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‘On Blue Seas or Red’
Iron Shadows in the Moon by Robert E. Howard
Originally published in 2014 as ‘Pariahs, Wanderers of the Earth,’ revised with additional commentary.
First published in Weird Tales, April 1934, reviewed from the Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, illustrated by Mark Schultz, 2002, Del Rey, NY, pages 187-216
The illustrations for this story, of Olivia, the female protagonist through whom we see Conan, are softly done and compelling.
It was not until I began reviewing fiction that I realized that Howard specialized in the novelette, which, as a writer, is my most comfortable length. Given his influence on my outlook I suppose he probably affected my story-length bias as well. Iron Shadows in the Moon is a shorter novelette of 4 chapters, the last being very brief.
It is fascinating—more than it is interesting—to reread fiction that impressed me as a youth. With the Conan material I have done this about every ten years, and have pretty much read the entire series once in the middle of every decade beginning with the 1970s. As I work through this Del Rey compilation of Howard’s work I have often wondered what I would think about my most recent reading of my once favorite Conan tale, as it was always my favorite as a teen. On my grading scale you might guess that four is as low as I go for a Robert E. Howard Conan story, with at least one story [Tower of the Elephant] scoring a six out of five.
Iron Shadows in the Moon starts out with a bang, keeps pace, spreads horrific peril out, and shares some narrative elements with Queen of the Black Coast, seems to derive the inspiration for its characterization from the rejected Vale of Lost Women—Livia having become Olivia—and some material elements with Rogues in the House. Having also recently reviewed The Vale of Lost Women—also written about the same time [all four tales within 3 months]—I think that Iron Shadows in the Moon might be Howard’s answer to these other three: back story for Rogues in the House, a way to put Queen of the Black Coast to rest, and perhaps an answer to selling the concepts in Vale. As far as Conan’s relationship with his leading ladies this story comes off as a compromise between Queen and Vale.
Iron Shadows in the Moon begins with one of the best vengeance scenes in fiction. Early on I was tempted to title this review ‘The Devils of Vengeance’ or ‘Oh, Gods of Hell’. After this opening scene the story turns to one of a man and woman, outcast on a lonely sea—which is never-the-less circumscribed, as it is a lake within an enemy empire whose army has just slaughtered all of Conan’s brethren, and who Conan has just deprived of one of its leading princes in a most brutal fashion. This is about being alone and wandering within and against an oppressive nation—another Depression Era outlaw tale dressed up as horrific fantasy. Nearly half of the Conan stories are such tales of raging alienation.
The story has a likable cast of disgusting pirates who are maimed in many creatively brutal ways by the various evil governments they have escaped from and to whom they are criminals. There is an excellent natural monster that I will not spoil for you if you have not read it, along with another supernatural horror that is pure Howard in his use of a character’s dream sequence to expose the nature of the horror. In the penultimate supernatural scene—in which, like in many Conan tales, the dreamer is treated to the dream of a god—Howard leans on the mythos of ancient Greece and invokes Helios Apollo.
In essence—and in terms of this minor story's importance to the investigation of Aryan mysticism in the early 20th Century—Iron Shadows in the Moon is the title; the iron representing the strength of the seer's ancestral bond, the shadows couching his revelations in dream, and the moon, as ever, representing the reflective withering face of ages of mothering civilization leering down on the bound promethean figure of Western Man crippled by his own ascent from the primal form. All of these elements are given story-life in the hands of Howard, who, it would appear, felt himself embodied—more than was usual—in the tenor of this tale of bloody-handed alienation.
When reviewing The Vale of Lost Women, Victoria [a screen writer and novelist who was my partner for these early Conan reviews] was convinced that that story was, or should have been, a draft for something larger. What I do think, after reading Iron Shadows in the Moon, with its pretty realistic and psychologically balanced female companion Olivia, who had a very similar back-story to Livia in Vale of Lost Women, but was more assertive, is that this is the story that Howard wrote in response to Vale being rejected. I have done this, rather than do a rewrite, by taking the elements that worked for the editor and using them in a different story. The thing that really works for Howard in both stories is writing it from the viewpoint of the relatively helpless female character. In Shadows though, Conan is not nearly as morally compromised as he is in Vale, which I have suggested is the reason for it not being published, just as The Frost Giant’s Daughter was not published because of Conan’s callous treatment of Atali.
That said, I like the other tales better. The pirate aspect loses something without Belit’s psychopathy, even as the female viewpoint becomes less shocking with Conan toned down from savage warlord to bandit chief and pirate captain. Indeed, the Conan that we see at the beginning of this story is the Conan that we see all through Vale—the remorseless savage chopping men into blood pudding.
Still, Iron Shadows in the Moon is an appealing tale of alienation; an alienation fantasy really, when soft civilized Olivia, discarded by her rich father for refusing an arranged marriage, says to Conan, “You are a barbarian, and I am an outcast, denied by my people. We are both pariahs, wanderers of the earth.”
On one hand Olivia is not the cringing Livia, and on the other she is not the raging Belit. She is a realistic woman in a shit situation, a situation that gives an outcast man a chance to be accepted by her. Now I understand what I liked about this story so much as a youth, a boy who was winning fights, but not winning any smiles. Iron Shadows in the Moon was a lonely man’s fantasy about meeting a woman, as outcast as he, and, as a lonely boy, it struck quite a chord in me.
Had I been titling the chapters to this utterly dreamlike fantasy grounded in the evil tgat brutal men do, the chapter headings would have read:
1. The Horror of Your Aspect”
2. Mad Pranks of Fate
3. The Red Heart of Night
4. Queen of the Blue Sea
If ever Howard is seriously—rather than off-handedly—accused of misogyny, Iron Shadows in
the Moon should be used to prove that Howard held women in a deep empathetic place in his soul. This is not even Conan’s story, but Olivia’s great adventure. As for the racial aspect, the pirates are decided multiethnic and the black demons are of a non-Negroid race—explicitly stated.
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