The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The God in the Bowl”

comingofconanBill Ward and I are working our way through the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection The Coming of Conan. This week we’re discussing story three, “The God in the Bowl.” We hope you’ll join in!

Howard: While I understand it’s a different kind of story for Conan, and that it’s interesting to look at through the lens of understanding how Howard’s writing developed, I’m evaluating each of these tales with a fairly simple agenda foremost: Do I enjoy them as stories, and do they achieve what they’re designed to do?

conan god in bowlIn this case I think both answers are no. The reasons I don’t enjoy it are closely tied to my feelings about its failure as both a mystery and a horror story. The solution  is pretty well telegraphed to the reader early on, leaving it not much of a mystery. And while there is exquisitely drawn horror present, I think the story lacks the requisite tension for a horror story (as opposed to a story WITH horror).

There’s also confusion about who the protagonist is — the charismatic barbarian who stands around glowering and making cool threats, and clever Demetrio, whose cleverness is so belabored it becomes irritating. Demetrio’s the only one moving the plot forward (slowly) until the stunning action scenes when Conan takes over and the story becomes interesting once more, too late.

Midway through, Robert E. Howard writes of Demetrio that: “He found these scenes wearily monotonous.” And, unfortunately, that’s how I feel about most of “The God in the Bowl.” That’s not to say it’s completely without merit, for it has finely realized horror and some great action moments, but those moments don’t make it a success. They’re like hearing one really catchy song while having to sit through a long dreary musical at your kid’s high school.

conan - god in bowl 2Bill: The first, almost play-like half or two-thirds of the story has Conan standing on the sidelines while other characters talk. And then yet more characters show up. I think it’s the strong final moments of “The God in the Bowl,” though, that leave readers with a better overall impression of the story.

Howard: You’re probably right. Let me highlight what I DO like. I think it starts with strong momentum before quickly coming to a dead stop. By itself, the conclusion, beginning with the entry of the aristocrat who denies hiring Conan for the robbery, is wonderful. With his appearance we get some really snappy dialogue, then the explosion of violence between Conan and the guards, and finally the confrontation with the monster, which goes to 11 on the atmospheric and eerie scale. And Conan himself seems fully gelled — this is the unstoppable powerhouse of destruction we know and love. I’ve studied Howard fragments, rough drafts that are worth reading solely because of an amazing action sequence delivered with pulse-pounding vigor and inventiveness. You can always count on Robert E. Howard for action scenes.

conan - god in bowl 3Bill: Yes, great stuff. The combat is quick and brutal and vivid — Conan even plucks a guard’s eye out for Crom’s sake — and most welcome after we’ve been standing around listening to all the talk. The Stygian Snake God, a gift from our old friend Thoth-Amon to a rival priest (I like how Conan and Thoth-Amon’s destinies seem intertwined at this point, as this encounter was just at the start of Conan’s career) is really excellent, reminding me of how a smart film director keeps his monster hidden and mysterious from the audience. Those are all my favorite moments as well, that and, as you say, a fully fleshed Conan responding to the questions and bullying of the civilized interrogators with characteristic ballsy aplomb.

Also, another point, this story is Conan’s first appearance in what would become the all-time barbarian standard of dress in fantasy fiction — sandals and a loincloth!

conan - god in bowl 4Howard: Hah! Score one for the loincloth and sandals.

It may seem I’m pretty harsh about a story written by one of my favorite writers starring one of my favorite characters, but it lacks elements of what I most love about Robert E. Howard’s writing. I think the flow is off. Usually you can count on Howard for pacing but this tale’s so drawn out that rather than feeling tension I start wondering how long it will take for the characters to get on with it.

Tension is further diluted because Conan doesn’t have much invested in the solution to the mystery — the guards are going to try to haul him away regardless. We can only watch as the man of action stands and listens to all the noise, noise, noise, noise. Demetrio thinks out loud and various bit players run in to report things that add information to what other bit players relayed. As you intimated, it’s a little like watching a dull stage play.

