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Authors: Lyon Sprague de Camp

Conan and the Spider God

BOOK: Conan and the Spider God
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C
onan, the magnificent barbarian adventurer, grew up in the mind of Robert Ervin Howard, the Texan pulp writer, in 1932. As Howard put it, the character “grew up in my mind … when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande … . He simply stalked full-grown out of oblivion and set me to work recording the saga of his adventures … . Some mechanism in my subconsciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prizefighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil-field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I have come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.”
This is undoubtedly true. Yet, at the same time, Conan is an obvious idealization of Howard himself—Howard as he wished he were: a hell-raising, irresponsible adventurer, devoted to wine, women, and strife. For all his burly build—he was five feet eleven inches tall and weighed nearly two hundred pounds, most of it muscle—Robert Howard and the great Cimmerian were as different as day and night.
While both Howard and his hero had hot tempers and a chivalrous attitude towards women, Conan is portrayed as a pure extrovert, a roughneck with few inhibitions and a rudimentary conscience. His creator, on the other hand, was a morally upright man, meticulously law-abiding; courteous and tenderhearted; shy, bookish, introverted, and—although he denied it—a genuine intellectual. A moody man, he alternated between periods of cheerful, spellbinding garrulity and spells of depression and despair. At the age of thirty, with a promising literary career opening out before him, he took his own life on the occasion of his aged mother’s death.
Born in Peaster, Texas, in 1906, Robert E. Howard spent his adult years in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas, in the center of the state. A shy and lonely child, he became a voracious bookworm and a bodybuilder who enhanced his naturally powerful physique by boxing, weight-lifting, and riding. Among his favorite authors were Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling, Harold Lamb, Jack London, and Talbot Mundy. With these interests, it is not surprising that he wrote boxing stories, Western stories, tales of oriental adventure, and a goodly volume of memorable verse.
Transcending all these, both in volume and in popularity, were his fantasy stories. It was Howard’s misfortune that during the brief decade of his productive literary life, fantasy was held in low esteem. He did not live to see any of his works appear in book form. Most of his imaginative tales were published in
Weird Tales,
a magazine that led a precarious existence from 1923 to 1954. Although its rates were low and payments often late, Howard found it his most reliable market.
I
n the late 1920s, Howard wrote a series of fantasies about King Kull, a native of lost Atlantis who becomes the ruler of a mainland kingdom. The series had only limited success; of the ten Kull stories he completed, Howard sold three.
Later he rewrote an unsold Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!” The new tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was set in a later imaginary period, Howard’s Hyborian Age, a time between the sinking of Atlantis and the beginnings of recorded history. Howard gave his new hero the old Celtic name of Conan; for, being of partly Irish ancestry himself, Howard harbored an intense interest in and admiration for the Celts.
“The Phoenix on the Sword” became a smash hit with the readers of
Weird Tales.
Hence, from 1932 to 1936, most of Howard’s writing time was devoted to Conan stories, although shortly before his death, he spoke of giving up fantasy to concentrate on Westerns.
Of Howard’s several heroes, Conan proved the most popular. Howard saw the publication of eighteen stories about the gigantic barbarian, who wades through rivers of gore to overthrow foes both natural and supernatural, and who at last becomes the ruler of the mightiest Hyborian kingdom.
Since Howard’s death, several unpublished Conan stories, from complete manuscripts to mere fragments and synopses, have come to light through the efforts of Glenn Lord and myself. My colleague, Lin Carter, and I have completed the unfinished tales, and Carter and Björn Nyberg have collaborated with me on new Conan stories to fill the gaps in the saga.
In addition, several other colleagues—Karl Edward Wagner, Andrew Offutt, and Poul Anderson—have also tried their hands at Conan pastiches, a venerable form of literature in which a living author tries to recapture both the spirit and the style of a predecessor, as Virgil in his
Aeneid
did with Homer’s epics.
