The three sentences that open this old piece of yarn are by far some of the most awe inspiring, drum-pounding riffs of lore I can recall. I have to say, the piece that comes before The Thing in the Crypt (The Hyborian Age, Part 1) almost put me to sleep, though. I guess I’m not satisfied until I read the heralding “Know, O Prince” line that the saga of Conan is about to be told in true pulp fashion.
There are fans of Howard who love the lore of his life: the loony guy that shouted prose while swinging his fists about empty streets and fields, the chronology of his letters to authors of the time, his mental state, and accounts of the day, or the way, he died. I’m not interested in those elements so much as I am in the way he spun his yarn. To open a short piece like this with a prologue, and then head into a chapter structure, would probably get you shoved to the bottom of the slush pile today. I personally don’t like prologues, but when someone can pull them off like the one found in The Thing in the Crypt, I’m all ears (or eyes).
It’s interesting to compare the actual writings of Howard to what people believe he wrote about, or to the myriad forms he’s been represented by in comics and film. First of all, I picked up this 1967 copy from a seller on eBay and the thing smells like whatever Conan found inside that crypt. It’s brittle, dry, and smells like a library I would have sat in when I was five years old. I love it.
In his long-winded introduction, Howard tells of the boy Conan. ‘He is a thief, a reaver, and a slayer with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth.’ There isn’t much in the way of building sympathy for Conan in this first short piece, but I’m not sure we’re supposed to. He is at once a captive of the Hyperboreans, but ends up that way because he is: ‘restless under the conflicting urges of his adolescence, his tradition, and his time spent fruitlessly raiding.’ In short, Conan is a bastardly brooding teenager filled with an urge to conquer the world and stand above it with sandaled feet. I haven’t seen this type of character much in the modern short story. Indeed, he would probably get blasted for having no real motivation (hold your horses).
Part 1. Red Eyes
We open with blood thirsty wolves pursuing the unarmed Conan. He manages to keep them at bay with a long piece of chain, and falls through the ice on his way to solid ground. Howard’s descriptions of the world are what really grab me in the opening section. Sure, we are told about Conan’s escape from his captors and his ‘vague dreams of desperate adventures,’ but not much in the way of a real, foreboding conflict, internally, at least. But check out these lines:
‘He could not see very far, because all around him rose, like the silent soldiers of some bewitched army, the trunks of millions of black spruces. Snow clung in dim, white patches to the northern slopes of the hills, but the gurgle of thousands of rills from melting snow and ice presaged the coming of spring. This was a dark, silent, gloomy world even in high summer; and now, as the dim light from the overcast faded with the approach of dusk, it seemed more somber than ever.’
This is the prose that pulled me in. The narration feels like a wizened soul retelling things he/she has seen firsthand. Finally, Conan makes it to a mass of rocks where he plans to make a stand against his pursuers. It’s classic third person with a lot of physicality and detail about the world around our hero. I noticed Howard used the word ‘loped’ or ‘loping’ a couple of times to describe the movement of both the wolves and Conan. It describes precisely the act of leaping away by long strides and bounds. I’m keeping that one in my tool box. As we’ll see, Howard has a couple of words and phrases that he uses abundantly.
Words for my toolbox: loping, murk, rill, presage, stripling, harrying.
Part 2. The Door in the Rock
Safe at last from the sting of the elements and the dripping fangs of wolves, Conan finds himself in a dark chamber.
‘As he groped his way through this portal into pitch blackness, his questing fingers told him that here were chisel marks on the stone, forming cryptic glyphs in some unknown writing. Unknown, at least, to the untutored boy from the barbarous northlands, who could neither read nor write and who scorned such civilized skills as effeminate.’
I enjoy how Howard distances himself from the character of Conan while simultaneously telling the reader, “look at this bad-ass, and imagine what it would be like to live like a barbarian, bowing to nothing.” Surely Howard didn’t see reading or writing as weak, soft skills; he made a living—built an entire life for himself—by those same skills. I’m sure this isn’t the first time a character is thrust into darkness with naught but wits and strength to survive, but it’s a good vantage point for mixing high fantasy with horror, something I really like to see.
Howard doesn’t go into details as to why Conan believes something is looming in the darkness. He doesn’t see anything, doesn’t have some kind of spider sense or sensory magic that warns him. He just feels a presence. Most of the time I find myself asking questions about all the details of a story, but in this case it doesn’t matter. I’m strapped in for the ride and I don’t care if I’m on railroad tracks or roller-coaster tracks; the blast of the wind still feels good.
Conan manages to build a fire from tinder and flint found while groping around in the dark. Spare me the details about materials found and chariot wheels and rotting wood, and let’s hear about the dead guy sitting on a throne at the end of the chamber.
‘For there, enthroned on a great, stone chair at the further end of the chamber, sat the huge figure of a naked man, with a naked sword across his knees and a cavernous skull-face staring at him through the flickering firelight.’
‘Much rather would Conan have faced even the hungry wolves than remain here with the dead thing glaring down at him from its rocky throne, while the wavering firelight painted life and animation into the withered skull-face and moved the shadows in its sunken sockets like dark, burning eyes.’
Where the natural fear of darkness and dead things that barbarians have comes from, I have no idea. Conan has no qualms about leaving dead bodies in his wake, but to actually have to sit around and stare at them seems more frightening than facing a pack of wild wolves. Let’s agree that Conan knows something about this crypt that we, the readers, don’t. There’s a lot of angst and passion, dramatic as it may be, in Howard’s writing here. The dead king is naked, the sword is naked, and Conan is nearly naked; I get it. Perhaps it was a necessity of pulp writers of the time to emphasize descriptive words like this to entice readers. I have no idea what the market was like back then, but folks were sure pulled in by nakedness.