You could argue that I’m judging work from another time by pacing standards of our time, a mistake a lot of modern readers make when reading old adventure fiction. But this isn’t at all typical of Robert E. Howard’s style. One of the things I love about his work is that wonderful cinematic pacing, so unlike many of his predecessors and even contemporaries. If he was deliberately experimenting with a different storytelling style he inadvertently sidelined one of his greatest strengths when he did so.

conan - god in bowl 5Maybe if I’d read this for the first time when I was a teenager I wouldn’t have seen that conclusion coming. I can’t know — I can only react to what I first read in my 20s, and then it was clear to me from Howard’s own clues that the monster was some kind of huge-ass snake, the only (and truly creepy) surprise being its chilling face. If I focus on the horror aspect I imagine I’m supposed to feel nail-biting dread for understanding the danger that the characters do not and wondering how they can possibly survive… but that would have required me to care about more than one of them.

Sorry, REH. I still think you’re awesome, I swear. I understand why Farnsworth Wright rejected this. And maybe you did too, because unlike you did with other unsold tales, you seem never to have tried revising it or sending it on to another market.

Bill: “The God in the Bowl” is similar to “The Phoenix on the Sword” in that other characters are the ones moving the plot forward, and Conan reacts to them. In both cases these are Conan vs. Civilization stories, whereas “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is Conan out in his own element. In none of these stories has Conan, I think, fully grown into his role as protagonist and driving force just yet — after all in “Frost-Giant” Conan is essentially bewitched. He certainly isn’t making choices. Looking at just “God” and “Phoenix,” it almost seems to me that REH needed to focus on the civilized players and their plots as a way of finding out who Conan was in contrast. After these first three tales, though, Conan is firmly in the driver’s seat for much of the rest of his stories.

conan - god in bowl 6Howard: In later stories Howard sets events in motion by showing us what’s under way before Conan wanders in and upsets the apple cart. I suppose that kind of happens here, but not in an especially interesting way. I wish he had rewritten it to trim it down, lengthwise, because the conclusion rocks, and there are several nice touches throughout — the cable that we readers are rightly suspicious of, various small character-revealing asides, and so on. Yes, there are good character moments, but I still didn’t find these other players compelling enough to watch them take center stage for so long.

Bill: I think we can both pretty easily imagine a better version of this story, no reason not to point out its flaws. I think the pacing issue becomes even more telling upon rereading, because there isn’t even the curiosity about the ending to supply interest. But from this point forward things change, Conan and REH hit their stride, and some immortal sword-and-sorcery stories start flying off the Underwood — next week’s “The Tower of the Elephant” shall be the first of many!

22 Comments on “The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The God in the Bowl”

  1. Ok so maybe i forgot how long the dialogue lasts in this story, but i love that ending!
    Bill, you pretty much hit it on the head saying that ending skews the reader to see the whole story as a good one.

    I still enjoyed most of the slower parts because you get to see a glimpse of the civilized world that Conan has to deal with. I mean they all admit that even if he’s innocent he’s still going to jail just because they need a scapegoat. When Conan becomes king he has to deal with this same kind of thing but on a larger scale.

    Howard uses just the right words at the end to really pump up the horror aspect. We see a rare side of Conan here. He’s scared, like revert to animal instincts scared. He swings out almost as a reflex and then runs away as fast as he can and doesn’t stop until he’s far away from the city.

    It’s been 6 or 7 years since i first read the story and the only part i remember well is the ending. So can i take back what i said last week? This story might not be one of my favorites but the ending sure is. At least once since I first read the story I’ve gone back just to read the ending again.

  2. What a let down on rereading this the other night. Turns out all my fond memories conveniently left out the staginess and tedium. Still, I appreciate the effort to create a horror/mystery story instead of a blood and thunder one. It’s the little bits, like Thoth Amon’s plan, the eye pluck, and the snake’s face.

    • The same thing happens to me sometimes when I revisit some food I used to love…

  3. While I agree with your assessment of the flaws, I still like this story, in part because of the awesome ending and in part because as Bill points out, Conan and Thoth-Amon seemed to have intertwined destinies. I read this story in my late teens in an Ace reprint of the Lancer edition, so when I first read it, I was comparing it to the de Camp-Carter pastiches that were included. With that standard of comparison, the story comes off better than it appears when examined solely on its own merits.

    Also, Bill says “If he was deliberately experimenting with a different storytelling style he inadvertently sidelined one of his greatest strengths when he did so.” At one of the panels during REH Days a few years ago, someone (Rusty Burke? Mark Finn? Both?) pointed out that REH would combine fantasy with some other genre when he was trying to first write in that genre. REH did this so he could learn to tell that type of story, but he included fantasy elements because he was comfortable writing fantasy and so he could maybe sell the story to a fantasy market. To me it appears that REH may have been trying his hand at a police procedural.