Conan and the Spider God
is such a novel. To what extent any of us can re-create the vividness of Howard’s narratives and the excellence of his style, the reader must judge for himself.
T
he Conan stories belong to a subgenre of fantasy called heroic fantasy, or swordplay-and-sorcery fiction. This art form was originated in the 1880s by William Morris, the British artist, poet, decorator, manufacturer, and reformer, as a modern imitation of the medieval romance, which had been moribund since Cervantes burlesqued it with his
Don Quixote.
Morris was followed in the United Kingdom in the early twentieth century by Lord Dunsany and Eric Rücker Eddison, and in the United States by Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and many others.
Heroic fantasies are laid in an imaginary world—either long ago, or far into the future, or on another planet—where magic works, supernatural beings abound, and machinery does not exist. An adult fairy tale of this kind provides pure escape fiction. In such a world, gleaming cities raise their silver spires against the stars; sorcerers cast sinister spells from subterranean lairs; baleful spirits stalk crumbling ruins of immemorial antiquity; primeval monsters crash through jungle thickets; and the fate of kingdoms is balanced on the blades of broadswords brandished by heroes of preternatural strength and valor. Men are mighty, women are beautiful, problems are simple, life is adventurous, and nobody has ever heard of inflation, the petroleum shortage, or atmospheric pollution.
In other words, heroic fantasy sings of a world not as it is, but as it ought to be. Its aim is to entertain, not to display the author’s cleverness, nor to uplift the reader, nor to expose the shortcomings of the world we live in. On the subject of pure escapism, J. R. R. Tolkien once remarked, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison … he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
During the Second World War, it appeared that fantasy had become a casualty of the machine age. Then, with the publication in the 1950s of Tolkien’s three-volume novel
The Lord of the Rings,
and its later reprinting in paperback as a runaway bestseller, the future of modern fantasy was assured.
In the 1960s, I managed to interest a paperback publisher in the whole series of the Conan stories, so that for the first time Howard’s remarkable tales reached a mass audience. The resulting twelve volumes proved second only to
The Lord of the Rings
in popularity among works of fantasy, for here is a hero who bestrides the world, untrammeled by petty laws and hindrances; here is a tale told in vigorous, colorful style; here is man triumphant over soul-searing trials and tribulations. Here is the stuff that dreams are made of.
I
n the saga, Conan, the son of a blacksmith, is born in the bleak, barbarous northern land of Cimmeria. Forced by a feud to flee his tribe, he travels north to the subarctic land of Asgard, where he joins the Æsir in battles with the Vanir of Vanaheim to the west and the Hyperboreans to the east. In one of these forays he is captured and enslaved by the Hyperboreans. He escapes and makes his way south to the ancient land of Zamora. Lawless and green to the ways of civilization, Conan occupies himself for a couple of years as a thief, more daring than adroit, not only in Zamora but also in the neighboring realms of Corinthia and Nemedia.
Disgusted with this starveling, outcast existence, Conan treks eastward and enlists in the army of the mighty oriental kingdom of Turan, then ruled by the good-natured but ineffectual King Yildiz. Here he serves as a soldier for about two years, learning archery and horsemanship and traveling widely, once as far east as fabled Khitai.
As the present story opens, Conan, still in his early twenties, has risen to the rank of captain and has obtained a long-coveted transfer to the Royal Guard in the capital city of Aghrapur. As usual, trouble is his bedfellow; and circumstances soon compel him to seek his fortune elsewhere.
L. SPRAGUE DE CAMP
Villanova, Pennsylvania
 
LUST AND DEATH
 
A
tall, immensely powerful man—almost a giant—stood motionless in the shadows of the courtyard. Although he could see the candle that the Turanian woman had placed in the window as a sign that the coast was clear, and to a hillman the climb was child’s play, he waited. He had no desire to be caught halfway up the wall, clinging like a beetle to the ivy that mantled the ancient edifice. While the civic guard would hesitate to arrest one of King Yildiz’s officers, word of his escapade would surely reach the ears of Narkia’s protector. And this protector was Senior Captain Orkhan, the large man’s commanding officer.
