Saturday, 28 August 2021

Retro Review: "The Green Huntsman" by Dorothea Gibbons

If this cover seems familiar, that's because the artwork by Harold De Lay originally appeared on the cover of the January 1944 issue of Weird Tales.

"The Green Huntsman" is a gothic short story by Dorothea Gibbons, which was first published in the July 1954 issue of Weird Tales. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

I came across this story, while I was reviewing "More Than Shadow" by Dorothy Quick and was intrigued that there were two other new stories as well as one new poem and a reprint by women writers in the same issue of Weird Tales, proving once again that Weird Tales was the most woman-friendly SFF magazine of the pulp era.

The name Dorothea Gibbons will not mean anything to most people. However, Dorothea Gibbons is a very well known author, probably one of the most famous mainstream authors ever to publish in Weird Tales next to Tennessee Williams as a sixteen-year-old debut author (and I should really review his debut story some day). For Dorothea Gibbons was none other than British novelist, poet and journalist Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm (which is absolutely genre, even if most people don't realise it). As Dorothea Gibbons (her full name was Stella Dorothea Gibbons), she published three stories in Weird Tales in 1953 and 1954. None have ever been reprinted.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

"The Green Huntsman" opens in the manor house of Scarth on a misty autumn morning dripping with gothic atmosphere. Here Richard Ayreton, lord of the manor, and his agent Nick Borrodale await the arrival of Ayreton's niece Francesca Newtownly, a penniless war widow with a seven-year-old son.

So we have the classic gothic set-up of a young woman coming to a creepy manor, from which she will eventually run clad only in her nightgown, at least if the covers of gothic romances from the 1960s are to be believed. But first, Nick has to pick up Francesca from the train station. He's instantly smitten with her, but also uneasy, because of something that haunts the nearby woods in autumn.

Nick warns Francesca and her son Paul not to go into the woods, so he won't say why, because the truth would either terrify Francesca or worse, she wouldn't believe it. So Nick males up a story about cutting down trees in the woods and that it's too dangerous to go there. Francesca, however, isn't having any of it. "If the men are felling trees, they're very quiet," she says.

Not long after, Nick gets a panicked message from Francesca that Paul and his dog Sebastian have gone missing and that Francesca fears they went into the woods. She also reveals that she knows that there was never any tree cutting work going on and begs Nick to tell her just what the matter is with those woods. Francesca also reveals that she's been in the woods and saw something green watching her from between the trees.

Paul and Sebastian eventually reappear at the manor safe and sound. Paul confesses that he went into the woods, even though Sebastian with his canine instincts for the supernatural tried to stop him. Paul also sees something green among the dead trees. When he investigates, he realises that it's a horseman clad all in green on a green horse. The horseman trains his hypnotic gaze on Paul and beckons him to come, but Sebastian, the heroic dog, intervenes and pulls Paul to the ground, saving the boy. When Paul looks up again, the green rider is gone.

Now Nick and Richard Ayreton finally share the story of the green huntsman with Francesca. It turns out that the huntsman was an evil man who hunted in those woods on a devilish horse hundreds of years ago and has been haunting the woods ever since, always appearing in autumn. According to legend, the only way to get rid of that evil spirit is when another four-legged creature will confront him to save a human life. And Sebastian, the faithful spaniel, saved Paul from the huntsman and thus exorcised the evil spirit for good.

This is a spooky gothic story that is dripping with atmosphere. The decaying manor and the misty, windswept woods are vividly described. The interior art by Virgil Finlay is also great.

I like that Francesca is not your average insipid gothic heroine who runs away from the spooky manor clad only in her nightgown. She never for a minute buys Nick's weak excuse about men felling trees in the woods and also confronts him about it.

My main criticism about "The Green Huntsman" is that it's way too short. After all the build-up, the confrontation with the evil huntsman is over in a few paragraphs. Furthermore, we don't see it happening on the page, but hear it recounted by Paul after the fact.

Also, I would have liked more details about the history of the huntsman and why he does what he does. He was an evil man and now he and his evil horse haunt the woods after his death is a weak explanation. Surely, there must be more to the story. Did the huntsman develop a taste for hunting "the most dangerous game" or was he himself hunted by villagers with pitchforks and swore vengeance from beyond the grave? Inquiring minds would like to know.

That said, I did like the solution that what broke the curse was the heroic act of a cocker spaniel. After Dorothy Quick's tale of an evil faery poodle, which appeared in the very same issue, this one makes a nice counterpoint.

The atmosphere and writing are great, but the story is flawed.

Thursday, 26 August 2021

Retro Review: "More Than Shadow" by Dorothy Quick

If the cover seems familiar, that's probably because the artwork by Harold De Lay was originally used on the cover of the January 1944 issue of Weird Tales.

"More Than Shadow" is a horror short story by Dorothy Quick, which was first published in the July 1954 issue of Weird Tales. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

The protagonist of "More Than Shadow" is Mona, a wife and mother of three. Mona lives in a suburban house with her lawyer husband Hal, the children Carol, Meg and Harry Jr. and the housemaid Ellen.

At first glance, Mona would seem to have a pretty cushy postwar life. However, her 1950s domestic bliss is interrupted by strange occurrences that keep happening in her house. Cause whenever someone spills some kind of liquid – milk, tea, water – the liquid coalesces into a puddle shaped like a cuddly little dog. As hauntings go, this one is certainly creative.

The first two times it happens, Mona dismisses the dog-shaped puddles as a coincidence. By the third time, however, Mona realises that there is something very strange going on in her house.