    While hard boiled had been around for a few years, Hammett was only beginning to have an impact on the field and Chandler hadn’t yet appeared on the scene. The pacing to me is more of the garden party, English country manor style of mystery that Chandler scorned than a hard boiled style, although there are glimpses of hard boiled. REH would almost certainly have been familiar with the genteel mystery, although I can’t imagine he cared much for it.

    In fact mystery and detective stories were big at the time, yet REH wrote very little in that genre. General consensus seems to be that when he did try his hand with a mystery or detective tale, the results weren’t his best work. (Quick, name five REH pure mysteries.) I find his low output in this area interesting considering he wrote westerns and boxing stories and historical adventure stories at various points in his career, all major markets of the time. REH wanted to be a writer, period, not just a writer of weird fiction and fantasy. He wrote for multiple markets, but never wrote much for one of the biggest markets of his day.

    Another thing that I was looking for when I reread this were certain attitudes that Bill and Howard mentioned, namely that even though the police knew Conan was innocent of the murder, they were going to arrest him anyway. At REH days this year, on a panel about the REH-Lovecraft correspondence, Mark Finn specifically mentioned this story and quoted the line about “a citizen who knows his rights” and being softened up. (I’m at work and don’t have copy of the story handy for exact quotes). I’ve not read this part of the correspondence, but Finn’s point was that REH was responding to a discussion about police brutality by putting it in a story to show how it worked. If you look carefully the other character whose name begins with a “D” (which I can’t recall exactly) says a number of things that you would expect a crooked cop to say, especially things that deal with beating confessions out of suspects. Conan also makes reference to this practice when he accuses them of beating shopkeepers and stripping prostitutes. And I find it significant that REH uses the word “police” in this story. I don’t recall him doing so in any of the other Conan stories. In the opening paragraph of “The Tower of the Elephant”, doesn’t REH refer to the police by using the term “the watch” or something similar and say they don’t like to go into a certain quarter of the city?

    • Hey Keith,

      Those are some good points you raise. REH definitely wanted to be a writer, not only a fantasy writer. But I seem to recall reading that he wrote that he didn’t really enjoy writing detective stories and didn’t feel like he had a knack for it.

      I like what you’re saying about Finn’s analysis. There’s a much deeper level to what REH is doing even here, and I certainly never noticed it!

  4. I’ll admit, this is a bit dull. But it’s a police procedural with a horror element at the end (the swamp adder makes Doyle’s ‘The Speckled Band’ a gothic, not a horror story). This thing is full of tropes – sneaky aristocrat, ‘let’s beat it out of him’ cop, smart police sergeant…REH definitely tried something different. Like he did with his hardboiled detective stories featuring Steve Harrison.

    So, as a Conan tale, not that great. But as a police procedural including Conan, not bad.

    • I suppose I should try those Steve Harrison stories. I’ve read one or two and can’t recall them (probably a warning sign), and I now have a nice hardback that collects them all.

      It certainly is stuffed full of tropes, and you’re right, a lot of them seem to be straight up hard boiled stuff.

  5. This is my least favorite tale of Conan, mostly due to the slower pace, low horror/wierd quotient and lack of action. What little that is there is quite good, but I am simply not a mystery fan, so my interest wanes. Howard wrote action better than any of his contemporaries, and I would argue better than most writers since. It was his gift, and one of the main reasons I still read him today. Howard’s work is the very definition of “Blood ‘n’ Thunder”.

    • I’m AM a mystery fan, but I agree with you about REH’s action chops. When I talk to other writers, and student writers, I always refer them to him for pointers on action scenes. There are other authors who craft lovely one-on-one action moments, so he has a handful of equals there, but I’m not sure I’ve EVER read anyone who so easily slips back and forth between a vast battle scene and the individual characters involved that the readers care about. I’m sure I’ll be talking about that when we read some of the upcoming stories.

  6. There is enough scoffing at this tale from people whose opinion I respect to give me pause, but I still value The God in the Bowl enough to both defend it and to suggest that critics here are perhaps peering so intently at what the story isn’t that they are not seeing the entirety of what it is.

