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The Mesmerist
The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard
First published in Weird Tales, September, October and November, 1934. Reading from The Bloody Crown of Conan by Del Rey, 2003, pages 1-79.
I regard The People of the Black Circle as Howard's most telling exploration of his "barbarism versus civilization" theme and have chosen to place this, the feature review of Volume Two, in the Barbarism section.
In People of the Black Circle, Robert E. Howard was dominating Weird Tales magazine for three issues in a row with this novella. This marks his peak as a pulp writer and in my opinion, The People of the Black Circle is his best plotted story. All the elements that make a Conan story are in this tale. Each of the 10 chapters will be reviewed separately for A Well of Heroes, Part II.
Conan reprises his role as an Aryan interloper in an exotic setting which occupies the bulk of the Conan stories. This is Howard’s most in depth explanation of sorcery with civilization depicted as being at the mercy of forces it cannot comprehend. Howard’s barbarism vs. civilization theme is explored most strongly here, of all the Conan tales, as the Devi Yasmina must reach out to a barbarian—an outsider—to go where no civilized man can go.
Yasmina is the strongest and most complex female character that Howard has written. What is more, Yasmina is among Howard’s more normal female characters. She’s not a prostitute, dancing girl, amazon, or psychotic pirate queen; she represents the mainstream society of the setting who was beset by dangers both understandable and mysterious, making her an ideal character from which to view the horrors which Howard presents, for by this time in the cycle, there’s no doubt in the reader’s mind that Conan’s going to kick the shit out of whatever evil raises its head.
Khemsa, the mesmerist, and his conniving love interest, represent the story thread that makes The People of the Black Circle Howard’s most complex tale, having a full-blown subplot featuring willful characters possessed of a purpose that is not aligned with either of the major parties.
This story of sorcery and swordsmen represents an expansion of the concept that Howard explored in The Scarlet Citadel, in which sorcery fulfills the geopolitical role that espionage serves in the modern world. In both stories, nations rise and fall based on a combination of sorcery and martial prowess. This type of story, while done with the greatest depth and sophistication in The People of the Black Circle, would be supercharged in The Hour of the Dragon in the following year, Howard’s lone serialized novel. There are many things in The Hour of the Dragon that prefigure The Lord of the Rings, and in this tale of adventure set in antediluvian India, we see the author develop all of the techniques required for that effort.
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