The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard
This book is a collection of four Conan the Barbarian novellas; The Devil in Iron, The People of the Black Circle, A Witch Shall Be Born, and Jewels of Gwahlur.
Howard wrote these stories over seventy years ago. Why review them now since there are doubtless enough reviews already in existence? The main reason is that I have decided to review everything thing I read (except newspapers, newsletters and similar periodicals) and since it has been just shy of thirty years since I had last read these stories I think it might be interesting to try and remember what the kid I use to be thought of the stories, and add to that what I think about them now, now that I am (ahem) all grown up. The book I have is one I purchased back in 1977 or 78. It is the Berkley Putnam edition that claims to be the full text of the stories as published in Weird Tales back in 1934-35.
The Devil in Iron-
I didn’t remember this one at all. So much for my then versus now comparison. I must say that it is not a very sophisticated tale. It is action followed by more action. And that is what I liked about it. I must admit that I had the right mindset when I read this tale. I read it during any down time I had when I was attending Origins 2007 this summer. The story captured my interest and was engrossing enough that I finished my lunch one day without realizing it; I was reaching for more sandwich after I had finished eating all of it. Recently I read a review of a modern author’s story that was referred to as “similar trope” to Conan stories. It bothered me, and now I know exactly why. Howard does not write trope. If anything he is extremely literal, which is a hallmark of Sword & Sorcery. This tale is a straight forward telling of events, and it was very enjoyable.
The People of the Black Circle -
I do remember this story; or at least the ending, which I shall not give away. When I saw the Conan the Barbarian movie several friends I talked to remarked about how little Conan spoke. I personally would rather be shown something rather than being told something, and I think a lot of people feel the same way. These friends thought it was bad for some reason, but I remember thinking of this particular Conan story which is heavy on description and light on dialog. Perhaps this is why some people think that Howard’s Conan is trope. (Maybe I should reference that review… Nah.) I promise that even with a lot of prose, there are not a lot of metaphors or non-literal flowery language in this story. When there are metaphors they are well crafted and pertain to the description. A good example comes mid story:
High above them a stone tower poised on the pitch of the mountainside. Beyond and above that gleamed the walls of a greater keep, near the line where the snow began that capped Yimsha’s pinnacle. There was a touch of unreality about the whole— purple slopes pitching up to that fantastic castle, toy-like with distance, and above it the white glistening peak shouldering the cold blue.
Howard paints a picture of grandeur that informs us of not only of distance, but of the entire lay of the land. It is easy to keep the image these words paint in mind as the story progress up onto those slopes and into that castle. Maybe I am picking on the word trope too much here. More likely the reviewer meant “ilk”. These days too many people are using “trope” to mean “unlikeable ilk” they way they are using “penultimate” to mean “better than ultimate”.
This does bring up the one thing I do remember enjoying about Howard’s writing when I was a kid. He is vivid in his descriptions of both scenic backgrounds and character actions. Howard must have been to children of the 1930s what action movies are for children today. Straight forward fun and escapism. I had fun reading this tale again.
A Witch Shall Be Born -
One last thing about that review I read, and then I’ll shut up about it. The reviewer wrongly lumped all of Howard’s Conan tales into one stylistic category. Yes, Howard wrote Sword & Sorcery, but not all of the tales are crafted the same way. This is the story that proves that. Conan plays an important yet distant role. It could almost be said that this is more the story of a young valorous soldier making a stand for his queen than it is a story about Conan. Howard switches point of view several times without losing the reader. His vivid prose shows us whose portion of the tale is being told. He weaves it together and provides us with a satisfying ending. This is one of the most tightly plotted stories that I have ever read.
Jewels of Gwahlur -
If any of the stories in this collection fit the commonly held stereotype of what a Conan tale is, then this is it. It is a romping jewel hunt complete with all the monstrous horrors and narrow escapes. Yet even in this tale the descriptions paint wonderful pictures. The one new thing I am taking away from this re-reading of Conan after nearly three decades is that I can now appreciate Howard’s narrative style and tight plotting. Conan as a character is not simplistic either. He may have a simplistic goal, to be as rich and as powerful as he can become, but that does not define the man. He follows his own moral code, even if it is a barbaric one. I can guarantee that these are things I did not ponder when I first read these stories as a kid.
I really enjoyed getting back in touch with Conan the Cimmerian. It has been a while since I even considered reading anything other than science fiction and non-fiction. It feels good to dip back into the literature of my teens. I have two more Conan books that I will be reviewing here at some point, and I am really looking forward to re-reading those stories as well. I am tempted to buy the Del-Rey Conan collections just to read Conan stories I have never encountered before. Who knows, I may even get around to watching “The Whole Wide World” the movie based on Robert E. Howard’s life.