With alert blue eyes, Conan of Cimmeria, a captain in the Royal Guard, scanned the sky above, where the full moon dusted the domes and towers of Aghrapur with powdered silver. A cloud was bearing down upon the luminary; but this wind-borne galleon of the sky was inadequate for the Cimmerian’s purpose. It would dim the moonlight for only half the time required to clamber up the ivy. A much larger cloud, he observed with satisfaction, sailed in the wake of the first.
When the moon had veiled her face behind the more voluminous cloud, Conan hitched his baldric around so that the sword hung down between his shoulders. He slipped off his sandals and tucked them into his belt; then, grasping the heavy, knotted vines with fingers and toes, he mounted with catlike agility.
Across the shadowed spires and roofs lay a ghostly silence, broken but rarely by the sound of hurrying feet; while overhead the cloud, outlined in vermeil, billowed slowly past. The climber felt a thin wind stir his square-cut black mane, and a tiny shiver shook him. He remembered the words of the astrologer whom he had consulted three days before.
“Beware of launching an enterprise at the next full of the moon,” the graybeard had said. “The stellar aspects imply that you would thus set in motion wheels within wheels of cause and effect—a vast concatenation of dire changes.”
“Will the result be good or bad?” demanded Conan.
The astrologer shrugged the bony shoulders under his patched robe. “That cannot be foreseen; save that it would be something drastic. There would ensue great overturns.”
“Can’t you even tell whether I shall end up on the top of the heap or at the bottom?”
“Nay, Captain. Since I see in the stars no great benison for you, meseems the bottom were more likely.”
Grumbling at this uninspiring prediction, Conan paid up and departed. He did not disbelieve in any form of magic, sorcery, or spiritism; but he had an equal faith in the fallibility of individual occultists. Their ranks, he thought, were at least as full of fakers and blunderers as any other occupation. So, when Narkia had sent him a note inviting him to call while her protector was away, he had not let the astrologer’s warning stop him.
The candle vanished, and the window creaked open. The giant eeled through and slid to his feet. He stared hungrily at the Turanian woman who stood before him. Her black hair cascaded down her supple shoulders, while the glow of the candle, now resting on the taboret beside her, revealed her splendid body through her diaphanous gown of amethyst silk.
“Well, here I am,” rumbled Conan.
Narkia’s feline eyes sparkled with amusement as they rested on the man who towered over her in a cheap woolen tunic and patched, baggy pantaloons.
“I have awaited your coming, Conan,” she replied, moving forward with welcoming arms outstretched. “Though, in sooth, I did not expect to find you looking like a stable hand. Where are your splendid cream-and-scarlet uniform and silver-spurred boots?”
“I didn’t think it sensible to wear them tonight,” he said abruptly, lifting his baldric over his head and laying his sword carelessly on the carpet. Beneath his square-cut black mane, deep-set blue eyes under heavy black brows burned in a scarred and swarthy face. Although he was only in his early twenties, the vicissitudes of a wild, hard life had stamped him with the harsh appearance of maturity.
With the lithe motion of a tiger, Conan glided forward, gathered the wench into his brawny arms, and wheeled her toward the bed. But Narkia resisted, pushing her palms against his massive chest.
“Stay!” she breathed. “You barbarians are too impulsive. First, we needs must cultivate our acquaintance. Sit on yonder stool and have a sip of wine!”
“If I must,” grumbled Conan, speaking Hyrkanian with a barbarous accent. Unwillingly he sat and, in three gulps, drained the proffered goblet of golden fluid.
“My thanks, girl,” he muttered, setting the empty vessel down on the little table.
Narkia clucked. “Really, Captain Conan, you are a boor! A fine vintage from Iranistan should be sipped and savored slowly, but you pour it down like bitter beer. Will you never become civilized?”