Just to make sure that she isn't imagining things, Mona calls over Ellen, the maid, and asks her what she sees in the puddle of spilled water. Ellen confirms that the puddle looks like a dog, but not just any old dog either, but the little dogs on which the leprechauns ride on moonlit nights. For Ellen just happens to be Irish and therefore a fount of Irish folklore.

Intrigued, Mona asks where the leprechauns go on those little dogs. A little spooked, Ellen, who – being Irish – of course believes in leprechauns, replies that no one really knows, but that according to legend the little dogs carry the leprechauns over the mountains to the land of youth.

The legend is familiar to Mona, because it reminds her of a quote about the land of faery from the 1894 play The Land of Heart's Desire by William Butler Yeats, which is extensively quoted in the story, copyright apparently being no issue in 1954.

I've remarked before that for supposedly disposable trash fiction for the masses, the pulps were quite literary at times and are often full of literary references and allusions, many of which are not immediately recognisable to the modern day reader, even if they likely were to a golden age audience.

Unlike other authors of the era, Dorothy Quick does not assume that all readers will be familiar with the play (or have Google at hand to look it up), so she briefly has Mona sum up what the play is about, namely a newlywed bride being enticed by a faery child to come with her to the land of heart's desire. The bride eventually succumbs and promptly dies in the real world.

Dorothy Quick also offers up a reason why Mona is familiar with the play, since she isn't simply a fount of random Yeats quotations. For it turns out that Mona's high school graduation class performed the play and that Mona played the doomed bride. More importantly, the night of the premiere of the play was also the night that Mona's husband Hal, then still a young college freshman, proposed to her.

Seeing the dog-shaped puddle not only brings back memories of that long ago school play, it also reminds Mona that at the time, she wondered whether getting to live in the land of faery, forever young and carefree, wasn't worth losing your life and soul for. Now, many years later, Mona feels the longing for the land of faery again, but she quickly dismisses it. After all, she's happy, isn't she? She's got a great husband, three wonderful children, a beautiful home. She's living the dream.

About a week after the incident with the dog-shaped puddle, a real dog comes into Mona's life, when her kids find an adorable black poodle just sitting by the garden gate. Naturally, the kids want to keep it. Mona and Hal are quickly won over, though they caution the children that the dog probably already has an owner and just got lost. But until the legitimate owner shows up, the kids may keep it.

However, no previous owner appears and so the family keep the poodle, whom they name Jet, because he was jettisoned. The whole family loved Jet, only Ellen the maid is wary of the dog and insists that there is something strange about him. Being Irish, Ellen is apparently more sensitive towards the supernatural.

Whenever Mona cuddles with Jet, she has visions of Yeats' land of heart's desire, visions that are so vivid and realistic that she worries she might be going mad. When she confesses her worries to Hal, her husband admits that being with Jet makes him want to abandon his work and just go fishing all day long. However, Hal, being the rational type, believes that the presence of Jet simply loosens their inhibitions.

One day, while Mona is napping (Mona naps a lot), Jet cuddled up beside her, she hears strange music, as if in a dream. Jet suddenly starts talking and tells her that he can take her to the land of heart's desire, where no one ever grows old and there's only happiness, no pain. Jet also suddenly grows to the size of a small pony, big enough to ride upon. Jet tries to entice Mona to climb on his back and come with him to the land of heart's desire. Mona is sorely tempted, but then she looks into Jet's eyes and sees an ancient evil there. She also noticed that Jet has very sharp teeth, like fangs. But the temptation is stronger and Mona is just about to climb into Jet's back and ride away, when her children burst into the bedroom, the otherworldly music stops and Jet shrinks to normal size.

Mona dismisses the whole incident as a nightmare. She tells Jet to play with the children and gets dressed – in a Dior taffeta gown – for a date night with Hal. Mona also realises that she has everything she ever wanted and that she would never give up Hal and her family, not even for eternal life and eternal bliss, even if it took her a nightmare to realise this.

When Mona and Hal return from their night on the town, they're met by a panicked Ellen who tells them that their youngest daughter Carol and Jet the dog have both vanished. The two older children last saw Carol playing with Jet in a corner of the garden.

Hal wants to call the police, but Ellen – being Irish and therefore superstitious – insists that the police won't be able to help, because the faeries have taken Carol and Jet was their emissary. After all, it is May Eve a.k.a. Walpurgis Night a.k.a. Beltane, when the little people have power. Ellen also tells Mona and Hal that some neighbours saw a happy and laughing Carol riding on a black poodle the size of a pony.

Hal, being the rational type, dismisses Ellen and her Irish superstitions, but Mona knows better. The nightmare she had was no dream after all. Jet really did grow to the size of a pony and when he couldn't entice Mona to come away with him, he took her daughter Carol instead.

This story was reprinted in 1988 in the anthology "Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies"

"Away with the faeries" stories are dime a dozen, but Dorothy Quick manages to put a new spin on that old familiar tale. Indeed, my initial impression of "More Than Shadow" was, "This is atmospheric and well written, but also really predictable." Because Mona is your stereotypical 1950s suburban housewife who seems to be suffering from what Betty Friedan would eventually term "the problem with no name". Indeed, Mona's frequent naps seem to point at depression. And it was clear to me with my twenty-first century expectations of what stories about suburban housewives in the 1950s were like that Mona would go away with the faeries in the end, leaving behind her husband and kids, just like Lucy Jordan from the eponymous song. It was also clear to me that "away with the faeries" was probably intended to be a metaphor for the many real life 1950s suburban housewives who descended into alcoholism and substance abuse.

However, that is not the story that Dorothy Quick wrote. For while Mona is sorely tempted by Jet and his promises of the land of eternal youth and joy, she resists the temptation in the end. And what brings her back from the brink are her three children. Furthermore, the incident with Jet helps Mona to realise that she is happy with her life. She loves her husband and she loves her children and does not want to give them up for vague promises of eternal youth in the land of heart's desire. And so in the end it is her daughter Carol – who's only three years old and not able to consent – who is taken away to the land of faerie.

