Shadows of Zamboula (originally called Man-Eaters of Zamboula) was first published in Weird Tales magazine November of 1935, coming four months after Beyond the Black River. It is the sixteenth published story in the Conan canon.
Here Conan is both rogue and avenger, entering an ancient and corrupt desert town to become entwined in intrigues, as well as in the tempting arms of an alluring dancing girl in deadly peril.
He clashes with a coven of Negro cannibals from darkest Stygia, cultists of the hideous Ape God who temple doors never close, a noble incognito driven mad by alchemy, a strangler straight from the Thugees, am illusion-weaving wizard, and an innkeeper as murderous and evil as Procrustes.
As expected from a tale of rogues, no one, protagonist nor antagonist, is good, virtuous or upright. The antagonist rogue who betrays Conan by laying a trap, Conan repays by catching him in his own ghastly snare; the protagonist rogue who betrays Conan by cheating him, Conan repays by purloining a treasure far more precious.
This story contains more plot twists than other Conan yarns, and no one is whom he seems.
On the one hand, it is perhaps the most crowded hence enjoyable of his stories, containing elements of everything a Conan story should have, and more. On the other, Conan seems not so much like Conan as elsewhere, and he is largely swept along by events.
One thing missing from the text is any depth. Usually, a Conan story displays the theme of the superiority of brutal but simple barbarism over the luxurious corruption of civilization. Conan is heroic, almost superhuman, due to his kinship with his savage animal nature, giving his extra strength and speed and sharper senses than dull and soft city-dwellers.
But here that element is muted, almost absent.
In a previous tale where Conan was one rogue among many, Rogues in the House, the romanticism of savagery was well displayed. In a moment of eerie barbarian nobility, when a man-ape dies under Conan’s hand, a creature only half a step less evolved then he, doomed by remorseless time to racial extinction, Conan pays him honor and names him a true man and a true adversary. No such moment surfaces in Zamboula.
In this tale, there is one moment where his sensitive fingers detect a hint of heat from a recently-touched door bolt, due to the wolflike keenness of his barbarian senses. But, aside from that, Conan in this tale could have been any well-muscled swordsman.
For example, another scene, when he scales a wall no swamp-dweller could climb, this is credited to his upbringing as a hillman, not to his noble savage physique.
Indeed, more is made of the fact that he is a man of the West, standing out from the crowd of mongrel Negros and Orientals with their crooked ways and gloomy superstitions.
In the opening line of the opening scene, Conan is warned by a desert tribesmen to avoid staying in the accursed Hostel of Aram Baksh, where mysterious disappearances provoke grisly rumors. Conan scoffs at the man’s implication that demons are involved, to which the tribesman replies: “Conan, you are of the West, and know not the secrets of this ancient land.”
This is frankly an odd exchange for Conan, who has himself fought demons on at least three occasions. Instead of contrasting the rationality of civilization with the superstitious credulity, or, perhaps, the ancient mystic insight of barbarism, the tale here contrasts the rationality of the West with the ancient mysticism of the East. It is an odd note, considering that demons, or, at least, demonic powers, will ensnare Conan once or twice before the evening is out.
It is an odd note, but not without purpose: Robert E. Howard is a master of evoking mood and atmosphere in a few striking words and memorable images, reaching adroitly into the mysterious deeps where Jungian archetypes lurk. Here, the mood of one of intrigue, ancient corruption, eastern mystery, horrors both brutal and subtle.
Let as pause to admire the prose of a simple street scene:
With a hillman’s stride he moved through the ever-shifting colors of the streets, where the ragged tunics of whining beggars brushed against the ermine-trimmed khalats of lordly merchants, and the pearl-sewn satin of rich courtesans. Giant black slaves slouched along, jostling blue-bearded wanderers from the Shemitish cities, ragged nomads from the surrounding deserts, traders and adventurers from all the lands of the East.