“I doubt it,” grunted Conan. “What I have seen of your so-called civilization in the last few years has not filled me with any great love of it.”
“Then why stay here in Turan? You could return to your barbarous homeland—wherever that be.”
With a wry grin, Conan clasped his massive hands behind his shaggy head and leaned back against the tapestried wall. “Why do I stay?” he shrugged. “I suppose because there is more gold to be gathered here, one way or another; also more things to see and do. Life in a Cimmerian village grows dull after a while—the same old round, day after day, save for petty quarrels with the other villagers and now and then a feud with a neighboring clan. Now, here—what’s that?”
Booted feet tramped upon the stair, and in an instant the door burst open. In the black opening stood Senior Captain Orkhan, jaw sagging with astonishment beneath his spired, turban-wound helmet. Orkhan was a tall, hawk-featured man, less massive than Conan but strong and lithe, although the first gray hairs had begun to sprout in his close-cut dark beard.
As he studied the tableau, and recognition replaced astonishment, Orkhan’s face reddened with rising wrath. “So!” he grated. “When the cat’s away …” His hand went to the hilt of his scimitar.
The instant the door swung open, Narkia had thrown herself back on the bed. As Orkhan spoke, she cried: “Rape! This savage burst in, threatening to kill—”
In confusion, Conan glanced from one to the other before his brain, caught up in the whirl of events, grew clear. As Orkhan’s sword sang from its sheath, the Cimmerian sprang to his feet, snatched up the stool on which he had been sitting, and hurled it at his assailant. The missile struck the Turanian in the belly, sending him staggering back. Meanwhile, Conan dove for his own sword, lying in its scabbard on the floor. By the time Orkhan had recovered, Conan was up and armed.
“Thank Erlik you’ve come, my lord!” gasped Narkia, huddling back on the bed. “He would have—”
As she spoke, Conan met a whirlwind attack by Orkhan, who bored in, striking forehand, backhand, and overhand in rapid succession. Conan grimly parried each vicious cut. The blades clashed, clanged, and ground together, striking sparks. The swordplay was all cut-and-parry, since the curved Turanian saber was ill-adapted to thrusting.
“Stop it, you fool!” roared Conan. “The woman lies! I came at her invitation, and we have done naught—”
Narkia screamed something that Conan failed to comprehend; for, as Orkhan pressed his attack, red battle rage surged up in Conan’s veins. He struck harder and faster, until Orkhan, skilled swordsman though he was, fell back breathing heavily.
Then Conan’s sword, flashing past Orkhan’s guard, sheared through the links of the Turanian’s mesh-mail vest and sliced into his side. Orkhan staggered, dropping his weapon and pressing a hand against his wound, while blood seeped out between his fingers. Conan followed the first telling blow with a slash that bit deeply into Orkhan’s neck. The Turanian fell heavily, shuddered, and lay still, while dark stains spread across the carpet on which he sprawled.
“You’ve slain him!” shrieked Narkia. “Tughril will have your head for that. Why could you not have stunned him with the flat?”
“When you’re fighting for your life,” grunted Conan, wiping and sheathing his blade, “you cannot measure out your strokes with the nicety of an apothecary compounding a potion. It’s as much your fault as mine. Why did you accuse me of rape, girl?”
Narkia shrugged. With a trace of a mischievous smile, she said: “Because I knew not which of you would win; and had I not accused you, and he slew you, he’d have killed me for good measure.”
“That’s civilization for you!” sneered Conan. Before lifting his baldric to slide it over his head, he whirled and slapped Narkia on the haunch with the scabbarded blade, bowling her over in an untidy heap. She shrank back, eyes big with fear.
“If you were not a woman,” he growled, “it would go hard with you. I warn you to give me an hour ere you cry the alarm. If you do not …” Scowling, he drew a finger across his throat and backed to the window. An instant later he was swarming down the ivy, while Narkia’s curses floated after him on the moonlit air.
