The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The Vale of Lost Women”

comingofconanBill Ward and I are reading our way through the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection The Coming of Conan. This week we’re discussing “The Vale of Lost Women.” We hope you’ll join in!

Howard: In the essay that concludes the book, “Hyborian Genesis,” Robert E. Howard scholar Patrice Louinet gives the probable background of this tale, recounting how Howard had grown more and more interested in tales of the American Southwest. Apparently at about the time he wrote this he’d begun to exchange tales with writer August Derleth, and recounted to him the story of the abduction of Cythia Ana Parker by the Commanche. Louinet speculates that this story was the inspiration behind “Vale.”

Last week I wrote that “Vale” was a rejected Conan story, but in actuality there’s no record that it was ever submitted. It might be that REH himself understood it wasn’t up to snuff and never bothered to turn it over for consideration.

vale 2

Conan & Livia by Mark Schultz

Bill: That would not surprise me.

Howard: It starts strongly enough, or at least, as strong as these lesser Conan tales that have dominated the last few we’ve read. Once again we see Conan through the eye of a woman from civilized lands. Louinet wrote that “As to the racial overtones of the story, while the violent ethnocentrism of the tale is understandable when we recognize its origin in the nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon settler viewpoint, with the blacks standing in for Indians, it makes for unsettling reading for the modern audience.”

Indeed it does. Those references aren’t so onerous in the first section, and the story was promising enough that I lived in hope that I had mis-remembered my feelings. Conan at least is in fine form in the opening, and REH once again sets the stage and the situation before Conan strides into view. It’s understandable he might be motivated by a beautiful woman who looks more like someone from his background than those who surround him, but some of the white/black discussion is cringe inducing.

Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard

Bill: It is indeed. This is most definitely not the story to hand to a Conan virgin, and it almost doesn’t even seem like the Conan we’ve grown to know in the last dozen stories.

Howard: Still, I could look past that and name those issues of the story simply as a product of its time if the rest of the tale were enjoyable, but it swiftly goes downhill after Livia’s discussion with Conan. In section III we witness Conan leading a  brutal massacre of those hosting him and his warriors. And that might be expected of him, but I really don’t want to read about that. Following is the afterthought of a supernatural menace.

It’s just… tacked on. We don’t learn about the Vale of Lost Women until the section/chapter when Livia wanders off, and then she’s put into a sort of trance by the flowers and the brown women with glowing eyes as a bat-winged thing from cosmic gulfs that “lurk as thick as fleas outside the belt of light which surrounds this world” descends to transform or ravish or devour her. Fortunately Conan rides up and dispatches it in about two paragraphs. He’s more bothered by an ape than this thing of horror from beyond ken. He’s so jaded to horrors from beyond time that he mentally shrugs at them, which definitely weakens any feel of dread or tension.

vale 3Bill: I think “Vale” fails on most fronts, beyond providing interest for the REH enthusiast, and I almost think my favorite thing about it was Conan again using a beefbone to clean someone’s clock. There isn’t much said here about civilization and barbarism, beyond maybe the sentiment that some barbarians are worse than others and, of course, that Conan can find use for his talent for violence anywhere he goes. Structurally the whole story is kind of lopsided, and the second half, the actual Ovidian Vale of Lost Women, is disappointing: especially, as you say, in the nonchalant way Conan views the “rather common” Devil of the Outer Dark. I think the whole story really feels like REH running some ideas up the old flagpole to see how they work. Eventually those ideas, themes drawn from the American West, do work, just not here.

Howard: I’ll turn a last time to Louinet’s analysis, which pretty much sums up my own impression. Howard might have been inspired by that tale from the American Southwest, but that inspiration was diluted “between the unconvincing supernatural threat and Livia’s penchant for nakedness.” If you have that comment in mind while you’re reading you can’t help but smile wryly. The word “naked” is used a lot to describe Livia, sometimes twice in the span of a couple of sentences, and she’s constantly disrobing or having clothes ripped from her. Maybe it should have been submitted to that lost pulp mag, Spicy Conan Stories.

Bill: I found the descriptions of her mounting hysteria more odious, very purple and over-the-top. It is a case in which having a female point of view character as foil to Conan backfired a bit on REH, who had been doing it so well in previous tales. Livia is the worst of these characters — oddly, she’s only one letter shy of Olivia, who is one of the best.

vale 1Howard: Interestingly enough, when it was adapted into a Conan comic during the original Roy Thomas Marvel run, it works fairly well, probably because some of the most egregious lines can be cut and the fight lengthened.

