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‘What Do You Mean by Peril?’
Experiential Impressions of Man Eaters of Zamboula, Also Published as Shadows in Zamboula by Robert E. Howard


From 1981 through 2017 I walked the nighttime streets of Baltimore, one of our darkest and more dangerous cities. In so doing, facing hundreds of attacks and threats from police, beasts, blacks, Latinos [only 2] and whites, I have often slipped into dark reverie when listening to or reading Man Eaters of Zamboula, in which the hero faces all of these perils which I faced as a masculine fraction of Howard’s larger than life protagonist. Having previously reviewed this story from a literary vantage, I now consider it from the vantage of my ghostly self, the part of me who now fades into the catacombs of the mind as the peril that made him who he was—for better or worse—no longer animates him come night.

Let’s consider this true-to-life adventure experientially.

At the bottom of the page is a nice review of Man Eaters of Zamboula by Jason Aiken, where he places due emphasis on The Strangler Baal Pteor.

Postmodern Urban Impressions

Welcome to a world of vicious misadventure, where the men of Darfar are slaves by day and savage hunters by night.

“What Do You Mean by Peril?” inquired Conan pointedly.

Dozens of times have I had smaller, older, weaker, wiser men counsel me on danger at bus stops, often with the aim of keeping me close by for their own purpose but sometimes out of genuine concern. My response was often cruel and abrasive, especially in my youth, bristling at the implication of me fearing the men who hunted me. When I hired on to work three buses across town by night, I had a Baltimore County Cop tell me that I was doomed, that I would be mugged out in Middlesex when they noted I was an outsider. In response I packed a large fighting knife and went out every night as if to war. I was in my 30th year.

“Conan pulled his eyes back from following a bold-eyed, red-lipped Ganara, whose short skirt showed her brown thigh at every insolent step.”

When surrounded by strange men attempting to intimidate I have never felt more alive than when a desirable member of their female stock is within sight. I found early on, that silent admiration of such exotic wenches served a double message to the ebony hunters, who alternately hunted and feared me in their dim minds, my approval of their women demonstrating that I did not fear them, nor did I hate their kind, taking away justification for hate-based attacks against me and replacing that with a nagging doubt.

“Because his score is less than that of the other taverns.”

Many times have I been warned not to eat or drink at the bars priced for my income level, for the men are harder and more desperate therein. Many times did I smolder hatefully within at the implication that I was softer and less desperate than they.

“In this accursed city...”

The lethality of Baltimore has ever been held over my head by kin and friend as a symbol of my unbelonging—but never have I belonged and dissuasion failed ever to take hold.

“The people of the city...care not for the strangers that fall into his hands...”

And so the sissy white elite of Baltimore has looked upon my pale working kind as expendably undesirable since my coming into this place and on occasion I took deep satisfaction in terrorizing their criminal pets let loose at night to sweep white niggers like me into the Forgotten.

“Yonder comes a squad of the city watch...”

The intense jealousy of proxy enforcers for the lone and unafraid man is archetypically etched into my mind’s eye, for the 28 times I have been the target of their unresolved ire. So often I wished I were a Conan-type, who would glare back rather than cloak myself in meek wise as I have mostly done to my long embitterment. In the face of the police I have been caught less close to the baleful Conan than to the furtive tribesman who skulked away at the end of this scene.

“With a hill man’s stride...”

On coming to this city of sloth I soon found that only I walked, that all else skulked, waited, hitched and drove, that by simply walking along, as most of humanity has done for eons, I was somehow set apart from much of the trouble that engulfed more menacing men.

“...remembering their ancient glories.”

The sentinel-like black men of wisdom, like the Stygians of Conan’s world, often cast knowing glances my way, a malediction of sorts of which I have always felt proud.

“...the last occupied house on the street...”

An oh so common sight in nighted Baltimore, which has played silent host to between 20,000 and 50,000 vacant houses for my entire adult stay here—all such houses giving off a note of melancholy magic by day or night. The absence of homeless men in the doorways of such places is a stark sign of rampant predation.

“Open, blast you...”

Seven times I have been newly hired by day to appear by night at a darkened city supermarket, the door jealously guarded by a man of no greater consequence than the key in his hand, looking upon me at first as an enemy, appearing out of the dark dressed more like a bum than clerk.

