Conan the Defiant: Also, Bonus Sexism

Chapter Five

Rogue zombie Tuanne has some kind of magical means of detecting the current location of the Source of Light, and she’s following that to track down Skeer, who is fleeing towards Neg with it. Also, she is nearly attacked by a mountain lion, but then the mountain lion realizes that she’s dead and rotting and thinks better of it. There’s a bunch of undead brooding about how the animals can sense her curse and woe is her, although it does at least manage to notice that repelling predators is actually a good thing, even if it’s framed as “oh, this curse has been a blessing this time, but truly she was the most unfortunate of creatures to be so repellent.” It’s not like humans are repelled by her. Is she, like, super into cats?

Skeer tries to dodge pursuit by leaving a false trail. Conan’s latest female sidekick Elashi falls for the trail, but Conan doesn’t, because of course he is better than everyone at everything (so long as it’s not too civilized), even when it is their area of expertise and he just took it up five minutes ago.

Tuanne reaches the village where Skeer is headed and sets up shop at the inn to wait for him. There is a bizarrely cosmopolitan gaggle of guests at the inn. It is, of course, an inn, so you’d expect everyone here to be from out of town, and you’d expect a bunch of them to be from out of country, so it’s not weird that only two out of the four with identified nationalities are Brythunian. But then the other two are a Stygian and a Kushite or Keshanite, both from even further south than Stygia. No sign of any Zamorans, Corinthians, Nemedians, Hyperboreans, or Turanians, all of whom have some kind of land border with Brythunia.

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Conan the Defiant: Pacifists Are Pretty Straightforward To Assassinate It Turns Out

Prologue

You know that thing where the men of a fantasy species will look like some weird lava monster or a crocodile person or whatever, and the women will look like human women but with blue skin and pointy ears? Conan the Defiant’s prologue gives us an example of that. Our villain, Neg the necromancer, is interrogating his zombie minions as to the location of some powerful talisman called the Source of Light. All the zombies are decayed and rotten, except for one called Tuane, a beautiful zombie woman whose beauty Neg has preserved. When Neg tosses some magical salt to destroy a zombie minion who has displeased him, a single grain of it lands on Tuane, scalding her, but also freeing her from his control, thus initiating the plot. Naturally, the grain of salt lands upon one of her lusciously curved breasts. Free of the necromancer’s control without his knowing, she then breasted boobily to the door, and titted up the stairs.

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Leaves of the World Tree: Olaff

Leaves of the World Tree is a book gifted to me by its author in hopes of a review. That was, like, half a year ago, because this blog is not always the best at updating. But what I lack in alacrity, I make up for with implacable determination.

Olaff

Leaves of the World Tree is a short story collection, and if I recall the author’s pitch correctly, each story takes place in a different time period. Story the first is called “Olaff,” and takes place in a time before creativity had been invented.

Like many Olafs before him, he was named Olaff. It was not a bad name by any means. He shared his name with four others born that year, and he would share it with seven the year after. Olaf was then, as it had been before, and would be for generations to come, a common name.

This is the first half of our opening paragraph. These are the lines that have to sell an audience on the first page. Now, reading one page isn’t a huge imposition and it’s not that hard to convince your audience to do it, but even so, “our protagonist has a common name” isn’t a strong foot to be starting on. It is only half the opening paragraph, though. Here’s the rest:

It was as though his parents had expected him to be average. Growing up he never felt as though he were different from the other boys. He was not scrawny and smart, or muscular and dumb, nor better or worse at most things. He threw the axe at the tree and hit five times out of ten, and his spear landed smack in the middle of everyone else’s. It was only when they taught him how to write his name that he realized he was unique. His mother, being the literate one, had spelled his name with an extra “f.”

Apparently the society Olaff is from is one with a perfectly centered bell curve of throwing axe proficiency. So at least we’re setting our story firmly in some kind of viking-ish era. That’s not nothing. Here’s the rest of the first page:

Not every day was spent sprinting into battle. Like most of his days, he spent one in particular rowing. He sat on a long bench in the center of a large group of benches that were nearly identical and only distinguishable by their varying degrees of mold. As could be expected, if anything at all could be expected of such a regular person, he sat in the middle. Smack in the middle of everyone else, on his bench, between Vjolf and Bjorvak.

This story has spent a lot of time letting us know how boring and unexceptional the protagonist and his life is, and if I hadn’t gotten a review copy of the book, I would be strongly considering not reading any further. Lucky for our author, I did get a review copy of the book, so we’re gonna see if this story is boring all the way through or just a slow burn. Well, not really lucky for our author. He sent it to me, so it wasn’t really luck so much as a direct and predictable result of actions he took.