Considering how many portrayals of unhappy suburban housewives in the postwar era there are – from Betty Friedan via Lucy Jordan to Betty Draper – it is refreshing to see a suburban housewife who is not unhappy. For while there were many unhappy marriages and depressed housewives in the 1950s, there also were many women who loved their husbands and children and were happy with their suburban existence, though these women are often forgotten today.

Besides, Mona really does not have any visible reasons to be unhappy. Her husband Hal is no philandering Don Draper nor a permanently absent workaholic in a grey flannel suit nor is he abusive. Indeed, Hal is portrayed as kind and supportive throughout. He does not yell or complain when the kids or Mona spill something on the carpet (and one of the dog-shaped puddles is caused by a cup of tea that Hal spills), he does not dismiss Mona as hysterical, when she confesses her dreams of the land of faerie to him and he's clearly still in love with his wife after several years of marriage. Okay, so Hal does not believe that the faeries took his daughter, but I don't think we can blame him for that. Indeed, one thing I've noticed in all of the Dorothy Quick stories I've read is that Quick always portrays supportive and loving relationships. Even if the central couple dies horribly, as in the two Patchwork Quilt stories I reviewed last year, the relationship is still supportive.

Another thing that sets Dorothy Quick apart from other writers of the pulp era is that her stories always pass the Bechdel Test, something that is extremely rare during the golden age, even in stories by female writers. "More Than Shadow" is no exception and passes due to a scene of Mona talking to Ellen about leprechauns as well as several moments of Mona talking to her daughters.

What also strikes me about Dorothy Quick's stories are her detailed descriptions of clothes, fabrics and interiors. Again, this is most notable in the Patchwork Quilt stories, where pieces of fabric trigger a kind of mental time travel. But "More Than Shadow" is also rich with description, whether it is Mona's blue satin bedspread, her Dior taffeta gown with a bell-shaped skirt or the lacy negligee Mona wears in the scene where she is almost tempted to go away with Jet.

A cute little black poodle as an agent of evil and temptation may be unexpected, but there is a precedent. For in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's take on the Doctor Faustus legend, Mephistopheles initially appears to Faust in the guise of a black poodle. Was Dorothy Quick familiar with Goethe's Faust? I have no idea, but it is not unlikely.

"More Than Shadow" is a neat little spooky story with an unexpected twist. The story appeared in the penultimate issue of the original run of Weird Tales, proving that the quality remained high until the end, even if half of the July 1954 issue of Weird Tales consists of reprints from earlier years of the magazine. Recommended.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Retro Review: "The God in the Bowl" by Robert E. Howard or Conan Does Agatha Christie


No, not that way. Get your mind out of the gutter!

Before I dig deeper into the science fiction and fantasy of 1946 (for more about Chicon's 1946 Retrospective project, see here), I want to go back to the early 1930s to revisit one of the more unusual Conan sword and sorcery stories. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Reviews.

"The God in the Bowl" is one of the first batch of Conan stories that Robert E. Howard wrote. According to Patrice Louinet's essay "Hyborian Genesis" in the back of the Del Rey edition of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, "The God in the Bowl" was written in March 1932 and was the third Conan story written, following "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "The Frost Giant's Daughter".

Unlike the two previous stories, "The God in the Bowl" remained unpublished during Howard's lifetime and appeared for the first time in the September 1952 issue of the short-lived magazine Space Science Fiction. Why on Earth editor Lester del Rey decided that a Conan story was a good fit for a magazine that otherwise published such Astounding stalwarts as George O. Smith, Clifford D. Simak and Murray Leinster will probably forever remain a mystery.

As for why I decided to review this particular Conan story rather than some of the better known adventures of our favourite Cimmerian adventurer (which I may eventually do), part of the reason is that the story just came up in a conversation I had with Bobby Derie on Twitter. Besides, I have been reading my way through the Del Rey Robert E. Howard editions of late and realised that there are a lot of layers to those stories that I missed when I read them the first time around as a teenager.

I don't think I read "The God in the Bowl" during my first go-around with Conan or at least I don't remember the story. And I'm pretty sure I would have remembered it, simply because it is such an unusual story. Because "The God in the Bowl" is a locked room – pardon, locked museum – mystery set in the Hyborian Age and features Conan as the prime suspect.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!


As was common during the so-called golden age of detective fiction (and once again, "golden age" is used not as a marker of quality but as a term to signify the traditional mystery fiction of the 1920s and 1930s), "The God in the Bowl" starts with the discovery of a body. In life, this body belonged to Kallian Publico, Nemedian aristocrat, collector of and dealer in antiquities, treasures and rare artefacts.

The body of Kallian Publico is found strangled in a corridor in the so-called Temple, the building in the city of Numalia where he keeps his treasures. The body is discovered not by Conan but Arus, who works as a night watchman at the Temple. Our favourite Cimmerian (though Conan's identity is not revealed until later and would not have meant much to Weird Tales readers after only two stories anyway) makes his entrance shortly thereafter, stumbling upon Arus just as Arus has stumbled upon the body of Kallian Publico.

Upon finding first the dead body of his boss and then someone in the Temple who clearly has no business being there, Arus understandably assumes that Conan must be the killer. "Why did you kill him?" he asks.

Conan replies that he did not kill the man and that he doesn't even know who the dead man is. However, when Arus informs him that the dead man is Kallian Publico, Conan recognises the name as the owner of the house. However, before Conan and Arus can engage in some more information exchange, Arus pulls a rope to sound the alarm.

