After a renewed spate of reading, I am happy to be able to return to this series of posts with a review of Robert E. Howard's first Conan novella: The People of the Black Circle as found in the collection The Bloody Crown of Conan. Those who are unfamiliar with this work and wish to keep its contents a surprise should not read on.
Conan the Cimmerian explodes back onto the page after a series of mediocre performances. Following The Devil in Iron, we find our hero pushing ever further east beyond the Himelians and into Afguhlistan and the lands beyond. This is Conan's first truly "oriental" adventure, and opens up new territory both geographic and literary. As an "oriental adventure," The People of the Black Circle imports into Conan's world all the paraphernalia of the genre: mystics, mesmerism, dangerous hill men and plotting viziers. In literary terms, this was the longest Conan tale to date at the time of its composition. As Patrice Louinet notes in his essay Hyborian Genesis, The People of the Black Circle is not merely a long short story but an actual novella with all the plot complexity that entails.
Looking a little deeper, I believe we can see the ghost of Edgar Rice Burroughs haunting the style, varied and evocative locations, and pacing of this exotic adventure. I'm thinking particularly of A Princess of Mars. There's also room for a little of Lovecraft's cosmic horror as Yasmina is forced to relive all her previous lives from cosmic soup to Devi of Vendhya. This cocktail of furious pacing and mysterious intrigue places The People of the Black Circle among Howard's best stuff. As you'd expect then, I think this story casts a long literary shadow. Turning from influences to influencing, The People of the Black Circle echoes in at least two of Fritz Leiber's tales. The treacherous rock that nearly kills Conan upon assaulting the adept's tower seems to have inspired a similar episode in The Howling Tower, and their seem to be numerous homages in Stardock. In addition, the Master's transformation into a snake surely wormed its way into the orgy scene of Conan the Barbarian.
Moving from story to characters, it seems important that we don't begin the story with Conan. The greater the distance between Conan and the audience, the more legendary his deeds become. It's the same principle employed in the fourth season of Samurai Jack where the hero's distance from the audience makes him feel almost a force of nature in some episodes. Howard also uses the story to continue to evolve Conan's idiosyncratic ethics. Where the burly adventurer shows very little feeling towards his subordinates in earlier stories like The Queen of the Black Coast, Conan has a strong sense of loyalty towards the volatile Afghuli tribesmen that he leads. All this serves to fill the gap between the "bastardly" opportunistic Conan of Black Colossus and the benevolent monarch of The Scarlet Citadel. However, while he refuses to engage in any of the raping part of "raping and pillaging," Conan's attitude towards women remains chauvinist in the extreme though it is clear that Yasmina, like Belit, wins his admiration and respect in the end. Speaking of Yasmina, the Devi has more in common with Burroughs' Dejah Thoris than the cringing
violets that Conan often encounters (though she, in a moment of
weakness, almost succumbs to the Cimmerian's inexplicable charms). In the end, it is both protagonists sense of duty, especially as opposed to the antagonists' treachery, that unites the work and gives it its Anthony Hope-esque ending (in which there is perhaps also a foreshadow of the ending of Conan the Destroyer?).
Perhaps the major problem with the work, from a storytelling angle, is simply that there isn't more of it. Yasmina has real potential as a character, but I doubt we'll see any more of her. The Master with his four strange adepts could have been worked up into wonderful recurring villains, but they're nicely finished off by the end. This is the kind of thing that happens writing episodically to pay the bills. Howard had the taste for novel-writing, however, and The People of the Black Circle helped teach him the craft. Some of Howard's longer works are coming down the pipe. As I get time to read them, I'll pass on what I think to you.