By Amelia Proud
Published: | Updated:
He's certainly still in good shape for a man fast approaching 50. But chat show host Conan O'Brien - doesn't maintain this without toil, it would seem.
He was spotted yesterday in LA beachside community Santa Monica working up a sweat as he cycled in the warm sunshine.
Conan, who hails from Brookline, Massachusetts, was togged out in a sensible helmet, and had a water bottle attached to his hi-tech looking bike.
Fuel: Late night chat show host Conan O' Brien looked understandably weary after a morning's cycling in Brentwood
The wiry raconteur even pushed himself to cycle up hills in the midday heat, the surest way to work off the most calories and get that cardio in.
And he certainly puts himself through his paces as he looked drained during a slap-up brunch at a Brentwood eaterie, where he took care to find an outside table in the shade.
But before you wonder why a funny man like Conan wasn't bust working on an April Fool, it's salient to point out that he had already unleashed one earlier that morning.
Speed freak: Conan was working up some speed AND at an incline, according to onlookers
Shortly after midnight on Sunday, O'Brien announced that he purchased the hugely successful social media news blog mashable.com from CEO Pete Cashmore for a mere $3,500.
Mashable was in on the gag and showed Conan's face as its Twitter icon then posting Conan's announcement on its website.
'I go to Mashable, I see the atrocious job they’re doing,' Conan says in a YouTube video posted on mashable.com. 'So I decided it’s time for me to take it over.'
Shortly after midnight Conan tweeted, '@mashable is out of touch. So as of this moment, I am taking over. ALL HAIL YOUR NEW CEO.'
Puffed out: Conan O'Brien went for a cycle in the sun in the beachside resort of Santa Monica yesterday
Then on Sunday night, O'Brien tweeted: '@ConanOBrien Unveils the Future of Twitter: Manual Tweets.'
The tweet includes a link to another Conan video where he explains his new idea, which consists of writing something on a piece of paper, crumpling it up, and tossing it.
Then Conan announced the end of his 'reign' at Mashable, with his face later disappearing from the Twitter feed.
What to have? The presenter looks conflicted as he prepares to make his order
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This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
This article is, to an extent, old news. There has been a ridiculous amount of ink spilled on the subject of Conan ever since Robert E. Howard began writing about the guy. Over and over again, people have said some variation of what Jason Sanford says here – to paraphrase, that Howard was tediously and egregiously racist by our standards, and that perhaps we shouldn’t keep loudly recommending his work as being essential reading in the fantasy genre. And like clockwork, in come the weaksauce defences. At best, you get pieces like this, in which Jonathan Moeller at least acknowledges that Howard was a racist but tries to argue that what Sanford was proposing was censorship. (It isn’t. Shunning is not censorship. Sanford never argued that Howard’s works should be suppressed or banned from publication, but Moeller seems to regard refusing to positively promote Howard’s works as being the same thing as actively working to suppress them.) At worst, you have people proposing the most incredible arguments as to why, despite all appearances, Howard wasn’t that bad of a racist, and wasn’t even a sexist either. We’ve had some of that here in the past, and I suspect we’ll see more; certainly, it seems to be a law that if you criticise Howard on your SF/fantasy website, fanzine or other forum, his defenders will manifest to wheel out the same tired arguments in his defence.
But the fact remains that the Conan stories have been skewered before, repeatedly, and by people with far more standing to complain about them than I’ll ever have. What’s prompted me to step in here?
Well, first off, it seemed timely. Having reviewed the Conan movies fairly recently, and having had exchanges about Howard on here too, the subject was on my mind. It had been a while since I had reread the stories anyway. People might be interested in a review since there seem to be several reprints making their way onto the shelves in the wake of the movie remake. Why not?
Secondly, the series seems ideal subject matter for the Reading Canary, though in the reverse to the way I usually do these articles – rather than being an exercise in asking “where does this series end up losing what made it good in the first place?”, this has turned more into a “which Conan stories might almost have been OK if Howard had been able to shut up?” deal. A lot of the tales I simply cannot enjoy any more because of the racism and misogyny on display. On top of that, one has to confront the stark fact that Robert E. Howard just wasn’t that good of a writer a lot of the time – remember, these stories were cranked out quickly, for a market that was permanently hungry for new material, and aside from some of the longer stories there’s little sign of polish. Howard would regularly recycle plots or slap a new name on essentially the same supporting character (I lost count of the number of female leads who were Caucasian escapees from dark-skinned slavers), and generally cut corners in order to produce as much product as he could. When the stories are often shit, often bigoted, and fairly often both bigoted and shit, the question arises as to whether any of them are worthy of their reputation at all.
Thirdly, I did this because in another life I might have been one of those defenders. I can remember reading the stories as a teenager and simply failing to notice the bigotry involved; I can also remember reading them again when somewhat older, and being able to recognise the bigotry but willing to argue that people should read the stories anyway because they were so influential and the quality shone through. Both are positions I regard with some embarrassment.
So, basically I am tilting at a windmill which already has a small forest of lances poking out of its sails for the sake of self-flagellating about my former bad taste. It’s more fun than it sounds, which is good because the Conan material is much less fun than I remember it being.
Obvious caveat: I’m a white man, so I have a thick woolly layer of privilege between me and a lot of the issues I talk about here. It’s entirely possible I give Howard an easy time in some places or don’t quite cut to the heart of what’s wrong in other places. I might even flip out at parts which aren’t actually that offensive in some places.
Oh, and trigger warning: racism and sexism aplenty in this stuff. Plus there’s one story which can be summarised as “Conan tries to rape someone and fails”, so yeah.
The Conan stories first appeared in a range of pulp magazines, and were predominantly written for and pitched to the famous Weird Tales. After Howard’s death, they got reprinted in book form. At around this time, Lin Carter and L. Sprauge de Camp set to work completing some of the stories Howard had left unfinished in his lifetime, as well as tampering with the text of the original stories in order to fit them into the timeline of Conan’s life they had worked out. Then, once the Howard word-mine had been completely exhausted, Carter, de Camp, and a cast of thousands set to cranking out more and more Conan stories until the market was hopelessly swamped in them.
The text I’m working from here is the two-volume Conan Chronicles put out by Gollancz as part of the Fantasy Masterworks series, which arrange Howard’s original stories in the chronology as worked out by de Camp and Carter and restores them to the text as originally penned by Howard himself. (Gollancz has reprinted the same texts in one volume as The Complete Chronicles of Conan, and has fairly recently put them out in three volumes as Conan the Destroyer, Conan the Berserker and Conan the Indomitable in order to cash in on the movie remake.) Howard purists would say that the restored text is the best way to experience Howard, because the tampering by other hands over time was, at points, quite extensive, and certainly not up to the standards of the man himself. Personally, I’m fine with taking this approach because firstly it means I get to hang Howard with his own words and secondly fuck reading those mountains of pastiches.
In addition, I’m not going to be reviewing any stories which were left unfinished or only existed as first drafts when Howard died. Only stories which were completed by Howard and submitted for publication by him are covered, and trust me, that’s more than enough.
Many Conan compilations include the background essay The Hyborian Age, which as Howard explains in his introduction was an invented history of the prehistoric period the stories take place in. Specifically, it’s an account of the rise and fall of different peoples and nations during a period when the global status quo was shaken by the cataclysm that sank Atlantis. Most of the peoples who arise during this time are, long ages later, scattered to the winds by a Pictish incursion, but eventually end up the ancestors of a wide range of modern cultures. Conan’s lifetime unfolded at some point during this history, but precisely where is difficult to determine – though if I had to guess, I’d say Howard was vaguely planning to cast Conan as the last King of Aquilonia who goes down fighting Gorm’s Picts as they sweep aside the Hyborian peoples.
The utility of the essay is obvious – sketching out a geopolitical history of Conan’s era allowed Howard to populate his world with a richer array of cultures than is typical for a fantasy setting, whilst relating said cultures to modern peoples makes them familiar and recognisable enough to readers that we aren’t completely lost. Of course, because Howard is Howard he completely botches the actual application of this – too many of his fictional cultures seem interchangeable and lack distinguishing features, and those which are readily identifiable are so because they are crude and obvious caricatures. However, it’s still worth giving some attention to this essay. The Hyborian Age is, in fact, Howard’s 20-page equivalent of the Silmarillion, in that it was an act of worldbuilding that, whilst undeniably important in setting up all the stuff the stories allude to, is kind of a snoozefest to read in its own right, but is compulsory reading for any serious examination of the stories it underpins because it provides a clear and at points damning outline of the philosophy behind the fiction.
The Silmarillion, after all, is an imaginary history, and as such the subjects it focuses on tend to reveal Tolkien’s own theory of history. The history of Middle-Earth is a history of people’s relationship with righteous authority, which proceeds from God (in the guise of Eru Iluvatar) via the loyalist Valar and Maiar to elves and men. The significant events of history all consist, at their roots, of rebellion against or reconciliation with this authority. Melkor wanted to sing his own song at the song of creation rather than following Iluvatar’s tune, and he became Morgoth, the first dark lord; Aule created the dwarves as his own thing rather than letting the other Valar in on it, but when Iluvatar found out he confessed and offered to destroy his handiwork – and Iluvatar forgave him and let the dwarves live as a result. The Valar told the elves not to chase Morgoth across the ocean to get the Silmarils back, the Eldar defied them and endured aeons of horrifying warfare in Middle-Earth; the Eldar were reconciled with the Valar after the end of Morgoth, and that set in motion their exodus back to the West. The Numenoreans allowed Sauron to tempt them away from obedience to proper authority and Numenor sank; Aragorn followed the counsel of Gandalf and restored the kingdoms of men to order. Saruman forgot that he was a Maiar answerable to the Valar and Iluvatar, and tried to set up as a power in his own right; Gandalf pointed out that without his divine purpose, Saruman had no power, and Saruman’s staff broke. Good monarchs like Aragorn and Theoden get their mandate by divine right; bad monarchs like Denethor do not recognise the authority held over them by those who possess the divine mandate.
If the Silmarillion has a recurring theme of relationships with a divine hierarchy, said theme being possible to discern from a careful reading, The Hyborian Age has a frothing-at-the-mouth obsession with race which it screams from the rooftops. Apologists may point out that the text was intended to provide a cultural backdrop for the stories, and consequently could hardly afford to ignore issues of ethnicity, but this would be to ignore a lot of what Howard says in the essay itself – in which he clearly and directly outlines a pseudo-Darwinian theory of race, and a racialist theory of history.
Specifically, the history outlined here is based on the fundamental axiom that physical evolution and cultural sophistication is inherently linked in human beings. The survivors of Atlanteans, in reverting to savagery, are described as devolving into “ape-men”, physically regressing just as they culturally regress. This anthropocentric and mistaken view of evolution as a ladder rather than an ever-branching river is essential to Howard’s fiction; in several Conan stories our hero comes up against apes who it is strongly suggested are the degenerate descendants of human beings.
It is true that Howard was not alone in this ridiculousness – Lovecraft wrote a story about some guy who commits suicide on learning that some of his ancestors interbred with albino gorillas from Africa. However, whilst Lovecraft’s fiction is often blighted by his bigotry, the fundamental axioms of the Cthulhu mythos are at least based on the fundamental irrelevance of all human cultures and endeavours on a cosmic scale, and so it is possible to produce fiction which is recognisably Lovecraftian without being a racist tit about it. Creepy Howie managed to do that himself occasionally, or at least got close to it. Conversely, the Conan tales are built from the ground up around two themes: the idea of history as a clash between races for dominance, and the idea of the barbarian and barbarian societies as the most optimal expression of human development.
Howard essentially depicts cultures as existing in three distinct states: savagery/primitivism, barbarism, and civilisation. Savagery is the province of, say, the Atlantean ape-men or their Pictish caveman competitors: people who lack all technological or cultural sophistication and live nasty, brutish and short lives in the kill-or-be-killed wilds, little better than beasts. Hunted, despised, living like animals, the jungle is the savages’ home. Civilised folk have a diametrically opposed nature to this; they build cities, write poems, conduct trade, craft cultural and artistic works, and study diverse sciences and magic in order to advance their lot. However, in distancing themselves from the natural world civilised folk lose touch with their animal nature, which tends to make them soft and decadent – soft, in that many of them are disinclined to violence and even those who are into it lack the natural instinct for self-preservation at any cost that the savages and barbarians boast, and decadent in that they are prone to hedonism and corruption. In extreme cases, their distancing of themselves from nature leads them to worship curious gods from the horrible outer darkness of space, with consequences Conan continually trips over during his adventures.
To Howard, the barbarian represents the ideal compromise between effete civilisation and animalistic savagery. The barbarian is in touch with his natural drives and instincts, is not ashamed of them, and will not apologise for pursuing them – wealth, sex, and power are there to be grabbed by any means necessary, enjoyed whilst they are possessed, and not unduly mourned when they are lost. The barbarian can organise, can raise a kingdom or lead an army, can see to the forging of swords and armour, but does not raise the sort of bustling metropolis that the civilised man thrives in – not for them the idleness and luxuries and softness promoted by polite society.
The myth of barbarians at the gates ready to overthrow civilisations and their attendant cultures is precisely that, a myth. The Germanic kingdoms which replaced the Western Roman Empire gladly accepted the Empire’s national religion (or had been adherents of it for generations already) and soon came to think of themselves as natural successors to it. Kubla Khan, on conquering China, gladly let the civil service carry on as before because he realised you don’t kill the bureaucracy goose that lays the golden tax eggs. Cultures have, of course, destroyed other cultures (or made earnest attempts to do so) repeatedly in history, but the idea that urbanised cultures with technologically sophisticated toys are in danger from non-urbanised cultures is only believable if you ignore a tremendous amount of world history.
Still, Howard clings to the idea for dear life, and so The Hyborian Age is a long saga of one people being conquered by another over and over again. Howard does not seem to be completely against inter-racial mingling – there are some cases in which two races occupying the same area interbreed with the result that both their bloodlines are reinvigorated, but this is only the case when you have two races intermingling who are strong in the virtues Howard prizes. Most of the time, race mixing is a bad idea, particularly the sort of melting pot you get in the great cities, and in general it’s a good idea to keep your race pure. (Salient quotes include the fact that most Hyborians are mixed race to some extent and “Only in the province of Gunderband, where the people keep no slaves, is the pure Hyborian stock found unblemished”, a glancing mention that “the barbarians have kept their bloodstream pure”, and the fact that the lower classes of Stygia consist of “a down-trodden, mongrel horde, a mixture of negroid, Stygian, Shemitish, even Hyborian bloods”.)
The end of the Hyborian Age is, in fact, brought about by an ill-conceived attempt to impart the values of civilisation in savages. Arus is a priest who, in the name of promoting peace and non-violence, takes up missionary work amongst the cave-dwelling Picts. Soon enough, his teachings lead them to uplift themselves from savage tribes to a barbarian kingdom, which ends up sweeping across the world and eliminating all the old corrupt civilisations in their path. The segment narrating this is by far the most detailed part of the essay – for one thing, it’s the only part which includes any named individuals whatsoever – so it’s clear that it held some importance for Howard. The whole point about savage peoples not being softened or pacified by civilised missionaries does make me wonder whether it was a haphazard stab at social commentary on his part, arguing that colonialism simply expends the resources of the colonisers in providing infrastructure, technology, and sweet delicious guns to a bunch of savages who’ll ignore all the “civilising influence” their colonisers bring to bear and eventually maul the hand that feeds them. Charming.
There are even more obvious analogies to recent history in the essay. The whole savage/barbarian/civilised split is fairly plainly an adaptation to fantasy of the classic breakdown of cultures in Westerns – the savages have much in common with the way Native Americans were portrayed in many Westerns of the time, in that they’re violent primitives who live in the wilderness and are barely more than animals (the Picts in his stories are actually pseudo-Native Americans – this is most obvious in Beyond the Black River and The Black Stranger), and the civilised folk are those coddled, complacent sorts back East who don’t understand what the pioneering settlers are going through. The barbarians, naturally, are the settlers themselves, living in farms and in small towns rather than cosmopolitan cities, living off the land, accepting of violence and the cruel ways of nature but not brutishly ruled by them. These are the people that Howard, the son of a travelling doctor who as a child heard tales of the dying frontier spirit from the lips of cowboys, Civil War veterans and former slaves, obviously identified most with, and so it’s only natural that he would be highly partial to their analogues in his Wild West ancient past, the barbarians.
The typical defence raised by Howard’s defenders is that whilst he did have a view of history based on the clash of races, he didn’t necessarily privilege any particular race over any others – sure, white people are riding high now, but Howard’s ancient histories include races of brown-skinned Atlanteans being the dominant force at points in history. Everyone gets their turn in the sun, so what’s the problem? Well, first off, let’s remember that even if Howard did happily accept the idea that white people weren’t necessarily at the top of the privilege pyramid throughout the whole of history, and was open to the notion that they might be knocked off the top of the pyramid in the future, that doesn’t change the fact that at the time he was writing white people were the privileged class, and that remains the case to this day. The context Howard was written in, the audience he was writing for, and the context we read the stories in today are all relevant. And what sort of heroes did Howard write about? Overwhelmingly, white men standing tall against massed hordes, more often than not hordes of other races.
To cap things off, the essay is careful to illustrate how the various peoples of the Hyborian Age were the distant ancestors of many nations of today. “Bluh bluh they’re not meant to represent real world races” is always a terrible excuse for fiction based on inherently racist axioms, but in the case of the Conan stories it’s also objectively wrong; when Howard includes sly mentions in stories to hook-nosed Shemite counterfeiters, or mentions that Shemites tend to be lying, treacherous sorts, there’s no wriggle room to pretend this isn’t antisemitism because he said the Shemites were the ancestors of today’s Arabs and Jews.
Even though I don’t agree with the axioms on which the Silmarillion is based, I’m personally glad I took the time to wade through it, difficult though that was, because I feel it genuinely enriched my enjoyment of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to understand the various myths that those stories constantly allude to but rarely explain. Taking the time to properly read and understand The Hyborian Age – an essay which, due to its extremely dry nature, I had always skipped over before – has the opposite effect; it reveals just how ideological the Conan stories are. Much is made by Howard’s defenders of the “nihilistic” and “amoral” basis of the stories, but whilst the tales do not adhere to conventional morality, they do nonetheless quite clearly push an agenda – the idea that civilisation is weak and phony, and only men who have been acquainted with violence since birth and to whom violence comes naturally can effectively defend themselves and others from animalistic savages. The distinction between savage, barbarian, and civilised peoples, and the essentialist characters of the different races, are reaffirmed in absolutely every Conan story. It is quite simply impossible to get away from these ideas. Which is a shame, because they leave a sick taste in my mouth whenever they come up.