    First off, the story is only 16 pages long. It introduces a collection of characters in short order, among them a young, fiercely volatile, Conan of Cimmeria, who is sketched in striking style. The reader is served a mysterious murder in an exotic environment and then given prose and dialogue of rare power….

    “You understand what he said?” asked the Inquisitor. “What have you to say?”
    “That any man who touches me will quickly be greeting his ancestors in hell,” the Cimmerian ground between his powerful teeth, his eyes glinting quick flames of dangerous anger.

    (If you have somehow missed or forgotten just how badass the Cimmerian’s line is, please read it aloud.)

    This is followed by…

    The Cimmerian laid his hand on his sword hilt, and the gesture was as fraught with menace as the lifting of a tiger’s lip to bare his fangs.
    “Save your bullying for the fools who fear you.” he growled, blue fires smoldering in his eyes. “I’m no city-bred Nemedian to cringe before your hired dogs. I’ve killed better men than you for less than this.”

    And that’s by page four. Over the next few pages Conan is goaded into drawing his sword (“…with a viciousness that made the keen blade hum”), more characters are introduced and one is luridly threatened with torture. A baleful bowl, a relic of ancient origin, is described and discovered… open and empty. The atmosphere ramps up as it becomes clear that something very strange and very dangerous is lurking about.
    An examination of the contrasting nature of barbaric and civilized codes of honor and loyalty are brought to a crux when Demetrio establishes Conan’s innocence of murder yet still volunteers to give him up to justice to protect the barbarian’s noble employer, while Conan will not betray his employer until he, himself, is betrayed, and promptly lops off his boss’s head.
    There is a blistering scene of explosive violence as Conan deals out carnage both promised (a heel to Arus’s gut) and karmic (taking Posthumo’s eye). The last couple pages drive the horror element, previously primarily hinted and atmospheric, up almost off the charts, climaxing in one of the most memorable confrontations with eldritch horror in all of Sword & Sorcery literature.

    Honestly, I’m missing anything “wearily monotonous” here.

    Look, there is an over abundance of nattering about which doors were locked when and who could be where they claimed to have been. Perhaps it’s is because I have read so much pulp era detective fiction, but I find that this mars the tale very little.
    Rather than focus on that, I’d prefer to note the well-handled approach to the horror element. REH was using Lovecraftian techniques to bring the chills, and it works. My favorite bit is when they’re trying to figure out how Conan got in and killed Kallian Publico, and one of the guardsmen declares he saw the “cable” that Conan used climbing in, “curiously splotched”, and wrapped high around a pillar where the barbarian obviously hid it. But when they go to look for this “cable”, it’s not there. REH’s storytelling is such that it is never explained what that “cable” was. The reader draws their own conclusion, and knows the characters were looking at an inhuman horror out of time and didn’t even know it.

    In short this tale has so many excellences that focusing on its flaws strikes me as absurd. It offers more memorable prose, action, atmosphere and dialogue in 16 pages than most authors can deliver in a trilogy. Write it off if you wish, but I think you’re missing something.

    • I agree with ALL of your points about sections of excellence and strengths in the work.

      But I should make clear that I didn’t sit down with a checklist when I read this story to see if it met all my criteria. I sat down to read and enjoy a Conan story, and was bored — which is a pretty peculiar thing, because REH almost NEVER bores me. I didn’t read it again for many years, until just a few weeks ago, and was bored once more. And I tried to figure out why by breaking it down.

      It’s very strange to disagree with you on a matter of story analysis, because I think we’ve got a higher than 95% agreement ratio on what makes good fiction. Despite all those things you like, and that I see and appreciate, the story still didn’t do much for me. The only other time I was reading REH fiction and checking to see how many pages I had left was when I dove into his weird menace stories. Those didn’t work for me either — too much Sax Rohmer influence, probably. (I haven’t dipped very far into his detective stories because I’m a little worried the same thing might happen.)

    • Emerald; your words force me to dig into my Del Rey collection and re-read this tale with a closer eye to the details you pointed out. I have not read this particular story in some time, and I may be a little quick to judge in this case. After all, having written my favorite Conan pastiche, I trust your opinions. HAJ has written a couple good books too…

      • I spoke to the Mighty Hocking before I re-read, and he told me to try to see it with fresh eyes. I tried mightily…

        And I’m right there with you about Emerald Lotus being my favorite Conan pastiche!

        (Thanks also for the kind words on my own stuff!)

