Friday, December 30, 2016

Conan: The Servants of Bit-Yakin: The Platypus Reads Part: CCCVII

It's been a few years since I last dipped in to the world of Robert E. Howard's sword-swinging barbarian, Conan. While the writing is always high quality, the racism and sexism that riddle Howard's oeuvre is hard to handle in large doses. After a good, long break, then, I decided that it was finally time to have a go at finishing my annotated edition of the complete works.

The Servants of Bit-Yakin:

The Servants of Bit-Yakin returns us from the microcosmic novella that is The Hour of the Dragon to the world of the standard Conan adventure story. Once more, we return to the pseudo-Africa that so dominated Howard's imagination. This tale, with its ruined city created by a lost race of white men who were able to perfectly preserve their corpses, and its eternal queen apparently owes its inspiration to H.R. Haggard's She. Rather than give us another She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, however, Howard evolves the adventure in his own way with the mysterious element  coming in the form of the savage creatures that haunt the ruins, the servants of Bit-Yakin. These gorilla-like monstrosities may have cast their shadow over Michael Chrichton's Congo, but they are very much the sort of degenerate "monsters of evolution" that fascinated pulp authors like Howard and his pen-pal, H.P. Lovecraft (see especially Lovecraft's The Cave). In keeping with Haggard's She, the source of this weird peril seems to be rooted in the natural, though the super-natural is never ruled out (also a common feature in Lovecraft's consciously atheist fiction). The other characters in the story are true to Howard's types: the courtesan, Jim-Crow-inspired superstitious and lustful Africans, and Conan as the Barbarian with a code that forbids rape and mandates saving women in distress over accumulating shiny things. Stories like The Servants of Bit-Yakin prove that Howard's genius had very little to do with what he wrote about and everything to do with how he wrote about it. The story works, as Howard's stories always do, by careful attention to plot, mood, and pacing.

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