As far as fictional characters go, Conan is interesting because he simultaneously does and does not have a backstory. The very first Conan tale Howard wrote was The Phoenix On the Sword, which regardless of how you work out the internal chronology of the stories actually comes quite late in Conan’s life story – he’s already King of Aquilonia when it takes place, in fact, and the second story in order of writing (The Scarlet Citadel) is another tale from his reign. Consequently, a hell of a lot of the stories written subsequently are attempts to fill in Conan’s backstory as hinted at in those two stories, and shine a light on the experiences which gave a Cimmerian warrior like Conan the breadth of life experience and the skills as a warlord and a leader of men that were his to command as King of Aquilonia. (It’s tempting, in fact, to speculate that these prequels were merely written to keep the cheques coming in whilst Howard wrote the third and most ambitious story of Conan’s kingship, The Hour of the Dragon, which the sole novel-length Conan story he wrote and so was clearly more than just another quick knock-off to pay the cheques to Howard.) This does mean, of course, that the further you go back in the internal chronology, the more of a cipher Conan becomes, because he genuinely doesn’t have any backstory beyond “some Cimmerian who became a thief” there; this is why adaptations which tend to focus on the early tales (like the movies) end up having to concoct their own backstories to the dude.
Nowhere is the blank slateness of young Conan more apparent than in the third Conan story written, The Tower of the Elephant. The Tower is usually held to be either the first in the chronology or, at any rate, very early on in it – the most convincing evidence for this is that Conan is described as a youth in it, a descriptor which is more or less never applied to him subsequently. It’d also make sense logically that after successfully selling the first couple of Conan stories and deciding to flesh out King Conan’s early life, Howard would jump to as close to the beginning as he thought would be interesting. Conan in this story is as featureless as he ever gets in the series: he’s a young Cimmerian who’s trying to make his way as a thief in an unnamed city, he’s new in town and isn’t up to speed on the local rumours, and he’s still fumbling his way through learning the ways of city folk, and that’s literally all we know about him. He tries to break into a wizard’s tower to steal a mysterious gem he’s heard rumours about (the legendary Heart of the Elephant), but after he encounters another thief – the legendary Taurus of Nemedia – it becomes clear that our young Conan does not yet have the experience to pull off the heist, and he only survives thanks to Taurus’ carefully planned gambits and the intervention of a sad space elephant.
This story is interesting for anyone trying to analyse Conan’s character because although it doesn’t tell us much about where Conan has come from, it tells us a lot about how Howard thought of the character, and in particular what characteristics he thought Conan gained from his Cimmerian ancestry and upbringing. Here, we see a Conan more or less without baggage and before civilisation (as Howard conceives of it) has touched him – unlike in the later tales, he’s not yet a well-travelled citizen of the world capable of quickly adapting to the demands of different cultures, and he’s very much a stranger in a strange land. He’s got little to his name except his instinct for killing and self-preservation – as demonstrated when someone attacks him in the tavern he goes to in order to pick up some rumours to start off his first level thief quest – and a disregard for the norms of civilised society.
What is particularly interesting is that in presenting the unformed and unblemished proto-Conan to us, Howard also explicitly endorses Conan as simply being a better human being than everyone else in the bar:
He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him, This person was as much out of place in that den as a gray wolf among mangy rats of the gutters.
Again, the claim by Howard’s defenders that the Conan stories present an amoral and nihilistic view of the world seems kind of off here; it’s hard to see a statement like the above as anything other than a value judgement on the inherent worth of Conan compared to the rest of the crooks in the tavern. You might try to argue that the above is written from Conan’s point of view and therefore represents a judgement on his part, rather than on Howard’s, but that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny if you look at the overall story – in which it’s fairly clear that the first segment, concerning Conan doing his research in the tavern, is written as though the narrator were an invisible observer noting events unfolding in the bar during the preamble before honing in on the Kothian informant’s view of things (and keeps Conan’s motivations and inner thoughts a mystery), whereas the next section could more credibly be said to be told from Conan’s perspective since the narration is focused on Conan and regularly chimes in with what Conan’s thinking about things.
Now, we might debate as to whether the judgement made there is a moral one or not, but it certainly isn’t a nihilistic one. We’re being directly told that Conan possesses innate qualities that place him head and shoulders above the crowd around him – he is the noble and fearsome grey wolf, the others are mangy rats scrabbling for refuse in the gutter. It’s incredibly hard to read the above – particularly when taken in context – as anything other than Howard as narrator voicing his approval of Conan, and asking us to approve of him in turn. Whilst the stories are doubtless more enjoyable if you take them as being nihilistic orgies of violence with a protagonist whose actions you aren’t meant to condone, it stretches credibility to suggest that this is how they are presented; Howard was nowhere near as consistently nihilistic as he is made out to be.
Still, The Tower of the Elephant is a fun enough tale simply because despite the reader being nudged into siding with Conan, at least he doesn’t do anything dreadful this time around. Sure, he knifes a guy in a pub, but that’s in self-defence, and sure, he’s a thief, but he’s a thief who’s out to rob an evil wizard and he does end up saving the sad space elephant in the process. This makes the narration’s occasional references to greedy, hook-nosed Shemites particularly irritating because if those jibes weren’t there I’d have been able to give this one a clean bill of health. Still, I found I ended up enjoying the two other stories of Conan’s career as a thief – The God In the Bowl and Rogues In the House – to be superior, because as well as being much closer to the nihilistic and amoral stance the fans claim for Conan, they also present a wider cast of characters and use them to set up more interesting scenarios.
Take, for instance, The God In the Bowl, in which Conan is in no way the sole protagonist, and may not even be the main protagonist. The story unfolds in the premises of Kallian Publico, a merchant of Nemedia who deals in antiquities, and kicks off when city guardsman Arus discovers Kallian murdered. When Conan blunders into the scene, Arus’ quick thinking allows him to summon backup, and Conan is soon apprehended on suspicion of being the killer. Conan swears he just broke in to rob the place and didn’t murder anyone; most of the watchmen are inclined to discount his story, but the perceptive Inquisitor Demetrio thinks there’s more to the case than meets the eye. Of course, it turns out something nasty and supernatural is to blame and Conan has to kill the monster, but despite having a fairly predictable conclusion the story has a far from conventional structure for Howard – Demetrio, who’s the local equivalent of a detective, is at least as prominent as Conan, and in some respects is actually more of a protagonist than Conan this time around; for much of the story Conan glowers in the corner protesting his innocence whilst Demetrio turns up clues and ponders over their meaning.
The climax of the story – in which Conan snaps and butchers most of the watchmen, leaving Demetrio limping out of the story holding his entrails in with one hand, and the Cimmerian then faces the titular god in the bowl – might put Conan at centre stage, but though his slaying of the creature is arguaby a heroic act, the circumstances of Conan’s escape from his captors are brutal enough that it is hard to see him as a hero as opposed to a brute who happens to end up in a situation where he has to kill a god to survive. Then again, I suspect part of the reason I enjoy the story so much is because Howard doesn’t give it the spin his barbarian-savage-civilised philosophy would, strictly speaking, demand of the story. In principle, I guess we’re supposed to see Demetrio as a corrupt and effete representative of a corrupt and effete civilisation – at least, that’s what he’d be depicted as if Howard were being consistent about his philosophy. And certainly, you could read it that way, especially if you knew about Howard’s creepy ideology; the way the guards are keen to just pin the murder on Conan certainly seems to be a case of the corrupt civilised sorts having it in for the barbarian who’s far better qualified to deal with the problem than they are.
What saves the story is Demetrio, who upstages Conan for much of the tale by dint of being more interesting. As numerous Warhammer 40,000 novels have demonstrated, an Inquisitor who goes around torturing and oppressing people is no fun at all, but an Inquisitor who is basically a high-powered detective is really awesome fun. It does seem that Howard felt the same way, the love of a good detective story overriding his philosophical disdain for civilisation to the point where he almost seems to forget it’s a Conan story at points. The existence of characters like Demetrio does not excuse Howard’s noxious ideas – it doesn’t matter if you concede that a few individuals of a particular ethnicity might be OK guys if you still hold their culture in contempt – but in this case it does make Howard a lot more palatable than he otherwise would be.
Rogues In the House is another story in which Conan is one of several protagonists, and isn’t the most sympathetic one with it, although it is more problematic than The God In the Bowl. The basic premise is pretty good – Conan is in prison in some unnamed city when Murilo, a young noble, offers him a deal: if Murilo can engineer a jailbreak to get Conan out of the prison, Conan will assassinate the infamous Red Priest Nabonidus who is the puppetmaster dominating the political life of the city.
When the jailbreak part of the plan does awry Murilo decides to kill Nabonidus for himself – he doesn’t have time to try again because if he delays the Red Priest will make good on his threat to have Murilo denounced as a traitor and executed. Conan, when he does manage to break free from prison by repurposing materials provided under the original plan, decides that honour demands that he repay the favour he owes Murilo, even though the breakout didn’t go as expected, and makes his own way to Nabonidus’s house. Conan and Murilo both find that themselves trapped in the Red Priest’s dungeon along with Nabonidus himself, all three of them having been cast down there by Thak, Nabonidus’ super-intelligent pet ape who has sussed out how the house’s various traps work and has used them to take control of the place. Murilo, Nabonidus and Conan find they must work together to beat Thak, despite the fact that they really, really can’t trust each other.
As I mentioned, Rogues In the House shares with The God In the Bowl the idea of including a more sympathetic character than Conan who gets to share the spotlight with him – this time around, it’s Murilo. Sure, he’s a guy who hires assassins and arranges jailbreaks – and sells secrets to the city’s enemies, it turns out – but he’s in a predicament that we can sympathise with and there is something admirable in the way he tries to beat Nabonidus at his own game as opposed to curling up and dying. Indeed, much of the early narration in the novel is from his point of view instead of Conan’s.
But this time around, Murilo does not upstage Conan to the extent that Demetrio did in the previous story; Conan is most definitely calling the shots in this adventure. And on the whole, it’s a pretty good story, packed with more dramatic reversals and surprises than many less talented fantasy authors manage in full novels, though there are some seriously problematic elements to it. As far as antagonists go, Thak is a kind of sleazy choice if you remember (or are even aware of) the whole thing with particularly “degenerate” savages reverting into being ape-men, and it is heavily hinted that this is the case with Thak. Even more off-putting is the first instance of what I am afraid is a recurring theme in the series: Conan treating women like shit.
In this particular case, I mean that literally. Before he goes off to assassinate the Red Priest, Conan has a little unfinished business to deal with: his lady friend who snitched on him, and her guardsman lover. Conan stomps over to where they are shacked up, confronts the guardsman and kills him. Then Howard seems to balk at having Conan kill the woman as well – perhaps for fear of alienating his readership, or perhaps because he keeps kidding himself into thinking that Conan is basically a decent guy who treats women right, a character trait entirely inconsistent with the way Conan actually behaves. (That’s going to be another recurring theme, I’m afraid.) So instead he has Conan pick her up and toss her off the roof of the building into a cesspit. Because violence, humiliation, and thick coatings of shit are perfectly alright but murder isn’t, or something.
This is the worst of all possible worlds. If Conan had dumped both the guardsman and the woman in the cesspit, then that’d be fine – Conan humiliates the people responsible for incarcerating him, everybody lets out a hearty lol, we move on. If Conan had butchered them both, then that’d be grimdark to the extreme and rather unpalatable, but at least it would put the woman on an even pegging with the guardsman – she was equally responsible for Conan’s imprisonment, she ends up equally dead, it’s not something we can cheer or applaud but it’d be grim and amoral and nihilistic and all that other shit the defenders claim the stories are. As it stands, the way Howard presents the scene implies that the woman is essentially human refuse who isn’t even worth killing; when a man does Conan wrong, then it’s just and right that Conan takes his bloody revenge, but when a woman does Conan wrong then she’s a silly little thing who couldn’t help her self and shouldn’t be held to the same standard – instead, she should just be publicly humiliated, that’ll learn her.
Of course, it would have been even better for the flow of the story if Howard had just cut the scene out altogether – regardless of whether you have Conan killing a defenceless woman or flinging her in the poo pit, it’s a completely distasteful sequence from beginning to end and serves absolutely no purpose. It isn’t even necessary to establish that Conan is a badass that you do not fuck with because at this point in the story he’s already demonstrated that with the manner of his escape from jail. In the end, the scene seems to exist only to fluff up the word count, and to humiliate some random woman we weren’t previously aware existed in the process.
It gets worse though. In The Frost Giant’s Daughter we learn that Conan is a frustrated rapist.
The Frost Giant’s Daughter is a tricky story to place in the chronology – although Conan is clearly meant to be quite young in it, and it’s set way up in the frozen north in one of the few stories which take place in close proximity of his Cimmerian homeland, he isn’t quite described in the adolescent terms applied to him in The Tower of the Elephant and some of Howard’s correspondence seems to suggest Tower is meant to be the character’s chronological debut. Either way; Conan’s gone up north to fight alongside the Aesir (not-Vikings) as a mercenary. The story begins at the conclusion of an epic battle, of which Conan is the only survivor. Suddenly, a mysterious naked woman who calls herself Atali appears on the battlefield and teases Conan; Conan charges off after her across the frozen wastes, only to discover that she is the daughter of the god Ymir, and she makes it her habit to lure warriors off battlefields so that her brothers (who are much more giant-like) can kill them. Long story short, Conan fights her brothers and kills them, then decides that on balance he still wants to fuck Atali, and he ends up chasing after her and attempts to rape her; she is rescued only when her divine father shows up and spirits her away.
There is no excuse possible for this story. In execution the prose is alright by Howard’s standards and it succeeds at striking the mythic tone he was apparently going for this time around. But the subject matter at hand is completely vile. First off, there is absolutely no question that Conan intends to rape Atali, though Howard apologists have been known to claim otherwise. Howard leaves no room for ambiguity when it comes to Conan’s motives here: he intends to chase Atali down, overpower her, and rape her. I suppose that if you were really trying your hardest to find a way to make the story palatable, you could interpret Atali’s behaviour as being inviting at first, considering that her teasing can be summarised as “it’s a shame you’re not a manly manly man who could chase me down and have hot tundra sex with me, no way, you can’t do that, nuh-uh, I double dare you”, but even conceding that it might have that sort of angle to it at the beginning, it certainly doesn’t by the end. Once Conan has confronted Atali’s brothers and killed them, that really ought to be the end of Conan’s plans to have sex with Atali, because there’s no longer any room to argue that Atali might be playing some sort of consensual game with him; at that point, she’s running for her life.
Even worse than the story itself is the arguments I’ve seen people make trying to defend it. It seems that there are several Howard fans out there – I won’t single any out by linking to them – who are perfectly happy to do the victim-blaming thing, arguing that Conan was provoked into trying to rape Atali and therefore he shouldn’t be blamed for it when she was the one strutting about naked being a teasy tease-tease. It is of course indisputable that Atali was there to provoke Conan – that was kind of the plan. At the same time, there’s a name for the sort of person who responds to provocation with rape, and that’s “rapist”. I’m not saying I’d necessarily respond well if someone plotted to lure into an ambush so their brothers can kill me, most people wouldn’t. But it’d at least get me to reconsider the situation. I’d probably say to myself “Hm, perhaps this nice lady isn’t trying to lead me to a dumpster full of mint-condition Warhammer 40,000 novels,” (or whatever premise is used to get me to follow her down a dark alley). “Maybe,” I would think, “a nice tea party and a stimulating discussion of the Horus Heresy novels wasn’t her plan for this evening after all. Why, I ought to fundamentally reconsider my interactions with this person, because to continue angling after something which was never on the cards anyway would be downright irrational!”
Conan doesn’t work like that. He’s here for sex and by Crom he’s going to have it, whether Atali likes it or not. The fact that she’s no longer teasing him or snidely suggesting that a real man would have chased her down already, that she’s now scared and running to get away from this situation, means nothing to him. There’s even a creepy rape-as-punishment vibe to make the whole thing extra nasty. I guess you could count this story as another one where the whole “it’s supposed to be amoral and nihilistic!” Howard-defenders’ bleat is actually true for once, but even if that’s the case, who really wants to read anything this ugly and seedy? And besides, it isn’t amoral because there is a clear (and abhorrent) moral to the story: don’t wave your ass around like that or you’ll get more than you bargained for. Reprehensible.
Queen of the Black Coast sees Conan, fleeing from the law, takes passage on a southbound ship which ends up being raided by the fearsome Bêlit, a ferocious Shemite pirate captain, and her crew of black dudes who worship her as a goddess. Impressing Bêlit with his prowess and thewfulness, she makes him her lover and co-captain, and together they terrorise the seas off the coast of not-Africa. Despite the fat stacks of loot they have won for themselves, Bêlit’s unquenchable thirst for riches is still not sated, and she convinces Conan that they should go on an expedition downriver into deepest not-Africa to find a legendary lost city. Then there’s chaos, disaster, and yet more mutated ex-humans fallen into the state beneath savagery. (In this case there’s a bat person and some hyaena people.) Bêlit and crew buy the farm, so at the end of the tale Conan is marooned in not-Africa.
So, we’ve got racism by the score here: Bêlit, a woman whose skin is compared favourably to ivory, lords it over a bunch of black guys who worship her as a goddess. Naturally, Conan as another white person is qualified for a leadership role and responsibilities which it is never suggested any of the other crewmen gets even close to possessing. Obviously, said crewmen are all servile and craven and superstitious, and on the whole the story sees Howard’s racist instincts very much on display. It isn’t as bad as the subsequent story, The Vale of Lost Women, but that’s hardly anything to boast about: there’s probably Klan pamphlets that aren’t as racist as The Vale of Lost Women.
Where Queen of the Black Coast really stands out for me is in its sexual content; specifically, the hilariously juvenile nature of its sexual content. The next time male geeks deride “girl books for girls” on the basis that all that lovey-dovey stuff isn’t proper storytelling… Well, to be honest the best response to that is to tell them to fucking grow up, but once you’ve done that you could also point them towards this story, which has a romance subplot which far outshines more or less anything I’ve read when it comes to unabashed authorial wish-fulfilment.