‘Questing fingers’ and ‘prickled hair on the napes of necks’ are two more of the phrases that Howard uses gratuitously here. I’ve heard it said that a writer should finish that first draft then go back and remove all the adverbs. I don’t always agree with this piece of advice, but I think Howard could have used a bit of it. Again, he’s writing for a much different audience. I wonder if editors back then used the same practice of removing the –ly’s from manuscripts.
For the toolbox: stay away from questing fingers. I quite like ‘yawning blackness.’
Part 3. The Thing on the Throne
‘A necklace of unshaped nuggets of gold hung about his neck; uncut gems winked from golden rings on his claw-like hands, which still clasped the arms of the throne. A horned helm of bronze, now covered with a green, waxy coating of verdigris, crowned the pate about the withered, brown horror of the face.’
Across the lap of the thing on the throne, Conan finds a blue-ironed blade, distinguished from other weapons of the age. Howard adds some backstory and history to the tale at this point, though, like the preceding prose, doesn’t delve too deep. ‘Who was this man?’ is the point where tidbits about the sinking of Atlantis, the ancient Vanir and AEsir (spelling), and even Kull, are inserted. It’s just enough to keep me reading, curious about the world outside the dank crypt where Conan wields a blade for the first time. ‘Crom, what a sword!’ the narrator says. At this point, I have no idea who Crom is. Howard alludes to religion here, but we’re still concentrated on the sword Conan is heaving around.
Again, we hear about the motivations of our hero.
‘With a sword such as this, even a half-naked young barbarian from the raw Cimmerian wilderness might hack his way across the world and wade through rivers of gore to a place among the high kings of earth!’
Teddy Roosevelt would have loved this guy. He is the quintessential frontiersman, hacking through nameless pawns on his way to conquer the world. Now, as an adult, these notions are somewhat silly to me and have long since passed from the annals of my adolescence. But they’re important, and they have their place in genre history. Boys in Howard’s day were enthralled by these tales, and they still exist today, though in very different mediums. Video games, in my opinion, have taken the place of tales like this, whose narratives and urges to wield new weapons and ‘level up’ now sit pretty in bedrooms and living rooms across the world. Paolo Bacigalupi, a favorite author of mine, has a great interview on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast where he talks about the modern day replacement of these tales.
Onward now! The dead guy on the throne has just awoken.
Words for the toolbox: verdigris, thews, and pate (dusty little buggers).
Part 4. When Dead Men Walk
We get about six short paragraphs in this fourth part, mostly concerned with what Howard calls a ‘mummy’ rising from its seat and backing Conan against the wall. There is really no choice here, no moral ambiguity pressing the plight of Conan’s superstitions (we see his superstitions attributed to his keen sense that something is wrong). If like me, you’ve seen Oliver Stone’s rendition of this scene, you’d ask yourself “why the hell did he not include this chapter in the film?”
Call it lack of technology or a dwindling budget, but I would love to have seen this played out on film. As the narration goes, I can’t help but picture a corpse wrapped in linen holding out its gnarled hand in slow motion. Conan severs the hand, which later reanimates, and cracks the thing in the rib cage. It falls, gets up, and comes in for round two! In the future, I hope to find accompanying illustrations for this story.
Part 5. Duel With the Dead
Nothing is nuanced. The chapters are titled with exactly what they contain. But what else is there to want from a half-naked guy facing a reanimated corpse?
‘How can you kill a thing that is already dead? The question echoed madly in Conan’s brain. It went round and round until he thought he would go mad with the repetition of it. His lungs labored; his heart pounded as if it were about to burst. Slash and strike as he would, nothing could even slow the dead thing that shuffled after him.’
Blow by blow action can sometimes make the pages fly by without really imagining what it looks like. I’ve seen many a publication stress, as a ‘thing we don’t want to see,’ this kind of back and forth between opponents. And for the most part, I agree. Just like the anatomical impossibilities of some of the cover art for these old books, the things these warriors of old can do, or say, in the middle of a fight for their lives can really kill a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. But here, I don’t believe Howard has overstepped his bounds. Here, I want to hear the clamor and clang of steel against steel. But Conan is tiring himself out with unrelenting attacks that seem to only piss this guy off. Now we see strategy.
‘Conan reacted by instinct. With all his might, he brought both sandaled feet up against the shrunken belly of the dead thing stooping over him. Hurled into the air, it fell with a crash behind him, right in the fire.’
For good measure, Conan tosses that withered hand he severed earlier into the flames also. Leave nothing behind, barbarian. Short and sweet.
Part 6. The Sword of Conan
‘Moments later, wrapped in an old fur cloak from one of the chests and holding a torch in one hand and the sword in the other, he emerged from the cave. There was no sign of the wolves. A glance upward showed that the sky was clearing. Conan studied the stars that glimmered between patches of cloud, then once more set his footsteps to southward.’
And that’s all he wrote.
Guy escapes imprisonment, escapes ravenous wolves, finds shelter, finds a weapon, kills a dead thing, and moves on. You can put it that bluntly, or you can wonder at the simplicity of the ride. I don’t believe, with a story like this, that Howard would have found a pro market in today’s vastly different world. There are so few paying markets willing to buy a joy ride today. There are so many afterthoughts and questions abounding. What were Conan’s parents like? Why does he have such a chip on his shoulder? What kind of currency does this world have? Surely Conan has a job?
I love the literary quality of today’s fiction, it’s lush and thought-provoking and sticks with you far after the pages are closed and the lights go out. But I also like a good ride on the wings of unabashed adventure, where it doesn’t matter where you came from, or where you are going, only that a dead guy is standing in front of you and you just so happen to have a blue-steeled blade in hand.
The Tower of the Elephant is next.
Keep your questing fingers pounding on the keyboard.