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Mythos: A Conclusion For Now

I never wrote it down, but a couple of posts into this Mythos review I decided that I’d go to the bottom of the first page of the table of contents of my Lovecraft collection, about 200 pages in. This was pretty consistent with how long a lot of the novels I’ve reviewed have been, so I figured I’d get my standard dozen-ish posts out of it. This is not how that has worked. The pages-read-per-review-words-written ratio has been seriously damaged by the need to constantly re-establish the premise and reintroduce main characters with every new story. In longer books, there sooner or later comes a point where you get who the characters are, how the setting works, where the plot is headed, and I can summarize ten pages in one paragraph. With short stories, that never happens, so these perfectly typical 200 pages (not even quite that, even) of material have sprawled out all over the place. I am gonna go ahead and finish it out because I’m already in the home stretch, but my God I have been reviewing Lovecraft for way too long now and I need a good long break from him. There’s three short stories left before the bottom of the table of contents’ first page, let’s see if we can get through all of them today. Quality may take a hit, as I’m mainly concerned with getting these stories out of the way. The Lovecraft project reinvigorated the blog when it began, but now it’s the thing draining the life away, so we need to put a bow on this and move on.

The Moon-Bog

This story begins with a description of Irish-American Denys Barry, who is descended from Irish aristocracy. Did this happen? Did Irish nobles come west to America? I guess it’s probably happened ever, but America was always the destination for poor people. Except the southern plantations, actually, those were settled in part by nobles-in-exile who were on the wrong end of a civil war (this became a habit for them). But the standard Irish immigrant was an indentured servant to one of those guys.

Anyway, Denys Barry returns to his family’s abandoned castle and rebuilds it with his American wealth, and everything goes great until he starts trying to drain a nearby bog. He invites the protagonist over to hear more, and the protagonist apparently has nothing better to do but make a cross-Atlantic trip in 1921 to listen to an old friend’s real estate development troubles. The protagonist and Denys Barry have a good long laugh together at how superstitious the peasants are. In fairness to them, they don’t know they’re in a horror story, but back on the other hand, when you’re a brand new foreigner who has no idea how things work around here and the people who’ve lived her their entire lives tell you that a witch lives in the swamp, odds are fantastic that whether or not a literal witch lives out there, fucking with the swamp is a super bad idea, especially if the locals prove how deadly serious they are about it by abandoning paying jobs en masse when they realize you’re mucking with the bog.

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Mythos: The Quest of Iranon

The Quest of Iranon

Into the granite city of Teloth wandered the youth, vine-crowned, his yellow hair glistening with myrrh and his purple robe torn with briers of the mountain Sidrak that lies across the antique bridge of stone. The men of Teloth are dark and stern, and dwell in square houses, and with frowns they asked the stranger whence he had come and what were his name and fortune.

Yup, Lovecraft’s writing fantasy again. This time our hero is the titular Iranon, a wandering minstrel who has come to a city where fun is frowned upon. It’s not quite banned, though, so he’s allowed to sing his songs in the town square.

At least, that’s how the narrative sells. Looking at what Iranon actually sings:

“O Aira, city of marble and beryl, how many are thy beauties! How loved I the warm and fragrant groves across the hyaline Nithra, and the falls of the tiny Kra that flowed through the verdant valley! In those groves and in that vale the children wove wreaths for one another, and at dusk I dreamed strange dreams under the yath-trees on the mountain as I saw below me the lights of the city, and the curving Nithra reflecting a ribbon of stars.[“]

Maybe the Telothians just dislike him for constantly singing about how his city is so much better than theirs.

In fairness to Iranon, he is an exiled prince of Aira, so he’s not just singing about how great his city is for pride’s sake, but also because he misses the place terribly and cannot return. The next morning, however, it turns out fun is soft banned in Teloth, when a city archon comes to tell Iranon that he must do boring, shitty work in order to live here:

“Thou art a strange youth, and I like not thy face nor thy voice. The words thou speakest are blasphemy, for the gods of Teloth have said that toil is good. Our gods have promised us a haven of light beyond death, where there shall be rest without end, and crystal coldness amidst which none shall vex his mind with thought or his eyes with beauty. Go thou then to Athok the cobbler or be gone out of the city by sunset. All here must serve, and song is folly.”

At least there’s guaranteed jobs.

Teloth kinda sucks, though, so when a Telothian youth named Romnod asks Iranon to go to a nearby city of artists and songs called Oonai, Iranon agrees. As far as I can tell, Iranon never even made it to his apprenticeship before leaving. Romnod even says that Oonai might be Aira, since names can change and Iranon’s been gone for a long time, but Iranon warns Romnod that he’s journeyed very, very far to find Aira, and early in his journeys he often thought that this or that city would welcome him and he could make his home there, but only Aira was ever truly his home, despite the many seemingly promising cities he visited on the way. The itinerary gets a Sarnath reference.

