The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “Xuthal of the Dusk”

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 “Xuthal of the Dusk,” sometimes known under the title “The Slithering Shadow.” We hope you’ll join in!

Howard: By this or its other name, “The Slithering Shadow,” Fritz Leiber once named this story as one of the weakest Conan yarns, describing it as “”repetitious and childish, a self-vitiating brew of pseudo-science, stage illusions, and the ‘genuine’ supernatural.”

xuthal 3But then Leiber also wrote a number of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories that I never really cared for, so maybe it’s clear that I don’t always agree with him. Sure, “Xuthal” isn’t one of the great Conan stories, but I happen to think it’s one of the best of the lesser ones. For instance, I’d rather read this than “Teeth of Gwalhur,” “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” “The Pool of the Black One” or “The Veil of Lost Women.”

Bill: It isn’t really a favorite of mine, but it does have some elements that I’d single out as really good, the description and combat with the Lovecraftian Thog being the prime example. The whole ‘dreaming city’ is a great idea for a setting as well, and I liked the bleakness of the beginning — Conan giving Natala the last drink of water while intending to kill her out of mercy.

xuthal 4Howard: The weakest link in the story is Natala, who grates because she does little more than whine and worry. Her only redeeming qualities appear to be her natural assets, which makes me appreciate last week’s Olivia a little better. She also managed to get captured and whipped, because REH knew that would up his chances of getting the cover, either because of editor Farnsworth Wright’s preference or because of Wright’s belief that it would interest readers.

Bill: I’m not pulp scholar enough to really comprehend the whole need for “whips & tits” on the cover of magazines — but I’ve certainly seen plenty of examples from Weird Tales alone to get that it was part of the zeitgeist. Is it really the undercurrent of sado-masochism that appealed to readers, or is it more like a code image for prurient content of whatever kind? Is it possibly that, in an action story, one that can’t explicitly show sexual activity because of decency laws, having a woman bound and whipped is a way of having an action beat fill in for sex? I have no idea, really, but I’d be willing to bet any of these old stories would strike modern readers as incredibly tame compared to what’s implied in even a PG-13 raunchy comedy of today.

xuthal 7So for me the real detractor isn’t Natala, it’s Thalis. And it’s not so much Thalis’s instant attraction for Conan or rivalry with Natala, it’s the need to whip Natala’s dainty bottom as retaliation for a stab wound (!) while a man-eating god stalks the hidden passages of Xuthal. It just seems pretty stupid in a character that, up until that moment, didn’t seem stupid at all, or even zonked out like the rest of the native population of her adopted city. It feels shoehorned in, even if it does thematically reinforce the idea of decadence and sybaritism in Xuthal. I’d have zero problem with it if it made sense in the story, and I think REH could have come up with something better if he wasn’t chasing the flavor of the moment. Strangely, for me, the whipping feels juvenile, whereas horrible monsters and lost cities and the buckling of swashes never does.

xuthal 2Howard: I’d never thought about Thalis like that, but you raise a good point. You could argue it’s an unnecessary moment, one purely designed to give us a damsel in distress and to show us that Thalis is absolutely no good.

All that said, I think this story is a real blast of adventure right from the wonderfully evocative opening, which is so vivid that I’ve used it to illustrate descriptive prose in some of my writing classes. And Natala isn’t completely worthless — it’s she who gives Conan the waters of healing just before the story conclusion, and she even evokes a measure of unaccustomed feeling from Conan. I suppose she, and perhaps this story in its entirety, are one of the root causes of a whole score of sword-and-sorcery adventures where there’s a mostly naked chick and a grim hero and a deserted city with a weird menace. (Unless you count, you know, Greek myth.) Yet Robert E. Howard delivers even this modest plot far better than his imitators ever managed.

xuthal 6How about that fight with Thog? Man, that’s got to be one of the most brutal battles Conan ever engages in. Thog kicks his ass but Conan still doesn’t give up, or run screaming. I love how the fight shows us his capability when he cuts through a horde of soldiers in the scenes before. Howard did a fantastic job of juxtaposition here.

Bill: The Thog fight was one of the strongest elements, both in the writing and in the imaginative way REH makes Thog very otherworldly and weird. Another highlight for me was, again, how REH hits his civilization vs. barbarism theme throughout the story. Conan, in response to Thalis’ tale, responds that neither his people, or Natala’s, practice the kind of human sacrifice on display in Xuthal. Indeed, try that on a Cimmerian and you’ll get your head bashed in!

xuthal 1Howard: Absolutely. I don’t think I noticed, the first time I read these, how often Howard emphasized this. It’s more and more clear the more often I read them.