Bêlit literally sails into Conan’s world and within a minute of seeing him in action decides that they are going to fuck. She more or less declares this and Conan is glad to agree. Bêlit celebrates this by pretty much doing a striptease for Conan in full view of the crew, at the end of which they embrace and the scene fades to black, leaving us to wonder whether they bothered going to her cabin or just rutted in front of their underlings. Later, they are described as lounging about on the deck snuggling whilst discussing their piratey business, and Bêlit has fallen so deeply in love with Conan that after she dies she comes back from the afterlife to save his skin. (This is where that plot detail from the 1982 movie came from.) In short, the whole story presents Bêlit as an incredible fantasy figure – a forceful, commanding woman who practically begs Conan to let her be his sexual plaything and is willing to show off their sexual relationship to all and sundry, including by performing an honest to goodness mating dance (“Wolves of the blue sea, behold ye now the dance – the mating-dance of Bêlit, whose fathers were kings of Askalon!”) for the titillation of Conan, pirates and of course the readers.
As well as all the slimy sexism and racism angles to this (supposedly powerful woman is rendered submissive before the brawny barbarian’s boners, pirate queen considers burly, handsome black crewmen unworthy but strips for the first burly, handsome white dude she sees), it’s also completely laughable. Queen of the Black Coast is one of those stories where you end up suspecting that the author was typing one-handed. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with writing stories about what gets you hard, there’s often a consequence of basing stories on your very specific sexual fantasies: namely, that the results only really work if the reader also happens to share your fantasies, and if they don’t, then a lot of the time the story will just come across as being either offensive or ridiculous. Unless you yourself think the idea of having some ivory-skinned naked pirate lady jump onto your ship and fuck your brains out in front of her entire crew is smokin’ hot, it’s almost impossible not to snigger at the romantic subplot here.
Speaking of white supremacist sex fantasies, wow, the next story is terrible. The Vale of Lost Women centres around Livia, a terrified white women who has been captured by a raiding party of the most horrifying monsters of the Hyborian Age: black people. Disgusted and afraid of everyone from the tribal chief Bajujh to the woman who brings Livia her food, Livia thinks she has her chance for escape when Conan, who has become chief of an allied tribe by virtue of being awesome (just kidding, it’s totally because he’s white) comes to visit. Slipping into Conan’s luxury VIP guest hut, Livia throws herself on his mercy, and he agrees to help her because the idea of leaving a white woman to be raped by black people is repulsive to him.
They make their escape, but unfortunately Livia gets lost due to being a silly civilised woman who needs a big strong daddy to take care of her and make the decisions for her. (This is a recurring motif of any story in which Conan has to take care of a white woman from civilisation, particularly those of the “slave escaped from a black master” variety; almost invariably, the woman in question will prove to have an almost infinite ability to get into trouble when outside Conan’s supervision.) She stumbles into the titular vale, inhabited by the titular lost women, and they coo and pet her and give her drugs and it begins to look like one of them – or maybe several of them – might become Livia’s big strong daddy. (“Her lips pressed Livia’s in a long terrible kiss. The Ophirean felt coldness, running through her veins; her limbs turned brittle; like a white statue of marble she lay in the arms of her captress, incapable of speech or movement.”) Having fulfilled his titillation quotient, Howard has his tribe of undomesticated homosexuals try to sacrifice Livia to a giant bat, because that is totally what lesbians do to nice straight white girls who fall into their clutches, and Conan charges in to save the day.
You might, based on the above summary, come away with a negative impression of the story. Take that and amplify it a hundredfold and you might have some idea how abhorrent the whole thing is. The “it’s meant to be amoral” argument takes another crippling blow this time around, in which it is quite clear that despite frequent claims to the contrary Conan does have a code of honour and morality which he adheres to in this story.
“You said I was a barbarian,” he said harshly , “and that is true, Crom be thanked. If you had had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig this night. I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I live by the sword’s edge. But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man; and though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her consent. Customs differ in various countries, but if a man is strong enough, he can enforce a few of his native customs anywhere. And no man ever called me a weakling!
“If you were old and ugly as the devil’s pet vulture, I’d take you away from Bajujh, simply because of the colour of your hide.”
Set aside, for a moment, Conan’s claim that he has never raped anyone, because we know from The Frost Giant’s Daughter that this is purely a competence issue as opposed to being a matter of ethics. The point is, Conan has expressed here a moral outlook: namely, that black people are depraved animals and only a flint-hearted cur would leave a white woman in their clutches. No, friends, it’s clear that the Conan saga does have a moral dimension, arising from a moral system that by today’s standards has been banished to the fringe when it is stated this openly and aggressively but which is still very much with us in more low-key manifestations. Sure, I’ll grant you that Conan immerses himself in the local culture to the extent that he becomes a tribal leader, but that doesn’t change the fact that once a white woman is involved all bets are off, because at heart Conan, like Howard, is a paternalistic and racist asshole who considers it his job to protect white women from black men. Let’s remember that at the time Howard was writing this very story, the moral principles outlined in the above speech were being to put into effect by white lynch mobs across the American South.
(And, of course, there were also white people who were completely shocked and ashamed by the whole concept of lynching, and by the appalling racism of the time in general. Let’s not give Howard the get-out clause that “everyone was racist” back then, because everyone was certainly not racist to the extent that this story and many, many others reveal Howard to have been.)
If you set the racism aside… well, let’s face it, you can’t can you? There’s some shit which is just too disgusting to ignore and “FILTHY BLACK MAN GET YOUR HANDS OFF OUR PRECIOUS WHITE WOMEN” is one of them. But in a theoretical situation in which you were able to set the racism aside – say, because you’re a privileged white boy who can just glide past all that stuff – the story still has plenty of issues. The sexism, for one thing. The Vale of Lost Women is just one of a long series of stories in which Conan is paired off with a civilised woman who is entirely capable of taking care of herself; like other such characters in other stories, Livia is almost completely infantilised, and the events of the story make it brutally apparent that bad shit happens whenever she fails to meekly follow Conan and obey his every order.
To give Howard his due, he may be doing something here which is a tiny bit more nuanced than simply saying “man strong, woman weak, woman do what man say and man protect woman, get kisses”. It is definitely arguable that his treatment of women, like his treatment of men, is a reflection of his barbarism-civilisation-savagery philosophy. Bêlit, though the Shemites are usually in the civilisation camp, lives a barbaric lifestyle, and like the other barbarian women who occasionally pop up in the stories is far more capable of taking care of herself and is much closer to interacting with Conan as an equal than the civilised women, who as mentioned are depicted as incompetent, prissy crybabies who might possibly show the odd glimmer of having some steel to them by the end of the story they are in. Howard, in short, might be trying to suggest that refined manners and cultural mores are themselves responsible for infantilising women and making them utterly dependent on men, whilst the proud barbarian women have not undergone this process of cultural conditioning, whilst strong women such as Bêlit are capable of breaking free of it.
But merely pointing out that some of Howard’s female characters are stronger than Livia does not get Howard off the hook. Valeria, one of the strongest female leads in a Conan story, ends up helpless and in need of being rescued, as do more or less all the other women in Conan stories aside from Bêlit, who dies and comes back from the dead to rescue Conan. So, of all these supposedly strong female characters, only Bêlit manages to avoid having said strength neutralised during the course of the stories they appear in. She still gets fridged for her trouble – and she still basically throws herself at Conan’s feet and encourages him to consider her his sex puppet. Compare to the various civilised men who adventure with Conan momentarily, such as Murilo in Rogues In the House, who is clearly supposed to be wussy as a result of the wussifying influences of civilisation but still gets to keep something resembling dignity and a backbone.
Really, the big difference is this: in the Conan stories, soft civilised women are afraid of violence and sex, whilst barbarian women and the stronger sorts of civilised women say “yes” to both. Livia, like other civilised women who accompany Conan until he invariably ditches them between stories like unwanted puppies, is horrified by the violence unleashed as a result of Conan going into action, and tries to suppress and deny her yearning for Conan to go into action with her naked-style. Bêlit, conversely, is just free and liberated enough to know that she really wants Conan to do the nasty with her and her strength consists of her saying “Nice loincloth, wanna fuck?”
At this point in his career Conan finds his way back to miscellaneous desert kingdoms and makes a go of life as a mercenary. Stories in this vein include Black Colossus, a particularly ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn something resembling foreshadowing into the saga. The plot is fairly simple: Thugra Kotan, a sinister wizard from bygone days, is roused from his deathlike slumbers and attempts to conquer the world, necromancers traditionally being peckish for world conquest when they’ve been resurrected. Princess Yasmela, the ruler of Khoraja, is one of the rulers whose city-states are in the path of Thugra’s army of darkness. Thugra is a creepy sort, given to visiting Yasmela in spirit form in order to go “woooo check me out I am spooky also you will be my wife in ghost land woooo”. Yasmela is naturally upset, so at the suggestion of her handmaiden Vateesa she goes to the shrine of Mitra in order to beg for the deity’s help. She is instructed to go into the street incognito and give command of her armies and the mercenary forces hired in to bolster them to the first man she sees. That man, of course, is Conan.
At this point, the story goes completely coo-coo for Destiny. More or less everything that happens subsequently is designed to yell from the rooftops “Hey! Guys! Conan’s going to become a king one day!” For instance, when Conan dresses up in his fancy-pants Top General armour we are directly told that he looks kingly. And despite having been a rank-and-file footsoldier in the mercenary band up to this point, he adapts to the demands of leadership rapidly, managing to win a desperate victory where most expect only certain defeat. Now, it is of course possible that up to this point in his career Conan had been able to learn a thing or two about army-scale tactics from observing his superior officers. And, of course, because of the fuzziness of the Conan timeline he might have had prior experience at this sort of thing. But the internal evidence of the story suggests otherwise; Conan never says anything along the lines of “It’s OK guys, I’ve actually led armies before” when everyone is taken aback by the fact he’s been picked to lead them, and in general the point seems to be that as far as everyone (including himself) knows Conan is a completely quixotic choice for leader of the army, and yet he surprises everyone with how well he does (even though the army does get smushed in the process). Still, aside from this Great Man silliness the story’s one of the more inoffensive Conan tales aside from the damsel in distress stuff, which is cosmic background radiation levels of sexism compared to how misogynistic Howard gets elsewhere. It’s just a shame the story’s so mediocre once the action actually starts to get rolling.
Shadows In the Moonlight is both tiresomely dull and horrifyingly offensive, in comparison. Conan has, it seems, been spending some time leading the kozaki warrior hordes, but a reversal of fate has found them scattered by Hyrkanian forces under the leadership of the infamous Shah Amurath, lord of Akif. We come to the story as Amurath finds himself deep in swampland, chasing after Olivia, a princess of Ophir, who he purchased as a harem slave and who recently escaped from his entourage. So, straight off the bat you have the evil, filthy not-Arab cornering the cowering not-European woman and getting into exchanges like this:
“Let me go!” begged the girl, tears of despair staining her face. “Have I not suffered enough? Is there any humiliation, pain or degradation you have not heaped on me? How long must my torment last?”
“As long as I find pleasure in your whimperings, your pleas, tears and writhings,” he answered with a smile that would have seemed gentle to a stranger.
By this point you should be able to tell where this is going. We have, right here, a woman being menaced with sexual violence and humiliation by someone who isn’t Conan – even worse, someone who isn’t white. This means that it’s a bad thing and Conan’s going to show up to save her, so she can get off on submitting utterly to his hardened white barbarian nature as opposed to Amurath’s decadent, degenerate, civilised brown person nature. Much of the rest of Olivia’s character arc consists of her realising that despite Conan coming from “a people bloody, grim and ferocious” he actually knows how to treat a lady – in that he tells her what to do and cares for her like you would a particularly helpless pet – whereas the supposedly civilised man just wanted to degrade and abuse her.
Anyway, Conan and Olivia have fairly random and directionless adventures in the swamp, fall asleep in an ancient city full of iron statues – who turn out to be the frozen inhabitants who only return to the flesh under the moonlight – and eventually Conan ends up in charge of a pirate ship and they sail away. Oh, and there’s some stuff with a man-ape, and it turns out the iron men back when they were alive were black-skinned and yet “They were not negroes” – presumably because the idea of actual African people building a city was just too fantastical for Howard to contemplate. Oh, and if Olivia’s dreams are to be believed they were cursed after they had the temerity to abuse, mutilate, and murder a handsome white boy who might have been some kind of demigod.
To be honest, the tale is an enormous mess, Howard apparently not deciding whether it’s going to be about Conan meeting Olivia or Conan taking over the pirate ship or Conan fighting a man-ape or bad shit going down in the sinister city, and opting to just throw all that stuff out there without really electing which to focus on. It comes across, in fact, like the opening chapters of a longer story in which Conan and Olivia go pirating on the high seas, except as usual Olivia vanishes and never appears in any subsequent Conan tale. (A suspicious person would question what Conan does with all these women who end up clutching to him at the end of his stories, and posit the existence of a range of shallow graves dotted across the Hyborean realms.)
A Witch Shall Be Born sees Conan back in full-time employment as head of the palace guards of Tamaris, queen of Khauran. As the story opens, Tamaris is awoken from her sleep by an intruder – Salome, her long-lost twin sister, who was left in the desert to die at birth due to a superstition about witches being born into the royal house of Khauran and was, ironically enough, adopted by a warlock who taught her all the magic he knew. Along with her accomplice Constantius and his band of Shemite mercenaries, Tamaris has neutralised the palace guards in order to pull off the perfect coup – tossing Tamaris into the dungeon so that she can steal her identity and rule Khauran in her place.
Conan, meanwhile, after being taken captive is crucified by Constantius in the desert. (Yes, he does survive by biting through the next of a vulture and drinking its blood like in the 1982 movie.) Eventually rescued by Olgerd Vladislav, leader of a group of desert bandits, Conan eventually wrests control of the band from Vladislav and forges them into a terrifying fighting force, which he intends to storm Khauran with to get his revenge. Meanwhile in Khauran, a few of the downtrodden locals discover the true fate of Tamaris, prompting the heroic Valerius to mount a daring rescue attenpt – but Salome in the meantime has summoned the monstrous Thaug to reside in the temple of Ishtar and nom on sacrifices, and Tamaris is on the menu!
This is one of those Conan stories which becomes halfway palatable mainly because Conan is not the sole protagonist, and in fact is upstaged by someone else partway through – namely, Valerius. Valerius, as a product of civilisation, has less of Howard’s sympathy, but I find that inadvertently Howard manages to make me care about Valerius and support him more than Conan. The fact is that Valerius’s rescue mission is a high-stakes gambit on which the very survival of Khauran depends – Howard does a good job of illustrating how if Tamaris is not freed them between the tyranny of Salome and Constantius and Conan’s bloodthirsty desire for revenge Khauran will be ripped completely to pieces. As it is, because Valerius is able to present Conan with the real Tamaris and demonstrate that it was not she who betrayed him, Conan limits his vengeance-taking to Constantius and his men and fucks off.
There’s a startling bit towards the end where Conan declares he is going to kill all the Shemites in the city, which sounds terrible to anyone reading it after 1945 but in context clearly refers to the mercenaries, so it’s a merciless and cold-hearted war crime perpetrated against a defeated army as opposed to ethnic cleansing of women and children. Either way, I think it helps the story that by that point Conan says this Valerius has taken his place as the actual hero and Conan is yet another threat to the city that must be neutralised. This is probably not the interpretation Howard intended but I’ll take what I can get at this stage.
Shadows In Zamboula is a story about how there’s no good or legitimate reason for white people and black people to live in the same community, and white folks who willingly let black people share the same town as them have got to be up to something unsavoury.
No, seriously, I am not fucking kidding. A large part of the action revolves around the fact that the town of Zamboula has a bunch of slaves from Darfar – black slaves, obviously – who happen to be cannibals. The civilised fops of the town are so decadent they see nothing wrong with letting their slaves roam the streets at night eating people – because, after all, only undersirables like beggars and travellers would be out at night and or leave their doors unlocked in the town. There’s some mildly interesting chicanery going on with Conan being manipulated by some of the locals in a scheme revolving around a magic ring, only for the twist ending to reveal that Conan was not the naive rube they took him to be and had in fact been duping them himself, but that’s rather eclipsed by the whole “cannibal night watch” deal, which manages to be both appallingly racist and staggeringly stupid at the same time.
Oh, yeah, and there’s an evil priest who sacrifices people to “Hanuman the Accursed”, because Howard got all his knowledge of Hinduism from Kipling.
The Devil In Iron is an expanded take on the same general concept. Again, we have a slave girl who we are supposed to understand is vaguely European – Octavia – escaping from the clutches of a gentleman we are supposed to understand is some sort of dubious Middle Eastern type – in this case, the villainous Jehungir Agha. Again, Conan is a kozak leader whose kozak allies are conspicuous by their absence – this time, because he’s set out on his own for a rendezvous with Octavia, who he’s been led to believe is going to run away from Agha’s clutches that night so he can spirit her away.
However, Octavia was in fact coerced into giving Conan that impression so that he could be lured by himself to the island of Xapur, where Agha’s men will be able to trap him and capture him. This nefarious scheme goes awry due to the wild card involved – Khosatral Khel, a hellish demon from the outer void, which has been awoken from its ancient sleep by an unsuspecting fisherman exploring the island. Khel has used its awesome powers to reconstruct the island as it was back when Khel was last awake – once more, the fearsome fortress of Khel stands, and his servants, the sinister Yuetshi priesthood, once more live and worship Khel within its halls. In other words, once again we have a sinister city of some long-forgotten race and an evil within it which turns out not to be as dead as everyone thought it was complicating the plot, but at least this time around the source of the evil is something a bit more interesting and less exasperating than “woo, spooky black people”.
Unfortunately, there are women and people who are not European involved in the story, and therefore Howard once again jams his foot in his mouth. As well has having Octavia threatened with torture and abuse at the hands of a sinister Shemite in order to get her to co-operate with the plan, Howard ends the story by yet again driving a truck over the very concept of consent. Having won the day, Conan is momentarily crestfallen when Octavia says she isn’t actually attracted to him and was just pretending because she was forced to. Then he laughs, declares it doesn’t matter because she belongs to him anyway, and starts forcing her to make out with him until she likes it. Once again, it’s made clear that Conan has absolutely no problem with rape, because the sheer force of his masculinity will make the women he turns his attentions to want it bad by the end of the process even if they don’t want it at all at the beginning; granted, the whole idea of the woman who at first spurns a particular guy’s attentions before changing her mind and coming around to liking him is the core premise of a whole swathe of stories, not all of which are necessarily gross, but to have that change come about in the space of a paragraph simply because a guy is a good kisser is sheer wish fulfillment of the most crass kind, the sort of thing authors get laughed out of town for even in fairly accepting amateur communities like fanfic circles.