The babel of a myriad tongues smote on the Cimmerian’s ears as the restless pattern of the Zamboulan streets weaved about him — cleft now and then by a squad of clattering horsemen, the tall, supple warriors of Turan, with dark hawk-faces, clinking metal, and curved swords. The throng scampered from under their horses’ hoofs, for they were the lords of Zamboula. But tall, somber Stygians, standing back in the shadows, glowered darkly, remembering their ancient glories.
Howard uses the trick of naming his tribes and nations after the myths, on the conceit that these are half-forgotten memories of prehistory. Shemites are proto-Semitic ancestors of Arabs and Jews; Turan is the Persian name for Turkistan, hence the Turanians are proto-Turks; Stygians are prehistoric Egyptiana, when the Nile was called the Styx. The Negros of Darfar are ancestors to modern Darfur of Sudan; their neighbors, the Wadai, are still called that, if sometimes spelled Ouaddai.
Howard also remembers his continuity between stories. The creepy desert tribesman whose warning opens the tale is a Zuagir, a proto-Bedouin, which in A Witch Shall be Born welcomed Conan as a chieftain, which explains the camaraderie between the two.
Speaking of races, let me digress to mention that, in preparation for this column, when reading other reviews of this story, one encounters frequent remarks on the racism or racial insensitivity of Robert E Howard, or perhaps of the 1930s generally, allegedly present in the story.
Such remarks may be dismissed as hypocrisy, if not hysteria. A story set in a fantasy world of prehistory has the same auctorial license as any historic novel to portray savage peoples with grisly customs as savage.
Obviously, Negroes from a pre-cataclysmic setting cannot be called by silly pious neologisms like “African-Americans” if neither continent is yet born.
And, again, a story which portrays one tribe of a given race as enamored of wicked customs while another tribe of the same race is not (as are the Darfar and Wadai here) can be accused, at most, of tribal favoritism, not racial.
To be fair, it is not as if the Shemites, Turanians, Stygians, or various other characters of their several imaginary races in this tale are not just as wicked and savage, or worse, than the Man-Eaters.
Despite the warning of his superstitious Zuagir comrade, Conan has gambled away all his possessions save his shagreen-hilted broadsword and a single copper coin for a last flask of wine, so he must stay at the doubtful Inn.
The smiling and unctuous Aram Baksh, surrounded by a palpable aura of sly and smiling menace, shows the Cimmerian to a room whose stout door is clearly meant to trap the traveler in the room. Meanwhile a second door opens up directly into the deserted street where no beggars dare linger after dark, at the edge of town, beyond which an empty grove whose fire-pit is filled with human bones.
As ever, Conan sleeps with his sword unsheathed under his pillow, and is not taken unawares — barbarians wake up faster than civilized men, no doubt due to their all-meat diet — when a shadowy figure shaped like a demon stoops over him.
The fight scene, and those that follow, are handled with adroit brutality and clarity one rightly expects from a Conan tale. For example, when interrupting three cannibals at work:
One of them was down, disemboweled, before he could strike, and wheeling catlike, Conan evaded the stroke of the other’s cudgel and lashed in a whistling counter-cut. The black’s head flew into the air; the headless body took three staggering steps, spurting blood and clawing horribly at the air with groping hands, and then slumped to the dust. The remaining cannibal gave back with a strangled yell, hurling his captive from him.
This captive turns out to be a supple young nude with splendid bosom and lithe limbs, brunette hair, flexible waist, with sleek and silken skin. She introduces herself as Zabibi, a dancing-girl, whose young lover went mad and drove her into the streets “naked as the day she was born.” It is later mentioned that dancers of Zamboula are accustomed to nakedness. By modern standards, such lascivious depictions seem modest, but it plays into to the general degenerate atmosphere of the tale, plus gives the cover artist of the magazine ammunition for titillation.
In a rapid but convoluted exposition, she explains that she attempted to beguile her man, a young Turanian officer named Alafdhal, with a love potion, but it engendered psychosis, not romance, due to the tricky malice of one Totrasmek, the warlock-priest of the Ape-God Hanuman, who desires her for himself.
Hanuman, let it be noted, is one of the few gods of the Hyborian Age still in circulation. He is a Hindu deity.
