In today's post we will be examining The God in the Bowl, a Conan story by Robert E. Howard. Earlier posts in this series can be found here and here. Those who want to remain spoiler free should not read on (these are old books but, with a revival of interest in classic pulp, they are finding many first time readers).
The God in the Bowl is another "yarn" taken from Conan's early days as a thief and mercenary for hire after coming down from the land of the Northmen (see The Frost Giant's Daughter). It expands Conan's world by introducing us to the neighboring kingdom of Nemedia, Aquilonia's western neighbor. Thoth-Ammon, the evil wizard of The Phoenix on the Sword, also plays a role in this story giving us greater insight into his character and prestige prior to losing the ring (the Gollum like resonances should not pass unnoticed especially as Tolkien mentioned in an interview that he read and enjoyed some of Howard's Conan stories). Conan himself is presented to us as a noble savage living by his own simple code of honesty and loyalty as over against the duplicities and selfish-intrigues of civilized men. This is an idea that Howard espouses in his correspondence and will become a dominant theme as the Conan stories develop.
In terms of plot and structure, The God in the Bowl continues the trend of genre-skipping found in The Frost Giant's Daughter. The God in the Bowl presents itself as a piece of Sword and Sorcery, but it quickly becomes clear that much of the plot material is pulled from film noir style detective stories (crooked cops, a famous stiff, and a desperate man accused of a crime he did not commit). By the end, we may suspect that the story also owes more than a little to Poe's Murders at the Rue Morgue. If we think that The God in the Bowl is a detective story dressed up as sword and sorcery, we are in for a big surprise at the end. With the appearance of an eldar god as the real murderer, the story takes a sharp and final twist into the realm of Lovecraft's wierd tales. With so many twistings and turnings, the story should fly apart, but Howard guides the narrative through without a hitch giving us something that we genuinely did not expect -Conan neither fights his way out with barbarian ferocity nor proves himself innocent: he runs with the civilized men from a horror that none of them can comprehend.
The God in the Bowl is only the third Conan story that Howard wrote, yet we can already see his commitment to innovative story-telling and world building. The Hyborian age and the character of Conan unfurl at a slow and easy pace without unnecessary explanations. The narrative itself continues to develop the material in a riot of forms that keep it fresh and intriguing with each new adventure. We'll see how these trends continue in our next post where we will be examining one of Howard's finest tales: The Tower of the Elephant.