a supernatural threat there, and the story ends with Conan on a boat, embarking on a future as a pirate king. One also sees Howard's apparent rule for keeping the main female character alive at the end. If she and Conan have had sex at some point in the story, she will not survive. But if he hasn't tumbled her, she will live, and Howard will titillate the reader with the prospect of the two's coupling after the story's end. The main distinction of "The Pool of the Black One" is that Howard goes further than he has before in portraying Conan as an amoral, opportunistic killer. The character has always left a body count in his wake, but this time he's a calculating, might-makes-right assassin. It's something of a shock to see an ostensibly heroic protagonist engaging in cold-blooded murder. The supernatural enemy in this episode also sets it somewhat apart. There are unambiguously racist overtones in Howard's depiction, and the spectacle gets one thinking about the role paranoia plays in colonialist evils: when confronted with the other, one rationalizes slaughter and enslavement out of fear it will be one's fate if one doesn't do it first. A reader won't think for a moment that such implications were intended--Howard is the last writer one would consider philosophical--but such anxieties do seem at the heart of the story's climactic violence. But with all that said, the piece is a reasonably entertaining page-turner, especially if one hasn't read a Conan adventure before.

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