The People of the Black Circle is a fairly lengthly Conan novellla which combines the best and worst of Howard’s writing. The story begins in Vendhya (think the Indian subcontinent), where the ruler Bunda Chand has been assassinated thanks to the occult influence of the Black Seers of Yishma. The Devi Yasmina, Bunda’s sister, is outraged at this turn of events and hits on a plan to use Conan to get her vengeance. Conan has made himself leader of a fearsome force of Afghuli bandits (yes, they’re loosely based on Kiplingesque depictions of Afghans), and it just so happens that Yasmina’s forces have apprehended a bunch of the Afghuli leaders. Conan needs to free these men if he is going to keep the Afghuli’s loyalty, so Yasmina intends to offer to release them in return for Conan riding forth against the Black Seers.
Things do not quite go down as planned. First off, Conan has his own ideas: he kidnaps Yasmina so that he can ransom her back to her people in return for the Afghuli prisoners. Second, Kerim Shah, a spymaster for the King of Turan, is on the scene – and in fact commissioned the Black Seers to kill Bunda Chand in the first place – and when shit hits the fan moves to exploit the situation for his employer’s benefit. Thirdly, the Black Seers have their own agent in the vicinity, Khemsa – but since Khemsa has fallen for the Devi’s ambitious maid Gitara in breach of his Jedi-like obligations to rise above emotional entanglements, it’s anyone’s guess what he will do with the magical power his training with the Black Seers have given him. And at some point in all the chaos, Yasmina is captured by the Black Seers, prompting Conan to attempt a daring rescue.
The People of the Black Circle is one of those Conan stories which really frustrates me, because even though it carries around a bundle of bigotry there’s a lot to like about the tale. First off, it’s one of the longer Conan stories, and this gives Howard room to attempt a somewhat more involved and well-developed plot than the shorter and more formulaic ones; Howard sets up an interconnected web of treachery, coincidence, and people working at cross-purposes with a skill you would never had expected he possessed on the basis of, say Queen of the Black Coast. There’s dramatic reversals of fortune worthy of Jack Vance, properly weird and otherworldly magic, and some really good fights on top of that.
However, there’s no getting around Howard’s finely-honed scepticism of the idea that women might be competent to make their own choices, or the disasters which ensue whenever Howard turns his attention to cultures other than his own. At its heart, the fantasy of the white European making himself the leader of an Afghan horde is straight out of Kipling (who, again, seems to be Howard’s sole source of information on this part of the world), as is the depiction of Afghan culture as having more or less no attributes other than banditry. Similarly, the Black Seers are clearly based on the sort of mangled rumours about Tibetan Buddhism that had inspired Helena Blavatsky to weave her stories about secret masters from the Himalayas guiding humanity and transmitting the secrets of Theosophy to her. (Weirdly, I find that this makes the depiction of the Black Seers a bit more palatable than that of the not-Afghans, probably because in the case of the Black Seers the depiction is separated from reality to such an enormous extent that it’s not so much a bigoted stereotype about real flesh and blood people so much as it’s a complete fabrication. Then again, actual Tibetans may feel differently on that score.)
On top of this, whilst Conan begins the story as one of a series of people who are furiously screwing each other over, by the end of the tale he is back in the role of main protagonist and is presented as someone we are expected to cheer on as he rescues Yasmina from the clutches of the wizards. This makes Conan’s attitude to Yasmina seriously problematic. Once again, Conan is constantly telling Yasmina that they are going to fuck at some point and Yasmina is like “no, we’re not” and Conan is like “psah, like you have a fucking choice”. At least, unlike in The Devil In Iron, the Devi is not overpowered by the force of Conan’s kisses and is able to go free unmolested. When Conan says he’ll come visit one day with his army she swears to have an army twice the size to meet him when he shows up, which Conan takes as cheeky flirtation rather than the “I will raise a force of thousands of armed men whose job it is to make sure you never, ever touch me again” statement it kind of comes across as; I think we’re meant to take their exchange as laughing banter which is meant to imply that Yasmina does kind of dig Conan, though the story has given us absolutely no reason to believe that would be the case.
The Slithering Shadow is yet another story in which Conan travels around with a pet girl in tow, who is all feeble and delicate and whose spoiled civilised ways cause our stalwart barbarian hero trouble and grief. This time, she’s called Natala, and she are Conan are stuck in the desert when they come across the fabulous lost city of Xuthal. The people of Xuthal spend their lives in a drugged daze due to their regular consumption of wine made from the narcotic black lotus, and are preyed upon by Thog, a god from the outer darkness who’s all shadowy and tentacly and blob-like – think a Howardian take on a shoggoth – and who regularly eats them. Conan and Natala meet a woman called Thalis, who falls in love with Conan and so decides to dispose of Natala by sacrificing her to Thog. Conan saves Natala from Thog, they leave, the end.
As one of the more simplistic Conan stories, The Slithering Shadow comes across like a rough blueprint for Red Nails, which has a similar premise – Conan and woman are in the wilderness, they find an abandoned city, it turns out there’s a lost civilisation in there, also there’s monsters. However, whilst Red Nails features Valeria, the only woman ally of Conan aside from Belit who is ever allowed to do anything cool ever, The Slithering Shadowis one more bog standard “helpless woman really ought to submit to whatever Conan wants if she hopes to survive” deal, and it’s about as infuriating in that regard as you’d expect – plus you have the added spin of the plot being driven by female sexual jealousy to add even more sexism points to the pile. On the racism front, given that Xuthal is a city-sized opium den, Howard takes the depressingly predictable route of emphasising how the locals (aside from Thalis, who like Conan and Natala are outsiders) are yellow-skinned sorts with slanted eyes, so there’s your Howardian racial xenophobia box firmly checked.
Of course, now that we’re thirteen stories deep, none of this is a surprise. But you know what did jump out at me? The bit where Thalis ties Natala up, strips her naked, and flogs the shit out of her. In context, this comes out of nowhere and makes absolutely no sense; Thalis’ plan hinges on disposing of Natala quickly by feeding her to Thog and then laying the charm on Conan, and so taking time out to flog her doesn’t aid the plan at all and only creates the risk of Conan walking in on them. Once someone discovers you standing there holding a whip whilst a naked girl with lash-marks across her back is dangling from her bonds sobbing her little heart out, saying “This isn’t what it looks like” doesn’t really cut it, you know? Howard comes up with a semi-justification for the scene by having Natala (completely ineffectually) attempt to stab Thalis in order to get away from her, but even then that doesn’t wash, because you know what also be good revenge? Feeding Natala to Thog as planned.
No, the scene is transparently present for one reason and one reason alone: because Weird Tales was a sleazy old rag whose editor at the time, Farnsworth Wright, never missed an opportunity to put some Margaret Brundage bondage art on the cover to boost sales, like so (link is NSFW, by the way). This aspect of Weird Tales is often forgotten these days, possibly because after all, the only other Weird Tales author whose fame these days shines even approximately as brightly as Howard’s is good old H.P. Lovecraft, and the idea of Creepy Howie writing a sex scene for the purposes of audience titillation – or, indeed, writing a sex scene at all – is too ridiculous for words. But then again, Lovecraft and Wright were always kind of out of step of each other – Wright even rejected At the Mountains of Madness, a crime for which he should have been fed to shoggoths – whereas Howard and other Weird Tales authors were much more willing to cater to Wright’s tastes by throwing in a bondage scene here and there, purely to catch Wright’s eye in order to snag the cover illustration for their story.
This is one of Howard’s more blatant attempts at this particular game. The only thing it really adds to the story is set up a reason for Thog to sneak up on Thalis and eat her whilst she’s busy beating the shit out of Natala. Apparently shoggoths get off on nonconsensual girl-on-girl BDSM scenes, who knew?
Like all of Conan’s other pet women, Natala obviously didn’t last long, because in The Pool of the Black One Conan is all on his lonesome again – we catch up with him as he clambers aboard the Wastrel, a pirate ship out in the open sea, a twist of fate having left Conan adrift. Forcing his way into the crew through bluster, intimidation, and violence, Conan soon has designs on taking the captain’s spot as commander of the ship – and taking Sacha, the captain’s lover and this episode’s weak civilised woman, for himself. The opportunity seems to present itself when the Wastrel makes landfall at an apparently deserted island, but there’s a complication in the form of giant black men who like to make white boys get naked for them and dance before dipping them in their magic pool.
No, seriously, it seems this time around Howard got really really bored of writing lesbian bondage sequences for Wright’s edification and decided to turn the tables a bit. Observe:
The blacks nodded and gestured to one another, but they did not seem to speak – vocally, at least. One, squatting on his haunches before the cringing boy, held a pipe-like thing in his hand. This he set to his lips, and apparently blew, though Conan heard no sound. But the Zingaran youth heard or felt, and cringed. He quivered and writhed as if in agony; a regularity became evident in the twitching of his limbs, which quickly became rhythmic. The twitching became a violent jerking, the jerking regular movements. The youth began to dance, as cobras dance by compulsion to the tune of the faquir’s fife. There was naught of zest or joyful abandon in that dance. There was, indeed, abandon that was awful to see, but it was not joyful. It was if the mute tone of the pipes grasped the boy’s inmost soul with salacious fingers and with brutal torture wrung from it every involuntary expression of secret passion. It was a convulsion of obscenity, a spasm of lasciviousness – an exudation of secret hungers framed by compulsion: desire without pleasure, pain mated awfully to lust. It was like seeing a soul stripped bare, and all its dark and unmentionable secrets laid bare.
Googling “Pool of the Black One” and “homoerotic” finds more or less no discussion online of the fact that this is blatantly meant to be a homoerotic scene, though filtered through an inherently homophobic lens (“desire without pleasure” implying nobody could actually enjoy being gay, etc. – you shouldn’t need me to unpack this one for you). The silence on this issue in Howard criticism seems deafening, at least from where I’m sitting.
But aside from this incident, you get exactly what you expect from this sort of story: sinister black representatives of a lost civilisation are super-evil and are out to sacrifice terrified white people, heroic Conan saves the white people and gets the girl regardless of any objections she might have.
Red Nails is yet another rehash of the old “Conan explores lost city in the company of a woman, who he has to rescue” formula, and is also one of the most frustrating stories in the canon because whenever Conan isn’t around it’s really good. We open following Valeria, fearsome swordswoman of the high seas, having killed a man who attempted to rape her at the bandit camp she’d been staying at and not feeling much confidence in the buccaneers’ ability to see things her way. Conan catches up with her, because he’s horny, but whilst Valeria would prefer to push on by herself an encounter with a dinosaur forces the pair to work together. Eventually, they take shelter in the city of Xuchotl, which has a pseudo-mesoamerican aesthetic and is inhabited by a pair of warring factions fighting a grotesque and bloodthirsty feud which stems from an unfortunate love triangle their leaders were involved in generations ago. Conan and Valeria inadvertently find themselves allied with the faction led by Prince Olmec, but the true power behind the throne is Tascela, the woman at the heart of the romantic conflict which started the war. Tascela owes her longevity to the fact that she’s a sorceress who is able to prolong her life through the ritual sacrifice of sexy young women – and Valeria is more than sexy enough for her purposes.
The most irritating thing about Red Tails is that it keeps hovering of the verge of being really, really good as a depiction of a society driven to destruction because its inhabitants end up prioritising a blood feud over communal survival. The ambushes the different factions spring on each other – often with the aid of dire monsters or sinister magical items retrieved from the dungeons deep beneath the city – are wicked cool, as is their psychotic celebrations whenever they kill an adversary from the opposing team. In addition, when Valeria is by herself, for the most part Howard allows her to actually kick ass – granted, this stops once he needs her to be the damsel in distress for Conan to save, but up until that point she’s just as capable and bloodthirsty and black-hearted a rogue as Conan is.
Unfortunately, whilst at points the handling of Valeria represents Howard hobbling, bit by bit, towards a depiction of a female character which isn’t a complete embarrassment, at other points in the story his absolute worst habits given a free hand to do as they wish. First off, there’s Conan’s old romantic strategy of pestering people and telling them that you and they are gonna fuck until they give in. In their first meeting, Conan brushes aside any attempt by Valeria to tell him she’s not interested in him, and, whilst they are hiding on top of a rock to stay out of the grasp of the dinosaur, plops her down in his lap and starts groping at her whilst they are trying to work out an escape plan. Of course, she just mutely accepts this, because Howard cannot allow any woman to refuse Conan and actually mean it, and equally more or less every suggestion she makes for how to alleviate the situation turns out to be silly for some reason Conan himself points out. Effectively, getting rid of the dinosaur is a solo effort on Conan’s part, Valeria’s only role being to ask questions which show how she’s less well-travelled and less knowledgeable than Conan, so that Conan can explain things to her (and to the reader) and show off how awesome he is. The correlation between Conan being present and Valeria being forbidden from doing stuff of her own initiative is more or less exact.
On top of that, let’s look at how Valeria is constantly threatened with rape, or stuff we’re meant to mistake for rape until the plot twist comes and it turns out “rape” is going to be a black magic ritual. Let’s count! First, there’s the guy she kills before the story starts at the bandit camp. Then, there’s Conan creeping at her. Then, there’s Prince Olmec. And last, but by no means least, there’s Tascela, who stares at Valeria more or less non-stop from the point they first meet in possibly the least subtle “this chick totally wants that chick” hint an author has ever devised. Although it transpires Tascela doesn’t actually want to fuck Valeria after all, there’s no doubt that Howard intends us to think that’s the case – all the other characters jump to that conclusion, and according to Novalyne Price Ellis (whose memoir of her brief relationship with Howard was the basis of a movie which, based on the poster, seems to be trying to sell Howard as a romantic lead) the story that became Red Nails was inspired by Howard’s theory that when a civilisation becomes irreversibly decadent people become obsessed with sex and become gay.
Sure, Howard, whatever, but are you sure you didn’t go for this angle so that you could be 100% guaranteed to get a cover story out of Wright? There’s not one, not two, but three girl-on-girl bondage sequences in the story, in one of Howard’s most blatant displays of pandering to Wright’s particular tastes ever. First off, here’s how Valeria reacts when she discovers the slave Yasala trying to drug her in her sleep:
“You sulky slut!” she said between her teeth. “I’m going to strip you stark naked and tie you across that couch and whip you until you tell me what you were doing here, and who sent you!”
She proceeds to do exactly that, of course – and yes, that line is just as silly and shoehorned-in in context as it sounds. It’s like Valeria’s interrogation technique jumps straight from “slapping the person you’re interrogating about the face and demanding they spill the beans” to “stuff which would look like a weird sex game if we put it on the front cover, but it totally isn’t a weird sex game so we should be able to slip it past the censors, wink” without anything in between. Later, there’s another bit where Valeria is tied to a chair by Tascela and taunted, and then finally there’s the actual sacrifice sequence itself which eventually made the front cover (NSFW, obviously).
It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder whether that the Conan stories wouldn’t seem so offensive if they were approached as bondage-themed fantasy erotica as opposed to straight-ahead sword and sorcery stories. True, the racism would still be an enormous issue, but at the same time I think that if you get off on male-dominant-female-submissive dynamics in a sexual context then you ought to be able to get jerk material which caters to that. However, if you take a sexual fantasy catering to the tastes of a few people and turn it into an all-encompassing philosophy which you yearn to apply to an entire society, things start getting deeply uncomfortable. John Norman’s Gor novels may make passable jerk material for people who are sexually excited by dominance, submission, and impossibly shitty prose, but the philosophy packaged with them ends up falling to bits whenever Norman tries to apply it to society as a whole.
It’s the same with Conan; Howard never set out his sexual philosophy to the same level of detail as he did his racial ideas, but it seems evident from his stories that there’s an undercurrent going on of women surrendering themselves to Conan, who is depicted as a good partner because he uses his physical dominance to protect and keep safe his partners instead of brutalising them. However, Howard presents this in the context of escapist adventure fiction instead of BDSM fantasy erotica, and the audiences for the two might overlap but they are by no means the same audience; what one audience might understand as being the premise of a sexual fantasy comes across to the other audience as just a crass philosophy that it’s OK to crush women’s independence and free will with the force of your masculinity.
Of course, you could just say “Well, this is escapist fantasy fiction with mild BDSM themes, surely there’s a place for that.” Why, of course there is. But that isn’t how Howard’s material is usually presented and upheld by his supporters. When people recommend Howard or defend his work it’s as amazing works that form an essential cornerstone of sword and sorcery, and there’s often little if any discussion of the point that the stories also seem to cater to a particular set of sexual fantasies which many readers interested in sword and sorcery may not share, or of the thoughtless parroting of these sexual fantasies by Howard’s imitators in the field which made much of the sword and sorcery field kind of unfriendly to those who aren’t interested in that particular kink.
Right, enough of that. Next up we have Jewels of Gwahlur, a story about how black people are credulous rubes.
No, seriously, I’m not kidding. It’s set in the land of Keshan, in not-Africa, inhabited by “a mixed race, a dusky nobility ruling a population that was largely pure Negro”. Supposedly, the mixed race nobility are descended from a race of superior white people who came from the mysterious city of Alkmeenon. Within Alkmeenon lies the perfectly preserved body of Yelaya, the last white princess of Alkmeenon, who is worshipped by the people of Keshan and to whom their priests look for oracular proclamations – and because the city is sacred, it is kept uninhabited (so far as anyone is aware) with the priests only visiting when it is time to seek the wisdom of Yelaya. Also hidden away in Alkmeenon are the legendary jewels of Gwahlur, a fantastic treasure – and it’s this which Conan is after.
However, Conan is not the only one to have heard rumours of the jewels – other scam artists in the form of the sinister team of Thutmekri and Zargheba are on the case, and Zargheba has hit on an ingenious plan – make his prize slave girl Muriela take the place of Yelaya, so when the priests come to consult the oracle she can order them to hand over the jewels to Zargheba. Conan, for his part, convinces Muriela to betray Zargheba and come away with him, and the rest of the story consists of a series of double-crosses and machinations as the different factions jockey for position whilst desperately trying to avoid the priests noticing that something is up.
Unfortunately, all that cool stuff is overshadowed by the racist premises the story is built on – that this priesthood of black people would be taken in by transparent flim-flammery and bullshitting, both on the part of the thieves and of those who are really behind the oracular statements of Yelaya, and that this kingdom of black people has based an entire religion on worshipping white people. The whole “black people worship us as gods” deal is probably one of the most exasperating colonialist fantasy motifs ever, and it’s well and truly at work in this story. There’s not much more to say about it really, other than to mourn the kernel of a good story once again buried under bullshit.
