I don’t profess to be an expert on the excellent Robert E Howard. In fact, it was over two decades after Conan the Barbarian became a favorite character of mine that I read Howard’s stories about the Cimmerian! My first exposure to the pulp titan was in the form of Saturday morning cartoon Conan the Adventurer. Not bad as children’s animation goes, and it captured my fancy at the ripe old age of five. Three years later, I watched Milius’s masterpiece Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, a movie I have revisited a hundred times since.
From there, I decided to read the books. But rather than the Howard originals, these were later paperbacks written by authors like Steve Perry, Leonard Carpenter, and Robert Jordan (yes, THAT Robert Jordan) in the 80s with titles like Conan the Magnificent, Conan the Fearless, and Conan the Renegade. As a kid, I didn’t know any better, and the Internet wasn’t developed enough to inform me that this was not authentic Conan. These works were enjoyable enough, but hardly astounded me with their brilliance.
Thus, it was only in my later twenties that I got to read the genuine Conan stories of Robert E Howard. And of the dozen or so I went through, none has impressed me more than Shadows in Zamboula.
The tale immediately begins with an ominous warning from a twisted old man about an inn of ill repute belonging to Aram Baksh. Right away, this sets a mood of intrigue and danger in the exotic city Conan has traveled to, Zamboula. Howard writes strong openings that pull the reader in, a likely consequence of producing so many short stories for the pulps. This is no exception.
While describing the lush, colorful bazaar Conan finds himself in, the reader learns that while no one knows the nature of the menace at Baksh’s tavern, travelers who have checked in have never been seen again. However, Conan is skeptical, and this isn’t helped by his companion’s offered explanation. Namely, that Baksh is a demon.
This was another nice touch. Rather than Conan being an arrogant fool running headlong into danger, here he is a level-headed, rational man who doesn’t believe the far-fetched tale of his companion. And in the unlikely event anything goes wrong, is confident in his own abilities. This is already a major deviation from the non-Howard Conan books I read, where the Cimmerian often puts himself in grave peril despite the most objective warnings.
As Conan makes his way to Baksh’s tavern, Howard describes the history and peoples of this city, and its current politics. This is both interesting on its own and directly relevant to the later story. More eeriness is weaved once our hero arrives, indicating that perhaps the old man wasn’t fully mad.
Eventually, danger strikes. And when it does, Conan is ready, running it through with his sword! All the while not sure, and not particularly caring, whether it’s human or demon after all. Showing his analytic side, he quickly figures out the riddle of the tavern; Baksh has been inviting cannibal slaves to feast upon foreign travelers, receiving a fee in return.
As Conan vows revenge on the tavern keeper, the story takes a sudden turn, with Conan hearing a female shriek for help. Confronting three more of the cannibals, and neatly killing two, Conan then does something that delineates Howard’s version from the many later ones.
The remaining cannibal gave back with a strangled yell, hurling his captive from him. She tripped and rolled in the dust, and the black fled in blind panic toward the city. Conan was at his heels. Fear winged the black feet, but before they reached the easternmost hut, he sensed death at his back, and bellowed like an ox in the slaughter-yards.
‘Black dog of hell!’ Conan drove his sword between the dusky shoulders with such vengeful fury that the broad blade stood out half its length from the black breast. With a choking cry the black stumbled headlong, and Conan braced his feet and dragged out his sword as his victim fell.
Conan runs the villain down from behind, showing him no mercy, and giving him no opportunity to escape! This is at odds with the standard, fair play Conan I had known from the cartoon and 80’s books. (However, the Conan in Milius’s movie would behave exactly as Howard’s hero did) This action, among others, conveys the brute savagery and bloody pragmatism of Conan the Cimmerian.
It also makes more sense. How would Conan have survived for so long if he took pity on his enemies and allowed them to escape?
From here, Conan finds himself embroiled in the story and schemes of the beautiful woman, Zabibi, he saved. The evil priest of the city Totramesk wants her for his own, and has apparently driven her soldier lover mad with a drug. Zabibi is described sensuously, and has Conan beguiled, as he is willing to risk his life fighting Totramesk for a night with her. This, despite her obvious concern and love for her soldier.
Here, the reader is introduced to a mighty antagonist, Baal-pteor, executioner and strangler for Totramesk. Gigantic, muscle-bound, and supremely arrogant, laughing at Conan throughout, Baal-pteor’s physical feats and murders are pored over in blood-curdling detail.
This is fine way to build up a menacing villain. And it makes Conan’s victory over him particularly satisfying and impressive;
Conan’s low laugh was merciless as the ring of steel.
‘You fool!’ he all but whispered. ‘I think you never saw a man from the West before. Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man—like this!’
And with a savage wrench he twisted Baal-pteor’s head around until the ghastly face leered over the left shoulder, and the vertebrae snapped like a rotten branch.
Admittedly, there is a degree of bragging here, as a short time later we learn that “For all his vocal scorn of Baal-pteor’s strength, he had almost met his match in the inhuman Kosalan.” Nevertheless, this is how one convey’s a protagonist’s power. Build up an impressive antagonist, and then have one’s hero smash him!
We also learn that there is more to Zabibi then she told Conan, and that her desire to have a powerful amulet, the Star of Khorala, was the cause of all her further troubles. And we are treated to the wonderfully picturesque scene depicted in the Weird Tales cover of Zabibi having to use her skills as a dancer to evade the strikes of four cobras surrounding her.
Luckily, Conan makes a marvelous entrance soon after, with his sword impaling Totramesk from behind. Yet again, Conan has no scruples or concepts of “fair play” for villains.
In the end, it turns out that Zabibi is actually Nafertari, the queen of the city. And her maddened “soldier” is the king. Thus, the lure of sex was nothing more than an empty promise towards the entranced, ensnared Conan. He gets a sack of gold for his troubles and nothing more. Naftertari then promises to make him captain of the guard and gives her rescuer orders to obey!
However, it’s Conan who gets the last laugh. For he has found the Star of Khorala and intends to leave the city with it before Nafertari is the wiser. In fact, he recognized Nafertari and Jungir Khan from the very start.
I love this twist! It reminds me of the fantastic ending to Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. There is nothing wrong with rescuing a damsel and living happily ever after with her. However, sometimes the damsel is no good and must be discarded.
And here Conan shows that not only can he get the better of treacherous tavern keepers and hulking executioners, but deceitful, gorgeous vixens as well! This is somehow simultaneously more relatable and impressive.
And, beautifully tying in the end of the story to its beginning, Conan finally gets his sought-after revenge upon Aram Baksh. It is satisfying as well as darkly comic. Baksh receives a fitting, poetic punishment for his crimes.
What can we conclude from this? In addition to being a fast-paced adventure filled with thrilling fights and death set in a lush, exotic, dangerous city, Shadows in Zamboula is notable for its outstanding craftsmanship. It gets all the little details correct, elevating a good story into a great one.