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‘Hell Gapes for Him’
The Scarlet Citadel by Robert E. Howard
Previously published as ‘Ferocious Satisfaction,’ revised with DL.
The Scarlet Citadel consists of five chapters, each framed in verse, credited as old ballads or from The Road of Kings, the document containing the hero cycles of which Conan’s story would have been part of in Howard’s mythical Hyborean Age. The story, including the plot is eliminated in these ballads, which would have been the bare bones of the plot for poems recited in a culture that preserved the doings of their heroes in an oral tradition. The text itself is a prose rendering of a poetic hero tale. Howard used this device with Queen of the Black Coast as well, which appears to be the next story which appears in this series. But here, in The Scarlet Citadel, it works better, being an improvement on this device used in The Phoenix on the Sword.
Amongst all fantasy writers including Tolkien, Howard has written the best developed characters of the sorcerer type and has written the most. Howard is thought of in terms of the sword-wielding action character who made the covers of the paperbacks, and secondly, of the scantily clad slave girls often at his knee as he battled some horror. But Conan and the rest of the Howard pantheon of heroes could only be as dynamic as the villain was diabolic. In a story, unsold in Howard’s lifetime and eventually published in Marchers of Valhalla, an entire book of dark, unsold tales, Howard first worked out what would be the core of the sorcerous personage, in the form of an ancient Yogi who befriends a young English woman in India. That story will be reviewed later in this volume. For now, suffice it to say that Howard’s idea of a sorcerer was of a character with the force of will to directly affect the will of others without physical contact. Such characters may have employed spells of the type depicted in most fantasy fiction but rarely as often relying on tricks of science and use of poisons. One of the few scenes of the Conan movies that was true to this was the one in which the sorcerer, played by James Earl Jones, asked the person standing on a height above him to come here, and they jumped to their death. The grand master of the Hashishans at Alamut in Persia supposedly exhibited this power to a visiting westerner. This might have been the source for Howard’s idea of the suggestive villain, as in this phase of his career he was involved in writing oriental adventures.
In The Scarlet Citadel, we have not one of these diabolical fiends, but two—Tsotha-Lanti and Pelias. Tsotha-Lanti is the fiend who flays slave girls to make the pages and bindings of his books, and Pelias is something worse. In response to Conan’s query, as to why a giant monster would back away from the unarmed Pelias, the sorcerer said, “You see my fleshly guise; he saw my naked soul.”
And so Conan stumbles into a feud between two evil sorcerers—enjoy and try not to be disturbed by the naked slave boys.
In this story, King Conan’s small army had been “swept into eternity,” betrayed by his allies who had lured him to a distant battlefield with only his personal bodyguard at the behest of the unholy sorcerer of Koth, Tsotha-Lanti.
“It took seven years and stacks of gold to train each and there they lie—kite’s meat!” Said the king of Koth as Conan stood on the neck of one of his knights, the ground around him piled high with the dead he had heaped there.
A typical manipulative villain, Tsotha-Lanti, the sorcerer, wants Conan for a captive pet, to hold his puppet kings in check, which permits Howard a chance to sketch the nastiest dungeon in fiction. The sorcerer fells Conan with a touch and says, “The lion’s fangs are drawn,” and has Conan weighted in chains and carted off in the back of a chariot.
This sorcerer, “Who is greater than any king,” is for Howard, an allegory for the international bankers who had the power to bring down nations. In our day, as our economies lie captive before the machinations of global financiers, The Scarlet Citadel strikes a keen note.
“Over all brooded the Citadel,” for although Koth was a kingdom, the temples of its gods and the palace of its king were squat and tiny beneath the shadow of The Scarlet Citadel of the sorcerer, which gives away Howard’s mark, with the sorcerer’s tower obviously standing in for the investment banker’s sky scraper, that had risen in Howard’s youth, and from where manipulative men brought destruction on the American economy when he was about thirty.
“You and that black-faced pig beside you!” roared Conan at his captors. He then goes on to make a populist case for low taxation while he castigates the conspirator kings who stood among their naked slave boys.
“Free my hands and I’ll varnish this floor with your brains!” he snarls, and then declines to betray his people by joining the conspiracy and is hauled off to the sorcerer’s dungeon.
Conan cursed his vulture-like captive and soon gets to curse the black jailor and experience the full horrors of the dungeon, which, in this reader’s mind, served for Howard as the twisted avarice-driven logic of the fiends who bought and sold kings and harvested their subjects like so much grain. A sorcerer, with a tower in one nation, collects slave kings under his spell in his quest to feed off of the entire human race like some great soul-eating fiend.
“Men and women were to the wizard no more than the insect is to the scientist,” and Conan was driven mad by the prospect of his slave girls’ pearly white skin being flayed by the sorcerer for the parchment pages of his damned books.
The dungeon is run exclusively by black men, one of whom owes a vendetta for Conan killing his brother in the black kingdoms [which happened in Conan’s past, but in a story yet to be written, in Queen of the Black Coast. Howard’s ability to express a narrative chronology yet writing outside of chronological bounds was impressive]. Their conversation, as Conan is chained and the black jailer torments him, is one of the most savage verbal exchanges in fiction, with tribal hatreds flaming bright. Howard takes one swipe at the materialism then engulfing white America when he puts searing words into the black jailor’s mouth, that are too good to give away here.
Beyond that, Conan serves as the reader’s startled guide through the bowels of human society, the sullied abode from which the workings of civilization are controlled by the puppet masters that rule kings and lesser politicians as if they were pet monkeys. The horrific aspects of the story hinge on the precipice between sanity and insanity and finds its ultimate expression in the person of an evil flower, a flower with a name.
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