In Beyond the Black River
After migration from WAS to WAS , not exist element in the old environment is exist in the new environment.
Cheats come built into Conan: Exiles, and you can use them to make literally everything easy to accomplish — including earning every single achievement / trophy in the game. All you have to do is unlock a pretty well-hidden Admin Panel in the game options. Most players probably have no idea they’re allowed to have this much control, and it’s kind of an awesome thing to play around with. Yes, you can even use it solo.
The Admin Panel is incredibly powerful — you can use it to change the weather, time of day, what stats on your character can change (you can have infinite health, hunger, etc), or spawn any item you want, instantly. Only one player can have the Admin Panel available in a single co-op game, but you can change the settings globally. You can even spawn humanoids, monsters, make yourself invisible, or transform into a demigod at will.
More Conan: Exiles guides on Gameranx:
To unlock the Admin Panel, follow these extremely simple steps.
Now that we’ve unlocked the admin panel, it’s time to actually use it. Here’s how to bring it up.
There are tons (and tons) things you can do with the Admin Panel. They’re all incredibly simple to use. Just toggle cheats on to test them, select buttons to open optional menus, or use the tabs on the right to select any item you want to place in the game world. Use the menu to experiment, create a city, or just cheat your way to the end. Here’s a very quick list.
Admin Panel Cheats
Yahtzee reviews Conan Exiles. You may remember the last time we here at Zero Punctuation shoved our critical periscope right up Conan the Barbarian's.
I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who's half a man,
Or the man who's half a boy.
Mr. E. D. Malone desires to state that both the injunction for restraint and the libel action have been withdrawn unreservedly by Professor G. E. Challenger, who, being satisfied that no criticism or comment in this book is meant in an offensive spirit, has guaranteed that he will place no impediment to its publication and circulation.
Mr. Hungerton, her father, really was the most tactless person upon earth,—a fluffy, feathery, untidy cockatoo of a man, perfectly good-natured, but absolutely centered upon his own silly self. If anything could have driven me from Gladys, it would have been the thought of such a father-in-law. I am convinced that he really believed in his heart that I came round to the Chestnuts three days a week for the pleasure of his company, and very especially to hear his views upon bimetallism, a subject upon which he was by way of being an authority.
For an hour or more that evening I listened to his monotonous chirrup about bad money driving out good, the token value of silver, the depreciation of the rupee, and the true standards of exchange.
"Suppose," he cried with feeble violence, "that all the debts in the world were called up simultaneously, and immediate payment insisted upon,—what under our present conditions would happen then?"
I gave the self-evident answer that I should be a ruined man, upon which he jumped from his chair, reproved me for my habitual levity, which made it impossible for him to discuss any reasonable subject in my presence, and bounced off out of the room to dress for a Masonic meeting.
At last I was alone with Gladys, and the moment of Fate had come! All that evening I had felt like the soldier who awaits the signal which will send him on a forlorn hope; hope of victory and fear of repulse alternating in his mind.
She sat with that proud, delicate profile of hers outlined against the red curtain. How beautiful she was! And yet how aloof! We had been friends, quite good friends; but never could I get beyond the same comradeship which I might have established with one of my fellow-reporters upon the Gazette,—perfectly frank, perfectly kindly, and perfectly unsexual. My instincts are all against a woman being too frank and at her ease with me. It is no compliment to a man. Where the real sex feeling begins, timidity and distrust are its companions, heritage from old wicked days when love and violence went often hand in hand. The bent head, the averted eye, the faltering voice, the wincing figure—these, and not the unshrinking gaze and frank reply, are the true signals of passion. Even in my short life I had learned as much as that—or had inherited it in that race memory which we call instinct.
Gladys was full of every womanly quality. Some judged her to be cold and hard; but such a thought was treason. That delicately bronzed skin, almost oriental in its coloring, that raven hair, the large liquid eyes, the full but exquisite lips,—all the stigmata of passion were there. But I was sadly conscious that up to now I had never found the secret of drawing it forth. However, come what might, I should have done with suspense and bring matters to a head to-night. She could but refuse me, and better be a repulsed lover than an accepted brother.
So far my thoughts had carried me, and I was about to break the long and uneasy silence, when two critical, dark eyes looked round at me, and the proud head was shaken in smiling reproof. "I have a presentiment that you are going to propose, Ned. I do wish you wouldn't; for things are so much nicer as they are."
I drew my chair a little nearer. "Now, how did you know that I was going to propose?" I asked in genuine wonder.
"Don't women always know? Do you suppose any woman in the world was ever taken unawares? But—oh, Ned, our friendship has been so good and so pleasant! What a pity to spoil it! Don't you feel how splendid it is that a young man and a young woman should be able to talk face to face as we have talked?"
"I don't know, Gladys. You see, I can talk face to face with—with the station-master." I can't imagine how that official came into the matter; but in he trotted, and set us both laughing. "That does not satisfy me in the least. I want my arms round you, and your head on my breast, and—oh, Gladys, I want——"
She had sprung from her chair, as she saw signs that I proposed to demonstrate some of my wants. "You've spoiled everything, Ned," she said. "It's all so beautiful and natural until this kind of thing comes in! It is such a pity! Why can't you control yourself?"
"I didn't invent it," I pleaded. "It's nature. It's love."
"Well, perhaps if both love, it may be different. I have never felt it."
"But you must—you, with your beauty, with your soul! Oh, Gladys, you were made for love! You must love!"
"One must wait till it comes."
"But why can't you love me, Gladys? Is it my appearance, or what?"
She did unbend a little. She put forward a hand—such a gracious, stooping attitude it was—and she pressed back my head. Then she looked into my upturned face with a very wistful smile.
"No it isn't that," she said at last. "You're not a conceited boy by nature, and so I can safely tell you it is not that. It's deeper."
She nodded severely.
"What can I do to mend it? Do sit down and talk it over. No, really, I won't if you'll only sit down!"
She looked at me with a wondering distrust which was much more to my mind than her whole-hearted confidence. How primitive and bestial it looks when you put it down in black and white!—and perhaps after all it is only a feeling peculiar to myself. Anyhow, she sat down.
"Now tell me what's amiss with me?"
"I'm in love with somebody else," said she.
It was my turn to jump out of my chair.
"It's nobody in particular," she explained, laughing at the expression of my face: "only an ideal. I've never met the kind of man I mean."
"Tell me about him. What does he look like?"
"Oh, he might look very much like you."
"How dear of you to say that! Well, what is it that he does that I don't do? Just say the word,—teetotal, vegetarian, aeronaut, theosophist, superman. I'll have a try at it, Gladys, if you will only give me an idea what would please you."
She laughed at the elasticity of my character. "Well, in the first place, I don't think my ideal would speak like that," said she. "He would be a harder, sterner man, not so ready to adapt himself to a silly girl's whim. But, above all, he must be a man who could do, who could act, who could look Death in the face and have no fear of him, a man of great deeds and strange experiences. It is never a man that I should love, but always the glories he had won; for they would be reflected upon me. Think of Richard Burton! When I read his wife's life of him I could so understand her love! And Lady Stanley! Did you ever read the wonderful last chapter of that book about her husband? These are the sort of men that a woman could worship with all her soul, and yet be the greater, not the less, on account of her love, honored by all the world as the inspirer of noble deeds."
She looked so beautiful in her enthusiasm that I nearly brought down the whole level of the interview. I gripped myself hard, and went on with the argument.
"We can't all be Stanleys and Burtons," said I; "besides, we don't get the chance,—at least, I never had the chance. If I did, I should try to take it."
"But chances are all around you. It is the mark of the kind of man I mean that he makes his own chances. You can't hold him back. I've never met him, and yet I seem to know him so well. There are heroisms all round us waiting to be done. It's for men to do them, and for women to reserve their love as a reward for such men. Look at that young Frenchman who went up last week in a balloon. It was blowing a gale of wind; but because he was announced to go he insisted on starting. The wind blew him fifteen hundred miles in twenty-four hours, and he fell in the middle of Russia. That was the kind of man I mean. Think of the woman he loved, and how other women must have envied her! That's what I should like to be,—envied for my man."
"I'd have done it to please you."
"But you shouldn't do it merely to please me. You should do it because you can't help yourself, because it's natural to you, because the man in you is crying out for heroic expression. Now, when you described the Wigan coal explosion last month, could you not have gone down and helped those people, in spite of the choke-damp?"
"You never said so."
"There was nothing worth bucking about."
"I didn't know." She looked at me with rather more interest. "That was brave of you."
"I had to. If you want to write good copy, you must be where the things are."
"What a prosaic motive! It seems to take all the romance out of it. But, still, whatever your motive, I am glad that you went down that mine." She gave me her hand; but with such sweetness and dignity that I could only stoop and kiss it. "I dare say I am merely a foolish woman with a young girl's fancies. And yet it is so real with me, so entirely part of my very self, that I cannot help acting upon it. If I marry, I do want to marry a famous man!"
"Why should you not?" I cried. "It is women like you who brace men up. Give me a chance, and see if I will take it! Besides, as you say, men ought to MAKE their own chances, and not wait until they are given. Look at Clive—just a clerk, and he conquered India! By George! I'll do something in the world yet!"
She laughed at my sudden Irish effervescence. "Why not?" she said. "You have everything a man could have,—youth, health, strength, education, energy. I was sorry you spoke. And now I am glad—so glad—if it wakens these thoughts in you!"
"And if I do——"
Her dear hand rested like warm velvet upon my lips. "Not another word, Sir! You should have been at the office for evening duty half an hour ago; only I hadn't the heart to remind you. Some day, perhaps, when you have won your place in the world, we shall talk it over again."
And so it was that I found myself that foggy November evening pursuing the Camberwell tram with my heart glowing within me, and with the eager determination that not another day should elapse before I should find some deed which was worthy of my lady. But who—who in all this wide world could ever have imagined the incredible shape which that deed was to take, or the strange steps by which I was led to the doing of it?
And, after all, this opening chapter will seem to the reader to have nothing to do with my narrative; and yet there would have been no narrative without it, for it is only when a man goes out into the world with the thought that there are heroisms all round him, and with the desire all alive in his heart to follow any which may come within sight of him, that he breaks away as I did from the life he knows, and ventures forth into the wonderful mystic twilight land where lie the great adventures and the great rewards. Behold me, then, at the office of the Daily Gazette, on the staff of which I was a most insignificant unit, with the settled determination that very night, if possible, to find the quest which should be worthy of my Gladys! Was it hardness, was it selfishness, that she should ask me to risk my life for her own glorification? Such thoughts may come to middle age; but never to ardent three-and-twenty in the fever of his first love.
I always liked McArdle, the crabbed, old, round-backed, red-headed news editor, and I rather hoped that he liked me. Of course, Beaumont was the real boss; but he lived in the rarefied atmosphere of some Olympian height from which he could distinguish nothing smaller than an international crisis or a split in the Cabinet. Sometimes we saw him passing in lonely majesty to his inner sanctum, with his eyes staring vaguely and his mind hovering over the Balkans or the Persian Gulf. He was above and beyond us. But McArdle was his first lieutenant, and it was he that we knew. The old man nodded as I entered the room, and he pushed his spectacles far up on his bald forehead.
"Well, Mr. Malone, from all I hear, you seem to be doing very well," said he in his kindly Scotch accent.
I thanked him.
"The colliery explosion was excellent. So was the Southwark fire. You have the true descreeptive touch. What did you want to see me about?"
"To ask a favor."
He looked alarmed, and his eyes shunned mine. "Tut, tut! What is it?"
"Do you think, Sir, that you could possibly send me on some mission for the paper? I would do my best to put it through and get you some good copy."
"What sort of meesion had you in your mind, Mr. Malone?"
"Well, Sir, anything that had adventure and danger in it. I really would do my very best. The more difficult it was, the better it would suit me."
"You seem very anxious to lose your life."
"To justify my life, Sir."
"Dear me, Mr. Malone, this is very—very exalted. I'm afraid the day for this sort of thing is rather past. The expense of the 'special meesion' business hardly justifies the result, and, of course, in any case it would only be an experienced man with a name that would command public confidence who would get such an order. The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, and there's no room for romance anywhere. Wait a bit, though!" he added, with a sudden smile upon his face. "Talking of the blank spaces of the map gives me an idea. What about exposing a fraud—a modern Munchausen—and making him rideeculous? You could show him up as the liar that he is! Eh, man, it would be fine. How does it appeal to you?"
"Anything—anywhere—I care nothing."
McArdle was plunged in thought for some minutes.
"I wonder whether you could get on friendly—or at least on talking terms with the fellow," he said, at last. "You seem to have a sort of genius for establishing relations with people—seempathy, I suppose, or animal magnetism, or youthful vitality, or something. I am conscious of it myself."
"You are very good, sir."
"So why should you not try your luck with Professor Challenger, of Enmore Park?"
I dare say I looked a little startled.
"Challenger!" I cried. "Professor Challenger, the famous zoologist! Wasn't he the man who broke the skull of Blundell, of the Telegraph?"
The news editor smiled grimly.
"Do you mind? Didn't you say it was adventures you were after?"
"It is all in the way of business, sir," I answered.
"Exactly. I don't suppose he can always be so violent as that. I'm thinking that Blundell got him at the wrong moment, maybe, or in the wrong fashion. You may have better luck, or more tact in handling him. There's something in your line there, I am sure, and the Gazette should work it."
"I really know nothing about him," said I. "I only remember his name in connection with the police-court proceedings, for striking Blundell."
"I have a few notes for your guidance, Mr. Malone. I've had my eye on the Professor for some little time." He took a paper from a drawer. "Here is a summary of his record. I give it you briefly:—
"'Challenger, George Edward. Born: Largs, N. B., 1863. Educ.: Largs Academy; Edinburgh University. British Museum Assistant, 1892. Assistant-Keeper of Comparative Anthropology Department, 1893. Resigned after acrimonious correspondence same year. Winner of Crayston Medal for Zoological Research. Foreign Member of'—well, quite a lot of things, about two inches of small type—'Societe Belge, American Academy of Sciences, La Plata, etc., etc. Ex-President Palaeontological Society. Section H, British Association'—so on, so on!—'Publications: "Some Observations Upon a Series of Kalmuck Skulls"; "Outlines of Vertebrate Evolution"; and numerous papers, including "The underlying fallacy of Weissmannism," which caused heated discussion at the Zoological Congress of Vienna. Recreations: Walking, Alpine climbing. Address: Enmore Park, Kensington, W.'
"There, take it with you. I've nothing more for you to-night."
I pocketed the slip of paper.
"One moment, sir," I said, as I realized that it was a pink bald head, and not a red face, which was fronting me. "I am not very clear yet why I am to interview this gentleman. What has he done?"
The face flashed back again.
"Went to South America on a solitary expedeetion two years ago. Came back last year. Had undoubtedly been to South America, but refused to say exactly where. Began to tell his adventures in a vague way, but somebody started to pick holes, and he just shut up like an oyster. Something wonderful happened—or the man's a champion liar, which is the more probable supposeetion. Had some damaged photographs, said to be fakes. Got so touchy that he assaults anyone who asks questions, and heaves reporters down the stairs. In my opinion he's just a homicidal megalomaniac with a turn for science. That's your man, Mr. Malone. Now, off you run, and see what you can make of him. You're big enough to look after yourself. Anyway, you are all safe. Employers' Liability Act, you know."
A grinning red face turned once more into a pink oval, fringed with gingery fluff; the interview was at an end.
I walked across to the Savage Club, but instead of turning into it I leaned upon the railings of Adelphi Terrace and gazed thoughtfully for a long time at the brown, oily river. I can always think most sanely and clearly in the open air. I took out the list of Professor Challenger's exploits, and I read it over under the electric lamp. Then I had what I can only regard as an inspiration. As a Pressman, I felt sure from what I had been told that I could never hope to get into touch with this cantankerous Professor. But these recriminations, twice mentioned in his skeleton biography, could only mean that he was a fanatic in science. Was there not an exposed margin there upon which he might be accessible? I would try.
I entered the club. It was just after eleven, and the big room was fairly full, though the rush had not yet set in. I noticed a tall, thin, angular man seated in an arm-chair by the fire. He turned as I drew my chair up to him. It was the man of all others whom I should have chosen—Tarp Henry, of the staff of Nature, a thin, dry, leathery creature, who was full, to those who knew him, of kindly humanity. I plunged instantly into my subject.
"What do you know of Professor Challenger?"
"Challenger?" He gathered his brows in scientific disapproval. "Challenger was the man who came with some cock-and-bull story from South America."
"Oh, it was rank nonsense about some queer animals he had discovered. I believe he has retracted since. Anyhow, he has suppressed it all. He gave an interview to Reuter's, and there was such a howl that he saw it wouldn't do. It was a discreditable business. There were one or two folk who were inclined to take him seriously, but he soon choked them off."
"Well, by his insufferable rudeness and impossible behavior. There was poor old Wadley, of the Zoological Institute. Wadley sent a message: 'The President of the Zoological Institute presents his compliments to Professor Challenger, and would take it as a personal favor if he would do them the honor to come to their next meeting.' The answer was unprintable."
"You don't say?"
"Well, a bowdlerized version of it would run: 'Professor Challenger presents his compliments to the President of the Zoological Institute, and would take it as a personal favor if he would go to the devil.'"
"Yes, I expect that's what old Wadley said. I remember his wail at the meeting, which began: 'In fifty years experience of scientific intercourse——' It quite broke the old man up."
"Anything more about Challenger?"
"Well, I'm a bacteriologist, you know. I live in a nine-hundred-diameter microscope. I can hardly claim to take serious notice of anything that I can see with my naked eye. I'm a frontiersman from the extreme edge of the Knowable, and I feel quite out of place when I leave my study and come into touch with all you great, rough, hulking creatures. I'm too detached to talk scandal, and yet at scientific conversaziones I HAVE heard something of Challenger, for he is one of those men whom nobody can ignore. He's as clever as they make 'em—a full-charged battery of force and vitality, but a quarrelsome, ill-conditioned faddist, and unscrupulous at that. He had gone the length of faking some photographs over the South American business."
"You say he is a faddist. What is his particular fad?"
"He has a thousand, but the latest is something about Weissmann and Evolution. He had a fearful row about it in Vienna, I believe."
"Can't you tell me the point?"
"Not at the moment, but a translation of the proceedings exists. We have it filed at the office. Would you care to come?"
