Today's post will discuss Rogues in the House, a Conan short story by Robert E. Howard. Those who have not been exposed to Howard's work and wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.
I've passed over the more formulaic stories in the collection to move on to what I believe is the next real gem: Rogues in the House. However, the other stories are not without merit with exotic locations, swashbuckling aplenty, and eerie imagination. Still, reading Conan is a lot like watching James Bond movies: there are plenty that meet the requirements and have some flash of interest, but there's also a minority that stand out and actually advance our understanding of the Character and his world.
Moving on to Rogues in the House, we can begin our discussion with the plot. Prior Conan tales have often begun with something common-place, a plot to overthrow the king, a battle, a crime, and then morphed into the supernatural and strange. Rogues in the House looks to follow a similar pattern as Murilo appears to discover that the Red Priest is really a shape changer. In the film Conan the Destroyer, that is in fact what he is. The twist in the short story is that there is no element of supernatural horror, the Red Priest, Nabonidus, has simply been tricked by his ape-man servant and imprisoned in his own house. What follows then is a puzzle-drama where the ensemble (Conan, Nabonidus, and Murilo) must find a way to sneak past the ape-man Thak. The escape attempt, of course, is complicated by the fact that Nabonidus can't be trusted. Thus, once Conan and Murilo have escaped from Thak they must then face the question of how to escape from Nabonidus. In the end, Conan brings it off with sheer strength and quickness, a fitting answer to the Red Priest's byzantine wiles. Howard's break from his established form in Rogues in the House re-invigorates the series and reminds us of the versatility of Conan and his world.
Dealing with Conan's evolution as a character, we can note again his "barbarian ethics." Though Howard remarked that most men were "bastards" at heart, loving tales of rape and pillage, Conan continues to assert a basic ethics that keep the character sympathetic in the best tales. Here we find that once a relationship has been formed Conan doesn't kill without cause, and certainly won't betray. Modern writers of dark fantasy might have arranged a more dismal fate than being dunked in a cesspool for the courtesan who hands Conan over to the authorities. Conan also avoids killing Murilo in the sewers until he is sure whether or not the nobleman has betrayed him and refuses to strike even at the Red Priest until it is clear that he has turned on them. This sort of relational ethics based on personal loyalty will help float later pulp heroes like Firefly's Malcom Reynolds. Of course we should note that, like Reynolds, Conan has no compunction about immediately killing armed men to whom he has no connection or are threatening him (he does so four times in this story alone). Nor does this make him any sort of moral role model. What it does, however, is make Conan superior to many of the decadent "civilized" men who are able to hide their moral corruption beneath the cloak of respectability; something that with Howard's help became a staple of Sword and Sorcery (see particularly Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser).
That's all the reviewing for today. Once I have a little more reading under my belt we'll pick back up again.