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‘So Inhumanly Beautiful’
The God in the Bowl by Robert E. Howard
Previously posted as ‘Death in a Lonely Place at Midnight,’ revised with the advice of Danica Lorincz
Written in 1932 or 33, first published in The Tower of the Elephant in 1975, and comprising pages 41-58 in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Del Rey, 2002.
The God in the Bowl has always been one of my favorite Conan stories. Conan as a young defiant thief getting caught up in a murder investigation, and implicated by his sense of honor, appealed to me greatly as a boy. I like it a little less than I did as a teenager, but it still has much appeal. The God in the Bowl is an overtly modern “who done it” tale, set in an ancient, god-haunted world.
Atmospherically speaking The God in the Bowl is classic Howard. To me it seems more like a supernatural crime story, as if some big hillbilly who had landed in New York had been hired to steal a museum piece, and ended up caught up in a murder mystery. This is the most heavily dependent upon dialogue of any Conan story I can recall. The action is slim, tight, and not in the least gratuitous. The entire story is a morality tale, in which Conan, an uncouth outsider, clings to his moral absolutes even as all of the various civic functionaries, from night watchman to inquisitor, sell out, one by one, before the unfurling corruption of their toxic society.
Howard’s resentment of the wealthy elite is strong in this piece, as is his hatred of corrupt police and “the good old boy network” of prepositioned nepotists. The supporting cast is well done, with characters hostile, neutral, and sympathetic to Conan’s plight. The story is set in the shadowy, nighted museum of a rich aristocrat. The characters are all male and represent every segment of society except royalty. There is even a slave, a charioteer. The tone of the dialogue is best reflected in the following line uttered by Dionus, a cruel, burley guardsmen who has already tortured one cringing fellow, “Remember the law, my black-haired savage—you go to the mines for killing a commoner, you hang for killing a tradesman, and for murdering a rich man, you burn!”
The story is made complete—and it is a shame that it was not part of the original series—because the lurking sorcerer of Stygia, Toth-Amon, a villain from the first Conan story, Phoenix on the Sword, has a hand in the horror. The God in the Bowl is Howard's most socially conscious Conan story, written with a seething anger at the perennial political order of Civilized Man.
One by one, the various actors in the morality play use every ruse of civilized status gaming, with guile, brutality, tripwire semantics, affectation, hereditary social stature and the one human attribute invented by civilized man—the bold-faced lie in the face of known truth—all failing to save them from their own cupidity and the horror that lurks in the museum. Although Conan’s trustworthy instincts and direct honesty fail him in dealing with the evil of civic man, his combative prowess and his commitment to being true to his own nature preserve him in the face of hierarchal wrath and one of Howard’s most finely-wrought horrific beings:
“…it must be perfect, he thought, since the face was so inhumanly beautiful. But he could see only the god-like face, the finely molded head which swayed curiously from side to side. The full lips opened and spoke a single word, in a rich vibrant tone that was like the golden chimes that ring in the jungle-lost temples of Khitai. It was an unknown tongue, forgotten before the kingdoms of man arose, but Conan knew it meant, “’Come!’”
The God in the Bowl was a good story, a satisfying adventure with moral substance. One might fault Howard’s editor for rejecting it. However, in The God in the Bowl, one sees clearly the seeds for the next story in the collection—apparently the very next Conan tale Howard wrote—The Tower of the Elephant, which may very well be the best fantasy story ever written. His editor knew Howard could do better with a thief’s tale and he did. If Howard would have sold The God in the Bowl, would he have still written The Tower of the Elephant?
Perhaps, even probably. But would he have written it from the viewpoint of such a humble Conan, with such a fusion of alienation and empathy?
A Well of Heroes
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