The idol is described thus:
He was carved from black marble, but his eyes were rubies, which glowed red and lustful as the coals of hell’s deepest pits. His great hands lay upon his lap, palms upward, taloned fingers spread and grasping. In the gross emphasis of his attributes, in the leer of his satyr-countenance, was reflected the abominable cynicism of the degenerate cult which deified him.
This is hardly in keeping with his modern Hindu namesake.
The dancing girl pleads for the Cimmerian’s help, while she teases him with her vibrant body, perfumed mouth, and supple figure, and promises to pay the price his burning eyes ask of her. The terms of the business relationship are not explicitly stated, but the implication is explicit enough. Conan, out of pure lust, agrees to find the wandering lunatic, and to murder the priest.
Why is Conan asked, and not the many soldiers, warriors, and armed nobles described elsewhere on the page? The dancing girl explains that since Alafdhal has a promising career ahead, she wants to keep both madness and murder out of the public eye.
She also offers that the priest follows an unpopular religion, and so there will be no retribution for his murder from the town ruler, the satrap Jungir Khan (albeit rumor says he, in turned, is ruled by his mistress Nafertari).
Conan raises but one objection:
“And what of his magic?” rumbled the Cimmerian.
“You are a fighting man,” she answered. “To risk your life is part of your profession.”
“For a price,” he admitted.
“There will be a price!” she breathed, rising on tiptoes, to gaze into his eyes.
That she is desperately in love with her man, but willing to grant, as the abovementioned price, the gift of her supple body to the manly desires of Conan as payment for services rendered is dismissed with an airy word by the narrator: “Women are more practical about these things than men.”
It is a credit to the skill of the writer that the reader, caught up in the vivid action and menace of the rapid plot, most likely will not pause to ponder how despicable are all characters involved.
I mean, who among us would not murder a man of the cloth on the unsupported word of an alluring odalisque or nubile harlot who fed her last lover poisoned potions, in return for the connubial pleasures of an hour?
One can only speculate how many bastards Conan has fathered in his wanderings, or how many unwanted children of his ended by being exposed to the elements.
Chivalrous, Conan is not.
No matter. The story rushes on! In short order, Conan finds and subdues the young officer, binds his hands, then accompanies the dancing-girl to the temple of the Ape-God on his murder mission, whereupon the dancing girl is snatched away through a trap door, he is befuddled by illusions, and then he is locked into mortal combat with a giant man, more massive and muscular than even he.
This mighty figure mocks while lounging on a divan. He says he was given the name Baal-Pteor, adding “…why Totrasmek gave it to me, any temple wench can tell you.”
Howard assumes the devils of any given people were the gods of earlier generations long conquered, so the devil Baal, in prehistory, is a god of the Shemites.
Pteor apparently alludes to a Priapic deity. This can be deduced from a clue in Jewels of Gwahlur, which mentions, in passing, the altar and statue of “… the monstrous and obscene Pteor, the god of the Pelishti, wrought in brass, with his exaggerated attributes reflecting the grossness of his cult…” Again, note the delicacy with which a 1930s publication portrays degeneracy, both of phallic cults and of phallic boasts.
Unfortunately, the illusions that daze Conan before the battle is joined are not memorable. They lack any of the creative or creepy inventiveness of prior brushes with magic from other tales. The magic in this story lacks magic.
By way of contrast, in People of the Black Circle, an explanation of the cultural background needed to fall victim to mesmeric influence is explained, and Conan Western background, alien even to the concept of hypnosis, gives him the strength to resist the spell.
Here, the illusions simply deceive him into striking a magnetic table which yanks his sword from his hand. But the magnetic table is a clever bit of business, which allows for the unarmed fight following.
On the other hand, as with all but one of his challenges in this tale, Conan does not do anything clever or unexpected to defeat the mighty strangler, nor to recover his sword. In both cases, raw muscle power solves the problem.
As with all well-made epics, the might men of valor must vaunt before battle is joined.
“Your head, Cimmerian!” taunted Baal-pteor. “I shall take it with my bare hands, twisting it from your shoulders as the head of a fowl is twisted! Thus the sons of Kosala offer sacrifice to Yajur. Barbarian, you look upon a strangler of Yotapong.