"It's just what I want. I have to interview the fellow, and I need some lead up to him. It's really awfully good of you to give me a lift. I'll go with you now, if it is not too late."
Half an hour later I was seated in the newspaper office with a huge tome in front of me, which had been opened at the article "Weissmann versus Darwin," with the sub heading, "Spirited Protest at Vienna. Lively Proceedings." My scientific education having been somewhat neglected, I was unable to follow the whole argument, but it was evident that the English Professor had handled his subject in a very aggressive fashion, and had thoroughly annoyed his Continental colleagues. "Protests," "Uproar," and "General appeal to the Chairman" were three of the first brackets which caught my eye. Most of the matter might have been written in Chinese for any definite meaning that it conveyed to my brain.
"I wish you could translate it into English for me," I said, pathetically, to my help-mate.
"Well, it is a translation."
"Then I'd better try my luck with the original."
"It is certainly rather deep for a layman."
"If I could only get a single good, meaty sentence which seemed to convey some sort of definite human idea, it would serve my turn. Ah, yes, this one will do. I seem in a vague way almost to understand it. I'll copy it out. This shall be my link with the terrible Professor."
"Nothing else I can do?"
"Well, yes; I propose to write to him. If I could frame the letter here, and use your address it would give atmosphere."
"We'll have the fellow round here making a row and breaking the furniture."
"No, no; you'll see the letter—nothing contentious, I assure you."
"Well, that's my chair and desk. You'll find paper there. I'd like to censor it before it goes."
It took some doing, but I flatter myself that it wasn't such a bad job when it was finished. I read it aloud to the critical bacteriologist with some pride in my handiwork.
"DEAR PROFESSOR CHALLENGER," it said, "As a humble student of Nature, I have always taken the most profound interest in your speculations as to the differences between Darwin and Weissmann. I have recently had occasion to refresh my memory by re-reading——"
"You infernal liar!" murmured Tarp Henry.
—"by re-reading your masterly address at Vienna. That lucid and admirable statement seems to be the last word in the matter. There is one sentence in it, however—namely: 'I protest strongly against the insufferable and entirely dogmatic assertion that each separate id is a microcosm possessed of an historical architecture elaborated slowly through the series of generations.' Have you no desire, in view of later research, to modify this statement? Do you not think that it is over-accentuated? With your permission, I would ask the favor of an interview, as I feel strongly upon the subject, and have certain suggestions which I could only elaborate in a personal conversation. With your consent, I trust to have the honor of calling at eleven o'clock the day after to-morrow (Wednesday) morning.
"I remain, Sir, with assurances of profound respect, yours very truly,
EDWARD D. MALONE."
"How's that?" I asked, triumphantly.
"Well if your conscience can stand it——"
"It has never failed me yet."
"But what do you mean to do?"
"To get there. Once I am in his room I may see some opening. I may even go the length of open confession. If he is a sportsman he will be tickled."
"Tickled, indeed! He's much more likely to do the tickling. Chain mail, or an American football suit—that's what you'll want. Well, good-bye. I'll have the answer for you here on Wednesday morning—if he ever deigns to answer you. He is a violent, dangerous, cantankerous character, hated by everyone who comes across him, and the butt of the students, so far as they dare take a liberty with him. Perhaps it would be best for you if you never heard from the fellow at all."
My friend's fear or hope was not destined to be realized. When I called on Wednesday there was a letter with the West Kensington postmark upon it, and my name scrawled across the envelope in a handwriting which looked like a barbed-wire railing. The contents were as follows:—
"ENMORE PARK, W.
"SIR,—I have duly received your note, in which you claim to endorse my views, although I am not aware that they are dependent upon endorsement either from you or anyone else. You have ventured to use the word 'speculation' with regard to my statement upon the subject of Darwinism, and I would call your attention to the fact that such a word in such a connection is offensive to a degree. The context convinces me, however, that you have sinned rather through ignorance and tactlessness than through malice, so I am content to pass the matter by. You quote an isolated sentence from my lecture, and appear to have some difficulty in understanding it. I should have thought that only a sub-human intelligence could have failed to grasp the point, but if it really needs amplification I shall consent to see you at the hour named, though visits and visitors of every sort are exceeding distasteful to me. As to your suggestion that I may modify my opinion, I would have you know that it is not my habit to do so after a deliberate expression of my mature views. You will kindly show the envelope of this letter to my man, Austin, when you call, as he has to take every precaution to shield me from the intrusive rascals who call themselves 'journalists.'
"GEORGE EDWARD CHALLENGER."
This was the letter that I read aloud to Tarp Henry, who had come down early to hear the result of my venture. His only remark was, "There's some new stuff, cuticura or something, which is better than arnica." Some people have such extraordinary notions of humor.
It was nearly half-past ten before I had received my message, but a taxicab took me round in good time for my appointment. It was an imposing porticoed house at which we stopped, and the heavily-curtained windows gave every indication of wealth upon the part of this formidable Professor. The door was opened by an odd, swarthy, dried-up person of uncertain age, with a dark pilot jacket and brown leather gaiters. I found afterwards that he was the chauffeur, who filled the gaps left by a succession of fugitive butlers. He looked me up and down with a searching light blue eye.
"Expected?" he asked.
"Got your letter?"
I produced the envelope.
"Right!" He seemed to be a person of few words. Following him down the passage I was suddenly interrupted by a small woman, who stepped out from what proved to be the dining-room door. She was a bright, vivacious, dark-eyed lady, more French than English in her type.
"One moment," she said. "You can wait, Austin. Step in here, sir. May I ask if you have met my husband before?"
"No, madam, I have not had the honor."
"Then I apologize to you in advance. I must tell you that he is a perfectly impossible person—absolutely impossible. If you are forewarned you will be the more ready to make allowances."
"It is most considerate of you, madam."
"Get quickly out of the room if he seems inclined to be violent. Don't wait to argue with him. Several people have been injured through doing that. Afterwards there is a public scandal and it reflects upon me and all of us. I suppose it wasn't about South America you wanted to see him?"
I could not lie to a lady.
"Dear me! That is his most dangerous subject. You won't believe a word he says—I'm sure I don't wonder. But don't tell him so, for it makes him very violent. Pretend to believe him, and you may get through all right. Remember he believes it himself. Of that you may be assured. A more honest man never lived. Don't wait any longer or he may suspect. If you find him dangerous—really dangerous—ring the bell and hold him off until I come. Even at his worst I can usually control him."
With these encouraging words the lady handed me over to the taciturn Austin, who had waited like a bronze statue of discretion during our short interview, and I was conducted to the end of the passage. There was a tap at a door, a bull's bellow from within, and I was face to face with the Professor.
He sat in a rotating chair behind a broad table, which was covered with books, maps, and diagrams. As I entered, his seat spun round to face me. His appearance made me gasp. I was prepared for something strange, but not for so overpowering a personality as this. It was his size which took one's breath away—his size and his imposing presence. His head was enormous, the largest I have ever seen upon a human being. I am sure that his top-hat, had I ever ventured to don it, would have slipped over me entirely and rested on my shoulders. He had the face and beard which I associate with an Assyrian bull; the former florid, the latter so black as almost to have a suspicion of blue, spade-shaped and rippling down over his chest. The hair was peculiar, plastered down in front in a long, curving wisp over his massive forehead. The eyes were blue-gray under great black tufts, very clear, very critical, and very masterful. A huge spread of shoulders and a chest like a barrel were the other parts of him which appeared above the table, save for two enormous hands covered with long black hair. This and a bellowing, roaring, rumbling voice made up my first impression of the notorious Professor Challenger.
"Well?" said he, with a most insolent stare. "What now?"
I must keep up my deception for at least a little time longer, otherwise here was evidently an end of the interview.
"You were good enough to give me an appointment, sir," said I, humbly, producing his envelope.
He took my letter from his desk and laid it out before him.
"Oh, you are the young person who cannot understand plain English, are you? My general conclusions you are good enough to approve, as I understand?"
"Entirely, sir—entirely!" I was very emphatic.
"Dear me! That strengthens my position very much, does it not? Your age and appearance make your support doubly valuable. Well, at least you are better than that herd of swine in Vienna, whose gregarious grunt is, however, not more offensive than the isolated effort of the British hog." He glared at me as the present representative of the beast.
"They seem to have behaved abominably," said I.
"I assure you that I can fight my own battles, and that I have no possible need of your sympathy. Put me alone, sir, and with my back to the wall. G. E. C. is happiest then. Well, sir, let us do what we can to curtail this visit, which can hardly be agreeable to you, and is inexpressibly irksome to me. You had, as I have been led to believe, some comments to make upon the proposition which I advanced in my thesis."
There was a brutal directness about his methods which made evasion difficult. I must still make play and wait for a better opening. It had seemed simple enough at a distance. Oh, my Irish wits, could they not help me now, when I needed help so sorely? He transfixed me with two sharp, steely eyes. "Come, come!" he rumbled.
"I am, of course, a mere student," said I, with a fatuous smile, "hardly more, I might say, than an earnest inquirer. At the same time, it seemed to me that you were a little severe upon Weissmann in this matter. Has not the general evidence since that date tended to—well, to strengthen his position?"
"What evidence?" He spoke with a menacing calm.
"Well, of course, I am aware that there is not any what you might call DEFINITE evidence. I alluded merely to the trend of modern thought and the general scientific point of view, if I might so express it."
He leaned forward with great earnestness.
"I suppose you are aware," said he, checking off points upon his fingers, "that the cranial index is a constant factor?"
"Naturally," said I.
"And that telegony is still sub judice?"
"And that the germ plasm is different from the parthenogenetic egg?"
"Why, surely!" I cried, and gloried in my own audacity.
"But what does that prove?" he asked, in a gentle, persuasive voice.
"Ah, what indeed?" I murmured. "What does it prove?"
"Shall I tell you?" he cooed.
"It proves," he roared, with a sudden blast of fury, "that you are the damnedest imposter in London—a vile, crawling journalist, who has no more science than he has decency in his composition!"
He had sprung to his feet with a mad rage in his eyes. Even at that moment of tension I found time for amazement at the discovery that he was quite a short man, his head not higher than my shoulder—a stunted Hercules whose tremendous vitality had all run to depth, breadth, and brain.
"Gibberish!" he cried, leaning forward, with his fingers on the table and his face projecting. "That's what I have been talking to you, sir—scientific gibberish! Did you think you could match cunning with me—you with your walnut of a brain? You think you are omnipotent, you infernal scribblers, don't you? That your praise can make a man and your blame can break him? We must all bow to you, and try to get a favorable word, must we? This man shall have a leg up, and this man shall have a dressing down! Creeping vermin, I know you! You've got out of your station. Time was when your ears were clipped. You've lost your sense of proportion. Swollen gas-bags! I'll keep you in your proper place. Yes, sir, you haven't got over G. E. C. There's one man who is still your master. He warned you off, but if you WILL come, by the Lord you do it at your own risk. Forfeit, my good Mr. Malone, I claim forfeit! You have played a rather dangerous game, and it strikes me that you have lost it."
"Look here, sir," said I, backing to the door and opening it; "you can be as abusive as you like. But there is a limit. You shall not assault me."
"Shall I not?" He was slowly advancing in a peculiarly menacing way, but he stopped now and put his big hands into the side-pockets of a rather boyish short jacket which he wore. "I have thrown several of you out of the house. You will be the fourth or fifth. Three pound fifteen each—that is how it averaged. Expensive, but very necessary. Now, sir, why should you not follow your brethren? I rather think you must." He resumed his unpleasant and stealthy advance, pointing his toes as he walked, like a dancing master.
I could have bolted for the hall door, but it would have been too ignominious. Besides, a little glow of righteous anger was springing up within me. I had been hopelessly in the wrong before, but this man's menaces were putting me in the right.
"I'll trouble you to keep your hands off, sir. I'll not stand it."
"Dear me!" His black moustache lifted and a white fang twinkled in a sneer. "You won't stand it, eh?"
"Don't be such a fool, Professor!" I cried. "What can you hope for? I'm fifteen stone, as hard as nails, and play center three-quarter every Saturday for the London Irish. I'm not the man——"
It was at that moment that he rushed me. It was lucky that I had opened the door, or we should have gone through it. We did a Catharine-wheel together down the passage. Somehow we gathered up a chair upon our way, and bounded on with it towards the street. My mouth was full of his beard, our arms were locked, our bodies intertwined, and that infernal chair radiated its legs all round us. The watchful Austin had thrown open the hall door. We went with a back somersault down the front steps. I have seen the two Macs attempt something of the kind at the halls, but it appears to take some practise to do it without hurting oneself. The chair went to matchwood at the bottom, and we rolled apart into the gutter. He sprang to his feet, waving his fists and wheezing like an asthmatic.
"Had enough?" he panted.
"You infernal bully!" I cried, as I gathered myself together.
Then and there we should have tried the thing out, for he was effervescing with fight, but fortunately I was rescued from an odious situation. A policeman was beside us, his notebook in his hand.
"What's all this? You ought to be ashamed" said the policeman. It was the most rational remark which I had heard in Enmore Park. "Well," he insisted, turning to me, "what is it, then?"
"This man attacked me," said I.
"Did you attack him?" asked the policeman.
The Professor breathed hard and said nothing.
"It's not the first time, either," said the policeman, severely, shaking his head. "You were in trouble last month for the same thing. You've blackened this young man's eye. Do you give him in charge, sir?"
"No," said I, "I do not."
"What's that?" said the policeman.
"I was to blame myself. I intruded upon him. He gave me fair warning."
The policeman snapped up his notebook.
"Don't let us have any more such goings-on," said he. "Now, then! Move on, there, move on!" This to a butcher's boy, a maid, and one or two loafers who had collected. He clumped heavily down the street, driving this little flock before him. The Professor looked at me, and there was something humorous at the back of his eyes.
"Come in!" said he. "I've not done with you yet."
The speech had a sinister sound, but I followed him none the less into the house. The man-servant, Austin, like a wooden image, closed the door behind us.
Hardly was it shut when Mrs. Challenger darted out from the dining-room. The small woman was in a furious temper. She barred her husband's way like an enraged chicken in front of a bulldog. It was evident that she had seen my exit, but had not observed my return.
"You brute, George!" she screamed. "You've hurt that nice young man."
He jerked backwards with his thumb.
"Here he is, safe and sound behind me."
She was confused, but not unduly so.
"I am so sorry, I didn't see you."
"I assure you, madam, that it is all right."
"He has marked your poor face! Oh, George, what a brute you are! Nothing but scandals from one end of the week to the other. Everyone hating and making fun of you. You've finished my patience. This ends it."
"Dirty linen," he rumbled.
"It's not a secret," she cried. "Do you suppose that the whole street—the whole of London, for that matter—— Get away, Austin, we don't want you here. Do you suppose they don't all talk about you? Where is your dignity? You, a man who should have been Regius Professor at a great University with a thousand students all revering you. Where is your dignity, George?"
"How about yours, my dear?"
"You try me too much. A ruffian—a common brawling ruffian—that's what you have become."
"Be good, Jessie."
"A roaring, raging bully!"
"That's done it! Stool of penance!" said he.
To my amazement he stooped, picked her up, and placed her sitting upon a high pedestal of black marble in the angle of the hall. It was at least seven feet high, and so thin that she could hardly balance upon it. A more absurd object than she presented cocked up there with her face convulsed with anger, her feet dangling, and her body rigid for fear of an upset, I could not imagine.
"Let me down!" she wailed.
"You brute, George! Let me down this instant!"
"Come into the study, Mr. Malone."
"Really, sir——!" said I, looking at the lady.
"Here's Mr. Malone pleading for you, Jessie. Say 'please,' and down you come."
"Oh, you brute! Please! please!"
He took her down as if she had been a canary.
"You must behave yourself, dear. Mr. Malone is a Pressman. He will have it all in his rag to-morrow, and sell an extra dozen among our neighbors. 'Strange story of high life'—you felt fairly high on that pedestal, did you not? Then a sub-title, 'Glimpse of a singular menage.' He's a foul feeder, is Mr. Malone, a carrion eater, like all of his kind—porcus ex grege diaboli—a swine from the devil's herd. That's it, Malone—what?"
"You are really intolerable!" said I, hotly.
He bellowed with laughter.
"We shall have a coalition presently," he boomed, looking from his wife to me and puffing out his enormous chest. Then, suddenly altering his tone, "Excuse this frivolous family badinage, Mr. Malone. I called you back for some more serious purpose than to mix you up with our little domestic pleasantries. Run away, little woman, and don't fret." He placed a huge hand upon each of her shoulders. "All that you say is perfectly true. I should be a better man if I did what you advise, but I shouldn't be quite George Edward Challenger. There are plenty of better men, my dear, but only one G. E. C. So make the best of him." He suddenly gave her a resounding kiss, which embarrassed me even more than his violence had done. "Now, Mr. Malone," he continued, with a great accession of dignity, "this way, if YOU please."
We re-entered the room which we had left so tumultuously ten minutes before. The Professor closed the door carefully behind us, motioned me into an arm-chair, and pushed a cigar-box under my nose.
"Real San Juan Colorado," he said. "Excitable people like you are the better for narcotics. Heavens! don't bite it! Cut—and cut with reverence! Now lean back, and listen attentively to whatever I may care to say to you. If any remark should occur to you, you can reserve it for some more opportune time.
"First of all, as to your return to my house after your most justifiable expulsion"—he protruded his beard, and stared at me as one who challenges and invites contradiction—"after, as I say, your well-merited expulsion. The reason lay in your answer to that most officious policeman, in which I seemed to discern some glimmering of good feeling upon your part—more, at any rate, than I am accustomed to associate with your profession. In admitting that the fault of the incident lay with you, you gave some evidence of a certain mental detachment and breadth of view which attracted my favorable notice. The sub-species of the human race to which you unfortunately belong has always been below my mental horizon. Your words brought you suddenly above it. You swam up into my serious notice. For this reason I asked you to return with me, as I was minded to make your further acquaintance. You will kindly deposit your ash in the small Japanese tray on the bamboo table which stands at your left elbow."
All this he boomed forth like a professor addressing his class. He had swung round his revolving chair so as to face me, and he sat all puffed out like an enormous bull-frog, his head laid back and his eyes half-covered by supercilious lids. Now he suddenly turned himself sideways, and all I could see of him was tangled hair with a red, protruding ear. He was scratching about among the litter of papers upon his desk. He faced me presently with what looked like a very tattered sketch-book in his hand.
