Conan Re-Read: “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula”
Today, on the 110th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, Bill Ward and I are reading through the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection The Conquering Sword of Conan. This week we’re discussing “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula,” sometimes known as “Shadows in Zamboula.” We hope you’ll join in!
Howard: Last week I suggested that this one was a bit of a dud, and while that might not have been entirely fair, I still don’t think it’s likely to be anyone’s favorite Conan story. Unlike “The Black Stranger,” though, it was published in Robert E. Howard’s lifetime in the pages of Weird Tales, by its editor Farnsworth Wright. And you can surely feel Howard playing to Wright’s favorite themes. Namely the sexy damsel in distress. You’ll note that she begins the story entirely naked and never once dons a stitch of clothing. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so gratuitous. You add that to some rather uncomfortable descriptions of the cannibals, the somewhat stilted opening, and the inn/cannibal trap and the result is less than stellar.
Howard: Hah! Right. On the other hand, it’s not completely without merit, and I’d still rank it above “A Witch Shall be Born,” apart from the fact that it doesn’t have a single scene that can approach “A Witch Shall be Born’s” best moment.
Bill: I agree, it’s a firmly middle-of-the-road experience, one that reminds me of stories like “The Devil in Iron” and “Xuthal of the Dusk,” though not quite measuring up to either of them in my opinion. At one point in the story I was wondering why Conan was allowing himself to be led around by the nose by a woman purely in the hopes of getting into her pants, which was, thankfully, explained at the end — but then I realized he was instead being led around by the plot. And I suppose that’s my chief criticism, that this is a very plot-driven piece that never really feels like it has much weight to it.
Howard: I have to agree. It definitely feels less like Conan makes the story happen and more that the story is happening TO him. And I agree that it doesn’t hold up to some of the other fun, lighter ones we’ve read earlier. On the other hand, there are some cool bits. I like how Conan, upon stopping his killer, immediately goes to seek out the inn’s owner to get revenge. That revenge is delayed when he hears a woman screaming for help, but as soon as THAT is dealt with — the entire rest of the story, I mean — he immediately resumes his quest for vengeance, settling it in quite grisly fashion. That was in keeping with the Conan we know and love, and was nicely handled as well.
Bill: Indeed, I knew Aram Baksh was going to be in some serious trouble before the end of the story, and Conan did not disappoint. I thought Conan’s reasons for staying at the Cannibal Court Motel in the first place seemed flimsy, but in retrospect I think that was colored more by my expectations than what is in the text. This is clearly a younger and more reckless Conan than the one we’ve been seeing in these later stories. And he really didn’t receive any warning until it was already too late (his Zuagir friend should have offered Conan lodgings if he was so concerned!), and Conan always was the kind not to concern himself unduly with things until they are right in front of him.
Howard: Right. There are several other things I like: that Conan knew that the ring was valuable all along was a nice little surprise, but I particularly liked his death duel with the strangler priest. I recall a critic complaining once that Conan calls “mesmerism!” because mesmerism as a term wouldn’t be invented for thousands of years. It’s a stupid criticism. One assumes that everything these characters say must be translated from some proto-dialects. It’s not as though they’re wandering around speaking English, after all.
Bill: Exactly, if “mesmerism” is a problem then every anachronism in the stories is a problem; it’s nonsensical. I too enjoyed the “choke-off” with Baal-pteor, the Strangler of Yajur. It was extremely satisfying when Baal-pteor boasted of his long years of strangulation only to have Conan return nothing but contempt prior to breaking the villian’s neck: “Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string?” Conan, as it turns out, put his practice in with Cimmerian bulls before he’d even attained manhood.
That scene does bring to mind another minor criticism of the story, at least when one contrasts it with the best of Conan, as we necessarily must. In a story like “People of the Black Circle” we are treated to an inventive and large array of magics, but everything still feels organic to the setting and story. Here, REH is inventing again with a red-hot fury, but I think the magic and marvels feel extravagant and not really anchored by the setting or characters. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy globes of illusion or urns of smoke-snakes or, even, a borderline-farcical magnetic table, but I can’t really believe in them, as presented, the way I do Khemsa’s spider-ball or the death staves of the Khitan assassins that pursued Conan in “The Hour of the Dragon.” Instead of mythically resonant, they are — and this is no bad thing — a fun pulp convention.
Bill: At the end of the day, “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula” is a fun if not particularly powerful story, and another of the lesser Conan pieces that really only suffers because it must be compared with the best of what REH can do — and that’s just about the highest bar of comparison I can imagine. After several more experimental kinds of pieces it’s a return to a young, almost careless Conan adventuring through a more typical Hyborian Age exotic setting, a naked princess by his side and villainous magic all around him.
Howard: Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just is hard to compete with REH at his very best. Even REH himself has a hard time doing it. Interesting, isn’t it, that so many of his imitators write stories like THIS and the other lesser ones, and few that are much like the standouts?
So ends the next to last Conan story ever written by Robert E. Howard. And we raise a goblet in appreciation of his 110th birthday!
Next week we look at the very last, “Red Nails.” Hope to see you here!