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‘Poisoned Honey in the Darkness’
Xuthal of The Dusk by Robert E. Howard
Previously titled ‘Seas of Cosmic Filth,’ rewritten with Danica Lorincz
First published in Weird Tales in September 1933 as The Slithering Shadow. This reading is taken from the Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, pages 219 to 247, with five illustrations by Mark Schultz.
Mark’s illustrations evoke the dreamy quality of the story. His rendering of Natala brings to mind Frazetta’s Conan babes from the 12 issue paperback series that I read as a boy.
In yet another early 1933/34 tale of the fanciful Hyborian Age and his barbarian hero, Howard has Conan begin an adventure as the last survivor of a defeated army that had been betrayed. Taking into account the rape of the nation’s economy by the financial class [which I think inspired Howard's image of conniving sorcerers], and the fact that striking union men and out-of-work veterans had been attacked and crushed repeatedly by the U.S military in recent years, I cannot help but think this story might have been inspired by the lingering frustration over America's senseless commitment to World War I and the fact that veterans had still not been paid 15 and more years later.
In 1933-34 Howard was all over the place with his female characters: Belit, the she-devil pirate, Olivia, the fallen and conflicted noble woman, and poor timid Livia, the abducted sex slave. Natala, Conan’s steady camp girl, falls somewhere between Livia and Olivia in terms of assertiveness. She is, a girl. She is also realistically portrayed as being both heavily dependent on and jealous of Conan, who is soon the object of a bewitching seductresses’ lust. Natala is not just a helpless sex kitten, but a realistic companion. [DL: The familiar repartee between them illustrates comfort and the ability to speak and move on, which only comes with time and a few flashes of anger and tears respectively. I found it refreshingly familiar and hilarious, particularly when Conan, completely frustrated with Natala, swears in Cimmerian.]
Howard uses perspective shifts more deftly in this story than in his other offerings for this year. Being a short novelette, Xuthal of the Dusk is his ideal length and never drags. Howard’s pacing was so much better than other fantasy writers. He was a brutally concise alternative to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Howard was considered the hack of the two. But his stuff holds up better going on a century later.
As with most of Howard’s Conan tales this one is redolent with creeping menace. Natala is fearful of Xuthal from the outset. “Is it a city, Conan?” She whispered, too fearful to hope. “Or is it but a shadow?” [DL: And after entering and taking food and drink, she urges Conan to let them leave—her intuition strong—she feels the evil of the place more clearly.]
Conan is less circumspect with his opinions of the sleeping city in the desert, with comments such as, “this devil-haunted pile” and “damned degenerates!” [DL: Unfortunately, he is less ready to leave before a little exploration, and when he does, it is too late…and that’s what makes the story and this female reader’s head nod affirmatively at Natala’s observations.]
When the decadent inhabitants of this lost city finally succeed in separating Natala from Conan, he goes on a four-page rampage. If once in film, someone would film a running fight like this maniacal masterpiece for an action movie, I would be thrilled. The scenes in which Conan runs after and from people at the same time while he is slaughtering them with a saber reads like it should be directed by whoever did the Bourne series. [DL: All in all, Conan’s singing blade gets a helluva workout and Conan will end up in the worst shape yet, wounded by supernatural poisons and covered in gashes and hanging lacerations, in which Natala’s care and wit will be instrumental to his cure.]
There is still horror ahead for Conan, and he faces the toughest monster Howard had yet set before him. [DL: References to hell abound, far beyond Conan’s usual humorous quips to his victims before he kills them.] In the meantime, Natala is being sexually tortured by the evil Stygian beauty, Thalis, who should have been paired off in catfight against Belit—and there remain clumsier, ‘city-bred’ swordsmen for Conan to cleave through. [DL: Evil Thalis is true to form if you’ve read about the Hot-Crazy Matrix [1]—the greater the beauty, the bigger the bitch—as she has been easily able to use her effect to get her way.]
In terms of Howard's broadest and deepest themes, racial memory, and the evils of civilization, Xuthal of the Dusk is pregnant with both. Not only are the citizens of this lost city degenerates and sex fiends, but they loll away their dreamy lives in a drugged stupor, reasoning this to be compensation for the horror that eventually comes for them all in the night: the shadowy, slithering, all-consuming menace that their false city is built upon, and for which this lost race of "damned degenerates" are nothing but food—their vaunted city a sacrificial pen for the tranquilized lives necessary to feed a deeply buried lie.
Notes
The Hyborian Age by Binary Nightmare
I was unable to find an audio book for this story. However, Illustrations dealing with this story are found at the following times in the linked video:
0:5 the ace cover by Frank Frazetta of Conan and Natalia in the desert before Xuthal
1:50 Conan fights the Demon-God of Xuthal, an obvious borrowing from H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu mythos. The battle is depicted in two following illustrations.
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