"I am going to talk to you about South America," said he. "No comments if you please. First of all, I wish you to understand that nothing I tell you now is to be repeated in any public way unless you have my express permission. That permission will, in all human probability, never be given. Is that clear?"
"It is very hard," said I. "Surely a judicious account——"
He replaced the notebook upon the table.
"That ends it," said he. "I wish you a very good morning."
"No, no!" I cried. "I submit to any conditions. So far as I can see, I have no choice."
"None in the world," said he.
"Well, then, I promise."
"Word of honor?"
"Word of honor."
He looked at me with doubt in his insolent eyes.
"After all, what do I know about your honor?" said he.
"Upon my word, sir," I cried, angrily, "you take very great liberties! I have never been so insulted in my life."
He seemed more interested than annoyed at my outbreak.
"Round-headed," he muttered. "Brachycephalic, gray-eyed, black-haired, with suggestion of the negroid. Celtic, I presume?"
"I am an Irishman, sir."
"That, of course, explains it. Let me see; you have given me your promise that my confidence will be respected? That confidence, I may say, will be far from complete. But I am prepared to give you a few indications which will be of interest. In the first place, you are probably aware that two years ago I made a journey to South America—one which will be classical in the scientific history of the world? The object of my journey was to verify some conclusions of Wallace and of Bates, which could only be done by observing their reported facts under the same conditions in which they had themselves noted them. If my expedition had no other results it would still have been noteworthy, but a curious incident occurred to me while there which opened up an entirely fresh line of inquiry.
"You are aware—or probably, in this half-educated age, you are not aware—that the country round some parts of the Amazon is still only partially explored, and that a great number of tributaries, some of them entirely uncharted, run into the main river. It was my business to visit this little-known back-country and to examine its fauna, which furnished me with the materials for several chapters for that great and monumental work upon zoology which will be my life's justification. I was returning, my work accomplished, when I had occasion to spend a night at a small Indian village at a point where a certain tributary—the name and position of which I withhold—opens into the main river. The natives were Cucama Indians, an amiable but degraded race, with mental powers hardly superior to the average Londoner. I had effected some cures among them upon my way up the river, and had impressed them considerably with my personality, so that I was not surprised to find myself eagerly awaited upon my return. I gathered from their signs that someone had urgent need of my medical services, and I followed the chief to one of his huts. When I entered I found that the sufferer to whose aid I had been summoned had that instant expired. He was, to my surprise, no Indian, but a white man; indeed, I may say a very white man, for he was flaxen-haired and had some characteristics of an albino. He was clad in rags, was very emaciated, and bore every trace of prolonged hardship. So far as I could understand the account of the natives, he was a complete stranger to them, and had come upon their village through the woods alone and in the last stage of exhaustion.
"The man's knapsack lay beside the couch, and I examined the contents. His name was written upon a tab within it—Maple White, Lake Avenue, Detroit, Michigan. It is a name to which I am prepared always to lift my hat. It is not too much to say that it will rank level with my own when the final credit of this business comes to be apportioned.
"From the contents of the knapsack it was evident that this man had been an artist and poet in search of effects. There were scraps of verse. I do not profess to be a judge of such things, but they appeared to me to be singularly wanting in merit. There were also some rather commonplace pictures of river scenery, a paint-box, a box of colored chalks, some brushes, that curved bone which lies upon my inkstand, a volume of Baxter's 'Moths and Butterflies,' a cheap revolver, and a few cartridges. Of personal equipment he either had none or he had lost it in his journey. Such were the total effects of this strange American Bohemian.
"I was turning away from him when I observed that something projected from the front of his ragged jacket. It was this sketch-book, which was as dilapidated then as you see it now. Indeed, I can assure you that a first folio of Shakespeare could not be treated with greater reverence than this relic has been since it came into my possession. I hand it to you now, and I ask you to take it page by page and to examine the contents."
He helped himself to a cigar and leaned back with a fiercely critical pair of eyes, taking note of the effect which this document would produce.
I had opened the volume with some expectation of a revelation, though of what nature I could not imagine. The first page was disappointing, however, as it contained nothing but the picture of a very fat man in a pea-jacket, with the legend, "Jimmy Colver on the Mail-boat," written beneath it. There followed several pages which were filled with small sketches of Indians and their ways. Then came a picture of a cheerful and corpulent ecclesiastic in a shovel hat, sitting opposite a very thin European, and the inscription: "Lunch with Fra Cristofero at Rosario." Studies of women and babies accounted for several more pages, and then there was an unbroken series of animal drawings with such explanations as "Manatee upon Sandbank," "Turtles and Their Eggs," "Black Ajouti under a Miriti Palm"—the matter disclosing some sort of pig-like animal; and finally came a double page of studies of long-snouted and very unpleasant saurians. I could make nothing of it, and said so to the Professor.
"Surely these are only crocodiles?"
"Alligators! Alligators! There is hardly such a thing as a true crocodile in South America. The distinction between them——"
"I meant that I could see nothing unusual—nothing to justify what you have said."
He smiled serenely.
"Try the next page," said he.
I was still unable to sympathize. It was a full-page sketch of a landscape roughly tinted in color—the kind of painting which an open-air artist takes as a guide to a future more elaborate effort. There was a pale-green foreground of feathery vegetation, which sloped upwards and ended in a line of cliffs dark red in color, and curiously ribbed like some basaltic formations which I have seen. They extended in an unbroken wall right across the background. At one point was an isolated pyramidal rock, crowned by a great tree, which appeared to be separated by a cleft from the main crag. Behind it all, a blue tropical sky. A thin green line of vegetation fringed the summit of the ruddy cliff.
"Well?" he asked.
"It is no doubt a curious formation," said I "but I am not geologist enough to say that it is wonderful."
"Wonderful!" he repeated. "It is unique. It is incredible. No one on earth has ever dreamed of such a possibility. Now the next."
I turned it over, and gave an exclamation of surprise. There was a full-page picture of the most extraordinary creature that I had ever seen. It was the wild dream of an opium smoker, a vision of delirium. The head was like that of a fowl, the body that of a bloated lizard, the trailing tail was furnished with upward-turned spikes, and the curved back was edged with a high serrated fringe, which looked like a dozen cocks' wattles placed behind each other. In front of this creature was an absurd mannikin, or dwarf, in human form, who stood staring at it.
"Well, what do you think of that?" cried the Professor, rubbing his hands with an air of triumph.
"It is monstrous—grotesque."
"But what made him draw such an animal?"
"Trade gin, I should think."
"Oh, that's the best explanation you can give, is it?"
"Well, sir, what is yours?"
"The obvious one that the creature exists. That is actually sketched from the life."
I should have laughed only that I had a vision of our doing another Catharine-wheel down the passage.
"No doubt," said I, "no doubt," as one humors an imbecile. "I confess, however," I added, "that this tiny human figure puzzles me. If it were an Indian we could set it down as evidence of some pigmy race in America, but it appears to be a European in a sun-hat."
The Professor snorted like an angry buffalo. "You really touch the limit," said he. "You enlarge my view of the possible. Cerebral paresis! Mental inertia! Wonderful!"
He was too absurd to make me angry. Indeed, it was a waste of energy, for if you were going to be angry with this man you would be angry all the time. I contented myself with smiling wearily. "It struck me that the man was small," said I.
"Look here!" he cried, leaning forward and dabbing a great hairy sausage of a finger on to the picture. "You see that plant behind the animal; I suppose you thought it was a dandelion or a Brussels sprout—what? Well, it is a vegetable ivory palm, and they run to about fifty or sixty feet. Don't you see that the man is put in for a purpose? He couldn't really have stood in front of that brute and lived to draw it. He sketched himself in to give a scale of heights. He was, we will say, over five feet high. The tree is ten times bigger, which is what one would expect."
"Good heavens!" I cried. "Then you think the beast was—— Why, Charing Cross station would hardly make a kennel for such a brute!"
"Apart from exaggeration, he is certainly a well-grown specimen," said the Professor, complacently.
"But," I cried, "surely the whole experience of the human race is not to be set aside on account of a single sketch"—I had turned over the leaves and ascertained that there was nothing more in the book—"a single sketch by a wandering American artist who may have done it under hashish, or in the delirium of fever, or simply in order to gratify a freakish imagination. You can't, as a man of science, defend such a position as that."
For answer the Professor took a book down from a shelf.
"This is an excellent monograph by my gifted friend, Ray Lankester!" said he. "There is an illustration here which would interest you. Ah, yes, here it is! The inscription beneath it runs: 'Probable appearance in life of the Jurassic Dinosaur Stegosaurus. The hind leg alone is twice as tall as a full-grown man.' Well, what do you make of that?"
He handed me the open book. I started as I looked at the picture. In this reconstructed animal of a dead world there was certainly a very great resemblance to the sketch of the unknown artist.
"That is certainly remarkable," said I.
"But you won't admit that it is final?"
"Surely it might be a coincidence, or this American may have seen a picture of the kind and carried it in his memory. It would be likely to recur to a man in a delirium."
"Very good," said the Professor, indulgently; "we leave it at that. I will now ask you to look at this bone." He handed over the one which he had already described as part of the dead man's possessions. It was about six inches long, and thicker than my thumb, with some indications of dried cartilage at one end of it.
"To what known creature does that bone belong?" asked the Professor.
I examined it with care and tried to recall some half-forgotten knowledge.
"It might be a very thick human collar-bone," I said.
My companion waved his hand in contemptuous deprecation.
"The human collar-bone is curved. This is straight. There is a groove upon its surface showing that a great tendon played across it, which could not be the case with a clavicle."
"Then I must confess that I don't know what it is."
"You need not be ashamed to expose your ignorance, for I don't suppose the whole South Kensington staff could give a name to it." He took a little bone the size of a bean out of a pill-box. "So far as I am a judge this human bone is the analogue of the one which you hold in your hand. That will give you some idea of the size of the creature. You will observe from the cartilage that this is no fossil specimen, but recent. What do you say to that?"
"Surely in an elephant——"
He winced as if in pain.
"Don't! Don't talk of elephants in South America. Even in these days of Board schools——"
"Well," I interrupted, "any large South American animal—a tapir, for example."
"You may take it, young man, that I am versed in the elements of my business. This is not a conceivable bone either of a tapir or of any other creature known to zoology. It belongs to a very large, a very strong, and, by all analogy, a very fierce animal which exists upon the face of the earth, but has not yet come under the notice of science. You are still unconvinced?"
"I am at least deeply interested."
"Then your case is not hopeless. I feel that there is reason lurking in you somewhere, so we will patiently grope round for it. We will now leave the dead American and proceed with my narrative. You can imagine that I could hardly come away from the Amazon without probing deeper into the matter. There were indications as to the direction from which the dead traveler had come. Indian legends would alone have been my guide, for I found that rumors of a strange land were common among all the riverine tribes. You have heard, no doubt, of Curupuri?"
"Curupuri is the spirit of the woods, something terrible, something malevolent, something to be avoided. None can describe its shape or nature, but it is a word of terror along the Amazon. Now all tribes agree as to the direction in which Curupuri lives. It was the same direction from which the American had come. Something terrible lay that way. It was my business to find out what it was."
"What did you do?" My flippancy was all gone. This massive man compelled one's attention and respect.
"I overcame the extreme reluctance of the natives—a reluctance which extends even to talk upon the subject—and by judicious persuasion and gifts, aided, I will admit, by some threats of coercion, I got two of them to act as guides. After many adventures which I need not describe, and after traveling a distance which I will not mention, in a direction which I withhold, we came at last to a tract of country which has never been described, nor, indeed, visited save by my unfortunate predecessor. Would you kindly look at this?"
He handed me a photograph—half-plate size.
"The unsatisfactory appearance of it is due to the fact," said he, "that on descending the river the boat was upset and the case which contained the undeveloped films was broken, with disastrous results. Nearly all of them were totally ruined—an irreparable loss. This is one of the few which partially escaped. This explanation of deficiencies or abnormalities you will kindly accept. There was talk of faking. I am not in a mood to argue such a point."
The photograph was certainly very off-colored. An unkind critic might easily have misinterpreted that dim surface. It was a dull gray landscape, and as I gradually deciphered the details of it I realized that it represented a long and enormously high line of cliffs exactly like an immense cataract seen in the distance, with a sloping, tree-clad plain in the foreground.
"I believe it is the same place as the painted picture," said I.
"It is the same place," the Professor answered. "I found traces of the fellow's camp. Now look at this."
It was a nearer view of the same scene, though the photograph was extremely defective. I could distinctly see the isolated, tree-crowned pinnacle of rock which was detached from the crag.
"I have no doubt of it at all," said I.
"Well, that is something gained," said he. "We progress, do we not? Now, will you please look at the top of that rocky pinnacle? Do you observe something there?"
"An enormous tree."
"But on the tree?"
"A large bird," said I.
He handed me a lens.
"Yes," I said, peering through it, "a large bird stands on the tree. It appears to have a considerable beak. I should say it was a pelican."
"I cannot congratulate you upon your eyesight," said the Professor. "It is not a pelican, nor, indeed, is it a bird. It may interest you to know that I succeeded in shooting that particular specimen. It was the only absolute proof of my experiences which I was able to bring away with me."
"You have it, then?" Here at last was tangible corroboration.
"I had it. It was unfortunately lost with so much else in the same boat accident which ruined my photographs. I clutched at it as it disappeared in the swirl of the rapids, and part of its wing was left in my hand. I was insensible when washed ashore, but the miserable remnant of my superb specimen was still intact; I now lay it before you."
From a drawer he produced what seemed to me to be the upper portion of the wing of a large bat. It was at least two feet in length, a curved bone, with a membranous veil beneath it.
"A monstrous bat!" I suggested.
"Nothing of the sort," said the Professor, severely. "Living, as I do, in an educated and scientific atmosphere, I could not have conceived that the first principles of zoology were so little known. Is it possible that you do not know the elementary fact in comparative anatomy, that the wing of a bird is really the forearm, while the wing of a bat consists of three elongated fingers with membranes between? Now, in this case, the bone is certainly not the forearm, and you can see for yourself that this is a single membrane hanging upon a single bone, and therefore that it cannot belong to a bat. But if it is neither bird nor bat, what is it?"
My small stock of knowledge was exhausted.
"I really do not know," said I.
He opened the standard work to which he had already referred me.
"Here," said he, pointing to the picture of an extraordinary flying monster, "is an excellent reproduction of the dimorphodon, or pterodactyl, a flying reptile of the Jurassic period. On the next page is a diagram of the mechanism of its wing. Kindly compare it with the specimen in your hand."
A wave of amazement passed over me as I looked. I was convinced. There could be no getting away from it. The cumulative proof was overwhelming. The sketch, the photographs, the narrative, and now the actual specimen—the evidence was complete. I said so—I said so warmly, for I felt that the Professor was an ill-used man. He leaned back in his chair with drooping eyelids and a tolerant smile, basking in this sudden gleam of sunshine.
"It's just the very biggest thing that I ever heard of!" said I, though it was my journalistic rather than my scientific enthusiasm that was roused. "It is colossal. You are a Columbus of science who has discovered a lost world. I'm awfully sorry if I seemed to doubt you. It was all so unthinkable. But I understand evidence when I see it, and this should be good enough for anyone."
The Professor purred with satisfaction.
"And then, sir, what did you do next?"
"It was the wet season, Mr. Malone, and my stores were exhausted. I explored some portion of this huge cliff, but I was unable to find any way to scale it. The pyramidal rock upon which I saw and shot the pterodactyl was more accessible. Being something of a cragsman, I did manage to get half way to the top of that. From that height I had a better idea of the plateau upon the top of the crags. It appeared to be very large; neither to east nor to west could I see any end to the vista of green-capped cliffs. Below, it is a swampy, jungly region, full of snakes, insects, and fever. It is a natural protection to this singular country."
"Did you see any other trace of life?"
"No, sir, I did not; but during the week that we lay encamped at the base of the cliff we heard some very strange noises from above."
"But the creature that the American drew? How do you account for that?"
"We can only suppose that he must have made his way to the summit and seen it there. We know, therefore, that there is a way up. We know equally that it must be a very difficult one, otherwise the creatures would have come down and overrun the surrounding country. Surely that is clear?"
"But how did they come to be there?"
"I do not think that the problem is a very obscure one," said the Professor; "there can only be one explanation. South America is, as you may have heard, a granite continent. At this single point in the interior there has been, in some far distant age, a great, sudden volcanic upheaval. These cliffs, I may remark, are basaltic, and therefore plutonic. An area, as large perhaps as Sussex, has been lifted up en bloc with all its living contents, and cut off by perpendicular precipices of a hardness which defies erosion from all the rest of the continent. What is the result? Why, the ordinary laws of Nature are suspended. The various checks which influence the struggle for existence in the world at large are all neutralized or altered. Creatures survive which would otherwise disappear. You will observe that both the pterodactyl and the stegosaurus are Jurassic, and therefore of a great age in the order of life. They have been artificially conserved by those strange accidental conditions."
"But surely your evidence is conclusive. You have only to lay it before the proper authorities."
"So in my simplicity, I had imagined," said the Professor, bitterly. "I can only tell you that it was not so, that I was met at every turn by incredulity, born partly of stupidity and partly of jealousy. It is not my nature, sir, to cringe to any man, or to seek to prove a fact if my word has been doubted. After the first I have not condescended to show such corroborative proofs as I possess. The subject became hateful to me—I would not speak of it. When men like yourself, who represent the foolish curiosity of the public, came to disturb my privacy I was unable to meet them with dignified reserve. By nature I am, I admit, somewhat fiery, and under provocation I am inclined to be violent. I fear you may have remarked it."
I nursed my eye and was silent.
"My wife has frequently remonstrated with me upon the subject, and yet I fancy that any man of honor would feel the same. To-night, however, I propose to give an extreme example of the control of the will over the emotions. I invite you to be present at the exhibition." He handed me a card from his desk. "You will perceive that Mr. Percival Waldron, a naturalist of some popular repute, is announced to lecture at eight-thirty at the Zoological Institute's Hall upon 'The Record of the Ages.' I have been specially invited to be present upon the platform, and to move a vote of thanks to the lecturer. While doing so, I shall make it my business, with infinite tact and delicacy, to throw out a few remarks which may arouse the interest of the audience and cause some of them to desire to go more deeply into the matter. Nothing contentious, you understand, but only an indication that there are greater deeps beyond. I shall hold myself strongly in leash, and see whether by this self-restraint I attain a more favorable result."
"And I may come?" I asked eagerly.