Bill: I can see how that would work; with a few tweaks you have an entertaining adventure. As it stands, though I think “The Vale of Lost Women” is of more worth for its reflection of REH’s evolving inspirations and methods than as an exciting chapter in Conan’s life.

Howard: I don’t think we’re alone in our opinions. Unlike all the other Conan stories we’ve revisited, even art was a challenge to find for this recap.

Next week we’ll take a look at “The Devil in Iron.” I have this one confused in my memory with “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” and it’s one I haven’t re-read before. I’m looking forward to seeing how it holds up.

9 Comments on “The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “The Vale of Lost Women”

  1. “that lost pulp mag, Spicy Conan Stories.”

    I would totally read that.

    Oh, wait, are we live? Is this thing on? Did people actually hear me say that?

    Ahem, as I was saying, I think this story may have been a draft/detailed outline that REH never got back to. There’s some potential here. I like the weird imagery of the women who turn into flowers. I agree that that element should have been introduced much earlier along with the cosmic horror. If REH had fleshed out the backstory, especially in regards to the alliance he’s there to forge, this wouldn’t have such a hack and slash feel to it. Also, the village woman who brings Livia food could have had a more active role.

    One thing I think it’s easy to overlook is Conan’s treatment of Livia at the end, when he tells her he won’t hold her to their bargain because after thinking things over he realized it was a form of coercion, which would be the same as rape (although he doesn’t use that term). This is something I would show a Conan virgin who thinks he’s just a mindless brute because his behavior is so against the common stereotype. The fact that he reflects on his actions and changes his behavior shows a depth to Conan that is often overlooked even among REH fans.

    And I liked the bit of humor at the end where Conan expresses (and I paraphrase because my copy is at home and I’m not) puzzlement that Livia is happy she isn’t going to be his consort.

    • I think you may be right, Keigh. Just because de Camp found it finished didn’t mean that REH THOUGHT it was ready to go out. I have a couple of Dabir and Asim stories sitting on my hard drive that are functional but that will probably never see the light of day, because they didn’t end up reading half as good as I thought they would. We have no way of knowing if that’s what happened.

      Yes, it’s not completely without worth, and does have a few moments. Sort of like a nice character moment in an otherwise terrible third season Star Trek episode. But it’s pretty bad.

  2. While you are correct that they story is weak in any number of ways, I have always liked the story simply because it illustrates that Robert E Howard didn’t really view Conan as being the uber-boyscout that so many of his readers seem to believe in. Sure, he shows a bit of decency to Livia at the read of the story, but before that he just had an entire village or men, women, and children put to death for the price of a piece of ass. Howard stated in several of his Conan stories the barbarians didn’t think like civilized folks do; that sometimes important things were decided by a whim or a qualm. Howard viewed barbarism as an amoral force of chaos and Conan was the poster child of that view. It’s not Howard who tries to “civilize” Conan’s behavior so much as it’s his readers. Howard’s Conan is amoral and always has the capacity to be a “monster” at any time (and is occasionally although it’s mostly offstage) or a “good guy” at any time. Most of the stories show the “good guy” and hint at the “monster”. But make no mistake, Conan was both and this story showed that very clearly.

    • Hey Dale,

      You raise some good points, although I’d argue that REH himself usually chose to de-emphasize some of what we moderns would see as less savory aspects to the barbarian outlook.

      Still, you’re right in that this is a kind of wake-up notice…

  3. Yes, a weaker tale. But again, things to like. I agree that Conan is a character that, though he has his own type of noble code, has obviously engaged in rampant slaughter and other unpleasantries, for money or gain. He shows both sides of himself here. Yes, for modern readers, it comes off as rather racist, which is so obvious it almost doesn’t need mentioning. As for the end, I really like the vibe, but agree it needed more build up or backstory and the thing from the stars was sent packing way to easily.

    • I kind of wonder, like Keith, if it was every really submitted at all. It needs another draft, and at this point in REH’s writing career, his published stories don’t feel like that. Maybe they don’t always succeed with five stars, but they don’t feel slightly unfinished, or have sudden plot developments that are afterthoughts.

  4. This is the worst Conan story and the only good parts of this story are those that expand the world and lore of the Hyborian Age. Otherwise, it is better to leave this story alone. REH seemed to struggle creatively with the Black Kingdoms stories. Only The Servants of Bit-Yakin/Jewels of Gwahlur was published, and the rest were unpublished or never finished at all.

    • I wish REH had done more with his time among the Kozaks as well. We really don’t get to see much of that at all.

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