Robert E. Howard was born and raised in Texas during the early 1900s, a time not too far removed from the days of the Old Frontier. While growing up, Howard talked to many old timers who still recalled the days when Indians were a threat to the frontiersmen and danger lurked at every turn of the road. Howard’s bookshelf was also well stocked with books on the West and the colorful characters that populated it. So it’s not surprising that he wrote so convincingly of it, particularly during the later years of his short writing career. Even his epic hero, Conan of Cimmerian found himself in some pseudo-Western settings.
“Beyond the Black River” is universally recognized as one of the best Conan stories Howard wrote. This tale was a departure from Howard’s other adventures of the Cimmerian in that it takes place in the lush forests and the winding rivers of the far-flung Pictish Wilderness. The buckskin-clad Aquilonian settlers and log structures are strangely out of place in “Black River;” a big departure from the exotic settings and lost cities of other Conan stories. But this is just what Howard was trying to do – break the mold and expand the possibilities by bringing the American frontier to his imaginary Hyborian world. Further, this Conan story has no sexy females in it, either as heroine or villainess, but neither did it skimp on the other elements of a good Conan yarn – sorcery, intrigue and mayhem.
Here is a statement made by Howard to girlfriend Novalyne Price in 1935 shortly after selling “Beyond the Black River” to Weird Tales that reflects his fervent desire to write a definitive novel of the American Frontier:
“I wouldn’t say this to anybody but you, but, by God, I know what I can do. I love this country, and I know damn well I can write about it. I know damn well I can write a novel that will move, be about people facing real odds.” He became exuberant. “I tried that yarn out to see what Wright would do about it. I was afraid he wouldn’t take it, but he did! By God, he took it!”
The plot of “Black River” is a classic one, a story of a modern civilization pushing deep into the frontier, infringing on the territory of the local inhabitants and their way of life. While there are some parallels with James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Howard, did not own a copy of the book. However, it is certainly possible he read it in school or “borrowed” during one of his many late night forays to public libraries in the surrounding towns. It’s easy to see where Fort Tuscelan and the Picts could be substituted for Cooper’s Fort Will Henry and the French and the Hurons, with the Pictish Wilderness taking the place of Colonial New York state. Howard did own copies of several books by Robert W. Chambers, another writer of frontier fiction. He even derives a few names from Chambers’ books for “Beyond the Black River.”
The story is fast-paced with Conan and the settlers fighting an evil Pictish wizard named Zogar Sag, as well as the united tribes of Picts who are intent on driving the settlers out of their territory. It’s a violent death-race as Conan and his fighting companion Balthus cut and slash their way to the settlement in an effort to warn the settlers and get them to safety. Of particular interest here are the characters of Balthus and Slasher, who appear to be Hyborian doppelgangers for Howard and his dog Patch. By the end of the story, the conflict between the settlers and the Picts has cost many lives and nearly wiped out the Aquilonian frontiersmen. One of the few wounded surviving foresters speaks these words that are usually attributed to Conan:
Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is the whim of circumstance. And barbarism must ultimately triumph.
It’s a reference on the outcome of this tale as well as Howard’s own beliefs that modern civilization was a decadent and dying venture, and that it would be eventually purged by barbarism, just as civilizations of the past had fallen under the sandaled feet of various barbarian hordes.
A Western-like setting was also used for the Conan story “The Servants of Bit Yakin.” It takes place in an underground natural cavern setting filled with fantastic caves and subterranean rivers, much like Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, which Howard visited shortly before writing this story. Howard, still excited from his visit to the caverns, writes to H. P. Lovecraft:
God what a story you could write after such an exploration! … Anything seemed possible in that monstrous twilight underworld, seven hundred and fifty feet below the earth. If some animate monster had risen horrifically from among the dimness of the columns and spread his taloned anthropomorphic hands above the throng, I do not believe that anyone would have been particularly surprised.
The plot of this tale involves Conan scheming to outwit a rival, Thutmekri and steal the Teeth of Gwahlur, the treasure of a man named Bit Yakin, who even though deceased, has a gang of violent gray semi-intelligent apes as his servants that continue to do his bidding. Bit Yakin was the voice of an ancient oracle for centuries before his death. Of course, there is a pretty slave girl named Muriela involved, which complicates things somewhat for Conan.
In the end, Conan gets the girl and loses the treasure, but has a new plan to fleece gold prospectors in neighboring Punt out of their riches. Certainly, in this case, Howard channels his enthusiasm from his trip out West into “Servants” and again brings a bit of the American Frontier to his Hyborian world.
With “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula” Howard abandons his Western locales and returns to more conventional Hyborian terrain – a god-forsaken desert town named Zamboula located in an area comparable to the present day North Africa. But even here one can easily imagine Conan as a down-on-his-luck gunfighter, with little more to his name than his weapon, being taken advantage of by the evil saloon/hotel owner, and coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress (though she is a far cry from a schoolmarm). As you can see, there are shades of “The Man with No Name” in play here.
Unlike a typical Western story, “Shadows” features bad men of a different sort, with Conan facing men more barbaric than he in the form of blood-thirsty cannibals, an assassin who strangles women and children, and a sorcerer who delights in tormenting a girl with four deadly cobras. Needless to say, all are meted out justice in Conan’s on own unique way and he leaves the accursed city at the end of the story far richer than when he arrived.