  7. Not much to add. The criticisms are valid, but I agree it’s enjoyable. I’ve never been bored by it. It does seem like a police procedural, but an interesting one with a better ending than any police procedural possibly ever had! Don’t think it’s one of his best, but still better than most other writers.

  8. And, it has the only instance of gory violence that literally made me laugh out loud—when Conan kills the young nobleman who hired him and is betraying him. Conan pretends to be crestfallen then—BAM— lops off his head, in a nearly Monty Pythonesque over the top bit of the old ultra-violence!

  9. All right then, Howard, it seems like we agree that The God in the Bowl has an ”interesting” plot, one that at least has the benefit of being different than REH’s other Conan yarns.
    And we agree that present are some “interesting” characters.
    So there’s that. Some elements of the story that are good, but maybe not great.

    But then it seems that we also agree that The God in the Bowl has excellent prose, including a number of passages that are nigh unforgettable.
    And we agree that there is some excellent dialogue, including some of the more memorable lines REH ever had the Cimmerian say.
    And we agree that there is a superbly described action scene that helps tie the plot together.
    And we agree that there is a well-handled atmosphere of horror that builds to a spectacular climax.
    And we agree that the story showcases one of the best, and creepiest, supernatural creatures in the canon.

    So let me get this straight—The God in the Bowl packs all the above into 16 pages and it’s just not good enough for you?
    You’re bored. There’s just not enough in REH’s 7900 words to please you.

    I do not think that The God in the Bowl is one of the better Conan stories, but I am dead certain you are underestimating it.

    • Here’s the thing. If I had been so lucky as to have been Robert E. Howard’s editor, I would have praised those things I’ve mentioned and sent it back to him for revision. If I had been so lucky as to have been his friend, I would have shared all of my concerns and told him it wasn’t up to his best and seen if he could do something more with it.

      If I had been so unlucky as to read this as my first Conan story, I definitely would have wondered what all the fuss was about. Yeah, there’s great stuff. But even the strength of the good stuff isn’t enough to get me past the issues I do have. Is it a complete stinker? No. Is it as bad as the worst of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories? Hell no. Were I stranded on a desert island with only this and “Adept’s Gambit” to read, I’m sure I’d revisit “The God in the Bowl” but I’d never, ever read “Adept’s Gambit” again.

      But in comparison against other Conan stories, I’m just not loving it.

  10. I agree with the many fine qualities of the story mentioned here in the comments but also find the story just not that good. A case of where the sum is less than the parts its made of.

  11. Howard, I believe you’re correct about REH saying he didn’t have a knack for detective stories. I suspect the reason for this, at least in part, was because of the pacing. There will be these sections of discussion and talk that probably bored like they did you.

    On the other hand, I’ve read enough detective fiction that the talk didn’t bother me. John lists a number of points, and as I read through them, I found myself agreeing with each one. These were the things I responded to when I read the story last week, and I think they were probably the same things I responded to when I was in my teens.

    I need to carve time out of my schedule to read the REH-HPL correspondence all the way through and compare what is going on in the letters with the composition dates of the stories. I suspect I’ll find a great deal of genesis for some tales in those letters.

  12. Thanks, Howard and Bill, for this review series, which I am enjoying immensely, as indeed I did your F+GM series. There have been some really great comments so far too.

    I’d like to highlight Bill’s point that this tale was written before REH had completely found his feet with his new character and setting. If one were to strictly follow order of composition, his next work is the Hyborian Age essay (written before The Tower of the Elephant, according to Patrice in his Hyborian Genesis essay). After writing The Hyborian Age REH has Conan now firmly rooted in his setting, and, as Howard noted at the end of the review, that’s when REH really starts kicking his Conan tales into a higher gear.

    Perhaps as a fan of Shakespeare, I personally like the stagey feel of the early part of tGitB. That, and REH’s willingness to use the police proceedural narrative technique, show how unafraid he is to experiment with his new creation. As observed above, it’s quite interesting to see Conan in this context. To me, this mixing and matching aspect of his writing method is one of the chief reasons he remains, even now, one of our most original authors.

    I agree with the points made above about the great iconic Conan moments in this tale. His reactions to the corrupt authorities and the supernatural beastie at the end are all classic Conan.

    Still, I appreciate all perspectives, and am heartily looking forward to the next review.

    PS thanks again to Howard for solving my posting problem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.