"Why did you do that?" Conan asks, "It will fetch the watchman," whereupon Arus informs Conan that he is the watchman. Turns out that Conan had assumed Arus was a fellow thief who was after the same object Conan was after and that he only emerged from hiding to team up with Arus.

Robert E. Howard wrote the Conan stories out of order and the internal chronology of the stories has been debated for a long time now. However, "The God in the Bowl" is not just one of the first Conan stories written, it is also chronologically one of the first, maybe the first, of Conan's chronicled adventures. Personally, I think it is the first Conan adventure, though many people think that "The Frost Giant's Daughter" takes place before this one.

At any rate, the Conan we meet in "The God in the Bowl" is young, probably seventeen or eighteen. Howard explicitly refers to him as a "youth". For that matter, this is also one of the few stories where Conan wears the loincloth that is his signature garb in the comics and Frank Frazetta's covers for the paperback editions of the 1960s. Cause in most of the stories, Conan actually wears clothes and we get more description of his armour than we ever get of his loincloth.

This version of Conan is also still very inexperienced, naïve and clearly new to civilisation (and it is notable that Nemedia, the kingdom where this story is set, lies directly to the southeast of Conan's homeland of Cimmeria). And while he is a thief in this story, Conan clearly hasn't been a thief for very long at this point in his life. After all, he mistakes a watchman for a fellow thief and naturally assumes that a fellow thief would want to team up with him. Furthermore, Conan also doesn't grasp that being found in the same location as a dead body does not look good at all and assumes that if he says that he did not kill Kallian Publico, people will simply believe him.

This becomes a problem when the law shows up in the form of a squad of city guards led by an officer named Dionus. The guards are accompanied by a man in civilian clothes named Demetrio who turns out to be the chief inquisitor of Numalia. The names of the characters as well as the description of the city of Numalia all feel very Roman and indeed Patrice Louinet points out that Howard apparently borrowed a lot of the names in this story from Plutarch. That said, in the oft reproduced map where Howard traced the various countries of the Hyborian age over a map of Europe and Northern Africa, Nemedia corresponds roughly to what is now Germany, so the Roman feel is a bit jarring. But then Howard's historical influences are all over the place anyway, ranging from Assyria, Babylonia and ancient Egypt via classical Greece and Rome via  medieval Europe to the American West of the pioneer days and the colonial wars in the Middle East of the 19th century. Besides, "The God in the Bowl" was written before Howard codified his worldbuilding in his essay "The Hyborian Age".

Demetrio immediately takes over the investigation and begins by establishing the facts of the case and questioning the two still living people on the scene, Arus and Conan. The whole scene plays out very much like a standard murder mystery. Demetrio – and the reader – learns that Kallian Publico was not even supposed to be at the Temple, since he had already gone home for the night. Arus never saw Kallian Publico return and only noticed that something was amiss when he found the padlock which secures the door to that part of the temple open. Only Kallian Publico has the key to that padlock and it is still on his dead body. However, the door was still barred and Kallian Publico and Arus were the only ones who had keys to open the bar. So this story is indeed a locked room mystery in the best golden age tradition.

If the Temple was locked and only Kallian Publico and Arus had keys, this begets the question how Conan got in. And indeed, Arus is quick to point the finger at Conan and accuse him of killing Kallian Publico. Come to think of it, it's interesting that Arus never once comes under suspicion – even though he has as much of a motive, maybe more so, as we learn later – to kill his boss.

So Demetrio begins to question Conan. He gets his name and that he is from Cimmeria, another clue that this story happens early in Conan's career, because in later stories he stops introducing himself as a Cimmerian and instead becomes Conan or rather Amra of the black corsairs, Conan of the Barachan pirates, Conan, the Kozaki hetman, Conan, chief of the Afghuli hill tribes, or Conan, King of Aquilonia.

Demetrio also quite quickly gets Conan to admit that he broke into the Temple to steal something. Initially, Conan claims that he only wanted to steal food, but it quickly becomes clear that he was after something else, though he refuses to say what it is. On the other hand, Conan is quite open about how he got into the Temple, namely by scaling a wall ("Impossible", Arus exclaims, whereupon Conan points out that the carved ornaments on the wall actually made it quite easy for his Cimmerian climbing skills) and climbing in through a window after hacking through the bolt with his sword. Conan also admits that he knows the interior layout of the Temple, something which only Kallian Publico's servants or wealthy clients would know. Finally, Conan insists that he did not kill Kallian Publico, though he would have done it, if Kallian had interrupted him. Once again, Conan's straightforwardness is quite refreshing, as is his assumption that Demetrio will just believe him and let him go.

But while the set-up of an impossible murder committed in a locked building is straight out of a golden age mystery, Demetrio and Dionus are no soft-boiled Hercule Poirot types. On the contrary, Dionus and the only other named police officer Posthumo are violent thugs who don't even want to bother with investigating the murder, but simply want to beat a confession out of Conan. Conan informs them that if they try, they'll soon greet their ancestors in hell.

Conan's quick temper and the fact that he will kill anybody who offends him is another indicator that this story happens very early in his career. For while Conan's temper flares up in later stories as well – in The Hour of the Dragon, widely assumed to be the last chronicled Conan adventure, Conan kills a ship captain and starts a slave revolt, because the captain was rude to him – the older Conan is less likely to kill people over a mere slight – also in The Hour of the Dragon, he spares the Nemedian king Tarascus, though he has every reason not to – whereas the young Conan absolutely will. Also see "The Tower of the Elephant", another story which takes place during this period of Conan's life, where Conan kills a man in a tavern, just because he was rude to him.

