Sunday, January 21, 2018

Appendix N Review: The Phoenix on the Sword

In December of 1932, Weird Tales Magazine, arguably the premier supernatural horror pulp of the 30s, published a story from a young but regular contributor to the magazine named Robert Ervin Howard. Howard had been appearing in Weird Tales since 1925, contributing a wide variety action stories, from the stern-faced Puritan hero Solomon Kane to more straightforward horror that was part of fellow Weird Tales contributor H. P. Lovecraft's mythos.

This story was Phoenix on the Sword, and it introduced the world to Conan of Cimmeria, barbarian conqueror, king, and indelible archetype.

Set in an ancient, antediluvian age before recorded history, a conspiracy to assassinate the new king of Aquilonia festers in the kingdom's heart. Ascalante, a disgraced noble and outlaw, has banded together a group of powerful men to topple the crown. Most unique among them is Thoth-Amon, a black-skinned exile from Stygia, formerly a powerful sorcerer, now enslaved by Ascalante as a henchman.

The new king, Conan, is miserable. He's a fighting man, a wanderer and adventurer now saddled with the responsibilities of rule. Despite his inconvenience, he is a fair ruler. He's lowered taxes, ensured that the people of Aquilonia aren't enslaved, and generally leaves people alone. But despite his benevolence, people like the bard Rinaldo sow discontent among the people. Conan's advisors have urged him to execute the rebellious poet, but Conan has resisted. He genuinely likes Rinaldo's skill, and is aware that killing him would make a martyr of him.

Meanwhile, Ascalante moves ahead. Conan's guards will be drawn away from his bedchamber at midnight, and the conspirators (including Rinaldo) will attack. He sends one of them, the fat rich fool Dion to his estate to prepare to become the new king, with Thoth-Amon to keep watch over him.

This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book, where the Stygian tells the noble his history, how he had a ring that gave him phenomenal magic powers and what kind of status he enjoyed as a worshipper of Set. Dion, in his self-absorption, hasn't heard a word of it, only perking up when Thoth-Amon mentions his ring. By coincidence, it happens to be THE ring Thoth-Amon lost years ago. Comedic interlude over, the Stygian murders the hapless idiot, reclaims his treasure, and summons a demonic monster to murder Ascalante and anyone around him.

In the meantime, Conan dreams of a black stone temple and the tomb of the ancient sage Epemitreus, dead for several thousand years, but even in death an enemy of the dark god Set. The sage marks Conan's sword with a phoenix marking, a holy symbol of Aquilonia's patron god Mitra, and warns him that Set's power is still active in the world.

The stage is set for one hell of a battle.

As always, Howard has a genius for describing action sequences. There is a choreography that flows beautifully even as blood and brain matter are splattered across the walls. The characters are lightly sketched out, but Conan is immediately likable as a wise, experienced adventurer with a wry sense of humor. Thoth-Amon himself stands out as a great villain, even though he doesn't ever interact with Conan nor really act against him. He gets his ring back, begins his vengeance against Ascalante, and disappears from Howard's Conan stories. He would appear again in later pastiches by other authors, but here he's an intelligent, strong, admirable (well, for a villain at least), nuanced, clearly Black character who demands respect from the reader. In 1932.

*Disclaimer: I'm friends with the guy who edited the above edition of Phoenix on the Sword. He's a good guy. The cover artist is cool too.

The story itself is straightforward, almost simple in places, and was itself a re-work of a Kull the Conqueror story that didn't sell (Howard's other, less successful, Barbarian Hero). Yet the blueprint is right there: a heroic loner pitted against the hazards of civilization and eldritch sorcery.

It works, and it works well. Absolutely recommended.

1 comment:

John Boyle said...

It has been more than 50 years since I read that story for the first time, and what has been etched in my memory the deepest is Howard's poetry.

"When I was a fighting man, the kettle drums they beat..."

REH had the magic touch.