“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. Yajur loves blood, and we waste not a drop from the victim’s veins. When I was a child they gave me infants to throttle; when I was a boy I strangled young girls; as a youth, women, old men, and young boys.
“Not until I reached my full manhood was I given a strong man to slay on the altar of Yotapong… The priests of Kosala, the stranglers of Yajur, are strong beyond the belief of men. And I was stronger than any. With my hands, barbarian, I shall break your neck!”
Yajur may be taken from the name of the Hindu holy book Yajur-Veda, which means “the Lore of Veneration.” The character here is described as from Kosala, a land described as ” east of Vendhya (India) and south of the Himelian Mountains (Himalayan).” He is, in effect, a Thuggee.
It should come as no surprise that Conan prevails. In this case, since they were matched equally in strength, it was his unfailing fury won his victory.
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!”
Conan’s thin lips drew back from his teeth in a grinning snarl. Baal-pteor’s eyes were distended and in them grew an awful surprise and the glimmer of fear. Both men stood motionless as images, except for the expanding of their muscles on rigid arms and braced legs, but strength beyond common conception was warring there …
… the muscles of the Cimmerian’s thick neck did not give; they felt like masses of woven iron cords under Baal-Pteor’s desperate fingers. But his own flesh was giving way under the iron fingers of the Cimmerian which ground deeper and deeper into the yielding throat muscles, crushing them in upon jugular and windpipe…
The statuesque immobility of the group gave way to sudden, frenzied motion, as the Kosalan began to wrench and heave, seeking to throw himself backward. He let go of Conan’s throat and grasped his wrists, trying to tear away those inexorable fingers…
The scene is tense and well-executed, indeed, one of the few memorable scenes in the tale.
Meanwhile, the naked dancing-girl is being forced by a quartet of striking cobras to dance herself to death by exhaustion before the ghastly priest, described as “a broad, fleshy man, with fat white hands and snaky eyes.”
This torture is either for the sake of pure prurient sadism, or to force from her the secret of a magic ring that grants the power to enslave the hearts of any of the opposite sex. Each thinks the other has it, because both wanted to take from its current owner, the young man whom drugs drove mad. But neither found it on him.
Conan introduces himself into the scene swordpoint first, skewering the loathsome priest from behind without ado, and rescuing the voluptuous damsel — who was not in as much peril was she seemed, nor is she who she seems.
It so happens, nearly everything the dancing girl said to Conan was a lie, for it was greed for a magic talisman, not love, that motivated her desire to find Alafdhal, who is also not who he seems.
Nor, for that matter, is Conan what he seemed to be, the deceived dupe ensnared by a girl’s beauty, for he had penetrated their disguises from the first.
Some might objects that if Zabibi were not actually Zabibi the dancing girl, she would neither have had a dancer’s indifference to nudity, nor had the dancer’s skills needed to dodge the striking cobra’s fangs.
On the other hand, once her secret identity is revealed, the text never says she is not a dancing girl. It merely says that she is not Zabibi. She is not described as a wife or even concubine, but as the mistress of the satrap. He could have an affair with a dancing girl as easily, or more so, than with a woman of higher status.
Conan is offered gold and a position as captain of the guard by the grateful ruler of the town. He accepts the grant, or seems to, but instead he uses the gold to buy a swift horse.
In a satisfying moment, he cheats the girl who cheated him of her treasures he craved, so he took the treasure she craved, worth a roomful of gold. Rich in pelf and sated in revenge, he is well mounted and has a healthy head-start against the coming pursuit.
But not before one last act does he depart. The final scene is both morbid and gratifying, as Conan exacts a ironic yet dire revenge on the ghoulish innkeeper who conspired to have him killed.
He gallops away from the foul, crooked town, and the sounds of the grisly, gobbling screams of the mute and mangled Aram Baksh being consumed by his well-deserved fate fade in the distance.
Off he rides to his penultimate adventure! Of those penned by Robert E. Howard himself, only two remain.
Originally published here.