Demetrio is put off by Conan's insolence, but he also recognises that Conan is dangerous, when provoked, and so tries not to provoke him. And while Dionus and Posthumo are merely thugs with badges, Demetrio is a detective who actually makes an attempt to solve the case. And so Demetrio does have some doubts about Conan's guilt, because a lot of facts about the case simply don't add up. For starters, Kallian Publico is still wearing his rings. But if a thief had killed him, he would certainly have taken the rings. Besides, Kallian Publico was strangled with a very thick rope. However, Conan has a sword, so why would he strangle Kallian Publico? Finally, the estimated time of Kallian's murder doesn't fit in with Conan's account.

Just as Demetrio is about to hit a wall in his investigation, they hear the sound of a chariot in the street, a chariot that brings two more suspects, namely Promero, Kallian Publico's chief clerk, and Enaro, his charioteer. Enaro is a black man – and indeed the only character other than Conan and the murder victim of whom we get a physical description. He is also a slave, the implications of which are problematic. However, the story makes it clear that Enaro is not a slave, because he's black, but that he's a debt slave. There are problematic racial stereotypes in Robert E. Howard's work, including some of the Conan stories, but Enaro is not one of them.

Enaro resented Kallian Publico and does not mourn him. However, he also declares that he did not kill him, even though he wanted to. Unlike Conan, Demetrio actually believes Enaro, but then Enaro had no opportunity to commit the murder due to being nowhere near the Temple when Kallian Publico was killed.

Promero, meanwhile, clearly has something to hide, though he very emphatically declares that he knows nothing. However, Promero is no Conan and so he quickly spills the beans once Posthumo slaps him around a little. The whole thing is also intended as a demonstration for Conan, who is very much not impressed.

Turns out that Kallian Publico had an object in his custody, a gift that was sent from Stygia (the Hyborian age's Egypt equivalent) to one Kalanthes of Hanumar, priest of Ibis. This object was a sarcophagus shaped like a giant bowl, which supposedly contained a priceless relic. Kallian was only supposed to keep the sarcophagus safe until Kalanthes could send someone to fetch it. However, the greedy Kallian snuck back into the Temple to examine the bowl, open it and steal the relic, which he believed to be the bejewelled diadem of a dead giant. Then, on the next day, Kallian planned to report that dastardly thieves had broken into the Temple and stolen the diadem.

"What of the watchman?" Demetrio asks. Promero explained that Kallian planned to sneak in, while the watchman was in another part of the building. He also planned to accuse Arus of being in league with the thieves and to have him crucified. Coincidentally, this gives Arus an excellent motive to kill Kallian Publico, but Demetrio never follows up on it.

Instead, Demetrio now wants to see the bowl, which just happens to be located in a nearby room, where signs of a struggle (torn drapes, a knocked over bust) indicate that that is the place where Kallian Publico was attacked, even if he was killed in the corridor.

So Demetrio, the guards, Arus, Promero, Enaro and Conan check out the murder room and find the bowl open and empty. Demetrio asks Conan if the bowl is what he came to steal, whereupon Conan points out that it is way too heavy for one man to carry.

Next to the bowl, there is a chisel and a hammer and there are chisel marks on the lid, suggesting that Kallian opened it in haste. There is also a curious design on the lid of the bowl, which Kallian took for a diadem, but which Promero insists is the sign of the Stygian snake god Set. And Kalanthes of Hanumar is an enemy of the cult of Set, just as Ibis, the god Kalanthes serves, is the sworn enemy of Set. So why would someone in Stygia sent Kalanthes a bowl with the sign of Set on the lid as a gift?

Promero turns out to be a fount of knowledge about ancient Stygian cults. And so he also insists that the bowl is old, older than the human world, and that it dates from the time when Set walked the Earth and mated with humans. His children were laid to rest in just such bowls. Just how Promero knows all this is never explained. He basically serves as a walking, quivering infodump.

Demetrio declares that all this is irrelevant anyway, since the mouldering bones of a child of Set hardly rose up, strangle Kallian and then walked away. Interestingly, Demetrio has not just almost cracked the case at this point, the scenario he paints is also the plot of another classic sword and sorcery story, "Thieves' House" by Fritz Leiber. Though Leiber couldn't have known "The God in the Bowl", because while he did correspond with H.P. Lovecraft, Leiber never corresponded with Robert E. Howard. And "The God in the Bowl" did not see print until 1952, nine years after "Thieves' House" was published in 1943.

Instead, Demetrio and Dionus decide to do something they should have done before, namely search the Temple to see if the real killer is still hiding out somewhere. Though Dionus is convinced that they already have the killer, namely Conan. And who cares if Conan really is guilty – he certainly looks the part.

We now also get a brief explanation of how justice works in the city of Numalia. Because it turns out that murder is not always murder in Numalia and some victims or more equal than others. Killing a commoner as well as breaking and entering carries a sentence of ten years of hard labour in the mines. Killing a merchant will get you hanged. And for killing an aristocrat or other prominent person, the murderer will get burned at the stake, which is the fate that awaits Conan, should he be found guilty..

This little offhand remark is not only a great bit of worldbuilding, it also explains why Aquilonia got lucky – or rather will get lucky – in getting Conan as a king who believes in equality before the law. And since Robert E. Howard wrote "The Phoenix on the Sword", one of the three stories featuring Conan as King of Aquilonia, before this one, one can assume that he intended to show the discrepancy between the relatively fair and benign rule of Conan in Aquilonia and the outright corruption and inequality in its neighbouring kingdom Nemedia.