“...where great pale blossoms nodded in starlight...”

In Baltimore the night flowers are pale, nodding by streetlight from signpost, curb and sewer grate, pallid plastic bags discarded by day, waving in the breeze by night.

“Across which a heavy iron bar rested...”

Every grocery story I have worked had back doors, opening on an unlit lot of asphalt, barred with great steel pipes, blocking entry from the fiends without. In many cases a night crew was employed to keep the locals from taking sledge and maul to the cinderblock walls between doors and making their pillage portal in that way. My boss once wielded such a pipe in defense, his head split by two midnight skulkers.

“Your bolts and bars are strong, but I always sleep with steel by my side.”

New to Baltimore, so I slept, in Ron Bone’s open apartment, where his toddies came to pay homage to him at all hours, where drinking was strong until near dawn and I slept with my bowie knife on the couch of the one common room, just below the ceiling of smoke hung low for want of a clear chimney.

“Looking down the road to where it vanished in the dense palms...”

Likewise, from under a scores of streetlights, I have looked down an empty, nighted road in anticipation of either good or evil, the bus to carpet me away or the enemies to leave me lay.

“A drum began...”

Countless times have I stood in the paved grey night, entranced by a deep, distant drum beat, emanating from a sleek black vehicle, facelessly waiting for a deeper stroke of night.

“He sank into slumber...”

As have I, stretched out on rocking bus benches on many a night, sleeping drowsily in the dark place of my undoing, attuned to the scrape of heel, the slap of sneaker, the sharp swish of sleeve against coat...

“He did not wake as civilized men do...”

So I have often woke on bus and against light pole, or back to brick, with too little distance between the light sleep of such a moment and the act of waking to emerge groggy.

“A vague misshapen bulk...”

Almost a year ago, in the predawn hours, such a giant black man skulked upon me, dragging his great hunched bulk toward me, bent on my undoing. The style of knit hat often favored by such street hunters by night mimics somewhat the dressed wool of the night skulker come upon the hero in the night.

“His sword met and clove through flesh and bone...”

I cleaved a man like so, just into my 18th year and recall the feeling of scraping bone and clutching flesh—a moment that has often risen to strengthen me in weak moments.

From the moment when Conan cleaves the first Man Eater I am carried way on the wings of the man I wished I could have been, the uncompromising hero, never personified by myself, but expressed at times in the persons of more elemental men in my life: Banno, Dante Justine, Duncan and Big Ron, the closest men to a Conan I have known in these wicked times.

“Feared winged the black feet.”

I have known and do savor still the fleeing of numerous ebony enemies who have menaced me and have found cause to turn and run from the white devil kin of their darkest myths—dozens of such have run from stick, blade and gun come, sometimes coolly, sometimes hotly, to hand.

From this point in the story hence, halfway through the second of five chapters, “as a group of Negroes” skulked by, the half-extinct reader becomes lost on dark-winged words and wants only to read about my city, to float along the streets of the hateful maze, where are penned up pale cattle, where I am set upon by ebony enforcers, my city, the place where I became a man, here at the end of my Kind’s Time, where the weird drug-addicted gleam of my kind’s eyes set upon me at night even as we are hunted by more primal foes through the iniquitous warren where our lives are spent by little understood forces.

“You are a man,” said the dancing girl.

This is all the spark a man needs to rise against his betters and their feral abettors, in this centuries old city, the cemetery of this unrepentant soul.

Add Comment
Mescaline FranklinJanuary 7, 2018 9:18 PM GMT+5

The best kind of art, dark fantasy that is also an instructional! Zamboula here we come!
LaManoJanuary 7, 2018 12:06 PM GMT+5

Great parallels!

The only sad part is that you KNOW that Conan is going to come out victorious in the end, no matter how many cannibals, Stygians, wizards, or changelings he must fight.

We don't have that assurance, but we have to make our way anyhow.
responds:January 8, 2018 4:02 AM GMT+5

This is the pressure relieving aspect of fantasy. Clinically reviewing these parallels a couple years ago had me saying to myself, fatalistically—"they are going to get me eventually." But just at that point in pure realistic reflection, Howard amps up the pace and lets you forget for a while. I wonder if ancient stories had this effect for their listeners.