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Within a Devil of Iron
Ode to an Escort of an Atomized Soul: A Well of Heroes Epilogue 4
I have tried to credit the means by which a man in his 20s, from rural the rural Southwest in the 1930s, served so well as my guide as a man in my 30s, 40s and 50s in America's very worst Northeastern city.
Having read most of Howard's work each decade from teens on, I have developed a sense that the man was some kind of prophet. Most often I have found myself in the position of one of Howard's heroes in a decidedly under-powered context. However, lacking the abilities of Howard's heroes, I have been gifted by their creator with the setting and story lines he used as cage stages for them to fight their way out of.
So, as the lone man of my race at large on the streets of a city hunted by warriors of an enemy race, I often avoided the development of an action scene by declining to write myself into it.
When a white woman sought my aid by night to deliver her from black men, I did not, like Conan, slaughter these fiends in the shadowed streets of Zamboula. I left her to her fate, knowing full well that I was no Conan, had no sword, and that unlike in fantastical Zamboula, where the city guard permitted cannibals to hunt by starlight, the Baltimore Police would avenge any such cannibals felled by my hand were I even able to do so.
In 1933 Howard knew it was coming to America. Yet in 2014, Americans were still denying that they were being hunted in such shadowed streets.
In Beyond the Black River and The Black Stranger, Conan alone among the men of his race can survive along the bloody traces of the Pictish wilderness. In 2017, I had become the last man of any race to walk the nights of Baltimore City and Baltimore County to earn my bread. Like Conan, I survived, only be exiting the jungle of my enemy's hunt and becoming a pariah, an outcast.
I use these examples, not because I have any quality of the hero in line with Howard's work other than alienation. But because Howard's alienated heroes were very American, adrift in a cosmopolitan decadence underpinned by both wilted racial decay and savage tribal chaos.
In The Vale of Lost Women, Rogues in the House and the Frost Giant's Daughter, Black Canaan, The Snout in the Dark and other stories, featuring heroes whose only quality I share is alienation, I have faced almost identical dangers and have dealt with them according to my abilities. Seeing an old adventure story unfold with me as the unqualified protagonist is a humbling sensation.
“Yep, I'm no Solomon Kane, so the criminal will go unpunished.”
The story that most encapsulates my life in Baltimore over four decades, is the brief yarn The Devil in Iron. In this story, Conan is baited to go to a cliff-sided island with a single staircase for exit and entrance. His enemies, who have lured him their by way of a woman, a woman that does not care for him at all, resent his independence.
Hence Conan is used by the save woman as a weapon against her masters even as they use Xapur, an ancient city surviving as an island, as a trap to kill Conan. I experienced that, as a woman who did not love me lured me to remain in Baltimore as I was hunted by the police and by savage enemies from a jungle world in many cases as much larger than I than the Iron Devil was to Conan. I would have to say, that the social and economic machinery of the place, of the evil modern city of Baltimore was a mechanical devil within which I was certainly trapped even as I was hunted by that which infested it.
There was a scene in the story, in which Conan is seduced by a sleepy, drugged woman, who does not know she was long ago slain by the savages who raped her. I have known that woman a few times in Baltimore, and even once carried her unnamed home from the bar where she offered me her body in return for a memory and an escort home.
I suspect that the Conan stories in particular resonated with me so much over the decades in Baltimore, because I kept on stepping into scenes out of the stories, ill-equipped though I might have been to extradite myself in a prideful manner.
The manner in which I made my way out of civilization into the hobo way of the vagabond may have been anti-heroic. But the fact I made it out was, I contend, wholly based on the awareness I gained from reading Howard's adventuresome critiques of civilization: that it is weakening, corrosive, hypnotic, seductive and harbors fiends of the underworld and the overworld dedicated to my ruin. Not for a moment, did I ever think that the policeman was my friend or, having been hunted and threatened by him, that I had some common cause with my hereditary enemies because of our mutual foe.
Just as Conan stood wondering over philosophers arguing deep thoughts in a crime ridden city where a tower holding dark secrets loomed, as he merely sought to grab some treasure from The Tower of the Elephant and escape the city, I stood listening to coworkers her drove back and forth to work arguing about whether cops or robbers were the real enemy as I wondered whether it would be cops or robbers that got me on my way home in the predawn dark.
In the end, when I walked away from the Baltimore night on the first Tuesday of December 2017, I was heeding an oracle that was more than 70 years old when it was written by a young man who had never seen the forsaken land of my birth.
Thanks, Robert.
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