The weird thing is, if Iranon isn’t actually from Aira, how is he its prince? I’m starting to get suspicious of this story.

From the way Romnod talked about it, Oonai seemed like it was maybe a couple of weeks away, but it takes the two years to get there, and Romnod has grown into a man by the time they arrive, while Iranon remains unchanged. Also, Oonai turns out to be less of a dream paradise and more like Las Vegas.

When dawn came Iranon looked about with dismay, for the domes of Oonai were not golden in the sun, but grey and dismal. And the men of Oonai were pale with revelling and dull with wine, and unlike the radiant men of Aira. But because the people had thrown him blossoms and acclaimed his songs Iranon stayed on, and with him Romnod, who liked the revelry of the town and wore in his dark hair roses and myrtle.

So, y’know, everyone parties all the time and there’s tons of glitz and glamour and the whole town is dedicated to having a good time, but also the mafia is secretly behind it all and there’s probably some metaphorical or literal blood sacrifices going into propping up the whole glittering edifice. Also, Romnod ODs. No, really:

Then one night the red and fattened Romnod snorted heavily amidst the poppied silks of his banquet-couch and died writhing, whilst Iranon, pale and slender, sang to himself in a far corner.

I’m reminded of that Breaking Bad scene where Walter White tells Jessie that he could’ve saved his girlfriend from her OD, but he didn’t, because she was a methhead and he wanted her gone.

Iranon then leaves Vegas to continue searching for Aira. Eventually, he finds an old shepherd, who reveals without knowing it that he knew Iranon when they were children:

“O stranger, I have indeed heard the name of Aira, and the other names thou hast spoken, but they come to me from afar down the waste of long years. I heard them in my youth from the lips of a playmate, a beggar’s boy given to strange dreams, who would weave long tales about the moon and the flowers and the west wind. We used to laugh at him, for we knew him from his birth though he thought himself a King’s son. He was comely, even as thou, but full of folly and strangeness; and he ran away when small to find those who would listen gladly to his songs and dreams. How often hath he sung to me of lands that never were, and things that never can be! Of Aira did he speak much; of Aira and the river Nithra, and the falls of the tiny Kra. There would he ever say he once dwelt as a Prince, though here we knew him from his birth. Nor was there ever a marble city of Aira, nor those who could delight in strange songs, save in the dreams of mine old playmate Iranon who is gone.”

So indeed, Iranon has fabricated Aira. But also he’s immortal. Except, not?

And in the twilight, as the stars came out one by one and the moon cast on the marsh a radiance like that which a child sees quivering on the floor as he is rocked to sleep at evening, there walked into the lethal quicksands a very old man in tattered purple, crowned with withered vine-leaves and gazing ahead as if upon the golden domes of a fair city where dreams are understood. That night something of youth and beauty died in the elder world.

Iranon, for context, is always described as wearing tattered purple. So either he was only young in his own mind, and when his delusions of Aira are shattered here, he realizes how old he is, and commits suicide, or alternatively, this being the dream world of Telnoth and Oonai and Sarnath, Iranon may have actually been young until this moment, when he realized there was no Aira, and all the aging he didn’t do caught up with him all at once.

Mythos: The Nameless City

Let’s call it Steve!

I should have known that the Arabs had good reason for shunning the nameless city, the city told of in strange tales but seen by no living man, yet I defied them and went into the untrodden waste with my camel.

This is the first real Cthulhu Mythos story we’ve had, one in which ancient temples in forsaken wastelands hold cosmic horrors. It’s not just a ghost story where the ghost is actually a scientifically plausible (according to the pop sci of the time, at least) alien, nor is it a dream journey to a fantastic otherworld. This is the same sub-niche of Lovecraft’s work in which Cthulhu lies dreaming in R’lyeh. It even introduces us to Abdul Alhazred and his famous couplet:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

Kind of him to make sure it rhymes in English, when presumably it would have been written in Arabic originally.

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Mythos: Sweet Ermengarde

Unlike the last time Lovecraft satirized prohibition, this comedy’s jokes are pretty apparent to me even writing as I am from 2019, nearly a full century after the end.

Her name was originally Ethyl Ermengarde, but her father persuaded her to drop the praenomen after the passage of the 18th Amendment, averring that it made him thirsty by reminding him of ethyl alcohol, C2H5OH.

That’s kinda funny. There’s another couple all in the first paragraph:

She had large black eyes, a prominent Roman nose, light hair which was never dark at the roots except when the local drug store was short on supplies, and a beautiful but inexpensive complexion. She was about 5ft 5.33…in tall, weighed 115.47 lbs. on her father’s corn scales—also off them—and was adjudged most lovely by all the village swains who admired her father’s farm and liked his liquid crops.

