"Shadows in Zamboula"
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
Can't help it, but I'll try to give just enough to whet your appetites to read this story.
Not high on the list of best stories Robert E Howard ever wrote or even among the best Conan stories, "Shadows In Zamboula" is still a decent bundle of pulpish thrills. It has hints of sex and minimum required nudity (MRN), big bloody stacks of outright violence, an ominous mystery-style beginning and a neat resolution that shows Howard at least kept track of his plots and liked to tie everything up at the end with a vicious little stinger. It also has some racial slurs guaranteed today to get Al Sharpton shouting into a CNN microphone, but that's an aspect of 1930s pulp that has to be taken as part of the brew. These offensive phrases are like the scars in fine leather or the hiss on old LPs --- it's a sign of authenticity. You don't have to like them, but they're part of the historical package.
Appearing in the November 1935 issue of WEIRD TALES (Howard's original title was "Man-Eaters of Zamboula") this is a relatively minor episode in the life of our favorite barbarian, a single night of mayhem he may well have forgotten by the time he sat on the throne of Aquilonia. Conan is down on his luck in Zamboula, a trading town full of gypsies, tramps and thieves - part of the desert claimed by the Turanian empire. We find the Cimmerian with nothing left but his sword, having already sold his horse. Luckily, he had the foresight (doubtless gained by too many nights spent in the rain after gambling the rent money) to have paid for a room in advance.
Here's the problem. A friendly old nomad who remembers Conan as a brother to the Zuagirs gives him a warning, "Peril hides in the house of Aram Baksh!" Sure enough, the room Conan has rented belongs to a landlord with shady reputation. Travelers who check in are never seen again (he claims they left the next morning in the usual way), their belongings are found for sale in the bazaars and (most unsettling) there is a clump of palm-trees out on the edge of town, which contains a fire-pit. "And within that pit have been found human bones, charred and blackened. Not once but many times!"
Well, even a guy like Conan, who could draw envious stares at Gold's Gym and who has cut off more heads than you or I have rented DVDs, is a bit taken back by that. Heading to his lodging at the tavern as it grows dark, he notices that the streets are rapidly emptying. Even the usual beggars are scooting for cover instead of settling in alleys and doorways. Returning to his room, Conan gives his sleazy landlord a suspicious glare and bolts himself in. He always sleeps with steel at hand, but that night he's sure to have sword's hilt in his big mitt.
In the middle of the night, the bolted door slowly starts to open anyway and Conan (who has the sharp instincts of a wild animal etc and so on) is immediately awake. "In a widening crack of skylit sky he saw framed a great black bulk - broad stooping shoulders and a misshapen head blocked out against the stars. Conan felt the skin crawl between his shoulders."
As you might guess, the intruder has tried to sneak into absolutely the wrong room looking for a helpless victim. It develops that the slaves of Zamboula are from Darfar, and their religion requires human sacrifice. Even worse, the reason they go to all the trouble of filing their teeth to sharp points (ouch! imagine doing that to yourself..) is because they are old-fashioned no-fooling cannibals. Aram Baksh has rigged a trick bolt to the room so it can be opened from the outside; he gets to keep the travelers' belongings to hawk, the cannibals get a nice buffet and everyone is happy except for those who get stuck with the tab (the travelers, that is.)
I love Conan's quiet, non-melodramatic vow of revenge. He overhears some of the cannibals: " 'Aram promised us a man,' " muttered another, and Conan mentally promised Aram something." Don't think it slips his mind, either.
At this point, an entirely different story seems to wander onto the page. On streets deserted because of roaming cannibal mobs (good reason), Conan encounters a rather plain ordinary-looking chubby woman. Naw, just kidding. He meets a gorgeous young damsel, "naked as the day she was born" (it's her birthday suit, happy birthday!) and desperately looking for a hero. It seems Zabibi's a dancing girl and her main squeeze has been slipped a potion that made him a raving lunatic.
This is the dirty work of Totrasmek, high priest of Hanuman, who has long craved her bod. The big barbarian checks Zabibi out and agrees to help confront the priest and seize the antidote. "For a price." Considering he doesn't have anything in the world but his sword, frayed shorts and the flip-flops he's wearing, Conan might have been better off asking for some cash to get him to the next town. But you know how Cimmerians are when they see a nice leg. (Zabibi is not a sweet delicate little blossom, either; she has her own agenda and she thinks she can gull this big dumb Northerner. Hah, I say to her.)
Before it's all over, Conan is engaged in a choking match with a professional strangler, the girl is doing a desperate improvized dance as four cobras in a ring take turns nipping at her drumsticks and it turns out a priceless magic ring ("the Star of Khorala, stolen from the Queen of Ophir") is behind the whole mess. Things seem to wind up well enough for Conan (although he doesn't get any carnal reward) but actually he is way ahead of the game. It seems right off the bat the shrewd barbarian recognized the players in the con game he was suckered into, was one step ahead of them, and he rides out happily with the real prize. Conan is no fool. As he trots away, the screams of Aram Baksh are a satifying sign of poetic justice in its truest sense.
At one point, Conan ends up staring down an enormous Black man called Baal-pteor. This guy is taller and heavier than our hero, with enormous hands. It seems he is "a Strangler of Yota-pong. I was chosen by the priests of Yajur in my infancy, and throughout childhood, boyhood and youth, I was trained in the art of slaying with the naked hands - for only thus are the sacrifices enacted."
Again, I really enjoy Conan's reaction. Here's this huge powerful brute who has spent a lifetime breaking people's necks. As he grabs the Cimmerian's throat and starts to throttle, does Conan bring his own arms up inside to break the grip? Does he punch the man in the belly or knee him in the groin or poke an eye out? Nope. He brings his own hands up to clamp on the Strangler's thick neck and they begin a choking contest. You have to admire the barbarian's confidence.
There's a lot of things I admire about Howard's work, aside from the obvious passion and vitality he puts into it. He has a real knack for suggesting a scene without going into long descriptive passages. The characters speak a workable compromise of modern English and more antique style of speaking, avoiding too much modern slang but also missing the stilted flowery language that makes much modern fantasy a cloying experience. Conan and the people in his world speak sentences you can imagine real people saying. And everyone has their own interests in mind and no one is completely innocent. Conan is no worse than most of the other characters, and he's actually more honest and trustworthy than most of them.
There is the problem (from our modern sensibilities) that the streets of Zamboula at night are given over to marauding bands of black cannibals. Well, what can we say? Maybe I should put up a long carefully worded disclaimer about ethnic stereotypes and racial slurs in 1930s fiction (not just the pulps by any means) and add a link to it whenever the subject comes up. It's interesting that the citizens of Zamboula know what their slaves are up to but keep quiet because they're too valuable a work force to lose and an uprising would be disastrous. Must have been some strained relations during the day between the slaves and the owners. I noticed the way Conan spots some men coming down the street and "from their slouching gait he knew they were negroes." I think it was Chris Rock who did a whole bit in his stand-up act, acting out the different way whites and blacks walk, but I seriously doubt he based his observations on a 1935 Conan story.