Demetrio, who is convinced at this point that Conan is innocent, uses the threat of being burnt at the stake to get Conan to tell him what he planned to steal. I strongly suspect that anybody who tried to burn Conan at the stake would swiftly regret it, but nonetheless Conan does admit that he was hired to steal a Zamorian diamond goblet by a man who gave him a floorplan of the Temple and explained where the goblet is hidden. Promero stops quivering long enough to confirm that yes, there is a diamond goblet hidden in that place, though he didn't think anybody other than Kallian and himself knew about that. Promero is really great at incriminating himself.

Conan, meanwhile, steadfastly refuses to name the person who hired him to steal the goblet. And when Dionus insinuates that Conan was going to keep the goblet for himself, Conan replies that of course he was going to keep his word, because he is no dog.

The fact that Conan does not rat out accomplices and remains true to his word is a character trait that reoccurs throughout the stories. In "Rogues in the House", another story which takes place during this period of Conan's life, Conan finds himself in jail, awaiting execution, after murdering a duplicitous priest/fence for betraying his accomplice to the police. He is offered freedom in exchange for killing someone, manages to escape from prison on his own and still goes on to fulfil his mission, because he gave his word, even though escaping would be the smarter thing to do. And "Queen of the Black Coast" starts out with Conan on the run after another memorable brush with the law, where Conan refuses to betray a friend who is accused of killing an officer of the city watch. When the judge does not accept Conan's explanation that he cannot possibly betray his friend and threatens to throw Conan into jail to make him talk, Conan kills the judge and bailiff "because they were all mad" and goes on the run. Given Conan's experiences with the law, I'm surprised that Robert E. Howard left out the part about smashing outdated laws with a battle axe, when he rewrote the Kull story "By This Axe I Rule" as the first Conan story "The Phoenix on the Sword".

In fact, Conan's loyalty to people he considers friends or he considers himself responsible for is one of his most enduring traits. That's also why German SFF writer Hans Joachim Alpers' famous quote that "Conan has the mercenary mentality of Kongo Müller [a then infamous West German mercenary fighting in Africa]" infuriates me so much, because it's simply not true. For while Conan may have been a mercenary for many years of his life, he cares about others and is utterly loyal to those he cares about, whether it's a friend or accomplice, the soldiers under his command or later the Kingdom of Aquilonia. He does occasionally oust another man from a position of leadership, e.g. Olgerd Vladislav in "A Witch Shall Be Born" and the pirate captain in "Pool of the Black One", but in both cases it is obvious from the start that Conan is not loyal to either Olgerd or the pirate captain. They're also both awful people, so no one really cares what happens to them.


Demetrio's interrogation of Conan is interrupted, when the guardsmen return from their search of the house. They did find the window through which Conan entered, but they found no killer. However, one guardsman claims to have found the murder weapon, a thick mottled cable tied around the top of a marble column, so high that no one except Conan could have reached it. However, when Demetrio, Dionus and the rest of the gang go to investigate, the supposed murder weapon is gone. Dionus accuses Conan of taking the cable, but Demetrio points out that Conan didn't have the opportunity, because he was always with Demetrio and Dionus ever since his arrest.

But even though Demetrio is convinced that Conan is innocent, he's still perfectly willing to pin the crime on Conan, because – so he says – justice must be satisfied. Never mind that convicting and executing an innocent man is very much the opposite of satisfying justice. As Bob Byrne points out in his review of "The God in the Bowl" at Black Gate, this is the point where Demetrio goes from decent person and competent investigator to just as bad as Dionus and Posthumo.

However, before Demetrio can officially arrest Conan, Promero shows up again to share another infodump about Stygia and the cult of Set. For while everybody else was either searching the house or trying to figure out how to blame Conan for the murder, Promero examined the bowl and found the sign of the Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon etched into the bottom of the bowl. And Thoth-Amon is the sworn enemy of Kalanthes of Hanumar, intended recipient of the bowl. Promero also explains that the children of Set do not die, but fall into a centuries long slumber. And Thoth-Amon sent such a sleeping child of Set to Kalanthes to kill him, only that Kallian intercepted the bowl and opened it first, getting himself killed in the process. Again, it's not clear how Promero comes to know so much about Stygia and the cult of Set.

Thoth-Amon, meanwhile, is a name that readers of the Conan stories will recognise, because he is one of the comparatively few recurring characters and the only recurring villain, who appears also in "The Phoenix on the Sword", the very first Conan story written before this one, and is mentioned in The Hour of the Dragon, a much later story. Thoth-Amon's ring, the source of his power, also appears in a Solomon Kane story and "The Haunter of the Ring", a contemporary set Cthulhu mythos story by Robert E. Howard, featuring an occult investigator named John Kirowan. Thoth-Amon's ring certainly gets around. However, it's notable that Thoth-Amon and Conan never directly interact and likely don't even know of each other's existence, even though their fates are interlinked. That said, Thoth-Amon strikes me as rather naïve when he believes that Kalanthes, a man who has devoted his life to fighting the cult of Set, would just open the bowl without taking precautions.

No sooner has Promero delivered his latest infodump – and solved the murder – that Conan calls out that he has seen something move across the floor in a room that was previously empty, which sets off a new round of hysterics from Promero. Dionus and Posthumo have no intention to search the room again – after all, they believe they have already found their man – so Posthumo tells Promero to search the room and thrusts him inside.

Conan's impending arrest is interrupted once again, when a guardsman drags in a well-dressed young aristocrat he found lurking outside the Temple. Dionus quickly tells the guard to unhand the young man, for this is Aztrias Petanius, nephew of the city governor. Aztrias claims that he was on his way home from a night of wine and revels and just happened to pass by the Temple. However, he is also uncommonly interested in the murder investigation.

Dionus, who is suddenly very servile when faced with someone of influence, brings Aztrias up to speed. Yes, it was murder, but we've got the killer and we'll burn him at the stake. Aztrias takes one look at Conan and declares that he's never seen such a villainous countenance before.