Bill: And Xuthal, ancient palace-city living out a long senescence, victim of its own amazing discoveries, its population prostrate before a vile god and wholly given over to dreams and pleasure, is decadent civilization writ large. It is a kind of prison, one peopled by individuals completely enslaved by their own amusements who would never seek to escape. It’s no accident that, in the final scene, it is “soft gold bars” that Conan removes with a “contemptuous wrench” in order to win his way to freedom — Xuthal itself is the same mix of wealth and weakness.

xuthal 5Howard: A nice summation. There’s all sorts of subtle creepy stuff going on throughout, too, although it’s perfectly possible to enjoy this just as a grand action tale. How about those terrible shrieks of Thalis as she’s carried off by Thog? What might they mean? The more you think about them, the more awful they become, feeding in again with what you said about the decadence of the city’s inhabitants. And there’s the aforementioned waters of healing, offered Conan by the woman who cares for him, symbolic of the value of love versus lust. There are a number of other little details as well.

Bill: Natala healing Conan is a nice parallel with Conan giving her their last drink of water in the beginning, and I agree, there’s an implied sexual undercurrent to Thog’s menace which is very fitting for the god of Xuthal.

Howard: Sure, it’s not “The Tower of the Elephant” or even “Black Colossus” but then few sword-and-sorcery stories can stand on that elevated pedestal. I still prefer it to a number of other Conan tales. It’s short, atmospheric, crammed with mystery and action, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s one I enjoy re-reading.

Join us next week for “The Pool of the Black One!”

6 Comments on “The Coming of Conan Re-Read: “Xuthal of the Dusk”

  1. Definitely one of the weakest Conan stories. Chapter II with Thalis and Conan talking drags on and isn’t that interesting or essential. Thalis is a very cardboard character, a horrible stereotype of the evil sexual women (Puritans would approve of that part of the story). And Howard does some of his weakest writing here, which usually happens when he tries to imitate Lovecraft.

    “All the obscenity and salacious infamy spawned in the muck of the abysmal pits of Life seemed to drown her in seas of cosmic filth.”

    That has my vote for the worse sentence that Robert E. Howard ever wrote. I literally laughed out loud when I read it. However…

    Conan is such a great character, that he, and his incredibly fantastic fight with Thog, make the story worth reading. I said that his fight with the ape in Shadows was the closest he ever came to dying. But I was wrong. This is. And when Conan crashes through the ceiling. You just want to cheer!

    So, the only character I like in this story is Conan. I also love the setting. I’m a sucker for the lost city setting, like Red Nails. And the fight with Thog and Conan’s subsequent efforts to recover are splendid.

    I have to agree in general with Leiber’s criticisms. But I still like this story better than Pool of the Black One and Teeth of Gwalhur. But I think Iron Shadows in the Moon is a better written story.

    Lastly, did everyone notice Conan calling the city’s sleeping inhabitants “morons?”

  2. BTW, in case it seems I’m being hard on Howard this time, I’d still rather re-read this story than read most modern fantasy.

    And, I think we have to keep in context when and why all of these old stories were written. Howard was trying to make money so his family could survive, not just to be a successful writer. The magazines wanted his stories. He wrote them as fast as he could. Remembering that he had a family in need during the depression suddenly makes a little plot contrivance, cardboard characters, or a weak sentence less significant. It’s still an enjoyable yarn, with touches of brilliance. I wish Howard would have been able to continue on without his mother. God knows what amazing work he might have done in the following decades.

  3. Some years back I wrote an essay on Xuthal of the Dusk, which I felt was underappreciated, for an anthology titled The Robert E. Howard Reader. I just added it to my blog, having just noticed I had not included it previously. You can go to chuckhoffman.blogspot.com to read it. It is the most recent addition, so you’ll see it right away. Perhaps also of interest is my essay Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard, which can be viewed at chuckhoffman.blogspot.com/2010/07/elements-of-sadomasochism-in-fiction.html.

    • Great stuff, Charles, especially all the info in relation to publication history and other pulp trends, it was all new to me. Haven’t read the sado-masochism essay yet, but already the topic as broached in your Xuthal piece is pretty interesting stuff!

    • Charles, apologies for my late reply. I’ve only recently had a clear enough spot in my schedule that I can promise to look into these. I look forward to seeing what you had to say!

  4. Not much I can add to this one. I liked it but I think REH made better use of many of the same elements in other works.

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