L
yco of Khorshemish, lieutenant in the King’s Light Horse, was playing a plaintive air on his flute when Conan burst into the room they shared on Maypur Alley. Muttering a hasty greeting, Conan hurriedly changed from civilian garb into his officer’s uniform. Then he spread his blanket on the floor and began placing his meager possessions upon it. He opened a locked chest and drew out a small bag of coin.
“Whither away?” asked Lyco, a stocky, dark man of about Conan’s age. “One would think you were leaving for good. Is some fiend after you?”
“I am and it is,” grunted Conan.
“What have you been up to? Raiding the King’s harem? Why in the name of the gods, when you have at last attained the easy duty you’ve been angling for?”
Conan hesitated, then said: “You might as well know, since I shall be hence ere you could betray me.”
Lyco started a hot protest, but Conan waved him to silence. “I did but jest, Lyco. I’ve just killed Orkhan.” Tersely, he gave an account of the evening’s events.
Lyco whistled. “That spills the stew-pot into the fire! The High Priest of Erlik is his sire. Old Tughril will have your heart’s blood, even if you could win the King’s forgiveness.”
“I know it,” gritted Conan, tying up his blanket roll. “That’s why I’m in a hurry.”
“Had you also slain the woman, you could have made it seem an ordinary robbery, with nobody the wiser.”
“Trust a Kothian to think of that!” snarled Conan. “I’m not yet civilized enough to kill women out of hand. If I stay long enough in these southlands, I may yet learn.”
“Well, trust a thick-headed Cimmerian to blunder into traps, one after another! I told you the omens were unfavorable tonight, and that my dream of last night boded ill.”
“Aye; you dreamed some foolishness that had naught to do with me—about a wizard seizing a priceless gem. You should have been a seer rather than a soldier, my lad.”
Lyco rose. “Do you need more coin?”
Conan shook his head. “That is good of you; but I have enough to get me to some other kingdom. Thank Erlik, I’ve saved a little from my pay. If you pull the right strings, Lyco, you might get promoted to my post.”
“I might; but I’d rather have my old comrade-in-arms about to trade insults with. What shall I tell people?”
Conan paused, frowning. “Crom, what a complicated business! Tell them I came in with some cock-and-bull story of a royal message to be carried to—to—what’s that little border kingdom southeast of Koth?”
“Khauran?”
“Aye, a message to the King of Khauran.”
“They have a queen there.”
“The queen, then. Farewell, and in a fight never forget to guard your crotch!”
They made their adieus in bluff, soldierly fashion, wringing hands, slapping backs, and punching each other’s shoulders. Then Conan was gone, in a swirl of saffron cloak.
T
he rotund moon, declining in the western sky, gazed placidly down upon the West Gate of Aghrapur as Conan trotted up on his big black destrier, Egil. His belongings in the blanket roll were lashed securely to his saddle, behind the cantle.
“Open up!” he called. “I’m Captain Conan of the King’s Royal Guard, on a royal commission!”
“What is your mission, Captain?” demanded the officer of the gate guard.
Conan held up a roll of parchment. “A message from His Majesty to the Queen of Khauran. I must deliver it forthwith.”
While grunting soldiers pulled on the bronze-studded oaken portal, Conan tucked the parchment into the wallet that hung from his belt. The scroll was in reality a short treatise on swordsmanship, on which Conan had been practicing his limited knowledge of written Hyrkanian, and he had counted upon the guards’ not bothering to inspect it. Even if they had, he felt sure that few, if any, of them could read the document, especially by lantern light.
At last the gate creaked open. With a wave, Conan trotted through and broke into a canter. He followed the broad highway, which some in these parts called the Road of Kings—one of several thoroughfares so named—leading westward to Zamora and the Hyborian kingdoms. He rode steadily through the dying night, past fields of young spring wheat, past luxuriant pastures where shepherds watched their flocks and neatherds tended their cattle.
BOOK: Conan and the Spider God
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