This is the moment where Conan has had enough. "Yes, you have", he tells Aztrias and reveals that Aztrias was the one who hired him to steal the diamond goblet and was waiting for Conan to reappear and give him the goblet, when the watch seized him. And now would Aztrias please tell Demetrio that he saw Conan climb the wall and that Conan didn't have time to commit the murder. Conan's faith the honesty of others, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is almost endearing.

Demetrio now asks Aztrias if this is true. He also points out that Conan will be executed, if Aztrias does not admit to arranging the theft, and that Demetrio is willing to overlook the theft – after all, he knows that young noblemen often find themselves in financial troubles – and will even let Conan escape to hush up the whole embarrassing affair, if Aztrias but says the word.

Conan clearly is still expecting his accomplice to exonerate him, but of course Aztrias is not willing to say the word. Instead, he insists that he doesn't know Conan and even has the impunity to suggest that ten years of hard labour will do Conan good.

By now, Conan has well and truly had enough of the corruption and dishonesty of civilization. He draws his sword and chops off Aztrias' head, before anybody can stop him. He then tries to stab Demetrio in the groin, but Demetrio manages to deflect the blow and gets stabbed in the thigh instead. Next Conan cuts off Dionus' ear, rips out one of Posthumo's eyes (poetic justice, since Posthumo had gouged out a woman's eye for refusing to implicate her lover in a crime) and kicks Arus in the teeth. It is notable that he leaves Enaro, the black charioteer, alone.

Conan's righteous fury is interrupted by the reappearance of Mr. Exposition, Promero himself. He blabbers something about a god with a long neck and drops dead. This as well as the very angry Cimmerian with the bloody sword in his hand freaks out the survivors so much that they run or crawl away (Posthumo gets trampled in the process, too), leaving Conan alone in the Temple with a bunch of bodies and the unknown killer.

Sword in hand, Conan ventures into the room, from which Promero had emerged before dying. Half hidden behind a gilded screen, he sees an inhumanly beautiful face that beckons to him in a language older than mankind. However, Conan is still smart enough to realise that this inhumanly beautiful face must be that of the murderer who already killed two people that night, so he chops off the beautiful head and realises that the thrashing body behind the screen is not human, but that of a snake. Conan has killed one of the children of Set, which – along with being blamed for two murders, one of which he actually did commit – is enough to send even the bravest Cimmerian running for the border.

The snake monster with a beautiful human face might well have seemed familiar to Weird Tales readers, for a very similar creature appeared in the 1925 Cthulhu mythos story "The Were-Snake" by Frank Belknap Long, which Bobby Derie reviewed here. And indeed, it was a discussion on Twitter about Bobby Derie's post, which prompted me to tackle "The God in the Bowl" for my next Retro Review. It's not known whether Robert E. Howard ever read "The Were-Snake", but he likely was familiar with the artwork, since the ever thrifty Farnsworth Wright reused it a couple of times. And the similarities between the two snake creatures are certainly notable.

As for why Farnsworth Wright rejected "The God in the Bowl", even though he had the perfect artwork to accompany the story lying around, that will likely forever remain a mystery. After all, Weird Tales published a lot of occult and supernatural detective stories, most notably Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin stories, so "The God in the Bowl" would not have seemed out of place. It's certainly better than the few Jules de Grandin stories I've read.

"The God in the Bowl" is one of the lesser known Conan stories and opinions about it are mixed. Bob Byrne and The Cromcast seem to like the story, while Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward don't particularly care for it. Personally, I find the story flawed, but I still like it, simply because it is such an atypical Conan story. Though at the point this story was written, there was no such thing as a typical Conan story, since the first few Conan stories are all wildly different from each other. The string of similar stories where Conan and a beautiful, scantily clad woman find themselves dealing with sinister going-ons in some kind of lost city all came later.

Sword and sorcery and mystery are two genres, which go well together, because both are in essence about figuring out what the hell is going on. The clearest example of sword and sorcery mysteries are Simon R. Green's Hawk and Fisher stories from the 1990s. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories occasionally veer into that direction as well. Last but not least, some of my own efforts are sword and sorcery mysteries, too. "The God in the Bowl", however, is the only Conan story that is also very explicitly a murder mystery.

So how does "The God in the Bowl" hold up as a mystery? Not too badly. There is some decent detective work courtesy of Demetrio. The story also plays fair, because the reader is given all the clues they need to solve the mystery. That said, some of the clues are a bit contrived, e.g. the sheer amount of information about Stygia and the Set cult that Promero just happens to have. Promero's involvement is also a bit contrived. Far better, if he had stumbled onto the scene, attracted by the alarm, then having the guards arrest him, because Kallian's chariot stopped in front of his house. Finally, Demetrio completely neglects a likely suspect, namely Arus the watchman. The main weakness of the story, however, is that it is very wordy with lots of scenes of people standing around a dead body, while talking and gathering information. Furthermore, Conan is very much a supporting character in this story, whereas Demetrio is the true protagonist.

"The God in the Bowl" is also a curious mix of different crime fiction and mystery influences. The locked room murder and the clue based investigation are straight from the traditional mysteries of the so-called "golden age of mystery", as is the talkiness. Meanwhile, the portrayal of the police as violent bullies and the general corruption that pervades the city of Numalia are straight out of hardboiled crime fiction, which was just taking off around the time Howard was creating Conan. And though Howard is on record as being not a great fan of detective fiction, we know that he was familiar with the genre both in its traditional (August Derleth, creator of Solar Pons, was one of his regular correspondents) and hardboiled forms thanks to this extensive list of books and authors that we know Howard read. Though according to that list, Howard never read Agatha Christie, though he did mention her American counterpart Mary Roberts Rinehart. He was not a fan apparently.