Ermengarde has a villainous suitor who hopes to marry her and so gain the vein of untapped gold that he alone knows is under her father’s farm. Why that doesn’t belong to her father is unclear. But Ermengarde has another suitor, one Jack Manly:

Close by the village dwelt another—the handsome Jack Manly, whose curly yellow hair had won the sweet Ermengarde’s affection when both were toddling youngsters at the village school.

Bad news for Squire McVillainous, the childhood friend always wins. Jack proposes, and Ermengarde is overtaken with joy:

[“]Such is your natural nobility that I had feared—I mean thought—you would be blind to such slight charms as I possess, and that you would seek your fortune in the great city; there meeting and wedding one of those more comely damsels whose splendour we observe in fashion books.[“]

Shit, you think that would work? Maybe this proposal is a mistake.

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Mythos: Nyarlathotep and the Picture in the House

Nyarlathotep

There’s a fellow named Nyarlathotep who came out of Egypt and who ruins every city he comes to. Despite this, not only do people not try and keep him out, they willingly show up to attend his lectures. The protagonist is one such person, and after exiting the lecture, he finds himself with the rest of the attendees in Silent Hill.

Once we looked at the pavement and found the blocks loose and displaced by grass, with scarce a line of rusted metal to shew where the tramways had run. And again we saw a tram-car, lone, windowless, dilapidated, and almost on its side. When we gazed around the horizon, we could not find the third tower by the river, and noticed that the silhouette of the second tower was ragged at the top.

Nyarlathotep’s audience is then beckoned like lemmings off the edge of a cliff and into a terrible abyss. You’d think after the first couple of times this happened, people would stop asking Nyarlathotep to give demonstrations in their cities.

This very short story is based on a nightmare, and it shows. There are compelling ideas, but they are held together by pure dream logic. First the protagonist is in a theater seeing terrible visions, and protests that they must be scientifically explicable. An enraged Nyarlathotep throws him and the audience out into the city, which slowly decays around them, and they are pulled towards a great rift that swallows them up. It has a mood, but no plot or even really any characters. Things happen, and those things fit the atmosphere, but they have no causal connection to one another.

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Mythos: Celephais and From Beyond

Celephais

We’re back in the dream world today, and our protagonist dreams because there is nothing left for him in the waking world:

Perhaps it was natural for him to dream a new name; for he was the last of his family, and alone among the indifferent millions of London, so there were not many to speak to him and remind him who he had been. His money and lands were gone, and he did not care for the ways of people about him, but preferred to dream and write of his dreams. What he wrote was laughed at by those to whom he shewed it, so that after a time he kept his writings to himself, and finally ceased to write. The more he withdrew from the world about him, the more wonderful became his dreams; and it would have been quite futile to try to describe them on paper.

So I guess that’s the end of the story, then?

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Mythos: Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family

On Sunday, I nearly got a hit by a car. Now, “nearly” means “not actually hit” means I suffered no actual injury at all, but I was whacked out on adrenaline for like three hours and then crashed super hard afterwards, so the post that should’ve been written on Sunday for Monday has instead been written on Monday for Tuesday, and will appear alongside an article coming three hours from now, at the usual posting time. I’m also taking the opportunity to throw things up at slightly weird times and see if it affects traffic at all. These posts are mostly written 24-48 hours in advance, so I figure if the 9 AM time gets more traffic than the 12 noon, then hey, may as well schedule it for then.

Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.

The idea that being sheltered and ignorant is actually a good thing is something that Lovecraft will come back to at least a few more times, and something he’s pretty famous for. The unknown is frightening, so the idea that learning about something is inherently deadly means that it is, in theory, perpetually scary. In practice, the ambiguous contents of darkened rooms only hold the imagination for so long, and once you have described a fictional horror, no matter how much you insist afterwards that you have described only part of it, what you described will ever after be all of it, and its horror will wear away until it becomes mundane.

Anyway, while the idea that there can be types of knowledge that are inherently dangerous is a compelling fictional concept, it is sometimes overshadowed by Lovecraft’s actual neuroses poking through. For example:

Arthur Jermyn went out on the moor and burned himself after seeing the boxed object which had come from Africa.

Knowing how much Lovecraft hates everyone who isn’t a New England WASP, the idea that the whole story might just be an allegory for the inherent cosmic horror that somewhere out there black people exist (scare chord) immediately punches the momentum out of it. I don’t even know if that allegory is going to be borne out, but its mere plausibility harms the story. On the one hand, that isn’t this specific story’s fault. I only know that because I have a greater understanding of Lovecraft’s work. On the other hand, part of the point of this project is taking Lovecraft’s works as a collective, as a shared universe, picking through them to see which parts of them are the Cthulhu Mythos. And there’s a pretty good argument for including both the Street and the Terrible Old Man.

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