"Why, surely," he answered, cordially. He had an enormously massive genial manner, which was almost as overpowering as his violence. His smile of benevolence was a wonderful thing, when his cheeks would suddenly bunch into two red apples, between his half-closed eyes and his great black beard. "By all means, come. It will be a comfort to me to know that I have one ally in the hall, however inefficient and ignorant of the subject he may be. I fancy there will be a large audience, for Waldron, though an absolute charlatan, has a considerable popular following. Now, Mr. Malone, I have given you rather more of my time than I had intended. The individual must not monopolize what is meant for the world. I shall be pleased to see you at the lecture to-night. In the meantime, you will understand that no public use is to be made of any of the material that I have given you."
"But Mr. McArdle—my news editor, you know—will want to know what I have done."
"Tell him what you like. You can say, among other things, that if he sends anyone else to intrude upon me I shall call upon him with a riding-whip. But I leave it to you that nothing of all this appears in print. Very good. Then the Zoological Institute's Hall at eight-thirty to-night." I had a last impression of red cheeks, blue rippling beard, and intolerant eyes, as he waved me out of the room.
What with the physical shocks incidental to my first interview with Professor Challenger and the mental ones which accompanied the second, I was a somewhat demoralized journalist by the time I found myself in Enmore Park once more. In my aching head the one thought was throbbing that there really was truth in this man's story, that it was of tremendous consequence, and that it would work up into inconceivable copy for the Gazette when I could obtain permission to use it. A taxicab was waiting at the end of the road, so I sprang into it and drove down to the office. McArdle was at his post as usual.
"Well," he cried, expectantly, "what may it run to? I'm thinking, young man, you have been in the wars. Don't tell me that he assaulted you."
"We had a little difference at first."
"What a man it is! What did you do?"
"Well, he became more reasonable and we had a chat. But I got nothing out of him—nothing for publication."
"I'm not so sure about that. You got a black eye out of him, and that's for publication. We can't have this reign of terror, Mr. Malone. We must bring the man to his bearings. I'll have a leaderette on him to-morrow that will raise a blister. Just give me the material and I will engage to brand the fellow for ever. Professor Munchausen—how's that for an inset headline? Sir John Mandeville redivivus—Cagliostro—all the imposters and bullies in history. I'll show him up for the fraud he is."
"I wouldn't do that, sir."
"Because he is not a fraud at all."
"What!" roared McArdle. "You don't mean to say you really believe this stuff of his about mammoths and mastodons and great sea sairpents?"
"Well, I don't know about that. I don't think he makes any claims of that kind. But I do believe he has got something new."
"Then for Heaven's sake, man, write it up!"
"I'm longing to, but all I know he gave me in confidence and on condition that I didn't." I condensed into a few sentences the Professor's narrative. "That's how it stands."
McArdle looked deeply incredulous.
"Well, Mr. Malone," he said at last, "about this scientific meeting to-night; there can be no privacy about that, anyhow. I don't suppose any paper will want to report it, for Waldron has been reported already a dozen times, and no one is aware that Challenger will speak. We may get a scoop, if we are lucky. You'll be there in any case, so you'll just give us a pretty full report. I'll keep space up to midnight."
My day was a busy one, and I had an early dinner at the Savage Club with Tarp Henry, to whom I gave some account of my adventures. He listened with a sceptical smile on his gaunt face, and roared with laughter on hearing that the Professor had convinced me.
"My dear chap, things don't happen like that in real life. People don't stumble upon enormous discoveries and then lose their evidence. Leave that to the novelists. The fellow is as full of tricks as the monkey-house at the Zoo. It's all bosh."
"But the American poet?"
"He never existed."
"I saw his sketch-book."
"You think he drew that animal?"
"Of course he did. Who else?"
"Well, then, the photographs?"
"There was nothing in the photographs. By your own admission you only saw a bird."
"That's what HE says. He put the pterodactyl into your head."
"Well, then, the bones?"
"First one out of an Irish stew. Second one vamped up for the occasion. If you are clever and know your business you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph."
I began to feel uneasy. Perhaps, after all, I had been premature in my acquiescence. Then I had a sudden happy thought.
"Will you come to the meeting?" I asked.
Tarp Henry looked thoughtful.
"He is not a popular person, the genial Challenger," said he. "A lot of people have accounts to settle with him. I should say he is about the best-hated man in London. If the medical students turn out there will be no end of a rag. I don't want to get into a bear-garden."
"You might at least do him the justice to hear him state his own case."
"Well, perhaps it's only fair. All right. I'm your man for the evening."
When we arrived at the hall we found a much greater concourse than I had expected. A line of electric broughams discharged their little cargoes of white-bearded professors, while the dark stream of humbler pedestrians, who crowded through the arched door-way, showed that the audience would be popular as well as scientific. Indeed, it became evident to us as soon as we had taken our seats that a youthful and even boyish spirit was abroad in the gallery and the back portions of the hall. Looking behind me, I could see rows of faces of the familiar medical student type. Apparently the great hospitals had each sent down their contingent. The behavior of the audience at present was good-humored, but mischievous. Scraps of popular songs were chorused with an enthusiasm which was a strange prelude to a scientific lecture, and there was already a tendency to personal chaff which promised a jovial evening to others, however embarrassing it might be to the recipients of these dubious honors.
Thus, when old Doctor Meldrum, with his well-known curly-brimmed opera-hat, appeared upon the platform, there was such a universal query of "Where DID you get that tile?" that he hurriedly removed it, and concealed it furtively under his chair. When gouty Professor Wadley limped down to his seat there were general affectionate inquiries from all parts of the hall as to the exact state of his poor toe, which caused him obvious embarrassment. The greatest demonstration of all, however, was at the entrance of my new acquaintance, Professor Challenger, when he passed down to take his place at the extreme end of the front row of the platform. Such a yell of welcome broke forth when his black beard first protruded round the corner that I began to suspect Tarp Henry was right in his surmise, and that this assemblage was there not merely for the sake of the lecture, but because it had got rumored abroad that the famous Professor would take part in the proceedings.
There was some sympathetic laughter on his entrance among the front benches of well-dressed spectators, as though the demonstration of the students in this instance was not unwelcome to them. That greeting was, indeed, a frightful outburst of sound, the uproar of the carnivora cage when the step of the bucket-bearing keeper is heard in the distance. There was an offensive tone in it, perhaps, and yet in the main it struck me as mere riotous outcry, the noisy reception of one who amused and interested them, rather than of one they disliked or despised. Challenger smiled with weary and tolerant contempt, as a kindly man would meet the yapping of a litter of puppies. He sat slowly down, blew out his chest, passed his hand caressingly down his beard, and looked with drooping eyelids and supercilious eyes at the crowded hall before him. The uproar of his advent had not yet died away when Professor Ronald Murray, the chairman, and Mr. Waldron, the lecturer, threaded their way to the front, and the proceedings began.
Professor Murray will, I am sure, excuse me if I say that he has the common fault of most Englishmen of being inaudible. Why on earth people who have something to say which is worth hearing should not take the slight trouble to learn how to make it heard is one of the strange mysteries of modern life. Their methods are as reasonable as to try to pour some precious stuff from the spring to the reservoir through a non-conducting pipe, which could by the least effort be opened. Professor Murray made several profound remarks to his white tie and to the water-carafe upon the table, with a humorous, twinkling aside to the silver candlestick upon his right. Then he sat down, and Mr. Waldron, the famous popular lecturer, rose amid a general murmur of applause. He was a stern, gaunt man, with a harsh voice, and an aggressive manner, but he had the merit of knowing how to assimilate the ideas of other men, and to pass them on in a way which was intelligible and even interesting to the lay public, with a happy knack of being funny about the most unlikely objects, so that the precession of the Equinox or the formation of a vertebrate became a highly humorous process as treated by him.
It was a bird's-eye view of creation, as interpreted by science, which, in language always clear and sometimes picturesque, he unfolded before us. He told us of the globe, a huge mass of flaming gas, flaring through the heavens. Then he pictured the solidification, the cooling, the wrinkling which formed the mountains, the steam which turned to water, the slow preparation of the stage upon which was to be played the inexplicable drama of life. On the origin of life itself he was discreetly vague. That the germs of it could hardly have survived the original roasting was, he declared, fairly certain. Therefore it had come later. Had it built itself out of the cooling, inorganic elements of the globe? Very likely. Had the germs of it arrived from outside upon a meteor? It was hardly conceivable. On the whole, the wisest man was the least dogmatic upon the point. We could not—or at least we had not succeeded up to date in making organic life in our laboratories out of inorganic materials. The gulf between the dead and the living was something which our chemistry could not as yet bridge. But there was a higher and subtler chemistry of Nature, which, working with great forces over long epochs, might well produce results which were impossible for us. There the matter must be left.
This brought the lecturer to the great ladder of animal life, beginning low down in molluscs and feeble sea creatures, then up rung by rung through reptiles and fishes, till at last we came to a kangaroo-rat, a creature which brought forth its young alive, the direct ancestor of all mammals, and presumably, therefore, of everyone in the audience. ("No, no," from a sceptical student in the back row.) If the young gentleman in the red tie who cried "No, no," and who presumably claimed to have been hatched out of an egg, would wait upon him after the lecture, he would be glad to see such a curiosity. (Laughter.) It was strange to think that the climax of all the age-long process of Nature had been the creation of that gentleman in the red tie. But had the process stopped? Was this gentleman to be taken as the final type—the be-all and end-all of development? He hoped that he would not hurt the feelings of the gentleman in the red tie if he maintained that, whatever virtues that gentleman might possess in private life, still the vast processes of the universe were not fully justified if they were to end entirely in his production. Evolution was not a spent force, but one still working, and even greater achievements were in store.
Having thus, amid a general titter, played very prettily with his interrupter, the lecturer went back to his picture of the past, the drying of the seas, the emergence of the sand-bank, the sluggish, viscous life which lay upon their margins, the overcrowded lagoons, the tendency of the sea creatures to take refuge upon the mud-flats, the abundance of food awaiting them, their consequent enormous growth. "Hence, ladies and gentlemen," he added, "that frightful brood of saurians which still affright our eyes when seen in the Wealden or in the Solenhofen slates, but which were fortunately extinct long before the first appearance of mankind upon this planet."
"Question!" boomed a voice from the platform.
Mr. Waldron was a strict disciplinarian with a gift of acid humor, as exemplified upon the gentleman with the red tie, which made it perilous to interrupt him. But this interjection appeared to him so absurd that he was at a loss how to deal with it. So looks the Shakespearean who is confronted by a rancid Baconian, or the astronomer who is assailed by a flat-earth fanatic. He paused for a moment, and then, raising his voice, repeated slowly the words: "Which were extinct before the coming of man."
"Question!" boomed the voice once more.
Waldron looked with amazement along the line of professors upon the platform until his eyes fell upon the figure of Challenger, who leaned back in his chair with closed eyes and an amused expression, as if he were smiling in his sleep.
"I see!" said Waldron, with a shrug. "It is my friend Professor Challenger," and amid laughter he renewed his lecture as if this was a final explanation and no more need be said.
But the incident was far from being closed. Whatever path the lecturer took amid the wilds of the past seemed invariably to lead him to some assertion as to extinct or prehistoric life which instantly brought the same bulls' bellow from the Professor. The audience began to anticipate it and to roar with delight when it came. The packed benches of students joined in, and every time Challenger's beard opened, before any sound could come forth, there was a yell of "Question!" from a hundred voices, and an answering counter cry of "Order!" and "Shame!" from as many more. Waldron, though a hardened lecturer and a strong man, became rattled. He hesitated, stammered, repeated himself, got snarled in a long sentence, and finally turned furiously upon the cause of his troubles.
"This is really intolerable!" he cried, glaring across the platform. "I must ask you, Professor Challenger, to cease these ignorant and unmannerly interruptions."
There was a hush over the hall, the students rigid with delight at seeing the high gods on Olympus quarrelling among themselves. Challenger levered his bulky figure slowly out of his chair.
"I must in turn ask you, Mr. Waldron," he said, "to cease to make assertions which are not in strict accordance with scientific fact."
The words unloosed a tempest. "Shame! Shame!" "Give him a hearing!" "Put him out!" "Shove him off the platform!" "Fair play!" emerged from a general roar of amusement or execration. The chairman was on his feet flapping both his hands and bleating excitedly. "Professor Challenger—personal—views—later," were the solid peaks above his clouds of inaudible mutter. The interrupter bowed, smiled, stroked his beard, and relapsed into his chair. Waldron, very flushed and warlike, continued his observations. Now and then, as he made an assertion, he shot a venomous glance at his opponent, who seemed to be slumbering deeply, with the same broad, happy smile upon his face.
At last the lecture came to an end—I am inclined to think that it was a premature one, as the peroration was hurried and disconnected. The thread of the argument had been rudely broken, and the audience was restless and expectant. Waldron sat down, and, after a chirrup from the chairman, Professor Challenger rose and advanced to the edge of the platform. In the interests of my paper I took down his speech verbatim.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," he began, amid a sustained interruption from the back. "I beg pardon—Ladies, Gentlemen, and Children—I must apologize, I had inadvertently omitted a considerable section of this audience" (tumult, during which the Professor stood with one hand raised and his enormous head nodding sympathetically, as if he were bestowing a pontifical blessing upon the crowd), "I have been selected to move a vote of thanks to Mr. Waldron for the very picturesque and imaginative address to which we have just listened. There are points in it with which I disagree, and it has been my duty to indicate them as they arose, but, none the less, Mr. Waldron has accomplished his object well, that object being to give a simple and interesting account of what he conceives to have been the history of our planet. Popular lectures are the easiest to listen to, but Mr. Waldron" (here he beamed and blinked at the lecturer) "will excuse me when I say that they are necessarily both superficial and misleading, since they have to be graded to the comprehension of an ignorant audience." (Ironical cheering.) "Popular lecturers are in their nature parasitic." (Angry gesture of protest from Mr. Waldron.) "They exploit for fame or cash the work which has been done by their indigent and unknown brethren. One smallest new fact obtained in the laboratory, one brick built into the temple of science, far outweighs any second-hand exposition which passes an idle hour, but can leave no useful result behind it. I put forward this obvious reflection, not out of any desire to disparage Mr. Waldron in particular, but that you may not lose your sense of proportion and mistake the acolyte for the high priest." (At this point Mr. Waldron whispered to the chairman, who half rose and said something severely to his water-carafe.) "But enough of this!" (Loud and prolonged cheers.) "Let me pass to some subject of wider interest. What is the particular point upon which I, as an original investigator, have challenged our lecturer's accuracy? It is upon the permanence of certain types of animal life upon the earth. I do not speak upon this subject as an amateur, nor, I may add, as a popular lecturer, but I speak as one whose scientific conscience compels him to adhere closely to facts, when I say that Mr. Waldron is very wrong in supposing that because he has never himself seen a so-called prehistoric animal, therefore these creatures no longer exist. They are indeed, as he has said, our ancestors, but they are, if I may use the expression, our contemporary ancestors, who can still be found with all their hideous and formidable characteristics if one has but the energy and hardihood to seek their haunts. Creatures which were supposed to be Jurassic, monsters who would hunt down and devour our largest and fiercest mammals, still exist." (Cries of "Bosh!" "Prove it!" "How do YOU know?" "Question!") "How do I know, you ask me? I know because I have visited their secret haunts. I know because I have seen some of them." (Applause, uproar, and a voice, "Liar!") "Am I a liar?" (General hearty and noisy assent.) "Did I hear someone say that I was a liar? Will the person who called me a liar kindly stand up that I may know him?" (A voice, "Here he is, sir!" and an inoffensive little person in spectacles, struggling violently, was held up among a group of students.) "Did you venture to call me a liar?" ("No, sir, no!" shouted the accused, and disappeared like a jack-in-the-box.) "If any person in this hall dares to doubt my veracity, I shall be glad to have a few words with him after the lecture." ("Liar!") "Who said that?" (Again the inoffensive one plunging desperately, was elevated high into the air.) "If I come down among you——" (General chorus of "Come, love, come!" which interrupted the proceedings for some moments, while the chairman, standing up and waving both his arms, seemed to be conducting the music. The Professor, with his face flushed, his nostrils dilated, and his beard bristling, was now in a proper Berserk mood.) "Every great discoverer has been met with the same incredulity—the sure brand of a generation of fools. When great facts are laid before you, you have not the intuition, the imagination which would help you to understand them. You can only throw mud at the men who have risked their lives to open new fields to science. You persecute the prophets! Galileo! Darwin, and I——" (Prolonged cheering and complete interruption.)
All this is from my hurried notes taken at the time, which give little notion of the absolute chaos to which the assembly had by this time been reduced. So terrific was the uproar that several ladies had already beaten a hurried retreat. Grave and reverend seniors seemed to have caught the prevailing spirit as badly as the students, and I saw white-bearded men rising and shaking their fists at the obdurate Professor. The whole great audience seethed and simmered like a boiling pot. The Professor took a step forward and raised both his hands. There was something so big and arresting and virile in the man that the clatter and shouting died gradually away before his commanding gesture and his masterful eyes. He seemed to have a definite message. They hushed to hear it.
"I will not detain you," he said. "It is not worth it. Truth is truth, and the noise of a number of foolish young men—and, I fear I must add, of their equally foolish seniors—cannot affect the matter. I claim that I have opened a new field of science. You dispute it." (Cheers.) "Then I put you to the test. Will you accredit one or more of your own number to go out as your representatives and test my statement in your name?"
Mr. Summerlee, the veteran Professor of Comparative Anatomy, rose among the audience, a tall, thin, bitter man, with the withered aspect of a theologian. He wished, he said, to ask Professor Challenger whether the results to which he had alluded in his remarks had been obtained during a journey to the headwaters of the Amazon made by him two years before.
Professor Challenger answered that they had.
Mr. Summerlee desired to know how it was that Professor Challenger claimed to have made discoveries in those regions which had been overlooked by Wallace, Bates, and other previous explorers of established scientific repute.
Full character profile for Conan as chronicled in his Marvel Comics adventures. His craft, however, was seized on the western Ocean by the Black Corsairs of Conan soon deserted for lack of battle and joined fellow ex-pirate Valeria of the . As a Cimmerian he was born with bleak skin color, but many years under the.
AkishoDecember 10, 2018 4:10 AM
I sympathise with you.
TojallDecember 07, 2018 3:26 AM
It is a pity, that now I can not express - I hurry up on job. I will return - I will necessarily express the opinion on this question.
VoodoojinDecember 07, 2018 4:01 PM
I can not participate now in discussion - it is very occupied. But I will return - I will necessarily write that I think.