Finally, the "an animal did it" solution to the mystery goes all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (and thanks to the list above, we know that he did read Poe), though I guess we should be grateful that Howard chose to make his killer creature a snake with a humanoid face and not a giant ape. Though Conan would repeatedly tangle with giant apes throughout his career and in "Rogues in the House", a giant ape actually does turn out to be the killer.

This mix of disparate mystery influences is probably also why the story feels a little off at times, because the fair play, present all the clues approach of the traditional mystery does not really mesh well with the more hardboiled and cynical attitude. Robert E. Howard did write a few hardboiled detective stories starring a character named Steve Harrison later in his career without much success, but "The God in the Bowl" seems to have been his first attempt at experimenting with the mystery genre and therefore he doesn't quite have the form down yet.

Besides, Howard uses the form of the murder mystery less as an end to itself and more as a vehicle to discuss a topic that was near and dear to his heart, namely the conflict between barbarism and civilisation. This theme runs throughout the entire Conan series as well as the Kull stories, but it is very pronounced in "The God in the Bowl", which contrasts the honest barbarian thief Conan with the corrupt representatives of the law. But even though "The God in the Bowl" takes place in the fictional kingdom of Nemedia many millennia ago, the rampant police brutality, inequality and corruption depicted in this story were something Howard borrowed from much closer to home.

Police brutality is still an issue in the US (and not only there either), as the events of the last year have shown. It was even more of an issue in the 1920s and 1930s, as were corruption and inequality before the law. Indeed, what happens to Conan in the story – getting accused of a crime he did not commit, police officers who don't care about the truth, but just need to present a suitable culprit, being threatened with violence and facing either a lengthy sentence of hard labour or brutal execution – happened to many people in the US South during the time the story was written. The hard labour in the mines, which awaits Conan, if he's lucky, recalls the chain gangs that were a common sight in the Southern US at the time (and indeed the prison memoir I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang by Robert Elliott Burns, upon which the eponymous movie was based, came out the year before, though there is no evidence that Howard was familiar with the text), while the burning at the stake, which awaits him, if he's unlucky, recalls the electric chair. And the victims of police brutality and railroading were often outsiders, drifters and those perceived as other, just like Conan.

It is very likely that these issues were on Howard's mind, when he wrote "The God in the Bowl", especially since Howard was engaged in an exchange (quoted here) about police brutality with H.P. Lovecraft a few months after he wrote "The God in the Bowl". I do think that Howard's view of the lawmen of the Old West was a bit too rosy, but it's notable that what he describes would happen if the bullying policeman of the 1930s were to try their tactics on an Old West outlaw is exactly what happens when the bullies of the Numalian city guard try those tactics on Conan.

By now, this review is almost longer than the story itself. But then, one thing that struck me upon rereading the Conan stories is that while they are kickass adventure stories on the surface, they have a lot of hidden layers, which only become apparent, when one rereads them as an adult.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Cora is a Hugo Finalist Again!


Hugo Award Logo

Yes, I know that this blog has lain fallow for a while now, but then I was busy with other things. And besides, there are no Retro Hugos this year. However, I hope to get back to reviewing vintage speculative fiction soon.

As you may know, the finalists for the 2021 Hugo Awards have just been announced. You can watch the announcement video on the DisCon III YouTube channel. And I will post a detailed analysis on my personal blog soon.

But for now, I want to focus on just one category, namely the 2021 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. Cause if you take a look at that category, you will find – among most excellent company – my name.

Yes, I'm a Hugo finalist for Best Fan Writer again!

I've known about this for about three weeks now (for those who don't know, the Hugo coordinators contact you beforehand to ask if you want to accept the nomination). Indeed, I got the mail from DisCon III about three hours after I posted my Open Letter to the 2021 Hugo Finalists on this blog.

It's a great honour to be a Hugo finalist for the second time and I want to thank everybody who nominated me. I'm also pretty sure that the many retro speculative fiction reviews I wrote last year contributed to my nomination. Furthermore, I'm also in the excellent company of Paul Weimer, Alasdair Stuart, Jason Sanford, Charles Payseur and Elsa Sjunneson, all of whom are great fan writers.

Unfortunately, DisCon III recently moved their dates to the fourth advent weekend, which is way too close to the holidays for me to attend, even if the German and US government will let me travel. So sadly, I will lose out on my chance to attend the Hugo ceremony in person as well as the reception beforehand and the Hugo Losers' Party afterwards again. That said, I got the full Hugo finalist experience in Dublin in 2019 as the designated accepter for Galactic Journey. But I'm still sad I can't go, though on the plus side I don't have to buy a new evening gown.

I also have a request. Like all Hugo finalists, I will be asked to put together a selection of writings for the Hugo voters packet. And that's why I need your help. Which 2020 articles, essays or reviews of mine should go into the Hugo Voters packet? There is a full list here, so let me know in the comments which ones you think should go into the packet. You can still download my 2020 Hugo Voter Packet for free here BTW.

How can you vote for the 2021 Hugos? I guess pretty much everybody here knows how it works, but for those who don't, it's quite simple. If you buy a supporting membership for DisCon III, the 2021 Worldcon, you can vote for the Hugo Awards as well as vote to select the location of the 2023 Worldcon. You also receive all of the convention publications and get access to the Hugo Voters' packet, which contains most of the nominated works either in part or as a whole. If you buy a virtual membership, you can also attend the virtual panels and other events online. If you want to attend in person, you'll need an attending membership.

As I said above, the detailed analysis of the 2021 Hugo ballot is coming soon. But for now, I just want to say thank you for nominating me.