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‘A Hideous Thing Came To Pass’
The Scarlet Citadel by Robert E. Howard
© 2014 James LaFond
JAN/13/14
First published in January 1933 in Weird Tales, available on pages 85-118 in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, by Del Rey
When people ask me about what Conan movie I think is most like a Conan story, I say ‘Predator’. What makes a Conan story is a violent mortal setting intruded upon by a supernatural agent. The Conan character spends most of his adventuring life facing off between the warring world of man and the supernatural beings and sorcerers who rule the world and prey on its people from the shadows. I think that Howard sublimated his hatred and revulsion for the unseen bankers that brought down the American economy of his youth into the diabolic vulture-faced wizards of his fiction. In his capacity as hero, Conan stands in for the American gangster, or the populist usurper like Andrew Jackson or Teddy Roosevelt.
The Scarlet Citadel begins with Conan taken captive on a hideous battlefield after being betrayed by an allied army. He falls into the hands of the mastermind that engineered his downfall, the power behind two thrones, the scheming sorcerer Tsotha-lanti, whose mother was reputed to be a dancing girl impregnated by a demon. Tsotha-lanti is possibly the nastiest of Howard’s stock of lean super-genius villains. How is Conan going to escape from the "Halls of Hell," Tsotha’s demon-haunted dungeon below The Scarlet Citadel?
In this effort Howard went over the top with his brand of dripping gaping horror and hate-filled tribalism, as well as his sense of abrasive masculinity. Ladies, read this with an IUD in! also, The Scarlet Citadel—bar none—has the best ending in heroic fantasy.
The horrors Conan encounters in the story are rendered in such a way as to illuminate some of his back-story. They are so numerous that they outnumber the fiends of all previous Conan yarns combined. At a certain point Howard seems to sense that he has turned this novelette into too much of a walk through Hell, and permits his superstitious protagonist to complain on behalf of the reader, “Give me a clean sword and a clean foe to flesh it in!”
The battlefield imagery is so intensely realized that the battle scenes and their aftermath become as lurid as the otherworldly horrors that Howard evokes so well. From the scene where Conan stands defiantly alone with his back to "a heap of dead horses and men," to the racially charged instance when the brother of a chief Conan slew in his youth screams at him, “Aye, white dog, you are like all your race; but to a black man gold can never pay for blood. The price I ask is—your head!” to his encounter with a soul-eating weed with its roots "sunk in hell," The Scarlet Citadel is bloody, horrific, blaspheming, racially-charged madness that was just as politically incorrect in 1933 as is in 2014, and as it will be for as long as it is read by minds "made soft by civilized living."
I’d like to leave the reader with a particularly strong recommendation to read this dark vibrant tale, but I really can’t improve on:
"Over all brooded the citadel, like a condor stooping above its prey, intent on its own dark meditations."
Below is a link to an audio version.
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